The Best Books Set in California to Make the Most of Your Road Trip

Inside: The only list you need to choose a book set in California to take on your road trip, including audiobook picks, non-fiction, and fiction across multiple genres.

Who loves road trips? Who also loves reading? To me, there is nothing more enjoyable than listening to a great audiobook that takes place in the exact location I’m driving through. The best road trip books transport me straight into the virtual world created by the author.

Just imaging yourself lounging in the back of your van with the author’s created world right outside your window. This is what nomadic life is all about.

Woman in van reading a book set in California with beautiful landscape in background
Ah, reading and the vanlife go hand in hand; Image by Taja Planinc

Bring depth to your travel

My van trips through California are so much better when I match them up with great books. The diversity of the Golden State’s residents and their unique experiences is brought to life in books. I now feel like I’ve met many: the first indigenous peoples, gold-hungry conquistadors, zealous mission founders, trappers, gold-seeking 49ers, Chinese laborers and entrepreneurs, industrialists, farmers, families of the Great Migration, families escaping the Dust Bowl, refugees and ordinary people like you and me, just hungry for new experiences. Getting to know the heroes and villains starring in these books helps me appreciate, even more, the riches of California.

Reading books set in California has changed the way I experience the state

Recently, for example, while exploring the Sierra Nevada Mountain range I listened to historical fiction from the Gold Rush days. While I drove the mountain passes in comfort and luxury, the characters in my audiobooks lead pack mules on foot over the same steep rocky terrain. As I luxuriated in the comfort of my Glampervan, the characters in the books I listened to experienced every adverse element Mother Nature could conjure.

Those vivid descriptions made me appreciate the terrain I traveled, and also made me appreciate my air conditioner.

Later, while hiking through pristine mountain streams in my brand spanking new water-resistant hiking boots I had to stop and ponder the book characters I had recently come to know and love. Characters who, over 150 years ago, trod through similar mountain streams to stake and defend gold claims. I could just imagine those men and women squatting for hours in these very streams with ice-cold water running through the holes of their worn-out boots.

My thoughts also roamed back before the Gold Rush, to the time of the majestic Mexican ranchos, and before even that to the indigenous tribes that called what is now California home.

Later, as I stood humbled beneath the giant sequoias I rested my hands on trees still carrying the memory of these earliest people to live in the forests. Feeling the resilient bark protecting these trees, some for 1000s of years, made me reflect on how these life forms actually communicate with each other, nurture their offspring, and even care for their ailing kin – characteristics I learned about only by reading Peter Wohleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees.

Indeed:

Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey.

Ann Quindlan

So how is this booklist unique?

  • This is NOT a data dump of books set in California – those abound and I, personally, don’t find them very helpful. This is a personally curated list of books that I believe bring California to life.
  • You could say I’m obsessed with reading. So I’ve read almost all of the books on this list. The few I haven’t read are all on my to-be-read list and are queued up for my next road trip. As I complete these books I’ll update this article.
  • California is a large state with marked regional differences. To help you pick books more relevant to your travels I note the setting(s) of each book.
  • Readers have genre preferences so I have organized books by genre to help you find your favorites. I know some days I feel like a long epic historical novel, while other times I just want a quick cozy mystery.
  • This list contains both fiction and nonfiction picks. The nonfiction picks are either books I found easy to listen to – they read like fiction, or they are references that have provided essential information about the areas I visit.
  • It is important to me that what I read reflects the world around me in all its diversity. I actively seek out exceptional books from women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ authors and those that bring to life people and situations often underrepresented.
  • Great audiobook picks are designated with an earphone logo.

How to use this booklist

  • To save space I have not included the publisher’s summaries. Click on the book photo, Goodreads link, or one of the purchase links to be taken to the synopses. Also, if you go to Goodreads, you can set up your personal California to-be-read list. Make sure to also friend me at SSSNOO reads.
  • You can find this and all my book lists at Bookshop.org. This is a fantastic way to support independent booksellers.
  • To make it easier for you to find books YOU want to read, jump to your favorite genre by clicking the links below.

Historical Fiction

Contemporary Fiction

Mysteries

Science Fiction & Dystopian

Short Stories & Essays

Indigenous History

General History

Nature

True Crime

Memoir & Biography

Good luck finding the next great read for YOUR epic journey through the golden state.

And now…time to explore books set in California, by genre

Fiction

Historical Fiction

Bodie State Historical Park. 1920s truck with ghost town in the background.
Road tripping from the past as seen in Bodie State Historical Park – a Gold Rush town frozen in time

Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in Chili, San Francisco and the Sierras

My notes: I loved this book. It gives the reader a view of the Gold Rush from a woman’s perspective, one rarely captured in literature. Additionally, the experiences of non-Europeans were central to the plot, specifically those of the Chilean and Chinese immigrants. Allende’s prose is enthralling, as expected from this gifted writer. While many of her books contain magical realism elements, Daughters of Fortune does not (a plus from my perspective as magical realism is not my favorite genre). I listened to the book while driving up to Sequoia National Park recently and the Audible narration is great.

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende, Margaret Sayers Peden
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Goodreads


Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in San Francisco, wine country and Sierras

My notes: Bound for Gold is a dual timeline novel set in both the present day and the Gold Rush. It is fast-paced, and also classifiable as a thriller but I am including it for its historical fiction value. While the novel is part of the Peter Fallon series, it didn’t matter that I haven’t read any of the other books in the collection.

Bound for Gold: A Peter Fallon Novel of the California Gold Rush by William Martin
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Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in San Francisco, Yosemite, the Central Valley, Los Angeles and surrounding areas

My notes: John Jakes’ epic family saga covers California history post-Gold Rush into the early 1900s. It stretches from San Francisco down to San Diego with a bit of Central valley thrown in. As well, the main character has his fingers in about every industry California is known for. Too much? Maybe. But Jake’s novel is engaging and certainly introduces its reader to a LOT of California that is not available in other historical fiction works. If you want to pick one book set in California to enhance a road trip throughout the state – this book would be a great pick.

California Gold by John Jakes
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Set in the Sierras

My notes: This is one of the few books on the list I haven’t read yet. But it’s on my Kindle and ready to go. It’s first up for my next trip. I’ll update this post when I finish.

Sierra by Richard S. Wheeler
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Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in the Central Valley (and before that Oklahoma)

My notes: This book FANTASTIC! It was supposed to be published in 1939 but got eclipsed by The Grapes of Wrath. What was the publisher thinking? In my opinion, Babb’s novel is hands-down better than Steinbeck’s (and I think The Grapes of Wrath is also great). Only the second half of the book is set in California, where the migrant farmers’ experiences are masterfully recounted. The first half of the book describes the Dust Bowl so well you literally feel the blowing dirt embedding in your pores. Save this book to revisit when you travel through Oklahoma and Kansas.

Whose Names Are Unknown by Sanora Babb, Lawrence R. Rodgers
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Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in Oakland

My notes: This is the third of a series and I read them all in order, but you can enjoy this novel as a stand-alone read as well. Golden Poppies is set during the early years of the Great Migration, a historical era not covered often by fiction. I enjoyed the storylines on the Pullman porters and the suffrage movement in California. This is one of the few books I found that is set largely in Oakland.

Golden Poppies by Laila Ibrahim
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Goodreads


Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in San Francisco and Oakland

My notes: This is one of the only books I’ve come across that tells the story of Chinese immigration through the eyes of a woman in the 1920s. It covers the west coast equivalent of Ellis Island – Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, as well as the anti-Chinese immigration laws in place at the time. The sordid world of child sex-trafficking is also a prominent theme. There were some good plot twists included that make this an enticing recommendation.

Paper Wife by Laila Ibrahim
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Goodreads


Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set on the Monterey Peninsula

My notes: I’m not including Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in this list because, well, you’ve probably already read it. However, you may not have picked up Cannery Row, and it is a fantastic book to get a sense of Monterey and the region’s fishing industry. It is classic Steinbeck in style and tone.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, Susan Shillinglaw
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Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in Salinas in the Central Valley

My notes: This book IS John Steinbeck and by far my favorite of his. It characterizes the region around Salinas in the fertile farming region of the San Joaquin Valley. If you are driving through Salinas you MUST stop for an hour or two at the National Steinbeck Center and check out the exhibits. Note – as of August 2020 the center is closed for COVID so check the link above to see if it has reopened.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck, David Wyatt
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Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in Grass Valley in the western Sierra foothills

My notes: Do the 1970s actually qualify as historical fiction now? Yikes, I think they do, which makes me feel very old. Anyhoo, this novel won both a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. It is also a dual timeline book that bounces between the 1970s the main character inhabits and the 1800s of the protagonist’s grandmother. I never grew attached to the grandmother (she seemed kind of snooty), but I did like the other characters. The book is chock full of western history, particularly around mines and in that way, fleshes out many of the books set during the peak of the Gold Rush.

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
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Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in Northern California around Watsonville, up to San Francisco and over to Sacramento, along stage coach routes.

My notes: The Whip is one of the more compelling human stories in this list, in my opinion. Charlie Parkhurst was born a woman but once they moved west they lived the rest of their life as a man. But not just any man – as one of the most renowned stagecoach drivers in California. Their female biology was discovered only after death. No one knows if Charley was transgender or masquerading but for sure they were accepted and perceived as a man. I think I would have framed the story differently and could have done without the romantic subplot, but otherwise, I loved this book for tackling a story that needed to be told.

The Whip by Karen Kondazian
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Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in Northern California

My notes: I’m waiting to listen to this book, set in a 1970’s commune in Northern California until I get back to explore more up there. I classified this book as historical fiction because of its 1970s setting – but it seriously pains me to do so. I was a teenager then — yikes.

Clover Blue by Eldonna Edwards
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Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in Los Angeles (and Vietnam)

My notes: OK – yet another “historical fiction” book from the 70s. As many of my not-that-old-yet readers remember, this era saw a huge influx of Vietnamese refugees and they transformed the cities they landed in. LA was one such city. I always appreciate learning about immigrant experiences – I mean, that is US history, right? Cue this book up during a day trip to LA, and get some good take out from one of the city’s many Vietnamese restaurants.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
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Set in Nevada City (NE of Sacramento)

My notes: JoAnn Levy is a noted California Historian and has written extensively on women during the Gold Rush era. I always gravitate to the story less told so have three of her books on my list. Only her non-fiction book is still in print, and I describe it under History, below. I’m waiting for my used copies of this and the next book to arrive and then the world will slow down while I read them. This book may be out of print and only available through used booksellers., such as Thriftbooks.org. Same for the following book.

The Best Books Set in California to Make the Most of Your Road TripFor California's Gold by JoAnn Levy
on March 1, 2000
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Set in San Francisco

Daughter Of Joy: A Novel Of Gold Rush California by JoAnn Levy
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Trying to find JoAnn Levy’s books? I can help….

I finally found and bought two used copies of JoAnn Levy’s “women in the Gold Rush” novels. I’m waiting for my copies to arrive and will devour them immediately. Once I finish reading them I want to pass them along to one of my subscribers – just shoot me an email or add a comment below and I’ll mail them snail mail, for FREE.


Contemporary Fiction

My notes: Urrea is one of the most prominent San Diego authors and his books frequently straddle San Diego and Mexico. This is one of his more recent novels and it is a fantastic account of a multi-generation Mexican American family.

The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea
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Goodreads

Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in San Diego


My notes: I read this book many years ago and the story has stayed embedded in my soul. Read this when you are cruising through LA, or exploring the Topanga Canyon area (maybe on your way to visit the Getty Museum). The story juxtaposes a wealthy LA family against an illegal couple living in the nearby canyons. This book IS Southern California in many ways.

The Tortilla Curtain by T. Coraghessan Boyle
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Set in Los Angeles


My notes: Oh my heart, this book series is one of the most memorable I have ever read. Maybe it also belongs in historical fiction, but I am tired of feeling old, so let’s call it contemporary. What is particularly remarkable about this series is that the first volumes portray San Francisco in the 70s and 80s in all their crazy glory and without a retrospective filter. They were written contemporaneously to HIV hitting the city, one of the worst-hit regions early in that pandemic. So this is social history “live.” I laugh and cry so much when I read and reread this series. It DESERVES a spot in the top 100 of The Great American Read (it is #74). Hands down.

Tales of the City (Tales of the City, #1) by Armistead Maupin
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Goodreads

Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in San Francisco


My notes: You aren’t going to find too many great books set in Oceanside (in San Diego County), but this is one. Brit Bennett has become one of my favorite contemporary authors. Her new book, The Vanishing Half as good or better than this debut novel. The Vanishing Half is set, in part, in LA.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett
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Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in Oceanside (near San Diego)


My notes: I had this book in my “to-read” pile for a few years and finally picked it up during a recent van-trip to Joshua Tree National Park. I drove through and looked around 24 Palms (when it was 113 degrees outside) and can say the book captured the ambiance of that community well. Definitely add this book to your desert reading list.

Wonder Valley: A Novel by Ivy Pochoda
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Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in 24 Palms, near Joshua Tree and in LA’s skid row.


My notes: This is one book on the list that is set throughout the west, including California, in particular the Oakland area. But it is so good, I encourage you to read it (along with some of the non-fiction books below). I am grappling with my understanding of Native American history and am starting to realize this is going to take the rest of my lifetime. The introduction and intermission sections of this book stopped me in my tracks. If you only listen to those sections – do it. I enjoyed the Audible version, but also have a hard copy because I loved some of the writing so much. There are a LOT of characters though, so Audible can take some effort to follow.

There There by Tommy Orange
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Goodreads

Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set around Oakland (in part)


My notes: What is not to love about an old lady living in a van, with her cat and then inviting a runaway teen to join her? Set all along the Pacific Coast, this Catherin Ryan Hyde novel is another winner, for sure. Many, if not most, of Hyde’s books, are set in California so check out her other options too. I have never NOT loved one of her books.

Allie and Bea by Catherine Ryan Hyde
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Goodreads

Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set along the Pacific Coast


My notes: This Pulitzer Prize winner has been sitting in my pile for a while, I’ll admit. You may wonder why it is showing up in a California oriented book list? Trees. California is home to both the giant sequoias and the coastal redwoods as well as some of the most diverse forests left on Earth. To understand California, you need to understand trees. Pop down to the Nature section to read more about The Hidden Life of Trees, another book that will get you “feeling” the trees.

The Overstory by Richard Powers
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Goodreads

Earphone designating audiobook version available

My notes: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo surprised me. It delves into old Hollywood and is part historical fiction, part family saga, and part mystery. It was a fun book with original, interesting characters and some twists and turns that kept me interested. This is a fun audiobook and easy to follow (in case you are a person who has to keep hitting rewind). Perfect for your LA/Hollywood explorations.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
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Goodreads

Earphone designating audiobook version available

Mysteries

Check out the bonus section at the end of mysteries for even more cozies and detective series. I have NOT read these series yet and have no specific comments, but I sure enjoy a light mystery when it’s set in a location I’m traveling to. If you do too, here is your list. All the series I list are well-rated (>3.5 stars) on Goodreads if that helps.


Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in Long Beach

My notes: I’ve read about half of this series and love the Long Beach vibe and local sights.

A King of Infinite Space (Long Beach Homicide, #1) by Tyler Dilts
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Goodreads


Set in the Sierra’s

My notes: I just finished this first Ron Ketchum mystery, and I’ll be back for more. The mystery matched up nicely with my recent trip to Sequoia National Forest. It was perfect, except there is a sub-plot with a human-eating mountain lion that made my neck hairs stand up during some deep forest hikes. I never saw a mountain lion while I was there, but you know you don’t ever see them, they see you.

Nailed (Ron Ketchum Mystery, #1) by Joseph Flynn
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Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in N and W LA

My notes: There are 35 books in this series, with more to come – and I have read every single one. I’ve grown to love the characters and need to keep up on their adventures. This series gives you a great feel for Hollywood Hills, West LA, and the entire area around UCLA. Plus they are well-plotted mysteries.

When the Bough Breaks (Alex Delaware, #1) by Jonathan Kellerman
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Goodreads


Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in a fictional version of Santa Barbara

My notes: Sue Grafton got all the way through “Y” is for Yesterday before she passed away. So no “Z”. She will be missed, but fortunately we have 25 letters of the alphabet she did finish. Read these when you are sunbathing in Santa Barbara, the city her fictional town is based on.

A is for Alibi (Kinsey Millhone, #1) by Sue Grafton
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Set in the Sierra foothills

My notes: A nice little cozy set in the Sierra foothills. Just a little note on my rating system – I rate relative to what I expect for a specific genre, so cozy mysteries have a lower bar than contemporary fiction, for example.

Used for Murder: A Used Bookstore Mystery by Heidi M Buck
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Bonus — High-rated California-set mystery series by region

Set in the high desert near Palm Springs

Set in the Northern California wine region

Set in Napa Valley

Set along the Northern California coast

Set in and around Silicon Valley

Set in the Southern California mountains

Set around LA

South Central LA

Set in a 1950s Santa Barbara-like town

Set in 1940s LA

Set in LA

Set in LA

Set in Southern California surf towns


Science Fiction & Dystopian

My notes: This is the first of 2 volumes in a classic and exquisite dystopian/sci-fi saga. A must-read for fans of the genre. Fun to read if you are driving from LA, North. Imagine walking in the characters’ footsteps on your own post-apocalyptic journey.

Parable of the Sower (Earthseed, #1) by Octavia E. Butler
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Goodreads

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Set in LA suburb and up the coast/valley to the redwood region


My notes: Time travel fans, pick this one. Part set in LA, part in the South somewhere, this is time travel at its best.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
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Goodreads

Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in an LA


Short Stories & Essays

My notes: I’ve read some of this collection (it is vast) and I keep this book in my van, to be at hand when I head back to the desert. It is THE collection of short stories and essays for desert reading. Unfortunately, there is no audiobook or ebook version that I could find. If you find a paper copy, nab it while you can.

No Place for a Puritan: The Literature of Californias Deserts by Ruth Nolan
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My notes: I haven’t read this collection as I was just recently able to purchase a used copy. I have read other tales and short stories from indigenous peoples lately and I enjoy them. This will be an essential part of my self-education about the native tribes and peoples of California.

The Inland Whale: Nine Stories Retold from California Indian Legends, With a New Foreword by Karl Kroeber by Theodora Kroeber, Karl Kroeber
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Earphone designating audiobook version available

My notes: Hyped as THE writer to really “get” California, I think it may be closer to THE book that New Yorkers like to read to say they “get” California. That said, I did find the writing exceptional and some of the stories interesting. But PLEASE don’t make this the only book set in California that you read.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
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Goodreads


Nonfiction

Indigenous Peoples

Map of California indian tribal territories.

I was shocked when I first saw a map similar to the one above delineating all the pre-contact Indian tribes in California. So many. I knew so little about these vibrant communities, coexisting for generations until first the Spaniards, then the US migrants literally wiped them out like a tsunami. My van is now stocked with books that are helping me learn more about California’s first inhabitants. The books below are those I consider essential to this study. Some I have, others I am waiting to receive from my library, but I am committed to reading and learning more.


My notes: Some of the most popular spots for California tourists are the string of 21 Spanish missions along the Old Camino Real starting in San Diego and ending in Sonoma. One of the most famous is the San Juan Capistrano Mission of sparrow fame. I’ve toured several and they are beautiful peaceful respites today. What many people don’t know about; however, is the impact these missions had on the indigenous people they enslaved. I’ve been waiting for this highly acclaimed book for a while now – on hold from my library – and am eager to read it.

A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California's Indians by the Spanish Missions by Elias Castillo
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My notes: This relatively short book can be read like a collection of essays, so it’s good for travel. The reader will get a strong understanding of the diversity of cultures that made up the many California tribes, inhabiting deserts, mountains, foothills, and coastal regions.

The Way We Lived: California Indian Stories, Songs, and Reminiscences by Malcolm Margolin
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My notes: I’m reading this book a bit at a time because it is pretty overwhelming. But it is essential to understanding California.

An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 by Benjamin Madley
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Goodreads

Earphone designating audiobook version available

My notes: Similar to The Way We Lived, described above, this book is also comprised of a collection of short essays, stories, poems, etc. that help explain the diversity of California’s native people. Because many are now extinct or close to extinct it is an important validation of their very existence.

Flutes of Fire: Essays on California Indian Languages by Leanne Hinton
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History

Earphone designating audiobook version available

My notes: This is the nonfiction work of JoAnn Levy that compliments her two fictional works described above. I cannot wait to devour it.

They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush by JoAnn Levy
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Goodreads


Earphone designating audiobook version available

My notes: I just picked this book up from my library, but I may listen to the audio version on my next trip. As a person afraid of heights, and also not too keen on very long tunnels, I know I will be in awe of the men who risked their lives to build the transcontinental railroad through the Sierras.

Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad by Gordon H. Chang
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Goodreads


Earphone designating audiobook version available

My notes: Less than 1/3 of this book pertains to California, but because The Great Migration of black citizens from the south to points north and west is a critical part of our history I include it here. I found the descriptions of the drive west particularly interesting and as compelling as the Okie migration during the Dust Bowl. The settlement of Los Angeles’ and Oakland’s black communities are covered in detail.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
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Goodreads


Nature

My notes: I enjoyed listening to these essays while driving through the high desert. Written by an early woman settler and naturalist, the essays bring the stark, seemingly lifeless desert to life.

The Land of Little Rain by Mary Hunter Austin
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Goodreads

Earphone designating audiobook version available

My notes: I mentioned this book way up above when I discussed The Overstory. As I read The Hidden Life, my appreciation for trees and forests grew as large as the Grinch’s transformed heart. I kept pausing and saying to myself, “Wow, this is remarkable.” Be aware — this book could literally transform you into a tree hugger. Welcome to California!

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben, Tim Flannery, Jane Billinghurst, Suzanne Simard
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Goodreads

Earphone designating audiobook version available

True Crime

Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set mostly around Sacramento, but also OC

My notes: I do like true crime, but I will be honest with you – I don’t read it when I am traveling alone in the wilderness. I’ve never been frightened camping by myself, but if I read this book, while cuddled up alone in my van, it could be a completely different story. So maybe save this book for after you return from your travels. It is a great true crime story.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara, Gillian Flynn, Patton Oswalt
Pages: 368
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Goodreads


Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in LA

My notes: I read this book back when it came out. Seriously. I was probably 14 years old and I think I bought it through the Scholastic Book program at school (do NOT ask me why this was a selection for middle school kids, but it was the early 70s). I STILL remember reading this book pretty much in one sitting – I read all night long. And I was terrified. This was a horrific crime so read this book if you can handle it. It is, though, an important episode in California history.

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi, Curt Gentry
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Memoir & Biography

Just a note on how I picked books for this section. In addition to telling a life story, the book had to conjure a sense of place that, in my opinion, leaves the reader with a deeper understanding of California. In other words, by reading the memoir or biography you will come away with a greater knowledge of the diversity and cultures represented in California.


My notes: Lucille Ball. What a woman. This book would be a good companion to The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo described above. While the early sections of the book are set on the East coast, the last half is all Hollywood and Palm Springs. Not only do you get a sense of The Industry, as Californians refer to it, but you also get a sense of one of the most amazing, humble, and accomplished business women the US has seen. The Audible book is narrated by her daughter Lucy Arnez. This is a great listen if you are heading to Hollywood. Take in the Lucy exhibit at The Hollywood Museum (but check to see if it is open first).

Love, Lucy by Lucille Ball
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Goodreads

Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in Hollywood and Palm Springs


My notes: After learning about old comedy check out one of the newest LA-based comedians, Tiffany Haddish. I included this book because Tiffany’s life story tells us about the modern comedy club scene in LA (and you may want to go to a show) and also about what it’s like to be a kid raised in foster care. I was not expecting too much from this book, but it ended up being one of my favorite memoirs ever. Tiffany reads the Audible version so if you listen be prepared to laugh out loud at times (and cry at others).

The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish
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Goodreads

Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in LA


My notes: This is one of the most inspirational books I’ve read. Mrs. Burton has to be one of the strongest, most determined women living in California. When you listen to or read this book you will get to know more about LA, most likely areas you won’t visit. Books like this help visitors understand the city they visit – way beyond the tourist installations.

Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women by Susan Burton, Cari Lynn, Michelle Alexander
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Goodreads

Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in and around LA


My notes: Palo Alto is one of the wealthiest enclaves in the US. But even there, bad things happen. Chanel’s memoir could also fit under true crime. Overall though, her book is all about finding courage when you don’t think you have it. And somedays we do need to dig deep for that courage.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller
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Goodreads

Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in Palo Alto around Stanford U.



My notes: No list of California based memoirs is complete without The Wild. I’ll never through-hike The Pacific Crest Trail, the ship has sailed, but I recently completed a day hike within site of it – and I was impressed.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
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Goodreads

Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set along the Pacific Crest Trail


My notes: Gregory Boyle and the nonprofit he founded, Homeboy Industries, is “…in the business of second chances.” You will be changed by reading this book. You will, I promise. Perhaps, while traveling through LA, you will manage a visit to The Homegirl Cafe or one of their other businesses.

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle
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Goodreads

Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in LA


My notes: You may not stop in Merced, it may only be a city you wave at as you drive up the central valley (I do recommend taking Highway 99 over Interstate 5 if you want to experience more of this region). But this list is about providing books to help you get a feel for all of California and its citizens. Merced is home to one of the largest Hmong communities in the world. If you have any interest in refugees, medicine, anthropology, or any aspect of humanity, I think you will be fascinated by this book.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman
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Goodreads

Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in Merced (San Joaquin Valley)


My notes: I read about Ishi back in the 1970s when I was in high school. The link here is to the 50th-anniversary edition. My curiosity for learning about our nation’s indigenous peoples was sparked when I read this book. I still can’t completely wrap my head around what Ishi must have experienced knowing he was the last of his people. If you are driving in the northeast corner of the state, stop and reflect on all that was lost in the few short years when most of California’s native population was lost.

Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America by Theodora Kroeber
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Goodreads

Earphone designating audiobook version available

Near Lassen National Park, Northern California


My notes: First, one of the best drives in California is along Highway 395 that runs south to north along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. If you drive this highway you MUST stop at Manzanar National Historic Site. Visit the interactive museum and book store for sure, but also tour the camp and the recreated buildings and exhibits. Over 10,000 Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese men, women, and children were held here during WWII.. I stop every time I drive by and there is always something new to see. {COVID update – the museum and inside exhibits are closed, but there is still much to see- check the web site for opening updates} This book tells the story of the Wakatsuki family through the eyes of 7-year-old Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. This is a classic.

Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, James D. Houston
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Goodreads

Earphone designating audiobook version available

Set in Manzanar Internment Camp. East of the Sierras


If you’re new to my blog, welcome! If you made it all the way to this point I expect you both love to travel and read – just like me. I’ll continue to publish reading lists as I move around North America. I’ve been reading and collecting lists of my favorite books from each and every US state and Canadian province for years. Eventually, there will be a book list for each of them. To make sure you never miss out on one, just subscribe to my email list – I promise I use it only to update you on blog-happenings.

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7 Comments

  1. Thanks for a great list! I spent a lazy last hour and a cup of tea sifting through it all, then headed over to my library and borrowed some!! I trust that YOU know books….

    1. Let me know what you read – I finally got They Saw the Elephant and am loving it. I had no idea so many women were gold rush miners!

  2. Loved this idea, Sandra. Thanks for sharing and adding even more books to my to read list.. Harrumph!
    I read Tortilla Curtain twice and loved it but was it enlightening and so sad. Alison

    1. Yes, I can relate to the TBR list that just keeps growing. Sigh. Thanks for the positive feedback on this post, I am thrilled you enjoyed it.

  3. This is such a fantastic list, Sandra! I’ve read a number of books you recommended and loved them (e.g., There There, Know My Name — neither very uplifting, but powerful in any case!). A bunch of others are on my to-read list, and thanks to your recommendations I’ve added a few more. I’d love to set out on another road trip one of these days. These would be perfect audio companions.

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