The Best Books I Read This Year

An end-of-the-year recap of ten of my favorites

December 31, 2020

At the beginning of the year, I made a promise to myself that I would read more this year once I graduated high school. I suppose I did manage to keep that promise, although the list of the books I read this year looks very different from what I thought it would look like.

So here is a countdown of my favorite ten books that I read this year! Fair warning—this does not mean books published exclusively in 2020, unlike most best-of-2020 lists (although some books might be!). Reading the latest books isn’t really a priority for me, as I enjoy finding well-written books in niche areas that I enjoy instead.

#10 The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

I really liked this novel because it has a variant of a premise that I really enjoy in a lot of psychological thriller movies, where there are a group of individuals who gather at a remote location (in this case a relatively isolated hunting lodge), and there is a palpable strain in the relationships between the members of the group, which you know will result in a catastrophe of some sort.

The variant here is the structure of the novel—it follows two timeline sequences, one describing the pre-catastrophe experiences of the individuals, highlighting their individual characteristics and relationships, and the other describing their post-catastrophe reactions, but without describing the catastrophe itself. Both of these run parallel through the novel. So it gives off a really unique effect in which you realize the nature of the catastrophe as you grow closer to the characters, and I feel this created a very suspenseful buildup.

I have seen novels of this kind often fail to resolve the situation very well, but I feel this one did a good job of resolving the threads in the story, and the conclusion holds up to cross-examination. Plus, although the point-of-view switches between characters throughout the novel, there are just enough characters to keep the changes interesting while also allocating sufficient space to understand each character and their motivation.

#9 Moonfleet by J. Meade Falkner

Moonfleet is an interesting novel for me because, in spite of my copy of it being published as a part of a “classics of children’s literature” series, I had never actually heard of it as I had heard of other classic works (such as, say, Black Beauty or Treasure Island). Nor have I heard of any of its film adaptations, most of which seem to have been made for TV, with the exception of a Fritz Lang film that was a commercial failure at the time.

Written in 1898, Moonfleet is a fairly simple adventure novel set in a small English seaside village in 1757 that has a unique way of describing the implications of national policies on rural villagers. The novel deals with smuggling and lost treasure, but it is the background in which it is set that enchanted me the most. A lot of such novels written during that period deal with grand themes that later went on to become cliches in their own right in children’s literature, such as piracy, mutiny, and shipwrecks, but few of the ones I have read deal so well with the complexities of relationships in locations like rural England while telling a compelling story.

The language of the book, I must admit, is rather dated, as it is with most unabridged editions of novels written in that time. However, I feel that the setting of the novel and the way the story unfolds compensates for this in more ways than one, and it is a rather refreshing variant of adventure novels of that period if you’re tired of the tropes that otherwise punctuate such novels.

#8 Newcomer by Keigo Higashino

Newcomer was really enjoyable for me because of the book’s narrative structure. There is a traditional mystery novel aspect to the book with a core mystery that hangs over all the other characters which is solved at the very end, but it also feels like reading a short story collection as each chapter in the book explores and solves a tangential mystery which evolves from the main mystery but whose solution is almost completely irrelevant to the rest of the book.

The tangential mysteries are not crimes in themselves—one of the more humorous ones deals with the matter of the stuffings of some cakes—but they do a fine job of showing the nature of human relationships, and how the lives of several people from different backgrounds are interconnected through chance meetings that occurred only for a few moments. Through the lens of the overhanging core mystery, we get to peek at the complicated lives of the many people with whom the victim of the crime interacted. The canvas of the novel, in my opinion, puts it apart from others of its kind—it feels as if the novel is as much a study of life in Nihonbashi as it is a detective fiction novel.

#7 Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada

If I liked Newcomer for its inclusion and exploration of a world outside the realm of what a traditional mystery novel covers, I liked Murder in the Crooked House for almost the exact opposite reason—its strict adherence to treating the mystery as a puzzle to be solved at all costs and examining the why and the how of how the crime was committed. It even goes as far as issuing a challenge to the readers in the middle of the text which tells them that all the clues required to solve the mystery have been provided by that point and asking them to see if they can solve the mystery based on these clues alone.

This book is one of the best examples of the mystery genre known as shin honkaku, a type of “fair play” or “locked room” puzzle mysteries, where the novels are written not only as literary works but also as games to challenge readers to see if they can solve the mystery on their own. The motive of the murder, in this case, is almost entirely irrelevant to the story and the deduction process, in stark contrast with the other, more “people-centric” mysteries in this list which examine perspectives and interactions between different people. Here, the story is all about the mechanics of how the crime occurred, and it is clear to see that the author is thoroughly committed to this, given the percentage of the novel dedicated to the descriptions of the architecture of the titular crooked house.

#6 The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr

The Hollow Man follows from Murder in the Crooked House as it is a classic in the genre of locked-room mysteries, albeit from the western half of the world. I sought out other mysteries following the locked room ideas explored in the latter, and I was drawn to the novel considered one of the most iconic works in the sub-genre.

It is most famous for a lecture delivered by the protagonist about the different ways in which a locked room crime may be committed, which provides a broad framework to categorize several mystery novels in—I thought the metacriticism in the novel was one of its most striking qualities, as the author outlines several possible methods of committing a similar crime (many of which have been employed in the other novels I have read since) and yet manages to deliver a conclusion that is not only novel but also requires remarkably less suspension of belief than others of its kind. I certainly feel it deserves its position as a classic, given how rich a contribution it makes to not only detective fiction but also the study of locked-room mystery fiction in general.

#5 The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

There is a brief interlude here to stop me from rambling about the intricacies and sub-genres in mystery fiction as I turn my attention to the excellent The Lies of Locke Lamora. I wrote about this book in my newsletter, Curated, although I will talk a bit more about what I liked about it here.

Although I read fantasy quite a lot in middle school, my fantasy reading has ceased quite a bit in recent years, primarily due to the gradual demarcation that occurs as one grows up between fantasy novels directed at children and fantasy novels meant for the general fantasy-reading crowd, which includes adults and children alike. In my experience, what I read as a part of children’s fantasy novels (as well a decent amount of YA fiction) had a much wider range in terms of diversity of the themes it tackled. But after I became familiar with the basic tropes and mechanisms of how fantasy works, I found it extremely difficult to finish other novels/series once I completed The Lord of the Rings; far too many of them, in my opinion, are too heavily derivative of previous works that I have already read, or spend too much space on exposition instead of character development. I suppose those aren’t flaws by themselves, and I do intend to return to them at some point of time, but they require the dedication of longer durations of time to fully understand what is happening in their world.

This is why, I suppose, I found The Lies of Locke Lamora a very interesting read, and one that I actually managed to finish. I can’t tell if it is the first of its kind that I read, or whether it is just its own unique appeal, but it ticks off both checkboxes—I found a relatively fresh plot in it as well as minimum exposition describing how its world operates. Locke’s story does not involve a traditional fantasy hero’s save-the-world prophecy-fulfilling journey; rather, he is an antihero of sorts, a lovable rogue-thief, and his adventures bring him in contact with people from all backgrounds, ranging from beggars to lords. This gives the effect of reading about a more authentic pseudo-medieval society, as opposed to fantasy works where most of the action takes place either in battles or in courts. The cast of characters is much more tight-knit than other works, so the character development feels much more tangible here. In addition to this, it is also largely exempt from the colonial overtones or not-so-subtly disguised stereotypes that pervade a large section of classic fantasy. The Lies of Locke Lamora keeps up a neat dance on the line between familiarity and freshness until its very end, which is why I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

#4 The Seventh Hypothesis by Paul Halter

And here we return to mystery, in true homage to the sheer number of detective novels I went through this year. This is the last mystery fiction work here, I promise!

I suppose The Seventh Hypothesis picks up where The Hollow Man left off, and to me, it reads like a work of metacriticism in addition to being a particularly compelling mystery novel. The titular seventh hypothesis refers to seven hypotheses that the investigating detective lays out for how the crime has been committed, and the story tells us how the hypotheses are struck down until the true solution of the mystery is obtained.

If Murder in the Crooked House issues a challenge to the reader to solve the mystery, The Seventh Hypothesis involves a challenge to the characters to commit a crime. The entire novel gives off the feeling of a cat-and-mouse game that keeps occurring in-between the pages, where entire theories are constructed over several pages, only to be demolished in the next few. As a reader, you know that you’re being mocked through the game as much as the detectives are being fooled by it—the author will spin up a believable solution quickly, give you a moment to accept it, and then pull the rug out from under your feet to send you tumbling back into the mystery. It is ranked so high on my list simply because the sheer number of theories described within its pages exceeds any other such attempt in the books I read this year. It is as much a locked-room mystery dedicated to discovering the mechanics of how the crime was committed as it is a traditional mystery novel examining motives and characters, and I think this is one of the finest blends of the two genres I have come across.

#3 Billion Dollar Loser by Reeves Wiedeman

The only non-fiction book on this list, Billion Dollar Loser tells the story of the rise and fall of WeWork. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it simply because of the quality of the nonfiction prose in it.

Billion Dollar Loser was particularly striking for me as it deviates from the typical entrepreneurship success stories that form a significant portion of the startup-related media, and instead takes a look at the complicated relationships between the people working in such an organization. I liked the way the book tackled different aspects of the way WeWork operated through the perspectives of a wide range of employees, instead of simply telling the WeWork story in chronological order. In doing so, the author doesn’t just look at the company as an institutional success or failure, and nor does he follow the formula of shadowing a few of the important people in the company’s hierarchy and attributing all wins and losses to them. I felt that this book did a good job of humanizing the people behind the scenes, and describing the way WeWork and its culture impacted people both during and after they worked there.

Billion Dollar Loser also serves as a reflection upon the nature of relationships between founders and venture capitalists, as well as other investors and stakeholders, and I feel it brings a new way of thinking about these topics when contrasted with the sea of articles and blog posts on the topic that have been posted in different corners of the Internet. I think it deserves its place on this list because of how compellingly it tells the story it wants to tell, while still managing to meditate on the causes behind the events in the story that continue to impact and influence other startups today.

#2 Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka

Two Caravans is a humorous story about migrant workers who work as fruit-pickers in the UK. It traces the common threads in the lives of workers from different countries in eastern Europe (and elsewhere). Their lives and ambitions are described in a tragicomedy of sorts where the details of the seriousness of the workers’ situation is often followed by comical elements, making it a very uniquely written novel.

On a deeper reading, it also satirizes the aspirations of the migrants, comically contrasting their perceptions of the people of the UK with the harsh realities that they confront in their day-to-day lives. The prose itself is at times deeply unsettling regarding the extent to which the characters are convinced about their delusions of grandeur and leading lavish lifestyles in the UK. But it is this story of dreams that is the best part of Two Caravans as it explores love, life, and what it means to be human.

#1 The Sea by John Banville

The Sea won the Booker Prize in 2005, and like all good Booker Prize winners, its readership is for the most part divided into those who loved it and those who found it a terrible bore, as plenty of Goodreads reviews will attest to. Fortunately, I fall into the former category.

The Sea is unlike any of the other novels on the list—I suppose it is entirely possible to find common threads between the books on this list, but The Sea sticks out from all the others, and I simply loved it because of the quality of the prose. The story, despite its rather convoluted method of narration, is a fairly simple one at heart, and I will admit that I have heard of or read of storylines that are not too different from this. But The Sea exists beyond its story—in some way, it is also a reflection on human suffering, and how tragedies foreshadow other tragedies that happen later in life. The novel’s structure reflects the narrator’s wandering mind, and much like life, there doesn’t seem to be a huge climax or anything close to a satisfactory ending in the novel. Yet, the rigorous adherence to realism in the novel is what makes reading it such a pleasurable experience. Filled with poignant reflections on life and the strange way it turns out to be, The Sea was hands-down the best book I read this year.

Well, that is my list! Here’s to reading many more wonderful books in 2021, and wishing everyone a happy new year!

© 2021 Sagnik Anupam
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