Well, boys and girls, we’ve entered the season of travel. Whether you’re heading home or to a loved one’s (or, hey, to Key West with a hot date) for the holidays, you’ll likely need a gripping, plot-heavy book to while away the hours cramped on plane or train or automobile. You might even need a book that can distract you from all the holiday goings-on — but that’s really your call. To help you out in this season of need, you will find below 50 gripping, unputdownable, attention-hogging books that will make your travel time feel like no time at all. Or even better: like time spent immersed in a completely different world.
A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara
You must read this book. Go now and buy it and take it with you wherever you’re going this month. Yes, it’s long. Yes, it’s emotionally harrowing (peep the cover, friends). But it’s also the first book I’ve come across in some time that made me want to read it under the table at every meal, no matter who I was sitting with. The novel is complex and deeply engrossing, following four friends from their college years through adulthood, with one deep and closely held secret hanging over all of their heads. There’s also much about families, those you’re born into and those you construct, which makes it perfect reading for this time of year. As long as your family doesn’t mind you reading at the table.
The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara
Listen, while we’re on Yanagihara, I must also recommend her debut novel, a lush, riveting story of a man who discovers the secret to immortality on a Micronesian island, told in a way I like to think of as Pale Fire style (that is, as a tell-all annotated by a not-remotely-neutral colleague). Over everything looms the disastrous side effects of said immortality and the disastrous accusations leveled at its discoverer. She’s your new favorite writer now? Join the club, man.
The Butcher Boy, Patrick McCabe
All you need is the first sentence of this book to get hooked: “When I was a young lad 20 or 30 or 40 years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent.” A haunting, thrilling, indescribably-bleak-but-also-funny story of Northern Ireland, violence, and madness.
The Likeness, Tana French
There’s nothing better than a delicious literary mystery to make that eight-hour train ride disappear. Tana French has a number of these, but this one is my favorite of her oeuvre, in which a detective impersonates a dead girl to find out which of her housemates might have killed her. By the time you put it down, you’ll be wherever you’re going. And also the train’s lights might be off.
Look at Me, Jennifer Egan
Egan’s second novel, centered on a model whose face is obliterated in a car accident and who emerges with a new one, investigates our obsession with image and constructed identity. Then there’s the plain teenager from her hometown, just as image obsessed, who gets involved with a teacher. Add a PI chasing down a mysterious thief from the model’s past and, inevitably perhaps, the Internet, and you’ve got an intelligent, fat, and fast-paced novel that also happens to address your secret fears.
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
Where is there more gripping drama and intrigue than in the court of Henry VIII? Despite what you may think (fat historical novel = difficult and boring), Mantel’s prize-winning Wolf Hall is a surprisingly twisty, fast-paced, often lovely ride. Be warned, though: you might end up thinking “Thomas Cromwell” every time anyone at the Thanksgiving dinner table says “he.”
2666, Roberto Bolaño
Bolaño’s final novel, centered around the serial murders of women in a town called Santa Teresa, is a masterpiece: baroque, brilliant, a mystery upon a mystery upon a mystery, dangerous and challenging and deeply engrossing. Plus, at almost 900 pages, you’re not likely to run out of reading material.
The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón
A much-loved meta-literary adventure/mystery/romance that features tight plotting, book burning, monstrous men, femme fatales, and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books — a place you’re unlikely to ever forget.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke
This uncategorizable epic (with footnotes!) imagines England at the start of the 19th century if magic existed — or rather, if it had existed once and was only now reappearing in the work of the two titular magicians. It’s basically the most magical work of historical fiction ever.
The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
Eco’s classic postmodern mystery is set in a 14th-century Italian monastery plagued by mysterious deaths. You know what else is postmodern? Reading a book about a library labyrinth that does about as well as a library labyrinth would of keeping you happily ensconced within itself.
House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
A haunted house of a book that will trap you inside. Just make sure you’ll have elbow room on the plane for all the frantic page-turning you’ll be doing.
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
I tried to put another one of Mitchell’s books on here — because, really, they’re all pretty fantastic — but this one is the most intellectually and stylistically complex, a puzzle-box of a book that also happens to be wildly entertaining. Plus, as soon as you get tired of one voice/character/setting/style, Mitchell switches gears and pulls out a completely new one, making this book the perfect travel companion. Or should I say travel companions?
The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
It doesn’t get much more gripping than this classic swashbuckling revenge novel. Adventure! Justice! Mercy! Escape!
Possession, A.S. Byatt
For when one epic literary love story just won’t do, a novel that has two: one present, between scholars, and one past, between now-dead poets, that intertwine and inform one another. It’s dreamy reading to say the least.
Fingersmith, Sarah Waters
Sex, thievery, teenage orphans, madness, scams, reversals, and re-reversals abound in this magnetic novel of Victorian London. Everyone is in on something, and you won’t be able to tear yourself away until it all goes up in flames.
The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer
Like A Little Life, this excellent novel tracks the lives of a group of friends from youth through adulthood, asking questions about the nature of success and art and friendship and (gulp) life along the way. Also like A Little Life, you’ll feel the need to be reading this book at every available moment — although it’s all a little less bleak, so choose depending on your mood.
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Road trip with a punning pedophile and guaranteed murder at the end. Doesn’t get any more gripping than that. (Not going to go into convulsions here about how a single Nabokov sentence can keep me captive and take me on a road trip that lasts forever, but just know I’m thinking it.)
Skippy Dies, Paul Murray
So, it’s not exactly a secret: Skippy dies. But it’s the questions of why and what then that will keep you racing through this big, fat boarding school novel. That, and all the bizarro characters Murray has dreamed up to delight you.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
You knew this would be on here, right? I keep having the same problem with this book, which I’ve read in its entirety multiple times: I pick it up to check something, or because I want to find a particular scene, and then once I’ve read a few pages I just have to read the rest of it. It’s a sickness. Let me cough on you.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
And hey, speaking of Tartt, let’s just add her big, beautiful, OK, possibly overstuffed but still thoroughly enjoyable and delightfully plotted recent novel, which takes the reader all around the world chasing a painting. I just can’t get enough.
The Known World, Edward P. Jones
Set in Virginia 20 years antebellum, Jones’ masterpiece of intersecting plot lines centers around the world of a black slaveowner and his wife. This is by no means a quick read, but it is a wholly invasive one: you will savor each detailed, insightful, gorgeous page, and then turn and savor the next one.
Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff
Groff’s exceptional novel is split into two parts: Fates (that’s Lotto) and Furies (that’s Mathilde). The book is the portrait of their marriage, which seems a simple enough thing — but somehow Groff turns it into a page-turner of epic proportions. What will happen to them? Will they make it? Who, really, is Mathilde? Trust me, you won’t stop reading until you find out.
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
It’s partly this book’s form — very short chapters that alternate between two points of view — that makes it so compulsively readable (you just keep thinking, “I can read one more”). But then there’s its two intersecting plotlines featuring two unforgettable characters, one a blind French girl and the other a German orphan, navigating their way through WWII. Plus, you’ll have something to talk about with your war-crazed uncle when you get to dinner.
The Patrick Melrose Novels, Edward St. Aubyn
Debauchery, drugs, and fine English manners. Get the omnibus.
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie’s celebrated novel follows the lives of two young Nigerians, Obinze and Ifemelu, in love and dreaming of America. After a rough beginning which estranges her from Obinze, Ifemelu finds success and even fame, blogging about being a “Non-American Black” in the states, while Obinze winds up undocumented in London, wondering why the love of his life won’t return his calls. The novel is a fascinating take on race and belonging and internationalism, which would be enough, but you’ll also be carried through by the current of wondering whether these two people will ever see each other again and then, of course, what will happen if they do.
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
A sci-fi classic, separated into two equally riveting halves: that of a young boy training to be a zero-gravity soldier in a space station, and that of his two siblings, slowly gaining control of the spinning world below. Completely unputdownable.
Submergence, J.M. Ledgard
This utterly captivating novel focuses on two characters: James, a British spy captured by Somalian jihadists, and Danielle, aka Danny, a scientist preparing for a deep-sea dive into the Greenland Sea. Both stories are intense in their evocation of isolation, and both are deeply suspenseful. You’ll be submerged for your entire trip, and then be extra grateful to emerge into whatever populated holiday celebration you’re attending.
The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood
The intersecting stories in this big novel — all centered around the hated Zenia (man-stealer, life-ruiner) — will keep you interested no matter how long your flight.
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
Middlesex is famous for being a book about the coming-of-age of an intersex child, and that story is a compelling one, but it’s also an epic family myth going back generations and one of the best books about Detroit ever written. Suffice to say: there’s a lot going on in this book, and it all connects, and it all fascinates.
State of Wonder, Ann Patchett
In this novel, a scientific researcher named Marina Singh heads off into the Amazon to investigate her partner’s mysterious death — and to check up on her old teacher, Dr. Swenson, who is investigating a remarkably fertile tribe, and with whom Singh has an uncomfortable history. Expansive, wondrous, and captivating — you won’t want to put this one down.
The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson
All right, all right, so this isn’t a novel — but it might as well be. And the fact that this is a more-or-less-true account of the serial killings around the 1893 World’s Fair doesn’t exactly make it less compelling. One of most beloved and most compelling true crime books of all time.
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Well, you know: duh. Totally readable, totally brilliant, totally addictive (ironically enough), and, of course, long enough to take you to Tokyo and back. Plus, if there’s a more complexly plotted book out there (half the plot of this novel is supposed to be projected by the reader after they’re finished reading it, for goodness sake), let me hear about it.
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen
I know, I know. Franzen’s like, totally the worst. But this book isn’t — the multiple perspectives, years-long plotting, and delicious drama (not to mention how sinfully easily it all goes down) make it perfect for filling empty hours.
The Vorrh, Brian Catling
This kaleidoscopic novel revolves around the eponymous Vorrh, an endless sentient forest filled with magical beings, and the explorers who dare venture there. Hopping about madly in time, space, and point of view, it’s a difficult book, but fantasy lovers will find themselves engrossed in the strange forest for, perhaps, eternity.
11/22/63, Stephen King
Well, I really couldn’t put together a list of gripping books without including at least one by Stephen King, overlord of the page-turner. This one is about a time traveller on a mission to prevent the death of JFK, and it won a bajillion awards because it’s great. Plus, if you read it on the train home, you’ll finally have something to talk about with your dad.
Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie
Ditto the Stephen King entry on the whole “couldn’t have a list like this without x” bit. Most of Christie’s books are pretty gripping and wildly entertaining, but this one is my favorite — not least because of what might be my favorite literary zinger: when Poirot says, “If you will forgive me for being personal –– I do not like your face, M. Ratchett.” Solid burn.
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
Not a big book by any means, or even a book in which a lot particularly happens — but a book with a central mystery that will keep you reading until you turn the last page, meditating on the way on the many disturbances made by memory and time and love and lack thereof.
A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James
Well, it didn’t win the Booker Prize for nothing — this is a startlingly ambitious book, filled with different voices over 30 years in Jamaica’s history. It’s also exciting, and dark, and violent, and sometimes funny, and remarkably addictive.
Emma, Jane Austen
Everybody loves a good marriage plot, and for that, Austen is the best (sorry, Eugenides).
Battle Royale, Koushun Takami
The original Hunger Games. Hell, read The Hunger Games too. Teenagers trapped on an island where they have to kill each other until only one survives? It always makes for some pretty thrilling reading.
Kushiel’s Dart, Jacqueline Carey
Oh yes, folks. A thrilling and complex work of high fantasy starring a courtesan/spy with mystical BDSM tendencies. Adventure and sex galore.
Out, Natsuo Kirino
A harrowing, can’t-look-away creeper about a group of women who work the night shift making bento boxes at a Tokyo factory. When one of them strangles her cheating husband, she corrals the other three into helping with the dismemberment and cover-up. Those with strong stomachs will devour this one.
The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith
One of the best and most captivating modern crime novels, featuring one of the best and most enchanting criminals. You’ll never get tired (or rid) of Mr. Ripley.
My Education, Susan Choi
Hey, what’s more captivating than illicit sex? In this novel, graduate student Regina finds herself enamored with a sexy literature professor — and even more enamored, nay, obsessed, with his wife. Delicious.
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
A classic of psychological suspense, in which a young woman marries into a household haunted by the memory of its dead mistress. But what happened to her? And what will happen to our narrator? If you’re anything like me, you’ll read this whole book as fast as you can, with your shoulders up making best friends with your ears.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon
This book is so many things — thriller, speculative fiction, romp, noir, fantasy, family saga — but the basic idea is: what if a bunch of Jewish refugees went to Alaska during WWII, and then Israel was destroyed? Oh, and then later someone gets murdered in the middle of a game of chess? Really, there’s something here for everyone.
The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Nothing keeps me occupied better than a good mystery, and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather journey with than the bizarre, brilliant, incorrigible Sherlock Holmes — as long as he’s safe in my book where he can’t mess with me.
The Magus, John Fowles
OK, OK, so there’s much about this book that is pretentious and/or ridiculous. Everything’s a reference, and sometimes it sounds oddly like your sophomore year roommate talking about the nature of consciousness. But it’s also totally thrilling, twisty, and tense, a perfectly paced fantasy about a young man who gets a teaching gig on a Greek island and winds up in a strange sort of game staged by its wealthiest inhabitant. And it gets way weird. After all, you loved that sophomore year roommate, right?
Unbecoming, Rebecca Scherm
This is one of the best debut thrillers in recent memory, in which a girl unmakes herself hundreds of miles from home to escape the effects of a heist gone wrong. A delight — and a delightful femme fatale — that’ll keep you guessing (and turning pages).
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Steig Larsson
Judge me all you want: this book is totally gripping. Don’t lie: you love it too.