I’m on a few Facebook reader groups. I’m also a user of the Tiktok books tag, #Booktok. At regular intervals I see someone post the plea “I’m way behind on my reading goals. What are some SHORT books?” or “I have a three-hour road trip this week. What’s a short audiobook you recommend?” or even “My teen struggles to concentrate over the length of whole long novel. What are some SHORT books?”
While some readers take pride in their ability to conquer a massive tome like The Plains of Passage by Jean Auel (335,000 words) or A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (591,000 words!) many of us at least occasionally prefer a light meal over a feast. No matter what your preferred genre or category, below are some short reads to help you fill a few hours or catch up on your reading challenge goals.
Small Things Like These by Clair Keegan (c. 20,000 words/about 2 hours in audio), an intimate, but rather delicate peek at the dark history of the Magdalene Laundries for unwed mothers in Ireland. Affecting, frustrating, but an excellent pick to those who are dipping their feet into literary fiction from other more accessible genres.
Who else? Murderbot! The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells starts with four novellas, each about 30,000 to 40,000 words long (3-4 hours in audio). What can I say about Murderbot that hasn’t already been said? These page turny novellas are funny, poignant, scary, thoughtful, queer as f**k and neurodivergent all day. READ THEM.
The publisher of Murderbot, Tor Books, is a leader in speculative novellas and that includes a bunch of great fantasy ones. I’m a fan of A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark, which like a lot of Tor novellas is part of a series that includes both novellas and full-length novels. This one is a gripping murder mystery set against the rich and detailed world of early 20th century Cairo.
Romance is something of a leader in short reads, due to the preponderance of indie authors publishing eBooks and thus unfettered by such pedantic things as minimum page counts. I’m partial to our very own Delilah Devlin’s Once in a Blue Moon, but you will also find short and spicy offerings from Bibi Rizer, Delphine Dryden or Courtney Milan, and others, many of them tastes of longer series.
If serious (but short) historical tales are your thing, why not try a novel in verse. Novels in verse, written as they are in the form of poetry, pack a lot of meaning into fewer words and there are several that explore the historical periods often covered by fiction authors, but in a new way. A few examples are: Audacity by Melanie Crowder (30,000 words), a story of Clara Lemlich and her struggle for women’s labor rights in early twentieth-century New York; Margarita Engle’s The Lightning Dreamer (11,000 words), which examines the slavery abolition movement in 19th Century Cuba, and Blood Water Paint (29,000 words) by Joy McCulloch which is based on the true story of the iconic painter, Artemisia Gentileschi.
Murder mysteries are famous for being long and dense (cough Robert Galbraith cough) but if you want something shorter, and you don’t mind a speculative element, try John Scalzi’s fun novella series The Dispatcher. The, story of a kind of hired killer, who prevents people from dying, except when he doesn’t, these are particularly great in audio, narrated by Star Trek actor Zachary Quinto.
Children and teens
When it comes to kids, there are many places to look for short reads. The novels in verse mentioned above are all aimed at teens as are many contemporary novels in verse such as my own Audacious and Capricious. Graphic novels for kids and teens are hugely popular, and they’re not all superheroes (not that superheroes are bad!). Heartstopper by Alice Oseman is a sweet gay romance series, Smile by Raina Telgemeier is a funny and poignant coming of age memoir, and there are graphic versions of popular or classic novels such as the charming and faithful adaptation of Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables adapted by Mariah Marsden and Brenna Thummler.
Finally there are short novels designed especially for reluctant or struggling readers. One of my publishers, Orca Book Publishers, puts out a dozen a year. My recent trilogy The Faerie Woods is one, with three books of about 15,000 words each.
If you’re behind on your reading, just getting started with reading, struggling to concentrate on reader (who isn’t these days?) short books can help you get back on track. I hope the above suggestions will give you some ideas and provide you with just a few hours of enjoyment.
About the Author
G.S. (Gabrielle) Prendergast is the bestselling author of numerous books for children and teens. She studied writing at the University of New South Wales in Australia, at San Francisco State University and the University of British Columbia. After years of working in the music industry, in social welfare, and the film industry, Gabrielle began writing books when she became a mother, so she could work from home. Her books have received nominations for the White Pine Award, the Canadian Library Association Award, the Vancouver Book Prize and several other honors. She won the BC Book Prize for her YA sci-fi Zero Repeat Forever and the Westchester Award for her YA novel in verse Audacious. Born in the UK and both an Australian and New Zealand citizen, Gabrielle now lives in East Vancouver in a permanent state of “under-construction”.