The novella is making a comeback!

Thin enough to slide into your back pocket or handbag and short enough to finish in a couple of hours (or a couple of commutes), why not let yourself off the unfinished-book hook and experience the joy of actually completing a book that you start?

Have you encountered novellas? Let me put it this way: do you frequently lament that you don’t have enough time for reading? Is your house full of half-finished books, languishing sadly in neglected piles, their halfway-bookmarks poking dejectedly out of their pages like kitten’s tongues? Do you love your doorstopper fantasy series but sometimes long for a palate cleanser between courses? Open your life to the concept of the novella!

Flip through a novella on your lunch break!

Flip through a novella on your lunch break!             Image by kaboompic; CC0.

Novellas are fictional stories that adhere to a word count roughly between 15,000 and 40,000 words, where most novels clock in at around 80,000+. Some famous examples in literary history that now fit into this category are titles like Orwell’s Animal Farm, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

I find that novellas fill a real need in my reading habits: they’re a short breath of air between longer, more time-consuming books, they’re often wildly inventive, and the compact format means that good ones can really pack a punch with their message. The trend has definitely been growing in the sci-fi/fantasy publishing world, but the literary world has been catching up lately, too.

Here are nine novellas you can read at your closest Cockburn library:

Sorcerer of the Wildeeps / Kai Ashante Wilson
This brilliant story plays with the conventions of fantasy that Western publishing has become so used to: instead of being based in white European culture (think medieval castles, swordfights, wizards and dragons), its fantastical world has foundations in Africa and Middle-Eastern cultures. Instead of a quest for a magical implement we have a gang of brothers who protect a travelling caravan from violence, pillaging, and necromancy… This is a brilliant example of a novella: richly detailed, strongly plotted, and just the right length.

The embassy of Cambodia / Zadie Smith


Binti / Nnedi Okorafor
An entrancing story of a far-future Namibian woman offered a chance to escape her traditional, stifling life when she is accepted into a prestigious galactic university. As Binti travels further from her homeland than she could ever have imagined, she and her new classmates come to learn the hard way that they are certainly not alone in the universe. Okorafor writes passionately and brilliantly about Africa, and about space, and mathematics, and traditional customs, and this novella just won a Hugo award, so I’m not the only one who thinks so!

Killer chef / James Patterson

Always one to leap flailingly onto a bandwagon, Patterson and his team of expert book-writing marketing gurus have developed a new line of the Patterson brand – BookShots. They’re short, plot-driven stories that get straight to the point and can be read in one sitting; they’re “like reading movies”, Patterson says. Killer Chef follows food-truck-owning murder detective Caleb Rooney as he solves the mystery of the foodborne disease killing folks all around him.

This census-taker / China Mieville
If you know Mieville, you know he’s weird, and this one’s no different. A boy lives (or used to live) in a house on a dusty hill above a town that is (or used to be) past its prime. That boy looks back on his life from a cell, and wonders about the census-takers who quantify his troubled world: how did he come to be one of them? What happened to his family, and why did his father always visit the mysterious cave above their house? I’ve never enjoyed his full-length novels, but I did enjoy this – it made no sense, but with the taut and chilling atmosphere in full sway, I don’t think it needed to.

The girl with the dogs / Anna Funder
A very short offering from the author of Stasiland and All that I am. A woman, reaching her middle years, reflects on the choices she made when she was younger, and tries to decide if the life she decided upon was worthwhile. This is a great example of where a novella can truly shine: a pivotal moment in a life, a meditation on chances taken and choices made, with a resolution that leaves space for interpretation.

Lord John and the Hell-fire Club / Diana Gabaldon
Diana Gabaldon famously can’t write short stories: she tried with her first Lord John outing, and it turned into a regular novel (as opposed to her hefty Outlander tomes!). This one is presented as a bonus feature in the first Lord John book, Lord John and the Private Matter, which means it won’t fit so easily into your handbag, but nobody will know if you borrow this one and only read the novella!

Thicker than water / Richard Rossiter
Local Fremantle author Rossiter wrote this book about his other home, the southwest coast of WA. A psychological family drama about secrets, relationships, and the things that go wrong between family, this is another great example of using the shorter form to explore one key moment in the life of a character.

The wilful princess and the piebald prince / Robin Hobb
Robin Hobb uses the novella form to delve deeper into the legends alluded to in her wildly popular Farseer series. Not enough to fill a whole fantasy novel, this dark little tale about jealousy, ambition, power, and secrets fits perfectly into its 157 pages, and also into your pocket.