The four shortlisted books for this year’s Summer Reading Group were all first novels by authors under the age of 40. There was a lot of originality in the styles of writing and they had some common themes: from political cleavages to mental health issues. When it came time to vote for Best Summer Read, we had to base the choice on only 3 of the 4 books since the readers present had not managed to finish all four.
“Sadness is a White Bird” by Moriel Rothman-Zecher (Israel) was, as a result, chosen as Best Summer Read 2019. Set in modern-day Israel, it’s the story of Yonatan, an Israeli-American teenager who is getting ready to start his military service shortly after befriending Palestinian twin brother and sister, Laith and Nimreen. Readers found it beautifully written, intense and poetic. They liked the characters and enjoyed how both sides of the conflict were exposed. Although narrated from Yonatan’s point-of-view, they found it insightful and a balanced account of a tragic conflict. One reader, who before starting it struggled with her own pro-Palestinian prejudices, said she found herself enjoying it despite herself.
“Leila” by Prayaag Akbar (India) is a dystopian novel set in India in the late 2040s. The story follows a mother, Shalini, looking for her missing daughter, Leila, in a totalitarian regime. Most readers enjoyed this story and were impressed by the fact that the male author convincingly portrayed a female perspective. They said it was an easy read but found the story a bit confusing to start with. They agreed that the subsequent flashbacks helped to clarify the plot. Readers felt the theme of ‘Us versus Them’ and the building of walls highly actual. They enjoyed how the story unfolds and they liked the ending.
“The Remainder” by Alia Trabucco Zeran (Chile) is set in today’s Santiago. It’s about three children whose parents suffered under the dictatorship and how as young adults they try to cope with their past family traumas. There was a mixed reaction to this book, with half the readers liking it, while the other half struggled with it. Those who liked it said they enjoyed the different writing styles, the big caricatures of the protagonists, and the crazy road trip setting. They liked Felipe’s stream of consciousness and Iquela’s personal challenges with her mother and herself. Those who didn’t enjoy it said they found it too exaggerated and weird at times, and they had difficulties warming to any of the characters.
“The Old Drift” by Namwali Serpell (Zambia) was chosen as Nicola’s Coup de Cœur Summer 2019. Both Nicola and one reader who couldn’t attend the meeting chose it as their best summer read. The longest of the four books, it is a saga about three families stretching from the late 19th century during colonial times right up to a future Zambia of the 2020s. It took Nicola a while to get into it, but she soon warmed to most of the characters and loved how the families started to interconnect over the generations. She liked how each character’s chapter was followed by an interlude told from a mosquito’s perspective. The other reader found the writing impressive and wished it could go on for another 300 pages so she could find out more about the story of the unnamed boy born in 2024.