So when I started this post of books about California, I knew there would be a lot. But guys, I got to 40 and I had to restrain myself from adding more!
From San Diego to Napa Valley, from bustling Los Angeles to the empty California desert, there are SO MANY BOOKS set in California. Especially so many great novels. I hope you can find something on this list that can take you on a trip to California from your own couch. So let’s get going!
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Novels Set in California
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
A list of books about California HAS to include East of Eden, right? This 1952 classic focuses on two brothers, a la Cain and Abel. It’s a family saga set in the farmlands of Salinas Valley, California, and is one of the great American novels. But don’t let it’s importance scare you away; it’s highly readable and full of all kinds of drama. For fans of modern classics and family sagas.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
This modern classic tells the story of the mothers and daughters of four Chinese immigrant families in San Francisco. When they first immigrated, four woman gathered together for support, calling themselves the Joy Luck Club. Now their daughters are adults themselves, and although their experiences growing up have been vastly different than those of their mothers’, they are still all bound together. For fans of mother-daughter, multi-generational stories and immigrant stories.
Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Perhaps the novel of the summer in 2021, Malibu Rising is set over the course of one fateful 1983 weekend at a ritzy party that goes terribly wrong. Three siblings all have different secrets, and at the end of the party their family’s mansion is in flames. For fans of suspense, fast-paced contemporary fiction, and dysfunctional families.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel is told in stories and centers around the L.A. music scene. Bennie is a record executive, and we see his life, as well as the life of his employee Sasha, unfold from the stories of those that surround them. This is a bit of an experimental novel (one of the chapters is a Powerpoint), but that doesn’t mean it’s not accessible. For fans of books about music and literary fiction.
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
This epic novel of the American West gives us Lyman Ward, a professor who retires to California with the intention of writing a biography of his pioneer grandmother. I’ll be honest: the size of this one intimidates me. But since Stegner’s Crossing to Safety is one of my all time favorite novels, I’d really like to give this one a try. For fans of modern classics and Western stories.
The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea
Big Angel knows he is dying soon, and as his family gathers for his birthday in San Diego, he reflects on his past and present and the connections of his family. We also get the perspective of other family members: his daughter who is taking care of him in his illness, his half-brother who is a bit out of place in this boisterous Mexican family, his devoted wife. They are all celebrating Big Angel, but are also saying goodbye. It sounds sad, but it’s fun and zingy, with plenty of heartwarming moments. This is for fans of literary fiction and family stories.
Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber
Set in Los Angeles, Crescent is about an Arab-American woman named Sirine who works in a Lebanese restaurant and finds unexpected romance with an Iraqi exile. For fans of contemporary literature and multi-cultural stories.
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
In Karen Thompson Walker’s beautiful speculative novel, the rotation of Earth gradually begins to slow, throwing lives across the world into disarray. In Southern California, Julia is a teen watching the disaster unfold while also struggling with romance, issues in her parents’ marriage, and what it means to live in this strange new world. For fans of literary sci-fi and speculative fiction.
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
Set in a Southern California Black church community, this novel puts together Nadia, a teenage girl mourning her mother’s death, and Luke, the local pastor’s son. I think you can see where this is going (unwanted pregnancy, coverup), and the decisions they make affect them and their community for years to come. For fans of contemporary fiction.
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel
The Ensemble follows four musician friends who make up a string quartet. This is a character focused book, with their lives unfolding across the country (included California!) and the world as they fall in and out of relationships and friendships with each other while pursuing their music dreams. For fans of quiet, contemporary fiction.
Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
Joan was once a ballet star. But after heartbreak and an unplanned pregnancy, she now lives in the California suburbs and runs her own small dance school. Her son loves ballet a little more than she wants him to though, and she is pulled back into the world she once left. This beautiful book is for fans of literary fiction.
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub
Set in 1920s Hollywood, this book centers on Elsa Emerson who renames herself Laura Lamont as she chases fame. But balancing her life, even as a Hollywood actress, is difficult. For readers interested in the golden age of Hollywood and women’s fiction.
There There by Tommy Orange
This novel told in short stories follows 12 different Native American characters, all on their way to the Big Oakland Powwow. They are all coming with different perspectives and different life stories, but the Powwow brings them together. (Also, content warning for gun violence.) This is a story of Native American struggles as well as connection and is for fans of literary fiction.
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang
In 1860s California, Sam and Lucy, two children of Chinese immigrants, are orphaned. What follows is their journey to bury their father, where they encounter an unexpected wilderness. This book ended up on many “best of” lists for 2021 and is for fans of literary fiction.
We Run the Tides by Vendela Vida
In 1980s San Francisco, two girls are on their way to their private school when they witness something terrible. But they can’t agree on what they saw, and afterwards one of the girls disappears, which throws everything in their community into disarray. For fans of mysteries and stories about friendship.
L.A. Weather by María Amparo Escandón
L.A. Weather is set in, well, L.A. and follows Oscar, a weather-obsessed father; his wife, Keila; and their three daughters. This is a dysfunctional-family-full-of-secrets kind of book, as they wait for both rain and the possible demise of their family as they have known it. For fans of literary fiction and dysfunctional family dramas.
Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave
This novel set in California’s wine country centers around Georgia Ford who runs home after discover a secret about her fiancé. But things at home in Sonoma may be just as complicated, and she might not find the comfort she was hoping for. This is for fans of women’s fiction and dysfunctional families.
The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling
A novel about the desperation of motherhood. This novel follows Daphne, a young single mother, who flees to the desert with her baby, encountering women who are facing different, but still difficult, circumstances. This is a novel about women in different classes and cultures, all trying to make sense of things. For fans of literary fiction.
The Girls by Emma Cline
Cults, California, and clique-ish girls. When Evie Boyd becomes obsessed with Suzanne and her group of friends, she doesn’t realize how enmeshed she is becoming in one of the most infamous cults. For fans of dark books and coming-of-age stories.
For more great reading, check out these books set in Massachusetts!
Non-Fiction Books About California
Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, 1592 to 2018 edited by David Kipen
This is the history of Los Angeles, as told by the letters and diaries of people who lived and spent time there. What’s especially interesting about this book is that it’s not exactly told in chronological order. Rather, each date of the year gets a variety of entries. So, for instance, January 1 has entries from 1853, 1923, 1934, 1941, and 1985. And entries come from the likes of Albert Einstein to Ryan Reynolds. This is for fans of books of diaries and journals.
Wild – From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
After her life fell apart (her mother died, her marriage collapsed) Cheryl Strayed decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail solo, a big portion of which goes through California. Her memoir about this journey was wildly popular when it came out (I mean, it was an Oprah Book Club pick) and it remains popular still. For fans of memoir. (Is now the time to admit I haven’t read it? But it’s still on my list for sure!)
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
When Anna Wiener was in her twenties, she left her New York publishing job for a new and fancy job at tech start up in Silicon Valley. This memoir follows not only her personal journey in the fast-paced world of Silicon Valley, but also the evolution of the tech industry, as it it fell from its once idealized position and became bigger than could be managed. For fans of memoirs and readers interested in the tech industry.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
I mean really I can just put a book by Joan Didion on this list and it’s enough right? This is perhaps one of Didion’s most well-known books, a collection on essays that reflects on California in the 60s. For fans of memoirs/essays.
Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz
In the 1960s, Eve Babitz was notorious in Hollywood. Honestly, mostly for partying and posing nude. But she also became a writer in her own right, penning essays, memoirs and journalistic pieces. These are her own reflections on Hollywood, from parties and rock stars to food and beaches, released as part of the New York Review Books Classics collection. For fans of memoirs and essays.
California – A History by Kevin Starr
If we’re going to talk books about California, we’ve got to have some kind of sweeping epic history book, right? From the arrival the Spanish and their takeover from Native Americans to the gold rush to Hollywood and Silicon Valley, this book encapsulates all of California’s fascinating history. For fans of history.
Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America by Firoozeh Dumas
When Firoozeh Dumas was seven, her family immigrated from Iran to Southern California. What followed was a cultural adjustment full of humor and bewilderment, as Firoozeh and her family try to understand US traditions and adapt to new a new life. For fans of memoirs.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
In 1986 the Los Angeles Public Library had a disastrous fire, and decades later the cause of it (and whether or not it was set on purpose) was still a mystery. In this book, Orlean combines her love of books with her investigative journalism to examine the mystery and reflect on the importance of libraries. For fans of narrative non-fiction, books about books, and non-violent true crime.
Children’s Books Set in California
All Aboard! California: A Landscape Primer by Haily Meyers and Kevin Meyers
This board book takes children through the landscapes and geography of California with bright illustrations they will love. Recommended ages: 0-4 years.
Los Angeles is… by Elisa Parhad, Illustrated by Alexander Vidal
Bold illustrations and simple text combine to paint a portrait of Los Angeles for kids. It includes everything from beaches to the tar pits to Hollywood to taco trucks. Recommended ages: 0-4 years.
All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, Illustrated by Marla Frazee
Ok, so admittedly I can’t say with certainty that the author and illustrator meant for this book to be set in California, BUT I definitely think it is reminiscent of the California coastline, plus the illustrator lives in California. And this is my ABSOLUTE FAVORITE CHILDREN’S BOOK OF ALL TIME, so what do you want me to do? A beautiful poem about family and love, with the loveliest illustrations that connect the people in the community throughout the book (look for people from other parts of the story in the background). This book is for everyone.
Redwoods by Jason Chin
A beautifully illustrated book about a boy exploring and learning about the redwood forests of California through a book. Facts and imagination go together wonderfully here, and the boy becomes awe-inspired by the trees. Recommended ages: 4-8 years.
The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by J. Joseph Hopkins, Illustrated by Jill McElmurry
The true story of Kate Sessions, the first woman to graduate with a science degree from the University of California and who went on to help San Diego transform into a city full of trees and parks. Recommended ages: 5-10 years.
This is San Francisco by Miroslav Sasek
Tour the hills of San Francisco with this children’s classic. Combining history with landscape and culture, this book is perfect to introducing kids to this California city. Recommended ages: 7-8 years.
Middle Grade & YA Books About California
Flat Stanley’s Worldwide Adventures #12: Escape to California by Jeff Brown, Illustrated by Macky Pamintuan
Kids love the Flat Stanley series, and here they can join his family as they explore California. From San Francisco to Hollywood, Flat Stanley is always full of adventures. Recommended ages: 6-10 years
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
Island of the Blue Dolphins is one of those books I distinctly remember from my childhood that gave me the magic of books in a way I hadn’t known before. What I didn’t realize until recently, is that it’s actually based on a true story of a native woman left behind on San Nicolas Island, an island off the coast of California. This is a book for kids who love stories that balance adventure and beauty. Recommended ages: 8-12 years.
Summer of a Thousand Pies by Margaret Dilloway
Cady Bennett moves to Julian, California to live with her aunt and it’s the first time she’s had stability in her life. But when she learns her aunt’s beloved pie shop is failing, will she be able to help save it? Recommended ages: 8-12 years old.
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
After her father dies, Esperanza and her mother flee from Mexico to a labor camp in California. Her life had once been comfortable, but now she is faced with hard work and an uncertain future. And when Esperanza’s mother gets sick, things are more uncertain. Can Esperanza rise above her circumstances? Recommended ages: 8-14 years.
The Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
In San Francisco, 12-year-old Emily is excited to participate in a book scavenger hunt. But before it begins, she finds out the creator, Garrison Griswold, is in a coma. She her friend, James, go on a hunt both to find out what happened to Griswold and track down the clues of a mysterious book they believe he left. Recommended ages: 9-14 years.
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
Moose lives in Alcatraz. But he’s not a prisoner — he’s the son of one of the prison workers and he lives there along with several other kids. This captivating book for kids combines humor and mystery on this famous prison island in California. Recommended ages: 10-13 years.
Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston
This memoir about Manzanar, an internment camp in the California desert for Japanese-Americans during WWII, is perfect for introducing kids to this aspect of American history. The Wakatsuki family was forced to move when Jeanne was seven, and here she recalls the experience of having her life uprooted and being forced to live at Manzanar. Recommended ages: 12 and up.