The Best Books Of The 2010s, According To 30 Of The Decade's Debut Authors
Another decade has come and — nearly — gone, so it's time to take a look back at the best books of the 2010s, before we move on to new and different things in 2020. Bustle reached out to 30 of the decade's debut authors for their opinions on the greatest books to land in stores over the last 10 years. Keep reading to find out what your favorite writers had to say about literature in the Twenty-Teens.
A lot has changed over the course of the last 10 years, y'all. The 2010s kicked off with the WikiLeaks scandal, and ended with the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange earlier this year. Netflix and Hulu had only just begun to stream in 2010, and now we live in a world in which premium cable networks have their own, separate streaming services. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down DOMA in 2013, paving the way for the Court to legalize marriages for similar-gender couples midway through the decade. All that's just a brief sampling of all the ways our lives have changed this decade.
As we look forward to bigger and better things in 2020, let's join 30 of the decade's debut authors in looking back on the best books of the last 10 years:
Elizabeth Acevedo recommends Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
"Sáenz is a master of his craft, and I loved this book about these two boys discovering love for each other, their communities, and love for themselves. It's rare to find a book on queerness, Latinidad, and masculinity that balances both heartbreak and hope, but in this novel Sáenz does both, and ultimately offered us a masterpiece."
Elizabeth Acevedo's With the Fire on High and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz are available now.
Renée Ahdieh recommends When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
"I had to sit back and ponder this question before writing a response. There have been so many books from the past decade that have struck me on so many levels. Several of the books that came to mind are ones I take it upon myself to reread at least once a year. The two that I can't stop thinking about are Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air and Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming. Every time I read each of these books, I am left to ponder something new about what it means to be alive and the impressions we leave on others after we are gone."
Xhenet Aliu recommends the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
"I have two dogs at home who are so bonded that I worry what will happen when one of them eventually passes on. Several times when we've encountered snarling, territorial dogs on walks, though, my own sweet pups have turned on each other, as if needing to release the fury introduced by an aggressor they're too tethered to reach. It's an odd metaphor, maybe, but it was the one that came to mind when reading Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan quartet (which are, I acknowledge, plural 'books,' though Ferrante considers them one novel in four parts). The friendship between Elena and Lila alternates between fiercely loving and protective to resentful and destructive, depending on pressures exerted on them by the forces around them: poverty, mafia law, oppressive Catholicism, patriarchy, and the individualized misogyny of the men they love. The complexity and duality of their relationship is built into the very language Ferrante renders it in, at once base and sophisticated, seething and perfectly controlled. I nearly skipped over this series because of the famously cheesy covers, but make no mistake, this is not chick lit — it's literature that happens to center women's experiences, in this case, the rage of living in spaces engineered to privilege men at women's expense."
Xhenet Aliu's Brass and the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante are available now.
Charlie Jane Anders recommends Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
"This book has stuck in my head ever since I read it, thanks to its intense portrayal of a world full of ghosts and magic that 'runs in the blood, like silt in river water.' Ward's prose is irresistibly beautiful, and her characters feel vivid and irresistibly alive. Most of all, she conveys in every line the texture of a family that's been marred by tragedy. Sing, Unburied, Sing, more than any other book I've read in the 2010s, has left me with a renewed sense of everything fiction can accomplish."
Katherine Arden recommends Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
"A book that really stood out to me was Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. The novel was equal parts melancholy, lovely, and hopeful. In beautiful prose, it asked hard questions about the role of culture, of memory, and of connections between people in a world gone suddenly strange. These are questions I think, that we all relate to today."
Victoria Aveyard recommends The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
"I'm loathe to choose a single book in this lush, thrilling, and marvelous trilogy that bewitched me for month's on end. In this case, each novel complimented and in many ways exceeded the last, but the first is what dug her hooks in me, so the first I will name. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, published in 2017, ensorcelled me the way few novels do. Arden's prose and story are addictive, her characters sharp and enchanting, every page stirring and dangerous. Her portrait of Russia torn between pagan beliefs and Orthodox religion, heroic demons and diabolic priests, is beautifully painted, with a heroine for the ages at its center. I felt my heart in my teeth from the first page to the last and I did indeed weep for a nightingale. I wish I could forget it and devour the trilogy all over again."
Mona Awad recommends Slade House by David Mitchell
"I'll never forget this book. By far one of the most wondrously thrilling novels I've had the pleasure to read in recent years. Essentially it's a haunted house story that follows five characters — one chapter is dedicated to each — as they are drawn into the house and meet their dark fate within its Lynchian walls. Mitchell is the Daniel Day Lewis of writers — channeling each character's voice so intimately and powerfully you truly feel you're inhabiting their skin. Never has the experience of horror been so soulful and dreamy and rich. This book is tied for me with Mitchell's Bone Clocks, also a voice-driven, decade spanning, genre-bending feat of imagination that takes place in the same imagined universe as SH. Both books are exhilarating reading experiences and all time favorites."
Fiona Barton recommends Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
"I can remember inhaling this book, legs going numb from sitting in one position for hours. I had learned about the appalling King Henry VIII and his six wives at school (divorced, beheaded, died. Repeat…) but I was completely mesmerized. Mantel took this well-worn cast of characters and made them as vivid, accessible and immediate as an episode of primetime soap. Her language, the brilliant quirks of her narrative style made the marriage of Henry and Anne Boleyn — and the adulterous and political secrets that destroyed it — sing off the page — and stay in my head. Happily the final part of Mantel's Tudor trilogy is out next year to start the next decade with a grand flourish..."
Jordanna Max Brodsky recommends Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
"You don’t need to have any interest in the Civil War or know what the 'bardo' is to find yourself alternately weeping and guffawing at George Saunders’ 2017 masterpiece. Abraham Lincoln, who has sent thousands of young men to their graves, now faces his greatest tragedy: the death of his beloved 11-year-old son, Willie. This much is history. From there, Saunders takes flight, imagining a lonely night in 1862 when the bereaved and desperate president visits his son’s grave. As Willie’s spirit, unwilling to leave his father, wanders among a raucous crowd of the cemetery’s other dead, we hear their stories — heartbreaking, enlightening, hysterical. Saunders’ dazzling prose leaps from the sublime to the salacious and back: gay suicides and lusty bachelors, preachers and the damned, the enslaved and their masters, each tale weaving another strand in America’s tangled web. Lincoln in the Bardo is both historical exploration and unbridled fantasy. In our current moment of national crisis, it is also an essential and stirring portrait of the grieving Lincoln, a man falling apart while heroically holding the nation together."
S.A. Chakraborty recommends The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami
"It's been a great decade for books, and I have had the privilege of reading countless incredible ones, but when asked which book I thought was the best of the 2010s, I had an immediate response: The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami. A fictional memoir in the style of a sixteenth-century travelogue, The Moor's Account follows the life of the first Black explorer in the Americas, a Moroccan merchant enslaved by the Spanish. Lalami accomplishes an incredible feat, creating one of the richest characters I've read in historical fiction from a sparse mention in the official chronicles. The result is gutting, immersive, and recasts and decentralizes modern understandings of multiple national histories. It's a book that's stayed with me for years and one I'll be recommending for a long time to come."
Nicole Dennis-Benn recommends The Face: Cartography of the Void by Chris Abani
"The Face by Chris Abani is one of the most memorable meditations on masculinity and tradition. Only less than a hundred pages, Abani's prose is flawless and reads like poetry. This memoir takes the reader into the intimate life of a young man who 'wears his father’s face' and thus, grapples with the fear of inheriting his father’s demons, all while showing compassion to the man who had tormented him with his abuse his whole life. It’s a riveting read on legacy, culture, and forgiveness."
Aja Gabel recommends Severance by Ling Ma
"The best book of the decade is about the destruction of the decade: Severance by Ling Ma. This novel looks back so clearly and squarely on the tangled capitalist roots of our modern times, and skewers those roots through the genre of zombie apocalypse. It also skewers the act of looking back, naming nostalgia as the disease, the endless loop of our desires as symptom. But what I love most about Severance is that it places a millennial Chinese American woman at the center of the narrative, braiding and unbraiding her past, her immigration story, and her sense of belonging in a world that is unmaking itself. Also, how Ling Ma manages to be funny, terrifying, and tender all at the same time will haunt me the rest of my writer days. I have read this twice already and now I feel primed to go back for a third read, which is a repetitive impulse the novel would seriously have me question."
Heidi Heilig recommends Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
"Ten years ago, I never would have expected to nominate a zombie book as the best book of the decade, but my, times have changed. Thus, I offer Justina Ireland's Dread Nation, in which a queer black girl is forced to battle the legions of shambling undead that have risen off the bloody fields of Gettysburg. Racism, colorism, family, and politics are explored with nuance, punctuated by the sheer satisfaction of bashing the seemingly deathless legacy of racism in our country. This alternate U.S. history-zombie novel may be set in the 19th century, but the themes and metaphors still hit home 150 years later. The more things change, the more they really do stay the same."
Vanessa Hua recommends the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
"Perhaps I’m bending the rules to claim all four books — My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child — but Ferrante has said she considers them a single novel. I was gripped by her portrayal of the complicated relationship between women, and what women face — and continue to face — when they attempt to move past traditional gender roles. As the daughter of immigrants, I was interested in the outsider narrative. Elena and Lila both strive to find their place in the world, but struggling to fit in for reasons of language, for reasons of assimilation and class. As a writer, I’m interested in how she approaches her craft, creating characters and circumstances that propel us through a lifetime’s worth of friendship. A group of my Asian American writer-friends formed a karaoke-book club to read the quartet. Over dinner, we talked books, and then we sang. Karaoke is pure emotion — the highs so high, the lows so low. We’re going back, way back, to the songs we sang along to at prom or played while cruising around as teenagers. Likewise, Lila gives us access to her innermost thoughts and feelings in her childhood and adolescence — all her life, she is raw and honest and restless, like any great karaoke ballad."
Vanessa Hua's A River of Stars and the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante are available now.
Maggie Shen King recommends Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
"Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado astounded me with its inventiveness, its singular voice, and its gorgeous prose. Disguised as fairytales and fables, this genre-bending story collection shines a playful light not just on the trials of womanhood, its suffocating expectations and violations, but also its physical pleasures and complex joys. These powerful, revelatory, and highly accessible tales deepened my understanding of femininity and the short story and showed me the possibilities of fiction and writing."
Lisa Ko recommends Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
"Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. It reshaped form, genre, prose, poetry, art, literature, and lyric, and feels at once precisely contemporary to the 2010s — a decade in which citizenship continued to be violently contested and reconstructed — and, in its illustration of the relationship between the institution and the individual, as old as America itself."
R.F. Kuang recommends The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu
"For me, the best book of the 2010s is The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu, translated by Joel Martinsen. It’s the second (and best) book of the Three Body Trilogy, which is a landmark achievement for both Chinese science fiction and translated works. Everything about The Dark Forest is massively ambitious — the scope, the themes, and the sheer complexity of the plot. I can’t say too much about it without giving spoilers away, but I’ve rarely read books that made my jaw hang open for extended periods of time. The Dark Forest manages that in every single act. Moreover, the fact that the Three Body Trilogy found such a wide audience in the west, I believe, marks a new and exciting era for SFF in translation."
Mira T. Lee recommends Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
"I have loved everything Elizabeth Strout has written, including her lesser known novels published in earlier decades (read: Abide With Me). A master at wringing emotion from small encounters, Strout pokes at the underbelly of human relationships and gives voice to thoughts and feelings most of us are embarrassed to admit we have. In Olive, Again, the 2019 follow-up to Olive Kitteridge, Strout's Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, the stories cut even deeper — perhaps because Olive has now embraced the indignities of old age, and everything feels simultaneously both more and less precious. I wanted to savor this book so badly that I read each story twice, and still, I was sad to reach the end."
Yoon Ha Lee recommends Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
"Naomi Novik's Spinning Silver! I thought I couldn't possibly love it more than her fabulous previous novels, and I did. The mixture of fairytales, the themes of debt and justice and forgiveness, the beautiful seasonal imagery, the characters — this book has it all. My daughter and I ate it up with a spoon. Maybe all the spoons."
Eimear McBride recommends Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett
"I think Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett is hard to beat. Located in a great unknowing, the when and where and who of the elusive female protagonist are never fully revealed. There’s no ignoring her though and she isn’t ignoring us either. And then there’s the form, is it a string of stories or an alternative kind of novel? Bennett doesn’t bother much with these questions and we soon realise we don’t really need the answers anyway. Filled with startling observations and written in a stark, yet somehow elusive, prose Pond is a strange, brilliant, unforgettable book."
Jandy Nelson recommends A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
"I find it impossible to choose the best novel I’ve read this decade but can easily say what my favorite reading experience was: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. My friend, the wonderful YA author Andrew Smith, said, 'I like novels that nearly kill me by the end.' I do too and A Little Life nearly killed me by the end. Reading it was a hostage experience. I cancelled plans, missed deadlines, hid in a bathroom to read at a party, skipped meals, forewent sleep. It’s lucky I don’t have children because I would’ve let them play in traffic if that meant I could’ve read another chapter. There are aspects of the novel I have problems with too but does that even matter when such a spell is cast? The last quarter of the book I found myself crying so hard I couldn’t see the words on the page through the tears. The grief of the novel stayed with me for weeks after I finished too. And so did the love. I’d wake up thinking about the characters, wondering how they were, feeling like I should be able to call and visit them, ruminating about and lamenting how things turned out for each one. It was the kind of fevered unstoppable reading experience I had more often as a child when life in books felt so much more real and urgent than life outside of them. Bravo."
Sandhya Menon recommends The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton
"My favorite book is The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, which is a fantasy that examined the use of beauty as a commodity. It's lush and imaginative and I highly recommend it to everyone, fantasy fans and otherwise!"
Marissa Meyer recommends Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers
"Truly, every book from this phenomenal series was a contender for my choice of the Best Book of the 2010s, but Dark Triumph takes the cake for me with its fierce and unapologetic heroine, unconventional hero, and a story that manages to be intensely romantic and uplifting, despite the darkness, challenges, and cruelty that these characters encounter. Or, perhaps, because of them. (Plus, you know, there's the idea of medieval nuns being secretly trained to be assassins for the God of Death. It's just hard to beat.)"
Shobha Rao recommends The Vegetarian by Han Kang
"I am cheating a little: The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, was written in 2007, but was translated into English (by Deborah Smith) and published in the United States in 2015. What does it matter? When a work moves us — truly, utterly moves us — time is of no consequence. Time, after all, is a construct invented by death, not life. And The Vegetarian is a novel that suspends all of it: time, reality, gravity, and the grave. It is unlike any exploration of identity, self-determination, and the female body you will ever encounter. This novel will lead you into a world that literature has always promised us we’d enter and one day inhabit: a place where the marvelous happens, and because we are in a state of marvel, we are disoriented, delirious, and unflinchingly alive. Read it."
Ingrid Rojas Contreras recommends Look by Solmaz Sharif
"It is inconceivable to me to crown one book as the best of the decade, but there has been one book which has occupied my thoughts. More so than any other, lines from Solmaz Sharif’s Look visit me with frequency: ': what did you expect after accepting a marbled palace?' I ask of myself as I drive through the grassy hills of the Bay Area. I hear — 'Daily I sit / with the language / they’ve made / of our language' — as I draw a bath. 'Let it matter what we call a thing,' I think at least once a week. My favorite thing about this book is the fire of it, the way it calls out empire, and the way it locates language as original war site. Throughout the book terms from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms appear in lower capitals. Just think of the title, Look, and know that the DOD redefines Look as the period of time during which a mine 'is receptive to an influence.' Sharif reappropriates that term as well as many others that have been dragged into the DOD’s language project. 'Let me LOOK at you. / Let me LOOK at you in a light that takes years to get here.' The juxtaposition of power and intimacy in this book disrupts and widens. I urge you to read if you have not."
Sabaa Tahir recommends The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
"One the most frequent requests I get as an author is to recommend books. For friends, relatives, their children, their neighbors, their dog-walkers. Recently, I’ve returned to one book over and over. The friends who have picked it up almost always respond back to me, wanting to talk about how wonderful it was. That book is Angie Thomas’s phenomenal The Hate U Give. It is the story of Starr Carter, a young woman who witnesses the police shooting of her best friend, and what follows that horrible moment. In exploring the horror of police shootings, Angie also delves into the heartbreak intrinsic in parenting and friendship. The way we don’t really know people, the way a community has a life of its own. The book is about hope and courage and the awakening of an activist. And for many readers, it is a door into a world they know nothing about — and yet one that they are very much a part of, if they’d take the time to look. The Hate U Give is a thunderclap of a novel, and Angie’s voice is one that will resound not just in this decade, but for decades to come."
Angie Thomas recommends Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
"Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds is my go-to book. It’s the one I recommend the most, the one that’s stayed in my head the most, and the one that affected my as a writer the most. Jason is brilliant, no question, and Long Way Down is just one of many masterpieces we’ve been blessed with. Told in verse, it’s a hauntingly beautiful tale surrounding an issue we discuss often — gun violence — through the eyes of a person we rarely include in the broader conversation — a young Black boy. Be prepared to be shaken, be prepared to never forget."
C.J. Tudor recommends Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
"The Shining by Stephen King is one of my all-time favourite books, so when a sequel was published in 2013, I was in equal parts excited and full of trepidation. Doctor Sleep follows a grown-up Danny Torrance who is now using his gift in a hospice to help people peacefully pass away, Abra, a young girl who shines and a terrifying troupe of travellers called True Knot, who prey upon the psychic energy of children. And thank goodness, it works. It’s a worthy sequel to a classic novel that effectively portrays the effects of trauma upon adult Danny, offers a truly horrifying villain in the shape of Rose the Hat, and a resolution to Danny’s relationship with his father. If the ending feels a tad rushed, there’s still much to love. For me, this was one of the major books of the decade."
Kiersten White recommends We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
"Nina LaCour's We Are Okay is at the top of my decade list. Nina writes with tremendous compassion, one of the hardest things to capture in literature. We Are Okay manages to be simultaneously the saddest and most hopeful book I have ever read, and I'll never forget the experience of this book — like a lingering hug at the end of a bleak winter."
Nell Zink recommends the Vernon Subutex Trilogy by Virginie Despentes
"Virginie Despentes' Vernon Subutex Trilogy is the zeitgeistiest thing I ever read. Everything about it is contemporary, right down to the fearless woman author who doesn't think of herself as a feminist and gives an impression at least in interviews of habitually killing rapists. But the book has a saintly male has-been protagonist and some heartbreakingly weak women; it has dupes and assholes and racists and the people they hate and a stunning diversity of internal monologues and trans true love. Like the last decade, it searches for a happy ending that isn’t merely personal and can’t find it. I tore through these books the minute they were published, as if they were one of those TV series everybody loves so much. These novels with their depth and detail kick TV's sorry ass."