Hour of the Rat by Lisa Brackmann

By Terry DiDomenico

It is nice that in the thriller world there is room for all kinds of characters with plots all their own.

With Lisa Brackmann we are introduced to an unlikely main character named Ellie McEnroe. Ellie who was first introduced in ROCK PAPER TIGER is a Army veteran living in China where she is coping with Traumatic Brain Injury, a shattered leg, a soon to be ex-husband, and being the focus of several groups (Chinese and otherwise) for unclear reasons.

With her return in HOUR OF THE RAT, we find Ellie is acting as an agent for a dissent artist who for the time being at least has charged her with handling his art. It seems she has left her troubles behind or has she?

HOUR OF THE RAT opens with the information her mother who came for a visit still hasn’t left, an Army buddy wants her to look for his missing brother, and men from Domestic Security take her to a business hotel to “have tea and talk.”

From there it gets interesting. A brief synopsis shows her search for the missing brother gets her involved in a conspiracy that might involve a sinister biotech company, eco-terrorists, an art-obsessed Chinese billionaire, and lots of cats juxtaposed with some of China’s most beautiful and surreal places.

Ellie, as Lisa points out, is not your typical hero. “She isn’t a genius hacker/martial artist/bad-ass. She struggles to cope and to do the right thing. Oftentimes, victory in her world is just living to fight another day. I’m not particularly interested in extremely gifted and competent heroes defeating the forces of evil. I want to write about “ordinary” people and their struggles in the face of problems that are way bigger than they are.”

So the excitement is on a smaller scale but real issues are at the core. In HOUR OF THE RAT, Lisa hopes to not only entertain but maybe educate readers a little about “modern China, about environmental problems, about the US system of industrialized, corporate agriculture, and what some of the problems of that might be.”

Another added benefit of the Ellie McEnroe books (ROCK PAPER TIGER and HOUR OF THE RAT) is China itself. Based on first-hand knowledge from numerous trips to the country and having lived there for several months, Lisa is proud of the accuracy of her descriptions and imbedding her novels with the Chinese culture.

Some of her observations that can be found in telling Ellie’s stories are the changes in personal freedom.  The system she found during her first visit in 1979 had control over just about every aspect of people’s lives including where they lived, where they worked, and who they could associate with. That system, Lisa tells us is largely gone as the China she sees now is very vibrant and “too chaotic.”

This is not to say there aren’t “rules” governing political activities and public political expression. And she notes the government is still “intent on maintaining its monopoly on political power. China struggles with a tremendous corruption problem from top to bottom.

“Conversely, it is fascinating to me, how decentralized and fragmented authority can be. Provincial leaders, local politicians, and wealthy individuals often do whatever they want, at times in direct contradiction to stated national regulations—you see this all the time with environmental issues. Power in China is largely a personal affair—how much of it do you have and how willing are you to wield it.”

HOUR OF THE RAT was not on the landscape when Lisa wrote ROCK PAPER TIGER, as she really didn’t think about writing a series. “I wrote thinking I would write something with enough commercial appeal that it could sell. I just never conceived of it as a series. I had some things I wanted to say, and I said them. “

While ROCK PAPER TIGER was out on submission, Lisa began writing her second novel, GETAWAY and since she didn’t know if ROCK PAPER TIGER would sell, “It seemed best on all counts to work on something completely unrelated.”

It was while writing GETAWAY and with the success of ROCK PAPER TIGER that Lisa decided to feature Ellie McEnroe in her next novel. Recent travels to China had led to an interest in its environmental problems and another story to tell. Research, floating ideas, mulling over data, marking locales to visit, and making notes about HOUR OF THE RAT were a welcome diversion from writing.

“I thought this [environmental concerns] would be an interesting thing to build a book around. Also there were enough leftover issues from ROCK PAPER TIGER that hadn’t been exactly resolved. I was fine with that—the open-endedness was really a part of the theme of the book…Mainly what I had to do was ground certain aspects of RPT more firmly in reality. I’d intended some strands of that book a little metaphorically. So when it came time for a second Ellie book, I had to make those more concrete. For example the motives of a certain character at the end of the first book are slight opaque and become much more clear in HOUR OF THE RAT.”

Lisa admits she isn’t sure what her process is but working on the idea stage of her next novel while still writing the current book seems to work well for her.  “I find them complimentary rather than conflicting processes, so it wasn’t a problem.”

With lots of coffee and the presence of cats, Lisa is busy keeping her writing career on track. Her day begins with checking her e-mail and social media with socializing, exercising, and editing taking up most of the day. Reading for pleasure and research is often in the evening. She saves her heavy-duty creating for late night. Currently she is developing the groundwork for a follow-up to GETAWAY while being immersed in writing the third installment of the Ellie McEnroe books tentatively titled DRAGON DAY.

*****

Lisa Brackmann’s debut novel, ROCK PAPER TIGER, set on the fringes of the Chinese art world, made several “Best of 2010” lists, including Amazon’s Top 100 books and Top 10 Mystery/Thrillers. Her second novel, GETAWAY, a thriller in Mexico, was chosen as an ALA Summer Reading Pick and was a finalist for SCIBA’s T. Jefferson Parker Award. Lisa’s upcoming book, HOUR OF THE RAT, features the return of ROCK PAPER TIGER heroine Ellie McEnroe, on another wild adventure in today’s China. Lisa is a California native and a former film industry professional who has lived and traveled extensively in China.

To learn more about HOUR OF THE RAT, ROCK PAPER TIGER, Lisa, and her other works including GETAWAY, visit her website.

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