American Iraq War veteran Ellie Cooper is down and out in Beijing when a chance encounter with a Uighura member of a Chinese Muslim minority at the home of her sort-of boyfriend Lao Zhang turns her life upside down. Lao Zhang disappears, and suddenly multiple security organizations are hounding her for information. They say the Uighur is a terrorist. Ellie doesn't know whats going on, but she must decide whom to trust among the artists, dealers, collectors, and operatives claiming to be on her side - in particular, a mysterious organization operating within a popular online role-playing game. As she tries to elude her pursuers, shes haunted by memories of Iraq. Is what she did and saw there at the root of the mess she's in now?
"[T]he book's exotic setting and tough heroine will definitely appeal to fans of John Burdett and Stieg Larsson." (Publishers Weekly) “Lisa Brackmann’s novel gets off to a fast start and never lets up…Ellie is a perfect spunky heroine…Be prepared for a wild ride." (The New York Times Book Review) “Lisa Brackmann’s timely and hip debut novel is a thriller with a plucky heroine, locales actual and virtual, and grounding in the Abu Ghraib scandal… Brackmann can write.” (Boston Globe)
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I had no idea what to expect from this book; I was just intrigued by the title and the cover and the synopsis. I was very pleasantly surprised to get a fast-moving, well-written tale with an ex-pat's view of contemporary China.
The first-person narrator, Ellie Cooper, is a young former US Army medic hanging out in China on a semi-expired visa, still shell-shocked by the destruction of her marriage and her ongoing issues with PTSD relating to some really bad things that happened in Iraq. She married a fellow soldier she met in Iraq, who brought her to China when he left the service and became a "contractor" for a private security firm, and like most such ill-thought military marriages, things quickly fell apart. Her estranged husband is now living a "God-centered life" with the Chinese girl he hooked up with, and between badgering Ellie to sign the divorce papers, urges her to "accept Jesus into her heart," which is a nice bit of bitter humor that runs throughout the book, as Ellie also keeps receiving Jesus-y emails from her mother back home.
While Ellie is trying to pick herself up and put herself back together, she has been hanging out with an eclectic bunch of Chinese artists and MMORPG addicts. One day she visits her artist friend Lao Zhang, and finds a Uighur -- a Muslim minority ethnic group in China -- visiting. Lao Zhang disappears, the Uighur disappears, and the rest of the book becomes paranoia fuel for poor Ellie, as she has absolutely no idea what any of these people were up to, if anything, but both Chinese and American agents are after them and thinks she does know something. All of her friends become suspect, she is sent on a bizarre quest given to her inside her friend's online game which she thinks is meant to help him in the real world, and meanwhile her not-quite-ex-husband is involved in the whole thing as well. Right up until the end, you are no more sure than Ellie is who the bad guys and who the good guys are or WTF is going on.
The story itself is fast-paced and interesting, but nothing hugely revelatory happens at the end. The appeal of this book is the view of China, the accuracy of which I cannot attest to, but it reads like a thoroughly modern and believable tour through the kinda-communist semi-capitalist military-corporate-industrial complex that is today's PRC, a place that is trying to put a happy shine on what's still very much a corrupt police state, but one where you can find KFC, McDonald's, or Starbucks (or a Chinese knockoff thereof) on any street corner in Beijing. Ellie is only semi-acclimated, so she's still an alien in a place she knows she doesn't belong.
Ellie's voice is what made me enjoy this book so much. She's probably one of the most compelling and believable characters I've read in a contemporary novel in quite a while. She's not tough or bad-ass- she's in over her head, she just wants a little peace and safety, but she keeps getting walloped, emotionally and physically, and she has no choice but to "suck it up and drive on," as we used to say in the Army. She joined the Army as a kid looking to make some money for college and found herself dropped into the deep end, and now she's fallen into another pit in China. She's wracked with guilt, anger, and physical and mental disabilities, but as her life keeps taking left turns, she tries to do the right thing even while scorning her own ability to figure out what that is.
All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable novel. A combination of a mystery, war story, and ex-pat adventure/thriller, this doesn't make any lists of great literature or super-memorable reads for me, but I still recommend it without reservation, and if the author turned it into a series with Ellie as a recurring character, I would certainly be on board.
Moves around, but goes nowhere, and the ending leaves you wondering why it was written at all. The protagonist is whiney and self-loathing. I've lived in China for 16 years, and while there are some interesting tidbits in here for people who've never been to the country, from the perspective of a person who understands the country, it's weak and made me want to yawn - a lot. It wasn't until I finished the novel that I figured out what it was that made me think it was fatally flawed, and then it just hit me. While the author may have spent enough time in China to have the insight and ability to get around like the protagonist does - the problem is, the protagonist doesn't have time to understand China sufficiently to go through the experiences she goes through. She talks and acts like an "old hand", but if you work through the timeline, she could have only spent at most, two years in China before she has these experiences. Furthermore, she indicates when she first got there she really didn't get out much. There's absolutely no way someone with such little time on the ground in a place like Beijing, could or would have the sort of experiences and the insight the character has. It's ludicrous, frankly. As a writer, i'd say, she's, well, "meh." There are a few well-turned phrases, and the structuring is good, but plot's lousy and there are far too many cliches. Plus, too many phrases/words are repeated. "knots" of people, "seamed" faces, etc. But, the biggest tragedy was the narration. I've never, ever heard any Chinese people speak English the way the reader presented. I laughed every time she tried to imitate a Chinese person - which was about 25% of the book. And the place names and Chinese words were a joke. One last pet peeve: The word is "concrete" not "cement". Cement is a constituent of concrete. You wouldn't say, I ate a "flour" when you mean you ate bread. Ergo, the sidewalk is concrete, not cement.