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Five great books set in FLORIDA

7th February 2020

Florida is the latest place for us to visit in our ‘Great books set in…’ series. Five great books set in Florida.

Five great books set in FLORIDA

‘Florida is a place of unparalleled diversity of backgrounds, experiences and vision. It makes our culture unique, but it can also make it difficult to define a common identity and create a sense of community that reaches beyond our neighborhoods to all corners of our state’ – Jeb Bush

‘Florida is a strange place: hot, beautiful, ugly. I love it here, and how nothing makes sense but still, somehow, there is a rhythm’ – Roxane Gay

At First Light by Vanessa Lafaye

1993, Key West, Florida. When a Ku Klux Klan official is shot in broad daylight, all eyes turn to the person holding the gun: a 96-year-old Cuban woman who will say nothing except to admit her guilt.

1919. Mixed-race Alicia Cortez arrives in Key West exiled in disgrace from her family in Havana. At the same time, damaged war hero John Morales returns home on the last US troop ship from Europe. As love draws them closer in this time of racial segregation, people are watching, including Dwayne Campbell, poised on the brink of manhood and struggling to do what’s right. And then the Ku Klux Klan comes to town…

Inspired by real events, At First Light weaves together a decades-old grievance and the consequences of a promise made as the sun rose on a dark day in American history.

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The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys is Colson Whitehead’s follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning bestseller The Underground Railroad, in which he dramatizes another strand of United States history, this time through the story of two boys sentenced to a stretch in a hellish reform school in Jim-Crow-era Florida.

Elwood Curtis has taken the words of Dr Martin Luther King to heart: he is as good as anyone. Abandoned by his parents, brought up by his loving, strict and clearsighted grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But given the time and the place, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy his future, and so Elwood arrives at The Nickel Academy, which claims to provide ‘physical, intellectual and moral training’ which will equip its inmates to become ‘honorable and honest men’.

In reality, the Nickel Academy is a chamber of horrors, where physical, emotional and sexual abuse is rife, where corrupt officials and tradesmen do a brisk trade in supplies intended for the school, and where any boy who resists is likely to disappear ‘out back’. Stunned to find himself in this vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold on to Dr King’s ringing assertion, ‘Throw us in jail, and we will still love you.’ But Elwood’s fellow inmate and new friend Turner thinks Elwood is naive and worse; the world is crooked, and the only way to survive is to emulate the cruelty and cynicism of their oppressors.

The tension between Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision which will have decades-long repercussions.

Based on the history of a real reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped and destroyed the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative by a great American novelist whose work is essential to understanding the current reality of the United States.

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Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel

Against a vivid South Florida background, Susanna Daniel’s Stiltsville offers a gripping, bittersweet portrait of a marriage—and a romance—that deepens over the course of three decades.

Called “an elegantly crafted work of art and a great read” by Curtis Sittenfeld (American Wife, PrepStiltsville is a stunningly assured debut novel sure to appeal to readers of Anita Shreve, Sue Miller, and Annie Dillard, or anyone enchanted by the sultry magic of Miami.

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The Other Side of the Bay by Sean Dietrich

Small towns have a way of burying things, and small-town people have a way of keeping things that way.

With reminiscence and narration, a local sheriff must comb through his own humid world to unravel the truth behind the death of a local boy. But it’s not as easy as it seems, because no one is talking.

The Other Side of the Bay is a remarkable portrait of the unique people in the Panhandle of Florida. The story weaves itself into the tall longleaf forests, and along the crests of the uneasy bay, telling a tale of the human spirit. This is a novel of how things aren’t always as black and white as they ought to be, and how right and wrong aren’t always easy to tell apart.

It’s an evocative tale that delivers its reader to the apricot sun rises and sepulchral storm clouds of their own bittersweet memories.

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Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen

Set in south Florida in the 1990s, Skinny Dip is a fun and funny tale about a woman, Joey, who is thrown off a cruise ship by her loser husband, Chaz. Joey survives by hanging onto a drifting bale of Jamaican marijuana and is rescued by a six-time-divorcee ex-cop, Mick, who is retired in his early 50s and lives alone on an island off the coast of Miami.

The characters in Skinny Dip, as quirky as they are, are entirely believable for south Florida: the golf-loving, crooked biologist husband who will gladly be paid off to falsify environmental data; the giant “ape man” body guard who steals pain med patches from old folks in convalescent homes, the ex-cop who lives on an island, and the midwestern investigator who just wants to escape the Florida heat (and madness) and move back home to Minnesota.

Carl Hiaasen doesn’t just deliver oddball south Florida characters. He also uncovers the corruption that underlies the destruction of south Florida’s unique ecosystem — the primordial Everglades, which are being strangled by people like the tomato tycoon in this story. Hiaasen, as a native Floridian, has watched this ravaging happen over his lifetime, and he is not shy about weaving it into his stories, much to my delight.

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Andrew for the TripFiction Team

Do you have a favourite read set in Florida? Have we missed an obvious choice? Please let us know in the comments below!

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750 - 3000 words with strong 'sense of place' theme

Short story, travelogue, or memoir

Top judges to decide the winners

Cash prizes totalling £500 / $600 

Winning entry published on TripFiction site and publicised on Social Media

Entries close 15th November 2020