On 19 June, 1953, “just minutes after the execution of her husband, Julius, for espionage”, 37-year-old Ethel Rosenberg was strapped into the electric chair in Sing Sing prison, New York state – “the only woman executed in America in the 20th century for a crime other than murder”. While many books have been written about the affair, Anne Sebba’s biography, Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20), is the first for 30 years. With access to an extensive archive of Ethel’s letters, “many movingly written from prison”, and interviews with surviving witnesses, including the Rosenbergs’ two sons, Michael and Robert, Sebba tells “a compelling story of love, betrayal, misplaced idealism and brutal legal and political manoeuvring”.
Those expecting it to deliver big revelations should think again, says Rachel Cooke in The Observer. Sebba accepts that Julius Rosenberg was a spy. “How could she do otherwise?” She knows, too, that “at best, Ethel… tacitly condoned what her husband was up to”. But her biography is the first to be written since the testimony of Ethel’s brother David Greenglass to a grand jury was released following his death in 2014. It “reminds us all over again of the terrible fact that she was betrayed by her flesh and blood”. Greenglass had passed nuclear secrets to Julius from the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico, and “perjured himself to save his skin and that of his wife” by claiming Ethel typed up the notes.
Sebba has dug deep beneath this famous and archetypically male story of spying, weapons and international tensions, says Melissa Benn in The Guardian, “to give us an intelligent, sensitive and absorbing account of the short, tragic life of a woman made remarkable by circumstance”. Betrayed by so many in her life, Ethel stayed “faithful to the things she believed and the people she loved, whatever the consequence”. In holding to this “fateful” path, she emerges as “stubbornly courageous”, towering above the “parade of morally grubby, self-seeking… figures who conspired to destroy her”.
Available as an audiobook on Audible.
This second collaboration between Bill Clinton and James Patterson is even better than their first, says Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the Daily Mail. The President’s Daughter (Century £20) is a “rattling rollercoaster of a thriller”, not least because the central characters are “more nuanced”. The book opens with President Matthew Keating presiding over a disastrous assassination attempt on terrorist Asim Al-Asheed, which kills his wife and daughters instead. Several years later, the retired and irascible Keating is trying to write his memoirs when his daughter, Mel, is kidnapped while on a hike with her boyfriend.
Like its predecessor, this novel offers tantalising clues to the unconscious of Clinton, says Sarah Lyall in The New York Times. The “hero” becomes president “not via Yale Law School and Oxford University, but through the messy man-of-the-people crucible of military service”. Keating is an “inexorable force”, a “hard-living, no-guff” former Navy Seal. Al-Asheed hasn’t reckoned with the “devastating single-mindedness” of a man whose talents include “throwing on ratty clothes, sunglasses, beard stubble and a baseball cap” to “elude notice”.
It’s less apocalyptic than the duo’s debut, in which saving the US was the hero’s task, says John Dugdale in The Sunday Times. Clinton “seems to curb his partner’s usual compulsion to have a corpse or cliffhanger every few pages” – and provides insider lore. The former president “is good for Patterson”.
Available as an audiobook on Kobo.