The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald (J Historical Fiction)

The Great Brain (Great Brain #1) 

John D. Fitzgerald (J Historical Fiction)

It’s 1896 and the territory of Utah officially became a state. But to the 2,500 residents in the town of Adenville, it was the year of The Great Brain’s reformation. Having The Great Brain as a brother has its ups and downs. Just ask his little brother J.D. It was nearly impossible to catch any sunlight while constantly in the shadow of such magnificence and brilliance. Expert eavesdropping, a perilous cave rescue, and the great whiskey raid were the works of one Tom Dennis Fitzgerald and his intellect was the stuff of legend. But, has The Great Brain finally changed his scheming ways? Why, that would be bigger news than the day Adenville got its very first water closet!

Published in 1967, The Great Brain is the first in an eight-book series and loosely based on author John D. Fitzgerald’s own childhood experiences. The story is narrated by the Fitzgerald’s youngest son John (J.D.) who is seven—going on eight. This is one of those books that I have equally strong feelings of delight and horror. With a publisher-recommended reading age of 8 and up, it is important to note that this is a 1967 book and times they did change (and boy, did they ever)!

Setting aside the starting reading age (which I would emphatically suggest bumping up to at least 12), this book deals with some heavy societal and political issues largely centering around ethnic prejudice and hatred. Fitzgerald details how Adenville’s first Greek immigrant family (their son in particular) was the object of brutal bullying and verbal assault. The author also goes into a multi-page diatribe regarding the treatment of Jews compared to other ethnicities within their community and how a “beloved” member of their town somehow slipped through the cracks with devastating consequences. This wasn’t just a matter of negligence or ignorance, it was apathy and this entire topic—and its importance and relevance—is sadly bound to go right over a young reader’s scope of understanding.

Also, Tom is really nothing more than an opportunistic schemer. Would a young reader delight in his antics and ability to always find a way to one-up his friends? It seems so since this book not only gave way to seven successors, but earned Fitzgerald The Young Reader’s Choice Award for children’s literature in both 1976 and 1978. Shows what I know. Tom’s ability to do good does benefit those around him who learn how to defend themselves and develop a sense of self-worth, but the fact that he always seeks an “angle” puts him one step above a sleezy snake oil salesman. The upside is that Tom truly does have his beneficiaries’ best interests in mind and eventually experiences a moral awakening, but we know it doesn’t last long and future books probably contain more of the same self-serving behavior.   

Perhaps THE most disturbing part of this book comes near the end when John is helping another boy end his life because he wants to prove himself to be a good pal. The various ways the boys plot and attempt to carry out this horrific act is beyond boyish hijinx and madcap mayhem. I can’t possibly think what was going on in the author’s head that he thought this would be appropriate material to print for a child of eight. I was a child of the 70s and I wouldn’t look at this entire passage as merely being slapstick fun (Oopsies! THAT didn’t work. Let’s try this!) I shudder to think just HOW much of this book falls into the “own childhood experience” category.

My overall impression is that this book didn’t age well and should be left for a much older and morally mature reader. And even though my brain is not-so-great, I know there are more appropriate books out there for young readers that teach the virtues of friendship, the value of community, the strength of family, and the satisfaction you get from doing good with the expectation of receiving absolutely nothing in return.

Rating: 3/5

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A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold (Juvenile Fiction)

A Boy Called Bat (Bat Trilogy #1) 

Elana K. Arnold (Juvenile Ficiton)

Bixby Alexander Tam, nicknamed Bat, has a long list of things he doesn’t like: unspoken rules, people rumpling his hair, eating leftovers, food smashed together, cheese that has to be sliced, loud sounds, and waiting. But one thing that Bat DOES like is the orphaned newborn skunk that his veterinarian mother brings home one day. Although it’s hard for Bat to connect with people, he forms an instant bond with the kit and silently promises the animal that he will figure out a way to keep him. With the help of his third-grade teacher, Bat forms a plan that’s sure to make the baby skunk a permanent member of the Tam family. Afterall, Bat made a promise and he never lies. Lying makes him feel itchy…another thing that Bat doesn’t like.

A Boy Called Bat is the first in a series of three books in the Bat Trilogy. Written with candor and warmth, Arnold gives young readers a story of a boy on the autism spectrum who struggles to regulate his emotions, understand non-verbal social cues, navigate unexpected circumstances, and just adjust to life in general. We wince as we watch Bat say things without thinking, misread body language, and overreact to situations that all end in awkward and painful outcomes. Arnold accurately captures the nuances that are associated with the autism spectrum such as dealing with the subtleties of sarcasm or taking idioms literally. Spoken language along with unspoken facial cues and body gestures are just everyday landmines that Bat has to constantly tiptoe around with one wrong step spelling disaster.

Although I am a sucker when it comes to brother-and-sister relationships that are all cuddles and kisses and unicorn wishes, I did appreciate Arnold portraying Bat’s sister Janie realistically. She often loses her temper with Bat, she knows exactly what buttons to push when she wants a reaction out of him (and she DOES push), and yes, she thinks he’s weird. But Janie’s human and you really can’t fault her for wanting a predictable trip out or just ONE boring dinner with no drama. Yes, she’s a stinker because she knows better than anyone else how many things are out of Bat’s control, but I think that’s why I like her so much. She’s every sibling out there who assumes the dual roles of defender and detractor and it’s rewarding and exhausting at the same time. For every Bat, there’s one or two Janies and they deserve attention, patience, and understanding as well.

I think my favorite part of the book was how Bat viewed his mom: “Then he followed Mom through the door that separated the waiting room from the back and watched as she took her white coat from its hook. She put it on, and then Mom was Dr. Tam. A veterinarian. Better than a superhero.” Valerie Tam wasn’t a superhero because she was able to make sick animals well. She was extraordinary because she championed and believed in a boy who thought himself to be less than perfect. Parents of neurodiverse children put on a cape every single day—not because they want to, but because they have to because they know exactly who they’re fighting for and what they’re fighting against and they won’t ever, ever give up. Take that, Superman.

Rating: 5/5

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Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams (YA Fiction)

Genesis Begins Again

Alicia D. Williams (YA Fiction)

Thirteen-year-old Genesis Anderson hates moving (her family is on number four), broken promises (too many to count), her father’s hateful words when he’s had too much to drink (too painful to count), her hair, and staying with her grandmother. She also hates the darkness of her skin, which she’s tried to lighten using a variety of household products. But mostly, Genesis hates the list that was started back in sixth grade by two classmates who listed one hundred things (the stupid girls only listed sixty) they hated about her. The joke’s on them because Genesis has been adding to that list on her own and will probably make it to 100 in no time. There’s a lot of things Genesis hates, but a new school with new friends and new opportunities finally show Genesis that there are a lot of things to like. With things finally beginning to look up, you can bet that it won’t be long before something comes along to mess it all up. Genesis hates that.

Very few young adult books have grabbed me the way Genesis Begins Again has. Williams’s opening paragraph leads us into a false sense of security that is quickly and horribly stripped away in a matter of paragraphs. Williams snuffs out our girl’s light in one raw and shameful event that immediately shows us the obstacles that Genesis faces, the character of the “friends” she has, and the girl that she ultimately is. Behind all that self-loathing is a strong, loyal, fierce, and intelligent girl who is wise beyond her years and determined to make her fractured world whole again…no matter the cost. She is instantly a character that we root for and we find ourselves either wanting to take her by the shoulders to remind her that she’s better than she thinks or wrap our arms around her to reassure her that everything will be alright.

It’s hard to believe that this is Williams’s debut novel. It received the Newbery Honor award in 2020, as well as the John Steptoe Award for New Talent. Her book began as an autobiography but was soon revised to better reflect the present rather than the past. The themes of bullying and colorism play predominantly throughout the story and often emanate from surprising and unexpected sources. The characters are wonderfully developed, the prose is engaging and allows us to fully immerse ourselves within Genesis’s world, the conflicts and outcomes are realistic, and there’s enough drama and tension to keep the story moving at a wonderful pace.

Highlighting the important and influential role that teachers have on our children, Genesis is highly influenced by her music teacher, Mrs. Hill. It is she who introduces Genesis to Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Etta James who showed her that there is beauty in brokenness and joy beyond the pain. Music healed Genesis…it freed her…and proved to be a lifeline to those around her who needed it the most. Billie Holiday once said, “If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.” All through the story, Genesis was always trying to be someone else: lighter, braver, smarter, hipper, or more popular. It was only after she discovered and began to sing her own song, that she was truly able to begin again.

Rating: 5/5

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Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of Room 11 by N. Griffin (J Mystery)

Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of Room 11

N. Griffin (J Mystery)

The third-grade class in Room 11 at Rebecca Lee Crumpler Elementary School was NOT having a good day. Between a vain, mean substitute teacher, a missing class hamster, and a nasty, sticky prank it was enough to make Principal Armstrong SIMPLY ILL. I mean, ILL IN BED WITH AN IV DRIP kind of ill! No. This was NOT how the students of Room 11 behaved. On top of that, when Smashie’s public dislike for Patches the hamster makes her the prime suspect in his disappearance (just because she thinks hamsters are just mice with chicken feet), it’s up to her and her best friend Dontel to solve the case or else Room 11 may never be the same again.

This is a great book that not only teaches critical thinking and deductive reasoning skills, it also illustrates the importance of giving someone the benefit of the doubt, how it’s possible to do something wrong but for the right reason, and how difficult it is to earn trust while it’s very easy to lose it. Lots of wonderful lessons with two central characters who balance each other nicely. While Smashie is reactive, impulsive, and emotional, Dontel is logical, thoughtful, and realistic. And while it causes some angst on Smashie’s part when Dontel doesn’t agree with her, he proves to her that disagreeing doesn’t mean disloyalty because it takes a real friend to point out your mistakes and a better friend to admit when it’s true.

Griffin gives readers a cute and age-appropriate story that really picks up steam near the end. The only problem I had was with a few of the references: …frog-marching the hapless Mr. Carper downtown, …Smashie beat a loud tattoo on its door, …he schooled his features, and (this one is a doozy) I was throwing the poor thing a bone said by a male teacher to a female teacher in an attempt to excuse his failed flattery attempts. Not to mention Dontel telling Smashie to slap my hand with your hand rather than just saying, “High five!” or “Gimme five!” and I was wondering if these references would be lost on Griffin’s audience. Still, this is a fun and entertaining read that shows if you’re strong and stand up for what you know is right, everything will work out in the end…even if you still think hamsters are just mice with chicken feet.

Rating: 4/5

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The Good Dog by Avi (J Fiction)

The Good Dog

Avi (J Fiction)

McKinley was a good dog who lived a good life. He was part of a caring family, loved by his human pup Jack, had lots of friends, and held the distinction of being head dog of the Steamboat pack. Yes, life for the malamute was very good until the day a she-wolf by the name of Lupin arrived. Her words of freedom and wild enticed McKinley as he began to feel the burden of taking care of both his pack and his pup. Lupin had him questioning his life as a bound dog…a slave to humans and their will. As McKinley begins to witness the cruelty that humans were capable of, would he submit to his wolf ancestry and join Lupin to live a life without rules and conditions? What would a good dog do?

Although this story was written in the third person, Avi delights readers with a story told from a dog’s perspective. He gives us street names like Most Cars Way, Pine Smell Way, and Elk Scat Way. Jack loves to look at his staring papers (a book) while his parents seem mesmerized by their glow box (TV) and during the day, all the pups go to their special house (school). Avi shows us McKinley constantly “marking” certain areas so that his pack will know his comings and goings, he goes through the ritual of when dogs meet each other, and even describes McKinley’s frustration while trying to convey a rather simple concept to Jack (humans can be SO thick at times).

Avi checks all the right boxes with The Good Dog: age appropriate, an engaging story, memorable characters, great moral lessons, plenty of action and suspense, a few detestable villains, a hero who questions his purpose, some surprising twists, and an ending that’s sure to please. This book shows readers the value of loyalty, honor, and courage and illustrates how bloodline doesn’t dictate who your family is or where your future lies. Countless times McKinley is always looking out for Jack or a member of his pack and although he reaps both the rewards and punishments of his actions, these selfless acts make it clear why he was chosen to be head dog.

Throughout the book, McKinley was a friend, a best friend, a companion, a nemesis, a hero, a champion, and a leader. At the end of the day though, McKinley was just a dog, but more than that, he was a good dog.

Rating: 5/5

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A Dog’s Way Home by Bobbie Pyron (J Fiction)

A Dog’s Way Home

Bobbie Pyron (J Fiction)

Eleven-year-old Abby Whistler and her Shetland sheepdog, Tam, are inseparable. Not only is Tam an agility champion, he is Abby’s world…and she is his. But an unexpected detour leads to a terrible accident that tears Tam from Abby. As the days turn into weeks and fall gives way to the harshness of winter, can Tam find his way from Virginia back to North Carolina where home and his girl is?

Pyron checks all the boxes with this book. A Dog’s Way Home is non-stop action and suspense with whole lot of heart. Short chapters and alternating points of views—between Abby and third-person POV for Tam—ensure that readers stay engaged and fully committed to these characters and their individual struggles as one fights to survive in the harsh wilderness while the other navigates foreign situations in a big city.

There are a couple of things that really made this an exceptional read for young readers. First is that Pyron chose NOT to write down to her audience by having Tam be the narrator of his own story. Having the scene described by an arbitrary third party lends a starkness and cold reality to Tam’s situation, which only heightens the drama and urgency of his predicament. Second is the cruel reality of Tam’s situation. He is an animal suddenly faced with either starvation or survival and as his natural instincts kick in, so does the necessity to eat, and in order to eat one must kill.

Anyone who has ever cared for a dog will feel their heart being twisted and squeezed within their chest as Tam battles everything from the weather to wild animals and ruthless humans. Side note: a lot of well-meaning men who are protecting their loved ones or just doing their jobs really get the short end of the stick in this book and ultimately come across as villains. I expect that by the end of this book, many young readers will despise just about every adult in this book…except Meemaw, Abby’s grandmother.

Part Lassie Come-Home and part The Incredible Journey, A Dog’s Way Home will engross readers from beginning to end with messages of hope, perseverance, acceptance, and love. Most of all, it will challenge readers to reassess what’s truly important since material trappings never hold their shimmer for very long. As Meemaw said to Abby, “Sometimes the thing you think is the most important isn’t that big a deal, once you have it.”    

Rating: 5/5

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Mallory Makes a Difference by Laurie Friedman (J Fiction)

Mallory Makes a Difference

Laurie Friedman (J Fiction)

Mallory McDonald, no relation to the restaurant, had a rotten Halloween. She had two places to be on Halloween and rather than choosing one, she tried to do both and quickly realized that instead of having it all, she ended up with nothing. That’s why Thanksgiving was going to be better…it had to be! Mallory decides that she would feel better if she could make others happy so with the help of her friend Joey, Mallory organizes a school-wide canned food drive to help the community food bank. Soon the entire student body at Fern Falls Elementary is on board…especially since the winning grade gets one homework-free week as a prize! But soon things start going wrong and as the thrill of competition overshadows the spirit of giving, can Mallory still make a difference when everyone around her seems to hate her?

Mallory Makes a Difference is the 28th and final book in the Mallory McDonald series, which ran from 2004-2017. In this last installment, author Laurie Friedman has Mallory facing a fracture in her relationship with Mary Ann where she discovers, as most girls her age do, that your friendships from childhood evolve and change. Even as our young heroine puts aside her own wants by doing something for others, she still craves approval from friends who don’t share her own views or desires. Readers are sure to empathize with Mallory as she navigates between doing the right thing while still wanting to please her peer group.

Friedman ends her series with a nice story that shows young people the benefits of giving back to your community and being a force for positive change. At the end of the book, Friedman provides readers with a 10-Step Guide to Planning a Great Community Service Project that anyone wanting to make a difference can use as a template. Through Mallory, readers are shown the value of planning and teamwork, as well as the rewards of getting different ideas and being open to new approaches. Something that all of us can appreciate and should take to heart.

All through the food drive, as Mallory watched the spirit of the event deteriorate as the prize became more important than the purpose, she kept reminding all involved (even herself) that helping other people was the true important thing. Maybe if more of us kept that in mind, we—like Mallory—could make a difference, too.

Rating: 4/5

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The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare (J Fiction)

The Sign of the Beaver  

Elizabeth George Speare (J Fiction)

“Dance,” Attean commanded. He seized Matt’s arm and pulled him into the moving line. The men near him cheered him on, laughing at Matt’s stumbling attempts. Once he caught his breath, Matt found it simple to follow the step. His confidence swelled as the rhythm throbbed through his body, loosening his tight muscles. He was suddenly filled with excitement and happiness. His own heels pounded against the hard ground. He was one of them.

It was the summer of 1769 when twelve-year-old Matt Hallowell’s father left him alone in Maine to protect the family’s cabin and corn field while he returned to Massachusetts to bring back his mother and two siblings. His father told him to make seven notches in a stick (a notch a day) and by the time that he was on the seventh, he’d be back and they’d once again be a family. Bad luck seemed to follow Matt soon after and when he found himself the target of some angry bees, a Penobscot chief and his grandson jumped in to save his life. Wanting his grandson to learn the language of the white man, the chief made a treaty with Matt: teach his grandson, Attean, to read in exchange for food. Eventually, the two boys formed an unlikely friendship and as more sticks began to pile up, Matt was faced with having to choose between joining the tribe and heading north or waiting for a family that may never come.  

A Newbery Honor Book recipient in 1984, The Sign of the Beaver is really a love letter to the Penobscot, an Indigenous people in North America and a federally recognized tribe in Maine. Speare gives her readers insights into tribal culture and customs and exposes their devotion and respect for nature, wildlife, and boundaries of the surrounding tribes. Time and again Matt questions Attean’s actions and every time his response centers on recognizing the value and worth of the land they walk, the animals they’ve killed, and  the life they’ve been given. By learning Attean’s ways, Matt begins to realize that he is just a very small part of a very big picture and as his confidence as a hunter grows, so does his world view and his new understanding of why the white man is so despised and mistrusted by these native peoples.

The Sign of the Beaver isn’t just a story about one boy’s resilience, bravery, and sense of duty, it’s also a lesson in how we should never take more than we are given, that we should appreciate differences and look for commonalities, and that empathy and kindness can do more for bridging a gap and forging a relationship than signed treaties and firm handshakes. This is a great story for young readers and a fascinating look into the Indian way of life. Although there are a few scenes of animal cruelty and suffering, Speare sticks to keeping this book authentic by not avoiding the uncomfortable thus making this book a valuable read. Although it has plenty of action and the characters are well developed, the story seems to lose a bit of steam near the end and tended to drag.

As a way of showing the chief his gratitude, Matt offered him his one prized possession—his beloved Robinson Crusoe. It was from this book that Matt read passages to Attean and where he discovered that Attean was just as passionate about storytelling as he was proving once again that a beautifully told story not only has the ability to draw us in, but it can also connect us as well.

Rating: 4/5

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The Gypsy Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (J Fiction)

The Gypsy Game

Zilpha Keatley Snyder (J Fiction)

Melanie didn’t know much about Gypsies, but if her best friend April could make Egypt into a fun and exciting game, she knew that The Gypsy Game was sure to be a hit as well…even though Marshall might be harder to convince. But soon after the Professor’s backyard began transforming into The Gypsy Camp, things began taking an unexpected turn. Between a found bear, a missing friend, hit men, detectives, and kidnappers, maybe a game about Gypsies wasn’t such a good idea after all.

Thirty years after her Newbery Honor-winning novel The Egypt Game was published, Zilpha Keatley Snyder brings April, Melanie, Marshall, Elizabeth, Toby, and Ken back into a new game filled with adventure, suspense, and danger. Don’t expect Snyder to waste her opening pages rehashing events from her last book. Instead, she picks up right where she left off and instantly plunges readers into the action (so if you’re a little fuzzy about the Casa Rosada, who Security is, or why parents don’t want their kids wandering around outside alone, be sure to re-read The Egypt Game first). It’s clear that time has not weakened the strong and unique bond that her main characters have formed with one another and although they may occasionally bicker and disagree, theirs is a camaraderie that might be stretched thin, but will never be broken.  

Unlike her first book which presented the reader with plenty of interesting facts about Egyptian history, culture, and traditions, The Gypsy Game gives us just the scantest peek into Gypsy life while unintentionally giving readers the impression that Gypsies can boiled down to nothing more than headscarves, jewelry, and bright clothing. It seems a grave disservice, but Snyder eventually does delve into the more gritty and dark aspects of Gypsy life when she exposes their persecutions throughout history. Although I would have liked for Snyder to dig a little deeper into Gypsy culture, her sequel has enough twists and intrigue to keep fans of her first book engaged and satisfied.

Like her first book, Snyder’s sequel reminds us of the downsides of judging a book by its cover and how much we stand to lose when we jump to false conclusions. Just as the Gypsies were outcasts, Toby himself meets three outcasts and discovers just how far a simple act of kindness and generosity can go. American financier Bernard Baruch put it best when he said, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” Although April, Melanie and the others didn’t realize it at the time, perhaps The Gypsy Game wasn’t about the clothes or the jewelry or the brightly painted caravan, but rather it was about watching out for your friends, staying true to your word, and offering a little bit of humanity and dignity to the most vulnerable around you.

Rating: 4/5

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My Louisiana Sky by Kimberly Willis Holt (J Fiction)

My Louisiana Sky

Kimberly Willis Holt (J Fiction)

Tiger Ann Parker was six when she realized that her momma wasn’t like other mothers—acting more like a younger sibling than a parent—and her father was no better, often described as “slow” by the men he worked with at the nursery. Tiger hated to admit it, but she felt embarrassed by her parents and often wished that her mother was more like her stylish and independent Aunt Dorie Kay. If she was, then maybe Tiger could make friends with the girls in her class. Maybe Tiger could finally fit in. Tiger’s wish may be coming true when she’s given the chance to leave her small town of Saitter and begin a new life in Baton Rouge. But is starting over really the answer that Tiger is looking for?

This is the second book by Kimberly Willis Holt that I’ve read, the first being When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, and Holt again delighted me with a cast of unforgettable characters and an immersive story. My Louisiana Sky is another period book, but this one takes place during the 1950s when the country was divided by segregation and people with developmental disorders were often institutionalized. Mirroring Zachary, Holt’s down-home and folksy writing is front and center and instantly draws the reader to her characters and pulls you into their quaint and intimate world. The story is told from twelve-year-old Tiger’s point of view and what really compelled me—apart from its strong themes of acceptance and family—was how the script was flipped a bit. Most books that deal with the subject of developmental disabilities for this age often afflicts either a sibling or a friend of the main character. For Holt to strip Tiger’s familial stability by having not one but both of her parents dealing with varying degrees of mental challenges gives the story an entirely unique perspective and instills an overall sense of aloneness for Tiger. Combine that with her having to deal with the common adolescent fare of self-esteem, body issues, and self-confidence and you can’t really fault Tiger for wanting to leave everything she knows and loves behind for a chance to simply be a twelve-year old girl for a while.

There are so many positive lessons to be learned from this book, but the reader who is fighting against circumstances beyond their control and struggling to be accepted by their peers is going to feel the deep connection to Tiger Ann Parker. Most of us can remember wanting to be part of a clique and recalling the sting when confronted with rejection. We feel Tiger’s anguish when she cries out, “It’s not fair. I didn’t do anything to them,” and appreciate the wisdom of Granny’s words when she tells Tiger, “Perhaps those girls don’t deserve your friendship.” It’s true when they say that it’s not what we have in life, but who we have in our life that matters. For Tiger, all she needed was a best friend who loved baseball, a father who had a talent for listening to the earth, and a mother who loved to dance in between the sheets drying on the clothesline under a bright, blue Louisiana sky.

Rating: 5/5

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