Books to Read in California

Every journey begins with a book for me, my books to read in California are the books that inspired me to visit in the first place. The first time I drove across the Central Valley was like stepping into the pages of a John Steinbeck novel. Come with me and discover California.

Books to Read in California

Fiction Books to Read in California

Lots of things you read in fiction are true. Feelings, passions and landscapes. I had walked the streets of San Francisco with Armistead Maupin and seen the Gold Country with Isabelle Allende before I ever stepped foot in Volcano (which I went to entirely because of its name).

Daughter of Fortune by Isabelle Allende

Isabelle Allende knows how to spin a yarn and Daughter of Fortune is one of her best. Eliza stows away on a ship leaving her native Chile in pursuit of the man she loves who has headed off to the Californian Gold Rush. We see San Francisco as a raw young city and feel the excitement of potential as California invents itself.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep is where we meet Philip Marlowe for the first time. In the first paragraph he tells us that he is everything that the well dressed private detective ought to be. Set in Los Angeles in the late 1930’s it is detective story involving sex, drugs, double crossing and high society. Humphrey Bogart starred a Philip Marlowe in the movie, the film is great but the book is better.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammet

Whilst we’re on detective novels that were made into movies starring Humphrey Bogart let’s talk about The Maltese Falcon. This time we’re in San Francisco with a duplicitous woman and detective Sam Spade trying to get to the bottom of the murder.

Big Sur by Jack Kerouac

Hands up, I’m not a big Jack Kerouac fan. That having said I enjoyed Big Sur more than On the Road. This time the Kerouac character, an alcoholic author unable to cope with his adoring public retreats to his friends cabin on Big Sur. He soon tires of the solitude and heads back to San Francisco and the booze, but keeps returning to Big Sur to seek solace in the stunning scenery. Not a happy tale this one but the depiction of the special otherness of Big Sur shines through.

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin

When I first went to San Francisco it was a couple months after I had binge read the six Tales of the City books by Armistead Maupin. I half expected to see Mary Ann or Mouse round every corner. The books perfectly capture the dream of coming to big city to find success and the kindness of strangers who become your family.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Well not just The Grapes of Wrath but also The Red Pony, Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men and East of Eden. My first was The Red Pony when I was eleven and didn’t even know where California was, then it was a raw story of farm life, responsibility and death. East of Eden follows a group of people leaving the dustbowl of Oklahoma of the promised land of California, now much changes now the people that you see working the fields in the Central Valley are still chasing the Californian dream but the come from Mexico instead. Monterey has persevered some old cannery buildings and named them Cannery Row but it is in the fields surrounding Salinas the the spirit of the Steinbeck novels lives on.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club tells the story of four Chinese women migrants to San Francisco and their American born daughters. This summer whilst we were sat waiting for a bus in San Francisco a Chinese woman started to talk to us, she had lived in San Francisco for fifty years her story reminded me of the The Joy Luck Club. I have also enjoyed The Bonestetter’s Daughter and The Kitchen God’s Wife also by Amy Tan and set in San Francisco.

Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher

Carrie Fisher, of Princess Leia fame, wrote this novel in the form of letters and postcards from an actress who is recovering from a drug overdose. Whilst a work of fiction it is semi auto biographical. When it first came out there was a general buzz of wow this is good, who would have thought she could write, but boy could she.

Californian books that I would like to read

There are so many books I want to read … here is a selection of the Californian ones that I would like to read.

The Octopus: A Story of California by Frank Norris

Written at the turn of the nineteenth century The Octopus tells the story of the conflict between the new fangled Railroad Company and the entrenched Grain Barons as the former tries to build a new railway across wheat growing land. It was based on real life events. Frank Norris intended this to be the first of a trilogy but never got beyond book one. My excuse for not reading it is that I have never seen a copy in the shops, no real excuse in these days of online bookstores.

Golden Gate by Vikram Seth

I did once start to read Golden Gate by Vikram Seth but left my copy behind on a bus and I’ve never got round to finishing it. It is quite a hard book to read as it is written in an iambic tetrameter as found in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. If you get beyond that and don’t leave your copy on a bus the book tells the story of a group of 1980’s San Francisco yuppies as they search for love.

Mountains of California by John Muir

John Muir was the man who had the idea of National Parks, vast swathes of beautiful land to be protected from thoughtless piecemeal development. He was the voice that led to the founding of the Yosemite National Park. Mountains of California was one of his first books published in 1894 about the grandeur of the Californian mountains. I read other Muir books as part of degree but it is this one that I would love to read for me.

Where I Was From by Joan Didion

How have I never read any Joan Didion? She is an author that many of my bookish friends rave about. Where I Was From is a collection of her essays exploring the history and culture of California. Whilst Slouching Towards Bethlehem is another collection of essays describing her time in San Francisco in the 1960’s

These are my books to read in California which ones would you add to the pile?

Books to Read in California fiction set in California, Californian travelogues and memoirs. #TravelBooks #BooksToReadNow #AmericanLiterature

I read about California way before I ever stepped foot in America, we knew that when we took the Teens to the USA for the first time it would be to California. You can read about our adventures in Teens in San Francisco, Camping in Yosemite and Exploring Lassen Volcanic National Park. For more bookish travel inspiration check out my Books to Read in The Netherlands and Books to Read in Germany guides. Travel and books go hand in hand at Daunt Books on of my top five London bookshops.



  1. May 5, 2020 / 4:10 pm

    I strongly recommend Slouching Toward Bethlehem as well as Didion’s The White Album. A great list — will have to work my way through it!

    • May 5, 2020 / 4:49 pm

      I will add them to my birthday list

  2. May 6, 2020 / 2:42 pm

    Love this! What a great idea! I read all of Steinbeck’s books as a teen. I can’t think of any specific California books off the top of my head, but I have been collecting California songs for quite some time. It started when we moved from California to New Jersey and I was terribly homesick. One of my favorites is called The One by the Old 97s. Tom Petty’s California is particularly good too!

  3. Great post, Catherine. I love California, even though it is twenty years since I spent a few months in L.A. for work. Steinbeck was my favourite author for most of my youth and especially the books you mention here. Kerouac s On The Road was not your thing? Certainly was mine, but will give Big Sur a shot now that you kind of ish recommended it lol.

    • May 8, 2020 / 10:49 am

      I think he just to all boys together for me

  4. May 9, 2020 / 8:11 am

    I read The Big Sleep when I was living in LA. I love planning my reading around my travels – and with both Allende and Maupin on this list, as well as Kerouac there’s a fair few of my favourite authors in your list. Thanks for collating.

    • May 9, 2020 / 8:16 am

      Pleasure I love a meander through my bookshelves

  5. Caroline
    May 9, 2020 / 12:17 pm

    Daughter of fortune is such a good read!

  6. May 17, 2020 / 11:47 pm

    This is such a great idea! Never considered reading books that take place in a place i want to travel too!- saving this book list to prep for our next California trip!

  7. July 1, 2020 / 10:14 am

    This is a really lovely idea ahead of any trip. I was due to visit LA and travel around California for the first time in March this year, but the trip was cancelled due to the pandemic. Hoping to reschedule for next Spring, which gives me plenty of time to work through these book suggestions beforehand – thanks!

    • July 1, 2020 / 11:50 am

      You will be fully prepared when you get to visit!

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