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Red Sparrow is the debut novel from retired CIA retiree with 33 years experience. It has a certain ring of authenticity throughout. Good thing he can write also!
A few things that set this book apart from other spy novels (for better or for worse):
1. The main character has a "sixth-sense" that allows her instincts to 'sense' what another personality is feeling (ie., anger, betrayal, deceit, lust, etc...).
She can see another person's "aura" which shows their true "colors" and this aura flares when agitated regardless of other outward appearances by the person. This would give an obvious advantage to the person who could read this aura. This didn't particularly bother me, as I just put it down as a literary form to express heightened instincts that were visible to the character and reader, or etc...I could see how this might bother other readers though, as it borders on the supernatural or silly when in the context of a serious espionage novel, but it was fine.
2. Each chapter ended with a recipe for a food that was tasted by the main characters somewhere in the previous chapter.
I actually enjoyed this aspect, although other reviewers had stated an annoyance or the superfluity of it. Being a spy novel it could easily be seen as a way to pass information to a knowing party, where another party would see it only as mundane information. Another reason I liked the recipes included, is because they were interesting. They added a dimension to the story that I often listen for: sights, sounds, SMELLS, tastes, etc...
The author really seemed to love cooking and the food sounded really tasty at times! I didn't think this was overdone either, as the recipe normally took about one-two minutes to recite.
It was otherwise a satisfying spy novel, and the conclusion was somewhat unique. I would highly recommend to fans of this genre.
69 of 70 people found this review helpful
After a 33 year career working as a covert operative with the C.I.A., Matthews no doubt could have written an intriguing best seller about his days of espionage. But evidenced by this debut novel, Matthews not only knows his tradecraft, he has the writing chops to produce better than a one time tell-all. In the tradition of other great former spy-turned-novelists, Fleming, McCarry, le Carré -- Red Sparrow is a smart, tightly constructed novel that lays out such an information-packed, step by step foundation, that the listener feels complicit in the Cold War cat and mouse. Worthy of comparisons to the aforementioned authors...and with just enough playfulness to apparently keep it out of the Federal shredders.
This is the caliber of novel you expect from a veteran author -- or should I say "seasoned" author? Included at the end of each chapter is the recipe for some exotic dish that one of the characters has been noshing on -- an addition that has some critic's calling the bonus recipe a distraction and an unnecessary and gimmick. (I say if James Bond can have Pussy Galore, a razor brimmed bowler hat, and exploding toothpaste - Matthews can give his readers recipes.) Ignore these effete literary snobs; Matthew intentionally provided them with a bull's eye, saying in an interview he did, "The real world of intelligence work is a lot of waiting, analysis, research, so I had to insert some excitement in the fictional plot." Until reading the interview, I had wondered if a clue was provided in each recipe; every element of this story is so well constructed it would make sense--but not so...sometimes a red herring is just a red herring.
Also raising a critical eyebrow is the synesthete seductress (she sees colors around people), Russian intelligence officer Dominika. Her aura-enhanced vision however, is blessedly not an X-man-ish superpower, but an actual phenomenon that some people claim to experience (including author Vladim Nabokov). The condition is used as an ineffectual trait that adds interest to her character without really affecting her performance or the story. This was a bigger issue than the recipe, and I'm still chewing on that element being thrown into classic spy fiction...wondering if Matthews has future plans with this fascinating female spy.
The detail here is absorbing; the treachery and deceit will have you wide-eyed and tense, paranoid about dotting an "i" (the dot could be the message!). Maybe the recipes were at least a hint about how to enjoy this novel...This kind of from the ground up detailing takes time; the tension builds slowly, like the warm kettle of water that slowly comes to a boil and catches/cooks that proverbial frog...when it starts to bubble it is fast and furious. And unblinkingly vicious.
A difficult novel to narrate, with the Russian characters, dialogue, and terms, and Jeremy Bobb adds an understated panache to the story with his reading. Great read/highly recommend to fans of spy fiction. Best case scenario: Matthews continues with this character and his unique style and *packaging* (I, for one, would love the cookbook).
224 of 236 people found this review helpful