February 19, 2016

Book Review || The Giver by Lois Lowry

Reading 'The Giver' by Lois Lowry was a delightful treat for me. It is a young adult novel that has depth and meaning beyond the usual animal and magic stories, and I can see why the novel has achieved so many honours in the literary world.

Set in the future, Jonas is living what appears to be a perfect life in a utopia-like community free of war and strife. The community in which he lives is perfectly controlled and runs like a well-oiled engine: everyone and everything has its place and the individual does not exist. Indeed, the Elders choose everything, from spousal members to babies to occupations to meals. Jonas has reached the final ceremony indicating his entry into the near-adult world as a Twelve, where the Elders reveal the occupation they have chosen for him. But Jonas has the ability to 'see beyond' and he is selected to be the new Receiver of Memory.

What is this mysterious role? Jonas, who up until now believed he had experienced pain, family, and contentment, is introduced to depths of emotions he could never have fathomed until now. However, he experiences them alone, with only the Giver as a guide. Holding the memories is meant to give him wisdom, but Jonas' wisdom comes far sooner than it had for the Giver and he realises the society in which he lives is in fact antiutopian and far from perfect. He decides things have to change.

'The Giver' at the heart is a novel about ignorance and knowledge, and freedom of choice and individuality.

When Jonas is given the truth about life and death, and the emotions that come with being alive, he sees the community as cold and ignorant, killing toddlers and old people when the Elders deem their time has come, endeavouring for sameness at the loss of individuality, creativity, beauty. The ignorance that comes from having no knowledge of the truth leads Jonas to despise the world he is living in - a world that has no idea of the depth of emotion and the beauty that exists. The knowledge Jonas gains gives him wisdom but he does not believe that a single person should be the only one with access to this knowledge and its resulting wisdom.

While the community is happy in the humdrum order of their days, Jonas realises that they have never known true happiness - they have never lived.

The book raises the question of whether the masses should be controlled to avoid the inevitable grief, fear, pain, and lust that comes with living, or whether we would choose to really live instead.

The ending was sad for me. Spoiler ahead: It is a point of contention amongst fans of the book that the ending somehow represents Jonas and Gabriel's deaths at the end. Just as they reach the pinnacle of their journey, experiencing real snow for the first time, finding happiness, finding family, finding love, the book ends. But if this is the case, at least Jonas was really alive for the first time and I hope that death is so sweet for all of us despite the pain that has come before.

Have you read the novel? Comment and let me know what you thought!

Keep an eye on the blog for a comparison of the novel and film coming soon!
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February 17, 2016

Potty Training Troubles? Here's How I Did It

Getting Emma potty trained was quite a daunting task for me. I had already heard horror stories about how long it took other families to make the transition, including a story of a four-year-old who rather peed in the corner of the bedroom instead of the toilet. I prepared myself for a gruelling task.

I had tried to train Emma around March or April of 2015 and she was clearly not ready. She struggled with the concept of recognising her bladder's requirements and also with telling me when she needed to go. But sometimes it's just a matter of waiting until your toddler is ready. I tried again in August and she was potty trained in two weeks.

What was the trick, you ask? Three things, really:

1. Time: You have to be willing to set aside some time to spend just training them. A lot of parents try to train their toddler when they're at home but then when the children are at creche, they're kept in a nappy because it's easier for the care worker. This won't work. I set aside two weeks to train her.
2. Patience: While you need to let your toddler know that weeing on the floor or in their pants is not acceptable, you need to be patient enough not to lose your cool - it will simply upset them and they will relate potty experiences with your anger.
3. Persistence: It is really simple to just give up because they seem to be uninterested or there appears to be no progress, especially at the beginning. However, keep at it and you will be surprised.

It also helps to have some kind of plan. I started off by putting Emma on the potty every 10 minutes. If she happened to wee at that time, I praised her extensively. I increased the time span by five minutes throughout the day and the time spans became longer every day. I also used one of those portable potties so I could continue the training when we were not at home. A portable potty also made sense because it could be hers exclusively, making it special. And we could both use the toilet at the same time: it helps that they see you do it, too. When it came to using the big toilet, it was more of an adventure. She no longer uses the little potty. With number two, I continued to stress that using the nappy for it was wrong. She eventually started using the toilet for number two on her own. Our only hurdle now is night training, but we're waiting for her to be ready for a big bed.

Another thing that worked, especially for number two, was allowing her to be naked: she could not hide it if she just went where she was standing.

A lot of other techniques involve rewards and incentives, such as decorating the clothing with stickers to show another caregiver how well they performed or dropping a coin into a potty piggy bank. Personally, I feel as though using rewards is more of a bribe, making a simple act such as using the potty a give-and-take situation when it shouldn't be. (I recall Sigmund Freud believing that a child withholding a number two is meant to punish the parent, to me a sign that our bowel movements should not be a reward-based achievement.) It may also set an unhealthy precedent.

Other techniques you can try include:

- Splitting the training into sessions. Take three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon for two days where you put the toddler onto the potty every 15 minutes. With this technique, a full third day of training is required.
- If your child is old enough and struggling with number two (some children view it as a part of themselves and don't want to get rid of it), try explaining how the digestive system works. Use pictures.
- The wait-and-pee method, where you place a potty into the bathroom and wait for signals that your child needs to use the toilet. Apparently, your child will be in nappies a little longer.
- Using disposable training pants. These still allow the wet sensation, but then your child has been sitting in his own pee for a while already...
- If you must use the rewards method, try using prizes relating to toilet use, such allowing them to flush the toilet.

Once your toddler is using the toilet on their own, remember that accidents will still happen. Sometimes a game is simply too fun or they won't get to the toilet on time. Be upset but don't act as though it's the end of the world. When you overreact, they're less likely to come to you for help again.

{Image credit: Flickr/Tim Johnson (CC)}
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February 16, 2016

Movie Review || The Dressmaker

The Dressmaker is a dark comedy surrounding the arrival of Myrtle (Tilly) Dunnage in the hometown that kicked her out after she supposedly murdered a fellow child. Her experience of the event was misty, as much memory is, and she travels to the town not only for vengeance but also to discover whether she really is a murderess.

It is fitting that I went to see the film on Valentine's Day this year: it is definitely a chick flick, albeit a long one, filled with zesty innuendo that is certain to raise a giggle (or few), tweaked with a bit of buttery romance, and rounded off with a spicy cocktail of tragedy and revenge.

Kate Winslet is glamorous and elegant in a role practically written for her. As with all her work, she brings a depth of passion to Tilly and her tragic story. Hugo Weaving is brilliant as the cross-dressing policeman who has a soft spot for Tilly and her 'mad' mother, played by Judy Davis, is every bit as entertaining to watch as she is to listen to. Of course we must mention Liam Hemsworth, who lit the screen on fire (Practically!) with his zeal and intensity.

The Dressmaker will take you from amusement to grief in a single scene, while the mystery that is the foundation of Tilly's story and need for vengeance unfolds slowly throughout, providing a solid basis from which to view the parodied version of a small town and all its prejudices.

At its core, the film is also about appearance (read fashion and style) and how these outward aspects can do so much to hide the true beauty or ugliness within. For while the small town appears peaceful - indeed it is swathed in darkness when Tilly first arrives - this facade is only a shroud over the grim reality of selfish people living selfish lives.

Oh, and if you love fashion design, this one is for you!

Have you seen the film?

{Image credit: Facebook/TheDressmakerMovie}
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February 12, 2016

Book Review || A Dance With Dragons II by George RR Martin

I am torn with regret and wonder: Since I know that 'A Dance With Dragons: After the Feast' is the last published book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, I know that I won't travel to Westeros again until at least 2017 (Yes, 2017!?) and so was loathe to complete the novel until such time as I could continue reading without any gap. But, alas, the story was just too compelling to put down. Now, I am left wondering what on earth is going to happen combined with the knowledge that I have at least a year before the truth of the story is out! And I am also wondering: what the hell are the screenwriters of the HBO television series thinking!?

[Stop reading now if you don't want to read any spoilers :)]

Let me start with the novel that I have just finished. As you may have read in my post about the first part of 'A Dance With Dragons', thus far George RR Martin has really raised the stakes for all the characters and their kingdoms, and it really feels after reading the second part that the plot is coming to a head, reaching the moment where you're almost at the end of your climb to the top of a mountain peak.

Very much unlike 'A Feast for Crows' and even Book 1, the story just flows along and everything is falling into place. From the goings-on at the Wall and Stannis' march to Winterfell to Daenerys' struggles with ruling Meereen and Arya's induction into the House of Black and White, it all seems to be working up to something amazing and I can't wait!

I was so pleased to read about the Greyjoys and Theon's struggle with himself. I also thorouhgly enjoyed the insight into Victarion, Theon's uncle as well as Jon's exploits at the wall. Every character is so interesting I cannot fathom how anyone can pick a favourite.

After the slump of 'A Feast for Crows', Martin must have received his second wind with this one as the plot twists and turns are intricate and interesting, the storyline is gripping fills in gaps between events with different viewpoints effortlessly, and the new characters are potent. This book has been so difficult to put down, even though I wanted it to last much longer than the few days it did.

After finishing this novel, I am even more adamant at boycotting the series. Not only because of the ridiculous promotion of some plotlines over others and the flawed omission of characters such as Prince Quentyn of Dorne, Lord Connington and the Golden Company, and DAENERYS' BROTHER AEGON TARGARYEN, but also because it is ruining the story for me.

I am at heart a book lover. Certainly, I love television, but books are my medium of choice and while I appreciate the merit of artistic interpretation when taking a story from text to screen, the omissions, focus and plot changes make absolutely no sense to me. In a way, I can see the thought process that goes behind, for example, leaving Quentyn out of the story, since he doesn't last very long in Meereen: it shortens filming time and producers don't have to search (and pay) for a new cast member. However, leaving this aspect - indeed any aspect of the plot - out of the television series merely makes for confusion, and leaves out all the fabulous political intrigue and back history that make Westeros and its fellow continents so compelling. To stick with this example, Quentyn arrives with a secret missive pledging Dorne's support of the Targaryens. To me, this seems a very important part of the puzzle: it explains why Dorne has deigned to remain apart from the doings of Kings Landing and the North. Regardless of the fact that Quentyn is killed, his death is also a wake-up call to Doran, the ruler of Dorne, who is adamant that he has the right of it. Quentyn's death is what will help his character develop.

This is merely one example. There are many others: the omission of Arianne's arc, skipping over Tyrion's meeting of Connington and Aegon, and the entire Greyjoy arc. All of these I believe add up to an irreplaceable, intense, complicated, and realistic plot, showing the depth and breadth of all those involved in a continental war.

I know the majority of people support these changes for streamlining and speeding through the story, but me? Nah.

Indeed, the complicated plot, histories, and general lives of characters in the books were why George RR Martin didn't believe a series of the books would work anyway. It was a massive gamble and while the production team has been praised for its work in maintaining this complication, the praise is in my opinion misplaced, especially for the last few seasons, which have overlooked major plots and plot points entirely.

The series has also spoiled the book in small ways. When I first read about the Red Wedding and even Joffrey's death, I had stones in my belly I was so shocked. But there was nothing surprising about Jon's death or Daenerys being carried off by Drogon. These are moments when I should be able to feel a connection with the story and instead I simply felt cheated.

The sacrifice of Stannis' daughter, the suicide of his queen, these are apparently plot points still to come in the next books, but I would rather have the entire story than one picked through for the choicest cuts. My only problem come April is avoiding spoilers!

Have you read the books and if so, what did you think of the changes?
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February 10, 2016

Addendum: Movie Review || Misery

After being pleasantly surprised by Stephen King's 'Misery' novel, I was starkly disappointed in the film version. Rob Reiner's film has filtered the book down to the least possible physical horror and turns Annie's psychological problem into nearly no more than a celebrity obsession that's gone out of hand.

I suppose that the film was more targeted at the psychological thriller buffs than it was to those with an affinity for the horror genre. This could explain why James Caan's Paul Sheldon seems to be more perturbed at being at the mercy of Kathy Bates' Annie Wilkes than terrified and broken, as the novel's version is. Sheldon in the film is calm and collected, despite Wilkes' psychological breaks and rapid mood changes. Her proclamations of love for him merely brings to his face the annoyance any celebrity would feel when yet another fan praises him and puts her intentions strictly into 'stalker' territory. He really seems rather irritated at his situation, certain that his survival is a given and that the mad woman he is living with is not that crazy. It is only near the end of the film that Caan allows the audience to see how much he hates this woman. But therein is the problem: the novel's version of Sheldon's reasoning for killing Annie is because he can see no other way to survive and this makes the situation seem a lot more terrifying than in the film.

And even though the film is meant to be a thriller, in comparison to the terror that the novel's Sheldon experiences - from rushing through the corridor in a wheelchair as Annie's car comes up the driveway to having his foot and thumb cut off, from being thrown into a damp, rat-infested basement to a very real fear of starvation, and the fact that she has also made a codeine addict of him - the film has no comparison to the thrill of this. Even Sheldon's own near-madness at the end of the novel - when he and Annie cackle together over the fact that she's never eaten caviar before - is missing, giving the film a hollow ring rather than the deep, bone-thrumming hum at the book's horror of Sheldon's truly dire situation. For if he does not kill Annie, he will die. If he remains undiscovered after killing Annie, he will die. There is no echo of the relief of survival and escape in the film.

Rather, as a viewer, it felt confusing since we are meant to be afraid of Annie Wilkes with no reason other than her mood swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other. The situation only really becomes serious after Sheldon sees her scrapbook recording her evil deeds, once she hobbles him and kills the police officer. And even then we know that Sheldon will be rescued because we see the police investigating the couple, discovering Annie's history, and even visiting her house. It is the uncertainty of his survival that would have made this movie more striking and memorable.

Are you a fan of the book or the film?

{Image credit: Facebook/Misery}
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February 9, 2016

Book Review || Misery by Stephen King

I know it is hard to believe me when I say I am a horror fiction fan if I am not a fan of Stephen King, as though the two facts cannot exist separately, but I have read only a single other King novel aside from 'Misery' - 'The Shining', and while that novel intrigued me, it did not inspire me to rush to the store to purchase his entire oeuvre. 'Misery', on the other hand, is known to be unlike any of his other work, focusing entirely on being a psychological thriller rather than a supernatural one. This is perhaps why I enjoyed it so.

Paul Sheldon is a writer who has just managed to escape the rut of historical romance by writing what he believes may be a literature prize-winning novel. His drunken celebrations, however, lead him to a snowy car crash, a mangled body, and a rescue by a crazed nurse, who just happens to be his 'number one fan'. Disgusted with his new book, she forces him to destroy it and to bring the heroine of his commercial success back to life. The novel drops Sheldon into a terrifying world that hangs on the thread of Annie Wilkes' mental health, a thread readers learn tangles and untangles unpredictably, putting Paul's own sanity at risk.

I felt that 'Misery' seemed a very personal novel for King as a novelist himself. Sheldon, as a writer, speaks often about the work of writing, the torture that an empty page, a lack of inspiration, can bring to someone who sees, feels and remembers so much, as well as the euphoria of capturing an idea that fits perfectly into the plot and theme. Sheldon is physically restrained and tortured by Annie in much the way he is psychologically restrained and tortured by his craft.

Sheldon is, of course, the point of view from which we read the book, and so his terror of Annie becomes our own. Some believe that this novel will not inspire the kind of deep-seated fear that they have come to expect of King's writing, but I disagree: readers, when reading a supernatural horror, come to a subconscious agreement with the author that everything exists only on the page they are reading. While they may be compelled to continue reading, 'the gotta' that Sheldon speaks of is only so the story can be resolved - the horror dissolved - and we can return to our daily lives and sleep peacefully in our beds. But this novel's representation of terror is cloying: Annie Wilkes could really be out there. Her madness was not supernatural and exists in reality and to me this makes it all the more frightening. Of course we can see all sorts of possibilities for escape in our times, such as cellphone GPS tracking, but the novel is set in the days when the only fast communication was the post or the telephone. Of course, Paul has access to neither. He is entirely alone except for a woman who swings between sanity and depression.

King's representation of Paul's disbelief, fear, confidence, shock, and eventual resignation is stark and affective, and the terror of Annie Wilkes is not only the certainty of her madness and the uncertainty of when it shall strike, but the breaking down of Paul's spirit, the claustrophobic subconscious restraint she places on him using his own horror, his very helplessness and physical impairment.

But perhaps the most frightening thing of all: Paul did his best work while under her spell, suggesting that the best inspiration cannot take place without a little sacrifice.
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February 5, 2016

10 Instances Proving Animals Are Emotional Beings

In the middle of January, the social world became obsessed with viral photographs appearing to show a male kangaroo grieving for his dead female. The Guardian called the moment heartbreaking and the image a capture of a 'marsupial family's grief, while the Mail Online called the images 'heart-wrenching'. However, our anthropomorphisation of these creatures was quickly struck down by experts claiming that it was more likely the male kangaroo was simply attempting to raise the female so he could mate with her, and was most definitely not grieving for her.

According to The Washington Post, University of Sydney's senior lecturer in veterinary pathology, Derek Spielman, said that if the kangaroo was taking an aggressive and protective stance over the dead female, it was not because it was being sentimental - it was just part and parcel of male kangaroos' general aggression during courtship, where the female can sometimes accidentally be killed.

It may be that the sentimentalisation of the moment stemmed from photographer Evan Switzer's own interpretation of what was taking place, but scientists and researchers are determined: "This is a male trying to get a female to stand up so he can mate with her," Australian Museum principal research scientist Dr Mark Eldridge told ABC, and wildlife rescue officer Leonie Petrie added to the paper that while it was a nice thought that he realised the female was dying, us humans were doing nothing but putting our own feelings onto these animals' actions.

So the brunt of the argument, then, is that it is simply not possible for animals to show grief because they just do not have the same emotions we do, despite studies that show that animals do indeed have a depth of emotion that we humans can relate to, though we cannot actually know what they are feeling for certain (just as we cannot know how our fellow man is feeling).

It is with this in mind that I want to share some affirmations that animals do indeed have feelings: they grieve, they sob at rejection, they elate at freedom. While I will not disagree that the male kangaroo was attempting to mate with the female or that he was perhaps the cause of her death in the first place, it is just like us to claim that he was just being an animal.

1. Relief

Raju, an elephant held captive and abused for 50 years, was rescued by Wildlife SOS UK. The rescue team claimed to have seen "tears roll down his face during the rescue".

2. Rejection and Sadness

Zookeepers at a Chinese zoo had to intervene when newborn elephant Zhuangzhuang was stomped on by its mother after she gave birth. When baby was returned to the mother two hours later, she started to stomp on him again and keepers claim he cried for five hours because of her rejection.

3. Joy

Cows meant to be sent to the slaughterhouse are released into an open field, jumping and running and playing in a certain display of joy.

4. Fear

Dairy cow Emma was put on a strange trailer headed for a strange place. She can be seen crying during the journey, certainly tears of fear, and when she is released into the pasture she is greeted with friendliness by the other cows.

5. Friendship

This dog waits by the body of his dead friend.

6. Love

A cat jumps into the arms of a soldier arriving home.

7. Jealousy

A Great Dane is upset that his master is giving another dog attention.

8. Excitement

A dog gets too excited when visiting the petstore

9. Anger

A cockatoo really doesn't want to go the vet.

10. Empathy

Animals helping animals...

Or Koko the gorilla responding to a sad film.

To me, this handful of instances shows that we cannot merely condemn animal actions of empathy and emotion to the table of coincidence, simply because they are animals and cannot express feelings.

To really gain some insight into animal emotion, I suggest you watch the series, "Animal Emotion: Why Dogs Smile and Chimpanzees Cry".

What are your thoughts about this concept? Let me know in the comments below!

{Image credit: By Alfred Edmund Brehm [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons}
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February 4, 2016

Here's to you Mrs Robinson... Wait, what?

I had never watched 'The Graduate', but because of the popular culture surrounding Mrs Robinson's mythical figure as a liberated and liberating woman, I always believed that she was some sort of positive influence - a woman younger than her years educating a younger man on ways older than his years.

Mrs Robinson is, however, not a positive influence - not in the graduate's life, not in her daughter's life, and definitely not in ours.

The character of Mrs Robinson is disappointing to me for three main reasons, as I shall lay out below.
Her attempted seduction of Benjamin at the beginning is disturbing. She does everything she can to get the boy in bed with her; Mr Robinson arrives in due course and we wonder whether he would indeed have slept with her if he had had a longer time alone with her. But his repeated cries of 'No' are not exactly the consent that is required for a healthy relationship. It is this lack of consent that leaves me to wonder, had Mr Robinson not arrived, if Mrs Robinson would have forced Benjamin to have sex with her. 

This is an important point in the tenets of society's so-called masculinity, for while Benjamin had repeatedly said no, if he was taken advantage of he would have been loathe to name it rape in terms of society's rape culture for men. Furthermore, if he had never contacted Mrs Robinson again to embark on a sexual relationship, he would have been ridiculed - by himself at least - for not being 'man enough'. Thus he was in essence forced to do what he did, as everyone around him constantly told him he was now a 'man'. Can we really assume that his call to her to agree to her offer is simply because he was a horny young man? Why had he waited so long to indulge in sexual activity if this was the case?
Though Mrs Robinson taught Benjamin the ins and outs of sex, she certainly did not become a positive influence for him. Understandably, this should not be her position as she is not his parent nor his mentor, but it becomes increasingly obvious that she indulges him as she would a child. Their sexual encounters appear to be entirely one-sided: aside from practically forcing herself on him at the start of the film, Benjamin is often seen lying prone on the bed as she undresses herself and him, where he remains as she enters and leaves. Indeed, his trysts with her do nothing but seem to point Benjamin into unhealthy and yet more selfish acts, such as smoking and thinking of his own discomfort when choosing to break his promise and take Mrs Robinson's daughter out on a date. Certainly I am perhaps overlooking Mrs Robinson's own selfish motives for accepting a young lover, such as a need to be desired or overcoming a marriage she felt forced to enter into. I am also projecting my previous belief in a Mrs Robinson onto the character, and this shows what an effect popular cultural beliefs can have on you when you haven't actually seen the reference personally.
By far the most disappointing aspect of Mrs Robinson's character is lying to her daughter that Benjamin had raped her. Mrs Robinson's free sexuality is a representation of the free sex era of the '60s in which 'The Graduate' was made, but this reference is appalling to me: not only was it an unnecessary lie (she disliked her husband anyway and it was only a matter of time before she would leave him), but it points directly to the culture of rape and victim blaming, falling right into stereotypes of women as seducers and deceivers, of how they set honey traps only to blackmail and punish men. Not that the truth would have changed anything...

And then, though we, the viewers, know that Mrs Robinson is lying, her daughter does not and yet either regards it as a lie after hearing Benjamin's side of the story or completely overlooks the fact that the man she runs off with at the end of the film is a rapist!
I don't intend to criticise the filmography of 'The Graduate'. By all accounts it is an iconoclast because of what it attempted to do on film and also because it was one of the few films at the time to include a soundtrack almost exclusively performed by Simon and Garfunkel (it actually knocked The Beatles' 'White Album' off the top of the charts). It managed to make Benjamin's post-college doldrums utterly real and threw in some comedic effects that made the audience question itself rather than simply laugh at the movie. Indeed it is a forerunner to some of our most inner-looking films. But as it holds this position and is held up as an example of what relationships with older women should be and can turn out to be, its views on rape and women leave much to be desired.

Criticisms aside, Mrs Robinson's character is in fact the only interesting character in the film. I read reviews where Benjamin was lauded as a man of his generation, but which generation was that? The generation of youngsters who have no idea who they really are and are perfectly happy to float at the bottom of swimming pools in scuba suits? It was only out of pure luck that Mrs Robinson decided to make use of him. Indeed, he was more symbolic of his parents' generation, being set on a traditional marriage rather than creating a loveshack with Elaine.

Mrs Robinson is the single most interesting character of them all, with wit, sarcasm, articulation, intelligence, a dramatic past, and courage to do what she wants to do. Even her divorce from Elaine's father by the end of the film was something looked down upon in those days. As cinema's first cougar it is however obvious that her representation was not dependent on reality and neither is today's view of the cougar.

Just take 'The Boy Next Door' as an example: If he doesn't fall in love with you, stalk you, and try to kill your loved ones, he'll do it to your daughter instead.

{Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0}
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