As readers of this blog will know, I am an avid reader. I devour books. And yet, like many, many people, I’ve found it hard to settle with a book during this everlasting pandemic. Weird, isn’t it? Is it lack of concentration, general anxiety, or is it the feeling that fiction is irrelevant when the world out there is stranger than fiction? I don’t know, but if you’re feeling the same, then I’ve come up with a list which I hope will help you find your way back to reading. And because concentration is hard to maintain, I’m only going to include short books. I’m also hoping to take you out of this current world and transport you somewhere better.
1. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. If you’ve never read this but only seen the film, believe me you are in for a real treat. I’ve read it dozens of times and each time I find something new to laugh at. It packs an amazing punch for such a short book; only 50,000 words and around 200 pages. The best thing? If you do get swept away to this fabulous universe, there are four more books to enjoy.
2. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Ok so this may not transport you somewhere better – it is horror after all, but I guarantee you’ll forget about Covid while you’re caught up in this short but gripping read. Only 160 pages, you can read it in one sitting. (If you find this book works for you, have a look at Susan Hill, who also writes creepy books which are incredibly short. She wrote The Woman in Black for instance, which is around 200 pages.)
3. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. I don’t think you can beat Agatha Christie for a bit of escapism, and Roger Ackroyd is, to my mind, her second best novel. (The best one is And Then There were None but as all of the characters are trapped together on an island, I thought the claustrophobia might be a bit too much to deal with during our own nightmares, but if you’re made of stronger stuff, then go for it.) Even if you’ve read Christie’s books before, or seen the adaptations, I think they work well in the re-reading. And if you find that classic crime works for you, then try Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. Enough reading there for any length of lockdown.
4. Memento Mori by Muriel Spark. Ok so this has death, old people and hospitals in it, but I can promise you’ll enjoy this. All of Spark’s novels are short, concise, and clearly written, and have a dark humour to them. My edition has 200 pages, but I think the publisher was trying to bulk it out. Again, lots of short, wonderful books by this author to move onto if she floats your boat.
5. Animal Farm by George Orwell. Everyone has heard of this book, but how many people have actually read it? It’s barely 100 pages. I’d recommend anything by George Orwell. He was also a journalist and was used to making every word count. His writing is spare and precise.
6. Coraline by Neil Gaiman; actually anything by Neil Gaiman is guaranteed to transport you somewhere else; I’ve selected Coraline because it’s short, as is The Ocean at the End of the Lane as well as The Graveyard Book. I think Graveyard Book and Coraline are defined as children’s books but honestly, I wouldn’t view them as such; they’re great for any age.
7. Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian is defined as a children’s book but oh, it’s so dark! I’m not sure I’d be keen to give this to an unsuspecting child. It was written in 1981 and is set during the second world war. It’s a brilliant read which will haunt you for ages.
8. Re-read some old favourites. I’ve mentioned a few children’s books here; well these do tend to fit into the ‘short’ category, but there are some long ones as well. But everyone has at least one favourite childhood book, and what better time to treat yourself to a re-reading of these? My list includes the fabulous Alice in Wonderland as well as the Narnia Series – and did you know the Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is only 38,000 words? ,
9. Different Seasons by Stephen King. I admit I’m not a great fan of short stories. I like the meatiness of a novel, and find that short stories are over too quickly for me. And who can cope with a Stephen King length novel right now? Well try this book. It contains four novellas, all of which I found as satisfying as one of his full length novels, and yet they are each around 100 pages long. (And if you manage that, why not tackle Carrie? I know you’ve seen the film, but the book is an interesting read, especially for writers looking for novel narrative techniques, and it’s around 60,000 words or under 200 pages)
10. Poetry?? Those of you who already love poetry can look away now, but for the rest…. Why not try a bit of poetry if concentrating on fiction is hard to sustain right now? Honestly you don’t need to have any special training to enjoy poetry. My suggestion for a break into poetry is the BBC’s compilation The Nation’s Favourite Poems. An excellent selection (they produced another compilation later on, of the Nation’s Favourite Love Poems.. haven’t read that one but I’m sure it’s good). And if you enjoy that, try Norman MacCaig who captures the North West Highlands of Scotland like no other. My edition has a CD of selected readings, which is a lovely bonus.