We are now nine months into the Decades Reading Challenge and we’ve worked out way up to the end of the 20th century. This month we’ll be reading books set in the 1990s.
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 Nineties. Our recommendations provide a look back at this decade through the eyes of many different characters, and include some of the best books set in the 1990s that examine everything from small town life to British aristocracy, and from pop culture to serious social issue. On our list, you’ll find numerous books written in this decade, as well as historical fiction (can we call the 90s historical, yet?), memoirs, and non-fiction options.
The 1990s are largely remembered as a decade of prosperity in the United States and relative peace abroad. 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 of the issues that we are still grappling with today, including terrorism, mass shootings, and climate change.
New technology in the 1990s, including the development of 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. Despite this move to the alternative, “Must See TV” laugh-track sitcoms, like Friends, still ruled the airwaves.
Major Events of the 1990s
Before recommending books set in the 90s, 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.
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, and 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 even today, with a $10 million reward offered for information leading directly to the recovery 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 and entered its combat phase, known as Operation Desert Storm, on January 17, 1991. The war, which resulted in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait arising from oil pricing and production disputes, ended just 43 days later on February 28, 1991.
The inventor of the World Wide Web published his formal proposal in 1990, and 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 are found in his apartment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His murders spanned 1978 to 1991.
In 1992, violent riots broke out in Los Angeles following the acquittal of four white police officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King, despite the brutality having been captured on video.
The European Union was created in 1992, and the Euro began circulation as the official currency of the EU in 1999.
Bill Clinton is elected as the 42nd President of the United States in 1992, and reelected in 1996. Following revelations about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, in late 1998 Clinton became only the second US president to be impeached, charged with lying under oath and obstruction of justice. He 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 known as 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 June 1993, Lorena Bobbitt made world-wide headlines in when, she cut off her husband’s “member” with a knife while he was asleep in bed. An entire generation of men began sleeping with one eye open.
In 1994, Genocide and Civil War take place in Rwanda with an estimated 500,000 or more 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, creating 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 the 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 of a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and leaving many more 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, killing 12 students and a teacher before taking their own lives.
The music downloading service, Napster, debuted in June 1999. Copyright infringement claims later forced them to cease operations, but Napster paved the way for future streaming media service.
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, causing widespread chaos. Companies and governments spent millions in preparation, and ultimately, the new millennium dawned without incident.
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by Ulrich Boser Setting: 1990, Boston First published 2009
The Boston Globe calls this non-fiction account of the 1990 break-in and burglary of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston is "a tantalizing whodunit." This book will take you "into the underworld of obsessed art detectives, con men, and thieves" (Jonathan Harr).
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 world view expands to include music, sex, drugs, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show, we learn everything that he thinks and feels through the letters that he writes to an anonymous reader he refers to just 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 Christina Hammonds Reed Setting: 1992, Los Angeles First published 2020
Growing up in LA, Ashley Bennett is from a wealthy and prominent family, and she's leading a charmed life where her senior year is split between the classroom and the beach. But everything changes on the afternoon in April when four LAPD officers are acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. As LA erupts in violent riots all around her, Ashley tries to continue on 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 Fiona Davis Setting: 1913 and 1993 New York City First published 2020
In 1913, Laura's husband ins the superintendent of the NY Public Library, which gives them, and their two children, the ability to live in an apartment in the grand building. Laura seems to have it all, but after she enters journalism school at Columbia and has her world view rocked, she starts to question if the things she has are the things she wants.
Eighty years later, in 1993, Sadie has landed her dream job as a curator at the NY Public Library, but the legacy of her grandmother, Laura, 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. We can't wait to read this newly published title!
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 seriously the job of taking care of his mom.
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 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 him mother feared (with good reason) that he could be removed from her custody because of the apartheid rules of segregation.
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.
by Elin Hillenbrand Setting: 1993-2020, Nantucket First published 2020
In 1993, Mallory inherits a beach cottage in Nantucket and decides to embrace the unexpected gift and move to the island full-time. Shortly after, she hosts a bachelor party for her brother and meets his friend from college, Jake.
After things go wrong for other attendees, Mallory and Jake are left alone for the rest of the weekend. They have undeniable chemistry and after watching the classic movie, Same Time Next Year, they decide that they'll continue getting together one weekend every summer, no matter what.
As the title suggests, the book spans 28 years of these secret meetings, one chapter per year from 1993-2020. You'll keep the pages turning to find out how their lives change individually and together each year as Mallory and Jake go from college through career and through love and loss. The chapters each start with a fun recap of what was happening in the world each year, and you'll be transported through time as their lives move forward.
The Book Girls Say... This was a 5 star read for both of us! Just keep the Kleenex ready for the ending.
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 her the gay rights struggles in 1990s Oregon, where the majority of people in her home town 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 know around the office, form an unexpected friendship. By the time his book is finally published, his relationship with his editor has changed him both 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 wonderful job of portraying Jackie O as a private and professional woman full of heart.
by Nick Hornby Setting: Mid-90s, London First published 1995
Rob is a pop music junkie who owns 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 has his top five most memorable split ups. His most recent ex, Laura, isn't on that list. He's just trying to forget about her. She had a pretty poor music collection, but for some reason, he just 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 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 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 over the course of a 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 essentially 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 Emily Danforth Setting: Early 1990s, Montana First published 2012
When Cameron Post suddenly loses her parents to a tragic car accident, along side 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. But then orphaned Cameron is forced to moved in with her very conservative aunt and old-fashioned grandma is 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 is forced to come to terms with her true self.
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 of all time, 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 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.
The Book Girls Say... As you would expect from Lauren Graham, this book is laugh out loud funny! Fans for Gilmore Girls (like us) will enjoy listen to the Lauren narrate the audio book.
by Adrian C. Louis Setting: 1990s, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota First published 1995
In this realistic novel, author Adrian Louis paints a realistic picture of life on the Pine Ridge Reservation - including poverty, alcoholism, social problems - through the eyes of two brother, one a rez cop, and the other, and alcoholic.
The Book Girls Say... This book is now out of print, making it expensive to buy, but you may be able to find a copy in your local library system. If you can't get your hands on the book, consider watching the 2002 film of the same name.
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 one small town. A high school teacher raising his two sons along after their mother leaves. A pregnant teenage girl who has been turned out by her mother. And two elderly bachelor brothers living out in the country, continuing to working their family homestead.
The Book Girls Say... A decade ago, at the Denver Center Theater Company, Angela saw the 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
In her determined quest for self-improvement, Bridget chronicles her daily successes and (more often) her perceived failures. She's convinced that she'll finally be happy if she can finally 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 Julian Fellowes Setting: 1990s, London First published 2004
Before Julian Fellows created Downton Abbey, his debut novel also looked at differences in class. Snobs pokes 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. Into Thin Air, he provides and 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 some powerful insights about decision making and team dynamics.
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 decides to take 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 20-something working 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 the their relationships become more intertwined, the bonds the 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, and the secrets she uncovers will change everything.
The Book Girls Say... We both really enjoyed this book and felt that it did a great job of capturing suburban life in the 90s. This book has also now been turned into a Hulu mini-series by Reese Witherspoon.
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 firewals and crushing hackers. Instead, he spends his days reading his coworkers emails and writing a report everytime someone forwards a dirty joke.
This book will transport you back to the 1990s when email was new in the business world, when Y2K was a major fear, and when internet dating wasn't yet a thing.
Everyone in the office knows that someone is reading their emails (it's company policy), but that doesn't stop them. Beth and Jennifer carry on sending 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.
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