March’s Top Picks in Fiction

In this month’s excellent crop of new novels, Kazuo Ishiguro returns with a fable-like story, a poet makes her much-discussed debut with a modern retelling of Madame Bovary, and Coco Chanel stars in a novel inspired by the fashion queen’s life.

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Ishiguro’s first novel in years is set in a post-Roman and barely civilized Britain. It tells the story of an elderly couple named Axl and Beatrice, who set off to find their long lost and half-forgotten son. Its themes are memory, love, and finding yourself through devotion to another. The Britain Ishiguro describes is not the thrilling world of clashing knights and imperial decay that some other historical novels trade in, but rather a frightening place where magic—although never explicitly glimpsed—seems real, and terrifying.

At the Water’s Edge, by Sara Gruen
Thoughtful, sheltered Madeline is the protagonist of this World War II novel. Her husband is unable to serve in the war, and when his father cuts him off, he and Madeline head to Scotland to find the legendary Loch Ness Monster in a bid to regain his father’s favor. This startling premise is the jumping off point for an intriguing interior journey that sees Madeline fall in love with rural Scotland—and question everything about her life.

The Cavendon Women, by Barbara Taylor Bradford
If you read Bradford’s delightful Cavendon Hall and/or love the work of Danielle Steele, then this standalone followup to Cavendon Hall is likely already on your Must Read list. The narrative quickly gets the reader up to speed on the Swann and Ingham families and their complicated master/servant relationships. As both families recover from World War I and hurtle unknowingly toward the Great Depression, it’s up to the titular women of the families to work together to help both upstairs and downstairs find their way through unexpected adventures, triumphs, and sorrows.

The Precious One, by Marisa de los Santos
A fascinating story about family, love, perception, and the power of history. Taisy has only spoken to her father once since he left her and her family when she was a teenager to start over with a new wife and a new daughter. When he suffers a major health crisis, he asks her to come to him, meet her half-sister, Willow, and help him write his memoirs. Told alternatively from Taisy and Willow’s points of view—the former tart and angry, the latter naive and youthful—the story digs deep into the characters and their shared histories and destinies. By the end of the novel, you’re rooting for each one to find the happiness she’s seeking.

Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum
This highly-anticipated debut by celebrated poet Jill Alexander Essbaum does not disappoint. Anna, an American, lives outside Zurich with her husband and three children. She doesn’t speak the language, have any friends, or find much succor in her family. The novel follows her attempts to break out and connect with the larger world, seeking experiences that range from the psychoanalytical to the sexual. Essbaum employs precise language and a careful structure to create a vivid portrait of a woman whose world has shrunk to just her family and her thoughts not because of the limitations of a cruel world, but because of her own interior limitations.

The Harder They Come, by T.C. Boyle
T.C. Boyle returns with a powerful take on violence in American culture—and, possibly, the violence inherent in the human condition. Sten Stensen is a retired school principal and Vietnam veteran returning home to Texas from a trip abroad during which he killed a man who was attempting to rob the tour bus he was riding. Once home he is celebrated as a hero and drawn into a self-styled border brigade fighting against drug cartel incursions into the woods outside of town. He’s also caught up with his mentally unstable son and the strange older woman who has established a hold over him. When his son’s schizophrenia erupts into murder and he flees into the country patrolled by the local patriots, Sten—and readers—begin to understand how little control we have over events around us.

The Fifth Heart, by Dan Simmons
More than just a Sherlock Holmes novel or a historical novel, this delightfully unexpected book depicts Holmes during his Great Hiatus after apparently dying at Reichenbach Falls. Holmes teams up with a suicidal Henry James (yes, the famous author), and the two travel to America to solve a mystery. The real kicker? Holmes explains he faked his death because he has concluded, based on the evidence of his existence, that he is a fictional character. The clues he uses to reach this conclusion will be familiar to anyone who has made a study of the Holmes stories, but that’s not necessary to enjoy one of the most inventive, interesting, and meta novels to come out in a long time.

The Last Flight of Poxl West, by Daniel Torday
This debut is a cracking read, filled with instantly quotable lines and richly detailed characters. The fictional Poxl West has written a memoir about his amazing life—fleeing the Nazis, joining the RAF, and flying bombing missions—that is an instant success. His nephew Eli views him as a hero, and when Poxl leaves Eli’s life, the young man becomes even more obsessed with his famous uncle. But not everything is as it seems (or as Poxl has claimed), and Eli must deal with revelation, disappointment—and a new understanding of his uncle that will affect you as deeply as it does Eli. Eli’s story alternates with Poxl’s memoir, which creates the sensation of reading two sharp books at once.

A Fireproof Home for the Bride, by Amy Scheibe
It’s rare enough for a writer to achieve a note-perfect recreation of a time period, or an affecting account of a young woman’s coming of age, or a complex story of family secrets and explosive historical themes. Amy Scheibe pulls off all three feats in her novel about Emmy, a young Lutheran woman coming of age in rural 1958 Minnesota. When Emmy rejects her betrothed, starts dating a Catholic, and takes a job at the local paper as a reporter, she begins to see the world much more clearly—and as much larger and deeper than she’d ever imagined. Schiebe approaches her characters and her setting with confidence, humor, and an understanding of how our families and our surroundings shape us, usually without our knowledge.

A Reunion of Ghosts, by Judith Claire Mitchell
You’ll instantly love the voices of the three Alter sisters who populate this acerbic, brilliant novel. As scions of an unlucky family, the three sisters have gathered to write their suicide note and end their lives—something of a an Alter family tradition. Ever since their great-grandfather made a scientific breakthrough that led indirectly to the use of the infamous Zyklon B gas in Nazi concentration camps, the Alter family has been cursed—or so the sisters believe. Despite its dark themes, this book is hilarious.

The Fire Sermon, by Francesca Haig
Famed poet Francesca Haig has crafted a brilliant dystopian science fiction debut, telling the tale of a future world after a nuclear holocaust. As the radiation fades, humanity struggles on, but mysteriously, everyone is now born with a twin—one twin being a nearly-perfect Alpha, the other a mutated, monstrous Omega. As the Alphas rise to supremacy and the Omegas are oppressed and cast out, one fact binds them perpetually together: when one twin dies, the other dies as well. Haig’s story follows Cass, an Omega with psychic abilities, and her Alpha twin, Zach, who has imprisoned her as he rises to power in the Alpha society. Haig’s background in poetry shows in her finely-tuned language and sparkling descriptions. The Fire Sermon will leave you anxious to read the second book in this planned trilogy.

Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule, by Jennifer Chiaverini
This is a fascinating story about a pair of women: the future wife of President Ulysses S. Grant and the woman she owned as a slave. Julia Dent is born with poor eyesight and prophetic visions in antebellum Missouri, and her slave Jule acts as her best friend and her eyes, seeing the world for her. When Julia marries Grant, she vows never to be away from him. When she accompanies Grant on his campaigns, both military and political, she brings Jule with her despite the conflict between owning a slave and being married to the man leading the Northern armies. When Jule claims her freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation, the former slave comes into her own, but the women continue to swing into each other’s orbit regularly. This absorbing book offers a detailed history lesson along with its story of a unique female relationship.

Mademoiselle Chanel, by C.W. Gortner
By rights, there should be dozens of novels starring Coco Chanel as their heroine, because Chanel is one of the most fascinating, creative, and downright interesting people in history. Gortner crafts a rollicking story about an orphan taught to sew by the nuns who care for her, a strong, independent woman who works as a seamstress by day and a nightclub singer by night, and a fashion icon who revolutionized not just fashion, but the role of women in society. The novel stays true to the real-life Chanel’s history, enhancing it with imagined observations, reflections, and motivations for many of her most shocking choices. This is the book to read if you love fashion, if you love strong women, or if you just love a good story.

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