Talking Location With author Leigh Russell – YORK
Ten Great Books set in FLORIDA
15th January 2021
Florida is the latest place for us to visit in our ‘Great books set in…’ series. Ten 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.
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.
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, Prep) Stiltsville 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.
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.
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.
Deep Down Dead by Steph Broadribb
Lori Anderson is as tough as they come, managing to keep her career as a fearless Florida bounty hunter separate from her role as single mother to nine-year-old Dakota, who suffers from leukaemia. But when the hospital bills start to rack up, she has no choice but to take her daughter along on a job that will make her a fast buck. And that’s when things start to go wrong.
The fugitive she’s assigned to haul back to court is none other than JT, Lori’s former mentor – the man who taught her everything she knows … the man who also knows the secrets of her murky past. Not only is JT fighting a child exploitation racket operating out of one of Florida’s biggest theme parks, Winter Wonderland, a place where ‘bad things never happen’, but he’s also mixed up with the powerful Miami Mob. With two fearsome foes on their tails, just three days to get JT back to Florida, and her daughter to protect, Lori has her work cut out for her. When they’re ambushed at a gas station, the stakes go from high to stratospheric, and things become personal.
Breathtakingly fast-paced, both hard-boiled and heart-breaking, Deep Down Dead is a simply stunning debut.
Summertime by Vanessa Lafaye
Florida, 1935. Heron Key is a small town where the relationships are as tangled as the mangrove roots in the swamp. Everyone is preparing for the 4th of July barbecue, unaware that their world is about to change for ever. Missy, the Kincaid family’s maid and nanny, feels that she has wasted her life pining for Henry, whom she has not seen since he went to fight on the battlefields of France in WWI. Now he has returned with a group of other desperate, destitute veterans on a government works project, unsure of his future, ashamed of his past.
When a white woman is found beaten nearly to death in the early hours, suspicion falls on Henry. Old grievances and prejudices threaten to derail the investigation. As the tensions rise, the barometer starts to plummet. The residents think they’re ready, and so do the soldiers. They are wrong. Nothing in their experience could prepare them for what is coming. For far out over the Atlantic, the greatest storm ever to strike North America is heading their way…
Tangerine by Edward Bloor
Paul Fisher sees the world from behind glasses so thick he looks like a bug-eyed alien. But he’s not so blind that he can’t see there are some very unusual things about his family’s new home in Tangerine County, Florida. Where else does a sinkhole swallow the local school, fire burn underground for years, and lightning strike at the same time every day?
The chaos is compounded by constant harassment from his football–star brother, and adjusting to life in Tangerine isn’t easy for Paul—until he joins the soccer team at his middle school. With the help of his new teammates, Paul begins to discover what lies beneath the surface of his strange new hometown. And he also gains the courage to face up to some secrets his family has been keeping from him for far too long. In Tangerine, it seems, anything is possible.
A Land Remembered by Patrick D Smith
A Land Remembered has been ranked #1 Best Florida Book eight times in annual polls conducted by Florida Monthly Magazine. In this, Florida’s favorite novel, Patrick Smith tells of three generations of the MacIveys, a Florida family battling the hardships of the frontier. Tobias and Emma MacIvey arrive in the Florida wilderness in 1858 with their son, Zech, to start a new life. Zech learns to ride like the wind through the Florida scrub on Ishmael, his marshtackie horse, his dogs, Nip and Tuck, at this side. His parents scratch a living from the land, gathering wild cows from the swamp and herding them across the state to market. Zech learns the ways of the land from the Seminoles, with whom his life becomes entwined as he grows into manhood. With the birth of Zech and Glenda’s son, Solomon, a new generation of MacIveys learns to ride horses, drive cattle, and teach rustlers a thing or two. Sol and his family earn more and more gold doubloons from cattle sales, as well as dollars from their orange groves. They invest it in buying land, once free to all.
Hemingway’s Girl by Erika Robuck
Ernest Hemingway, his second wife, Pauline, (who followed on after Hadley) and their two sons have come to live in Key West. Mariella Bennet, an 18 year old young woman comes to works as a maid in the Hemingway houshold and this is the story of the marriage, seen through her eyes.
Andrew and Tony for the TripFiction Team
Do you have a favourite read set in Florida? We have over 80 books set in the State. Have we missed an obvious choice? Please let us know in the comments below!
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