As we work our way through the Decades Reading Challenge, this one is extra special to The Book Girls, because both of us were born in 1980.
You can read all about the challenge, download your free printable reading tracker, and find book lists for other decades here.
As always, we welcome you to choose any book you like that is set in the decade, but to help you get started, we’ve compiled a great list of books about the Eighties, including both humorous and poignant examinations of the decade. Our recommendations include historical fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, and books published in the 1980s.
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 first into offices, and then homes. Technology also had a major impact on culture during the 80s, bring about music videos, cable television networks, blockbuster movies, portable camcorders, and video games.
Major Events of the 1980s
Before recommending books from each decade, we like to provide historical context with an overview of the major events of the time, but if you’d prefer, feel free to scroll straight to our book list.
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, with some ash reaching the cities in the US by day two.
The popular video game “Pac-Man” was released in 1980. Video game technology continued to develop throughout the decade, leading up tot he 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 he 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 the AIDS in the United States in 1981. 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 is launched in 1981 and introduces 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 to the US.
In 1984, the UK agreed to transfer power of Hong Kong back to China at a later date (the actual handover of Hong Kong did not take place until 1997).
The Coca-Cola Company – in what is now considered one of the worst marketing moves in history – introduced “New Coke” in 1985, before returning to the original formula just months later.
In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in Ukraine (formerly part of the USSR), creating what is widely considered the worst nuclear disaster in history.
During a 1986 launched 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 as 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 free press in China. Chinese troops attempted to break up the protests by firing live rounds into the crowd, killing an estimated hundreds to thousands of protesters.
Books set in the 1980s
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by Molly Prentiss Setting: 1980, New York City First published 2016
SoHo in the Eighties was gritty and not yet gentrified, and it was the where artists and writers flocked to as they attempted to make their mark in the New York City art scene. This novel follows an art critic and a painter, struck by dual tragedies, who are brought together by determined young woman from small town Idaho.
Described as emotionally satisfying with very smart writing, this novel captures the hip and powerful 1980s art scene in NYC.
by John Berendt Setting: 1980s, Savannah, Georgia First published 1994
In the early morning hours of May 2, 1981, shots rang out in a grand Savannah mansion. For the next decade, the question has haunted the city's moss-hung oaks and shaded squares - was it murder or self-defense? This is a work of non-fiction about a landmark murder case that reads like a spellbinding novel.
by David Mitchell Setting: 1982, Worcestershire, England First published 2006
This coming-of-age novel tracks one year in the life of a 13-year-old boy in a sleepy village in Cold War England. Each of the chapters represents one month from January of 1982 to January of 1983, and while each reads like a short story, together they paint a portrait of this stuttering young poet as he experiences many of the firsts of growing up.
by Tayari Jones Setting: Atlanta, 1980s First published 2002
This is the coming-of-age story of three Black children set against the backdrop of the Atlanta Child Murders, a string a horrific murders of 29 African American children in the early 1980s. Told from the perspective of three fifth-grade classmates, this novel explores the fear in the community along side the day-to-day struggles of children on the verge of adolescence.
The Book Girls Say... This was the debut book for now award-winning author Tayari Jones (who wrote An American Marriage). Jones also wrote Silver Sparrow, another novel set in the 1980s that we also recommend!
by Enjeela Ahmadi-Miller Setting: early 1980s, Afghanistan First published 2019
Before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, it was a peaceful place filled with people from all walks of life. After Enjeela's mother leaves for medical treatment in India, political unrest intensifies and as Soviet tanks roll in, it becomes clear to Enjeela's family that her mother won't be coming home. This powerful memoir traces the terrifying five-year journey that Enjeela and her father and siblings embark upon to escape the brutalities of war in an effort to reunite their family.
by Susan Choi Setting: early 1980s, Southern suburbs First published 2019
It's the early 1980s in a suburb in the southern US, and students at one highly competitive performing arts high school are engrossed in music, movement, and acting. When two freshmen, David and Sarah, fall in love, their passion does not go unnoticed—or untoyed with—by anyone, especially not by their charismatic acting teacher, Mr. Kingsley.
The outside world of family life and economic status, of academic pressure and of their future adult lives, fails to penetrate this school’s walls—until it does, in a shocking spiral of events that catapults the action forward in time and flips the premise upside-down. What the reader believes to have happened to David and Sarah and their friends is not entirely true—though it’s not false, either.
The Book Girls Say... This book gets very mixed reviews, but it won the National Book Award for Fiction and the premise intrigues us, so we're looking forward to reading and updating you with our thoughts after we do!
by Margarita Montimore Setting: 1980s thru 2010s First published 2020
The night before Oona's 19th birthday, on New Years' Eve 1982, she's struggling with a big decision. Should she go all-inn on her commitment to her band and boyfriend, or follow-through with a long-time plan to study economics in London with her best friend?
Before she can go down either path, she wakes up on New Year's Day, in the year 2014. Instead of being 19, she's suddenly 51. She continues to live her life out of order, traveling backward or forward each New Year, but never knowing what age she'll be when she wakes up.
The Book Girls Say... Melissa enjoyed this original book, especially once she stopped focusing on the logistics of the time leaping and stopped questioning how it worked others in her life. Melissa especially enjoyed the way the novel highlights the differences between daily life in the 80s, 90s, 2000s, + 2010s. Oona's love of music continues throughout her leaps and it's fun to see how she reacts to what is popular each year. This one is a great choice as an audiobook!
by George Orwell Setting: 1984, London First published 1949
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 they were in 1984.
by Rebecca Makkai Setting: Chicago, 1985; Paris, 2015 First published 2018
In 1985, Yale is the director of a Chicago art gallery on the verge of a career breakthrough, yet all around him the growing AIDS epidemic is stealing his friends, including Nico. In Paris thirteen years later, Nico's younger sister is finally coming to terms with the devastating way AIDS affect her life all those years before.
by Rainbow Rowell Setting: 1986, Omaha First published 2012
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 they way you only can the first time.
The Book Girls Say... This is a YA novel that will transport you back in time to what it was like to be a teenager falling in love for the first time.
by Andrew Morton Setting: 1980s, England First published 1992, republished in 2017
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, and with the full cooperation and support of her family and friends, who also speak freely in this tel-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 that he and the late Princess made to reveal even more insights into her extraordinary life.
by Bill Byron Setting: 1980s, Middle America First published 1989
Humor travel writer Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, but spent ten years living abroad in England. Upon returning to the land of his youth in the 1980s, he found an America that he didn't recognize. Traveling through 38 of the lower states in the Eighties looking for the perfect small town (and instead finding lookalike strip malls) Bill felt like a stranger in his own land.
The Book Girls Say... Bill Bryson is one of Angela's favorite authors because his dry wit and honesty is always laugh out loud funny!
by Carter Sickels Setting: 1986, NYC and Appalachia First published 1980
Eighteen-year-old Brian, like so many other young gay men, 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 the epidemic into every American living room. It's also the year that Brian returns home to small-town Appalachia to die.
by Tom Wolfe Setting: 1980s, New York City First published 1987
Sherman McCoy is a millionaire Wall Street trader and self proclaimed "Master of the Universe." When his Mercedes, driven by his mistress, hits and fatally injures a young Black man in the Bronx, Sherman stands to lose his wealth and his power. The stories of three other men, also overcome by ambition and vanity - a media-obsessed district attorney, a power-hungry pastor, and an alcoholic tabloid journalist.
Written in 1987, this is widely considered one of the quintessential 80's novels. Using social satire, this novel paints a portrait of 1980s New York fraught with racial and class tensions.
The Book Girls Say... We can probably all agree that the book is always better than the movie, but in this case the film has actually been included on a list of the 10 worst films created from some of the best literature. So if you see this movie title pop up on one of your streaming services, skip it and stick to the book!
By Carol Rifka Brunt Setting: 1987, New York First published 2012
Fourteen-year-old June had a very close relationship with her uncle Finn, and is devastated when he dies 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.
by Rachel Joyce Setting: 1988, England First published 2017
Set in 1988, this romance follows Frank, who loves connecting his music shop customers with the perfect record. While he thrives communicating and understanding others through music, he doesn't do well with relationships outside his passion.
When Ilse enters his shop, she's coming in with her own emotional baggage. They struggle to overcome their individual pasts as their relationship evolves, and find out if music really can heal.
by Bryan Stevenson Setting: 1980s to present First published 2014
Bryan Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative in the late 1980s, and in Just Mercy he shares the powerful true story about his own experience as a young lawyer. One of his first cases was that of Water McMillian. McMillian was wrongly accused in the 1987 murder of an 18-year-old while woman in Alabama, and was convicted after a trail that only lasted a day and a half, and was sentenced to die. Stevenson took McMillian's case the following year, and worked tirelessly to try to save his life.
by Amy Tan Setting: 1949 and 1989, China and San Francisco First published 1989
This is the story of four mothers and four daughters. The mothers immigrated from China to San Francisco in 1949 and meet weekly to play mahjong and tell stories of the lives they left behind. Forty years later, their daughters - who have never heard the stories - think their mothers' advice is not relevant to their modern American lives. But they'll discover how much of their mothers' pasts they have inherited.
by Quan Barry Setting: 1989, Massachusetts First published 2020
Dense with late-1980s iconography and pop culture references, this novel follows the a 1989 girls' high school field hockey team. Set in Danvers, Massachusetts (which in 1692 was the known as Salem Village, the site of the Salem Witch Trials), the team is desperate for a winning season. The teammates - including captain Abby Putnam, a descendant of the infamous Salem accuser Ann Putnam - discover that giving in to their dark impulses (like those of their Salem forebears) may be their key to field hockey success.
The Book Girls Say... Angela was very excited to read this book, and loved all of the hilarious 1980s references (especially one girls bleach blonde "Claw" that is used as an all-seeing, all-knowing character in the book), but ultimately she just didn't love the story. However, based on the reviews, she is very much in the minority, so we think this book is worth your consideration. It will definitely transport you back to the 1980s in vivid detail!
by Robert Dugoni Setting: 1960s and 1989, California First published 2018
Born with ocular albinism, Sam Hill's red eyes cause him problems from the moment that he enrolled at Our Lady of Mercy. Labeled "Hell Boy," he is bullied by not only his classmates, but also by the nun who is principal at the elementary school. Eventually Sam finds the friend he desperately needs in Ernie Cantwell, the only African American boy in his class, and years later in a fiercely individual girl named Mickie.
Years later, Sam is a respected ophthalmologist still moving through life with Ernie and Mickie by his side, but his world is about to be upturned when he's unexpectedly reunited with the biggest school-yard bully from his past.
The Book Girls Say... This has been one of Angela's favorite reads of the past year! The writing feels effortless, but the complex character development will pull you in and stick with you long past the last page. We highly recommend the audiobook which is narrated by the author himself!
by Ernest Cline Setting: 2044 (but the 1980s are the real star) First published 2011
This is a somewhat unusual choice, because this novel is actually set in the year 2044, but teenager Wade Watts spends his time in a virtual utopia known as OASIS solving puzzles that are based on the creator's obsession with the pop culture references of past decades. Falling into the sci-fi / dystopian genre, this book is heavy on 1980s pop culture and video game nostalgia.
by Candace Bushnell Setting: 1980s, Connecticut First published 2010
Fans of Sex and the City will enjoy this YA novel (the first in a series) that takes us back to Carrie Bradshaw's senior year of high school where she just a regular girl growing up int he 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. Goodreads declares, "Rabid fans of Sex and the City will love seeing Carrie Bradshaw evolve from a regular girl into a sharp, insightful writer."
The Book Girls Say... The Carrie Diaries series is written by the same author that whose first book, Sex and the City, was the basis for the HBO hit series.
by Kevin Jakubowski Setting: 1980s First published 2013
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 NES. In a look back at the kid pop culture of the 1980s, this quest of Super Mario proportions is complete with flaming wreaths, speeding mini vans, lost retainers, and Cabbage Patch Kids.
The Book Girls Say... If you're a child of the 80's who grew up watching A Christmas Story, we think you'll be entertained by this retelling set in the decade of your youth and told from a nostalgic adult perspective!
I have recommended :"Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" so many times to friends!! It is so interesting because it is based on real people and events in Savannah. That is an interesting culture!! ... and Bill Bryson is one of our favorite authors, and we think this may be his best book. I am excited to read some of the others on the list! Thank you!!
THE BOOK GIRLS
The Book Girls’ Guide – a resource for all things books – is a collaboration between two friends, Angela & Melissa (the Book Girls), who want to share their love of reading with the world.
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