Songs in Ordinary Time

( 23 )


It's the summer of 1960 in Atkinson, Vermont. Maria Fermoyle is a strong but vulnerable divorced woman whose loneliness and ambition for her children make her easy prey for dangerous con man Omar Duvall. Marie's children are Alice, seventeen—involved with a young priest; Norm, sixteen—hotheaded and idealistic; and Benny, twelve—isolated and misunderstood, and so desperate for his mother's happiness that he hides the deadly truth he knows about Duvall. We also meet Sam Fermoyle, the children's alcoholic father; ...

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Songs in Ordinary Time

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It's the summer of 1960 in Atkinson, Vermont. Maria Fermoyle is a strong but vulnerable divorced woman whose loneliness and ambition for her children make her easy prey for dangerous con man Omar Duvall. Marie's children are Alice, seventeen—involved with a young priest; Norm, sixteen—hotheaded and idealistic; and Benny, twelve—isolated and misunderstood, and so desperate for his mother's happiness that he hides the deadly truth he knows about Duvall. We also meet Sam Fermoyle, the children's alcoholic father; Sam's brother-in-law, who makes anonymous "love" calls from the bathroom of his failing appliance store; and the Klubock family, who—in contrast to the Fermoyles—live an orderly life in the house next door.

Songs in Ordinary Time is a masterful epic of the everyday, illuminating the kaleidoscope of lives that tell the compelling story of this unforgettably family.

A powerfully absorbing novel from the acclaimed author of A Dangerous Woman and Vanished. Set in the summer of 1960--the last of quiet times and America's innocence--this story centers on Marie Fermoyle, a strong but vulnerable Irishwoman, whose loneliness and ambition for her children make her easy prey for a dangerous con-man.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Morris, author of A Dangerous Woman, explores the relationship between a trusting, needy divorcée and a shady con man. Raising her children without any support from her alcoholic ex-husband, Marie Fermoyle is lured into Omar Duvall's trap by the glint of promised riches. Marie and her children, troubled by their shabby existence, are no match for Omar's manipulations. Read by the author.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
As she proved in her first novel, Vanished, and in the equally compelling A Dangerous Woman, Morris can depict society's outsiders-people with bleak presents and no futures-with rare understanding and compassion. Here, she portrays an entire community, a small town in Vermont during the summer of 1960, and then focuses on one family, the Fermoyles. With no support from her alcoholic ex-husband Sam, Marie Fermoyle has struggled for eight years to raise her three children. She is sharp-tongued, bitter, resentful and driven nearly to distraction by unending money worries and her own shame at being a poor divorce in a staunchly Catholic town. The arrival of mysterious Omar Duvall with his con man's spiel of sudden riches brings Marie hope that she can change her dead-end existence. Among the 30 or so characters, there are no happy people: in fact, at first, one thinks this will be just an unbroken litany of sour, wasted lives, people mired in frustration and desperation, hiding tawdry secrets. But, although the exposition is long and leisurely, one is soon caught in the web of Morris's narrative, particularly in Marie's manipulation by Duvall, who sponges off the family while appearing to offer Marie the love she desperately craves. Meanwhile, her children-teenaged Alice and Norm, and fearful 12-year-old Benjy-are out-matched by the oily Omar, and they undergo their own torments as adolescents shamed by their parents and miserably conscious of their poverty. Innocent Benjy holds a secret so terrible he doesn't even fathom it until it is almost too late to avert tragedy. Morris weaves the taut strands of her plot with remarkable skill, revealing how people with no financial security and few mental resources are controlled by others more feral and more dangerous. Throughout, she maintains the suspense triggered by a dead body in the woods, and she pries open a Pandora's box of secrets, including double lives and the hypocrisy that masks sin behind piety. This novel becomes more powerful as one reads, building to a heartstopping denouement, yet remaining strictly observant of the minutiae of daily life that give the book its honesty and pathos.
Library Journal
Morris has had critical success with novels like A Dangerous Woman (LJ 11/15/90), which was made into a movie starring Debra Winger. But according to her publicist, this new work-which features an Irish American woman vulnerable to the blandishments of a con man-has a "commercial edge."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140244823
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/1/1996
  • Series: Oprah's Book Club Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 768
  • Sales rank: 683,882
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 7.62 (h) x 1.27 (d)

Meet the Author

Mary McGarry Morris is the author of four highly acclaimed novels. Entertainment Weekly included her latest, Fiona Range, on its list of the best books of 2000. Vanished (1998) was nominated for both the National Book Award and the Pen/Faulkner Award. A Dangerous Woman (1991) was made into a feature film starring Debra Winger in 1993. Songs In Ordinary Time, was the 1997 Oprah Book Club Selection, and is available from Brilliance Audio.
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Table of Contents

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Reading Group Guide


In Mary McGarry Morris' intricately constructed novel, many lives intersect and connect, much like the strains of a symphonic ode. But it is the Fermoyle family who lends the story its resonance and presents the reader with a multitude of passions, ironies, tragedies, poor choices, and triumphs from which one can trace every element of the human condition. Marie Fermoyle's life is a daily struggle not only to feed and clothe her children, but to imbue them with the strength and determination she knows they will need to forge their way in the hardscrabble world they inhabit. And though she seems thwarted at every turn — by her alcoholic ex-husband's embarrassing public displays, her shabby eyesore of a house, the explosive temper of her oldest son, or the pathetic passivity of her youngest — Marie never gives up.

Omar Duvall enters the lives of Atkinson's citizens with the impact of a car crashing through a plate glass window. Although he is deceitful, unctuous, and sly, he manages to ingratiate himself into the hearts and homes of the town's lost souls, as well as its more upstanding citizens. From Benjy's fervent belief that Omar, messiah-like, will rescue his mother from her profound unhappiness, to Bernadette Mansaw's pragmatic and untrusting embrace, to Marie's blind yearnings for the attentions of a man who seems truly devoted to her, the citizens of Atkinson find what they are looking for in Duvall's promises of wealth and good fortune. All it takes is a little faith, and a lot of their hard-earned cash.

We find Atkinson on the brink of a new era. It's 1960 — a relatively calm year with only hints of the tumult and disorder —assassination, war, and civil unrest — that are near at hand. The complacent acceptance of authority that dominated the previous decade is coming to an end. The signs of economic imbalance, sexual freedom, and rebellion against the status quo are everywhere: in Father Gannon's un-priest like demeanor, in Renie LaChance's failing appliance store, in the provocative sway of Jessie Klubock's hips, in Carol Stoner's stoic acceptance of her husband's infidelity. These are ordinary people, and certainly Atkinson is a typical American town. But the struggles we witness during this long and eventful summer are as fundamental and epic as those found in the works of Dickens and Steinbeck. And as the citizens of Atkinson contend with their deepest fears and their strongest desires, they offer us an extraordinary portrait of the human condition at its most frail and its most triumphant. Taken individually their songs are bittersweet strains of disappointment and longing; together they form a lyrical masterwork of hope, perseverance and spirit.

Cast of Characters

Arkaday, Kathleen: Housekeeper at St. Mary's Rectory.
Bonifante, Eunice: Runs luncheonette. Widow. Was married to brother of Mrs. Stoner.
Brastus, Lucille: Landlady of the Menka twins. Runs Holy Articles Shoppe downstairs.
Briscoe, Ferdinand: Marie Fermoyle's boss at Briscoe's Sporting Goods.
Burke, Msgr. Thomas: Pastor, St. Mary's parish.
Carper, Anthology: Cousin of Blue Mooney. A & X cook.
Carper, Hildie: Mother of Blue Mooney, Kyle, Peter, and Carl.
Carson, Grondine: Garbage man. Runs pig farm in the Flatts.
Clay, Judge Henry: Attorney for Bridget Fermoyle. Long-ago Atkinson mayor.
Corbett, Luther: Magazine-selling crew.
Coughlin, Jerry: A & X manager.
Doyle, Kenny: Foreman of Norm's work crew.
Duvall, Omar: Itinerant salesman.
Earlie: Earl Lapham Jones. Magazine-selling crew. Grandson of Rev. Pease.
Fermoyle, Alice: Teenage daughter of Marie and Sam Fermoyle.
Fermoyle, Benjamin: Son of Marie and Sam Fermoyle.
Fermoyle, Bridget: Mother of Sam Fermoyle and Helen Fermoyle LaChance.
Fermoyle, Marie: Mother of Alice, Norm, and Benjy. Divorced from Sam.
Fermoyle, Norman: Teenage son of Marie and Sam Fermoyle.
Fermoyle, Sam: Marie's ex-husband. Father of Alice, Norm, and Benjy.
Gannon, Father Joe: New priest at St. Mary's parish.
Gold, Roy: Runs Gold Mine Enterprises: Presto Soap franchiser.
Greene, Jarden: Head of the Department of Public Works. Band concert conductor.
Haddad, Astrid: Works at Briscoe's Sporting Goods. Married to Robert Haddad. Former Las Vegas showgirl.
Haddad, Robert: Insurance man. Married to Astrid.
Hinds, Cleveland: Bank president. Married to Nora Cushing.
Hinds, Nora Cushing: Former fianc é e of Sam Fermoyle. Cousin of Msgr. Burke.
Jones, Earl Lapham: See Earlie.
Klubock, Harvey: Next door neighbor of Marie Fermoyle.
Klubock, Jessie: Married to Harvey.
Klubock, Louie: Six-year-old son of Jessie and Harvey.
LaChance, Helen: Sister of Sam Fermoyle. Married to Renie.
LaChance, Renie: Brother-in-law of Sam Fermoyle.
Litchfield, Arnold: Psychiatrist at Applegate.
Mansaw, Bernadette: Works at bowling alley. Teenage mother of Blue Mooney's nieces.
Mayo, Claire: Runs boarding house with sister, May.
Mayo, May: Older sister of Claire.
Menka, Howard: Handyman at St. Mary's Rectory.
Menka, Jozia: Housekeeper for Bridget Fermoyle for thirty years. Twin sister of Howard.
Miller, Janice: Sister of Weeb. College student.
Miller, Mr.: Father of Weeb.
Miller, Mrs.: Mother of Weeb. Nurse to Mrs. Stoner.
Miller, Weeb: Norm's best friend.
Mooney, Blue: Ex-Marine. Son of Hildie Carper.
O'Rourke, Bishop: Superior of Msgr. Burke and Father Gannon.
Pease, Rev. Montague: Magazine-selling crew. Grandfather of Earlie.
Seldon, Joey: Blind. Runs popcorn stand in the park. Former Chief of Police.
Stoner, Carol: Wife of Chief Stoner. Mother of Lester.
Stoner, Lester: Boyfriend of Alice Fermoyle. Son of Carol and Chief Stoner.
Stoner, Sonny: Chief of Police. Married to Carol. Father of Lester.
Towler, Ark: Bootlegger. Married to Winnie. Long-ago friend of Joey Seldon.
Towler, Winnie: Married to Ark.


Mary McGarry Morris is married and the mother of five children. She lives in Massachusetts. She is the author of two earlier novels: Vanished, nominated for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and A Dangerous Woman, which was made into a major motion picture. Both books are available in Penguin paperback editions.



"A dazzling first novel....Events are presented with such authority that they hum with both the authenticity of real life and the mythic power of fable." — Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times


A Dangerous Woman

"At once thrilling and deeply affecting...should burnish Ms. Morris's reputation as one the most skillful new writers at work in America today." — The New York Times



How did you come to create the town of Atkinson, Vermont, and all its characters?

Many of the characters have been in my head for years and years. As I went along in the novel they grew in both personality and detail. Others came on board later in the novel's life.

How did you keep track of all of the characters' individual stories?

I kept lists and charts taped to the wall over my desk, and I even used index cards which were numbered and which contained events or scenes so I would know where each person was at any given time. Then, if a scene was to be juxtaposed with another I could tell where the people were and what was happening in their lives. This of course came later in the writing of the novel.

The seeds of these stories were with me from the beginning, as were certain characters, such as the Fermoyle family and Omar Duvall, and they made up the emotional core of the novel. The more mechanical parts, where I had to keep track of all the characters, were actually more difficult to write.

Which character do you consider to be the novel's moral compass?

So many of the characters are struggling with morality; I'm not sure there is any one character I'd consider the moral compass. Norm Fermoyle, for instance, is very socially responsible and he has a great frustration trying to save his mother and his siblings. He wants to do the right thing but that's very difficult for him. Of course, you would expect Father Gannon would be someone you could look to for moral opinion but he's having a terrible time himself. Sonny Stoner is struggling as well, and is probably more a failure in his own eyes than in the judgement of his fellow townspeople. The band leader, Jarden Greene, feels that it's his responsibility to set the moral tone for the community, to save it from the kind of decline represented by Joey Seldon's dilapidated popcorn stand on the edge of the lovely town park.

What is Benjy looking for?

I saw many of the characters as looking for a kind of a salvation and for Benjy it would have been Omar to whom he looks. Benjy tends to refashion reality — there's his petty thievery, all the television he watches — he wants to give his mother a hero, someone who will change their world for them.

You've written two previous novels. What did you learn from writing those novels that helped you with this one?

Obviously, brevity was not one of them. If anything, probably the ways and importance of giving characters depth no matter how minor they might be. Even if it's just a few details, that kind of attention can lend many dimensions to the main stories you want to tell.

What does the novel's title mean?

There are many ways to interpret the title. The Songs are various stories of ordinary people in Atkinson: I wanted them to have a lyrical feeling so that each character's voice could tell their story, and as the various segments of these stories ended there would be this subtle ebb, and then another character's tale could take up the melody, and I envisioned the effect of this being a kind of chorusing, a consonance of pain and joy.

In Christian Liturgy, Ordinary Time is that period of time in which there are no major holy days. This book takes place in summer, the only complete season in Ordinary Time. Also, that year — 1960 — was still a very calm and peaceful time, which in a few short years, would change completely. It was a time of naïveté that we'll never see again, and yet it was also a time when some of the more basic rules of morality were starting to be questioned. These are really the stories of ordinary lives, of people caught in the everyday struggles of everyday life.


  • Omar Duvall is known to the reader as a dishonest and potentially dangerous man. Why do you think the people of Atkinson are drawn to such a reprehensible figure? What does he offer people like Marie, Benjy, Harvey Klubock, and Bernadette Mansaw? Why do these characters refuse to accept the truth about him, even when it's clearly evident that he has lied to them?
  • How do you feel about the character of Marie Fermoyle? Given the circumstances she's had to face — the breakup of her marriage to the heir of a prominent family, the economic hardships she's endured, the scrutinizing eyes of neighbors and other members of the community — can you sympathize with her actions towards her children, Omar Duvall, and her ex-husband?
  • Although most of the novel's characters are flawed, few of them are truly malevolent. Discuss, for instance, Renie LaChance's telephone calls to women, Sonny Stoner's affair with Eunice, Father Gannon's affair with Alice, Robert Haddad's thievery, and Sam's alcoholism. What do these characters, and their failings, have in common? What compels them in their actions?
  • What do Joey Seldon and his popcorn stand represent to the novel and/or to the town of Atkinson? Why do you think people feel so strongly about Joey, one way or the other?
  • How does Morris use humor to offset the darker events of the novel? Do her humorous passages make you more sympathetic toward characters such as Omar Duvall, Jarden Greene, or Astrid Haddad?
  • Why do you think Norm, who had been Omar Duvall's greatest detractor, is taken in by the soap-selling scheme? How does Omar manage to manipulate Norm's feelings about him, and why, eventually, does he fail?
  • What does Father Gannon mean when he tells Alice, "I realize that my faith has become a wholeness. It's a unity of mind and soul. And flesh...I finally feel like a real priest!" Do you think he really loves Alice? What does she give him and what, in turn, does he offer her?
  • Omar insists that he truly loves Marie, despite all the ways in which he has deceived her. Do you believe him? Do you believe his involvement with the Fermoyle family has changed him? What clues does Morris offer, especially in the final scene involving Omar, Norm, and Benjy, that affect your feelings either way?
  • How does the concept of salvation figure in the novel? Which characters can't be saved from their own desperate acts, and which are trying desperately to save themselves?
  • What do you think the future holds for Marie Fermoyle and her family? How has the presence of Omar Duvall changed each of them, as well as their relationships with each other?
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Customer Reviews

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( 23 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 24 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 1, 2009

    Great Read

    Anything thing by Mary McGarry Morris is worth the read - her plots and characters are engrossing!!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 12, 2009

    I loved this book!

    I still think about this book and miss the characters. I recommend this book to anyone who likes a story about many different people and how their lives intertwine.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 24, 2010

    Not worth the read!

    About a family- the dad is a drunk, mom works hard but keeps getting into messes, she falls for a con man. The kids get in trouble, dad can't get sober. This book is hard to follow, I just wanted to be finished with it. Not worth reading.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2007

    A long slow boring read

    I rarely have trouble getting through a book - this one was a test - slow moving, undeveloped characters - no plot, just plod - not a single character in a book with far too many worth rooting for.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2002


    Couldn't wait to get my reading time in to find out what was going to happen. I really felt like I was part of this family, I wanted to help the Fermoyle's! I was hoping Omar Duvall would have come to a more devastating end. But I guess he got what he didn't want, having to be on the run again. Mary McGarry Morris has a great way of forming characters and getting you right into their lives.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2000

    Was there a Climax???

    This was one of those books you keep waiting for something to happen and it never does. Although the characters were interesting, the book will leave you empty. I was very disappointed in the book, yes the story line will keep you turning the pages, but only because you know there's got to be something good between the cover, but sad to say there isn't. You will however become attached to the characters and the way their lives are going, but there is no ending to the story. It just leaves you hanging and wondering......what????

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 12, 2000

    Great character writing

    The characters from this novel have remained with me since reading it. The story is common enough, but the way I felt drawn into the lives of these ordinary people was captivating. I think of them often. Well written and enjoyable.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 22, 2014

    Not my cup of tea....

    I got about 160 pages into this book and I just had to stop. I thought it sounded fascinating, as I usually love books about small town life and the people who inhabit those small towns. But, I just couldn't get into this one. None of the characters are likable to me. The only one I liked even a little bit was the boy, Benjy. Maybe it just wasn't my cup of tea. Just couldn't waste any more time on it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2012


    Loved it

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  • Posted February 1, 2012

    Each new chapter brought a new discovery!

    I really loved this book and was kind of exhausted after reading as many pages in a day as I could...took me less than a week to get through all 739 pages. The characters were all very quirky and odd, a community full of interesting people, most of them struggling with some type of weakness or unfulfilled dream or secret. I would have given this book 5 stars if it were not for the ending that really wasn't. If I had written this book I would have ended it very differently, but then this was an Oprah book afterall and rarely do these have happy endings all tied in a bow. But all in all it was entertaining and page turning and I found myself unable to put it down for very long at a time because I just couldn't wait to see what was going to happen next.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2012

    The book The book7777777777-7777777777)

    I hated

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  • Posted October 2, 2011


    I did finish this book and it was beautifully written and the characters were well drawn, but.....they were the most dysfunctional, depressed, depressing group I have ever met. I honestly feel that my normal optimistic, happy personality was brought down. I have been sluggish and weary and I think it is the influence of these dark, distressed people. I wanted to know how it would end...and it didn't really end, but it seemed life was on an up tick for most of them. I do feel I have come to know the characters personally and my life looks glorious next to theirs, but I would think twice before picking up another of this author's books. I just don't want to feel that low again.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2006

    These charaters have hopes and dreams, very similar to our own.

    ¿Songs in Ordinary Time¿ often seems to be a quite simple and ordinary story about simple, troubled people but the underlying originality of these characters and how easily they relate to the reader will pull you in. From the first paragraphs of this story, readers will be intrigued by the interesting lives and stories where mysteries are left unsaid and the reader¿s imagination is left to wonder. This is a story with multiple viewpoints of an entire community of people whose lives and decisions overlap each other¿s in interesting and surprising ways. Reader¿s will find themselves pulled into every aspect of these character¿s lives as they relate to them. All the characters in this book have the same underlying desires in life: the desire to make their way in the world the desire to do something great with their life the need to make a good living for themselves and their families and to find happiness and love. These simple qualities and desires every character hopes for in different, interesting, and beautiful ways. Once you start reading this book you can¿t stop without knowing whether or not these characters¿ will fulfill their hopes, dreams and desires. Every character is searching and is on such a different path in life that will keep the pages turning. Part of the enjoyment of reading this book is to watch and grow with the characters and to discover how to find enjoyment in a seemingly uninteresting period of their lives.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2000

    No Climax, but great character sketches

    I enjoyed the characterizations of certain people in the book, and one thing I loved was how Morris changed the point of view constantly.. kept the story alive. However, I too felt as if something was supposed to happen and didn't. but one thing is certain, you feel like you are a part of this town, and you never ever want to leave it!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 21, 2000

    It reads like a hot summer day with no air - conditioning!

    But somehow you get through it and you are a better person for it. I fell in love with Benny yet I kept waiting for him to learn right from wrong - what I didn't see until the end was that his right centers solely around his mother's happiness. I even found myself cheering for Sam Fermoyle - I must say - Mary M. Morris did quite a job filling out his character!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2000

    slow start, but worth it

    I had a real hard time getting through the first part of the book. I don't think I would have if wasn't on Oprah's list. But once I got through the first part it was a really good book. Someone on here said they did'nt think that anyone changed in the book except Alice, but I don't think that is true. I think Marie did change at the end. Anyway, it was a pretty good book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 22, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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