The best books to immerse you in a wartime setting

The Books I Picked & Why

Night Falls On The City - Little Brown

By Sarah Gainham

Book cover of Night Falls On The City - Little Brown

Why this book?

Julia is a famous actress in Vienna at the time of the Anschluss. She’s married to a Jewish man, whom she ends up having to hide from the Nazis in their apartment, assisted by their loyal housekeeper. Little by little life becomes impossible. Julia’s charming, tolerant, very ‘Viennese’, acquaintances and fellow actors find it’s no longer possible to turn a blind eye to what the Nazis intend. Jewish friends including the elderly and very young, are murdered, deported, and persecuted. And then at the end, the Red Army moves into Vienna and one of the saddest things of all happens… There are two further books in the same series about post-war Austria, but this one is my favourite. 


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The Heat of the Day

By Elizabeth Bowen

Book cover of The Heat of the Day

Why this book?

The Blitz is over, but Stella lives in a London that is still at war. She moves from flat to flat and her professional life is bound by state secrecy. Her relationship with her lover isn’t what it seems, either, and that seems a metaphor for life in wartime London (or perhaps it’s the other way round). Little in the capital is constant or stable, in contrast with the country houses she retreats to. There’s a tautness to this book that means I have returned to it several times.


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Prague Fatale

By Philip Kerr

Book cover of Prague Fatale

Why this book?

I loved all the Bernie Gunther books (and really need to read them all again in chronological rather than publication order), but this one, set in Berlin and Czechoslovakia in 1941, has stayed with me. There’s something disturbing about saying that I ‘enjoyed’ what is at times almost a country house murder when the host is Heydrich and the guests some of the most evil men in the Reich, but I was gripped. Bernie himself is one of the strongest voices in fiction.


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The Spoilt City

By Olivia Manning

Book cover of The Spoilt City

Why this book?

I could have chosen any of the three in Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, about a young couple who rush to get married on the eve of war and find themselves living first in Romania, then Athens (the setting for this book), and finally Cairo. I love the portrait of Athens in the period before the German invasion: the beauty of Greece in springtime, the shortages of food, the strange collection of people making up the expatriate community, and how the marriage of two young, probably mismatched people, is tried by the constant presences of war and death. The characters who drift along with the Pringles are beautifully drawn studies in their own right.  


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Kingdom of Shadows

By Alan Furst

Book cover of Kingdom of Shadows

Why this book?

I’m cheating here a bit as the novel’s set in Paris before the Second World War and covers a variety of locations, including the Sudetenland and Budapest. But it is foreshadowed by war. Furst writes travel pieces as well as fiction and it shows in the way he brings the brasseries, the Seine, and the apartments, along with the abattoirs, railway sidings, and threatening outlying backstreets to life in his books, many of which return to Paris again and again.


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