Best Books of March: Literature & Fiction

Erin Kodicek on March 14, 2019

This month you'll find a nail-biting novel by Peter Heller, "the great Zambian novel you didn’t know you were waiting for," a madcap noir, and more. 

See all of our literature and fiction picks, or browse the rest of the Best Books of the Month.

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The River by Peter Heller

Peter Heller has written three previous novels, but he has been writing about the outdoors in magazines like Outside and Men’s Journal for much longer. In The River Heller has drawn from all that experience to create an exciting, thoughtful, and well-paced thriller about two friends paddling into trouble in northern Canada. A distant wildfire is the first portent of danger. When the friends hear a man and woman arguing on the foggy riverbank, they decide to warn them about the fire—but their search for the pair turns up nothing. The next day a man appears solo on the river. Was he one of the people they heard the day before? The River starts out as a leisurely backwoods paddle and inexorably picks up speed before spilling readers down its cascade of an ending. This is a thriller, an adventure novel, and a meditation on friendship, the outdoors, and something altogether deeper. As I read, I felt like I had been waiting for this book without knowing it, and I fully expect The River to persist as one of my favorite reads of 2019. --Chris Schluep

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The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Making good on the publisher’s claim of being "the great Zambian novel you didn’t know you were waiting for," this ambitious novel follows three very different founding families across generations, from 19th-century Europe to the banks of the near-future Zambezi river. The first matriarch we meet is Silliba, illegitimate daughter of an Italian noble and his housecleaner, born covered in hair that regrows as fast as it is cut. Next is Agnes, a rising tennis star - until she loses her sight. She secretly flees her wealthy, British parents to return to the home of her Rhodesian lover...who notices small eyes growing on her that recede on closer inspection. We then meet Matha, a young African woman coming of age as Zambia becomes a nation in the 1960s. These intertwining stories are as steeped in a solemn strain of magical realism as they are in actual history: the plot’s fantastical elements reveal the cruelties and absurdities of real-world colonialism. Ultimately, this novel’s chief pleasure lies in watching wildly varying lives daub together to produce a cross-century portrait of a country. --Katy Ball

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A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself by William Boyle

A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself is one those books that announces itself as a classic in the making by the way it reads as both familiar and startlingly fresh. Mob widow Rena has clocked an insistent suitor with an ashtray, and believing she’s killed him, stolen his vintage Impala and headed for the Bronx, where her estranged daughter Adrienne lives. That however, is where Adrienne’s boyfriend Richie has just given several mobsters “early retirement,” stolen $500K from them, and is preparing to go on the run with Adrienne and her teenage daughter. It’s a really inconvenient day to try to force a family reunion. After a lifetime of willfully keeping her head in the sand when it comes to her husband’s occupation, Rena has just thrust herself into the center of it, as her flit becomes entangled with Richie’s and both of them pick up unexpected flight companions. In Rena’s case it’s the retired adult movie star who lives next door as well as a granddaughter who may have inherited some of her grandfather’s traits. In Richie’s case it’s a guy who solves problems with a hammer. What develops has been dubbed “screwball noir” and it’s an apt description. But what gives this unexpectedly charming albeit violent tale its heart is the way the women, endangered by the men in their lives, discover that the family you make for yourself may have your back in ways your actual family never will. --Vannessa Cronin

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Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

There is something a little intoxicating about Daisy Jones and the Six. This is the story of a young, captivating singer who came of age in the late 60s/early 70s, all told as an oral history. The Six did not hit the big time until Daisy joined the band as their lead singer, but her presence brought along drama, intrigue, and a variety of tensions between herself and Billy Dunne, the leader of The Six. It’s best not to know too much about this book going into it; instead, allow the transcribed interviews from the band members (they weren’t real, but they seem real), and from those who tagged along during this great fictitious band’s run, to unspool the story for you. --Chris Schluep

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A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum

Newlywed Isra thought life would be different when she immigrated to America from Palestine, but her dreams were quickly dashed. You’ll need to steel yourself the more you delve into Etaf Rum's penetrating debut novel A Woman Is No Man, which follows Isra’s journey, and that of her daughter Deya. The clash between dual cultures creates much of the drama, as Deya tries to do what her mother ultimately couldn’t--break free from their family’s violent, misogynistic past and forge her own path in life. While A Woman Is No Man is a rallying cry to resist patriarchal strictures designed to keep women in ‘their place,’ it is also a love letter to books and their transformative power. Reading was one of the only comforts, and acts of rebellion, that Isra enjoyed, and she had a particular affinity for literary heroine Scheherazade: “For a thousand and one nights [her] stories were resistance. Her voice was a weapon—a reminder of the extraordinary power of stories, and even more, the strength of a single woman.” It’s the harnessing of that strength that sets Deya, and this family, free. --Erin Kodicek

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