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Staff Recommendations – August 2019

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INDEXES TO PAST STAFF RECOMMENDATIONS: BY TITLE | BY REVIEWER | TV SERIES/SPECIALS ON DVD | AGATHA CHRISTIE | STAR TREK | STAR WARS

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August 2019 Recommendations

The Witch Elm
by Tana French [French]

Fascinating but disturbing stand-alone novel from the author of the Dublin Murder Squad series (which starts with In the Woods (2006)).

Toby is a young man in Dublin on a promising career trajectory until he surprises two burglars in his flat one night, and they beat him nearly to death. Recovering from his injuries, including possible brain damage, Toby has become disconnected from who he was and uncertain what he is going to be. He moves back into a family ancestral home, to care for his quirky uncle Hugo, who, himself, has recently been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. Surrounded by the space that was once sacred to him in his childhood, Toby tries to reconnect with the two cousins who were once like siblings to him. When a skull is discovered (and later the full skeleton) in a cavity in a Witch Elm in the estate’s garden, the ensuing police investigation causes hidden things from Toby’s past to be dredged up, making him realize that — brain injury or not — he may not be the man he thinks he is.

This is a very dark novel, filled with complex characters and very emotionally-charged scenes. In many ways, it is the opposite side of the coin to French’s typical police procedural works — in that we get to see a complicated police investigation from the point of view of the main group of suspects, and the central one of those has an unreliable memory. This is definitely a stand-alone novel, so if you want to sample something from French without committing to following an entire series, it’s a good example of the quality of her character development and plotting. I’ll admit, it felt a little “padded”, but was still a compelling read.

[This title was the selected discussion title for the July 2019 meeting of the library-sponsored Just Desserts Mystery Fiction Discussion Group.] [If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try the rest of Irish author Tana French‘s body of works. ] [ official The Witch Elm page on the official Tana French web site ]

Read Pat L.’s review of Tana French’s In the Woods from Nov 2009
Read Donna G.’s review of Tana French’s The Likeness from Nov 2008

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Recommended by Scott C.
Bennett Martin Public Library


Lee Lawrie’s Prairie Deco
by Gregory Paul Harm [725.11 Har]

This is an absolutely marvelous updated edition of Harm’s look at the art and architectural details located throughout the Nebraska State Capitol Building in downtown Lincoln. This volume includes a plethora of both B&W and color photos, examining the history of the work of Lee Oskar Lawrie (1877-1963), whom the author describes as “America’s Machine-Age Michelangelo”. Lawrie applied his passion for Art Deco design, combined with Native American and pioneer settler cultural influences, to create the majority of the architectural details that fill the state’s Capitol building. Lawrie’s work also appears in many other places, from the Rockefeller Center in New York City, to the main downtown Los Angeles Public Library, but his best-known work, especially for those of us who’ve grown up in Nebraska, is associated with the building which at times has been identified as one of the “architectural wonders of the world”. The building itself was designed by Bertram Goodhue, but Lee Lawrie’s decorative flourishes are what give it the memorable personality it has expressed for the many decades it has been with us.

The layout of Lee Lawrie’s Prairie Deco, with its many, many color photographs, offset with colorful blocks of highlighted text, is very easy on the eyes. The main B&W blocks of text flow easily, and provide for an easy read.

If you have every toured the Nebraska State Capitol Building and marveled at the sculpture work, or inscriptions, I strongly encourage you to read this book. The quirky stories shared about the background of each and every piece of architectural artwork will surprise you!

[If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try Architectural Wonder of the World: Nebraska’s State Capitol Building (1965), by Elinor Brown, Building a Landmark: The Capitol of Nebraska (1981), by Charles F. Fowler, The Nebraska State Capitol: Restoring a Landmark (2013), by Robert C. Ripley, A Harmony of the Arts: The Nebraska State Capitol (1990), by Robert C. Luebke or The Architectural Sculpture of the State Capitol at Lincoln, NE (1926), by Charles Harris Whitaker.] [ official Nebraska State Capitol Building web site ]

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Recommended by Scott C.
Bennett Martin Public Library


The Calculating Stars
by Mary Robinette Kowal [Kowal]

The Calculating Stars is an alternate history where Earth’s need to make it into space is hastened by the meteorite strike that changes Earth’s atmosphere. Elsa York had been a member of the Women’s Air Service Project during the Second World War and is now a computer for the space program where her husband is an engineer. I loved the fact that the author combined real things like the WASPs and the computers but also argued for women in space sooner than we actually made it.

[If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Hidden Figures, by Margot Shetterly, The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, by Fannie Flagg or Flygirl, by Sherri Smith.] [ publisher’s official The Calculating Stars web page ] | [ official Mary Robinette Kowal web site ]

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Recommended by Susan S.
Eiseley Branch Library


Middlegame
by Seanan McGuire

Roger and Dodger are constructs and one has the power of language while the other numbers; they have been made by an alchemist who are trying to reset the universe and unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) things are not going according to plan. The story begins at the end and the reader has to catch up quick to figure out what is going on but once you do, what a ride!

[If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Book Store, by Robin Sloan, Lexicon, by Max Barry or The Magicians, by Lev Grossman] [ publisher’s official Middlegame web page ] | [ official Seanan McGuire web site ]

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Recommended by Susan S.
Eiseley Branch Library


Little Daughter: A Memoir of Survival in Burma and the West
by Zoya Phan [Biography Phan]

In Little Daughter: A Memoir of Survival in Burma and the West, Zoya Phan writes of her childhood growing up in the remote jungles of Burma, the daughter of a guerilla soldier and a freedom activist. The first time I tried to read the book I was frustrated by the writing style. It felt like she was going to tell a story, and then would get sidetracked into telling details about living in the jungles of Burma: how to find mushrooms or how his brother got his name. Once I took a step back and realized that those details were actually quite interesting, I started to enjoy the book more. I teach English to adults who belong to the Karen tribe from Burma and I picked up this book to learn more about their history and their lives before coming to Nebraska. My expectation that the book would be more political in nature was thwarting my ability to read and understand what Zoya Phan was telling me about her childhood. Once I started to make connections with a couple of other writers who I’ve enjoyed, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder who shared a lot about how things were done on the Prairie, and Kirkpatrick Hill, who in various books, including Bo at Ballard Creek, details of the life of a child growing up in an Alaskan mining town in Alaska at the turn of the century, I enjoyed learning the details of being a Karen child growing up in the jungles of Burma, and then her experiences as she became an adult and a spokesperson for the Karen people.

At first I found this book difficult to read; it seemed slow going and hard to follow. I felt like with every chapter, I would expect the story to be headed in one direction but then the writing would get bogged down in details that didn’t seem to move the story forward. I was committed to reading it though — this story is very important because of how unusual and how unlikely it is for this kind of first hand account to be shared with the world. For people who are caught in the middle of warring factions, experiencing discrimination and genocide, that are out of favor with the powers that be, the very act of telling their stories brings danger on them and their families. Meanwhile, people who have managed to leave these situations are usually caught in the struggle to survive in a new culture and learn a new language. Many times their experiences, since they don’t have the language skills to fluently share them, are lost in the difficulties of daily existence. Zoya Phan is an unusual character in that she has the language skills and the experience relatively concurrently. For that reason, if she wants to dwell a bit in her childhood memories, and share the full story of who she is, it is worth the extra effort it takes to understand and follow her story the way *she* wants to tell it.

[If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try Miss Burma, by Charmaine Craig, and In My Faraway Land, by Lue Mu.] [ publisher’s official Little Daughter web site ] | [ Wikipedia page for Zoya Phan ]

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Recommended by Carrie K.
Bennett Martin Public Library


Wilder Girls
by Rory Power [YA Power]

Rory Power’s first novel, Wilder Girls, arrived with a great deal of pre-publication hype from the teen fiction world. For me, it lived up to the hype and I was looking for excuses for more reading time!

Wilder Girls is set on a small island off the Northeast coast of the United States, almost two years into a quarantine. Students and the two remaining faculty members of the Raxter School for Girls are infected with something that’s changing their bodies in strange ways, when it isn’t killing them in periodic flare-ups. The forest outside of school grounds has grown dense. The animals have grown fierce. Thankfully, the Navy has promised a cure and drops supplies on a dock on the other side of the island.

Hetty, Byatt, and Reese are the main trio of girls this story follows. They’re roommates who are helping each other cope with the long wait for a cure, even if their relationships are strained at times. When one of them is selected for the only crew of girls allowed to leave school grounds to pick up supplies, they discover secrets more dangerous than the infection.

This queer, feminist eco-thriller is recommended especially for fans of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (beginning with Annihilation) and his standalone novel Borne.

[ official Wilder Girls page on the official Rory Power web site ]

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Recommended by Garren H.
Bennett Martin Public Library


It Looked Like Spilt Milk
by Charles Green Shaw [jP Shaw & others]

‘It Looked Like Spilt Milk’ is a classic picture book from 1947 which is part our new concept books collection “FUNdamentals.”

Why are we featuring a 70 year old book? In part because it’s so timeless that it could have been designed and published this year. All pages have a calming background color that’s slightly darker than navy blue. There is white text on the left pages in the form “Sometimes it looked like a Tree. But it wasn’t a Tree.” On the right page, a matching silhouette in white. At the end, it’s revealed that these are all cloud shapes. (What isn’t revealed is that Charles Green Shaw was well known in his lifetime as an American writer and abstract painter. I recommend doing an Internet image search just to see how familiar his pioneering work feels today.)

When I use this book in storytime, kids are quick to give other suggestions for what a shape might be. It also pairs nicely with a simple craft: Fold sheets of blue paper in half, then show kids how to sprinkle some drips of white paint around their page and fold it in half to make inkblot designs. After the first round of guesses, I like to turn their pages around so they see new shapes in their “clouds.”

We have quite a few copies of this book in different formats: hardcover picture book, softcover picture book, board book, and even one audiobook on CD meant to be used along with a paper version.

[If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try Not a Box, by Antoinette Portis, or Little Cloud, by Eric Carle.] [ publisher’s official It Looked Like Spilt Milk web page ] | [ Wikipedia page for Charles Green Shaw ]

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Recommended by Garren H.
Bennett Martin Public Library


My Brother’s Husband, Vol. 1.
by Gengoroh Tagame [741.5 Tag]

My Brother’s Husband, Vol. 1. is a Japanese graphic novel about a single father and his daughter — Yaichi and Kana — who take in a special guest. Mike is the Canadian whom Yaichi’s twin brother Ryoji married. Mike is visiting Japan after Ryoji’s death to see the places and meet the people Ryoji told him stories about.

As readers, we see things from Yaichi’s perspective as he struggles with his own prejudices against gay people and guilt over not fully accepting his brother. Kana is the voice of youth, excited to learn about her foreign uncle’s strange taste in food and show off her own country. Kana’s questions about homophobia stir her father into rethinking his own views farther.

This is a funny and touching manga volume about loss, more than one kind of “non-traditional” family arrangement, cultural exchange, and positive fatherhood. It’s billed as an “all ages” comic, but the use of a “WTF!” early on as well as the focus on internal consideration over action in some sections makes it most appropriate for either middle & high school readers OR for parents of kids around that age. It’s great for young people worried about coming out. I would even suggest it to people with a lot of anti-gay prejudice. I don’t see how anyone could get through this story without both laughing and crying along the way. I put Volume 2 on hold immediately!

[If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try The Tea Dragon Society, by Katie O’Neill, or The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang.] [ publisher’s official My Brother’s Husband Vol 1 web site ] | [ Wikipedia page for Gengoroh Tagame ]

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Recommended by Garren H.
Bennett Martin Public Library


Running With Scissors
by Weird Al Yankovic [Compact Disc 781.66 Yan]

In the 36 years since Weird Al Yankovic put out his first, self-titled, album in 1983, he’s released 14 full albums of original music, complete with dozens of parody versions of other popular artists’ works, polka medleys of contemporary hits, and many, many quirky and memorable completely original songs. Running With Scissors was his 10th album, released in 1999, but remains one of the best.

Weird Al albums are both timeless, and tied to particular times in pop-culture history — in many ways, they’re kind of a “time capsule”. Running With Scissors is no exception. The opening track, and one of his most popular of all-time, is “The Saga Begins”, which pairs the plot of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace with Don McLean’s “American Pie”. “The Weird Al Show Theme” (track 4) was from Al’s short-lived 1997 TV series (which was “recent” at the time of the album’s release. “Jerry Springer” is a fast-paced explosion of lyrics about Springer’s tawdry confrontational talk show, which began in 1991 and was at the height of its bizarre popularity in the late 1990s. “It’s All About the Pentiums” (a parody of Puff Daddy’s “It’s All About the Benjamins”) contains lots of technology references that seem quaint and ancient now. The “Polka Power” medley includes tidbits of 14 hits that were popular in the late 90s, but which current younger audiences may not “get”. Al’s fast-paced lyrics are at their best in “Pretty Fly for a Rabbi”, “Your Horoscope For Today”, “Grapefruit Diet” and the 11-minute track that ends the album, “Albuquerque”, which feels like a stream-of-consciousness experience.

Al’s music isn’t necessarily for everyone — I’ve got several friends who just don’t get his appeal — but if you like song parodies, fast-paced music, and sharp wit, I highly recommend his work. And Running With Scissors is an excellent example, with “The Saga Begins” being one of my all-time favorites of all his songs — I’m so happy he now uses it as the finale for his live shows, including his appearance at Pinewood Bowl on July 31st!

[If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try any other albums by Weird Al, including the many videos available for viewing on YouTube or his websiter, or Weird Al: The Book, by Nathan Rabin.] [ official Weird Al Yankovic web site ]

Read Kristen A.’s review of Weird Al Yankovic’s Mandatory Fun album from Mar 2015
Read Scott C.’s review of Nathan Rabin’s Weird Al: The Book from March 2013

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Recommended by Scott C.
Bennett Martin Public Library


Screening Room

formatdvdInstructions Not Included
[DVD Instructions]

Until a couple of weeks ago, I was not aware of Eugenio Derbez, a fixture in Mexican TV and movie culture. Now that I know of him, I wish I had discovered him sooner. He directed, co-produced and co-wrote this lovely little film. “No Se Aceptan Devoluciones” (No Returns, in its original Spanish) was released in 2013 to an eventual $100 million box office take. Derbez plays the main character, Valentin, whose father repeatedly tried to toughen him up as a young boy by various scary methods, which Valentin came to greatly resent but then ultimately value. As an adult, he is living a carefree life in Acapulco, hooking up with as many pretty young women as he can until one of them shows back up on his doorstep with an 18-month old baby that she says is his. On the premise that she needs to go pay the cab driver, the woman, Julie, takes off, leaving little Maggie in Valentin’s arms. When he realizes the situation he tries to follow her to Los Angeles but loses track of her. By chance, he gets into a situation where an LA movie director hires him to be a stuntman and this turns out to be a lucrative way to provide for his instant daughter, especially since he doesn’t speak English. A few years pass and Maggie and Valentin are not only a family but best buddies, on set and off. In order to quell her longing for a mother who abandoned her — divorce is the reason given — Valentin contrives letters from Julie to Maggie that tell about all kinds of exploits wherein she sometimes saves the world from disaster. Then, out of the blue, Julie reappears and wants to connect with the daughter she gave away. Maggie is thrilled but Valentin is understandably upset. It seems the two parents work out an arrangement but then a short time later Julie sues for full custody. With the odds stacked against him, Valentin speaks from his heart about his love for Maggie and the judge rules in his favor. Desperate, Julie requests a paternity test, and things become even more complicated.

All of the acting is fine and the chemistry between Derbez and Loreta Peralta, who plays 7-year-old Maggie, is wonderful. And props go to Daniel Raymont as the movie director/friend. This is a funny, engaging and thoughtful story about how something terrible can turn into something terrific. (This edition is in Spanish with English subtitles available in the sub-menu).

[If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try Three Men and a Baby (1987), The Game Plan (2007), Paper Moon (1973) or Overboard.] [ Internet Movie Database entry for this film ] | [ official Instructions Not Included Facebook page ]

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Recommended by Becky W.C.
Walt Branch Library


formatdvdLucy
[DVD Lucy]

Another fascinating and highly-stylized thriller from director/writer Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, The Professional or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and so many more).

Scarlett Johansson stars as Lucy, a scared young woman in Hong Kong whose “boyfriend” gets her involved, against her will, in a smuggling conspiracy. After a brutal meeting with a drug kingpin, she awakens to discover that while she was unconscious, she has had a pouch surgically inserted into her, which will be removed after she flies it to its final destination. Unfortunately for both her, and the men using her, a beating she receives causes the pouch, filled with an experimental new street drug, to leak, and her body begins to absorb the contents. Those contents allow her to begin to more fully access her brain’s full potential — beyond the typical 10% potential used by most humans. As she plots her revenge against the men who kidnapped and abused her, she realizes she needs help, and contacts Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), whose pioneering work on human brain potential may be able to help her cope with the massive changes she is going through.

As Lucy’s potential continues to grow, she becomes less and less human with each jump in consciousness, and develops unimaginable powers. Meanwhile, Professor Norman and his colleagues wish to help her, while also studying her, and various underworld forces wish to either capture or eliminate her. The stunt work and special effects work in Lucy are superb, and as Lucy’s humanity continues to decrease, the filter through which we view her vantage point on reality begins to feel surreal.

The performances are all excellent — Johansson, after initially being a terrified mouse, turns into a lethally cold and unemotional machine. Freeman is fun as the professor who is seeing his theories come to life before his eyes. Min-sik Choi as Mr. Jang, the main bad guy, is appropriately scary, and Amr Waked as a French cop that gets pulled into Lucy’s exploits is great as well. The production design and cinematography were all outstanding. My only complaint is that Lucy’s progression into something more-than-human seems unreasonably rapid and hard to believe. But — if you can bury your sense of disbelief and go with the story, Lucy is a fast-paced action thriller with scifi overtones and definitely worth watching!

[If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try any of Luc Besson’s other films, particularly The Fifth Element, The Professional or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets] [ Internet Movie Database entry for this film ] | [ official U.S. Lucy web site ]

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Recommended by Scott C.
Bennett Martin Public Library


formatdvdSearching
[DVD Searching]

This contemporary technological suspense drama came out in 2018, and stars John Cho (Sulu in the recent reboot Star Trek films, among many other credits) as David Kim, the father of a teenage daughter, Margot. Both of them are still hurting from the relatively recent loss of David’s wife (and Margot’s mother) to cancer.

David is somewhat tech-savvy, but he still finds himself in over his head when his daughter disappears under odd circumstances, leaving her laptop behind. With the help of a driven police officer (Will & Grace‘s Debra Messing), David goes on a deep dive into his daughter’s social media, in order to try to decipher where Margot might have gone or what might have happened to her. This film has lots of dramatic twists and turns, and its exploration of Margot’s recent digital footprint shows that David doesn’t know his daughter as well as he thought he did.

The performances by Cho and Messing are both excellent, as are those of Michelle La as the 15-year-old Margot, and Joseph Lee as David’s brother Peter. The filmmakers’ skill at creating a narrative patched together from social media and interactions with laptops and smartphones is fantastic. In the “extras” on this disc, the actors talk about the challenges of performing opposite blank screens and their concerns about giving realistic performances without other actors to play off of — they manage to pull it off very well is this taut thriller.

My only warning is as follows — this probably looked great on a movie-theater screen, and probably still looks good on larger TV screens. But because so much of the “action” comes in the form of text on computer screens and smartphones, watching this on an old under-30″ TV made it hard to make out a lot of the important graphics that form the story’s narrative. If you’ve got a larger TV to watch on, this probably won’t be a problem. But if you’ve got an older, small TV screen, you may have some difficulty with all the visual details.

[ Internet Movie Database entry for this film ] | [ official Searching Facebook page ]

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Recommended by Scott C.
Bennett Martin Public Library


formatdvdStar Trek Discovery – Season One
[DVD Star]

Star Trek: Discovery is the latest addition to the Star Trek universe. Discovery is set approximately 10 years prior to Star Trek: The Original Series, so familiar names and characters are sprinkled throughout this new series even as we meet new crew members, officers, and aliens of the USS Shenzhou, the USS Discovery, Star Fleet, and the worlds of Star Trek in general.

Sonequa Martin-Green stars as Commander Michael Burnham who is one of the major characters. She’ll be familiar to those who follow “The Good Wife” and “The Walking Dead” and she does a terrific job as a human girl who was raised on Vulcan by Sarek and his wife, Amanda, alongside her foster brother Spock.

Doug Jones portrays Commander Saru, a Kelpian from the planet Kaminar. His species is a prey-species and all Kelpians are aware of when death or danger is imminent. His fellow crew mates keep an eye on him during times of action and danger. Many people might know of Jones as the Creature in The Shape of Water and as Abe Sapien in the two Hellboy films starring Ron Perlman. He’s spent his career as a contortionist, portraying creatures while in full costume. He brings Saru to life even under all the prosthetics and is one of my favorite characters.

Jason Isaacs, as Capt Gabriel Lorca of the USS Discovery, is familiar to film-goers as Lucius Malfoy (Draco’s father) in the Harry Potter films. He brings an intensity to his mysterious character.

Michelle Yeoh is delicious as Philippa Georgiou of the USS Shenzhou. To tell you any more would spoil so many story lines. Yeoh demonstrates high level acting chops here.

We eventually meet Capt Christopher Pike of the USS Enterprise, and Spock (sorry, but that’s in season two) but to longtime Trek fans we are able to slip right back into the world of the Federation, Klingons, Vulcans, Andorians, Tellarites, and others. Even Tribbles and Harry Mudd show up.

Make no mistake though, this is not a big reunion of favorite characters just for the fun of it. The storylines are engrossing and exciting, yet keep to the timeline and canon. The special effects folks do the impossible job of giving us fresh ships and technology that allegedly pre-dates The Original Series yet recognizes that in our Real Time the effects can do so much more now.

The theme song is definitely Star Trek yet distinct enough to stand on its own for a different series.

Each episode tells its own story, but there’s an over-riding arc of another storyline throughout the entire 15 episodes of season one. The first two episodes were busy introducing you to the characters, so if you aren’t sure yet about this series, wait until the end of episode three before making up your mind. I’ve heard it said that you will either love this series or hate it. I love it, and am impressed with all that the writers, actors, and special effects crew have accomplished.

Be sure to watch all the bonus features of cast interviews, behind-the-scenes information, and deleted scenes.

Currently seasons one and two are available on CBS All Access – a subscription streaming service of CBS, with season three in the works for 2020. While the second season (2019) has ended, only season one is out on DVD at this time.

[Some novels based on Star Trek Discovery are also available in traditional print format or as digital ebooks.] [ Internet Movie Database entry for this series ] | [ official Star Trek Discovery web site ]

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Recommended by Charlotte M.
Bennett Martin Public Library


last updated August 2019
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