Whether you found this post searching for the best books set in the 1990s or you’re participating in our Decades Challenge, we hope you’ll find many books for your TBR list as you read our recommendations.
You can read about the challenge, download your free printable reading tracker, and find book lists for other decades here.
Our recommendations provide a look back at this decade and include some of the best books set in the 1990s. They examine everything from small-town life to British aristocracy and from pop culture to serious social issues.
Before recommending books set in the 90s, we like to provide historical context. But, feel free to scroll straight to our book list if you prefer.
Table of Contents
Major Events of the 1990s
The 1990s are primarily remembered as a decade of prosperity in the United States. The economy was growing quickly, the unemployment rate was low, and the US budget had a surplus for the first time in 30 years. But the Nineties also put a national spotlight on many issues that we are still grappling with today. This includes domestic terrorism, mass shootings, and climate change.
New technology in the 1990s, including the World Wide Web (limited to dial-up connections), led to a rise in multiculturalism and alternative media. Culturally, the decade was ushered in by a rise of grunge music, and all things alternative counterculture soon went mainstream. However, despite this move to the Alternative, “Must See TV” laugh-track sitcoms, like Friends, still ruled the airwaves.
In February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison in South Africa. In 1991, President F.W. de Klerk and Mandela began working together to end apartheid and establish a democratic government for South Africa. In 1993, the pair won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work. In 1994 Nelson Mandela became the President of South Africa.
Art thieves stole 13 works of art from the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston in March 1990. The museum continues to actively investigate the theft, working in partnership with the FBI and the US Attorney’s Office. A $10 million reward is offered for information leading directly to the recovery of the art.
The official demolition of the Berlin Wall began in June of 1990 and was completed two years later.
The Gulf War began in August of 1990. The combat phase, known as Operation Desert Storm, began on January 17, 1991. The war, in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, ended 43 days later on February 28, 1991.
The inventor of the World Wide Web published his formal proposal in 1990. By 1991, the Internet became available for unrestricted commercial use.
The Soviet Union took the first official steps to break up the U.S.S.R. in September 1991. By the end of 1991, the dissolution was effective, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested in July 1991 after the remains of 11 men and boys were found in his apartment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His murders spanned 1978 to 1991.
In 1992, violent riots broke out in Los Angeles after four white officers were acquitted in the beating black motorist Rodney King, despite the brutality being captured on video.
The European Union was created in 1992. The Euro began circulation as the official currency of the EU in 1999.
Bill Clinton was elected as the 42nd President of the United States in 1992 and reelected in 1996. However, following revelations about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, in late 1998, Clinton became only the second US president to be impeached. He was charged with lying under oath and obstruction of justice. Clinton was ultimately acquitted by the Senate and finished his second term in office.
The Real World premiered on MTV in 1992, launching the modern reality TV genre.
In 1993, the government raided the compound of a Christian cult, the Branch Davidians. The Waco Siege led to a 51-day standoff that ended in April when fires consumed the compound, leaving 75 people dead, including 25 children.
In 1994, Genocide and Civil War took place in Rwanda, with an estimated 500,000+ people killed.
Tonya Harding was stripped of her national figure skating championship title in 1994 because of her role in the attack on her rival, Nancy Kerrigan.
The Channel Tunnel (the “Chunnel”), an underwater train tunnel, was completed in 1994. It created the only fixed link between the United Kingdom and mainland Europe.
On the evening of Friday, June 17, 1994, 95 million people were glued to their TVs watching as O.J. Simpson led police on an hour-long, 60-mile “slow-speed chase” in his white Bronco down southern California’s freeways. In 1995, after a trial that lasted more than 8 months, Simpson was found not guilty of murdering his ex-wife and her friend. Two years later, he was found guilty in a civil trial.
The television show Friends premiered on NBC in September of 1994 and ran for ten seasons.
In April of 1995, two anti-government militants detonated a truck packed with explosives outside a federal building in Oklahoma City. 168 people, including children in daycare, were killed, and many more were injured. The Oklahoma City bombing was the deadliest domestic-based terrorist attack in US history.
A bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, killed two and injured more than 100.
For two decades, the “Unabomber,” Harvard graduate Ted Kaczynski, terrorized the country with a series of mail bombs before being arrested in 1996.
Princess Diana and Prince Charles got divorced in August 1996. A year later, Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris. Her funeral was watched by 1.5 billion people around the world.
Dolly the sheep, the first successfully cloned mammal, was unveiled by scientists at the Roslin Institute in Scotland in 1997.
On April 20, 1999, two students of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, opened fire on their teachers and classmates. Twelve students and a teacher before the gunmen took their own lives.
Throughout the end of the decade, Y2K anxiety grew as people feared that computer systems would shut down when the two-digit year changed from 99 to 00. Companies and governments spent millions in preparation, and ultimately, the new millennium dawned without incident.
As always, Decades Challenge participants are welcome to choose any book you like that is set in the decade. To help you get started, we’ve shared a great list of books about the Nineties below. You’ll find numerous books written in this decade, historical fiction covering several of the events listed above, memoirs, and even non-fiction options.
As an Amazon Associate and member of other affiliate programs, we may earn a referral fee from qualifying purchases.
by Bryan Stevenson Setting: Late 1980s and 1990s, Alabama First published 2014
As a young attorney in Montgomery, Alabama, Bryan Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law office dedicated to helping poor, incarcerated, and wrongly condemned defendants.
One of EJI's first clients was Walter McMillian, a young Black man who was wrongly convicted of and sentenced to death for the murder of a young white woman.
The Book Girls Say... We both have this non-fiction read high on our list, and we're considering the audio version since it's narrated by the author/attorney, Bryan Stevenson. There is also a movie based on the book that we highly recommend.
By Kai Harris Setting: Lansing, Michigan, 1995 First Published 2022
Kenyatta Bernice (KB) is almost 11 when her life is turned upside down. First, her father died of an overdose. Then, the debts caused by his addiction led to the loss of the family home. KB’s overwhelmed mother decides to send KB and her teen sister Nina to live with their estranged (and grumpy) grandfather in Lansing.
The book follows KB over that summer as she comes of age in a neighborhood that isn’t hers. In addition to typical adolescent experiences, she’s dealing with resentment, abandonment, and loneliness. However, she finds herself escaping to the outdoors and into her favorite book, Anne of Green Gables, to help her figure out how to put the pieces of life back together into a better version of herself.
The Books Girls Say…While this is adult fiction, some say it reads more like a YA novel. Others say it's perfect for fans of Jesmyn Ward.
by Nick Hornby Setting: 1993, London First published 1998
Will may be 36, but he's still cool - he's single, child-free, and goes to all the right clubs. He's also found a great new way to pick up women - he hangs out at single-parent events full of eager mothers hoping to meet a "nice guy."
Marcus is the oldest 12-year-old on the planet. He prefers Joni Mitchell and Mozart to 90s grunge music, he's never owned a pair of tennis shoes, and he takes the job of taking care of his mom seriously.
When Will meets Marcus' mom Fiona, Will and Marcus form an unlikely friendship. Can Will teach Marcus how to be cool? And can Marcus teach will how to grow up?
By Allison Larkin Setting: 1994, Little River, NY First Published 2021
April has a rough life, fending for herself in a motorless motorhome that her father won while playing poker. She works at a diner but dreams of being a songwriter. After flunking out of school and another fight with her dad, April sets off to find a better life for herself.
Along the way, she meets others with complex stories, which turn into the perfect inspiration for her songs. But even more important than that, she finds that family doesn’t have to mean the community you were born into. Instead, people you meet can become family.
The Book Girls Say… While this book has very high reviews overall, many refer to it as slow-paced, and April’s character isn’t overly likable in the first half. If you dislike character-driven plots, you might not love this as much as others do.
By Taylor Jenkins Reid Setting: 1994 First Published 2022
As a tennis star, Carrie Soto shattered every record and claimed twenty Grand Slam titles. She retired in 1988 at the top, after decades of sacrifice. Now, in 1994, she's just witnessed Nicki Chan take her record at the US Open.
At 37, Carrie decides to come back to tennis for one year in an attempt to regain her record. As she has been since she was only 2, she'll be coached by her father, Javier. Her body doesn't move as quickly now, but her brutal competitiveness is just as strong. She's even willing to train with the man she almost let into her hardened heart years ago, Bowe.
While the book does have a strong emphasis on tennis, it also deals heavily with Carrie's relationships, especially the one with her father/coach.
The Book Girls Say…If you read Malibu Rising, you might recognize the name Carrie Soto. She's the woman that Nina's husband left her for. So, as you might guess from her history as 'the other woman,' she isn't the most likable character.
This book can be pre-ordered now for delivery on August 30th, just in time to read it for the September prompt. It's like TJR set the release date just for us!
by Fiona Davis Setting: 1913 and 1993 New York City First published 2020
It's 1913, and Laura's husband is the superintendent of the NY Public Library. The job comes with an apartment in the grand building for the couple and their two children. Laura seems to have it all, but after she enters journalism school at Columbia and has her worldview rocked, she starts to question if the things she has are the things she wants.
Eighty years later, in 1993, Sadie landed her dream job as a curator at the NY Public Library, but her grandmother Laura's legacy looms over her until she can no longer ignore it.
The Book Girls Say... Fiona Davis is one of our favorite historical fiction writers because of her strong female characters and because each novel is set in a famous NYC building.
by Trevor Noah Setting: Johannesburg, South Africa First published 2016
Born a Crime is the true story of Daily Show host Trevor Noah’s childhood throughout the 90s and into his early adulthood. His rise to success was unlikely based on his beginning.
Trevor was born in South Africa in 1984 to a white father and black mother. His parents could have been imprisoned for five years - or worse - for conceiving him. He spent his early years largely hidden from life outside because his mother feared (with good reason) that he could be removed from her custody because of apartheid segregation rules.
When the era of white rule officially ended in the early 90s, the family’s troubles evolved with the times. From attempted kidnappings and domestic violence to high school dating, you’ll find a mixture of relatable and shocking stories that keep you engaged with every page.
Book Girls Say... Melissa listened to this memoir last year and highly recommends the audio format since Trevor Noah narrates it himself. She laughed and cried at his poignant and honest stories and felt like she was getting an education on life in apartheid South Africa while also being entertained. It was a 5 star audiobook and one that everyone should listen to for a better understanding of what happened under apartheid rule and throughout the 90s.
On the morning of Alice’s 40th birthday, she wakes up in 1996, the year she turned 16. Having her adolescent body and seeing her high school crush are both surprising, but being reunited with her 40-something father is the biggest shock. He’s so charming and healthy, unlike his ailing 64-year-old body she’s used to.
With 24 years of extra life experience in her brain, Alice has a brand new perspective on events from the past. Her life at 40 isn’t bad. She likes her job, apartment, romantic status, and long-time best friend. So, should she try to change anything while she’s in the past?
The Book Girls Say…This book would be a great pick for fans of Oona Out of Order or The Midnight Library.
by Rainbow Rowell Setting: 1999, Nebraska First published 2011
It's Lincoln O'Neill's job to read other people's email. He thought his role as "internet security officer" would be more glamorous - building firewalls and crushing hackers. Instead, he spends his days reading his coworkers' emails and writing a report every time someone forwards a dirty joke.
Everyone in the office knows someone is reading their emails (it's company policy), but that doesn't stop them. Beth and Jennifer send each other endless emails containing all the details of their personal lives. Lincoln knows he should report them, but instead, he finds himself enjoying their stories and, worst of all, falling in love.
This book will transport you back to the 1990s when email was new in the business world, Y2K was a significant fear, and before internet dating was a thing.
by Christina Hammonds Reed Setting: 1992, Los Angeles First published 2020
Ashley Bennett grew up in LA in a wealthy and prominent family. She's leading a charmed life where her senior year is split between the classroom and the beach.
Everything changes on an April afternoon when four LAPD officers are acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. As LA erupts in violent riots around her, Ashley tries to continue with her normal life, but she's no longer just a teenager - now she's a "black kid."
The Book Girls Say... This new release is already getting rave reviews! It's perfect for fans of The Hate You Give.
by Lisa Jewell Setting: 1920s + 1990s, Guernsey + London First Published 2012
The 1990s: Betty gave up a lot - universities, parties, boyfriends, and summer jobs - to care for her grandmother, Arlette. Arlette lives in a dilapidated, yet charming, home on the British isle of Guernsey. When her grandmother passes away, Betty discovers that her will includes a beneficiary named Clara, whom no one in the family knows. So Betty travels to London to seek out Clara.
The 1920s: In the years after WW1, Arlette is starting a new life in bohemian London when she gets drawn into the hedonistic world of the Bright Young People. A couple of years later, tragedy strikes, and Arlette flees back to her home in Guernsey for good.
This rich detective story will transport you to London in both the 1920s and 1990s. As Betty investigates her grandmother's life, she'll uncover secrets that might also help her find happiness in her own life.
by Karelia Stetz-Waters Setting: 1990s, Rural Oregon Originally published 2014
This is a coming-of-age story about Triinu Hoffman, a young woman growing up in rural Oregon. Shy and intellectual, Triinu is already bullied and doesn't fit it - and that's before she begins coming to terms with her sexuality.
Her personal realizations are set against the backdrop of the gay rights struggles in 1990s Oregon, where most people in her hometown are fighting for anti-gay legislation.
by Steven Rowley Setting: 1993-1994, New York City First published 2019
After years of struggling to make it as a writer, James has finally sold his first book - a semi-autobiographical novel about his dysfunctional relationship with his mother. He's shocked to find out that the editor who has purchased his book is none other than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
After an embarrassing initial meeting, James and Mrs. Onassis, as she's known around the office, form an unexpected friendship. By the time his book is finally published, his relationship with his editor has changed him as a writer and as a son.
The Book Girls Say... It can be tricky to write historical fiction in which one of the main characters is such a famous, real-life person. But Steven Rowley did a fantastic job portraying Jackie O as a private and professional woman full of heart.
by Gabrielle Moss Setting: 1980s & 1990s First published 2018
This fun non-fiction option written by a Bustle editor looks back at the 80s & 90s pre-teen fiction craze. Broken into six themed chapters - Friendship, Love, School, Family, Jobs, Terror, and Tragedy - this book examines the history of the genre and the stories behind the most popular series.
If you (or your child) raced through the pages of books like Sweet Valley High and Babysitters’ Club, this is a fun look back at the era and their role in society.
by Stephen Chbosky Setting: 1991, Pittsburgh First published 1999
Charlie is a wallflower observing high school from the sidelines until he meets two outgoing outsiders, beautiful Sam and her stepbrother Patrick who help him start experiencing life. As Charlie's worldview expands to include music, sex, drugs, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show, we learn everything he thinks and feels through the letters he writes to an anonymous reader he refers to as "friend."
The Book Girls Say... After you've read this popular YA novel, watch the movie adaptation, with Emma Watson as Sam, on Prime Video.
by Nick Hornby Setting: Mid-90s, London First published 1995
Rob is a pop music junkie who owns a struggling record store. The clerks at his store endlessly review their top five lists - top five films, top five episodes of Cheers, top five Elvis Costello songs. Rob even has his top five most memorable split-ups.
His most recent ex, Laura, isn't on that list. Instead, he's just trying to forget about her. She had a pretty poor music collection, but he can't get her out of his mind.
The Book Girls Say... After you've read the book, watch the movie, starring John Cusack, on Prime Video, Or catch the new Hulu TV Series adaptation.
by Emily Danforth Setting: Early 1990s, Montana First published 2012
When Cameron Post suddenly loses her parents to a tragic car accident, alongside her shock and grief, she also feels a sense of relief that they'll never know she had - just hours before - been kissing a girl.
Orphaned, Cameron is forced to move in with her conservative aunt and old-fashioned grandma in Montana. Then, Cameron meets Coley Taylor - a beautiful cowgirl with a perfect boyfriend. The girls form a close friendship that seems to leave the door open for something more to develop in their relationship. When Cameron's ultra-religious Aunt Ruth tries to "fix" her niece through conversion therapy, Cameron must come to terms with her true self.
by Kevin Wilson Setting: 1990s, Tennessee First published 2019
Lillian and Madison were roommates back in boarding school, but they've lost touch since Lillian left school amid a scandal. Years later, Lillian gets a letter from Madison begging for help.
Madison's twin stepkids are moving in, and she wants Lillian to be their caretaker. But, there is a catch. Both kids spontaneously burst into flames when they are agitated.
Lillian has nothing to lose, so she agrees to take on the role, and throughout the summer, she and the kids learn together how to keep their cool - literally.
The Book Girls Say...We were skeptical of this concept of kids who catch fire, but Melissa just finished this one, and it was not at all sci-fi or even that strange in context. Instead, it was about learning to cope with kids who had a hard life and extreme anxiety attacks while finding ways to normalize life for them. Avoid it if you're sensitive to cursing, but otherwise, it's a quick book worth reading.
by Kelsey Miller Setting: 1994, Hollywood First published 2018s
No show better defines the 1990s than Friends, which premiered in 1994. While this show is one of the most iconic television comedies, critics argue that it contains dated and problematic elements.
Journalist and pop culture expert Kelsey Miller provides an in-depth look at how Friends came to be such an unexpected sensation, explores its impact on pop culture, and sheds light on some of the social issues raised during its decade-long run.
The Book Girls Say... We've always prided ourselves on being able to win any game of Friend's trivia, but it turns out that there's a lot behind the scenes that we didn't know about. I'll Be There For You is both a celebration of what made Friends so much fun, as well as an examination of its shortfalls. The author takes a fair and balanced approach that gives the book depth, while still allowing you to enjoy the nostalgia.
by Kent Haruf Setting: 1990s, rural eastern plains of Colorado First published 1999
Set in a fictional high plains town of Holt, Colorado, this novel centers around several different characters that span four generations in a tinysmall town. A high school teacher is raising his two sons alone after their mother leaves. A pregnant teenage girl has been evicted by her mother. And two elderly bachelor brothers live together out in the country, continuing to work their family homestead.
The Book Girls Say... A decade ago, at the Denver Center Theater Company, Angela saw the premier of the very moving play that was developed from this novel, and she's wanted to read the book ever since.
This is the first book in a series of three. If you enjoy Plainsong, you may also want to read Eventide and Benediction.
by Helen Fielding Setting: 1990s, London First published 1996
Bridget chronicles her daily successes and (more often) her perceived failures in her determined quest for self-improvement. She's convinced she'll finally be happy if she can lose 7 pounds, stop smoking, develop a functional relationship with a responsible adult, and learn to program her VCR. Her diary entries are "devastatingly self-aware" and laugh-out-loud funny!
The Book Girls Say... You may be familiar with the movie, but the book is what started it all, and it's the perfect read if you are in the mood for something light and humorous with a whole lot of heart.
by Sarah Jio Setting: 1990s & Present Day Seattle First Published 2015
Kailey is determined to understand how her former love, Cade, a Seattle music producer, has wound up homeless on the streets of Seattle and to help him get his life back on track.
Back in the ‘90s, Kailey and Cade fell in love, and she was convinced they’d spend their lives together. But when their romance ended suddenly, it took her years to get over him and find someone else. Then one night, after enjoying a fancy dinner out with that someone else - her fiance, Ryan - Kailey notices a homeless man outside the restaurant.
When she looks past his frail frame and bearded face, she is shocked to recognize that the homeless man is Cade. Kailey is determined to find out what happened to him and help, but the longer she keeps this secret from Ryan, the more complicated things become.
This story alternates between the past (90s) and the present.
The Book Girls Say... This story places you squarely in the cofee houses and clubs of the 90's music scene in Seattle. It's filled with lots of nostalgia for the era.
by Julian Fellows Setting: 1990s, London First published 2004
Before Julian Fellowes created Downton Abbey, his debut novel Snobs also looked at class differences.
Unlike Downton Abbey, Snobs is set in current-day London. Edith is the daughter of an accountant and his social-climbing wife. On a vacation, Edith meets Charles, the heir to the Marquess of Uckfield. He's one of the most eligible bachelors in England.
When Charles proposes, does Edith accept out of love, or out of admiration for his title? His mother is convinced that Edith just wants to be Countess.
The book pokes some fun at the British upper class and aristocracy while also giving you a glimpse into their world.
by Jon Krakauer Setting: 1996, Mt. Everest, Nepal First published 1997
When journalist-mountaineer Jon Krakauer stood at the summit of Mt. Everest in 1996, he had no idea that a "murderous storm" was headed for the mountain. In his bestselling non-fiction title, Into Thin Air, he provides an epic and guilt-ridden account of the disaster that would ultimately claim five lives.
The Book Girls Say... Angela read this book twice in college, once for a management class and then again for a leadership class. It reads more like a novel than a documentary, but beyond the story of storm and disaster, it's also filled with powerful insights about decision-making and team dynamics.
by Laurie Petrou Setting: 1995, Canada First Published 2022
Best friends Diane and Aurelle are inseparable as they begin freshman year at University. They’ve gone from long-time neighbors to housemates, with their opposite personalities proving a good balance. Diane is ambitious but awkward, while Aurelle is likable but fragile.
As their first year at Rocky Barrens progresses, each girl’s mental state weakens. And so does the bond between them. One of the girls keeps a huge secret as the lines between love, envy, and obsession blur.
The Book Girls Say…This coming-of-age thriller is perfect for those looking for a darker literary read.
by Lauren Graham Setting: 1995, NYC First published 2013
Franny is a struggling actress trying to make it in 90s New York City. She gave herself a deadline for success, but time and money are both running out. She's living in Brooklyn with two roommates, waiting tables, and struggling to get her hair to cooperate.
Her father wants her to return home, but she still has big dreams of playing an important role as an actress. At what point is it time to throw in the towel and face the realities of life?
The Book Girls Say... As you would expect from Lauren Graham, this book is a charming and realistic look at what it's like to be a struggling actor in New York. While we're big fans of Lauren Graham, we think the 3.5 average rating for this book is fair.
by Kristy McManus Setting: 1996, Brisbane, Australia First published 2018
Food blogger Anna Matthews takes a vitamin supplement that transports her back in time and back into her 16-year-old body, but just for twelve hours at a time. After getting over the initial shock, she takes advantage of the opportunity. Her husband has always been unwilling to talk about his past, so she decides to track him down in 1996, but her actions may have some unexpected and heartbreaking consequences.
The Book Girls Say... If you enjoy this breezy time travel novel, you'll also want to check out the sequel, 1997.
by Lily King Setting: 1997, Massachusetts First published 2020
Writers & Lovers is a classic coming-of-age book about the struggle of an in-debt 31-year-old. She works as a waitress to pay the bills while trying not to give up her bigger dream of writing a novel.
We thought it was the perfect mix of literary fiction and reality TV as the book follows the main character through every aspect of her daily life.
The Book Girls Say... After reading so many reviews from people that found this book boring, we went in skeptical, but we both fell in love with Writers and Lovers. We think fans of Reality Bites will enjoy this book!
by Celeste Ng Setting: Late 1990s, Ohio First published 2017
In the Shaker Heights suburb of Ohio, the life of the picture-perfect Richardson family becomes intertwined with the lives of Mia and her daughter Pearl, who rent a house from the Richardsons when they arrive in town.
All four of the Richardson children befriend Pearl and are drawn in by artist Mia. As their relationships become more intertwined, the bonds that tie them will ultimately unravel both families.
This is a story of complex family dynamics, small town politics, and white privilege. When a local family decides to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle divides the town, with Mrs. Richardson and Mia on opposite sides. Mrs. Richardson becomes suspicious of Mia's motives and begins digging into her past. The secrets she uncovers will change everything.
The Book Girls Say... We both enjoyed this book and felt it did a great job capturing suburban life in the 90s. This book has also now been turned into a Hulu mini-series by Reese Witherspoon.