I want a book I can't put down
June 21, 2020 11:06 AM   Subscribe

In the past few years, I've found it harder to concentrate on reading for pleasure- I keep making it only halfway through books. But I miss my voracious reading days! So I need a recommendation for a book that's so engaging that I'll actually look forward to picking it back up.

A few books that I've found really engaging in the past year or two:
*In the Dream House- Carmen Maria Machado
*Exhalation- Ted Chiang
*Fifteen Dogs- Andre Alexis
*The Dog Stars- Peter Heller
*The Power- Naomi Alderman

In contrast, I've been slogging through It by Stephen King and even though I normally love SK, it's too slow and dense for me right now.

I like clever books, especially science fiction and dystopian/postapocalyptic fiction, and memoirs. I don't think I can do something really dense right now.
posted by quiet coyote to Media & Arts (44 answers total) 126 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: ooh I recently really couldn't put down "Your House will Pay" by Steph Cha, even though it's not any of my (or your) usual genres.

IT is such a slog! I couldn't finish it so I switched to an audiobook and then couldn't even finish it that way! My most engaging SK read was "The Eyes of the Dragon" which is fantasy, but is great.
posted by euphoria066 at 11:15 AM on June 21, 2020

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
Vanity Fair by Thackeray
posted by sallybrown at 11:16 AM on June 21, 2020 [8 favorites]

The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber
The Martian, Andy Weir
Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (you don't need to read the other two in the series to enjoy this first book)
The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker
posted by cocoagirl at 11:18 AM on June 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, which took me a little while to get into (20 pages?) and then I devoured it. Passing Strange by Ellen Klages, also short and absorbing. For something longer, Ami McKay's The Witches of New York, and its little spinoff, Half Spent Was the Night.
posted by ferret branca at 11:20 AM on June 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

I like themed/connected short story collections when my attention span is limited:

What is Not Yours is Not Yours, Helen Oyeyemi
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
This is Not Your City, Caitlin Horrocks
posted by momus_window at 11:23 AM on June 21, 2020

Milkman, Anna Burns. Takes a little while to shift into the narrator's 'voice' but wow, what an interesting read because of it.

Also, The Best American Series can often jump-start my attention span and help me shift gears, genre-wise. Lately I've liked the NonRequired Reading, Short Stories, and Sci-Fi/Fantasy volumes.
posted by cocoagirl at 11:39 AM on June 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

Fortune's Pawn - Rachel Bach (space opera)
Charles Stross, Laundry Files (my junkfood dystopian British sci-fi)

Platinum Pohl: The Collected Best Stories - by Frederik Pohl (reminds me a lot of Ted Chiang if he was writing in the 50s)

Hugh Howey, Wool (dystopian sci-fi)
This is likey the densest of the recommendations as it reads like short stories but it's also a quick read through each one as they were originally short novellas.
posted by typecloud at 11:45 AM on June 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

In terms of fantasy, consider:
Gail Carriage - Parasol Protectorate
Lois McMaster Bujold - Curse of Chalion series (more dense)
posted by typecloud at 11:55 AM on June 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

A second for the Laundry Files by Charles Stross. Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series is also an engaging romp and who doesn't like a little London history with their fantasy?
posted by Arctostaphylos at 12:04 PM on June 21, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: The Murderbot books are very fast reading and easy to devour, and I found Becky Chambers' The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet to go by in a blur as well.

If fantasy works for you at all, I always go back to Terry Pratchett when I want a potato chip book (can't "eat" just one).
posted by DingoMutt at 12:09 PM on June 21, 2020 [10 favorites]

MURDERBOT! She has written several novellas and just came out with a full-length novel. I'd start with the novellas as there is good context for the novel. Also suggest Wool for this reason. If you like historcal-ish stuff The Future of Another Timeline is quite good.
posted by jessamyn at 12:11 PM on June 21, 2020 [9 favorites]

Thirding Murderbot! I recently stayed up till 2 AM for the first time at least five years to finish the last entry in the series. Before those, my last unputdownable was The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher.
posted by pepper bird at 12:39 PM on June 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

FWIW I can't follow narrative fiction right now (pandemic stress? menopause? auto-immune bullshit? WHO KNOWS!) and after a lifetime of sneering snobbery, Audible and Libby have been a joy to me.

I have enjoyed the Rotherweird trilogy and The Fall of the Gaslit Empire.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:50 PM on June 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

cocoagirl: Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (you don't need to read the other two in the series to enjoy this first book)

For can't-put-down engaging, I'd recommend her Provenance.
Also, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North.
posted by capricorn at 12:52 PM on June 21, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding Long way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (and her other 2 books) and Station Eleven by Emily st John Mandel.

Others I could not put down recently are:

-Glass hotel, also by Emily St John Mandel. I would highly recommend her books to you because they are both very clever and very engaging/easy reads ! Station eleven is dystopian, so it may be the one to start with.

-The Goldfinch or a Little Friend by Donna Tartt

-For memoirs, Educated by Tara Westover or From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle

-If fantasy is something you enjoy, I devoured Robin Hobb's Rainwilders and Assassin's series. Nighteyes forever <3

- If you enjoy short stories, I strongly recommend the Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by the Vandermeers. I love that it includes older works (so there are some classic sci fi stories in there) and isn't focused only on American authors. The stories really range in form and content and there are some total gems. Also, if you find one a slog, you can skip it!

Happy reading!
posted by DTMFA at 1:18 PM on June 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

Because of a recommendation on Meta Filter, I just read The Trauma Cleaner. It's non fiction, but a light, readable style of the I-cant-put-it-down kind.

I'm nthing Murderbot.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 1:37 PM on June 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've been reading the Tiffany Aching books from the Discworld series. I am notoriously hard to please fiction-wise and have left a trail of unfinished books in my wake. I've finished the first two so far and have started on the third.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 2:01 PM on June 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

An alternate suggestion - finding a book club! I was like you, and then I found a book club with people I really dug, and the monthly deadline keeps me motivated to at least finish that book each month. That's helped me get back on the horse.

But to also suggest some books we've read - we're a bit of a niche group that focuses on post-apocalyptic fiction, and this year we've been focusing on "funny" examples of that genre. Jam is a recent entry that is just ridiculous enough that you may get into it - imagine Shaun Of The Dead, only instead of zombies, the thing that's overrun the world is an enormous blob of carnivorous strawberry jam.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:06 PM on June 21, 2020

I really loved Vox which has a similar premise to Handmaiden's Tale. It was so, so good, but I was pulled back and forth between not being able to put it down, and wanting to throw the book across the room in a fit of rage. I highly recommend!
posted by hasna at 2:24 PM on June 21, 2020

The Sunlight Dialogues and Mickelsson's Ghosts by John Gardner.
posted by vrakatar at 2:32 PM on June 21, 2020

My unputdownable book is Syrup by Max Barry. It's his first book, light and funny and also a brilliant page-turner where there's an incredible compulsion to get to the next section. I read this surreptitiously through several university lectures as I could not put it down.
posted by bent back tulips at 2:34 PM on June 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Have you read Tara Westover's Educated? Ticks your memoir box, and while it can be a lot to absorb, I found it absolutely compelling.
posted by xenization at 3:12 PM on June 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give. I borrowed by daughter's copy and inhaled it in two days.
posted by libraryhead at 3:28 PM on June 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

I recommend Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I have the attention span of a flea these days, but I finished this in a couple of days.
posted by unicorn chaser at 4:26 PM on June 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

I think The Expanse may be a good series for you.
posted by tip120 at 5:56 PM on June 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Seconding The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. When the pandemic was declared and my province first went into self isolation, I couldn’t finish any books I started. The Glass Hotel was the first book that I was able to read all the way through—couldn’t put it down, actually. Beautiful writing and very compelling. I also enjoyed Station Eleven, her previous novel, when I read it a few years ago.

Since you liked Fifteen Dogs, I’ll recommend Alexis’ The Keys.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:08 PM on June 21, 2020

Recent unputdownable favorites:
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling
Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles
Circe by Madeleine Miller
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
posted by basalganglia at 6:11 PM on June 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin. Erm, I guess I would call it pre-post-apocalyptic science fantasy.
posted by eirias at 6:57 PM on June 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Something about a murder mystery / noir sci fi really scratches this itch for me, so:
- After Atlas by Emma Newman; the whole series is good and very unputdownable but this is the most near-future-dystopia of the set.
- Head On by Scalzi; great premise, fast paced, the sequels are good too.
- The City and The City, China Mieville; Dystopian social commentary built around a noir murder mystery
- Provenance, Anne Leckie; mentioned above, a mystery where someone steals (or do they?) a historical artifact in a society where historical artifacts are everything. I love Anne Leckie’s worlds, they remind me that sci-fi / fantasy worldbuilding doesn’t have to recycle the same stale ideas over and over.

And I’ll add to the chorus recommending Murderbot. The main character is so charming and relatable I got emotionally invested in like 3 pages. They’re short and very plotty and I would read a hundred more of them.
posted by 100kb at 7:24 PM on June 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

Agreeing with Station Eleven recommendations. Adding:

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdich
The Changeling by Victor LaValle
The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood (recent, timely, and I'm assuming you've read Handmaid's Tale)
Slade House by David Mitchell
posted by gladly at 7:51 PM on June 21, 2020

Station Eleven by Emily Mandel is right up your alley.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:10 PM on June 21, 2020

If you are okay with mysteries that are reasonably well written but not High Literature, I recently read Perfect Little Children by Sophie Hannah and had a hard time tearing myself away from it. It was the kind of book with a bizarre premise that makes you go “How is that possible?? I must find out what is going on.”

Plot: Beth sees her former best friend Flora, from whom she has been estranged for 12 years, with her two very young children Thomas and Emily. Flora has aged 12 years but neither Thomas nor Emily seems to have aged at all. Beth is determined to figure out what is going on.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:34 PM on June 21, 2020

Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari
Educated, by Tara Westover
Midnight in Chernobyl, by Adam Higginbotham
No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, by Rachel Snyder
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, by Michelle Alexander.
My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante.
To name a few.
posted by storebought at 1:59 AM on June 22, 2020

I’ve also found myself on a dystopian fiction run lately. Some in that vein that I’ve found hard to put down:

Followers by Megan Angelo
Underground Airlines by Ben Winter
The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver
posted by fso at 4:41 AM on June 22, 2020

(Just to add that Sophie Hannah's Perfect Little Children looks to be called Haven't They Grown in the UK.)

For clever and engaging, and also often quite dark though not actually dystopian, I'd turn to KJ Parker. Fantasy novels in a setting inspired by the classical world, with dangerously clever protagonists. Best not to get too attached to anyone. Try one of the standalone novels - The Company, say, or Sharps - or a novella, perhaps The Devil You Know. There's something about the authorial voice in these that I find downright addictive.

Something else that comes to mind is The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein, which I don't really want to tell you anything more about, because so much joy can be found in putting the pieces together as the plot unfolds (seriously, try to avoid spoilers). Ongoing series, with four volumes so far.

Another series I find hard to put down is Mary Robinette Kowal's Lady Astronaut series: two novels so far (plus a novelette and what I've just learned is a whole slew of short stories), with a third due out next month. The first novel, The Calculating Stars, diverges from our timeline right at the start, when a meteor hits North America in the 1950s, drastically changing the urgency of the space race. The story unfolds from there. Here's a review of The Calculating Stars; and on tor.com you'll also find the whole of the novelette, The Lady Astronaut of Mars, which was written first but is set chronologically a good deal later.

I'll second the recommendations of Emma Newman's Planetfall books and Martha Wells' Murderbot, too; those are definitely books to devour.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 8:12 AM on June 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Heavens by Sandra Newman is a fun little time-travel/alt-history/love story amalgam that I raced through in a couple of days last summer.
posted by eponym at 8:29 AM on June 22, 2020

Definitely both The Martian and Artemis by Andy Weir if you haven’t read them. They both get to a point where my husband and I essentially said to each other, “Hey can you not talk to me right now? I can’t stop reading this.”

If you haven’t read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, you’re in for a treat. I’d start with The Warrior’s Apprentice for a good intro that’s hard to put down. If you’re interested in fantasy, her Sharing Knife series can be read as post-post-post apocalyptic.

A lot of Connie Willis’ novellas are funny and clever and hard to put down. I particularly love Uncharted Territory.

Nthing Murderbot, Becky Chambers, Ann Leckie, John Scalzi, and Gail Carriger.
posted by bananacabana at 9:31 AM on June 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Wolf Hall came up on my E-lending app, and although it's not my usual cup of tea I kept on coming back to it. It's from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII. I have a lot of theoretical reasons NOT to enjoy reading it - I don't like the idea of being obsessed with royalty or the upper class, I don't really care about the fictional/distorted/bullshit "march of Western Civilization", but it kept tickling my brain. It can be hard to know what is going on from a strict plot point of view, especially if you are anything like me and don't really follow history. The one sentence reading guide is: If the book says that "he" is doing something it's probably the main character. All the characters are both fleshed out and still a little mysterious. The book doesn't give much interiority to the main character, so it's up to you to fill in the blanks. The prose is top tier for sure.
posted by Dmenet at 12:05 PM on June 22, 2020

The Boys in the Boat!
posted by yawper at 3:03 PM on June 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Yes! to the Murderbot Diaries.

I'm also a big fan of Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim series. Magic Death Metal reject who's just trying to get by and learns to have a little fun along the way. While suffering horribly.

Snappy, snarky, fast paced cotton candy. Always in some kind of precarity.
posted by porpoise at 12:24 AM on June 24, 2020

I will always recommend Ken Follett's Kingsbridge series as "unputdownable". Seems there's a fourth novel coming out in September as well, which is nice.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:56 PM on June 25, 2020

Ctrl-f Murderbot...I love you people!
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 4:27 PM on June 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These are all great suggestions and include a bunch of books I’ve read and not been able to put down. But I ended up buying and reading Your House Will Pay, Murderbot/All Systems Red, and The Glass Hotel. I think The Glass Hotel is my favorite, which is unsurprising because I adored Station Eleven when I read it. Thanks all!
posted by quiet coyote at 9:12 PM on July 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

I know it’s been ages since this question was posted, but I just finished Piranesi by Susannah Clarke, and thought I’d add it to the recommendations. It’s really best if you know nothing about it at all before you start.

I thought it was beautifully written, surprising, and compelling. The beginning is odd, alienating and confusing, but if you stick with it, it soon becomes clear what’s going on. It’s fairly short, and I read it very quickly because it was hard to put down. In many ways it’s a mystery story, and it is solved satisfactorily (though not necessarily tidily) at the end. On the other hand, it can also be read as an allegory. I loved it.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:11 PM on May 11, 2021

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