Movie Review: Marie Antoinette: A Film by David Grubin (2006)

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

The condensed version of Antonia Fraser’s biography

four out of five stars

After listening to Antonia Fraser’s excellent and exhaustive biography of Marie Antoinette on audiobook (MARIE ANTOINETTE: THE JOURNEY), I immediately hopped onto Netflix in search of a related documentary or two. The only one to catch my eye was David Grubin’s MARIE ANTOINETTE: A FILM. Try as I might, I can’t help but critique Grubin’s film in relation to Fraser’s biography.

Grubin’s MARIE ANTOINETTE clocks in at about two hours, compared to the 20+ hour narration of Fraser’s MARIE ANTOINETTE. While it might seem unfair to compare the two for this reason alone, they do share a similar story arc and cover much the same ground. In fact, Grubin includes snippets of interviews with several French historians in MARIE ANTOINETTE, one of whom is Antonia Fraser herself!

Given the time limitation, Grubin does a decent enough job of detailing the life and death of Marie Antoinette, starting with her childhood in Vienna, Austria, and ending with her death at the hands of “revolutionaries” in Paris, France. Even so, Grubin barely scratches the surface; for example, though he attempts to examine Marie Antoinette’s psychological, social and intellectual development, the audience is only beginning to get a feel for Marie Antoinette the person by film’s end. Additionally, Grubin raises a few controversial points – such as Marie Antoinette’s relationship with Count Ferson – which is unfortunate, because he’s unable to examine points of contention on anything but a superficial level. For example, Fraser dealt with historical controversies by returning to contemporary accounts of the events (diaries, letters, etc.), detailing various modern views on the issue, and then concluding with her own reasoned interpretation of the evidence. Grubin simply doesn’t have enough time to do the same.

On the plus side, Grubin’s film boasts one momentous advantage over Fraser’s (audio)book – visual aids! Grubin interlaces interviews and narration with video and stills for stunning visual effects. MARIE ANTOINETTE: A FILM highlights a number of contemporary images, including portraits of Marie Antoinette and her friends and family, as well as scores of pages from then-scandalous pamphlets and propaganda – much of which contains nudity and sketches of a sexual nature (thankfully, none is censored). Grubin juxtaposes modern video of historical places – Versailles, Le Petit Trianon, Vienna – with these historical images, thus allowing the audience access to the places significant to Madame Antoine’s child- and adulthood.

Additionally, I thought that Grubin’s recounting of the French Revolution was more linear and easier to follow than was Fraser’s. Fraser interspersed her accounts of the revolutionary political climate in France with its effects on Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI, while Grubin offered a lean – but informative – summary towards the end of his film.

All in all, I enjoyed MARIE ANTOINETTE: A FILM, but coming off of MARIE ANTOINETTE: THE JOURNEY, felt as though I’d already heard much of Grubin’s story. Newbies will probably find MARIE ANTOINETTE: A FILM a nice introduction to the topic, while history buffs might like the film’s visuals. All in all, a keeper.

(This review was originally published on Amazon. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Monster Rally, S. Michael Wilson, ed. (2008)

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

A Monster Mashup

four out of five stars

S. Michael Wilson’s MONSTER RALLY is an eclectic anthology of pop culture essays (new and old) which share one common thread: namely, monster movies! The “monsters” highlighted in this fun volume run the gamut, from Mutants (EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS, INVADERS FROM MARS, THE ANGRY RED PLANET) to Monsters (KING KONG, GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE, Mexican horror films, Yeti/Abominable Snowman monster movies) to Madness (Jason, SCREAMING MIMI, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, FREAKS, THE BLACK CAT, Jim Jones, Charles Manson). While novice fans will mostly enjoy this collection, monster movie geeks will get more out of MONSTER RALLY, as some of the references are more obscure than others. Likewise, the bulk of the films discussed are “retro”/B movies, with little culled from the 21st century.

As is usually the case with anthologies, some of the essays are stronger than others, and of course personal favorites may vary according to taste. As a Kong fan, I quite enjoyed editor S. Michael Wilson’s contribution, “A Giant Falls: A Critical Looks at Peter Jackson’s KING KONG,” but perhaps you might prefer Patrick O’Donnell’s “Curse of the Abominable Snowmen: A Bigfoot Researcher Sheds Light on Three Yeti Films.” To each her own! What’s certain is that these geeks (primarily S. Michael Wilson, Patrick O’Donnell and David Jacobs, who penned most of the essays in MONSTER RALLY) know their stuff.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town, Warren St. John (2009)

Friday, May 8th, 2009

Sports as a microcosm.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

Warren St. John’s OUTCASTS UNITED: A REFUGEE TEAM, AN AMERICAN TOWN is a sweet and inspirational story about newly immigrated families trying to achieve the American Dream (or their interpretation of it) – as reflected through the microcosm of children’s soccer.

The charmingly named Fugees is a soccer team (three, actually, divided by age group) in the small Georgian town of Clarkston. Comprised of immigrant children from Afghanistan,, Congo, Iraq, Kosovo, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan and other war torn nations, they face a number of hurdles, including a lack of funds, xenophobia, petty small town politics, and opposition from the mayor himself. As St. John reported in a series of articles for THE NEW YORK TIMES, Mayor Lee Swaney objected to their use of the baseball fields for soccer thusly: “There will be nothing but baseball down there as long as I am mayor. Those fields weren’t made for soccer.” He even refers to the immigrant soccer enthusiasts as “the soccer people.” Lessons in Othering, anyone?

The Fugees are led by Luma Mefleh – “Coach Luma” – a woman immigrant born in Jordan and educated in the United States. In a field dominated by men, her coaching position is no small feat. Mefleh tries to instill in the boys a sense of ethics as well as soccer skills, requiring all team members to sign a “contract” which consists of what you might call rules for “good citizenship.” Mefleh, then, makes it her mission to help the boys adjust to their new surroundings, as well as play a good game of soccer.

OUTCASTS UNITED is an engaging read, fun and lighthearted one moment, heartbreaking the next – and perfect for both sports enthusiasts and bleeding hearts alike. I’m not really big on sports (watching, anyway; participation is another matter!), but I quite enjoyed following the Fugees over the course of a season. Along the way, St. John also traces the events which led Mefleh and her players to America, offering us a glimpse of the myriad reasons why some people choose (or are forced) to leave their homelands and start anew in foreign countries. Hint: it’s not for greed, nor to steal your jobs.

If you’d like to learn more, hop on over to THE NEW YORK TIMES’ website and search for ‘ Warren St. John’ – the articles which inspired OUTCASTS UNITED are still available online. According to the intro by Chris Jackson, the movie rights were sold in exchange for a sizable donation to the team – so hopefully the Fugees’ story will soon be coming to a movie screen near you. Let’s hope Hollywood does their story justice.

And, if St. John’s looking to do a follow up, I bet many girls and women would love to see the story of a similar all-girl’s team…I’m sure there are at least several out there. Hint, hint.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?, Morgan Spurlock (2008)

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

A surprisingly weighty read.

five out of five stars

With the tongue-in-cheek goal of tracking down Osama bin Laden, award-winning filmmaker (SUPERSIZE ME, 30 DAYS) and expectant dad Morgan Spurlock travels through the Middle East in search of the FBI’s most wanted terrorist, in this book based on a film of the same name.

Far from serious, the “Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?” angle serves as the vehicle through which Spurlock examines some pretty weighty issues. Naturally, Spurlock begins with a biography of bin Laden, detailing his transformation from trust fund baby to radical Islamic jihadist. He then traces bin Laden’s steps through much of the Middle East, including Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, learning about the man’s life and influence throughout the region in the process. During his quest, Spurlock converses with a variety of people, such as religious and political scholars, government and military personnel, teachers and students, relatives of terrorists and former terrorists, and secularized Saudi youths. Taken together, these voices speak (oftentimes contradictory) volumes about life in the Middle East.

From cover to marketing copy, WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN? appears on its face to be a somewhat flippant look at a deadly serious subject, however, this couldn’t be further from the truth: Spurlock’s written a mighty weighty read here. WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN? presents an accessible, empathetic and cogent look at the long-running conflict(s) in the Middle East, as well as the U.S.’s changing role in the region. Topics covered run the gamut: the nature of terrorism, religious fundamentalism and fervor, the spread of secularism and attendant clashes with theocracy, past and present Palestinian/Israeli conflicts, how best to “spread” democracy, ethnic and religious intolerance – Spurlock packs quite a bit into only 300 pages.

The author/filmmaker weaves his tale against the backdrop of his impending fatherhood; throughout his travels, for example, Spurlock solicits advice on parenting from his sundry interview subjects. While this grows a little tiresome about halfway through the book, the payoff is well worth it: Papa Spurlock concludes his search for bin Laden, not with the apprehension of the fugitive, but with a tear-jerking call to peace, tolerance and an end to the “othering” of our fellow humans, hopefully beginning/continuing with his own little “Sponge Bob.” (It’d be nice if he’d extend this consideration to non-human animals, especially in light of his baby mama’s veganism – I mean, WTF is up with eating foie gras in front of your pregnant vegan girlfriend, dude!? – but hey, you can’t win `em all!) Spurlock knocks not just Islamophobia among Westerners, but also anti-Westernism, anti-Semitism and misogyny amongst religious fundamentalists in the Middle East.

My only real complaint is that Spurlock’s trademark smartass humor – which I found so charming in SUPERSIZE ME and DON’T EAT THIS BOOK – falls a little flat in WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN?. It’s hard to pinpoint why, exactly; I’m not sure the weightiness of the subject quite explains it, as SUPERSIZE ME’s material is just as heavy (pun intended). Perhaps it’s because, in cracking jokes in war-torn countries, Spurlock sometimes comes off as a caricature of that obnoxious Yankee that bin Laden & Co. have so successfully traded on.

Even so, WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN? is an entertaining, moving and delightfully informative read – and much more hopeful in tone and feeling than similar books about “The War on Terra,” to boot.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, Martha Beck (2006)

Monday, April 20th, 2009

“Your religion is crazy!”

five out of five stars

Growing up the daughter of an infamous Mormon apologist can’t be easy; doubly so when you’re raised in a cloistered, uber-evangelical conservative Mormon community in Provo, Utah. Just ask Martha Nibley Beck, whose now-deceased father Hugh Nibley made a career out of twisting (and sometimes even fudging) the facts for the Mormon church.

In LEAVING THE SAINTS, Beck remembers her child- and young adulthood. One of eight children, Beck and her siblings lived in near-poverty. Though her father was well-respected in Mormon circles, an academic job at Brigham Young University (BYU) is considered “God’s work” – and thus is its own reward, with an appropriately paltry salary. Beck married her husband John at a young age (twenty-one – that’s old maid in Mormon years!), and the two left Provo so that Beck could attend Harvard, where she eventually earned a PhD in sociology. The two returned to Provo after the birth of their second child, Adam, who has Down Syndrome; Beck felt that her choice to have Adam would be met with greater support in Provo. While living in Provo, Beck finished her thesis at Harvard, gave birth to her third child, and took a part-time teaching job at BYU. Within three years, Beck experienced repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse; soldiered through academic repression and intellectual purges at BYU; and, along with her husband, resigned from BYU, left the Mormon church, and fled from Provo. (Though it’s not revealed in LEAVING THE SAINTS, both Mr. and Mrs. Beck later divorced and “came out” as homosexuals.)

Beck’s most contentious claim is that her father sexually abused her from the ages of five to eight. The feminist in me tends to believe women when they say they were sexually assaulted, abused or raped: the rate of false reports of sexual assault are no higher than that of other crimes; the rates of report, investigation, prosecution and conviction in sexual assault cases are notoriously low, i.e., victims are unlikely to report such crimes and, when they do, the likelihood that they’ll find justice is nil; and, finally, such cases are rife with victim-blaming, such that women who report sexual assault are put on trial themselves. Given these circumstances, I find it highly improbable that most women would simply “make up” stories of sexual assault, for whatever reason.

However, I also find recovered memories suspect, particularly if they’re recovered during psychotherapy. Elsewhere, Beck says that, while she did undergo psychotherapy, this was only after her repressed memories began to resurface. Additionally, physical evidence (including extensive vaginal scarring) does point to past trauma. Beck also claims to have elicited a confession of sorts from her mother when she initially told her of the abuse. Unlike the childhood memories of sexual abuse, it’s unlikely that Beck’s mind manufactured this memory; so either she’s lying or she isn’t. Though her mother later recanted, this might be easily explained both by Mormon culture and the fact that Mrs. Nibley is wholly dependent on her husband for support.

Whether you believe Beck’s recovered memories to be real or not, LEAVING THE SAINTS is nevertheless a fascinating look at the Mormon religion and culture. Unlike older religions like Christianity and Islam, Mormonism is so young that it’s been documented – extensively – in modern history. Contemporary news reports reveal founder Joseph Smith as a con artist and fraud, and his own accounts of church teachings and personal revelations show that he was also an egotist and philanderer. For this reason, I find Mormonism (and similar “young” “religions” like Scientology) remarkably interesting. (Full disclosure: I’m a heathen vegan feminist.)

Most of the exposes I’ve read previously have focused on fundamentalist, breakaway Mormon sects which still practice plural marriages (see, for example, Jon Krakauer’s UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN). In contrast, LEAVING THE SAINTS looks at mainstream Mormonism – and reveals it to be just as wacky, dysfunctional and misogynist as the excommunicated cults. For example, Beck’s account of a women’s forum held at BYU, which she moderated shortly before leaving the church, is jaw-dropping – and actually has one Mormon scholar blaming children for their own sexual abuse!

Beck recounts her journey – leaving the saints and finding her faith – in a series of flashbacks, interspersed with a conversation/confrontation she had with her elderly father in a hotel room shortly before writing LEAVING THE SAINTS. Beck is a master story teller, and though the reader can posit a guess early on as to the source of Beck’s trauma, the details are no less surprising once Beck’s repressed memories come flooding back with ferocity. As an atheist, I had some trouble relating to Beck’s spiritual journey, but these sections are written beautifully, and non-practicing religious/New Age readers will no doubt enjoy Beck’s quest for a more intrinsic, less prescribed sort of faith.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Dying to Cross: The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History, Jorge Ramos (2006)

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

Surprisingly boring.

three out of five stars

On May 14, 2003, nineteen people died while en route from a small Mexico/Texas border town to Houston, Texas, in what at the time was called the “greatest illegal immigrant tragedy in modern history.” An estimated 73-84+ undocumented immigrants – most of them Mexican citizens, with a small minority hailing from other Latin American countries, such as Honduras – were packed into the back of a hermetically-sealed, locked-from-the-outside tractor trailer, without water, air conditioning or fresh air. Over the course of four hours, 17 people asphyxiated to death before the truck’s driver finally pulled over to rest. When Tyrone Williams – who was contracted by coyotes to transport the immigrants to Houston, on what should have been the final leg of their trip – opened the trailer and discovered the dead, he fled from the scene. Most (if not all) of the immigrants were apprehended by local police and ICE, and were given temporary work visas so that they could remain in the U.S. and testify against their human traffickers. Two more immigrants died at the hospital, bringing the death toll to 19. The coyotes were charged with a variety of offenses, including murder.

Jorge Ramos, a native of Mexico and anchor for Noticiero Univision, weaves survivor, witness and official accounts of the tragedy together in DYING TO CROSS. The bulk of the story is told from the perspective of the half dozen or so survivors who were willing to speak to Ramos. The account of the perilous four hours spent in the trailer, for example, are primarily survivor accounts, with liberal use of direct quotations interspersed with medical explanations of what the victims’ bodies and minds would have been going through, given the circumstances. Ramos also offers brief biographies of a few of the immigrants, as well as accounts of how they came to buy a spot on that fateful trailer. The book concludes with a description of the aftermath, however, as there was no real trial to speak of, this section of the report is almost anti-climactic. Ramos attempts to use this tragedy to illustrate failings in U.S. immigration policy as well as U.S./Mexican political relations, but his analysis seems a little scattered and superficial. (It’s not that I necessarily disagree with his conclusions, rather, I don’t feel as though he made a very comprehensive argument in favor of a more open and humane border policy.)

Given the book’s subject matter, DYING TO CROSS is surprisingly boring, and I can’t really pinpoint why. It seems as though the survivors’ accounts of the trailer ride should have been more nail-bitingly suspenseful – but, not so much. There was a lot of talk about prayer, Satan worship, God-begging, etc., which got really tiresome, really fast. Case in point: all of the women passengers survived; one of the surviving men attributed this to the fact that the women started praying to God immediately, while the men “wasted” their energy on “frivolous” activities – like banging on and rocking the trailer, in a failed attempt to get the driver’s attention. Um, yeah. Trying to stop the truck – what *were* they thinking!? Plus, the women’s 100% survival rate couldn’t possibly be due to the fact that women’s bodies tend to retain more water than men’s, for a variety of reasons including menstruation and oral contraception, right? (Ramos loses major cred for failing to counter these superstitious claims with scientific explanations.) Naturally, the survivors all thanked God for sparing them, proclaiming it a “miracle,” etc., which begs the question of why God favored them and not the nineteen who died – one of which included a 5-year-old boy. But hey, maybe that’s just the cantankerous ole atheist in me.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: The Myth of Lost: Solving the Mysteries and Understanding the Wisdom, Marc Oromaner (2008)

Monday, April 13th, 2009

Fun theory – but could we lose the sexism, please?

four out of five stars

Spoiler alert: This review contains spoilers for LOST through Season 5, as well as a brief description of the theory set forward by Marc Oromaner in THE MYTH OF LOST.

Like many diehard LOST fans, Marc Oromaner is convinced that he’s found the answer to LOST’s mysteries. In THE MYTH OF LOST, Oromaner shares his theory about the island and its supernatural properties. He also explains how and why the Losties, the Others and the DHARMA Initiative found their way to such a strange world.

The crux of Oromaner’s theory is that the island isn’t a “real” place at all. Rather, it’s virtual world, and most of what the audience sees on LOST is actually a computer simulation. The Losties, the Others and the DHARMA Initiative are actual people in the “real” world, who have entered the computer simulation for various reasons. Some are psychologists, scientists and computer programmers (the Others, the DHARMA Initiative), who “live” on the island in order to ensure that the program runs as intended and/or perform research. Meanwhile, other individuals (the Losties and the Tailies) have either been committed to the program, for example, to serve a prison sentence (Sawyer, Kate) or have voluntarily entered the simulation in order to work out their “issues” (Jack, Sun, Jin, Claire, Rose, Bernard) – for a hefty fee, of course. Still others have been thrown into the program against their will; Desmond, for instance, might have been placed on the island by Mr. Widmore in order to keep him away from Penny. Once the castaways’ issues have been solved, they’re “killed off” by the program, after which they reawaken in the “real” world.

Naturally, the scientists and researchers realize that they’re part of a simulation, whereas the castaways truly believe that they’ve landed on a mysterious island. To this end, their memories of the crash are false, programmed into their minds by the makers of the simulation. Many of the castaways’ “flashbacks” may be similarly implanted.

Oromaner incorporates many of the larger pieces of LOST’s puzzle into his computer simulation theory, including the numbers, the Black Rock, the four-toed statue, the whispers, Walt’s seeming astral projection, the smoke monster/security system, time travel, the Adam and Eve skeletons found in the cave, the island’s fertility/pregnancy issues, etc.

Oromaner wrote THE MYTH OF LOST during Season 3, and published it in September ’08. As such, his theory only covers LOST through Season 3 – and he does a pretty good job of incorporating and explaining the various aspects of the show up to this point. However, throughout Seasons 4 and 5, you can see his theory unravel, particularly vis-à-vis the flashforwards in Season 4, and the real-time action in Season 5. Even so, THE MYTH OF LOST is a fun exercise, if you can take the book for what it is – namely, a slightly out-of-date book on LOST. (Which is a BIG IF, considering some of the other reviews posted on Amazon.)

Oromaner’s theory itself deserve five stars, however, he loses major points for engaging in casual sexism. For example, he constantly refers to the women actors’ bodies in juvenile, beer commercial-esque terms. Sure, this might not *seem* like a big deal, but as a woman, I encounter this type of objectification everywhere: in television shows, tv commercials, ad campaigns, at the movies, in the grocery store, at work, online – everywhere. One of the many reasons why I love LOST is because Abrams & Co. treat the women just like the men – namely, like human beings. As a woman and a LOST fan, listening to some fanboy drool over Kate, Claire and Juliet is the last thing I want to do when reading a book about LOST theory.

Secondly, Oromaner offers his opinions on what “issues” the castaways might be “working out” in the computer simulation. In Kate’s case, he surmises that she needs to “embrace her femininity” and stop trying to act like “one of the guys.” The best way for her to do this, Oromaner says, is to have a baby and submit to authority. Um, ‘scuse me!? Does Oromaner actually mean to suggest that women who aren’t sufficiently “feminine” – i.e., donning frilly dresses and makeup, mothering children, obeying male authority, etc. – are somehow defective and in need of treatment? Seriously!? What is this, 1945?

Finally, and most insultingly, Oromaner discusses mythological archetypes and categorizes each of the characters accordingly. His breakdown includes Heroes (Jack, Locke, Sayid, Desmond and…Boone!?); Damsels in Distress (Kate, Claire, Sun, Penelope, and possibly Rousseau); Wizards (Boone and Eko in their spirit forms; Walt’s doppelganger); Tricksters (Hurley, Charlie and Walt); and Mavericks (Sawyer, Jin, Michael, Shannon and Juliet).

That’s right: Oromaner defines useless idiot Boone as a Hero, while kick-ass Kate, Sun, Penelope and Rousseau are all silly lil’ damsels in distress. Remember, Oromaner’s analysis includes events through Season 3 of the show. At this point, Jack had been forced to rescue Boone from drowning in the ocean, thus resulting in another castaway’s death – even though Boone is supposedly a lifeguard. Boone also proved useless in retrieving his sisters’ asthma medication, whereas Kate was at least able to eke out the truth from Sawyer. The same sister who, in the “real world,” conned Boone repeatedly. Ultimately, Boone died of stupidity, blindly following Locke’s instructions to climb into a plane dangling, headfirst and by vines, 25 feet off the ground.

Meanwhile, Damsel Sun accompanied Heroes Jin and Sayid to the Others’ camp by sailboat, in order to save Jack, Sawyer, Kate and Hurley – and shoots and kills Other Colleen in the process. We also learn through flashbacks that Sun isn’t the diminutive little wallflower that she appears to be; in fact, she’s somewhat conniving and manipulative, and had a hand in her husband’s corruption. Penelope, another so-called Damsel, spent years tracking down her lost love Desmond, defying her father’s wishes. (Ultimately, Penelope rescues Desmond and the other survivors, though this doesn’t happen until after Oromaner penned THE MYTH OF LOST.) Rousseau has done a mighty fine job of protecting herself over the past 16 years, evidenced by the fact that she’s the sole survivor of her research group (the rest of which were men).

And then there was Kate. Even though Kate’s gotten herself into more than a few pickles, oftentimes this is due in part to Jack’s stubbornness and (sometimes misguided) attempts to protect her. Kate is athletic, tough, smart, cunning, strong-willed; she doesn’t need a man to look out for her. Kate’s “issue” isn’t that she bucks authority, rather, it’s that men keep trying to impose their will on her. On more than one occasion, Jack commanded Kate to stay put, even though she could have been of great use on the mission at hand. Placing the blame squarely on Kate for tagging along against Jack’s orders misses the point – namely, that he wouldn’t give such orders to Kate if her name was Kevin.

Either way, in what world/computer simulation does Oromaner justify classifying BOONE as a HERO and KATE (et al) as a DAMSEL!? Does not compute – unless you add a healthy dose of misogyny to the equation.

There’s also the little problem of gender distribution – no men are classified as Damsels, even though a few are in need of rescue at various times (Boone, Charlie, Walt, Desmond; of these, Charlie and Desmond are rescued by women, so-called Damsels!). Of the seven women mentioned, five are categorized as Damsels. Men are somewhat equally distributed among all of the archetypes, save for Damsel, while women only fit into two of the categories.

Taken together, these three issues are quite offensive to this female LOST fan. As an atheist, I also found Oromaner’s New Age God-talk eye-rollingly and mind-numbingly silly and boring, but most of this is confined to the first and last 10-15 pages, and thus is fairly easy to avoid. Oromaner’s arrogance is another drawback; he continually asserts that this is how the show “should be” or “must play out” in order to “stay true” to mythology. Sorry, but I’ve loved the show thus far, and will trust LOST’s writers and producers – the same writers and producers who have created a mystery so stunning that it’s inspired so much fan speculation, ahem – to dream up a satisfying ending.

These complaints aside, I quite enjoyed Oromaner’s theory, even though it’s been discredited by the subsequent two seasons. In fact, I think it speaks to the theory that I only knocked off one star for some extremely unfortunate and off-putting issues evident in THE MYTH OF LOST.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Alias: Recruited, Lynn Mason (2003)

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

Sydney Bristow 90210

three out of five stars

When it comes to my favorite tv shows, I’m not really that into novelizations or prequels written by third parties – rarely do they live up to the standards set by the series’ writers and production crews. Even so, when I spotted an audiobook version of ALIAS: RECRUITED at a garage sale, I decided to give it a try.

As you can probably surmise, ALIAS: RECRUITED is a prequel to ALIAS – essentially, the novel is author Lynn Mason’s imagining of how Sydney came to work for SD-6. The story takes place during Syd’s freshman year in college, which finds her a shy, nervous wreck. By school year’s end, she’s been recruited by SD-6, trained in Krav Maga and weaponry, worked her way up from a desk job to field work, successfully completed her first mission, even killing a man – and spurned the hot guy from her English class who spurned her back in September. All in just 192 pages (or two short CDs)!

Overall, the writing is so-so. The book’s Amazon listing says that it’s for grades 8 and up, which might explain some of the juvenile focus on hot dudez (as mentioned above). In addition to the Beverley Hills 90210-like college scenarios, I found Mason’s portrait of a younger, less self-assured Sydney to be a stretch – an unbelievable stretch. College freshman Sydney has never dated, never had a boyfriend, is in fact an utter tool around guys, and seems to have no social skills whatsoever. While this is attributed to the stress of losing her mother at a young age, I don’t buy it. Certainly, I agree that absentee father Jack Bristow might have deflated her self-esteem – and the loss of Laura/Irina only added to Sydney’s stress – but she’s also smart (a genius, actually), athletic, and beautiful. She’d be able to get a date wearing nothing but a potato sack and speaking in tongues. I understand why Mason painted such a sorry picture of young Syd – in order to contrast her with secret agent Syd, thus illustrating the changes she undergoes under the tutelage of SD-6 – but still, the whole thing comes off as hackneyed. Meh.

I probably wouldn’t have wasted my time with ALIAS: RECRUITED had I not been able to find an audio version of the book. It’s a fun enough listen – it made my vacuuming fly by, at least. My only complaint with the audiobook is that narrator Amanda Foreman’s Francie imitation makes Francie sound like an annoying, idiotic Valley Girl. Seriously, you wonder why Syd would hang out with such a ditz. Ditto the college-age guys – Foreman tries to masculinize her voice, but she just sounds like a dumb surfer, or an even dumber Valley Dude. Quite annoying.

I probably won’t go out of my way to buy any of the other prequels on CD, but at its best, ALIAS: RECRUITED made me want to break out Season 1 on DVD.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Movie Review: The Notorious Bettie Page (2005)

Monday, April 6th, 2009

A disappointingly superficial Bettie Page biopic.

After reading Eric Schlosser’s REEFER MADNESS (which details, among other things, the history of pornography and “adult” entertainment, including the U.S. government’s attempts to outlaw such vices, First Amendment be damned!), I rented THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE, thinking that it might be interesting to see the ’50s “war on porn” brought to life. While the film does begin with a Congressional inquiry into the “illegal” activities of Irving and Paula Klaw (who employed Page for a time), this angle is used as a vehicle with which to explore Page’s life, and the anti-pornography craze soon fades to the background. When the topic is covered, it’s done so superficially, with little attention to detail.

Which is all fine and good – after all, the film is called THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE for a reason – except the movie also fails to offer much insight into Page’s childhood, her path to becoming a pinup model, or her life after sex work. Page’s conversion to Christianity, for example, concludes the film – but the audience is left with little idea as to the how’s or why’s of her newfound fundamentalism.

All in all, THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE is stylistic but superficial – which is frustratingly disappointing, given the subject matter. The filmmakers missed an incredible opportunity to examine not just the rise and retirement of the Notorious Ms. Page, but also government corruption and censorship, the beginnings of the sexual revolution, the effects of sexual abuse on women, and the state of feminism in the ’50s.

Though THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE is rated R, I thought it was rather tame. Only two of the photo shoots involve nudity; while risqué outfits and poses are depicted throughout the film, it’s nothing you couldn’t find on the cover of MAXIM or FHM nowadays. Two instances of rape are implied, though never shown, which is a relief – too often, violence against women is sexualized and glamorized, and I admire the filmmaker’s decision to merely hint at the sexual traumas endured by Page.

(This review was originally published on Amazon. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Stupid American History: Tales of Stupidity, Strangeness, and Mythconceptions, Leland Gregory (2009)

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

“Move over Colbert and Stewart” – are they serious!?

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

I requested a copy of STUPID AMERICAN HISTORY through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. Based on the book’s description, I was hoping that it might be a hybrid of James Loewen’s classic, LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME, and The Daily Show’s satirical American history “textbook,” AMERICA: THE BOOK. Unfortunately, STUPID AMERICAN HISTORY lacks both the wisdom (not to mention, attention to detail and sources) of LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME and the snarky humor of AMERICA: THE BOOK.

STUPID AMERICAN HISTORY is really more a collection of anecdotes and (unreferenced) factoids than a comprehensive book. As such, it lends itself better to bathroom reading as opposed to a thorough, cover-to-cover reading. It might make for a cute gift or stocking stuffer – the pages are made to resemble faux parchment paper, and there’s lots of ornamentation around the text – but it’s not really suitable for a history buff. Each “mythconception,” for example, is presented on a single page – and most don’t even take up the whole page!

STUPID AMERICAN HISTORY reminds me of those little paperback books of “odd facts” I used to enjoy…in junior high school. Which is fine, if that’s what you’re after. But if you’re looking for a debunking or reimagining of American history, check out James Loewen’s LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME – or any of his books, for that matter.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, Eric Schlosser (2004)

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Reefer Madness, the Brown Scare & Sex Crazed Fascis

five out of five stars

In REEFER MADNESS, Eric Schlosser looks at the effects of U.S. policy on the underground or “black market” economy. Specifically, he examines three diverse “commodities” – “recreational” or illegal drugs (specifically, marijuana), cheap labor (provided by undocumented workers or “illegal aliens” from Mexico and South America), and “adult” materials (primarily pornography) – and the American “war” on each. Schlosser narrows the scope of his study by focusing on a few key players in each of these underground economies: Mark Young, a recreational pot smoker and middleman who was given a life sentence for brokering a marijuana deal; California strawberry farmers and the migrant workers who pick the finicky fruit; and Reuben Sturman, a “pioneer” of the porn industry (and a jackbooted thug).

REEFER MADNESS is an engaging study of what happens when a supposedly free and democratic government attempts to stomp out vices that it deems morally corrupt. The section on U.S. drug policy is especially enlightening – and quite relevant, given the current upsurge in drug-related violence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Pornography receives the lion’s share of attention, seemingly at the expense of immigration, which is a shame; I felt as though Schlosser barely scratched the surface of the latter, while I grew bored of Reuben Sturman’s story by the end of the book. Schlosser concludes REEFER MADNESS by tying all three tales together, thus making a larger statement about civil liberties and the strengths and weaknesses of the “free market” in the U.S. Again, though, he probably could have devoted more pages to this synthesis had he not lingered on Sturman and pornography.

Overall, it’s a fascinating and engaging read, and vividly demonstrates why all American citizens should be concerned with their government’s attempts to regulate individual conduct – even if it’s conduct with which you may personally disagree.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Movie Review: Doomsday (2008)

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

Wicked Fun

four out of five stars

I’ve long been a fan of grim, macabre and/or darkly humorous post-apocalyptic science fictions films: 28 DAYS LATER, CHILDREN OF MEN, FIREFLY and SERENITY, the Terminator and Alien franchises. As a feminist, I also enjoy stories which are driven by strong women. Naturally, I loved DOOMSDAY.

The movie opens in Scotland, which has been thrown into chaos by a deadly and unstoppable viral outbreak (called – what else? – the Reaper Virus). Whereas science has failed to find a cure, the corrupt and panicked government’s only solution is to wall of the city in hopes of containing the outbreak. Infected and healthy citizens alike are left for dead.

Fast-forward thirty years to present-day England. Scandalized by the unethical quarantine imposed on Scotland during the initial Reaper Virus outbreak, England’s former global allies have ostracized the country. With England’s economy in ruins and corruption running rampant, citizens are only slightly better off than their Scottish counterparts. That is, until the Reaper Virus resurfaces on the other side of the wall – in England. Having failed to develop a cure in the interim, the British government’s only hope is to locate a survivor in the quarantine zone, and perhaps construct a vaccine using her DNA. But who might volunteer for what is, in essence, a suicide mission?

Enter Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra), the perfect (wo)man for the job. Eden was born in Scotland not long before the viral outbreak. Her mother managed to smuggle the young child out of the quarantine zone as the country descended into panic and anarchy. Equipped with a creepyawesome cybernetic fake eye and a team of military specialists, Eden infiltrates the quarantine zone in search of survivors.

DOOMSDAY is a loud, violent, highly stylized and deliciously over-the-top film. The story sports a few plot holes, sure; and the action sequences, while beautifully executed, defy real-world logic. If you can manage to suspend your disbelief, though, DOOMSDAY is a wicked fun ride. Rhona Mitra kicks some serious arse, and stuntwoman Lee-Ann Liebenberg is hella fun as a tattoeed punk named Viper.

From a feminist perspective, the two parallel societies which have arisen in Scotland since the outbreak are fascinating studies in sociopolitics (and probably more realistic than the action sequences, to boot). One segment of the population, led by the scientist formerly known as “Dr. Kane” (who became stranded in Scotland whist studying the virus during the height of the pandemic), has reverted to a medieval state of existence; retreating into the mountains, Kane’s society now lives in the ruins of old castles and get about town on horseback. Meanwhile, Kane’s son Sol commands the urban dwellers, an anarchistic society made up of undisciplined, spiky-haired, tattooed-n-pierced punks. The two communities are more alike than they are different: both are violent, misogynist patriarchies, ruled by ruthless male dictators. Perhaps unintentionally, the filmmakers offer a peripheral look at the nature of hierarchy, dominance and oppression: thrown into chaos, yet given the opportunity for reinvention, Scottish citizens revert to a patriarchal existence, marked by obedience, subjugation and male ego.

In this vein, the film’s ending (which I won’t spoil here) offers an intriguing new direction for a sequel. IBTM, anyone?

(This review was originally published on Amazon. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Ambushes for Justice (in your UTERUS!)

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

ZOMFG! Bill O’Reilly believes in a Constitutional right to privacy!

No, it’s true. Well, kinda sorta:
 

 
Apparently the Constitution only protects the rights of the rich, the white, the heterosexual, the cisgendered, the faithful and the non-pregnant – and only when they’re in complete agreement with all opinions O’Reilly, natch.

Well done, Jon, well done.

In which CNN lowers itself to TMZ’s level.

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

Yesterday, when reporting on the LAPD’s leaking of photos of a battered Rihanna to paparazzi site TMZ, CNN acted honorably and chose not to run the photo(s) in question.

KYRA PHILLIPS: It’s a chilling photo involving a story that’s getting tons of buzz and reflecting a growing crisis. But we’re not going to show it to you. And I’ll tell you why in just a moment. LA police are trying to find out who leaked a picture that apparently shows singer Rihanna bruised and battered after an alleged attack by her boyfriend, the singer Chris Brown. It showed up on a celebrity website and you can choose to see the photo at any time. We’re just choosing not to show it to you. And here’s why.

The face on that photo is one of millions of battered faces. Men and women, all races, all classes, all victims. We can’t show you all their faces, but we can push this story forward and try to help you heal the scars. Let’s get past the headlines and straight to the heart of domestic abuse. At the bottom of the screen we’re showing numbers for the National Domestic Violence Hotline where you can report abuse or get help. Also here to help, our guest, Sheryl Cates, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline which has taken millions of calls. Good to see you, Cheryl.*

Oh, what a difference a day makes! Today, during the 1 o’clock hour,** CNN backtracked and aired the photo – while explaining that law enforcement policy usually precludes releasing the identities of (alleged) victims of domestic violence, let alone releasing photos of their injuries. They go on to speculate that the paparazzi must have bribed someone in the department in order to illegally obtain the photo(s)…as a photo of an obviously bruised Rihanna occupies the top 1/6th of their video screen!

No fucking shame.***

(More below the fold…)

SSDD

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

During their one o’clock hour, CNN highlighted these top three “most popular” stories:

2009-02-17 - CNN Top Stories - 0008

From top to bottom, the screenshot reads

1. Islamic TV Founder Accused of Beheading;

2. Teen Girl Found Dead in Army Barracks; and

3. Chinese Mistress Contest Turns Tragic

Here we have three cases of violence against women; most, if not all, of which involve some degree of sexualized violence, as well.

Upping the ante, the ticker simultaneously reads “Slain actress found dark side of Hollywood dream.”

Sigh. Same shit, different day.

The only shocking aspect of CNN’s “most popular story” roll call is that Tony Harris was able to report on it without cracking a joke about sexual assault.

“Condoms, Rose. Condoms!”

Monday, February 16th, 2009

In honor of National Condom Week, Planned Parenthood put together a playlist of their favorite pro-condom videos on You Tube. As one is a Golden Girls skit (love those broads!), naturally I had to watch.

Which, of course, led to one click through after another.

(More below the fold…)

Buddy!

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Ever since Shadow passed away, my parents have been kinda-sorta looking for a new companion for Copper. Last night, mom emailed me a link to this listing on Petfinder:

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Buddy is a wonderful boy with lots of energy. He is house trained and has manners. He was given up because an elder couple could not handle his high energy. He is a small cream lab with the cutest ears that flop foreword. He is very smart and and eager to please. He would be best placed with a family with a fenced in yard. Once he has run around the yard for 20 minutes he comes in the house and lays about. He likes playing tag and pull the stuffed bear. He is inquisitive and friendly. Buddy has just completed obedience training and is wonderful and perfect. He gets 10 paws for personality 10 paws for training and 10 paws for placement. Boy in picture free with dog.

“Remind you of anyone?” mom asked.

Indeed.

(More below the fold…)

Hoping for a change in how our government views the sex class.

Saturday, January 24th, 2009

President Obama rescinded the Global Gag Rule yesterday. Wishes really do come true! Well, kinda sorta. Being the cynical bitch I am, Obama’s timing and statement threw up all kinds of red feminist flags for me.

As I said in Thursday’s Blog for Choice post, I had hoped – fervently – that Obama would repeal the Global Gag Rule that day. Instead, he chose to do so a day later. What’s one day, right? Practically speaking, not much. I don’t imagine that much money was distributed to international NGOs between Thursday the 22nd and Friday the 23rd, so most likely Obama’s slight delay didn’t have a negative impact on any family planning organizations. And yet.

Had he chosen to take action on the anti-abortion rule on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade – like the two administrations before him – he would have sent a strong message to anti- and pro-choicers alike: Women are humans, and I respect their right to privacy and bodily autonomy unequivocally – no matter how popular such a stance may or may not be. Period. The difference is one of symbolism – and symbolically, Obama seems reluctant to align himself too closely with the pro-choice side.

Of course, he also chose to repeal the rule on a Friday – the slowest of all news days. Consequently, I’ve seen little-to-no coverage of the Gag Rule on the cable news shows. Seriously, Sully Sullenberger has received more air time. The more cynical part of me (which is to say, 99%) can’t help but think that this was Obama’s plan all along.

Of his rescinding of the Global Gag Rule, Obama wrote:

It is clear that the provisions of the Mexico City Policy are unnecessarily broad and unwarranted under current law, and for the past eight years, they have undermined efforts to promote safe and effective voluntary family planning in developing countries. For these reasons, it is right for us to rescind this policy and restore critical efforts to protect and empower women and promote global economic development.

For too long, international family planning assistance has been used as a political wedge issue, the subject of a back and forth debate that has served only to divide us. I have no desire to continue this stale and fruitless debate.

It is time that we end the politicization of this issue. In the coming weeks, my Administration will initiate a fresh conversation on family planning, working to find areas of common ground to best meet the needs of women and families at home and around the world.

I have directed my staff to reach out to those on all sides of this issue to achieve the goal of reducing unintended pregnancies. They will also work to promote safe motherhood, reduce maternal and infant mortality rates and increase educational and economic opportunities for women and girls.

In addition, I look forward to working with Congress to restore U.S. financial support for the U.N. Population Fund. By resuming funding to UNFPA, the U.S. will be joining 180 other donor nations working collaboratively to reduce poverty, improve the health of women and children, prevent HIV/AIDS and provide family planning assistance to women in 154 countries.

(More below the fold…)

Blogging for Choice: A bitch’s wish list

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

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Oh, yays! Today marks the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade – and it’s also the fourth annual Blog for Choice Day!

Over at easyVegan.info, I spent quite a bit of time examining reproductive rights as it relates to animal advocacy, but I fear I only scratched the surface. Volumes can be – have been! – written about the exploitation of women’s and non-human animals’ sexuality separately; methinks we’d need an entire encyclopedia set to fully examine the parallels and intersections between the two together.

For example, I didn’t even touch upon Nestle’s exploitation of new mothers in impoverished nations by convincing them that unaffordable, dairy-based formula is better for their babies than mother’s milk; dairy-based formula, of course, necessarily involves the exploitation of female cows.

Anyhow, this year’s topic is “What is your top pro-choice hope for President Obama and/or the new Congress?” Easy, peasy as (vegan) pie!

I have so many hopes, that it’s hard to choose just one. If forced, I’d have to get vague: Be progressive in words and actions.

But that doesn’t make for a very interesting post, so instead I’ll name my most immediate pro-choice hope for Obama: Repeal the Global Gag Rule. While this is only one of many pro-choice hopes I have for the Obama administration, I would love for it to be the first he enacts – because in so doing, he’ll send a strong, clear, pro-choice message, not just to the nation, but to the world.

Also known as The Mexico City Policy, the Global Gag Rule is a policy which

requires non-governmental organizations to “agree as a condition of their receipt of [U.S.] federal funds” that they will “neither perform nor actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in other nations”. The policy has exceptions for abortions done in response to rape, incest, or life-threatening conditions.

Referrals to abortion providers – indeed, even broaching the subject of abortion – qualifies as “actively promot[ing] abortion.”

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: President Obama Election 2008: Collection of Newspaper Front Pages by the Poynter Institute (2008)

Monday, January 19th, 2009

One for the History Books

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

Let me preface my review of PRESIDENT OBAMA: ELECTION 2008 (A COLLECTION OF NEWSPAPER FRONT PAGES SELECTED BY THE POYNTER INSTITUTE) with a disclosure: I’m not a huge Obama fan. Not because I think he’s a secret Muslim(n), or because I’m afraid that he’ll turn America socialist and make all the heteros gay marry. On the contrary – I am way left of Obama on most issues. I voted for Kucinich in the primaries, McKinney/Clemente in the general election. While I’m relieved that Obama/Biden triumphed over McCain/Palin, I don’t have any delusions that President Obama will usher in a new era of American prosperity, or that he’s really an uber-progressive guy at heart. My review, then, is purely nonpartisan – after all, I’m reviewing an art/photography book, not a politician, right?

All that said, I requested a review copy of PRESIDENT OBAMA through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program because the 2008 elections were truly historic, whatever your political affiliations. I thought the book would make a nice keepsake, at best. At worst, I figured could regift it to my conservative, gun-loving father as a gag gift. Turns out, I think I’ll keep my copy of PRESIDENT OBAMA. It’s a gorgeous, full-color book, featuring 78 post-election day newspaper front pages from around the globe. The covers are arranged alphabetically, with local American newspapers grouped first (ordered by state; 42 states are represented), followed by national and then international papers. Placed inconspicuously beside each front page is a brief block of text explaining the paper and why it was chosen.

Many of the local American front pages follow the same format, with large, election-night photos of the Obama family (or portraits of Barack Obama) placed front and center. Here, it’s interesting to note how similar many of the headlines are; most feature some variation on the “hope,” “change,” or “yes we can” campaign slogans. Some of the media border eerily on idol worship, depicting Obama’s face on money or working his campaign logo (the red, white and blue “O”) into the text of their headlines. Collectively, the local media appears to have succumbed, more or less, to the cult of personality surrounding Obama: Welcome to Obamanation! Certainly, November 4, 2008 was a historic point in American history; sitting at home, I cried along with much of America as I watched the returns come in. Still, Obama’s staff couldn’t have created more laudatory coverage if they tried. After eight years of capitulation to Bush, I can only hope that this isn’t indicative of the sort of “hard-hitting” reporting we can expect from the mainstream media in the next four years.

The international front pages offer a bit more diversity; Vienna’s DIE PRESSE, for example, features a photo of Obama surrounded by smaller pictures of local reaction to the election results, while the word “change” – translated into 24 languages – steals the cover of Belgium’s DE MORGEN. In the post-Bush world, it’s quite refreshing to see global citizens celebrating American events, instead of protesting them!

I guess my only complaint is that the Poynter Institute chose not to include any conservative / right-of-center news media in this volume. Granted, dissenting or negative coverage wouldn’t exactly jibe with the laudatory tone of this volume, but still – this was a divisive and polarized election season (what with all the scare-mongering, race baiting, appeals to misogyny and cries of “terra-ist!”), and a few token voices of resistance might make the collection more complete – and historically accurate. While most November 5th coverage was no doubt respectful (if not outright celebratory), the editors did choose to include a few liberal alterna-weeklies – so methinks they could have unearthed one or two unhappy conservative rags, too.

Overall, PRESIDENT OBAMA makes for a nice coffee table book – just make sure you go all out and purchase the hardcover edition. My paperback was a tad bent when it arrived. :(

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)