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?

10 books, Book lists

10 favourite Australian novels of the 21st century

Earlier today — thanks to @wtb_Michael and @frippet — I discovered that the Australian Book Review is conducting a poll to discover the nation’s favourite Australian novel published in the 21st century. (You can find out more, and nominate your favourite, here.)

Taking Michael’s lead, I thought it would be fun to put together a list of my top 10 favourite Australian novels published since 2000. I published that list on Twitter, but because I know not everyone who follows this blog follows me on social media, I thought it might be helpful to publish it here.

So here is my list. The books have been arranged in chronological order, from the most recent book published. As ever, hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon (2017)
Cleverly constructed tale that weaves together five interlinking stories set on one tract of land to show how humans have impacted the environment over four centuries.

The Hands by Stephen Orr

The Hands by Stephen Orr (2015)
Charming, funny and deeply moving story about three generations of the one farming family eking out a living on a remote cattle station in the Australian outback.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (2015)
Thought-provoking take on a dystopian world in which women are imprisoned for their involvement in sexual “crimes” and misdemeanors.

Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (2013)
Booker Prize-winning novel about an Australian surgeon, haunted by a clandestine love affair, who becomes a  Japanese POW on the Burma Death Railway during the Second World War.

Floundering by Romy Ash

Floundering by Romy Ash (2012)
A woman “kidnaps” her two sons from the grandparents who are raising them and takes them on holiday by the sea one hot Australian summer — but everything isn’t quite as it seems.

Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears (2011)
Set in the 1920s and 30s, this historical novel traces the fortunes (and misfortunes) of two generations of a legendary showjumping family in rural NSW.

Five Bells by Gail Jones

Five Bells by Gail Jones (2010)
Ambitious novel comprised of several interwoven narrative threads, focussed on four individual characters as they criss-cross Sydney on a fine summer’s day.

Utopian Man by Lisa Lang

Utopian Man by Lisa Lang (2009)
Deliciously entertaining award-winning debut novel based on the true-life story of  Edward William (E.W.) Cole, a legendary eccentric who built an amazing retail emporium in Melbourne during the 1880s.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (2009)
Middle-class angst fest following the fall out when a man slaps a child, who is not his, for misbehaving at a family barbecue.

Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett (2003)
A beautiful, melancholy tale about a lonely, timid nine-year-old boy being raised by his grandmother.

Have you read any of these books? Or care to share your own list of favourite Australian novels from the 21st century? 

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2010

Books-of-the-yearIt’s that time of year again when everyone shares their best reads of 2010.

I’ve read so many wonderful books this year that I’ve narrowed it down by only including novels, as opposed to novellas or non-fiction titles.

Here’s my list (in alphabetical order by book title — click on the book’s title to see my review in full:



Beijing Coma

‘Beijing Coma’ by Ma Jian (2009)

At more than 600-pages long, it requires a major commitment from the reader, but it is worth the effort. It is a deeply moving account of the 1989 student pro-democracy movement, culminating in the massacre in which thousands of Chinese citizens were killed. Unusually, it is told from the point of view of one of the students, Dai Wei, who is in a coma. As a concept, this shouldn’t work. But in Ma Jian’s hands this wholly original approach is devastatingly effective.


‘The Canal’ by Lee Rourke (2010)

The Canal might be a book about boredom, but there’s little or no risk of evoking that emotional state in the reader. This is a novel pulsing with ideas and theories (and lots of facts about London, if you’re that way inclined), and one that’s likely to tell you more about the human condition than any textbook possibly could.


‘Of A Boy’ by Sonya Hartnett (2003)

The real strength of this story, which is written in plain, languid prose, is Hartnett’s uncanny ability to get inside the head of a lonely school boy. She underplays everything, so it is you the reader who comes to understand the pain of his existence.


‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue (2010)

The novel, which is Donoghue’s seventh, is an extraordinarily atmospheric read. I use the term ‘atmospheric’ to describe the feelings it evokes in the reader and the ways in which those feelings linger for days afterwards. I found myself not so much reeling in its wake but feeling as if something had shifted inside of me, so that I could no longer perceive the world in the same way.


‘A Short Gentleman’ by Jon Canter (2009)

I think the funniest thing about the book (and admittedly the first half is more hilarious than the second half) is the way in which it pokes fun at Britain’s upper-classes. Their eccentricities, the ways in which they run their households and conduct their lives all come in for more than their fair share of ribbing.


‘Skin Lane’ by Neil Bartlett (2008)

I have not read anything quite as haunting as this strangely beautiful book. It’s a novel that is full of contradictions: it brims with sexual tension, and yet contains no sex; it is filled with death, and yet no one is murdered; it’s repetitious to the point of being dull, and yet features some of the most exciting and heart-hammering scenes you will ever read.

The Slap

‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas (2009)

The Slap is by no means a perfect novel — sometimes the writing feels forced, especially when sketching in the back story for individual characters, and I suspect the numerous music references are going to date it quickly — but its ambition, its scope and the sheer force of the story-telling more than makes up for this. It’s a very bold book, full of sex, drugs, middle-aged angst and a lot of crude language.


‘So Much For That’ by Lionel Shriver (2010)

I can’t exaggerate how much I enjoyed this book. I lived with these characters for an entire weekend (the book arrived on a Saturday morning and by the Sunday night I had finished it) and felt like I’d gone on a huge, emotional roller-coaster that lasted almost 48 hours. It made me laugh, it made me cry and it made me angry.


‘This Human Season’ by Louise Dean (2006)

What I admire most about this book is Dean’s clear-eyed ability to reveal the human angle of The Troubles rather than concentrate on the politics of the situation. She never glorifies the violence or takes sides. Perhaps her own background — she is English, middle-class and lives in France — has helped her look at events with an outsider’s cool objectivity.


‘This is How’ by MJ Hyland (2010)

This Is How is far from a cheery read. Despite the loathsome character at its heart, it’s strangely compelling. It’s dark, disturbing and filled with pathos, but it is exactly this kind of exploration of a fragile mind that everyone should read, not because it offers condemnation, but because it does the opposite: illuminates and educates.

Have you read any from this list? Care to share your own top 10?

Australia, Author, Book review, Children/YA, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, Publisher, Setting, Sonya Hartnett

‘Butterfly’ by Sonya Hartnett


Fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 215 pages; 2009.

Sonya Hartnett is an Australian author who writes largely for the Young Adult audience. Butterfly, her latest novel, falls somewhere between two stools — it feels like a teenage novel, filled with typical teenage angst, but it also deals with subjects, including extra-marital affairs, that are surely a little more adult. Given it has been longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Award, I suspect the judges feel it’s one of those crossover books that deserves some attention. I’m not sure I agree.

Without wishing to damn Butterfly with faint praise, this is a highly readable book and one that I hungrily devoured in a day. And while I very much enjoyed spending time with Plum, a lonely 13-year-old girl with body-image and self-esteem issues, there were elements of this story that irritated me.

For a start, we don’t really get to know the full cast of characters that people this book. Plum has two 50-something parents, whom are mentioned only in passing, and even her brothers, Justin and the preposterously named Cydar, seem thinly veiled sketches. Indeed, it’s not until you are almost a-third of the way through the book that you find out that Justin, whom Plum adores, is 24 years old, and Cydar, 22. This revelation came as somewhat of a shock, because I’d assumed both were teenagers.

Ditto for the time period in which the book is set. It’s not until one of Plum’s school friends mentions that her father has secured tickets to the Moscow Olympics that you realise it’s 1980. Although I suspect I should have picked up on earlier clues, because Plum has a poster of David Bowie on her wall, wishes her bedroom was carpeted in white shag and hankers after a miniature television “set inside a sphere of chrome, with three stumpy legs and a rapier-like aerial”. There’s even a reference to a cricket match in which (Allan) Border is not out for 90, and Imran (Khan) is caught out by (Greg, or maybe Ian?) Chappell for nine. Where’s Wisden when you need it, right?

The first chapter is also riddled with metaphors and similes, to the point of distraction. For instance, Plum’s brother Justin is “as rangy as a tall ship, handsome as ship’s portrait”, Plum’s cheeks “are the pasty yellow of cereal left to float all day in milk” and when Cydar teases her she feels like a “deer in a huntsmen’s forest”. Later she “pounds through the house like a rock down a cliffside, storming up the stairs like a centurion”.

But if you can forgive the trying-too-hard prose there’s quite an interesting story here, one in which Hartnett has perfectly nailed the pain and confusion of being a 13-year-old girl, desperate to be liked and respected. The mood swings, the temper tantrums and the tears are all here in full unadulterated shameless glory, as evidenced by this outburst at the dinner table:

“You always laugh at me! I’m a person, I have feelings, I’m not a joke! Why can’t you all leave me alone?”

Her depiction of the petty bitchiness of school girls and the god-awful aspects of peer pressure are also superbly done. And while Plum is clearly not the angel she first appears to be, you can’t help but empathise with her plight.

But the story just doesn’t revolve around Plum. There’s a second, interwoven narrative strand, in which Maureen Wilks, Plum’s neighbour, plays a significant role. Maureen is a 36-year-old housewife, with a four-year-old son, who befriends Plum. As well as telling Plum things to boost her self-confidence (“You’re exactly the type of girl who could become a fashion model” and “I’m so glad we’re friends. I’ll learn a lot from you”), she convinces Plum to reinvent herself by changing her name to Aria. What you don’t realise is that Maureen has her own secret agenda. It is only when Plum figures out this agenda that the book comes to a head. But, even then, the conclusion feels somehow half-hearted, and not nearly as melodramatic as it could have been.

An interesting, entertaining book, but a Miles Franklin award winner? Probably not.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Setting, Sonya Hartnett

‘Of A Boy’ by Sonya Hartnett


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 204 pages; 2009.

It didn’t take long for me to discover my first five-star novel for 2010, but with Sonya Hartnett‘s beautiful melancholy Of A Boy I struck unexpected gold. I cannot begin to describe how incredibly affecting I found this short novel to be. There’s something about the slow pacing of this story that gets under the skin and leaves you thinking about it days afterwards. Indeed, it’s been two weeks since I finished Of A Boy and I’m still wondering about nine-year-old Adrian and all that happened to him.

The book is set in 1977 and tells the story of Adrian McPhee, who’s been abandoned by his parents and is now living with his grandmother and his drop-out uncle, Rory, in an undefined suburb in Australia. He is a shy, timid boy, frightened of almost everything, including “quicksand, tidal waves, fire, monsters, cupboards, being forgotten and going astray”. The all-pervasive fear is not helped by the recent disappearance of three young children from a nearby neighbourhood (highly reminiscent of the real-life Beaumont case), which fills the news pages and has teachers and parents on edge.

When a strange new family moves in across the road, Adrian can’t help wondering if the three children — Nicole, Joely and Giles — are the three children who went out for ice-cream and never came home. When he befriends them his small, closeted and lonely world begins to open up…

The real strength of this story, which is written in plain, languid prose, is Hartnett’s uncanny ability to get inside the head of a lonely school boy. She underplays everything, so it is you the reader who comes to understand the pain of his existence. I found the following passage, towards the end of the book, particularly heart-breaking:

He wasn’t a gregarious boy, he couldn’t push his way into any existing group of friends; he felt that, having nothing to offer, they would recognise him as a parasite and treat him with contempt. The reason he felt he had nothing to offer was that, in his heart, he knew he was dull. Nothing about him gave him value: he was ordinary and dull. But at least he was smart enough to know it: he wouldn’t become one of those wretches who lurk the perimeters, who live the hideous role of whipping-boy, lackey, buffoon. He exiled himself ruthlessly, which at least was dignified. He could not be injured if he shielded himself from harm.
But school is a terrible place for a rejected child. The ringing of the lunchtime bell was enough to cool his blood; the lunch hour seemed an endless desert of time. He didn’t complain or resist going to school but every day he haunted the gates, hoping against hope that his mother would walk by, discover him, and carry him home.

He is a beautifully drawn character, as is his grandmother, the headstrong Beattie, who doesn’t really want him but feels obliged to take over where her own daughter left off. She moans that he rules her days, that she hasn’t the energy to look after him. “My mothering days are done,” she claims.

“I can’t go anywhere. I can’t forget myself – I’ve got to be here every three-thirty, collecting him from school. I get a holiday only when he does. I’ve got to cook a decent meal for him every night, so he doesn’t waste away. He needs cleaning, clothing, carting here and there. It’s hard work, rearing a child. It’s not work for the old.”

Similarly, Uncle Rory is a brilliantly realistic character: a 25-year-old man living with the guilt of a horrendous car accident that left his best mate a vegetable. When most everyone else has written off Rory, it’s clear that he has a lot to offer his young nephew. The scenes between the two of them are very touching.

I hesitate to draw comparisons with other novels, because this one is unique, but it did remind me very much of Randolph Stow’s The Merry-go-round in the Sea, particularly in its depiction of childhood, albeit it in different parts of the country in different eras. But there’s something about the melancholy of the stories that are achingly familiar.

Not surprisingly, Of A Boy has garnered awards and nominations aplenty. It won the 2003 The Age Book of the Year and the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize. It was shortlisted for the 2003 Miles Franklin Award, the 2003 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award and the 2003 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. It was longlisted for the 2003 Orange Prize for Fiction.

For British and American readers looking to secure a copy of Hartnett’s novel, please be advised that it has been published under a completely different name: What the Birds See.