Book Club

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As a child I was a bookish nerd, tearing my way through the Famous Five books at a rate of knots and dreaming of one day being a librarian. Nowadays you'll more likely find me curled up on the sofa with my Macbook than with a real book, but I'm working on changing that.

I read an odd assortment of books in March. They were all satisfying in their own way; aren't all books, really? Reading on the bus is becoming dangerous, however. Each of these books made me cry, mostly happy tears but not all, and I think people are starting to think me very odd having tears in my eyes so often on the way home from work...

Cuckoo in the Nest, Michelle Magorian

This is maybe my favourite book of all time; it feels so nostalgic, familiar and heart-warming. It's predictable, sure, and sometimes unrealistic but the happy ending is so welcome that it's something like drinking a hot chocolate in front of a warm fire on a chilly day. Totally blissful.

Set in post-Blitz London, we follow Ralph, a working class lad desperate to become an actor but blocked at every opportunity by his class, his lack of cash and his father's disapproval of the theatre. He finds himself working backstage nonetheless and you can practically smell the greasepaint as you follow him through the various productions. I think this book is what gave me my love of theatre, and reading it makes me want to snap up every seat that I can just to feel that heady excitement that only live theatre can provide.

The cast of characters is a joy - from Ralph's formidable boss Mrs Fossington-Smythe (my favourite) to the eccentric actors and Ralph's own kind-hearted, rough around the edges family. This book is never going to be great literature, but it makes me smile wider than any other.

Sleepers: A True Story When Friendship Runs Deeper Than Blood, Lorenzo Carcaterra 

From one extreme to another, this book will definitely not make you smile. The blurb reads:

They were four boys who shared everything - the laughter and bruises of an impoverished upbringing in New York's West Side. Then one of their pranks misfired - a man nearly died and they were sent away to a reformatory school. There they suffered the worst abuse the guards could inflict on them. They were forever scarred by their experiences. Eleven years later two of them became killers for the mob. They met the ringleader of the guards who abused them - and shot him dead in front of several witnesses. No one thought they would see the outside of a prison again - but the four friends banded together once more and in one last, audacious stand brought their own vengeance to the courtroom.

It's a gripping read, but it's brutal. I had to put it down a few times; they don't spare you much on the description of the abuse they suffered and knowing that it's a true story brought those hot, angry tears to my eyes more than once.

However, much more than the riveting plot (thankfully the sections on their childhood and the court case are longer than the harrowing section in the middle which links them together), I found the descriptions of their lives in Hells Kitchen completely fascinating. It's a little snippet of history which is not often told, and this book is incredibly evocative of what life was really like for four boys growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood which underwent dramatic changes during their lifetime. If you can stomach it, it's worth a read.

American Savage, Dan Savage 

I try to introduce everyone I know to Dan Savage's work. I know he's not always the most popular figure, but I really enjoy his books and podcasts. They've definitely taken on a more political bent as he's aged, so this book probably isn't for everyone, but I really enjoy a well-written diatribe every now and again. Unlike Savage's other works, this book is more of a series of essays on various topics (particularly marriage equality, but he touches on euthanasia, healthcare and gun control), rather than a coherent story but his voice and wit carries it through. The chapter about his mother's death stands out as a truly moving piece of work, whilst story about the time he invited one of the most bigoted men in America to his house for dinner and a debate will have you both speechless with horror and stifling laughter.