The decade between 1990 and 2000 saw the release of some amazing books, which inspired me to check in with some of our previous interview guests and ask them what they believe to be the best books of the 1990s. They were free to nominate any book published in that decade that they feel qualifies as one of the best books of the 1990s.
You can discover the panel of contributors at the end of the article, but let’s dive straight into the books.
Please enjoy this reading list of the best books of the 1990s.
In my twenties, I worked for Waterstones Booksellers in the UK and Ireland. I was a non-fiction buyer but often went looking for recommendations for something new to read from the fiction buyers. One day I was handed Seventh Heaven. Nora Silk, Hoffman’s lead character, is exceptionally touching. Her struggles with her son Billy, as they settle into their new lives on Hemlock Street is affectionately told. Hoffman’s work is sprinkled with magic realism but sparingly enough that the cynic in me was silenced. I was hooked and spent the next two years ordering her backlist from the States.
It’s not often that an author comes along and changes not only the publishing world but popular culture too. When I first heard about this bloke named Harry, I was working for Intel in a cleanroom bunny suit on night shift. I heard about this new “children’s book” and decided to pick up a copy. As I started reading it, the tone and the world-building just exploded in my mind. Like everyone else, I wanted a letter to Hogwarts. I chose this book because I think it will stand the test of time and still be popular fifty years from now.
I first got to know King in the ’80s as a best-selling horror writer. This book made me start thinking of him as a writer, period. It’s a seemingly loosely-structured mix of memoir, philosophical reflection, and practical how-to advice for writers; he wrote it to stay sane while recovering from a car accident that nearly killed him. I’ve bought, read, and donated to Goodwill more books about writing than I can count. This is one of the few that’s still on my shelf.
Not all of this series was published in the 1990s, but a lot of it was, and I would be remiss to leave it out of my favorites. This is by far the longest series I’ve ever read, having dedicated a year of my life to its pages. It is classic epic fantasy with phenomenal characters (though its female leads tend to be very similar), phenomenal magic, and a phenomenal world. Lan Mandragoran, one of said characters, is still my number one book crush to this day. Plus, Amazon is making a television series based on the books, so there isn’t a better time to pick them up than now. A must-read for lovers of fantasy.
The 1990s was a great era because publishers finally acknowledged there was a place for “black love” in the romance genre and started publishing such novels, including one of my own. These books became trailblazing books and proved to the world that true love was color blind. I will never forget meeting with the authors of these books and together, we vowed never to give up regardless of what our critics would say because we believed in our work and knew there were places for our books in the literary world. It showed the masses that America was no longer a melting pot where different things are blended together into one thing. Rather, it’s like a salad bowl filled with different ingredients. What’s so special is that every ingredient gets to stay what they are, but each one brings a different flavor to the table…or to the bowl. What you have is a better tasting salad. That’s how embracing diversity was born. Alongside Forever Yours; I’d also include Night Song by Beverly Jenkins, For Always by Bette Ford and my own book, Tonight and Forever.
In 1994 I was twenty-five and working in the Covent Garden Branch of Waterstones. That year What a Carve Up was published, heralding Jonathan Coe as one of the best social satirists since Charles Dickens. What A Carve up centres on the aftermath of Thatcherist Britain through the eyes of a minor writer Michael Owen. This is a funny, clever book that I read on the Tube in my first couple of days in London. It was a fantastic lesson in the history, culture and humour of the country I’d just made my home.
This is a book I read during my MBA classes in college. What’s interesting to me about it is that it’s still relevant today. It’s a book about how established companies fail to see the oncoming threats caused by their competition, which target low-end, low-quality space and then gradually eat their way up the value chain. Since it came out, I’ve watched it happen to Blockbuster video, Barnes & Noble, and many other companies, including Intel, who have forgotten the timeless lessons in this book. And the same process will take down Apple, Amazon, and any other company that doesn’t constantly try to re-invent itself and serve customers real needs. It’s a playbook for how innovation works in the real world.
The graphic-novel memoir (especially of lives torn by war and political upheaval) is such a popular and well-established genre now, it’s hard to remember that it was once a head-scratcher. “A cartoon about the Holocaust where the Nazis are cats and Jews are mice” is how Maus was first described to me. That’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t begin to express the power of this masterpiece of visual storytelling. Like the best memoirs, Maus is at once deceptively simple, formally complex, and so specific in its details that it achieves universal impact. This is a great first graphic novel to give to people who don’t read comics, or who associate them with sci-fi and superheroes.
This is a popular book club book and for good reason. I loved this book. When I’m not reading fantasy, I’m reading historical, though I tend to prefer British history over American. Not the case here. This book is a retelling of a ‘what if’ in American history and includes a big chunk of Native America, which I adore reading about (I studied Native American Literature in my undergrad). The book has an incredibly likeable protagonist, intense scenes, romance—everything I want in a book. I’m a sucker for a HEA, and while this novel doesn’t really have one, I still highly recommend it.
We all have one author we’d love to meet and stare at, dumbstruck for a while; for me, it’s unquestionably Richard Russo. I’m a sucker for two things in a book: a flawed main character, and a story that makes me laugh. No author combines these two talents more seamlessly than this Pulitzer Prize-winner. I regularly check his publisher’s website hoping he’s brought out another book that has miraculously slipped my attention. I’m always disappointed; I’ve read them all. In Nobody’s Fool, we meet Sully who’s been doing the same wrong thing for fifty years. And now his son brings those sins of the father back to haunt him.
Although this book was published at the end of 1989, I’m still counting it as a book from the 90s, because that is when most people started reading it. This is the inside story of a Wall Street trader and his eyewitness account leading up to Black Monday in 1987. And for me, it offers a glimpse of the power and personalities that run the biggest banks and investment houses in the world and the games of chance they play with each other, at our expense. Lewis’ candid and humorous revelations have continued to shock the world and his subsequent books have proven that the games Wall Street plays (like Liar’s Poker) may have adapted new technologies but they aren’t over. Games that even casinos would consider to be too risky. It’s a book that will likely make you sick to read. But it’s still a compelling story, made even more compelling because it’s a true story.
I read Iron John 25 years after it came out, so I missed whatever conversations happened around it in the ‘90s, but I can understand that its subtitle “A Book About Men” might sound like asking for trouble. My advice is to ignore the talking about the book and just read it. It’s not a self-development or parenting book, but a one-of-a-kind, poetic, rambling exegesis of a medieval fairy tale, which mysteriously conveys more profound insights about what boys need to grow up than any self-development or parenting book I know. I recommend it to everyone, but it’s likely to resonate especially with men, and with parents of boys.
This is one of my all-time favorite books, so I was delighted when, while researching for this list, it was published in the 90s! I have never bawled over a book the way I did over this one, and in the best way. Marillier builds her stories very slowly, but if you put in the dedication, it pays off so, so splendidly. She also uses one of my favorite romance tropes, which I won’t share here for the sake of spoilers. This is a spin on the Six (sometimes Seven) Swans fairytale, set in old, fantasy-driven Ireland, and it is utterly magical. Even if you’re not a fantasy reader, you should give this book a shot.
Meet our expert panel…
Forever on the lookout for great books to read, I put together a panel of authors and ask them to nominate the best books of the 1990s. When I personally started looking at which books I’d nominate as the best books of the 1990s, I got excited – as there were so many good options. I couldn’t wait to see which books the panel would nominate as the best books of the 1990s. Let’s meet our amazing panel…
Anne Griffin is an author who began writing in 2013, and in 2015 undertook an MA in Creative Writing in UCD. Anne Griffin was awarded the John McGahern Award for Literature, recognising previous and current works. She has also been shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Awards. Anne Griffin’s debut novel When All Is Said has been described as “An impressively confident” debut novel.
Jeff Wheeler is a respected and recognised author of fantasy and science fiction books. His Muirwood series is gathering attention and a devoted fanbase. His most recent release from the First Argentine Series, Knight’s Ransom is attracting a multitude of positive reviews. Jeff is a prolific author and a great member for this panel.
Brenda Jackson is a novelist who writes contemporary multicultural romance novels. Brenda has published more than 100 novels and novellas. Additionally, she has over 10 million books in print. In 2012, Brenda received the Romance Writers of America’s (RWA) Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award, one of the highest literary award an author can receive in the romance genre.
Jordan Mechner is an author, screenwriter and video game designer who is best known as the creator of Prince of Persia, one of the most successful and enduring video game franchises of all time. Jordan Mechner wrote the New York Times best-selling, Eisner award-nominated graphic novel Templar, illustrated by LeUyen Pham & Alex Puvilland.
Charlie Holmberg is a fantasy author who grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah. Graduating in 2010, Charlie Holmberg would go on to publish numerous books, perhaps most notably The Master Magician, which was a Wall Street Journal bestseller, and had its rights bought up by Disney in 2016. Charlie Holmberg’s latest book has just been released and is titled Spellmaker, the second book in the Spellbreaker series.