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  • Writer's pictureThe Bossy Bookworm

January Wrap-Up: My Favorite Reads of the Month



My very favorite Bossy January reads!

Here are the six books I most loved reading this past month: a beautiful, poignant nonfiction book about living and dying; a science fiction story about an inherited villain's career, heavily featuring savvy and communicative cats; a historical fiction novel featuring female doctors, set in 15th century China; a gothic, magical-realism Western; a historical fiction escape through the wilderness, set in the time of early Jamestown; and a steampunk-Nordic novel about a dragon school, Indigenous peoples, constricting rules, and the possibility of upending tradition in favor of reinvention.

If you've read any of these titles, I'd love to hear what you think! I hope you've stayed healthy and had a happy break!

And I'd also love to hear: what are some of your recent favorite reads?


 

01 Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Atul Gawande writes clearly and poignantly about the search to achieve maximum well-being rather than prolonging diminished life at all costs--as well as the many complicating factors that make it difficult to transition to a focus on quality of life.

We've been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way.

The past century of medical advancements have transformed some grave conditions from death sentences to manageable or curable illnesses.

But the focus on living longer and attempting to move past former limitations of medical solutions sometimes create a difficult dynamic: pursuing additional years of life at any cost sometimes means paying the price by experiencing a dramatically diminished quality of life.

In Being Mortal, surgeon, former Harvard professor, and public health leader (Assistant Administrator for Global Health at USAID) Atul Gawande explores the successes and failures of the medical field in prolonging a life worth living.

Being Mortal is a beautiful, poignant, clearheaded examination of the intersection of mortality, medicine, dreams, and reality. Gawande emphasizes asking key questions of loved ones to clearly understand their own particular, sometimes surprising lines in the sand regarding quality of life before they are unable to make key decisions for themselves: what are they willing to forgo in order to live?

If you're interested in books about mortality like I am, you might like the books on my Greedy Reading Lists Six Powerful Memoirs about Facing Mortality and Six More Powerful Books about Facing Mortality.

For my full review of this book, please see Being Mortal.


 

02 Starter Villain by John Scalzi

First: this amazing cover. Second: Starter Villain is playful, darkly funny, big-hearted, and wonderfully weird. I loved it and I can't wait to read more John Scalzi books.

“I can’t tell if you’re joking with me,” I said.

“I’m mostly joking with you.”

“That ‘mostly’ is doing a lot of work in that sentence.”

The cover of Starter Villain shows a grumpy-seeming cat's head on a human torso clad in a suit with "Meet the new boss" across the top, so obviously this was going to be a Bossy read. And I love that this is my first review of 2024. Bring on the weird and wonderful books!

In Starter Villain, Charlie's a substitute teacher, divorced, struggling emotionally, socially, and financially, and living in a house his half-siblings want to sell. Then he inherits his long-lost uncle's parking-garage empire. Which turns out to be a cover for a vast supervillain business--complete with an evil lair in an island volcano.

Could this be an unexpected new start that will point Charlie in a productive new direction?

The recently deceased Uncle Jake, an old-fashioned villain, made a lot of enemies--and they're ruthless, well-funded, and out for revenge. Charlie will have to quickly get up to speed and figure out friend from foe in order to stay alive. This villain business is more complicated than it seems.

There's crossing, double-crossing, a wonderfully savvy and knowledgeable second-in-command, nefarious plots, sentient cats, and more. This was playful, smart, funny, and weird.

Click here for my full review of Starter Villain.


 

03 Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See

Lisa See offers a vivid peek at the lives of women in 15th century China, complete with a fascinating female-doctor element that kept me captivated.

No mud, no lotus.

Lady Tan's Circle of Women was my first book club read of 2024, and wow, does this one start off with a bang. Full-force details of foot-binding, and See doesn't stint on the page time spent on the topic. Whew!

Tan Yunxian's grandmother is one of only a few female doctors in 15th century China, and Yunxian is learning all she can from her beloved family matriarch.

See presents Yunxian as a feminist in many ways, but doesn't allow her to feel more modern than might seem plausible. She resists some of the constraints put upon her, particularly those credited to tradition rather than wisdom, yet she feels authentically of this time period.

I love a female-doctor and medical storyline, and I was particularly captivated by that aspect of Lady Tan, including the treatments, techniques, and beliefs that feel of the time period at hand.

I listened to this as an audiobook.

Click here for my full review of Lady Tan's Circle of Women.


 

04 Lone Women by Victor LaValle

LaValle mixes a Western setting with strong feminist messages, magical realism, haunting elements, and the terrifying, freeing truth in facing one's darker side.

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who live with shame, and those who die from it.

Victor LaValle's Lone Women begins in 1915 with a determined young woman, Adelaide Henry, covering her tracks by burning down her home--with her deceased parents inside. She's packed an incredibly heavy trunk and is setting out from California on a journey to try and leave her past behind.

She's set on becoming a homesteader in Montana, one of the "lone women" taking the government up on its offer of free land.

In LaValle's magical, dark Western, people tend to disappear whenever Adelaide's mysterious trunk opens. But the nature of the danger only becomes clear to the reader in fits and starts.

There's a ton to unpack here, including the exploration of the good and evil warring within each of us; what we do when faced with our own monsters; the terrifying power of perception and manipulated presentation; the potential destruction of lies and glossed-over realities; instances of well-deserved, sometimes brutal justice and the grace of redemption; and the depth of love in a chosen family.

I've seen Lone Women listed as a horror book, and there are horrifying elements, but the novel is far more than that; the story is complex and strange and interesting, with a pace that keeps moving and a satisfying ending.

I listened to this fascinating story as an audiobook. Please click here for my full review of Lone Women.


 

05 The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff's beautiful and brutal novel The Vaster Wilds follows a young servant girl running from the Jamestown colony's disease and starvation; she reveals her secrets while scrabbling for survival in the unforgiving wilderness.

The world, the girl knew, was worse than savage, the world was unmoved. It did not care, it could not care, what happened to her, not one bit. She was a mote, a speck, a floating windborne fleck of dust.

Lauren Goff's novel The Vaster Wilds begins in the Jamestown colony in the early 1600s. A servant girl is fleeing her early colonial household in the brutal aftermath of plague and starvation.

Upon being on her own for the first time, she discovers that she is capable of cleverness in the wild as she dives deeper and deeper into the unforgiving wilderness. She manages to problem-solve enormous challenges and, against all odds, survive. Her life in the wild consists of scrabbling for sustenance and carving out shelter; floating deadly cold rivers; and fleeing from wild strangers and beasts.

Hers is a brutal existence buoyed only by meandering thoughts of the past--including her life's one tender connection, to the young daughter of her former household, her former charge--and her growing wonder at the mysteries of the natural world, which are wonderfully imperfect and beautifully wrought by Groff.

I listened to The Vaster Wilds as an audiobook.

For my full review, check out The Vaster Wilds.


 

06 To Shape a Dragon's Breath (Nampeshiweisit #1) by Moniquill Blackgoose

Blackgoose offers a fascinating, layered story about a strong-willed, whip-smart young Indigenous woman in a steampunk 1800s Nordic setting, with plenty of dragons, dragon science, and dragon bonding alongside activism and bravery.

Moniquill Blackgoose's To Shape a Dragon's Breath delivers the dragons: in-depth training around being partnered with dragons, dragon-related science, emotional and physical ties to dragons, and the cultural importance, historical significance, and potential power of being linked to dragons,

It's also a steampunk, mid-1800s Nordic setting for some radical rethinking of nonsensical, destructive rules and regulations.

A fifteen-year-old Indigenous Masquisit girl Anequs finds a dragon egg, and when it hatches, she befriends and bonds with the hatchling, Kasaqua. But the Anglish conquerers of Masquapaug insist that a dragon must be raised a certain way, and if Anequs fails to demonstrate that she can control and shape Kasaqua's behavior, the dragon will be killed.

But everyone's about to find out how disruptive a whip-smart, open-minded, and strong-willed young woman can be. Because the restrictive Anglish world--and its selective history of the destruction of the Indigenous people--is due for some changes. And Anequs is just the fearless catalyst who might be able to shift it all.

Blackgoose takes on issues of Indigenous people and colonization, wealth and privilege, gender power imbalances, nontraditional sexual and relationship conventions, the bucking of societal traditions, and more.

And my thirst for boarding school/magical school settings was quenched by the feminist-activist Anequs's dragon academy experience.

For my full review, please see To Shape a Dragon's Breath. I love books about dragons (check out some of my favorites).

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