Slow-Burn Reads for a Lightning-Fast News Cycle
As a society, Americans are subject to a breakneck news cycle, in which a day feels like a year and events of last week feel like ancient history.
And so, in the spirit of saving our sanity, we thought it might be fun to recommend some books that offer the exact opposite experience: slow-burn reads. We're talking about a story with a late payoff—one that sneaks up on you or catches you by surprise. It doesn’t have to be a long book, or even a slow-paced book, but a plot that makes you wait before it ends with major action or a big reveal.
Here are a few of our staff members' favorites.
Olio by Tyehimba Jess was the ultimate gut-punch read for me, and it’s impossible to read quickly, due to Jess’ marvelously inventive use of text and page. Part poem, part historical fact, part fiction, and all dedicated to exploring the lives of African-American artists and performers between the Civil War and WWI. Many pages reward being read three or four times, so that you feel you’ve fully registered all the stories he’s telling simultaneously—a rare pleasure, because many of the surprises of the book aren’t evident on the first pass. —Stephanie Anderson, Selection Team
The ice hockey team of Beartown is integral to the morale of this depressed community in the forests of Sweden, but when a moral quandary forces the residents to choose sides, that image is shaken. Although Backman occasionally veers into bumper-sticker-aphorism territory, he balances the narrative and the emotions of his characters perfectly. The first page tells all about what will happen, but it’s not until the very end that you learn everything about who’s involved and what’s transpired. —Jenny Baum, Jefferson Market
What about Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms? Army lieutenant Frederic Henry is serving in Italy during World War I, and he recounts his experiences in the war and his budding relationship with nurse Catherine Barkley. The book has been described as a love story, and a lot of the dialogue and situations throughout can be classified as “super drama” and “romance.” The last several pages of this book, however, will stun you, surprise you, even infuriate or upset you to the point of throwing the book out of a window. (In case you haven’t read it, I won’t ruin it by telling you anything about the end . . . but know that Bradley Cooper’s response from Silver Linings Playbook can definitely be considered an appropriate one.) —Katrina Ortega, Hamilton Grange
I’m sure everyone knows this one already, but I think it fits the description perfectly: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. I read it after I had heard all the hype, and at first, I couldn’t understand why everyone was so excited about it. I had to force myself to get through the first chapter and I found the first half of the book kind of slow . . . and then, bam! It turned into the page-turner I thought it would be and I simply couldn’t put it down. —Leslie Bernstein, Mott Haven
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is a quiet novel that uses precise language to explore the depths of the human experience. An unexpected challenge to the protagonist’s contentment with his life forces Tony, and the reader, to reckon with what his memory and experience has been. —Jessica Cline, Mid-Manhattan
Skippy Dies is a darkly comic 600-page tome chock full of science, romance, and dirty jokes. While the action is centered around a death at a bucolic Irish boarding school for boys, it’s less of a page-turning whodunit and more of a thought-provoking “why’d it happen” and “what does it all mean?” —Nancy Aravecz, Jefferson Market
When you start The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig, you figure it’s your standard historical romance with a contemporary one sprinkled in as well. But as you read, you realize that it’s not just a fun, romantic twist on the Scarlet Pimpernel story but a tale filled with girl power, quirky characters, great dialogue, lots of action, and, yes, romance. I did not see the ending coming and all I wanted to do was read it again to see what I had missed. Bonus: It's the first in a great series that keeps the fun twists and romance going. —Anne Rouyer, Mulberry Street
If you prefer your secret histories without pink flowers, let me point you to Donna Tartt’s excellent debut novel, The Secret History. You’ll start off charmed by the New England liberal arts college setting and maybe even somewhat intrigued by the cast of colorful classics students that take West Coast-transplant Richard under their wing. Just when the novel feels like a warm, woolen blanket on a snowy Vermont night . . . MURDER IN THE WOODS! And things get weirder from there. —Brian Stokes, New Amsterdam
In Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, 12 year old Harriet delves into unforgiving world of adulthood as she investigates her brother’s murder. Lush, dark and moody prose culminates in a deeply satisfying and jarring conclusion. —Charlie Radin, Inwood
The Family Plot by Cherie Priest. This exquisite horror novel tricks you into a false sense of calm—until you are 200 pages in, it’s midnight, and you are terrified to turn off your bedroom light. If you love old homes, family stories, and things that go bump in the night, curl up with this novel. —Kate Fais, Bloomingdale
Have trouble reading standard print? Many of these titles are available in formats for patrons with print disabilities.
Staff picks are chosen by NYPL staff members and are not intended to be comprehensive lists. We'd love to hear your ideas too, so leave a comment and tell us what you’d recommend. And check out our Staff Picks browse tool for more recommendations!