Ross Poldark by Winston Graham: A decent read, but it’s not for me.

Ross PoldarkRoss Poldark

by Winston Graham
Series: The Poldark Saga, #1


Paperback, 379 pg.
Sourcebooks Landmark, 2015 (originally published 1945)

Read: December 27 – 28, 2018

Ross Poldark, the scandalous son of a minor land-owner, comes back from serving the Crown in the War for American Independence to find his father dead, his estate in disrepair, and the woman who he’d hoped to wed engaged to someone else (a formerly close friend, actually). Understandably, he’s about to throw in the towel on life, but instead he starts putting things together.

He bullies his fathers’ (and now his) servants into getting to work restoring the house and lands, and hires some new help and even rescues a poor little girl being picked on by some nearby children and brings her into his house as a kitchen maid. He has to fight and then pay off her abusive father for the privilege, but does so. He takes care of his tenants, and is soon seen as half-one of them half-landowner. He starts a new mine with some other people in the area, doing a lot to help the local economy.

There’s some legal drama, a touch of medial as well, a malicious criminal presence, too — but it’s hard to take any of these seriously, and they are all dispatched quickly. In fact, that’s pretty much par for the course for everything — a problem arises and is resolved soon. There’s no real book-length plot to this novel — there’s no central or driving conflict. You might be able to make the case that it’s a story of Ross finding contentment and/or happiness after the way his homeland welcomes him. But I’m not sure I can buy that.

There is just so much wrong with the love story involving Ross that I’m not going to touch it. I get that it’s a different time, different standards, and everything, but he’d be locked up today for what happens — and rightly so. Frankly, all of the romances are a bit . . . off. Nothing that Austen would touch, for sure. One of the Brontë sisters might have, though.

This book feels like someone was convinced the only proper kind of book for a British person to write is one that Austen, a Brontë, or Dickens could have written — so he combined the three influences into one. But Graham isn’t one of those. He’s a passable writer of limited imagination. Every so often he’ll write a passage — a small paragraph to a page or so in length — that strikes me like he’s realized he hasn’t done anything “writerly” for a bit and dashes something off that fits the bill. Then he gets back to his usual story telling for 5-10 pages until he repeats the process. This isn’t to suggest he’s a bad writer, it’s just usually decent prose with odd splashes of flair.

It’s hard to describe any of the characters except in reference to Ross — and would end up spoiling a lot of the book to do so. I found them all relatively two-dimensional and without a lot of growth or development. What change there is in most of them is hard to believe, or at least happens off-screen and without explanation. The maid that Ross brings in is the easiest to see grow and develop, and we almost get a real sense of who she is — but I’m not sure I can say that.

Ross Poldark isn’t a bad book — but there’s nothing about it that grabbed me. I did grow to be a bit interested in two of the characters, and was pleased to see things go well for them. I’m not driven to pursue things to the next book much less eleven more, however. I can see the appeal — I think — that this book and/or this saga would have for some, but it’s not for me. But for people who like semi-romantic historical epics, you’d be well served by trying this. I probably sound more negative than I really am — I’m more indifferent than anything else.

—–

3 Stars
2018 Library Love Challenge

✔ Read a book recommended by one of your parents (in-laws count).

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The Crescent and the Cross by Kurt Scheffler: An Uneven But Ultimately Satisfying Historical Fiction

The Crescent and the CrossThe Crescent and the Cross

by Kurt Scheffler


ebook
2014

Read: December 20 – 24, 2018


I normally reserve disclaimers for the end of a post — but I’m going to start this post with one. I’ve met Kurt Scheffler, he seems like a good guy. He has taught every one of my children, is currently teaching two of them, and will be teaching one for the next three years. He’s beloved in my house and the impact that he’s had on my kids is almost incalculable. Also, one of my kids bought this for me — not in a “hey, here’s an easy way to get brownie points” kind of move; but a “I know someone who wrote a book, my dad likes books, I should combine those things” kind of way. So basically, I’m trying to say that I have every reason to airbrush what I’m about to say, but I’m going to try to not do that. Also, no parent wants to see one of their kid’s teachers use the word “whoring” that much.

This is the story of The Battle of Tours (in 732) and events leading up to it, told through the lives of people close to Charles Martel and Charles on the one hand and a couple of the leaders of the Muslim forces involved in the Arab invasion of France. Specifically, that’s Charles, his longtime friend, his sons, his mistress, and some children who are adopted by a close associate and are practically part of his household; and then the son of the Caliph and Abderrahman.

It’s your typical historical fiction, blending historical events and fictionalized events into one narrative. I really liked some of the characters a lot, and the ones I had no patience for were the one’s the book doesn’t want you to enjoy. I’m not convinced that I didn’t like them for the same reasons I wasn’t supposed to like them — it wasn’t their less-than-savory characteristics, but their portrayal. But still, that’s better than many novels are able to pull off.

I’m not going to try to summarize the plot more thoroughly than that, or talk about any of the particular characters — this post would quickly become too long to bother with. The story takes awhile to coalesce — it almost feels like the novel couldn’t decide what it was going to be about for the first half — it started trying to be X, then it became Y, then Z and quickly A, B, and finally settling on being C (I might have exaggerated a bit there, the book might have settled on B). That’s how it felt, I should say. In retrospect, I don’t think that was the case, it was simply taking it’s time (arguably too much) setting the stage and establishing the characters before launching into the major story.

That said, I found myself enjoying each version of the story the novel gave us along the way, and when it seemed to shift into a different story, I was disappointed to leave X, Y or Z — at least until I got into the new version. Scheffler can tell a story, that’s clear. He’s skilled at sucking you in and feeling what he wants you to.

I do have a few quibbles with the book — I’ll only talk about a few. My notes are full of question marks when we got a historical particular, I just wasn’t sure if he got the timing on some things correct. There’s a lot of anachronisms — for example, Pascal’s wager a few centuries early (sure, someone could’ve said it before Pascal — but it seemed a bit off); some statements about equality that sounded like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s rough drafts; and people holding opinions/values that I just can’t accept given the time (mostly benign things, I should add, like a noblewoman baking as a hobby). The villains might as well be wearing black hats and twirling mustaches, while the “heroic” characters are subtly drawn and live in the gray — I just wish the villains got the same treatment. Practically every character is very aware of the historical significance of the struggle they’re part of — particularly when it comes to the ultimate (and impending) battle between Charles Martel’s and Abderrahman’s armies. I don’t doubt that sometimes individuals understand how vital a role they play in the grand scheme of things, but this seemed a bit overkill (or this is a case of one of the greatest conglomerations of narcissists ever).

There’s redemption, personal reformation, romance, action against a sweeping historical backdrop — there’s something for almost everyone here. Could this book have been better? Yes. Given the themes, the scope, the characters, the setting — there’s a lot more that Scheffler could’ve done here. Also, it would’ve been very easy to make this incredibly dull and/or hack-y. Scheffler avoided that — and I’m very happy about that. In the end, we’re left with something in the middle — an entertaining work with a few problems. You’ll keep turning the pages to see what he does with the characters, but you’ll wonder a little about the background and details. At worst (or best?) this’ll spur you to further reading on the history of the period after reading Scheffler’s fictional take. Really can’t complain about that, right? I’m glad I read it.

—–

3 Stars

✔ Read a book you received as a gift.

The Everlasting Story of Nory by Nicholson Baker: A Look at Life through the Eyes of a 9-year-old Girl

The Everlasting Story of NoryThe Everlasting Story of Nory

by Nicholson Baker

Hardcover, 226 pg.
Random House, 1998

Read: December 17 – 18, 2018

Sometimes the problem with telling someone about a book was that the description you could make of it could just as easily be a description of a boring book. There’s no proof that you can give the person that it’s a really good book, unless they read it. But how are you going to convince them that they should read it unless they have a glint of what’s so great about it by reading a little of it?

When I read these musings of a little nine-year-old girl, all I could think was, “Welcome to my world, kid.” Seriously, what book blogger hasn’t had that thought at least once a week? If this hadn’t been set in the mid-90’s, Baker might have been tempted to have his protagonist take to blogspot to talk about her favorite books (which I absolutely would have read).

Nory, her parents and her two-year old brother have moved to England from Palo Alto, CA, where she attended a Chinese Montessori School. She’s now attending a Roman Catholic school with grades and a structured curriculum. Which isn’t an easy transition for her (as you’d expect). As she’s an “Americayan” with a strange accent and difficulty understanding British phrases, she’s on the outside of her school’s social structure.

This is rough for her, but I think it’d be rougher for other kids. Nory has an incredibly vivid imagination and tells herself stories (some of which she writes down, some she enacts with dolls and toys, some of which she just says to anyone who might be around). They are intricate, inventive, and as entertaining as the parts of the book that are about Nory (arguably more so). When times are tough, when she’s bored, when she needs to entertain her brother, when she has trouble sleeping — these stories are there for her. The reader gets to go along for the ride with her — which is a nice bonus.

When she’s not making up stories (or opining on the construction of them), she’s struggling through school and through the mine field that is making friends, and searching for a best friend. There’s a girl who frequently seems to like Nory, but would appreciate it if Nory would change a few things. There’s another girl who is bullied, teased, and generally disparaged by the rest of her class. Nory very unsuccessfully tries to defend her, but mostly just tries to be friendly to her.

And that’s the bulk of the book — there’s some “slice of life” stuff with her family, some parts where Nory remembers Palo Alto and the Chinese Montessori school — that kind of thing. But mostly it’s the tale of a few months of a 9 year-old looking for a friend, trying to stay out of trouble in a school she doesn’t understand and playing with her dolls.

Nory is a girl of opinions — some of them very strong. She has very definite ideas about storytelling, and what’s necessary to a successful story or book. Ironically, this book fails Nory’s own tests due to its lack of plot, and relatively small stakes. That’s probably an intended irony, and Baker’s really saying that people like me that want plots like Nory insists on have child-like tastes. I don’t know that to be the case, but I’d be willing to put money on it.

It’s told in third-person, but the narration is very stream of consciousness, very nine-year-old stream of consciousness — bouncing all over the place with a short attention span, and nine-year old misunderstandings of life around her. It’s delightful to read, and only a little annoying when you pause to reflect on what’s happening (or better, what’s not happening). In the moment, it’s just fun to surround yourself with Nory’s thoughts.

I won’t say this is a must-read, but if you give it a shot, I can’t help but think you’ll be rewarded. It’s perfectly safe for anyone Nory’s age or older to read, but I can’t imagine many people Nory’s age will appreciate it (but I could be wrong). It’s better appreciated by those of us who can remember some of what it’s like to be her age. I liked it, am glad I tried it and I expect you will be, too.

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3 Stars

Mr. Pizza by J. F. Pandolfi: A Winsome Tale of a Rookie Teacher

(WordPress is doing that thing again where it messes up the html in my post header. I think I’ve fixed it, but if the beginning of the post looks ugly, sorry, I’m doing my best)

Mr. Pizza
Mr. Pizza

by J. F. Pandolfi


ePUB, 298 pg.
L&A Publications, 2018

Read: December 4 – 5, 2018

On the verge of graduating from college, Tony Piza (long “I”, and yes, he’s heard all the jokes), decides he’s not ready to head to law school and would like to take a year off. Inspired by a suggestion from his roommate, he applies to teach at a Roman Catholic school near his home. He figures that it’ll be pretty easy — spout some facts and figures from the text-book, assign some homework, do a little grading, catch up on his reading. All while living rent-free with his parents and sister. Despite never having taken an education class, nor showing any previous interest in education, and some iffy interview questions, he’s hired.

Early on, he performs his duties just as he planned — and it’s as successful as you imagine. But before long, he starts to see his students as individuals, not some faceless mass. It’s just a few steps from there to caring about their education and trying to do something about it. Tony also makes some friends with fellow teachers — two other lay teachers (including the other male staff member), and one nun. They start to rub off on him — and even inspire him.

But that doesn’t mean he turns into Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr or George Feeny, he’s more like a version of Gabe Kotter or Charlie Moore. Unconventional, off-kilter, and comical — yet challenging. Both his lectures and his assignments bring out the strengths and weaknesses his students (and their parents) were unaware they possessed. They also get Tony in trouble with parents, school administrators and school board members.

Essentially, the novel is a bildungsroman, watching Tony’s development from someone who sees teaching as a vacation from his real life to someone truly invested in it. I don’t want to say that it’s a smooth transition or that he flips the switch and becomes the World’s Greatest 6th Grade Teacher ™. That would make for a very dull novel.

Pandolfi writes in a very smooth, assured style. There’s not a lot of artistic flourishes — that’s not a critique, just an observation. It is charming, frequently amusing, and pretty earnest. I was a little afraid after reading the description that this would be a satire that tried too hard, one of those books where you can see the writer trying to be funny (which almost never works) — but I’m pleased to say that it wasn’t. Tony seemed to try too hard, but not Pandolfi — a character doing that is annoying, but it’s a character trait; a writer doing that is frequently a a deal breaker.

Tony’s antics and judgement are a mixed bag, as I mentioned. Early on, some of his jokes/behavior didn’t seem like fun, they seemed capricious and even mean — but so did M*A*S*H‘s Hawkeye and Duke Forrest (the book and movie versions, anyway). From the get-go the 1973 setting and sensibility put me in that frame of mind, so that’s where my mind went. And sure, part of the book is to show his growth from that, but it’s pretty off-putting. Similarly, I had trouble swallowing how tone-deaf he was when it came to jokes about Roman Catholics (even after being warned), yet he was reflexively sensitive to other people/problems (frequently in a way that seemed at least somewhat anachronistic).

Ultimately, I was able to get past that — and it’s possible that without me putting something about that in my notes, I’d have forgotten to mention it. Because of his growth, by that last third or so of the book, you see almost no signs of this (except when his past comes back to haunt him). So, I guess I’m saying, if you’re put off by some of his early behavior, give him a chance.

His sister, Patty, has Down’s Syndrome. I really appreciated the way that Pandolfi treated her. She’s simply a character — there’s no After-School Special moment with her, she’s not an object of pity — she’s simply Tony’s little sister. There are funny moments with her, some sweet moments with her — just like there are with Tony’s mother and father.

Tony’s students, fittingly, come close to stealing the novel from Tony. As is the case with the Bad News Bears, the Sweathogs, Fillmore High’s IHP class, etc., you have to want to see the kids do well to care about their teacher. They’re a diverse group, each having some distinctive characteristics and/or problems. They come to believe in their “Mr. Pizza” long before the staff, or even Tony — and stay his biggest supporters through the ups and downs that ensue. If you don’t like at least most of the students, there’s something wrong with you and you should seek professional help. Or just re-read the book, because you probably missed something.

The rest of the cast of characters are well-drawn and believable. There are a few that I’m glad we didn’t get much time with (Tony’s extended family, for example). His friends, fellow teachers and principal are strong characters, a couple of them are better developed. But that’s simply due to time spent with them. Pandolfi has a gift for good characters, which is half the battle in a novel.

Mr. Pizza is a charming tale of a young man maturing at a turning point in his life. There’s some good laughs, some uncomfortable moments, and some earnest emotional beats. The book is a pleasure to read and it — and it’s protagonist — will win you over and get you rooting for them both.

Disclaimer: I received this book from RABT Book Tours in exchange for this post and my participation in the book tour.

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3.5 Stars

✔ Read a book with your favorite food in the title.

RABT Book Tours & PR

BOOK SPOTLIGHT & GIVEAWAY: Mr. Pizza by J. F. Pandolfi

I’m very happy to host a Book Tour stop for J. F. Pandolfi’s Mr. Pizza (and not just because it satisfies a category for the 2018 While You Were Reading Challenge). Be sure to click the link below for the Rafflecopter giveaway — but do read the book/author info, too –and then come back later this morning for my thoughts about the book.

 photo Mr Pizza cover 10-9-18_zpslvuumrse.jpg

Mainstream Fiction
Date Published: August 3, 2018
Publisher: L&A Publications
 
 photo add-to-goodreads-button_zpsc7b3c634.png
Most people make at least one really harebrained decision in their life. Just ask Tony Piza. Deciding he needs a “paid vacation” for a year after college, Tony lands a job teaching at a Catholic elementary school. Talk about the Moby Dick of miscalculations. His pathetic effort is making him look bad, crimping his love life, and leaving him feeling guilty. A new approach, fueled by his irreverent humor, makes him a hit with his students. But it riles the powers that be. A showdown seems inevitable. Whether he can survive it—well, that’s something else.
About the Author

 photo Joe author photo - close cropped 8-13-18_zpsscfrcfkf.jpg

J. F. Pandolfi went to Fordham University as an undergrad, then taught at a Catholic elementary school before attending Fordham Law School.

Practicing law certainly had its moments, but to call it “utter euphoria”—well, that was a stretch. Plus, the voices that had taken up residency in his head (rent-free, the deadbeats) kept insisting that he share his writing with the world. An award for his flash fiction piece, “Psychology for Dummies”, convinced him that the voices might be on to something. And so he called upon his fond memories as a teacher, which served as a backdrop to his debut novel, “Mr. Pizza”.

J. F. also briefly believed he had won the New York City Marathon. Alas, it turned out to be a dream, apparently brought on by an acute case of restless leg syndrome.

A staunch supporter of the fight to eradicate adult illiteracy, J. F. was accorded a Special Recognition in Literacy Award for his efforts.

Contact Links

Purchase Link

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The Summer Holidays Survival Guide by Jon Rance: Heart-warming and Funny Bone-Tickling

The Summer Holidays Survival GuideThe Summer Holidays Survival Guide

by Jon Rance

Kindle Edition, 262 pg.
2018

Read: November 14 – 15, 2018

‘Oh, Dad, how little you know,’ said Liv, her head returning to her phone.

How little I know. I have a feeling this one cold, hard sentence, uttered from my twelve-year-old daughter’s lips, might sum up my life.

Ben Robinson is an art teacher, in his mid-40s, and is trying to figure out how he’ll survive the upcoming summer holidays — 6 weeks with his three kids, and a marriage who’s spark is gone out (possibly for good). Oh yeah, and an aging father with dementia moving in with them, rather than a nursing home. Meanwhile, he’s trying to prepare for a half-marathon, which is about a whole marathon more than he’s ready for.

We get a day by day (or close to it) account of how this goes for Ben. The short version is: not very well. Particularly in the beginning. Ben meddles in his fifteen year old son’s love life (with some really bad sex tips — all of which I’m considering passing on to my kids), cannot understand his twelve-year-old daughter’s social media life (and nascent pubescence), and derails his eight year old son’s summer plans without trying. Things go downhill from there, really.

His dad is having trouble remembering that he doesn’t live in the same home, or that his wife has been dead for a few years — this is a source of strain for both Ben and his father — and the relationship becomes strained. Ben is having trouble seeing his father this way, and his father is having trouble being this way. Both are trying their best, but this

Speaking of a strained relationship, the number of things wrong with his marriage keeps growing, and every thing that Ben tries to do to fix it just makes things worse. He and his wife aren’t communicating well — one of those problems that keeps feeding itself and growing worse.

Throw in an accidental participation in an anti-Brexit demonstration, a road rage incident leading to social media notoriety for one member of the family, teen romance problems, summer-altering injuries, and well — clearly, someone needs to write a survival guide.

As Ben and his family try to get through their struggles intact — and maybe even better than that — there’s plenty of fodder for humor. There’s a lot of heartwarming material, some real laughs and more than a few chuckles. There’s some really effective writing and characterization.

However, there’s also Rance’s need to go for the big laugh. And here, he basically turns Ben into Basil Fawlty — with all the wild schemes, failing schemes, shouting, misunderstandings and slapstick involved. I don’t think any of these scenes or moments worked for me. When he’s going for subtle laughs, or those that grow from character, I really enjoyed it. When the subject matter is serious (or at least non-comedic), Rance is really strong. It’s when he’s obviously trying that he falters.

‘Marriage,’ said Dad. ‘There’s always ups and downs. You just keep riding it, son. It’s like a rollercoaster. You can’t get off, so you just hold on, and do your best to enjoy it.’

‘I’m holding on for dear life, but life is harder than it was, Dad. The world has changed. The rollercoasters are bigger and scarier now. The drops are bigger, the hills higher.’

‘Oh tosh. The world might change, but people don’t. Love is still love, clear and simple. Don’t blame the world for your problems, son. Hold on tighter. Love stronger.’

That’s one of the more earnest moments — and there are plenty of them in the latter part of the novel, all set up well in the early part — and it shows the heart of the book — and there’s plenty of heart. Rance won me over, and got me to put more of his books on my list because of these kind of moments, and the genuine laughs I got from the smaller moments, I’ve got more of his stuff on the TBR.

It’s a nice, pleasant book that’ll tickle your funny bone and warm your heart.

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3 Stars

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: A Charming, Dark, and (somehow) Fun Serial Killer Tale

My Sister, the Serial KillerMy Sister, the Serial Killer

by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Hardcover, 223 pg.
Doubleday Books, 2018

Read: November 23, 2018

Ayoola summons me with these words — Korede, I killed him.

I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

That’s one of the best pair of opening sentences I can recall. How do you not get hooked right there? You get so much in those two sentences, you know that Ayoola has killed multiple times, at least three (otherwise, Korede would’ve said something like “What, again?”); the fact that she says “him,” instead of “someone” or a name suggests that Korede will know who she’s talking about without explanation; and you hear a put upon sibling fed up with their sister’s antics.

And yeah, that’s the book in essence — Ayoola has killed her third boyfriend (in self-defense, she swears . . . again), and calls on her big sister to come help clean up. Korede’s a clean freak — she’s not quite OCD, but close. When life gets stressful, she cleans, and with her little sister, she’s got plenty of stress in her life.

Korede is beginning to think that Ayoola might not just be the innocent girl who has been able narrowly escape assault. Three kills, she’s read online, qualifies you to be a serial killer. And what’s worse — the doctor that Korede has unrequited feelings for has caught her sister’s eye, too (and vice versa) — and that can’t be good for him. I had about a dozen ideas how this was going to end — and I was wrong on every point. Which is good, because Braithwaite’s ideas were far better than mine would’ve been. She zagged when most would’ve zigged and nailed the resolution to this book.

This is enough to make an entertaining and suspense filled book. But then you throw in the characters that Braithwaite has created and things take on a different twist.

Korede’s a nurse — a demanding, dedicated, compassionate one. Ayoola is a vapid knockout who knows that it doesn’t matter what she knows, does, or thinks — she’s convinced that all she has to do is continue to look good and make men feel good about themselves and she’s set. This seems shallow, but neither Ayoola or Korede can prove that she’s wrong.

The dynamic of the long-suffering, responsible, plain(er) sibling doing the right thing and looking out for the spontaneous, outgoing, super attractive one isn’t new. Adding a mother who takes the responsible one for granted and dotes on the other, doesn’t change things, either. But somehow, Braithwaite is able to depict these three in a way that seems wholly familiar (so you can make assumptions about a lot of the relationship) and yet it feels so fresh she might have invented the archetypes.

If Jennifer Weiner lived in and wrote about Lagos, Nigeria and included murders in a tale of sibling rivalry and learning to accept yourself — you’d get something a lot like this book. There’s an intangible, ineffable quality to Braithwaite’s writing that I cannot capture better than that — but it’s better than my illustration sounds. The story goes to some really dark places, and there’s really no reason to find the characters or story so charming — but that’s all down to Braithwaite’s fantastic authorial voice. Yes, it’s about murder, the importance of family, self-sacrifice and what’s more important in this life — skill, intelligence and dedication, or beauty and sex appeal; but you might as well be reading about Bridget Jones counting cigarettes and worrying about Daniel Cleaver and Mark Darcy.

One other thing — this is just a wonderfully designed book. The size — smaller than your typical hardcover — is distinctive, the typeface used in chapter headings and page numbers are peculiar enough to stand out. The whole thing just feels like a different kind of book. Does this make an impact on your enjoyment of the novel? Probably not, but I appreciated the experience and look.

I can’t think of enough ways to praise Braithwaite — there’s an intangible quality to this book that just won me over pretty much on page one. You will not believe that this is her first novel — and you will hope it’s not her last. The sibling rivalry story was well-told and engaging, the hospital stories were enough to be the core of a very different novel by themselves, the serial killer story was unpredictable. The characters are the kind that you’ll remember for a long time. Stop reading me and go find a copy of this book.

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4 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge