Are public toilets in Dubai special needs-friendly? Not very.

Have a look at this first, then read on:

 

Whenever we go out, and Karan needs to use the bathroom, it’s often a problem because it’s almost always just me and Mom with him. He can’t go to a public toilet alone and needs someone with him. Now we can’t enter the male toilets obviously. That leaves the female toilets. The problem is getting a 15-year-old, almost 6-feet tall male in there. Mostly we rely on the kindnessand understanding of the women inside who say it’s okay to bring him in. However, going out does provide unnecessary complications when it comes to using the toilet.

I still remember this one time when we were in Deira City Centre a few years ago; we were near the cinemas when he wanted to use the toilet. We poked our head into the female toilet and saw a group of abaya-clad women there. We were a bit shy/hesitant to ask them if it was okay to bring Karan in because we felt perhaps they wouldn’t really be comfortable with the idea. Believe me, they were one of the most understanding and kind people we’ve met. Far from having a problem, they insisted we bring him in immediately, asked us more about him and even greeted him when he came in, even though he didn’t give any sign of noticing them.

Anyway, I went to Dubai Mall with my Mom and Karan, and he needed to go to the bathroom. So, we poked our head into the female restroom and saw that the handicapped/disabled stall was right the edge, which was a relief because it meant we didn’t have to go all the way in and would not encounter many women who may or may not have a problem with a 6-foot-tall man in front of them, no matter how innocent. Anyway… there was no one else in the restroom save an attendant and two women sitting on the bench that was at the entrance of the restroom. We walked in, and the attendant piped up…

Her: Ehh…no no no…what is this?
Me: Oh hello. Sorry but my brother has special needs and I need to take him to the toilet.
Her: No, no, take him out.
Me: He has autism and he cannot go to the toilet alone and he needs someone with him, so I need to take him into the handicapped stall.
Her: No, no NO! He go to male toilet.
Me: I cannot enter the male toilet and he needs someone to go with him. He has autism…special needs? He cannot go alone.
Her: No, take him out.
Me: *trying to stop my mother from an all-out battle* Look, I don’t care what you think, I’m going into the toilet with him, because he can’t go alone and like I said, he has autism and one of us HAS to go in with him.
Her: No…I…he cannot…
Me: Fine, call the management and I’ll talk to them.
Her: *silence* Okay, but go quickly.

Quickly????? I didn’t even bother thanking her for grudgingly letting us go in and took him in. Do I even want to go back to Dubai Mall again with my brother? No.

Public places like malls and parks need to realize that a massive special needs population exists in this city, and in the country. We’re here and we’re here to stay. They also need to realize that some children and adults with special needs have a caretaker/guardian of the opposite gender. If they need to go to the toilet, how can they go if it’s either male or female??? I implore the management of such places to think about us, because as it is we’re thrown at the fringe of society and this is just another thing that makes us dread going out. If your intention is to keep us shut behind four walls, congratulations, it’s working. It is absolutely imperative to have disabled toilets that are really independent of the male and female toilets. If you want to guard against anyone and everyone using the toilet, have an attendant in each bathroom have a key or something, and give it only to those who really need a unisex washroom (for example, someone who has a special needs issue whether physical or mental, and their opposite gender guardian). Knowledge Village has unisex handicapped toilets near the male/female ones, why can’t everyone else?

We get well-meaning people (but those who don’t know what they’re talking about) to “take Karan outside”. Yes, we’ll take him. But how do we integrate into society if we’re denied the basic right of using a toilet? 

People who shouldn’t get on the Dubai Metro

I like the Metro. If it was closer to where I live, I’d use it frequently. As it stands, I hardly do. When I was in the UK though, public transport was all I used. And let me tell you one thing, getting onto the Northern line at 6pm on a weekday equals to being packed tighter than Luke, Leia, Hans Solo and Chewbacca would’ve been in the trash contraption in A New Hope.

The point is, I’m no stranger to using a mode of public transportation. Some people however probably are and therefore have no idea precisely how to behave.

Yesterday I used the Metro from Mall of the Emirates to Khalid Al Waleed station. When I got on at the MOE station, it was pretty crowded inside the female/child compartment, but wasn’t too bad. I held on to a bar for balance, but suddenly found myself being kicked. In the confusion to adjust myself, I somehow got kicked again! I looked down and saw that I was quite close to the woman who was seated on the 1-person seat near the doors, and figured it was probably my mistake and I’d gotten in her foot’s way, because hey…what well-mannered person kicks someone else, especially someone they don’t know, on a public transport vehicle?

I’ll give you one guess: THAT WOMAN.

At the next few stops, the number of women in our compartment ballooned. We were quite jam-packed. One woman wryly commented, “Don’t worry, we won’t fall even if we’re not holding anything. There’s no space for that.” Aahhhh memories of the Northen line swept over me.

Anyway, I noticed that this woman had a piece of paper in her hand and when anyone got too close, she used that paper to push them away. She pushed away handbags, butts (really), elbows with her hands covered with that piece of paper (clearly everyone on the train was contaminated and dirty by her standards)…and now I realize she probably knew exactly what she was doing when she kicked me. None of us were interested in raising hell (We were ALL tired…it was the end of the working day and I think everyone just wanted to go home) so we just moved away and shook our heads and rolled our eyes at her. One woman said to me, “If she has a phobia of crowds, why is she on the train?”

Anyway, when some more people jumped into the compartment, there was no place and someone inevitably stood in front of her. Mind you, it wasn’t as if someone was stuffing their backside into her face. But she used that blasted bit of paper and PUSHED. And then she started talking to everyone near her very loudly in a language I could not understand (if I had to hazard a guess, I might be inclined to say Russian?) and literally spewed venom with her eyes. I did catch a bit of English when she went, “…coming so close…” Not to be outdone, the Filipinas started chattering (about her, judging by the looks they were giving her) in their language, hopefully insulting her as well.

I got off at Khalid Bin Waleed, wishing I was in a better state to tell her off.

Here’s the thing, if you don’t like crowds, don’t take the Metro. Or just travel in the first class cabin (I’m assuming it’s less crowded).

Review – Sucker Punch | The Graduate Times

Review – Sucker Punch

Devina Divecha is disappointed by a hollow Sucker Punch.

Review – Sucker Punch

★★½☆☆

You watch the first few minutes of Sucker Punch and think Wow – that is superb! I hope the rest of the movie is like this. But it isn’t.

Sucker Punch starts beautifully, with a chilling rendition of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These) and no dialogue whatsoever. How can this movie go wrong? We find out as we’re plunged into the pits of madness. Make no mistake, the visual appeal of Sucker Punch is high. But it’s the content that has the problem.

Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is thrown into a mental institution by her evil step-father and she has three days to escape before being lobotomized. She finds a fantasy world the best way to cope with her extreme surroundings (the only explanation from the scenes moving from a medical ward to a brothel) and finds friends. Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) join her in her plan to get out of there.

Carla Gugino joins the maladjusted crowd as a (German? Italian? With that accent it’s hard to tell) doctor/madam, rounded off by Oscar Isaac as the creepy Blue Jones and Scott Glenn as the girls’ guide in their fantastical adventures.

The acting is decent, and the entire cast do well with the parts given to them. Though I think the audience would have liked a bit of explanation before moving from one world to another.

In Baby Doll’s fantasy world, they’re actually trapped in a brothel and made to dance for Blue’s customers. Baby Doll turns out to be a mesmerising dancer; her conspirators are able to carry out dangerous tasks while she distracts the rest. However, the audience never actually sees her dance.

Whether they manage to leave the hellhole they’re in…You have to get to the end of the movie to find out. But the number of brainless scenes in the middle of all that make the audience not really care.

Zack Snyder follows the look and feel of his past movies, 300 and Watchmen. He’s a visual artist, no doubt, but is let down by the script, which is very bland. Men will love the babes-in-corsets action scenes, and I think there is real potential here for this movie to transcend into becoming a video game (no condescension, honestly).

The music is also one of the highlights of the movie, especially if you’re into alternative, rock and hard rock. The pulsating sounds make you forget the actual content, as you focus more on the music and what you’re looking at.

The movie looks good, but is one of those creations that is better seen and not heard. As pointed out, the start of the movie with no dialogue was the best. The score this movie gets is purely on the fantastic scenes and direction we’re treated to.

 

Grace App for autism free on World Autism Awareness Day, 2 April 2011

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Screenshot of Grace App; supplied by Lisa Domican

We’ve recently ordered an iPad2 for Karan, having heard a lot about how apps are being used to encourage people with autism to communicate. My brother is non-verbal, which means he does not talk to communicate with us. He has a few signs, but a lot of times we guess what he wants, based on cues or routines.

I’ve heard about a lot of apps on the iPad/iPhone for people with autism and this is one of them – and it’s going to be available for free on April 2 2011, which is World Autism Awareness Day.

Lisa Domican is a mother of two children with autism. Her daughter Gracie is severely autistic girl who doesn’t speak a lot but uses pictures to communicate. Lisa explains the concept of using pictures well: “Many kids with autism or speech delay use pictures attached to a board to ask for what they need or say how they feel. These boards are stored in a book which they have to carry around with them. Even if and when they begin to say a few words, they may be difficult to understand and so they rely on a growing picture vocabulary which can become very unwieldy.”

She says, “I wanted to keep supporting her speech development by prompting her to use her own voice – with the support of her pictures anywhere.”

She developed Grace App for this purpose and explains how it works: 

Grace App replicates the picture exchange system by storing a basic picture vocabulary of Foods, Things I like, Places, Colors, Sizes and Shapes on an iPhone with a function for creating a sentence. It can also be used on iPod Touch and iPad. On the smaller devices you tilt and the cards are enlarged for you to point and read together. iPad works on Landscape or Portrait view with the pictures big enough to be read easily without enlargement. There is also a facility for finding, taking and sharing photographs of all the other things that you may need or want. You can sort the pictures into categories, delete those you don’t need and teach the child or user to add their own independently – giving them power over their communication choices.

The app was created with the support of O2 Telefonica and developed by Steven Troughton-Smith. Grace App was awarded a United Nations, UNGAID sponsored World Summit Award for m- Learning and Education in 2010.

So those interested in trying out the app can consider getting it on April 2 2011 when it will be available on the iTunes store for free. Once you have the app (whether you’ve downloaded it for free or bought it) you will be able to get whatever updates the app undergoes in the future. A major update will also be launched soon.

Lisa says, “My goal is to engage and inform as many educators, therapists, parents, carers and service providers about Grace App and hopefully as a result, get the gift of independent expression to as many people with Autism and other disabilities as possible. Everyone should have the right to say what they want. My aim is for them to get it!”

I think it would be interesting to see how users can customize the pictures to get the person with autism to communicate with a familiar photo. I know that when I try this app out I’d love to add our own pictures, just so that Karan has a sense of familiarity and it hopefully won’t be too hard for him to understand how to use the app. Last night, while we were getting ready to sleep, he pulled me downstairs and signed for food, then tried to open the fridge, then signed for toilet and ran back upstairs. It’s times like these I’d like to know what he really wanted. So fingers crossed, that apps like this one will clear up communication channels between us.

For more information, check www.graceapp.com

Disclaimer: I was contacted by Lisa regarding the app; I endorse her efforts to help people with autism. I have not tried the app myself, but will be doing so once I get the iPad2 I’ve ordered.

Remember #autism even after #DubaiTwestival

At Dubai Twestival, I was given the wonderful opportunity to speak for a few minutes about autism, given my personal interest in it. I remember having a vague idea – a bullet point list if you will – of things I wanted to cover in the 2-4 minutes I was allotted. Problem was, once I started talking…well, autism is something I can talk about for ages, so I went along my own meandering path, going wherever my synapses were telling me to go.

So…now that I can put pen to paper (or fingers-to-keyboard-to-screen) and try not to get distracted emotionally (as I did in the middle of what I was saying at Twestival…remembering how society in general has treated us sometimes was painful), here’s what I want to say to everyone reading… 

As I mentioned while talking, the awareness among people in Dubai about special needs and autism is appalling. It really is. Granted, there is so much more awareness over the last few years…but remember, I’ve been around in Dubai for dog’s years. I was here when Karan was diagnosed, I was here in the late 1990s when there was no help for us, I was here in the 2000s when we’ve faced problems over getting him into a good school. The general public just doesn’t know what it is. Either they’ve never heard of autism, or they have some fandangled opinions about it. The textbook definition will tell you that autism is a lifelong developmental disability where the person has impaired communication skills and social interaction, and can indulge in repetitive behaviour or be obsessed with something. It’s true enough. However, there are so many other issues…readers of this blog will know we’ve dealt with non-verbal issues (Karan does not speak to communicate with us), clothing issues, food issues, self-help issues and so much more.

One VERY important thing: if you’ve met one person with autism…you’ve met one person with autism. Each person with autism comes with their own set of unique challenges. The standard definition is like an umbrella, if you will. While that definition holds true, you’ll find n-number of differences with each autistic person who overcome completely different obstacles.

Now I’d like to appeal to organizations and businesses within the community. With the current rates of autism (1 in 110 globally, think it’s 1 in 100 in UK, lower in other places), within the next 5-10 years, we, the society, will have on our hands a massive number of adults with autism. It’s an employment resource just waiting to be tapped (and here I acknowledge that sadly, there are some adults whose autism is severe enough that they cannot work throughout their lives). Like in the neuro-typical (NT) world (or all you so-called “normal” people out there), it works the same here: if you’re good at something, that’s where you would like to get some work. Just because a person has special needs doesn’t mean they cannot be a productive member of society. It is so important for people with special needs – not monetarily, mind you – to have a sense of self-respect and self-worth (and goodness knows a major chunk of society gives them no respect whatsoever). Employment is a way of enhancing self-esteem and self-worth, and gives dignity and acceptance to anyone. I know of a couple of organizations in the UAE that do take on interns with special needs and give them jobs, as part of a social responsibility program. My brother’s school is heavily involved in placing their older students with organizations such as banks and hotels. Students are also encouraged to focus on an activity that they are good at and can hold them in good stead when it comes to future employment. Yes, it’s a little bit of extra work, and extra training… but trust me, organizations will find that once the person knows what he/she has to do, they will not stop at anything to get it done for you. Think about it.

So please… don’t forget about autism. It’s here to stay… it’s the so-called NTs that need to adjust.

Donate books to help raise funds for special needs school

Hello,

I’m blogging to appeal for book donations. Manzil, a centre for special needs children, which is based in Sharjah, is planning to host a book sale sometime in June (I don’t have exact dates yet) to raise funds for their school.

My brother has been going to their school for quite some time now, and has made tremendous leaps and strides towards being able to care for himself. Their school isn’t as large as some of the more commonly known special needs institutions out there in the UAE, which is why they’re probably more in need of funds and support. They do great work and have a lovely, qualified staff who take pride in what they do.

If anyone has any books they’d like to donate, it’s terribly easy. Autism & Us has partnered up with TwitBookClub to host this tweetup: Books for … Manzil. We’re collecting books to donate to Manzil to feature in their booksale. #ManzilBooks makes it easier for the Twitter community to gather and donate their books for a good cause. And when the booksale is being hosted in June, they’re expecting to have 10,000 books to sell, so I’ll put up another twtvite closer to time. Books and charity…it all goes rather well together!

So anyone cleaning out their bookcases, get over to the twtvite page and RSVP immediately!

Thank you.

Smaller enterprises need more help

Note: I would like to say that this post might not be very well written since I’m writing in a haze of mild annoyance.

I love the charitable nature of people in the UAE. I love how people support a cause. Sometimes some causes get more publicity than others. Sometimes organizations more in need get ignored. That’s what annoys me to no end.

I read this in the newspaper about how an employment factory will soon be opened for people with special needs. That’s such a wonderful move, and I hope it’s successful. But here’s the great thing about it: it’s gotten publicity, which will hopefully help move it forward. Other organizations who are doing the same thing remain woefully in the sidelines because of lack of marketing (for example, my brother’s school), though I’m hopeful that things will change, that smaller organizations and ventures will get publicity too and be helped along their way.

Even this year’s Twestival for example: I loved the first Twestival I attended last year and I was so proud of how much Dubai had raised for its chosen charity. I was part of that, and it made me swell with happiness. This year, their chosen charity is Dubai Autism Centre. Autism is something very close to my heart, as regular readers might know, so I’m quite supportive of any help that goes towards that cause. But my problem is they chose a charity that already has its share of the spotlight, that already has its fair bit of publicity to get donations…while I’m glad that autism is the winner in this event, I would’ve been happier if they’d gone with something else that really needs publicity, that is desperate for funds and that would’ve benefitted more from the Dubai twitterati’s attention.

It’s the underdog I’m rooting for. How about you?

Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2011

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Books! Authors! More books!

The Emirates Lit Fest, as it’s popularly known, was held in Dubai from March 8 to March 12. They have a lovely lineup of talks and workshops conducted by authors from the Middle East region as well as internationally. One thing I’d really love to bring people’s attention to was the Emirates LitFest 2011 Twitter story. Among the impressive group of authors, 18 of them tweeted a chapter each (ergo, each “chapter” was 140 characters or less) and the resulting story can be found here.

Anyway, I went on March 11 to attend three talks, and what a crowd there was!

The first session I attended was a live cooking demo by Madhur Jaffrey at 1.30pm. While I got there on time, in fact, slightly earlier, there was a very long queue for her workshop. Mutterings and grumbling were flying around me, as women complained about the organization. But the line soon started moving forward and I met up with lovely women I knew from Twitter and food blogs. We entered, found ourselves a comfortable spot and started clicking photos. Apparently there were some technical problems with the temporary kitchen set up in the hall, which had caused the delay. However, once the writer appeared and started working her magic, we all enjoyed a session with kababs and quips. One gripe: due to the initial delay, the session finished slightly later than planned and the delicious-looking kababs that Madhur Jaffrey had prepared were not passed around the audience as they were originally supposed to be. Alas…that lone piece of kabab in the end was claimed by a fellow food blogger, Linda, who stated it was really good.

Note: I’ve a detailed review of this particular session coming soon on another website I write for.

Then Linda and Sally stood in line to get their cookbooks signed!

Soon though, it was time for the 3pm session with the author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Lynne Truss. I first read her book during my Masters degree. I’d borrowed it from the Information Commons, the lovely, large and comfortable library of the University of Sheffield. Buried amidst its many shelves, within its bright and spacey interior, I found one of the funniest books I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. About grammar and punctuation, no less! I remember reading the book for the first time on a train from London to Sheffield, and chuckling aloud at various paragraphs. Lynne Truss had a way with words, and it was a delight to hear from her; about her books, her career as a journalist and more. 

She did a reading of a chapter from Eats, Shoots and Leaves, and said that she had thought her book was aimed for a small audience and was quite surprised at the enthusiastic reaction to it. She said the first print run was 15,000. And then it rose in popularity, and she had ½ a million copies in print. She said, “I think that the main thing for me was to make a lot of people unhappy. When they used to look at signs they must have not been upset but now they must be. I just spread a lot of misery!”

Speaking about her stint as a sports reporter with The Times, she said she once made the mistake of arguing that women should pay less for newspapers because there is a back section that they don’t read. Calling most sports reporters “macho testosterone-y chaps”, she admitted that sometimes sports reporters don’t ask difficult questions because they want to preserve their careers. Also, because they are fans of the sports person they are interviewing, she said she thought they feel like they must protect what they love. With humour and honesty, her session was pretty informative and light.

I’d always wanted a copy of her book, so I snapped it up outside for Dhs 40 (sold by Kinokuniya), and went in the line to get it signed. When I reached the head of the line, it was with a sigh of relief as I was cutting it quite close to my next session. She was really nice to speak to and didn’t hurry me away; instead, talking to me about what I was doing very patiently. Here’s my signed copy:

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Then I started running. It was already 4.30pm! I’d bought a ticket to Eoin Colfer’s session and I was very excited. I’d read the first three Artemis Fowl books when I was younger and actually thought that was it, that the series was over. When I saw he was coming for the festival, I found there were many more books! Aghast at having made this oversight I booked myself for the session, which, when I entered, had just started and filled to the brim with young kids, teenagers and their parents. I was probably the oldest fan in there for all I knew! The session was an absolute blast. For one, within 10 minutes in, he made two Star Wars references (parasailing Ewoks and Darth Vader, if you were curious) and had the audience in splits. Then he regaled us with stories about what inspires events in his books, enacting events from his childhood years with such enthusiasm, you forgot how old he was. He revealed that the lead character in his books, Artemis Fowl, is based on his elder brother, while Mulch Diggums, the fart-filled mud-eating dwarf was based on the younger. When asked what his next Fowl book would be called, he left us in tears when he said, “Artemis Fowl and the Philosopher’s Goblet of Azkaban”. Other random bits from the session: he said that one of his favourite books (that he had written) was probably Airman; that the inspiration for Holly Short (from the Fowl series) came from one his feisty students; that him and his son ribbed each other quite a bit. Someone asked him if the Fowl books would be converted into movies a lá Harry Potter and he exaggerated with aplomb the amount of time he’s been waiting for it happen. He was a delight to listen to, and when the hour was up, it left me wanting for more.

But what was this? A scramble to get in line for the book signing session. I was woefully towards the end of the line… feel free to have a quick look at when I blogged from the line with a picture. One hour fifteen minutes later … I was in front of Eoin Colfer himself! I’d written my name on a post-it for him to refer to when signing (as everyone in the line was asked to do) and he asked me if I was Devina, and I said yes. Do you think he was surprised that I wasn’t getting the books signed for some young cousin or nephew? 🙂

I’d gotten the first book in the series from home, unsure how many copies he would be willing to sign. Earlier that day, I’d bought 3 more books in the series (I already had the first three; each of the books cost me Dhs35)… and he signed all of them! He was an absolute sweetheart; somehow you don’t think a celeb author would be very accomodating, but he was! Then I scooted behind the table to get a photo with him. It went down like this:
Me: “Do you think I could get a photograph with you?”
Eoin Colfer: “I absolutely insist that you do!”

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And here’s the sign in the first book:

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I left the venue, tired, legs aching but satisfied.

Dear Emirates Lit Fest…I can’t believe I’ve never been before. But you’ve found yourself a regular visitor.
Love,
Bookworm-with-four-bookcases-and-over-1000-books

Review – I am Number Four | The Graduate Times

Review – I am Number Four

Devina Divecha reviews the newest sci-fi action epic to hit the screen

Review – I am Number Four

★★½☆☆

I am Number Four hits your senses with its opening scene: a dramatic chase in the middle of a jungle by unknown creatures. An action film – stop right there.

I am Number Four is a film based on a young adult novel of the same name (which I haven’t read), and along with action you’re also subjected to teenage angst. The premise is simple, if similar to Superman. When the planet Lorien was annihilated by the vicious race of Mogadorians, only nine children and their guardians survived. Sent to earth to hide and recoup, the children and their guardians live among humans. Now the creepy and sharp-toothed Mogadorians are hunting down the Nine in order along with their guardians. Numbers One to Three have been dealt with (we see Number Three fall), so now we’re privy to the story of Number Four.

Number Four (Alex Pettyfer) blows his cover as a normal teenager, so he is moved to Paradise, Ohio by his guardian Henri (Timothy Olyphant). In Ohio, under the name John Smith, he falls in love (the Lorien race fall in love just once in their lifetime apparently), befriends an underdog (clichéd?) and discovers he has powers he was unaware of. He also, following the stereotype normally found in such films, makes enemies with the high school jock, who predictably fancies the girl John is in love with.

The appearance of Number Six (Teresa Palmer) is a breath of fresh air as she literally injects action and adrenaline into the movie upon her arrival. The love interest, Sarah (Dianna Agron), is suitably uninspiring. Sam (Callan McAullife) is a geek who is connected to John’s past and was probably slotted in for comic relief. There is also a lizard, that may be a dog, that might actually be something else altogether.

A few issues – Sarah’s character is naive. She actually sees John’s glowing hands and how he dealt with attackers, but doesn’t realise until much, much later that he has special abilities. The back story of Lorien, why the Nine were sent to Earth and why the Mogadorians are hunting them down is lacking in depth and detail. There also seems to be a discrepancy between the time-laspe after the assassinations of Numbers One, Two and Three, and the fact that Number Four is discovered immediately after the murder of Number Three. The film abounds in college-based sterotypes, but perhaps that is to be expected.

The film is a passable start to a franchise, which should hopefully pick up on the action stakes next time, considering that three protagonists are now on the run. The second book in the series is due out this year, so your guess is as good as mine as to what will happen next.