Petra Mayer's Summer Reading List
"The Sweetness of Water" by Nathan Harris
This book is super buzzy: It's an Oprah pick, it's on former President Barack Obama's summer reading list, and it absolutely lives up to the hype.
"The Sweetness of Water" is set in a small southern town just after the end of the Civil War, under Union occupation and trying to figure out how to deal with the sudden influx of freed Black people. It follows three sets of people — a farmer and his wife, two Black brothers who've left a neighboring plantation, and a pair of Confederate soldiers who are having a clandestine relationship.
This is a debut novel, but the writing is so strong, gorgeous and assured, and the characters have so many layers to them, you'll keep reading just to see what's revealed next.
"Razorblade Tears" by S.A. Cosby
This is a perfectly titled book because it'll cut you and make you cry. It's about two fathers — one white, one Black — both of whom have served time in prison and been marked by it. And the link between them is that their sons fell in love and got married, which neither of them dealt with very well, and now their sons have been murdered.
These two men who never really met while their sons were alive — both of them just loaded down with scars and regret — form this prickly, difficult bond and decide to hunt down the killers because the police aren't doing a great job of it.
There is violence and homophobia here, so consider that when you're picking it up. But wow, it's a book that fires you out of a cannon on the very first page and just never lets up.
"Sword Stone Table" edited by Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington
If you don't want to sit down and rip through a whole book in one sitting, this is a great choice. "Sword Stone Table" is an anthology of some of the best writers working today — people like Danny Lavery, Ken Liu and Silvia Moreno-Garcia — re-imagining Arthurian legends from all different kinds of marginalized perspectives, in all different kinds of times and places.
It kicks off in a world where Camelot coexists with the Almohad Caliphate, a medieval North African empire, and King Arthur has summoned a renowned Muslim judge to decide whether Guinevere has been unfaithful, and it goes all the way to a future that involves reality TV stars reenacting the legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in domes on Mars.
There's also a mini (and very steamy romance) from Sarah MacLean about a blade-smithing witch and a mysterious warrior. As my reviewer Liza Graham said, this is a Round Table that "has enough seats for us all." And I'll add that it's still a great read even if you, like me, only know the basics when it comes to King Arthur.
"A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Monk & Robot, 1)" by Becky Chambers
Becky Chambers just wrapped up a series called "Wayfarers," which was four loosely connected books set in a far future where humans are the sad, backward newcomers in a big galactic confederation. Those are fabulous, by the way, if you're in the mood to spend time with cool aliens.
Her new series is called "Monk & Robot" and more down to earth; it's set in a world — which may or may not be a far-future Earth — where humans and robots diverged so long ago that they're only legends to each other. (The robots, in case you're wondering, are sentient and have been reproducing down the years by using old parts to build new bots.)
The monk in question is traveling through the forest on a quest to hear the sound of crickets, which are nearly extinct in this world, when suddenly they encounter a robot with the amazing name of Splendid Speckled Mosscap. And then it becomes this strange, philosophical buddy movie as the two of them go searching for crickets.
Like a lot of Becky Chambers' books, it's not a huge, dramatic story — the joy is in spending time with wonderful characters in a world that's so thoughtfully built it's almost a character too, with big ideas swimming just below the surface. She's one of those writers you feel smarter for reading.
"Bring Your Baggage And Don’t Pack Light" by Helen Ellis
Helen Ellis is so funny, but she packs a sneaky punch too. This is another book you can devour in short bites if you want to, but it's easy to tear through all at once. You may know Ellis: She broke out a few years ago with a short story collection called "American Housewife," which was full of dark, funny, biting stories about what housewives do all day.
This new book is nonfiction, and it's Ellis a few years on from thinking about herself as a housewife, getting close to 50 and writing about bond with her lifelong friends, the various indignities of getting older (dare I say it, menopause), and her life as a pretty serious poker player.
There's a scene where she's having a hot flash at the deli counter and fanning herself with a package of ham, and as I read it I thought, "if I can give as few, errr, flips as she does when I get to that point, it's all going to be okay."
Any time of year is great for romance, but summer is kind of the canonical time for books that are essentially roller coasters between pages — you ride those ups and downs, but you know you'll come safely to the happy-ever-after at the end.
I've loved Talia Hibbert's "The Brown Sisters" series. The last one, "Act Your Age, Eve Brown," came out this spring and I was sad to have come to the end, but then delighted to discover that she has loads of other books. So right now I'm polishing off her "Ravenswood" series, about a small British town where the gossips are mean and the men are hunky and mature beyond their years.
And if you liked the Brown sisters, you'll enjoy meeting Ruth Kabbah, her sister Hannah and their friend McRae, who have a similar mixture of neurodivergence, nerdiness and massive charm.
More from WBUR
This segment aired on July 22, 2021.