100 Must-Read Books Set In/About Los Angeles
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and (aside from a short stint in Pittsburgh for college) I’ve lived my whole life here. In a city of transplants, I am a rare loyal native, an Angeleno through and through. People ask me about LA all the time. Is it really 75 and sunny every day? Do you see famous people all the time? Isn’t it dangerous with all the gangs? So what exactly is pressed juice? And I find myself constantly rolling my eyes and chuckling at people’s judgments of LA, no matter what they are. The truth is, LA is indescribable, because there’s just too much going on here. These days, my go-to line is, “Whatever image you have in your mind of LA, the exact opposite of it exists too”. Downtown, Hollywood, South Central, the Westside, the Valley… they’re all different, and they’re all LA.
Like the city itself, stories about Los Angeles are diverse and come with infinite possibilities. This list seeks to bring together some of the best literature — both fiction and nonfiction — about and set in LA that highlight as many of the city’s different faces as possible.
1. A Kiss of Shadows by Laurell K. Hamilton: The first in an urban fantasy romance series about faerie princess/private investigator Merry Gentry.
2. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood: This novel follows George, an English professor at a Los Angeles university, over the course of a single day soon after the sudden death of his partner, Jim.
3. All Involved by Ryan Gattis: This novel set during the 1992 Los Angeles riots tells the interconnected stories of seventeen characters caught up in the turbulence of those six days.
4. Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley: In response to World War II, the Holocaust, and the atomic bombs, Huxley wrote a new dystopian novel satirizing the politics and warfare of the 20th century. The story takes place in a future Los Angeles that has been destroyed by nuclear warfare and is being explored and studied by scientists.
5. Ask the Dust by John Fante: Widely regarded as a defining Los Angeles novel, Ask the Dust is a semi-autobiographical work about Arturo Bandini, a writer struggling to make it in Depression-era LA.
6. Ball Don’t Lie by Matt de la Peña: “Sticky is a beat-around-the-head foster kid with nowhere to call home but the street, and an outer shell so tough that no one will take him in. He’s a white boy living and playing in a world where he doesn’t seem to belong. But Sticky can ball. And basketball might just be his ticket out . . . if he can only realize that he doesn’t have to be the person everyone else expects him to be.”
7. Bass Ackwards and Belly Up by Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain: In this YA novel following four friends on their journeys after high school, one of the friends moves to LA to pursue her dream of acting.
8. Beige by Cecil Castellucci: “Exiled from Canada to Los Angeles, Katy can’t believe she is spending the summer with her father—punk name: the Rat—a recovered addict and drummer for the band Suck. Even though Katy feels abandoned by her mom, even though the Rat’s place is a mess and he’s not like anything she’d call a father, Kathy won’t make a fuss. After all, she is a girl who is quiet and polite, a girl who smiles, a girl who is, well, beige. Or is she?”
9. Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey: The first novel from controversial author James Frey, Bright Shiny Morning offers a sweeping view of contemporary Los Angeles by following several different characters living in the city.
10. Chocolates for Breakfast by Pamela Moore: “[A] candid coming-of-age story of a young girl’s sudden awakening to love and desire written by 18-year-old Pamela Moore.”
11. Crimson City by Liz Maverick: “Once, this was the City of Angels. The angels are no longer in charge. From the extravagant appetites of the vampire world above, to the gritty defiance of the werewolves below, the specter of darkness lives around every corner, the hope of paradise in every heart. All walk freely with humans in a tentative peace, but to live in Los Angeles is to balance on the edge of a knife.”
12. Dead Boys: Stories by Richard Lange: “These hard-hitting, deeply felt stories follow straight arrows and outlaws, have-it-alls and outcasts, as they take stock of their lives and missteps and struggle to rise above their turbulent pasts.”
13. Death Is a Lonely Business by Ray Bradbury: A writer living in Venice (much like Bradbury himself), with the help of a detective and an actress, investigates a series of strange incidents, including murders, that begin to occur around him.
14. Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley: This is the first installment in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series of mystery novels. Easy slips into a situation where he must play detective, and, through investigating his first mystery, finds himself a new line of work.
15. Emily’s Reasons Why Not by Carrie Gerlach: Emily, a successful career woman in LA, seeks the help of a therapist to work on her love life.
16. Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz: “Journalist, party girl, bookworm, artist, muse: by the time she’d hit thirty, Eve Babitz had played all of these roles. Immortalized as the nude beauty facing down Duchamp and as one of Ed Ruscha’s Five 1965 Girlfriends, Babitz’s first book showed her to be a razor-sharp writer with tales of her own.”
17. Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon: “What if you couldn’t touch anything in the outside world? Never breathe in the fresh air, feel the sun warm your face . . . or kiss the boy next door? In Everything, Everything, Maddy is a girl who’s literally allergic to the outside world, and Olly is the boy who moves in next door . . . and becomes the greatest risk she’s ever taken.”
18. Flight: A Quantum Fiction Novel by Vanna Bonta: A writer living in Los Angeles notices that elements of his science fiction novel begin to synchronize with his own life in the real world. This is the debut novel of Vanna Bonta, self-proclaimed inventor of the quantum fiction genre.
19. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick: In this dystopian science fiction novel, a famous talk show host wakes up one day in an alternate reality where he does not exist.
20. Golden Days by Carolyn See: In this politically-charged novel, See explores the idea of the California dream against a backdrop of the Cold War and nuclear destruction.
21. House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday: This novel follows a young man’s journey to reconnect with his Native American identity during his time on a reservation in New Mexico and in the city of LA.
22. If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes: “This story of a man living every day in fear of his life for simply being black is as powerful today as it was when it was first published in 1947. The novel takes place in the space of four days in the life of Bob Jones, a black man who is constantly plagued by the effects of racism.”
23. In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes: In this noir novel, Hughes sought to discuss and expose the misogyny so largely present in post World War II American society.
24. In the Heart of the Valley of Love by Cynthia Kadohata: “Cynthia Kadohata explores human relationships in a Los Angeles of the future, where rich and poor are deeply polarized and where water, food, and gas, not to mention education, cannot be taken for granted.”
25. Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon: “Part noir, part psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon–Private eye Doc Sportello surfaces, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era”
26. Inner City Blues by Paula L. Woods: A debut novel featuring a black, female LAPD detective working during the LA riots.
27. Kill the Messenger by Tami Hoag: “From the gritty streets of Los Angeles to its most protected enclaves of prestige and power to the ruthless glamour of Hollywood, a killer stalks his prey.”
28. La Medusa by Vanessa Place: “La Medusa is at once the city of Los Angeles, with its snaking freeways and serpentine shifts between reality and illusion, and a brain—a modern mind that is both expansive and penetrating in its obsessions and perceptions.”
29. Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis: This modern classic captures the nihilistic spirit of the disillusioned youth of the 1980s.
30. Locas by Yxta Maya Murray: A novel that looks at gang life in East LA through the eyes of two daughters of Mexican immigrants.
31. Lola by Melissa Scrivner Love: A debut crime thriller about a gang in South Central that is secretly led by a skilled and fierce young woman.
32. Man Walks Into a Room by Nicole Krauss: “Here is the story of a keenly intelligent, sensitive man returned to a life in which everything is strange and new. An emigrant from his own life, set free from all that once defined him, Samson Greene believes he has nothing left to lose. So, when a charismatic scientist asks him to participate in a bold experiment, he agrees.”
33. Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain: “In Mildred Pierce, noir master James M. Cain creates a novel of acute social observation and devastating emotional violence, with a heroine whose ambitions and sufferings are never less than recognizable. ”
34. Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith by Gina B. Nahai: Five-year-old Lili is the only witness of her mother Roxanna’s mysterious disappearance, and she spends the next thirteen years trying to find answers. This novel tells the story of Roxanna, following her from Tehran to Turkey, and then to Los Angeles.
35. Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp: The thriller/crime novel that was the basis for Die Hard — need we say more?
36. Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion: “A ruthless dissection of American life in the late 1960s, Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays captures the mood of an entire generation, the ennui of contemporary society reflected in spare prose that blisters and haunts the reader.”
37. Popcorn by Ben Elton: A satirical, dark comedy about Hollywood that comments on on-screen violence and societal responsibility.
38. Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson: This 1884 novel, set throughout Southern California after the Mexican-American War, was a notable influence on the shaping of the region’s unique culture.
39. Roadrunner: A Novel by Trisha R. Thomas: “[A]n unforgettable story of love, lies, searching, and redemption that will keep you guessing till the last page.”
40. Scruples by Judith Krantz: The story of Wilhelmina Winthrop and her journey from being the outcast member of a Boston Brahmin family to becoming a luxurious Beverly Hills shop owner.
41. Shanghai Girls by Lisa See: Focused on the relationship between two sisters from Shanghai and their experiences as immigrants to the United States, this novel spans many historical events and places important to the story of Chinese immigration, including LA’s Chinatown.
42. Sinners by Jackie Collins: “Hollywood — glittering premieres, dazzling movie sets, fabulous parties, plush love-nests hidden in Malibu and Beverly Hills. Behind the gorgeous playgrounds of the rich and renowned lies a jungle of lust and perversity, greed and ambition, love and danger — where survival is all and innocence is a role nobody plays for long.”
43. Skin Deep by Guy Garcia: This novel about growing up and living in an America where cultures collide follows the story of David Loya, a young Chicano man from East LA.
44. Something in Between by Melissa de la Cruz: A coming-of-age novel about Jasmine, the daughter of undocumented Filipino immigrants living in Los Angeles.
45. Southland by Nina Revoyr: A murder mystery spanning multiple generations and exploring issues of race and discrimination in a Los Angeles that is constantly evolving.
46. Stars Screaming by John Kaye: “Spanning an arc from the golden 1930s to the bitter 1970s, Stars Screaming is a remarkable portrait of a lost era that captures the moment when the American dream fell apart.”
47. Starters by Lissa Price: A dystopian sci-fi novel about a futuristic LA ravaged by biological warfare, where only those under 20 and over 60 are able to survive.
48. Sunset High series by Linda A. Cooney: “When Kristin Sullivan arrives at Sunset High from Minnesota, she feels like a fish out of water. Beverly Hills is a world apart from her mid-western hometown, and her sophisticated classmates make her feel hopelessly naive.”
49. The A-List series by Zoey Dean: The bestselling young adult series about a group of rich teenage friends living in Beverly Hills.
50. The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar: “With The Barbarian Nurseries, Héctor Tobar gives our most misunderstood metropolis its great contemporary novel, taking us beyond the glimmer of Hollywood and deeper than camera-ready crime stories to reveal Southern California life as it really is, across its vast, sunshiny sprawl of classes, languages, dreams, and ambitions.”
51. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: The first of Chandler’s quintessential hardboiled crime novels following LA private investigator Phillip Marlowe.
52. The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy: Ellroy’s noir crime novel based on the real-life murder of Elizabeth Short is the first in his iconic L.A. Quartet. It is followed by The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz.
53. The Chinchilla Farm by Judith Freeman: Verna Flake leaves her life in Utah and takes to the road, traveling to LA and Mexico, to find herself again.
54. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West: A young artist working in Hollywood during the Great Depression befriends meets various outcasts and discovers the poisonous vanity and mob mentality of society.
55. The New Centurions by Joseph Wambaugh: Former LAPD officer Joseph Wambaugh sheds light on how police officers are psychologically affected by their work in this novel.
56. The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia: A Mexican man settles in El Monte (a city in Los Angeles County) and becomes the leader of a war against Saturn in this unique and experimental novel.
57. The Revolt of the Cockroach People by Oscar Zeta Acosta: A fictionalized account of the Chicano Moratorium – a Mexican-American anti-war movement centralized in East LA – which Acosta himself participated in as an activist attorney.
58. The Ritual Bath by Faye Kellerman: The first in the Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus series, about a Southern Baptist detective and the Orthodox Jewish woman who helps him investigate the crime she witnessed.
59. The Scarlet Thread by Francine Rivers: “Two women, centuries apart, are joined through a tattered journal as they contend with God, husbands, and even themselves . . . until they fall into the arms of the One who loves them unconditionally.”
60. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen: A half-Vietnamese, half-French communist spy recounts his story living as a refugee in Los Angeles after the end of the Vietnam War.
61. The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle: A novel following the interconnected stories of two couples: a homeless Mexican couple that illegally immigrated into the US, and a middle-class American couple living in a Los Angeles gated community.
62. The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty: “A bombastic coming-of-age novel that has the uncanny ability to make readers want to laugh and cry at the same time. Beatty mingles horrific reality with wild fancy in this remarkable debut novel.”
63. The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston: In this book that blends memoir and folk tale, Kingston tells five interconnected stories about being a Chinese woman and immigrant, including one that takes place, in part, in Los Angeles.
64. Their Dogs Came with Them by Helena Maria Viramontes: This novel follows the lives of four young Mexican-American women living in East Los Angeles with focus on the complicated effects of freeway construction.
65. This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes: “[A]n uplifting and apocalyptic tale set in Los Angeles about one man’s efforts to bring himself back to life”
66. Those Who Walk in Darkness by John Ridley: “In the near future, the world has become home to certain people with amazing genetic structures-giving them powers that make them frighteningly superior to normal humans.”
67. Trading Up by Candace Bushnell: From the author who brought us Sex and the City, this is a novel about
68. Tropic of Orange by Karen Tei Yamashita: A work of magic realism following seven diverse characters and their intermingling stories over a period of seven days.
69. Unwed Mother by Gloria D. Miklowitz: The story of Kathy Sellers, a lower middle-class teenager who experiences pregnancy, motherhood, and complicated relationships with those around her.
70. Vapor by Amanda Filipacchi: “Fearless and fascinating, Vapor holds a funhouse mirror up to some of our deepest and most alluring notions about fame, identity, and desire.”
71. Walking to Hollywood by Will Self: “Walking to Hollywood is a dazzling triptych – obsessive, satirical, elegiac – in which Will Self burrows down through the intersections of time, place and psyche to explore some of our deepest fears and anxieties with characteristic fearlessness and jagged humour.”
72. Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block: The first in a young adult series following the adventures of Weetzie and her best friend Dirk in this “sophisticated, slinkster-cool love song to L.A.”
73. What We Do Is Secret by Thorn Kief Hillsbery: This novel takes place six months after the suicide of punk rocker Darby Crash, and tells the story of street kids who knew and looked up to him.
74. White Oleander by Janet Fitch: A coming-of-age story about a young girl in Los Angeles who is separated from her single mother and put through the foster system.
75. Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki: “A sinister, sexy noir about art, motherhood, and the intensity of female friendships, set in the posh hills above Los Angeles”
76. Zeroville by Steve Erickson: “In an alternate Los Angeles, a young man uncovers a life-changing cinematic secret”
77. Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. by Luis J. Rodriguez: In this memoir, Rodriguez gives a vivid account of his young life as a member of a street gang in East LA.
78. Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945 by George J Sánchez: “By focusing on Mexican immigrants to Los Angeles from 1900 to 1945, George J. Sánchez explores the process by which temporary sojourners altered their orientation to that of permanent residents, thereby laying the foundation for a new Mexican-American culture.”
79. Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles by Laura Pulido: Laura Pulido is a social scientist focused on ethnic studies and activism. In this comparative study, she examines three organizations — the Black Panthers, El Centro de Acción Social y Autonomo (CASA), and East Wind — and explores 1960s and 1970s radical activism.
80. Blue Rage, Black Redemption by Stanley Tookie Williams: “A gripping tale of personal revolution by a man who went from Crips co-founder to Nobel Peace Prize nominee, author, and antigang activist”
81. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis: An examination of a wide range of groups and the powers they wielded that shaped LA over its history, City of Quartz has garnered a place among some of the most significant social histories of the city.
82. Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles by Jonathan Gold: An incredibly thorough guide to eating in Los Angeles from Pulitzer-Prize winning food critic, Jonathan Gold
83. Forgotten Hollywood Forgotten History by Manny Pacheco: “Forgotten Hollywood Forgotten History shares America’s story through the eyes of character actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age including Claude Rains, Walter Brennan, Van Heflin, and Basil Rathbone.”
84. Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy: Ghettoside is a stunning piece of literary journalism that follows the case of a black-on-black murder in Los Angeles and strictly examines the relationship between race and justice in America.
85. Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi: The iconic true crime book examining Charles Manson, the “Manson Family”, and the murders they committed.
86. Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir by D.J. Waldie: D.J. Waldie grew up in Lakewood, a suburb just outside Los Angeles. Holy Land is a unique memoir about 1950s suburbia and how people and places shape each other.
87. I Don’t Know What You Know Me From: My Life as a Co-Star by Judy Greer: A hilarious and honest collection of essays from the point of view of a Hollywood celebrity who rarely gets the spotlight.
88. L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City by James Buntin: A fascinating chronicle of the interconnected stories of crime boss Mickey Cohen and LA police chief William Parker.
89. LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas edited by Patricia Wakida: This artful exploration of the City of Angels combines maps and infographics with essays from LA writers on widely-ranging topics.
90. Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies by Reyner Banham: Architectural historian Reyner Banham’s unique examination of Los Angeles and the relationship between its citizens and their environment remains relevant even decades later.
91. Native in a Strange Land: Trials & Tremors by Wanda Coleman: A collection of columns and essays gathered from various publications in which Coleman gives us “a tour through the restless emotional topography of Los Angeles as glimpsed through the scattered fragments of my living memory.”
92. Nine Lives of a Black Panther: A Story of Survival by Wayne Pharr: In this memoir, Pharr recounts life in the LA branch of the Black Panther Party and the story of their violent encounter with SWAT officers on December 8, 1969.
93. Southern California: An Island on the Land by Carey McWilliams: Hailed as one of the best books on LA and SoCal history, An Island on the Land explores a wide range of subjects relating to the region during the early- to mid-1900s.
94. The Price of Experience: Power, Money, Image, and Murder in Los Angeles by Randall Sullivan: A true crime study of the Billionaire Boys Club and its leader, Joe Hunt.
95. The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption by Rodney King and Lawrence J. Spagnola: The biography of the police brutality victim whose case sparked the LA riots, and his personal account of the life he never asked for as a civil rights icon.
96. The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson by Jeffrey Toobin: As a legal analyst on the famous trial, Toobin was given access to all sides and perspectives, and his reporting resulted in what is widely regarded as the definitive text on the O.J. Simpson case.
97. The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles by Scott Kurashige: The complex history of the interactions and relationships between African Americans and Japanese Americans in Los Angeles throughout the 20th century are discussed in this academic work.
98. Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling: An essay collection from one of our favorite bookish celebrities about not just being a woman of color in Hollywood, but also about simply being a person trying to live a happy life.
99. Without a Doubt by Marcia Clark: “Without a Doubt is not just a book about a trial. It’s a book about a woman. Marcia Clark takes us inside her head and her heart. Her voice is raw, incisive, disarming, unmistakable. Her story is both sweeping and deeply personal. It is the story of a woman who, when caught up in an event that galvanized an entire country, rose to that occasion with singular integrity, drive, honesty and grace.”
100. You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again by Julia Phillips: Prominent film producer Julia Phillips revealed the sexism and power games occurring in Hollywood in her memoir about her career in the 70s and 80s.