By April 20, 2006 0 Comments Read More →

Redeeming Qualities

Every time I ask for something while I’m reading The Redemption Factory, author Sam Millar provides it. Last night it was in the form of a chapter titled “Tidying Up All Loose Ends.” Very considerate!

At any rate, I finished reading it and this morning I drafted my review. The plot elements did come together nicely, making me realize that, for all the verbiage, this is a very simple book – in its own dark way an update on the classic “working stiff falls for the boss’s daughter” plot. Of course, most of those books don’t have repeated, detailed references to slaughter, excrement, and torture. But life isn’t always crumpets and jam, is it?

Millar’s writing is uneven, but here’s a description of a character dying that I thought – at least late last night – was poetic (name withheld to protect the plot):

“(His) eyelids became heavier, and he could hear sounds crashing down on a beach mixing with the cut of late autumn winds. He closed his eyes, listening to the waves breaking themselves on the rocks while seagulls screamed for food. The lazy fragrance of salt and sand filled his nostrils. The wind rushed towards him, and he opened his mouth to see what the wind tasted like, and it ran into him, like a ghost, pulsing through his veins, making his every thought infinite. It rendered him motionless, like the stillness of an ice sculpture.

“It made him smile.”

As I wrote yesterday and the day before, I have mixed feelings about this book. And this is one of those moments when reviewing a book feels about as easy as juggling hamsters. Sometimes I’ll read a book that I don’t like at all but that I do believe has an audience. If I write an entirely negative review, I might be keeping the book from the people it’s meant for; if I write a postive review, I’ve done something worse, which is to sign my name to something I don’t believe.

Ultimately, I think both needs – truthfulness and good customer service – can be accommodated. The reviewer’s job is always to say honestly what he thinks about the book. While doing that, he needs to provide enough evidence to allow the reader of the review to decide whether or not he agrees with the reviewer. It’s not easy, but by including enough description of character, plot, setting, and themes – or better, combining all those to capture the feel of the book – the reader can read between the lines. And in some cases, it never hurts to say, “Readers who like X will enjoy Y.”

When I reviewed David Haward Bain’s The Old Iron Road – in which he takes his family on a road trip to study historical railroad sites – I felt like a bored kid stuck in the back seat, and I said so, but I still noted that railroad buffs (notice that I didn’t call them “trainspotters”) were likely to like it.

Over time, I think that regular readers even form their own relationships with reviewers – I know I do, especially with movie reviewers. I know that what thrills Michael Wilmington isn’t likely to thrill me, and that I can mine enough data from a Roger Ebert review (he’s truly one of the great reviewers, even though he’s gotten a bit soft – sometimes I just subtract one star from his rating) to find out whether I agree.

But back to Millar. The Redemption Factory is like a weird gothic dream, following its own logic, and I went from not liking it very much to liking it somewhat. But I’m sure it will appeal to the black-overcoat crowd who like their books, movies, and games steeped in muck and misery. Now how to say that in 175 words….

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

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