10 Riveting World War II Reads

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Maybe it’s just because I’m actually writing a novel myself about World War II, but it seems like there has been a vastly huge crop of new books about WWII that have come out the last few years. In fact, I’ve read seven books this year alone that were set during the period of World War II, with several more in my TBR (to-be-read) pile.

Because I believe in passing along good books when I come across them, I’ve compiled this short little list of 10 titles (some nonfiction, most fiction) that are riveting, memorable, and completely worth trying out.

1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I raved about this one earlier this year in a blog post, and if you’ve spoken to me in person at all since then about books, I can almost guarantee this book has come up. The fact is, this Pulitzer-Prize winner is as stunning in word as it is in plot, and it gorgeously intertwines the story of a blind French girl with a German orphan who was recruited young to be part of one of Hitler’s elect youth armies.

There are very few fictional books I’ve read lately that I plan to reread in my lifetime, but this is one of them.

***Book has some instances of strong language.

2. Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

You could describe this novel as beautifully brutal–while on the one side, the language is rich and multifaceted, the content is often raw and heart-wrenching. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this story of the lives of four young adults whose lives were altered forever by the war while I was reading it, but I have been surprised by how much of the story I’ve retained.

I often will read a book and forget many of the details of it within weeks, but I can still rattle off almost the entirety of the plot line of this book to someone, which is saying something about how memorable it was.

***Book has instances of strong language and scenes of disturbing violence/brutality.

3. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

Although it’s been many years since I’ve read this young adult book about a girl growing up in Nazi Germany, it has always stuck with me as one of the most memorable, heartfelt books on WWII out there. In fact, I have a vivid memory of me reading the last 50 pages of this book on my pink bed back when I was still living at home with my parents and just sobbing my eyes out.

While the story is a little hard to get into (partly due to the fact that the book is narrated by Death and Zusak’s writing style is just really unusual), I guarantee you’ll be totally hooked once you’re into it.

4. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

This book was just recently published, but it has already gained quite a readership. While there were a few parts that didn’t ring emotionally true to me, I was astounded by the ending of this novel about two sisters who are polar opposites but who are each trying to follow their moral compass during the war in the best way they know how.

***Book has instances of strong language and some scenes of disturbing violence/brutality.

  5. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

While I didn’t love the subject of this book (Louis Zamperini) at first, he (and Hillenbrand’s writing) had me totally won over by the end. This biography on the Olympian runner follows his life from the time he was an adolescent and runs a detailed path through his time spent as a prisoner in various POW camps after having his plane shot down during the WWII. If nothing else, this biography will teach you the absolute strength of the human spirit and the fight to go on despite unimaginable hardship.

***Book has several instances of disturbing violence/brutality.

6. The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom

This is one of the very few books that I’ve re-read recently (since I basically stopped re-reading most books back in 2013) because I wanted to experience this inspiring autobiography again as an adult (since the last time I read it, I was in high school). I’m sure most people have heard of this book before, but Ten Boom’s ability to live as a true Christian and not give up her faith in spite of terrible tragedy and being imprisoned for helping Jews is truly moving.

This one is a must-read for everyone, I think.

7. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

This is another recent read, and it’s definitely a lighter read than any of the others on the list. This story follows a modern-day journalist wanting to do research about the small island of Guernsey during WWII, when all the children on the island were sent abroad to be kept safe during the German occupation. The whole book is only told through letters, and this book had me laughing out loud at several points.

Definitely try this out if you’re looking to learn a little bit more about an obscure part of WWII history without all the heaviness.

8. Atonement by Ian McEwan

I kind of find it hilarious that I’m including this book on this list because the truth is that I found it REALLY hard to make it through this book (or at least the first section of the book, anyway). But this is one of those cases where the ending of the book is so absolutely brilliant and explains basically everything leading up to it (including why you have such a hard time getting through the first section of the book), that you simply have to shake your head in awe as you try to wrap your head around the whole thing.

Basically, this is the story of a girl who sees something she doesn’t understand and makes a terrible mistake in the wake of it. The rest of the story is all about her trying to “atone” for that terrible wrong.

This book is stunning, but it’s definitely not for you if you’re looking for a light, easy read (or even a page-turner, really). However, I CAN promise that if you stick with it, it’s a book that will stay with you for a long, long time.

***Book has a short but graphic scene of a sexual nature, as well as some strong language and scenes of violence.

9. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

This is a book so famous that I feel it doesn’t need an introduction, but I will say this—if you haven’t read this true diary kept by a 14-year-old Jewish girl during the Holocaust, you need to repent of your ways and get to reading it already.

There’s a reason this book is taught throughout the country at hundreds of schools and is one of the most read books of all time. If you don’t know what that reason is, best go and read it. Like, right now.

  10. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden 

I debated between this title and China Dolls by Lisa See (which I just finished reading), but this one won out because I think it has more staying power, even if much of the book isn’t directly about the war itself.

I once lived with a roommate who said that she reread this book every single year because it was her favorite book of all time, and when the movie came out soon thereafter, all of us roommates in the apartment were swept up in this story of a young Japanese girl who is basically sold as a child to be a geisha, or entertainer. This fictional novel traces the evolution of her dreams and her reality as she grows up in the geisha industry, all of which are put on hold by WWII.

I will say that this is definitely not a book for the faint of heart, but it remains one of the most memorable books I have ever read (not to mention one of the most riveting).

***Book has several scenes and conversations (very few that are graphic) of a sexual nature, due to the subject matter of the book.

Please share your favorite World War II reads below! I’m always on the lookout for new ones.

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