the Little Red Reviewer

Borderline, by Mishell Baker

Published in 2016

Where I got it: It was a freebie at an event I attended (free book? SCORE!)






You know the TV show Torchwood? Imagine if it was urban fantasy:  swap the aliens for fey creatures, swap the alien technology for magic, swap Cardiff for Hollywood, and double up on the snark and you’re on your way to having something a little like Mishel Baker’s Borderline.  I’ve got a weakness for snarky novels written in first person, so I was hooked on Borderline about 20 pages in.


Millie hasn’t got much going on these days.  Her stay at a psychiatric center is paid up for another six months, and she’s gotten pretty used to her prosthetic legs.  When a strange beautiful woman waltzes in and offers her a job, Millie says yes out of a combination of boredom and curiosity.


Upon arrival at what is known as Residence Four, Millie learns the first rule is “don’t ask”.  Everyone here has some kind of medical, physical, metaphysical, or mental health condition, and it is and disrespectful and rude to assume, presume, or make light of someone’s predicament.  You wait until someone feels comfortable enough with you to tell you about their personal life. And if they never feel comfortable enough? Well, that’s your problem, not theirs. Oh, and all these people work for a group that helps control the traffic between our world and the Fey world by ensuring Fey glamours are functioning, and that only authorized Fey are here on Earth and that there is no violence between the two groups. Part of the pact is that if we harm any Fey, they will slaughter us. Hmm… so I guess a little more like Men in Black than Torchwood? Also, how come no one will tell Millie who Elliott is?


Millie brought a lot more than her physical baggage to Residence Four.  She has Borderline Personality Disorder, she’s still working through the events that led to her failed attempt at suicide, she’s still getting used to her scarred and battered body that doesn’t look like how she feels, and now that she’s free of both film school and a psychiatric center she’s also interested in some end result based flirting.  None of which jives with the ad hoc family at Residence Four, so things are pretty awkward for her right from the get go. Through her first person perspective, we get a lot of “because of my Borderline Personality Disorder, I often . . . “, giving me just enough information to be really dangerous. I do some of those things, sometimes. Does that mean I have BPD?

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Finally!  I’m writing a spoiler-free post!    There might be some easter eggs in this post, but no spoilers.   that means you can’t put spoilers in the comments either.


We went and saw the Annihilation movie last weekend.  I knew it was going to be different from the book (and oh boy was it different), and I was nervous the screenwriter was gonna screw it up and that I’d hate it.

Good news!  I freakin’ loved it!


And now for a spoiler free discussion about some huge that is way different in the movie than in the book.  I am of course, talking about the ending. You know, that big climactic scene with the big climactic music where the biologist finally reaches the geographic goal of the expedition and gets some exposure to what the hell is actually going on.


This climactic scene is drastically different than anything that happens in the book, and there are two items in the scene that sort of take the place of other things that happen much earlier in the book.




The big climactic scene with the big climactic music?


I fucking loved it.


It was surreal, it was shocking, it was mindblowing, it was beautifully done, it was violent but somehow peaceful it was claustrophobically overwhelming it didn’t require or ask for my understanding.


ok, but why did I respond so positively to that scene?   I can’t get it out of my head, I really had this very strong reaction to it, like there was this weird magnetic pull, like I was staring into a black hole or a supernova. It felt like the first time I saw the Milky Way, that i had to grab onto something because I was afraid i was going to fall off of the Earth and if I did it would be ok because I’d be falling towards that.


I’ve been thinking about it, trying to figure out why that scene worked so well for me.


After thinking about it for a few days, I finally figured it out.


The big climactic scene has hardly any dialog.  It’s all non-verbal communication and physical movement, with moments that border on interpretive modern dance.  it was all motion and sound, no words to muddy anything.   I was drawn to that scene for the same reason I loved the first episodes of Samurai Jack: minimal dialog.


And I guess I often find words needlessly distracting, they box me in, I have to figure out what the inflection and context mean.  don’t get me wrong, i love words, i love books, i love reading. But spoken word sometimes doesn’t work for me (or it works too well – I get all distracted by the pitch of the person’s voice and the shape of the syllables). With minimal dialog in that climactic scene, I was finally able to focus on the bigness of what was happening.  I could focus on it on my own terms, with my own interpretation.


in my opinion, the lack of dialog was a brilliant choice.  Your mileage may vary.


Have you seen Annihilation?  did you like it?  If you didn’t read the book, and went and saw the movie, did it make any sense to you?   Even though it was very different from the book, I feel like the movie was a stack of easter eggs for fans of the book.


no spoilers in the comments, please.

So, I finished We Can Build You, by Philip K Dick.


There are spoilers ahead. #SorryNotSorry.


This book started out so interesting!!  Lots of cool ideas,  simulacrum robots who can pass for human (oh, hai cylons!), there was so much potential for conversations about what makes us alive and how would you know you were a simulacrum, and if you were a simulacrum how would it change you life and maybe it wouldn’t change your life at all. Could you convince yourself you were a robot? Could a robot convince themselves they were a human? My brain was overflowing with hope for interesting ideas.   There is an Edward Stanton simulacrum, and then they make an Abraham Lincoln. Even more possibility for cool things to happen!


And then Louis had to decide he was in love with Pris.


Louis’s business partner is Maury, and Pris is Maury’s brilliantly creative but mentally unstable 18 year old daughter.  She’s cold towards Louis (because why would an 18 year old be interested in her dad’s buddy? oh, that’s right, she isn’t), and the colder she is towards him, the more he becomes obsessed with her.


All those cool ideas? All those cool possibilities? The idea of Abraham Lincoln having to navigate the modern world?  All out the window because Louis chases Pris all over the place, even though she is in a relationship with someone else, even though Maury forbids Louis from being in a relationship with his daughter.    Really, the second half of this book was so fucking boring.  I’d read like 5 pages and then fall asleep.


I guess if I read between the lines as far as possible, I could pull something out of this near-future society’s obsession with right thinking and skewed mental health,  that we are being programmed to think and act a certain way, the way a robot is programmed, and when we aren’t acting correctly, when something is wrong with our mental health, we have to be institutionalized to be “reprogrammed”.   Maybe that is what this novel is about?  I had to get through what felt like 500 pages of Louis chasing and threatening people for Pris’s attentions, to get to that?


I was really hoping that at the end there would be some big reveal that Louis was a simulacrum, or maybe that Pris was.  Spoiler! that doesn’t happen.


I got a few more Philip K Dick books floating around, I hope they are better.


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The Tea Master and The Detective, by Aliette de Bodard

available March 31, 2018

where I got it: received ARC from the publisher (thanks Sub Press!)



Aliette deBodard’s newest novella, The Tea Master and the Detective (available March 31 from Subterranean Press)  wears the disguise of a space opera Sherlock Holmes type story, complete with an insensitive detective who is a master of deduction and the annoyed lackey who follows behind until finally seeing the light. I say wears that disguise because while this is a highly enjoyable and  tightly focused mystery, it functions better as a showcase for deBodard’s characterization and worldbuilding prowess. If you’ve not yet experienced the beauty of one of deBodard’s Xuya stories, The Tea Master and The Detective is an excellent entry point. (click here for an in depth chronology and list of Xuya stories, many of which are available to read online) If you enjoy character driven narratives, beautiful prose, and multi-sensory worldbuilding, this is the story for you.


Us reviewers, we’re always talking about worldbuilding –  which among other things is literally how an author builds a world and how successfully they transport us, the reader, to that world. How big is the city? How wide is the river? How many ships are in the harbor? How small is the escape pod? What color are the androids?  How dark is the forest?  What color is her dress?


Did you notice something about all those worldbuilding questions?


They are all visual.


Don’t get me wrong, visual worldbuilding is important! I want to know that the city is so large you can’t walk across it in a day, that the river is narrow here but wider further south closer to home but I walk a ways to cross here because I refuse to pay the bridge toll, that there aren’t many ships in the harbor because of those idiotic tariffs, that this damn escape pod is so claustrophobically small that i can barely turn around and i’m about to lose my damn mind, that the android is a dull gun-metal grey, that the forest is as dark as midnight, and that her dress was blood red.


But there is more to the world than seeing.  Smell, taste, texture, memory, if presented right, those sensory experiences will tell you more about how a character has moved through a world than anything else.  deBodard does that kind of worldbuilding exactly right.


There is this gorgeous short scene (the best always are) where two shipminds are having tea together. They have tea and snacks, and they just chat.  There is tea, of course, but also a medley of sumptuous dishes. Both shipminds know that none of this is real. There is no food on the table, the two of them are physically incapable of actually eating or drinking anything. But the concept of the food reminds them of their families. The pork is the same dish from childhood festivals, the scent of the tea is the same of family discussions and decisions generations old. All of that and more, in a few short paragraphs about a meal that neither of the participants are actually eating. A meal that doesn’t actually exist, but symbolizes everything of import, connects these two people to family members and conversations that have been dead for decades.  More worldbuilding and characterization in that small handful of paragraphs than I sometimes find in an entire novel.  I’ve read this short scene like three times now. It gets better every time, like shining light through a prism and having it come out a rainbow of the rest of the story on the other side.

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A few months ago, the ads started popping up on Amazon for their original series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams.  The ads actually were not very compelling, so I didn’t even notice when the series loaded up.  Some friends mentioned their enjoyment of it on twitter, so a few weeks ago I gave it a try.


I’ve only seen three episodes so far, and they were excellent. They aren’t teleplays of PKD stories, but they play with many of the ideas he presented in his fiction.  The show is completely episodic, it is like an anthology, with each episode a self contained story. Maybe later in the series they connect?


So, I watch these 3 episodes over the course of a few days,  I pick up We Can Build You and The Game Players of Titan at the used bookstore, and then a couple of days after that I have my first ever ocular migraine.  The good thing about ocular migraines is that they are relatively painless and mine was harmless.  The bad thing is that you can have pixelated visual distortions, which are basically a blind spot in your peripheral vision. It was weird AF but harmless.


Yeah, so pixelated visual distortions after watching a few of episodes of Electric Dreams was seriously the most fucked up thing I have ever experienced.


To add to the weirdness, I started reading We Can Build You a few days ago. It is so readable and accessible, are we sure Philip K Dick wrote this? Like, I don’t have to work at all to figure out what is going on and what the characters relationships to each other are! Granted, I am only 5 or 6 chapters in, so who knows what will happen later.

If you don’t want to know anything about We Can Build You, stop reading now.  This might turn into a series of posts like the ones I wrote on  Book of the New Sun that had a lot of spoilers.

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Enjoying an unreliable narrator is entirely personal preference. Some people love unreliable narrators, some people hate them, others pass judgement on a case by case basis.


The thing with an unreliable narrator is you never know if they are telling you the truth.


The thing with an unreliable narrator is that they are most likely hardly ever telling you the truth.


Maybe they are conning you into something. Maybe they want to appear bigger and badder than they really are. Maybe they want to see what they can get away with. Maybe they only want you to see their good side before you find out all the horrible things they did.


Maybe they are trying to figure out if they can trust you or not.


I don’t remember what book I was reading, but it was written in first person, and the narrator came right out and told the reader that they weren’t going to talk about certain things yet, because a) it still hurt to much and b) they weren’t sure they could trust the reader. That’s been in the back of my mind ever since, that there are occasions where I have to earn a character’s trust, that there may be times where no matter what I do, they won’t trust me.


So next time you run into an unreliable narrator, do what you can to earn their trust. After all, it’s just a story, what’s the worst that could happen?

This post is mostly book photos.  Some of these I’ve read, some of them I plan to get to shortly, some of them were happy surprises from publishers, or random acquisitions.  What looks good?

Starting off with books I’ve read:  The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette De Bodard is forthcoming from Subterranean Press, what a gem of a novella!  More to come in a longer post, but if you like shipminds who are pretty sure they are people (because they *are* people), this book is for you.  Immortal Clay by Michael Lucas was a compelling post-apocalyptic novel based on the premise that at the end of John Carpenter’s The Thing, humanity lost.  Again, more to come in a longer post, but I most noticed and most appreciated the slower pace of this story.  After all, when you’re already dead, what’s the hurry?


In the category of Want To Read Very Soon is Binti:The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor (what? you haven’t read the Binti novellas? holy shit, DO IT!) and The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi, which is the February book for my local book club.


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FTC Stuff

some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.