Powell’s Essential List: Novellas
We love novellas. They’re just so gratifying: how pocket-sized they are; those slim spines; their punchy, often devastating language; entire worlds you can devour in a single sitting. When we decided to feature novellas in this year’s Essential List, we knew we were going to have fun.
But first, we had to roughly define what “novella” means to us, since it turns out there is no agreed-upon definition. Should we go by page count? Word count? Vibes? After much discussion, we decided to aim for books that are under 40k words long.
Powell’s booksellers submitted more than 100 titles for consideration — proof that our love for novellas runs deep. There were a few that felt like shoe-ins for this list, but had to sadly be disqualified because they’d been featured on a previous Essential List. From there, we had to narrow the list down, which was very difficult work! Somehow, we managed.
Below, you’ll find our 25 essential novellas. On this list, you’ll find novellas that are piercing and beautiful, surreal and idiosyncratic, eerie and whimsical, iconic and classic. There are masterpieces and fables on this list, stories that are metatextual and mesmerizing, and books that dissect gender roles, sexual identities, racism, capitalism, betrayal, loss, and so much more.
We bet that if you started now, you could read all 25 of our essential novellas by the end of the year. Go on: we dare you.
Geometry and satire may not intersect often, but in Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions, the twain converge to wondrous effect. Published anonymously in 1884 — with the nom de plume “A Square” — Edwin A. Abbott’s slim work employs shapes, lines, and points in a 2-D world to consider the nature of other dimensions (including 1-D & 4-D spaces). A social commentary on Victorian England, Flatland takes aim at class structure, gender roles, hierarchy, and upward mobility. Considered an early work of science fiction, Flatland drew the attention of both Carl Sagan (noted in Cosmos) and Stephen Hawking. Flatland has become so entangled within (our dimension’s) popular culture that references and remakes can be found in Infinite Jest, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Futurama, The Big Bang Theory, Sons of Anarchy, and more — in addition to inspiring sequels, short stories, and other novels. As it approaches its sesquicentennial, Flatland’s themes of unbridled imagination and reality beyond the confines of our own limited perception still resonate a century and a half later. – Jeremy G.
A classic horror novella that explores the limits of pleasure and pain. Frank is a hedonist who will go to any limit to chase the ultimate pleasure. He obtains a puzzle box that is said to open an extradimensional realm ruled by the Cenobites (if you know, you know). The real horror happens when his wife, Julia, discovers that he is in a different dimension and will stop at nothing to bring him back. Clive Barker is gruesome and unrelenting with descriptions of gore so if you’re squeamish, read at your own discretion! This novella inspired the Hellraiser movie series and if you love Pinhead and posse, open the puzzle box and see what sights Barker will show you. – Vicky K.
An utterly charming, incisive little book from Alan Bennett of The History Boys fame that imagines the most alarming disruption the British monarchy has ever seen: the Queen getting really into literature. What happens when her majesty is no longer content with being a figurehead and would rather flip through Plath, Austen, Genet, or Ishiguro? Let alone take up a pen herself? The ripples! The global implications! The dismay of her staff! Genuinely clever, delightfully funny, and deeply poignant, The Uncommon Reader is a modern political fairytale and an ode to the subversive power and joy of reading. – Sarah R.
By Night in Chile condenses Roberto Bolaño's masterful style into one unrelenting, book-length paragraph. “I am dying now, but I still have many things to say.” These are the first words we hear from our narrator, Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix. He’s a priest, poet, and literary critic, and he’s sharing his life story while propped up on his deathbed. This rambling, poetic monologue mixes memory with hallucination, grappling with both Chilean identity and literary obsession. Among other things, Father Urrutia recounts a number of priests who practice falconry, a clandestine class on communism, and all-night parties for the literati. Enigmatic characters, both real and fictional, wander in and out. You might recognize some of their names: Ernst Jünger, Pablo Neruda, Augusto Pinochet. Reading Bolaño’s best work feels like gaining access to some secret, mystical knowledge, and this book is no exception. The prose is often hazy, challenging, and profound. It’s a relatively short book, and yet it somehow feels infinite. – Nic C.
Assembly is a novel so slim and incisive you could cut yourself on it. At its core, the book is simple. Our unnamed narrator, a black British woman, is getting ready to attend a lavish garden party. We follow her thoughts as she contemplates her life up until now. She makes good money, has a good job, keeps her head down. She’s worked hard to get to where she is — but this life is a facade, one that she is getting close to tearing all apart. Natasha Brown stunned me on every page. No sentence is wasted here as she covers a kaleidoscope of topics like colonialism, racism, sexism, capitalism, and more. To read Assembly is to hear the quiet scream of defiance from a woman finally regaining her agency. This is the kind of book you read once and it changes the way you think — a book that I want to press into the hands of everyone, a tour de force of the craft and a story you won’t be able to forget. – Nicole S.
Welcome to Panga, a peaceful moon and the setting for Becky Chambers’s Robot & Monk series. If I could live in any fictional world, it would be this one. This tale introduces us to Sibling Dex, a monk who is experiencing some severe burnout (relatable!), and their quest for something to fill that ache in their chest.
Along the way, we meet a robot, Splendid Speckled Mosscap, in a world where robotkind achieved sentience and walked away from humanity several generations before. Mosscap and Dex begin to travel together, sharing their thoughts, hopes, and existential dreads, forming an unlikely friendship.
This is a quiet, gentle book filled with conversations. If you are tired, if you are seeking comfort, if you yearn for kindness in a world that is not always kind, A Psalm for the Wild-Built is for you. I truly believe that this story finds you when you need it most. – Anna B.
The 331/3 series is a real favorite around here. They publish slim volumes, each focused on a particular album — usually deconstructing production methods, recounting interpersonal conflicts within bands, and surveying fans’ and critics’ reactions. And then John Darnielle (songwriter for the Mountain Goats and now also a celebrated novelist) wrote one of the most unusual entries in the series.
Master of Reality isn’t music writing, or it isn’t just that. A work of fiction, Darnielle’s novella tells the story of Roger, a teenaged boy sent against his will to a locked psychiatric treatment facility. Roger is tormented by being denied access to his most prized possessions: a Walkman and a cassette tape of Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality. Through Roger’s obsessive fandom, Darnielle is able tell you everything you might want to know about the album, but the context adds so much to the experience. This novella’s purpose isn’t to explain this album, it’s to help you understand being young and sad and desperate and finding solace only in Ozzy and company’s foundational work of doom metal. Darnielle was once a nurse in facilities like the one in this story, and his personal experience and deep empathy shine through. This book is truly moving. Revisiting it for this list also had me pulling out the album, and yes, the riff on "Sweet Leaf" still slays. – Keith M.
An unnamed narrator comes of age in prewar Indochina. Under the shadow of her doomed love affair, the cracks of the French empire come to light. The Lover is a perfect book: razor-sharp, elegant, and honest in its depiction of girlhood trouble. With a magic pen, Duras fashions her adolescence into a ghost story teeming with lust, betrayal, and unimaginable loss. A story alive with the animal desires of early womanhood and the despair that comes when these desires are forbidden. To be read in an afternoon and put back on the shelf with the sense of having been devastated, haunted, and touched by beauty. – Nadia N.
This fed and watered my brittle cynic’s heart. A desperately romantic and sensual exchange of letters between two inhuman mortal enemies while they wage war on each other as agents for opposing, time-traveling espionage entities. Abstract, poetic, and deeply emotive — peak sapphic yearning. – Sitara G.
I had never read Neil Gaiman before picking up this book, but I figured Coraline was as good a place to start as any, and I am so glad this was the first book of his I read. It’s an incredible story in so few pages. The book puts you right where Coraline is and makes you truly feel every emotion, every anxiety, and every snarky remark. The world Gaiman builds is so whimsical and fantastical but also creepy and eerie. Every character is so real yet so eccentric in a very wonderous and unreal way. A great start for any young scare fanatic or a perfect addition for a seasoned horror devotee. – Aster H.
Gabriel García Márquez somehow wrote an absolutely gripping mystery in which nearly every fact is known from the start. The morning after a village-wide wedding celebration, a man is killed by two brothers. The means, manner, and motivations are unhidden, but still the compulsion to keep reading is as strong as in a particularly good whodunit. Perhaps the only mystery is a metatextual one: how did the author make this incredible piece of writing work so well? – Keith M.
Hemingway takes readers on a journey of perseverance as we follow an experienced fisherman on the road to breaking his unlucky streak along the coast of Cayo Blanco, Cuba. Santiago is joined by his loyal mentee, a youth named Manolin. He is forced away to work with luckier boats, yet he remains as a companion of Santiago as he frequents his home each night to aid in his mundane end-of-day tasks. Hemingway crafts a visceral setting and pulls the readers into life as a Cuban fisherman in 1951. This novella is a wonderful telling of friendship, determination, and respect that comes from working in the beautifully dangerous waters of the western North Atlantic Ocean. – Haven W.
Rachel Ingalls is a master of the housewife redemption story in general, but this novella published in 1982 takes us on a particularly wild ride. A mysterious aquatic monster escaped from the government? An unfaithful, disinterested husband concerned mostly about the insane number of avocados his wife is buying? A divorced best friend dating two men at once? With no one to care for and no one she can love entirely, our protagonist’s quest for a little power over her life is a little creepy, a little delightful, a little unhinged, and an utterly classic little read. – Leah V.
Despite having never finished a full-length novel in his lifetime, you’ve heard Kafka’s name, and you’ve heard works referred to as ‘Kafkaesque.’ The Metamorphosis is the reason why. It is the absurd and utterly bizarre story of a traveling salesman who wakes up one day to find himself transformed into a human-sized insect. Though the story sounds farfetched, this funny, eerie little tale resonates with the timeless anxieties of insufficiency, alienation, and dependence. Franz Kafkas ability to weave together surreal narratives and relatable human emotions has inspired writers around the world and cemented him as an eternal enigma in literary history. His style is still imitated today, but no one has managed to fully capture the funny feeling of Kafka. There is only one Kafka, and the rest have to settle for being ‘Kafkaesque.’ – Avery B.
Foster is of the special class of novel which concerns itself with the inner worlds of children — namely, children who are abandoned, overlooked, or underestimated by the adult world. Our young narrator is uprooted from her crowded household to spend the summer in rural Ireland while her family prepares to welcome yet another child. There, she comes to understand the boundless possibilities afforded to children who are respected and nurtured. The provincial setting and slow pace foreground the girl’s quiet, shimmering observations as she braces for the summer’s end. This book was introduced to me by my stepmother, intended as a companion for my wintry train ride from Tacoma to Portland. I hope to pass a copy on to another traveler, to be treasured as a talisman against the often brutal and overwhelming pace of adult life. – Nadia N.
At a too-young age, I found a book of Stephen King short stories on a dusty bookshelf at my father’s house during a summer visit where my only friend was my brother. Looking for a break from MTV, there was something secretive about reading these stories, which included the novella The Body. Like all good coming-of-age stories, The Body takes place one hot, pivotal summer in a small town where a group of friends embark on a fool’s errand. With too much time on their hands, rather than reading age-inappropriate novels, they head out along the train tracks looking for the body of a missing boy, searching for infamy and maybe some reward money. Upon rereading, there are parts of The Body that don’t hold up over time (gay slurs), but what remains prominent and enduring is King’s ability to craft time and place. The Body is, at its core, a piece of reminiscent fiction and King does a lot in a short, stout book to put us in the middle of an adventure, reminding the reader of all of those idiotic things we did that sounded like a good idea at the time. – Bry H.
This book is just a few years shy of its centennial, but one would be forgiven for thinking it was written yesterday. It’s primarily set in 1920s Harlem, but the language, viewpoint, and manner of expression feel like they haven’t aged a day. Nella Larsen spent many decades being underappreciated, but many have rediscovered her recently (surely helped by the recent film adaptation of this book). The story of two childhood friends, one of whom has built a life centered on “passing” as white, Larsen’s book is grounded in a deep wisdom about racial and gender roles that may also feel like a recent discovery to many, but it was always there, if you knew where to look — and what to read. – Keith M.
This absolutely amazing work of classic horror is creepy, mysterious, and everything else you could want from a sapphic vampire novel. It may be over 150 years old, but I can’t recommend this enough. It is alluring and macabre and unfolds to endlessly reveal new details and strange directions. The pair of females at the core of this tale have such an undeniable attraction to one another it sometimes feels like the pages of the book will no longer be able to contain it all. This haunting, gothic story is so unlike anything else in the world of vampire novels or in the world of literature as a whole. – Aster H.
The novella that launched the iconic, perfect credo: “I would prefer not to.” Originally published in 1853, Bartleby the Scrivener is set in a law office on Wall Street, where a young man named Bartleby is hired to work as a scrivener. That is, until one day, he decides to just… stop. He says that he would prefer not to; his employer insists; the situation devolves. Melville is one of my favorite authors — truly a master of the hilarious, the absurd, and the deeply human. This novella, one of his later works, is a perfect example of why his works are considered classics. Love you, Herman. Love you, Bartleby. – Kelsey F.
Idiosyncratic, dreamy, occasionally unsettling, and certainly all its own. Convenience Store Woman examines work culture, socio-familial expectations, and the overwhelming pressure to conform to a vision of “normal” that maybe simply doesn’t exist. Here is the story of 36-year-old convenience store worker Keiko Furukura who, for the past eighteen years, has found unexpected liberation in routine and the pages of the store manual. An unfulfilling life encumbered by ennui? Or maybe it’s everyone else who has it backwards. I’ve pressed this beautiful little book into so many people’s hands: “it’s startlingly funny, yet deeply sad.” I say, “it’s wise. It somehow gave me anxiety and took it away.” Not to be missed. – Sarah R.
Asa is turning 30 this year and is still working part time at a dead-end job. Then her husband gets a new position in an area near his parents, so she agrees that it makes sense to move into the house next door to her in-laws and quit her job while she looks for a better one with an easier commute. Can you feel the trap springing shut? Despite Asa’s best intentions, the estrangement from her former work friends and the city life she has always known unmoor her, and she begins to have odd experiences. What results is a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland tale, a surreal meditation on dropping out of society, suburbia, local fauna, and the perceptive and imaginal resources of the mind when it’s liberated from workaday constraints. – Jennifer R.
Glaciers technically spans one day in the life of Isabel, a twenty-something woman who works in the basement of the Central Library in downtown Portland, furnishes her life with vintage postcards and thrift store collections, and gently yearns for her coworker. Emotionally, it spans decades, visiting the memories of her childhood in Alaska and imagined stories of her secondhand treasures triggered by her movements through the day. While Isabel and her peers are young and full of potential, they’ve also lived and accumulated stories and scars — Alexis M. Smith skillfully captured a very specific and true twenty-something world-weariness, without it coming off as insufferable or naïve. This novella is a tribute to quiet, meaningful moments: a languid morning, an assessment in a mirror, a chance encounter. Glaciers is unhurried but precise; Glaciers is vast but expertly contained; Glaciers is perfect. – Michelle C.
I first read The Pearl when it was assigned to me in junior high. I was so captivated by John Steinbeck’s prose that I set about reading most of his major works immediately after. Like several other Steinbeck classics, The Pearl is a fable that never sacrifices specificity, but is about wider, universal experiences. When Kino’s prayers are answered with the discovery of a massive pearl, good fortune abruptly becomes a trap. Greed, corruption, colonialism, and inequality are all present and bear down with brutal force. Rereading it for the first time in decades, I found its power undiminished. This really is one for the ages. – Keith M.
What makes a life “good,” especially as it nears its end? The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a masterful novella about life, death, and dying. What in life is really important? What is absurd and irrelevant? And is death actually something to be feared? Ivan Ilyich is a decent (if not terribly introspective) man, with a good job, status, and a loving family. As he mysteriously sickens and progresses toward his end, his thought on what constitutes a “good life,” as well as his relationship to his family, are called into question. Tolstoy is able to write beautifully about the struggle for meaning and acceptance as a life comes to a close. The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a masterpiece that continues to be relevant today in a changed and changing world. – Chris B.
When I first encountered We the Animals, I remember being wowed by its prose and queer themes, and have been recommending to friends, to co-workers, to people shopping at Powell’s, to strangers on airplanes, for the twelve years since it was published. The first chapter alone leaves me breathless — as if sucker-punched in the solar plexus by the staccato sentences that introduce these three brothers and their parents, who all want more for themselves and each other. Violence, misogyny, racism, and homophobia affect all five members of this family, and those forces work together to try and break them apart. After rereading the 125 pages of this moving novella, I still wanted more — more of these characters, more of this story, more from this author. (After a long wait, Torres is publishing a second book later this year titled Blackouts, and it’s a stunner.) – Adam P.
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