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Agent Sonya

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Member Reviews

Another great book by Macintyre. This one is a little difficult to like the main character, but the story is a good one. The frantic need to spread communism is difficult to understand and this spy coldly sacrificed so much for what was seemingly so little.
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Ben Macintyre always delivers. I read this book as background reading for a review we had planned on BookBrowse. As publisher I don't tend to review myself but am involved in the editing process and thus helpful to be aware of the books being assigned.

You can see the resulting review at the links below (which were sent to Dyana Messina in October.) Personally, I thought it excellent, definitely 5-stars. but our reviewer graded it against his previous works and found it not quite up to the very high bar set, and thus rated it 4-stars.

Beyond the Book:
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Agent Sonya is a briskly written history of Russia's greatest woman spy.  This book, which reads like a thriller, traces the fascinating life of Ursula Kuchinsky, a privileged German Jew, who became an ardent anti fascist and then an agent for the Soviet Union. Her story moves across the world as Agent Sonya (her Russian code name) plies her trade in China, Switzerland, Moscow and England. Anyone who enjoys WWII histories or has an interest in the nascent years of Soviet intelligence gathering will find this book an exciting and satisfying revelation.
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Seasoned chronicler of WWII era intelligence agents Ben Macintyre gives us another doozy with Agent Sonya, his latest spy bio and this time focusing on an agent for the other side. 

If you’ve read Macintyre’s previous work, you’ve no doubt already come across references to Sonya, who cameos in several previous bios of other spies. 

Fortunately, we don’t know Sonya very well in those earlier snapshot portraits, and that created a space for this book to exist. 

While Macintyre’s work is always flawlessly written and researched, it can get a bit repetitive, with many of the central subjects of his books already heavily featured in earlier offerings. 

Agent Sonya was a welcome departure from that. Though we’re familiar with her from earlier works, we don’t have a true sense of who she is, why she does what she does, or how she goes about achieving her goals in a specific sense. 

Because of the nature of her work and the fact that she wasn’t on our side in the war, we will probably never have answers to every question we have about the mysterious and fascinating Agent Sonya, but Macintyre still gives us loads of captivating content.
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My review can be found at

Over the decades, author Ben Macintyre has developed a niche for himself, relating little-known yet intriguing stories of individuals who devoted their lives to espionage. His latest work, Agent Sonya, is squarely in his wheelhouse, following the life and adventures of Ursula Kuczynski, aka "Sonya," in her evolution from a 16-year-old German communist sympathizer to the spy responsible for providing the Soviets with the technology to develop a nuclear bomb.

Kuczynski was an extraordinary, multi-faceted woman who chose to dedicate herself to the Soviet communist cause. As the author states, she was "a mother, housewife, novelist, expert radio technician, spymaster, courier, saboteur, bomb maker, Cold Warrior, and secret agent, all at the same time." She had three children by three different men, traveled the world at the orders of Soviet intelligence, and was awarded an honorary rank of Colonel in the Red Army.

Beginning her espionage career in Shanghai in 1930, Kuczynski took on increasingly complex (not to mention dangerous) assignments in China, Switzerland and Great Britain. She ultimately became the USSR's station chief in England. She recruited a number of spies and provided important material to her Soviet handlers; her most impactful role was in obtaining and transmitting technical information from German refugee Klaus Fuchs (a nuclear scientist) during and after World War II.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Kuczynski's story is that while MI5 (the domestic section of the British military intelligence service) long suspected her of espionage, they never did much to curtail her activities. Both her father Richard and her brother Jürgen, who had also immigrated to England, were much higher on the government's radar. They were indeed communist sympathizers, had deep connections within the British intellectual and expat communities, and were, in fact, funneling information into the USSR's British spy network; MI5 simply didn't seem to understand that the person managing the spy ring was an attractive young mother of three. She succeeded in running the operation until Fuchs confessed to his covert activities and was arrested in 1950, at which time she fled to East Germany out of concern that she would be exposed.

Obscure aspects of WWII have always held a lot of appeal for me, and as a result I've long been a fan of Macintyre's books. They're invariably well-researched and entertaining, and Agent Sonya is no exception. The author's descriptions of Kuczynski's work and motivations are straightforward yet detailed, providing a vivid picture of this woman who played a pivotal role in world history.

While this book is an excellent addition to Macintyre's catalog, at times I felt it wasn't quite up to the level of some of his other works. Most notably, the narrative pace seems uneven; there are large sections where it bogs down, especially when the author highlights Kuczynski's "co-workers," detailing each person's past and their own motives for pursuing spycraft. These paragraphs are interesting and necessary for a full understanding of Kuczynski's situation and the dangers she faced, but they slow the movement of events. I still enjoyed the book, but the author has set a high bar for himself with his other work and it falls just a hair short of his best.

Agent Sonya will probably appeal most to readers with a penchant for WWII and Cold War history as well as those who appreciate a traditional non-fiction approach to books in this genre. Macintyre's fans will want to add this one to their libraries, and those new to his writing likely won't be disappointed.
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This is my second time to read Ben Macintyre’s work on Cold War spies, totally engrossing and totally perplexing.  At the time Ursula gave herself over to the cause of communism,  the alternative was rising fascism in Spain and Germany.  Her commitment was absolute, her journey the stuff of spy novels, which in fact she wrote in her retirement years.  This is the story of a remarkable unprepossessing woman, mother of three, spymaster for 20 years and handler of nuclear scientist double spy Klaus Fuchs.  Truth is stranger than fiction.  Believe it.
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I still have them - my fifty cent Signet paperback editions of all the James Bond books - which I over indulged in during my 60’s high school study halls. And thus began my almost 60 year infatuation with espionage novels. It was just now as I was finishing Ben Macintyres thoroughly engrossing #AgentSonya that it dawned on me that I have done very little, if any, reading non-fiction spy narratives. #AgentSonya is the true account of the life of Ursula Kuczynski, a German Jew, who, in the 20’s attaches herself to the communism cause as a result of her abhorrence of Fascism and the Nazis who are starting to grab power. From attending rallies in her teens, to becoming one of Moscow’s most valuable agents, dubbed Sonya, Ursula is a globetrotter, creating her network of agents from Asia, to Switzerland, to England and various points between. And throughout her travels, she raises three children, while at the same time building and transmitting clandestine messages to Moscow. During World War Two one of her agents is Karl Fuchs, who helped develop the atomic bomb, the plans of which were relayed by “ Sonya” to Russia, all while appearing to be an English Countryside mother raising her family. Throughout, #Agent Sonya is a thrilling and captivating book, telling the tale of a woman who can’t betray her family while at the same time not betraying her political ideologies. Fascinating !
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Ben Macintyre is on top form with his latest foray into the world of espionage. This time his subject is Agent Sonya, a quite remarkable woman whose life reads like fiction but is most definitely fact. I found the book compulsive reading, and although sometimes Macintyre’s chatty style becomes a bit…well, too chatty and although there will no doubt be carpers who manage to ferret out a few inaccuracies (I found one myself. Sonya’s daughter would be unlikely to start nursery and the Girl Guides at the same time) any objections fade into insignificance when a book is such a good read as this one is. Thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable – and informative. What a strange world espionage is…..
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I have always really enjoyed Ben Macintyre's books and this one is no exception. Like his previous books this one is not dry at all and almost at times reads like fiction. I found myself fascinated by Ursula and the people in her life. While this was nonfiction it still provided a nice escape during these difficult times. I look forward to reading more from Ben Macintyre.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the galley.
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Ben Macintyre is a badass writer of narrative nonfiction about lesser known historical figures from the World War II era. I read and reviewed his blockbuster, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, which was published in 2014; when I was invited to do the same for Agent Sonya, I didn’t hesitate. My thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. You can buy this book now. 

Her real name was Ursula Kuczynski, and she was a German Jew. Hitler came to full power when she was visiting China, and her entire family fled. Born before the Russian Revolution, she lived until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and so her lifespan encompassed the entire duration of the Soviet Union. An unusually intelligent woman, she was drawn to Communism by the horror of Fascism, and by the misery created by disparate wealth that was right in front of her. The Chinese peasantry were so wretchedly poor that she found dead babies in the street; starving mothers sometimes concluded that they might be able to save one child, but they surely couldn’t save more than that, and they were forced to make a tragic choice. This, in spite of the vast and opulent wealth of the most privileged classes; it was obviously wrong, and there appeared to be only one way around it. She signed on to be a spy for Moscow. 

Kuczynski’s career in espionage spanned twenty years and took place in myriad locations across Europe and Asia. She briefly harbored doubts about her career at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but shortly after its creation, Hitler broke it by attacking the USSR, and the matter became moot. Others around her were apprehended and either jailed or executed, but Ursula always got away clean. As she advanced in the Red Army, ultimately receiving the rank of Colonel, she was given increasingly important work, and her ultimate achievement was in recruiting a scientist that was placed at a high level within the Manhattan Project. More than 500 pages of important documents made their way to Moscow, and because of his defection and Ursula’s skill, the USSR soon had the atomic bomb also. 

Though Ursula never considered herself a feminist, she never hesitated when commanding men—a thing few women did at this point in history—and she didn’t let the men in her life shove her around. One of my favorite passages is when she is pregnant at an inconvenient time, and her estranged husband and lover put their heads together to decide what should be done. The two of them agree that Ursula needs an abortion, and Ursula tells them she’s decided to have the baby. Mansplainers never stood a chance with Ursula. 

There were many instances when motherhood conflicted with her professional duties, and she had to make a lot of hard choices, but being a mother also provided her with an excellent cover. Sexist assumptions on the part of M15, M16, and other spy-catchers were also responsible for part of her success; how could a mother of three children who baked such excellent scones be a foreign agent? Don’t be silly. And consequently, her husband (whichever one) often drew scrutiny, but nobody ever dreamed that Ursula herself was the high level spy they sought. 

The one thing I would have liked to see added to this excellent work is a photo of this woman; perhaps it is included in the final publication, but my digital review copy showed none. I found photos of her online and understood right away why she was so effective. That disarming smile; that engaging face. Who could help loving her? She looks like everyone’s best friend. She appears incapable of duplicity. 

Although the biography itself is serious in nature, there are some hilarious passages involving the nanny, and also an imbecilic British agent that couldn’t find his butt with both hands. 

Finally, one of the most fortunate aspects of this biography is that although it is absorbing, it isn’t written like a thriller, and so it’s a great book for bedtime. You already know that Ursula isn’t going to be executed, right? Her story is told in linear fashion, so although it’s a literate, intelligently told story, it’s never confusing. With autumn upon us, I cannot think of a more congenial tale to curl up with on a chilly evening. 

This book is highly recommended. 

(YouTube Promo attached)
(Photo of Kuczynski attached)
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Yes! This is the kind of book that grabs me by the eyeballs and flings me through every page. I love historical fiction, but historical non-fiction that reads like a novel hooks me every single time. FINALLY, we are learning more and more about women’s activities during military conflicts. I have been reading about women who spied for Britain and who led the French resistance, but this is a completely new spy story and one I could not put down. 

I loved the technical and family details. I look forward to reading more books by Ben Macintyre. 

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for the eARC in exchange for an unbiased review.
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This is the newest release by this best-selling British author of spy history.  His list of books includes "The Spy and the Traitor" (a Heather's Pick). "A Spy Among Friends" and "Rogue Heroes".  This time the story is about a German born Jewish woman who under the codename of Sonya spies for Communist Russia during the WWII years and then during the cold war.  She ends up in various countries including Poland, China and Switzerland before settling in England all the while sending information to Russia.  The fact that she was a housewife and mother kept her under the radar as the men hunting for spies refused to believe she could be one.  This is a great recommendation for fans of the author's previous works and also Eric Larson fans.  It would also be a good recommendation for fans of fictional spy novels, wanting to read about the real thing.
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After being introduced to Ben Macintyre's work through the fantastic Spy and The Traitor, I was extremely excited to read Agent Sonya. Unfortunately despite how well researched and detailed it is, this one doesn't live up to Macintyre's lofty standards. The parts following Agent Sonya and her career as a soviet spy are interesting however the book gets bogged down by all the secondary characters who aren't as interesting. Still a decent read however not as great as some of his previous work
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Thank you to NetGalley and Crown Publishing for the eARC of this incredible real-life thriller. Ranging from the Weimar Republic to New York to Shanghai in the early ‘30s to Moscow, to Czechoslovakia, Montreaux, Oxfordshire, and finally, East Berlin, Ben McIntyre’s Agent Sonya covers an amazing amount of territory and world history in an extremely fast-paced 400 pages. 
Growing up as a wealthy German Jew in the Weimar Republic, 16-year old Ursula Kuczynski was  beaten by a policeman while taking part in a Communist youth protest. After marrying a milquetoast architect and moving to pre-war Shanghai, Ursula was recruited to be a spy for the Soviet Union. This was an extremely dangerous thing to do in an extremely dangerous place, as the Chinese government was in the midst of killing hundreds of thousands of suspected Communists. We wouldn’t have this book if Ursula did not absolutely excel at he job, growing to recruit and run her own agents in China, and eventually, Switzerland, and England during WWII. 
Some early parts of this book made me gasp, and I had to think about the number of direct quotations that McIntryre uses throughout, but Ursula left a tremendous amount of her own writing, and it seems that each of her children either wrote their own reminiscences, or submitted to interviews regarding their mother, the spymaster. 
Fun, scary, and at times thrilling, Agent Sonya is a terrific read.
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Like all of Macintyre's books that I have read, this one was a truly interesting read. It was interesting to see the shift in Ursula's views of Russian communism from before before the war to after she found out what really happened with Stalin's purges. 
I know that I could never be a spy, so I am grateful that Macintyre allows his readers to have the experience through his books.
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A great biography of a Russian spy.  Ben Macintryre does an amazing job researching Sanya and the period she was a spy.  Essential reading to understand the Russian's before and during WW2.
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Epitome of non-fiction reading like fiction.  Agent Sonya delves fully into the spy-life of Ursula Kuczynski Burton, a seemingly inucuous housewife in the Cotswolds.  A Jewish-German refuge and member of the Communist Party, she spent 20 years providing information to The Centre, the Russian/Soviet hub of international spy operations.  Recruited while in China, her escapades took her throughout the world, and she recruited spies in various countries.  Her handling of Fuchs, a German exile who worked on the British nuclear weapons project, and latter the US's Manhattan project, delivered the exact method of building nuclear bombs almost directly to Stalin's desk.  

Extremely well written and engaging, Ben Macintyre relys on primary sources and deep research to fill out her life and work.  His outlining of the events provides gentle reminders for readers who WWII and Cold War knowledge need prodding to put a timeline in order, without becoming dry and boring.  Highly recommend.
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Agent Sonya is a brilliant  read.A quiet nondescript woman  living in a small cottage in the Cotswolds with her family is actually a spy a high ranking communist  spy.An unbelievable story a woman working with in the highest spy ranks .A book that reads like fiction but is true.Will be highly recommending.#netgalley##crownbooks
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Ben Macintyre has done it again; produced a jaw-dropping book about 20th-century espionage.  Sonya, born Ursula Kuczynski, lived a long life in service to the causes of anti-fascism and communism, starting 10 years before the Russian Revolution and extending decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.  Her travels and accomplishments would be unbelievable as fiction.  As history, they are flat-out amazing in themselves and even more so because she did it all while being a loving wife and mother.

Born into an intellectual German Jewish family, she was keenly aware of the growing power of the Nazis.  Much of it she viewed from afar, though, because she and her architect husband were living in Shanghai, where he was working.  Appalled by the state of the Chinese working class and the growth of fascism, Ursula was soon recruited to spy for Soviet military intelligence, working with famed agent Richard Sorge.

Always willing to obey the orders of Moscow Centre, Ursula moved from Shanghai to Poland to Switzerland to England, shedding husbands/partners along the way, but accruing children.  Her hair-raising escapes from danger are mostly attributable to her wiliness, but as Macintyre makes clear, there’s a little secret sauce in there too.  And that’s sexism.  Ursula was so outgoing, so charming, so at ease with all kinds of people (even Nazis), and so housewifely, that nobody ever seemed to think she could possibly be a Soviet spy, no matter what the evidence—and it reached the point where there was plenty.

Macintyre is particularly scathing about British intelligence’s failure to figure out that Ursula was involved (and how!) in the smuggling of nuclear bomb secrets to the USSR.  She was a handler for Klaus Fuchs, the physicist who handed over copies of all the nuclear bomb work he was involved in.  Interestingly, it was only their one high-level female employee who was suspicious of Ursula from the moment she arrived in England—and even before.

While I was astonished by Ursula’s story, so much of the time I was reading I kept thinking about her three children.  Her eldest, Michael, had moved from Shanghai to Manchuria to Poland to Switzerland by the time he was 10 years old, and knew four languages.  When she had to flee England after the arrest of Klaus Fuchs, her children were suddenly wrenched from their comfortable English village life to East Berlin.  Just imagine that.

If you’ve read Ben Macintyre books before, you won’t need any encouragement to read this one.  But if you haven’t, this is as good a book as any to start with, especially if you have an interest in reading about women in espionage.
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Mother, Lover, Spy

Agent Sonya is the story of Ursula Kuczynski.  Sonya grew up in a home of communist sympathizers.  She embraced communism at an early age becoming a spy for the Soviet Union.

She spied for the Soviet Union in Switzerland, Shanghai China, and the United Kingdom.  Married more than once, having lovers and children by 3 men, she often struggled with being a mother and a spy. She used her marriage and her children in her spy work. She often hid items for her spy activities in a baby carriage, a grocery basket, and once a teddy bear was used as a hiding place.

The book tells Sonya’s story, but it also tells the stories of each person mentioned in the book. It has much historical and technical information as well as the stories of each person mentioned.  The book did bog down for me in May places, it was a bit tedious at times. I did enjoy Sonya’s story, not so much all the other stories in between.  The technical information was over my head and not interesting to me.

I read the book to the end because I wanted to find out what happened to Sonya.  I did appreciate the concluding remarks at the end telling how each of the main characters ended up.

Thanks to Ben Macintyre, Crown Publishing, and NetGalley for allowing me to read an advanced copy of the book in return for an honest review.
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