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Great Travel Reads: Inspired by San Francisco

by Moderator November 2012 - last edited April 2013

In the third of our series of travel reads, we move up the west coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The city by the bay is the inspired setting for a string of great novels, spanning the entire life of the city from the gold rush era to the great earthquake and fire, through post-war waves of immigration to the present day.

Here's our selection of books to help you get under the skin of San Francisco before your next trip...

 

  • The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

When San Francisco private detective Sam Spade is approached by a mysterious Miss Wonderly to help find her missing sister, he suspects all is not what it seems. Considered the original masterpiece of noir fiction, the novel was adapted for the screen in 1941 starring Humphrey Bogart as Spade.
 
  • The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club refers to a storytelling and mah jong group set up by four Chinese women who are recent immigrants to San Francisco in 1949. Meeting to play, talk, and eat dim sum, we are drawn in to the alternating stories of mothers struggling to settle into America and daughters battling the confusion of dual identity.
 
  • Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin

The first in Armistead Maupin's wildly popular 1970s series, Tales of the City introduces the chaotic cast of characters who reside at the mythic apartment building at 28 Barbary Lane, under the protective gaze of earth-mother landlady Mrs. Madrigal.

 

  • The Barbary Coast by Herbert Asbury

Herbert Asbury - who also wrote The Gangs of New York - brings to life the San Francisco underworld in this fiery account of the birth of the city, starting with the gold rush to California in 1849.
 
  • The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill by Mark Bittner

After moving to San Francisco in his early twenties to forge a career in music, Mark Bittner was still drifting two decades later. Taking on the role of a housekeeper on Telegraph Hill, this charming memoir tells the story of how he found his true calling through his relationship with the parrots who flock daily to his fire escape.
 
  • 1906 by James Dalessandro

1906 is a compelling historical novel which weaves fact and fiction in an epic story of corruption and greed. Set before and during the great San Francisco earthquake and fire, the book paints a memorable picture of the political and criminal worlds of the post-Victorian city.
 
  • The City, Not Long After by Pat Murphy

Aimed at young adults, this is a dystopian tale of a post-apocalyptic San Francisco. After being wiped out by plague, the city is now populated by a handful of artist survivors who must guard their new way of life against an army of new invaders.
 
  • Going to See the Elephant by Rodes Fishburne

Packed with a cast of quirky characters, Going to See the Elephant is the story of ambitious young writer Slater Brown, who arrives penniless in San Francisco with dreams of writing the next great American novel but ends up working for a down-and-out city newspaper.
 
  • Bone by Fae Myenne Ng

Bone delves into the hidden heart of San Francisco's Chinatown to chronicle the haunting story of the Leong family. Daughter and narrator Leila movingly explores how it feels to be a foreigner in one's own neighbourhood.
  
Chinatown Gate, San Francisco © Jen SFO-BCN Chinatown Gate, San Francisco © Jen SFO-BCN

 

 

If you’ve got any books to add to this list, we’d love to hear your recommendations in the comments below. And don’t forget to check out our previous travel reads for New York and Los Angeles if you’re heading to either city.

 

Virgin Atlantic operate direct flights to San Francisco from London Heathrow.

Header photo © D.H. Parks


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About the author: Maxine

Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.