Books Set In San Francisco: San Francisco Novels
I’m heading to San Francisco this week and as always, I’ve been exploring the local literature in preparation for my trip. This epic list of books set in San Francisco (and the wider bay area) aims to capture the diversity of stories hailing from the golden city and its surrounds. I’ve discovered more incredible titles than I could ever possibly pack and hope you’ll find something here for your next read too!
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Books Set In San Francisco: Introduction
San Francisco has a rich literary history. Jack London was a native, it’s where Mark Twain developed his writing career and it was the birthplace of the famous Beat movement; started by authors such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. There is no shortage of books set in San Francisco.
Just some notable books set in San Francisco include The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (which inspired multiple films including the 1941 adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart), Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (which grew into a series of nine novels, adapted for television including a version by Netflix) and The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth (a novel written in verse).
Some other highlights include The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (focused on four Chinese American families), China Dolls by Lisa See (set around three women auditioning at a Chinatown nightclub) and The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende (historical fiction telling a multigenerational love story).
Books Set In San Francisco: The Shortlist
If you’re short on time to browse the much longer list below, these are my personal picks for books set in San Francisco:
- The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
- Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
- The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth
- The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
- A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
- The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
- Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
- Season of the Witch by David Talbot
- China Dolls by Lisa See
- The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende
Books Set In San Francisco
1. McTeague by Frank Norris, 1899
First published in 1899, McTeague was a literary sensation. Its ultra-realistic portrayal of the rise and fall of a simple-minded dentist and his grasping, greedy wife was controversial for its candid depiction of sordid behavior right at the edge of insanity. It remains a searing indictment of human weakness and selfishness in a rapidly evolving America.
2. The American Diary of a Japanese Girl by Yone Noguchi, 1902
The first American novel by a writer of Japanese ancestry, The American Diary of a Japanese Girl is a landmark of modern American fiction and Japanese-American transnationalism. First published in 1902, Yone Noguchi’s novel describes the turn-of-the-century adventures of Tokyo belle Miss Morning Glory in a first-person narrative that the New York Times called “perfectly ingenuous and unconventional.” Initially published as an authentic journal, the diary was later revealed to be a playful autobiographical fiction written by a man.
3. The Sea-Wolf by Jack London, 1904
The Sea-Wolf is a 1904 psychological adventure novel by Jack London about a literary critic Humphrey van Weyden. The story starts with him aboard a San Francisco ferry, called Martinez, which collides with another ship in the fog and sinks. He is set adrift in the Bay, eventually being picked up by Wolf Larsen. Larsen is the captain of a seal-hunting schooner, the Ghost. Brutal and cynical, yet also highly intelligent and intellectual, he rules over his ship and terrorizes the crew with the aid of his exceptionally great physical strength.
4. Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, 1929
When the last honest citizen of Poisonville was murdered, the Continental Op stayed on to punish the guilty – even if that meant taking on an entire town. Red Harvest is more than a superb crime novel: it is a classic exploration of corruption and violence in the American grain.
Note: This is the first novel in the Continental Op series. It is about a detective from San Francisco who is sent to a case in a town called Personville.
5. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, 1930
Sam Spade is hired by the fragrant Miss Wonderley to track down her sister, who has eloped with a louse called Floyd Thursby. But Miss Wonderley is in fact the beautiful and treacherous Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and when Spade’s partner Miles Archer is shot while on Thursby’s trail, Spade finds himself both hunter and hunted: can he track down the jewel-encrusted bird, a treasure worth killing for, before the Fat Man finds him?
Note: The Maltese Falcon inspired multiple films, including the 1941 adaptation of the same name, starring Humphrey Bogart.
6. Mama’s Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes, 1943
The funny, touching, gentle story of an indomitable Norwegian-American matriarch and her loving family. The charming adventures of the Mama of an immigrant Norwegian family living in San Francisco. This bestselling book inspired the play, motion picture, and television series I Remember Mama.
7. Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, 1956
Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was originally published by City Lights Books in the Fall of 1956. Subsequently seized by U.S. customs and the San Francisco police, it was the subject of a long court trail at which a series of poets and professors persuaded the court that the book was not obscene. Howl & Other Poems is the single most influential poetic work of the post-World War II era, with over 1,000,000 copies now in print.
Note: While our reading lists don’t usually include poetry, this piece is included as it is a landmark work.
8. On the Road by Jack Kerouac, 1957
Leaving a broken marriage behind him, Sal Paradise (Kerouac) joins Dean Moriarty (Cassady), a tearaway and former reform school boy, on a series of journeys that takes them from New York to San Francisco, then south to Mexico. Hitching rides and boarding buses, they enter a world of hobos and drifters, fruit-pickers and migrant families, small towns and wide horizons. Adrift from conventional society, they experience America in the raw: a place where living is hard, but ‘life is holy and every moment is precious’.
Note: On The Road covers a journey, part of which takes place in San Francisco.
9. The Flower Drum Song by C.Y. Lee, 1957
This charming, bittersweet tale of romance and the powerful bonds of family tells the story of Wang Ta, who wants what every young American man wants: a great career and a woman to love. Living in San Francisco’s Chinatown – with his widowed father, Old Master Wang, who misses the old way of life in China, and his younger brother, who just wants to be a normal American teenager – Wang Ta becomes involved with a series of women as he searches for love and the American dream. Comic, poignant, and sexy, The Flower Drum Song is an astute portrayal of immigrants struggling with assimilation.
10. The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac, 1958
Jack Kerouac, one of the great voices of the Beat generation and author of the classic On the Road, here continues his peregrinations in postwar, underground San Francisco. “The subterraneans” come alive at night, travel along dark alleyways, and live in a world filled with paint, poetry, music, smoke, and sex. Simmering in the center of it all is the brief affair between Leo Percepied, a writer, and Mardou Fox, a black woman ten years younger. Just at the moment when she is coolly leaving him, Leo realizes his passion for passion, his inability to function without it, and the puzzling futility of seeking redemption and fulfillment through writing.
11. The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, 1958
Two ebullient young men search for Truth the Zen way: from marathon wine-drinking bouts, poetry jam sessions, and “yabyum” in San Francisco’s Bohemia, to solitude in the high Sierras and a vigil atop Desolation Peak in Washington State. Published just a year after On the Road put the Beat Generation on the map, The Dharma Bums is sparked by Kerouac’s expansiveness, humor, and a contagious zest for life.
Note: this is only partly set in San Francisco.
12. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, 1962
It’s America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco, the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war – and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan. This harrowing, Hugo Award-winning novel is the work that established Philip K. Dick as an innovator in science fiction while breaking the barrier between science fiction and the serious novel of ideas. In it Dick offers a haunting vision of history as a nightmare from which it may just be possible to wake.
13. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, 1968
It was January 2021, and Rick Deckard had a license to kill. Somewhere among the hordes of humans out there, lurked several rogue androids. Deckard’s assignment – find them and then “retire” them. Trouble was, the androids all looked exactly like humans, and they didn’t want to be found!
Note: This is the first book in the Blade Runner series, set in post-apocalyptic San Francisco. It was later printed as Blade Runner and was the basis for the film of the same name, in which the setting became Los Angeles.
14. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, 1968
Tom Wolfe’s much-discussed kaleidoscopic non-fiction novel chronicles the tale of novelist Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters. In the 1960s, Kesey led a group of psychedelic sympathizers around the country in a painted bus, presiding over LSD-induced “acid tests” all along the way. Long considered one of the greatest books about the history of the hippies, Wolfe’s ability to research like a reporter and simultaneously evoke the hallucinogenic indulgence of the era ensures that this book, written in 1967, will live long in the counter-culture canon of American literature.
15. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion, 1968
In essay after essay, Didion captures the dislocation of the 1960s, the disorientation of a country shredding itself apart with social change. Her essays not only describe the subject at hand – the murderous housewife, the little girl trailing the rock group, the millionaire bunkered in his mansion – but also offer a broader vision of America, one that is both terrifying and tender, ominous and uniquely her own. One of America’s greatest essayists, Joan Didion creates a masterpiece of prose on California in her 1968 collection entitled Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Note: This collection is set all across California, with the title piece set in San Francisco.
16. We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us Against by Nicholas von Hoffman, 1968
Books about the sixties have proliferated, but none has surpassed Nicholas von Hoffman’s classic account of the 1960s counter-culture in San Francisco. “In the summer of 1967,” he writes, “youth drew attention to itself by clustering in large numbers in most major American cities, where they broke the narcotics laws proudly, publicly, and defiantly. At the same time, they enunciated a different social philosophy and a new politics, and perhaps even mothered into life a subculture that was new to America. This book tries to explain what happened in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco. For it was in the Haight that whatever happened, happened most vividly and so intensely that it drew international attention to itself.”
17. The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 by Richard Brautigan, 1971
A reclusive young man works in a San Francisco library for unpublishable books. Life’s losers, an astonishing number of whom seem to be writers, can bring their manuscripts to the library, where they will be welcomed, registered and shelved. They will not be read, but they will be cherished. In comes Vida, with her manuscript. Her book is about her gorgeous body, in which she feels uncomfortable. The librarian makes her feel comfortable, and together they live in the back of the library until the trip to Tijuana changes them in ways neither of them had ever expected.
18. The Snatch by Bill Pronzini, 1971
In his first chronicled adventure, the Nameless Detective is hired to handle the ransom payoff in a kidnapping case. Financier Louis Martinetti doesn’t trust the police to deal with the man who snatched his 9-year-old son from his military prep school, nor is it clear that he trusts the members of his own household. On the appointed evening, Nameless takes a briefcase that contains $300,000 in cash to a secluded location chosen by the kidnapper. Then all hell breaks loose.
Note: This is the first book in the Nameless Detective series.
19. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston, 1976
The Woman Warrior is a pungent, bitter, but beautifully written memoir of growing up Chinese American in Stockton, California. Maxine Hong Kingston (China Men) distills the dire lessons of her mother’s mesmerizing “talk-story” tales of a China where girls are worthless, tradition is exalted and only a strong, wily woman can scratch her way upward. The author’s America is a landscape of confounding white “ghosts” – the policeman ghost, the social worker ghost – with equally rigid, but very different rules. Like the woman warrior of the title, Kingston carries the crimes against her family carved into her back by her parents in testimony to and defiance of the pain.
Note: This memoir is based on the authors childhood in San Francisco.
20. The Immigrants by Howard Fast, 1977
A love story of tremendous beauty; a tale of passion, adventure, and ambition set against the streets of San Francisco, America’s most romantic city. Dan Lavette, the son of an Italian fisherman, battles from the rubble of the San Francisco earthquake to build a fortune in the shipping industry. Rising to success through hard work and a loveless marriage to the daughter of the city’s wealthiest family, he risks it all for the exotic beauty of a woman who shares his secret and scandalous passion. From Nob Hill to the harbor, San Francisco comes alive through three immigrant families – Italian, Irish, and Chinese – whose intertwining dreams are propelled by the emotional events of America’s coming of age.
Note: This is the first book in the Lavette Family series.
21. A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion, 1977
Writing with the telegraphic swiftness and microscopic sensitivity that have made her one of our most distinguished journalists, Joan Didion creates a shimmering novel of innocence and evil. A Book of Common Prayer is the story of two American women in the derelict Central American nation of Boca Grande. Grace Strasser-Mendana controls much of the country’s wealth and knows virtually all of its secrets; Charlotte Douglas knows far too little. “Immaculate of history, innocent of politics,” she has come to Boca Grande vaguely and vainly hoping to be reunited with her fugitive daughter. As imagined by Didion, her fate is at once utterly particular and fearfully emblematic of an age of conscienceless authority and unfathomable violence.
Note: This is only partly set in San Francisco.
22. Edwin of the Iron Shoes by Marcia Muller, 1977
It’s Sharon McCone’s first case as staff investigator for All Souls Legal Cooperative. She knows nothing about antiques, yet she has an affection for Salem Street with its charming mix of antique and curio shops. Now elderly dealer Joan Albritton has been found dead, stabbed with an antique dagger. Her neighbors are shocked. Recurring vandalism has them frightened. Ferreting out the facts will take Sharon from the chaotic jumble of the junk dealer’s establishment to a museum where San Francisco’s most elegant socialites gather. But it is not until she is alone in Joan’s dark shop with Clothilde, the headless dressmaker’s dummy; Bruno, the stuffed German shepherd; and Edwin, the little boy mannequin in the ornate iron shoes that she will have the chance to discover the murderous secret someone will kill – and kill again – to keep.
Note: This is the first book in the Sharon McCone series.
23. Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin, 1978
San Francisco, 1976. A naïve young secretary, fresh out of Cleveland, tumbles headlong into a brave new world of laundromat Lotharios, pot-growing landladies, cut throat debutantes, and Jockey Shorts dance contests. The saga that ensues is manic, romantic, tawdry, touching, and outrageous – unmistakably the handiwork of Armistead Maupin.
Note: This is the first book in the Tales of the City series.
24. City Come a-Walkin’ by John Shirley, 1980
Stu Cole is struggling to keep his nightclub, Club Anesthesia, afloat in the face of mob harassment when he’s visited by a manifestation of the city of San Francisco, crystallized into a single enigmatic being. This amoral superhero leads him on a terrifying journey through the rock and roll demimonde as they struggle to save the city.
25. The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life & Times of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts, 1982
The Mayor of Castro Street is Shilts’s acclaimed story of Harvey Milk, the man whose personal life, public career, and tragic assassination mirrored the dramatic and unprecedented emergence of the gay community in America during the 1970s. Known as ‘The Mayor of Castro Street’ even before he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Harvey Milk’s personal and political life 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.
26. Zodiac by Robert Graysmith, 1986
A sexual sadist, he took pleasure in torture and murder. His first victims were a teenage couple, stalked and shot dead in a lovers’ lane. After another slaying, he sent his first mocking note to authorities, promising he would kill more. The official tally of his victims was six. He claimed thirty-seven dead. The real toll may have reached fifty. Robert Graysmith was on staff at the The San Francisco Chronicle in 1968 when Zodiac first struck, triggering in the resolute reporter an unrelenting obsession with seeing the hooded killer brought to justice.
27. The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, 1986
One of the most highly regarded novels of 1986, Vikram Seth’s story in verse made him a literary household name in both the United States and India. John Brown, a successful yuppie living in 1980s San Francisco meets a romantic interest in Liz, after placing a personal ad in the newspaper. From this interaction, John meets a variety of characters, each with their own values and ideas of ‘self-actualization.’ However, Liz begins to fall in love with John’s best friend, and John realizes his journey of self-discovery has only just begun.
28. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, 1989
Four mothers, four daughters, four families, whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s telling the stories. In 1949, four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, meet weekly to play mahjong and tell stories of what they left behind in China. United in loss and new hope for their daughters’ futures, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Their daughters, who have never heard these stories, think their mothers’ advice is irrelevant to their modern American lives – until their own inner crises reveal how much they’ve unknowingly inherited of their mothers’ pasts.
29. California Gold by John Jakes, 1989
James Macklin Chase was a poor Pennsylvanian who dreamed of making it rich in California. But at the turn of the century, the money to be made was in oil, citrus, water rights, and the railroads. Mack would have it all, if he had his way. And along the way, the men and women he met, the passion he found, the enemies he made, and the great historical figures like William Randolph Hearts, Leland Stanford, and Theodore Roosevelt, he encountered, helped bring glory to the extraordinary century.
Note: This is only partly set in San Francisco.
30. China Blues by Ki Longfellow, 1989
The Roaring Twenties, Chinatown, San Francisco: back-street blues and bathtub gin, hardball mobsters and hardheaded cops, seductive speakeasies and sizzling scandals. As the young Louis Armstrong blows his horn in the infamous Blue Canary, impetuous Nob Hill Socialite Elizabeth Stafford Hamilton plunges into a reckless affair with mysterious Li Kwan Won. Unknown to Lizzie, Li is the overlord of the city’s vast bootlegging empire – and archenemy of her powerful husband, the San Francisco district attorney. Suddenly Lizzie’s privileged, upper-crust life is shadowed by danger and intrigue – as she’s trapped between her lover and her husband while they battle for control of the city.
31. Dead Irish by John Lescroart, 1990
In his new life as a bartender at the Little Shamrock, Dismas Hardy is just hoping for a little peace. He’s left both the police force and his law career behind. Unfortunately it’s not as easy to leave behind the memory of a shattering personal loss-but for the time being, he can always take the edge off with a stiff drink and round of darts. But when the news of Eddie Cochran’s death reaches him, Hardy is propelled back into all the things he was trying to escape. Now he must untangle a web of old secrets and raw passions, for the sake of Eddie’s pregnant widow Frannie – and for the others whose lives may still be at risk.
Note: This is the first book in the Dismas Hardy series.
32. Homeboy by Seth Morgan, 1990
Homeboy, Seth Morgan’s stunning novel, is a gritty, ribald, and frenetically lyrical odyssey through the Strip in San Francisco – a netherworld of whores, pimps, dealers, and junkies – to the hell of Coldwater Penitentiary. After a high-priced hooker is killed and one of the world’s biggest diamonds is stolen, Joe Speaker, a strip-joint barker and dope addict, stumbles onto the missing jewel, is hunted down and put away for the murder. In prison, he finds that his troubles are just beginning.
33. Whores for Gloria by William T. Vollmann, 1991
This fever dream of a novel is about an alcoholic Vietnam veteran, Jimmy, who devotes his government check and his waking hours to the search for a beautiful and majestic street whore, a woman who may or may not exist save in Jimmy’s rambling dreams. Gloria’s image seems distilled from memory and fantasy and the fragments of whatever Jimmy can buy from the other whores: their sex, their stories – all the unavailing dreams of love and salvation among the drinkers and addicts who haunt San Francisco’s Tenderloin District.
34. China Boy by Gus Lee, 1991
Kai Ting is the only American-born son of an aristocratic Mandarin family that has fled China in the wake of Mao’s revolution. Woefully unprepared for life on the streets of San Francisco and speaking a patchwork of Chinese and English that no one but his relatives comprehends, Kai spends a blissful early childhood with his sophisticated older sister and his wonderfully eccentric mother. But Kai’s idyl comes to an abrupt end with his mother’s death. Suddenly plunged into American culture by his new stepmother, a Philadephia society woman who tried to erase every vestige of China from the household, young Kai desperately searches for somewhere to belong.
35. The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan, 1991
Winnie and Helen have kept each other’s worst secrets for more than fifty years. Now, because she believes she is dying, Helen wants to expose everything. And Winnie angrily determines that she must be the one to tell her daughter, Pearl, about the past – including the terrible truth even Helen does not know. And so begins Winnie’s story of her life on a small island outside Shanghai in the 1920s, and other places in China during World War II, and traces the happy and desperate events that led to Winnie’s coming to America in 1949.
Note: This is set in present day San Francisco and reflects on China in the past.
36. Virtual Light by William Gibson, 1993
Berry Rydell, an ex-cop, signs on with IntenSecure Armed Response in Los Angeles. He finds himself on a collision course that results in a desperate romance, and a journey into the ecstasy and dread that mirror each other at the heart of the postmodern experience.
Note: This is only partly set in San Francisco. This is the first book in the Bridge series, which also includes All Tomorrow’s Parties.
37. A Certain Justice by John Lescroart, 1995
When the angry white mob poured out of the bar on San Francisco’s Geary Street and surrounded an innocent black man, Kevin Shea was the only one who tried to stop them. He failed, and now, thanks to a deceptive news photo taken during the melee, he is wanted for the murder himself – and the real culprits have threatened his life if he says a word. As riots rage and politicians posture, Lieutenant Abe Glitsky finds himself under pressure to bring Shea in at all costs. And as respect for the law crumbles – even among those sworn to uphold it-true justice is the only thing that can prevent the death of another innocent man.
Note: This is the first book in the Abe Glitsky series.
38. Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore, 1995
Jody never asked to become a vampire. But when she wakes up under an alley dumpster with a badly burned arm, an aching neck, superhuman strength, and a distinctly Nosferatuan thirst, she realizes the decision has been made for her. Making the transition from the nine-to-five grind to an eternity of nocturnal prowlings is going to take some doing, however, and that’s where C. Thomas Flood fits in. A would-be Kerouac from Incontinence, Indiana, Tommy (to his friends) is biding his time night-clerking and frozen-turkey bowling in a San Francisco Safeway. But all that changes when a beautiful undead redhead walks through the door and proceeds to rock Tommy’s life – and afterlife – in ways he never imagined possible.
Note: This is the first book in the A Love Story series and is followed by You Suck and Bite Me.
39. Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende, 1998
Orphaned at birth, Eliza Sommers is raised in the British colony of Valparaíso, Chile, by the well-intentioned Victorian spinster Miss Rose and her more rigid brother Jeremy. Just as she meets and falls in love with the wildly inappropriate Joaquín Andieta, a lowly clerk who works for Jeremy, gold is discovered in the hills of northern California. By 1849, Chileans of every stripe have fallen prey to feverish dreams of wealth. Joaquín takes off for San Francisco to seek his fortune, and Eliza, pregnant with his child, decides to follow him. As we follow her spirited heroine on a perilous journey north in the hold of a ship to the rough-and-tumble world of San Francisco and northern California, we enter a world whose newly arrived inhabitants are driven mad by gold fever.
40. Valencia by Michelle Tea, 2000
Valencia is the fast-paced account of one girl’s search for love and high times in the drama-filled dyke world of San Francisco’s Mission District. Through a string of narrative moments, Tea records a year lived in a world of girls: there’s knife-wielding Marta, who introduces Michelle to a new world of radical sex; Willa, Michelle’s tormented poet-girlfriend; Iris, the beautiful boy-dyke who ran away from the South in a dust cloud of drama; and Iris’s ex, Magdalena Squalor, to whom Michelle turns when Iris breaks her heart. Valencia conveys a blend of youthful urgency and apocalyptic apathy.
41. Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende, 2000
Aurora del Valle suffers a brutal trauma that erases from her mind all recollection of the first five years of her life. Raised by her ambitious grandmother, the regal and commanding Paulina del Valle, she grows up in a privileged environment, free of the limitations that circumscribe the lives of women at that time, but tormented by horrible nightmares. When she is forced to recognize her betrayal at the hands of the man she loves, and to cope with the resulting solitude, she decides to explore the mystery of her past. Portrait in Sepia is an extraordinary achievement: richly detailed, epic in scope, intimate in its probing of human character, and thrilling in the way it illuminates the complexity of family ties.
Note: This is the sequel to Daughter of Fortune (mentioned above) and is set in both San Francisco and Chile.
42. The Royal Family by William T. Vollmann, 2000
Since the publication of his first book in 1987, William T. Vollmann has established himself as one of the most fascinating and unconventional literary figures on the scene today. Named one of the twenty best writers under forty by the New Yorker in 1999, Vollmann received the best reviews of his career for The Royal Family, a searing fictional trip through a San Francisco underworld populated by prostitutes, drug addicts, and urban spiritual seekers. Part biblical allegory and part skewed postmodern crime novel, The Royal Family is a vivid and unforgettable work of fiction by one of today’s most daring writers.
43. If She Only Knew by Lisa Jackson, 2000
Not only has Marla Cahill survived a deadly car accident, but her beautiful features have been restored through plastic surgery. She should be grateful. Instead, she’s consumed by confusion and panic. For the people gathered at her bedside – her family – are strangers. And so is the woman whose haunted eyes stare back from the mirror.
Note: This is the first book in the Cahills series.
44. 1st to Die by James Patterson, 2001
Inspector Lindsay Boxer of the San Francisco Police Department suddenly finds herself in the middle of two horrifying situations: The first is that she’s just learned she has an often-fatal blood disease. The second is a double homicide case she is now heading up that involves the murder of newlyweds on their wedding night. Burdened with Chris Raleigh, a new partner reassigned from the mayor’s office, Lindsay finds that she has too much to deal with and turns to her best friend, Claire, the head ME on the case. Claire offers helpful advice and human, friendly contact amid a job filled with violence, cruelty, and fear.
Note: This is the first book in the Women’s Murder Club series, all of which are set in San Francisco.
45. The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan, 2001
Ruth Young and her widowed mother, LuLing, have always had a tumultuous relationship. Now, before she succumbs to forgetfulness, LuLing gives Ruth some of her writings, which reveal a side of LuLing that Ruth has never known. In a remote mountain village where ghosts and tradition rule, LuLing grows up in the care of her mute Precious Auntie as the family endures a curse laid upon a relative known as the bonesetter. When headstrong LuLing rejects the marriage proposal of the coffinmaker, a shocking series of events are set in motion – all of which lead back to Ruth and LuLing in modern San Francisco. The truth that Ruth learns from her mother’s past will forever change her perception of family, love, and forgiveness.
46. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, 2001
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.
47. Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold, 2001
Charles Carter – a.k.a. Carter the Great – is a young master performer whose skill as an illusionist exceeds even that of the great Houdini. But nothing in his career has prepared Carter for the greatest stunt of all, which stars none other than President Warren G. Harding and which could end up costing Carter the reputation he has worked so hard to create. Filled with historical references that evoke the excesses and exuberance of Roaring Twenties, pre-Depression America, Carter Beats the Devil is a complex and illuminating story of one man’s journey through a magical and sometimes dangerous world, where illusion is everything.
48. Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, 2002
Four hundred years from now mankind is strung out across a region of interstellar space inherited from an ancient civilization discovered on Mars. The colonies are linked together by the occasional sublight colony ship voyages and hyperspatial data-casting. Human consciousness is digitally freighted between the stars and downloaded into bodies as a matter of course. But some things never change. So when ex-envoy, now-convict Takeshi Kovacs has his consciousness and skills downloaded into the body of a nicotine-addicted ex-thug and presented with a catch-22 offer, he really shouldn’t be surprised.
Note: This is set in the future, in a city that was formerly San Francisco. It is the first book in the Takeshi Kovacs series.
49. The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer, 2004
“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.
50. Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko, 2004
Today I moved to a twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water. I’m not the only kid who lives here. There’s my sister, Natalie, except she doesn’t count. And there are twenty-three other kids who live on the island because their dads work as guards or cook’s or doctors or electricians for the prison, like my dad does. Plus, there are a ton of murderers, rapists, hit men, con men, stickup men, embezzlers, connivers, burglars, kidnappers and maybe even an innocent man or two, though I doubt it. The convicts we have are the kind other prisons don’t want.
Note: This is a YA title and the first book in the Tales from Alcatraz series.
51. Nora Jane by Ellen Gilchrist, 2005
Since receiving the National Book Award for Victory Over Japan in 1985, Ellen Gilchrist has developed a fervently devoted readership. This collection’s new novella is vintage Gilchrist, taking on the continuing joys and perils of Nora Jane and company.
Note: This is a collection of short stories, which are only partly set in San Francisco.
52. You Can Say You Knew Me When by K.M. Soehnlein, 2005
Charming underachiever Jamie Garner is living a sexy slacker’s life in San Francisco during the dot-com boom-avoiding his stalled career as a radio producer, barely holding on to his relationship, but surrounded by fun-loving friends. And then Jamie gets the call he’s always dreaded: Teddy, the father who never accepted him, has died. It’s time for the prodigal son to come home to the subdivisions and strip malls of suburban New Jersey to face the emotionally barren family he left behind years ago.
53. A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore, 2006
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. Charlie Asher, it seems, has been recruited for a new position: as Death. It’s a dirty job, but hey! Somebody’s got to do it.
Note: This is the first book in the Grim Reaper series.
54. The IHOP Papers by Ali Liebegott, 2006
Francesca, a disgruntled nineteen-year-old lesbian, tries desperately to pull together the pieces of her scattered life. This hilarioius, heartfelt novel opens with Francesca newly arrived in San Francisco. She has fled her hometown, where she rented her childhood room from the new family who moved in when her parents moved out. The new tenants happened to be her childhood babysitter and her alcoholic husband. But Francesca’s move to San Francisco is no mere coincidence. A lonely virgin searching for her sexual identity and obsessed with her philosophy teacher, Francesca has followed her professor, Irene, to California, where Irene has relocated to live with her young male lover and former student.
55. The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz, 2007
Meet Isabel “Izzy” Spellman, private investigator. This twenty-eight-year-old may have a checkered past littered with romantic mistakes, excessive drinking, and creative vandalism; she may be addicted to Get Smart reruns and prefer entering homes through windows rather than doors – but the upshot is she’s good at her job as a licensed private investigator with her family’s firm, Spellman Investigations. Invading people’s privacy comes naturally to Izzy. In fact, it comes naturally to all the Spellmans. If only they could leave their work at the office.
Note: This is the first book in the Spellmans series.
56. The Alchemyst by Michael Scott, 2007
Nicholas Flamel was born in Paris on 28 September 1330. Nearly seven hundred years later, he is acknowledged as the greatest Alchemyst of his day. It is said that he discovered the secret of eternal life. The records show that he died in 1418. But his tomb is empty and Nicholas Flamel lives. The secret of eternal life is hidden within the book he protects – the Book of Abraham the Mage. It’s the most powerful book that has ever existed. In the wrong hands, it will destroy the world. And that’s exactly what Dr. John Dee plans to do when he steals it.
Note: This is a YA title and the first book in the Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series.
57. Going To See the Elephant by Rodes Fishburne, 2008
On a windy September day, twenty-five-year-old Slater Brown stands in the back of a bicycle taxi hurtling the wrong way down the busiest street in San Francisco. Slater has come to “see the elephant,” to stake his claim to fame and become the greatest writer ever. But this city of gleaming water and infinite magic has other plans in this astounding first novel – at once a love story, a feast of literary imagination, and a dazzlingly original tale of passion, ambition, and genius in all their guises.
58. Homicide in Hardcover by Kate Carlisle, 2009
Brooklyn Wainwright is a skilled surgeon. Sure, her patients might smell like mold and have spines made of leather, but no ailing book is going to die on her watch. The same can’t be said of Abraham Karastovsky, Brooklyn’s friend and former employer. On the eve of a celebration for his latest book restoration, Brooklyn finds her mentor lying in a pool of his own blood. With his final breath Abraham leaves Brooklyn with a cryptic message, “Remember the Devil,” and gives her a priceless – and supposedly cursed – copy of Goethe’s Faust for safe-keeping. Brooklyn suddenly finds herself accused of murder and theft, thanks to Derek Stone, the humorless – and annoyingly attractive – British security officer who found her kneeling over the body.
Note: This is the first book in the Bibliophile Mystery series.
59. Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas by Rebecca Solnit, 2010
What makes a place? Infinite City, Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant reinvention of the traditional atlas, searches out the answer by examining the many layers of meaning in one place, the San Francisco Bay Area. Aided by artists, writers, cartographers, and twenty-two gorgeous color maps, each of which illuminates the city and its surroundings as experienced by different inhabitants, Solnit takes us on a tour that will forever change the way we think about place.
60. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, 2010
Jennifer Egan’s spellbinding interlocking narratives circle the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other’s pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years, in locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Naples, and Africa.
Note: This is partly set in San Francisco.
61. San Francisco Stories by Jack London, 2010
From one of America’s great writers, this delightful collection – the first of its kind – contains twenty-three adventurous tales set in the San Francisco Bay Area. If San Francisco has captured the world’s imagination through the hardboiled stories of Dashiell Hammett, the prose and poetry of Jack Kerouac and his fellow Beats, through Orson Welles’ Lady From Shanghai and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, it is as a romantic city of vast suspension bridges and foggy back alleys, not as the wild west of Jack London’s day. Pre-quake San Francisco was a tough town, and Jack London – hobo, sailor, oyster pirate, hard drinker – was pretty tough, too.
Note: This is a late publication of a collection of the authors earlier works.
62. A Race to Splendor by Ciji Ware, 2011
Early in 1906, the ground in San Francisco shook buildings and lives from their comfortable foundations. Amidst rubble, corruption, and deceit, two women-young architects in a city and field ruled by men-find themselves racing the clock and each other during the rebuilding of competing hotels in the City by the Bay. Based on meticulous research, A Race to Splendor tells the story of the audacious people of one of the world’s great cities rebuilding and reinventing themselves after immense human tragedy.
63. Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, 2011
Lola Nolan is a budding costume designer, and for her, the more outrageous, sparkly, and fun the outfit, the better. And everything is pretty perfect in her life (right down to her hot rocker boyfriend) until the Bell twins, Calliope and Cricket, return to the neighborhood. When Cricket, a gifted inventor, steps out from his twin sister’s shadow and back into Lola’s life, she must finally reconcile a lifetime of feelings for the boy next door.
Note: This is the second book in the Anna and the French Kiss series.
64. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, 2011
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 grief, mistrust, and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, 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, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them.
65. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, 2012
The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon away from life as a San Francisco web-design drone and into the aisles of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but after a few days on the job, Clay discovers that the store is more curious than either its name or its gnomic owner might suggest. The customers are few, and they never seem to buy anything; instead, they “check out” large, obscure volumes from strange corners of the store. Suspicious, Clay engineers an analysis of the clientele’s behavior, seeking help from his variously talented friends, but when they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, they discover the bookstore’s secrets extend far beyond its walls.
66. Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love by David Talbot, 2012
In a kaleidoscopic narrative, bestselling David Talbot recounts the gripping story of San Francisco in the turbulent years between 1967 & 1982 – and of the extraordinary persons who led to the city’s ultimate rebirth and triumph. Season of the Witch is the first book to fully capture the dark magic of San Francisco in this breathtaking period, when the city radically changed itself & then revolutionized the world. The cool gray city of love was the epicenter of the 60s cultural revolution. But by the early 70s, San Francisco’s ecstatic experiment came crashing down from its starry heights. The city was rocked by savage murder sprees, mysterious terror campaigns, political assassinations, street riots and finally a terrifying sexual epidemic. No other city endured so many calamities in such a short time span.
67. Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon, 2012
As the summer of 2004 draws to a close, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are still hanging in there – longtime friends, bandmates, and co-regents of Brokeland Records, a kingdom of used vinyl located in the borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland. Their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are the Berkeley Birth Partners, two semi-legendary midwives who have welcomed more than a thousand newly minted citizens into the dented utopia at whose heart – half tavern, half temple – stands Brokeland.
Note: This is not set in San Francisco but in the nearby cities of Berkeley and Oakland.
68. Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco by Gary Kamiya, 2013
Cool, Gray City of Love brings together an exuberant combination of personal insight, deeply researched history, in-depth reporting, and lyrical prose to create an unparalleled portrait of San Francisco. Each of its 49 chapters explores a specific site or intersection in the city, from the mighty Golden Gate Bridge to the raunchy Tenderloin to the soaring sea cliffs at Land’s End. This unique approach captures the exhilarating experience of walking through San Francisco’s sublime terrain, while at the same time tying that experience to a history as rollicking and unpredictable as the city herself.
69. Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father by Alysia Abbott, 2013
A beautiful, vibrant memoir about growing up motherless in 1970s and ’80s San Francisco with an openly gay father. After his wife dies in a car accident, bisexual writer and activist Steve Abbott moves with his two-year-old daughter to San Francisco. There they discover a city in the midst of revolution, bustling with gay men in search of liberation – few of whom are raising a child. Steve throws himself into San Francisco’s vibrant cultural scene. He takes Alysia to raucous parties, pushes her in front of the microphone at poetry readings, and introduces her to a world of artists, thinkers, and writers. But the pair live like nomads, moving from apartment to apartment, with a revolving cast of roommates and little structure.
70. Virgin Soul by Judy Juanita, 2013
From a lauded poet and playwright, a novel of a young woman’s life with the Black Panthers in 1960s San Francisco. At first glance, Geniece’s story sounds like that of a typical young woman: she goes to college, has romantic entanglements, builds meaningful friendships, and juggles her schedule with a part-time job. However, she does all of these things in 1960s San Francisco while becoming a militant member of the Black Panther movement. When Huey Newton is jailed in October 1967 and the Panthers explode nationwide, Geniece enters the organization’s dark and dangerous world of guns, FBI agents, freewheeling sex, police repression, and fatal shoot-outs – all while balancing her other life as a college student.
71. The Circle by Dave Eggers, 2013
When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency. As Mae tours the open-plan office spaces, the towering glass dining facilities, the cozy dorms for those who spend nights at work, she is thrilled with the company’s modernity and activity.
Note: This implied setting of this story is in Silicon Valley, and was written by an author from San Francsico.
72. China Dolls by Lisa See, 2014
In 1938, Ruby, Helen and Grace, three girls from very different backgrounds, find themselves competing at the same audition for showgirl roles at San Francisco’s exclusive “Oriental” nightclub, the Forbidden City. Grace, an American-born Chinese girl has fled the Midwest and an abusive father. Helen is from a Chinese family who have deep roots in San Francisco’s Chinatown. And, as both her friends know, Ruby is Japanese passing as Chinese. At times their differences are pronounced, but the girls grow to depend on one another in order to fulfill their individual dreams. Then, everything changes in a heartbeat with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
73. Frog Music by Emma Donoghue, 2014
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. The survivor, her friend Blanche Beunon, is a French burlesque dancer. Over the next three days, she will risk everything to bring Jenny’s murderer to justice – if he doesn’t track her down first. The story Blanche struggles to piece together is one of free-love bohemians, desperate paupers, and arrogant millionaires; of jealous men, icy women, and damaged children.
74. Golden State by Michelle Richmond, 2014
Golden State is a powerful, mesmerizing novel that explores the intricacies of marriage, family, and the profound moments that shape our lives. Doctor Julie Walker has just signed her divorce papers when she receives news that her younger sister, Heather, has gone into labor. Though theirs is a strained relationship, Julie sets out for the hospital to be at her sister’s side- no easy task since the streets of San Francisco are filled with commotion. Today is also the day that Julie will find herself at the epicenter of a violent standoff in which she is forced to examine both the promising and painful parts of her past – her Southern childhood; her romance with her husband, Tom; her estrangement from Heather; and the shattering incident that led to her greatest heartbreak.
75. The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature by Ben Tarnoff, 2014
The Bohemians begins in 1860s San Francisco. The Gold Rush has ended; the Civil War threatens to tear apart the country. Far from the front lines, the city at the western edge roars. A global seaport, home to immigrants from five continents, San Francisco has become a complex urban society virtually overnight. The bards of the moment are the Bohemians: a young Mark Twain, fleeing the draft and seeking adventure; literary golden boy Bret Harte; struggling gay poet Charles Warren Stoddard; and beautiful, haunted Ina Coolbrith, poet and protectorate of the group. Ben Tarnoff’s elegant, atmospheric history reveals how these four pioneering western writers would together create a new American literature, unfettered by the heavy European influence that dominated the East.
76. The Girl with Ghost Eyes by M.H. Boroson, 2015
It’s the end of the nineteenth century in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and ghost hunters from the Maoshan traditions of Daoism keep malevolent spiritual forces at bay. Li-lin, the daughter of a renowned Daoshi exorcist, is a young widow burdened with yin eyes – the unique ability to see the spirit world. Her spiritual visions and the death of her husband bring shame to Li-lin and her father – and shame is not something this immigrant family can afford.
Note: This is the first book in The Daoshi Chronicles series.
77. No Comfort for the Lost by Nancy Herriman, 2015
After serving as a nurse in the Crimea, British-born Celia Davies left her privileged family for an impulsive marriage to a handsome Irishman. Patrick brought her to San Francisco’s bustling shores but then disappeared and is now presumed dead. Determined to carry on, Celia partnered with her half-Chinese cousin Barbara and her opinionated housekeeper Addie to open a free medical clinic for women who have nowhere else to turn. But Celia’s carefully constructed peace crumbles when one of her Chinese patients is found brutally murdered and Celia’s hotheaded brother-in-law stands accused of the crime.
Note: this is the first book in the Mystery of Old San Francisco series.
78. The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende, 2015
In 1939, as Poland falls under the shadow of the Nazis, young Alma Belasco’s parents send her away to live in safety with an aunt and uncle in their opulent mansion in San Francisco. There, as the rest of the world goes to war, she encounters Ichimei Fukuda, the quiet and gentle son of the family’s Japanese gardener. Unnoticed by those around them, a tender love affair begins to blossom. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the two are cruelly pulled apart as Ichimei and his family, like thousands of other Japanese Americans are declared enemies and forcibly relocated to internment camps run by the United States government.
79. We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, 2015
For fourteen years, Letty Espinosa has worked three jobs around San Francisco to make ends meet while her mother raised her children – Alex, now fifteen, and Luna, six – in their tiny apartment on a forgotten spit of wetlands near the bay. But now Letty’s parents are returning to Mexico, and Letty must step up and become a mother for the first time in her life.
80. Sourdough by Robin Sloan, 2017
Lois Clary, a software engineer at a San Francisco robotics company, codes all day and collapses at night. When her favourite sandwich shop closes up, the owners leave her with the starter for their mouthwatering sourdough bread. Lois becomes the unlikely hero tasked to care for it, bake with it and keep this needy colony of microorganisms alive. Soon she is baking loaves daily and taking them to the farmer’s market, where an exclusive close-knit club runs the show. When Lois discovers another, more secret market, aiming to fuse food and technology, a whole other world opens up. But who are these people, exactly?
Note: Sourdough is set in the wider San Francisco Bay Area.
81. Less by Andrew Sean Greer, 2017
Who says you can’t run away from your problems? You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else. You can’t say yes – it would be too awkward – and you can’t say no – it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world. How do you arrange to skip town? You accept them all.
Note: This book is set all over the world and centered on a main character from San Francisco.
82. My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward by Mark Lukach, 2017
A heart-wrenching, yet hopeful, memoir of a young marriage that is redefined by mental illness and affirms the power of love. Mark and Giulia’s life together began as a storybook romance. They fell in love at eighteen, married at twenty-four, and were living their dream life in San Francisco. When Giulia was twenty-seven, she suffered a terrifying and unexpected psychotic break that landed her in the psych ward for nearly a month. One day she was vibrant and well-adjusted; the next she was delusional and suicidal, convinced that her loved ones were not safe.
83. The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers, 2018
The Monk of Mokha is the exhilarating true story of a young Yemeni American man, raised in San Francisco, who dreams of resurrecting the ancient art of Yemeni coffee but finds himself trapped in Sana’a by civil war. Mokhtar Alkhanshali is twenty-four and working as a doorman when he discovers the astonishing history of coffee and Yemen’s central place in it. He leaves San Francisco and travels deep into his ancestral homeland to tour terraced farms high in the country’s rugged mountains and meet beleagured but determined farmers. But when war engulfs the country and Saudi bombs rain down, Mokhtar has to find a way out of Yemen without sacrificing his dreams or abandoning his people.
84. Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim, 2019
At the news of her mother’s death, Natalie Tan returns home. The two women hadn’t spoken since Natalie left in anger seven years ago, when her mother refused to support her chosen career as a chef. Natalie is shocked to discover the vibrant neighborhood of San Francisco’s Chinatown that she remembers from her childhood is fading, with businesses failing and families moving out. She’s even more surprised to learn she has inherited her grandmother’s restaurant.
85. The Bride Test by Helen Hoang, 2019
Khai Diep has no feelings. Well, he feels irritation when people move his things or contentment when ledgers balance down to the penny, but not big, important emotions – like grief. And love. He thinks he’s defective. His family knows better – that his autism means he just processes emotions differently. When he steadfastly avoids relationships, his mother takes matters into her own hands and returns to Vietnam to find him the perfect bride.
Note: This is the second book in the Kiss Quotient series.
What do you think of these books set in San Francisco?
Have you read many of these titles? Do you have some favorite books set in San Francisco? Have you visited before? Are you a local? Have any local literary haunts you can recommend? I’d love to hear more about your travel tips and books set in San Francisco below!
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