The best books about gangs

11 authors have picked their favorite books about gangs and why they recommend each book.

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The Outsiders

By S.E. Hinton,

Book cover of The Outsiders

Confession, I saw the movie first. But I do recall the impact that reading the novel in the mid-eighties (yes, last century) had on me. The simplicity of the language gripped me mostly in how it evoked so much sentiment that resonated with me. That an eighteen-year-old author wrote the novel years before in the sixties blew me away also. I can’t recommend the novel based on the storyline alone (which I forget.)  But I can tell you that in searching for a copy at my library, I had to put a hold on a copy, and I wasn’t at the head of the queue, if you know what I mean. Given that the book was published over fifty years ago, that’s a recommendation in itself. 


Who am I?

I write about buddies in a bind having been in a few binds with my buddies over the years. (They’re the best kinds of binds to face, ones faced with your buddies.) I remind myself that every problem has a solution and that solutions to problems we never had before the solution arrived should be avoided. Books I recommend are well imagined and well narrated but are not necessarily well-researched or written by highly qualified writers. Each book I recommend deals with people who face adversity together—it is a theme that I probe in both my reading and my writing. 


I wrote...

Ancient: Human Gods Book 2

By Joe Jeney,

Book cover of Ancient: Human Gods Book 2

What is my book about?

One boy, Anchie Rantree, carries a rare genetic code that has the potential to rejuvenate the stagnant human gene pool, and pull it back from the brink of viral suffocation. But he does not care to save the human race, or himself, not until he meets the deeply flawed, famously successful, and painfully beautiful literary celebrity, Krisiana, who has herself succumbed to deathly viral infection.

Together with his friends Mickey and Chadder, the homesick teens travel to the other side of the world where everything is strange, and nothing is known, except for their friendship, which itself undergoes challenges they could not have expected.

Gangs

By Tony Thompson,

Book cover of Gangs: A Journey into the Heart of the British Underworld

I live in London, one of the most developed and “civilised” cities in the world but I’ve always been fascinated by what lies beneath its respectable surface and what currents are agitating it from below. This is a startling and eye-opening tour of the UK’s rich criminal underbelly and the surprising and surreptitious ways crime groups can cheat the system. It’s also a shocking insight into the lengths to which criminal gangs are prepared to go to avoid being caught. I’ve not been able to look at my home city in the same way ever since.

Who am I?

I’m a filmmaker and writer who made a TV series about street gangs around the world with actor and presenter Ross Kemp. But it was one London street gang, the PDC, that particularly caught my attention. The newspaper reports were full of overblown headlines, terrifying statistics, and quotes from police forces. That’s when I decided to head down to the PDC’s “turf” in a small corner of south London because if you are going to try and tackle this crimewave it’s best to find out who is doing it and why. Right? I spoke to PDC gang members, their friends and families and the surprising truth behind the headlines is revealed in my book.


I wrote...

Street Boys: 7 Kids. 1 Estate. No Way Out. The True Story of a Lost Childhood

By Tim Pritchard,

Book cover of Street Boys: 7 Kids. 1 Estate. No Way Out. The True Story of a Lost Childhood

What is my book about?

It’s the story of 7 young boys who are members of a notorious and feared London street gang. To some, they are glamorous, gun-toting “gangstas” with a bling-bling lifestyle. To others, they are a group of criminalised thugs who pose a danger to society. This may turn you on or put you off. But stay with it. Things may not be what they seem. 

Perfect Chemistry

By Simone Elkeles,

Book cover of Perfect Chemistry

Perfect Chemistry is one of the books I read as a model for writing the character relationship between my young adult novel characters, Shantel and Christopher. Alex is the perfectly crafted bad boy character who falls in love with Brittany and in the process is changed with how he sees his life. 


Who am I?

Bad boys in young adult romance have always been one of my favorite tropes to read. For seven years, I facilitated a poetry workshop with teens in a juvenile detention center and got to hear their stories—the heartbreak, the challenges, and the triumphs under all that bad boy façade. My memoir, Kids in Orange: Voices from Juvenile Detention, is about the workshops and helped me understand both myself as a writer and the “bad boys” who wrote poetry each week. There are a lot of complexities to bad boy characters and the most satisfying stories are the ones where the bad boys redeem themselves and find love. 


I wrote...

Weaving Magic

By Mindy Hardwick,

Book cover of Weaving Magic

What is my book about?

Can Shantel and Christopher move beyond magical illusions to find love? He loves magic. She loves romance. But the biggest illusion is the one Shantel and Christopher perform together. Sixteen-year-old Christopher fights to stay sober while fifteen-year-old Shantel struggles in the aftermath of her mother’s death and seeks refuge in a fantasy world.

But the unacknowledged roots of their problems refuse to stay buried and soon, the two are headed toward a deadly magic trick.

These Violent Delights

By Chloe Gong,

Book cover of These Violent Delights

Have you ever read about a book and thought there is no way it could possibly exist because it brings together far too many of your favourite tropes/interests and how could all that goodness exist in one story? It’s set in 1920s Shanghai, with enemies to lovers in the form of “if Romeo and Juliet had broken up and met again years later.” Add to that, rival mob families and a paranormal mystery.

What a gorgeous story. It's evocative and dreamy and sharp and insightful. Every single character is brilliantly crafted with a distinct personality and all their jagged edges rub along in such wonderful and conflicted ways. 

The book is part of a duology and trust me, the second half lives up to this magnificence.


Who am I?

I was an avid reader growing up, but I never saw myself reflected unless it was a book about the Holocaust. Those are crucial stories to tell, but I wanted a Jewish girl going through a wardrobe to a secret land or having magical adventures. So, I decided to write those stories for women and combine them with steamy romance, because I love that, too. All my main characters are Jewish, and I draw from Judaism and Jewish folklore for my worldbuilding and magic systems. It's also important for me to showcase my diverse hometown of Vancouver. To that end, my characters are of varying ethnicities and sexual identities.


I wrote...

Blood & Ash: A Snarky Urban Fantasy Detective Series

By Deborah Wilde,

Book cover of Blood & Ash: A Snarky Urban Fantasy Detective Series

What is my book about?

When Ash is hit during a stakeout, she discovers a mysterious tattoo on the back of her skull—a now-broken ward unleashing dangerous magic that she shouldn’t possess. Her unruly powers nearly kill her long-time nemesis, Levi, the uptight leader of the magic community. One word from him revealing her forbidden abilities, and everything she’s built will be taken from her… by force. The only bright spot is that Levi requires her supernatural skills to solve a case. After years of being underestimated by him, it’s Ash’s chance at payback and she’s going to enjoy bringing him to his knees—or stuffing him in a body bag.

Crackling with suspense, this magic detective series features an enemies-to-lovers romance and a snarky heroine solving thrilling mysteries.

The Gangs of New York

By Herbert Asbury,

Book cover of The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld

In the 19th century, the Bowery and the Five Points neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan were twisted warrens of saloons, brothels, opium dens, and gambling houses, home to gangs of criminals like the Plug Uglies, Bowery Boys, and Dead Rabbits. It’s a complex ecosystem but when it comes to lowlifes Herbert Asbury is an extraordinary naturalist. His book covers a bewildering number of hoodlums, scams, bawdyhouses, convictions, and murders, and the sum total makes a larger impression than any one part. (Although highlights include the depictions of the crooked Tammany Hall political leadership and a chilling account of the New York City draft riots of 1863.) When the book was originally published in 1927, the Prohibition-empowered Italian Mafia pretty much ran Lower Manhattan’s crime and the era of these legendary gangs was already a fading memory. Asbury’s tome captured an entire criminal universe that was packed into a few square blocks,…


Who am I?

As a journalist and author of history books who's lived in Texas for most of my adult life, I've found myself unavoidably steeped in Texas Ranger lore. I didn't understand how such a small force could enter unfamiliar areas of Texas and get any results as law enforcement officers. This central question led to me the operations of Company F during 1886-1888. I found the showdowns were just one part of the story. Researching these topics meant learning about the Rangers' outlaw targets - following another journalistic impulse to give both sides of this story an equal hearing. What resulted is a nuanced, complex tale that hopefully will open eyes instead of pointing fingers.


I wrote...

Red Sky Morning: The Epic True Story of Texas Ranger Company F

By Joe Pappalardo,

Book cover of Red Sky Morning: The Epic True Story of Texas Ranger Company F

What is my book about?

Many books about the Texas Rangers are told strictly from the point of view of the lawmen and don’t dwell on those of their targets. In Red Sky Morning, I describe both sides of several clashes for a more complete view of the outlaws’ personalities and motivations, as well as the effect the Rangers had on the communities where their manhunts unfolded. The book is set in the late 1800s, but it’s more inspired by the movie Heat than westerns like Tombstone.  

Maybe I spent too much time as a journalist, but I enjoy finding forgotten accounts that reexamine official narratives. These new points of view aren't always sympathetic to the criminals, but they certainly help explain why they made the decisions that led them to cross paths with the Texas Rangers.  

King Suckerman

By George P. Pelecanos,

Book cover of King Suckerman

A lot of people know George Pelecanos from his work as a TV writer, but long before he contributed to The Wire and The Deuce, he was turning out great mysteries, most of them set in his hometown of Washington, D.C. These are smart, sociological thrillers that teach you a lot about life on the city's mean streets. What sets books like King Suckerman apart for me is how much they teach you about the way popular music—heard from car radios, boom boxes, and record store systems—defines people's lives. For me, one of the book's many highlights is a fierce exchange between a guy who, based on Jimi Hendrix's funky playing in Band of Gypsys thinks the guitarist should be filed under soul rather than rock because that was the direction he was going and a friend who responds, "What you think you are, man, the Amazing Kreskin... gonna…


Who am I?

My earliest filmgoing memory is of a bad guy getting pushed down the stairs in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much. That shocking scene has stayed with me, leading me into a lifetime of exploring the dark visions of crime stories. It was only natural that my love of rock music, and in its interaction with other media would draw me to mystery writers whose books were fueled by their love of rock, blues and pop. "If not for music and movies, I wouldn't be a novelist," George Pelecanos once told me. "They have influenced me more than any author. I want to shout about it." Me too.


I wrote...

T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit

By Lloyd Sachs,

Book cover of T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit

What is my book about?

T Bone Burnett offers the first critical appreciation of Burnett’s wide-ranging contributions to American music, his passionate advocacy for analog sound, and the striking contradictions that define his maverick artistry. Lloyd Sachs highlights all the important aspects of Burnett’s musical pursuits, from his early days as a member of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and his collaboration with the playwright Sam Shepard to the music he recently composed for the TV shows Nashville and True Detective and his production of the all-star album Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes. Sachs also underscores Burnett’s brilliance as a singer-songwriter in his own right. T Bone Burnett reveals how this consummate music maker has exerted a powerful influence on American music and culture across four decades.

The Road to Winter

By Mark Smith,

Book cover of The Road to Winter

Such a pleasure to find the Winter series, because Australian apocalyptic stories are few and far between. Set on the surf coast of Victoria, this book revels in the pristine scenery and the majesty of the ocean. You can almost smell the salt in the air.

Courageous and determined, teenager Finn lives alone with his patient dog Rowdy. Finn appreciates the harsh beauty of what’s left after the disaster, but he’s not blind to the awful injustices that flood in after the rule of law disappears. Finn shows an extraordinary capacity for love and care for the people around him, as well as the few who escape the clutches of new slavery. Rowdy – despite his name – is the quiet rock that gives Finn heart, and he’s never more or less than a dog. Which is wonderful.


Who am I?

The first book I read on my own was the Little Golden Book of Puppies and Kittens. I decided then, aged three, that the best books have animals in them…and I haven’t changed my mind. While fantasy novels with animals are among my all-time favorites, I’ve developed a deep love for dystopian novels which leave room for hope. I especially love the stories that show more than just humans living on Planet Earth. What better species to represent all that’s good on Earth but dogs? I can’t imagine ever writing a story without a dog in it. 


I wrote...

The Pale

By Clare Rhoden,

Book cover of The Pale

What is my book about?

Mashtuk and his partner Zélie are canini: genetically modified wolf-dogs with language and compassion. In a world destroyed by the Great Cataclysm, bionic humachines live safely inside the Pale, while other creatures struggle to stay alive in the Outside.

The rest of humanity also lives Outside. Another aftershock throws the whole land into chaos, and Hector – a human boy – is adopted by one of the humachines. All the careful systems inside the Pale begin to collapse, and its technological domination teeters in the face of real mortals with heart and soul.

Dough Boys

By Paula Chase,

Book cover of Dough Boys

I love Dough Boys because it’s an engrossing, authentic story about basketball, music, friendship, and the hard decisions thirteen-year-old kids sometimes have to make. It follows Rollie and Simp, best friends who play on an elite basketball team in their low-income neighborhood...but playing on the team means getting involved as lookouts for a local drug ring, and the boys have very different feelings about the pressures and responsibilities they face. Basketball scenes provide an entryway into important topics, and through the two well-developed protagonists, Chase explores what happens when a sport feels like your only chance at the future you want, and what happens when you’re no longer sure you love a game that used to be part of your identity.


Who am I?

I’ve always loved watching and playing sports, and now I love writing about them, too. As a former teacher, I’ve seen firsthand how sporty books appeal to sporty kids. But after publishing my novel Up for Air, which is about a star swimmer, I’ve been struck by how many readers tell me they connected deeply with the main character even though they don’t like sports at all. That made me think about what makes sports stories resonate, and now I look out for books that capitalize on all the most exciting and relatable things about sports while also offering compelling hooks to readers with all sorts of interests.


I wrote...

Coming Up Short

By Laurie Morrison,

Book cover of Coming Up Short

What is my book about?

Bea’s parents think she can accomplish absolutely anything. But at the end of seventh grade, on the day she makes a play to send her softball team to the league championships and Xander, the boy she likes, makes it clear that he likes her too, a scandal shakes up her world. Bea’s dad took money that belonged to a client. He’s now suspended from practicing law, and another lawyer spread the news online. To make matters worse, that lawyer is Xander’s dad.

The thing she was best at seems to be slipping out of her fingers along with her formerly happy family. She's not sure what's going to be harder—learning to throw again or forgiving her dad. How can she be the best version of herself when everything she loves is falling apart?

Oliver Twist

By Charles Dickens,

Book cover of Oliver Twist

As a young kid reading Dickens for the first time I was mesmerised by this journey into the underworld of Victorian London. I would go on my own imaginary adventures with the Artful Dodger and his gang of thieving street urchins. Years later, when writing my own book about modern street gang members I had the same sense of going on a thrilling journey of discovery and escapades.

Who am I?

I’m a filmmaker and writer who made a TV series about street gangs around the world with actor and presenter Ross Kemp. But it was one London street gang, the PDC, that particularly caught my attention. The newspaper reports were full of overblown headlines, terrifying statistics, and quotes from police forces. That’s when I decided to head down to the PDC’s “turf” in a small corner of south London because if you are going to try and tackle this crimewave it’s best to find out who is doing it and why. Right? I spoke to PDC gang members, their friends and families and the surprising truth behind the headlines is revealed in my book.


I wrote...

Street Boys: 7 Kids. 1 Estate. No Way Out. The True Story of a Lost Childhood

By Tim Pritchard,

Book cover of Street Boys: 7 Kids. 1 Estate. No Way Out. The True Story of a Lost Childhood

What is my book about?

It’s the story of 7 young boys who are members of a notorious and feared London street gang. To some, they are glamorous, gun-toting “gangstas” with a bling-bling lifestyle. To others, they are a group of criminalised thugs who pose a danger to society. This may turn you on or put you off. But stay with it. Things may not be what they seem. 

True History of the Kelly Gang

By Peter Carey,

Book cover of True History of the Kelly Gang

Although this is a novel it’s based on the exploits of the historical Australian gang leader Ned Kelly. I loved how the use of vernacular and absence of traditional grammar make you feel that you are being talked to by a real hardcore gang member. It pulls you into the experience of what joining and being a member of a street gang must be like and helps you understand why, when family and society fail you, the life of an outlaw offers such a buzz.  


Who am I?

I’m a filmmaker and writer who made a TV series about street gangs around the world with actor and presenter Ross Kemp. But it was one London street gang, the PDC, that particularly caught my attention. The newspaper reports were full of overblown headlines, terrifying statistics, and quotes from police forces. That’s when I decided to head down to the PDC’s “turf” in a small corner of south London because if you are going to try and tackle this crimewave it’s best to find out who is doing it and why. Right? I spoke to PDC gang members, their friends and families and the surprising truth behind the headlines is revealed in my book.


I wrote...

Street Boys: 7 Kids. 1 Estate. No Way Out. The True Story of a Lost Childhood

By Tim Pritchard,

Book cover of Street Boys: 7 Kids. 1 Estate. No Way Out. The True Story of a Lost Childhood

What is my book about?

It’s the story of 7 young boys who are members of a notorious and feared London street gang. To some, they are glamorous, gun-toting “gangstas” with a bling-bling lifestyle. To others, they are a group of criminalised thugs who pose a danger to society. This may turn you on or put you off. But stay with it. Things may not be what they seem. 

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