Hi everyone! I hope you’ve all been doing well and are dealing with the current situation as best you can. I wasn’t actually intending on doing a discussion post so soon after my last one, but it’s the 75th anniversary of VE Day today, and I thought it would be nice to mark it by talking about some of my favourite books set during WWII. History is all about people’s stories, and one of the things I love most about historical fiction is how it can spark an interest in the stories of the real people who did incredible things, especially when they highlight stories of people who may not be as focused on in mainstream history. So here we go, these are some of my favourite WWII novels:
- The Book Thief-Markus Zusak
I’m starting with an obvious one, but it’s one of my favourites. The Book Thief is such a beautiful and emotional story, and using Death as the narrator was definitely an unusual choice that pays off really well. I think one of the reasons I love this one so much is because it’s very different to a lot of WWII stories I’ve read, it doesn’t focus on people actually fighting the war, it’s about people just living through it and the smaller acts of resistance. Most of the fiction I’ve read set in Germany during the war usually focuses on concentration camps, and though of course they’re important stories to tell, it’s equally important to have stories about Germany in the war that aren’t based in concentration camps. If you’re looking for a quieter, more personal WWII story I would definitely recommend this one.
2. Cross My Heart by Carmen Reid:
This is one of my favourite and most underrated WWII books. The Belgian Resistance is not something that really got covered at all when I was at school because we mainly focused on the UK and Germany so it was great to read something about WWII that I wasn’t all that familiar with. It’s quite amazing reading stories of real resistance fighters and seeing just how young they really were, and Nicole as a teenager fighting for the Belgian Resistance is by no means far fetched, there were real teenagers who fought, not just in the Belgian Resistance but in other occupied countries as well. Would definitely recommend this one if you’re looking for something a little different but still based during WWII.
3. Between Shades of Gray-Ruta Sepetys
Again, another book that focuses on an aspect of WWII which wasn’t really covered in school. I did study Stalin as part of my Russian History module for my A Level History, but we obviously focused on Russia and didn’t really look much at the atrocities Stalin committed in the Baltic states. Lina’s story is really heartbreaking, but ultimately hopeful and it opened my eyes to an area of history that I wasn’t massively familiar with.
4. Salt To The Sea-Ruta Sepetys
Another lesser known part of WWII history that I learned about from a Ruta Sepetys novel: the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, which killed over 9,000 people, the largest death from a ship sinking in maritime history, more than the Titanic and yet we’ve never heard about it? Astonishing. Anyway, Sepetys’ tale follows four fictional teens as they attempt to survive the sinking, but they represent thousands of real people who were just trying to escape to a safer place and ended up dying because of it.
5. Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire & The Enigma Game-Elizabeth Wein
I’m including Elizabeth Wein’s novels all together, as they all follow some of the same characters, in different periods of the war. They’re not sequels as such, more like companions. I would definitely recommend reading Code Name Verity first, it’s my favourite of the three. Code Name Verity follows Maddie, a pilot and “Verity” a spy in 1943, partially Verity’s story as she is interrogated by the Gestapo and partly Maddie’s story as she flies planes during the War. At it’s heart, it’s a story about friendship and it’s as beautiful as it is heartbreaking.
Rose Under Fire is a very different story, it’s only really connected to Code Name Verity through Maddie and another character from Code Name Verity (saying who would be a spoiler!). It follows pilot Rose, as she ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp, and it’s honestly one of the most emotional books I’ve ever read. I rarely cry when reading, I cried reading this one. The stories of the Rabbits in particular were incredibly touching and I’ve since looked up the real life counterparts, whose stories were just as heartbreaking and incredible.
The Enigma Game is Wein’s most recent release, in fact it doesn’t come out till next week, but I’m reading it at the moment. Taking place a few years before Code Name Verity, it follows Verity’s brother Jamie, volunteer driver Ellen McEwen (who appears in Code Name Verity’s prequel novel) and Louisa Adair, a young Jamaican girl who takes up a position helping to care for an elderly German woman. It’s not my favourite of Wein’s WWII novels (Code Name Verity is a hard bar to beat) but I have loved the characters. It’s also worth checking out The Pearl Thief, Code Name Verity’s prequel novel, though it takes place pre WWII.
6. The Storyteller-Jodi Picoult
The Storyteller is essentially two stories in one, one follows Sage Singer, granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor as she struggles with grief over the death of her mother and finds solace in a friendship with an elderly man from her grief support group, only to be asked to help him die. The second is of Sage’s grandmother, Minka, and the horrors that she experienced in Auschwitz. Though Minka’s story is obviously the more heartrending of the two, they intertwine really well. It’s so heartbreaking to know that Minka’s story reflects the real life stories of so many people who really did experience the horrors of Auschwitz.
7. Orphan Monster Spy-Matt Killeen
This is definitely a different take on a WWII story, but I enjoyed it. The protagonist is a Jewish teenager who takes on a role as a spy in a Nazi boarding school. So often WWII fiction only tells the stories of Jewish people in concentration camps (which 100% need to be told) so it was nice to see a story that wasn’t about the Holocaust, and had a Jewish protagonist at its centre. The sequel, Devil, Darling, Spy was published this year, though I’ve yet to read it.
So there we go, those are my recommendations for WWII fiction. I actually really do need to read more of it, so if you have any recommendations for me, I would love to hear them. And of course, I would always recommend checking out memoirs of people who were alive at the time, to learn about the real stories of people from WWII, as they are stories that we should all know and remember. If you’d like some recommendations for those, I did an article a couple of years ago for The National Student talking about some lesser known WWII memoirs so check that one out:
I don’t know what my next Jo Talks post will be, I may do another one before the end of the month, we’ll see. In the meantime, I just finished my May #RockMyTBR read, The Lady’s Guide To Petticoats and Piracy, so I should have a review of that up at some point over the weekend.