Summer Reads


Need some inspiration for your beach bag? We turned to inveterate reader, writer and reviewer, Jen Petty Hilger, for a short stack of books worth reading this summer.

The Changeling by Victor La Valle

Wow. What a cool book. (per my children this is a word forbidden to me but excuse me, I was COOL before you were breathing.) It’s a true horror story without the Hollywood scare. Its memorable in the creepiest but best way. The Changeling is a modern-day fairy tale with the gritty heart of Sophie’s Choice and Hansel and Gretel. Apollo Kagwa is the only son of a Ugandan secretary and a Cop from upstate. Ordinary enough for late sixties NYC until its not.

His father leaves, or disappears, or both. His mother won’t say. He has visions. Apollo has dreams of a life he barely remembers. He chooses to stay strong. He grows up. He marries. He has a son of his own. Now wait.

What does he really remember? What really happens to his infant son? Is it gruesome infanticide or preservation? If so, from whom? Transport the Grimm Brothers to Riker’s Island, and Roosevelt Island. Add bones. Add the NYPD. Its insane but beautiful. Magically touching and amnesiatic in its fairy taleness.

It is a baby. “It’s not a baby.” What do the ‘Wise Ones” know? His wife and son are gone. His father is gone. Apollo determines to live to his name. He is the hero. What does he need to do and can he, will he, be allowed, to do it? So many forces want to keep him on the outside. A Rare book and an unignorably amount of money bring aspects of his family’s life together in unimagined ways. He will pay his debts but when is doing the right thing correct? Always. Sometimes it doesn’t behoove you front and center. Sometimes you won’t see it for the trees, but its always right at the end. *

Some family legacies are best left to die.

“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” John Lennon

Purchase here.


The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place
A Flavia deLuce Novel by Alan Bradley

Oh, Flavia. How I love thee. 12 years old with the brain of Sherlock Holmes. This is the ninth book in the series. You can jump right in but you’ll be clamoring to read them all. With a rapier-sharp wit Flavia faces death…” life is full of death and it’s better to make friends with it than fight it.” In this installment, she literally pulls a body from the river. Thinking she had hooked a hemingwayesque fish with her bare hands, she tugs a human skull (attached to the body) up to the side of the boat. She is, of course, thrilled beyond measure. Her specialty is chemistry and the mix of bodily decay and poisonous possibility is wonderful.

Her two older sisters are horrified and often provide relief from the circumstances. Dogger, their faithful guardian is an older wiser version of Flavia. Together they make a pair. Resulting from family tragedy Dogger is Flavia’s mainstay throughout her wanderings and detective work. Bradley creates a laugh out loud, intelligent, murder mystery series. I could not recommend them more. “The possibilities seemed endless, which made it all the more exciting since possibilities are so much more thrilling than certainties.”

Purchase here.


Going into Town
A Love Letter to New York by Roz Chast

Growing up as a New Yorker is a special joy. The nasty crosstown bus to school. The roasted chestnuts. The disgustingly wonderful hot dogs. Dribbling Italian ices all over your uniform on warm spring days… I have a whirlwind of memories that can be triggered by any cliché or hot taxi backseat. Roz Chast, the venerable cartoonist most visibly in The New Yorker is a personal favorite. Her spot-on honest hilariously cynical take on the world is perfect but New York practically begs to be encapsulated. In Going into Town, she is the city’s dream girlfriend.

She grew up in Brooklyn but left for the burbs as fast as she could. When her daughter moves back as a college student she realizes as she is explaining the definition of a city ‘block’ that it’s gone too far afield. Her children need to know HER New York. She writes a love letter to the city. It’s wonderful. It’s so spot on. It’s so familiar. I can hear the jackhammers competing with the spring birds. I can feel the tar sticking to my shoe. Or the gum, you never look twice because you really don’t want to know.

If you are like me, a native New Yorker, or a shy visitor, you are being welcomed with wide open arms.

Purchase here.


The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Author Helen McDonald’s (H is for Hawk) review said The Essex Serpent seemed ‘lit from within’. Fairly clear and spot on. I snatched it up immediately.

England in the late 1800s is familiar. Social and class striation, scientific revelations, societal unrest, industrial change, Political turmoil, religious ennui; Into this maelstrom come hauntingly beautiful characters.

Garrett, a peevish lovelorn surgeon, William a happily married cleric, Clara, a widow delighting in her newly found freedom, Francis, her autistic son and many others all intertwine lives. Most often in a village with a fearsome beast. Is the storied Essex Serpent imagined or murderous? A number of deaths and disappearances suggests it exists. The village’s need for folkloric reassurance in the face of religious uncertainty suggests it does not.

The roads between superstition and science are converging. People believe concurrently in the past and the encroaching future to different ends. Equal parts human lust for knowledge, lust for human connection and lust for personal liberty, The Essex Serpent is vivid. Redolent of the damp salty moors, the Smokey coal of London, and the wild fever dreams of the tubercular, it is almost tangible in its beauty. “The drizzle subsided, and cleared the air, and without any sunlight…the world flushed with color.”

This is a heady mix of foggy doubt and sparkly realization for both character and reader alike. Each character is so well defined as to be personally familiar. You leave with a sense of having been there. What should be Dickensonian rises and becomes magical.

Purchase here.


A Tale of The Once And Future Nutcracker by Gregory Maguire

The author of Wicked, Gregory Maguire is a genius at recreating fairy tales we thought we knew. The original Grimm Brothers collected folk tales that spanned generations. Many became books, and this one became a ballet with which we are all familiar, The Nutcracker. Little Klara has a dream of princes and giant mice and a Nutcracker who comes to life to save her. The Nutcracker was a gift from her godfather Herr Drosselmeier.

Who exactly is he and how did the nutcracker carry its magic? Maguire takes us to a simple orphan boy deep in the Bavarian woods and tells us. He is suddenly newly invested in a world he stands just outside of, “the light was rational and the shadow romantic, and he could sense a purring tension, but he had no words, no references by which to articulate it”.

He joins a world both unfamiliar and entrancing. As he grows to understand both his own desires and those of his peers we see what he is to become. There is a magic, a passion barely realized that is shaping him to be more than he was born to be. Maguire creates a world redolent of ancient mythology. Be they Pan and Pythia, toys, a craving magician, a songbird, a woodcutter, a magic wood or a lost foreign painter, the charms of the story are the characters.

As Drosselemeir creates his toys and the iconic Nutcracker itself, Maguire creates the world of Hiddensee. Just as Klara asks, “how do toys think?” we learn that just as the reader does,” they learn and make guesses.”

Purchase here.