The 16 Books of 2016

I managed to read 16 books in 2016, which is a little disappointing considering my original goal of 20 for the year. It’s doubly disappointing because I’m sure 14-year-old me would have easily doubled that number.

I can, however, console myself by remembering that most of these books are significantly longer and less “fun” than the fantastical fictions I used to devour in my teens. Case in point: the Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (all 56 short stories and all 4 short novels) totals 1886 pages! Although Sherlock wasn’t any less fun because of it. In addition, some of my choices were a little more experimental in genre, which didn’t always make for quick reads.

Here is the list (and a quick ranking) below.

If the author’s name is followed by a star * (and happily most of them are) it means that I would readily recommend the book to a friend.

Two stars ** means I very highly recommend the book. Something about a two star book really stuck with me after I finished reading it.

And of course, if it lacks a star… it means that I personally had a hard time getting into the book, but I know every reader is different!

The 16 books of 2016:

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale — Margaret Atwood ** 
  2. Cutting for Stone — Abraham Verghese **
  3. The Enchanted — Rene Denfeld *
  4. The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Volume 1 — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle **
  5. Kafka on the Shore — Haruki Murakami
  6. Me Before You — Jojo Moyes *
  7. The Glass Castle: A Memoir — Jeannette Wells **
  8. The Picture of Dorian Grey — Oscar Wilde
  9. Redeployment — Phil Klay *
  10. Catherine the Great; Portrait of a Woman — Robert K. Massie **
  11. The Martian — Andy Weir *
  12. Assassination Classroom (all 22 books) — Yuusei Matsui **
  13. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (reread) — J.K. Rowling **
  14. How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia — Shannon Young *
  15. The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Volume 2 — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle **
  16. Great Expectations — Charles Dickens *

Now for the “Book Awards”: basically, my top four books of the year — why I chose them, and why I loved them.

MOST ENTERTAINING:

The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Short Summary:  Who doesn’t know of Sherlock Holmes? Creating arguably one of the most influential characters ever written, Doyle spins story after story of Sherlock and his faithful friend, Dr. Watson, as they track down villains in Victorian England (and abroad)!

Why I Chose to Read It: Sherlock Holmes was my challenge read of the year, as the complete anthology of stories numbers over 1,800 pages. Therefore, I counted it as reading two books towards my 2016 reading goal! I love the BBC’s modern-day television adaptation (Sherlock), so I figured it was finally time to actually read the beloved original.

Why I Loved It: Over the course of the entire year, I never grew tired of the famous detective and his clever observations. Honestly, I thought it was rather funny that once the criminal was apprehended, they never failed to explain exactly what happened and exactly why they did it. Every single story’s villain confessed so easily. I kept imagining with a chuckle how fast modern-day trials would be if this was realistic. I have one word of caution, though; there are two or three stories where the characters express… very dated opinions (aka a little racist) and those moments were a bit cringe worthy. But otherwise, I loved reading Sherlock.

One of the things I most enjoyed about reading the whole series was linking the BBC’s television adaptation to the original. I usually have a hard time reading the book after seeing an adaptation of some sort, but the TV show differentiates itself enough that it was possible. Some episodes are based around one of Doyle’s short novels or a specific story, whereas elements of several shorter stories are often combined or exaggerated to create other episodes. Actually, my least favorite Sherlock episode — The Hounds of Baskerville — was actually my favorite of Doyle’s four short novels. My second favorite of the novels — the Valley of Fear — has yet to be adapted by the BBC, but  I’m hopeful that it lives up to the original story.

BIGGEST SURPRISE:

Assassination Classroom (all 22 volumes) by Yuusei Matsui 

Short Summary: A top-secret government experiment has gone devastatingly wrong, creating a super-being (taking the shape of a giant yellow octopus) who threatens to blow up the Earth. This ominous super-being makes a deal with the government: he’ll give a class of 24 Japanese middle school students one year to assassinate him… by becoming their new homeroom teacher! If the students fail , the Earth will be destroyed!

Why I Chose to Read It: Every so often, I dabble in manga (especially since I now live in Japan — it’s a great way to further connect with my students). I chanced upon this particular manga series back in July, with no intention of counting it towards my 2016 reading goal… but I was so thoroughly hooked on Assassination Classroom that after reading only the first three volumes, I was convinced that it earned a place on my year’s reading list.

Why I Loved It: The artwork is beautiful; the plot is surprising and creative; the series balances both dark and light themes exceptionally well; and finally, the story is simultaneously thought-provoking and pure fun. It’s so freaking funny at some points that I was laughing aloud alone in my apartment. Assassination Classroom is a clever and hilarious read… and oddly enough, it has further inspired me to be the best teacher possible (minus the encouragement of students to kill me, of course!). If you’ve never tried manga before and are curious about the genre, I urge you to give this one a try. Manga isn’t just for kids!

NEW GENRE CHALLENGE WINNER:

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie 

Short Summary: an extensive biography of a little German princess who became one of the world’s most powerful women.

Why I Chose to Read It: Before this year, I generally read historical fiction and other novels, with a bit of fantasy, classics, and nonfiction thrown into the mix. So this year I challenged myself to read three new genres — a memoir (The Glass Castle); a science fiction novel (The Martian); and a biography (Catherine the Great). All three of the new genre challenge reads were favorites, but I loved Catherine the Great most of all.

Okay, so now you know why I picked up a biography — but why did I choose Catherine the Great out of all the others available? First, it’s refreshing to read about a powerful woman… especially a powerful woman living in the 1700s! Look around, and you’ll see that most biographies are written about men. From presidents (Washington, Eisenhower) to famous scientists (Einstein), to boxers (Rubin Carter) and business tycoons (Steve Jobs), men seem to dominate as a biographer’s subject matter. Second, I knew very little about Russia before reading this book, although I’ve always been a bit curious about the country and its history. So, I took the plunge.

Why I Loved It: Catherine the Great reads like a novel. I was worried a biography would be dry, but Catherine’s life was exciting to begin with, and Massie doesn’t skimp on the interesting little details. But the thing I most loved about reading Catherine the Great was how much I learned while reading it. This seems obvious, of course, but it blew my mind how such a major world leader crossed paths with the other great historical personages of the time, like Voltaire, Diderot, the father of the American Navy (John Paul Jones), along with numerous other European monarchs. I learned about serfdom in Russia, the political struggles between Austria, Russia, Prussia, and Germany, the Enlightenment, and perhaps most entertainingly, Empress Elizabeth’s extravagant court and the balls where everyone had to arrive dressed up as the opposite sex.

Biographies are the best example of taking a very narrow subject matter — a person’s life, in the grand scheme of things — and spiraling outwards to look at everything that intersects with it. Such a thing is exactly what an English major like myself does in an essay — I once wrote a ten-page paper about the use of punctuation in one of Emily Dickinson’s poems — and I certainly have plans to read other biographies in the future.

COULDN’T PUT IT DOWN

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Short Summary: from Amazon, because I’m too lazy to write my own, “Set in the near future, it describes life in what was once the United States, now called the Republic of Gilead, a monotheocracy that has reacted to social unrest and a sharply declining birthrate by reverting to, and going beyond, the repressive intolerance of the original Puritans. The regime takes the Book of Genesis absolutely at its word, with bizarre consequences for the women and men of its population. The story is told through the eyes of Offred, one of the unfortunate Handmaids under the new social order.”

Why I Chose to Read It: A friend highly recommended it.

Why I Loved It: If you glance over my reading list for the year, none of the books scream “THRILLING.” Even most of the Sherlock Holmes stories didn’t keep me at the edge of my seat. Entertaining, yes; but thrilling, no. The Handmaid’s Tale was different, though. It was my first book of the year, and I was on vacation with my mother in Izu when I started reading it… and every time my mom fell asleep early due to jet-lag, I would pick this book back up and read it till the wee hours of the night.

It’s not particularly action-packed, but refreshingly it’s a dystopian story that doesn’t give you a laundry list of new rules for the whole society in the first three chapters. It’s subtle, quiet… it keeps you guessing. You are the author, trying to figure out what is happening and what is left unsaid. What truly won me over about the whole book, however, is the “Historical Note” at the very end. I almost skipped it entirely, and that would have been my own loss. The “Historical Note” is a humorous academic discussion of the story’s events, as well as historical background (finally some clues about the society, 10 pages from the end!) and theories.

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