Sure Signs of Crazy

Sure Signs of Crazy

4.2 9
by Karen Harrington

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Love can be a trouble word for some people. Crazy is also a trouble word.

I should know.

You've never met anyone exactly like twelve-year-old Sarah Nelson. While most of her friends obsess over Harry Potter, she spends her time writing letters to Atticus Finch. She collects trouble words in her diary. Her best friend is a


Love can be a trouble word for some people. Crazy is also a trouble word.

I should know.

You've never met anyone exactly like twelve-year-old Sarah Nelson. While most of her friends obsess over Harry Potter, she spends her time writing letters to Atticus Finch. She collects trouble words in her diary. Her best friend is a plant. And she's never known her mother, who left when Sarah was two.

Since then, Sarah and her dad have moved from one small Texas town to another, and not one has felt like home.

Everything changes when Sarah launches an investigation into her family's Big Secret. She makes unexpected new friends and has her first real crush, and instead of a "typical boring Sarah Nelson summer," this one might just turn out to be extraordinary.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
* "Don't think this will be a hard sell to readers...for Harrington has created a protagonist who is, in her own way, as clear-eyed, tough-minded, and inspiring as any dystopian hero."—Booklist, starred review"

Sarah Nelson faces her life squarely, with a heroism that makes us cheer for humanity's courage, wit, and guts. Hers is a compelling journey that takes us into that most fragile place: Hope. You will be glad you journeyed there with her."—Gary D. Schmidt, author of the Newbery Honor book The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now

* "Sarah is an introspective protagonist whose narrative, interspersed with letters and word definitions, keeps readers absorbed...Secondary characters add interest and texture to this compelling novel."—SLJ, starred review

* "Readers intrigued by the premise of this moving story will sympathize with the plucky protagonist and rejoice in the way her summer works out."—Kirkus, starred review"

An engaging, warm-hearted story. Beautifully written, Harrington creates a fearless and resilient heroine."—Jewell Parker Rhodes, author of the Coretta Scott King Honor book Ninth Ward and Sugar"

Sure Signs of Crazy is knowing, hilarious, and tender. Karen Harrington's character portrait of Sarah Nelson is one for the ages."—Pat Conroy, bestselling author of The Prince of Tides and My Reading Life"

Extraordinary heart."—The Horn Book

Publishers Weekly
In her middle-grade debut, Harrington revisits the family from her adult novel, Janeology, as she goes behind the scenes of a tabloid-headline story. Ten years ago, Sarah Nelson’s mother, Jane, attempted to drown Sarah and her twin brother, Simon, who didn’t survive. Now 12, Sarah has moved from town to town with her sad, alcoholic father, trying to escape media attention while her mother resides in a mental institution. Desperate to know more about her mother, but fearing insanity is genetic, Sarah monitors herself for “signs of crazy,” wondering if writing letters to Atticus Finch, confiding in her plant, and taking refuge on a tree stump in her yard qualify. She is also obsessed with word definitions; many appear in the book, accompanied by her pithy reflections. Over one watershed summer, Sarah tries to learn about being a woman from her 20-year-old neighbor, Charlotte; develops her first crush—on Charlotte’s 19-year-old brother, who shares her love of words; and struggles to figure out how to live as her mother’s daughter. Harrington skillfully portrays watchful, contemplative Sarah’s coming of age. Ages 9–up. Agent: Julia Kenny, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency. (Aug.)
starred review Booklist
* "Don't think this will be a hard sell to readers...for Harrington has created a protagonist who is, in her own way, as clear-eyed, tough-minded, and inspiring as any dystopian hero."
Gary D. Schmidt
"Sarah Nelson lives between a terrible tragedy in the past and a terrible fear about what might happen in the future. In that uncertainty, Sarah faces her life squarely, with a heroism that makes us cheer for humanity's courage, wit, and guts. She faces a divided friendship, the death of a neighbor, the loss of her first love, the near loss of her father, and, most poignantly, the knowledge that her lost mother will never be found--and yet hers is a compelling journey that takes us into that most fragile place: Hope. You will be glad you journeyed there with her."
starred review SLJ
* "Sarah is an introspective protagonist whose narrative, interspersed with letters and word definitions, keeps readers absorbed...Secondary characters add interest and texture to this compelling novel."
Jewell Parker Rhodes
"An engaging, warm-hearted story. Beautifully written. Harrington creates a fearless and resilient heroine."
Pat Conroy
"Sure Signs of Crazy is knowing, hilarious, and tender. Karen Harrington's character portrait of Sarah Nelson is one for the ages."
Library Media Connection
* "[A] beautifully written story...This is the kind of book that stays with you."
The Horn Book
"Extraordinary heart."
VOYA - Teen Reviewer Riley Carter
Humorously written, this book will capture the reader's attention. While not all readers can relate to the tough situations that Sarah has to deal with, they can feel for her and her struggles. Most appealing about this book is that Sarah, even though she has many reasons to have low esteem, keeps her head up high throughout all the troubling events in the story. 4Q, 5P. Reviewer: Riley Carter, Teen Reviwer
VOYA - Kim Carter
When Sarah's sixth-grade teacher challenges the class to "write to someone" over the summer, Sarah takes him up on the idea, writing letters to Atticus Finch, the father she wishes she had. As her twelfth birthday approaches, Sarah is ready for a change. She and her father have spent the last ten years of their lives together trying to outrun public recognition from her mother's attempt to drown Sarah and her twin brother Simon when they were two. While Sarah survived, Simon was not so lucky, and Sarah's mother was committed to a mental hospital. Between wishing her father would not "forget" her birthday as he drowns his sadness with alcohol and searching for hidden meaning in the cryptic birthday letter she receives from her mother, Sarah convinces her father to let her stay in Garland for the summer, spending her days with her college-student neighbor Charlotte, her pushy boyfriend, and Charlotte's brother Finn. Throughout it all, Sarah keeps writing to Atticus, talking to her plant, and keeping a close eye on herself, watching for signs she has inherited her mother's craziness. Sarah's first person narrative is clear, strong, humorous, and honest, despite the complexity of the challenges she faces. Readers who enjoy realistic fiction and exploring the complexities of human relationships will enjoy Sarah's compelling quest for hope. Reviewer: Kim Carter
Children's Literature - Peg Glisson
In many ways, Sarah is like most twelve-year-old girls—experiencing her first period, wanting pierced ears, longing for a first kiss. There is a whole other layer to Sarah, though: the survivor. As a toddler, she survived her mentally ill mother's attempt to kill her and her twin Simon (but Simon did not survive) and the subsequent trials of both parents; since then she has survived her mother's institutionalization, living with her father's alcoholism, and moving every time someone unearths their past. She confides in her best friend Plant, stands on the tree stump in the front yard (and knows neither of those behaviors is normal), fights for her right to not be sent to her grandparents for the summer, writes her deepest secrets and fears in letters to Atticus Finch, has her first crush on an older boy across the street, and deepens friendships with other neighbors. She is very worried she has inherited either her mother's illness or her father's alcoholism and is constantly on the lookout for "sure signs of crazy." Using characters from her adult book Janeology, Harrington has crafted a humorous, thoughtful, and insightful middle grade novel. Sarah is an authentic tween, at times witty, angry, kind, fearful and determined to get the more detailed information she needs about her mother. The adult characters are likewise genuine. Her father knows he is using alcohol to fight his shame, grief, and loneliness. When sober, he is a decent Dad who is trying his best. Readers may well end up rooting for him as well as for the plucky Sarah. Reviewer: Peg Glisson
School Library Journal
Gr 6–9—Sarah Nelson is dreading the seventh-grade family tree project and hoping her alcoholic father, a college professor, will move them from Garland, Texas, by summer's end. That has been their pattern whenever local acquaintances discover, usually through a resurfacing news story about two notorious court trials, that Sarah is the sole survivor of her mother's attempt to drown her two-year-old twins 10 years earlier. With a plant as her only confidante, she conducts imaginary conversations with her dead brother and looks for signs of insanity in herself as she puzzles over the twice-yearly cryptic greeting cards from her mother, a patient in a home for the insane in Wichita. An end-of-sixth-grade letter-writing assignment has Sarah sharing her loneliness and confusion with an idealized father, Atticus Finch, from To Kill a Mockingbird. But at least her own father has agreed to spare her a boring summer with her grandparents in Houston, deciding instead to leave her in the charge of a college student. Charlotte's romantic preoccupations, benign neglect, and attractive brother who shares Sarah's love of words start her on a road to self-discovery and give her the courage to challenge her father's well-intended but misguided attempts to shield her from her past. Sarah is an introspective protagonist whose narrative, interspersed with letters and word definitions, keeps readers absorbed. The horrific premise is not belabored, and the focus remains on the plight of a girl juggling the normal challenges of adolescence with a complex family situation. Secondary characters add interest and texture to this compelling novel.—Marie Orlando, formerly at Suffolk Cooperative Library System, Bellport, NY
Kirkus Reviews
Worried that she will grow up to be crazy like her mother or alcoholic like her father, rising seventh-grader Sarah Nelson takes courage from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, writing letters to Atticus Finch and discovering her own strengths. Sarah is a survivor. She survived her mother's attempt to drown her when she was 2 and the notoriety that has followed her and her father from one Texas town to another in the 10 years since. In a first-person, present-tense narration interspersed with definitions, diary entries and letters, she describes the events of the summer she turns 12, gets her period, develops a crush on a neighbor and fellow word lover, and comes to terms with her parents' failings. In her first middle-grade novel, Harrington revisits the characters of her adult thriller, Janeology (2008), to imagine what it might be like to be the child of a filicidal mother. Sarah's 12-year-old voice is believable and her anxieties realistic. Intellectually precocious and responsible beyond her years, she is also a needy child who finds helpful support when she reaches out to a grieving elderly neighbor. Although her situation is difficult, Sarah is resilient and hopeful. Readers intrigued by the premise of this moving story will sympathize with the plucky protagonist and rejoice in the way her summer works out. (Fiction. 9-13)

Product Details

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Sure Signs of Crazy

By Karen Harrington

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Copyright © 2013 Karen Harrington
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-21058-4


You've never met anyone like me. Unless, of course, you've met someone who survived her mother trying to drown her and now lives with an alcoholic father. If there are other people like this, I want to meet them pronto. Pronto, which is my current favorite word, is what they say in cop shows when a detective wants information fast. There would be a lot I could learn from those people, especially if they are older than me, which is almost twelve. As it is right now, I have to learn most things on my own.

This is what I've written in my real diary. I could never say this out loud. Never.

If you want to know, I have a real diary and a fake diary. The fake diary is the decoy, the one you hide in plain sight. If someone finds it and reads it, he will think you are normal and move right along. When you write in it, all you have to do is pretend an adult is reading it and say something like:

This was a great day. I got an A on the Math test, and I met a new friend named Denise, who hums during Algebra.

The real diary is just for me. Private and true. Lately, I've been writing about problems I'm trying to work out. Here's what I've written:

There are two weeks of school left. As soon as the final bell rings, I'll have two giant problems.

Problem 1: I'll have a boring summer and be forced to stay at my grandparents' boring house.

Problem 2: I'll have to go to seventh grade in three months and be forced to do that horrible Family Tree Project that Lisa's sister had to do this year. Everyone at school will know about my mother.

I can try to change Problem 1, but Problem 2 is tragically unsolvable. I can't figure out any way to get around doing the project unless I move away and go to another school. Investigate this option.

It's a little bit difficult to keep two diaries going, but it is necessary. I have to keep facts, clues, and lists of words where no one will see them but me. Not every person responds to words the same way. Some words are trouble words. A trouble word will change the face of the person you say it to. Love can be a trouble word for some people. Crazy is also a trouble word.

I should know.

Once, when we had just moved to Garland, into our ugly, brown rent-house on Yale Court, my dad had tensed up like he might hit something when I'd used the word crazy to describe my mother. It was because of career day at school. Dad had asked me if I had any idea what I wanted to be. To be honest, I had still been thinking about it because I was waiting to see if I turned out crazy like her.

So I said to Dad, "Why not wait until you figure out if you are going to inherit crazy before you decide on an occupation?" I don't know why I said this out loud. I'm usually careful with words.

I saw a hurt in Dad's eyes that made me want to leave the room. But because he was blocking the only way out of our U-shaped kitchen, there was no place to go. My backup plan was to climb inside a kitchen cabinet and hide. That is saying a lot when you think how rent-house cabinets are the most disgusting things you will ever see. If there is a list of grossest places on earth, these cabinets are on it.

"I'm sorry," I said.

He took a deep breath and told me no, I wasn't going to be crazy and please don't ever, EVER, use that word to describe her again, young lady! I couldn't say anything back, because I was afraid. I wish I'd had enough guts to tell him I'd looked up crazy in the dictionary.

I knew I'd chosen the right word.

crazy adj.: mentally deranged; demented; insane

I added crazy to my list of trouble words.

I hide the real diary between two folded towels under my bathroom sink and leave the decoy on my nightstand. It has a shiny gold lock on it, so you think it's hiding important words.


I was only two when my mother filled the kitchen sink with water and tried to drown me. Sometimes it feels like she was the mother of some family across the street and we watched her story on the news thinking, Wow, too bad for that poor family. The counselors my dad once sent me to spent all their time trying to pry details out or put details into my brain about what they called "the incident."

One of the counselors, Dr. Madrigal, was so sure I could remember some detail about that day, he asked me constantly if I had nightmares about water or a fear of water. No, I don't. But I tell you, if I'd gone to his office much longer, I'm pretty certain I'd have developed a fear of swimming.

So even though I'm her daughter and she tried to kill me, I know the story only from what's written in black and white. You would think I was an investigator. Many of the details are available to anyone with a computer. I'm scared to look up anything at home, so I've conducted my investigation at the library, using the search terms Jane Nelson trial.

Jane Nelson is my mother.

If you do this search, Google will tell you "there are about 821,000 results." That is how famous her case is on the Internet. You can click on her Wikipedia page first and learn simple facts. Jane Nelson was born in Texas. Her mother was killed when she was nine. Raised by her father. Went to nursing school. Became a mother at thirty-one. Committed to a mental hospital at thirty-five.

You can also click on articles about her trial and find details you wish weren't true, such as:


She drowned me first. Then Simon, my older brother. He is my twin, born three and a half minutes before me. A UPS deliveryman came to the door and found my mother dripping wet. She asked him to call 911. The rest of the story is all about court cases and who was right and who was wrong and proving she was crazy.

I don't understand a lot about the trials. And, yes, I mean trials.

There were two.

First, my mother's, which led to a plea of insanity and a sentence of undetermined length at a mental-health facility here in Texas. Second, my dad's for failing to protect us. Don't ask me how to explain this since he was at work when my mother became a criminal, and of course he would've protected us. Still, the newspapers didn't write nice things about him, even after he was found not guilty.

The only thing I know for certain is that Simon wasn't as lucky as I was. He is dead in a tiny grave in Houston, and I'm in this ugly, brown house in Garland with a shiny pink cell phone making the Crazy Frog sound, which is how I know it's Lisa calling.

I put my diary to the side.


"Did you see?"

"See what?"

"Emma Rodriguez is officially in a relationship."

If you want to know, Lisa is obsessed with relationships.

"With who?" I ask.

"Go look and call me back."

"Just tell me, already."

"Go look!"

When we hang up, there is a cloud of annoyance all over me. This is what she does. Tease people with information. It would be nice if I could talk to her about real things.

Like Simon.

Dr. Madrigal said I should try "sharing my feelings" with kids my age, but what does he know? He always reminded me that my mother's crimes weren't my fault. Well, I figured that out on my own, thank you very much. My mother didn't know me the way a person really knows a person. She was sick and I was only two. You would think this all doesn't matter, because it happened a long time ago, but that is not the case. News reporters like to keep reminding people about our business.

When there is a new story about a woman killing her child, there is almost always some reference to my mother. Her story is that famous.

So you can see why I am dreading seventh grade with a capital D. It's simply impossible to imagine myself presenting a Family Tree Project with names, details, charts, major historic events in your family, and "what is the most interesting connection you see across the generations."

Lisa's sister did the project last year, and all Lisa talked about, besides how she'd steal her sister's project and not have to do one, was how her grandmother once sang on Broadway. Lisa said that was why she was going to get the lead part in Guys and Dolls, which she did, so there was no shutting her up.

Of course, I could lie and make up a whole family with nice qualities like a talent for woodworking. I could say, Oh, my family made bookshelves for George Washington, and look at this pencil I just carved.

But I would still have to be around all these braggers like Lisa who have something good to look forward to, and my neck would turn red when I lied anyway. Especially if I have to present before fancy-dresser Angela Nee. Angela and I are side by side in the school yearbook, but that's pretty much the only time we'll ever be together on anything.

Angela Nee: Tall and green-eyed. Perfect shiny black hair. Often mistaken for a model. Raises hand in class with correct answers.

Sarah Nelson: Short and brown-eyed. Short brown hair in need of style. Often mistaken for a fifth grader. Must be called on to answer.

Maybe I don't want to be a seventh grader with a Family Tree Project that informs the world that a crazy gene runs in my family, but wouldn't I like to know a few more things about my mother? Yes, I would. I would like to get information about her and have it all to myself. Like maybe we are both good with plants. Maybe we can both make them bloom, no problem.


It turns out that Emma Rodriguez is in a relationship with Jimmy Leighton. That is why Lisa teased me. She knows I like Jimmy. Well.

After I finish writing about Problems 1 and 2 in my diary, I count up the days until school is out for the summer. Thirteen more days of sixth grade, including the weekend. Lisa is going to camp as soon as school lets out, so "sharing my feelings" with her is no good.

So I write down that what I need is an informant, which is a word I found in the dictionary one night.

informant n.: a person who supplies data in answer to the questions of an investigator

If you want to know, the pages of my dictionary are rubbed soft. I have favorite words highlighted in blue. Dad hates how I write inside books, but I love words of all sorts, and this is what I must do.

Dad should be my chief informant. But an informant talks, and he does not like to talk about anything but what he needs to pick up at the store.

This is an example of a conversation with my dad: "Are we out of milk? Cereal? How about I make pancakes on Saturday?"

In his conversations, your own input is not really required. I have to pry real information out of him. He is hard, frozen ice cream and I am a weak spoon. What I've learned is this: You don't get much ice cream for all the hard work you put in, and the spoon ends up bent.

Like always, I have to figure out things on my own and answer the questions my brain creates. If you want to know, I am looking for any signs of going crazy. The more information I gather, the better I can defend myself against the world, against the brain inside me that may or may not be like hers.

So far, I've decided only one thing about how to solve the problem of going to seventh grade. I will be on the case, as they say in crime shows. I will look for clues myself. I decide to write the names of all the people who know more about my mother than I do. They could be my sources. Dad, my grandparents. And, of course, my mother herself. When I get enough information, I will know what to do.

Under my dad's name, I make a note that he doesn't always tell the truth. 1. Unreliable source

2. Tells people he's a widower

Next, there are my grandparents. I write their names on a new page, make some notes about clues they might offer.

1. Besides Dad, they are the only people I know who knew my mother before "the incident."

2. My grandmother called her bohemian once.

bohemian n.: a person, as an artist or writer, who lives and acts free of regard for conventional rules and practices

Her tone didn't make it sound complimentary. It was the same way I sometimes tell Lisa her outfit looks "fine" when it's clearly a disaster.

On another diary page, I write my mother's name. I stare at it for a long time.

Jane Nelson.

The page stays blank.

I wish I could just walk up and ask (the way my English teacher does), "Please, in your own words, tell me what happened the day you tried to kill me." But I can't. I close my diary and put it back in its hiding place between the towels. Then I stare into the mirror until my eyes are like those of a person who is calm and not at all scared. I say to myself, I want to know, in your own words, what happened. Before you answer, know that I will not hold a grudge. I'm just conducting an interview. Your cooperation is appreciated.

I rehearse lines in front of Plant, which, if you read my real diary, you would know for sure is my best friend. There are only two things we've had at every rental house: Plant and the miscellaneous box. I take Plant inside the new house, and Dad leaves the miscellaneous box in the garage. When I asked him about the box, he said miscellaneous is stuff you don't know you need until you see it.

Most days when I water Plant, I have a new trouble word to tell her. All of them are mixed deep in her soil. If secrets were seeds, she could bloom leaves that would make me blush.

And if she did bloom and show the world all my secrets, I just don't know what I'd do. Probably lie and say, "Oh, she was here when we moved in. These are the secrets of another girl."


Plant agrees with me. We'll start our investigation as soon as school is out. For now, I'm suffering through a hot Saturday afternoon with the knowledge that Jimmy Leighton is in a relationship.

I officially hate this day.

Now, I try not to use the word hate. One of the reasons I like watching The Rifleman on TV is that the cowboy Lucas McCain always says stuff like "Hate is too strong a word to use just because you don't agree with someone." But if it is only one day before your twelfth birthday, this should be a fun day where you get to go to the mall and pick out your birthday present.

Well, Dad trashed that plan when he decided to hang out with Jim Beam and get drunk. This is not unusual. When he is sober, he is the Secret Service. But put a drink in him and I am on my own. So sorry, Lucas McCain, aka Rifleman, but I still hate this day.

Dad hides the Jim Beam in a Dr Pepper bottle, but I still know. And when he drinks, it is almost always because of my mother. Well, didn't I see this coming? My birthday makes him sad. My birthday is never fun for him, so I should have known not to get my hopes up about the mall.

Of course, my birthday is Simon's birthday, too, which is one clue about why my dad doesn't like to celebrate. Or it would be his birthday. We talk about Simon even less than we do about my mother. His name is a trouble word times ten.

It makes me sad to wonder what he would want at the mall for his birthday. When I see things boys my age have, I sometimes stop and think, Would Simon like that? Would he want to read this kind of book? Would we be doing the same things? Since I don't know for sure, I give him imaginary presents. This year I gave him a motor-powered scooter with blinking lights and night-vision goggles. Last year I got him a boomerang and The Dangerous Book for Boys, which I've read several times (especially the parts about girls). Simon suggested this book to me in a dream. We both thought it was good.

Yes, I talk to my dead twin brother sometimes. This is a sure sign I am going to turn out crazy, but who am I supposed to talk to about some things? Besides Plant, he is probably the one who knows me best.

Sarah's confidants = one living green organism and one dead brother.

Dr. Madrigal once told me it's better to think of how things really are and not how things should be, but you can't always control your imagination. Lately, I imagine the way it would be if my mother were here. I could fill up a blank page in my diary with how it should be. We wouldn't live in a dead-end cul-de-sac, staring at gray ground and listening to that annoying dog barking and clawing at the chain-link fence. My hair would be long and braided, and my clothes would be folded fresh from the dryer. If you want to know, my hair has never been braided, and most days I pull a clean, wrinkled shirt from the laundry basket.

"How about we go to the mall?" Dad had asked, pressing a hand to my shoulder, his breath already tinted with Jim Beam.

"Sure," I told him.

But then he sat on the couch and watched Westerns or whatever crime shows he had recorded. Watching shows is one of his favorite things to do, so I guess that's the only thing we have in common. But watching too many shows is another sign he's unhappy.


Excerpted from Sure Signs of Crazy by Karen Harrington. Copyright © 2013 Karen Harrington. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Karen Harrington was born in Texas, where she still lives with her husband and children. Sure Signs of Crazy is her first book for young readers. You can visit her online at

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Sure Signs of Crazy 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very well written. Loved Sarah and her journey.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It sounded really interesting but I thought it was kind of slow and boring. Also pretty sad.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im already loving the book and ive only read like twenty pages anyone else who plans on reading it I hope u enjoy it!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Since i really like the sample i am going to see if i can buy it :)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book diesnt make ANY sense at all
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really like the sample. I am going to buy the book.