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According to the Simon & Schuster website for Red Sparrow,

Jason Matthews is a retired officer in CIA’s former Operations Directorate, now the National Clandestine Service. Over a thirty-three-year career he served in multiple overseas locations and engaged in clandestine collection of national security intelligence, specializing in denied area operations. Matthews conducted operations against Soviet-East European, East Asian, Middle Eastern, and Caribbean targets and, as Chief in various CIA Stations, managed covert action projects against the Weapons of Mass Destruction programs of the world’s Rogue States and collaborated with foreign liaison partners in counter terrorism operations.
Charles Cumming wrote, in his review of Red Sparrow for the New York Times:
Jason Matthews is a 33-year veteran of the C.I.A. who, according to the press release in front of me, “served in multiple overseas locations and engaged in clandestine collection of national-security intelligence.” Lord knows how he got the manuscript of “Red Sparrow” past the redacting committee at Langley, but he has turned his considerable knowledge of espionage into a startling debut.
"Lord knows how he got the manuscript of 'Red Sparrow' past the redacting committee at Langley." You don't need to turn to the Lord, Mr. Cummings, I can give you a clue. The CIA is the best, the most powerful producer of propaganda that the world has ever known. Get it through the redacting committee? It reads to me like they wrote it.

Red Sparrow: A Novel
By Jason Matthews
Publishers: Scribner/Simon & Schuster
Hardcover: $26.00, Kindle edition: $11.04, Audiobook CD: $49.99, Audible w/Kindle purchase: $12.99
Hardcover release, June 2013;
448 pages

Red Sparrow is a Russian spy who was trained by the SVR (formerly KGB) Sparrow School to run a honey trap on an unsuspecting American CIA agent who is the control for a high ranking SVR mole. This novel excels in the use of the terms and techniques of the espionage craft, making a reader feel that he is gaining insider information on every page.

But we can use English instead.

MARBLE is an honorable Russian whose career with the SVR has spanned decades, going back to the days when it was the KGB. Fourteen years earlier his Soviet bosses refused to allow his wife to seek medical care from the United States. As a result, she died of a misdiagnosed cancer and he decided that the USSR was rotten to the core and so started to feed secrets to the CIA. His control in Moscow is young agent er, CIA case officer, Nathaniel (Nate) Nash. A close call with the SVR led to Nate's reassignment to Helsinki.

Meanwhile, Dominika Egorova has been recruited into the SVR by her uncle, Ivan Egorova, its Deputy Director, after her career in ballet is ended by an injury. She is sent to State School Four which is where men and women are trained in the art of using sex in espionage. Men are Ravens and women are Sparrows. After training and a successful seduction operation (not a technical term), she is sent to Helsinki to get close to Nate to learn the identity of his mole.

Nate is told to develop and to attempt to turn Dominika while she is working to recruit him as a source. And the game is on. One agent trying to seduce the other who is doing the same. The plot thickens with the introduction of an American, code named SWAN, who is providing information to the Russians in DC. The tale is one of crosses and double crosses with some sex and violence thrown in that should keep most readers closely engaged.

But I had a couple of problems with this book.

Every chapter ends with a recipe. At first it was cute and a rather nice look at how local cuisine is put together. But there are 42 chapters in this book. Do you have any idea how tedious and then how irritating it can be to have the action stop dead while a poorly written recipe is introduced? There are no measurements, temperatures or times so you can't very well prepare the recipes and they serve only to slow down the action and distract the reader from the plot. It is even worse when you are listening to the book as  the recipes can take up to 30 seconds to read, just like commercials. And just like commercials, I was fast forwarding through them, so if there were any hidden clues I completely missed them.

But a much greater problem, for me, was the shallow good guy, bad guy framing of this story. MARBLE, although a traitor who sold state secrets for money and a retirement package that included relocation to the United States, was a good guy because his wife died and he was selling the secrets to the CIA. SWAN, on the other hand was a sociopathic slut because she a) slept with whoever she wanted to and b) was a Senator from the blue state of California (who just happened to sit on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence), who chose to sell state secrets to the Russians. Oh, and she is a drunk. Of course.

Really. No ambiguity, no shades of grey, only cartoon characters defined by their relationship to the CIA. The FBI are kind of bad guys because they insist on acting within the confines of the United States legal system and that means that sometimes suspects get away and operations fail. And besides, just like politicians and local law enforcement officers, they leak information to the press. And we certainly can't have the press learn about what the government is doing. They might tell the public, and then where would we be?

I am not even going to discuss the misogyny.

In this novel of the CIA, there is no mention of extraordinary rendition, no talk of enhanced interrogation, except that done by the bad guys, i.e., the Russians, in the basement of a cold dank prison (where else?). There is no discussion of the dirty wars or the special operations run by the National Clandestine Service. Of the seven murders that were committed in this novel, only one was done by a CIA operative, and that one was only because the agent was forced to defend himself. And he never intended the victim to die, only to stop beating him up. Sure.

This is a very smoothly written fairy tale to make Americans once more proud of the CIA. To forget the sins, to look forward instead of backwards. But do let us retreat to the days of the Cold War when the enemy hit a table with his shoe instead of aiming it at an American President. USA! USA! Spells bestseller to me and I expect this one to shoot up the lists. It has garnered rave reviews from every major publication. That does not mean that this is not propaganda, specifically crafted to make us believe our government spy agency is manned by saints who could never, ever do anything wrong or even morally ambiguous.

If we put aside the politics, which I am usually able to do fairly well, this is a decent read. The spelling is correct and most of the grammar is acceptable. The plot is not terrible. If you liked Ian Fleming's James Bond, you will might enjoy this as a spy thriller.

But do not believe the reviewers who compare Jason Matthews to John le Carré. Matthews writes about good guys vs bad guys, superheroes versus villains, while le Carré, also an experienced intelligence officer, writes about what the battle does to the combatants.

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Comment Preferences

  •  If you haven't read it yet, please check out (20+ / 0-)

    Tool's diary of yesterday, How Hollywood sold America Total Information Awareness. It seems as if pop culture is being used, again and always, I guess, to shape how we see our government and its actions.

    Next time I plan to review a real spy novel, John le Carré's latest, A Delicate Truth. See you in a couple of weeks.

    •  I just finished it last week and enjoyed it. (12+ / 0-)

      LeCarre that is.  As usual his book was timely in an understated way.  I really enjoyed it.  I had just done a re-read of most of his books beginning with the Spy who Came in...  Thanks for your review of this book.  Nothing makes me madder than to sit down to a new book only to be disappointed by silly cardboard characters.

      I was in London on my birthday once and walked by a bookstore where LeCarre/Cornwell was signing books.  I got him to sign his latest and it has been a cherished possession.  A great birthday present for myself.

      "Speak the TRUTH, even if your voice shakes."

      by stellaluna on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 05:47:26 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  He reads A Delicate Truth on the Audible version! (12+ / 0-)

        And he does a remarkable job of it. I am going to go back and re-read some of his older stuff and watch the two versions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

        I had forgotten how much I enjoyed his work until I read Red Sparrow.

        •  I never have the patience to listen to the audible (6+ / 0-)

          versions.  But I was swooning when I met him.  So maybe I could listen to this one.

          "Speak the TRUTH, even if your voice shakes."

          by stellaluna on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 05:56:24 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  He was so good I thought he was a pro and only (11+ / 0-)

            realized it was him when I was about halfway through and wanted to note the name of the narrator.

            BTW, I am a recent convert to the audio format and am surprised at how much I am enjoying it. Audible, and I am sure  most others, allow one to increase the speed from 1 to 1.25, 1.50, 2.0, and 3.0 times normal speed. I listened to Red Sparrow at 1.50 because the reader was so slow. But John le Carré, I listened to him in real time.

            •  Yes! (5+ / 0-)

              I'm listening to the audio, about 2/3 through, and I can't believe what a wonderful narrator he is.

              I'm having mixed feelings about the book -- I'm not as interested in the characters as I'd like to be. But a lot can happen in a third of a book.

              "I am sure of very little, and I shouldn't be surprised if those things were wrong." Clarence Darrow

              by scilicet on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 10:05:34 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  I think it all comes together in the last third of (3+ / 0-)

                the book actually.  I would love to hear if your opinion changes by the end.  In the first part of the book it was almost too hard to figure out who our hero was.  But then, that is always how it is in LeCarre.

                "Speak the TRUTH, even if your voice shakes."

                by stellaluna on Tue Jul 09, 2013 at 03:50:34 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  Finished the book this morning (2+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  Susan from 29, RiveroftheWest

                  I think there were two things that undercut my enjoyment of A Delicate Truth. The main one was that I never felt close to any of the characters, wasn't interested enough in them. This could just have been my mood -- I read several very gripping books in the weeks before, and since then every book I've tried has been a let-down. I just didn't care much about Toby or Kit. (And omg have I loved other Le Carre characters. I've reread every Smiley book, loved every character in every one.) The other thing sort of disturbs me because of what it says about how jaded I am. I did think the points about corporate take-over of spying were timely etc. But all the fuss was triggered by collateral damage that was two deaths. The level of distress associated with two deaths, considering this was set in the world of espionage, seemed out of proportion. Plus -- and I'd love to know what you think -- I wasn't sure what the ending meant. Keeping it in very general terms -- I don't want us to spoil for people who haven't yet read it -- did the sirens mean a bad end for the character in the restaurant or that there would be welcome exposure? I feel dense for asking. I guess my mind had been wandering and I hadn't been paying close enough attention to feel sure, one way or the other. Again, I know my take on the book was mood-driven.

                  "I am sure of very little, and I shouldn't be surprised if those things were wrong." Clarence Darrow

                  by scilicet on Tue Jul 09, 2013 at 12:05:38 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  I think, in addition to the collateral damage, the (2+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:
                    RiveroftheWest, scilicet

                    main focus was, once again, what toll espionage and now whistle blowing takes on the individual. Think about the men who wanted to do the right thing, and what happened to each of them, physically and/or emotionally when they tried to set the record straight.

                    I'll kosmail you about the sirens, so we don't spoil it for anyone else.

                    And I read A Delicate Truth after Red Sparrow, so my mood was about 180º from yours. :-)

                    •  Thanks! (1+ / 0-)
                      Recommended by:
                      RiveroftheWest

                      I appreciated the kosmail. I hate it when I'm not sure what an ending means. (And no sooner do I start using the Darrow quote below as a sig. line but it becomes totally appropriate.)

                      "I am sure of very little, and I shouldn't be surprised if those things were wrong." Clarence Darrow

                      by scilicet on Tue Jul 09, 2013 at 03:37:15 PM PDT

                      [ Parent ]

                  •  I started to like the characters by the end. (3+ / 0-)

                    I agree the collateral damage seemed sadly quaint given the horrors we see in the real world. But without the angst of the characters as they struggle with morality most of LeCarre's books seem quaint. I think the sirens was a bad thing. Maybe I had a better opinion of the book because I had the opposite problem of having read a series of mediocre books. I wouldn't mind your list of good ones. I read the first Jo Nesbo Harry Hole book, "The Bat" last night and enjoyed it.

                    "Speak the TRUTH, even if your voice shakes."

                    by stellaluna on Tue Jul 09, 2013 at 05:21:12 PM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

                    •  good to know about the Jo Nesbo (3+ / 0-)

                      I started The Redbreast a few days ago but got impatient and switched to a different book. (I did the same with two other "the next Stieg Larsson" authors, Camilla Lackberg and Henning Mankell. More proof that I am In A Mood.) Right now I'm trying to like a Kate Atkinson book because she was highly recommended. But it may be that for now, Tana French has spoiled me for other mysteries.

                      But the really tough thing, in terms of having adored some recent books so others don't seem to stack up, is how recently I read Adam Johnson's Pulitzer winner The Orphan Master's son, and Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, and John Scalzi's Redshirts, and Philipp Meyer's Son (engrossing if flawed -- also true of Adrian McKinty's "Troubles" series set in N. Ireland), and Roger Hobbs's Ghostman. And before that it was Lonesome Dove & the other 3 in that series. Oh, and the unique & weird The Sister Brothers (Patrick deWitt). I was just so lucky for so long with my book choices that now I can't seem to get back that loving feeling. (And with that, I've doomed self to have the Righteous Brothers' You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling stuck in my head all night.)

                      "I am sure of very little, and I shouldn't be surprised if those things were wrong." Clarence Darrow

                      by scilicet on Tue Jul 09, 2013 at 06:10:43 PM PDT

                      [ Parent ]

        •  I reread The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (9+ / 0-)

          a little over a year ago and probably enjoyed it more than the first go I had over 30 years ago. Le Carre is a genius when weaving an intricate and seamless plot. The characters are full and rich even when somewhat enigmatic. Hands are not tipped toward the obvious and the unexpected veers drive the disturbing plot. Wonderful stuff.

  •  Dad (12+ / 0-)

    My Dad was with military intelligence from World War II on. I can just imagine his reaction to this book. I took all his "spy" books when I cleaned out the house. Dad's criteria for spy novels was they had to be multidimensional and not just rah rah good guys versus bad guys. I doubt he would have like this book at all.

    "A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world." Oscar Wilde

    by michelewln on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 05:39:48 PM PDT

  •  OMG, Susan (11+ / 0-)
    If we put aside the politics, which I am usually able to do fairly well, this is a decent read. The spelling is correct and most of the grammar is acceptable. The plot is not terrible. If you liked Ian Fleming's James Bond, you will might enjoy this as a spy thriller.
    I don't think I have ever seen you damn with faint praise as much as you did with this one.

    "The spelling is correct and most of the grammar is acceptable"?

    OMG.

    You really loathed it.

    Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

    by Youffraita on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 06:34:48 PM PDT

  •  Nicely Done! (3+ / 0-)

    You dropped that book into an acid bath.  Now I don't have to read it.  Thank you very much!  Spelling and grammar, indeed.  Nowhere near enough to make a book good.  My impression is that your review is much better than the book!

    Turning our attention to le Carré. . .I happen to be reading his very first novel, Call for the Dead, in which George Smiley is introduced.

    From para.1:

    When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war, she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary. . .Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad. . ."Sercomb was mated to a bullfrog in a sou'wester."  And Smiley, unaware of this description, had waddled down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a Prince.
    Now, that's masterful writing!  I'm inspired to read all his novels chronologically, even the many non-Smiley ones.  Having read them the first time for their story value and with awareness of their political and moral commentary, I'd now like to read them with an eye toward paying attention to how his over-arching device matures from one book to the next.  Follow along "the last days of the disgruntled and disillusioned hero" and his writing technique.

    I think what I like most about his style is his way of writing askance to the action.  My impression is that his authorial eye isn't constantly turned full on to it, but that it's often looking from a cast aside.  So, the effect is of a story seen through a partially drawn veil that ironically allows the reader (in her turn) to see more clearly what he wants understood.

    Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

    by Limelite on Tue Jul 09, 2013 at 03:22:03 AM PDT

    •  The movie rights have been obtained by Fox so (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest

      it will eventually be coming to a theater near you. No need to read it, wait until you can stream it on Netflix. The characters on the screen will no doubt have more depth.

      I can feel a le Carré immersion experience in my future.

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