When a little goes a long way

As much as I love to sink into a long novel, and even a series of long novels, sometimes a shorter tale is exactly what you need. Enter the novella, loosely defined as being shorter than a novel and longer than a short story (and usually smaller than a breadbox); generally, in publishing terms, a novella goes about forty thousand words, or about 160 pages. For our purposes, consider it the thin volume you see on the shelf. Expertly situated to scratch that story itch in a compact bundle, a good novella can offer a fleshed out world and rich characters in a more compact setting. This goes for audiobook listeners as well – I recently luxuriated in the 21- to 23-hour recordings of the Lord of the Rings trilogy read by Andy Serkis, but I am equally delighted by the Murderbot Diaries series of novellas that come in between three and four hours each.

You’ve probably read more novellas than you realize, including some that have become classics, like Animal FarmEthan Frome, or Passing. Whether you enjoy concentrated efficiency, or you want to finish something without giving long hours to the endeavor (great for emerging from a reading slump), novellas are here for you. Awards like HugoNebulaLocusShirley Jackson, and more include categories for novellas and other shorter form fiction, so you can always start there to find a standout entry. If you’re ready for that amount of commitment, here are some novellas and short fiction for you to explore:

Portrait of an Unknown Lady by María Gainza; 177 pages; 4 hours 30 minutes on Hoopla. “In the Buenos Aires art world, a master forger has achieved legendary status. Rumored to be a woman, she specializes in canvases by the painter Mariette Lydis, a portraitist of Argentinean high society. But who is this absurdly gifted creator of counterfeits? What motivates her? And what is her link to the community of artists who congregate, night after night, in a strange establishment called the Hotel Melanc̤lico?”

That Time of Year by Marie Ndiaye, trans. Jordan Stump; 128 pages. “After his wife and child disappear at the end of their vacation in a small French village, Herman sets out to find them, only to find that his urgent inquiry immediately recedes into the background and he wittingly and not, becomes one with a society defined by its strange traditions, ghostly apparitions, hospitality that verges on mania, and a nightmarish act of collective forgetting.”

What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher; 165 pages. A “gripping and atmospheric retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic “The Fall of the House of Usher.” When Alex Easton, a retired soldier, receives word that their childhood friend Madeline Usher is dying, they race to the ancestral home of the Ushers in the remote countryside of Ruritania. What they find there is a nightmare of fungal growths and possessed wildlife, surrounding a dark, pulsing lake.”

Winter in Sokcho by Élisa Shua Dusapin; 154 pages. “It’s winter in Sokcho, a tourist town on the border between South and North Korea… A young French Korean woman works as a receptionist in a tired guesthouse. One evening, an unexpected guest arrives: a French cartoonist determined to find inspiration in this desolate landscape… As she’s pulled into his vision and taken in by his drawings, she strikes upon a way to finally be seen.”

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark; 130 pages; 3 hours 21 minutes on Hoopla. “Cairo, 1912. The case started simply enough for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities: handle a possessed tram car. Soon, however, Agent Hamed Nasr and his new partner, Agent Onsi Youssef, are exposed to another side of Cairo stirring with suffragettes, secret societies, and sentient automatons.”

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf, 179 pages. “A spare yet eloquent, bittersweet yet inspiring story of a man and a woman who, in advanced age, come together to wrestle with the events of their lives and their hopes for the imminent future. In the familiar setting of Holt, Colorado, home to all of Kent Haruf’s inimitable fiction, Addie Moore pays an unexpected visit to a neighbor, Louis Waters.”

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo; 2 hours 25 minutes on Hoopla. “A young royal from the far north is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully. Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor’s lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for.”

The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt; 69 pages (even shorter than a novella, but an intriguing read!). “Raised in Marrakech by a French mother and English father, a 17-year-old girl has learned above all to avoid mauvais ton (“bad taste” loses something in the translation)… But at 17, during the annual Ramadan travels, she finds all assumptions overturned. Will she be able to fend for herself? Will the dictates of good taste suffice when she must deal, singlehanded, with the sharks of New York?”

I hope you’ll seek out a novella, or a few, during your 2023 of reading. Do you have a favorite short read, or are you looking for more? Let us know!

Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

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