Share California Dreamin’: 12 Hella Good Novels Putting Us In A Golden State of Mind

California Dreamin’: 12 Hella Good Novels Putting Us In A Golden State of Mind

Alice Martin is a PhD candidate in English Literature at Rutgers University, where she obsesses over nineteenth-century women writers, the history of the publishing industry, and writing practices. She’s also a regular contributor to Shelf Awareness and a freelance writer and editor. Her writing has appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, Appalachian Heritage, and Sixfold among other publications. You can find her talking about books, food, and basketball (in that order) on Twitter @AliceJeanMartin.

With chilly temperatures on the horizon, there’s nothing like some California dreamin’ to warm the heart and mind. These books encapsulate the grand range of fantasies California has inspired over generations. From ambitions of wealth, to longings for new love, to hopes of freedom, California has become, in the minds of many a dreamer, the definition of a land far, far away. With that in mind, take a break from your mundane day-to-day and escape into these books to the home of crashing waves and pink-and-golden sunsets.


East of Eden
by John Steinbeck

The most ambitious novel ever written by Nobel Prize–winning author John Steinbeck, EAST OF EDEN is a modern classic. Adam Trask moves to the agriculturally rich Salinas Valley, California, to start a new life for himself and his young family. But with the birth of his twin sons and the unraveling of his wife, Adam’s family saga soon begins to crumble into modern retellings of the Book of Genesis. A must-read book in the literary canon, EAST OF EDEN defined California in the American imagination.

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East of Eden
John Steinbeck

East of Eden is a work in which Steinbeck created his most mesmerizing characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity, the inexplicability of love, and the murderous consequences of love's absence. Adapted for the 1955 film directed by Elia Kazan introducing James Dean and read by thousands as the book that brought Oprah’s Book Club back, East of Eden has remained vitally present in American culture for over half a century.

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Ana of California
by Andi Teran

In this contemporary retelling of ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, orphaned Ana has one more chance to bond with a family before she’s sent to a group home. She leaves Los Angeles behind to become a farmhand in Northern California under the supervision of Emmett Garber and his sister Abbie. Just as Ana has fallen in love with the farm, however, a mistake may threaten her ability to stay in the one place where she feels at home. Andi Teran’s debut novel tugs at the heartstrings with its inspiring coming-of-age tale.

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Ana of California
Andi Teran

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The Joy Luck Club
by Amy Tan

Amy Tan’s beloved family drama tells the story of four women who begin to gather for dim sum and mahjong shortly after immigrating to San Francisco. There, they forge a community of friendship in the face of loss. Generations of mothers and daughters later, their family secrets begin to untangle, only to show how intertwined they have all been from the start. Tender, moving, and cinematic, THE JOY LUCK CLUB is a masterwork of complex, emotional storytelling.

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The Joy Luck Club
Amy Tan

In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk—and the Joy Luck Club is born. Over the years and the births of their daughters, they become united in their shared experiences of loss and hope, choosing to gather and raise their spirits rather than sink into tragedy.

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There There
by Tommy Orange

In Tommy Orange’s groundbreaking debut novel, no two people have the same reason for attending the Big Oakland Powwow. Nevertheless, 12 characters, all powerfully empathetic and undeniably flawed, convene on the Indian reservation and attempt to repair the lives of themselves and those around them that have been torn apart by addiction, abuse, and violence. Brimming with urgency and profundity, THERE THERE is a finely wrought, shrewd offering of communion in the midst of divisive times.

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There There
Tommy Orange

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The Black Dahlia
by James Ellroy

January 15, 1947: the mutilated body of a beautiful young woman is found in a vacant lot in Los Angeles. Bucky and Lee, two local cops, are determined to discover the truth. But as they are drawn further into the gritty underworld of Hollywood nightlife, they will begin to lose their grasp on reality while they strain to possess what they cannot have. Haunting and raw, THE BLACK DAHLIA is James Ellroy’s fictionalized reimagining of one of America’s most infamous unsolved murders.

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The Black Dahlia
James Ellroy

One of the most bone-chilling mysteries of Hollywood remains unsolved today. In this fictional account, two obsessed police officers begin a fervent investigation when the mutilated body of an aspiring actress is found in Los Angeles. Together, they search for justice for the Black Dahlia and explore the darkest corners of Hollywood.

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Gold Fame Citrus
by Claire Vaye Watkins

In a near future, Southern California is ravaged by drought and environmental destruction. Luz and Ray sustain themselves on scavenged goods and their burgeoning love. But with a new family forming, they head east, past fake prophets and both natural and man-made dangers, in hopes of finding a future they cannot see. Perfect for fans of STATION ELEVEN, GOLD FAME CITRUS speaks to our ability to find love, hope, and longing in a world whose survival is beyond our control.

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Gold Fame Citrus
Claire Vaye Watkins

An unrelenting drought transformed Southern California into a barren and depleted landscape and forced most residents to evacuate into internment camps. But Luz and Ray stay behind, squatting in an abandoned mansion, until they encounter a mysterious child and start a perilous journey east in hopes of a better future.

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L.A.WOMAN
by Eve Babitz

Eve Babitz, the quintessential California writer, is at her dazzling best in L.A. WOMAN, a novel about two show-stopping young women in 1960s/70s Los Angeles. Lola, a German immigrant living in Hollywood, loves fast cars and smooth movie stars, while blonde bombshell Sophie is enjoying a nomadic life as a Jim Morrison groupie. Brought to life by the woman who knew it best, Los Angeles glitters in this rollicking, nostalgic novel of palm trees, high heels, and neon lights.

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L.A.WOMAN
Eve Babitz

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Golden State
by Stephanie Kegan

Stephanie Kegan’s deeply emotive GOLDEN STATE asks us what we would do if one of the people we love most did something we couldn’t fathom. Natalie’s biggest regret in life has been losing touch with her idealized older brother, Bobby, after he left to attend Princeton when she was young. Now, years later, Natalie’s world is shaken when a bomb explodes on Stanford’s campus, where her daughter is now a student. Worse still, the Cal Bomber has left a manifesto that reads just like Bobby’s old letters.

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Golden State
Stephanie Kegan

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Eight Hundred Grapes
by Laura Dave

In this fun, readable piece of women’s literary fiction, bride-to-be Georgia runs home to her family’s vineyard after discovering a jarring secret that her fiancé has been keeping from her. But when she arrives on the eve of the last grape harvest, Georgia discovers that her brothers, parents, and the family business are all struggling as well. It appears they have also been keeping a secret from her, forcing Georgia to wonder if she really knows anyone close to her at all.

Read the full review of EIGHT HUNDRED GRAPES.

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Eight Hundred Grapes
Laura Dave

EIGHT HUNDRED GRAPES is escapist reading at its best because not only are there sun-dappled fields to picture, a dashing neighbor vying for Georgia’s attention, and behind-the-scenes winemaking (author Laura Dave took her wine research seriously!), there is also real heart.

Read Elizabeth Breeden’s review here.

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Hidden Bodies
by Caroline Kepnes

Before it was a hit Netflix show, You was a bestselling novel by Caroline Kepnes. In its sequel, HIDDEN BODIES, stalker-turned-serial killer Joe moves to Los Angeles in an attempt to leave the crimes of his past behind. Things go well at first: he lands a quiet job and a new girlfriend. But nothing stays hidden for long in this twisty, compulsive novel, and soon Joe fears that the secrets of his past may force him to do something awful.

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Hidden Bodies
Caroline Kepnes

Joe is a charming, dangerous antihero whose obsessive quest for the perfect girl takes him to extreme lengths. HIDDEN BODIES is not for the faint of heart—Joe is American Psycho level crazy and self-obsessed—but you’ll be turning pages late into the night.

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The Party
by Robyn Harding

Robyn Harding’s THE PARTY begins innocently enough: Jeff and Kim Sanders, a wealthy couple with an idyllic life in San Francisco, want to throw a sweet 16 celebration for their beloved, obedient daughter Hannah. When things go horribly awry at the party, Jeff and Kim are left to try to hold on to the fraying ends of their ruined lives. In this slow-burn, domestic thriller, nothing and no one is what they seem.

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The Party
Robyn Harding

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The Japanese Lover
by Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende, one of our most magical living storytellers, offers a cinematic, multigenerational tale in THE JAPANESE LOVER. In 1939, Alma is forced to move to San Francisco after the Nazis invade Poland. In San Francisco, she falls in love and begins an affair with a shy, tender gardener before he is forced to live in a wartime internment camp for Japanese Americans. Years later, as Alma nears the end of her life, her grandson and caretaker begin to unravel the secrets of the love affair that has defined Alma’s life.

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The Japanese Lover
Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende’s latest novel spans from Poland in the 1930s to present-day San Francisco. This sweeping love story explores questions of identity, abandonment, redemption, and the unknowable impact of fate on our lives.

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