The best novels about ordinary people doing extraordinary things during the World Wars

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a journalist and writer fascinated by the fact that every family has a story to tell, and secrets to keep, passed down the years. As a child, I was intrigued by the adventures of my great-aunts and great-uncles during World War Two; ordinary people thrown into conflict—that older, no-nonsense generation no longer with us. My first novel, A Season of Leaves, is based on my great-auntie’s incredible experiences during and after the war. I listened to her account, researched meticulously, and wove fact into fiction. All my novels have a touch of romance, family conflict, and the real trauma of war visited upon people’s doorsteps.


I wrote...

Map of Stars: A heartbreaking Second World War love story

By Catherine Law,

Book cover of Map of Stars: A heartbreaking Second World War love story

What is my book about?

It’s 1967, and a mummified carrier pigeon falls down the chimney of an old country manor in Kent with a wartime message attached to its leg. Eliza, who the note was meant for all those years before, is taken back to the war: a time of danger and betrayal, with the enemy waiting across the Channel. Eliza had never forgotten Lewis, who’d sent her the message; Lewis, the man she loved and lost. 

Eliza’s daughter Stella sets out to discover more about this mysterious man from her mother’s past and uncovers a terrible secret that Eliza had wanted to remain buried. And as the enigma of what happened to Lewis begins to unravel, Stella unearths a truth that changes everything she knew about herself.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A God in Ruins

Catherine Law Why did I love this book?

This book haunted me long after I’d finished. Telling the story of an English bomber pilot in World War Two—an ordinary hero—and his endearing eccentric family, A God In Ruins ponders the brutality of fate. The narrative is woven through different timeframes, plunging us into the real human experience and the unbearable moral question of carrying out acts of war. The novel made me question my concept of reality, of memory, and of choosing a path in life. Have you ever wondered if your own parallel universe is unspooling simultaneously as another lifetime?  

By Kate Atkinson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A God in Ruins as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE 2015 COSTA NOVEL AWARD
A God in Ruins relates the life of Teddy Todd - would-be poet, heroic World War II bomber pilot, husband, father, and grandfather - as he navigates the perils and progress of the 20th century. For all Teddy endures in battle, his greatest challenge will be to face living in a future he never expected to have.

This gripping, often deliriously funny yet emotionally devastating book looks at war - that great fall of Man from grace - and the effect it has, not only on those who live through it, but on…


Book cover of The Light Years

Catherine Law Why did I love this book?

Opening in the second half of the 1930s, this is the first in a five-book saga chronicling the extended Cazalet family living under the shadow of World War Two, based loosely on the author’s own life. We hear from a whole cast of characters, their loves, fears, and foibles: the children’s excitable, misguided take on war, and the adult’s version, when they know only too well. The different voices are distinct and relatable; the writing is a lesson in storytelling. Immersed in the almost-century old world of London and the Sussex countryside, I devoured the whole series, finishing one book only to pick up the next.

By Elizabeth Jane Howard,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Light Years as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Light Years is a modern classic of twentieth-century English life in the countryside, and is the first novel in Elizabeth Jane Howard's extraordinary, bestselling family saga The Cazalet Chronicles.

Every summer, the Cazalet brothers - Hugh, Edward and Rupert - return to the family home in the heart of the Sussex countryside with their wives and children. There, they are joined by their parents and unmarried sister Rachel to enjoy two blissful months of picnics, games, and excursions to the coast. But despite the idyllic setting, nothing can be done to soothe the siblings' heartache: Hugh is haunted by…


Book cover of A Moment in Time

Catherine Law Why did I love this book?

The Kent countryside has a strong enough presence in this book to become a character in its own right, when the exquisite beauty of an English summer contrasts with the lethal Battle of Britain dog fights leaving vapour trails in the sky overhead. As a local young woman befriends a group of brave, doomed fighter pilots, the story captures the desperation and the absurdities of conflict, and the tender nature of transient and yet hopeful love. The author was commissioned by the RAF to write about the war, and I can tell from his pinpoint, unflinching detail of that unsettling time, that he was a first-hand eyewitness. 

By H.E. Bates,

Why should I read it?

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


Book cover of Part of the Furniture

Catherine Law Why did I love this book?

An admirable sense of rebellion and freedom that the Second World War brought young people is encapsulated in this book by the author, who herself lived through those times. Mary Wesley’s novels are quirky and unexpected, and peopled with eccentric, sympathetic, and lovable characters who face the dangers of the Blitz and all the uncertainty of war with a certain poise. I love the concepts of escaping convention and the kindness of strangers. To read this novel—which I have done at least five times—is like stepping into a warm bath. It’s my go-to when I need a dose of familiarity and comfort.

By Mary Wesley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Part of the Furniture as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It is early in 1941, and June Marlowe, with no home and no family to turn to accepts the offer of a home from a frail stranger, older than his years. A series of events takes her to a house in the West Country and the blossoming of an English spring into which war only occasionally intrudes. Here she may find peace; here she will no longer be part of the furniture.


Book cover of Birdsong

Catherine Law Why did I love this book?

Heading back further in time to the First World War, this novel is unforgettable and devastating. What starts as a rather sexy story of forbidden love between our English soldier protagonist and a French woman is turned on its head when we are propelled into the barbarity and slaughter of the trenches. Entering our hero’s mind on the night before the Battle of the Somme, and again when the whistles blow at first light, I felt physical sickening shock as I turned the pages, not wishing to continue reading, but unable to stop myself. 

By Sebastian Faulks,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Birdsong as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

#1 INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER • A mesmerising story of love and war spanning three generations and the unimaginable gulf between the First World War and the 1990s

In this "overpowering and beautiful novel" (The New Yorker), the young Englishman Stephen Wraysford passes through a tempestuous love affair with Isabelle Azaire in France and enters the dark, surreal world beneath the trenches of No Man's Land. Sebastian Faulks creates a world of fiction that is as tragic as A Farewell to Arms and as sensuous as The English Patient, crafted from the ruins of war and the indestructibility of love.


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The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

Book cover of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

Kathryn Betts Adams Author Of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I was first a clinical social worker and then a social work professor with research focus on older adults. Over the past few years, as I have been writing my own memoir about caring for my parents, I’ve been drawn to memoirs and first-person stories of aging, illness, and death. The best memoirs on these topics describe the emotional transformation in the writer as they process their loss of control, loss of their own or a loved one’s health, and their fear, pain, and suffering. In sharing these stories, we help others empathize with what we’ve gone through and help others be better prepared for similar events in their own lives.

Kathryn's book list on Memoirs illness aging death moving vivid prose

What is my book about?

The Pianist's Only Daughter is a frank, humorous, and heartbreaking exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her mother, an English scholar and poet, and her father, a pianist and music professor. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' newly single father flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Their daughter watches in disbelief…

The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

What is this book about?

Grounded in insights about mental health, health and aging, The Pianist’s Only Daughter: A Memoir presents a frank and loving exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her English scholar and poet mother and her pianist father. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' father finds himself single and flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with…


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