Best books for readers short on time, as recommended by Jennifer Down, Johann Hari, Tony Birch and more

Do you ever settle in with a book, ready to lose yourself in another world, only to find — just a few pages in — that this world is demanding your immediate return?

Your kids are screaming, your phone is buzzing, and once again reading falls by the wayside of a busy life.

We asked acclaimed writers, critics and book lovers to recommend great reads for those of us who are starved for time — books you can devour quickly, or dip in and out of easily, that still leave you feeling satisfied.

Johann Hari: Return to Uluru by Mark McKenna

Johann Hari describes Return to Uluru as “extremely compelling”.(Supplied: Black Inc Books)

In 1934, an Aboriginal man named Yokunnuna was shot near Uluru by Bill McKinnon, a white police officer.

Almost 90 years later, historian Mark McKenna set out to write a history of the centre of Australia, and found himself drawn to the case.

He spoke to the families of both men, and unearthed new evidence about the case, documenting the revelations in Return to Uluru (2021).

“What he discovers is remarkable,” says British author Johann Hari (Stolen Focus; Lost Connections).

“What he uncovers offers a very different story about the history of Australia — one that’s heartbreaking, but also, in a strange way I don’t want to spoil, ultimately hopeful.”

Hari is a fan of McKenna, having found his book From the Edge in a bookshop a few years ago — “in those happy pre-plague days”.

“It blew my mind, so I have been looking out for his next book ever since. He’s a model of a great public intellectual — he writes about serious questions in totally accessible ways,” Hari says.

Return to Uluru is part detective story, part historical narrative, and part political discourse.

“It’s a short book with so much history in it — and it’s extremely compelling. In places it’s like a thriller,” Hari says.

Jennifer Down: Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark

A book cover of a black door in a black room, cracked open a tiny bit.
The darkly comic story is set in a luxurious mansion, and Jennifer Down says it is “perfect”.(Supplied: New Directions)

Jennifer Down, who won this year’s Miles Franklin Award for her novel Bodies of Light, says it’s hard to go wrong with anything written by Scottish novelist and poet Muriel Spark.

Spark, who was included by The Times Literary Supplement on its 2008 list of “the 50 greatest British writers since 1945”, is perhaps best known for her novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961).

Yet the title that really stands out to Down is Not to Disturb (1971).

The darkly comic story is set in a luxurious mansion in Geneva, where servants sense a murder is about to be committed – yet they must follow their orders and not disturb the lords of the house.

“Not to Disturb is perfect — experimental, a little claustrophobic, and very sharp. It’s also funny,” Down says.

“Set over a single night, it’s a kind of experimental murder mystery that subtly sends up both classic mystery novels and the English master-and-servant narrative.”

At less than 100 pages, it’s great for time-poor readers – and “it’s beautifully executed”, says Down.

“It’s precisely as long as it needs to be, no more; and it whips along at a terrific pace. It reads almost like a play script, with very little introspection or psychological exposition, yet it feels wonderfully complete.”