The best books about life in the real Southern California

Who am I?

My father was transferred to Southern California from Charlotte, North Carolina when I was fourteen years old. I was excited and my friends were jealous. At that point, all I knew about California was the music of the Beach Boys and the Gidget television series. I thought everyone lived on the beach and knew movie stars. I didn’t know there were neighborhoods like Reseda and Anaheim and Fountain Valley, places where people live lives that have nothing to do with the glamour and celebrity of Hollywood. California has been my home for more than fifty years. I still find it fascinating and puzzling, and I still feel like an outsider.

I wrote...

The Lockhart Women

By Mary Camarillo,

Book cover of The Lockhart Women

What is my book about?

The Lockhart Women is a mother/daughter/sister story set in Huntington Beach, California in the 1990s. It's about divorce, choices, and regrets with the OJ Simpson trial as background noise. Susan Straight, author of In the Country of Women calls The Lockhart Women “deeply and thoroughly Southern Californian.”

The novel begins on June 17, 1994, the night of Simpson’s slow-speed chase through Southern California, when Brenda Lockhart’s husband announces he’s leaving her for an older and less attractive woman. Brenda’s never worked outside the home and needs to find a job. Instead, she sits down on the couch and gets hooked on the media frenzy surrounding the criminal trial. Meanwhile, her two teenage daughters make their own bad decisions in lovers and crime.

The books I picked & why

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Becoming Los Angeles: Myth, Memory, and a Sense of Place

By D.J. Waldie,

Book cover of Becoming Los Angeles: Myth, Memory, and a Sense of Place

Why this book?

D.J. Waldie elegantly captures the essence of the ordinary in this beautiful collection of essays. He has lived and worked in Lakewood, California his entire life and he doesn’t drive, which is remarkable in Southern California. Instead, he walks, he observes, and he writes about the kinds of Southern California neighborhoods that I know. I wish that I could describe the sky and the light as accurately and poetically as Waldie does. He has taught me to walk slower and pay attention. His stories of the history of Los Angeles are equally compelling. Waldie says he writes “about sacred and humanizing Los Angeles because I find myself there.” How fortunate for us all!

In the Country of Women: A Memoir

By Susan Straight,

Book cover of In the Country of Women: A Memoir

Why this book?

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, California where she still lives and teaches. She is the author of eight novels and a frequent contributor to The Los Angeles Times. In The Country of Women is a memoir about the women in Straight’s family who migrated from Switzerland, Canada, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Colorado. They all traveled without men and with children in broken-down cars. They depended on the kindness of strangers until they found work and finally settled in Riverside and started new lives. Riverside, a place that people don’t normally think of when they think of California, was their promised land. These stories are painful and beautiful and truly American.

Flower Grand First

By Gustavo Hernandez,

Book cover of Flower Grand First

Why this book?

Flower, Grand, First is a collection of poems about Santa Ana, California and Jalisco, Mexico. The title comes from three streets in Santa Ana, where my husband’s family has lived for more than one hundred years. Hernandez’s poems are about place and displacement and examine what it feels like to be an outsider trying to make sense of life in a strange land, always searching for home. In the wonderful poem “My Father Shows Me Catalina” Hernandez writes: “Smile so you both know it’s okay that you are different. But once-in-a-while, the division is so clean it’ll cut into you.”

Your House Will Pay

By Steph Cha,

Book cover of Your House Will Pay

Why this book?

Your House Will Pay is about the tragic link between two Southern California families living in Palmdale and Granada Hills. The novel switches between points of view and time periods, allowing a valuable perspective on the tensions between Black and Korean American communities thirty years ago and in present day. Suspense-filled and deftly plotted, Cha’s novel is a compelling page-turner about murder, secrets, racial divides, and ultimately hope. 

Stella Peabody's Wild Librarian Bakery and Bookstore: A Novel-in-Stories

By Stacy Russo,

Book cover of Stella Peabody's Wild Librarian Bakery and Bookstore: A Novel-in-Stories

Why this book?

Stacy Russo is a librarian, professor, artist, poet, novelist, children’s book writer, vegan baker, punk rock historian, dog whisperer, and a friend. Her novel told in stories is a close observation of modern life in Santa Ana, California where her protagonist, Stella Peabody runs a bakery and bookstore. The lives of her customers intertwine and create an enviably close community. The sense of place is vivid, and the characters are finely drawn. I wish this bookstore was real and in my neighborhood. Recipes included. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in California, multiracial people, and Los Angeles?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about California, multiracial people, and Los Angeles.

California Explore 204 books about California
Multiracial People Explore 37 books about multiracial people
Los Angeles Explore 159 books about Los Angeles

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Rebecca, Country of Origin, and Your Republic Is Calling You if you like this list.