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ROCK PAPER TIGER
By Lisa Brackmann
Soho Press, 2010 ($25.00)
Reviewed by Katherine Petersen
Ellie Cooper came to Beijing with her husband, Trey, but she left him after interrupting his tryst with a Chinese woman. Now, the foul-mouthed 26-year-old works at a Beijing bar and fights the demons of her past as a National Guard medic in Iraq where she witnessed abuses similar to Abu Ghraib and received injuries that have left her with a permanent limp. Part of her solution is comprised of popping pills, drinking beer, and lattes at Starbucks.
But a chance encounter at the apartment of a Chinese artist who is her part-time lover with a Muslim from northwest China, simply called the Uighur, starts the plot moving as Ellie is chased by Americans (possibly from Trey's security company) and Chinese men (their version of the FBI?). Ellie's artist lover disappears and she's thrown into the adventure of trying to find him as well as keep both sets of plain-clothed creeps off her back. Her flight across China takes her from Beijing, Pingyao and Chengdu and places in between. At the same time, she also pursues a virtual quest in an online game called The Sword of Ill Repute. Her character, Little Mountain Tiger, tries to find answers but has as much trouble as her "real" self.
Lisa Brackmann has written an interesting novel in ROCK PAPER TIGER. Ellie has spunk, especially given all she's suffered, and it's nice to see a heroine who has bad habits like the rest of us and doesn't have all the answers. Brackmann's plot goes in many directions, and I don't think I got them all, which probably doesn't matter in the long run for it's a compelling tale that brings together lots of disparate angles from contemporary China, Iraq and online gaming just to name a few.
Where Brackmann truly shines is in her snapshots of modern China from the tourist attractions, neighborhoods being razed to make room for high-rise buildings, artist colonies, peasants with their cardboard suitcases coming to the city to try to survive, students with the cell phones with popular ringtones and the middle class flaunting their fake Prada. It's the juxtaposition of traditional China and the modern changes and everyone lost in between in a civilization where money appears to rule all.
Brackmann's vivid descriptions aren't limited to China as she paints a realistic, if not grisly, picture of life in Iraq, making Ellie's quandary more believable. She can't figure out if the men are after her only because of the Uighur, her friendship with the Chinese artist or because of her past, and Brackmann takes us on quite an adventure to find out.
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