At the beginning of the year, I like to set myself a few book-related goals for the months ahead. Normally these goals involve getting to some of the books that have been sitting on my to-be-read pile a little too long, reading a short story most days, and trying a few new independent presses.
Regardless of what your reading goals are, getting a few books under your belt is always a good way to start the year. With that in mind, I thought I would do a run-down of some of my favourite very short books. If you’re looking to make a head start on your reading, or you just want a book you’ll be able to devour over the course of an afternoon, this list is for you!
My first two recommendations are presses. Fairlight Books publish a colourful collection of pocket-size novels, all under 200 pages, called Fairlight Moderns. From stories about kidnapped children and neighbours gossiping behind curtains, to a mother travelling across New Zealand and a book club at the end of the world, there is something here for everyone. My favourite novel from the series is The Therapist by Nial Giacomelli. It’s at once a gothic ghost story and a modern-day science fiction novel. While a husband and wife start marriage counselling, the world outside begins to crumble: people everywhere are starting to turn invisible. It may sound bizarre, and in many ways it is, but the humanity of this book ties all of these elements together beautifully.
My second publisher recommendation is Strangers Press in Norwich. They are dedicated to publishing the finest literature in translation. So far, they have released three series of pamphlets: one with writing from Japan, another from Korea, and the most recent is focused on literature from the Netherlands. These series are such a brilliant way to discover new authors, and new translators, too. Friendship for Grown-Ups by Nao-Cola Yamazaki, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton (who we interviewed last year) is all about evolution. It begins with a surreal, folklore-inspired story about the beginning of the world, and then jumps to the present day, documenting the evolution of a romantic relationship between two people.
Milena, Milena, Ecstatic by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, is about a filmmaker who wants to create something that will unite him with the world, because he feels very detached from it all — as though he’s already watching other people through a screen. He observes the minute details of other people’s lives but doesn’t feel as though the same attention is paid to him, and so he constantly feels like he is evaporating. It’s a book told in eerie, atmospheric snapshots.
Something Has to Happen by Maartje Wortel, translated from the Dutch by Jozef van der Voort is a series of three stories all involving the same characters. A husband and wife have lost their son, and they are processing their grief differently. Having the book split into sections shows the distance that has grown between the characters, and it’s both moving and funny, with one scene depicting the wife going to a lumberjack camp where you’re encouraged to deal with your emotions by screaming at trees.
Moving on to other short books, I have to recommend The House Opposite by Barbara Noble. I’m not often drawn to World War II books, but as this is written by someone who experienced the Blitz, I dedicated time to it and I’m so glad I did. It’s about a secretary called Elizabeth who is at first more concerned with being caught having an affair than she is with falling bombs, and the novel ducks and dives between families living on one street, showing the sometimes mundane, sometimes extraordinary moments of their lives.
Strike Your Heart by Amélie Nothomb, translated from the French by Alison Anderson, is a fable-like story of mothers, daughters and jealousy, with threads of Snow White running through it. The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am by Kjersti A. Skomsvold is a perfect little novel which I would recommend to fans of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, is a spellbinding book about bodily transformation, and Territory of Light by Yūko Tsushima translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt is a moving portrayal of a woman in Tokyo struggling with motherhood.
If we’re talking about short books, I couldn’t not mention poetry. If you’d like to tackle winter with some words on nature, Slant Light by Sarah Westcott and Thinking with Trees by Jason Allen-Paisant won’t do you wrong. Westcott writes “then I may be Queen again / stepping through the cow parsley”, and Allen-Paisant observes raspberries feeding on the breath of a dead tree, recording his walks in the woods: “I enter / peeling off the skin of my living room.” And from woods to city centres, Houses by Nikki Wallschlaeger is one of my favourite collections of all time, full of light and colour. I’ll never forget this phrase, examining a toddler’s face for emotion, noting: “The brown/pink cheeks of children’s weather.”
I found it interesting going through my shelves and noticing that so many of my favourite short books are works of fiction in translation. There again, it’s always wonderful to travel around the world from your sofa!
Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and disability advocate. She has written ten books for children and adults, the latest of which is The Sister Who Ate Her Brothers. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.
Photographs by Jen Campbell.