About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews – While the Cold War is close to a generation in our past the CIA and the SVR (Russia’s foreign intelligence agency) continue to spy and seek out spies.

Dominika Egorova is a beautiful young woman in Moscow with a promising career in ballet ahead of her when an injury, inspired by a rival ballerina, ends her life as a dancer.

With a brilliant mind she looks for other opportunities in modern Russia. She is gifted at assessing people. Dominika is a synaesthete who sees colours about anyone with whom she has conversation. From these colours she can usually determine their emotions and honesty. Until I started reading David Rotenberg’s books a year ago featuring Decker Roberts I had never heard of synaesthetes. Now I have read two books within a month having primary characters as synaesthetes. Dominika is a more conventional synaesthete seeing colours rather than the lines of Roberts. While her gift is known she is careful to conceal her gift, unlike Roberts who uses his talent in contracts assessing truthfulness.

Her uncle, Vanya Egorov Deputy Director o the SVR, sees a chance to exploit Dominika’s beauty by setting her upon troublesome oligarch, Dimitri Ustinov. Uncle Vanya coerces her co-operation by letting Dominika know her mother’s apartment is safe if she entices Ustinov into bed. She is successful but the result is sexually and bloodily horrific.

Dominika uses her success to enter the SVR. It remains an extremely male dominated organization.

She is sent to Sparrow school. I had not thought about the sexual training of Russian women to serve their country. It was the hardest part of the book to read.

In America Nate Nash joins the CIA to escape a stifling Virginia family. His Russian language skills send him to Moscow where he is tasked to meet with America’s most important Russian spy. When the SVR almost catch them together Nash is forced into a dramatic evasive effort. A confrontation with his supervisor over the source being almost revealed has him sent to Helsinki.

Dominika is sent by the SVR to Finland to pursue Nash and obtain information that could lead to the detection of the mole inside the SVR. The beautiful Russian and the handsome American establish a relationship.

What is surprising is the devious subsequent plot as each intelligence service schemes to obtain information and chase down moles.

Red Sparrow is an unusual book. At times it is as uncompromising as a John LeCarre thriller. In other places it has the Hollywood feel of Christopher Reich's later books such as Rules of Betrayal.

There was abit too much for me of a character’s appearance foretelling personality and nature.

It was intriguing to read how spies spend so much of their time working out whether they are being followed.

It was not a surprise when I read Matthews had a 33 year career in the CIA before turning to writing a spy thriller. I was reminded of the thrillers written by Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5 in England.

Readers should know that there are very explicit sexual scenes in the book. The training of Sparrows was disturbing to me. I could have done without some of the detail. Matthews could benefit from some of the restraint shown by Rimington.

I acknowledge a contradiction in my reading. I want scenes to be real but can find them too real. Matthews made the scenes convincingly real. I admire he did not gloss over what happened. My personal preference would have been a little less graphic.

Dominika had the same fascination for me of Lisbeth Sanders when I first encountered her in Stieg Larsson’s triology. Each is a strong unconventional woman with special talents who is challenging male set boundaries.

I believe the book, when released in June, will be very successful. It is a well written spy thriller with abundant sex and violence. I equally expect a lot of movie buzz. Hollywood will be interested. I can see the stars lining up to be Dominika and Nate.

Red Sparrow is a good book. I will read future books of Matthews. I think he has the potential to be an excellent thriller writer. I hope he will consider toning down abit the sex and violence to concentrate more on the story.

I thank Simon & Schuster for providing me with an advance reader edition. (Mar. 29/13)


  1. Bill - Thanks for a thorough and thoughtful review. I know what you mean about books that cross that subtle but real line between 'realistic' and 'too much.' It's a difficult balance...

    It sounds though as though these are interesting characters and I always respect an author who creates something unusual.

  2. Margot: Thanks for the comment. I appreciate your understanding of the "line".

  3. This sounds like it would be an interesting read. Like you, I had not heard of synaesthetes before I read the two reviews at your blog. Comes close to the paranormal area, but seems like it would be worth a try. And a spy novel to boot. Thanks for this review.

  4. TracyK: Thanks for the comment. Whether written fiction or T.V. ideas suddenly get done repeatededly.

  5. I thought Red Sparrow was a great book, and was not offended by the sex and violence scenarios. They were tame compared to the actual reality of the world around us. I thought the final chapters leading up to the denouement were a bit convoluted, but overall, a great read. I hope Jason Matthews continues his fine writing. While I was reading the novel, I pictured Dominika as being played by Keri Russel in a future movie. She is the actor playing a Russian sleeper agent in the FX TV series "The Americans"

  6. Hadyn: Thanks for the comment. I still believe the explicit sex and violence in Red Sparrow was not tame. I thought the book would be a best seller. I see it has won an Edgar Award. Ms. Russel is certainly a lovely lady.