Sure, you could take Anna Karenina to the beach, but with all those titillating distractions right in front of you, it can be hard to concentrate on the romantic intrigue on the page. The best time to immerse yourself in a timeless, endless novel is the winter, when days are short, firelight is cozy, and distractions are in short supply. Here are some big books worth skipping the slopes for.
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
A masterpiece of plotting, pacing, and, most memorably, structure, Mitchell’s expansive novel nests six stories within each other, so that you read the first half of the first, second, third, and so on, until you reach the sixth, which is presented in full then followed by the second half of the fifth through first story, in descending order. To make the feat more complicated, each story is written in a different genre (historical fiction, pulp, sci-fi), featuring different characters and set in different time periods, ranging from the 1800s to a post-industrial future. This Brechtian exercise of a book would feel like a stunt—wait, what happens to poor Adam Ewing from story #1? Are you seriously telling me I need to wait 500 pages to find out?—if it weren’t, well, amazing, with philosophical points to make about the power of storytelling across the ages and the chops to make them.
1Q84, by Haruki Murakami
Murakami made his name writing books that could be called “reality plus”: novels set in contemporary Japan, only with bonus features like talking cats and disappearing women. His best-selling phenomenon IQ84 begins when an assassin with a heart of gold stuck in a traffic jam decides to take a shortcut, even though she is warned that doing so might change her world. In the chaos that ensues, which includes cults, murders, disappearances, domestic violence, sensitive math teachers, talented orphans, ghostwritten books, and sinister “little people,” readers hope she reconnects with the love of her life, a man with whom she once, as a teenager, held hands. Think The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo meets Eleanor and Park, only under the light of two moons.
Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
Especially since this popular series of smart, historical romances by Gabaldon got successfully adapted for TV by Starz, Outlander has been called Game of Thrones for women. The book and its sequels do share some elements with George R. R. Martin’s gory fantasies: genre-bending adventure, strong female (and male) characters, frank treatment of sex, lots of plot twists, and an unsentimental take on a pre-Internet age. But they’re more interested in politics on a local scale than the fate of the Seven Kingdoms. Claire, a decisive and appealing British nurse, accidentally stumbles into 1700s Scotland and finds herself wed to feudal times: for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health. Luckily there are some unexpected companions to be found there, including a strapping, sensitive hunk named Jamie, to make it worth her while.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez
Colombian author García Márquez helped invent magic realism and modern classics with One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book begins with one of literature’s most memorable opening lines (“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice”) and only goes up from there. The novel functions as an emotional and metaphorical history of a country as represented by seven generations of the cursed Buendía family, which copes with ghosts, tragedy, and an intense feeling of déjà vu. It’s a fascinating and rewarding read.
The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan
The master of the mother-daughter relationship, Tan once again ventures into territory that is both familiar and strange with her longest work to date, sweeping 600-page novel The Valley of Amazement. The story begins in turn-of-the-century Shanghai with Violet, a locally famous, half-Chinese courtesan raised by a dissatisfied American mother. The mother, of course, has her own story to tell, one that includes secrets about Violet’s father and how love led her across continents; later we hear from the family’s third generation as well, which returns us to San Francisco and a complicated but moving emotional payoff.
11/22/63, by Stephen King
King’s foray into 20th-century time travel poses the question, What if someone could avert the Kennedy assassination? Would he be obligated to, no matter the cost—to history, to himself? In this creepy yet lively and absorbing piece of literary fantasy, Jake, a teacher in small-town Maine, discovers he has the ability to change key events in the recent past. King manages the suspense as artfully as Hilary Mantel does in Wolf Hall; in his hands, history becomes malleable and somehow terrifying. From the moment Jake enters mid-century Texas—an era that feels lived-in and real, not frosted with nostalgia—you both root for him to succeed and dread what will happen if he does.
If you had to bring one book to a snowbound cabin, what would it be?