Miscellaneous Novellas: Murdoch, Read & Spark; Comics; Art Books

Novellas in November will be coming to a close on Monday and has been a great success in terms of blogger engagement. I’ve been adding review links to the master post nearly every day of the month, and I’m sure there are some I have missed. Although I still have a couple of novellas on the go, I don’t see myself finishing them this month, so I’m going to end with this set: three short classics to continue the week’s theme, two graphic novels, and a pair of nature/art/music/poetry books.



Something Special by Iris Murdoch (1957)

[51 pages]

A Murdoch rarity, this appeared in a 1950s anthology and in an English-language textbook in Japan, but was not otherwise published in the author’s lifetime. I think it’s her only short story. I’m counting it as a novella because it was published as a stand-alone volume by Vintage Classics in 2000. Twenty-four-year-old Yvonne Geary doesn’t know precisely what she wants from life, but hopes there might be more for her than a conventional marriage to Sam, her beau. “Can’t I live my life as I please since it’s the only thing I have?” she asks her hen-pecking mother. “I can’t see him as something special and I won’t marry him if I can’t.” Maybe she’ll escape to England. But for now she’s off for a night on the town in Dublin with Sam, going from a rowdy pub to the quiet of a locked-up park. Sam may be dull, but he seems sensitive, solicitous and well-meaning. Yvonne’s feelings for him flip-flop over the course of the evening. I’ve noticed before that Murdoch is a bit funny about Jewishness, but this is still a brisk, bittersweet story in the direct lineage of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. (With striking black-and-white woodcut-style illustrations by Michael McCurdy.)

The Fairacre Festival by ‘Miss Read’ (1968)

[80 pages]

I’m not sure why I’d never tried anything by ‘Miss Read’ (the pseudonym of Dora Jessie Saint, a teacher turned author who was based not far from me in Berkshire) until now. She wrote two series of quaint novels set in the fictional villages of Fairacre and Thrush Green; this is #7 in the Fairacre series. Miss Read, her narrator, is a schoolteacher who records her wry observations of all the local happenings. After an autumn storm damages the church roof, the parishioners are dismayed to learn the renovations could cost £2000. No amount of jumble sales, concerts and tea dances will raise that much. So they set their sights higher, to an Edinburgh-style festival with a light show and an appearance from a famous opera singer. But it’s not going to be smooth sailing now, is it? This was cozy, quaint fun, and if I wished it had been a full-length book, that means I’ll just have to begin at the beginning with 1955’s Village School.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark (1970)

[107 pages]

Lise has her “glad rags” on – bright new clothes in clashing patterns that strangers can’t help commenting on. The 34-year-old single woman has worked in an accounting office for the last 16 years and is now off to the South (Italy?) for a long-awaited vacation. This will be no blissful holiday, though. Just 11 pages in, we get our first hint that things are going to go wrong, and in the opening line of Chapter 3 Spark gives the game away. Clearly, her intention is to subordinate what happens to why it happens, so the foreshadowing of the early chapters is twisted to ironic effect later on. Lise is an unappealing character, haughty and deceitful, and the strangers she meets on the flight and at the hotel, including a man obsessed with the macrobiotic diet, are little better. I felt I didn’t have enough time to change my mind about Lise before we’re asked to have pity. Of course, this is meant to be a black comedy, but it was a little abrasive for my taste. This was my third and probably last from Spark, as I haven’t particularly enjoyed any of her work; I do love this pithy description of The Ballad of Peckham Rye, though: “An entertaining tale of satanism in South London.”

Graphic Novels:

Why Don’t You Write My Eulogy Now So I Can Correct It? A Mother’s Suggestions by Patricia Marx, illus. Roz Chast (2019)

[81 pages]

I loved Chast’s graphic memoir Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? and figured this would have the same witty approach to an elderly parent’s decline. Apart from a brief introduction to her mother (from Philadelphia, outspoken, worked as a guidance counselor and for her husband’s office supplies company), there is hardly any text; the rest is just illustrated one-liners, sayings her mother had or opinions she espoused. Many of these have to do with fashion no-nos, dinner party etiquette, grammar pedantry, avoiding the outdoors and exercise, and childrearing. “My mother never hesitates to say what other mothers would not even think to think. She calls it constructive criticism.” She reminds me of Bess Kalb’s grandmother in Nobody Will Tell You This but Me, an overall much funnier and more complete picture of an entertaining figure.


The Exciting World of Churchgoing by Dave Walker (2010)

[90 pages]

A third set of Church Times comics, not as memorable as the original Dave Walker Guide to the Church. Once again, Walker pokes fun at bureaucracy, silly traditions, closed-mindedness, and the oddities of church buildings and parishioners’ habits. You really need to be familiar with the UK churchgoing scene, and specifically with Anglican churches, to get much out of the cartoons. I loved “According to legend, there is a lady who changes the teatowels in the church kitchen from time to time” and the “Infestations” spread that starts with bats and wasps and moves on to Charismatics. Most striking are two pages on church proceedings during swine flu – what was meant to be a joke doesn’t seem so funny now that it literally describes in-person services during COVID-19: “Shaking hands during the peace should be replaced by a friendly wave,” “Administration of anti-bacterial gel should take place,” etc.


Art Books:

The Lost Words: A Spell Book by Robert Macfarlane, illus. Jackie Morris (2017)

[112 pages]

Macfarlane’s work has been hit or miss for me and I was suspicious of this project in general, thinking it would be twee or juvenile, but the beauty of the artwork and playful energy of the poems won me over. It’s common knowledge that this book arose as a response to news that many words to do with nature had been removed from the latest version of a junior dictionary published in the UK, to be replaced by technology vocabulary. Macfarlane spotlights these omitted words through acrostic poems alive with alliteration (“Fern’s first form is furled, / Each frond fast as a fiddle-head”), wordplay and internal rhymes. He peppers in questions, both rhetorical and literal-minded, and exclamations. Conker, Dandelion, Lark and Otter are highlights. Morris’s wildlife paintings are superb, with a Giotto-like gilt portrait facing each poem and two-page in situ tableaux in between.

The Lost Words Spell Songs (2019)

[112 pages]

I followed up immediately with this companion book to the 14-track album a group of eight folk musicians made in response to The Lost Words. We were already fans of Kris Drever (mostly via Lau), Karine Polwart and Beth Porter (via the Bookshop Band), and became familiar with a few more of the artists (Kerry Andrew, Julie Fowlis and Rachel Newton) earlier this year through the online Folk on Foot festivals. This volume includes six additional poems, four of which directly inspired songs on the album, plus brief bios and words on the project from each artist (each portrayed by Morris as a relevant bird, with the musician serving as the “spirit human” for the bird) the complete lyrics with notes from whoever took the lead on a particular song, and short essays by Macfarlane, Morris (also an interview) and Polwart.

It was interesting to compare the different approaches to the project: five songs directly set Macfarlane’s poetry to music, two of them primarily in spoken word form; five are based on Macfarlane “extras,” like the new spells and the “charm against harm” he wrote during anti-tree felling campaigns like the one in Sheffield; a few are essentially pop songs based around major lines from Dandelion, Goldfinch and Lark (these plus “Selkie-Boy,” based on Grey Seal, ended up being my favorites); one is a traditional song from Seckou Keita’s native Senegal that also incorporates the bilingual Fowlis’s Gaelic to mourn the words that are lost with the past; and one is a final blessing song that weaves in bits from multiple spells. The artists all bring their individual styles, but the collaborations are strong, too.

Are you squeezing in any more novellas this month?

Do you like the sound of any of the ones I’ve read?

21 responses

  1. […] Miscellaneous Novellas: Murdoch, Read & Spark; Comics; Art Books […]


  2. I read The Driver’s Seat back in Uni (many moons ago!) and really loved it. I’d be interested though to reread it and see how I felt now that I’m older with more reading experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I tend not to respond well to novels that involve a ‘trick’ on the reader.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] Miscellaneous Novellas reviewed by Rebecca at Bookish Beck […]


  4. I love Spark, but I wouldn’t force her on anyone. I keep getting waylaid in my reading onto other things, and I have such a huge pile of novellas, I’ll keep on with a few more I expect.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You could intersperse them with longer books throughout the year rather than hold them all until November like I do 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I do do that a bit already! 🙂


  5. I read the first few Miss Read books when I was researching my PhD! I’m not sure I’d pick them up outside work but they definitely offered a break from some of the other reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How fun! Not your average PhD reading 🙂 I worried this would be too twee for me (like the Mitford books were), but I really enjoyed it. My library has a copy of #1 in the series, so I’ll give that a try, too, and then if I’m hooked I’ll have to find the rest. In my 20s I read all of Gervase Phinn’s books about being a school inspector in Yorkshire. This reminded me a bit of his stuff, but better written.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My sister was strangely very into Gervase Phinn as a child! I think she liked the funny stories about school 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I got my mom into Phinn’s books; she was a teacher / teaching assistant for nearly 40 years, so she liked all the ‘kids say the darndest things’ moments.


  6. Aha, Miss Read has got you! I love all hers, they do have a little bit of a bite to them, though I also like the Mitford books and collected all those, too. Also glad you found, read and highlighted the Murdoch, which I should have re-read last time I went through them all of course!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Am I right that it’s her only story? It was a rather lovely little curio.

      I’ll get hold of Village School soon and then see if I want to continue from there.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. yes, that’s right!


  7. I didn’t know about that Murdoch, and now see form Liz’s comment that it wasn’t included, and thanks for that, as I was about to scurry over there to see when I’d missed it. There are lots of good ones here that appeal generally (the Spark is the only one I’ve read). I had four novellas in mind for this month and only finished Daniel Polansky’s The Seventh Perfection, so I still intend to read the other three, but who knows…as your last post suggests, the end of the year is rapidly approaching and not all my reading plans will come through. *sigh*

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s always next year 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This event has been around in some form or another for ages and I’ve never done well with it being in November. I think I just naturally gravitate to novellas at other times of the year, maybe partly to do with prize-lists and the autumn publishing fervour? I think I might do better with Madame Bibi’s monthly celebration just from a timing perspective. But maybe it just suits me to parse them instead? I know you like the fact that it falls near the end of the year though! (And there’s the whole alliterative delight of course.)


    2. It’s purely for the alliteration! And I’ve done it since 2016. I’m aware of ‘Novella a Day in May’, but that’s a blogger I don’t follow, simply because there are so many out there and one person can’t read everything.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. […] well as with the work of many UK nature writers like Robert Macfarlane (in particular, she mentions The Lost Words) and Jini Reddy (Wanderland). I also found a fair amount of overlap with Lucy Jones’s Losing […]


  9. […] verse at all. “Starling,” especially, feels like a straight knockoff of Robert Macfarlane’s The Lost Words (“We forget that you once shimmered through frozen air, ripple bird. / Shape-shifter, […]


  10. […] I’d been dubious about this ensemble project based on Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s The Lost Words and The Lost Spells but ended up loving both books as well as the two albums of folk/world music […]


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