OC Register Book Club
OC’S BOOK CLUB
Join in The Register Book Club this summer with a local classic: “Laguna Heat,” T. Jefferson Parker’s best-selling novel set in Orange County. The Book Club shares weekly chats at coastmagazine.com/go/bookclub. Or follow along on Twitter with #OCRBookClub. Meet Parker at the Register at 1 p.m. Aug. 12 for a free community event. The author will take part in a conversation with pop culture writer Peter Larsen about his breakthrough book, growing up in Tustin and his career telling crime stories in Southern California.
It’s a treat to crack open a book and find you are home, turning the pages of a tale that unfolds in the cities and neighborhoods where we live. Words on a page conjure up people and places. Plots launch characters into heartache and joy, laughter and tears. We consulted with several literary observers and selected the 10 best books set in Orange County.
What we settled on covers a whole lot of ground: Immigrant families and yuppies. Drug dealers, narcotics cops and the addicts caught in between. Surfers and waitresses, maids and their upwardly mobile employers. Selections range from literary novels to crime thrillers, science fiction and suspense. Some are fast, fun reads, others you’ll want, or need, to spend more time with to fully discover the pleasures that lie within.
1. “A Long Stay in a Distant Land: A Novel” by Chieh Chieng (2006)
“Louis Lum’s father began calling him. He called early in the morning and late at night to say he wanted to run down Hersey Collins with his car, or crush his skull with a brick. His father never called him at work to discuss such matters, and for that measure of decorum Louis was grateful.
“ ‘Doesn’t sound like a good idea,” Louis would say. “Have you been riding your exercise bike?’ ”
So begins Chieh Chieng’s darkly comic debut, “A Long Stay in a Distant Land,” the story of the Lums, a Chinese-American family in Orange County cursed to die in strange and unlikely ways – Louis’ mother died on Springdale Street, the victim of Hersey Collins’ bad driving – to atone for all the men his grandfather killed in World War II.
2. “A Model World: And Other Stories” by Michael Chabon (1991)
“One day not too long ago, in Laguna Beach, California, an architect named Bobby Lazar went downtown to have a cup of coffee at the Café Zinc ... Albert and Dawn were still in that period of total astonishment that follows a wedding, grinning at each other like two people who have survived an air crash without a scratch, touching one another frequently, lucky to be alive.”
Chabon’s short story collection isn’t entirely set in Orange County, but there’s enough to know that his time in the UC Irvine graduate writing program (where he finished his debut novel, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh”) gave him plenty of time to absorb the local scene.
3. “A Scanner Darkly” by Philip K. Dick (1977)
“Life in Anaheim, California, was a commercial for itself, endlessly replayed. Nothing changed; it just spread out farther and farther in the form of neon ooze. What there was always more of had been congealed into permanence long ago, as if the automatic factory that cranked out these objects had jammed in the on position. ...”
Science-fiction writer Dick specialized in the future, though this Orange County-based book written in the mid-’70s only ventured forward to the mid-’90s. It’s the story of a man addicted to and dealing a mysterious drug called Substance D who is at the same time a narcotics agent named Fred, investigating himself, if you follow.
4. “Drift: Stories” by Victoria Patterson (2009)
“I met Annette when Jim hired us to work at Shark Island. The sun was setting and a golden light engulfed the restaurant, making everything look soft. I sat in the waiting area, an extended plush red bench near the front wood doors, with four other applicants – three women and one man. The women had a manufactured attractiveness: blond hair, blue eyes, tanned and toned bodies.”
Patterson spent her adolescence in Newport Beach and returned to that setting years later for this California Book Award-nominated collection of stories. They peel back the curtain to explore the lives of those who work there as servers and the like as they live on the edges of its shiny unrealistic surface.
5. “Pacific Beat” by T. Jefferson Parker (1991)
“The Franciscans ruined the Indians, the Mexicans bounced the Spanish, the Anglos booted the Mexicans and named the town Newport Beach. ... Then the tuna disappeared, the nets rotted, and the fishermen succumbed to drink and lassitude. Two wars came and went. Tourists descended, John Wayne moved in, and property values went off the charts. Now there are more Porsches in Newport Beach than in the fatherland, and more cosmetic surgeons than in Beverly Hills. It is everything that Southern California is, in italics.”
The truth here is that one could pick any of a half dozen of Parker’s thrillers for this list, from his debut 1985 “Laguna Heat” to its follow-up “Little Saigon” and more. The former Orange County journalist-turned-author is rightly known for the depth and skill with which he has used the county as a backdrop for twist-and-turn-filled tales.
6. “Savages: A Novel” by Don Winslow (2010)
“Blonde hair, blue eyes, chiseled nose, and BRMCB – Best Rack Money Can Buy (you have real boobs in the 949 you’re, like, Amish) – the extra Lincoln wasn’t going to sit well or long on her hips. Paqu got back to the three-million-dollar shack on Emerald Bay, strapped little Ophelia into one of those baby packs, and hit the treadmill.”
Winslow’s prose crackles with energy in this book, the story of three Laguna twentysomethings whose drug dealing lands them in the crosshairs of both the DEA and a Mexican cartel. The movie version by director Oliver Stone was shot partly in Laguna.
7. “Tapping the Source” by Kem Nunn (1984)
“Now, his suitcase checked at the bus depot because it was still too early to look for a room, he stood at the rail of the Huntington Beach pier and found it hard to believe that he had actually come. But he had. The concrete beneath his feet was the real thing and beneath that there was an ocean. Twenty-four hours ago he had only been able to imagine what
an ocean might look like, might smell like. Now he stood above one and its immensity was breathtaking.”
A literary noir, Nunn’s National Book Award finalist novel is set amid the surf culture of Huntington Beach in the early ’80s. His protagonist came there to find his sister and escape his nowhere desert town, finding peace and danger, too, amid the sand and waves and a town at the time of the story that was a whole lot rougher around the edges than it is today.
8. “The Barbarian Nurseries” by Hector Tobar (2011)
“The neighborhood of his youth was a collection of flimsy boxes held together by wallpaper and epoxy, plopped down on a cow pasture. The Laguna Rancho Estates were something altogether different. When Scott had first come to this house the lawn had not yet been planted, there was a patch of raw dirt with stakes and string around it pounded into it, and he had watched the Mexican work crews arrive with trays of St. Augustine grass to plant.”
Tobar’s novel starts in an imagined Orange County planned community and captures the two-tiered economy of our times, the wealthy and the working class, often immigrants, who serve them, telling the story of a privileged family falling apart and the Latina maid who works for them. The novel earned Tobar comparisons to Tom Wolfe and T.C. Boyle, and it was honored with the 2012 California Book Award gold medal for fiction. High praise all around.
9. “Three Californias Trilogy” by Kim Stanley Robinson (1984, 1988, 1990)
“It occurred to me that my friends and I were for the very first time in our lives actually going to do what we had so often boastfully planned to do – and at the thought I felt a thrilling shiver of anticipation. I leaped from root to root in the trail: we were invading the territory of the scavengers, venturing north into the ruins of Orange County.”
With “The Wild Shore,” “The Gold Coast” and “Pacific Edge,” science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson imagined a post-apocalyptic future for Orange County over a span of many decades – from the post-nuclear war landscape of the first book to the out-of-control urban development and decay of the second, to a final volume in which an environmentally conscious society has emerged from what came before.
10. “Watchers” by Dean Koontz (1987)
“He drove his pickup south from his home in Santa Barbara all the way to rural Santiago Canyon on the eastern edge of Orange County, south of Los Angeles. He took only a package of Oreo cookies, a large canteen full of orange-flavored Kool-Aid, and a fully loaded Smith & Wesson .38 Chief’s Special.”
That’s the beginning of one of Koontz’s most-loved suspense novels, the story of two genetically engineered creatures that escape from a secret laboratory, one a force for good, the other for evil. Koontz, who lives in Newport Coast, often sets his books on his home turf.