What She Left Behind

What She Left Behind

3.9 39
by Ellen Marie Wiseman

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In this stunning new novel, the acclaimed author of The Plum Tree merges the past and present into a haunting story about the nature of love and loyalty--and the lengths we will go to protect those who need us most.

Ten years ago, Izzy Stone's mother fatally shot her father while he slept. Devastated by her mother's apparent insanity, Izzy, now seventeen,


In this stunning new novel, the acclaimed author of The Plum Tree merges the past and present into a haunting story about the nature of love and loyalty--and the lengths we will go to protect those who need us most.

Ten years ago, Izzy Stone's mother fatally shot her father while he slept. Devastated by her mother's apparent insanity, Izzy, now seventeen, refuses to visit her in prison. But her new foster parents, employees at the local museum, have enlisted Izzy's help in cataloging items at a long-shuttered state asylum. There, amid piles of abandoned belongings, Izzy discovers a stack of unopened letters, a decades-old journal, and a window into her own past.

Clara Cartwright, eighteen years old in 1929, is caught between her overbearing parents and her love for an Italian immigrant. Furious when she rejects an arranged marriage, Clara's father sends her to a genteel home for nervous invalids. But when his fortune is lost in the stock market crash, he can no longer afford her care--and Clara is committed to the public asylum.

Even as Izzy deals with the challenges of yet another new beginning, Clara's story keeps drawing her into the past. If Clara was never really mentally ill, could something else explain her own mother's violent act? Piecing together Clara's fate compels Izzy to re-examine her own choices--with shocking and unexpected results.

Illuminating and provocative, What She Left Behind is a masterful novel about the yearning to belong--and the mysteries that can belie even the most ordinary life.

Praise For Ellen Marie Wiseman's The Plum Tree

"Ellen Marie Wiseman's provocative and realistic images of a small German village are exquisite. The Plum Tree will find good company on the shelves of those who appreciated Skeletons at the Feast, by Chris Bohjalian, Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay, and Night, by Elie Wiesel." --NY Journal of Books

"The meticulous hand-crafted detail and emotional intensity of The Plum Tree immersed me in Germany during its darkest hours and the ordeals its citizens had to face. A must-read for WWII Fiction aficionados--and any reader who loves a transporting story." --Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us

"Wiseman eschews the genre's usual military conflicts of daily life during wartime, lending an intimate and compelling poignancy to this intriguing debut." --Publishers Weekly

"Ellen Marie Wiseman weaves a story of intrigue, terror, and love from a perspective not often seen in Holocaust novels." --Jewish Book World

"A haunting and beautiful debut novel." --Anna Jean Mayhew, author of The Dry Grass of August

Editorial Reviews

NY Journal of Books

"Ellen Marie Wiseman's provocative and realistic images of a small German village are exquisite. The Plum Tree will find good company on the shelves of those who appreciated Skeletons at the Feast, by Chris Bohjalian, Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay, and Night, by Elie Wiesel."

Jewish Book World
"Ellen Marie Wiseman weaves a story of intrigue, terror, and love from a perspective not often seen in Holocaust novels."
From the Publisher
"Captivating in its complexity, this novel brings together the strengths and suffering of two young women born more than 60 years apart." —RT Book Reviews
VOYA - Lindy Gerdes
The year is 1929 and Clara has met the love of her life, an Italian immigrant named Bruno. Clara rejects her upper crust parents' plans to marry her off to another man they deem more appropriate, setting off a series of events that lead to a life wrongly imprisoned in an insane asylum. Fast-forward to the 1990s: Izzy, also seventeen, has lived in foster homes since her mother killed her father ten years earlier. The women's lives intersect when Izzy discovers a suitcase full of Clara's keepsakes in the now-abandoned insane asylum. Terrified of succumbing to mental illness like her mother, Izzy examines Clara's life in an attempt to understand her own. Wiseman deftly alternates between Clara and Izzy, teasing out their stories and ending each chapter at just the right point to maintain a thriving sense of mystery and suspense. Given how much of an impact they have on the women's lives, the supportive characters are oddly underdeveloped. For example, Clara's parents are fairly one-dimensional symbols of the society into which Clara is born. The dearth of complex characters is overshadowed by the intensity of Clara and Izzy's life circumstances and internal struggles. Both stories are relentlessly bleak; Wiseman makes no attempt to sugarcoat what Izzy and Clara go through, representing them as strong women who are determined not to succumb to their challenges. For the shocking characterization of early insane asylums and compelling connection between Izzy and Clara, this novel would be a valuable addition to most school and public libraries. Reviewer: Lindy Gerdes

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What She Left Behind

By Ellen Marie Wiseman


Copyright © 2014 Ellen Marie Wiseman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7582-7845-6



Willard State Asylum 1995

Within minutes of setting foot on the grounds of the shuttered Willard State Asylum, seventeen-year-old Isabelle Stone knew it was a mistake. If anyone saw her standing on the cracked and potholed main road of the vast, tree-lined property, they would have no clue of the horror festering inside her head.

On that hazy Saturday in late August, the warm breeze smelled of cattails and seaweed, occasional gusts rustling the grove of pines to the left of the open yard. Heat rose in shimmery vapors from the sunbaked earth and cicadas buzzed in the long grass near the woods, a droning, live thermometer that grew higher pitched and more insistent with every rising degree. Willard's manicured lawns sloped away from the main buildings, gently rolling downward toward the rocky shoreline of Seneca Lake. Sailboats bobbed across the waves and a long pier stretched like an invitation into the sparkling waters.

Isabelle—her father used to call her Izzy—should have been enjoying the warm sunshine and beautiful view. Instead, she grit her teeth and struggled to push the image of a bleeding hole in her father's skull from her mind. She felt like she was trapped in purgatory. Would she ever find peace, or would she always be that seven-year-old girl, reliving the horrible night her father was murdered?

Izzy stepped out of the shadow of Chapin Hall, the institution's massive main building, and faced the sun, eyes closed, trying to repress all thought. But when she turned to look up at the three-story brick Victorian with cathedral windows, the snarl of grief and fear returned. An enormous two-story cupola with porthole windows towered above a black mansard roof sprouting numerous attic dormers, turrets, and chimneys. A stone portico with disintegrating pillars protected the giant double doors of the main entrance. Black bars covered the tall, multipaned windows, nearly all of which were boarded up from the inside, except for the dormers in the attic and the round, porthole windows in the cupola. It looked more like a haunted mansion than a place designed to help people.

Izzy wondered what horrors the hulking building had witnessed. What dreadful memories had attached themselves to the bricks and mortar and clouded glass, forever part of the structure, mortared and sealed with blood and tears? Just as pain and anguish would always be part of who she was, the memories of thousands of tortured souls would live on in Chapin Hall and the surrounding buildings of Willard State. How could this place ever be anything but a miserable reminder of lives and loved ones lost?

She swallowed and turned toward the water, one hand shielding the sun from her eyes. She wondered if passing boaters looked over at the asylum and assumed the cluster of brick buildings and pastoral grounds belonged to a country club or college. From a distance, it looked orderly and genteel. But she knew better. She imagined the former patients in the yard, sitting in wheelchairs or shuffling across the grass, hospital gowns hanging from thin frames, eyes glazed over. She imagined being one of them, looking out over the blue lake. Did the patients realize that other people were taking boat trips, cooking dinner, falling in love and having children in the small communities across the bay? Did they wonder if they would ever be released, allowed to rejoin the "normal" world? Or were they completely unaware of the lives they were missing?

Izzy's stomach cramped as another memory flickered in her mind: her mother, Joyce, sprawled across a bed at the Elmira Psychiatric Center, eyes glazed over, staring blankly at the ceiling, hair sticking out in all directions. It had been a sultry day just like this one, and Izzy remembered her mother's mascara and eyeliner, melted and running down her pale cheeks, like a clown left out in the rain. She remembered burying her face in her grandmother's skirt, begging to go home. She'd never forget the endless white halls of the psych ward, the smell of urine and bleach, the dim rooms, the patients in wheelchairs and beds surrounded by rubber walls. After that visit, she had nightmares for years. She asked her grandmother not to make her go back and, thankfully, her grandmother agreed.

Izzy wrapped her arms around herself and moved along the broken pavement of Willard's main road, wondering how she found herself here, exploring a giant replica of that creepy hospital ward. She could have claimed a headache or a queasy stomach, anything to get out of coming. There were other museum employees who could have come in her place. But she didn't want to disappoint her new foster mother, Peg, the museum curator. For the first time since she was ten, after her grandmother died, Izzy had foster parents who seemed to care.

Sure, she was going to turn eighteen in less than a year. She'd been in the system long enough to know that eighteenth birthdays weren't marked by celebrations. When the checks stopped coming, she'd be on her own. "Aging out" of foster care meant becoming homeless. She'd heard stories of kids ending up in jail and hospital emergency rooms, selling drugs, living on welfare and food stamps. How desperate did a person have to become before they broke the law to survive? For now, things were good, and she didn't want to mess that up.

Earlier, Peg had asked her to come to the old asylum to help safeguard anything that might be worth keeping before the buildings were condemned. Without a word about her reservations, Izzy had agreed. She was relieved when Peg let her explore outside first, instead of making her go inside with the others, clambering into basements, wandering through the morgue, touring the dozens of abandoned patient wards. But she wondered what Peg would think if she knew that just being near Willard made her nauseous.

She crossed a wooden bridge over a dry creek bed, then followed the one-lane road toward the grove of pines. To her left, a flock of Canada geese foraged in an overgrown field, their heads curved above the goldenrod like black canes. A few feet from the edge of the road, three grayish-yellow goslings lay cradled in a nest of timothy and chickweed, their necks stretched out in the grass. Izzy stopped to watch, motionless. The babies' eyes were open, but they weren't moving. She edged closer, keeping one eye on the adults in the field. No matter how close she drew, the goslings stayed in the same spot, still as river stones. Izzy swallowed, her throat burning. The goslings were either dead or dying.

She knelt and picked one up, turning its soft, limp body over in her hands, feeling beneath its wings and stomach for wounds. She moved its legs and neck, checking for broken bones. There was no sign of trauma, and the bird's fuzzy down was still warm. Then the gosling blinked. It was still alive. Maybe they were sick, poisoned by improperly disposed chemicals or psychiatric medicines from Willard. Izzy picked up the other two goslings, found no sign of injury, and laid them back down.

Briefly, she wondered if Peg would allow her to bring them home, to nurse them back to health. Then she remembered that wild animals were better off being left alone. Maybe their mother would return and recognize what was wrong. Izzy straightened and continued down the road, her eyes brimming with tears. She watched over her shoulder, hoping the goslings' parents would appear. Hopefully, nothing had happened to them. Then, all of a sudden, the goslings jumped up and scurried into the field, their mother honking and rushing toward them through the grass. Izzy grinned and wiped her eyes, surprised that geese would play dead.

Breathing a sigh of relief, she continued toward the pine grove. On one side of the road, a leaning four-story building sat in the middle of a field, its shattered windows covered with iron bars, its roof collapsed, the green tiles and broken wood covered in black mold. It looked as if it had been dropped from the sky, like a ship pulled from the sea and tossed a thousand miles from shore. On the other side of the road, rows of cast iron grave markers lined a scraggly meadow, tilting left and right like crooked, gray teeth. A bitter taste filled Izzy's throat. It was Willard's cemetery. She spun around and hurried back to the main structure, toward the staggered rows of brick, factory-sized buildings connected to Chapin Hall—the patient wards.

The wards' fire escapes were inside wire cages, and the dirty windows were covered with thick bars, the rotting sills oozing a black sludge that ran down the brick walls. Most of the doors and windows had been boarded up from the inside, as if the memories of what had happened there should never again see the light of day. Izzy shivered. How many patients had suffered and died in this awful place?

Just then, someone called her name, pulling her from her thoughts. She turned to see Peg trotting along the road in her direction, a wide smile on her face. From the moment Izzy met her new foster mother, she was reminded of a sixties hippie. Today was no exception. Peg wore denim overalls and a flowery gypsy top, her hair a free-flowing mess of wild curls.

"Isn't this place amazing?" Peg said. "I didn't know it was this huge!"

"It's big, that's for sure," Izzy said, trying to sound agreeable.

"Did you see the boathouse and the dock?" Peg said. "That's where Willard Asylum's first patient arrived by steamboat in October 1869. Her name was Mary Rote and she was a deformed, demented woman who had been chained without a bed or clothing in a cell in the Columbia County almshouse for ten years. Three male patients arrived at the dock that day too, all in irons. One of them was inside what looked like a chicken crate."

Izzy looked toward the pier. To the right of the dock sat a twostory boathouse with broken windows and missing shingles, like a bruised face with drooping eyelids. "That sounds barbaric!" she said.

"It was," Peg said. "But that's why Willard was built. It was supposed to be a place for the incurably mad who were taking up space in poorhouses and jails. Within days of their arrival at the new asylum, the new patients were bathed, dressed, fed, and—usually—resting quietly on the wards."

"So people were treated well here?"

Peg's face went dark. "At first, I think so, yes. But through the years, Willard got overcrowded and conditions deteriorated. Unfortunately, nearly half of Willard's fifty thousand patients died here."

Izzy bit down on the inside of her cheek, wondering how to ask if she could go wait in the car. Then Peg grinned and grabbed Izzy's hand.

"Come on!" she said, her eyes lighting up. "One of the former employees wants to show us something in the shuttered workshop. I think it's going to be an important find and I don't want you to miss it!"

Izzy groaned inside and followed her foster mother along the main road toward the workshop, trying to come up with an excuse not to go inside. Nothing came to her. Nothing that didn't sound stupid or crazy anyway. And she didn't want Peg to think she was crazy. This past summer, when she first arrived at Peg and Harry's, she was certain they'd be like the rest of her foster parents, taking kids in for the money and free labor. Harry was the art director of the state museum, and Izzy got the feeling that between the two of them, they didn't make a lot of money. But thankfully, finally, this time she was wrong. Her new foster parents were actually decent people, willing to give her the space, both physically and emotionally, a young woman needed. Back at Peg and Harry's three-story house in Interlaken, she had her own room that looked out over the lake, with a TV, DVD player, and a personal computer. They said it was up to her to keep their trust. It was the first time anyone had ever put the ball in her court, without judging her first. And now, for the first time in a long time, Izzy felt like she was part of something "normal."

And yet, sometimes her new situation seemed too good to be true. In the back of her mind, she knew something or someone would come along and screw it up. That's just the way her life worked. Then she remembered that her first day at her new school was in two days and her stomach twisted. Being the new kid was always hard.

The closer they got to the workshop, the hotter Izzy's neck and chest grew. Like her mother, she had silver-blue eyes, black hair, and a bone white complexion. When she got nervous, red, blotchy patches broke out over her neck and chest. She could feel her skin welting up now. Being outside on the lawns of the asylum was one thing. But now she was going inside one of the buildings. The urge to flee swelled in her mind, making her heart race. It's just part of my job, she told herself. It has nothing to do with me, or my mother. Besides, it's time to put away childish fears.

She pulled her long hair up on top of her head and tied it in a knot, letting the breeze cool her neck.

"Aren't you hot in that long-sleeved shirt?" Peg said.

"No," Izzy said, pulling the edges of her sleeves down and holding them inside her fists. "It's pretty thin."

"I noticed when I was folding your laundry that you don't have any short-sleeved shirts," Peg said. "Maybe we can go shopping and get you some new clothes."

Izzy tried to smile. "Thanks," she said. "But I like long sleeves. And you don't have to do my laundry."

"I don't mind," Peg said, smiling. "I just can't understand why anyone would want to wear long sleeves in this weather."

Izzy shrugged. "I'm a little self-conscious about my arms," she said. "They're so skinny and pale."

"Most girls would love to have long, slender arms and legs like yours," Peg said, laughing.

Not if they could see the scars, Izzy thought.

She looked toward the lake and saw groups of people gathered near the shoreline, sitting at picnic tables, walking, playing softball and badminton. Most were in worn, faded clothing, shuffling along as if dazed by medication. She stopped. "Who are they?" she asked Peg.

Peg shielded her eyes from the sun and squinted toward the shore. "They're probably from the nearby Elmira Psychiatric Center," Peg said. "There's a campground down by the lake. Sometimes the staff bring the patients here for outings."

Izzy's eyes filled and she started walking again, staring at the ground.

Peg followed. "What's wrong?" she said.

"That's where my mother was," Izzy said. "In Elmira."

Peg put a hand on Izzy's shoulder. "I'm sorry. I didn't know."

Izzy lifted her head and tried to muster a smile. "It's okay. It was a long time ago."

"I hope you know I'm willing to listen if you ever need to talk."

"I know," Izzy said. "Thanks." But no thanks, she thought. All the talking in the world wouldn't change the fact that people were damaged goods. Before Izzy's grandmother passed away seven years ago, Izzy had seen three different doctors, trying to find relief for her recurring nightmares. Nothing helped. Besides, doctors don't know anything. A roomful of them had insisted Izzy's mother was of sound mind and body and could stand trial. Now she was in jail, instead of getting the help she needed. But Izzy knew madness was the only explanation for her mother shooting her father while he slept.

When they reached the shuttered workshop, a former employee unlocked the door and led Izzy, Peg, and two other museum employees inside.

"This was where the patients packed pens and glued paper bags," the former employee said cheerfully, as if she were showing them a display of quilts at a county fair.

Inside the building, workshop tables stood empty in barren rooms. Curling calendars and old fire extinguishers hung on cracked and peeling walls. The old freight elevator had been out of service for years, so Izzy and the others had to take a steep, narrow staircase up three flights to the attic, stepping over broken stair treads and chunks of old plaster, brushing aside cobwebs. When they reached the top, the former employee unlocked the attic door and leaned against it, trying to force it open. The door wouldn't budge. Peg stepped up to help, pushing on the wood with both hands. Finally the door gave, hinges screeching. The stale, dusty air inside the stairway whooshed upward, as if the attic was taking a giant gasp. The employee led them inside.


Excerpted from What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman. Copyright © 2014 Ellen Marie Wiseman. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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.

What People are Saying About This

Jenna Blum
"The meticulous hand-crafted detail and emotional intensity of The Plum Tree immersed me in Germany during its darkest hours and the ordeals its citizens had to face. A must-read for WWII Fiction aficionados--and any reader who loves a transporting story." --Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us
Anna Jean Mayhew
"A haunting and beautiful debut novel." --Anna Jean Mayhew, author of The Dry Grass of August "

Meet the Author

Ellen Marie Wiseman was born and raised in Three Mile Bay, a tiny hamlet in Northern New York. A first generation American, Ellen has traveled frequently to visit her family in Germany, where she fell in love with the country’s history and culture. A mother of two, Ellen lives peacefully on the shores of Lake Ontario with her husband and three dogs.

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What She Left Behind 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 39 reviews.
AngieJG More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed Ms. Wiseman's novel very much. I did not know about the insane asylum in New York prior to reading this. I thought it was a great plot that would interest most anyone. There is a parallel story running throughout the book. One is present day (or quite close to it), the other is from the 1920's and several years thereafter. The novelist does an excellent job describing the terrifying setting, and the treatment used on the many patients of Willard. It is a sad story, but one that must be told. A few years ago, a discovery of the patient's luggage/trunks were found on the grounds. The trunks had been sealed for many years. These trunks show up in Ms. Wiseman's novel, and they tell a story of people who never had a chance to live their lives with dignity. The author has opened those trunks to let us peer in to see. Immediately, after reading the novel, I wanted to learn more. You know a book is good when you can't get it out of your mind or you want to learn more. I highly recommend this book. 
BarbaraClaypoleWhite More than 1 year ago
WHAT SHE LEFT BEHIND is an exceptional page-turner that moves seamlessly between the past and the present. The historical storyline was hard for me to read at times--I have family members who battle mental illness--but still, I could not put the book down. With every chapter I wanted to know more--more about the characters, about how their stories would entwine, about the real Willard. This novel shines a floodlight on the treatment of women and the mentally ill in the 1930s, but here's the bottom line: It's a thumping good read. I loved Ellen Marie Wiseman's debut, THE PLUM TREE, but I liked her second novel even more. It's dark, it's tragic, it's filled with truths, and it's ultimately uplifting. Bravo!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is one of those rare reads that stays with you long after you read it! I highly recommend!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was excited to receive an Advanced Reader Copy of Ellen Wiseman's second novel, What She Left Behind (publication December 31st ). I thoroughly enjoyed Ellen's debut novel The Plum Tree, and I knew the setting for her second book was the Finger Lakes region of New York state, where I live. I am happy to report that What She Left Behind is a book that I could not stop reading! I enjoyed the book's structure of dual story lines that coalesce: this style of storytelling has the potential to be difficult to follow, however Wiseman pays close attention to continuity and relationship between the two main characters of Izzy and Clara. These are strong, complex women who are forced to confront many of the same issues, even though their lives occur in different time periods. Several themes play out in each character's story: the idea of a normal life and being denied it, doing what you're told, the strength and love that should exist in a family, and betrayal by a parent. At times, it is a sad story, but more than that it is a real story with believable characters who inform in a deeply emotional way. Its a great book to snuggle up with for a weekend on the couch!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book tells the stories of two young women from different times concurrently. Clara, the daughter of a wealthy banker in the 1920s is sent to a mental institution by her father for falling in love with an Italian immigrant and refusing to marry the son of her father's bussiness partner. Present day Izzy is just starting out in yet another foster home sent to foster care after her mother shot and killed her father 10 years ago. Clara struggles to adjust to life in a place where she doesnt belong, just as Izzy struggles to adjust to a new school, as she is tormented by way her once happy family was shattered. Their stories intersect when Izzy discovers Clara's steamer trunk of belongings at the now abandoned Willard State Aslyum while helping her foster mother with an official project she has undertaken. The reader is given a harrowing look at the asylums of the past, and the lack of rights endured by women of this era. Eventually, the two women's stories come together leading to resolution for them both of the central issues in thier lives. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND this wonderful book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
While this book kept me reading, it kept me skimming- the description were over-done and tiresome. There were many contradictions- for example Clara, the 1930s character was supposed to stay home to learn to cook, yet she is from one of the wealthiest families in New York City. Then she is sterilized in the mental institution yet she still gets her period. The student behavior is unrealistic and the teacher interactions are false. This is much more geared for Young Adult readers. 
PaqiPR More than 1 year ago
Personally, I found the story in the past, Clara's story, disturbing. Having Izzie's modern problems every-other-chapter was a very welcome escape. I found the ending to be contrived, but having given my complaints, I will say that the book was very engaging, and I fully believed the characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What She Left Behind is riveting. I was so enthralled that I stayed up late to finish this book. Wiseman puts down an interesting plot, with many unexpected twists, weaving together the lives of two women, Izzy in 1995, and Clara in 1930. She provides unique insights into the failings of our mental health system in the early 20th century. I’m planning to recommend this one to my book club.
Lunalin More than 1 year ago
I was really moved by this book. In my youth, I visited a notoriously evil state facility. This book rings true.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a really excellent novel.
Anonymous 10 months ago
A friend recommended this book to me and I am so glad she did! I could not put this book down. The writer does such an amazing job making you almost feel like you've been commited right along with Clara. The story is sad and disturbing but on the edge of your seat suspenseful. Great book! I became so emotionally attached to the characters.
jessrobs More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was fascinated with this novel and didn't want to put it down. I found her writing to be easily read and understood. The story is sad, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. She was able to keep my attention even with 2 stories that take place in different time periods.
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Couldnt put the book down, even as the sun came up!!
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This is an excellent book. I read it and immediately recommended it for our book club.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed this book