Posts tagged ‘cold war’

September 12, 2021

Ethel Rosenberg by Anne Sebba

by Team Riverside
Ethel Rosenberg cover

Hardback, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £20.00, out now

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the United States for treason in 1953.  A married couple, and the parents of two young children, their case became a cause célèbre as a miscarriage of justice, a cultural reference point, and a symbol of US domestic attitudes during the Cold War.  Amid all of this, the human story of Ethel Rosenberg has been lost, and this is what Anne Sebba’s engrossing biography corrects.

With access to new information from Ethel’s sons and others who knew her, as well as scrupulous archive research, Sebba meticulously reconstructs the life of this ordinary and extraordinary woman.  We find out about her upbringing in a New York Jewish family facing hard times.  We are left with the impression of an intelligent, talented and hardworking woman from a difficult family background, who was determined to make her way in life – in education, in singing, as a trade unionist, and as a wife and mother.

The book offers a vivid account of how some Americans came to communism in the 1930s, and how ordinary people started spying for the Soviet Union.  Sebba unpicks what Ethel Rosenberg did and didn’t know about the leaking of atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, and gives a detailed analysis of her trial.  She conveys the swirl of McCarthyism and anti-communist fever, and the impact of ingrained anti-Semitism.

Sebba spares us nothing, so it can be a tough read at times, but it is so worthwhile.  It is no wonder that the biography has been praised by Claire Tomalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore and Philippe Sands, among others.  Among the moments of light in the frequently grim story that Ethel’s two young children live through, are the moments of solidarity and care shown to them from unexpected quarters (including at one point W. E. B. Du Bois).  Outstanding.

Review by Bethan

March 28, 2016

Exposure, by Helen Dunmore

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Hutchinson, £16.99, out nowHelen Dunmore EXPOSURE

An engaging thriller with a very human heart, this cold war spy story is fresh and believable.  Giles, a long time Soviet mole in the 1950s British security services, calls in a favour from his old co-worker Stephen.  Giles is in hospital and must have stolen secret papers removed from his flat.  Lily, Stephen’s wife, watches as Stephen becomes embroiled in an impossible situation, caught up in espionage, politics, secrets and lies.

Dunmore examines the human side of a classic spy story – mainly through the story of Lily and her children.  Many of the questions that arise are still pertinent today.  How do friends and family react when you are in trouble with the law?  Can you count on the system to correct an injustice?  When you have been a refugee and exile, does that determine how you perceive and deal with the authorities and other threats?

Exposure is full of effortlessly convincing period detail, not only in setting but in attitudes.  Commonplace antisemitism and the reputational risk of homosexuality appear.  This is a must read for fans of le Carré or William Boyd.  A good holiday read too, and we have a special edition in store which is available exclusively in independent bookshops like ours!

Review by Bethan

October 12, 2015

Kolymsky Heights, by Lionel Davidson

by Team Riverside

Faber and Faber, £8.99, out now

Recently re-released in paperback, Phillip Pullman in his new introduction describes this 1994 spy adventure novel as “the best thriller I’ve ever read”.Lionel Davidson KOLYMSKY HEIGHTS

The head scientist of a supremely secret Russian base in Siberia sends an urgent message to a friend in the West, asking him to send help. The base is described initially as something similar to the UK’s Porton Down, conducting “research into the materials for chemical and biological warfare”. A mysterious and fantastically accomplished Indian from British Columbia, known sometimes as Dr Johnny Porter, sets out to provide this. But how can he get to, and into, the station? Why has he been summoned? And even if he does get there and find out why, how can he get home?

The book is satisfying at every level, with instantly believable characters and utterly convincing plot and locations. In particular, the action in Siberia is so well written I was wandering about with a head full of whiteness, snow and ice and wind, even when forced to put the book down.

Davidson won multiple awards from the Crime Writers Association, culminating in the lifetime achievement award of the Diamond dagger. Graham Greene and Daphne du Maurier were fans, and his own life was not short on adventure and challenge (see http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/nov/02/lionel-davidson-obituary). I have no idea why I have not heard of him until now. But I loved this book and will be seeking out his others.

Review by Bethan