One of the best novels I read this year was The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell, an exquisitely crafted work of historical literary fiction that was both evocative and compelling. More than once as I savoured the book, I wondered how a writer can reach this level of perfection.
A few years ago when I was looking for an agent/publisher for my first novel The Reengineers, my friend D gave me some sage advice. ‘You must add some masala to your novels, if people are to enjoy reading them’. I was amused as my novels have themes like the meaning of life, the relationship between the writer and the character, psychic energy interactions and ancient history among other things, but it turned out she was partly right. I had to rewrite a small section of the story and add a scene with some suggested romance before I got the contract with Harper.
What makes a novel popular? How does a writer reach that aspirational and often elusive sweet spot which makes a novel both critically and commercially successful? How does one balance the novel’s pace with a narrative that explores time, place, and character in depth? To find my own answers to these questions, I decided to invest some time reading popular fiction this year.
I read through a few bestselling novels with thousands of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, choosing them at random based on the blurb and reader reviews. Some of these had perfect language, strong plots and excellent editing, but the stories lacked ideas, imagination or both, and were book-versions of stereotyped films or TV series in the genre. Many of these could have done with a grammar check and an editor to fix the plot, yet they ranked high in both reviews and ratings, simply as they were compulsive page turners. Most of them used cliched formulas starting with a time bound quest, or constructed the plot around a missing character, and added one or more twists to the narrative. They came with similar covers, similar-sounding titles, the blurbs screaming phrases like jaw-dropping, nerve-wracking, and heart-stopping (why anyone would want to read the last one is a mystery by itself). As the pattern and pacing techniques grew clear, I stopped reading them, mainly because it became ridiculously easy to guess the killer/the twist/the good and bad characters within the first few pages.
I am done with commercial pop-thrillers for good, but among the popular fiction titles I found and enjoyed a number of well written stories that made me invested enough to look out for the next title in the series or the next similar novel by the author. This post is a compilation of some of these books. Some of these novels blurred the lines between literary and commercial fiction, with rich narrative and characters who made their presence felt. Many were driven by intricate plotlines. A few addressed important themes. All of them evoked the pleasure of enjoying a well-written story.
Here are my top ten popular reads of 2022, in no particular order.
1) Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire. A series of YA novels about the children who manage to cross over into fantasy worlds and are forced to return. The first novel Every Heart a Doorway portrays the school which forms the world between worlds, setting the stage for a series of charming interconnected stories about the children who found their way back home from the rabbit hole or the other side of the looking glass, only to realise that their home and heart lay in the magical worlds. The strength of this series lies in its imaginative premise, the smooth narrative and the inclusive characterisation.
2) Susan Ryeland cosy mystery series by Anthony Horowitz: The first book in this series, Magpie Murders, stayed on my Kindle for months before I started reading it. Surely any cosy mystery could not get better than Dame Agatha Christie’s yarns? The Magpie Murders turned out to be as good as the best of Agatha Christie’s novels. So was Moonflower Murders, the next book in the series. I liked them so much that I subscribed to an OTT service just to catch the webseries adaptation.
3) Tales of Terror series by Chris Priestley: A paranormal series for children, each book in the series consists of a set of related ghost stories which tie up with a twist into a spooky ending. Some of the stories are genuinely scary and the illustrations add to the creepiness. All five books: Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror, Tales of Terror from the Black Ship, Tales of Terror from the Tunnel’s Mouth, The Teacher’s Tales of Terror and Christmas Tales of Terror are equally good, and there is a similar collection Seven Ghosts by the same author. The atmospheric, evocative writing makes these enjoyable holiday reads.
4) The paranormal thrillers of Simone St James: The Haunting of Maddy Clare was the first book I read by Simone St James. I enjoyed her writing style so much that I read all her published books including her latest novel The Book of Cold Cases, and liked every one of them. There is a pattern to most of these novels- usually the heroine’s journey of a young woman, with a paranormal premise and a dash of romance, yet they are more than formulaic thrillers. The narrative style and flow compel the reader to turn the pages, while creating a cinematic view of the place and time described. Many of these stories also explore the nature of psychic phenomena, such as The Other Side of Midnight which is about a medium in 1920s London being forced to investigate the murder of her frenemy and rival, which paves way for the reader to think and reflect on one of the oldest mysteries that is life after death.
5) Harbinder Kaur mystery series by Ellie Griffiths: The Harbinder Kaur series of books are again, evocative of the best Agatha Christie mystery novels. The first book in the series The Stranger Diaries made me want to thank the author for the pure joy of storytelling that came through the narrative voice, and the next two books The Postscript Murders and Bleeding Heart Yard were equally good. Some readers may have a minor quibble about how the author tries to include worthy causes in the plot which appears a tad forced, but otherwise these are very pleasant cosy reads.
6) Detective Daniel Hawthorne series by Anthony Horowitz: A metafictional cosy series in which the author’s namesake collaborates with a fictional detective to solve murder mysteries sounds like it can get too self-indulgent, but these novels kept getting better with every new story. The way Hawthorne bests Horowitz each time, much to the latter’s discomfort, lightens the dark plotlines with delightful self-deprecating British humour. All four books in this series- The Word is Murder, The Sentence is Death, A Line to Kill and The Twist of a Knife are worthy additions to the canon of well-written cosy mysteries.
A series that almost made into this list was Horowitz’s Holmes by the same author, set in the world of Sherlock Holmes. The House of Silk was excellent, Moriarty not so much.
7) The contemporary thrillers of Lucy Foley: The Hunting Party has a premise shared by many thrillers, of a group of friends who take a vacation in an isolated area, in this case an estate in the Scottish Highlands. It stood out with the top-notch execution, with the narrative evoking the cold and stark landscape, and the characterisation exposing multiple layers of human emotions. The Guest List was equally well written, and so was The Paris Apartment which addressed various kinds of filial relationships among other things and exposed the chilling underworld of human trafficking. This author deserves all the accolades she has received for these novels, and more.
8) The twisted family thrillers of Stephanie Wrobel: I earlier reviewed The Recovery of Rose Gold which was a fast-paced story of a cat and mouse game played between an abusive mother and a vengeful daughter. This Might Hurt is another take on abusive family relationships and the trauma inflicted by cults on its members. The extremities to which people joining a cult are subjected to was true to the real-life survival stories reported by cult members and evoked other books of its ilk such as the classic Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. Compared to The Recovery of Rose Gold, This Might Hurt ended on a relatively more positive note.
9) The Family Upstairs series by Lisa Jewell: The premise of The Family Upstairs about the survivors of a family broken by a cult was an interesting one, which stood out from the regular themes of women’s fiction. The book was a page-turner, and held my interest enough to read the next one, The Family Remains which was a good sequel that showed how the influence of the cult affected the survivors and how each of them learned to heal in their own ways.
10) Stories from Karnataka (Amar Chitra Katha comics): I came across these in the home library of some friends who had got the complete set of Amar Chitra Katha for their primary school going children. Like most Indians who grew up in the nineties, I remember Amar Chitra Katha as a beautiful part of my childhood. The new titles in the series are not a patch on their original books, but this particular collection curated from folklore, historical incidents and regional literature of Karnataka was delightful. One title that stood out was The Elusive Kaka adapted from the Kannada play Kakana Kote by Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, based on a real story of how a Kuruba tribal chieftain stood up to save, protect and preserve the pristine forests that is their home. An endearing story about tribes protecting their forest from ‘development’, it is all the more relevant in the present day.