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Books Set in the 1980s

Whether you are participating in our Decades Reading Challenge or found this post searching for a book set in the 1980s, you’ll find a wide variety of titles and genres to choose from.

We’ve compiled a great list of books about the Eighties, including both humorous and poignant examinations of the decade spanning fiction, non-fiction, and memoirs. This book list is extra special to The Book Girls because we were both born in 1980.

The Eighties – Consumerism & Computers

After the revolutionary and progressive 60s and 70s, the 1980s in America marked a turn toward conservatism in social and political views. As hippies gave way to yuppies, the decade was largely defined by growing materialism and consumerism, big hair, and power bands.

The Eighties marked the start of the computer age, with the first personal computers being introduced into offices, and then homes. Technology also significantly impacted culture during the 80s, bringing about music videos, cable television networks, blockbuster movies, portable camcorders, and video games.

For additional historical context, check out the timeline of major world events included at the end of the post.

Highly Rated Books About the 1980s

Book Summary

Like so many other young gay men, eighteen-year-old Brian arrived in New York City with a bright future ahead of him. But within the first six years of the 1980s, as the AIDS epidemic took hold, Brian lost his partner, his friends, and his future.

Rock Hudson’s death in 1986 shifted the conversation on AIDS and finally brought news of the epidemic into every American living room. It’s also the year that Brian returns home to small-town Appalachia to die.

The Book Girls Say…

Melissa read this moving literary fiction in 2022 and appreciated that it zoomed into one family’s experience during the 1980s AIDS crisis. The characters are three-dimensional and realistic for the time and setting, which means that you may not always find them likable. However, you will feel the emotional push and pull of what it’s like when your children’s lives are not a mirror of your own.

For a different literary look at AIDS in the 1980s, try The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. It shows the experiences of a group of friends in Chicago in the 1980s. The book also has a split timeline following the main character’s sister in 2015 Paris as she hunts for her daughter, who she believes is in a cult.

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The 22 Best Books of 2022

Book Summary

In the summer of 1985, rising 7th-grader Bee spends her evenings chasing fireflies around her cul-de-sac with the neighborhood kids, including Max from across the street. Her only conflict is with her younger sister, Audrina, whose dazzling personality gets all the attention.

However, everything changes when Max’s little sister, Sally, goes missing at the lake. Not only is Bee’s illusion of security shattered, the neighbors in the community all become suspicious and protective. The strain is also felt inside their home, and is amplified when a shameful secret emerges.

The Book Girls Say…

One of our favorite authors, Elin Hilderbrand said, “It’s a coming-of-age novel complicated by a tragic and untimely death, and it’s also a novel about two sisters you will never forget. I fell in love with the confidence of the writing and the colorful nostalgia of the mid-’80s details.”

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

95% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

The successful Riva siblings are always the envy of those around them in Malibu. Their father is legendary 70s singer Mick Riva, but each of the four siblings found success of their own in pursuits, like professional surfing and photography.

The book is set in 1983 at sister Nina’s famous end-of-summer beach house party. By midnight, the party is out of control. Before dawn, Nina’s mansion has been burned to the ground.

During this unforgettable night, each sibling has secrets revealed.

The Book Girls Say…

This novel made our 2021 Readers’ Favorites list! In the words of our readers, Malibu Rising is “descriptive and engaging with a strong storyline, great characters, and a lot of emotion.” Another reader explained, “I love when you know how a book ends, but you have no idea how you’ll get there. Great story of family. All of the 1980s references were wonderful!”

Both Book Girls also enjoyed this novel, though not quite as much as some of TJR’s other books, including Daisy Jones & The Six and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo! The audio version of the book is read by our favorite narrator, Julia Whelan.

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

95% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

Fourteen-year-old June had a very close relationship with her uncle, Finn, and was devastated when he died in 1987 from AIDS, which was then still a mysterious and seldom talked about illness.

June meets a stranger at Finn’s funeral – someone who is also struggling with the loss – and as the two get to know each other, their unexpected friendship may be what they each need to heal.

The Book Girls Say…

Our readers say this 2012 Goodreads Nominee for Best Fiction takes you back to the AIDS fears of the 80s and provides a great glimpse into the decade. That said, the book is more about the characters and relationships and has fewer details about the overall AIDS crisis.

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

90% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

In the early morning of May 2, 1981, shots rang out in a grand Savannah mansion. A question haunts the city’s moss-hung oaks and shaded squares for the next decade – was it murder or self-defense?

This is a work of non-fiction about a landmark murder case that reads like a spellbinding novel.

The Book Girls Say…

While many really enjoy reading about the colorful characters that populate this true story from Savannah’s history, some found certain characters unlikeable or hard to connect with. Others note that this non-fiction book is a bit slow to start.

After reading the book, you’ll also enjoy watching the highly-rated 1997 film adaptation, starring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack.

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

94% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

Set in 1988, this romance follows Frank, who loves connecting his music shop customers with the perfect record. While he thrives on communicating and understanding others through music, he doesn’t do well with relationships outside his passion.

When Ilse enters his shop, she comes in with her own emotional baggage. They struggle to overcome their individual pasts as their relationship evolves, and they try to discover whether music really can heal.

The Book Girls Say…

While this book has a thread of romance, it’s more of a slow, character-driven literary novel and not a rom-com or steamy page-turner. While reading, you’ll want to hear the music, and you’re in luck because Penguin Books has a playlist for The Music Shop on Spotify!

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Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

99% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

In 1989, Communist regimes were falling throughout Eastern Europe, but Romania was still under the control of a tyrant – Nicolae Ceaușescu. Seventeen-year-old Cristian wants to be a writer, but writing freely is not possible in his world.

When Cristian is forced to be an informer for the secret police, he must decide if he’s willing to betray those he loves or if he can somehow use the terrible situation to help take down Ceaușescu.

The Book Girls Say…

Ruta Sepetys has a gift for telling untold stories in compelling, relatable ways, and this book was no exception! It immediately earned a place on our list of our favorite books of 2022. While this novel is classified as YA, the characters and subject matter are very well-researched, making it very enjoyable for adult readers.

As children of the ’80s, we recall hearing references on the news to things like the “fall of Communism” and “the end of the Cold War.” But we were too young to understand what this meant, and we certainly couldn’t comprehend what the people in this region had been through. Reading this book opened our eyes to a completely different 1980s experience from that of our childhood memories living in the US.

We’ve had more than 100 of our readers rate this book across our Decades and Book Voyage Challenges, and it has been universally loved!

Book Summary

When Austin is barely a teenager, her mother dies during childbirth and she’s left caring for six siblings. Life on the family’s tobacco farm is tough, and Austin does everything she can to save face as she tries to hide how bad it really is at Noila Farms. However, the colorful citizens of Magnolia help ease the hardship with random acts of kindness.

When Austin begins building a relationship with Vance, the son of a wealthy farmer, her father reveals family secrets that lead to a public reckoning. 

The Book Girls Say…

Under the Magnolias was nominated for the Christy Award Nominee for General Fiction in 2022.

Book Summary

In this dual-timeline novel, you’ll meet country star Lillian on her farewell tour in 1980. The other half of the book looks back at Lillian’s childhood and rise to fame as readers learn why it was so important for her to end the tour in her hometown of Walla Walla.

Lillian left her farm in Washington State at age 10 and endured the Great Depression and WW2 before being a part of the rise of the Nashville country music scene. It wasn’t an easy road for her as she tried to make a career in a male-dominated world, and she was forced to make many hard choices along the way.

Now as she nears her final tour stop back in Washington State, Lillian must undergo a reckoning with the past that forces her to reconsider her entire life story.

The Book Girls Say…

Readers say this one starts slow and that the character isn’t overly likable, so some struggle with the first 2/3rd of the book. However, country music fans who don’t mind the slower pace really enjoy it. 

Book Summary

It’s 1987 and best friends Billy, Alf, and Clark are 14. When they learn that THE Vanna White they grew up watching on Wheel of Fortune is featured in Playboy, they become obsessed with finding a copy of the magazine. But they’re not old enough to just purchase it at the store, so they’re going to need an epic plan.

After several failed attempts, they come up with the perfect idea. Befriend Mary, the daughter of the local convenience store owner, so they can create an opportunity to steal the security code and access their holy grail.

But Mary isn’t your average teenage girl. Like Billy, she’s a computer coder, except she’s actually better than him. The more time Billy spends with Mary, the more he questions whether he should keep his loyalty to the plan with his friends or if he has found his first true love.

The Book Girls Say…

Book of the Month calls The Impossible Fortress “a love letter to the 80s”. Melissa’s husband already read this one and enjoyed it, rating it 4 stars.

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

James Witherspoon had two families – a public one and a secret one – with two teenage daughters caught in the middle.

Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, this novel tells the story of James’ two daughters meeting and becoming friends. Except only one of them knows they are sisters.

The Book Girls Say…

The writing in this novel is described as evocative and nuanced, with complex character development. Some complain, however, that the book ends a bit too quickly and without enough resolution. If you’re frustrated by books that leave loose ends and unanswered questions, this may not be the pick for you.

Jones also wrote Leaving Atlanta, another novel set in the early 1980s that we also recommend. Be aware that this novel deals with the difficult subject matter of the Atlanta Child Murders, a string of horrific murders of 29 African American children in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

This coming-of-age memoir opens in 1975 with the fall of Saigon when five-year-old Phuc Tran’s family immigrated to a small town in Pennsylvania. Most of the book, however, covers Phuc’s older childhood/teen years throughout the 1980s.

Part immigrant story and part coming-of-age tale, this book is described as a misfit’s memoir of great books, punk rock, and the fight to fit in. It is all of that and much more.

The Book Girls Say…

This memoir reads like a literary fiction novel as the author uses classic novels to connect to his own experiences growing up as the only Vietnamese-American student in his small town in the 1980s. He finds solace and self-discovery in literature and the subculture of the punk rock scene.

The audiobook of this memoir is narrated by the author himself, allowing you to hear his experiences in his own words and voice.

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

95% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

Sara was the head housekeeper at a posh London hotel in 1884. Based on her background, this is more than she ever expected and the highest station she could rise to in life. But then she meets American Theodore Camden. He is building the most luxurious residential building in New York, The Dakota, and invites her to come to manage the property. The job brings her to highs and lows she never could have expected.

Sara’s story is told in conjunction with a 1985 storyline of Bailey Camden, who is returning from rehab and gets the opportunity to start fresh with a job overseeing a renovation of an apartment in The Dakota.

The novel goes back and forth between these perspectives, weaving together a story of love, betrayal, and the quest for success within one of NYC’s most famous residences.

The Book Girls Say…

This book is perfect for fans of dual-timeline historical fiction novels. The Dakota is still standing, and it’s located at the corner of Central Park West and 72nd Street, directly across the street from Central Park. It was once home to John Lennon, who was murdered right outside the building gates in 1980, and it remains home to Yoko Ono. This building, dubbed New York’s most famous apartment building by Architectural Digest, has also been home to many other celebrities over the years.

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

This atmospheric, dual-timeline thriller, with a side of the paranormal, is a perfect pick for fans of the suspense and horror genres.

In 1982, 20-year-old Viv worked as a night clerk at the Sun Down Motel. She was hoping to save enough money for a move to NYC, but something isn’t right at the hotel, and she’s determined to find out what it is.

In 2017, 20-year-old Carly grew up hearing the story of her aunt Viv’s disappearance from the Sun Down Motel thirty-five years before. When she visits the motel, she soon finds herself entangled in the mystery of the haunted motel.

Book Summary

If you adored the Brat Pack films of the 80s, this pop culture non-fiction read includes interviews with the key players including Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Andrew McCarthy, and John Cusack.

Through the lenses of now-classic films like Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and The Breakfast Club, the author explores the cultural themes that shaped a generation’s vision for romance, friendship, society, and success. 

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

93% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

The boy is in a black t-shirt, hiding behind headphones and his book, trying to be invisible. The girl is new to town, with crazy red hair and mismatched clothes that make her stand out. Boy meets girl. Through late-night conversations and lots of mix-tapes, they fall in love the way you only can the first time.

The Book Girls Say…

This YA novel will transport you back in time to what it was like to be a teenager falling in love for the first time.

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

When it was first published in 1992, this book shocked the public, and forever changed the view of the British monarchy. Unlike many tabloid-style books written about the Royal family, this biography was written with intimate involvement from Princess Diana herself. It also had the full cooperation and support of her family and friends, who speak freely in this tell-all.

Via this book, Diana became the first senior royal to ever speak in such unfiltered terms about her relationship with the Queen, her unhappy marriage to Prince Charles, and her life in the House of Windsor. Twenty-five years later, biographer Andrew Morton revisited the secret tapes he and the late Princess made to reveal even more insights into her extraordinary life.

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

This story follows Wade Watts, a young gamer who becomes caught up in a high-stakes treasure hunt. 

The OASIS, a virtual universe, is the arena for fast-paced competition against rival gamers and the corporation trying to gain control over the OASIS. All along the way, the story features 1980s nostalgia.

The Book Girls Say…

Although it is set in the future, this sci-fi / dystopian book is a hit on our 1980s book list because it’s heavy on 1980s pop culture and video game nostalgia.

It’s excellent as an audiobook because it’s narrated by Wil Wheaton, who is famous for the 1980s classic movie Stand By Me and a role on Star Trek: The Next Generation. You’ll also recognize his voice from his work in The Big Bang Theory, Teen Titans Go!, and a variety of video game character voices.

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Book Summary

This short and humorous read is packed with all the 80s nostalgia you could ask for! It’s 1980-something, and all Jake wants for Christmas is a Nintendo Entertainment System. But somewhere in town, a tv falls on and kills a small dog, and all the parents in town blame the Nintendo.

In a look back at the kid pop culture of the 1980s, this quest of Super Mario proportions is complete with flaming wreaths, speeding minivans, lost retainers, and Cabbage Patch Kids.

The Book Girls Say…

If you’re a child or teen of the 80s who grew up watching A Christmas Story, we think you’ll be entertained by this retelling set in the decade of your youth. Or if were a parent in the 1980s who remembers the challenge of shopping for the elusive Cabbage Patch dolls, you’ll also enjoy the humor of this book.

This was a pretty unknown book – a bit of a random find – when we first added it to our list. So imagine our surprise when we saw in 2021 that it was released as a movie starring Neil Patrick Harris. We recommend reading the book this month and watching the movie when the holiday season rolls around! Both Book GIrls and our families really enjoyed it!

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

Written in 1949, this book painted a nightmarish vision of a 1984 future. Although it was written more than 70 years ago, George Orwell’s prophecies about the future are even more timely now than in 1984. We debated whether to include this book on the list since it was written about a fictional, future 1980s. But we think it serves as an interesting comparison for readers who experienced the 1980s firsthand. And it gives us a lot to think about in today’s society as well.

The Book Girls Say…

While 100% of our readers last year recommend reading this book, you should know going in that recommending it doesn’t mean it made their list of favorite books. The average rating was 3.5 out of 5. However, it’s a great time to pick it up if you’ve had it on your TBR list or our working through a list of classic literature.

Book Summary

Fans of Sex and the City may enjoy this YA novel (the first in a series) that takes us back to Carrie Bradshaw’s senior year of high school, where she was just a regular girl growing up in the suburbs of Connecticut. But as the end of high school draws near, and on the heels of a friend’s betrayal, Carrie will realize it’s time to go after what she really wants.

The Book Girls Say…

The Carrie Diaries series is written by the same author whose first book, Sex and the City, was the basis for the HBO hit series. Goodreads declares, “Rabid fans of Sex and the City will love seeing Carrie Bradshaw evolve from a regular girl into a sharp, insightful writer.”

You are welcome to choose any book that you’d like to read for the challenge, but we hope that this list of books has given you a good starting point.

Sign Up for the Decades Challenge

Sign up for our email list below to receive a free printable tracker for the Decades Challenge. Our weekly email newsletter helps you stay on track with friendly reminders while still allowing you the flexibility to read at your own pace. Additionally, challenge participants have an opportunity to discuss the books on this list and to provide ratings and reviews via our book logs.

Major World Events in the 1980s

We compiled this list of major events of the time period to provide some historical context for your reading. We hope you enjoy learning a bit more about this period in history.

  • The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State was the most destructive volcanic eruption in modern history. By the time the eruption stopped the following day, a large ash cloud had already spread across the central US.
  • The popular video game “Pac-Man” was released in 1980. Video game technology continued to develop throughout the decade, leading up to the release of the Nintendo Game Boy portable gaming system in 1989.
  • Hollywood actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan was elected president in the fall of 1980. Just 69 days after taking office, he was shot in an assassination attempt, but quickly recovered.
  • The US boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
  • In July of 1981, Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in a televised wedding seen by a global audience of 750 million people.
  • Scientists first identified AIDS in the United States in 1981. However, despite the rapidly increasing AIDS epidemic throughout the first half of the decade, the US government leaders were very slow to respond to the issue, and it was often dismissed as a “gay disease.”
  • The cable network MTV was launched in 1981 and introduced the VMAs (Video Music Awards) in 1984.
  • In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female Justice on the Supreme Court.
  • As technology boomed, “The Computer” was named Time Magazine’s 1982 Man of the Year, CD players were introduced in Japan, and Motorola released the first mobile phones in the US.
  • In 1984, the UK agreed to transfer the power of Hong Kong back to China at a later date (the actual handover of Hong Kong did not occur until 1997).
  • In what is now considered one of the worst marketing moves in history, the Coca-Cola Company introduced “New Coke” in 1985 before returning to the original formula just months later.
  • In 1986, the Chornobyl nuclear reactor exploded in Ukraine (formerly part of the USSR), creating a nuclear disaster.
  • During a 1986 launch watched on live television by school children all around the country, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all the astronauts aboard.
  • In 1987, construction began on the Channel Tunnel (the “Chunnel”) – the longest undersea tunnel in the world – which links England and France by train.
  • In 1988, George H.W. Bush, who had served as Vice President under Ronald Reagan, was elected President of the United States.
  • The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 symbolized the end of the Cold War.
  • The 1989 student-led protests in Tiananmen Square called for democracy, free speech, and a free press in China. Chinese troops attempted to break up the demonstrations by firing live rounds into the crowd, killing an estimated hundreds to thousands of protesters.

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Angela & Melissa

The Book Girls are best friends who jointly read over 200 books per year. We started Book Girls' Guide in 2019 to help others de-stress and find joy through the power of a great book. We do in-depth research on thousands of novels and non-fiction titles each year to provide curated book lists covering a variety of genres.

Jerri Patton

Wednesday 20th of July 2022

Of the six books that I've read, I think the two most important books are 'Just Mercy' which is also a great movie and of course '1984'. My book club read '1984' in '1984' .

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Looking for your next great read? Try one of the highly-rated titles from our curated book lists.