I've just emailed the book club to cancel 'The Running Man' and I'm trying to put my objections to it into words. It isn't a 'bad' book, meaning it isn't twaddle. It's written by a part-time English teacher, so you'd expect it to be reasonably well-written, which it is. It has important and worthy themes - the redemptive power of art versus war, the importance of friendship and of truly seeing the other.
The gloominess of the novel however is pretty unrelenting. Maybe it was because I read this whilst all head-achey, with the kids all away on sleepovers, and was feeling a little bleak myself, perhaps it was one lot of bleakness amplifying another but I found it an oppressive book. One of the main characters is a Vietnam veteran, another - the running man of the title - the survivor of a house fire that killed his wife and infant daughters, and this book doesn't manage to transcend their brokenness, even though the story states that it does, through the awakenings that the relationship between the veteran and his teenage neighbour creates.
I'm not trying to shield the kids in the book club from 'heavy' themes. Our very first book for the year was 'To Kill A Mockingbird', after all! But I do feel that it takes a very skilled writer to deal with unhappy topics in a way that leavens despair and leaves the reader - if not the characters - in a position of hope.
Perhaps it's in the way a writer integrates their theme into their prose. I've replaced 'The Running Man' with the Millard book I mentioned earlier, 'A Small Free Kiss in the Dark'. It actually covers very similar territory - love and art as antidotes to war - but it does this in a more energised, hopeful and transcendent way. This is in spite of its plot encompassing various types of loss. Why ? Where is the difference between Millard and Bauer ? It must lie in the language used.
I'll have to re-read the Millard book and try to be more exact. Her book left my mind brimming with colour, bright and solid like the chalks her teenage hero uses to create his art. The Bauer book made me feel grey and insubstantial.