Saturday, October 14, 2017

October's Book: The Handmaid's Tale

Caught up! It feels good. I credit finally reading a short book one of these months.

And now we're back to the 20th century... or are we?

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Speculative Fiction (1985 - 358 pp.)

The Handmaid's Tale is the story of Gilead, a revolutionary post-United States taken over by a cult called the Sons of Jacob that divides everyone into classes. The men are Commanders, Eyes, Angels and Guardians, mostly; the women are Wives, Handmaids, Marthas and Econowives, mostly. Each commander's household has a wife (self-explanatory), a handmaid (for bearing children) and 1-2 Marthas (for housework). Everyone's role is circumscribed, with surveillance and secret police to catch and get rid of dissenters. Any further plot synopsis is located in the thousands of reviews already out there. Any typical review of The Handmaid's Tale can be found in the equally numerous sources confirming that yes, Gilead is a horrible place to live. Offred, our narrator, is a handmaid. She wears red but is a potential dissenter (Off Red), and is in the household of a commander named Fred (Of Fred).

The most striking parts of Atwood's dystopia are the overarching cultural norms that could happen anywhere. At Atwood has said, everything in The Handmaid's Tale is something that has already happened."* The execution of doctors and scientists is eerily reminiscent of WWII-era military occupations. (37) All the surveillance, suffering, and surveillance-induced suffering Offred experiences are directly caused by her upper-class, solid-red-wearing obviousness. In Gilead, living unnoticed is the ultimate prize. Gilead's mantra may well be Nick's warning to Offred late in the book, which could just as easily be advice to a driver with a suspended license or to a stark opposition of technological progress: "Keep on doing everything exactly the way you were before, Nick says. Don't change anything. Otherwise they'll know." (311)

For all the handmaid's internal life is developed, the reader never grasps Gilead's economy or the handmaid's role in it. Offred goes shopping early on, which is performed through tokens stamped with products rather than through any normal currency. (12) Non-pregnant handmaids are shuffled between commanders every two years. For all the purpose of being a handmaid is to bear children via "Ceremony",** though, Offred's commander doesn't appear to be trying very hard to impregnate her:*** "When the night for the Ceremony came round again, two or three weeks later..." (184) No mention is ever made as to what jobs the commanders have, how handmaids are supported financially, why a commander would agree to subsidize a handmaid for the two-year lease, or what Gilead could possibly export. The only conclusion I can make is that handmaids are wards of the state. As a result, the state appears to be draining funds on them^ without giving them any benefit in return: they can't work, they have no means to express themselves, and efforts to get them to bear children appear half-hearted at best.

The best off of any of the women in The Handmaid's Tale are the little-mentioned econowives. They perform the duties of wives, handmaids, and Marthas, and therefore they wear blue, red and green as a result. (48) They wear their colours all at once, in stripes; the stripes aren't mentioned in any further detail, so the reader can only imagine the varieties the econowives can choose. Functioning almost exclusively as a companion, mother and homemaker is similar to being an early 20th-century housewife. They are the only women in Gilead with remotely normal lives and with the ability to wear multiple colours at once. Sadly, they only appear in any prominence on one page, and the reader never gets to feel their experiences. The Handmaid's Tale came out 22 years ago, and The Econowife's Tale just doesn't have much of a ring to it, so I'm not crossing my fingers for a sequel.

Atwood's writing reminded me within the first few pages of how rarely I read books published between 1960 and 1990. The Handmaid's Tale reads somewhat like my dad's old spy novels, which I hadn't expected, but helps it read extremely quickly. The only time this fast pace lets up is during Professor Pieixoto's lecture at the very end. I love fictitious internal reporting, like The Navidson Record in House of Leaves, so the 10+ pages of metafictional academic journal entries make me smile. I would have liked to have known more about Late Gilead, though; the early^^ and middle periods are covered in detail, but we never know how Gilead ends.^^^ We know it's over because the Professor Pieixoto lecture, set in 2195, discusses Gilead as a historical country.

One minor mishap I noticed was the sheer repetition of the phrase "as if" for similes. It generally occurs in the form "<subject><predicate>, as if <comparator>." At one point, it occurs thrice in 3.5 pages. (96, 97, 99) This is why one of the greatest boons of the post-1985 editing world is Ctrl+F. As much as repeating a character's commonly used phrases helps to establish that character's tendencies, when it distracts from the story, it's problematic.

The words Offred makes in Scrabble are also completely improbable: Larynx, Valance, Quince and Zygote all in the same game, or even the same night, for starters. (161) Then Quartz and Quandary appear in rapid succession, in either the same game or two consecutive, when there is only one Q in the entire 100-letter game. (178) Far more often, the Q and Z are used to make the two-letter words Qi and Za on triple letter scores, leading to profanity from the opponent. That said, I'm just glad to see one of my favourite board games mentioned in a book at all.

Given how terrifying living in Gilead must be, and how I've mused on Gilead's lack of exports more than I've mentioned the book's horror, I leave you with the ultimate fridge horror thought: What if Gilead funds itself by exporting handmaids?`

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 3

*Except mandatory red-blue-green Trinitron-style striped clothing. (see the econowives paragraph)

**The Ceremony is described in detail at pages 106-111.

***The Handmaid's role in the Ceremony is so passive that this grammatical structure works fine.

^Who are the taxpayers in this system? Or have these revolutionary United States seized Fort Knox and melted all its gold supplies into the food voucher tokens?

^^For reference, the main part of the book takes place during the early period.

^^^There is one journal entry on civil war in Gilead, but the reader never gets to know when this civil war happens, why it happens, or whether it leads to Gilead's demise. (344)

`Even this is contemplated by ISIS's human trafficking economy.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

September's Book: Collaborating with the Enemy

Almost caught up! Unlike these past couple months, which have looked back to the 20th century, this time it's a really current book on display.

Collaborating with the Enemy by Adam Kahane
Organizational Theory (2017 - 109 pp.)

Adam Kahane's Collaborating with the Enemy rests on a very sound premise: that to work through conflict, we must seek out and embrace it, and then be experimental in how we solve our problems. The premise harkens back to post-World War II industrial pluralism, which encouraged management-union cooperation, and to the problems I looked at when I wrote a master’s paper on the psychological and economic pitfalls negotiators face in hostile collective bargaining. Expanded further, much like Freakonomics doesn’t just apply to economists, Collaborating with the Enemy becomes part of a series of books on how to industrial relations-ize your life.

At only 109 pages, Collaborating with the Enemy still feels overly long. Realistically, it contains a 25-page article’s worth of material. Most of the rest of the book is Kahane repeating himself, and sometimes telling personal anecdotes that don’t feel connected to the underlying premise. Reading about the political conferences in South Africa and Colombia was interesting, but those conferences needed to be tied into conflict resolution theme more. A 55-page book on conflict resolution and a 54-page book on political conferences Kahane has attended would be a compelling 2-in-1 bookstore purchase, but I doubt it’d sell as well. The how-to guide at the end of the book can be removed.

Kahane’s most effective argument is his four methods of coping with conflict, presented as a decision tree: force, collaborate, adapt, and exit. (19) He then expands them to five by opening collaboration up into traditional collaboration, which works when the situation is well understood, and stretch collaboration, which is necessary when the situation is not well understood. (47) Stretch collaboration is what Kahane needed to understand the problems in South Africa and Colombia: a willingness to work together even within relationships had previously been adversarial, and a willingness to try something new.

These decision trees are also effective because they recognize force and exit as valid options. Not every situation lends itself to accommodation or horse-trading. The decision trees also unpack collaboration based on whether the conflict can be controlled, which starts readers thinking about whether they can control the situations they face.

What really makes the decision trees special, though, is that they attack the problem like a first-entry deterrence game* rather than like a Myers-Briggs test.** There’s no Thomas-Kilmann conflict type. There’s no imputed personality. Anyone can use any combination of the five methods, and Kahane frequently emphasizes that everyone should.

Much like with Difficult Conversations, which came out of the Harvard Negotiation Project in 1994 but is written in a tone that is more popular than academic, Collaborating with the Enemy gets non-academics talking about the kinds of issues faced in the social science classroom, and the business and political worlds.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 4

*For example, the second game tree in this overview from Vanderbilt Business School.

**I'm an ENTJ and proud.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

August's Book: Light in August

August is apparently unofficial Faulkner month. This is Light in August* after all.

Light in August by William Faulkner
Literature (1932 - 507 pp.)

Light in August hit at a time when William Faulkner's career was far enough along its upward ascent that it never languished in obscurity, nor, like The Sound and the Fury (1929), did it ever act as a staging ground to see whether Faulkner ever could make it as an author. (Hindsight says yes, he could.) After the success of Sanctuary (1931), which was written in a straighter narrative format, Light in August blends non-linear with narrative.

In each character, as with the world in last month's book, the reader is forced to ask what went wrong? What could have been?** The story opens with Lena Grove, who is walking to fictitious Jefferson, Mississippi in order to find the father of her unborn child. Then it transitions to Joe Christmas, a planing mill worker accused of murder. (Rightly? Wrongly? We'll never know.) Byron Bunch, another of the mill's workers, reveals a good heart but nothing else. Reverend Hightower is the only source of wisdom in Jefferson, yet he is never shown actually doing anything except dispensing wisdom.

Early in the book, Faulkner sheds light on Brown, another planing mill worker, the [redacted for the father of all spoiler purposes] and [redacted for spoiler purposes, although it is a Burden to do so].*** Brown's gambling winnings say the most about him, and about the way varying levels of wealth play into people's likelihoods of keeping their jobs:
Sixty dollars is the wrong figure [for Brown to quit the planing mill]. If it had been either ten dollars or five hundred, I reckon you'd be right. But not just sixty. He'll just feel now that he is settled down good here, drawing at last somewhere about what he is worth a week. (39-40)
This sort of prospect theory-style risk aversion - taking a surer outcome with a lower payoff - epitomizes the sort of person who achieves missed opportunity in Faulkner's South. Brown has just enough to get by, and that's all he gets. Other more desperate characters, like Lena and Christmas, reach out more, and achieve something, even though they end up with drastically different results.

The transition from Christmas's present to his childhood recalls The Sound and the Fury. Although Light in August frequently features stream of consciousness monologues that slip into the characters' thoughts until Something is going to happen Something is going to happen to me (118), it is the sharp shift from the doomed present to the only possibly doomed past that draws the reader deeper into Christmas's life in the very next sentence: "Memory believes before knowing remembers." (119) Just as with Quentin Compson from The Sound and the Fury, understanding Christmas's past is crucial to understanding where he lies in the book's present [SPOILER]. Less poetically, "the sound and fury of the hunt" (331) reads like a self-promotion in comparison.

As Christmas ages, his relationship with time worsens. One of his first thoughts when passing by a local restaurant is that "there is something about it beside food, eating. But I dont know what. And I will never know." (176) This hopelessness pervades his thoughts and actions as he grows into adulthood. When he lacks the money to afford coffee with his pie, he muses that it is "terrible to be young". (181) Christmas's building relationship with a waitress causes him to note that: "And in time even the despair and the regret and the shame grew less." (181) When the waitress attempts to end the relationship, it is as though "in a moment she will vanish. She will not be. And then I will be back home, in bed, having not left it at all". (188) Time is always Christmas's enemy; like the other characters, he can never capitalize on it. Mr. McEachern, Christmas's adoptive father, combines Christmas's relationships with the waitress and with time in the starkest terms imaginable: "But you have still plenty of time to make me regret that heifer". (200) And so they lead downhill.

Death is "peaceful", in that word, to whomever encounters it, old or young, white or racially ambiguous, even if they're related. (205, 464) When Byron transforms mentally, he does not die, but a bad part of him dies: "Then a cold, hard wind seems to blow through him. It is at once violent and peaceful, blowing away hard like chaff or trash or dead leaves all the desire and the despair and hopelessness and the tragic and vain imagining too." (425) This transformation carries him past Hightower's quote below (411) to Byron's pinnacle in the book. (440) Nature, transformation and death all are peace to Light in August's characters. They reach peace when time runs out.

The last hundred pages sum up the lost (as in Lost Generation?), endless, sometimes tragic fates the characters face. Hightower dispenses his greatest piece of wisdom to Lena in reference to her plan to marry Byron, showing that the disgraced Hightower, whose life reads like a constant stream of failed opportunity,**** has come to understand what failed opportunity really means: "You are probably not more than half his age. But you have already outlived him twice over. He will never overtake you, catch up with you, because he has wasted too much time. And that too, his nothing, is as irredeemable as your all." (411) Wasted time, more lost opportunity, keep creeping up in every character's life. Yet what would some of these characters have ever achieved? Brown's cowardice shows in Lena's thoughts shortly after: "He will have no more shame than to lie about being afraid, just as he had no more shame than to be afraid because he lied" (430) Lena is unremarkable, and stunningly little of her life before her pregnancy is revealed, but she soldiers on.

When Byron tells Hightower about the beating Brown has just laid on him, with a bloody face, he says the book's most powerful line: "he aint broke anything that belongs to me." (440) Much more belongs to Byron at the end of the book than at the start; ironically, much of it could have belonged to Brown, who relinquished it. Byron's transformation is like a death, only it leads him out of town, where he had little left anyway. An unnamed focus character in the book's last chapter points out that Lena is still travelling, and that she probably has no set destination. (506) This is the way character goes, toward death or toward a sense of self that is not necessarily flattering. Yet there is light.

Ease of Reading: 4
Educational Content: 6

*It isn't September until, in Toronto, Canada, it consistently drops below 30 degrees Celsius during the day (86 degrees Fahrenheit, for those from where Faulkner's from).

**Wondering what could have been apparently happens to those of us who review books, too.

***Now isn't that a way to get a reader interested in a character. He's rather mysterious... but why?

****"I acquiesced. Nay, I did worse: I served it. I served it by using it to forward my own desire. I came here where faces full of bafflement and hunger and eagerness waited for me, waiting to believe; I did not see them. " (487)

Thursday, August 31, 2017

July's Book: Time's Arrow

Now this is a situation that, when I reviewed June's book on July 16, I hadn't envisioned. I had finished reading another book on July 28th, and then another on August 1st, and was all set to be caught up, or even ahead, on these monthly entries. (This will happen. Just wait.)

I suppose sometimes we'd all like to go backwards to fix things, even when we can't...


Time's Arrow by Martin Amis
Literature (1991 - 165 pp.)


(Of course, the book spoils itself on the back dust jacket…)

Sometimes a book is reviewed dozens of times, and the reviews say all you meant to say. Your review feels meaningless as a result.

Other times, a book is reviewed dozens of times, and the reviews are completely silent on what you want to say.

The narrative structure has been covered. Backwards conversations that read cogently each way are the closest Martin Amis gets to literary virtuosity. The rest is either novelty or kitsch.

The most interesting aspect of Time’s Arrow is the idea that, as life falls apart, we can somehow track back to that critical moment when we could have fixed it. What if I hadn’t taken out that loan? What if I’d dated that one girl instead of that one other girl? What if I’d flown to Oslo when I had the chance?*

Life presents us with choices all the time. In Time’s Arrow, though, the reader can’t look back. The reader has to experience the life of a deceased German doctor who performed experiments in Auschwitz during World War II in reverse, narrated by a spirit or soul who follows along with the reader and is shocked by the protagonist's life events. Memories are of the future, and new experiences are of the past.

Obvious gimmick aside, along with the more literal interpretations of backwards (such as the oft-cited everything being made of shit), Time’s Arrow makes the ideas of past and future unsettling. One of the book’s famous lines is when the narrator, who is an observer inside the protagonist’s** head, realizes he can never commit suicide no matter how horrible World War II gets. The future has already happened. Our narrator can never look back and wonder what could have been, because it’s already been decided. The railroading of time leads to few opportunities for regret.

Amis is praised for the research he put into Time’s Arrow, most notably his reading on the psychology of Holocaust doctors. The Auschwitz scenes capture the intense mental anguish the narrator feels upon seeing the protagonist’s actions, along with prosaic but no less gut-punching phrases like “It was I, Odilo Unverdorben, who personally removed the pellets of Zyklon B and entrusted them to the pharmacist in his white coat.” Recall when reading this passage that the story happens in reverse.

This leads to the great disappointment of the book, which no other review I’ve read has ever caught. The beginning of the book, or end of the protagonist’s life, happens in 1998,** when the protagonist dies at 81. From 1998-1946, Time’s Arrow follows his life back through senior citizenship, middle age, and then that period people apparently experience in their 30s when they philander constantly. Auschwitz, which all the book’s promotional materials place at the forefront of the book’s importance, doesn’t happen until three quarters of the way through.

One mirrored set of questions remains. It’s the set of questions I slogged through monologues on a retired German-American doctor to see answered.

To the reader and the narrator, where did it all lead? To the historian and the protagonist, where did it all begin?

The protagonist is 22 when World War II begins.*** He is a medical school graduate with a wife by the time he starts participating in the Holocaust. The period of his life from 1939-1917 only lasts about twelve pages. All those memories – or new experiences – of life as a young adult, adolescent and then child in interwar Germany are barely mentioned. They are so formative to the protagonist as a person, yet they are pre-empted by his later life.

Our protagonist is from Solingen, a medium-sized city in Northwestern Germany. After the bizarre backwards rollercoaster ride that goes from waking up in a dead senior’s body through New York City, Portugal, Poland and Germany, shouldn’t there be more wonder at the place where his life started – and ends? Aside from half a paragraph on famous knives and scissors, all Amis can scrounge for information on a city of over 100,000 residents is: “Finally, modest Solingen harbours a proud secret. I’m the only one who happens to know what that secret is. It’s this: Solingen is the birthplace of Adolph Eichmann.” A city where our young protagonist grew up, and where our weary narrator is rewarded for his stunning patience, is reduced to this?

Time’s Arrow is a fun read. It just feels front-heavy and back-light.

And then, to quote from the time when the protagonist assumes the name of John Young during middle age, over a third into the book: “Thank God. He’s out. Like a baby.”

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 3

*In 2011, in what is still my only ever foray to the Newark, NJ airport, I passed a gate where a plane was about to depart for Oslo. I was carrying my passport, too. My ticket was to Ithaca, NY, where I did go. I probably couldn’t have boarded that Oslo flight at the extreme last minute, but it’s always fun to wonder…

**The protagonist’s name changes so often I simply call him “the protagonist”.

***Time’s Arrow was released in 1991. Why Amis added to the already confusing timeline by placing the start of the book seven years into the future, I’ll never know. I got to this date by adding 81 to the protagonist’s birthdate of 1917. If I’ve made an error here, let me know.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Rediscovering the H.L. Hunley [WaPo] [UNC]

On Thursday, the Washington Post reported on the unearthing of the H.L. Hunley, the fabled Confederate submarine that sunk in 1864 while assaulting a Union post during the Civil War. After 136 long years on the seafloor near Charleston, South Carolina, and then another 17 years after the sub's recovery in 2000, a team of researchers were finally able to figure out what sunk it.

The report contains a picture of the inside of the recovered H.L. Hunley, as it looks now. The closest comparison I can think of is a sewer with a skeletal tree branch running through it.

Here's the report.

University of North Carolina biomedical engineer Rachel Lance, assisted by the omnipresent co-author et al., couldn't find a reason for the crew's deaths on the sub, as the Post explains:

But when they ventured inside the boat, they found not a single clue. Its 40-foot-long iron hull was barnacle-encrusted but not broken. The skeletons of eight members of the crew were found still in their seats at their respective battle stations; their bones bore no evidence of physical harm. The bilge pumps hadn't been activated. The air hatches were closed. There was no sign that anyone had tried to escape.

The report and article demonstrate that the H.L. Hunley may have accidentally sunk itself by means of a pressure wave caused by its own torpedo. The pressure wave could kill without a trace:

Instead, when a torpedo blows something up underwater, it creates pressure waves that reverberate in the water and through the body of anyone who happens to be in it. The instantaneous increase in pressure can squeeze oxygen out of the lungs and pop blood vessels in the brain. The effects are often deadly.

But the damage occurs exclusively in a victim's soft tissue, like the gut, lungs and brain — from the outside, it can be impossible to tell that the person has been harmed.

On the plus side, if it can be called that, the torpedo sank the Housatonic, a Union ship.

The academic article also contains some really cool diagrams of the H.L. Hunley as it would have looked on its final voyage back in 1864.

Here's the article.

A couple interesting thoughts after reading that aren't answered by the article or the study:

1. The WaPo story is filed under "Science", rather than "History" or something similar. Where does such an inherently interdisciplinary article get filed? The study it cites was written by an engineer, which supports the "Science" label. Still, not every traumatic blast happened in 1864, and history books frequently focus on disciplines from artists to homemaking...

2. To what extent did the Confederacy or outside observers realize what had happened? The discovery is so new, yet self-defeating pressure waves apparently weren't such a problem 50 years later when submarines were standard fare during World War I. The Russian Empire's submarine program faced severe problems in the Baltic Sea, but they were still 55 strong.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

ESPN: Finding Darko

This past Wednesday, ESPN published this fantastic piece by Sam Borden about retired NBA centre Darko Milicic.

Yes, that Darko.

from Detroit Free Press

Milicic was frequently the butt of jokes during his surprisingly long NBA career (2003-2012). Those who watched the 2003 NBA Draft recall the following draft order:

1. LeBron James
2. Darko Milicic
3. Carmelo Anthony
4. Chris Bosh
5. Dwyane Wade

Four of those five went on to do great things in the NBA. LeBron James has appeared in seven straight NBA Finals, winning three, among countless other accomplishments. Carmelo Anthony has career averages of 24.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Dwyane Wade has won three NBA championships, two of them coming with the aforementioned James. Chris Bosh has won two NBA championships, on those same Miami Heat teams with James and Wade. Bosh is also the only Toronto Raptor to ever average 20+ points and 10+ rebounds in the same season - thus far. (He's done it thrice.)

Milicic never made it in the NBA. No worries, though. He made $52 million, learned a lot about life, and now runs his own fruit farm in his home Serbia, near his hometown of Novi Sad.

He looks happy and healthy. A monk from his local monastery put it best (from the linked ESPN article at the top):

The monks see Darko differently than everyone else. When I ask Father Joanikije what he thinks of Darko as a person, he pauses for a beat or two, then says, "A man who succeeded in life. A man who achieved his goal."
They just see a man who has a wife and children and a business and a comfortable life and a place in the community of his hometown. They see a man who achieved his goal or, at the very least, is trying to right now. So why can't they be right?
Milicic mentions farming apples and cherries, two of my favourite fruits.

from the ESPN article mentioned above
Sometimes success comes in surprising places. Looking at it from a detached view, five years after Milicic's retirement, it doesn't seem that surprising that someone who seemed so unnatural in the NBA would return home to Serbia, put his money to good use, and put his efforts into something he loves.

Sounds delicious to me.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

June's Book: Marlfox

Marlfox by Brian Jacques
Fantasy (1998 - 386 pp.)

Marlfox is the 11th book (13th chronologically) in the Redwall series. The one-paragraph version is that there are seven Marlfoxes, who are all children of  Queen Silth. One of the Marlfoxes, Lantur, serves as Silth's personal assistant, while the other six attempt to conquer the series's titular Redwall Abbey. What makes Marlfox special among Redwall books is what I have just said: whereas earlier books focus on heroes, or hero-villain personal vendettas, Marlfox is more about the villains than about anyone.

The Mokkan-Gelltor dynamic drives the book. Neither is particularly sympathetic - Mokkan is a deceptive thief, and Gelltor is bent on pillaging Redwall Abbey - but their personality conflict launches the book's two main plots. Gelltor leads three other Marlfoxes on an attack on Redwall that threatens every aspect of the residents' lives. Redwall is the cornerstone of the series, with the vast majority of books either set there or invoking its lore, so that its largely mouse/squirrel population to be overrun by foxes is (for the characters) terrifying. Negotiations between Gelltor and the Rusvul (squirrel)/Janglur (squirrel)/Skipper (otter) rulers of Redwall by committee go south rather quickly: "Gelltor waved his axe aloft. 'Now 'tis war. Your Abbey is surrounded, and we will stay here for as long as it takes to slay you or make you all surrender!'" (160) This exchange is in response to the only beheading I have ever read in what is ostensibly a children's book. (144) Gelltor later shows the ability to kill multiple enemies in battle virtually effortlessly: "The Marlfox fought like a demon, snarling in the face of his enemies as he wielded his axe savagely. Three shrews were laid low..." (223)

Mokkan, meanwhile, whisks away the Abbey's prized tapestry, leading young Dannflor (squirrel), Songbreeze (squirrel) and Dippler (shrew) to go on a quest to retrieve it. This double plot puts both sides on offence, with the sly, thieving Mokkan just as hunted as the defenders of Redwall. Dannflor and Songbreeze briefly appear to become love interests (200-201, for example), although in true Redwall fashion, they simply become good friends and leave the reader to assume more squirrels will exist at some undefined future point. This is not to say Mokkan isn't capable of fighting back. Mokkan's physical prowess is shown in lines like "Mokkan's paw was like a clawed vice. It dug savagely into Fenno [the shrew]'s neck..." (156) and "With a quick flick of his paws, he pushed [character name redacted for spoiler purposes] into the lake" (336). He also shows ingenuity in convincing other Marlfoxes of his status as quasi-leader, such as when he tells Predak, "Tell me. I'm not like our brother Gelltor, I'm always ready to listen to other schemes." (94)

Despite the ostensible good-versus-evil story, no character in Redwall is truly morally angelic. The Marlfoxes' desires to acquire wealth through plunder makes them understandably on the bad side of things, which Mokkan readily admits: "Remember, we're Marlfoxes, born to stealth and deceit." (65) It is only Janglur, a good guy, who ever resorts to killing foes by way of an oil fire. (276) The nominal good guys have no qualms about referring to entire species of animals as "vermin" (204, among others) but the Marlfoxes never refer to mice, squirrels, hares, otters, or any other nominally good animal with any epithet meant to cover an entire species. Even when Marlfoxes use abusive language, which is frequently, it is always aimed at a particular target, such as when Lantur says to a water rat, "You are growing fat and idle whilst your Queen suffers. There are no excuses for your stupidity." (96) Queen Silth then refers to the same rat as a "worthless piece of offal". (97) Mokkan says to Fenno the shrew, "Pain is the best teacher for stupid idiots." (215) Rats in general, though? Only the good guys could possess such a blanket level of hatred.

Marlfox's surprisingly ambiguous morality is further muddled by the ways in which Jacques's descriptions of the animals differs sharply from their real-life perceptions. A prime example is Jacques's portrayal of mice as heroes and ferrets as villains. Take, for instance, Jacques's plain description of a stoat and two weasels: "Their appearance was eerie and barbaric." (229) In the books, it makes enough sense in a Zootopia-style prey-predator dynamic. (But then why are badgers good?) In real life, however, ferrets are commonly seen as lovable companions for cats and children, whereas mice are afforded far different treatment. It's tougher to hate Raventail the ferret, and the Marlfoxes themselves, when one can't stop thinking about how cute they are.

Jacques's use of dialect is well on display for all these critters. Foxes speak in proper English, mice and squirrels have a commoner dialect, hares are affectedly British ("villainous chaps", "wot wot"), and moles border on incomprehensible: "Cos ee wurr outside, zurr, back o' ee likkle wallgate." (93) Or see: "Doan't feels loik oi gotten two 'eads no more, hurr hurr!" (244) Or see: "Hurr, you'm give umm billyo, zurr Skip!" (324) The Mighty Megraw, an osprey, is Scottish in even the most everyday phrases: "Ah'd like that fine, lass!" (288) In a particularly cute use of dialect-meets-Spoonerism, a mousebabe and a molebabe combine to impersonate "Marmfloxes" using ash and blankets. (246-247)

The back dust jacket of Marlfox tells something that I, as a faithful Redwall reader since about the age of eight, had not previously known. Apparently, Jacques spends his summers writing and his winters researching the Redwall books - by working "in a specially built conservatory so he can watch the comings and goings of birds, squirrels and the occasional fox, which are a constant inspiration." Jacques's imagination is immense to be able to create these settings, characters and plots out of what my personal experiences observing birds and squirrels has not yet delivered.

A final thought on Jacques's writing style: it is meant for Redwall books. Jacques frequently uses "tell, don't show" in order to achieve a storytelling mood. He puts thoughts directly in the reader's mind rather than have the reader figure out what's happening, as usually happens in literary fiction. Examples are limitless, but a good one is when Florian attempts to stop Marlfox-led forces from breaking into Redwall: "Curious to know what was going on, they hastened across." (192) Florian's curiosity should be evident from his surroundings without Jacques having to point it out in narration. From a worse (or beginning) writer, or with a worse story, the reader would feel railroaded. That said, Jacques still displays great "show, don't tell" passages, such as when Mokkan drives his boat through rapids. (266) What Jacques has achieved here is to spin the reader a yarn while using shorthand to make the plot move faster, all while making Marlfox accessible to readers of all ages.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 2

NOTE: There is a minor character, a mole, named Muggle. (92) Which came first: the Castle or the Abbey? Most likely, it's a coincidence.