The New York Times
Rock Paper Tigerby Lisa Brackmann
American Iraq War veteran Ellie Cooper is living in Beijing when a chance encounter with a Uighur—a 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 Ellie for information. They say the Uighur is a terrorist. Ellie doesn’t know what’s 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, she’s haunted by memories of Iraq. Is what she did and saw there at the root of the mess she’s in now?
The New York Times
Praise for Rock Paper Tiger
“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
“Recommendation for More Thrills: This pulse-racer about an American Iraqwar vet is set in the art world of Beijing.”
“Lisa Brackmann’s debut novel is as slick and smart as an alley cat . . . Beijing in Rock Paper Tiger is as it is in real life: fast, furious, often ugly, and with a Starbucks sitting on every corner.”
—Time Out Beijing
“Check out Rock Paper Tiger. It's a mystery/action novel that pretty much pulls off something I would have thought improbable: combining an account of Iraq-war drama (the emphasis is on Abu Ghraib–type themes), with a portrayal of the urban China of these past few years, complete with overhyped art scene, dissident bloggers, lots of young expats, and constant uncertainty about what the government will permit or crack down on.”
“Don’t turn the pages too fast. Brackmann’s evocation of China, funny, frustrating, frightening, sometimes tender, and always real, is worth savoring.”
—Nicole Mones, author of Lost in Translation and The Last Chinese Chef
“An original and compelling protagonist . . . Brackmann maintains the tension throughout, and we're given a surrealist peek at China's subterranean society.”
“The contemporary China so vividly rendered in Lisa Brackmann's bracing debut novel is a place where the Starbucks baristas ‘all know the English words for coffee'’ and housing developments are named after glamorous U.S. hotspots . . . Rock Paper Tiger is a gripping ex-pat nightmare that unfolds with superb pacing and salient details. And it makes you damned glad your life is boring.”
—The Miami Herald, a summer reading recommendation
“A remarkable debut . . . Brackmann paints a mesmerizing picture of life in jittery modern Beijing.”
—The Seattle Times
“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.”
—The Boston Globe
“At the top of the Most Promising New Author list is Lisa Brackmann with Rock Paper Tiger . . . A terrifying tale of life and death behind the Bamboo Curtain.”
—The San Diego Union Tribune
“Rock Paper Tiger is a splendid debut novel by a gifted new writer. Her Chinese setting is exotic and chilling, and the characters live and breathe. The story is smart and fast as a sports car. Keep an eye on Brackmann.”
—T. Jefferson Parker, author of The Renegades and Iron River
“Few writers would be up to the challenge of blending the worlds of urban China, Iraq, and a virtual online kingdom—but Lisa Brackmann wildly succeeds. Prepare to taste the smog, smell the noodles, and rub the Beijing dust between your fingers.”
—Eliot Pattison, author of the Edgar award-winning novel, The Skull Mantra
“A terrifying odyssey in present-day China . . . A totally captivating page-turner with vivid, first-hand details and nuanced multi-cultural facets.”
—Qiu Xiaolong, author of The Mao Case
“Electrifying debut . . . The book’s exotic setting and tough heroine will definitely appeal to fans of John Burdett and Steig Larsson.”
—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
“A fast-paced and engaging story as both plots are full of mystery and suspense . . . Good reading for anyone interested in the international crime novel.”
“A gritty and intriguing tale of terror that draws in the reader with each page; Brackmann is a new writer to watch.”
From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt
ROCK PAPER TIGER
By LISA BRACKMANN
Soho Press, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Lisa Brackmann
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI'm living in this dump in Haidian Qu, close to Wudaokou, on the twenty-first floor of a decaying high-rise. The grounds are bare; the trees have died; the rubber tiles on the walkways, in their garish pink and yellow, are cracked and curling. The lights have been out in the lobby since I moved in; they never finished the interior walls in the foyers outside the elevator, and the windows are boarded up, so every time I step outside the apartment door I'm in a weird twilight world of bare cement and blue fluorescent light.
The worst thing about the foyer is that I might run into Mrs. Hua, who lives next door with her fat spoiled-brat kid. She hates that I'm crashing here, thinks I'm some slutty American who is corrupting China's morals. She's always muttering under her breath, threatening to report me to the Public Security Bureau for all kinds of made-up shit. It's not like I ever did anything to her, and it's not like I'm doing anything wrong, but the last thing I need is the PSB on my ass.
I've got enough problems.
Outside, the afternoon sun filters through a yellow haze. My leg hurts, but I should walk, I tell myself. Get some PT in. The deal I make with myself is, if it gets too bad, I'll take a Percocet; but I only have about a dozen left, so it has to be really bad before I can take one. Today the pain is just a dull throb, like a toothache in my thigh.
I pass the gas tanks off Chengfu Road, these four-story-high giant globes, and I think: one of these days, some guy will get pissed off at his girlfriend, light a couple sticks of dynamite underneath them (since they don't have many guns here, the truly pissed-off tend to vent with explosives and rat poison), a few city blocks and a couple thousand people will get incinerated, and everyone will shrug-oh, well, too bad, but this is China, and shit happens. Department store roofs collapse; chemicals poison rivers; miners suffocate in illegal mines. I walk down this one block nearly every day on my way to work, and there are five sex businesses practically next door to each other, "teahouses" and "foot massage parlors," with girls from the countryside sitting on pink leatherette couches, waiting for some horny migrant worker to come in with enough renminbi to fuck his brains out for a while and forget about the shack he's living in and the family he's left behind and the shitty wages he's earning. Hey, why not?
I still like it here, overall.
I'm just in this bad mood lately.
So I call Lao Zhang. That's what I do these days when I'm feeling sorry for myself.
"Wei?" Lao Zhang has a growly voice, like he's talking himself out of a grunt half the time.
"It's me. Yili."
That's my Chinese name, Yili. It means "progressive ideas" or something. Mainly it sounds kind of like Ellie.
"Yili, ni hao."
He sounds distracted, which isn't like him. He's probably working; he almost always is. He's been painting a lot lately. Before that, he mostly did performance pieces, stuff like stripping naked and painting himself red on top of the Drum Tower or steering a reed boat down the Yangtze with a life-size statue of Karl Marx in the prow.
But usually when I call, he sounds like he's glad to hear my voice, no matter what he's doing. Which is one of the reasons I call him when I'm having a bad day.
"Okay, I guess," I answer. "I'm not working. Thought I'd see what you were up to."
"Ah. The usual," he says.
"Want some company?"
Lao Zhang hesitates.
It's a little weird. I can't think of a time when I've called that he hasn't invited me over. Even times when I don't want to leave my apartment, when I just want to hear a friendly voice, he'll always try and talk me into coming out; and sometimes when I won't, he'll show up at my door a couple hours later with takeout and cold Yanjing beer. He's that kind of person. He works hard, but he likes hanging out too, as long as you don't mind him working part of the time. And I don't. A lot of times I'll sit on the sagging couch in his studio while he paints, listening to my iPhone, drinking beer, surfing on his computer. I like watching him paint too, the way he moves, relaxed but in control. It feels comfortable, him painting, me sitting there.
"Sure," he finally says. "Why don't you come over?"
"You sure you're not too busy?"
"No, come over. There's a performance tonight at the Warehouse. Should be fun. Call me when you're close."
Maybe I shouldn't go, I think, as I swipe my yikatong card at the Wudaokou light rail station. Maybe he's seeing somebody else. It's not like we're a couple. Even if it feels like we are one sometimes.
Sure, we hang out. Occasionally fuck. But he could do a lot better than me.
"Lao" means "old," but Lao Zhang's not really old. He's maybe thirteen, fourteen years older than I am, around forty. They call him "Lao" Zhang to distinguish him from the other Zhang, who's barely out of his teens and is therefore "Xiao" Zhang, also an artist at Mati Village, the northern suburb of Beijing where Lao Zhang lives.
Before I came to China, I'd hear "suburb" and think tract homes and Wal-Marts. Well, they have Wal-Marts in Beijing and housing tracts-Western-style, split-level, three bedroom, two bath houses with lawns and everything, surrounded by gates and walls. Places with names like "Orange County" and "Yosemite Falls," plus my personal favorite, "Merlin Champagne Town."
But Mati Village isn't like that.
Getting to Mati Village is kind of a pain. It's out past the 6th Ring Road, and you can't get all the way there by subway or light rail, even with all the lines they built for the '08 Olympics. From Haidian, I have to take the light rail and transfer to a bus.
It's not too crazy a day. The yellow loess dust has been drowning Beijing like some sort of pneumonia in the city's lungs, typical for spring in spite of all those trees the government's planted in Inner Mongolia the last dozen years. The dust storms died down last night, but people still aren't venturing out much. So I score a seat on the bench by the car door, let the train's rhythms rattle my head. I close my eyes and listen to the recorded announcement of the stations, plus that warning to "watch your belongings and prepare well" if you are planning to exit. All around me, cell phones chime and sing, extra-loud so the people plugged into iPods can still hear them.
The nongmin don't have iPods. The migrants from the countryside are easy to spot: tanned, burned faces; bulging nylon net bags with faded stripes; patched cast-off clothes; strange, stiff shoes. But it's the look on their faces that really gives them away. They are so lost. I fit in better here than they do.
Sometimes I want to say to these kids, what are you doing here? You're going to end up living in a shantytown in a refrigerator box, and for what? So you can pick through junked computer parts for gold and copper wire? Do "foot massage" at some chicken girl joint? Really, you're better off staying home.
Like I'm one to talk. I didn't stay home either.
When I'm about fifteen minutes away from Mati, I try to call Lao Zhang, thinking, maybe I'll see if we can meet at the jiaozi place, because I haven't had anything to eat today but a leftover slice of bad Mr. Pizza for breakfast.
Instead of a dial tone, I get that stupid China Mobile jingle and the message that I'm out of minutes.
Oh, well. It's not that hard to find Lao Zhang in Mati Village.
First I stop at the jiaozi place. It's Lao Zhang's favorite restaurant in Mati. Mine too. The dumplings are excellent, it's cheap as hell, and I've never gotten sick after eating there.
By now it's after six p.m., and the restaurant is packed. I don't even know what it's called, this jiaozi place. It's pretty typical: a cement block faced with white tile. For some reason, China went through a couple of decades when just about every small public building was covered in white tile, like it's all a giant bathroom.
The restaurant is a small square room with plastic tables and chairs. There's a fly-specked Beijing Olympics poster on one wall and a little shrine against another-red paper with gold characters stuck on the wall, a gilded Buddha, some incense sticks, and a couple pieces of dusty plastic fruit on a little table. The place reeks of fried dough, boiled meat, and garlic.
Seeing how this is Mati Village, most of the customers are artists, though you also get a few farmers and some of the local business-owners, like the couple who run the gas station. But mostly it's people like "Sloppy" Song. Sloppy is a tall woman who looks like she's constructed out of wires, with thick black hair that trails down her back in a braid with plaits the size of king snakes. Who knows why she's called "Sloppy"? Sometimes Chinese people pick the weirdest English names for themselves. I met this one guy who went by "Motor." It said something about his essential nature, he told me.
Sloppy's here tonight, sitting at a table, slurping the juice out of her dumpling and waving her Zhonghua cigarette at the woman sitting across from her. I don't know this woman. She looks a little rich for this place-sleek hair and makeup, nice clothes. Must be a collector. Sloppy does assemblage sculpture and collage pieces, and they sell pretty well, even with the economy sucking as much as it does.
"Yili, ni hao," Sloppy calls out, seeing me enter. "You eating here?"
"No, just looking for Lao Zhang."
"Haven't seen him. This is Lucy Wu."
"Ni hao, pleased to meet you," I say, trying to be polite.
Lucy Wu regards me coolly. She's one of these Prada babes-all done up in designer gear, perfectly polished.
"Likewise," she says. "You speak Chinese?"
I shrug. "A little."
This is halfway between a lie and the truth. After two years, I'm not exactly fluent, but I get around. "You speak Mandarin like some Beijing street kid," Lao Zhang told me once, maybe because I've got that Beijing accent, where you stick Rs on the end of everything like a pirate.
"Your Chinese sounds very nice," she says with that smug, phony courtesy.
She has a southern accent; her consonants are soft, slightly sibilant. Dainty, almost.
"You're too polite."
"Lucy speaks good English," Sloppy informs me. "Not like me."
"Now you're too polite," says Lucy Wu. "My English is very poor."
I kind of doubt that.
"Are you an art collector?" I ask in English.
"Art dealer." She smiles mischievously. "Collecting is for wealthier people than I."
Her English is excellent.
"She has Shanghai gallery," Sloppy adds.
"Wow, cool," I say. "Hey, I'd better go. If you see Lao Zhang, can you tell him I'm looking for him? My phone's dead."
Lucy Wu sits up a little straighter, then reclines in a perfect, posed angle. "Lao Zhang? Is that Zhang Jianli?"
Sloppy nods. "Right."
Lucy smiles at me, revealing tiny white teeth as perfect as a doll's. "Jianli and I are old friends."
"Really?" I say.
"Yes." She looks me up and down, and I can feel myself blushing, because I know how I must look. "It's been a while since we've seen each other. I was hoping to catch up with him while I'm here. I've heard wonderful things about his recent work. You know, Jianli hasn't gotten nearly enough recognition as an artist."
"Maybe that's not so important to Lao Zhang," Sloppy mutters.
Lucy giggles. "Impossible! All Chinese artists want fame. Otherwise, how can they get rich?"
She reaches into her tiny beaded bag, pulls out a lacquer card case, and hands me a card in polite fashion, holding it out with both hands. "When you see him, perhaps you could give him this."
What a bitch, I think. Then I tell myself that's not fair. Just because she's tiny, pretty, and perfectly put together, it doesn't mean she's a bitch.
It just means I hate her on principle.
I order some takeout and head to Lao Zhang's place.
Lao Zhang's probably working, I figure, walking down Xingfu Lu, one of the two main streets in Mati Village. When he gets into it, he paints for hours, all day, fueled by countless espressos-he's got his own machine. He forgets to eat sometimes, and I'm kind of proud of myself for thinking of bringing dinner, for doing something nice for him, like a normal person would do. It's been hard for me the last few years, remembering to do stuff like that.
Maybe I'm finally getting better.
As I'm thinking this, I stumble on a pothole in the rutted road. Pain shoots up my leg.
I can barely see, it's so dark.
There aren't exactly streetlights in Mati Village, only electric lanterns here and there that swing in any good wind and only work about half the time, strung up on storefronts and power poles. Right now they dim and flicker. There's problems with electricity sometimes. Not so much in central Beijing or Shanghai, but in those "little" cities you've never heard of, places with a few million people out in the provinces somewhere. And in villages like this, on the fringes of the grid.
But the little market on the corner of Lao Zhang's alley is decorated with tiny Christmas lights.
I buy a couple cold bottles of Yanjing beer (my favorite) and Wahaha water (the label features this year's perky winner of the Mongolian Cow Yogurt Happy Girl contest) and turn down the alley.
Lao Zhang lives in one of the old commune buildings, red brick, covered in some places with red wash, surrounded by a red wall. The entrance to Lao Zhang's compound has two sculptures on either side, so there's no mistaking it. One is a giant fish painted in Day-Glo colors. The other is a big empty Mao jacket. No Mao, just the jacket.
Inside the compound are four houses in a row. Sculptures and art supplies litter the narrow courtyards in between. Lao Zhang shares this place with the sculptor, a novelist who also paints, and a musician/Web designer who's mixing something now, a trance track from the sound of it, all beats and erhu. Not too loud. That's good. Some loud noises really get to me.
The front door is locked. Maybe Lao Zhang isn't home. Maybe he's already over at the Warehouse for the show. I use my key and go inside. I'll have a few jiaozi, I figure, leave the rest here, and try the Warehouse.
The house is basically a rectangle. You go in the entrance, turn, and there's the main room, with whitewashed walls and added skylights, remodeled to give Lao Zhang better light for painting.
The lights are off in the studio, but the computer's on, booted up to the login screen of this online game Lao Zhang likes to play, The Sword of Ill Repute. A snatch of music plays, repeats.
"Lao Zhang, ni zai ma?" I call out. Are you there? No answer.
To the right is the bedroom, which is mostly taken up by a kang, the traditional brick bed you can heat from underneath. Lao Zhang has a futon on top of his. On the left side of the house there's a tiny kitchen, a toilet, and a little utility room with a spare futon where Lao Zhang's friends frequently crash.
Which is where the Uighur is.
"Shit!" I almost drop the takeout on the kitchen floor.
Here's this guy stumbling out of the spare room, blinking uncertainly, rubbing his eyes, which suddenly go wide with fear.
"Ni hao," I say uncertainly.
He stands there, one leg twitching, like he could bolt at any moment. He's in his forties, not Chinese, not Han Chinese anyway; his hair is brown, his eyes a light hazel, his face dark and broad with high cheeks-I'm guessing Uighur.
"Ni hao," he finally says.
"I'm Yili," I stutter, "a friend of Lao Zhang's. Is he ...?"
His eyes dart around the room. "Oh, yes, I am also friend of Lao Zhang's. Hashim."
"Happy to meet you," I reply automatically.
I put the food and beer down on the little table by the sink, slowly because I get the feeling this guy startles easily. I can't decide whether I should make small talk or run.
Since I suck at both of these activities, it's a real relief to hear the front door bang and Lao Zhang yell from the living room: "It's me. I'm back."
"We're in the kitchen," I call out.
Lao Zhang is frowning when he comes in. He's a northerner, part Manchu, big for a Chinese guy, and right now his thick shoulders are tense like he's expecting a fight. "I thought you were going to phone," he says to me.
"I was-I tried-My phone ran out of minutes, so I just...." I point at the table. "I brought dinner."
"Thanks." He gives me a quick one-armed hug, and then everything's normal again.
"You met Hashim?"
I nod and turn to the Uighur. "Maybe you'd like some dinner? I brought plenty."
Excerpted from ROCK PAPER TIGER by LISA BRACKMANN Copyright © 2010 by Lisa Brackmann. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Lisa Brackmann is the critically acclaimed author of the Ellie McEnroe novels set in China (Rock Paper Tiger, Hour of the Rat, Dragon Day) and the thriller Getaway. Her work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and CNET. She lives in San Diego with a couple of cats, far too many books and a bass ukulele. You can find her online at www.lisabrackmann.com.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I loved this rather unique novel. Set in modern day China, this book deals with a number of topical issues, including the conflict in Iraq, the realities of life in rapidly changing China, and the loss of individual freedom and privacy in a terror-wracked world. Ellie Cooper, the main character, finds herself adrift in China, cast off by her husband, and embroiled in some sort of security controversy which is beyond her ken. Ellie finds herself plagued by memories of painful war experiences in Iraq as well as by the real physical pain of her leg which was permanently damaged in an explosion in Iraq. Throughout the story, Ellie seemingly travels the length and breadth of China. From my perspective, she is on a journey to find her own identity in addition to the meaning of friendship, while guarding against the intrusion of the government (both U.S. and Chinese) into her private life. The book takes a number of unexpected twists and turns but is always interesting. I think readers who favor mysteries and thrillers would really like this book. I look forward to a second novel from this author.
Iraq War combat medic veteran Ellie Cooper suffers from post traumatic stress disorder following her theatre tours of duty. Currently she is in Beijing trying to figure out what next as she hangs around the growing art world. Also in China is her former Army interrogator husband private security consultant Trey who recently dumped her. She has replaced Trey with artist Lao Zhang and Percocet but neither helps her forget Iraq or Trey. Zhang accompanies an unidentified person until they vanish, American and Chinese officials wonder where they went. Each nation looks deeply at Ellie because of her relationship with the missing Zhang. Forced on the run, Ellie eludes cops, suits, and thugs while gathering information on line through a multiplayer game from Zhang's friends. This is an exciting China thriller starring a resilient kick butt heroine who readers will admire for her courage. The Chinese subplot is action-packed as Ellie takes readers on an exhilarating tour. The back story of what she and Trey was directed to do in Iraq is harrowing and heartbreaking. Mixed together nicely by excellent Ellie, the two subplots make for a terrific brisk thriller that brings China alive Harriet Klausner
I wish I could give this book 3 1/2 stars instead of 4. For some reason I can't figure out the plot felt a bit thin and disjointed to me. Having said that the main character of Ellie was a joy to read. Her voice was very clear. Even though she is not very sure of what she wants in life I think her strength is crystal clear and a characteristic I admire. This book is worth a read just for the fact that even though I felt the story a bit weak it is unique and Ellie is definitely a character worth knowing.
I really enjoyed reading this book. Getting a look at war from a womans view was very enlightening.
Sensational - it's a book that stays with me. A year after reading it, I still think of Ellie and Beijing through her eyes.
So good, the moment I finished it, I ordered the first volume of the series.