Give your reading life a quick boost with these 21 short and satisfying novels

Give your reading life a quick boost with these 21 short and satisfying novels

How do you get out of a reading rut? One of my tried-and-true methods is to grab a book that I can finish quickly, preferably in a single afternoon or evening.  

Whether you’re struggling with a shorter attention span or choosing too many mediocre reads in a row, a novella might be just the pick-me-up your reading life needs.

A novella is a short novel (or a long short story), generally around 160 pages or less, though there’s no definitive page count. Novellas pack a lot of story into fewer pages, which makes them perfect for an afternoon reading session or—my favorite activity—walking in my neighborhood or the woods with an audiobook in my headphones.

Today’s list of novellas includes a little bit of everything, from literary fiction to sci-fi to romance. I hope you find the perfect read below to give your reading life a quick boost and keep those pages turning.

21 super short novels to read in one sitting

Parnassus On Wheels

Parnassus On Wheels

The title didn't grab me, but this little novella was a delightful surprise. I've recommended it countless times since first reading it years ago! Helen McGill doesn’t realize she’s teetering on the verge of a midlife crisis until the professor rolls into town. He wants to sell her brother Parnassus—his traveling bookstore on (wagon) wheels. Helen falls in love with the idea of traveling through upstate New York, matching book-deprived readers with the right books, and she buys Parnassus herself. Adventures ensue. Essential reading for book lovers, and anyone who believes that when you sell a reader a book, you sell them a whole new life. More info →
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My Name Is Lucy Barton

My Name Is Lucy Barton

This was my first of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout's works, and I've kept an eye out for her in bookstores ever since. It's a short, almost poetic, work—barely more than 200 pages—but Strout covers a lot of ground, from the perspective of a woman who's reflecting back on the time she spent in a NYC hospital in the 1980s: poverty, the AIDS epidemic, art and artists, and especially, the relationship between mothers and daughters. You could read this in an afternoon. Recommended for fans of Marilynne Robinson. More info →
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Another Brooklyn

Another Brooklyn

A chance encounter with an old friend in her childhood neighborhood brings back a flood of memories for August, and in a series of vignettes, she remembers what it was like to grow up as an African American girl in 1970s Brooklyn with her best friends. Angela, Sylvie, and Gigi are more than August's friends: they’re part of her sisterhood. They go through adolescence together and support each other through tragedy. Woodson's lyrical prose brings the story to life, and I highly recommend listening to her books on audio. More info →
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Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men

Author:
I'm including this high school English staple here because it's short and I'm glad I read it, but I also kind of hated it. I picked it up several months ago because my daughter was reading it for school, I was SO close to an arbitrary reading goal, and I've enjoyed Steinbeck's work before—but George and Lenny's story simply wasn't for me. In Steinbeck's story of two friends searching for work and the American Dream, two drifters dream of owning their own farm land but encounter obstacles, jealousy, and loneliness. Readers, don't be discouraged by my review. If you enjoy experiencing banned books, short classics, or stories of the American West, you might enjoy this short novel. More info →
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The Great Divorce

The Great Divorce

Author:
A gifted allegorical writer, C.S. Lewis pens a descriptive tale about a bus ride from hell to heaven. Like The Chronicles of Narnia series, this novella contains clear references to Christianity but also presents a compelling story that many curious readers might enjoy. Lewis writes with a unique combination of imagination and philosophy, and several of my readerly friends cite this work as their favorite Lewis. More info →
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The Uncommon Reader

The Uncommon Reader

Author:
When an unnamed (but not well-disguised) Queen goes for a walk, her corgis stray into a bookmobile library parked near the Palace, so she feels obligated to take a book to be polite. The Queen finds a newfound obsession with reading—so much so that she begins to neglect her duties as monarch. You can read this one in a few hours, but the power of reading to transform even the most uncommon of lives and the numerous book recommendations (from Jean Genet to Ivy Compton-Burnett to the classics) will stay with you much longer. More info →
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Our Souls at Night

Our Souls at Night

Author:
This is reminiscent of my all-time faves Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry, and Marilynne Robinson. I found this up-close look at an unlikely relationship between two long-time acquaintances, both of whom lost their spouses years ago, in small-town Colorado completely absorbing, and Haruf's hits just the right tone with his light touch. This is definitely one of those books where the flap copy doesn't do it justice. If you'd like to hear me describe this book, listen to me recommend this book in Episode 84 of What Should I Read Next? to Shawn Smucker or on One Great Book where I share the story of how the book came to be and why I love it so. More info →
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Every Heart a Doorway

Every Heart a Doorway

Author:
At Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, children have a habit of stumbling into other worlds. Imagine Alice in Wonderland, but instead of one wonderland, there are hundreds—and once you visit another world, you'll never be the same. Part fantasy, part mystery, part fairy tale (of the dark and creepy variety). NPR calls this "A mini-masterpiece of portal fantasy — a jewel of a book that deserves to be shelved with Lewis Carroll's and C. S. Lewis' classics." The impressive awards list for this includes the Alex Award, Hugo award, and Nebula award. I enjoyed this, and need to read the rest of the series. More info →
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Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea

Author:
In this imaginative prequel, Rhys gives a story and voice to the "villain" of Jane Eyre. Readers know Bertha as Mr Rochester's crazed wife who haunts his attic. In Wide Sargasso Sea, we meet her in her youth in the West Indies, before she enters an unfortunate marriage with the powerful, selfish Englishman, a marriage so devastating it literally drives her mad. Rhys grew up in the Caribbean herself, and the details ring true in this lush and lyrical story. (I would read Jane Eyre before you pick this up.) More info →
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Passing

Passing

Author:
Written in 1929, set during the Jazz Age in Harlem, this is the story of two childhood friends who reconnect after choosing very different paths. Both women are Black and light-skinned. Clare has chosen to pass for white, and is even married to a white man who knows nothing of her heritage or history. Irene is married to a successful African-American physician. As the women spend more time together, Irene's life starts looking better and better to Clare ... and what unfolds is a battle of wits in a story akin to a psychological thriller. The story feels so fresh and unexpected, I couldn't believe it was written nearly a hundred years ago. What a page-turner! More info →
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Upright Women Wanted

Upright Women Wanted

Author:
A reading friend passed this my way, describing it as a tale of "outlaw librarian lesbian spies." This genre-bending novella is a little bit fantasy, a little bit dystopia, with a neo-Western vibe. It starts with a woman on the run, fleeing a bad marriage and the law after her partner was hanged for possessing Unapproved Materials that were not government-sanctioned. She takes shelter with a band of traveling librarians—and quickly discovers that these librarians are insurrectionists against the state. I loved how this book was constantly surprising in every way. Gailey made me laugh on every page, even as their characters shoot up gangsters in their quest to dismantle the patriarchy and right society's wrongs. More info →
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Binti

Binti

Author:
This novella drops you right into another galaxy where Binti is the first of her people to receive an offer to attend Oomza University, basically an ivy league college. Accepting the offer requires a huge sacrifice and a treacherous journey. I sped through this quick audiobook thanks to excellent narration and a propulsive plot. I've mentioned this short science fiction read several times on the podcast. Hear my full recommendation in Episode 256: The perks and pitfalls of omnivorous reading with Cliff Cullen. More info →
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Let Us Dream

Let Us Dream

Author:
Alyssa Cole might be well-known in romance circles for her contemporary Reluctant Royals series, but she's also an incredible historical romance writer—and her novellas pack a lot of story (and steam) into a one-sitting read. Set in Harlem 1917, this novella follows star-crossed lovers Bertha and Amir as they navigate women's rights, immigration, and prejudice in New York City. Cole paints a vivid picture of the time and crafts such incredible characters in just a few pages. Pick this one up for a quick dose of historical detail and a swoony love story, and heads up for a few open door scenes. More info →
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Half Light

Half Light

Author:
I just recommended this Audible Original novella to Ashley on What Should I Read Next Episode 274: #Bookstagram made me do it. Jones explores common themes in her work: sisterhood, family bonds, and the creative process. In this short bite of literary fiction, identical twins Amelia and Camelia are total opposites, but their lives remain intertwined for years. When Lia decides to take drastic measures in getting a precious piece of art back from her ex-husband, their relationship is tested. I was riveted and listened to Bahni Turpin's narration in one “sitting” aka long walk with Daisy. (It’s just one hour and 30 minutes.) More info →
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Before the Coffee Gets Cold

Before the Coffee Gets Cold

At a small Tokyo café, patrons sip coffee and travel through time. Yes, this is a time travel book—but not your typical action-packed science fiction. Heartwarming and quirky, the story follows four customers who enter the café in search of time travel. The most important rule they learn: your trip through time only lasts as long as your coffee stays warm. At just over 200 pages, it might not quite count as a novella, but it made for a super quick audiobook listen, with delightful narration by Arina Ii. More info →
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To Be Taught, If Fortunate

To Be Taught, If Fortunate

Author:
Becky Chambers' Wayfarer series has been making the rounds among our team of readers. Hear WSIRN producer Brenna wax poetic about Chambers' world-building and kind sci-fi on Episode 268: Our team’s best books of the year. This standalone novella follows Ariadne O'Neill and her three crewmates on an ecological survey mission in space. With the newest scientific feat, humans are able to survive on previously dangerous planets, but the farther Ariadne travels into space, the more she wonders about the changing world she left behind on Earth. If you enjoy this novella, pick up A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet next. More info →
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Lady Susan

Lady Susan

Author:
There's nothing like a quick dose of your favorite author to keep your reading momentum going. Austen's sassy novella makes for a perfect afternoon reading session, with a good cup of tea. Flirtatious widow Lady Susan Vernon is determined to push her daughter into an advantageous marriage, but her interference backfires in delightful and dramatic ways. If you love Austen's wit and haven't read any of her juvenilia, this is a great place to start. More info →
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Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others

Author:
This collection of short stories includes Chiang's novella "Story of Your Life," which inspired the movie Arrival. The novella shifts back and forth in time, narrated by linguist Dr. Louise Banks, who addresses her unborn daughter about the past and present. Louise describes what it was like when aliens entered Earth's orbit and she was recruited to communicated with them. The new languages start to change Louise's perception of time and reality, altering her world forever. More info →
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Ring Shout

Ring Shout

When Beth recommended this in a Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club discussion thread, my husband Will happened to be logged in and added it to his TBR right away. The horror genre isn't my jam, but when Beth compared this to Sarah Gailey and Ralph Ellison, it peaked my interest, too. Described as "dark historical fantasy," this novella takes place in Prohibition Georgia, where Ku Klux Klan members literally become demons after watching The Birth of a Nation. Bootlegger Maryse Boudreaux and a motley crew of fighters set out to save the world from this hellish nightmare come to life. More info →
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The Deep

The Deep

Author:
For a short-but-sweeping read, I recommend listening to the audiobook performed by Daveed Diggs. Yetu takes on the role of historian for her people, descendants of pregnant African women who were thrown overboard built a new society underwater. Holding everyone's painful memories is too much for Yetu, so she flees to the world above water where she learns more about the past and the future of her people. Originally inspired by a song from rap group Clipping that aired on This American Life in the episode "We Are In The Future,” this imaginative fantasy novella presents a powerful allegory. More info →
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The Bear

The Bear

Author:
I gave this to Will for Christmas because he loves coming of age stories and wilderness tales. Told in sparse writing, the novella opens on a somewhat dystopian, but otherwise lovely plot of land where a father and daughter fish, hunt, and live close to a mountain. They own a few books, a comb, and other pieces of the past, but their days are spent gathering food and enjoying the quiet hum of nature. One day, the girl loses her way and a bear leads her home through the vast wilderness. A contemplative story of resilience with beautiful nature descriptions. More info →
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Have you read any short-and-sweet reads lately? We’d love to hear about them. Share your recommendations in the comments!

P.S. In the mood for something slightly longer? Try one of these 20 short novels to read in one day or go big with a terrific tome for your towering TBR.

Give your reading life a quick boost with these 21 short and satisfying novels

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30 comments | Comment

30 comments

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  1. Amy J says:

    I’m in the last third of “Ring Shout” now and loving it. BUT it is serious horror – given what you’ve said before and the horror-ish novels that you’ve liked, I would tread very, very carefully (if at all). There’s some seriously scary imagery, and I say that as someone who really likes horror and has a high tolerance for scary things.

  2. Sarah Williams says:

    I am not a western or dystopian fan, but I am a Sarah Gailey fan. I loved Upright Women Wanted. Being able to tell a complete story in a limited number of pages is a true skill, and Gailey does it so well.

  3. Kara says:

    Such a great list! I love Lady Susan, and Wide Sargasso Sea is already on my TBR for next month. This month I’m reading Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. It’s perhaps a bit longer than the novellas you’ve listed here, but still seems doable in a fairly short period of time. I’m also interested in Half Life by Tayari Jones.

  4. Alison says:

    Agatha Christie is my go-to when I am in a reading rut.

    Thanks for the push to read Lady Susan. Have it on my shelf now!

  5. Tina says:

    All Systems Red by Martha Wells might fit for this category as well. It’s the first in the Murderbot series, which is about a neurotic robot (for lack of a better word, though it’s so much more) who has to deal with humans, which makes it extremely nervous, and sometimes even talk to them, which is INFINITELY worse. It’s a Security Unit, but all it wants to do is be left alone to watch TV. They’re five novellas and one full length novel, and they’re loads of fun.

  6. Christa Gregg says:

    The Murderbot series is delightful! Adventure, fun inner dialogue, sweet and thoughtful, explores what it means to be human, be in community, naming ourselves…all set in a future time. I’d say even if you don’t normally read sci-fi, this is a good one to read. My mom picked it up after I shared about it, and has since read the series and can’t wait for the new one! I’ve read the first two. Waiting for the third from the library.

  7. Meghan Kirk says:

    I’m currently in the middle of ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell’. It’s great, but goodness is it long! I might take a break… I have ‘Lady Susan’ and ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ on my shelves already so maybe I’ll give those a go. Thanks for the encouragement!

  8. Heather says:

    Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen explores how a young woman grieves her grandmother’s death – but it’s so much more and so beautiful.

    Stephen King’s Elevation is a moving exploration about finding a community.

  9. Marie says:

    If anyone needs a nudge to read Ring Shout, I’ll just say that it was my favorite novel (novella) of 2020. Especially if you like the fantasy genre. P D’Jeli Clark’s writing is rich and creative. Every word is wisely employed. I loved the characters and, in my opinion, the horror/fantasy genre captures the ugliness of the Jim Crow era in a way that straight up nonfiction can not. Such a great read!

  10. Suzy says:

    I’ve recently read Of Mice and Men, Passing, and The Uncommon Reader (all good, but Mice was brutal), and I’m interested in Half Light. Tayari’s books are good!
    I would add 84, Charing Cross Rd (97 pgs) to the list, as well as Silas Marner by George Eliot (180 pages), and The View from Saturday by EL Konigsburg (160)—so wonderful!
    Also, Lady Susan is the novella that they turned into the movie, “Love and Friendship” a few years ago (confusingly, since Jane Austen also wrote a book called Love and Friendship when she was only 15)
    And if you want a short story by the incomparable Amor Towles, please read “The Line”!!

  11. laura shook says:

    Thanks for this list Anne! I love the idea of a list of short books, so I added a new category to my Goodreads TBR! Also, thanks for including ideas for audio books … I’m always looking to find excellent books to listen to!

  12. SKM says:

    Such a good cure for the slump! Great list. I just finished (in one sitting) Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. Very creatively written (don’t be put off by the screenplay format) and so much poignancy packed into a rapid read.

  13. Karen Smith-Davey says:

    Just read a classic that was made into a movie with Sir Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, and Dame Judy Dench. I loved it!
    84, Charring Cross Road. Letters written between an American scriptwriter/journalist and a British bookseller in London, beginning in
    1949. Fascinating.

  14. the other heather says:

    I just read Passing this year and it is so good. I cannot recommend it enough! If you are hesitating to finish it, keep going! The ending is worth getting to. And read it with a friend or a book group if you can as you will definitely want to talk about it. My book buddy and I are still debating that book months after we read it. It had been a favorite of hers for years and is now one of my favorites, too.
    I cannot recommend PG Wodehouse’s short stories enough when you need a quick lift or a palette cleanser. Especially the Jeeves and Wooster ones. Hilarious, very clever plots, and the writing itself is fun and zingy. It’s Downtown Abbey with a sense of humour. 🙂

  15. Lots of great ones here! As fan of literary fiction, I especially love the Strout and the Haruf novellas/short novels. I recently interviewed Ron Rash about his novella, IN THE VALLEY, which is a follow-up to Serena. I’d definitely recommend it.

  16. Sandra Mosolgo says:

    The Women in Black by Madeleine St.John, 1959 Sidney, Australia. A different time but no coarseness and a positive outcome. A welcome escape from life today.

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