Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

redRed Sparrow is novel published in 2013 by Jason Matthews, a retired CIA field operative who has experience collecting national security intelligence and recruiting new officers. He conducted operations against Russia, and operated in areas of East Asia, East Europe, the Caribbean, and Middle East.

The plot begins with Nathaniel Nash, a CIA officer who is on a mission to secretly exchange information with MARBLE, a seasoned Russian officer who aids the CIA with top-secret information about the leader’s plans. However, Nathaniel and his ally experience a near-encounter with Russian surveillance. Fortunately, both men are able to escape and successfully complete the mission. Nevertheless, Nathaniel receives a harsh scolding from his director and loses his job and opportunity to gain a higher position in the CIA. Although this outcome may seem severe for a one small mishap, the author reveals how Nathaniel has been dealing with the cut-throat mentality of the CIA for a long time. This explains why anger spills over in Nathaniel’s mind. He explodes into rage and dares to yell back at his director.

From the outside, Dominika Egorova seems to be an ordinary, simple, and beautiful young woman. However, the novel reveals her painful experiences with the Russian government, which provokes her to prove her worth to the Americans in order to be able to work under their care. Dominika never yearned to be a spy for any government. However, when her promising ballet career ends in an accident and father dies in a stroke, she takes up on an opportunity to work for the SVR, an Russian Intelligence Service.

On her first mission, Dominika is put to work with Egrov who orders her to seduce to possibly gain any useful information against an enemy of Putin. While she performs her duty, an unexpected assassin murders Dominika’s target. This puts her in danger due Egrov’s expectation that she could possibly unleash this happening that would ruin his ambitions to become an elected official. As a solution, Dominika suggests her admission to the SVR academy, where she could officially become a qualified spy under an oath. However, her uncle sends her off to Sparrow School, where women are taught to use their physical attributes to seduce and gain secret information about their enemies. Once again, Dominika feels belittled because of her beauty and gender and because she is not able to lead a formal mission using her intelligence, but instead is forced to serve as a pawn under the Russian government. She responds to her uncle with a short, yet blunt reply.

“You’re sending me to whore school.”

When Dominika is sent to Helsinki to uncover who who has been passing information to an American officer, Nathanial Nash, she unexpectedly falls in love with him. The author’s way of portraying the relationship between the two truly captures how love can still blossom in difficult times and induces a sense of hopefulness in the audience.

“Dominika,” he said, and the rushing in his ears started, the old danger signal.

“Will you break your rules again?” she asked. She saw his purple lust, it lit up the darkened room.

“I want you to violate your rules … with me… not your agent, me” said Dominika.”

Despite disapproval from both sides of their intelligence comunities, the relationship blossoms. However, after Dominika’s mission fails and she is suspected of helping the Americans, she taken away, jailed, and tortured. Without a confession, the Russian director decides to reinstate her as a spy and this leads her to work with General Korchnoi.

The audience is taught that General Korchnoi is actually MARBLE, the double spy who has been working with Nathaniel from earlier in the novel. He possesses an ambitious plan to train Dominika to become the next “MARBLE,” and persuades her to turn him in as a traitor. If Dominika follows his plan, she would be able to gain enough trust from the SVR in order to become the next general. Eventually, Dominika discovers Korchnoi’s plan and feels extreme betrayal towards the Americans. She claims that she will not go back to Russia, rejecting SVR’s orders. The SVR makes a deal with her, promising her the safety of Korchnoi if she returned to Russia. However, just when the swap is about to become finalized, Korchnoi is murdered by a Russian assassin. Betrayed by both countries, the audience is left to wonder whether she will go back to the Americans or the Russians.

The heart-wrenching plot of Red Sparrow, overflowing with intricate details of the inner workings of the CIA and restless portrayal of a spy’s mindset is a must read. The author’s background truly adds a sense of realism to the novel, which sets it apart from other spy novels I’ve read that sometimes seems too far-fetched and or unfathomable. After much analysis, I feel that this novel encompasses a significant literary thread that I personally relate to. Throughout her journey, Dominika is constantly refused by men to serve as an intelligence officer and instead forced to use her physical attributes to her advantage. The constant feelings of rejection and humility are experiences that I have dealt with as a woman living in a patriarchal society. Before attending an all-girls school, I struggled more than my male counterparts to secure certain competitive positions, because of the public’s mindset that boys are generally more intelligent and reliable when working with “big matters,” such as representing the school. This captivating and relatable thread is another reason why I feel this novel is not simply an ordinary spy novel.

Other works by Jason Matthews include Palace of Treason, The Kremlin’s Candidate, and Cipher’s Sisters. Novels that deal with similar themes as portrayed in this novel include A Divided Spy by Charles Cumming, I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes, and The Prodigal Spy by Joseph Kanon.

Reviewed by Susie Y ’18

 

 

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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind ​by Yuval Noah Harari

sapEvery page of Yuval Noah Harari’s ​Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind​ is packed with a plethora of such intricate history and neat thoughts that I truly do not know where to begin. Harari leads us through the history of Homo Sapiens, starting from how our species wiped out all other human species (Contrary to popular belief, we are not the only humans to ever exist.) to what is going to happen post-humans, or post-Homo-Sapiens to be exact.

The development timeline of Homo Sapiens has three major milestone, for now: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution and the Scientific Revolution (which triggers the Industrial Revolution which triggers the Biotechnological Revolution.) Harari suspects that the rise of the Biotechnological Revolution which brings about nuclear bombs, chemical weapons, genetic engineering, etc might be the end of Homo Sapiens once and for all. Soon we will be replaced by genetically engineered post-Homo-Sapiens capable of living forever.

The most interesting section is the Cognitive Revolution. Before the Cognitive Revolution, forager bands couldn’t not sustain more members than the Dunbar number of 150. The Cognitive Revolution solved this problem with the evolvement of imagined orders, or “intersubjectives” that exist for as long as we believe they do.
“Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have been living in a dual reality. On one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so

that today the very survival of river, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.”
Prominent examples of intersubjectives are religions, countries, laws and money. In the natural world, none of these things actually exists. However, because most humans believe they exists so they are as real as any rivers, trees or lions. Objective matters exist independent of human consciousness, like the galaxy or the ocean. Subjective matters exist solely in our imagination, like the imagined friend you used to have when you were a child.

“The intersubjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals. If a single individual changes his or her beliefs, or even dies, it is of little importance. However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, the inter-subjective phenomenon will mutate or disappear.”
Harari lays out these intricate matter to the readers in an informative and engaging fashion. Sapiens ​is a page turner for those who are eager to learn about how humans become humans. If anthropology, history, biology and psychology ever had a child together, this would be it.

Reviewed by Nghi L ’18

The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

girlWhat makes us human? What part of our existence makes us who we are? What puts us above others who do not categorize themselves in the same checklist as us? Is it our job to protect those that are different than us, or is it our duty to lord our authority over their existence? Within his novel M.R. Carey takes you through a thrilling, bittersweet journey that answers these questions and ultimately depicts what it means to be human.

Melanie knows nothing but her everyday schedule within her four concrete walls. She has seen nothing but concrete since as long as she can remember. She is used to having always at least two guards escort her to and from the classroom with guns drawn. She is used to being locked into her wheelchair with straps from her neck down to her ankles while her lessons with the other children take place, each in their own fortified chairs. She does not understand why the guards do not laugh when she says, ‘don’t worry I won’t bite.’ What Melanie does know is her love for her favorite teacher Miss. Justineau; her ancient Greek myths story-time the children and her treating the children like they are kids, earns her a special place in Melanie’s heart that she did not know was empty. Melanie is the brightest of her class, but when the stern, brooding sergeant comes in one day and yells at beloved Miss. Justineau, Melanie can’t get one phrase out of her mind, “ Not everyone who looks human is human.” She could not unravel the unknown riddle, and she does not understand why sometimes children leave and never come back.

M.R. Carey has not written the typical zombie novel. Melanie completely breaks that mold, as she embodies what it means to be human without fully being that. She is naïve, has hopes and dreams, and experiences love just as deep as any other person even though she is considered a monster. Carey uses beautiful language and imagery in the process of describing a devastated, dying world through the eyes of a child who sees its true beauty for what it is, “ A landscape of decay – but still gloriously and heart-stoppingly beautiful. The sky overhead is a bright blue bowl of almost infinite size, given the depth by a massive bank of pure white cloud at a the limit of vision that goes up and up like a tower.” Carey uses an underlining theme of Greek Mythology that involves origin myths and classical stories in order to compliment this novel centered around the ‘end of the world’ as well as to express human suffering not only physical but on a deeper level.

Miss. Justineau tries to do all that she can in order to protect her ‘class’ from the higher ups in one of the last standing military bases north of London. How do you tell a class of 30 ten year olds that the world for the past few decades has been ravaged by a fungus called ophiocordyceps and that when in its host eats all but vital areas in the brain creating ‘hungries’ that only live to fulfill their basic instinct to survive. You can imagine what their diet consists of. She does not see how the rest of the people on base cannot see the children for what they are… children. Even though she knows and has been told several times that the children are already gone. “When you walk into that classroom, you think you’re talking to children. But you’re not, Helen. You’re talking to the thing that killed the children.” The parasite has just not yet devoured all of their delicate minds reducing them to nothing more than the monsters outside of the walls of base. Miss. Justineau refuses to believe this and vows to protect the children no matter the cost.

When the base is overcome by hungries just as Melanie is about to ‘disappear’ as the other children had to be examined by Dr. Caldwell, the unexpected happens. She is rescued by none other than Miss Justineau. Even though Melanie does not understand the hunger that begins to edge itself into her when Miss. Justineau cradles her and tells her everything is going to all right, she has only one thought in her mind that pushes the hunger away, “ I love you Miss. Justineau. I’ll be a god or a Titan for you, and save you.” Thanks to her they are able to escape and find others who have escaped as well: the ever-brooding sergeant focused on everyone’s survival, a young scared officer trying to stay alive, and Dr. Caldwell who is only concerned with the safety of her last ‘specimen’ to fulfill her research. They embark on the journey back to one of the remaining safe bases south of London and learn along the way that they must work together in order to survive no matter how high the tension between each other. Whether they, the sergeant and doctor, like it or not, they need Melanie to be able make it through the journey.

Along the road they are forced to confront what they believe about the world and its future as well as they how they label and understand Melanie. She is the key to their future whether they want to believe it or not in a way that no one could have predicted. Through love and loss the fate of the human race is saved, dependent on what your own definition of ‘saved’ means.

Reviewed by Elizabeth L ’18

Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang by Joyce Carol Oates

fox“For FOXFIRE was a true outlaw gang, yes…

But FOXFIRE was a true blood-sisterhood, our bond forged in loyalty, fidelity, trust, love.

Joyce Carol Oates’ novel Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang, told from the perspective of Madeleine Faith Wirtz, looking back on her days as part of a girl gang in upstate New York: FOXFIRE. As a teenager, she was FOXFIRE’s chronicler, recording their actions for posterity; “Thus distortions and misunderstandings and outright lies could be refuted.” As an older woman, she looks back through the record and assembles the pieces into these FOXFIRE CONFESSIONS.

The novel burns with the passion of teenage girls banding together to seek power in a society that is determined to disempower them and to seek revenge against men who treat them with violence and hatred. FOXFIRE demands freedom in the face of sexism, poverty, abuse. The girls of FOXFIRE throw themselves into a female power fantasy, demanding respect and fear when none is given. Their actions are criminal and their violence has consequences, yet they share a bond and earn power that one can’t help but desire. The language of the novel mirrors the gang itself, full of energy and passion, careening towards a yet unseen end. Sentences run through entire paragraphs with little punctuation hindering their speed.

Names change as a person’s image changes: Legs visits a rich girl’s house in the guise of reformed, wide-eyed girl “Margaret,” Maddy lies in wait as “Killer” for a man with money to try his luck with her, as she becomes an innocent girl who gives her name as “Marg’ret.”

The center of FOXFIRE: a girl named Legs, sometimes Margaret Ann Sadovsky, andogynous in appearance yet burning with feminine fury. Legs brings FOXFIRE together and leads them with charisma and reckless rage. Boys fear her and girls vy for her attention, especially Maddy, who is for the most part closest to Legs and when she isn’t, becomes jealous of whoever is. Maddy describes Legs with awe: “I’d watched her striding across the asphalt school yard, I’d seen her running in the street, solitary in running, she was happiest running, in my memory once a few years before leaping over a dangerous pit of an opening in a sidewalk on Fairfax where coal thundered down a sliding chute from a truck, and the delivery man shook his fist at her, and swore at her, and Legs ran on not hearing, you wouldn’t have known except for the wild bushy ashy hair that she was a girl thus especially forbidden to take such risks.”

Foxfire is a book that tells about crime and violence, yet it holds a mirror up to the reader and asks, what would you do? When you are faced with crushing disadvantage, do you lash out? Do you find someone else to put down, and say, at least I’m not one of them? Or do you live in the boundaries of what is acceptable? The characters are relatable even in the midst of blood and rage, and they demand to be heard. Even when it’s over, you still feel the heat of FOXFIRE, after all, FOXFIRE BURNS & BURNS.

Reviewed by Kayleen M ’18