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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Dean Atta, PD Smith and Guardian readers

What we’re reading: writers and readers on the books they enjoyed in May

‘A pure adrenaline rush in literary form’: PD Smith on American Tabloid by James Ellroy.
‘A pure adrenaline rush in literary form’: PD Smith on American Tabloid by James Ellroy. Composite: PR

In this series we ask authors, Guardian writers and readers to share what they’ve been reading recently. This month, recommendations include Terry Pratchett’s fantasy novels, a guide to writing and some gripping spy novels. Tell us what you’ve been reading in the comments.


Dean Atta, poet and author

Right now I’m almost exclusively reading queer books. It’s really important to me to see a variety of stories being told, as it reassures me that I can tell my own stories without them needing to speak for every queer person.

Séan Hewitt’s memoir All Down Darkness Wide spoke to my formative years growing up under Section 28, having conflicting feelings towards my sexuality as a Christian. It’s a very tender book that looks at intimate relationships in Hewitt’s life and explores the nuances of two men existing outside traditional family structures. As a queer person you can be close to your family and yet still feel a distance when it comes to their understanding of your experience.

Also in nonfiction, Body Work, Melissa Febos’ illuminating writing guide, has been a trusty companion of late. Febos explains how she wrote her books, which include Whip Smart, about her time as a professional dominatrix.

And finally, Limbic by Peter Scalpello is a collection by a Glaswegian poet living in London – my opposite, as a London poet living in Glasgow. I was intrigued to see how Peter experienced my city and it’s uncanny; I relate to so much of it. He’s very candid about the gay scene in London, very open about sex and the lack of intimacy you can sometimes feel in a big city. It’s a very brave book that will ring true for many gay men and queer people, I’m so glad it exists in the world.

Only on the Weekends by Dean Atta (Hodder, £8.99) is available now. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Jessica, Guardian reader

Shirley Jackson.
Shirley Jackson. Photograph: AP

I have just finished The Sundial by Shirley Jackson, published in 1958. It tells the story of a family who discover that the world is going to end and they are the only ones with a chance of survival – as long as they are inside the house when the day finally comes.

Although the book can be classified as horror, I loved Jackson’s dark humour and the way she showcases the family dynamics. It’s set in a mansion where the characters live in their own bubbled reality, never fully satisfied, always thinking of the new world to come. I found the book so clever, scary and funny that it became a journey I got to experience alongside the family. And Jackson constantly teases the reader, having you flip between doubting and believing that this day will ever come.


PD Smith, author and critic

The news in the last few months has been grim, with a war in Europe and the possible dawn of another cold war with Russia. My recent reading reflects this mood.

Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male was written at the beginning of 1939, as Europe moved inexorably towards war. Described by Robert Macfarlane as Household’s “masterpiece”, the novel describes how the narrator attempts to assassinate a dictator and is then pursued relentlessly until he is, literally, holed up in the Dorset countryside, like a fox gone to ground. It inspired countless popular manhunt novels, but it is also a deeply strange and evocative book that reminded me strongly of Kafka’s claustrophobic parables.

I also read Eric Ambler’s spy novel Cause for Alarm, written a year or so before Rogue Male and similarly overshadowed by the storm clouds of war. I found it less original and gripping than Household’s book, but still worth reading.

After this I turned to a classic cold war detective novel from 1981: Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith. His Moscow detective Arkady Renko is brilliantly drawn (“a lean, pale man”) and the novel gives a wonderfully vivid sense of the difficulty of investigating a brutal crime while the KGB is breathing down your neck. Renko wonders at one point if he’s playing “a game of investigator against himself”.

Paul Auster.
Paul Auster. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

At the moment I’m writing a book about crime fiction and, as I recently finished a section on James Ellroy, this month I revisited his extraordinary novel American Tabloid. Reading anything by Ellroy is always a visceral experience, and this one is no exception.

Set during the cold war, Ellroy aims to “demythologise” the era of John F Kennedy and to create a new myth that rises “from the gutter to the stars”. Although, as ever, Ellroy is more interested in the gutter, and the brutal, ambitious, self-destructive men who live there, than in the stars. In an interview with the Guardian he summed it up as a “tabloid sewer crawl through the private nightmare of public policy”. It’s a crazy, unforgettable book about conspiracies, corruption and scandal – a pure adrenaline rush in literary form.

Reading Ellroy’s feverish alt-history of cold war America reminded me of a line from another book I read a month or so ago – Paul Auster’s entertaining private-eye novel Squeeze Play, which he published under the pseudonym Paul Benjamin in 1984. Towards the end, Auster’s gumshoe has an epiphany: “I had understood the most important fact of all – that reality doesn’t exist without the imagination to see it.”

It’s a great line, one that captures for me how the best crime fiction (like all great fiction) reimagines events, allowing us to see the world with new eyes.

PD Smith is the author of four non-fiction books, including Doomsday Men (Allen Lane) and City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age (Bloomsbury).


Brenda, Guardian reader

It’s only this year that I began reading the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. I’ve fallen entirely in love with hard-bitten Sam Vimes and the byzantine world Pratchett erected upon the backs of four elephants who stand on the back of a turtle swimming slowly through space. There is no pleasure like the pleasure of reading a book in the confident knowledge that there are at least 20 more volumes ahead of you. I figure if I pace myself I can read Discworld novels until the end of this decade.

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