The first gift I gave to my children was a set of books. I was a young first-time mother. When I found out I was pregnant, I was clueless to the needs of a child. And when, after my first sonogram, my doctor said with a calm, steady voice, “You have twins,” I was doubly overwhelmed. I knew there were diapers and clothes, furniture and car seats to buy, but the first purchase I made was a box set of Sandra Boynton board books. I bought them on a trip to Lexington to see a high risk pregnancy specialist. I also bought Some of the Dharma by Jack Kerouac and Toni Morrison’s Paradise. I remember the titles clearly because during that visit, I suffered a medical emergency and was admitted to the hospital with a surgical procedure scheduled for the following morning. I never felt as frightened as I was in that hospital two hours away from home, nervous for myself and my children. During the night, my parents brought the bag of books I’d bought into my hospital room. I opened the box of board books. I spent the night turning the chunky pages of But Not the Hippopotamus and Horns to Toes. I was soothed by the power of simple rhymes and the thought of sharing them with my babies.
When the twins were born, their library was off to a good start. Somewhere along the way I got around to purchasing those other newborn necessities, but I also made sure they had good books. I bought board books and picture books and books that made funny sounds. I bought chapter books for the years to come and books that were special to my childhood. I knew no matter what else we had, books were among the most important things I could share with my son and daughter.
I’ve been a single mother for most of their lives, and I quickly found out the popular saying “it takes a village to raise a child” is true. We’ve relied on my parents and friends for help in many ways throughout the years. We’ve also relied on a village of authors and characters. I consider Barbara Park and Ann M. Martin important members of our village. We’ve relied on S.E. Hinton, Lois Lowry, and JK Rowling, too. Books have helped me teach lessons and express emotions. They’ve helped distract me when life is hectic. I’ve formed great connections with my children and others by sharing books I love.
My twins turn sixteen years old this summer. A lot has changed from those early years. Their interests have grown and expanded. My son recently ordered a book on shamanism and my daughter is reading about ancient Greece. Soon they will be reading the Kentucky State Driver’s Manual and prepare to test for their learner’s permit. I became a writer and an educator so I could share my love of books with a bigger audience. I still have that box set of Sandra Boynton board books. They entertained the twins and my youngest child, born ten years later. Every time I look at those books, I am reminded of that much younger mother, nervous and scared, but confident in the importance of sharing books. I still love to share books. I love giving books as holiday and birthday gifts and offering book recommendations. On social media, I frequently post about what the kids and I are reading and ask my friends to discuss their favorites.
To celebrate sixteen years of sharing books with the people I love most, I made a list of books I’ve loved and want to share this summer. Here are sixteen new books I’ve recently loved for various reasons. I hope you find something that interests you, and I hope you’ll share them with someone special.
Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller (Tin House 2017)
Gil is an author who collects used books for the hidden personal treasures he finds inside. Also hidden in Gil’s books are letters from his wife, Ingrid, who disappeared twelve years before this story begins, and is presumed dead. Ingrid’s letters chronicle the stories and the secrets of their marriage and family. Fuller creates a world with intricate layers of time and intimacy and complex characters that will carry you through a full range of emotion. So far, this has been my favorite book of 2017.
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti (Penguin Random House 2017)
Loo has spent her young life traveling around with her father, Samuel. Loo knows little of her father’s past and next to nothing about her dead mother, Lily. When the father-daughter duo settle in a place from their past, Loo begins to investigate and learns more than she bargains for. The structure of this book is as unique and interesting as the characters. Tinti alternates between Loo’s present life and Samuel Hawley’s past in chapters that detail how Hawley received each of the twelve bullet hole scars on his body. Each scar comes with a story that reveals the history of this family and the complicated love they share.
The Devil’s Trill by Ron Houchin (Main Street Rag 2017)
There is so much to love about this novella. It’s the story of a young boy growing up in Appalachia and his fascination with all things involving the supernatural and the occult. It is at times terrifying and at others heart wrenching, and throughout it is written in poetic language that makes the pages turn. It is simultaneously a horror story and a story of friendship that explores the depths of fear and danger. This is a great read for young adults and grown-ups alike.
The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker (Penguin Random House 2017)
This debut novel from Kentucky native Kayla Rae Whitaker is an absolute force. It’s the story of two women, Sharon and Mel, who become best friends and artistic business partners in college. They are vastly different, but connected by powerful bonds that allow them to share their life and their art. Their story is a twisty, emotional journey through family, both biological and chosen, and the way we make lasting imprints on each other.
House of Names a novel by Colm Toibin (Simon & Schuster 2017)
I have never met a Colm Toibin novel I didn’t love, and his newest is no exception. This book is the retelling of the story of Clymenestra and her family. The story is true to the well-known ancient Greek myth, but told in sharp modern language and with a humanity to the characters that is captivating from page one.
She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World by Chelsea Clinton (Penguin Random House 2017)
This is a book I will be gifting to many people. It is a beautifully illustrated children’s book that offers brief biographical sketches of women who made great change by being persistent and strong. The stories are inspirational and educational for all readers, regardless of gender or age.
Into the Water by Paula Hawkins (Penguin Random House 2017)
Hawkins’ novel, The Girl on the Train, received a lot of attention, but I liked her new suspenseful thriller even more. Into the Water opens when a woman returns to her childhood vacation town after her sister’s drowning death. Throughout the years, many woman have drown in the same spot and a mystery surrounds the area. The novel is told through multiple viewpoints, and each has a theory on the deaths and local lore. Beneath all the creepiness is also a story of a woman who uncovers truth about herself, her family, and ultimately, her orphaned niece, as she unravels the mystery of her sister’s death.
Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (Penguin Random House 2017)
I am drawn to Elizabeth Strout books for many reasons, one being her amazing power to illuminate the interior lives of ordinary people. Her newest book echoes of many of her previous masterpieces. It is structured much like Olive Kitteridge, introducing a range of characters all connected by place and shared history. It also revisits an older Lucy, the title character of Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton.
The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn (Simon & Schuster 2017)
Jeff Guin is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. No matter how much I think I know about a topic, Guinn’s books delve deeper than I ever could and offer a complete story that reads like a novel. The Road to Jonestown begins with Jim Jones’ childhood and comprehensively covers the details leading up to and including The People’s Temple tragedy. Guinn’s book is terrifying, heart wrenching, and informational, and is an essential for the reader of nonfiction.
Incendiary Art: Poems by Patricia Smith (Northwestern University Press 2017)
During my second MFA residency at West Virginia Wesleyan College, I had the honor of attending a Patricia Smith reading where she shared poems from the manuscript of Incendiary Art. I remember holding my breath during that reading, floored by the power, pain, and the unflinching truth in Smith’s poems. I’ve been waiting for this release since that day. I have read it through twice, and the poems have the same effect on me each time. Smith’s book opens with a poem about the death of Emmett Till and through the book reflects on racism, brutality, injustice, and motherhood. This is a necessary and powerful collection.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie (Hachette Book Group 2017)
While Sherman Alexie has drawn upon his personal experiences on the Spokane Indian Reservation in his fiction, this is his first memoir. The book was inspired by the death of his mother, Lillian, and reflects on their complicated relationship. With a mixture of poetry and prose, Alexie’s memoir examines the power of family and memory and the emotional ups and downs that come with both.
Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane (Harper Collins 2017)
Dennis Lehane’s newest novel is full of the mind-bending twists and turns that make him one of my favorite authors. This is the story of Rachel Childs, a woman who has a public mental breakdown brought on by the pressures of her job as a journalist and her personal search for her absent father. Once she has retreated from the public eye, she finds love and a fairy tale marriage with a man who helps her rebuild her life. In true Lehane fashion, nothing in Rachel’s new life is as it seems. This is a psychological thriller that is difficult to put down and impossible to figure out until the last twist.
Eveningland by Michael Knight (Atlantic Monthly 2017)
This book is a collection of short stories written by one of my favorite southern voices. All seven stories in the book are set in Alabama and are beautifully written with a deep sense of place. The stories examine different relationships, some on a small scale and others a bit more dramatic, but all with a quiet, lyrical writing that makes this slim volume an easy read that sticks with you long after you finish the book.
All the Wild Wonders by Wendy Cooling and Piet Grobler (Illustrator) (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books 2015)
This is the perfect book to share with younger readers. It’s a colorful, cheerful collection of poetry about nature that is light-hearted and fun, but also teaches children the importance of the world around us. This is a fun, important addition to any child’s library.
The Child by Fiona Barton (Penguin Random House 2017)
This novel opens with the gruesome discovery of a long-buried tiny skeleton at a construction site. Told from the perspective of three women who are affected by and later connected by this discovery, this book is beautiful, thrilling and suspenseful. I couldn’t put it down.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
The best words to describe Saunders’ novel are unique, captivating, and heartbreaking. A mixture of a little bit of history with a whole lot of imagination, this book centers on the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son, Willie, and his spirit as it stays in the Bardo, a realm in the afterlife. The story is told with a variety of spirit-voices, and is a beautiful, gut-wrenching exploration of grief.