RIF’s Favorite Reads of March 2017

Helping you sort out the best from the rest published this month.

favorite reads of march

March is a lot of things: It’s a month; it’s a verb; it’s a command. It’s also the time when spring officially starts and when we play a time-warp game with our clocks. As with every month recently, this one has been intense, hard and joyous and tragic and wonderful all at once. One of the things that we most enjoy and love and take true comfort in, what gives us real hope for our society and our future, is the literature that we see published in the world every day. Such incredible books continue to be published, and as long as they are, we’ll keep sharing them with you. Please enjoy our favorites of March, enjoy the springy weather (if it’s not still snowing where you are), and march on, ever on, in search of incredible books.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Favorite Reads of March

In Mohsin Hamid’s new book, which has been much lauded—and for good reason—the exit of the title is a real, yet magical, one. Nadia and Saeed are a pair of lovers in an unnamed country wrought with violence, and though Nadia wears a burka, she does so more out of self-preservation than religious belief. She and Saeed take drugs and try to enjoy their time in the war-torn country, but eventually head west—by way of a magical door—where things, though safer, become much sadder for them. The lovers’ lives change irrevocably in the west, in ways both familiar and unexpected. A timely tale full of truth, sound, and fury, signifying much. (Riverhead)

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Sonora by Hannah Lillith Assadi

Favorite Reads of March

This debut novel is full of the beauty we so often look for in slim volumes of poetry. Though not poetry, the language in this lyrical work of literary fiction is so atmospheric, makes it feel quite close to that genre. In the Sonoran desert, Ahlam lives with an Israeli mother and Palestinian father and makes friends with a Mexican girl, Laura. When the girls graduate high school, they move to New York City, where their dreams both come true and are dashed beyond belief. Over years of drinking and drugs, their friendship mutates so that they are each other’s lifeboats. Gorgeously evocative and familiar, Hannah Lillith Assadi’s voice leaves you wanting more and more. (Soho Press)

Celine by Peter Heller

Favorite Reads of March

Peter Heller’s own mother is the inspiration for the titular character of his newest novel. Celine is 68 and not to be trifled with—a private investigator with an extremely impressive success rate, it’s no surprise that she’s the person to reach to when you want to solve a decades-old case. Which is exactly what Gabriela, the daughter of a long-missing National Geographic photographer, does when she decides she wants to finally solve her father’s disappearance. While he is believed to have been killed by a bear, Gabriela doesn’t believe it, and as Celine and her husband head to Yellowstone to try to retrace his last days, they discover that there’s definitely more afoot than ravenous bears. Not your run-of-the-mill detective novel, Celine is nevertheless satisfying as both a literary endeavor and a private-eye mystery. (Knopf)

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

Favorite Reads of March

It was only recently that Andrea Bern, this novel’s thirty-nine-year-old protagonist, didn’t own good wine glasses or real furniture. Still, she is, as the title suggests, all grown up in the way modern society seems to suggest we must be: she has a job as a designer, she’s managed to pay off her student debt, she’s childless by choice, she knows what she likes in bed, and she has a social circle of people she loves. She’s also single and drinks a bit too much. Andrea doesn’t really understand how other people are living lives that seem to be constructed more soundly than hers, with more solid foundation and curtains in all the bedrooms: her friends are having kids or getting married and she’s watching from the outside, wondering what it must be like in there. A brilliant novel written in vignettes, this is Attenberg at her finest. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

South and West by Joan Didion

Favorite Reads of March

Joan Didion is the kind of writer who has always written copious notes. In this new book, she shares some of those. The first part, the “South” of the title: Didion took a road trip with her husband in 1970 through three southern states, where she experiences everything from the intense, wet heat to obsessive pedigree and race discussions to the oddities of small-town diners and motels. The second part, the “West,” is captured in Didion’s notebook from 1976, when she was taking notes on an ultimately-unwritten piece about the Patty Hearst trials in San Francisco. This was also when her interest in the American West crystallized and became the beginnings of later books she’d write. Didion’s writing covers a broad array of subjects in this slim volume and is an ode to America as seen through her eyes. (Knopf)

Lola by Melissa Scrivner Love

Favorite Reads of March

At first glance, Lola is easy to dismiss—she’s a Latina woman in a world of dangerous men. And she relies on that exact misinterpretation as her best cover. Lola is the seemingly submissive girlfriend of Garcia, the perceived leader of an up-and-coming Los Angeles gang, the Crenshaw Six, but as this crime thriller opens, we learn she is actually the secret boss—the brains behind the operation—and her boyfriend is merely her puppet. Because she is oft-underestimated, Lola is able to act as a nonthreatening observer when her boyfriend gets offered a lucrative gig for the gang, and she’s the one who calls the shots on whether to go for it or not. As we see her ramp up, she proves herself to be ruthless and cunning and an unforgettable badass that we simultaneously fear and cheer at the same time. (Crown)

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

Favorite Reads of March

12-year-old Elvis is a captivating character and the fantastically absorbing narrator of this stunning debut novel. Named for the King of Rock and Roll because they share a birthday, she is a collector of facts and figures. Fact: yellow is the happiest color according to scientific research; figure: 18 is the number of months it takes to grieve, according to Elvis’s school counselor, who relays this after Elvis’s mother dies in a tragic accident—drowning while sleepwalking. As Elvis grapples with the circumstances surrounding her mom’s death, she watches her father don her mother’s old clothes and her sister sleep-eat her way through the fridge. Through this young girl’s eyes we see the different ways death can rip the familial fabric asunder. (Tin House Books)

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

Favorite Reads of March

One of our favorite nonfiction reads we’ve read this year, Ariel Levy’s memoir doesn’t disappoint. Full of ambition, Levy worked her way towards the enviable position of a staff writer (an increasingly rare title) at The New Yorker. Meanwhile, she was also married to Lucy (long before the national legality of same-sex marriage), but after Levy confessed to having an affair, Lucy’s drinking became more and more of a problem. Even during Lucy’s battle with alcoholism, Levy wanted a child, and she successfully got pregnant through a donation but on a reporting trip she miscarried and soon after, lost her wife as their relationship explosively ended. Ariel Levy’s is a subtle, personal critique of the desire, nay, the conviction to have it all, and what happens when you lose it. (Random House)

The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler

Favorite Reads of March

In this moving novel, there are several men whose hearts we become familiar with. We start out with Nelson, 13 and bullied at Camp Chippewa in Wisconsin. He has a fair-weather friend in older Jonathan, and a savior in his scoutmaster, Wilbur. Years later, after Nelson returns, scarred from the war in Vietnam, he becomes scoutmaster himself, crossing paths with Jonathan’s daughter-in-law who brings her son to Chippewa. Over the years, Nelson and Jonathan’s patterns and behavior have shown them to be very different men, with very different hearts, which they demonstrate when a terrible incident rocks the camp while Jonathan’s grandson is there. (Ecco)

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

Favorite Reads of March

Twelve bullets, twelve scars, twelve times his life was almost lost—Samuel Hawley has lived plenty and, by some miracle, is living still, with his daughter, Loo, and the memory of his wife, Lily. Sam is a professional thief, specializing in jewelry, and while he and Loo have spent years on the move, living out of suitcases, he decides to turn away from crime and give her a regular life—such as it can be—in the Massachusetts town where Lily grew up and where Lily’s mother still lives. The book alternates between chapters exploring Sam’s “lives”—or the almost-ends of it—and Loo’s life in the town where she begins to try to find out more about her mother and how she fit into her father’s life. A wonderful blend of genres, Tinti’s second book is raw and heartwarming in equal measure. (Dial Press)

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito

Favorite Reads of March

This Swedish crime novel is now making waves on our shores and feels entirely relevant and relatable. Maja, the narrator, is 18, and she has spent the last nine months in jail, preparing for her trial like a baby brought to term into a horrid world. Maja is involved in a terrible school massacre, where she freely admits to having shot her own boyfriend and best friend. But what led to this event, and what is the reasoning for her specific choice of victims? What of the larger-scale shooting her boyfriend carried out? With suspense and searing social commentary, this newly translated work will sink its teeth into your mind and won’t let you put it down. (Other Press)

The Family Gene by Joselin Linder

Favorite Reads of March

Joselin Linder’s excellent memoir tackles a difficult topic: the gene that is still trying to kill her and some of her family members. Linder’s great-grandmother is believed to be the first person to carry the mutation or variant of a gene, which was then inherited by her children and their children and on and on. Now in its fifth generation—Linder’s generation—the science is finally at a place where Linder and her family are able to learn about the gene and how it’s crippling their bodies. Still, no doctor has all the answers, and Linder’s amazing story shows the ways a family and an individual deal with the crisis looming over us all eventually: the end of life. (Ecco)

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Favorite Reads of March

In the 1980s, fear of Satanic activity stirred up panic in the suburbs of America. Dustin’s parents are murdered during that time—allegedly by Dustin’s adopted brother Rusty—and Dustin and his cousin’s testimony against Rusty helps put him in prison for good. Except Rusty is being released from prison now, decades later, after DNA evidence has cleared him of the crime. Meanwhile, Dustin is living in suburbia himself, working as a psychologist, and one of his patients is convinced that there is a serial killer on the loose, drowning drunk college boys. As crimes from the past and present converge around Dustin, things get heated. An excellent literary thriller to give you chills at night. (Ballantine Books)

Dear Ijeawele by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Favorite Reads of March

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is already much beloved for her previous works, which include Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists. In this new book, she writes a guide for her friend who is having a baby: a guide for how to raise a feminist. Adichie’s suggestions include allowing the child to choose her own toys, dolls and dump trucks alike, and teaching her that women are not subservient to men. Adichie encourages open and frank discussion of sexuality, clothing, and gender roles (and how they can and should be broken). A wonderful book for anyone, whether they’re new parents or seasoned ones or uninterested in having child at all. After all, we could use more feminists in the world. (Knopf)

The Book of Polly by Kathy Hepinstall

Favorite Reads of March

Willow is very aware of her strange situation: at ten, she has a mother that most people mistake for her grandmother. Polly, Willow’s mother, is in her 60s by this point, having had Willow in her late 50s in a kind of miraculous conception with her now-late husband. Willow’s older siblings are long gone from the house, although as she ages into her teenage years, one of them, her brother, returns home. Meanwhile, Willow is experiencing all the joys and struggles of adolescence and begins to see just how different her upbringing with her nutty and sharp-tongued Southern mother has been: her friends’ parents don’t shoot animals when they trample the garden, for example. When Polly gets cancer, Willow’s worst fears about her mother’s age come true and the family needs to learn to live in this new reality. (Pamela Dorman Books)

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

Favorite Reads of March

After Lane Roanoke’s mother’s suicide, the 15-year-old moves back in with her mother’s mysterious family in Kansas. At first, Lane can’t figure out why her mother ever left the huge estate—her grandparents welcome her, and her cousin Allegra clings to her new playmate, happy to have a friend and confidante. Being one of the infamous Roanoke girls isn’t that bad, Lane thinks, until that is, she discovers the heart of darkness in the midst of it all and gets the hell out of town to escape it. Over a decade later, Lane is living in Los Angeles when she gets a call telling her that Allegra is missing. Going back home has never been more stressful… A fantastic and salacious mystery that will keep you guessing until the very end. (Crown)

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey

Favorite Reads of March

In the near future, astronauts will be going to Mars, but the journey is far longer than any astronauts have ever taken before. In order to prepare for the extensive time the small crew will spend together, the aerospace company in Meg Howrey’s amazing new novel—Prime Space—is putting the three soon-to-be pioneers of human exploration through the wringer. The wringer, in this case, is the Utah desert, where a simulation so convincing is built that our three heroes, Helen, Yoshi, and Sergei, start to lose sense of reality. Told from their perspectives as well as four other observers, this engrossing book explores the psychology of isolation and love. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell

Favorite Reads of March

This incredible debut novel explores many things, but first and foremost it looks at voice—specifically, the voice of its eccentric narrator, Helen Moran. When her adopted brother commits suicide, her parents don’t call her; an uncle she’s barely ever spoken to breaks the news. After sobbing in her New York City studio apartment that she shares with another woman, she sets off home to try to aid her grieving parents. Full of non sequiturs, strange observations, and a complete misunderstanding of social situations at almost all times, Helen Moran’s sorrow challenges what we think grief should look like and how we approach the people around us. (McSweeney’s)

The Night Ocean by Paul LaFarge

Favorite Reads of March

The title of Paul LaFarge’s incredible tour de force is ripped from an H. P. Lovecraft story by the same name, which is fitting, seeing as how Lovecraft is one of this book’s main mysteries, along with Charlie. Charlie is missing, and his wife, Marina, is convinced he’s not dead, despite the police’s assumption that he drowned himself. Marina follows her husband’s obsessive footsteps as she retraces what he’s been researching: the friendship between H. P. Lovecraft and a gay scholar of Mexican culture named Robert Barlow who, as a teenager, lived with Lovecraft for two months. Charlie’s obsessions with sci-fi, fandom, and a man he believed was Barlow living disguised as an elderly Canadian are all things that Marina explores to great effect as she dives deeper and deeper into her husband’s mysterious disappearance. (Penguin Press)

One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel

Favorite Reads of March

A searing debut, this novel looks through the eyes of a young boy as he watches his father deteriorate into an unknown state. The 12-year-old and his older brother are the winners in a war they didn’t know they would ever need to fight—their father’s war with their mother. When their parents get divorced and the boys’ father gains custody over them, the three travel from Kansas to New Mexico to start a new life. The boys attempt to thrive—they go to school, immerse themselves in clubs and activities, make new friends—but their father seems to both shrink into himself and grow larger and scarier. A terrifying reality sets in, one you won’t want to pry your eyes away from in this slim and emotionally-packed book. (Scribner)

White Tears by Hari Kunzru

Favorite Reads of March

In this criticism of racial inequality and appropriation in the U.S., Hari Kunzru uses two young white music producers as his gateway into the discussion. Seth records everything—from the soundscapes of the city to singers in Washington Square Park—while Carter listens intently to old blues music. When they decide to show off their production skills by aging a recording of a present-day street musician and claiming it is a recording of a long-lost blues master Charlie Shaw (whom they invented), they don’t know what kind of hole they’re digging themselves into. The weirdness is just beginning when they find out that there may be a real Charlie Shaw out there and things get increasingly complicated and uncanny as we turn the riveting pages. (Knopf)

The Gargoyle Hunters by John Freeman Gill

Favorite Reads of March

In this novel, Griffin is looking back on his life, specifically to the year he turns 13. That year, in the mid-1970s, is when he learns more about his normally tight-lipped and mysterious father, whose marriage to his mother is falling apart. Griffin, at 13, is small and wiry, able to squeeze into small spaces, and when his father realizes this, he recruits him to help with his side hustle: stealing, in order to preserve, the gargoyles atop New York City’s old buildings. As Griffin explores the incredible architecture of this city, he also learns more about his father and himself. The scaffolding of this book is as riveting as the buildings Griffin climbs. (Knopf)

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Favorite Reads of March

What is it like to discover that you’re a writer? Many writers wouldn’t know how to begin to tackle this question in a novel without sounding trite or overdone, but Elif Batuman is that rare exception. Selin, our main character, is the daughter of Turkish immigrants and is beginning Harvard, where she meets a slew of fascinating friends. When summer rolls around and she heads to Europe, she relates to the sights and sounds around her differently than an American college student is expected to, and her discovery of herself, her first love, and the special relationship she has with words carries her, and us, through the incredible prose. (Penguin Press)

Photography: Ryan Deshon; prop styling: Abbe Wright

About Ilana Masad

ILANA MASAD is a queer writer of fiction, nonfiction, and criticism. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, an interview podcast featuring fiction writers, and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her debut novel, All My Mother’s Lovers, comes out May 2020.

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