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Five Star Fiction of the 80’s and 90’s

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Books that spark nostalgia and take you back to the good ole’ days.

No matter which decade you grew up in, there are bound to be some favorites that take you back to what seem like simpler times. Each generation has their classics. I decided to put together a short list of the books I personally enjoyed the most through the 1980s and the 1990s. My list will include more horror novels than most – that’s directly influenced by having a mother who left paperbacks all over the house. Naturally, I read every single one. Here are my list of absolute favorites to take you back in time.

The Complete Blackwater Saga by Michael McDowell (1980)

Lets begin in 1980 with a little known six-volume series: Blackwater, by Michael McDowell. You’ve seen McDowell’s work before – in addition to being an accomplished screenwriter for movies such as Beetlejuice and Nightmare Before Christmas, he is also an accomplished author famous for Southern Gothic horror novels. Blackwater is the full compilation of the six novels set on the Perdido river in Alabama and probably the best new audiobook I’ve listened to in a long time. I used an audible credit for it and the narration was so excellent I reached out to the voice actor on Twitter to give him a compliment. If you’ve never heard of the Blackwater Saga, I’d recommend picking up this one first.

It is fantastically strange.

Clan of the Cave Bear by Jane Auel (1980)

While millions of readers have already discovered Clan of the Cave Bear, this novel deserves a second look if it has been a decade or so. As society changes, as we mature, we may see some things differently. What I’m referring to here is race, of course. The primitive, Neanderthals that are considered inferior, unable to talk, and primitive are dark skinned, with prominent features that can be compared to some of the worst racial stereotypes out there. The enlightened, successful and intelligent people that Ayla comes from are light skinned, with golden hair and blue eyes. Through the lens of modern society, this does change the impact the story may have upon a new generation of readers.

I do not believe in burying uncomfortable subjects in the dark. Shine a light on them, for all to see, and learn from them. Read it again with an honest heart and decide for yourself.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

Long before The Handmaid’s Tale was a cultural phenomenon and a Hulu smash hit series, it was often just a tattered paperback passed from woman to woman through different phases of life. At least that’s how it reached me, passed from the hand of a woman with whom I was discussing why the Equal Rights Amendment never passed. “Here,” she said. “Make sure you read this.”

Two days later, I had finished the book and sat silent, thinking about it. How close was this to reality? Is this even that far from possible in some communities? The thought-provoking novel stands the test of time – many argue that it is even more relevant today than it was in 1985.

Whether you’re a fan of the TV show or a casual feminist, this book is worth a second look if it is has been a while. Have a copy on your shelf, ready to pass to a young woman who’s never read it.

Through a Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen (1986)

A lovely tale of Lords and Ladies, marriages of convenience, and free sexual attitudes and betrayals, Through a Glass Darkly outperformed all expectations for Koen’s debut novel.

A large, heavy volume packed with action, desire, and tragedy – I first came across this book at a Goodwill Superstore a few months ago. I love to pick up old books that are in their original book jackets, especially the hardcovers. Each time I choose a book like this, I learn something, and I love these things I come to know.

Through a Glass Darkly is some of the finest historical fiction from the 1980s, a break from the ancient epic histories that grew popular at the time. This novel spotlights a young, naïve beauty who was raised out in the country into Paris and the the sexual freedom of Louis XIV era France, where Ladies keep lovers as Lords always have. The emotions and family bonds that weave through the stories bring it close to the readers heart, and I love a story without a happy ending. That’s the only spoiler I’m going to post.

It by Stephen King (1986)

Were there any Generation X latch key kids that did not huddle with their friends during sleepovers and sneakily read the scaries, goriest, or most sexually explicit parts of It? If our parents didn’t have a copy, we’d sneak our friends parents copies. Everyone wanted to prove they were brave enough to face Pennywise.

Did we not all close our eyes at night and see the image of Tim Curry as Pennywise peering back at us with a terrifying clown smile? My friends and I used to invite each other to play by saying, “Come on, Georgie, we all have fun down here.”

Stephen King is the master of Americana and nostalgia, as I recently mentioned in the review of his latest book of stories, If it Bleeds. For decades he has put out incredible stories of the weird and absurd. This list, and likely every book list I create, will have more, because you can’t explore the greatest books of our time without talking an awful lot about King.

Misery by Stephen King (1986)

If you have not yet read Misery, go ahead and put it on hold at the library or buy the mass-market paperback or borrow it from a friend now, and I’ll see you in a few days.

Misery is a page turner, as a crazed fan of an author’s best-selling series decides that she will kill him if he does not re-write the ending. She kidnaps him and holds him captive, giving him nothing but a typewriter with a missing key. Her insanity is violent and unstable and, of course, terrifying. Misery belongs on all the great book lists. It is a mastery of horror and suspense. The reader can not stop turning the pages to find out how far she will go – and you will be shocked at how far she goes.

A Time to Kill by John Grisham (1989)

In my opinion, this is Grisham’s greatest work. This was the novel that mastered what would become his formula for dozens of best selling legal thrillers that came in the following decades: Law/Trial + Social Issue + Good looking southern attorney working for nothing.

While the formula becomes tired after the 1990s, it is brilliant in this telling of a black father who kills his little girl’s rapists – two white men, in small town Mississippi. The Ku Klux Klan gets involved, a beautiful liberal law assistant comes to town to help, and the story culminates in a raw look at race relations in the south.

In writing this recommendation and adding the product links, I noticed that there are independent book stores selling this book for as low as $4.99 in good condition. If you choose not to check it out from the library, check this link for a really good price. I affiliate with bookshop.org – a way to buy books online while supporting local independent book stores. My book shop link is here: Breezy Afternoons Book Shop Bookshop.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (1989)

I consider this novel to be the greatest story ever written. Sometimes a novel can just wrap you up in its words like a cocoon. I am not exaggerating. This is the novel I turn to when I need comfort. I’ve acquired both the audiobook and the hardcover, and when I’m having trouble sleeping, I put headphones in and listen to the excellent narration until I fall asleep.

It is impossible to describe the story simply; so I’ll explain what type of novel it is instead. It is a coming of age novel. It is a political protest novel against the Vietnam War and Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. It is a story about religion, and family, but above all, it is a story about Owen Meany – a one of a kind boy with a one of a kind voice. I feel like a better person after having read about Owen. I think you will enjoy this story as much as I did.

Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (1989)

Pillars of the Earth is another book that I did not read until recently. The highly publicized release of the prequel this year caused me to check Pillars out of the library. I listened to the audio book – which was excellent. It started with a Foreward written by the author. He began saying he always wanted to write a historical novel about the building of a church. He had been selling thrillers well across the globe, and when Pillars of the Earth was released, it was a different kind of experience. He said that this book did not blow the book world away, it did not sell out in a massive rush. Slowly but surely, though, it did consistently sell, years upon years. A passionate German publishing house translated and illustrated and promoted his book aggressively and that paid off as well. Eventually, he came to realize that this was a “word of mouth” type of book. Over the years, the sales continued to accelerate instead of slow down.

Sure enough, it made it to me last year and I loved it. The characters, the writing, the storylines tied up tight at the end – that the author wrote an epic story of tragedy and action wrapped around and through the miniscule details of the building of a 12th century cathedral is unique and one of the greatest works of its time.

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Really, the authors are Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Need I say more?

A biblical tale of the apocalypse; saved by an angel and a demon who have become friends over the years, who do not want to lose their earthly lifestyles and friendships by allowing the world to end. It’s one of the most brilliantly funny books ever written.

Both of these authors have loyal followings and produce legendary characters. It all comes together in this book. It is truly perfection.

The Witching Hour by Anne Rice (1990)

The first book of the critically acclaimed Mayfair Witches series, The Witching Hour is the tale of a long line of witches and the spirit that has assisted them for 12 generations. With the death of the 12th witch, the 13th, Rowan Mayfair, moves back to her ancestral home in the French Quarter of New Orleans to assume her role as head of the family.

Is this spirit evil? What does he want? Can any Rowan resist him?

This is a tale for the ages, an instant classic, and one of the finest horror novels ever written.

The subsequent two novels in the series, Lasher and Taltos, both stand somewhat as different novels and I do not include them separately on this list. If you see them at the library and you’ve read the Witching Hour, check them out! You can likely find copies of the books for pretty cheap. I did purchase the series last year, all used copies for less than $6 each.

The Firm by John Grisham (1991)

No list of 90’s five star books could possibly complete without mentioning The Firm by John Grisham. Earlier in this list I noted that I found A Time to Kill to be his greatest novel, and I do. The Firm, however, reached a whole new level of cultural importance in the 1990s, spawning a blockbuster hit movie with Tom Cruise at his prime and even a spin off line of VHS Exercise Videos promising “The Firm” bootie. When I became pregnant in the year 2000, my first ever Amazon.com purchase was the VHS “The Firm” Pregnancy workout video. Keep that piece of trivia in your pocket for the future, ok?

The Firm is a suspense novel, where a young, bright lawyer finds work with a firm that seems far too good to be true. This is a psychological suspense novel and it is one of the best.

She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb

I remember laying on my side in my childhood bedroom, turning page after page in this book that was unlike anything I’d really ever read before. It was real. It was awkward.

The book follows the life of Dolores Price, from teenaged years to adult, as she meanders through her life. She has no anchor. As a teenager, she sits at home and eats the fatty foods and soda that her mother provides her, and she gains a lot of weight. Entering adulthood obese and without direction, she faces humiliation and hurt.

There is something about Dolores’s story that brings her to life. Wally Lamb is somewhat known for writing women characters well, and in this case, I did identify with many of the self perceptions and behaviors she exhibits. I think I’ll probably give this book a read again, as I haven’t read it in twenty years. There is something about this book that is unforgettable, even all these years later. It isn’t a specific scene or ending. It is the whole of the book itself.

The Tale of the Body Thief by Anne Rice (1992)

Anne Rice takes an interesting idea of a man who knows how to switch bodies, and pairs it with her superstar character Vampire Lestat, and executes a difficult concept beautifully.

A strange man approaches Lestat, promising him one more shot at time in a human body. The man has already stolen a body that is in excellent health and is attractive, and if Lestat will meet his terms, they will switch bodies for a short period of time in which Lestat can experience humanity one more time.

Lestat agrees, and the body thief disappears with Lestat’s powerful body. If Lestat dies in the human body, he is lost forever. He embarks on a vigorous search to find the man and get his body back. Anne Rice is perhaps the only author who could pull this off so beautifully.

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx (1993)

The Shipping News is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. If a novel has that distinction, I usually pick it up no matter when it was published.

I’d call this novel charming – an American family moves back to their ancestral home in Newfoundland, and the changes that overcome them make for an intriguing story. I’d recommend picking this book up if you aren’t sure what type of book you are in the mood for but you want something that you are certain will be worth the read.

The Giver, by Lois Lowry

Although this is known as a young adult novel, it is worth a read at any age. In a dystopian society where everything is tightly controlled by the powers that be, Jonah is chosen to bear witness to the past by becoming “The Receiver” of memories.

The society’s rules center around conformity and emotional detachment. Infants are taken to nurturing centers and they are assigned to families that want a child. At age 12, the children are assigned the role they will play within society.

As Jonah receives the society’s memories, he begins to see the world around him through a different lens. He must decide whether he can fulfill the expectations made for him.

For some reason, I don’t find myself describing this adequately. It’s an excellent, short read. If you’ve never read it, give it a try.

The Green Mile, by Stephen King (1996)

The Green Mile is the story of John Coffey, a developmentally disabled adult black man of great height and stature. Coffey has the intellectual abilities of a child, and is somehow accused and convicted of a terrible crime against two white children. He is sentenced to death.

The story is of Coffey’s time on death row. Of his gentleness, his kindness. He is surrounded by some of the most dangerous humans on the planet – and they aren’t necessarily the inmates. This story is masterfully told by Stephen King, but instead of a standard horror novel it becomes just a remarkable story of a remarkable man. Truly a statement on the racism of the justice department and how a large black man is viewed and treated, how his life is discarded so casually. It is riveting because of the truth behind it. It is fantastic because of the fantasy within.

I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb (1998)

A pair of identical twin boys – but one has schizophrenia. The concept alone was enough for me to pick this up a couple of decades ago (time flies, doesn’t it?)

One brother deals with a pretty serious case of schizophrenia and the other a serious case of guilt. Why? Why is he healthy and his brother is not? They share the same DNA, the same upbringing. The guilt floods him with every success. Every time he is frustrated with his brother, he experiences even more guilt.

What is his obligation to his brother? Lamb explores this unique relationship between twins, mental illness and brotherhood. It’s a really nice read, and when you’re done you can check out the television version on HBO.

A list like this Can never be complete. What did I miss? Please follow me for future book lists and leave me a comment on what you’d like to see next!

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