The best books about World War One that don’t have the same old story

Who am I?

I am a writer based in Ireland. When I was fifteen, I read about the Battle of Verdun, and the horror and ineptitude of it led me into an obsession with World War I. Visiting the Imperial War Museum, I learned about the white feather of cowardice, bestowed by girls upon men out of uniform. Such a transformation of a symbol of peace to an instrument of stigma and shame made me think of Irish society as well as British. When White Feathers was published, its refusal to follow a sentimental “Tommy in the trenches” line angered some revisionist critics. But in the end, it is a passionate and intense love story with resistance.

I wrote...

White Feathers

By Susan Lanigan,

Book cover of White Feathers

What is my book about?

White Feathers – a tale of passion, betrayal, war – and resistance.

Young Irish immigrant Eva Downey jumps at the chance to escape her stultifying life in London and attend finishing school in southeast England after a legacy from an old suffragette. There she finds kinship and, eventually falls in love. But when World War I breaks out and the man she loves refuses to enlist, Eva’s family starts pushing her to present him with a white feather of cowardice – an act which will have devastating consequences.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Anyush

Susan Lanigan Why did I love this book?

Anyush’s eponymous heroine is a young Armenian girl whose life is turned upside-down by the genocide carried out by the Ottomans under the Young Turks during fighting in World War One. I was only vaguely aware of the genocide before picking up the novel and it combines a beautiful love story between Anyush and Turkish captain Jahan with a vivid account of the horrors people faced. Beautifully researched and written by Martine Madden, it’s a book that both enthralled and humbled me. 

By Martine Madden,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Ottoman Empire, 1915

On the Black Sea coast, Anyush Charcoudian dances at her friend's wedding, dreaming of a life beyond her small Armenian village. Defying tradition, she embarks on a secret and dangerous affair with a Turkish officer, Captain Jahan Orfalea. As the First World War rages, the Armenian people are branded enemies of the state, and atrocities grow day by day. Torn apart and catapulted into a struggle to survive in the face of persecution and hatred, the lovers strive desperately to be reunited.

Book cover of A Long Long Way

Susan Lanigan Why did I love this book?

A Long, Long Way just broke my heart. The protagonist, Willie Dunne, is a gentle soul, not the typical boilerplate hero of many male-authored World War One books, where the character is seemingly in every major battle doing Victoria-Cross-worthy manoeuvres. Willie is frightened, he is human, he grows up in a slum. In battle, he defecates in his pants out of terror, and yes, he does kill. But he suffers a great betrayal, and towards the end when he realises he has lost someone, his understated grief just undoes me. I also admire Barry for not forgetting this is a World War and including nations from the Global South and East in his narrative. This book deserves all its accolades and then some.

By Sebastian Barry,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Praised as a "master storyteller" (The Wall Street Journal) and hailed for his "flawless use of language" (Boston Herald), Irish author and playwright Sebastian Barry has created a powerful new novel about divided loyalties and the realities of war.

Sebastian Barry's latest novel, Days Without End, is now available.

In 1914, Willie Dunne, barely eighteen years old, leaves behind Dublin, his family, and the girl he plans to marry in order to enlist in the Allied forces and face the Germans on the Western Front. Once there, he encounters a horror of violence and gore he could not have imagined…

Book cover of Fallen

Susan Lanigan Why did I love this book?

Set in the period 1914-1916, it follows the life of Kate Crilly, a young girl whose brother Liam has just been killed in the Great War. This loss binds Kate to Liam’s comrade in arms, Hubie Wilson. Meanwhile, the tensions of the Rising are at boiling point and Dublin is turning into a battleground as Kate doubles back and across the River Liffey checking on her family, her friends and her desperately ill sister. Mills excels at describing the nature of grief and how one lives with it, rather than dwelling on the immediate impact of the loss per se. Beautiful, limpid prose and imagery, really enjoyed.

By Lia Mills,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Fallen by Lia Mills - a remarkable love story amidst the ruins of the First World War and the Easter Rising

Spring, 1915. Katie Crilly gets the news she dreaded: her beloved twin brother, Liam, has been killed on the Western Front.

A year later, when her home city of Dublin is suddenly engulfed by the violence of the Easter Rising, Katie finds herself torn by conflicting emotions and loyalties. Taking refuge in the home of a friend, she meets Hubie Wilson, a friend of Liam's…

Book cover of The Watermelon Boys

Susan Lanigan Why did I love this book?

Again set in the Middle East, this novel about Ahmad and Carwyn, Arab and Welsh, who are both drawn into the war on its Eastern Front, is an absorbing story from a part of the world that has been neglected in World War I fiction. The two men are both betrayed by the English in different ways, and Izzidien’s Iraqi-Welsh heritage allows her to draw a compassionate picture of both protagonists. It also shows how the rapacious European colonialist mentality that underpinned the entire war created the conditions for terrorism and strife in the region today.

By Ruqaya Izzidien,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Shortlisted for The Betty Trask Prize

It is the winter of 1915 and Iraq has been engulfed by the First World War. Hungry for independence from Ottoman rule, Ahmad leaves his peaceful family life on the banks of the Tigris to join the British-led revolt. Thousands of miles away, Welsh teenager Carwyn reluctantly enlists and is sent, via Gallipoli and Egypt, to the Mesopotamia campaign.

Carwyn’s and Ahmad’s paths cross, and their fates are bound together. Both are forever changed, not only by their experience of war, but also by the parallel discrimination and betrayal they face.

Ruqaya Izzidien’s evocative…

Book cover of To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918

Susan Lanigan Why did I love this book?

Hochschild’s moving, powerful account of the build-up to World War One is not a dry historical treatise, but an interweaving of individual stories such as those of Sylvia Pankhurst, Keir Hardie, Emily Hobhouse, and Bertrand Russell. These counter-cultural stories of pacifists, objectors, and philosophers inspired and informed the plot of White Feathers, particularly the divisions among the suffragettes and the toxic consequences of the Boer Wars, which Emily Hobhouse bravely reported on and smuggled out post in the face of extreme censorship. An absolute page-turner and highly informative.

By Adam Hochschild,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked To End All Wars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 14, 15, 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

In this brilliant new work of history, Adam Hochschild follows a group of characters connected by blood ties, close friendships or personal enmities and shows how the war exposed the divisions between them. They include the brother and sister whose views on the war could not have been more diametrically opposed - he a career soldier, she a committed pacifist; the politician whose job was to send young men who refused conscription to prison, yet whose godson was one of those young men and the suffragette sisters, one of whom passionately supported the war and one of whom was equally…

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Book cover of At What Cost, Silence?

Karen Lynne Klink Author Of At What Cost, Silence?

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