Thursday, July 4, 2013

HOUR OF THE RAT-The Flawed Protagonist

Hi, Kat Sheridan hosting today so Sia can have a well-deserved long holiday weekend off for the Fourth of July!

I have a confession to make. I drink bourbon (and coffee), occasionally to excess. I can out-swear a Marine drill sergeant. I get pig-headed about the dumbest things. Sometimes I make bad decisions, do stupid stuff, or trust the wrong person. I try to do my best, and just hope my successes balance my failures. In other words, I’m human.

Which means I’m also a lot like Ellie Cooper, the protagonist in Hour of the Rat, the latest novel by Lisa Brackmann. I first encountered Ellie in Ms. Brackmann’s debut novel, Rock Paper Tiger. In Hour of the Rat, Ellie once again drags me along on an adventure through sprawling, bewildering, beautiful and treacherous China as she tries to help an old war buddy locate his missing brother, while being chased, used, and abused by shadowy government agencies, and stumbles into a truly terrifying real-world plot line having to do with GMOs (genetically modified organisms—if you want to get the willies every time you eat, look them up).

I’m going to say right up front that I loved this book. The synopsis is at the end, so I won’t repeat it here. What I want to talk about today is Ellie Cooper, and the way too many people may view a protagonist like her.

Let me tell you about Ellie. She was a medic in Iraq, a soldier who got caught in a terrible Abu Ghraib-like situation, and got torn between duty and horror. Her husband left her for a younger model. She got blown up and lost a chunk of muscle in her leg. It causes her deep physical pain and always will. She’s tough as old leather, but feminine enough to be embarrassed about the scars on her leg. She has PTSD. Between the pain and the nightmares, she doesn't always sleep well. She can’t function in the morning without coffee, her beverage choice the rest of the day is often beer, and though she tries to endure the constant physical and emotional pain, she sometimes resorts to popping Percocet for relief. She has a wry, dry, self deprecating sense of humor that comes out sometimes at the worst possible moment. She loves her uber-Christian mother, who drives her crazy, and is trying to heal past rifts with her. She’s an expat living in China, she’s trying to be a good friend to folks who may not deserve it, she’s trying to get her act together, and she’s trying to find some meaning in a world that exploded and spun out of control on her.

I haven’t read the reviews on Hour of the Rat yet, but I read them for Rock Paper Tiger (because I like to see what other people think of a book I adored). I was seriously appalled by folks who took issue with Ellie’s drinking and swearing and flawed decisions. As if they expected her, as a soldier, to say “gosh darn” and return home after the war to bake cookies and join the PTA. This weekend Americans celebrate our freedom, and the men who fought and died for it. Now that women are actively being allowed in combat positions (as if they already weren't de facto in those positions), are we ready for our books to have protagonists like Ellie Cooper?

My question is this: If Ellie Cooper had been Elliot Cooper, a male protagonist, would readers feel the same? Would you, as a reader, be more tolerant of a male character who’d been a soldier, been hit by an IED, who suffered the hell of PTSD, who swore, who coped with too much beer and painkillers, ran into dangerous situations, and was ambivalent about his mother?

Is there a subconscious prejudice toward the realistic portrayal of flawed female protagonists?


Hour of the Rat by Lisa Brackmann

Iraq War vet Ellie McEnroe has a pretty good life in Beijing, representing the work of controversial dissident Chinese artist Zhang Jianli. Even though Zhang's mysterious disappearance of over a year ago has attracted the attention of the Chinese authorities. Even though her Born-Again mother has come for a visit and shows no signs of leaving.

But things really get complicated when Ellie's search for an Army buddy's missing brother entangles her in a conspiracy that may or may not involve a sinister biotech company, eco-terrorists, and art-obsessed Chinese billionaire, and lots of cats—a conspiracy that will take her on a wild chase through some of China's most beautiful and most surreal places.

Guest host Kat Sheridan is an aspiring romance author, fond of bourbon and shiny things. Creator of, writing blurbs/back cover copy for indie authors. Bon vivant and diva. Her debut Victorian gothic romance novel, Echoes in Stone, will be published in the fall of 2013.


Mark Koopmans said...

Hey Kat,

Wow, great review and I loved this post, because I'm married to a Naval officer and luckily my wife hasn't deployed, but if she did, I'd expect her to come home changed (not necessarily for the bad - just changed...)

Congrats to Lisa and Happy Fourth to you, too :)

Kat Sheridan said...

Mark, please thank your wife for her service for me. And I hope you read the book and enjoy it!

Anonymous said...

If she was a man, we'd expect her reactions to be different, wouldn't we? Be physically tougher, less introspective and more aggressive? Maybe the male model wouldn't survive the first encounter with dangerous people. Oops, end of series. Ha!

Kat Sheridan said...

I think you're right, Ken. And I think, since that would be the expectation, folks would talk more about the work itself, about the plot and action, rather than the character and their thoughts. I really like that about Ellie. She IS introspective, constantly checking in with herself. And I think reviewers might be less harsh with a male character who screws up and keeps trying.

Sheila Deeth said...

Great review. I suspect these are books my husband and I would both enjoy. I also suspect you're right about some readers taking viewing the protagonist differently because she's female. Me, I'm glad to see women portrayed in stronger roles.

John Philipp said...

Nice perspective on Ellie, Kat. I did thoroughly enjoy the book, as usual with Lisa's writing.

Kat Sheridan said...

Sheila, I do recommend these books. Her descriptions of China are so lush. It's a country that is such a mixture of the past and a future that's happening almost too fast. And I really like that Lisa wrote a strong heroine who is human--she doesn't straay into the uber-kick ass kind of cartoon that happens so often.

Kat Sheridan said...

I'm with you, John. Lisa's writing just totally elevates a good action story into something literary. It's a fine line and she walks it beautifully.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Sia and Kat - happy Fourth of July to you both .. I think I'm a 'Rat' ..

The story line sounds exceedingly interesting .. and learning more about China and its countryside is something I'd love to do ... ie read the book - cheers Hilary

Kat Sheridan said...

Hilary, Ellie Cooper was born in the year of the rat, so you already have something in common! And happy (belated) Fourth to you as well!

Liza said...

Intriguing premise. I'm a fan of strong female I'm in Ellie's court.

Kat Sheridan said...

I am too, Liza! I hope you give this book, and the first one, Rock Paper Tiger, a read!

nutschell said...

wow what a great review! And a great question too. I think it wouldn't matter if the protagonist was male or female along as he/she was a character I could root for. Although, I am a big fan of strong female leads.