Explore the best books about the 1980s, the last decade of the Cold War marked by economic uncertainty and technological advances.
When you think about the 1980s, you think of the mix of uncertainty and hope. The Cold War was on its last legs, creating political and economic upheaval throughout the world. The AIDS epidemic struck new terror across the country. Yet, technological advances introduced the internet and the Atari game system, adding new interests and shifting culture.
You see in this intermix of books set in the 1980s characters hopeful of change yet struggling in a shifting environment.
Today, I’ve put together a list of books about the 1980s. You’ll find something for everyone: fun 1980s historical fiction, nonfiction books about the 1980s, and even a few modern classic 1980s books worth a read.
Best Books About the 1980s
I know it’s about a theoretical version of the 1980s, but you can’t list books about the 1980s without mentioning 1984. Published in 1949, George Orwell’s terrifying vision of the 1980s is just as important today as when it was written. Telling the story of Winston, a depressed Party worker who longs to join the Resistance, 1984 shows the horror of a totalitarian society continually at war. Commonly referenced in modern culture (i.e., Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime,), 1984 is one of the best dystopian novels of all time and my all-time favorite book.
In 1985, Yale Tishman is set to acquire a treasure trove of artwork for the Chicago art gallery where he works. When his friend Nico dies of AIDS, Yale watches as all his best friends begin dying, leaving Nico’s sister Fiona as the only friend he has left. Flash forward 30 years, when Fiona is in Paris trying to find her daughter and coming to grips with how the AIDS epidemic has altered her life.
John Grisham’s debut novel didn’t receive much attention until after he published the bestsellers The Firm and The Pelican Brief, but it’s my favorite page turner book of his. After the brutal rape of a 10-year-old girl, her father seeks his own justice and murders the rapists. With the Mississippi town aflame, young attorney Jake Brigance must decide how much he is willing to risk to defend the father. Just be warned, the beginning of the book is horribly graphic and extremely hard to read.
After a childhood of being ignored by his family, William Waters finds refuge playing basketball in college. When William meets Julia Padavano, a lively girl extremely close to her parents and three sisters, he quickly becomes a part of the close-knit Padavano family. Although cracks start to appear in the family, William never imagined he’d be the wedge to drive them apart. A homage to Little Women, Hello Beautiful gorgeously describes family and sisterhood, mental health, and forgiveness, in such a way that you will never forget this story.
In a series of letters, fifteen-year-old Charlie narrates his struggles to adapt to his first year in high school, especially after the suicide of his best friend from middle school and the death of his beloved aunt. He befriends two seniors, Patrick and Sam, and together they navigate a difficult year. One of the best YA books about the 1980s, The Perks of Being a Wallflower hits on the tough topics of abuse and mental health.
Although communist countries are falling all over Europe, in 1989, Romania is still ruled by the cruel dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Blackmailed by the secret police, seventeen-year-old Cristian Florescu is forced to become an informer, walking the edge between deceiving the Securitate while still protecting his family. I Must Betray You is exactly what you want from young adult historical fiction books about the 1980s. Sepetys showcases the everyday teenage life in a unique setting with a narrative that is as compelling as it is informative.
Publication Date: 1 February 2022
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Book Club Books About the 1980s
Carol Rifka Brunt
In 1987, fourteen-year-old June feels like she doesn’t fit in. Her only confidant is her uncle Finn. When Finn dies of a mysterious illness (AIDS) that her mother refuses to talk about, June is devastated. At the funeral, she meets Finn’s “friend” Toby, and the two strike up a friendship that will help them both navigate their grief.
In 1985, Benji Cooper is the only Black student at his elite prep school in Manhattan. In contrast, Benji spends every summer in Sag Harbor, an African American community of artists where the teens are allowed complete freedom most of the time. In this coming of age book, Whitehead uses the hilarity of teenage mortification to underscore Benji’s struggle to find his identity between his all-White and all-Black lives.
On New Year’s Eve in 1982, Oona Lockhart is faced with a life-changing decision: travel abroad to continue her studies in London or pursue fame as a member of her boyfriend’s rock band. As the clock strikes midnight and Oona turns 19, she faints and wakes up as a fifty-year-old. Thus begins the mixed-up time-travel life of Oona, where every year she gets to randomly experience her life at different stages. One of the best recent books with time travel, Oona Out of Order explores whether or not we can change our destiny while having fun highlighting the differences between the decades.
In 1980s Atlanta, James Witherspoon has his perfect middle-class family … and his secret other middle-class family. When his two teenage daughters from different wives meet, only one knows they are sisters. Their budding friendship threatens to expose the bigamy of their father and throw both of their families into chaos.
On a snowy winter night in rural Vermont, Sibyl Danforth is an experienced midwife forced to perform an emergency c-section when the mother dies of a stroke. Yet, Sibyl’s assistant insists that the mother wasn’t already dead. Told from Sibyl’s teenage daughter’s point of view, Midwives explores the complex nature of childbirth as Sibyl stands trial for her actions.
Bestselling Books on the 1980s
Taylor Jenkins Reid
In 1983, four famous siblings throw an epic summer party at their Malibu mansion. Secrets come out, the party gets out of control, and a fire will burn it all down by dawn. Malibu Rising is a gorgeous family drama that surpasses a simple beach read. The story of the Riva children abandoned by their famous rockstar father is heartbreakingly sad and yet still hopeful. Bringing the 1980s to life, the characters come alive as each sibling ponders if they can escape their parents’ fates.
The new girl in town, Eleanor, with her unruly red hair and mismatched clothes, doesn’t fit in at her high school. Park doesn’t fully fit in either and tends to hide behind his books and his headphones. When the two misfits bond over comic books and music, a friendship springs up that reminds you of the transformative power of love in this stunning 1980s historical fiction for teens.
Mysteries can be a great way to experience a different decade and Tana French’s debut thriller is a perfect choice for books about the 1980s. In the summer of 1984, four children go out to the woods to play but only one returns. With no memory of what happened to the other children that day, the lone survivor Rob Roy grows up to become a detective, seeking to right what wrongs he can. When he and his partner investigate a case eerily similar to what happened to him so long ago, Rob’s memories start to return. Will this case lead him to solve his own mystery? Or will his memories blind him to the truth of this case?
In 1985, Lore Rivera is an international banker, frequently traveling between Texas and Mexico City. Although married to Fabian with twin sons, after Lore has an affair with Andres in Mexico, she secretly marries him as well. When her double life is finally exposed, one husband is arrested for murdering the other. Uncovering this sensational story in the modern-day, a true-crime writer uncovers long-hidden secrets when she tracks down Lore to hear Lore’s side of the story.
Simone St. James
In 1982, Viv Delaney takes a job as a clerk at the Sun Down Motel in Fell, New York, only to mysteriously disappear. Thirty-five years later, Viv’s niece Carly Kirk returns to the Sun Down Motel to investigate her aunt’s disappearance. You’ll love flipping between Carly and Viv as they try to figure out what is going on at the Sun Down Motel. The perfect combination of spooky, without being too scary, The Sun Down Motel is one of the top thriller books about the 1980s.
Interesting Books Set in the 1980s
If you are craving something a bit different, you might want to try this mind-bending work from famed Japanese author Haruki Murakami. In 1984, Aomame notices strange discrepancies and finds she has entered a parallel version of her life, 1Q84. Quickly caught up in a religious cult, Aomame wonders what is truly real. Meanwhile, ghostwriter Tengo accepts an assignment to rewrite a book, a decision that changes his whole life and leads him closer to Aomame.
While protecting a judge getting death threats, new US Marshal Andrea Oliver can’t resist investigating a cold case. On prom night in 1982, the popular Emily Vaughn is killed. Emily was hiding a secret, but her wealthy family and friends closed ranks after her gruesome murder. Now, Andrea is determined to use her position and resources to find out what happened to Emily.
In his first book since winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Road sixteen years ago, Cormac McCarthy returns with the first book in a two-part series. In Mississippi in 1980, Bobby Western dives into the ocean to investigate a crashed ocean liner. As he explores the crash site, he is plagued by officials, the ghost of his father, and by his sister who loves him but could also ruin him.
After the death of her parents in 1981, nineteen-year-old Sherri Taylor decides to leave her sleepy hometown behind and jump full-tilt into an evocative adventure. She becomes a Playboy Bunny at a Wisconsin resort. Living in dorms with other bunnies, Sherri enjoys the sisterhood and the thrill of sex, drugs, and rock and roll until she is caught in a love triangle that will affect her for decades.
In 1988, Frank owns a music shop where he sells vinyls of every genre and has a knack for picking out the perfect song for each customer. One day Ilse Brauchmann walks in and asks Frank to teach her about music. As Ilse and Frank develop a friendship that slowly deepens, past wounds threaten to ruin their relationship.
Modern Classics: 1980s Books
After the fall of the United States, the theocratic patriarchal society Gilead is now in power. Due to an epidemic of infertility, most of the elite women cannot have children. Instead, they use handmaids, women of the lower caste forced to submit to men to bear children. The Handmaid’s Tale is written as the diary of one such handmaiden, Offred, as she struggles to survive in a brutal society, hoping to one day escape.
Orson Scott Card
In a future where humanity is at war with an alien enemy determined to destroy life on Earth, Ender Wiggin is a third child in a family of extraordinarily gifted children. Sent off to battle school at only six years of age, Ender – with his perfect mix of compassion and ruthlessness – is forced to become the military genius humanity so desperately needs. Ender’s Game is an amazing novel – not only thrilling enough to intrigue teenage boys who never read- but also so packed with complex themes and deeper meanings that will make you want to read it again and again.
In this modern classic, poor young Black girl Celie writes letters to God in the early 1900s, begging for help from her father who beats and rapes her. After Celie is married off to an abusive man and helps her sister run away, Celie begins writing letters to her sister. Talking frankly about domestic and sexual abuse and homosexuality, The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983.
How well do you know your mother? In 1949, four Chinese women, all recent immigrants to San Francisco, gather together weekly to play Mahjong, chat about their pasts, and hope for the future of their daughters. This tale of mothers trying to pass on their wisdom to their American-born daughters who don’t truly understand them will make you want to learn more about your own mother.
One of the top books on racism, Toni Morrison’s horror story shows the scars left behind by slavery. Although she escaped slavery by running to Ohio, Sethe is still not a free woman. She can’t seem to get the horrors of Sweet Home out of her mind and is haunted by the ghost of her baby, Beloved. When a teenage girl arrives claiming to be Beloved, Sethe’s past finally catches up to her.
During a Little League baseball game, Owen Meany hits a foul ball that kills his best friend’s mother. Believing himself to be God’s instrument, Owen seeks to fulfill his own prophecy. Narrated by Owen’s best friend John Wheelwright, A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of the best 1980s books and a beloved modern classic.
Nonfiction Books About the 1980s
In 1981, a death at the grandest mansion in Savannah provokes the question: Was it murder or self-defense? The shooting sends a tidal wave through the town that’s effects are still visible a decade later. With a colorful cast of characters, you’ll hardly believe this narrative nonfiction story isn’t a novel.
In 1981, Ann Patchett met Lucy Grealy in college, and, after attending a writer’s workshop, a close friendship bloomed that would last decades. As a child, Lucy lost half her jaw to childhood cancer. Through the years of reconstructive surgery, Ann and Lucy’s bond remains strong only to be separated by Lucy’s death at a young age.
In 1986, a massive fire tore through the Los Angeles Public Library Central Branch, raging for over seven hours and destroying hundreds of thousands of books. Susan Orlean weaves together the tale of the library fire, the history of the Los Angeles Public Library, and a behind the scenes look at the current library to show the importance of libraries to humanity.
In 1988, Su Meck, a young mother of two, was struck in the head by a falling ceiling fan leaving her with a traumatic brain injury. After only 3 weeks, she was discharged from the hospital and sent back home to take care of her kids – even though she had lost most of her memories – including, how to do basic functions, like read, add, or tie her shoes. Just thinking about how her doctors failed her and how her terrible husband mistreated her just makes my blood boil. Su Meck’s memoir might not be the best written, but she is certainly a true survivor.
Which Books About the 1980s Are You Most Interested in Reading?
What do you think? Do you enjoy reading books about the 1980s? What 1980s books would you recommend? As always, let me know in the comments!
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