Fiction, Historical

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

A former co-worker first recommended Cinnamon and Gunpowder to me when I told her of my love of pirate tales. It then became a book that sat on my shelf for far too long until I decided it should be a book selection for my book club, the Modern Readers!

4 - March 2016 - Cinnamon & Gunpowder

Synopsis

The year is 1819, and the renowned chef Owen Wedgwood has been kidnapped by a beautiful yet ruthless pirate. He will be spared, Mad Hannah Mabbot tells him, as long as he can conjure an exquisite meal every Sunday from the ship’s meager supplies. While Wedgwood attempts to satisfy his captor with feats such as tea-smoked eel and pineapple-banana cider, he realizes that Mabbot herself is under siege. Hunted by a deadly privateer and plagued by a saboteur, she pushes her crew past exhaustion in her search for the notorious Brass Fox. But there is a method to Mabbot’s madness, and as the Flying Rose races across the ocean, Wedgwood learns to rely on the bizarre crew members he once feared: a formidable giant who loves to knit; a pair of stoic martial arts masters, sworn to defend their captain; and the ship’s deaf cabin boy, who becomes the son he never had.

Review

Cinnamon and Gunpowder is an incredibly fun book that is not particularly funny. Narrator Owen “Wedge” Wedgwood is press-ganged into “Mad” Hannah Mabbot’s rag tag crew of pirates with the express purpose of cooking a fine meal for pirate captain Mabbot every Sunday from whatever happens to be available in the middle of the open ocean as she continues on her journey to hunt down the elusive Brass Fox, who has been plaguing the shipping lanes in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Told from the staunchly anti-pirate Wedge’s perspective through makeshift journal entries on whatever scraps of paper he can find, Cinnamon and Gunpowder focuses on his relationships with the crew, the Fox, a mute cabin boy, and the captain herself. Despite constant escape attempts, Wedge’s opinion of his fellow shipmates changes, practically against his will, and he gradually finds himself enjoying the company of his compatriots on board.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder was not the book I thought it would be and, for once, it was a very pleasant surprise instead of a disappointment. Eli Brown’s storytelling is superb and his cast of characters are richly developed and thoroughly intriguing.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9781250050182 • originally published June 2013, this edition published June 2014 by Picador USA • average Goodreads rating 3.9 out of 5 • read March 2016

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Cinnamon and Gunpowder

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Over the past few years I have read my fair share of novels set during World War II including my absolute favorite Montmaray Journals, the splendid Salt to the Sea, and the “pull-on-your-heartstrings” Letters to the Lost. So when Sarah told me that if I read Code Name Verity it would break my heart like no other book I was not going to read it. But I reconsidered, and armed with the knowledge of what would happen to each of the two main characters, I dove into the story and fell in love with all of it.

Synopsis

Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?

Review

Let me just say I’m a little shocked that this book is stocked in the YA section of bookstores. I’m not sure I would have been able to handle reading this when I was in high school. The book is split into two distinct parts – the first is from “Verity’s” perspective, the second, from her best friend Maddie. “Verity” has been captured by the Gestapo after parachuting into Nazi-occupied France and looking the wrong way before crossing the street. She has been given the opportunity to write down her story and extend her life for as long as it takes to satisfy her Nazi jailers with the information she supplies. However, “Verity” chooses to tell them the story of Maddie, her best friend, and the pilot of the plane from which she parachuted.

“Verity” explains how the young women met, trained together, and became best friends. But as she tells that story, she also details the events and torture that transpire while she is held prisoner. It is a powerful tale, and while fictional, is likely to be the truth for somebody. The second part is Maddie’s story and what she has lived through during the time that “Verity” has been held prisoner. After crash-landing her plane, Maddie spends the next few months trying to escape from France and get back to England. However, when she learns of “Verity’s” fate, she decides her foremost goal is to help her friend. Both women face deadly obstacles, and the heart-breaking, nail-biting conclusion will leave you in a puddle of tears.

Code Name Verity is one of the best books I have ever read. I loved the characters and I experienced just about every emotion possible while reading this book. Personally, I preferred “Verity’s” part of the story more than Maddie’s, but it was all worth reading.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9781423152880 • 368 pages • first published May 2012, this edition published May 2013 by Disney-Hyperion • average Goodreads rating 4.08 out of 5 • read in June 2016

Elizabeth Wein’s Website

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Non-Fiction, Poetry

Adultolescence by Gabbie Hanna

When this book first showed up at the bookstore on Monday, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. After my less than stellar experience in reading modern poetry last week with Milk and Honey, I didn’t think I would really want to try again. But after all the teenage girls started asking for it on and after its release date Tuesday, I figured I better see if we were going to have another Milk and Honey type of situation on our hands at the store.

Synopsis

In poems ranging from the singsong rhythms of children’s verses to a sophisticated confessional style, Gabbie explores what it means to feel like a kid and an adult all at once, revealing her own longings, obsessions, and insecurities along the way. Adultolescence announces the arrival of a brilliant new voice with a magical ability to connect through alienation, cut to the profound with internet slang, and detonate wickedly funny jokes between moments of existential dread. You’ll turn to the last page because you get her, and you’ll return to the first page because she gets you.

Review

I’m not a big poetry person, but I am a millennial, and the publisher marketing synopsis’ last line is absolutely true. I could launch into a whole big long thing about being a millennial, what that means to me vs. the rest of the world, and how Adultolescence is a perfect example of the millennial mindset, etc. etc. But that would be ranting, and annoying, and I don’t want to be either today.

So let’s start out with why I actually started reading this book – yes, the teenagers at the store did have a little something to do with why I read it so quickly after it’s release date, but I bought it on Monday, before it was technically available to said teenagers for many reasons. There is, though, one that truly sticks out: Gabbie and I both went to Pitt, The University of Pittsburgh, Hail to Pitt! So not only do we have the shared experiences of being part of the same generation, we have four years worth of memories and, I’m sure if ever meet and have a chance to chat, we would be able to go on and on about Oakland (the Pittsburgh neighborhood, not the CA one), the Cathedral of Learning, the Penn State rivalry, the uniqueness of Pittsburgh weather, how awesome it was to be done for the school year before May even started, though we’d probably disagree on sports – I’ll take the Eagles over the Steelers any day.

To say I connected with Gabbie and her poetry is an understatement. I have anxieties, panic attacks, and I have no idea what I want to do with my life, no really. While I love my bookstore job and I one day want to go back into teaching and I’m happily married, I still don’t know what I want my life to look like in five years, ten years, twenty years (other than I would like to be employed and still happily married). My brain is filled with the same doubts and insecurities as Gabbie’s and, while I don’t presently make videos of my life (though I’d like to try at some point), I do have this book blog, so I guess that counts as another similarity.

Adultolescence is the perfect book for anyone who needs to know that they are not alone in the world – their doubts and fears are felt by many others as well. It is the perfect book for my generation – a week into owning it and it already looks well worn and loved because I keep going back to my already favorite poems because I’ve needed a pick me up or some cheering up during the week.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars (I’m still getting used to poetry)

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9781501178320 • 256 pages • published September 2017 by Atria Books • average Goodreads rating 4.32 out of 5 • read in September 2017

Gabbie Hanna’s YouTube Channel

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Adultolescence

Non-Fiction, Poetry

Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

I received Milk and Honey as a wedding present over a year ago. Last night I decided I might as well pick it up and see what all the fuss is about. 

Synopsis

this is the journey of
surviving through poetry
this is the blood sweat and tears
of twenty-one years
this is my heart
in your hands
this is
the hurting
the loving
the breaking
the healing

Review

So… I still don’t think I fully understand the obsession. This book has spent over a year as a bestseller at the bookstore, first on the New York Times list, then on the Indie list. Milk and Honey was originally self-published and I will readily admit I am skeptical of anyone who is self-published. Milk and Honey was then picked up by a major publisher, Simon & Schuster, who published the edition that is readily available on the shelves of most bookstores. It’s popularity is even to the point that when people come into the store looking for our poetry section, we immediately ask if they actually want the whole section, or if they’re looking for Milk and Honey.

This is not a book about feminism. This is a book about femininity. There is a HUGE difference between these two terms and one that I think is frequently lost when people start describing this book to each other. One of the few reasons I finally decided to read it after looking at it on the shelf for over a year, was that I had been told yesterday that it was a book that celebrated feminism. While recanting her own experiences with hurt (abuse), love, and heartbreak, Kaur encourages women to love themselves. When, in the last chapter, she attempts to turn to feminism, I take great issue with many of the poems in that chapter, one in particular:

our backs
tell stories
no books have
the spine to
carry

women of color

I’ll let that one sink in for a minute. Rupi Kaur spends pages of poems before that encouraging women to support each other. She looks out for her sisters, her fellow women. And then she includes that poem. Until I read the last line, it was my favorite in the entire book – it was the one that I finally felt I could connect with. Throughout Milk and Honey, Kaur uses that last line (beginning with a hyphen) to indicate the audience of a specific poem, or to guide your thinking towards a particular phrase or point in the poem. And I realized, this particular poem was not for me. I felt like I could not claim to identify with it because I’m a white middle class suburban blonde haired blue eyed young woman.

And then I realized, that yes, this poem must be overwhelmingly true for women of color, particularly in the US and Canada – I cannot begin to understand the differences in their experiences of life here and my own. But I think the power of poetry is for all people, all of Kaur’s “sisters” to find themselves in her words and I believe her last line here is exclusionary. These words rang particularly true of my grandmother, an immigrant from Germany post WWII. These words fit so many immigrants, women who identify as part of the LGBTQI community, victims of abuse, the list can go on and on.

But what it boils down to, is that Rupi Kaur’s poetry made me feel something. It may not have been the feelings she intended – I was angry most of the time I was reading – but the point of poetry is to elicit a feeling, so on that part, well done.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.99 • 9781449474256 • 208 pages • published October 2015 by Andrews McMeel Publishing • average Goodreads rating 4.26 out of 5 • read in September 2017

Rupi Kaur’s Website

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Milk and Honey

Contemporary, Fiction

Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

One random day in January 2016, shortly before I was due to head to Denver for a bookseller’s conference, a book arrived at the bookstore for me – a copy of Be Frank with Me. Needless to say I was incredibly intrigued and discovered that I was due to have dinner with the author while in Denver and the publisher sent me the finished copy to read beforehand!

Synopsis

Reclusive literary legend M. M. “Mimi” Banning has been holed up in her Bel Air mansion for years. But after falling prey to a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme, she’s flat broke. Now Mimi must write a new book for the first time in decades, and to ensure the timely delivery of her manuscript, her New York publisher sends an assistant to monitor her progress. The prickly Mimi reluctantly complies – with a few stipulations: No Ivy Leaguers or English majors. Must drive, cook, tidy. Computer whiz. Good with kids. Quiet, discreet, sane.

When Alice Whitley arrives at the Banning mansion, she’s put to work right away – as a full-time companion to Frank, the writer’s eccentric nine-year-old, a boy with the wit of Noel Coward, a wardrobe of a 1930s movie star, and very little in common with his fellow fourth graders.

As she gets to know Frank, Alice becomes consumed with finding out who his father is, how his gorgeous “piano teacher and itinerant male role model” Xander fits into the Banning family equation – and whether Mimi will ever finish that book.

Review

Admittedly, I was very hesitant to start reading Frank as I had the dreaded “required-reading-and-exams” flashback each time I looked at it, so I didn’t actually start reading it until I was sitting on the plane to Denver. Instantly, though, I found myself drawn into Alice’s experience as a publishing assistant trying to keep Mimi on track to finish her second novel (sort of like Harper Lee and Go Set a Watchman) and her efforts to keep an eye on Frank.

Alice is a twenty-something know-it-all, just like me, and, like me and most other childless twenty-somethings, thinks she knows a hell of a lot more about parenting than she really does. While she is not outwardly critical of Mimi’s decisions regarding Frank’s upbringing, as the story is told in first person and exclusively from Alice’s point of view, readers are acutely aware of how she really feels, not only about Mimi as a single mother, but also about Frank, whom she comes to love as if he were her own.

While Alice is the narrator, the story is not really hers to tell – it is Frank and Mimi’s. Like the reader, Alice is an interloper, a stranger, being forcibly inserted into a very delicate, sensitive, unfamiliar and precariously perched family unit, and she must learn to accept that role, and later embrace it if they are all to survive their summer of forced cohabitation. Alice and Frank’s relationship is the heart of Be Frank with Me, but Frank’s relationship with his mother and the world around him is really the soul of the story. Frank is, by far, one of my favorite children in literature and I would love to see more of him if Julia Claiborne Johnson plans to continue his story.

The only part of the story that fell flat is the role of Xander, who serves as Frank’s sole male role model, and he’s not a very good one by the standards of keeping promises, holding a job, and general maturity (despite being well into middle age), but he loves Frank, and for Frank, that really is sufficient. His relationship with Alice feels contrived and their romance is superfluous and unnecessary when viewed next to the strength of each of their relationships with Frank.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.99 • 9780062413727 • 320 pages • first published February 2016, this edition published September 2016 by William Morrow and Company • average Goodreads rating 3.9 out of 5 • read in February 2016

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Be Frank with Me (2)

Graphic Novel, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

FUTURE RELEASE DATE: October 3, 2017 (released in the UK in 2013)

It is an interesting story how I stumbled upon Lighter Than My Shadow. About a month and a half ago I was in New York City for BookExpo, and as a member of the ABA (the American Booksellers Association) I had been granted special access to a room full of galleys/ARCs (advanced reader copies) of books. In my attempt to be very judicious with my selections (I had to carry everything back from Manhattan to Brooklyn), I was avoiding particularly weighty books, such as Lighter Than My Shadow. But there was just something about it, something that drew me and told me that I had to pick up Katie’s book and read it. 

Synopsis

Like most kids, Katie was a picky eater. She’s sit at the table in silent protest, hide uneaten toast in her bedroom, and listen to parental threats she’d have to eat it for breakfast.

But in any life a set of circumstances can collide, and normal behavior can soon shade into something sinister, something deadly.

Lighter Than My Shadow is a hand-drawn story of struggle and recovery, a trip into the black heart of a taboo illness, an exposure of those who are so weak they prey on the weak, and an inspiration to anybody who believes in the human power to endure towards happiness.

Review

I was extremely lucky when I was nineteen years old to have a grandfather who helped me figure out that my relationship with food and exercise (too little of the former, too much of the latter) was unhealthy. At a time that could reasonably be called the worst point of my life – I had taken a leave of absence from college, my dog and stepfather were both dying from cancer, and I couldn’t figure out how to have a positive attitude – I turned to controlling my food and exercise regime to help me cope.

I’m also extremely lucky that I picked up Lighter Than My Shadow and was able to personally thank Katie for writing it when I was in New York. It has taken me a month and a half to finish her exceptional work of art and writing because every single page hits so close to home. Every single emotion is captured perfectly. The quote from Joss Whedon (yep, creator of Buffy, director of The Avengers, Joss Whedon) sums it up pretty succinctly – “It’s universal yet specific and those together make such strong medicine. Wow.”

It also goes to show how little we are willing to talk about eating disorders when I can share my experience with strangers on the internet, but when one of my own friends starts to show the warning signs, I attempt to help her in every way I can, save the most important – I’m too scared to tell her that I’ve been in the exact same position that she is in. I struggle to tell her that I too was not eating and overexercising. It wasn’t until after I started reading Lighter Than My Shadow, it wasn’t until she’d been struggling for almost 2 full years that I could finally bring myself to share that truth with her – that she wasn’t the only one in our friend group to have experienced the despair that accompanies such a loss of control.

Because while a great number of people use their eating disorder as a way to feel in control in a uncontrollable world, exercising that control over yourself also makes you feel out of control, even if you’re not willing to admit it to yourself. Katie perfectly captures that feeling through her illustrations and text. If you, or someone you love and care about, is struggling and you’re not sure what you can do to help yourself or them, take a look at Lighter Than My Shadow.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $19.99 • 9781941302415 • 516 pages • published October 2017 by Lion Forge • average Goodreads rating 4.45 out of 5 • read in July 2017

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Lighter Than My Shadow

Biography, Non-Fiction

Notorious RBG by Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik

A year and a half ago, shortly after I started working at an indie bookstore, I started a book club, The Modern Readers. It was not only a way to read new and interesting things, but also a way to meet new people and make new friends who have similar interests as myself. The Modern Readers have read everything from horror to chick lit, military history to science books, and there have been books I’ve loved, and books I’ve loathed, but I’m glad I read them. Notorious RBG is one of my favorite Modern Readers’ picks.

(Each month I create a sign for the store for the book club and the one for Notorious RBG below is by far my favorite!)

14 - January 2017 - Notorious RBG

Synopsis

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg never asked for fame – she was just trying to make the world a little better and a little freer. But along the way, the feminist pioneer’s searing dissents and steely strength have inspired millions. Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, created by the young lawyer who began the Internet sensation and an award-winning journalist, takes you behind the myth for an intimate irreverent look at the justice’s life and work. As America struggles with the unfinished business of gender equality and civil rights, Ginsburg stays fierce. And if you don’t know, now you know.

Review

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of my heroes. While I’ve always had an ear for politics (when your mother works in public education, you learn about politics young), but it wasn’t until I took AP Government back my senior year of high school that I finally started to think about politics for myself and make up my own mind about how I would react to certain political events instead of parroting my mother’s opinions.

When we studied particular court cases, I always looked for opinions written by either Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Sandra Day O’Connor, and I used to compare the two of them for fun. My political education continued at the University of Pittsburgh – the full title of my major was: Early American History and the Foundations of American Government with a special focus in American legal history and it’s foundations in British common law. Yep, I’m a dork. For awhile I thought about becoming a lawyer, until I realized I didn’t like political philosophy… but I digress – back to RBG!

A few years ago, Shana Knizhnik created the now famous Notorious RBG meme and it took off like a shot, particularly as RBG’s opinions and dissents were starting to be discussed more by the American public, not just the news and law lovers like myself. She is an icon – not only for lawyers, but for women everywhere. Her fight to be taken seriously throughout all stages of her career, especially as a young mother, was difficult to say the least. Her husband supported her and never limited her opportunities to be the best in her field. Just as RBG owed a great deal to Sandra Day O’Connor breaking the gender barrier on the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor would not be in the positions they are today as her benchmates if RBG had fought as hard as she did.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a remarkable woman and her the story of her life is one that I will share with every child I know, if for no other reason than to fully drive home the point that they can be absolutely anything that they want to be, so long as they work hard at it!

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $22.99 • 9780062415837 • 227 pages • published October 2015 by Dey Street Books • average Goodreads rating 4.22 out of 5 • read in January 2017

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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