The best books about civilians in war

Why am I passionate about this?

I have been fascinated by the Second World War since I was a child. I grew up with tales of London and Coventry in wartime, stories of family separation, rationing, and air raids. The stories that really gripped me included the streams of refugees passing my grandmother’s house in the suburbs of Coventry after that city was bombed, and the night my aunts and (infant) father spent waiting to be rescued from a bombed house in south London. As a historian I wanted to know more about stories like this, and about the ways that wars shape lives, and my books have returned again and again to the civilian experience of war.


I wrote...

Dying for the Nation: Death, Grief and Bereavement in Second World War Britain

By Lucy Noakes,

Book cover of Dying for the Nation: Death, Grief and Bereavement in Second World War Britain

What is my book about?

Britain continues to be fascinated by its Second World War. Widely remembered as the nation’s ‘finest hour,’ there's little space for the wider experiences of war, including death, bereavement, and grief. I've researched and written about the experience and memory of war for years, but became interested in this aspect of British experience during the centenary of the First World War. 

Death in war matters. Not only to individuals and families, but also to the state, which has to manage mass death in a way that doesn’t undermine morale. Dying for the Nation is the first social and cultural history of death and its legacies for Second World War Britain. This book was the Social History Society 'Book of the Year' in 2022.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of At Home and Under Fire: Air Raids and Culture in Britain from the Great War to the Blitz

Lucy Noakes Why did I love this book?

This book made me think differently about air war, arguably the defining element of 20th and 21st-century conflicts. Grayzel traces its evolution and experience for Britain from the first bombing raids of the First World War to the start of the blitz in the Second. Unlike most other studies, which focus on military strategy and state policy, she interweaves the stories and experiences of the civilians who were to be the targets of this new technology. The book reminds us (if we needed reminding) of the shock of air raids, and the way that these impacted every aspect of life.

By Susan R. Grayzel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked At Home and Under Fire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Although the Blitz has come to symbolize the experience of civilians under attack, Germany first launched air raids on Britain at the end of 1914 and continued them during the First World War. With the advent of air warfare, civilians far removed from traditional battle zones became a direct target of war rather than a group shielded from its impact. This is a study of how British civilians experienced and came to terms with aerial warfare during the First and Second World Wars. Memories of the World War I bombings shaped British responses to the various real and imagined war…


Book cover of The Raj at War: A People's History of India's Second World War

Lucy Noakes Why did I love this book?

It is all too easy to forget that when Britain went to war in 1939, it did so as the world’s largest imperial power. Khan’s book is a rich social history of India at war, telling us the stories of not only the soldiers, but the business owners, the peasants, the refugees, and the political activists whose lives were shaped by war in the Indian subcontinent. The flawed political settlement that brought independence and partition to India and Pakistan was born out of the Raj’s experience of war, and this book gives voice to those who experienced this most turbulent time in the region’s recent history.

By Yasmin Khan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Second World War was not fought by Britain alone. India produced the largest volunteer army in world history: over 2 million men. But, until now, there has never been a comprehensive account of India's turbulent home front and the nexus between warfare and India's society.

At the heart of The Raj at War are the many lives and voices of ordinary Indian people. From the first Indian to win the Victoria Cross in the war to the three soldiers imprisoned as 'traitors to the Raj' who returned to a hero's welcome, from the nurses in Indian General Hospitals to…


Book cover of Life and Fate

Lucy Noakes Why did I love this book?

A sweeping novel of the Soviet Union’s ‘Great Patriotic War,’ told through the lives of the fictional Shaposikova family, but with historical figures including Hitler and Stalin making guest appearances. Grossman was a journalist and war reporter, but the novel, which was critical of Stalin, was not published until 1980. The book ranges widely, taking in life (and death) in Soviet cities, gulags, and—in the book’s most devastating passages—German concentration camps. Weaving together individual stories with grand events, the novel is a cry for the small acts of kindness and resistance that individuals are capable of in the most extreme circumstances. Life and Fate is the sequel to Grossman’s Stalingrad but with a wider canvas. I particularly enjoyed the BBC Radio 4 adaptation, (available as an audiobook).

By Vasily Grossman,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Life and Fate as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Based around the pivotal WWII battle of Stalingrad (1942-3), where the German advance into Russia was eventually halted by the Red Army, and around an extended family, the Shaposhnikovs, and their many friends and acquaintances, Life and Fate recounts the experience of characters caught up in an immense struggle between opposing armies and ideologies. Nazism and Communism are appallingly similar, 'two poles of one magnet', as a German camp commander tells a shocked old Bolshevik prisoner. At the height of the battle Russian soldiers and citizens alike are at last able to speak out as they choose, and without reprisal…


Book cover of Life After Life

Lucy Noakes Why did I love this book?

A clever, playful, moving novel that is not strictly about civilians in war, but which has their experiences at its heart. It tells and retells the lives of Ursula Todd, whose life begins again each time she dies. In several of these lives Ursula volunteers as an Air Raid Warden in blitzed London, and in another, she (having married unwisely to a German man in the 1930s) tries to keep her daughter alive in a devastated Berlin.  ‘Spanish Flu’ repeatedly devastates Ursula’s family, reminding us that victims of the pandemic were among the dead of war. Atkinson clearly spent time in the archives while writing this and it shows in the historical accuracy and attention to detail that shapes Ursula’s multiple stories. I have read this book again and again and always find something new to appreciate.

By Kate Atkinson,

Why should I read it?

16 authors picked Life After Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What if you could live again and again, until you got it right?

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. She dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war.

Does Ursula's apparently infinite number…


Book cover of A Woman in Berlin

Lucy Noakes Why did I love this book?

This isn’t an easy read, but it’s an important one. A diary by an anonymous female journalist trapped in Berlin as bombs fall and the Red Army closes in, it describes in graphic detail her struggle for survival between April and June 1945. Berlin’s women had difficult choices to make in this period, and the author records unflinchingly her decision to choose the ‘protection’ of one Russian soldier over repeated rape by multiple others. It is one of the few books that tell us about war from the perspective of civilian women, immersing us in their world and recording the impact of political leaders’ delusions of grandeur and glory on individual lives. I didn’t find this an easy book to pick up, but found it even harder to put down.

By Anonymous,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Woman in Berlin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a devastating book. It is matter-of-fact, makes no attempt to score political points, does not attempt to solicit sympathy for its protagonist and yet is among the most chilling indictments of war I have ever read. Everybody, in particular every woman ought to read it' - Arundhati Roy

'One of the most important personal accounts ever written about the effects of war and defeat' - Antony Beevor

Between April 20th and June 22nd 1945 the anonymous author of A Woman in Berlin wrote about life within the falling city as it was sacked by the Russian Army. Fending…


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Rip Current

By Sharon Ward,

Book cover of Rip Current

Sharon Ward Author Of In Deep

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Even as a kid, I was intrigued by the underwater world, so as an adult, I learned to scuba dive. I took to it like a fish to water, and my husband and I spent the next several years traveling to tropical islands to experience the local dive conditions whenever possible. I loved learning how every island had a different culture and a different undersea environment. Since I love tropical islands, scuba diving, mysteries, and adventure stories, these books really hit my sweet spot.

Sharon's book list on mysteries set on a tropical island

What is my book about?

Unsettled weather has caused life-threatening rip currents to sprout up seemingly at random in the usually tranquil sea around Grand Cayman. Despite posted warnings to stay out of the surf, several women lose their life when caught in the turbulent waters. Fin attempts some dangerous rescues, and nearly loses her own life in the process.

Meanwhile, Fin and the team at RIO are struggling to find more sources of funding for the Institute’s important research, and danger arises from an unexpected source while Fin and hot movie star Rafe Cummings are filming an upcoming documentary. When a young internet influencer…

Rip Current

By Sharon Ward,

What is this book about?

Unsettled weather has caused life-threatening rip currents to sprout up seemingly at random in the usually tranquil sea around Grand Cayman. Despite posted warnings to stay out of the surf, several women lose their life when caught in the turbulent waters. Fin attempts some dangerous rescues, and nearly loses her own life in the process.
Meanwhile, Fin and the team at RIO are struggling to find more sources of funding for the Institute’s important research, and danger arises from an unexpected source while Fin and hot movie star Rafe Cummings are filming an upcoming documentary.
Soon after a young internet…


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