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Five great books set in California

29th March 2019

Five great books set in California is the latest in our ‘Five great books…’ series.

With 40 million residents, California is the most populous state in the USA.

Five great books set in California

And with an economy that would be the 5th largest in the world, were it a country itself, an attractive climate and an intoxicating mix of coast, desert, city and winelands, it’s not hard to understand why it remains enduringly popular for residents and visitors alike.

Considered to be a global trendsetter in popular culture, innovation and environmentalism, and the origin of the American film industry, hippie culture, fast food, the internet and the latest coffee revolution, it’s also no surprise that California has inspired so many writers.

Here are just a few books set firmly in this fascinating location….

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck’s paean to the Monterey County of his youth.

In the din and stink that is Cannery Row a colourful blend of misfits – gamblers, whores, drunks, bums and artists – survive side by side in a jumble of adventure and mischief. Lee Chong, the astute owner of the well-stocked grocery store, is also the proprietor of the Palace Flophouse that Mack and his troupe of good-natured ‘boys’ call home. Dora runs the Bear Flag Restaurant with clockwork efficiency and a generous heart, and Doc, secreted away in his home at Western Biological Laboratories, is the fount of all wisdom.

Packed with invention and ramshackle joie de vivreCannery Row is Steinbeck’s high-spirited tribute to his native California.

Adapted in 1982 into a memorable film, starring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger. And in an early unconscious episode of being #OnLiteraryLocation, TripFiction’s Andrew loved exploring the Monterey coastline late in the 1980s, visiting Cannery Row and walking in the footsteps of John Steinbeck.

The Girls by Emma Cline

Evie Boyd is desperate to be noticed. In the summer of 1969, empty days stretch out under the California sun. The smell of honeysuckle thickens the air and the sidewalks radiate heat.

Until she sees them. The snatch of cold laughter. Hair, long and uncombed. Dirty dresses skimming the tops of thighs. Cheap rings like a second set of knuckles. The girls.

And at the centre, Russell. Russell and the ranch, down a long dirt track and deep in the hills. Incense and clumsily strummed chords. Rumours of sex, frenzied gatherings, teen runaways.

Was there a warning, a sign of things to come? Or is Evie already too enthralled by the girls to see that her life is about to be changed forever?

Big Sur by Jack Kerouac

In 1960 Jack Kerouac was near breaking point. Driven mad by constant press attention in the wake of the publication of On the Road, he needed to ‘get away to solitude again or die’, so he withdrew to a cabin in Big Sur on the Californian coast.

The resulting novel, in which his autobiographical hero Jack Duluoz wrestles with doubt, alcohol dependency and his urge towards self-destruction, is one of Kerouac’s most personal and searingly honest works.

Ending with the poem ‘Sea: Sounds of the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur’, it shows a man coming down from his hedonistic youth and trying to come to terms with fame, the world and himself.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

Turtle Alveston is a survivor. At fourteen, she roams the woods along the northern California coast. The creeks, tide pools, and rocky islands are her haunts and her hiding grounds, and she is known to wander for miles. But while her physical world is expansive, her personal one is small and treacherous: Turtle has grown up isolated since the death of her mother, in the thrall of her tortured and charismatic father, Martin. Her social existence is confined to the middle school (where she fends off the interest of anyone, student or teacher, who might penetrate her shell) and to her life with her father.

Then Turtle meets Jacob, a high-school boy who tells jokes, lives in a big clean house, and looks at Turtle as if she is the sunrise. And for the first time, the larger world begins to come into focus: her life with Martin is neither safe nor sustainable. Motivated by her first experience with real friendship and a teenage crush, Turtle starts to imagine escape, using the very survival skills her father devoted himself to teaching her. What follows is a harrowing story of bravery and redemption. With Turtle’s escalating acts of physical and emotional courage, the reader watches, heart in throat, as this teenage girl struggles to become her own hero—and in the process, becomes ours as well.

Shot through with striking language in a fierce natural setting, My Absolute Darling is an urgently told, profoundly moving read that marks the debut of an extraordinary new writer.

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin

San Francisco, 1976. A naïve young secretary, fresh out of Cleveland, tumbles headlong into a brave new world of laundromat Lotharios, pot-growing landladies, cut throat debutantes, and Jockey Shorts dance contests. The saga that ensues is manic, romantic, tawdry, touching, and outrageous – unmistakably the handiwork of Armistead Maupin.

This is but the first in a series of nine novels by Maupin, originally serialised in newspapers. They have come to define the hedonism and sexual freedom of San Francisco in the 1970s and 1980s, and introduced the larger-than-life characters of Mary Ann Singleton, Anna Madrigal, Brian Hawkins, ‘Mouse’ Tolliver, and Mona Ramsey to the outside world.

Andrew for the TripFiction Team

Do you know any other books set firmly in CALIFORNIA to add to our database? Please leave your thoughts in the Comments box below, and remember that you can buy any of these books through TripFiction by clicking on the bookseller links on any book icon.

Check out the TripFiction database for our full range of books set in California.

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Other US destinations in our ‘Five/ten great books set in…’ series:

Five great books set in San Francisco

Ten great books set in New York

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