1910s Audio Book Classics Novella

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (Audio Book)

The Metamorphosis

Five words from the blurb: salesman, transformed, insect, trapped, room

The Metamorphosis is a book I’d always avoided as I suspected it would be disturbing and/or impenetrable. I’m pleased I decided to give it a try as neither of these preconceptions were true. The Metamorphosis is actually easy to read and isn’t very dark at all – in fact it is quite funny in places. 

The book begins with Gregor, a travelling salesman, waking up to discover that he’s been transformed into a giant insect. It is one of those rare cases where an author manages to take a fairly unrealistic concept and make it feel real. I loved Gregor’s confusion and the way he slowly learnt what life as an insect felt like. 

….when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.

It is a short book (just two discs in the audio version) and the plot is very simple, but I was entertained throughout. Martin Jarvis’ narration was excellent and I recommend this book to anyone looking for something a bit different.


2014 Novella

The Dig by Cynan Jones

The Dig

Five words from the blurb: Welsh, farmer, struggling, grief, violence

The Dig is a short, but powerful book set in the Welsh countryside. In two alternate narratives it follows a badger-baiter and a grieving farmer as they struggle with their difficult lives.

I was apprehensive about reading this novella as I worried it would be disturbing. I was right to be concerned as the images contained within this book were graphic and haunted me long after I turned the last page. The descriptions of badger-baiting were so vivid that I admit to skimming over several paragraphs in an effort to save myself from the nauseating images. But what I failed to realise was that the emotional impact of the farmer grieving for his dead wife was far greater. His narrative initially appeared to be gentle, but the power grew over time.

He sat with his elbows on his knees and held the clock and listened to the pinging and ticking of the stove cooling, the last settling embers shifting down through the grate, the metronomic ticking of the clock. Three hours. He didn’t even want the telly on. He stared at its vacant, dark cataract.

The writing within this book was outstanding. It was like a master-class in how to produce maximum emotion with a minimum number of words. It provided a vivid snapshot of life in rural Wales, but part of me regrets reading it. I felt as though I’d been emotionally battered, but gained no new insight or information. I’m hesitant to recommend it as I don’t want to inflict this disturbing story on the minds of others, but give it a try if you are emotionally strong and would like to be immersed in the extremes of human experience.

(because it feels wrong to penalise a book for being too vivid!)


1930s Books in Translation Novella

Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Southern Mail / Night Flight (Penguin Modern Classics)  Translated from the French by Curtis Cate

Five words from the blurb: adventurer, aviation, risks, airmail, courage

I have a fear of flying so was surprised to see The Novel Cure recommend a book about an air crash as a potential solution to my problem. I was dubious (and scared!) but decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and see if it would help me. Having finished the book I’m not sure it has allayed any of my fears, but it is a much better suggestion than I first thought.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a pilot in the early days of the French airmail service. He risked his life transporting mail over the Andes and the Sahara and used his experiences to write several books. He is said to have produced some of the best aviation novels in existence, but I’m afraid I don’t think “aviation-lit” is for me.

Night Flight is a short book (just 63 pages) that tells the story of Fabian, a pilot delivering mail in Argentina. His boss, Rivière, instructs Fabian to continue flying, despite the dangerous thunderstorm approaching. The book highlights the dilemma of whether or not you should follow orders that put you at risk and shows the vulnerability of those who took part in early air travel. I was worried that the book would give me more reason to fear flying, but the descriptions were so cold and technical that they didn’t elicit an emotional response.

The writing was fantastic and the descriptions were beautiful, but it was too slow for me and I became bored:

Yet the night was rising, like a dark smoke, and already filling the valleys, which could no longer be distinguished from the plains. The villages were lighting up, greeting each other across the dusk like constellations. With a flick of his finger he blinked his wing-lights in answer.

In retrospect, this is the perfect book to read on a plane – you’ll either be mesmerised by its beauty or sent to sleep by its descriptive prose.


2008 Books in Translation Novella

The Blue Fox by Sjón

The Blue Fox Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb 

Five words from the blurb: Iceland, priest, Down’s Syndrome, landscape, fate

The Blue Fox is a confusing little book. It only really makes sense once you’ve finished it and have had plenty of time to reflect on the beautiful, but often strange passages.

The book is set in Iceland and begins with a captivating series of scenes in which Skugga-Baldur, the local priest, heads out in freezing conditions to try to capture a rare blue fox. This story is woven with several others, including that of a girl with Down’s syndrome and a ship wreck, but to say much more would spoil the mystery.

The writing in this book is fantastic. Much of it feels like a giant poem, especially the hunt scenes in which individual lines are given their own page. But, even when entire pages are given over to text the writing still sings with its vivid descriptions and almost mythical atmosphere.

In the halls of heaven it was now dark enough for the Aurora Borealis sisters to begin their lively dance of the veils. With an enchanted play of colours they flitted light and quick about the great stage of the heavens, in fluttering gold dresses, their tumbling pearl necklaces scattering here and there in their wild caperings.

The only downside is that its fragmented nature meant I couldn’t bond with any of the characters, but despite this problem the wonderful descriptions of the landscape and the glimpses into Icelandic culture meant that this book was well-worth reading.

Recommended to those who enjoy beautiful writing and are willing to work hard to piece together a fragmented story.


Those who’ve already read the book might be interested in this animation of it as I found it gave me even more food for thought:



The thoughts of other bloggers:

...a rather exquisite, highly nuanced novella… Reading Matters

 haunting and mesmeric and so different from anything else I’ve read. Stuck in a Book

…bold, memorable and wholly its own. Just William’s Luck


2013 Novella

Magda by Meike Ziervogel


WARNING: Review contains spoilers. If you are unfamiliar with Magda Goebbels’ story and are sensitive to spoilers I recommend that you read the book, not the review!

Five words from the blurb: Goebbells. Hitler, relationship, mother, foreboding

A few years ago I read The History of History by Ida Hattemer-Higgins, a fantastic, albeit slightly weird, book set in Berlin. It introduced me to the story of Magda Goebbels and numerous other families who committed suicide during WWII. Since then I’ve been intrigued by the forces that drive people to kill their own children;  so when I was offered a review copy of Magda I jumped at the chance to read another book on the subject. The fact this one was written by Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press, was an added bonus. She has published lots of fantastic novellas over the years and I was interested to see what kind of book she’d write herself.

Magda was an illegitimate child who had a difficult start in life. Her problems seemed to be solved when she fell in love with Josef Goebbels, but his place by Hitler’s side only lead to further heartache.

Humans need hope and faith in order to live. Some are born with the ability to have faith, to have hope. They are the blessed ones, like the Führer, Father and Mother. Most people, however, are born without hope and faith, but they can learn it from a Führer. And then there are people like me. We have to struggle, to fight for our faith and hope. We have to be continuously aware of the enemy inside us. We are never allowed to let go.

The book gives a brief glimpse into Magda Goebbels’ early life, but as the second world war draws to a close, and the family move into Hitler’s bunker, the point-of-view switches to that of her eldest daughter, Helga. I was initially disappointed to see the focus taken away from Magda, but as the book reached its conclusion I realised what a clever structure this was.

The plot was simple and, despite knowing how the story ends, it was still a heart wrenching shock to read the final chapter. The book shares many similarities with Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi*, one of my favourite books. They both have the same sense of foreboding that permeates every page and a simple clarity that allows the characters and their emotions to shine.

The book left me with many questions about Magda’s decisions, but filling in the gaps gave the story an enduring quality and left me wanting to know even more about the women in Hitler’s bunker.

This is a brief, but powerful book. I highly recommend it.


*published by Meike’s Peirene Press

2012 Novella

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon

The Colour of Milk

Five words from the blurb: farm, girl, write, unforgettable, year

The Colour of Milk is short, but it packs an emotional punch. The book is set in 1831 and is narrated by Mary, the illiterate daughter of a farmer, who is given the opportunity to learn to read and write. Through her basic, but engaging writing we learn about one turbulent year in her life. A year in which she leaves her family home for the first time to become a maid for the vicar of a neighbouring village.

There was nothing new about the story, but the execution was perfect. Every character was well drawn and every sentence felt necessary. The plot was quite simple, but Mary’s character was engaging and I loved her honest, direct approach to life. The understated descriptions meant that the reader is made to fill in the blanks themselves and this gave the actions a deeper impact :

i don’t know what he hit me with. i don’t know how many times he hit me. i closed my eyes and let him do what he did.

The lack of punctuation and the unusual sentence structure took a while to get used to, but once I’d adjusted I loved the unique tone:

and there was a shed with pots in and trays of soil. and here was a house made of glass what had things growing in it.
and i sat on the grass. and it was not cold.
and the birds were settling in the trees.
and i was tired for i had not slept the night before when i was at home.

The ending was predictable, but somehow that didn’t matter. The quality of the writing made it shine and gave it an emotional power that I wasn’t expecting. I’m sure that this book will require a lot of readers to get their tissues out!

This is one of those books that feels like a classic from the moment it is published. I’m sure it will stand the test of time and will be loved by generations of readers.

Highly recommended.