15 of the best short novels that were made for your commute

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Scarlett Cayford
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While the morning and evening commute can be a pain, it's also ideal for carving out a slice of sacred personal time, during which you can indulge, guiltlessly, in a spot of reading.

If, however, you’ve chosen to ignore the march of progress by refusing to become a part of the Kindle generation, it can be difficult making sure you’ve got the right book in your bag to make the time fly. As handbags have become larger, so too have novels (if you’ve read A Little Life, you’ll know the struggle), and our spines are bearing the brunt of the literal weight of our literature.

The solution? Wee books. Small books. Tightly-packed leaflets of desire and drama, all clocking in at under 200 pages – and these are our recommendations to you.

  • Little Lord Fauntleroy, Frances Hodgson Burnett

    If you’ve read either The Secret Garden or A Little Princess, then you’re already well acquainted with the tropes of this author; wronged children, falls from grace, debilitating illness etc. Technically a children’s book, it’s well worth your time if only for the sumptuous descriptions of poverty elevated to wealth, and the class-damning take-downs that the Little Lord manages to achieve simply by laying soft hands on craggy cheeks.

    Lush with velvet and lace and golden curls, it’s got a smidge of Green Gables-sickliness to it, but if you’re seeking an antidote to the acid of our current times, this is it.

    Get it here

  • The Stranger, Albert Camus

    This one comes on the recommendation of the sole male who regularly attends my book club, and has campaigned for eons for the inclusion of Camus on the shortlist. As yet, we have not acquiesced to his requests – but there’s no doubt that if you want to tuck something a bit impressive into your faux leather backpack, this will do it.

    It follows Mersault, who kills a man and is sentenced to death. Absurdism reigns. We take no responsibility for the number of socially-conscious existentialists this might draw to your side on the night bus.

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  • Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

    Nick is the only straight member of a queer rock band. Norah is the daughter of a famous music producer. Following a meet-cute, the pair spend a single eventful night together, complete with dancing nuns.

    If you’ve seen the movie then you know the story, but don’t skip the novel – the narrative is clever and the love story is new. Though arguably a little too in love with its own unconventionality, this is still thoroughly enjoyable.

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  • The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald

    There are a fair few classics on this list – presumably we were all less verbose back in the day. If you ever skipped reading The GG in favour of watching Leonardo DiCaprio fall in love with Carey Mulligan’s eyelashes, then go back.

    It’s loaded with passion, irony and hundreds of instantly-recognisable lines. Plus, the original cover art is gorgeous – it’ll go well with your handbag.

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  • The Metamorphosis, Kafka

    SPOILER: Bugs. You probably feel like you’ve read this even if you haven’t, simply because it’s referenced in every indie movie you’ve ever seen. Man turns into bug; man tries to deal with the fact of being a bug.

    If The Simpsons can base an entire episode around it, you can take 170 minutes (interestingly, this is the average time taken to read a 200-page text) to read it. While you do so, mull over the philosophy of life and the mystery of humanity (optional).

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  • No One Belongs Here More Than You, Miranda July

    Short stories might be cheating, but you’ll quickly forgive the trespass once you start on this yellow-covered cross-section of Miranda July’s unusual mind. The stories are easy to read and phenomenally weird – to use the unforgiveable word, she’s quirky.

    But the stories are also populated with sad, lonely characters who are easily recognisable from real life, and each tale comes with its own unsettling pay-off. Plus, after you’ve read it, you can read her interview with Rihanna, which deserves its own publication. Heck, give it the Pulitzer.

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  • after the quake, Haruki Murakami

    Another collection of short stories, this is starter-Murakami, before you throw yourself into the likes of Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, or Kafka On The Shore. And before you ask, the author himself requested that the title of the book always be depicted in lower-case.

    Printed in 2002, the stories were written in response to the 1995 Kobe earthquake, which killed nearly 7000 people. Each of the six tales follows the life of a single person affected by the aftermath of the quake. It’s not as rich with the supernatural elements that Murakami is known for in his longer tomes, but still worth reading for the spare prose and disjointed narrative.

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  • The Passion, Jeanette Winterson

    If there ever was an author who understood the power of brevity, it’s Jeanette Winterson, whom you almost certainly know for Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, but That Is Not Her Only Novel. Set in the Napoleonic Wars, The Passion follows the lives of Henri, a soldier, and Villanelle, a web-footed woman married to a gambler.

    Nobody writes quite like Winterson, and in the end the characters hardly matter as much as the tone, which is hypnotic and fanciful and rich. Just the thing to distract you from the mundanities of spending your morning tucked in a city boy’s armpit.

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  • The Sense of An Ending, Julian Barnes

    Ever a beautiful writer, Barnes plays with ideas of buried memory and thwarted fate in a book that explores the present and past lives of four school friends. If you enjoyed Turn Of The Screw by Henry James, then this is likely to see you drawn into the pages in the same way - a tale that’s not quite a ghost story, closer to a tragedy, loaded with lost opportunity.

    If it weren’t for its brevity the book might risk becoming too entangled in itself, but instead resolves as a clever and memorable modern novella. Prepare to be ever-so-slightly disturbed.

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  • The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett

    If you’ve ever wondered at the boredom of royal life, then this little snip of a book is one for you. Satire in its purest form, the story takes you inside the decidedly dull life of the Queen, who finds herself in a mobile library, and takes solace in the world of books. Quickly obsessed with the likes of Mitford, Proust and Austen, the monarchy breaks down around her as she begins to neglect her queenly duties.

    Genuinely funny, full of recommendations for great books and, hopefully, a foreshadowing of the future. The Queen would probably love a bit of Donna Tart. 

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  • Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx

    You could be forgiven for thinking this was just a movie because, well, same, but no – it hails from the same brain as the goddess who brought us The Shipping News. A huge and powerful love story, and also the shortest text on this list at a minimalist 58 pages, you’ll find yourself entranced instead by the small, intimate details: the shape of a nose, and the feel of the air. It’s also sexy as hell.

    And even though Annie herself has since said she regrets writing it, you won’t regret reading it. Especially if you catch someone reading it over your shoulder.

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  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

    This bitter little bite has crept up on cult status in recent months, thanks to its controversial style – once you’ve read it, you won’t be able to help but tweet about it. Written in 1962 by Shirley Jackson, the book is narrated by teenager Merricat, who practices magic, and lives an isolated existence with her sister and her uncle. The family are shunned by the nearby village, who believe that sister Constance was the cause of the rest of the family’s death by poisoning some years ago.

    Ghostly, unsettling and loaded with secret menace, this is a story that will stay with you long after you’ve closed the 176th page.

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  • Speedboat, Renata Adler

    First published in the 70s, Speedboat has been brought back into commuter hands by the strength of its own oddness: it’s simply unlike anything else you’ve ever read. Described variously as “dream-like”, “jagged” and “neurotic”, it tells the story of a female journalist working in America, but then plunges into descriptions of the distress of urban life. Basically, if you’re enjoying it, you’re probably not understanding it.

    Think Miranda July’s The First Bad Man crossed with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and you’re approaching the theme, if not the style.

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  • Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

    When most people think of this text, they think of a thick and dusty tome, perhaps influenced by the size of the subject matter, but in actual fact it’s not much more than a novella. Concocted by Shelley during a night of story-telling with her literary pals, it’s rich and frightening and fun.

    WARNING: if you feel moved, after reading it, to instruct people on the correct naming of Frankenstein’s monster vs Dr Frankenstein himself, you might find yourself short of friends. 

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  • Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

    We end the list with a graphic novel, because variety is the spice of life, and because the 7pm commute home is a time when we are tired, and vulnerable, and deserve illustrations.

    Don’t expect anything childish from this book, though. Persepolis is an autobiographical look at the author’s early adult life in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution. The text is stroppy and sarcastic, the images crisp and unusual and the combination of the two is completely brilliant. You’ll almost want to miss your stop.

    Get it here


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Scarlett Cayford

Scarlett Cayford is 28 years old and works in digital content production. She has strong feelings about hair dye, bucket lists, Gilmore Girls, all baths and most books