Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray

I first read A Great and Terrible Beauty shortly after it was first released many moons ago… in 2003 when I was a freshman in high school. I loved it from the very beginning – it was one of the first young adult fantasy books that was widely available after the release of Harry Potter. 

Synopsis of A Great and Terrible Beauty

Gemma Doyle isn’t like other girls. Girls with impeccable manners, who speak when spoken to, who remember their station, who dance with grace, and who will lie back and think of England when it’s required of them.

No, sixteen-year-old Gemma is an island unto herself, sent to the Spence Academy in London after tragedy strikes her family in India. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma finds her reception a chilly one. She’s not completely alone, though… she’s been followed by a mysterious young man, sent to warn her to close her mind against the visions.

For it’s at Spence that Gemma’s power to attract the supernatural unfolds; there she becomes entangled with the school’s most powerful girls and discovers her mother’s connection to a shadowy, timeless group called the Order. It’s there that her destiny waits… if only Gemma can believe in it.

Review

A Great and Terrible Beauty

I have loved A Great and Terrible Beauty for over a decade now, which seems crazy and makes me feel so old. But as one of the first young adult fantasy books to hit the market and stick as a popular favorite, I’m so happy that I’ve been recommending this book series to all of my friends for half my life.

Gemma Doyle, protagonist of the trilogy by the same name, set the bar for all young adult, and adult fantasy books, I’ve read since the fateful day back in 2003 that I first picked up Gemma’s story. She’s full of spunk and self-determination and she’s completely normal. I absolutely love to read about characters who doubt themselves in all things and Gemma has plenty to question about herself, her actions, and her motivations. Gemma’s story begins with the death of her mother and Gemma’s introduction into the shadowy world of the mysterious Order and her discovery of the Realms, a magical, but troubled land, that was once the playing ground of not only the Order, but other magical creatures and beings as well.

As Gemma starts to learn about her (and her mother’s) connection to the Order and the Realms, she must also deal with life at a prestigious Victorian finishing school, and the bullies and privileged girls she meets there. It doesn’t take long, however, for Gemma to make some decent friends and she quickly discovers that appearances are oftentimes deceiving and it is worth getting to know people better before passing judgment on them. There are so many incredible lessons to learn from Gemma and her journey and Libba Bray’s story telling is absolutely exquisite. I can’t wait to reread Rebel Angels so I can finally finish the series with The Sweet Far Thing!

Gemma Doyle trilogy

Finally I have finished the Gemma Doyle trilogy! After reading the first book nearly thirteen years ago and seeing all three books starting at me from my bookshelf for the better part of seven years, I figured it was about time I finished Gemma’s story and learned how it all turned out.

A Great and Terrible Beauty, to this day, remains one of my favorite books that I read during high school. Gemma is a strong and formidable heroine and her adventures into the magical realms she discovers prove that she is worthy of being added to the ranks of great female protagonists of literature. Her friends and fellow characters are fully developed and have personalities of their own that are not defined by their relationship with Gemma.

In Rebel Angels, Gemma and her friends are on holiday from Spence Academy, where they met and first entered the realms, to spend the Christmas seasons with their families. It is in Rebel Angels that were learn more about each character and their motivations in life. And like any good middle book, it ends with a battle, twist and cliff-hanger.

Sweet Far Thing, however, drops the ball that has been rolling on beautifully in the first two books. It tops 800 pages when only about 300 were truly necessary to conclude Gemma’s story satisfactorily. The pacing is slow going and I wanted to give up hope of ever finishing it multiple times during the last month and a half that it took me to read it. Sweet Far Thing felt like Libba Bray didn’t want the story to end, but wasn’t sure what the best way was to draw it out without going overboard. But in the end, Gemma’s story comes to a close with a fairly realistic (for a fantasy book) ending and her story feels complete.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars for series

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780385732314 • 403 pages • first published in December 2003, this edition published March 2005 by Delacorte Press • average Goodreads rating 3.79 out of 5 • read between December 2003 and January 2016

Libba Bray’s Website

A Great and Terrible Beauty on Goodreads

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Gemma Doyle - Great and Terrible Beauty

Fiction, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Warcross by Marie Lu

Marie Lu is officially now the most reviewed author on this site! This may be due in large part to a very exciting event that took place at the bookstore I work at two weeks ago when I had the great of fortune of moderating a discussion between the lovely Marie Lu and her friend and fellow author, Alex London. 

Marie Lu

It was an absolutely delight to discuss everything from diversity in books to fan art with Marie, and I am happy to report that she is a genuine kind and compassionate human being. And while I wanted to record the interview and post the transcript here, in all my excitement I completely forgot to do so! So please settle for my review of her newest book, Warcross!

Synopsis

The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down Warcross players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty-hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. To make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships – only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight success.

Convinced she’s going to be arrested, Emika is shocked when instead she gets a call from the game’s creator, the elusive young billionaire, Hideo Tanaka, with an irresistible offer. He needs a spy on the inside of this year’s tournament in order to uncover a security problem… and he wants Emika for the job. With no time to lose, Emika’s whisked off to Tokyo and thrust into a world of fame and fortune that she’s only dreamed of. But soon her investigation will uncover a sinister plot, with major consequences for the entire Warcross empire.

Review

This is my favorite of each of Marie Lu’s books and I almost didn’t read it. First, it was pitched to us by the publisher as being a middle grades novel (definitely not the case), and second, as my husband often says, I didn’t have a “real childhood” because I never once played a video game. The gaming aspect didn’t appeal to me. For those who might hesitate to pick this up because you think it’s a gaming novel, let me put your mind at ease. Virtual reality is a closer description of Warcross and it is part of the plot, but most of the book does not take place in the world of Warcross, most of it takes place in the “real world,” in Tokyo.

For the number of books I read each year, I’m always amazed a, that I remember any of them, and b, I can still be wholeheartedly surprised to love a book that I didn’t expect to. Don’t get me wrong, I knew I would certainly like Warcross, but I didn’t expect to love it on a level close to that which I love the works of my favorite author, Sarah J. Maas. Emika is now one of my all-time favorite leading ladies, and she is, like her creator, quite the magnificent lady. She is brave, she is compassionate, she is driven to do what is right. And unfortunately, there are those in the story who would like to take advantage of those qualities. Well, not quite unfortunate because without other character’s motivations, there would be no story!

I don’t want to go into too much detail because I feel like just about anything I might say would lead into spoiler territory, suffice to say that if you have read Legend or The Young Elites, you will recognize Warcross as another book in Marie Lu’s catalog that is witty and enjoyable with just the right mix of adventure and a little romance. But it’s way better than Legend and The Young Elites and I enjoyed both of those very much.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $18.99 • 9780399547966 • 368 pages • published September 2017 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 4.35 out of 5 • read in September 2017

Warcross Website

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Warcross

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

Time for another beauty by Renee Ahdieh! She is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors and when the ARC  (advanced reader copy) of Flame in the Mist came into the store, my coworkers were nice enough to make sure it wound up in my hands!

Synopsis

There was only ever one expectation for Mariko, a prominent samurai’s daughter: that she would marry. Her twin brother was the one trained in the way of the warrior while Mariko was left to nurture her love of science and invention in secret. But on her way to the imperial city, where she was to meet her betrothed for the very first time, her convoy is attacked and everything changes. The assassins kill everyone – or so they think. Despite almost being burned alive, Mariko escapes.

Driven by vengeance, she flees the forest and seeks out her would-be assassins, the Black Clan, joining their ranks disguised as a peasant boy. She’s determined to discover who ordered her death and why – and to make them pay. Little does she expect to fall in love. And never did she expect to have to choose between them and everything she’s ever known. But when the secrets of the imperial city, the Black Clan, and her family converge, choose is exactly what she must do.

Review

Firstly, YAY GIRL POWER! Reading a new book by Renee Ahdieh reminds me just how much I really do love her first duology, The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger. I had been holding off on reading Flame in the Mist until I was going on vacation because I knew once I got to the really good and juicy parts about halfway in, I wouldn’t be able to put it down – and I certainly did not want anything to interfere with my ability to read it straight through!

As with my review of Wrath and Dawn last week, I marvel over Renee Ahdieh’s storytelling. She creates such compelling characters and intricate plot lines that I love to sink my teeth into. She also has been some of the wittiest protagonists I have ever read to date. Her female protagonists are feminists – proud and fierce but still have their weaknesses and flaws. Her love interests for said feminist protagonists remind me of a certain male in A Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy in the sense that they are loyal to their women and encouraging them be themselves 100%.

But back to Flame in the Mist specifically – I love the take on Japanese mythology (it is not at all based on Mulan, whatever rumors you may hear) and how Renee Ahdieh twists in a bit of Robin Hood lore as well (whether it is purposeful or coincidence I’m not sure, but I love it!). Mariko is a protagonist to be admired as well, and Ahdieh’s now trademark style of romance is still swoon-worthy, even for the most callused and cold-hearted of readers. I recommend it thoroughly and I cannot wait for the second book in the duology next May!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $17.99 • 9780399171635 • 416 pages • published May 2017 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 4.03 out of 5 stars • read in August 2017

Renee Ahdieh’s Website

Flame in the Mist on Goodreads

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Flame in the Mist

 

Biography, Non-Fiction, Photography/Art

Women in Sports by Rachel Ignotofsky

Why did I decide to read Women in Sports… I hope I’ve established through my selection of books so far that I absolutely adore all books that celebrate strong women and positive female role models. Sports in particular hold a very special place in my heart – those are my hockey skates in the picture – and I will do everything in my power to make sure that all little girls in my life know that they can do and be anything – including the world’s best ice hockey goalie. 

Synopsis

Women in Sports highlights the achievements and stories of fifty notable women athletes from the 1800s to today, including trailblazers, Olympians, and record-breakers in more than forty sports. The athletes featured include well-known figures like tennis player Billie Jean King and gymnast Simone  Biles, as well as lesser-known champions like Toni Stone, the first woman to play baseball in a professional men’s league, and skateboarding pioneer Patti McGee. The book also contains infographics on topics that sporty women want to know about such as muscle anatomy, a timeline of women’s participation in sports, pay and media statistics for female athletes, and influential women’s teams. Women in Sports celebrates the success of the tough, bold, and fearless women who paved the way for today’s athletes.

Review

Sports have always played a big role in my life. Whether I was playing them or watching them with my friends and family, I have loved them always. Growing up, I did gymnastics, ballet, roller bladed, biked, swam, played softball and skated like a fiend. I skiied, played basketball, and was nearly recruited to Brown University as an ice hockey goalie. My sister played soccer and tennis, my dad was a gymnast and sailor, my mom was a three sport athlete and my grandfather played four sports and for the Philadelphia Eagles. To say sports are in my blood is an understatement. The first book I ever finished writing was about a teenage hockey star.

Downside, I wasn’t really great at any sport, not a one. The jokes about ice hockey goalies were true for me – I was not a great skater. Upside, I loved it, so I worked hard and I practiced. When I found out that the author of Women in Science was writing about women in sports, I started begging our rep to send me an ARC (advanced reader copy) or finished copy of the book. Nine months ago. I knew I had to have this book.

I love this book – of all the compendium books of great women, this is by far one of my favorites. The art style is perfect for the style of book – think infographics, but with a bit more text. The decisions for which wonderful women to include must have been a challenging one, but it is definitely a worthy list – variety of sports and backgrounds of each of the women is diverse. If you are looking for inspiration for yourself, your daughter, your niece, your student, your granddaughter AND (or) your son, nephew, grandson, this is a fabulous book to encourage them to be their best and to never stop trying to excel.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $16.99 • 9781607749783 • 128 pages • published in July 2017 by Ten Speed Press • average Goodreads rating 4.19 out of 5 • read in July 2017

Rachel Ignotofsky’s Website

Women in Sports on Goodreads

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Women in Sports 2

 

Classics, Fiction, Mystery

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Just like A Study in ScarletMurder on the Orient Express was one of the Modern Readers’ Magical Mystery Tour books from last summer. Every since I saw The Mousetrap, one of Agatha Christie’s plays, and watched the Doctor Who episode that includes Agatha as part of the storyline, I’ve wanted to read one of her famed mysteries.

8 - July 2016 - Murder on the Orient Express

Synopsis

Just after midnight, a snowdrift stopped the Orient Express in its tracks. The luxurious train was surprising full for the time of the year. But by the morning there was one passenger fewer. A passenger lay dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside.

Review

For years I wondered why Agatha Christie had such an appeal, until my father-in-law gave my husband and I tickets to see the stage production The Mousetrap in Philadelphia one weekend. And I now know why she is the queen of mystery writing. Her plot and pacing are superb – it is easy enough to follow along, the writing in her books and the dialogue in the play made you feel like you were in the hotel/on the train with the inspector as they attempt to solve the mystery.

Christie reveals enough details and suspicious that the reader can attempt to solve the mystery themselves, but she also allows for enough wiggle room for you to eventually be surprised by the final twist without feeling completely blindsided. While I have not been a mystery reader for a terribly long time (this could probably be considered my first true mystery novel, save for a Patterson novel I read shortly after college), I have quickly come to appreciate the differences in storytelling required for a good mystery versus a good novel.

Suspense is key, but in moderation. If the crime is committed at the start, then there should be enough background build up for each character that it doesn’t feel procedural. If crimes are continuing to be committed, it should feel like at least one character’s life is still under threat.

After reading Murder on the Orient Express, I immediately went out and purchased more Agatha Christie books – they make for a delightful, quick, beach or summer read and I have enjoyed them immensely.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $13.99 • 9780062072495 • 265 pages • originally published in 1934, this edition published January 2011 by Harper Paperbacks • average Goodreads rating 4.15 out of 5 • read in June 2016

Murder on the Orient Express on Goodreads

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Murder on the Orient Express

 

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Photography/Art, Travel

My Holiday in North Korea by Wendy E. Simmons

In January 2016, I went with my boss to an ABA (American Booksellers Association) event called “Winter Institute.” It is the biggest gathering of independent booksellers and my boss reminded me that in addition to learning lots about the book world and being starstruck by all the authors present, I should bring a book back for each of my coworkers. My coworker Su is the most difficult person to pick out books for, so this is the one I brought back for her. She thought I was nuts, until she started to read it. And then she couldn’t shut up about it! On her recommendation, my book decided to read it last September.

10 - September 2016 - My Holiday in North Korea

Synopsis

Most people want out of North Korea. Wendy Simmons wanted in.

In My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth, Wendy shares a glimpse of North Korea as it’s never been seen before. Even though it’s the scariest place on earth, somehow Wendy forgot to check her sense of humor at the border.

But Wendy’s initial amusement and bewilderment soon turned to frustration and growing paranoia. Before long, she learned the essential conundrum of tourism in North Korea: travel is truly a love affair. But, just like love, it’s a two-way street. And North Korea deprives you of all this. They want you to fall in love with the singular vision of the country they’re willing to show you and nothing more.

Review

If you’ve ever wondered what life is really like in North Korea, this is not the book for you. If you’ve ever wondered why North Korea wants you to think life is really like there, then this is the book for you. Wendy Simmons is one of a very limited number of Americans granted access to a tour of the country, a fully planned, fully monitored, full devoid of any genuine moments, tour of the “empire.”

We’ve all heard stories about how the people are brainwashed into thinking that their country really is the greatest on Earth and far better than any other in the world, but few have witnessed the truth firsthand as Wendy has, the truth being, that they really do seem to believe it.

This review is so brief because words really cannot describe the incredulity I experienced while reading – simply to say that you should go read it. Read it now. Read it immediately.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $19.95 • 9780795347047 • 312 pages • published May 2016 by Rosettabooks • average Goodreads rating 3.7 out of 5 • read in September 2016

Wendy E. Simmons’ Website

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My Holiday in North Korea
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Biography, History, Non-Fiction

Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath

Back in October, when this beautiful tome arrived at the bookstore, my coworkers were debating where it should be shelved. I chimed in by saying they could hold off deciding for a few days, because it was coming home with me! Then again, pretty much any book that comes into the store screaming “female badassery” comes home with me before too long!

Synopsis

Get ready! It’s a long (but good!) one!

Let’s face it: the list of historical women we learn about in school is lacking. It’s safe, it’s censored, it’s short. And even when we learn about a true legend – say, Harriet Tubman – we get half the story (and it’s usually not the half about her as a plantation-torching Union spy-master). This is just the list of women we know about. What about the women we don’t?

In place of complex, real-life heroines, we get sparkly, doe-eyed animated damsels who dominate children’s minds everywhere. Rejected Princesses is here to provide an alternative to that.

In this fully illustrated, deeply researched, and totally entertaining collection, Jason Porath offers 100 women too uncompromising, too untoward, or too uncomfortable to fit the modern princess mold. Gathering together a diverse set of some famous, some infamous, some forgotten, and some virtually unknown figures from history and myth, from all over the globe, this book presents the female role models we never knew we needed. Yes, there are a few princesses, but there are also pirates, spies, journalists, activists, concubines, empresses, ninjas, pilots, samurais, mathematicians, sword-slingers, and warlords too.

These women were rebels and rulers, pioneers in their fields, and fighters for their causes (and sometimes for themselves). In a time when women are still pushing for equal pay and equal opportunity, shouldn’t we be putting brave women like Sybil Ludington, Hatshepsut, Nzinga Mbande, Josephine Baker, Khutulun, Rani Lakshmibai, Harriet Tubman, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Joan of Arc on equal footing with Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty?

Women have always played a key, kick-ass role in revolutionizing our world. The girls of today are the latest links in a long chain of geniuses, warriors, and fearless women. It is the birthright of every woman to have a connection to that history.

Review

Like I mentioned in my previous review of Wonder Women, I love books that are compendiums of stories about different women who have done awe-inspiring things. The biggest selling point of this particular book for me is two fold:

  1. The author worked on my favorite animated movie – How to Train Your Dragon and helped bring one of my favorite characters, Astrid, to life! (the cake topper for my wedding was even Astrid & Hiccup!)
  2. He included Alfhild, a Viking princess turned pirate and the real life inspiration for the novel I’m writing!

In Rejected Princesses, Porath includes women who are princesses and commoners alike, who hail from all over the world, from all walks of life, of all manner of life experiences. The illustrations of each “princess” are exquisitely designed to highlight their uniqueness and specialties. Porath also designed a rating system for all the women, but not the usual misogynistic rating of hotness, but of the type of life they led, more similar to a movie rating from G to R. In this manner, Porath has ensured that Rejected Princesses can be suitable to all ages and for younger children, parents can determine which stories to share with their children.

So many of the women included would make terrific role models, especially given their diverse backgrounds, for any young woman, or man, and I absolutely cannot wait for a second volume! Porath continues to add new women to the Rejected Princesses‘ website and I hope that he will include them together in a a book just like with this volume!

Rating: 10 out of 10

Edition: Hardcover • $26.99 • 9780062405371 • 384 pages • published October 2016 by Dey Street Books • average Goodreads rating 4.54 out of 5 • read in November 2016

Rejected Princesses Website

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Rejected Princesses

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Photography/Art

It’s What I Do by Lynsey Addario

Every year between Christmas and New Year’s, my now husband and I travel to Greenville, South Carolina to stay with his aunt, uncle and cousins for the holiday season. Given that my husband, Ben, and I met while working in a library, it is well known to his family that I love books and his aunt keeps me apprised of all the bookstore goings on in Greenville. This past year, they moved to a condo with in walking distance to my new favorite bookstore, M. Judson Booksellers. I walked there every day of our visit. On the first day, I noticed a beautiful, heavy hardcover sitting on their future page-to-screen display. As someone who gets a discount at my own indie bookstore, I spent the week debating whether or not I had to have It’s What I Do, or if I could wait until I got home. Turns out, I couldn’t wait.

Synopsis

(Get ready, it’s a long one!)

Lynsey Addario was just finding her way as a young photographer when September 11 changed the world. One of the few photojournalists with experience in Afghanistan, she gets the call to return and cover the American invasion. She makes a decision she would often find herself making – not to stay home, not to lead a quiet or predictable life, but to set out across the world, face the chaos of crisis, and make a name for herself.

Addario finds a way to travel with purpose. She photographs the Afghan people before and after the Taliban reign, the civilian casualties and misunderstood insurgents of the Iraq War, as well as the burned villages and countless dead in Darfur. She exposes a culture of violence against women in the Congo and tells the riveting story of her headline-making kidnapping by pro-Qaddafi forces in the Libyan civil war.

Addario takes bravery for granted but she is not fearless. She uses her fear and it creates empathy, that is essential to her work. We see this clearly on display as she interviews rape victims in the Congo, or photographs a fallen soldier with whom she had been embedded in Iraq, or documents the tragic lives of starving Somali children. Lynsey takes us there and we begin to understand how getting to the hard truth trumps fear.

As a woman photojournalist determined to be taken as seriously as her male peers, Addario fights her way into a boys’ club of a profession. Rather than choose between her personal life and career, Addario learns to strike a necessary balance. In the man who will become her husband, she finds at last a real love to complement her work, not take away from it, and as a new mother, she gains an all the more intensely personal understanding of the fragility of life.

Review

Whoa. Literally, just whoa. For someone who has lived a fairly sheltered life in Pennsylvania for my entire existence, it blows my mind how people can just pick up at a moment’s notice and not just go on an adventure, but go to a war-ravaged country that is most certainly on the state department’s travel advisory list. But time and time again, that’s what Lynsey does.

When I picked up It’s What I Do, I was on a biography/autobiography kick, having just finished Notorious RBG, and I was looking for some inspiration as I tried/am still trying to figure out what it is I want out of my life. And while I certainly want adventure, I don’t think I’m quite cut out for Lynsey’s level of adventure, but let me step back a bit.

In 2014, my sister moved to Washington D.C. right after her college graduation. When Ben and I went to visit her, we planned a little mini trip, which included a visit to an old favorite, the Library of Congress, and a new spot, the Newseum. While I never considered journalism as a career, I’ve followed Christiane Amanpour since she first was referenced on Gilmore Girls, I am a perpetual student of political science, and I am an obsessive news junkie. So needless to say, the decision to go to the Newseum was a no-brainer. While there, I learned about the numerous and life-threatening risks journalists take to bring the information they have gathered back to us. And when they travel to dangerous places, they are traveling as members of the press, but more importantly, not as soldiers or military personnel, but as civilians.

Lynsey Addario rarely hesitated when making the decision to go overseas to follow a breaking story/event. All I can say is that her story is simply amazing and I have been recommending It’s What I Do left, right and center at the bookstore. I’ve found every excuse and opportunity to display it, to share it, to talk about it – I even forced my mom into a copy and she doesn’t read anything but Baldacci and spy thrillers (though I sold it to her as a real-life spy thriller).  If you are in a reading slump, or just need some motivation to get up in the morning, It’s What I Do is the book for you.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $18.00 • 9780143128410 • 368 pages • originally published February 2015, this edition published November 2016 by Penguin Press • average Goodreads rating 4.31 out of 5 • read in January 2017

Lynsey Addario’s Website

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It's What I Do