We live in a relentlessly beautiful place that has inspired many over the years. This has always been a city brimming with artists, writers, and musicians — and SF's bohemian streak will hopefully not end with the 20th Century as it becomes more and more insanely expensive to stay here. But among the books that have been written about San Francisco, these fourteen stand out as our favorites, depicting different eras in a city that has been, by turns, wild, drunken, bawdy, tragic, too smart for its own good, and occasionally booming. Here are SFist's selections for the best SF-centric fiction to fill your spring and summer reading lists.

Valencia by Michelle Tea
Local queer author Michelle Tea's breakout novel, which like much of her work draws plenty on autobiographical experience, is a rollicking, kind of dirty, and very funny time capsule of the world of hip and under-employed lesbians in the Mission District of the 1990s. Tea was honing her own baldly honest, profane, Kerouacian prose style in this early book, and the free flow of her earnest, often boozed-up energy is infectious from paragraph to paragraph. The story focuses on the first-person narrator, named Michelle, looking back on her mid-twenties from not that far in the future with a sense of humor and a fondness for all things intoxicating. "She wouldn't have sex with me in public bathrooms," writes Tea. "Little things like this haunted me. I was only twenty-five." It's sweetly nostalgic now to think of a time when people could write in cafes, turn a few tricks, and cough up a couple hundred in rent each month and still be able to thrive in the Mission, and Tea's descriptions of 15th Street will not be familiar to anyone who has been here less than ten years. — Jay Barmann


The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer
"Hello, I'm a complete fraud," is how Andrew Sean Greer introduced himself to SFist readers when I interviewed him back in 2005. At the time, he was fresh off his California Book award for Max Tivoli, a book about a man born with the body of a 70-year-old who ages backwards. (Before you ask, no, it has nothing to do with the Fitzgerald story/Brad Pitt film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Greer says he hadn't even heard of the Fitzgerald short until after he wrote his novel.) Set in the San Francisco of the late 1800s, it's full of those period details that make you feel super smart about your city, even as the characters speak casually enough that you don't feel like you're reading this for homework. And at the center of the story is a sad, beautiful love story anyone with a breakable heart anyone can relate to. If this is fraud, Greer can deceive me forever.-- Eve Batey

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
This contemporary novel from a former Twitter employee does a marvelous job of weaving together the old world of print media with the digital age, beginning in the bowels of a mysterious, dark, seemingly infinite bookstore that has its own secret society attached. With the help of his brilliant Google-employed girlfriend, the protagonist Clay employs the wonders of the internet to crack a centuries-old puzzle. In the process, Sloan paints a picture of modern San Francisco during the Great Recession in which ex-Googlers start bagel companies and there's a speed-dating service for nerds called Singularity Singles. "Yeah. I met a guy who programmed bots for a hedge fund," says girlfriend Kat. "We dated for a while. He was really into rock climbing. He had nice shoulders. But a cruel heart." — Jay Barmann

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold
Glen David Gold's 2001 work of historical fiction conjures figures from 1920s America — escape artist Harry Houdini, television pioneer Philo Farnsworth, President Warren G. Harding — and expertly positions them for a show-stopping first novel. At center stage is Charles Joseph Carter, a real magician of the era for whom Gold fictionalizes a more magical life story. The curtain rises on a San Francisco theater where "Carter the Great" summons President Harding from the audience to the stage, hacking the head of state to pieces and feeding him to a lion before revivifying Harding to great ovation. But hours after the show when the President collapses in his suite at the nearby Palace Hotel, Carter The Great becomes a prime suspect in his mysterious death. The big show features improbable escapes, exhilarating chases, and plenty of misdirection. — Caleb Pershan

Tales Of The City by Armistead Maupin
Beckoning many an ingenue to Baghdad by the Bay, the first of nine novels by Armistead Maupin introduced enduring characters like the naive Mary Ann Singleton, her eccentric, pot-growing landlord Anna Madrigal, and a cast of queer locals like Michael "Mouse" Tolliver. Published in 1978 and first serialized in the pages of the Chronicle, Tales of the City occupies a special place in local literature and lore, reflecting the "alternative" mores of the '70s Bay Area like hippy bisexuality and Safeway cruising. Installments of the series incorporate current events and fictionalizations of real-life figures from Jim Jones to Elizabeth Taylor to a thinly veiled Rock Hudson. And, though the rent at 28 Barbary Lane has probably skyrocketed since those days, Tales of the City continues to offer an inclusive fictional home for San Franciscans. — Caleb Pershan

McTeague covers throughout the years

McTeague by Frank Norris
Don't be put off by the fact that this book was published in 1899, or that it's about, of all things, a Polk Street dentist. Think of it, instead, as a book about how winning the lottery can fuck up your life. Dripping with violence, love gone wrong, and City Hall screwing the little guy, the themes of this book feel just as vital and relevant now as they did when the book was published over a century ago. See, San Francisco hasn't changed that much after all! -- Eve Batey

The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac
Everyone knows about the parts of On the Road that take place in SF, and Desolation Angels and Big Sur each tell sad, lonely tales that touch down in Berkeley and Big Sur respectively. But the book of Kerouac's that truly feels like a novel — a tightly written, lyrical, and brief one at that — and is his loveliest love letter to San Francisco, is The Subterraneans. It's personally my favorite of all Beat Generation novels, and the one I tell everyone to read if they try to dismiss Kerouac's talent on the basis of one book (usually On the Road). Critics sometimes bristle at Kerouac's tone around race in this one — it depicts his real-life affair with Alene Lee, who was African American, cast here as Mardou Fox. But this is a book that tries to capture North Beach of the 1950s and its liberal intellectuals of all races, as well as his own fickle heart. There's talk of "egg foo young at Jackson and Kearny" and of "the great glitter up and down Market like wash gold dusting and the throb of neons at O'Farrell and Mason bars with cocktail glass cherrysticks winking invitation to the open hungering hearts of Saturday." If you can get past the race stuff, it is a truly beautiful read. — Jay Barmann

You Can Say You Knew Me When by K.M. Soehnlein
Like Valencia, this is a book about SF in the 1990's, only this time from a gay angle, and with the added dimension of a character we meet through letters from the Beat era of the 1950's. Soehnlein paints a very real and humble portrait of pot-smoking protagonist Jamie, his beach trysts and HIV panics, his relationship with his boyfriend Woody, and his very San Francisco friends. It's a book of frank sexuality and also thoughtful reflection, and it does well tying together two legendary eras of the city in a series of confidently drawn scenes and a flurry of excellent prose. — Jay Barmann

The Barbary Dogs by Cynthia Robinson
Don't mind the cover. This contemporary mystery novel, originally titled The Barbary Galahad, is the second in a series that began with the more Berkeley-centric The Dog Park Club, centered on opera singer-turned-amateur sleuth Max Bravo. Robinson's prose is too witty and rich to belong solely in the mystery genre, and her love for and deep knowledge of San Francisco and its history is evident on every page. The Barbary Dogs centers on the Golden Gate Bridge suicide of Max's friend Frank, a failed writer whose found journal takes Max on a tour of the ghosts and bohemians of SF's past. But the humor littered through every chapter, some of it highly place-specific, will delight all locals. "I sat down on the sidewalk halfway up Diamond," Robinson writes. "To scale that particular street one needed the legs of a speed skater and the mindset of a drayage beast. I had neither of course, just a general restlessness and lack of direction." — Jay Barmann

Cover for The Joy Luck Club: Putnam

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
We had a bit of a debate over this one: should we choose Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter, or The Kitchen God's Wife, instead? Both of those are SF must-reads, too, but we went with Joy Luck because in a lot of ways it feels like the most universally accessible work, with themes of mother/daughter relationships that transcend the cultural unfamiliarity some readers might have with the Chinese immigrant experience in San Francisco. If you read it in school (and school was a while ago), read it again — themes that might have escaped you when you read it in the 90s resonate more strongly when looked at through more grown-up eyes. -- Eve Batey

Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
Tell me if this sounds familiar: a tough-guy gumshoe is hot on a corruption case in a city where nothing is as it seems. Though the tropes are pure noir, Jonathan Lethem's first novel is equal parts sci-fi in a double-genre fiction experiment with its own hilarious rules. Located in a future Bay Area, "evolved" animals like kangaroos are gangsters while intelligent babies are speakeasy-frequenting cynics. The drugs snorted by most characters are named for their purposes, like "Acceptol" and "Forgettol." And lending the book its title, handguns play menacing violin music when drawn in a nod to the gangster movie soundtrack cliché. The playful streak in Gun, With Occasional Music earned it a 1994 Nebula Award nomination and continues to make it a clever, cunning caper.— Caleb Pershan

The Sea Wolf by Jack London
Born in San Francisco in 1876, by age 15 Jack London was an oyster pirate. No surprise there, as we know he later hopped trains, went prospecting, and sailed to Japan on a seal hunting vessel (before becoming the highest-paid writer of his day). That last adventure provided some of the material for The Sea Wolf a 1904 book that might be thought of as The Call Of The Wild but for humans. Humphrey Van Weyden, a San Francisco literary critic riding the ferry between Sausalito and San Francisco, is tossed out to sea when the ferry crashes and sinks. Rescued by a mysterious ship named the Ghost, the delicate urbanite finds himself shanghaied into a seal-hunt. The Ghost's crew is led by the indelibly drawn Wolf Larsen, a hedonist ship captain who becomes a symbol of pure, sociopathic evil. San Francisco and Van Weyden's past life of letters there exist mostly as a distant memory, a foil to his new tests of strength and self-sufficiency. Like any good seafaring novel, The Sea Wolf includes storms, mutiny, and shipwreck. But there's also a charmingly ridiculous love story between Van Weyden and a fellow San Francisco literary figure, Maud Brewster, who is also improbably shanghaied by the Ghost. — Caleb Pershan

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Hammett's ultimate MacGuffin-driven noir crystallized the genre, in particular defining the characteristics of the hardboiled, hyper-masculine detective. Immortalized by Humphrey Bogart in the 1941 adaptation of Hammett's 1929 novel, Sam Spade is cool, jaded, constantly smoking, terrible to women, and general a wise-guy asshole. He's forced to go it alone after his partner, Miles Archer, is bumped off on Burritt Street, where these days there's a plaque that includes a spoiler. Hammett, who worked in the hired goon biz at the Pinkerton Private Detective Agency, knew well that to track down a killer, circumnavigate the SFPD, and find a golden treasure, a private eye would need to get rough. Here's Spade working over fellow falcon-seeker Joel Cairo: 'Yes,' Spade growled. 'And when you're slapped you'll take it and like it.'" Reader: I liked it. — Caleb Pershan

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon's 2012 romp on the Oakland/Berkeley border is a comedic, stylized tale of race and fatherhood. Archy Stallings, black, and Nat Jaffe, white and Jewish, are the proprietors of Brokeland Records, a used vinyl shop on Telegraph Avenue, locating the novel and calling on music to propel it. In a common device, the shop's financial future is called into question by a new megastore blocks away, but besides the business backdrop, storylines center on a long-lost father (and former blacksploitation film star) and a newly-discovered son. Telegraph Avenue buzzes with tuneful allusions to Miles Davis and Carole King, and culminates in a local fundraiser for State Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. Yes, there's even a scene told from Mr. Obama's perspective and a 12 page sentence adding bulk somewhere, but the novel's experiments succeed in humor and hew to Chabon's ambitious tradition. — Caleb Pershan

Honorable Mentions
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
It's not a novel, exactly. Eggers maintains it's a memoir, though, like Valencia, it's pretty much a novel as well as an ode to SF in the '90's as told via the magazine world. And Eggers has some very pretty descriptions of the city, and of the frustrations of riding Muni buses. — Jay Barmann

The Royal Family by William T. Vollman
A tragedy-tourist's dream foray across the addicts and sex workers that populate the Tenderloin, this book is frequently cited on SF-set great novels list. However, the misanthropic glee Vollman expresses throughout this book makes it, however dazzlingly written, hard for us to recommend as a "best." Approach with caution. — Eve Batey

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
In this 1966 novella — frequently held up in answer to the question "what is postmodern?" — protagonist Oedipa Maas spends a bit of time in San francisco and Berkeley on her hunt to unearth a potentially major mail conspiracy. In the city she meets a group dedicated to the pursuit of falling in love as a drug experience, and in Berkeley she encounters a sort of mad engineer. Everywhere she goes in the Bay Area, Oedipa can't help but notice a secret acronym: Waste, or "We Await Silent Tristero's Empire," so be on the lookout, everyone. — Caleb Pershan

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
This recent Pulitzer Prize winner is only partly set in SF, and largely in New York, but it still deserves a mention for depicting the punk scene in SF in 1979 where main character Bennie gets his start in his first band. — Jay Barmann

A copy of The Confessions of Max Tivoli. Photo: Katie Snow/Twitter