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These contemporary fiction books will give you plenty of options to add to your lifetime reading list. These are some of the best modern novels, and many of these realistic books straddle the line of literary fiction and popular fiction, making them compelling, highly readable and discussable books.
Looking for the best contemporary fiction books to add to your list of books to read in a lifetime? This list of contemporary novels will help you narrow down your own list of must-read modern books.
I’ve written before about my reading bucket list, and I have tips for putting together your own book bucket list. While you may not read all of the books on this list, the contemporary fiction list goes hand-in-hand with the others in my series on books for your lifetime reading list.
How to Use These Lists of Bucket List Books
I firmly believe that a “reading bucket list” or “lifetime must-read list” (if you don’t like the term bucket list) is a personal thing.
Rather than follow a prescriptive set of classics defined by someone else, I think readers should choose the books that pique their interest–often in ways beyond the entertainment value.
This, for me, is what makes a bucket list book. I try to add books to my list that spark some intellectual and cultural curiosity. I like to use a reading journal to keep track of the books I add to my reading bucket list.
A bucket list book may not be the easiest read, or one that I grab for a cozy curl up with a book, but it’s one that stretches my thinking, understanding, and/or empathy. Sometimes it’s purely a literary thing, and sometimes it’s a broader cultural or political understanding that I’m seeking.
Whatever your reasons for adding a book to your bucket list, use these lists as a jumping-off point. You can also check out my tips for how to create a book bucket list that you’ll actually finish. And be sure to share your own bucket list books in the comments!
If you need a book or two to get started, take the quiz for a personalized recommendation, then check out the full list below.
How I Created These Book Lists
There’s no science to pulling these lists together–any list like this could include countless books.
My point here is to get you thinking about the books you truly want to add to your lifetime must-read list. They don’t all have to be classics! I tried to build out my own bucket list with books from across genres.
The list of fiction books in this includes popular, well-reviewed, realistic books set in modern times; if these are not the type of books that speak to you, build out your own lifetime reading list with books from genres you enjoy.
CHOOSING THE MUST-READ BOOKS OF THE 20TH AND 21ST CENTURIES
Some of the books on my list are award winners (which sometimes get mixed reviews among regular readers, but are always ripe for discussion), some are books I’ve considered for my own reading bucket list, and some are just books that I love.
Some of the books I’ve included have had (or are having) a cultural moment–discussions around the topic, literary trends, screen adaptations, social or political movements–that have kept them in focus and make them candidates for a must-read bucket list.
Both of these novels about quirky loners follow some recent trends. Will these stand the test of time and be books that we discuss years from now? It’s hard to say, but for the moment, they epitomize the recent literary trend toward “up lit”–books with an overall positive storyline that leave the reader feeling good.
Even the awards are getting in on this lighthearted book trend, if the recent Pulitzer winner Less is any indication. Would we add these to our bucket lists in 10 or 20 years? Time will tell. But many of these books have gotten so much attention and discussion, that I would venture to say that they are modern classic books.
WHAT IS CONTEMPORARY FICTION? AND, DEFINING THE GENRES
A few notes on these lists:
- My genre definitions are rough. Here I’m defining “contemporary fiction” as roughly being realistic books set in the last thirty years or so, but some may be a bit older, or take place over a number of decades. I’ve generally looked at what I consider some of the best books of the late 20th century and the 21st century.
- For the other lists, some books cross the genres as I’ve defined them, but I’ve tried to put most books only on one list, so you have more to choose from for your own bucket list.
- I’ve read many of these, but when I haven’t yet read the book (or don’t have a good review and summary of my own), I’ve included the publisher’s summary in italics.
30 of the Best Modern Books that Everyone Should Read
Author: Julia Glass
This 2002 National Book Award-winning novel brings us into the lives of Paul, Fenno, and Fern over the course of three different summers. Their lives are woven together in different ways, but the story isn’t necessarily about their relationships with one another, but about each of their struggles to come to terms with the deaths of loved ones. A slow-mover, for me, but a nonetheless fascinating look at families, love, and how death and the things learned in the aftermath can define the lives of those left behind.
Author: Ann Patchett
In Commonwealth, Ann Patchett brilliantly weaves together flawed families who fail one another over the decades but keep trying and trusting in spite of the failures.
Where you would expect villains, she instead presents complicated characters struggling with their own hopes, inadequacies, and feelings about the past and how to move forward. Where you would expect broken, bitter relationships, she shows the enduring power of loyalty, love, and forgiveness.
This is not an action-packed novel, but one where the subtle emotional tensions will resonate. Highly recommended, along with all of her other books.
Author: Fredrik Backman
In the declining Swedish town of Beartown, hockey is the one bright spot. The talented junior team–and one player in particular–have the potential to win it all and revitalize the town. But a brutal event at an after-game party could be the downfall of the team, the players, and the future of the town itself. As the residents grapple with their loyalties and their own morality, each one is forced to answer for themselves how much they are willing to sacrifice for the love of a town and game.
Backman veers away from the quirkiness that readers loved about A Man Called Ove, and instead brings sharp observations about small-town relationships, family, and the saving grace of team and sport. I’ll repeat many other readers on this point: you don’t have to love or know hockey to love this book.
Author: John Boyne
Cyril Avery was born to an unwed mother in Ireland in the 1940s–an unthinkable and shameful thing, at that time. Cyril is adopted by Charles and Maude Avery, who are indifferent and self-centered, but not neglectful.
From an early age, Cyril knows he’s different: not a “real Avery,” as Charles is quick to remind him, and realizing that he is not attracted to girls like his friends are–something that’s even more shameful at that time in Ireland. In fact, Cyril harbors a deep love for his womanizing friend and eventual school roommate, Julian Woodbead.
The book follows Cyril through his life, from his youth and twenties spent in hiding and public denial in a repressive Dublin to a more open life in middle age in Amsterdam and New York. Cyril’s search for identity, belonging, acceptance, and family is by turns funny, frustrating, and sad.
Author: Emma Donoghue
Five-year-old Jack has never known the world beyond Room. He lives there with Ma, who has made it into a world for him. But she has been a prisoner for seven years and she knows it’s time for Jack–and her–to have more of a life. But the terrifying escape plot is only the first part of the challenge. If they can make it out of Room, they then need to find their way to a new life, to feelings of security, to new identities, and ultimately back to each other. Room is terrifying for its basis in real-life events, but it’s also hopeful for its portrayal of the strength of the bond between parent and child.
Author: Gail Honeyman
Eleanor has her routine down to a science: work, weekly phone calls with her mother, and weekends with vodka (and nothing or no one else). She’s fine, and she’s even ready to pursue a relationship with a musician who seems perfect for her (though she hasn’t actually met him).
Never mind that she has no social life, no friends, and she tends to say brutally honest, awkward, and somewhat inappropriate things. She starts working out a self-improvement plan in anticipation of her future relationship with the musician, despite her mother’s cruel discouragement.
Meanwhile, she finds herself in an unexpected friendship with her coworker, Raymond, when they help an elderly gentleman after a fall. Slowly, the friendship helps draw Eleanor out of her isolation, but also pushes her toward difficult truths about herself, her past, and her future.
Eleanor is endearing for her mix of self-awareness and oblivious social awkwardness, and Raymond is an unexpected hero. This book manages to be funny, heartbreaking, and uplifting all at once.
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Four friends move to New York after graduating from college with big dreams of successful careers. JB is an artist, Willem an aspiring actor, Malcolm an architect, and Jude a lawyer. The story brings the reader into the lives of each of the men, finally landing on Jude. It’s at this point that it’s clear that this is not just another post-collegiate New York story. Jude is insular and mysterious, and as the story progresses, the degree of his damage and suffering emerges.
A Little Life covers decades in the life of the men and it is one of the most devastating, riveting books I’ve ever read. Many readers count it among their favorites–just as many say they loved it but could never read it again. For more, also check out The Story of the Story: 15 Things You Didn’t Know about A Little Life.
Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
Nine-year-old Oskar Schell is many things–and precocious is definitely one of them. His father died in the World Trade Center on 9/11 and you will grieve with Oskar as he wanders New York searching for the lock that fits the key he found in his father’s closet. This book is about Oskar’s search for peace, his efforts to stay close to his father, and his fight to keep hold of his memories. Foer’s writing style isn’t for everyone, and Oskar is sometimes too brilliant to believe, but the handling of memory and grief here is both creative and sensitive.
Author: Andrew Sean Greer
This recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tells the story of Arthur Less, a failing novelist on the brink of turning 50. When he receives an invitation to his former lover’s wedding, he decides to embark on an around-the-world journey to avoid the event. Less accepts various speaking engagements, award ceremonies, and teaching appointments to ensure that he will be out of the country. On this journey, Less ruminates on his past and dreads his future as an aging, single gay man (he feels there is no precedent for this) and failed writer.
Less is both frustrating and endearing, a bit bumbling, and above all, certain of his own failures. Those around him rarely disabuse him of these notions, but they also see more in him that he sees in himself. This book won’t be for everyone–it’s light on plot and heavy on wandering musings, and can be slow at times–but for a reader in the right mood it’s a sweet and sometimes funny read. Certain parts had me laughing out loud.
Author: Donna Tartt
This is the story of a group of classics students at an elite New England college and their relationships with each other and an eccentric but compelling professor. The students seem to strive for elitism and arrogance, and often toe the line of morality. They eventually cross it when they kill one of their own. You learn this on the first page and then are drawn into the tale of how they got to that point and the aftermath.
None of the characters are likable, but they are compelling in their insularity and self-destructiveness. The Secret History is among my favorite books, but it is divisive–people seem to either love it or hate it.
Author: Lauren Groff
One marriage, two stories. Fates and Furies tells the story of Lotto and Mathilde over the course of 24 years. Glamorous, fiery, and in love at twenty-two, they each enter into a marriage never fully understanding the perspective of the other. That overarching misunderstanding continues over the years and how they manage it becomes a driving force for their relationship and its successes and failures.
Groff is a talented writer; the story is complex and I enjoyed her use of language, but I can’t say that I enjoyed this book. It’s not an optimistic read, but you might say it’s a darkly realistic view of some marriages–maybe a little too dark for me. Nonetheless, it has received raves and awards (President Obama counted it among his favorites of 2015), so it might be the book for you.
Author: Jennifer Egan
Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.
Author: Marilynne Robinson
This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the first in the trilogy set in Gilead, Iowa, takes the form of a father’s letter to his son. Rev. John Ames is 76-years-old and nearing the end of his life, but his son is only seven. In the letter, he reflects on his own life and relationships with his father and grandfather, and realizes some of his regrets–including his difficulty relating to a son so many years his junior, and that he won’t be around to watch him reach adulthood.
Robinson’s writing is quiet and meditative, but often astonishing in its perceptive observations on human nature. I also have Lila on my shelf but am waiting to read it until I need a curl-up-by-the-fire-with-tea book (probably in the fall or winter).
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Hosseini’s debut novel was not only the introduction of a new author, but it was also many readers’ first foray into Afghanistan. The innocent friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant takes a dark turn with one horrific incident, forever changing their relationship and their lives. Hosseini brings both the people and the country of Afghanistan to life, and while my favorite of his is A Thousand Splendid Suns, The Kite Runner is still a stunning and essential read.
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
After leaving a Nigeria under military rule, Ifemelu and Obinze plan to move to the United States to start a new life. But 9/11 keeps Obinze from joining Ifemelu, and over 15 years they each seek their own identities in very different ways.
Ifemelu pursues academics while facing her own blackness for the first time, now living in a country where her race is defining in ways that it wasn’t in Nigeria. Obinze, meanwhile, lives a life in dangerous limbo in London, where he is undocumented.
When they finally come together, they must determine if what they’ve learned about themselves and the world can allow them to be together in a new Nigeria.
Author: Leif Enger
When Reuben’s brother Davy flees after an encounter with bullies that ends in murder, 11-year-old Reuben, his poetic sister Swede, and his father follow him into the unforgiving Badlands. While the plot centers on the family’s search for Davy, the atmospheric writing touches on poetry, faith, and miracles–for which Reuben’s father seems to be a conduit.
This book manages to be both tragic and hopeful, and Enger is a writer whose prose is worth savoring.
Author: Donna Tartt
When Theo Decker survives an explosion at the museum, his life is forever changed. His mother is killed, setting Theo on a journey to several homes and a rootless existence. Complicating Theo’s sense of disquiet is his secret: in the confusion of the blast, he took a priceless painting that he carries with him through the years. When he finally finds a sense of home and belonging in an antiques business, Theo’s secret could be his undoing. Tartt’s book won the Pulitzer Prize and I found it just as compelling as The Secret History.
Author: Junot Díaz
Oscar is a nerdy, overweight, hopeful teenager, growing up in the ghetto with his Dominican family. He wants nothing more than to fall in love and to be the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien. Oscar is endearing for his sweet insecurity, but also for how he embraces and immerses himself in the nerdy things he loves: anime, video games, comics, RPGs, fantasy and science fiction.
You hope for him, even knowing he is doomed to a brief life–and he does too, as he grapples with the fuku (curse) that plagues his family. This Pulitzer Prize-winning book is both character study and exploration of Dominican history and the immigrant experience.
Author: Marlon James
On December 3, 1976, just before the Jamaican general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica Concert to ease political tensions in Kingston, seven unnamed gunmen stormed the singer’s house, machine guns blazing. The attack wounded Marley, his wife, and his manager, and injured several others. Little was officially released about the gunmen, but rumors abounded regarding the assassins’ fates. A Brief History of Seven Killings is James’s fictional exploration of that dangerous and unstable time in Jamaica’s history and beyond.
Author: Arundhati Roy
Arundhati Roy’s modern classic is equal parts powerful family saga, forbidden love story, and piercing political drama. The seven-year-old twins Estha and Rahel see their world shaken irrevocably by the arrival of their beautiful young cousin, Sophie. It is an event that will lead to an illicit liaison and tragedies accidental and intentional, exposing “big things [that] lurk unsaid” in a country drifting dangerously toward unrest. Lush, lyrical, and unnerving, The God of Small Things is an award-winning landmark that started for its author an esteemed career of fiction and political commentary that continues unabated.
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
(I have actually read Middlesex, and I remember loving it, but it’s been long enough that I don’t remember it well enough to write my own mini-review. I think this is another one for my reread list!) Here’s the publisher’s summary: Middlesex tells the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City and the race riots of 1967 before moving out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret, and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction. Lyrical and thrilling, Middlesex is an exhilarating reinvention of the American epic and the winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.
Author: Karen Joy Fowler
Rosemary is 22 and hasn’t seen her brother or sister in years. Her sister was removed from the home before Rosemary was 6, and now she’s determined to learn more about the reasons. It’s been long enough since this book came out that you may already know the “secret” of this family, but if you don’t, I’ve removed it from the longer summary and won’t reveal it here.
Go in blind and don’t read more reviews, if you don’t know. If you have already read more, rest assured: what seems like it could be a gimmick is actually a smartly rendered novel about family, memory, and science. I loved this novel and would like to read it again.
Author: Philip Roth
Often called Philip Roth’s masterpiece, American Pastoral won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997. Roth’s protagonist is Swede Levov, a legendary athlete at his Newark high school, who grows up in the booming postwar years to marry a former Miss New Jersey, inherit his father’s glove factory, and move into a stone house in the idyllic hamlet of Old Rimrock. And then one day in 1968, Swede’s beautiful American luck deserts him.
For Swede’s adored daughter, Merry, has grown from a loving, quick-witted girl into a sullen, fanatical teenager—a teenager capable of an outlandishly savage act of political terrorism. And overnight Swede is wrenched out of the longer-for American pastoral and into the indigenous American berserk. Compulsively readable, propelled by sorrow, rage, and a deep compassion for its characters, this is Roth’s masterpiece.
Author: Zadie Smith
Epic and intimate, hilarious and poignant, White Teeth is the story of two North London families—one headed by Archie, the other by Archie’s best friend, a Muslim Bengali named Samad Iqbal. Pals since they served together in World War II, Archie and Samad are a decidedly unlikely pair. Plodding Archie is typical in every way until he marries Clara, a beautiful, toothless Jamaican woman half his age, and the couple have a daughter named Irie (the Jamaican word for “no problem”). Samad —devoutly Muslim, hopelessly “foreign”— weds the feisty and always suspicious Alsana in a prearranged union. They have twin sons named Millat and Magid, one a pot-smoking punk-cum-militant Muslim and the other an insufferable science nerd. The riotous and tortured histories of the Joneses and the Iqbals are fundamentally intertwined, capturing an empire’s worth of cultural identity, history, and hope.
Author: Chris Cleave
While the hype on the back of this book is kind of irritating (it’s not the most magical story ever and it’s definitely not a laugh riot), Little Bee is a beautiful, painful, horrifying novel—one worth reading. The story of the connection between Little Bee, a young Nigerian woman, and Sarah, an English wife and mother, unfolds slowly, alternating between their perspectives. Little Bee’s parts shine with lovely language and humorous insights, while Sarah’s fall a little flat, but I feel like this is part of the contrast of their experiences and how they respond. An important read that brings the horrors, fears, and hopes of asylum seekers to the doorstep.
Author: Angie Thomas
When 16-year-old Starr is witness to a police officer shooting her unarmed best friend, she is torn between staying silent and speaking out. Starr lives in two worlds: the world of her affluent private school and that of her black neighborhood that is rocked by the shooting. The case quickly makes national headlines and as tensions rise, Starr feels the pull to tell her side of the story and refute attacks on her friend’s character, even as she faces intimidation from police and local gangs.
This powerful novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement delves into the shootings of unarmed black people by police officers, the lack of justice in the aftermath, and white privilege. It is not just for a YA audience but is a must-read for everyone. One of the best of 2017.
Author: Celeste Ng
The community of Shaker Heights is meticulously planned and picture-perfect, and the Richardson family is much the same. When their new tenants–mysterious, free-spirited artist Mia and her daughter, Pearl–move into town, the four Richardson children are enamored of both, and Pearl of them. As the families becomes more entwined, complications arise when the two mothers, Elena and Mia, find themselves on opposite sides of an adoption case. Elena suspects Mia is not all that she seems and starts digging into her past, rocking the worlds of Mia and Pearl and her own children.
Little Fires Everywhere is a study in the characters–their flaws, pasts, dreams, regrets, and fears–and how all of these hidden things affect their relationships and what happens next. Well-written and perfect for anyone looking for a simmering, emotional read.
Author: Fredrik Backman
Ove is a solitary curmudgeon who is set in his ways and unreserved in his criticism of anyone who crosses his path. “Hell is other people” could well be Ove’s mantra. But behind his rough exterior is a sweet, sad backstory and a soft-hearted man committed to his morals who is about to have his world rocked by several people (and a cat) who refuse to be held off by a few cranky words.
Ove is by turns funny, sad, and heartwarming. It’s delightful to watch his persistent new friends chip away at his hard shell to find the kind man lurking within.
Author: Mary Gaitskill
Velveteen Vargas is eleven years old, a Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn. Her host family is a couple in upstate New York: Ginger, a failed artist on the fringe of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Paul, an academic who wonders what it will mean to “make a difference” in such a contrived situation. The Mare illuminates the couple’s changing relationship with Velvet over the course of several years, as well as Velvet’s powerful encounter with the horses at the stable down the road, as Gaitskill weaves together Velvet’s vital inner-city community and the privileged country world of Ginger and Paul.
Author: Jesmyn Ward
Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.
When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.
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You might also like:
- 11 Unputdownable Contemporary Page-Turners
- 7 Must-Read Books about Family Dramas
- Books to Read if You Love This Is Us
- 12 Great Books About Loners and Endearing Misfits
Others in the Reading Bucket List Series:
- 50 Books on My Reading Bucket List
- 30 20th Century Classics by Women for Your Reading Bucket List
- 30 Historical Fiction Novels for Your Reading Bucket List
- 30 Middle Grade Books for Your Reading Bucket List
- 30 Memoirs and Nonfiction Books for Your Reading Bucket List
- How to Create a Reading Bucket List that You’ll Actually Finish