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 ..Show More »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.
"Rock Paper Tiger" was an unexpectedly good debut novel, and made Lisa Brackmann a crime fiction writer to look out for. I said that if she continued ..Show More »writing about the adventures of Ellie McEnroe I would be down for that, and lo and behold, here is a second book about Ellie. And while Hour of the Rat wraps up tidily, there were enough character issues left unresolved that more books seem very likely.
This is good, since I've liked the first two a lot, though I do fear that the Ellie McEnroe series will go the way so many crime/mysteries series do, eventually laboring under the weight of so many continuing characters and long-running plot threads that each book winds up indistinct and episodic.
So far, though, the series is still fresh. Ellie McEnroe was a medic in the U.S. Army. She got a chunk blown out of her leg in Iraq, and now she has physical and psychological issues to deal with. She settled in China, originally because her then-husband brought her there when he got a job as a "security consultant." Now she's peripherally involved with the Chinese art scene, living as a semi-permanent expat and trying to stay out of trouble.
A buddy of hers from the "sandbox" asks her to find his brother, who's somewhere in China and apparently in some trouble. Reluctantly, Ellie agrees. The brother turns out to be accused of eco-terrorism, and Ellie's hunt will bring her to the attention of powerful multinational corporations, the Chinese secret service, and an eccentric art-collecting billionaire. As with the previous book, it means she spends a lot of time running scared and getting beaten up and not knowing who exactly is after her.
There isn't much to the "mystery" — what makes the book enjoyable is, of course, Ellie's outsider's view of China. This is a modern look at China, with its odd mix of authoritarian statism and hyper-capitalism, beautiful country villages and cities so polluted that the air is practically solid. A GMO seed company is the primary villain, but there is of course the ever-present though mostly easy to pretend-it-isn't-there surveillance by various organs of the Chinese government. The Chinese characters are often more cynical than Ellie is about their country, but they are as proud and as ambitious and as nationalistic as any Americans.
Also, Ellie's mother, who drove her crazy last book with a constant stream of Jesus-loves-you emails, comes to China for a visit. Lisa Brackmann understands the value of comic relief characters.
An altogether enjoyable read. For any fan of crime fiction or expat adventures, go ahead and get started on this series now — it's my hope that it will be around for a while.
Normally narration is either "good enough" (i.e. transparent) or "annoying" to me, but I want to call out Tracy Sallows's narration as being particularly good. Her voice for Ellie made me really believe it was the character speaking, her voicing of Ellie's mother made me laugh out loud, and she handled the Chinese characters, with their accents, very well also. She actually made the book more enjoyable.
This is the third book in a series about Ellie McEnroe, a former National Guard medic who got messed up in Iraq, went to China with her ex-Army husban..Show More »d in one of those seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time moves, and stayed because it was easier than going back home.
Like many ongoing series, there is pleasure in reading about the next chapter in the lives of familiar characters, but also a sameness as the author starts stretching for new ideas.
In the last book, Ellie was "befriended" by an eccentric billionaire named Sidney Cao. Friendships with billionaires always come with strings attached, so when Sidney asks Ellie to do something for her, she is not in a position to refuse.
What he wants her to do is "check up on" his eldest son and evaluate the people he's hanging around with. Having no idea how she's supposed to do this or why Sidney thinks she's qualified, Ellie nonetheless does her best. This gets her mixed up with all three of Sidney's children, who are exactly what you'd expect spoiled children of nouveau rich Chinese billionaires to be. After one of the parties she attends with all these one-percenters, a girl turns up dead, and since no one is going to accuse a bunch of rich kids, Ellie becomes a suspect.
Trying to figure out what actually happened, maybe even get some justice for the dead girls (yup, the first body is followed by a second), while not getting swatted by the rich and powerful or the Chinese security services takes Ellie on another harrowing crawl through modern China. She is helped by her kinda sorta maybe boyfriend, "Creepy John," from the last book, who works for some branch of the Chinese government and may or may not be on her side, and aided with comic relief from her evangelical Christian mother, who came to China in the last book and stayed after hooking up with an evangelical Chinese boyfriend.
Lisa Brackmann has written three engaging books about Ellie McEnroe now. Her descriptions of China remain believable and interesting (to the degree I can judge, never having been to China), and she is very strong in characterization and plotting. I'll keep reading books about Ellie, but I think it will be hard to keep them fresh and her author page suggests that she may be done with our poor PTSD-disabled vet for a while. Probably a good decision, but I do recommend the series highly.