Author, Bernard MacLaverty, Birgit Vanderbeke, Book lists, Cynan Jones, Damon Galgut, J.L. Carr, Jay Mcinerney, Karin Fossum, Kate Jennings, Magnus Mills, Marguerite Duras, Mary Costello, Nell Leyshon, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Sonya Hartnett, Tarjei Vesaas, Tommy Wieringa, Yoko Ogawa

17 intriguing novellas you can read in a day (or an afternoon)

If you are looking for a quick read during “lockdown”, something that will absorb you and take you out of yourself for a few hours, you can’t go past a short novel.

I have a penchant for books with fewer than 200 pages and thought I’d list some of my favourites here.

All these books can easily be read in the space of a day — or an afternoon. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. To see a full review, simply click the book title.

Cover image of A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A Month in the Country by JL Carr (1980)
Escape to a long-lost English summer in this subtle tale of a young soldier who returns from the Great War and undertakes a special project: to uncover a medieval mural inside a church.

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)
Follow all the joy and heartaches in the life of a passive, too-afraid-to-grab-life-by-the-horns Irishwoman from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984)
Immerse yourself in this evocative and sensual story set in 1930s Indo-China which revolves around a teenage girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior.

Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum (2011)
Discover a crime book with a difference in this fast-paced story about three men who go on a weekend trip to an isolated cabin by a lake — but only two of them return.

Small Circle of Beings

Small Circle of Beings by Damon Galgut (2005)
Learn about a stubborn South African mother who fails to take her young son to hospital when he falls dangerously ill — will you condemn her or feel empathy?

Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett (2009)
Spend time in the head of a scared, lonely schoolboy who convinces himself that the three children who move in across the road are the same children whose recent disappearance now fills the TV news.

Snake by Kate Jennings

Snake by Kate Jennings (2001)
Meet Rex and Irene, a married couple living on an outback farm in post-war Australia, who hate each other but must muddle on regardless.

The Long Dry by Cynan Jones (2014) 
Accompany Gareth as he spends an entire day trudging the hills of his Welsh farm looking for a missing cow —  and along the way learn about his hopes, his dreams and the love he has for his wife and children.

Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (1983)
Get caught up in an affair between a Catholic man and an older Protestant woman during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland — and be prepared for a heart-rending morally challenging ride.

Explorers of the new century by

Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills (2006)
Strap yourself in for a totally bonkers competition between two groups of explorers competing to reach the “furtherest point from civilisation” — expect many laughs and quite a lot of WTF moments!

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (2012)
Take 15-year-old sharp-tongued Mary by the hand in “this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty” and go with her as she is forced to work at the local vicarage as the live-in help.

Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney (1985)
Experience life as an out-of-work fact-checker in 1980s New York — go to all the parties, take all the drugs, but don’t let on your glamourous wife has left you, and do your best not to fall apart at the seams.

You by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (2010)
Meet a funny, feisty 10-year-old narrator caught between two families —  her mother and her new boyfriend; and her father and his new wife — in 1980s Dublin.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2010)
Be charmed by the relationship between a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes.

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1966)
Succumb to the mystery of an intense friendship between two 11-year-old girls, one of whom disappears in the “ice palace”, a frozen waterfall, in rural Norway.

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (1990)
Sit around the dinner table with a German family awaiting the arrival of the patriarch so that they can all celebrate his promotion with mussels and wine — but why is he so late?

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (2019)
Travel abroad with two young women from the Netherlands, on holiday in Morocco, who agree to help smuggle a young man across the border into Europe — with deadly repercussions.

Have you read any of these? Do you have a favourite novella? Or can you recommend a few that I haven’t put on my list?

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Jay Mcinerney, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Bright Lights, Big City’ by Jay McInerney

Bright-lights-big-city

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 240 pages; 1992.

What a joy this Bloomsbury classic proved to be. First published in 1985, I’d long written Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City off as a “drugs novel” — but how wrong could I be?  Yes, there’s a little bit of cocaine use in it, but this is a brilliant and memorable novel about one of my favourite subjects in fiction: journalism. And, like many books of that ilk, it’s essentially a black comedy — and one that felt very close to my heart.

Going off the rails

The story revolves around a young man living a precarious existence in New York in the 1980s. He’s been dumped by his wife Amanda, a beautiful (and now famous) model, but is keeping this fact secret from his colleagues and family. By day he works in the fact-checking department of a prestigious magazine, by night he’s out clubbing with his friend Tad and trying to “lose himself” in drugs and (possibly) sexual encounters of the one-night stand kind.

The entire narrative is told in the second person employing a voice that is by turns self-deprecating and pathetic. For most of the time, he knows he’s pushing his luck — he often turns up late for work, struggles to carry out his work properly and is constantly harangued by his boss, the impossible-to-please Clara, aka Clingfast — but he also feels slightly aggrieved that he’s been passed over for promotion and isn’t able to use the full range of his creative talents in the (lowly) Department of Factual Verification.

When he’s given an article to check about the French election close to deadline you know things aren’t going to pan out well:

There is no way you will be able to get everything in this article verified, and also there is no graceful way to admit failure. You are going to have to hope that the writer got some of it straight the first time, and that Clingfast doesn’t go through the proofs with her usual razor-tooth comb.

I think it’s this aspect of the book that especially appealed to me. I’ve done my fair share of fact-checking for magazines and it’s not always an easy task — even with the internet at my disposal. But this is the 1980s. There is no internet, no smartphones. Instead there are “thousands of reference books on the walls” , “skeins of microfilm” and “transcontinental telephone cables”. For our poor old narrator, who somehow exaggerated his ability to speak French on his resume, there are dozens of phone calls to make to Paris to verify certain facts. Needless to say he has to “fudge it” a little.

At a little after ten, you put the proofs on Clara’s desk. It would at least be a relief if you could tell yourself that this was your best shot. You feel like a student who is handing in a term paper that is part plagiarism, part nonsense and half finished. You have scoped out and fixed a number of colossal blunders, which serves only to make you more aware of the suspect nature of everything you haven’t verified. The writer was counting on the Verification Department to give authority to his sly observations and insidious generalisations. This is not cricket on his part, but it is your job that is on the line. There has only been one printed retraction in the magazine’s history and the verificationist responsible for the error was immediately farmed out to Advertising.

It is, of course, all down hill from there…

Bright-lights-big-city-new

Heartbreaking reasons for a life falling apart at the seams

Most of the lightning-paced narrative comprises a series of set pieces, most of which are very funny indeed, but the story is not all humour and lightness. Underpinning our narrator lurching from one crisis to the next are deeper issues relating to our need to fit in, to be accepted by our peers and society as a whole without fear of judgement. It’s also a good examination of how important it is to find meaningfulness in our work, play and relationships.

As much as it would appear that our narrator goes off the rails because his beautiful, social-climbing wife ran off with someone else (a metaphor for shallowness if ever there was one), there’s more going on than one might initially expect. As the story wends its way towards what looks like an inevitable conclusion we discover just why his life is crumbling all around him — and it’s heartbreaking.

Yes, this is a book set in New York in the 1980s, but forget any reviews you might have seen which paint Bright Lights, Big City as a portrait of excess or rich people doing bad things. This is a black comedy about a 20-something trying to find his way in the world, not always making the right decisions and paying the price along the way. There are a lot of painful realisations in Bright Lights, Big City, all rounded out by a redemptive, satisfying ending. I’ve read a lot of great novels this year, but this one has to be up there with the best.