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Archive for the ‘Children’s Books’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: JOYCE DiDONATO-Tiny Desk Concert #936 (January 15, 2020).

I was sure that Joyce DiDonato had performed a Tiny Desk Concert before, but I actually knew her from a gorgeous NPR Field Recording from 2015.

the last time we filmed the down-to-earth diva, she insisted on singing an opera aria at the Stonewall Inn, the iconic gay tavern in Greenwich Village.

DiDonato is an opera singer and her voice is amazing–she can soar and growl and everything in between.  But this Tiny Desk is not what you’d expect.  For although DiDonato sings in her beautiful operatic voice, the music the band is playing is anything but.

When opera star Joyce DiDonato told us she wanted to sing centuries-old Italian love songs at the Tiny Desk we weren’t surprised. But when she said she was bringing a jazz band to back her up, we did a double take. But that’s Joyce, always taking risks.  On paper, the idea of jazzing up old classical songs seems iffy. At the least it could come across as mannered and at worst, an anachronistic muddle. But DiDonato somehow makes it all sound indispensable, with her blend of rigor, wit and a sense of spontaneity.

The first song is by Alessandro Parisotti.  “Se tu m’ami” sets the stage for what this show is going to be like.  Gorgeous jazz with DiDonato’s impressive voice.

The musical formula for these unorthodox arrangements makes room for typical jazz solos while DiDonato molds her phrases to the flexible rhythms and inserts old-school trills and flamboyant roulades.

A cool trumpet solo from Charlie Porter takes a cool trumpet solo while DiDonato admires his skill.

After three minutes they segue seamlessly into Salvator Rosa’s “Star vicino.”  This one features a piano solo from Craig Terry which he begins with a line from “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”  The song also features a muted trumpet solo with a few drum breaks for Jason Haaheim

My favorite moment in the set comes just before 6 minutes where she sings a beautiful lilting melody and then hits a growly note that I was sure was the trumpet until Porter played the same note on his muted trumpet.  It was very cool and kind funny.  Especially when she says

there’s no soprano in the world who could get away with that

Less than a minute later she runs through her enormous vocal range from low to very high to soaring.  It’s amazing.

She says that in the classical world, the standard is perfection–rarely achieved.  Young singers try so hard to get it perfect that they lose the “grease” as the jazz players say.  So this project was designed to put the swing back in these old love songs.

The third song she says is by anonymous, but it is credited to Giuseppe Torelli. “Tu lo sai” is a love song that says, “you have no idea how much I love you.  No matter how much you scorn me, I still love you,”  She says they giving this the Chet Baker treatment.  I’m not exactly sure what that means, but there is some wonderful trumpet work in this song.

It has a slow opening with piano and voice.  The other instruments slowly come in and there is a wonderful moment during Porter’s trumpet solo where she picks up the note from him and runs with it.

Bassist Chuck Israels (who has played with everyone from Billie Holiday to the Kronos Quartet) never solos but he keeps the whole enterprise running perfectly.

For the final song Francesco Conti’s “Quella fiamma” they bring out Antoine Plante on the bandoneon.  She says, “Yea we’re going to South America in a minute.”

Porter uses a different kind of mute which creates a unique sound.  Then the bandoneon comes in and the South American flair is complete.  There’s an incredible moment at the end of the song where Joyce just trills away–showcasing so much of what she can do.

As the blurb says, despite how great the band is

the star of the show is the continually amazing DiDonato, whose voice is certainly one of the great wonders of her generation. The flexibility of the instrument, the colors she conjures and her fine-tuned dynamic range are a few of the reasons she’s still at the peak of her powers. She looks and sounds like she’s having the time of her life.

I see that she sings in Princeton pretty often.  Next time she;s in town I will make sure to check her out.

[READ: December 20, 2019] The Raven’s Children

This story was fascinating in the way it started as a very real story, suddenly added magical realism and then turned into an utterly fantastical story.  And yet it all works perfectly well as an allegory of the oppressive regime under Stalin.

Not bad for a book with talking animals.

This book was translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and she brings this story to life.

Shura is a young boy living in Leningrad.  He lives with his mama and papa as well as his older sister and a little brother.  They live in an apartment building and he and his sister are lucky enough to have a room to themselves.  The amusing set up is that they have to walk through a wardrobe that their father set up to separate the rooms (he removed the back but you can’t tell from the front).  This weird construction actually saves them later in the story.

Shura’s friend is named Valya.  His parents don’t want him hanging out with Valya, but they like to do the same things, so he disobeys.  Today they are putting pennies on a railroad track.  They had been doing this for long enough that they can tell how heavy a train is by the way the resulting items come out.

On this occasion the train that went by seemed to be full of people.  People crammed into each car.  As it sailed past, a piece of paper sailed out.  Valya grabbed it. Neither of the boys could read very well but they could see some numbers on it.  Shura was sure that the paper was important and he desperately wanted it. But he didn’t know how to get it from Valya without making him want it more.

They walked home and by the time they got to Shura’s place, they were physically fighting.  Shura manged to snatch the paper and Valya threw a rock at him.  The rock smashed a window of an older lady’s apartment in their building.  Shura knew he was in trouble for the window.  But it was Valya’s fault.  Of course, he wasn’t supposed to be playing with Valya. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: FIONA APPLE-“The Whole of the Moon” (2019).

I’m rather a fan of a good cover song.  I don’t really like when bands play covers live–I’m here for your music not someone else’s–but a studio recording is usually welcome.

It’s especially helpful if it’s an artist I like doing a song I like.  Such as with this one.

I learned about The Waterboys back in college.  I hung out with Irish musicians and they introduced me to Irish bands.  Although we were more Fisherman’s Blues than This is the Sea, I still really enjoyed “The Whole of the Moon.”

Lyrically the song is simple but very clever.  It works through many comparisons about how “I” see things less completely than “you” do.

I was grounded
While you filled the skies
I was dumbfounded by truth
You cut through lies
I saw the rain dirty valley
You saw Brigadoon
I saw the crescent
You saw the whole of the moon

I also always like the part where the line “you came like a comet” is followed by an explosion–satisfyingly over the top.

The occasion of Fiona Apple covering it has to do with the show The Affair which I’d never heard of.  Evidently the season finale opens with The Waterboys’ version and ends with this new Fiona Apple version.  Fiona Apple’s song “Container” is used in the opening credits, so she already has ties to the show.

I can remember “discovering” Fiona Apple through an issue of New Music Monthly about two months before her debut came out.  I really liked “Shadowboxer” and then the whole album.  It was quite a surprise to me when she became a huge star soon thereafter.  And by the time she toured where I lived, the crowd was full of screaming girls.

Nevertheless, I have stuck with her because her music is always terrific.

Her voice has always been kind of raspy and deep–with a quirky range.  But she really pushes herself on this version.  She sounds worn out and it really works for these lyrics.

It stars with gentle synths and a drum pattern.  After the first verse, a full band comes in, with a trippy slide guitar (rather than the 80’s synths of the original).  But it stays pretty simple–this song is about the lyrics.  The middle instrumental section is similarly horn-based, but with a bit of piano and more slide guitar tossed in.

As the song goes on, Apple’s voice gets more and more intense.  The way she sings: “I sighed / but you swooned” will give you chills.

The Waterboys version has a cute musical ending which Apple removes. She also refrains from the comet explosion.

It’s stripped down and really fantastic.

[READ: September 23, 2019] Herbert’s Wormhole Book 3

I accidentally read Book 3 before Book 2.  I am embarrassed that that happened because I am a librarian and I should know better, but I double checked to see which came out first, but I must have read a paperback reprint with a later publishing date and though that book 3 was in fact book 2.

So I read book three and on many occasions I thought “How daring and surprising and hilarious that the Peter Nelson is referencing things that we did not see.”  I assumed that between book 1 and this one, the kids had had many adventures that we didn’t know anything about.  They would just casually refer to them.  This does happen in TV shows all the time, but I guess not in children’s books.  So I should have known better, but I was excited about the prospect of this rather author twist.  I do admit by the end that there were a number of things where I thought…hmmm…. this is referencing something that I think I should know about.  But I was far enough along at that point not to stop.

Turns out, at the end of Book 2 (I found out later), we see that GOR-DON’s plan for destroying the AlienSlayers is not his own.  It is actually  the plan of an evil mastermind.  An evil mastermind who we learn is called Aerostar.

But the real crisis is in the Filby household.  Because Alex’s dad is going to knock down the jungle gym (that they put up for Alex just last year) to make room for a huge playhouse for his bratty little sister, Ellie (“some serious assembly required”).  This will effectively destroy the wormhole!  What will they do now? (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: DEODATO-Prelude (1973).

I know this artist because of Phish.  For years I thought that they “wrote” the discoey, funky. super cool version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” which they play at a lot of shows.

I should have realized that the “Deodato” in the credits was the actual arranger of this cool piece, but I guess I never really thought about it.  I’ve no idea where the realization came to me, but once it did I decided  to check out the album from which it comes.

It turns out that Deodato is Eumir Deodato de Almeida (Brazilian Portuguese: [ẽʊ̃ˈmiχ djoˈdatu]; born June 22, 1942) is a Brazilian pianist, composer, arranger, and record producer, primarily in jazz but who has been known for his eclectic melding of genres, such as pop, rock, disco, rhythm and blues, classical, Latin and bossa nova.  Prelude was his first album released in the U.S. (released when he was 31) and eighth overall.  In addition to making over 30 albums, he has also been a producer and arranger on everything from Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” to Bjork’s albums PostTelegram, and Homogenic

“Also Sprach Zarathustra” begins with twinkling and guitar noises for 30 seconds before the 5-note funky keyboard comes in.  And then about a minute in the horns join to create the familiar Richard Strauss “Also Sprach Zarathustra” crescendo.  Even though that melody is barely a minute long, this version is 9 minutes long with a lengthy funky keyboard solo occasionally punctuated by horns.  It then switches to a more rocking sound with a 70s sounding guitar solo.  It really never loses the funk for the entirety of the piece.

“Spirit Of Summer” is a slow moody song that sounds like it could be the soundtrack to a noir film with slinky horn lines and jazzy bass.  I love the opening and how it then switches to an almost easy listening string section before adding a mellow keyboard solo and a surprising very fast flamenco guitar solo as well.   The song is only four minutes and ends with a flute solo and then a return to the opening horns.

“Carly & Carole” is an easy, mildly funky jazzy number.  There’s lead flute combined with the keys that push the song along.

“Baubles, Bangles, & Beads” is a jaunty five-minute romp that sounds like it would have been very popular at swinging parties in the 1970s.  There’s more flute and keys and two lengthy wild Santana-like guitar solos that run through to the end of the song.

“Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun” opens with a mournful flute that sounds a lot like the weird Snoopy interludes when he is the World War I Flying Ace in the old Peanuts cartoons.  The melody is quite nice and is then repeated by several instruments throughout the piece.   After 2 minutes it tuns into a swinging jazzy number with a flute solo and wah wah guitars and a bright trumpet solo.  I see now that this piece was done by Debussy and this is another arrangement.  It is not used in Peanuts although Schulz does reference the song in a strip.

“September 13” ends the disc with an upbeat funky song with groovy bass and keys and wah wah guitars.  There’s a wild mildly distorted guitar solo with fun effects put on it.  It’s a fun way to end an album that is short but really captures a moment in time.

[READ: September 3, 2019] Herbert’s Wormhole Book 2

I accidentally read Book 3 before Book 2.  I am embarrassed that that happened because I am a librarian and I should know better, but I checked on Goodreads and must have read a paperback reprint pub date and though that book 3 was in fact book 2.

Having read book three I basically knew a lot of what happened in book 2.  But primarily this is because in book 3 they make offhanded comments to things they did in book 2.  Incidentally, while I was reading book 3 I thought it was a really fun, bold move on the author’s part to reference adventurers that we hadn’t read about.  That should have dawned on me but I just persisted in believing that the author was being really daring. Oh well.

Knowing what happened didn’t really spoil anything, because the book is silly and funny anyhow.

This book opens with a paneled cartoon recap of book 1.

It’s followed by a hilarious opening sequence in which Alex’s dad has become hooked on video games.  He was trying to bond with Alex over Alex’s love of video games.  But in book 1, Alex’s memory of video games is wiped out.  So now his father is playing them and Alex doesn’t really see the point.  But Alex’s father is now as addicted as Alex was. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: A-WA-Tiny Desk Concert #886 (September 3, 2019).

I knew of A-WA and had seen them in a South X Lullaby this year.  But  that song was performed quietly, with just a guitarist.  This session is full band with all kinds of dancey accouterments.

Liron, Tair, and Tagel Haim [left to right] are behind my desk with a full band of keyboards, bass, guitar and drums, singing more forlorn tunes in their unique three-part harmony.  Their songs mix Yemenite and Arabic traditions with splashes of reggae and hip-hop.

These songs also have the lyrics translated at the bottom of the screen.  Since Bob says the songs are sad, I haven’t been reading too much, just enjoying the melodies [I’ll let Bob talk about the song in brackets]

The first song is “Habib Galbi” (“Love of My Heart”), [a heartbreaking song that went viral for A-WA in 2016].

I don’t know much of anything in the languages they are singing, but back in 1988 Israeli singer Ofra Haza released an album that I really liked and one of the great songs was “Galbi.”  So here it is again and it means “mt heart.”

‘Habib Galbi” opens with Middle Eastern melodies played on a synth (by Noam Havkin)–it’s a cool combination of traditional and modern almost futuristic.  It even has some electronic percussion (from Tal Cohen) and some great bass from Nitzan Eisenberg.  I love that there’s an occasional “Woo!” and lots of hand claps.  It is so dancey, how can it be heartbreaking?

 A-WA have recently released a second album, Bayti Fi Rasi (in Yemenite it means My Home is in My Head). The record tells the story of their grandmother traveling from Yemen to Israel.  The final two songs come from that recent album.

The second song “Al Asad” (“The Lion”) has the reggae feel in with the staccato guitar and a cool guitar solo from Yiftach Shachaf.  It “is a metaphorical tale of facing down a lion in your path.”

Once again, their movements and tone belie the story, as they move so almost sensually to the music as they sing (in fairness, it’s hard not to).

The last song “Hana Mash Hu Al Yaman,” (“Here is Not Yemen”) features some amazing rolling of r’s as they sing–I’m thinking it’s the word for “wheat.”  Once again, despite the music, this song

paints the struggles of coming to a new land, learning the language, finding work, a place to live and making it a home.

Although this song starts out more somber, as the song moves on it picks up a more danceable beat with more interesting synthy sounds.

I couldn’t help but be interested in the lyrics for this one with the way they sang “wheat” I had to find out what the rolled r word was.  This led me to see “Land of wheat and barely, grape and olive / fig, pomegranate date and home.”

And then further on:

Where will I stake a home? (You have a tent for now)
Or at least a small shack (along with four other families)
And here I will raise a family (Don’t let them take your daughter)
I’ll find myself a job with an income (either in cleaning or working the earth)
And I will learn the language (Lose the accent)
With time I’ll feel like I belong (Here is not Yemen).

Dang, draw me in with fun music and beautiful voices and then wow me with powerful lyrics.  Well done, A-WA.

[READ: September 3, 2019] Herbert’s Wormhole

We listened to this book on our summer road trip.  When I saw that it was a novel “in cartoons,” I decided to check out the print to see if it was any different as a story.

The cartoons certainly add to it. The drawings are done in a very stylized way (by Rohitash Rao).  The cartoons are indeed very cartoony but that befits a story about squid aliens who wear fake mustaches and toupees.

I’m glad I listened to the audio first because it was fun having the experience of hearing the Australian accents in my head while reading the text.  I’m sure I could have imagined the accents myself, but since Jonathan Davis did such a good job, it was nice having them in place.

The other interesting thing is how much I evidently missed during the listening (if you’re driving you have to pay attention to the world around you as well).  So the book version filled in some details that I clearly missed and a few things made a bit more sense.

The opening is fairly simple: Alex Filby is 11 years old and loves video games.  He is just about to defeat all the aliens in Alien Slayer 2 which is pretty great,.  Except he promised his parents that when he beat the game, he would stop playing video games for the summer and start playing outside.  So when he destroys the final alien, his parents tell him that they have set up a play date with the weird kid next store: Herbert Slewg. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: DAMIAN ‘JR. GONG’ MARLEY: Tiny Desk Concert #888 (September 8, 2019).

I’m not sure if everyone with the last name Marley becomes a singer, but it sure seems like it.

I had not heard of Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley before, but of all of the Marleys, I think I like his music best (he is Bob’s son).  I had no idea where the “Jr. Gong” came from, but the blurb helpfully says “Jr. Gong” is after his father’s nickname of “Tuff Gong.”

Even though the blurb describes the music as reggae, this set is pretty far from what I consider reggae.  Some components of reggae are there, but it’s mostly in his delivery (and accent) and the backing female vocals–from Roselyn Williams and Sherieta Lewis.

But the main element of reggae–the beat/rhythm/staccato guitar–is completely absent.

“Slave Mill” starts with delicate keys from Sean “Pow” Diedrick.  The song is catchy with great lyrics.  I really like the percussion from Courtney “Bam” Diedrick.  I assume those are brothers known as Bam and Pow, which is great.

I like that the blurb addresses the issue of Bob Marley and yet I feel like Damian is his own musician, with a distinct (if slightly familiar) voice.

Damian’s father cast a giant, magnificent shadow on the world and it can’t be easy to follow in those footsteps as a songwriter and musician.  Damian seems to be undaunted by that legacy and instead draws on it for inspiration and guidance. Not to mention there is more than a hint of his father’s unmistakable singing voice that so often preached the same messages of self-identity and self-determination that his youngest son is now doing so successfully.

He says the second song “So A Child May Follow” is one of his favorite tracks on the album.  He thinks about his nephews and nieces who are young adults now.  The song:

addresses the troubles youth confront around the globe and how to persevere to succeed.

It’s an acoustic ballad.  I like watching Bam play, because after each piano melody, he stops and pounds his fists in the air as the song pauses and resumes.  The main verses features a gentle acoustic guitar from Elton “Elly B” Brown.  It’s a lovely song of optimism in the face of trouble.

They end the set with “Speak Life” which “sums up the message of his music: live a life that will enable us to survive life’s slings and arrows with dignity and love.”

speak life and lead a humble and meek life.

All three songs feature great bass work by Shiah Coore.  I also really love the backing “woah ohs” in the song.

Damian says that they made a video of this song which was shot in Ethiopia and is subtitled in Amharic.  He says that as Rastas, Ethiopia is very close to their hearts.

The end of the blurb makes me wonder if I would enjoy the recorded versions less, since that what I enjoyed so much:

But what makes his music stand out on this session is the prominence of the acoustic guitar and piano in the arrangements, which makes the familiar sound somewhat new.

But he is very charming and funny and he ends the set talking about boxing Babylon vs Natty Dreadlocks.  Then he shouts, “We did it boys.  In the big leagues baby!”

[READ: July 21, 2019] This Was Our Pact

I really enjoyed this graphic novel.  S. had told me about it and told me I’d really like it.  She was right!

The pact of the title is simple.  There are two rules: No one turns for home and No one looks back.

The narrator is Ben.  He is one of five young boys who have made this pact.  The pact revolves around the Equinox Festival, in which the townsfolk send hundreds of lanterns down the river.  Every year a group of kids hopped on their bikes to follow the lanterns.  Usually everyone petered out.  But this year they were going to go all the way. The wondered, “Did they really journey far into the stars, like the old song sang?”

The boys set out following the lanterns.  As soon as they head out, they are followed by, “nerd alert!” Nathaniel.  None of the boys (except Ben) is friendly with him.  Even when Nathaniel says his mom made Rice Krispie treats, they don’t turn around and let him join.

The imagery of the book is beautiful.  It’s largely in blues because the story takes place at night.  The lanterns are little white spots in the blue and black rivers. (more…)

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[LISTENED TO: July 2019] Herbert’s Wormhole

We listened to this book instead of reading it.  Looking at the online book right now I see that the illustrations are pretty big part of the book (and they are weird and wonderful).  But this audiobook was narrated delightfully by Jonathan Davis.

The story starts with Alex Filby playing a video game.  He is just about to defeat that final alien in AlienSlayer 2.  His parents are watching him and they almost seem more excited than he is.  Why ever would this be?  Well, because he promised them that when he defeated every alien in AlienSlayer 2 that he’d put the video games away, play outside and not ask for another game all summer.  And they were pretty excited for that.

But when they bring him a present he hopes that maybe it’s AlienSlayer 3-D the greatest video game in history with motion sensor suits and a holographic projector.  Could they really be so awesome?  Well, no, instead, they gave him a home made T-shirt that says Alien Slayer.  Isn’t that wonderful?  They also gave him…a child-sized jungle gym. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: GEORGIA ANNE MULDROW-Tiny Desk Concert #839 (April 8, 2019).

I’d never heard of Georgia Anne Muldrow.  My takeaway from this set is that Muldrow is a wonderful hippie–spreading love and peace and being a total free spirit.  But what do we know about her?

The blurb says

The first song I ever heard from Georgia Anne Muldrow, back in the early 2000s, was called “Break You Down.” The opening line spoke directly to my experience as a twentysomething coming into my own:

“Don’t let them make you forget who you are
Don’t let them break you down”

I later found that she wrote, produced and performed that song when she was only 17-years old. She possessed talent and perspective beyond her years and I became a fan.

But more interesting than that is this piece of information.

She’s also made a name for herself as a collaborator with artists [like] Erykah Badu, with whom she introduced the notion of “staying woke” to the world, years before it was appropriated as a hashtag.

“Overload” opens with her doing some crazy muttering and sounds.  I didn’t think I’d like the song at first, but it got really funky with some cool keys from Mokichi (his keys dominate most of the songs as the main instrument) and a very cool six string bass from Bronson Garza.  I really like the chours.  By the end she is totally intense and into it–an amazing performer

I know they want to kill ya. I know they want to break ya.
I’m sure they envy you because your love is so true.
They want to break your mind they want to drive you crazy.
They don’t love no black man unless hes in slavery.
But let my love raise you higher.

It’s pretty awesome.

Some time would pass before she eventually released her debut album, Olesi: Fragments of an Earth, in 2006. Since then, she’s released well over a dozen, mostly self-produced projects. While much of her music’s focus has been on the healing, preservation and education of African American people, the themes are universal: family, struggle and of course, love.

Up next was “a reworked and animated versions of the song ‘Flowers.'”

She and the band were floating the possibility of swapping the duet with her partner in music and life, Dudley Perkins with another song. But she decided it was more important to showcase their shared love on the song “Flowers,” originally from Perkins’ 2003 album A Lil’ Light.

It’s a softer song.  She sings the beginning and then Perkins takes over.  I don;t like his voice all that much and find this song rather dull.  But they clearly had fun plying it.

They end the set with an extended and jazzy version of “Ciao.”  She plays bongos to start this one which accentuates Renaldo Elliott’s drum kit.  It has a jazzy bass line and feels really improvised.   She starts riffing on going to Africa–South Africa or Togo she stars rhapsodizing about all the places they could go Nigeria  left alone by the police there because we’ll be in the majority.

Pack my bags and go where the equator hugs me, maybe even pick me a mango.

Georgia Anne Muldrow is a force of love and it is hard, and somewhat foolish to resist her.

[READ: April 10, 2019] Be Prepared

T. has had this book at home for quite a while (she’s quite the collector of graphic novels).  I have seen the cover for ages and so I had an idea of what the book was about.  Boy was I wrong.  For I assumed it was about summer camp.  And while it is, it is about so much more.

I really enjoyed her drawing style in Anya’s Ghost but I like it so much more in this book.  Her drawings of Vera with her big glasses is just so charming and sweet.  I was hooked from the first page.

As the story opens we see Vera at a birthday party for Sarah Hoffmann.  The party is important–an ice cream cake, pizza, (with a stuffed crust) and of course, a sleepover.  All the girls have fancy sleeping bags, but Vera’s is Russian and very utilitarian.  All of the girls gave Sarah accessories for her fancy historical doll. While Vera drew her a picture.   The girls wonder where Vera’s doll is, and Vera lies (badly) about hers being at home.

When Vera has her own party later, she tries to create the same atmosphere–but fails miserably.  The ice cream cake is a Medovik tort (with writing in Russian), the pizza is from Dmitri’s and the drink is Kvass (carbonated beverage made from rye bread).  Everyone slept over, but they all called home to get picked up in the middle of the night.

Vera didn’t really fit in with anyone.  But she still had friends (and Sarah was certainly nice enough). (more…)

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