Top 5 Books of 2016

2016′s been pretty good for reading – I’ve read 53 books so far this year (this includes some very short ones and graphic novels) and am aiming to get to 60 in the remaining month.
Writing reviews has increased my enjoyment and fulfilment, by pushing me to articulate my thoughts and examine books more critically. I found two books that gave me the I’ve been waiting for this book my whole life/this was written just for me feels. Below, in the order I read them, are my top 5 books of 2016.

Content warning: brief discussions of genocide, depression, and suicide

1. Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

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Set in San Francisco in 1906, Outrun the Moon tells the story of fifteen-year-old Mercy Wong: determined to escape from the poverty in Chinatown, she uses her cunning to get herself into a prestigious school, where she pretends to be an heiress from China. Mercy faces both amusing and painful challenges in her early days there, but on April 18, a massive earthquake hits, destroying her home and school. Despite the tension and the tragedies that occur as a result of this, Mercy finds strength along with her friends, and remains determined to help those in need around her.

It’s rare that I’d be so hyped up for a book and yet it still surpasses my expectations. I fell in love with Mercy’s incredible narrative voice, the historical setting, and was touched by the thematic focus of the book: on friendship and overcoming differences in times of tragedy.

See my more detailed review here if you’re yet to read the book, and if you have, I also wrote a more reflective piece on it, Hidden Voices of History.

2. Her Father’s Daughter by Alice Pung

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This is actually only nonfiction or Australian book on the list. I really liked Alice Pung’s other books before reading this, Unpolished Gem and Laurinda, but was still in awe of how moving Her Father’s Daughter was. A memoir told in third person from two perspectives, it explores the relationship between the author and her father, who had survived genocide in Cambodia before he was resettled
in Australia. The portrayals of her father’s love and fears are beautifully empathetic, and showed the subtle ways that these nuances have built up over their life. I also enjoyed the beginning with the author’s relatable observations of China, and though the middle section in Pol Pot’s Cambodia was confronting, I’m so glad I read it for its insight and honesty.

3. It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

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Based on Ned Vizzini’s own experiences in a psychiatric hospital, It’s Kind of a Funny Story tells the story of fifteen-year-old Craig wrestling with depression, anxiety and suicide ideation. Until, after a particular suicidal episode, he decides to call for help and checks himself into a psychiatric hospital. Through his experiences and the people he meets there, he is finally able to confront the issues weighing upon him and move towards a more hopeful future.

It’s rare for a book to evoke such strong emotions in me, the way this book did – I was choking up in the first 30 pages (which, for an
unemotional brick like me, is the equivalent of crying one’s eyes out over a book). Its greatest strength was in Vizzini’s ability to write with such emotional rawness and honesty, conveying the experience of depression with powerful poignancy. I also appreciated the humour and hope throughout the book. It’s heartbreaking to know that Vizzini himself committed suicide in 2013, especially because, unsurprisingly, it’s a book that has helped and had an impact on many young people, me included. I only wish I could have read it when I was in high school.

4. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

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A family and character portrait, this book begins with the discovery that the Lydia, the daughter of interracial couple Marilyn and James Lee, has been found dead in a local lake. The book then weaves past and present, and perspectives from all the family members – Lydia, her parents, and her siblings Hannah and Nath – to explore the delicate balances of this Chinese American family, their backstories, and the ways gaps and silences have built up in their relationships to prevent them from truly understanding one another. Ng’s writing is immersive and moving, making  the most simple moments tense and gripping, and depicting profound emotional detail and nuance.

5. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

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It’s unbelievable that I haven’t read the whole of Jane Eyre until now, considering:

  • It was my Year 12 English Extension 1 teacher’s all-time favourite book
  • I loved Charlotte Bronte’s poetry, and I wrote a story about her life, and from her perspective, for our study of Romanticism in that subject
  • Cloudwish by Fiona Wood is one of my favourite books, and it features a protagonist who idolises Jane Eyre

But I finally got to it last month, and finished it this week. The writing is beautiful, drawing me in with both Jane’s voice and evoking the details of her world. Jane is the quiet girls’ hero indeed, and inspiring in the way she stuck to what she felt was right despite her relative lack of power in society. I loved the ending, which was so much more intense than I expected. This is now up there with Frankenstein as one of my favourite classics.

Looking forward, I’m thinking I’ll set a slightly lower aim of reading 50 books in 2017, and focus on depth – reviewing more consistently and critically, and learning from other authors in ways that apply to my own writing. I’m also aiming to be more conscious of the diversity of representation in what I read – I’ve naturally been drawn to and prioritised diverse books and authors up to now, but will take more active notice of it from now on. Feeling excited already!

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