My favorite books around the Cold War from a child of the Cold War

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a child of the Cold War. Until the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989 this strange standoff between the Soviet Union and the Western allies informed everyone’s life, but my own case was particular because my father served in the Royal Air Force. For three years he was even in command of three squadrons of nuclear bombers. With a background like that, how could I not be interested in the larger picture? Since then I have gone on to write novels with all kinds of settings but the other side of the now defunct Iron Curtain has always held a fascination... and has directly led to at least three of my own books.

I wrote...

Prague Spring

By Simon Mawer,

Book cover of Prague Spring

What is my book about?

It’s the summer of 1968, the year of love and hate, of Prague Spring and Cold War winter. Two English students, Ellie and James, set off to hitch-hike across Europe with no particular aim in mind but a continent, and themselves, to discover. Somewhere in southern Germany they decide, on a whim, to visit Czechoslovakia where Alexander Dubcek’s ‘socialism with a human face’ is smiling on the world.

Meanwhile, Sam Wareham, a first secretary at the British embassy in Prague, is observing developments in the country with a mixture of diplomatic cynicism and a young man’s passion. In the company of Czech student Lenka Konecková, he finds a way into the world of Czechoslovak youth, its hopes, and its ideas. It seems that, for the first time, nothing is off-limits behind the Iron Curtain. Yet the wheels of politics are grinding in the background. The Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev is making demands of Dubcek and the Red Army is massed on the borders. How will the looming disaster affect those fragile lives caught up in the invasion?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Untouchable

Simon Mawer Why did I love this book?

John Banville is one of the finest writers in English alive today. It’s as simple as that. He is also one of the most versatile. Anyone who has read his impressionistic Booker Prizewinning novel The Sea will be startled to read The Untouchable, in which the author contrives to worm his way inside the minds of those famous traitors of the Cold War, the Cambridge spies. In the real world they included such figures as the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Sir (later stripped of his title) Anthony Blunt and the drunken diplomat Guy Burgess. Here they live again under the cover names of Viktor Maskell and ‘Boy’ Bannister. It is all related by Maskell himself. Prepare to be astonished at how convincing this act of impersonation is!

By John Banville,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Untouchable as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The Untouchable is an engrossing, exquisitely written and almost bewilderingly smart book . . . It's the fullest book I've read in a very long time, utterly accomplished, thoroughly readable, written by a novelist of vast talent' Richard Ford

Victor Maskell has been betrayed. After the announcement in the Commons and the hasty revelation of his double life of wartime espionage, his disgrace is public, his knighthood revoked, his position as curator of the Queen's pictures terminated. There are questions to be answered. For whom has he been sacrificed? To what has he sacrificed his life?

The Untouchable is beautifully…

Book cover of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

Simon Mawer Why did I love this book?

This book hardly needs introduction. When it first came out in 1963 it simply blew the absurdities of James Bond style espionage thrillers aside. Here was a novel, a real novel with all the attributes of character development, moral jeopardy and evocation of place, coupled with a brilliant and disconcerting plot. Live again the grim world of the Cold War, of divided Berlin and split loyalties. This is what spying must really be like. We’ve never really recovered from it!  

By John le Carré,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked The Spy Who Came in From the Cold as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Our Kind of Traitor; and The Night Manager, now a television series starring Tom Hiddleston.

The 50th-anniversary edition of the bestselling novel that launched John le Carre's career worldwide

In the shadow of the newly erected Berlin Wall, Alec Leamas watches as his last agent is shot dead by East German sentries. For Leamas, the head of Berlin Station, the Cold War is over. As he faces the prospect of retirement or worse-a desk job-Control offers him a unique opportunity for revenge. Assuming the guise of an embittered…

Book cover of The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Simon Mawer Why did I love this book?

One of the indisputably great novels of the twentieth century. Written with a deft and playful touch, The Unbearable Lightness of Being explores the lives of Tomáš, a promiscuous surgeon, his wife Tereza, his lover the anarchic artist Sabina, and her lover, the university lecturer Franz. Oh, and the dog Karenin. Set in the turbulent world of Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring and the Russian invasion of August 1968 it deals with profound themes of existence and freedom in a tantalizing and provocative manner that fascinated readers when it first came out in 1984. You may watch the film but more than with most adaptations that comes nowhere near the book, which continues to thrill and challenge new readers.

By Milan Kundera,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Unbearable Lightness of Being as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A cult figure.' Guardian
'A dark and brilliant achievement.' Ian McEwan
'Shamelessly clever ... Exhilaratingly subversive and funny.' Independent
'A modern classic ... As relevant now as when it was first published. ' John Banville

A young woman is in love with a successful surgeon; a man torn between his love for her and his womanising. His mistress, a free-spirited artist, lives her life as a series of betrayals; while her other lover stands to lose everything because of his noble qualities. In a world where lives are shaped by choices and events, and everything occurs but once, existence seems…

Book cover of The Miracle Game

Simon Mawer Why did I love this book?

Is there a Czech theme going on here? Well, the Czech lands have always produced artists, musicians and writers of the highest calibre and although he may not be widely known, Škvorecký is one of them. From exile in Canada following the Russian invasion of 1968, he wrote this extraordinary and fantastic novel about a miracle (a holy statue is seen to bow its head) in a Czech village in the first year of communist rule. Of course such irrational things couldn’t be allowed and the priest is condemned as a hoaxer. But now we’re in 1968 and everything is up for discussion including this forgotten event. Seen through the eyes of the author’s picaresque character, Danny Smiřický (who was present at the original miracle but unfortunately had dozed off at the vital moment so never actually saw St Joseph move), the whole story is relived and discussed. Part farce, part fantasy, part satire, Škvorecký is polite to no one – not even Vaclav Havel – and laughs at everything. Very Czech! 

By Josef Skvorecky,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Miracle Game as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This energetic and hilarious novel is made even more important by the current final thawing of the long, Communist winter in Czechoslovakia. Moving between 1948, when our hero Danny Smiricky falls asleep in church while a miraculous event occurs, and 1968, when he observes the miracle of Prague Spring, The Miracle Game is a sharp look at the strange, sad, and silly things people do to survive.

Book cover of Twenty Letters to a Friend: A Memoir

Simon Mawer Why did I love this book?

Svetlana Alliluyeva was Josef Stalin’s daughter. In 1967 she fled to the West bringing this memoir with her. It was published to universal acclaim in the same year. An epistolary memoir it gives remarkable insight into her life growing up in the Kremlin. Haunting, at times lyrical, always affecting, she shows Stalin as something other than the monster we take him to be. She makes no excuses for him but it is salutary to see him portrayed as a father and a human being. An antidote to the all-too-easy dismissal of him as ‘a monster’.

By Svetlana Alliluyeva,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Twenty Letters to a Friend as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this riveting, New York Times-bestselling memoir—first published by Harper in 1967—Svetlana Alliluyeva, subject of Rosemary Sullivan’s critically acclaimed biography, Stalin’s Daughter, describes the surreal experience of growing up in the Kremlin in the shadow of her father, Joseph Stalin.

Svetlana Iosifovna Alliluyeva, later known as Lana Peters, was the youngest child and only daughter of Joseph Stalin and Nadezhda Alliluyeva, his second wife. In 1967, she fled the Soviet Union for India, where she approached the U.S. Embassy for asylum. Once there, she showed her CIA handler something remarkable: A personal memoir about growing up inside the Kremlin that…

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What You Do To Me: A Novel

By Rochelle B. Weinstein,

Book cover of What You Do To Me: A Novel

Rochelle B. Weinstein Author Of When We Let Go

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Not only am I the author of seven women’s fiction novels, I’m a voracious reader who believes she was raised by Judy Blume and Sidney Sheldon. In our broken home, reading was an escape, a salve for the wound, a place where I felt heard and understood. My novels touch on deep emotions—real and relatable. If I don’t capture that feeling when I’m reading through my drafts, I dig deeper. And that’s the thing about a great book, that gut punch, that slide under my skin, I get you. There’s no better read than the one that pulls the heartstrings and gives you all the feels.    

Rochelle's book list on tugging on every one of your heartstrings

What is my book about?

What You Do To Me follows Rolling Stone reporter Cecilia James on the hunt to find the muse behind a famous love song, all while managing an estranged relationship with her father and boyfriend Pete.

Inspired by Hey There Deliah, the dual timeline stretches across the sunny beaches of 1970s Miami with star-crossed lovers Eddie and Sara, to the glittery music industry of 1990s LA. For music lovers and fans of that first, unforgettable love, What You Do To Me is the story of a love song with equal parts heart and harmony.

What You Do To Me: A Novel

By Rochelle B. Weinstein,

What is this book about?

From the bestselling author of This Is Not How It Ends comes a moving novel of two unfinished love stories and the music and lyrics that bring them together.

Journalist Cecilia James is a sucker for a love song. So when she stumbles across a clue to the identity of the muse for one of rock’s greatest, she devotes herself to uncovering the truth, even as her own relationship is falling apart.

While writing an article for Rolling Stone, Cecilia works to reveal the mystery that has intrigued fans and discovers a classic tale of two soulmates separated by fate and circumstance. Rock…

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