Bay Area Fiction

Books with a Bay Area Backdrop
San Francisco offers a variety of settings, from city life all the way down to Silicon Valley. Explore our list of favorite books featuring the Bay Area. There’s something for every age, in every genre!
Tweens and Teens:

There’s an amazing amount of 1930s historical detail in this book, and as far as atmospheric settings go, it doesn’t get much better than Alcatraz. Moose’s father is a guard on the Rock, a position he takes so that his family can be near one of the only schools that will help Moose’s autistic sister Natalie.

The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott:
The Alchemyst is the first book in this series of six books. Sophie and Josh, two normal 15 year old American twins living in San Francisco, discover they have been working in a bookshop owned by the immortal Nicholas Flamel. When Nick’s wife is kidnapped and their magical book, the Codex, is stolen, Sophie, Josh and Nick team up to stop the Dark Elders from taking over the world.
Book Scavenger (The Book Scavenger series) by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman:
For twelve-year-old Emily, the best thing about moving to San Francisco is that it’s the home city of her literary idol: Garrison Griswold, book publisher and creator of the online sensation Book Scavenger (a game where books are hidden in cities all over the country and clues to find them are revealed through puzzles). Upon her arrival, however, Emily learns that Griswold has been attacked and is now in a coma, and no one knows anything about the epic new game he had been poised to launch. Then Emily and her new friend James discover an odd book, which they come to believe is from Griswold himself, and might contain the only copy of his mysterious new game.
Shooting Kabul (The Kabul Chronicles) by N.H. Senzai:
In the summer of 2001, twelve year old Fadi’s parents make the difficult decision to illegally leave Afghanistan and move the family to the United States. When their underground transport arrives at the rendezvous point, chaos ensues, and Fadi is left dragging his younger sister Mariam through the crush of people. But Mariam accidentally lets go of his hand and becomes lost in the crowd, just as Fadi is snatched up into the truck. With Taliban soldiers closing in, the truck speeds away, leaving Mariam behind. Adjusting to life in the Bay Area isn’t easy for Fadi’s family and as the events of September 11th unfold the prospects of locating Mariam in a war torn Afghanistan seem slim. When a photography competition with a grand prize trip to India is announced, Fadi sees his chance to return to Afghanistan and find his sister.
Adaptation by Malinda Lo:
Reese and her debate team partner David are driving home to San Francisco from Arizona when their car flips over. When they wake up in a military hospital, the doctor won’t tell them what happened, where they are–or how they’ve been miraculously healed. Things become even stranger when Reese returns home. San Francisco feels like a different place with police enforcing curfew, hazmat teams collecting dead birds, and a strange presence that seems to be following her. Reese’s search for the truth threatens to expose a vast global conspiracy that the government has worked for decades to keep secret.
You Know Me Well: A Novel by Nina LaCour and David Levithan:
This is a story of two gay teenagers, Kate and Mark, who form a friendship while struggling with love. Set during Pride Week in San Francisco.
The Basic Eight: A Novel by Daniel Handler:
A witty parody of a murderous group of seniors in San Francisco. Teens who read Lemony Snicket’s Serious of Unfortunate Events will appreciate the snark in this book written by the same author under his real name.
The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth:
This novel in verse about a group of California yuppies was one of the most highly praised books of 1986. While the idea of a novel in verse may be off-putting, give it a try! Using the sonnet form throughout, and varying his language from lyrical elegance to timely vernacular, Seth’s tale of four California Yuppies is as fully dimensional as a good novel, and twice as diverting. In this witty, compressed style, he gives us fully delineated characters: John, a Silicon Valley executive seeking solace in a meaningful amatory relationship; his friend and ex-lover Janet, an artist and musician in a raucous rock band; Liz, a vivacious Stanford law grad whose parents produce superior California wine; her brother Ed, floundering between sin and religion; and John’s pal Phil, abandoned by his wife and left with his son, his moral vision and his scientific career at Lungless Labs, a scene of antinuclear protests and rallies.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel by Robin Sloan:
Set in San Francisco, Clay is an employee at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore where he discovers the existence of a literary cult called the Unbroken Spine. He enlists the help of some friends to find answers to the secrets the Unbroken Spine has been seeking for centuries. This book is a fresh and inventive puzzle.
A Tale for the Time Being: A Novel by Ruth Ozeki:
It’s hard to do this book justice in a short summary, and we almost don’t want to try and end up mangling our chance to tell you to read this book. There are so many threads in this book, expertly woven and beautifully described. It’s about a teenage girl in Japan, Nao, and the connection between her and Ruth, a writer in Vancouver—a relationship that exists only through Nao’s journal which Ruth has discovered washed up ashore. There’s suicide, hazing, quantum physics, love, and connection. There’s a Buddhist nun, a World War II kamikaze pilot, a family struggling under the weight of lies and cultural expectations—so many things that you would never think work together, yet they do. It’s featured here in the Bay Area section because Nao’s father works for a period of time in Silicon Valley, expertly portrayed, and integral to his unraveling.
House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III:
A former colonel in the Iranian Air Force yearns to restore his family’s dignity. A recovering alcoholic and addict down on her luck struggles to hold on to the one thing she has left, and her lover, a married cop, is driven to extremes to win her love. In this masterpiece of American realism and Shakespearean consequence, Andre Dubus III’s unforgettable characters―people with ordinary flaws, looking for a small piece of ground to stand on―careen toward inevitable conflict in the Bay Area.
The Joy Luck Club: A Novel by Amy Tan:
Four mothers, four daughters, and four families whose histories shift with the four winds. In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared unspeakable loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Rather than sink into tragedy, they choose to gather to raise their spirits and money. “To despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable.” Forty years later the stories and history continue. With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters.
The Confessions of Max Tivoli: A Novel by Andrew Sean Greer:
“We are each the love of someone’s life.” So begins The Confessions of Max Tivoli, a heartbreaking love story with a narrator like no other. Born with the physical appearance of an elderly man, Max grows older mentally like any child, but his body appears to age backwards, growing younger every year. And yet, his physical curse proves to be a blessing, allowing him to try to win the heart of the same woman three times as at each successive encounter she fails to recognize him, taking him for a stranger, so giving Max another chance at love. Set against the historical backdrop of San Francisco at the turn of the twentieth century, The Confessions of Max Tivoli is a beautiful and daring feat of the imagination, questioning the very nature of love, time, and what it means to be human.
Telegraph Avenue: A Novel by Michael Chabon:
New York Times bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon takes us to Telegraph Avenue in a novel that explores the profoundly intertwined lives of two Oakland, California families, one black and one white. In Telegraph Avenue, Chabon creates a world grounded in pop culture—Kung Fu, ’70s Blaxploitation films, vinyl LPs, jazz and soul music—and delivers a bravura epic of friendship, race, and secret histories., Chabon lovingly creates a world grounded in pop culture—Kung Fu, ’70s Blaxploitation films, vinyl LPs, jazz and soul music—and delivers a bravura epic of friendship, race, and secret histories.
A Dirty Job: A Novel by Christopher Moore:
Charlie Asher is a pretty normal guy with a normal life, married to a bright and pretty woman who actually loves him for his normalcy. They’re even about to have their first child. Yes, Charlie’s doing okay—until people start dropping dead around him, and everywhere he goes a dark presence whispers to him from under the streets of San Francisco. Charlie Asher, it seems, has been recruited for a new position: as Death. It’s a dirty job. But, hey! Somebody’s gotta do it.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan:
This book almost defies description. It’s not told chronologically or consistently through the same characters, and some of the chapters aren’t even written to look the way you expect chapters to look. It’s not even easy to determine if this is a series of short stories or a novel, yet everything comes together to form an amazing book about several different characters (some with San Francisco ties) facing the passage of time—the goon squad—as their lives intersect.
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue:

In the summer of 1876 San Francisco is in the fierce grip of a record-breaking heat wave and a smallpox epidemic. Through the window of a railroad saloon, a young woman named Jenny Bonnet is shot dead. Her friend Blanche Beunon, a French burlesque dancer, will risk everything over the next three days, to bring Jenny’s murderer to justice—if he doesn’t track her down first.

The Circle by Dave Eggers:
The Circle is a version of 1984, if instead of resisting, Winston had joined and embraced Big Brother. This novel set in Silicon Valley explores whether our love of technology and networking have gone too far. Mae is lucky enough to be hired by The Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company. The company’s motto: “privacy is theft,” and “secrets are lies,” underscore its philosophy of creating a transparent online persona for everyone. Initially thrilled to be hired, then skeptical, Mae eventually goes all in. While writing the book, Dave Eggers said that occasionally he would think of a futuristic innovation to feature in the book only to discover it actually existed—an example of how in some cases our reality has already eclipsed the imagined future.
The Spellman Files: Document #1 (The Spellmans series) by Lisa Lutz:
The Spellman Files is the first novel in a winning and hilarious mystery series featuring Izzy Spellman (part Nancy Drew, part Dirty Harry) and her highly functioning yet supremely dysfunctional family of private investigators in San Francisco.
The Language of Flowers: A Novel by Vanessa Diffenbaugh:
The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system in the Bay Area, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen and emancipated from the system with nowhere to go, Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But an unexpected encounter with a mysterious stranger has her questioning what’s been missing in her life. And when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.
Tales of the City: A Novel (Harper Perennial Olive Edition) by Armistead Maupin:
The first of nine novels about the denizens of the mythic apartment house at 28 Barbary Lane, Tales is both a sparkling comedy of manners and an indelible portrait of a San Francisco era.

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin:
A Manual for Cleaning Women compiles the best work of the legendary short-story writer Lucia Berlin. With the grit of Raymond Carver, the humor of Grace Paley, and a blend of wit and melancholy all her own, Berlin crafts miracles from the everyday, uncovering moments of grace in the Laundromats and halfway houses of the American Southwest, in the homes of the Bay Area upper class, among switchboard operators and struggling mothers, hitchhikers and bad Christians.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett:
A treasure worth killing for. Sam Spade, a slightly shopworn San Francisco private eye with his own solitary code of ethics. A perfumed grafter named Joel Cairo, a fat man name Gutman, and Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a beautiful and treacherous woman whose loyalties shift at the drop of a dime. These are the ingredients of Dashiell Hammett’s coolly glittering gem of detective fiction, a novel that has captivated three generations of readers.
Jack London: San Francisco Stories by Jack London:
From one of America’s great writers, this delightful collection contains twenty-three adventurous tales set in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Non-Fiction, Essays & Memoirs
Herb Caen’s San Francisco: 1976-1991 by Herb Caen:
A selection of his best and most enduring columns, captures the triumphs and tragedies of the city’s recent history. Whether his topic is the Moscone-Milk murders or the Quake of ’89, Patty Hearst or the Giants-Athletics World Series, the closing of Vanessi’s and Enrico’s restaurants or his own 75th birthday, Reagan’s presidency or a foggy day on Nob Hill, Caen chronicles each event with his distinctive perspective and style.
Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco by Gary Kamiya:
Cool Gray City of Love is a one-of-a-kind book for a one-of-a-kind city. It’s a love song in 49 chapters to an extraordinary place, taking 49 different sites around the city as points of entry and inspiration-from a seedy intersection in the Tenderloin to the soaring sea cliffs at Lands End. Encompassing the city’s Spanish missionary past, a gold rush, a couple of earthquakes, the Beats, the hippies, and the dot-com boom, this book is at once a rambling walking tour, a natural and human history, and a celebration of place itself-a guide to loving any place more faithfully and fully.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers:
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is the moving memoir of a college senior who, in the space of five weeks, loses both of his parents to cancer and inherits his eight-year-old brother. Here is an exhilarating debut that manages to be simultaneously hilarious and wildly inventive as well as a deeply heartfelt story of the love that holds a family together.
Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff:
Before Nic Sheff became addicted to crystal meth, he was a charming boy, joyous and funny—a beautiful boy—a varsity athlete and honor student adored by his two younger siblings. After meth, he was a trembling wraith who lied, stole, and lived on the streets. His father, David, traces the first subtle warning signs: the denial, the 3 A.M. phone calls, and the rehabs. Beautiful Boy is a fiercely candid memoir that brings immediacy to the emotional rollercoaster of loving a child who seems beyond help.
The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts:
Known as “The Mayor of Castro Street” even before he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Harvey Milk’s personal life, public career, and final assassination reflect the dramatic emergence of the gay community as a political power in America. It is a story full of personal tragedies and political intrigues, assassinations at City Hall, massive riots in the streets, the miscarriage of justice, and the consolidation of gay power and gay hope.
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill: A Love Story . . . with Wings by Mark Bittner:
While living on the eastern slope of Telegraph Hill, Mark Bittner made a magical discovery: a flock of wild parrots. In this unforgettable story, Bittner recounts how he became fascinated by the birds and patiently developed friendships with them that would last more than six years. When a documentary filmmaker comes along to capture the phenomenon on film, the story takes a surprising turn, and Bittner’s life truly takes flight.
Oh the Glory of It All by Sean Wilsey:
“In the beginning we were happy. And we were always excessive. So in the beginning we were happy to excess.” With these opening lines Sean Wilsey takes us on an exhilarating tour of life in the strangest, wealthiest, and most grandiose of families. When Sean, “the kind of child who sings songs to sick flowers,” turns nine years old, his father divorces his mother and marries her best friend. Sean’s life blows apart. His mother first invites him to commit suicide with her, then has a “vision” of salvation that requires packing her Louis Vuitton luggage and traveling the globe, a retinue of multiracial children in tow. Her goal: peace on earth (and a Nobel Prize). Sean meets Indira Gandhi, Helmut Kohl, Menachem Begin, and the pope, hoping each one might come back to San Francisco and persuade his father to rejoin the family. Instead, Sean is pushed out of San Francisco and sent spiraling through five high schools, till he finally lands at an unorthodox reform school cum “therapeutic community,” in Italy.
The Best of Adair Lara: Prize Winning Columns from the San Francisco Chronicle by Adair Lara:
A hilarious compilation of columns from Adair Lara’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year by Anne Lamott:
It’s not like she’s the only woman to ever have a baby. At thirty-five. On her own. But Anne Lamott makes it all fresh in her now-classic account of how she and her son and numerous Bay Area friends and neighbors and some strangers survived and thrived in that all important first year. From finding out that her baby is a boy (and getting used to the idea) to finding out that her best friend and greatest supporter Pam will die of cancer (and not getting used to that idea), with a generous amount of wit and faith (but very little piousness), Lamott narrates the great and small events that make up a woman’s life.