Literacy 2024: Book 3: This Is How You Lose the Time War

A sci-fi fantasy love story across the multiverse

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Red and Blue are elite agents on opposing factions working across the entirety of time and space to shape the multiverse to their own ends. At the end of a particularly epic battle, Red finds an enigmatic message from her adversary. This begins an increasingly elaborate correspondence between the two, with each message taking bizarre forms that require years or even centuries to compose.


  • Imaginative world-building without exposition. Each section describes fantastic futures or complete alternate histories in just a few pages.
  • Concepts like “upthread,” “downthread,” and “strands” become clear without ever needing explicit explanation.
  • The format is repeated without ever becoming too repetitive; you get the sense of anticipation that each character feels as they wait for the next message.
  • Gets the emotional beats right and reminds the reader of the universality of falling in love — the stages of wariness, excitement, infatuation, passion, comfort, and (sometimes) despair.
  • Many evocative passages that emphasize feeling more than description; you get a sense of apocalypse, cruelty, peace, nature, and so on without belaboring the scene setting.


  • Often feels over-written and florid, as the language often seems to dance around an idea instead of making it clear. I ended up skimming over much of the book, because the metaphors and abstractions failed to land more often than not.
  • The writing was so poetic, while the settings were often so fantastic, that it became impossible to tell what was metaphor and what was literal.
  • The attempts at jokes, references, and wordplay felt corny in the way of very, very smart people trying to be funny.
  • The characters are practically omnipotent, and the described worlds so fantastic and cataclysmic, that there’s no sense of stakes for the characters or boundaries to their universe. Stuff happens, but we can’t ever anticipate what the implications might be or how dire or permanent the situation is.
  • I never got the sense of why or how characters fall in love. The beats of a romantic relationship feel familiar and genuine, and I can see the characters reacting to each stage of the relationship, but they’re moments that feel dictated by the authors instead of motivated by genuine connection.

Overall, this feels like a very well-written and well-thought-out story that just isn’t for me. It’s excellent at establishing mood and conjuring images of fantastic alternate realities. The overall plot uses time travel effectively to give an idea of a romance that is so fundamental and so epic that it is both fated to happen and also threatened at every moment across multiple timelines. But these characters are archetypes more than genuine personalities, so the story on the whole seemed to be aimed at readers who love the idea of an epic, universe-shaking love, romance for romance’s sake, instead of one driven by the characters themselves.

Literacy 2024: Book 2: Everyone on This Train is a Suspect

The sequel to Benjamin Stevenson’s metatextual murder mystery Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone

Everyone on This Train is a Suspect by Benjamin Stevenson

After the success of his memoir Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone, Ernest Cunningham is invited on a book tour with other crime and mystery writers, on board a luxury train traveling from the north end of Australia to the south. While he’s struggling to write a fictional follow-up to his previous book, one of the passengers is murdered, forcing him into another true-crime memoir.


  • Fast-moving and engaging; I hadn’t intended to jump into the sequel immediately, but it was available on Libby and I finished it in just a few sittings.
  • A bit more even-handed with the “telling the rules of the story while the story is being told” gimmick
  • Commits to the “fair-play murder mystery” rule, with information given out around the same time the narrator figures it out, and never directly contradicted later on.
  • Genuinely funny and clever in places.
  • I loved the format of the epilogue and how it was delivered.
  • Makes good use of the setting and what’s unique about a train journey through Australia.
  • Used the title to add a bit of depth to the story, reconsidering his role as the narrator and turning it into something of a love story.
  • Introduced the clever idea of the other characters being aware that they’re characters in a murder mystery, and trying to control how their role in the story is presented.


  • The gag that I’d thought was genuinely funny and clever was reused a couple too many times, I said, disappointedly.
  • One of the few times I’ve had to say out loud while reading a book, “This is so corny.
  • A couple of what I assumed to be the standout puzzles or clues were insultingly obvious, in my opinion. I tend not to read murder mysteries very closely, but I figured out the solutions (if not the full implication) immediately, and the book kept referring to them over and over as if they were some intriguingly perplexing conundrum.
  • Even after I’d figured out the “shape” of the story and its subplots, I still felt that the actual details (and the identity of the guilty parties) required deductive leaps I couldn’t have made on my own.
  • Many of the characters are overly broad stereotypes — too cartoonish to seem real, but not funny enough to work as comic relief.

One star, ghastly. But seriously, I thought this was better than the first book. I read part of an interview with Stevenson in which he said his goal was to counteract the tendency of crime fiction (especially Australian crime fiction) to be much too dark, and he wanted to bring back some levity and the fun of “golden age” murder mysteries. By that standard, it works: they’re fun, engaging stories to try and solve. But I can’t shake the sense that they’re writing down to the perceived level of the audience, especially since this book so aggressively takes down a literary fiction snob. There are some interesting things going on with a metatextual story in which the characters are aware they’re in a story, but it doesn’t do enough with the idea.

I feel like I might appreciate the gimmick more if I’d never read the Hawthorne and Horowitz series, but as it is, the book has the feeling of “We have Anthony Horowitz at home.” (Which seems mean of me to say, but Stevenson is doing very well with the books, by all accounts, and the first is going to be turned into a series. I can’t imagine he’s particularly heartbroken by a stranger on the internet saying it’s “fine but not great.”)

Literacy 2024: Book 1: Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone

Benjamin Stevenson’s metatextual crime story

Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson

A writer begrudgingly travels to a ski lodge for a reunion with his estranged family. When the body of an unidentified stranger is discovered on the slopes, seemingly dead of exposure, it starts a process of dredging up decades’ worth of family secrets.


  • The heavily metatextual style of the book — where the narrator acknowledges that he’s writing a detective story in which he plays both Holmes and Dr Watson — gives plenty of opportunities for flashbacks and re-contextualization, with tons of foreshadowing.
  • Maintains a light, almost-but-not-quite comedic tone even as it touches on some serious or even horrific subjects.
  • Repeatedly insists that it’s “playing fair” as a murder mystery, drawing attention to details that will be important later on.
  • The format of the book, along with its chapter breaks and section headings, gives it room to stretch out the intrigue, as you’re subconsciously waiting for the event or revelation that will make the section heading make sense.
  • Gave enough information that I was able to figure out the likely suspects, even though I wasn’t reading carefully enough to piece together any of the details.
  • It never occurred to me that Australia had areas with high enough elevation for ski lodges, so I learned something.


  • Especially at the beginning of the book, all of the self-awareness comes across as try-hard, with hyperlinks to stuff that happens in later chapters before we’ve fully had a chance to be invested in the story.
  • All of the artifice in the style makes the whole thing seem artificial. Revelations of past tragedies end up feeling weightless and too lurid to be believable.
  • Apart from the narrator, none of the characters feel like real people with real motivations; they act the way the story needs them to act in the moment. People bounce back from the shocking deaths of loved ones unbelievably quickly.
  • The book acknowledges the “people trapped in a remote location with a murderer” cliche as in And Then There Were None, but seems to be so worried about falling into a cliche that it loses everything that makes the format special. In particular, nobody seems to be all that worried by the fact that there’s a killer in their midst.
  • For as much as the book signals the details to pay attention to, it still ends up with a lengthy detective-explains-the-entire-mystery chapter that makes all kinds of deductive leaps that feel unearned.
  • If you go back through the story and think about the events as they would’ve played out in chronological order, many of the character motivations make no sense.

Despite my list of cons, this was a very entertaining crime story. I think its biggest weakness is that the self-awareness overwhelms everything else, coming across as lampshading the weaknesses in the story instead of actually addressing them. But the format is also essential for elevating what is frankly an over-the-top and not-entirely-plausible backstory into something that’s completely engaging moment to moment.

Literacy 2023: Recap

Another year of failing to hit my target number, but being pretty happy about it nonetheless

I picked up this whole series again when I discovered Goodreads and its annual reading challenges. But the real goal for me isn’t to hit some number of books read, but a) make more time for reading for pleasure, and b) get better at summarizing my thoughts on a book without its turning into an over-long book report to prove that “I got it.” By that metric, this year’s been a success. More about rediscovering familiar books and writers than taking on anything new, although I managed to do both.

20 books in 2023

18 read

Favorite Book of Literacy 2023
Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. I didn’t expect to enjoy this one as much as I did, but early on it deviated from the format I’d thought it was going to take, and it went off to surprise me over and over again. It’s an infuriating (and I hope exaggerated) account of racism in America perfectly balanced with pulp sci-fi.

MVP of Literacy 2023
Agatha Christie. Last year I started reading or re-reading the mysteries, most of which I hadn’t read since high school, and it was more like discovering a new author than getting re-acquainted with a familiar one. I never appreciated how innovative and experimental Christie could be, or how well some of her books situated themselves in “modern times” as opposed to being quaint relics of the early 20th century.

Runner-Up MVP of Literacy 2023
Mary Roach. I kind of worked my way up to her most well-known books (Stiff and Bonk), which was a great way to get familiar with her style before seeing how good it could be when she’s firing on all cylinders. I’m looking forward to reading more of her books in 2024.

Goal for Literacy 2024
12 Books in 2024. I like having an arbitrary number to encourage myself to keep reading — and I probably would’ve left Shadow of the Sith hanging had I not been driven to finish it before the end of the year — but “a book a month” is a perfectly reasonable goal. I’d rather end the year feeling happy that I exceeded one arbitrary target instead of disappointed that I didn’t hit an equally arbitrary one.

RIP to Goals of Past Years
I did try to resume The Starless Sea, as I’d pledged in previous years, but I finally had to abandon it as being just not for me. My biggest complaint was that it was so high on its own supply of magical realism that it felt twee, but I read so many positive reviews that I resolved to try again. And almost immediately, it hit me with a description of a merchant who collected stars and traded them for secrets. I mean come on.

Most Looking Forward To in 2024
The Destroyer of Worlds, the sequel to Lovecraft Country, which I got as a Christmas gift

Call to Action
I’ve still got a long backlog of books, but I’m always looking for new recommendations. If there’s anything you’ve read that made a particular impact on you, feel free to recommend it in the comments or on Mastodon!

Literacy 2023: Book 18: Shadow of the Sith

An interim Star Wars story in which Luke and Lando try to protect Rey’s family from a sinister Sith plot.

Shadow of the Sith by Adam Christopher

Set between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, the story begins with Luke Skywalker training the next generation of young Jedi while Lando Calrissian is searching the galaxy for his kidnapped daughter. Their paths cross when Lando overhears a plot from an evil bounty hunter assigned to track down a young couple and their daughter, which ties in with sinister plans from Sith cultists and Luke’s own nightmarish visions of a dark planet called Exegol.


  • A team-up of two characters I rarely see in Star Wars stories, during a time period that we haven’t yet seen much of.
  • Carefully connects the dots between ideas and events mentioned in the sequel trilogy, or shown briefly in flashback.
  • Gives more characterization of Rey’s parents, and offers an explanation of the events that led to her being left on a desolate planet at the start of The Force Awakens, as well as an explanation for how Emperor Palpatine had a son that no one knew about.
  • Some of the locations are as evocative and imaginative as Star Wars at its best, like a ghost planet bleached of color by radiation, and a world covered in diamond “frozen” over a treacherous ocean. Their descriptions suggest classic concept art from the films and TV series.


  • The dialogue is pretty clunky, even by Star Wars standards.
  • Trying to justify some of the decisions in The Rise of Skywalker is a thankless job, and I don’t think the book quite manages to live up to the challenge. In particular, the end of Rey’s family’s story to set up the first sequel is still unsatisfying.
  • The back stories for some of the characters are too complicated with a few too many names of characters involved, implying to me that they’re attempting to piece together threads from the comics or from other novelizations that I haven’t read.
  • Tries to split the difference between science fiction and Star Wars fantasy, which works sometimes, but often feels like unnecessary explanations for things the reader would otherwise just accept and run with.
  • Related to the above: because it’s essentially a chase story, so much of the story involves characters trying to track each other down across the Galaxy. The book tries to offer a pseudo-sci-fi justification, which just draws attention to how much of the plot is characters just knowing things “because reasons.”
  • An entire storyline of the book consists of characters trying to avoid a fate that we already know is unavoidable, and our main protagonists have no real agency in affecting it.
  • As it’s trying to fill in the gaps between existing stories, it’s obligated to leave most of its threads unresolved. This results in our main characters having no real arc; they end the story pretty much exactly how they began it.

I didn’t enjoy this one, but honestly it’s as much my own fault as it is the fault of the book. It’s not my preferred “flavor” of Star Wars, but as it’s got “Sith” in the title, I should probably have predicted how much of it feels like “Star Wars For Goths.” (That still somehow manages to turn into a scene that reads like the goofy-but-horrifying-to-a-kid climax of Superman 3). I’m also realizing that I’m no longer the same kid who freaked out over Splinter of the Mind’s Eye; I just can’t get into the novelizations anymore, since they too often feel like trying to explore the inner minds of characters who, by design, are only just as deep as they need to be to drive pulp fiction.

It’s an unenviable job to have to connect the dots and provide depth and nuance to things that screenwriters only intended as Macguffins, or as puzzle boxes deliberately left for someone else to open and explore. Shadow of the Sith feels weighed down by too many franchise requirements to ever get the chance to go off on interesting tangents and tell its own story.

Literacy 2023: Book 17: The Thursday Murder Club

Richard Osman’s cozy crime story about a group of residents of a retirement community solving a “real” murder

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Four residents of a retirement community formed The Thursday Murder Club, where they look over cold case files and try to find some kind of justice for victims of unsolved crimes. When someone close to their community is murdered, they’re compelled to investigate, in unofficial cooperation with the local police.


  • Compelling and more quick-moving than you might expect from the premise.
  • Cleverly structured to stay in sync with the reader — loose ends are tied up, and potential suspects are cleared away, right as they need to be.
  • Deftly walks the line between “ghoulish fascination with lurid details of murders” and “bringing a sense of justice,” which is one of the problems inherent in the whole idea of a “cozy” murder mystery.
  • Clear sense of good guys and bad guys, and more significantly, which characters deserve depth and which are left as caricatures.
  • Gives each of the main characters a history and a depth to their present.
  • Deeper themes run underneath the murder mystery, asserting the dignity of the elderly as complex human beings in a particular stage of their lives, instead of existing only as “old people.” Goes into the details of their relationships, their fears, and how their current lives overlap their previous ones.


  • Aggressively cozy. Obviously, “cozy murder story” is the whole pitch for this book, but it threatens to make everything feel too artificial.
  • Feels like a bit of a cheat to have a character who’s essentially a super-hero, but with the advantage of adding a Poirot-style character into a story that could’ve easily been just four Miss Marples.
  • Some of the revelations late in the book seem to come out of nowhere — they’re foreshadowed, but the reader gets no clues to deduce them.
  • Ends up being more of a “crime story” than “murder mystery,” as you’ve got a vague idea of suspects and red herrings, but not enough clues to solve the mystery yourself.

I was prepared to write this one off as “quick but shallow,” but halfway through, I was completely won over. I’d expected it to be just a case of a successful celebrity taking a stab at writing, taking advantage of his name-recognition to launch it into best-seller status. But it’s charming and often moving, a solid read as a murder mystery story, with just enough edge to its characters to make them appealing. I enjoyed it a lot, and I’m looking forward to the next three books in the series.

Literacy 2023: Book 16: The Theory of Everything Else

Dan Schreiber’s collection of fringe science, pseudoscience, and other crackpot ideas

The Theory of Everything Else by Dan Schreiber

Schreiber, who’s one of the hosts of the QI-spinoff podcast No Such Thing as a Fish, writes about dozens of accounts of fringe science, pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, unexplained coincidences, and other crackpot ideas. He puts particular emphasis on notable or accomplished people who’ve also harbored some beliefs that he affectionately refers to as “batshit.”


  • Light and easy reading that feels humorous without being too try-hard, and earnest without losing a sense of skepticism.
  • Emphasizes that weird ideas aren’t exclusively the product of mentally unwell people, but that many of us have some bizarre beliefs to some degree or another.
  • Broad and comprehensive; it’s tough to think of a topic that’s not given at least a passing mention.
  • Mentions the theory that life on Earth sprang from microbes in visiting aliens’ waste, in a chapter titled “The Origin of Feces.”
  • Schreiber presents himself as less gullible than his “character” in the No Such Thing as a Fish podcast, but rather someone who knows all of this stuff is bullshit, but on some level wants to believe it.


  • Goes for breadth at the expense of depth. One or two sections go into detail about the subject, but much of the book feels like a lightning round, with some topics only given a paragraph or so each.
  • Light on cryptids.
  • Some overlap of material with the No Such Thing as a Fish podcast, which is probably inevitable.
  • Feels a tiny bit commercial, as if the book exists mostly just to launch his recent We Can Be Weirdos podcast.
  • Has a chapter that mentions the idea of sending plants instead of humans on long-term space missions, gathering observations from them telepathically. Inexcusably refers to them as “astreenauts.”

It’s a fun and often interesting read, with a tongue-in-cheek tone that rarely feels condescending or mocking the source material. It often feels like an episode of No Such Thing as a Fish without the other hosts to steer Dan’s tangents back to topic. I think it’s a no-brainer for fans of the podcast, and is also recommended to anyone who thinks this stuff is fascinating, even if (or especially if) they don’t believe it.

Literacy 2023: Book 15: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

The first Hercule Poirot mystery is essentially a template for everything we expect from an Agatha Christie murder mystery

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

When Emily Inglethorpe, wealthy owner of a manor house in a small English village, is murdered in a locked room in the middle of the night, retired detective Hercule Poirot is entreated by the victim’s family to help investigate.


  • The definition of a classic murder mystery, with a house full of suspects, each with their own private scandals and agendas and intrigue that Poirot has to sort out along with the murder itself.
  • You’d never guess this was Hercule Poirot’s first appearance, as he seems to be a fully-formed character from the start, already having all of his eccentricities, mannerisms, benign condescension, and tendency to disappear for chapters at a time only to reveal his discoveries at the last minute.
  • Once the case is solved, Christie goes back through the details to demonstrate how she played fair the entire time. All of the clues are there, even though they’re buried under a mountain of red herrings and subplots.
  • The most relevant clues are repeatedly mentioned, so as everything was tied together, I almost always thought, “oh yes, I remember that detail.”
  • Cleverly throws suspicion among its characters, making the reader feel as if they’ve gotten a solid “vibe” about whodunnit even if they can’t provide any real evidence.


  • Even if you notice all of the clues, and even if you make the correct deductions from them (e.g. realizing that someone was obviously wearing a disguise), the actual chain of events that Poirot explains is so convoluted that it would’ve been impossible to guess.
  • Unlike Christie’s later books, this is extremely dated and unmistakably a product of its time.

Not my favorite Agatha Christie mystery, but it’s a solid and entertaining story that illustrates just how much she was a master of the genre. As I’ve been reading and re-reading her books this year, I’ve been amazed at how experimental she could be and at how timeless her work could be. The Mysterious Affair at Styles is neither timeless or experimental, but it does feel as if it shows her interests: it seems that an intricately-constructed murder mystery came easy to her, and she just used them as the backdrop to create interesting characters and tell their stories.

Literacy 2023: Book 14: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Agatha Christie Poirot mystery that’s considered a classic for good reason

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

When the wealthiest man in a small English village is violently murdered, the local doctor is inadvertently enlisted to help retired detective Hercule Poirot make sense of the various subplots and uncover the identity of the killer.

Spoiler Warning
If you haven’t ever read this book (or, like me, you read it decades ago and forgot the plot), avoid reading anything about it online. I had started reading it because I was listening to an episode of the You’re Dead to Me podcast about Agatha Christie, which was being so circumspect about spoiling it that it spoiled it. Then, while doing a search on Goodreads, I saw a spoiler right in the description for a related book. Plus the Wikipedia entry doesn’t even bother with spoiler warnings. It’s all fair enough, since the book is almost 100 years old at this point, but still requires some caution.


  • The back-and-forth between the narrator Doctor Sheppard and his sister Caroline is extremely charming, perfectly capturing two characters who have great affection for each other while still being extremely irritated with each other.
  • As I’ve been reading or re-reading Agatha Christie’s mysteries recently, I’ve been repeatedly surprised by how contemporary they feel, despite being a century old. They’re filled with quaint British mannerisms, and signs of a class hierarchy that probably doesn’t exist in the same way anymore. But otherwise, this book feels as if it could be transported into the 21st century with barely an edit required.
  • Kind of like And Then There Were None, it feels as if Agatha Christie constructed the mystery mostly to prove that she could do it.
  • Feels more experimental and challenging than many contemporary mysteries, while still being more accessible and charming.


  • Christie “proves her work” at the end of the novel, explaining to the reader exactly how the clues were presented and why they were presented that way. But there are still some deductions that depend on off-screen revelations or deductions that the reader couldn’t possibly have guessed.
  • Related to the above: the book gives ample clues that Poirot is off gathering information, but it doesn’t share enough about what he found out. The mystery works best when we have the exact same information as Poirot does, but we’re just not as good at making sense of it.

Just remarkable. I’m glad I’m re-reading Agatha Christie’s books now, because I wasn’t able to appreciate just how impressive they were when I was younger and had no frame of reference. The characters are charming and relatable, and the plot is clever, experimental, and constructed in such a way that it feels as if Christie was challenging herself to make something new. This is deservedly a classic, even if you already know the ending.

Literacy 2023: Book 13: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Neil Gaiman’s fairy tale about childhood, magic, memory, and forgetting

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

A man returns to his childhood home and feels compelled to visit the farmhouse at the end of his street. While there, he remembers the first time he visited the farm as a seven-year-old, when he met his friend 11-year-old Lettie Hempstead, along with her mother and grandmother, and went on an errand that brought back something horrible.


  • Neil Gaiman in his element, writing about all the things he does best: magic, myth, wonder mixed with terror, childhood, and the melancholy of adulthood.
  • Doesn’t pull its punches, feeling genuinely dark and horrifying but without crossing the line into gratuitous violence or edginess.
  • Combines all of the flavors of terror unique to childhood: fear of monsters, fear of getting in trouble, fear of loneliness and abandonment, and the sinking feeling that you’ve done something wrong that you can never take back.
  • Feels epic and weighty in scope while remaining a focused, concise story — it feels exactly as big as it needs to be.
  • You only realize after the fact that there is a non-magical explanation for everything; the story as presented seems so much more matter-of-fact and more real than any attempt to explain what really must’ve happened.


  • A little bit too vague for the sake of maintaining a sense of mystery. This is absolutely not a book about the “rules” of magic, and is instead meant to evoke feelings and the sense of impossibly ancient forces at work. That said, I still wish that there had been more of a sense of structure to what was going on, instead of characters constantly speaking in riddles.

This is Neil Gaiman doing what he does best, and it’s one of his most satisfying books. He has a talent for writing about childhood and magic that conveys the full weight and melancholy of adulthood, but with a sense that as grown-ups, magic is only mostly dead to us, not entirely.

Literacy 2023: Book 12: Lovecraft Country

A brilliant combination of genre fiction, supernatural horror, and real-life horror

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

In 1954, African American veteran Atticus Turner returns to his hometown of Chicago on a summons from his estranged father. When he arrives and discovers his father has gone missing, the trail leads to a small town in New England. Atticus sets off on a road trip with his uncle and a childhood friend, eventually getting pulled into the machinations of a centuries-old cabal of wizards trying to perform a ritual to summon eldritch powers and bring about the apocalypse.

Spoiler Warning
Mild spoiler warning below about the format of the book, which surprised me and ended up being one of my favorite things about it.


  • Clever, funny, genuinely horrific, with characters that you can’t help but root for even when they’re being abrasive.
  • Somehow has all the fun readability of pulp and genre fiction, and illustrations and accounts of the tragedies and injustices of living in the US in the Jim Crow era. The sci-fi/supernatural horror and historical fiction aspects of the book inform each other and are perfectly intertwined, without sacrificing any of the fun of one or any of the weight of the other.
  • The characters are smart, capable, and possibly most surprising, sci-fi and astronomy nerds. It feels like one of the most pernicious stereotypes in popular media that African Americans aren’t interested in the kinds of nerdy stuff that tends to be depicted as only appealing to white males. Even “nice racism” tends to suggest that black men and women are just too cool to be interested in science fiction or horror, which is, of course, complete bullshit. (And yet, when I saw “Tightrope” for the first time, I still found myself surprised that someone as cool and drop-dead gorgeous as Janelle Monáe made a three-album concept series inspired by Afrofuturism and casting herself as an android).
  • Because of the above, all of the characters are matter-of-fact and practical when faced with supernatural horrors, making the story work as horror and action/adventure as they find a way out.
  • The format was such a wonderful surprise: the initial story is relatively quickly resolved, and then the book becomes more of an anthology of inter-related stories, each focused on a different main character. This allows the book to have sweeping changes in subject and tone — ghost story, sci-fi fantasy, supernatural heist story, body horror — all of which feel as if they’re part of the same story but never slowing down the pace.
  • Each story brilliantly acts as a parable/illustration of the injustices African Americans faced in the Jim Crow era: redlining, sundown towns, needing the Green Book to travel safely, the Tulsa riots, etc. It refuses to obfuscate or sugar-coat any of these topics, but it also never feels too heavy-handed. The topic is always given a supernatural twist, where the reality of life in the US is often at least as harrowing as whatever cosmic horror the gang is faced with this week.


  • Slow reading for me, as several parts made me so angry that I had to put the book down for a while. This might be specific to people like me who are super-sensitive to reading about injustices, having never been the target of them ourselves.
  • Encounters with the real over-the-top eldritch horrors are wrapped up fairly quickly, which does avoid overly long and drawn-out descriptions of the indescribable, but also feels a bit anti-climactic.
  • If you’re vindictive like me, you kind of want to see the bad guys made to suffer a bit more.

I absolutely loved this book. While it sometimes made me so angry that I had to put it down for a couple of days, the anger at the injustices just make the victories feel much more satisfying. I’m even more eager to watch the TV series now, especially knowing that the novel was originally conceived as a TV pitch.

Literacy 2023: Book 11: You Can’t Be Serious

Kal Penn’s memoir about his experiences as an Indian American actor in Hollywood and as a member of the Obama administration

You Can’t Be Serious by Kal Penn

Kalpen Modi writes about his upbringing as a member of an immigrant Indian family in New Jersey, his path to becoming an actor, his time on the Obama campaign and in the Obama administration, and his career afterwards.

I really dislike memoirs, so I was predisposed to dislike this book. I’ve got an irrationally low tolerance for hearing someone talk about themselves at length, and I feel as if it takes an extraordinarily good storyteller or an extraordinarily interesting life to overcome my impression of narcissism. So instead of the usual “Pros” and “Cons” I’ll just make a list of observations about the book.


  • Frequently goes from being toothless to dismissive without ever coming across as gossipy, and full of bizarrely specific details. All of that made it seem more like Kal Penn fan fiction than a memoir.
  • It was interesting to see Modi describe his community in New Jersey as being diverse and intersectional instead of insular, since I’ve rarely seen immigrant communities depicted in the media and when they are, they’re almost always shown to be some kind of homogenous monolith that strives to keep to itself. Modi writes more about bar and bat mitzvahs than Indian ceremonies.
  • The book was written with a ton of gratitude and respect for his parents for working so hard to give him a stable life where an uncertain career in acting could be possible.
  • Has a much-needed reminder that being recognizable or even famous doesn’t always equate to being rich. He says that Harold & Kumar gave him a ton of notoriety but didn’t provide a runway beyond a half year.
  • Generally, he talks a good bit about financial insecurity and having trouble finding work, but also seems to have a stability that I would’ve been very envious of in my college years and 20s.
  • His description of the Obama campaign and the election was vivid enough to make me nostalgic about that time and the feeling of hopefulness that came with it. His respect for the Obamas and key people in the administration is evident every time he writes about them.
  • Goes into absolutely no detail about being gay, the process of coming out, any discrimination he’s faced because of his sexuality, none of it. Almost all of the book treats it as a total non-issue. The chapter about his fiancé is all about NASCAR, to the point that it feels like he’s deliberately refusing to discuss it. Obviously, people can choose to be private and choose what they want to write about. But this book taught me the names of his middle-school classmates and that he has a tree-nut allergy, but nothing about his experiences that I might actually be able to relate to. It’s especially jarring when he’s talking about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell or marriage equality while seemingly refusing to talk about them as things that might affect him personally.
  • The next-to-last chapter ends the book on a sour note, insisting that the fate of his series Sunnyside was due to systemic racism and a lack of support and promotion from NBC. Obviously, I don’t know the real story, but one thing I do know is that I’ve had a crush on Kal Penn ever since he was on How I Met Your Mother, if not earlier, and the trailer and the pitch still couldn’t get me interested in the series. It seems like working in TV for 20 years would have given plenty of examples of how sometimes stuff just doesn’t work.

As I mentioned, I don’t like memoirs, so it says a lot about the readability of the book that I finished it at all. I saw it at a queer book fair last weekend, and I was surprised to see it on the shelf, since I had no idea that Kal Penn was “dating dudes” as he describes it. It turned out to be a humorous but infuriating account of how people of color are treated in the entertainment industry, and a bit of nostalgia for the days when you could actually feel good and hopeful about a Democratic presidential candidate. I just guess congratulations are in order to Kal Penn for being the one person in America to come out in the early 2000s and have it be a completely uninteresting non-issue.