I've already posted my top historical fiction picks. To find them, go here.
Top Contemporary Literary Fiction
5. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
I'm crossing genres a bit here because this one is also Young Adult. (I'll probably do a post on YA novels at some point for those who are interested.) It is an incredibly unique and powerful story of a young girl growing up during the Holocaust. I know there are a lot of those out there but this one is different. First, the young girl is not Jewish (Most stories are told from the perspective of Jews.) and second, the narrator of the story is death. Morbid, yes. Amazing though. Definitely unlike anything you'll have ever read before.
4. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Bel Canto is the story of a group of people held hostage in South America after a birthday party full of diplomats is crashed by a group of terrorists. In these dire circumstances, Roxanne Coss, an opera singer performing at the party, and Mr. Hosokawa, a Japanese businessman must learn to communicate with one another, a task that eventually evolves into friendship. A great and interesting read!
3. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I read this three times in college. It is a finely woven tapestry of Latin American history, family, and amazing storytelling. Oh and Oprah really liked it too.
2. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
This is easily the best book I have read in the past 10 years. It tells the story a girl, Callie, born in Michigan in the 1960's who eventually became Cal, a teenage boy. And for the record, I "picked" this one long before Oprah did!
1. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
I first read The House of the Spirits in 10th grade and was immediately struck by it. I've loved magical realism, Latin American authors, and Isabel Allende ever since. It is the story of three generations of women--Clara, Blanca, and Alba--and is simply gorgeous, heartbreaking and thought-provoking. I met Ms. Allende in college and was like a blubbering teenage girl at a Justin Timberlake concert when I stood in line to get my well-loved copy of the book signed. I saw her speak again recently at the 92nd St. Y in New York and will say that if there is one author to see, it is her. She is lovely, personable, hilarious, and so interesting.
Runners Up (These books are also amazing.)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini (I liked this one better than The Kite Runner.)
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon
Find other book recommendations and reviews here.
PS - Steph, I hope this helps a bit!