In my experience, starting a new book is kind of like going on a first date — and sometimes, it’s vastly more satisfying. With some books (or dates), you know immediately that they’re just not for you. You don't connect with the dialogue, you’ve heard some variation of the plot a dozen times before, and even though you know you shouldn’t judge a book by its — well, you know — the cover is just all wrong. Definitely not a keeper. Other books take a little while to warm up to. OK, the back flap summary isn’t really doing it for you, but about 50 pages in, you’re pretty convinced that you and this book will end up being good friends. So you make a little room for it in a corner of your shelf.
Then there are the rare, elusive, totally spellbinding books that grab you from the very first page and pull you into their world completely. It’s a total “You had me at hello” moment. We all love stumbling across books like these. Just like perfect first dates, they’re uncommon, but they’re out there.
Get ready to toss out all those fabulous plans you had this weekend in favor of curling up under the covers with one of these gems. Here are 12 books that will hook you immediately — some even from the very first sentence.
1. Zinky Boys By Svetlana Alexievich
There’s a reason the Nobel committee just threw tradition right out the window by giving the Nobel Prize for Literature not just to a woman, but to a female writer of nonfiction. “I never want to write another word about the war,” Svetlana Alexievich tells readers at the beginning of Zinky Boys. So of course that’s exactly what she ends up doing. Alexievich felt her story about the war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan was too important to pass up — and from the first page, you will, too.
2. Everything I Never Told You By Celeste Ng
Lydia Lee is the favorite child of her parents, Marilyn and James. She is beautiful, popular, and destined for great success. Unfortunately, she’s also dead. Her family just doesn’t know it yet. So begins Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, the 2015 ALA Alex Award winner about family secrets, concealed identities, and a tragedy that will either save the Lee family from each itself or destroy their lives forever.
3. Tell the Wolves I'm Home By Carol Rifka Brunt
June Elbus is 14 years old and seems to have only one friend in the world: her uncle Finn Weiss. So naturally, when Finn dies under mysterious circumstances, June’s young world is turned upside down. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is filled with loss, mystery, intrigue, and discovery. It unfolds the way all great can’t-put-‘em-down novels do: with expansive emotion, surprising twists and turns, and unyielding hope.
4. In Cold Blood By Truman Capote
From his lonesome imagery of the high wheat plains of western Kansas to his haunting description of a family farm so isolated that four explosive gunshots in the middle of the night go undetected by the nearest neighbors, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a work of investigative journalism that you will not be able to put down, from first page to last.
5. An Untamed State By Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay is one of the few contemporary writers who can begin her novel with the words: “Once upon a time, in a far-off land” and totally succeed. An Untamed State begins with the intensity already so heightened that you can feel her words moving around inside you, and she just keeps turning the dial up. “I was kidnapped,” her first sentence continues, “by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.” Wow.
6. The Last American Man By Elizabeth Gilbert
The Last American Man, an early work of nonfiction by the irresistible Elizabeth Gilbert, begins with the line: “By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree.” OK, yeesh … But now you definitely have to read more, don’t you?
7. The Goldfinch By Donna Tartt
So apparently, this novel has become notorious for being left unfinished towards the end, and I suppose I can see why. The Goldfinch begins explosively enough — teenage Theo Decker witnesses his mother’s death in a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art before fleeing with one of the museum’s more valuable works of art. Then it takes a bit of a psychoanalytical turn that completely changes the tone of the novel. Fine. But you should probably give The Goldfinch the benefit of the doubt and just finish the thing.
8. The Bell Jar By Sylvia Plath
“It was a queer, sultry summer,” this novel begins, “the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” If you’ve read The Bell Jar before, you know how difficult it is to get through. Yet you keep reading, because the writing draws you back in, line by line by line. An intimate depiction of one woman, Esther Greenwood, and her decent into insanity, the writing is so intense that you might wonder if you’re going a little insane, too.
9. The Liars' Club By Mary Karr
“My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.” So begins The Liars’ Club, a memoir of Karr’s upbringing in an east Texas oil town, surrounded by her fierce, wild, substance-abusing family members, who are somehow both unbelievable and totally recognizable at the same time. With an opening line like that, how could you resist this one?
10. Hell's Angels By Hunter S. Thompson
From the blue jeans so unwashed that they’re greasy to the deafening cacophony of revving motorcycle engines, Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels grabs you from the very first image and pulls you into a setting you never thought you’d be a part of: the largest and most notorious biker gang in the world. “The Menace is loose again …” wrote Thompson, and indeed, his unparalleled storytelling has set that Menace — the unpredictable, road-worn, violent, and complexly human personalities of the Hell’s Angels — loose in your mind.
11. Girl at War By Sara Nović
Ana Jurić is 10 when the Yugoslavian war begins, transforming her once-carefree childhood into a landscape of violence, child soldiers, air raids, and escape plans. Fast-forward to Ana’s much-changed environment of her 20s — one in which nobody knows of the trauma of her past. Ana must journey across the world and into herself to revisit and resolve this trauma. You won’t be able to put Girl At War down until you learn what she discovers.
12. Please Look After Mom By Kyung-sook Shin
It’s been one week since 69-year-old So-nyo has gone missing, last seen by her husband in a Seoul subway station, where they were separated in the throngs of fast-paced commuters. As it turns out, her family — daughter, son, and husband — never really knew her at all. Told from four utterly disparate perspectives, Please Look After Mom will have you turning pages to find out not only what happens to So-nyo, but also how each of her family members, and she herself, understands it.