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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Mary Camarillo Why did I love 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!

By D.J. Waldie,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Becoming Los Angeles as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Best-selling author and beloved chronicler of Los Angeles D.J. Waldie reconsiders the city in a collection of contemporary essays.

Nobody sees Los Angeles with more eloquence than D. J. Waldie.
– Susan Brenneman, Los Angeles Times Deputy Op-Ed Editor

Becoming Los Angeles, a new collection by the author of the acclaimed memoir Holy Land, blends history, memory, and critical analysis to illuminate how Angelenos have seen themselves and their city. Waldie’s particular concern is commonplace Los Angeles, whose rhythms of daily life are set against the gaudy backdrop of historical myth and Hollywood illusion. It’s through sacred ordinariness that Waldie…

Book cover of In the Country of Women

Mary Camarillo Why did I love 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.

By Susan Straight,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked In the Country of Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of NPR's Best Books of the Year

“Straight’s memoir is a lyric social history of her multiracial clan in Riverside that explores the bonds of love and survival that bind them, with a particular emphasis on the women’s stories . . . The aftereffect of all these disparate stories juxtaposed in a single epic is remarkable. Its resonance lingers for days after reading.” —San Francisco Chronicle

In the Country of Women is a valuable social history and a personal narrative that reads like a love song to America and indomitable women. In inland Southern California, near the desert and…

Book cover of Flower Grand First

Mary Camarillo Why did I love 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.”

By Gustavo Hernandez,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Flower Grand First as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Gustavo Hernandez’s debut poetry collection, Flower Grand First, moves through the complex roads of immigration, sexuality, and loss. These poems are points plotted on maps both physical and emotional—the rural landscapes of Jalisco, the glimmering plains of memory, the busy cities of California, and the circular paths of grief. Hernandez’s stunning elegies float along a timeline spanning three decades, honoring family, recording a personal history, and revealing a vulnerable but resilient voice preoccupied with time, place, and what is left behind out of necessity.

Book cover of Your House Will Pay

Mary Camarillo Why did I love 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. 

By Steph Cha,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Your House Will Pay as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Two families. One desperate to remember, the other to forget.

Winner of the LA Times Book Prize, Best Mystery/Thriller
Winner of the California Book Awards' Gold Medal for Fiction
Shortlisted for the John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger
Shortlisted for the Macavity Awards, Best Mystery Novel
Shortlisted for the Anthony Awards, Best Novel
Finalist for the NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award

'Masterful.' Ruth Ware

'A searing examination of racial and family politics that is also an immaculately constructed whodunit.' Daily Telegraph, Summer Reads

'Writing a page-turner about racial politics in the U.S. is a delicate enterprise fraught with pitfalls, but Cha…

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

Mary Camarillo Why did I love 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. 

By Stacy Russo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stella Peabody's Wild Librarian Bakery and Bookstore as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Welcome to the magical world of Stella Peabody's Wild Librarian Bakery and Bookstore!

Stella Peabody, an independent and free-spirited "Wild Librarian," follows her dream and opens a vegan bakery/bookstore where she and her literary-inspired baked goods form the heart of a diverse community full of beloved characters, including Robert Gonzales, a romance novel devotee and loving husband, who finds solace in Stella's "Poet's Beer Bread" when his wife goes missing under mysterious circumstances; solitary psychologist Mary Chin who leans upon her experiences with Stella's "Women Who Run With the Wolves" Book Club to find comfort and meaning following a life-changing…

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By Linda Kass,

Book cover of Bessie

Linda Kass Author Of Bessie

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Bookstore owner Learner Reader Historical novelist Long distance cyclist

Linda's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

In the bigoted milieu of 1945, six days after the official end of World War II, Bess Myerson, the daughter of poor Russian immigrants living in the Bronx, remarkably rises to become Miss America, the first —and to date only— Jewish woman to do so. At stake is a $5,000 scholarship for the winner.

An intimate fictional portrait of Bess Myerson’s early life, Bessie reveals the transformation of the nearly six-foot-tall, self-deprecating yet talented preteen into an exemplar of beauty, a peripheral quality in her world. It is the unfamiliar secular society of pageantry she must choose to escape her roots as she searches for love and acceptance, eager to make her mark on the world.


By Linda Kass,

What is this book about?

Just days after the close of World War II, Bess Myerson, the college-educated daughter of poor Russian Jewish immigrants living in the Bronx, is competing in the Miss America pageant. At stake: a $5,000 scholarship. The tension and excitement in Atlantic City's Warner Theatre is palpable, especially for traumatized Jews rooting for one of their own. So begins Bessie.

Drawing on biographical and historical sources, Bessie reimagines the early life of Bess Myerson, who, in 1945 at age twenty-one, remarkably rises to become one of the most famous women in America. This intimate fictional portrait reveals the transformation of the…

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