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review 2018-04-06 04:14
Red Sparrow - Hopeful beginning to a trilogy
Red Sparrow - Jason Matthews

I'm not sure if it's because I've read so many bad espionage stories recently, but I am consciously aware that I liked this more than it deserved to be liked. I kept wishing there was a way the story could be written without a huge part of the plot (the ridiculous romance between two spies who really should know better than to fall in love instantly.) I get worried for national security every time I read one of these stories.


Beyond that huge plot hole, it is excellently-researched and intricate enough to make me feel more comfortable immersed in it than the paint-by-numbers espionage books I've read recently. Nonetheless, there is a huge tendency in this book to view Americans as overly wonderful and super "nice," while Russians are more complicated and far more evil. The lack of nuance is mitigated by the love affair, but love can't cover everything.


I shall be reading the next book, because this one left me with a hook dangling from my mouth, and I need to see how the details are going to work out (it feels pretty clear how it will go in the broad strokes.) I probably could have gotten just as much from the upcoming film(s?) (excepting the recipes, but I don't cook.) My hope is that he "sparrow" will stay well-placed and grow into the strong woman she already is, full of power and a great spy, and that her boy toy, who has the temperament of a small child at times, gets transferred or just grows up and becomes her handler only.


A minor quibble. I am a synesthete as well as a neuroscientist. The book didn't do a good job of making clear that the aura-ish things she sees have nothing to do with synesthesia. In fact, they made it seem like her synaesthesia was the reason she could read people this way. Synaesthesia can be a great help in many things, but those things don't include seeing purity bubbles around people's heads. It's a mild quibble. There is mass misunderstanding about synesthetes but not much in terms of persecution, so I can let that go, silly and incorrect as it is. I can let it go because there were more absurd things than thought bubbles around people's heads.


All of this leaves me yearning for Len Deighton and other cold war writers' supreme nuance and intricate weaving plots that had people leaving their national comfort zones because people are more complicated than country - and all of that nuance cannot be conveyed with a few sexy scenes and two youngsters in lust. 

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review 2018-04-02 20:33
The Alice Network -- a great spy story and an a poor romance book
The Alice Network - Kate Quinn

There are two books here really. While the author pulls them together, it didn't work for me. Charlie, a young pregnant American, spurs Eve - a former spy from the real life Alice Network - to go ahunting for someone she knew during WWI when she worked as a spy. Surely there was another way to get to the story of the fascinating women who made up The Alice Network in WWI.


Theirs is a fascinating story pulled from history, and I am going to try to find an actual historical nonfiction book about the Alice Network, because it's a worthy story about some very courageous and strong women. I have read so many books about the male spies of both World Wars, but never have I read much about female spies - unless they were peripheral to the male main character. This is different.


I only wish Kate Quinn had left Charlie out completely. She is half the book, and she took away rather than added to the story. Perhaps it was the strong contrast with Eve, but if the book had been her story alone, I would probably not have picked it up, and I certainly wouldn't have finished it. I found myself dreading her chapters. I also did not need a love story in the middle of a wonderful read about strong women who didn't need men to get through their daily life. Without Charlie, this book would have passed the Bechdel test and all the other feminist tests with flying colors. Because of Charlie, it doesn't pass any.


If the book had been purely about Eve and the Alice Network women, it would have rated much higher for me. Charlie's story and her character brought the entire thing down, with yet another woman who only finds herself in the eyes of some man. Love is wonderful, but it took up space and time in this book that would have been better devoted to the story that mattered.


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review 2018-03-10 18:28
Need to Know - What you need to know is AVOID THIS BOOK!
Need to Know: A Novel - Karen Cleveland

10 hours of my life are gone. I wish I could give negative star ratings...


Rarely have I detested a character as much as I hated the main character in NEED TO KNOW. That alone doesn't make a bad book though. I've hated lots of characters in books I loved. This book is pure crap, though, and full of awful, whiny unrealistic characters. The bad ones practically twirl mustaches, they're so poorly drawn.


How did a female former CIA analyst manage to write such a simpering, naive, idiotic main character? If she'd ended up tied to railroad tracks by a dastardly cartoon criminal, it would not have surprised me. I stopped listening, jumped to the end of th physical copy (BTW, this should have warned me: both audio & hardback were available at the library,) confirmed I was correct (I got every single bad guy on my bingo card!) and felt actual anger over the hours wasted.


It is the worst book I've encountered in a long time. I think Harlequin Romances would have rejected this (even before their standards improved) as too unbelievable and poorly written. I can't believe it got published. It's not espionage, mystery, thriller or even suspenseful. It's dime-store pulp done poorly. The main character thinks, "this is Matt!" at least 500 times. She is so easily manipulated and duped that I seriously worry for our national security after this one.


This book is missing nuance and complexity at every turn. Every character is flat and unrealistic. The premise was good. Execution was horrible. I want my money and time back. A good idea got killed, but someone should have killed the book long before it got out into the public.


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review 2018-03-02 07:06
Undercover: The Men and Women of the Special Operations Executive - Patrick Howarth

SOE. The Special Operations Executive. Its remit upon its establishment in Britain during the dark days of the summer of 1940 when the Third Reich bestrode the continent of Western Europe from Norway to the Bay of Biscay: to establish an effective resistance against the Nazis in German-occupied Europe. The author of "UNDERCOVER", Patrick Howarth, was himself a member of this unique organization. With considerable skill, he shares with the reader the stories of many of the courageous men and women of SOE who risked their lives across Europe from Norway to France, the Netherlands, Poland (there the Polish resistance had an autonomy and control over operations against the Germans unlike any resistance network elsewhere), the Balkans, and Italy. Later, SOE would establish itself in the Far East and the Southwest Pacific in the war against Japan. 

Anyone who enjoys reading human interest stories and tales of espionage will gain a deep understanding and appreciation for the people who made SOE such a uniquely effective organization, despite the antagonisms it faced from older, more established intelligence agencies in Britain (e.g. the Secret Intelligence Service [SIS] or MI-6), as well as from elements of the British military. 

In essence, "[t]he history of SOE's active service in the Second World War may be deemed to have begun when members of a British military mission were retreating hastily from Poland to Romania in September 1939. It may be thought to have ended when the first white man to be parachuted into Sarawak, and future curator of Sarawak's ethnological museum, accepted the surrender of Japanese forces on 31 October 1945."

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review 2018-02-25 05:45
Is Steinhauer trying to do Dostoyevsky? Dunno, but it kept me turning the pages
The Nearest Exit - Olen Steinhauer

What a mess of a plot, with a mess of a bunch of people, running around in a mess of an agency with the messiest morals imaginable. It's so much like the US I know and love that it's almost like real life.


Dostoevsky asked a lot about lying to oneself, peace and justice in The Brothers Karamazov. Here Olen Steinhauer visits a lot of those same topics in a rather pulpy espionage novel. He even centers his second installation in Milo Weaver's story with a similar question to the one Ivan asks Alyosha, "Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature - [a child.]"


That's the big question of this book. We learn very early on that Milo has been asked to murder a young girl, and we spend the novel trying to figure out why - was the reason "just" or not, is it ever "just" to kill (especially a child) and what exactly is justice, who is the arbiter? Writers much better than Steinhauer for all time have tried to answer these questions. We're not getting the answer in a spy novel.


It's been a while since I read The Brothers, but Milo is at least as tortured at times as any Russian character. He just deals with it in very different ways. There are many other similarities, and that's kind of hilarious at the same time it's true. For instance, can Milo be with his wife and child while he's still a Tourist? Dostoyevsky said, “One can fall in love and still hate.” He also said, “Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”


And that's Milo's central struggle. He's constantly lying to the woman and child he professes to love and lying most of all to himself. He swears for two books now that he's leaving the Dept of Tourism, but he noticeably has not left, despite all the consequences he and his loved ones have faced because of his work. This one reaches high, but doesn't always meet its mark.


Honestly, I have no idea how to review this second book. There's something absurd about the lofty ideals of this man, Milo Weaver, who keeps doing the same thing expecting different results, but I still like him despite myself. The only thing I know is that there is a third, and I will read it. I'm hoping that means Milo will be around for it, though honestly, I am not entirely sure because it seems Olen Steinhauer is more than happy to kill off, or seemingly kill off, just about anyone. That's what makes me turn the pages.


It's not a masterpiece. This is a book to be read on a rainy sunday snuggled under a blanket to give my brain a break, which is why those idealistic Dostoyevskian questions don't all belong in one volume of this type. Nonetheless it held my interest, and that's really all I expected.

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