As you’re probably already aware, here at Off the Shelf we’re a little obsessed with books. Now that we’re entering the 2020s, we thought it only fair to look back at all the amazing stories published in the past 20 years and honor the best of the best from the 21st century (so far). We quickly discovered it’s nearly impossible to highlight just 20 books from the past 20 years, but we tried our best. Below you’ll find some award winners, some genre-game changers, some novels we never want to forget, and some that are just our favorites—but all in all, here’s our list of the best books we’ve read in the past 20 years (in no particular order):
This novel is a stunning, provocative debut about a darkly comic Bangalore driver navigating life through poverty and the corruption of modern India’s caste society. It is narrative genius with mischief and personality all its own—which is why it was an international publishing sensation that won the Booker Prize! And now, Adiga is coming out with another novel in 2020, so it’s only right that we recognize his talent and the book that knocked us off our feet.
A stunning literary debut critics have likened to Richard Wright’s Native Son, The White Tiger follows a darkly comic Bangalore driver through the poverty and corruption of modern India’s caste society.
Anthony Doerr’s book won the Pulitzer Prize and was on the New York Times’s bestseller list for more than two and a half years—and it was a finalist for the National Book Award. The reason? It’s an extremely powerful, stunning novel, set against the backdrop of World War II, about the ways in which people try to be good to each other against all odds.
Already beloved by millions of readers, this novel follows a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as they both try to survive the devastation of World War II. The breakout hit of 2014, this beautiful novel was a finalist for the National Book Award and it just won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. If you haven't read it yet, this one should be at the top of your spring reading list.
If you’ve never read Jesmyn Ward, you are missing out. She has won the National Book Award twice—once for Salvage the Bones and once for this novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, which is destined to become a classic. It’s a majestic, stirring story about a multigenerational family on a journey through rural Mississippi. Hope, struggle, and love all play a major part, and with Ward’s lyrical writing, the book captures your every sense.
WINNER of the NATIONAL BOOK AWARD and A NEW YORK TIMES TOP 10 BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
A finalist for the Kirkus Prize, Andrew Carnegie Medal, Aspen Words Literary Prize, and a New York Times bestseller, this majestic, stirring, and widely praised novel from two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, the story of a family on a journey through rural Mississippi, is a “tour de force” (O, The Oprah Magazine) and a timeless work of fiction that is destined to become a classic.
Jesmyn Ward’s historic second National Book Award–winner is “perfectly poised for the moment” (The New York Times), an intimate portrait of three generations of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. “Ward’s writing throbs with life, grief, and love… this book is the kind that makes you ache to return to it” (Buzzfeed).
Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager.
His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances.
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 thirteen-year-old 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.
Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic and unforgettable family story and “an odyssey through rural Mississippi’s past and present” (The Philadelphia Inquirer).
We couldn’t get through a list on Off the Shelf without throwing some love to Fredrik Backman! We’ve written about him over and over, and it’s because we absolutely love him. He writes beautiful, heartfelt stories about community and the way people can touch each other’s lives, and this debut is no exception. Ove is a curmudgeon, but under his cranky exterior is a sadness—and when a young couple and their daughters move in next door, it leads to unexpected friendships and lives changed forever. This book introduced us to Fredrik Backman, and as such, we’ll never forget it.
“If you like to laugh AND feel moved AND have your heart applaud wildly for fictional characters, you will certainly fall for the grumpy but lovable Ove (it’s pronounced “Oo-vuh,” if you were wondering).”
This #1 New York Times bestseller is the rich, compelling historical drama full of love, sex, and ambition that became a film sensation and snowballed our fascination with the Tudor court into an entire fan culture. This novel brings to light a woman of extraordinary determination and desire who lived at the heart of the most exciting and glamorous court in Europe and survived a treacherous political landscape by following her heart—Mary Boleyn, who had to step aside for her best friend and rival to take over Henry VIII’s heart and throne. We’ll just say: Thanks, Philippa. Now we can’t get enough historical fiction!
This list comprises books we loved from the past 20 years, and for almost half that time, The Glass Castle has been on the New York Times’s bestseller list. For years, this remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption has given readers a glimpse into a family both deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. It’s heartbreaking, but also full of love and faith—and honesty—making it easily one of the top books published in the 21st century.
Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose stubborn nonconformity was both their curse and their salvation. In this astonishing memoir—the basis of the forthcoming film starring Brie Larson—Walls recounts how her family’s dysfunction left her and her siblings to fend for themselves, weather their parents’ betrayals, and finally find the resources and will to leave home.
Read a review of THE GLASS CASTLE here.
When Milk and Honey was published, it took the world by storm. Rupi Kaur’s short, honest, and relatable poems resonated with readers everywhere. Each poem deals with pain, survival, love, loss, and femininity—and they show that, even in the most bitter moments in life, there is sweetness everywhere, if you’re willing to look.
MILK AND HONEY is a collection of poetry and prose grounded in the everyday experiences of women and bears witness to both the beautiful and the brutal sides womanhood. Every word feels genuine and evokes such strong feeling. I sobbed on the subway reading this collection for the first time.
Ruth Ware is the queen of twist endings and we love her for it. In this instant New York Times bestselling thriller, what should be a cozy and fun-filled weekend deep in the English countryside takes a sinister turn. She weaves a deeply obsessive and dark tale we could not put down—and because of it, we’ll pick up every book she writes from now on.
During a weekend away with a friend in an eerie glass house, crime writer Leonora wakes up in a hospital bed injured wondering not “What happened?” but “What have I done?” This one is for fans of GONE GIRL and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN.
If you visit us frequently, you’ll know our ed board loves Stephen King. And this year, 2020, this memoir/manual turns 20 years old. In honor of its anniversary, we’ll share a quick ode to it: brilliantly structured, friendly, and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it—fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.
“Nothing I have ever read about the writing life has moved or inspired me more. Whether or not you are a King fan, whether you are a professional writer or have never written a word, this is essential reading on the art of writing and the art of life.”
The premise of this fantastical and philosophical novel is a young boy stranded on a boat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker for 227 days. It’s spiritual, it’s moving, and, ultimately, incredibly impactful. And it won the Booker Prize!
A ship sinks and sixteen year old Pi finds himself in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi, whose fear, knowledge, and cunning allow him to coexist with Richard Parker for 227 days while lost at sea. A mesmerizing tale that keeps you guessing long after you turn the last page
We talk a lot about the extremely talented author Sarah Waters. Our own Sarah Jane has said, “Her novels are a skillful and engrossing combination of so many things I love: lush historical details with a seedy Dickensian underbelly. Complex, flawed but strong female characters. Unexpected plot twists. And though I’m not usually a reader of romance, the romantic pairings and journeys in her novels have so much emotional depth and passion and nuance, I can’t help but be swept up in them.” She has become one of our top authors, and her novel Fingersmith is a true treasure.
Read an LGBTQ+ Romance Novel
Orphan Sue Trinder is raised amongst “fingersmiths”—transient petty thieves. When a fingersmith known as Gentleman asks Sue to help him con a wealthy woman out of her inheritance, she never expects to pity her helpless mark, let alone come to care for her. But no one and nothing is as it seems in this Dickensian novel of thrills and reversals.
Marlon James is a masterful storyteller, capable of weaving an intricate, striking, and atmospheric tale of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the 1970s. This novel is a brilliant example of James’s ability to craft an entire world through the eyes of multiple characters—and that’s why it both won the Booker Prize and stole our hearts.
Some books leave impressions on readers, and some books leave impressions on society as a whole. The Underground Railroad did both. It shook us to our core. Whitehead’s novel shows the brutal history of the US, following escaped slaves as they search for the Underground Railroad that will take them out of the South—and in this story, the railroad is an actual train and tracks. It’s harrowing, powerful, and moving, with lyrical writing that will forever be etched in our minds and hearts.
Patti Smith is an icon, and her memoir about her time living in New York with Robert Mapplethorpe as they both grow into themselves and rise to fame is remarkable. It focuses largely on their relationship, and acts as a sort of elegy to Mapplethorpe. It celebrates artistry, love, friendship, and the hustle of New York in the 60s and 70s. It’s beautiful and, frankly, iconic.
Set against the color and creativity of downtown New York in the 1960s and 1970s, Smith’s story is made for the movies. Covering her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, the determination and resilience that led to her fame, and the tragedy and struggles that went along with it, her cinematic memoir is an enjoyable read and would make an equally enjoyable viewing experience. Happily, Showtime has it in development.
My Brilliant Friend was a book we could not get enough of in the past few years. Elena Ferrante is a force, and this novel introduced us to her incredible gift: the ability to write flawed characters tangled in friendships and relationships that are both loving and resentful, and incredibly universal. She is coming out with a new novel shortly, and we wouldn’t have been so excited if we first hadn’t read and fallen in love with the first of her Neapolitan Novels.
Stuart’s Fictional Dinner Party Guests: Elena and Lila
I’d like to host a dinner with an eye on close friendships. Friendships are fascinating because they are the one relationship in life that you aren’t required to be in because of birth or bound to by law. Those in attendance would ideally have a multiple-decade friendship like Elena and Lila of MY BRILLIANT FRIEND. And even though he’s not fictional, I’d love for my best friend to be sitting at the table, too.
Gillian Flynn took femme fatale to a whole new level, and turned everyone into suspense and crime fiction readers with this book. Flawed women, mysterious plots, and twist endings have existed forever—but not only has this novel become a staple of its genre, it created a phenomenon. It’s now the book we think of when we talk about domestic thrillers.
Some say she’s cold and unfeeling, calculating to a subhuman degree, and basically totally nutso. I say Amy Dunne is just a smart, sensitive woman in a man’s world, frustrated by patriarchy, down with to-do lists, and dedicated to the fine art of revenge! This powerhouse of a novel sees crime writer Gillian Flynn come into her own as a dramatic storyteller in full command of her many gifts.
Crazy like: A fox! Amy is a hottie!
Best crazy moment: The box cutter. ’Nuff said.
Similar to Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo became an international sensation. This pulse-pounding thriller follows a journalist and a troubled hacker as they try to discover what happened to a young woman who disappeared forty years earlier. It sparked us to pad our book stacks with even more Scandinavian thrillers.
Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist, and tattooed punk prodigy Lisbeth Salander team up to investigate the 40 year disappearance of Harriet Vanger, a scion of one of Sweden's wealthiest families. Stieg Larsson's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO combines murder mystery, family saga, love story, and financial intrigue into one satisfyingly complex and entertainingly atmospheric novel.
This captivating mystery quickly became a modern classic, and for good reason. The main character, 15-year-old Christopher Boone, doesn’t understand human emotions, doesn’t like to be touched, and relates well to animals. When he finds the neighbor’s dog dead under suspicious circumstances, Christopher tries to investigate what happened. It’s incredibly touching, funny, and heartfelt, and lasted with us years after we finished reading it. (It made one of our Books I’ll Never Forget lists!)
Now adapted into a Tony Award-winning play, this captivating novel is told through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old autistic boy who relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. This powerful story of his quest to investigate the suspicious death of a neighborhood dog makes for a captivating read.
Kazuo Ishiguro has won the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is an excellent writer, and in this dystopian science fiction book (shortlisted for the Booker), his writing mastery is on full display. We chose this over his other novels because it’s a heartbreaking but courageous mystery that knocks us down every time we read it. Through the eyes of Kathy—a young girl at an English boarding school that doesn’t allow for contact with the outside world—Ishiguro explores morality, humanity, and memory.
The students of Hailsham are special. That’s what they’ve been told. Isolated from the outside world, they’re raised from birth as “donors,” their bodily organs harvested for wealthy patrons. But this is no schlocky sci-fi; it’s a gently observed drama. Existential, painful, and unforgettable, NEVER LET ME GO explores how even the most disenfranchised and doomed characters find meaning, hope, and love, even as they resign themselves to a life cut horribly short.
Crazy like: You’d be too.
Best crazy moment: The whole damn book.
An instant New York Times bestseller, this magnificent novel follows four orphans on a life-changing odyssey during the Great Depression. They escape a horrific school, and over the course of a summer, they cross paths with many others: struggling farmers and traveling faith healers, displaced families, and lost souls of all kinds. It’s a big-hearted epic that shows how the magnificent American landscape connects us all, haunts our dreams, and makes us whole—and it is one we will be rereading for years to come.
(This list was so hard to make, so here are all of the other titles we desperately wanted to include but couldn’t fit!)
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner,
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín,
Himself by Jess Kidd,
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid,
Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell,
Atonement by Ian McEwan,
On Beauty by Zadie Smith,
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones,
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel,
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri,
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion,
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates,
The Road by Cormac McCarthy,
The Corrections by Johnathan Franzen,
Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi,
The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon,
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami,
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas,
I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron,
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk,
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel,
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie