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.
I am so surprised that I had not heard of this book before I ran out of credits and bought one of the $4.95 specials. I can't believe there hasn't been more buzz about this book. This is a very original and well written story - a young, Iraqi war veteran living in Beijing finds herself a subject of interest by several security organizations. The characters are very well developed, the subtext of the Iraq war is interesting and believable, and the time spent traveling around China and dropping in on Chinese internet/game parlors is engaging. The main character, Ellie Cooper, has a very fresh and interesting perspective on life, the war, and China. Although she has a foul mouth, I never thought it was over the top - and certainly not a reason to pan this book. The book is fast paced and never dull. I don't understand other reviews that say nothing happens in this book. Even more puzzled by the low ratings.
The narration is outstanding. I have never listened to Sallows before. Her voices are excellent. Not only does she do male and female voices very well, she does very convincing Chinese characters.
You won't be disappointed by this book - especially if you buy it on special for $4.95!