The best historical fiction that illuminates little-known aspects of World War II

The Books I Picked & Why

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

By Mary Ann Shaffer, Annie Barrows

Book cover of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Why this book?

Many people don’t realize that part of the United Kingdom was occupied by the Nazis during WWII. The inhabitants of the Channel Islands, just off the shore of France, lived under German rule from 1940 through to liberation in 1945. This novel, told entirely in epistolary style with letters and a few telegrams between the characters, highlights the wartime deprivations they endured and the extraordinary resilience of ordinary citizens. The “literary society” in the title is initially a ruse to explain an unauthorized violation of curfew, but I love that it becomes a way for the characters to discover the power of books to help them survive terrible times. It was made into a movie in 2018, but of course, the book is much better.

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22 Britannia Road

By Amanda Hodgkinson

Book cover of 22 Britannia Road

Why this book?

Like my novel, 22 Britannia Road sheds light on refugees in England, starting after the war when Janusz and Silvana are reunited after six years’ separation. The narrative alternates between flashbacks to the wartime traumas they each endured, and the “present” story of their struggles to rebuild their lives. When Poland is invaded, Janusz joins the underground army and makes his way to France and finally England with the anti-Nazi forces. This mirrors the story of two characters in my own novel, based on my grandfather and uncle. Silvana meanwhile escapes into the forest to hide with her infant son. When she and Janusz meet up after the war, theirs is no glossy romantic reunion; they barely know each other and both harbor secrets that must eventually come to light. 

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Moon Tiger

By Penelope Lively

Book cover of Moon Tiger

Why this book?

Penelope Lively is one of my favorite British authors. She has a way of perfectly capturing her characters’ complex relationships and emotions in a quiet, understated manner. Moon Tiger won the Booker Prize in 1987, and is set mostly in Egypt during WWII, where Claudia, a strong, independent woman working as a war correspondent, falls for Tom, a British tank commander involved in fighting off the German offensive led by Rommel. This little-known part of the worldwide conflict becomes the backdrop for a passionate love affair that continues to haunt Claudia when she reflects back on her life in old age. 

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By Laurent Binet, Sam Taylor

Book cover of HHhH

Why this book?

You’ve heard of Hitler, Goebbels, Göring, Eichmann, and Himmler, but what about Heydrich? One of the masterminds of the terrible “final solution,” he was installed as Protector of Bohemia and Moravia under Nazi occupation and was assassinated in 1942 by two Czech patriots parachuted in by the British. I have visited the church in Prague where they were eventually hunted down and killed, so I knew I had to read this novel, and it is a delightful read. Written in short, snappy chapters, the seriousness of the underlying story is lightened by a playful double narrative with the author’s account of his own struggles while writing the book and reflections on the treatment of historical characters in fiction. 

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The Madonnas of Leningrad

By Debra Dean

Book cover of The Madonnas of Leningrad

Why this book?

When I was working on my novel, I was drawn to another writer’s debut set in WWII, this one in Leningrad. The 870-day siege of the Russian city by the Germans was something I’d heard of, but I knew nothing about the details. This novel brings to life the mass starvation and terror inflicted on ordinary citizens through the eyes of Marina, a tour guide at the famous Hermitage Museum. When she is charged with removing the artwork for its protection, she commits to memory the paintings in all their splendor and continues to give guided tours in her mind, memories that still surface decades later when her brain is rattled by dementia. This novel really made me want to go to the Hermitage—still on my bucket list. 

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