Book Review: THE LIST by Siobhan Vivian

The premise of The List by Siobhan Vivian is promising, the execution less so.

Each year the week before Homecoming at Mount Washington High School a list of the prettiest and ugliest girls is circulated, forever altering the lives of those singled out. Nobody knows who creates The List, which has been circulated for as long as anyone can remember.

As always The List contains eight names, the prettiest and ugliest girl in the freshman, sophomore, junior and senior class. The strength of the book is the depiction of the angst and pressure of being in high school. Among topics explored is an eating disorder by one of the students, body image and peer pressure by others.

The structure of the book is its major weakness. All eight girls on the list tell tales from their point of view. It gets more than a little confusing and I had to continually go back several chapters to figure out just whose story was being revisited. Some of the girl’s stories were flushed out fully while others were incomplete.

The lack of diversity was also disappointing. There is not one black of Hispanic face in the crowd and the one Asian male is a secondary character.  It’s also hard to fathom that there are no gay students at Mount Washington. The book is set in the present so this is a gross oversight. There are a lot of missed opportunities due to the lily white cast of characters.

My biggest qualm, however, has to do with The List itself. One gets the sense at the outset that The List is a collaborative effort, possibly by a group of current or former students. Without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t read the book we do find out who made The List by the book’s conclusion. And, it’s more than a little bit of a letdown. Worse, it’s farfetched. No single individual or group has generated The List. Someone (or some different group) compiles the list each year and it’s never the same individual (or group). That none of those who compiled the list has ever come forward to decry the practice after they’ve graduated, become adults or even parents is ludicrous. Is it possible generations of students at Mount Washington could be that shallow? After seeing how destructive The List proves for both the prettiest and ugliest girls at the school there is no way someone who created The List years earlier wouldn’t feel enough remorse to anonymously come forward to end the practice. The List has been in existence for so long that there are parents who had to have been involved in the creation of The List who now have children of their own at the school; children who appear on The List and have to live with its impact on their lives.

While exposing high school as the hell it is for many students The List has far too many flaws to overlook.

2 stars out of 5

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John King Fumbles Away Impartiality

On May 24 presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney stirred the pot when speaking about improving education in American public schools. His most controversial statement was that smaller class size has no impact on improvement in schools. He cited one study to back his position. He went on to say “More important was recruiting the best teachers and ensuring administrators have the correct priorities in leading schools.”

CNN, on their website, commenting on the story said that contrary to Romney’s claim most studies show there is a correlation between smaller class size and greater achievement of pupils in schools. Having taught 30-years I can attest that overcrowded classrooms don’t benefit students no matter how good the teacher. I taught at Philadelphia inner-city schools my entire teaching career. I had 33 students per class (I taught 5th and 6th grade). There were a few years I had as many as 35 students in my class. It’s not possible to give 33 students the same individual attention as it would have been to give, say, 25 students the attention they required. So, I would most definitely quarrel with Romney on his stance.

It’s also quite obvious that, regardless of how many students there is per class, the “best” teachers Romney refers to would do far better than mediocre or poor teachers. But, that would be the same whether a mediocre teacher had 33 or 25 students in a class. The problem here is one of burnout. Even the best teachers wilt under the pressure of large class size.

Just as significant is how John King, on his CNN show, handled the story. After reporting Romney’s comments King interviewed controversial former Washington DC chancellor Michelle Rhee to discuss Romney’s claim. Rhee is known for her position that class size has little or nothing to do with achievement. With King she went as far to say that technology will change education as we know it. Students will be given a lesson while at home on their computer or similar device. When they come to school teachers will help them practice what they’ve learned. She’s advocating that “master” teachers provide the lessons via technology and other (with large class sizes – far larger than exist today) less qualified teachers provide the practice for what has been learned.

Now, Rhee is entitled to her opinion. But King muffed the punt (he’s big into sport’s analogies) by not having a second educator on the show to rebut Rhee’s position. King’s show is known for its fierce debates between those advocating both sides of an argument. Discussions often get heated. But, with Romney’s controversial claim King saw fit to jettison impartiality and only present Rhee’s views, which mirror Romney’s. A bad call on King’s part. We’ve come to expect impartiality from CNN but it was absent here. If one didn’t know what network they were tuning into they might think they were watching FOX news, where impartiality is not a part of their vocabulary. It was King’s responsibility to provide balanced reporting. On this story he fumbled the ball.

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Skip Bayless: Sports Bully

It galls me to no end when sports columnists or pompous television analysts use derogatory nicknames to degrade athletes. I noticed this at least fifteen years ago with New York Post columnist Peter Vecsey. He’d toss around sarcastic and demeaning nicknames in every column. Over the past five or so years Vecsey has either mellowed or come to the realization you can criticize (even condemn) an athlete’s performance without using venomous nicknames.

ESPN’s Skip Bayless (on the program First Take), on the other hand, seems to relish the childish nicknames he tosses around daily. A brief sampling: There is “Bosh Spice” (basketball player Cris Bosh) given the nickname for playing soft; “Prince James” (Lebron James) for lacking what Bayless calls the “clutch gene” at the end of basketball games; “Tony Romeo” (Dallas Cowboy’s quarterback Tony Romo) for dating Jessica Simpson and other celebrities; and “Mark Sanchize” (Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez) for underachieving.

Bayless was finally taken to task for his name-calling by former basketball player and now analyst Jalen Rose on the April 11th airing of First Take. Bayless was called a bully by Rose and he didn’t like it one bit. And, Bayless wasn’t about to back down (he referred to himself during the exchange with Rose as “a fighter”). I’d have to wonder how he’d feel if another analyst referred to his beloved Tim Tebow as “Pastor Tim” or “Reverend Tim” because Tebow wears his Evangelistic Christianity on his sleeve. My bet is he’d take offense. More than that, he’d go berserk.

Bayless says athletes are fair game because of the money they make. What a sick rationalization. Bayless denigrates the person, not the performance or the player. He crosses the line with his vicious nicknames. He disrespects athletes as human beings – all points Jalen Rose eloquently made when putting Bayless in his place.

Why is this reprehensible? Because Bayless is acting like a bully, just as tweens in middle school and teens in high school label fellow students with nicknames to mock them. What kind of example is Bayless setting for teens who watch First Take and hear him tossing around derogatory nicknames with a smirk on his face? They’ll emulate him and bullying in schools will increase. Bayless is the worst kind of role model for young adults. And, lest Bayless forget in recent years bullying has led to a number of suicides. Bayless should be setting an example for our youth, not suggesting that bullying is acceptable.

There’s nothing wrong with Bayless giving his opinion about the shortcomings of athletes. The best analysts and columnists do it all the time . . . with class. But Bayless crosses the line when he disrespects his targets with childish putdowns. As another analyst, Bill Plaschke (Around the Horn and the L.A. Times) would say, Bayless should be ashamed of himself.

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YA Isn’t Just For Kids

Recently Joel Stein, who writes for Time Magazine, wrote a scathing article chastising adults who read YA books, saying such books were for kids. “The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading The Hunger Games or a Twilight book.”

Using Horton Hatches the Egg as an example (but by inference lumping in all YA books) his rationale was that a YA book “doesn’t have the depth of language and character as literature written for people who have stopped physically growing.”

And finally he yells to the heavens, “I’ll read The Hunger Games when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.”

He admits he has no idea what The Hunger Games is about because he hasn’t and won’t read the book. That’s like saying you won’t eat peanut butter without ever having tasted it.

YA books are not solely for kids. Hell, Stein never even defines “kids” for us. One has to assume since he attacks The Hunger Games and Twilight that he’s not referring only to elementary or middle school readers. Young Adult literature is just what the term implies: those in their teens and even their early twenties.

Adults (even those who can no longer remember their teen years) can most certainly enjoy The Hunger Games. It has all the elements Stein wants in an “adult” book: depth of language and well-crafted characters. The Hunger Games also deals with adult themes (an oppressive autocratic government which can imprison, even kill its citizens without due process) that adults of any age can appreciate.

Stein assumes the books written for adults he will read before he touches a YA book are all well-written. We all know that’s a crock. Many books written for adults are quite simply a waste of paper. Many are poorly written. Just as many incorporate poor characterization. In any novel the reader wants characters to come to life on paper; three-dimensional characters with strengths and flaws. Some the reader will sympathize with. Others the reader may detest and hope for their demise. Just because a book is written for adults there is no guarantee the reader will care about the characters if they are not properly developed. Those who traipse across the page in The Hunger Games or the Harry Potter series are well-crafted three-dimensional characters the reader cares about. Why? Because the books are well-written and appeal to tweens, teens, adults and old geezers (and geezettes).

Stein says books are “one of our few chances to learn” and infers that one can’t learn from a YA novel. Since (from what he says) he hasn’t read YA novels such a blanket statement is ludicrous. Many YA novels give the reader just as much of a chance to learn as those written for adults. And, there are any number of books written expressly for adults that don’t teach anything. And, there’s nothing wrong with that. Why can’t adults read books solely for enjoyment or as a means to escape a dreary life?

I’ve written both novels for adults and a YA series. I don’t dumb down the writing of my YA books. Since I want to get them read in schools I don’t use profanity or sex in my YA series. But I do tackle adult themes such as honor killings, a society that demands women be submissive and slavery in my Shamra Chronicles. They are written for teens but can be enjoyed by adults, as well. And, you can learn as much from my series as books written expressly for adults.

Stein never defines what he considers “kids” books (I wonder if that might be considered poor writing?). Are graphic novels “kids” books? If so would Stein refuse to read Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” which deals with a Holocaust survivor and just so happened to have won a special Pulitzer Prize?

Stein needs to get off his high horse and look at books in their totality. There are exceptionally well-written YA novels just as there are thousands of books written for adults that . . . well, suck. A good book is simply that: a novel that grabs the reader and refuses to let go regardless for whom it was written for. I’ve read The Hunger Games and enjoyed it immensely and I ain’t no kid. I pity Stein for what he is missing by refusing to read YA novels. Then again, maybe he is getting just what he deserves.

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What Would Dara Do?: Part 7

This is the seventh in a series discussing how characters in The Shamra Chronicles would deal with current hot-button issues and pressures that confront today’s teens. Would Dara have an abortion?

In Shamra society marriage, bearing and raising children was the accepted practice and clerics who governed Shamra society put enormous pressure on all to adhere to traditional values. Dara, however, always felt like an outcast, and in Shamra Divided she learns that her ancestors had been banished, two hundred years earlier, when the Shamra moved to a new homeland. Dara had been part of a warrior/hunter clan whose values differed greatly from those espoused by the ruling clerics. Dara’s ancestors, leaders of the Stone Mountain Shamra, had a harsh life, living on a mountain and fighting a race that greatly outnumbered them. For Dara’s family procreation was a necessity to insure their family would continue to lead their clan. While not promiscuous, romance and marriage took a backseat to survival. Few of Dara’s female ancestors married, though all bore children. Dara, herself, had no amorous desires when she reached puberty. Pilla, her close friend and soulmate, being more traditional was to marry the day the Shamra were attacked and enslaved. She continually told Dara that she would one day find a male to cherish and marry. But, as Pilla prepared for marriage, Dara scoffed at the idea she would
ever find a male she would fall in love with (and find a male who would abide by her un-Shamra-like behavior).

With this in mind if contemporary Dara became pregnant she would accept the consequences of her actions and have her baby. She would keep her baby feeling she could raise a child better than any stranger. She would not consider marriage to the father. Getting pregnant had nothing to do with love and marriage. She would decide the father’s role in the rearing of her child. But Dara would not oppose abortion. She would feel that it was a woman’s choice what to do under such circumstances. Her personal
view would be if she was foolish enough to engage in unprotected sex she would have to face the music rather than taking the easy way out. Yet she would accept the decisions of others whether it be to have an abortion or have the baby and give it up for adoption. She would involve herself in the pro-choice movement, adamant that no religious group or others who opposed abortion would have a say in what a woman did with her body. And, Pilla would be right beside her. She, too, would accept the consequences for risky sexual behavior—she would have and rear her child if she became pregnant.

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Review of ARTICLE 5, by Kristen Simmons

Having written a YA series I have now begun to read a number of books in the genre. I will occasionally review YA books that come to my attention.

Article 5 a first novel by Kristen Simmons starts off with a promising premise. Things have gone very wrong in the United States with right-wing fear-mongering moralists having taken over the country. The Bill of Rights has been replaced with Moral Statutes. There are no Constitutional rights and soldiers arrest those accused of violating the Moral Statutes without due process.

Seventeen-year-old Ember Miller’s mother was arrested for having a child out of wedlock. One of those who arrested Ember’s mother was Ember’s childhood sweetheart, Chase Jennings, now a soldier for the new government. Ember is sent to a reformatory to be re-educated; “become a subservient female”, the law now dictates.

Sadly, the book veers towards a Harlequin romance novel soon after. Chase rescues Ember from the girl’s reformatory (in the nick of time; something that occurs often in the novel) and the majority of the rest of the novel is an escape/rescue mission with Chase doing the heavy lifting and Ember pining for her long-lost love.

Page after page Ember throws fits, pouts, smolders with resentment for Chase. And then, two pages later, her heart beats as if it will explode from her chest with love for Chase. She flushes and blushes and craves Chase’s touch. She vacillates back and forth whether to hate Chase or love him. The repetition grows weary and we see Ember as a weak-willed teenager, far too much like Bella of the Twilight Saga. Worse, for most of the book Ember is helpless, needing to be saved by her lover. She repays such gestures with resentment towards Chase.

Not until the very end of the novel (if then) does Ember come to embrace the new world she is a part of. When Chase rescues her from two would-be rapists she is repulsed by Chase’s use of violence. Even at the end when holding a gun on a soldier who committed a heinous crime (no spoilers here) and wants to ravage him, Ember herself she can’t fire. She won’t stoop to his level. She spares him. She conveniently forgets that by allowing him to live many others will suffer at his hands.

The ending is a bit too pat, too convenient, too contrived. And, sad to say, this is the first book in a planned trilogy.

For those wanting chaste romance (a passionate kiss is as far as it goes) Article 5 is up your alley. As for exploring an interesting premise in a dystopian United States… forgetaboutit.

(1 Star out of 5)

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A Review of BLOOD WOUNDS by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Having written a YA series I have now begun to read a number of books in the genre. I will occasionally review YA books that come to my attention.

In Blood Wounds, by prolific author Susan Beth Pfeffer (Harcourt), Willa Coffey is leading a seemingly happy life with her mother, stepfather and two stepsisters when she learns that her biological father, whom she hardly remembers, has gone on a murderous rampage. He had remarried and kills his new wife and three young children and may be on his way to kill Willa and her mother. The book revolves around Willa’s coming to grips with her past which also impacts on her new family.

The difficulty with Blood Wounds is it’s difficult to feel compassion for the great majority of the novel’s characters. Jack, Willa’s stepfather, is intent on recreating a Stepford Wives family. Regardless of their busy schedules the family must get together each Wednesday for dinner. He wants to avoid discord at all costs. But beneath his cool exterior he seems to seethe with hidden rage. The more we learn about him the more we dislike him.

His two biological daughters are both spoiled rotten as well as being extraordinarily talented (is this a real family?). Brooke is gifted in dressage while Alyssa is a tennis prodigy. They’ve both traveled around the world and are beloved by their family. Yet, they are both jealous of Willa for petty reasons.

The cause of much of the discord is Val, Broke and Alyssa’s biological mother. Sadly, we see her solely through the eyes of other characters. Lacking in empathy she uses money to get what she wants. She’s paid the mortgage on Jack’s house as well as the many travels of her daughters. Where is the love? One asks. Since she is the sole character whose point of view we are denied we have no idea why she has such an odd relationship with her children.

Then there is Terri, Willa’s mother who has allowed Jack to rule the roost with Val making all decisions based on the money she brings to the family. She is weak-willed, at best, and not terribly fleshed out.

Willa is the most interesting member of the family and a good deal of the book revolves around her point of view. She shares in the wealth of the family but is denied many of the privileges her sisters enjoy because Val has no use for her (or her mother, Terri). And, yes, she too is gifted, a member of the choir. For some reason she has resorted to cutting (well before the murders take place) to deal with her anger, jealousy and feeling of helplessness. At one point she even considers suicide. Until the murders she’s not terribly troubled so one wonders why she has resorted to cutting.

There is a decent amount of tension as the book unfolds but the novel ends with a thud. In the midst of financial turmoil that could wreak havoc on Willa’s life she inherits money from her father’s second wife. She, too, can live her dreams. It’s a sad lesson for readers that money can seemingly solve all problems. A too-pat ending where Willa’s family all get what they desire.

(2 stars out of 5)

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Santorum: Foot in Mouth

In a February 9th interview with CNN’s John King, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum firmly inserted his foot in his mouth when he spoke of his opposition to women fighting in combat in the armed forces. Women are currently in harm’s way as medics and communications soldiers (140 have lost their lives and 800 have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan). Santorum said he had grave “concerns” with women in combat, “placing them in compromising situations where people may naturally not do things in the interest of the mission because of other types of emotions involved.”

Translation: Male soldiers would sacrifice the mission to protect female soldiers if they came under attack.

Santorum then admitted that the same emotion takes hold with the “camaraderie of men in combat.”

This is the same patronizing argument that kept women out of the armed forces for most of our history. Now, in a more enlightened age the armed forces are allowing women to fight for freedom just as men have since the Revolutionary War.

Santorum further muddied the waters when he tried to clarify the controversy he stirred up in an interview the next day with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Here he said the problem was “emotions of men dealing with women in combat and not focus on the mission.” And he added that women were not as physically capable as men in certain situations.

So, women, back to your homes to raise the kids, clean the house and prepare dinner for your man.

Fortunately the Secretary of the Navy, among many others, disputes Santorum claims. He stated on CNN that women have been serving for a decade now “with great distinction and at great risk.” He scoffed at the notion women can’t fight on the front lines by noting that in Afghanistan there are no front lines. Women currently serving are daily under the same risk as their male counterparts. And, CNN further reported that the Pentagon is considering allowing women to serve in elite units such as special operations, sniper teams and scout teams, positions that many male soldiers are incapable of meeting the required standards.

As a country we have come a long way from our “middle ages” where it was a common perception women needed the protection of men. Television, movies and literature today are filled with strong, heroic females who are the equal of any man in combat. In my own YA series, The Shamra Chronicles, a woman becomes the leader of her country’s resistance after it is attacked and enslaved. Other women emulated her and threw off the chains of subservience that had forced them to be second class citizens. Katniss in The Hunger Games is the equal of any of her male challengers. And Bella in The Twilight Saga . . . well, she’s more of the Santorum model (when in danger turn to your man for help). I guess you can’t win them all.

It’s up to those men in our armed forces who support Santorum’s position to get with the program. If that means retraining them, so be it. Soldiers look out for one another regardless of their gender. The days of men taking a bullet for a women are long gone. Women in the military know the dangers they signed up for. They are looking to be respected as soldiers, not as female soldiers. They don’t want special treatment. They don’t want their male counterparts to sacrifice themselves or the mission to protect them. They wouldn’t want Rick Santorum beside them in combat.

It’s time for Santorum for step into the 21st century where women in the United States are willing to put their lives at risk to protect our freedoms.

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It’s Time to Revisit Certain “Zero Tolerance” Policies at Schools

Schools are supposed to act in the best interest of the student. However, in the case of two girls suspended at Lewis Palmer Middle School in Monument, Colorado the school grossly overreacted to one girl attempting to help her friend. The girls were in gym class when one girl had trouble breathing and began to panic. Her friend gave her an asthma inhaler she used for her own asthma attacks. The school’s nurse found out and the principal suspended the two girls for ten days, with the strong possibility they will be expelled from school permanently.

Yes, technically, what the girls did violates the school’s drug policy. But what was the intent? Did the two girls want to get high? Were the two girls experimenting with drugs? Did the girls attempt to intentionally rebel against school rules? Of course not. This is the case of one student helping another when she thought her friend was in danger. The suspension (and possible expulsion) is a gross overreaction that has nothing to do with the spirit of the school’s policy. It would have been far more appropriate for the parents of both students to be called into school so the principal could explain why allowing another girl to use an inhaler was dangerous. It would also have been acceptable to demand the girls perform a certain number of hours of community service. A note could have been put in their records with the provision that if there were no other violations of school policy they would be removed upon graduation from middle school. There were any number of other constructive “punishments” that could have been meted out other than a suspension. But the petty officials (with the backing of the district’s superintendent) took the easy way out. They followed the letter of the school’s policy and suspended two girls, who were not repeat offenders or troublemakers. The lesson learned: Don’t help another student who is in trouble.

Sadly, this is just one case of the overreaction of school officials who should know better. I recall how after the shootings at Columbine, schools adopted a zero tolerance policy as regards to weapons. Students were suspended left and right in the years following Columbine. One would have thought there would be a relaxation of the zero tolerance policy over the years. But, that hasn’t been the case. In 2010 year a 13-year old middle school student in Houston was suspended for three days for pointing her finger like a gun. She and some friends were pretending to be police officers and shooting markers off the board in her classroom. She was suspended for making a “terrorist threat.” Her suspension and the school’s reasoning behind it (making a “terrorist threat”) becomes part of her permanent record. In another even more appalling case in 2010 a six-year old Michigan boy was suspended for a week for pointing his finger as a gun at another child. A Google search finds numerous other such cases of six and seven years olds being suspended for similar infractions.

I taught at a school that had a zero tolerance policy regarding fighting. If one student was bullied (hit by a fellow student) and that student defended himself both were automatically suspended, no questions asked. School officials didn’t want to hear what caused the fight. Defend yourself against an attack and you’re suspended along with your assailant.

Zero tolerance policies must be altered so schools can investigate what triggered the offense that caused the violation of school rules. A student who is bullied who protects himself should not be punished for an act of self-defense. Common sense must also guide schools on all violations of school policy. Common sense dictates that a girl who gives another an inhaler to prevent an asthma attack should not be suspended and face possible expulsion for an act of kindness.

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Congratulations to the Giveaway Winners!









In mid-January I conducted a giveaway of all three books that make up The Shamra Chronicles in Shelf Awareness (Pro and Readers), and (Librarian and Readers Newsletter). We had well over 100 entries. Below are the winners of the giveaway. Congratulations to those who won and thank you to all who submitted entries for the giveaway.

Bree Ervin
Doylestown PA 

Shannon O’Donnell
Kalispell, MT  

Emily Scherrer
Yuma, AZ 

Kitty Bullard
Fayetteville, NC 

Kara Garland
Portland, OR 

Mary Mahaney
Summerfield, FL

Gina Reba
Panama City, FL

Dee Laswell
Petersburg, IN

Jennifer Martin
St Peters, MO

North Wales, PA

Ginny Hoehlein

Valerie Giambona
Secaucus, New Jersey

Patty Dunn
Columbus, OH

Julia Pitau
Denair, CA 

Yvonne Powderly
Parkersburg WV

Stephanie Angelette
Sugar Land, TX

Jayne Blackledge
North Wales, PA 

Joyce Westenberg
Hampshire, IL

Alison Witiak
Austin, MN

Judi Holst
Littleton, CO  

Marsha Duffy
Chatfield, MN

Cindy Raible
DeLand, FL

Susan Lowther
Dinwiddle, VA

Patricia Gordon
Paterson, NJ

Gayle Gray
Frankfort, KY

Lisa Lockmiller
Orangevale, CA

Helen Tomlinson
Jamaica, NY

Adam DeClercq
Buena Park, CA

Bree Ervin
Longmont, CO

Catherine Goodbody Levesque
Doylestown, PA

Glenda Jenkins
Boise, ID

Laura Scarcello

Nancy McCarthy
Goshen, OH

Judy Phillips
Patoka, IN 

Kristen Bentley
Holland, MI

Kelly Farrow
Downers Grove, IL

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