Leave The World Behind is a buzzy book this fall, helped by the fact that it’s apocalyptic, like the time we’re living through, and tense, fitting for October. The reviews I’ve read have definitely been divided, though. Some people think it’s one of the best books they’ve read in 2020, while others were disappointed by the ending and/or and didn’t understand the hype. I am not squarely in either camp – I liked it, even if I am not entirely sure what to make of it.

Why I picked it up: The premise and the hype. I liked but didn’t love Alam’s last novel, That Kind Of Mother, but I couldn’t resist this one. It was my October BOTM pick.

In Leave The World Behind, a family of four from Brooklyn has rented a summer house in outer Long Island for a week through Airbnb. Amanda and Clay and their kids Rose and Archie spend a day and a half relaxing in the upscale home, settling into their vacation. Late the second night, there is a knock at the door. Amanda opens it to find an older couple, Ruth and G.H., the owners of the house, who have shown up because of a blackout in New York City. They say they have nowhere else to go. Meanwhile, no one’s cell phones are working, the internet and cable TV are out, and there is no way to find out what’s really going on – terrorism? storm? – or whether the couple is telling the truth.

I don’t want to reveal much more. The rest of the book is about the characters’ response to the strange situation they find themselves in – their assumptions, their panicked reactions, their pursuits of comfort and reassurance. Like That Kind Of Mother, Leave The World Behind looks at race and class, exploring the assumptions the two couples make about each other and the trust – or lack thereof – that grows between them. Meanwhile. Alam ratchets up the tension as everyone in the house gets more frantic for news from the outside world and strange things start happening.

I finished Leave The World Behind feeling deeply unsettled, both about the fate of these characters but also about our own present reality. Alam’s ending is ambiguous but not unrealistic. There is a strong sense of dread and foreboding that only gets stronger as the pages turn, leaving the ultimate resolution as much to the reader’s imagination as Alam’s (though he does guide us there with hints along the way). Some people were dissatisfied with the lack of a true ending in Leave The World Behind. I was actually a bit relieved that I didn’t have to witness whatever was really going on, but, as I mentioned, I felt very unsettled and anxious when I finished. I enjoyed the story and the writing quite a bit, especially the little details about meals and clothes that made it so easy to picture this story unfolding. I’m just still trying to figure out what to make of it all.

Leave The World Behind was Book #53 of 2020.

SAVING RUBY KING by Catherine Adel West

Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West is a novel about how abuse, secrets and violence pervade and repeat through three generations of African-American Chicagoans living on the South Side. Told through five perspectives – two fathers, their daughters, and the church they attend – Saving Ruby King opens with a murder and ratchets up the tension throughout the book as truths come out and characters try to resolve their troubled relationships.

Why I picked it up: Saving Ruby King got great reviews, and when it came up on my library hold list AND Scribd had it available on audio, I took that as a sign.

Ruby and Layla have been best friends since they were little girls. Layla’s father Jackson is the pastor at their church, and Ruby’s father, Lebanon, a childhood friend of Jackson’s, is an angry violent man with a lot of resentment toward Jackson. When the book opens, Ruby’s mother Alice has been murdered in their house, and Lebanon is the prime suspect. Ruby wants to escape her father’s iron grasp, and Layla is determined to rescue her and get her out of Chicago. Meanwhile, Lebanon and Jackson have their own secrets and a complex relationship to work out.

There is a lot to like about West’s debut novel. You may think you know who the villains are, but the characters in Saving Ruby King are too complex for that. The worst among them have themselves endured pain and trauma that made them who they are – and that trauma gets passed along to the next generation. Calvary Hope Christian Church serves as the center of this community, the omniscient observer of its congregants’ lives and interactions. In addition to the intense family drama, West covers institutional racism and the South Side and police violence. Saving Ruby King felt almost Shakespearean to me, with trauma, betrayal and murder threading in parallel through the generations. For a debut novel, this plot is impressively complex.

There were a few things that kept Saving Ruby King from being a five-star read. First, for the first 100 pages or so, I had a hard time keeping the bloodlines straight. Second, there was too much telling instead of showing when it came to the characters. I prefer to get into characters’ heads and understand their motivations through their actions rather than being told how they are feeling by the author. Overall, though, Saving Ruby King was a very good book, and I recommend it.

I listened to Saving Ruby King on audio. There are 5 narrators, and I thought the three male narrators were very good (Adam Lazarre-White, who voiced Lebanon, was excellent) but the two female narrators – the voices of Layla and Ruby – were weaker. They sounded too young and girly. Overall the audio is quite good, but some of my confusion in the beginning of the book may have been exacerbated by doing it on audio.

Saving Ruby King was Book #52 of 2020.

THE SHAME by Makenna Goodman

Sometimes I like the idea of a book more than the book itself. That happened to me with The Shame by Makenna Goodman, a novel about a mother of two in a small town in Vermont who is so conflicted about her life that she gets in the car and drives away from her family, pursuing an ideal that may not even exist. While Goodman’s writing is at times brilliant, the book overall was a slog to get through.

Why I picked it up: The Shame was my book club’s October pick.

Alma and her husband Asa used to live in New York City, but have moved to Vermont so that he can be a professor at a small college. Alma stays home with her two children, doing the domestic things that a SAHM does in a rural home. They have animals and a garden, and they enjoy the fruits of the earth and the sensual blessings that the seasons bring. But Alma isn’t content. She flirts with a short-term writing job that she can’t commit to; she follows social media accounts of people whose lives look better than hers; she keeps running lists on her computer of “Things I am Good At / Things I Want To Learn” to remind herself of her value.

Alma’s narrative takes a turn when she comes across (invents?) an Instagram account for a woman named Celeste. Celeste is everything Alma wants to be – urban, sleek, beautiful, timeless; maternal and patient, yet also artistic and creative; capable of entertaining and preparing delicious and healthy meals. Alma admits that “Celeste was based on me, partially, but the ‘me’ I might have been if I had learned to like myself.” Alma’s obsession with Celeste grows, leading to her increased dissatisfaction with her own life and her need to pursue the ideal life that Celeste lives.

On the positive side, I liked the realistic view of modern parenting depicted by Goodman in The Shame: the swirl of love, boredom, confinement, joy, worry, anxiety, envy and gratitude. It’s all here in The Shame, and Alma’s cycling through these emotions each day feels real and familiar. Goodman’s style reminded me of an author I love – Jenny Offill – and The Shame is reminiscent of Offill’s latest, Weather, which too was light on plot but full of observations exploring the challenge of how to balance macro fears like climate change and impending disaster with modern life and its daily banalities. The Shame didn’t work as well for me, though. I had a hard time staying focused and interested, and I found the Celeste plot confusing. i suppose it doesn’t matter whether Celeste was real or not; she was a manifestation of Alma’s ambivalence and dissatisfaction. But I still wanted more clarity.

In the end, The Shame was just okay for me. The brilliant moments were too far between to keep my attention.

The Shame was Book #51 of 2020.

SMACKED by Eilene Zimmerman

Eilene Zimmerman’s memoir Smacked: A Story Of White Collar Ambition, Addiction and Tragedy opens with her going to her ex-husband Peter’s San Diego home, concerned about him because their kids haven’t heard from him and he was ill the last time they saw him. She finds him dead in his bedroom and, shocked and devastated, assumes that he had a heart attack. She is incredulous when the police on the scene tell her that the likely cause of death is a drug overdose, having not suspected that Peter used drugs at all. Smacked is the story of the rise and fall of their relationship and Peter’s secret journey into drug addiction. How did this happen to him, and how could she have missed all the signs?

Why I picked it up: Smacked came highly recommended by Sarah at Sarah’s Bookshelves, and when I found it available on audio on Overdrive, I decided to give it a try.

Peter and Eilene married in their 20s after a mostly happy few years together, and then, after he graduated law school, they moved to San Diego so he could work for a top law firm as an intellectual property lawyer. They had two kids, and Eilene, a journalist, stayed home with the kids while Peter put in long hours at the firm, eventually making partner. Their marriage ultimately fell apart, but it wasn’t until Eilene learned the truth about his addiction that she could fully appreciate what had happened.

Smacked shines a light on a population that many people don’t know about: educated, white collar drug addicts. Looking for a way to relieve stress, or because they are unfulfilled in their jobs, they turn to drugs – prescription or illegal – for relief or to fill a void. They become increasingly dependent on the high to survive, leading to financial ruin and often serious health issues, including death. While Smacked is an intensely personal story, meticulously recorded and related by Zimmerman, it is also a wake-up call about a serious problem. So much of our modern lives can be characterized as addictive – technology, social media, medication – and this phenomenon of white collar addiction should really not be surprising.

Smacked, which is narrated by the author, is well-written and very compelling. I found the impact of Peter’s death on their kids to be the most heartbreaking part of the book. They too had no idea what was wrong with Peter, although they definitely knew something was. Peter went to great lengths to hide his addiction, resorting to increasingly strange and hurtful behavior to accommodate his needs. Zimmerman is understandably angry, regretful and sad, and ultimately sympathetic, which all comes across very clearly in her writing and her performance.

Smacked was Book #50 of 2020.


Sometimes the best books are the ones that defy genre categorization. The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe is one of those books. It’s a darkly comic coming-of-age novel about identity, friendship and forgiveness. While the book is very funny at times, it’s also quite sad, dealing with issues like domestic abuse, homophobia and alcoholism. A complex friendship lies at the core of The Knockout Queen, but that friendship is both strengthened and tested by forces much bigger than the two people in it.

Why I picked it up: The Knockout Queen came recommended by trusted sources (Sarah and Catherine, and when it came up as a BOTM pick, I chose it.

Michael lives with his aunt, sharing a room with his Neanderthal cousin, because his mother, who served time for assaulting her abusive husband, has moved into an apartment and taken only Michael’s younger sister. Michael, who is gay, becomes friends with Bunny, the girl next door, who attends the same high school he does. Bunny is large and athletic, neither of them fitting the mold for the “normal” popular kids at school. They become best friends, with Michael spending most of his time at Bunny’s house with her and her shady, alcoholic realtor father Ray. In Bunny and, to a lesser extent, Ray, Michael finds the closest thing he has ever had to a true family.

Bunny and Michael each grapple with becoming young adults – their sexuality, their complicated relationships with their parents, their self-esteem – and their friendship goes through phases as the two have their own experiences, good and bad. A series of events in the second half of the book, however, only proves the loyalty they feel to each other, but also sets them off on opposite trajectories that put distance, both physical and emotional, between them. The Knockout Queen is like 2020 – just when you think things can’t get worse, they do. But Thorpe’s writing – keenly observant, very funny and never sentimental – keeps The Knockout Queen from devolving into melodrama.

I really liked The Knockout Queen. It’s an unexpectedly complex, engrossing book with a memorable, albeit heartbreaking, story and well-drawn, realistic characters. It took me a little while to get into it, and for that reason I’d knock off half a star, but once I got going I was all in.

The Knockout Queen was Book #49 of 2020.

SECONDHAND by Adam Minter

Have you spent any of the pandemic cleaning out your home? Have you gotten rid of clothes, furniture, electronics or (gasp!) books? If so, have you wondered what happens after the truck comes for them, or you take them Goodwill or another donation site? Wonder no more: Adam Minter’s Secondhand: Travels In The New Global Garage Sale is a fascinating look at the circuitous route that our secondhand stuff takes after it leaves our possession.

Why I picked it up: I am kind of obsessed with recycling. I love the idea of things having multiple lives and purposes and avoiding landfills. As soon as I learned about Secondhand, I knew I had to read it.

In Secondhand, Minter, a business journalist, starts by explaining why so much stuff is discarded: we don’t expect our stuff to last long; kids don’t want their aging parents’ stuff; some societies view regular upgrades as a sign of status; manufacturers make it hard to repair electronics, appliances and cars; and more. The result of all of this casting away of things is a huge amount of hard goods that get transported from country to country, from cars and refrigerators to laptops and clothes. They may enter the “global garage sale” via Goodwill in the U.S., or a used bookstore in Japan, or a massive clothing sorting facility in Canada… and then they are on their way to Africa or east Asia or even to a rag manufacturing company in the U.S. with plants around the country. While there is a lot that ends up in landfills, there is also a complex, dynamic economy of companies and markets – legal or not – that find new homes and uses for a broad range of things.

While the book is scary on many levels – overconsumption, storage facilities, disposable culture – there is a lot of positive news in here. First, the interconnected network of buyers and sellers and secondary markets is a testament to human ingenuity and the efficiency of a good market. There are a lot of people who spend a lot of time preventing things from ending up in landfills. Second, Minter’s message is that people can help prevent landfills from getting fuller by investing in quality products and garments that have a longer expected life than many of the “disposable” items we buy today. If you buy something that lasts, you’ll either keep it longer or you’ll find a willing buyer more easily. Third, more countries are passing legislation making it harder for companies to keep their products out of repair shops. That means making it illegal for Apple to degrade their batteries or change their screws so that independent repair shops cannot open their phones.

There’s a lot more to this book than what I’ve summarized. If you’re interested in recycling and reducing waste – go pick up Secondhand! It’s well-researched and conversational in tone, and it will change how you think about buying and donating and consumption overall.

Secondhand was Book #48 of 2020.

BIG SUMMER by Jennifer Weiner

You know that feeling when you think a book is going to be a certain way, and then you start it, and it turns out to be something different? You keep expecting – and maybe wanting – the book to conform to the genre you set out to read, and it doesn’t, and you sort of end up… blaming the book, however unfair that is? That’s what happened to me with Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner. It started out as I expected – kind of light fiction about a woman coming to grips with a friend who treated her terribly in high school but years later comes back into her life, asking her to be a bridesmaid in her wedding. About a third of the way in, Big Summer turns into a mystery/thriller – an entirely different type of book – and I’m not sure I ever fully recovered.

Why I picked it up: I haven’t read Jennifer Weiner in a very long time. I swapped for Big Summer a few months ago, and when I found it on audio on Scribd, I decided to go for it. It seemed like a good, light pandemic read.

Big Summer‘s protagonist is Daphne Berg, a plus-sized Instagram influencer. Daphne achieved notoriety when she was filmed telling off her high school friend Drue Cavanaugh, a rich, beautiful mean girl who humiliated her at a bar during college. Daphne finally told Drue off after years of being her poorer, heavy sidekick and enduring all of the pain and thoughtlessness inflicted by Drue. Years later, Drue tries to get back into Daphne’s life, apologizing for her behavior in high school and convincing her to be in Drue’s upcoming wedding extravaganza.

There’s a lot in that first third – Daphne’s self-esteem, her relationships with her family and roommate, how she recovered from the terrible high school years and why she stuck with Drue as long as she did. There’s also social media culture and body positivity and comeuppance. I liked that third quite a bit – it had some heft and poignancy and was an engrossing read.

Then something dramatic and unexpected happens, and Big Summer turns into a thriller and Daphne into a detective. What felt realistic and grounded in detail suddenly sped up and became faster-paced, less realistic and… an entirely different book. It was still engrossing and I still took the audio into the shower, but it was a lot less filling. And I have to admit that I felt a little resentful. So just know what you’re getting into if you decide to pick up Big Summer.

I listened to Big Summer on audio. It’s narrated by actress Danielle Macdonald, who I didn’t realize until right now is someone I’ve seen before in movies. (I guess that’s why she looks a lot like what I thought Daphne looks like!) She did a pretty good job. There are some weird pronunciations in the audio, which now makes sense because Macdonald is Australian. This is also her first audiobook. Here’s a Facebook Live recording of Weiner and Macdonald in conversation about the writing and recording process.

Big Summer was the 47th book of 2020.


Like 2020, its year of publication, Yaa Gyasi’s latest novel Transcendent Kingdom is a swirl of issues and emotions. The book covers a lot of ground – racism, religion, addiction, science, depression and more – but never feels weighted down. Instead, it ricochets from topic to topic, decade to decade, taking readers through the narrative of a troubled Ghanaian immigrant family and how it was affected by these larger forces.

Why I picked it up: I read and enjoyed Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing (reviewed here), and buzz for Transcendent Kingdom was off the charts. It was an easy pick for my September BOTM.

Gifty grows up in Alabama, the daughter of Ghanaian parents (Ma and the Chin Chin Man). She adores her older brother Nana, and is an observant, thoughtful, religious girl who follows the rules and does what is expected of her. The family suffers two losses before Gifty turns 12: her father returns to Ghana, leaving his wife and two children in America, and her brother dies of an overdose after becoming addicted to opioids and then heroin following a basketball injury. These two traumas profoundly affect both Gifty and her mother, sending the latter into a deep depression and the former on a decades-long quest to reconcile her religious faith with her need to understand the science of addiction and whether humans can be prevented from falling prey to its clutches.

Gifty herself best describes the tension inherent within her:

This is something I would never say in a lecture or a presentation or, God forbid, a paper, but at a certain point, science fails. Questions become guesses become philosophical ideas about how something should probably, maybe, be. I grew up around people who were distrustful of science, who thought of it as a cunning trick to rob them of their faith, and I have been educated around scientists and laypeople alike who talk about religion as though it were a comfort blanket for the dumb and the weak, a way to extol the virtues of a God more improbable than our own human existence. But this tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false.

Transcendent Kingdom goes back and forth between Gifty’s lonely childhood in Alabama, her confusing undergraduate years at Harvard and her present job as a neuroscientist at Stanford. Decades later, Gifty is still trying to connect with her deeply withdrawn mother, while her research on mice is her own way of making peace with what happened to her brother and whether it could have been prevented.

For a rather short book (265 pages), there is a lot going on. While Homegoing was told in a linear format, tracing 300 years in the lives of two half-sisters and their descendants, Transcendent Kingdom practically floats from issue to issue, touching down long enough to ground Gifty’s search for meaning and understanding before moving on to another dimension of her family’s pain. Gifty talks about being a black female scientist, institutional racism, her difficulty in making friends and opening up to men, her anger at her father and her frustration with her mother, yet the book never feels preachy or dramatic. It is quite the opposite: compelling and deeply moving.

I listened to Transcendent Kingdom on audio. The narrator, Bahni Turpin, was excellent (her Ma was unforgettable), but I’d recommend doing this one in print. Given the meandering nature of Transcendent Kingdom, the audio version is a little disorienting. I was often unsure of where I was in the timeline of the narrative, and without the visual cues of paragraph breaks, it was sometimes hard to recover. This is not at all the fault of the talented narrator, but simply the reality of reading via audiobook vs print.

Transcendent Kingdom was book #46 of 2020.

WITH OR WITHOUT YOU by Caroline Leavitt

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go to sleep and wake up as a different person… with a different personality, with memory loss, with new talents? That’s the premise of Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel, With Or Without You. Stella and Simon have been together a long time. He’s an already-peaked musician who’s been given one more shot at trying to revive his career, and she’s a nurse who’s frustrated that they are still childless and living in a small apartment in Manhattan. After Stella takes a prescription pill handed to her by Simon after they’ve had a fight, she ends up in a coma. When she wakes up a few months later, she’s very different – she has artistic skills she never had before, she no longer wants to be a nurse, and she does not feel connected to Simon the way she once did. With Or Without You explores the changes in their relationship brought on by her coma and how they each deal with them.

Why I picked it up: I’ve read and enjoyed other books by Leavitt (Cruel Beautiful World, Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You) and thought the premise of With Or Without You was intriguing.

Unlike Leavitt’s earlier books, I had a hard time with With Or Without You. Again, the premise is interesting, but the storytelling was problematic. I thought Leavitt did a lot more telling than showing – explaining repeatedly how her characters were feeling rather than showing the reader through their actions. The dialogue felt unnatural, with whole swaths of serious relationship issues covered in a perfunctory conversation. I enjoyed the process of these characters identifying what was important to them and learning how to live in a way that felt true to who they were, but the relationships fell flat.

Leavitt actually lived through being in a coma, an experience she has written about before both autobiographically and through fiction. Perhaps the experience was too intensely personal and traumatic for her to serve as the context for her novel? In the end, getting through With Or Without You took me longer than it should have and I had a hard time feeling invested. Her earlier books, which deal a lot with love and loneliness, were more compelling.

Most reviews of With Or Without You are very positive, so please give it a read if the premise appeals to you. Or give one of Leavitt’s earlier novels a try instead.

With Or Without You was Book #45 of 2020.

THE GOLDEN CAGE by Camilla Läckberg

The horrible husband/emotionally abused wife fact pattern is pretty common in domestic thrillers these days, and Camilla Läckberg’s The Golden Cage squarely fits the bill. Faye is a woman in her early 30s married to Jack, a successful businessman. They live in Stockholm with their young daughter. Faye, once a promising business student, helped Jack launch his company but now stays home, at his insistence. When she discovers that Jack has been having an affair and wants a divorce, she first laments the loss of her old life, but then vows revenge. The Golden Cage is about Faye’s rediscovery of her confidence and business instincts and her campaign to take down her ex-husband.

Why I picked it up: Sometimes I just can’t resist a thriller. I was in a bit of a reading slump and needed a jumpstart, and The Golden Cage seemed like it might do the trick. (It did.)

I read The Golden Cage in 2 days, which is really unlike me, as I am a slow reader. I had a hard time putting it down. It’s dark, sexy and fast-paced, and Läckberg knows how to keep a story going. I needed to know how Faye was going to get the best of Jack. That said, there were some things that didn’t sit right with me. (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD) Faye does some pretty unconscionable things in the book, which makes her a lot less sympathetic in the end. I was rooting for her, but also horrified by her at the same time. It was also hard to reconcile Married Faye with Wronged Faye, as the former was such a doormat compared with the latter. And finally, her path to financial success post-divorce was dubious.

That said, The Golden Cage was a good palate-cleaner and got me back into reading mode and able to finish another book that I had been stalled in for a week or so.

The Golden Cage was book #44 of 2020.