Several years ago, I finished my first novel and began looking for a way to get it published. A few months into the process, I heard about a contest for novelists being held by Gather.com, a social network. I entered the contest by submitting my novel’s first chapter. By contest’s end, over 2500 entries had joined mine in the contest.
Many of the writers stayed on Gather to comment on entries and watch the final stages of the contest play out. Around this time, one of the other contest participants wrote an extended post expressing her frustration with the contest and all of the antics she’d seen to game the system. A like-minded group of writers joined in and we had a lively exchange on this particular Gather conversation “thread.” In addition to discussion about the pros and cons of the contest, we talked about writing and the various routes to publication. We were having fun with this, so she was cajoled to write a second post and the “Writin' Wombats” online writing group officially launched under her leadership.
What does this have to do with the new novel, Rock Paper Tiger, published by Soho Press? The woman who wrote that first thread on writing and formed the writing group was Lisa Brackmann and Rock Paper Tiger is her first published novel. I’ve just finished reading the book and have to say that Lisa has written a thriller that really delivers the goods.
Rock Paper Tiger begins in Beijing and we follow the first person account of Ellie (known to her Chinese friends as Yili), an American whose life is China is beginning to fall apart. The first thirty pages set the stage well. Ellie has an artist friend named Lao Zhang who lives in an out of the way suburb called Mati Village. She takes the subway to see him, but he’s acting strangely. Along the way, Ellie meets a few of Zhang’s acquaintances – lots of people like to hang around him. She also begins to hear that some foreigners in suits are looking for her.
Ellie takes us on a tour of the underside of Beijing as she moves around and it’s not always pretty. The book is set after the 2008 Olympics have taken place and the city is a mix of the glossy new and much else that is run down. Ellie loves Beijing, but is a foreigner and is never allowed to forget it. When the men in the suits start getting nasty and Lao Zhang decides to leave Beijing for a while, Ellie decides to hit the road and visits several other Chinese cities.
Interwoven within this story are flashbacks to Ellie’s experiences as a medic in Iraq, where she gets involved with a soldier named Trey and gets inadvertently pulled into treating prisoners who’ve been undergoing harsh interrogation. Eventually we learn how she and Trey ended up in China and the tale cycles forward.
Ellie is not always a likeable character, but she’s compelling and I found myself wanting to know what would happen to her even when it feels like every step she’s taking is the wrong one. Ellie moves from place to place but never manages to elude the “suits.” The tension mounts and leads toward an intense conclusion which draws together the threads of Ellie’s adventure in a satisfying way.
Rock Paper Tiger dips into aspects of today’s headlines about China, including ethnic tensions, the aftermath of earthquakes and the censorship of online information, but all of this fits in well within the thriller and Ellie’s quest to make sense out of her life. Brackmann puts the reader on the ground in China and we go way beyond the headlines and get a sense of what life in China is like -- both for the rising Chinese entrepreneurial class and for the many people who continue to live from day to day in lifestyles that haven’t changed for centuries. The book feels like an insider’s look at today’s China, but manages to pull this off in the context of a character driven novel and a thriller with lots of bumps and chills along the way. This is a fine novel and I recommend it to readers who enjoy thrillers, want to learn about today’s life in China or just want to read an offbeat, challenging novel written by a talented new writer.