752 books directly related to World War 2 📚

All 752 World War 2 books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

Book cover of Rising Sun, Falling Skies: The disastrous Java Sea Campaign of World War II

Rising Sun, Falling Skies: The disastrous Java Sea Campaign of World War II

By Jeffrey Cox

Why this book?

Perceptions of the first several months of World War II in the Pacific war usually focus on Douglas MacArthur’s actions in the Philippines. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy and its British, Dutch, and Australian allies waged a largely unsung and losing battle against the Japanese onslaught to control the natural resources of the Netherlands East Indies. Rising Sun, Falling Skies scrutinizes the learning curve of allied command, the hopelessness of facing numerical superiority, and the grim awakening that airpower plays a decisive role no matter how powerful the fleet. Cox’s portraits of admirals Thomas Hart and Karl Doorman beg a host…

From the list:

The best books on naval battles in WW2

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Book cover of The Book of Lost Names

The Book of Lost Names

By Kristin Harmel

Why this book?

Again, inspired by a true story, The Book of Lost Names is an astonishing novel about a young Polish-French woman who risks her life forging identity documents for Jewish children. I’m a sucker for books about people helping people, and even more so when it has to do with kids. This story will rip your heart to pieces and then sew it back together again. It’s a testament to love and sacrifice. A beautiful page-turner with secrets and turns and all the fixings of a great novel.

From the list:

The best books on remarkable women in WW2

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Book cover of Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission

Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission

By Hampton Sides

Why this book?

I only had to read the headline to know this was the book for me. The Americans handpicked 121 soldiers to slip behind enemy lines in the Philippines. Their mission seemed impossible; another reason I chose this book. It was to march thirty miles in rugged terrain, and at the end, rescue over 500 POWs, amongst them the last survivors of the Bataan Death March.

I recommend this book because it engrossed me from page one to the last. The realistic imagery depicting how the prisoners lived in the camp, how they bonded together, and survived despite starvation, tropical diseases,…

From the list:

The best books about the Second World War

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Book cover of All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See

By Anthony Doerr

Why this book?

This epic, exceptional novel is about a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and Werner, a German orphan, whose lives intersect during World War II. To escape the Nazis, Marie-Laure’s father takes her to stay with her reclusive great uncle, whose home is inside the citadel walls of Saint-Malo. The novel is stunningly beautiful in all respects — not the least of which are the many loving and inventive ways Marie-Laure’s father teaches his daughter to recognize her own resourcefulness, courage, confidence, and independence. I loved this book so much.

From the list:

The best novels about families you wish were yours…and families you’re glad are not

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Book cover of Life After Life

Life After Life

By Kate Atkinson

Why this book?

Is this book about Time-Travel or Dimension-Jumping? Or about someone who’s freakishly aware of their rebirth into numerous lives? I don’t know— but I do know that it’s a breathtakingly audacious, witty, intelligent, brilliant book.

It recounts the life of Ursula Todd, born in 1910. She then lives, well, Life After Life. Some are very short: she is still-born or drowns as a child. Others, as she seems to cycle through almost every life it is possible for her to have lived, involve considerable suffering. She becomes dimly aware of these numerous lives and learns, to an extent, to…

From the list:

The best books that shake fantasy and history up together

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Book cover of The Codebreakers: The Story Of Secret Writing

The Codebreakers: The Story Of Secret Writing

By David Kahn

Why this book?

Superb. Kahn’s book, written almost fifty years ago, is rightly considered the classic work on the history of cryptography. It’s enormous, some 1200 pages, but it draws the reader in with its richly detailed portraits of code-makers and code-breakers from ancient times to the modern era. Kahn’s analysis of American cryptographic operations during WWII is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the intelligence failures that preceded Pearl Harbor. The 1996 updated edition is still in print.

From the list:

The best books about American code-breaking in World War II

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Book cover of With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

By E.B. Sledge

Why this book?

My dad fought on Okinawa, receiving a citation for his participation in the taking of Shuri Ridge. I never knew my dad as a Marine. I asked him once, when I was a boy, to tell me about his service, but he refused. I asked him again, during the final year of his life, and he again refused. Unfortunately, what he saw, what he endured, he took with him.

Eugene Sledge, in this memoir of his service on Peleliu and Okinawa, told me everything my dad withheld from me. This incredible account is hailed as the best World War II…

From the list:

The best books about PTSD and overcoming oppression of the human spirit

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Book cover of The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II

The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II

By Gregory A. Freeman

Why this book?

I love this book. One of my favorite movies is The Great Escape (yes, I know it was also a book) and reading this book feels like watching this movie. The story is a simliar one that is an OSS rescue mission to save 500 downed airmen stuck in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, while they secretly build an entire airstrip large enough for C-47s (if you’re not familiar, they are very large airplanes). Avoiding the Germans in the cover of darkness, the airmen and villagers risked their lives to build this strip in attempt of rescue. Oh, and there’s also a revolution…

From the list:

The best books that weave fascinating stories about real people and events from WWII history

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Book cover of The Island of Sea Women

The Island of Sea Women

By Lisa See

Why this book?

Island of the Sea Women is a work of historical fiction that takes place on the island of Jeju in South Korea. Although the focus is on the women divers who harvest the ocean floor for seafood (by hand and with no breathing equipment!!) it is also about connection. First and foremost the idea of connecting one’s heart to forgiveness. This is a theme throughout the book. But also the women’s positive connections to their fellow divers and teachers, their families especially their husbands, nature, and their spirit world burn bright with hope. But their connection to constant loss and…

From the list:

The best books on cultivating connections

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Book cover of Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry

Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry

By Jacob Presser

Why this book?

The late Jacob Presser (1899-1970) was a historian, scholar, and a Holocaust survivor himself. His wife was deported and died, and he survived by going into hiding He spent fifteen years researching the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and the plight of the Dutch Jews.

He speaks movingly of finding small scraps of paper, messages thrown from trains leaving Westerbork (an internment camp and later a transit camp in the Netherlands), noting that “Before me, hardly anyone has read them and, after me, they are locked into the archives and it’s possible nobody else will see them.” They awoke in…

From the list:

The best books on World War II in Europe

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Book cover of Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity

By Elizabeth Wein

Why this book?

I’ll admit it: One of the things I love about spy novels is the heart-thumping intrigue they typically deliver, and Code Name Verity is, simply put, harrowing. The action begins in 1943 when a British spy plane carrying two good friends crashes in Nazi Germany. From that point on Verity is tested to the limit, and I had to ask myself again and again: What would I have done if arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo? When I look back on World War II, I am amazed by the bravery of not just the men, but women, who felt called…

From the list:

The best books about intrepid women spies of World War II

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Book cover of The World at Night

The World at Night

By Alan Furst

Why this book?

What would World War II book recommendations be without a good spy novel? Alan Furst has written a dozen of them as part of his Night Soldiers series. The series can sometimes be formulaic (especially the love stories), but all do an excellent job of exploring little-known facets of history and the complex choices and risks individuals face in times of uncertainty. (Another title, The Spies of Warsaw, has been dramatized.)

The World of Night follows a film producer in Paris, whose world is upended by the Nazis. Another strength of the series is its depiction of the early…

From the list:

The best books on World War II in Europe

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Book cover of Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1945

Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1945

By Neill Lochery

Why this book?

I grew up with lots of stories and books about WWII because my father was a veteran. What is different about this book’s narrative is Portugal’s position of neutrality during the Second World War and the resulting web of political intrigue. Salazar, Portugal’s dictator at the time, played both sides, aligning with the British, all the while selling off Portugal’s Tungsten, a metal used to produce armor-piercing projectiles (which apparently melted the British tanks), to the Germans for gold that the Nazi’s looted. And at the end of the war, all that gold helped Portugal emerge economically intact. 

From the list:

The best historically accurate books about Portugal

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Book cover of A Gesture Life

A Gesture Life

By Chang-Rae Lee

Why this book?

This is a novel that has stuck with me since I first read it more than 10 years ago. Doc Hata, the main character, has composed a life that is a series of gestures, never quite realizing – or does he? -- that his composition is not a life at all. Lee plumbs the depths of the human heart with astonishing restraint and delicacy. But the novel is also embedded in a globalization narrative: Doc Hata crosses the Pacific to a new life, leaving everything and nothing behind.

From the list:

The best books on economics and globalization

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Book cover of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

By Simon Sebag Montefiore

Why this book?

Sebag Montefiore was the first western historian to really take advantage of the opening of Russian – and Georgian – archival sources on Stalin and his career. Court of the Red Tsar offers a precious glimpse into Stalin’s inner circle and the way the USSR was governed in the 1930s and 1940s. Although gossipy at times, and written in a popular style some professional historians resent, the book is deeply researched and a treasure trove of information which is hard to find elsewhere.

From the list:

The best books on Stalin and the Second World War

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Book cover of Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet War 1941-1945

Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet War 1941-1945

By Evan Mawdsley

Why this book?

Like Sebag Montefiore as Stalin biographer, Mawdsley was the first western military historian truly to exploit new sources from Soviet archives in order to probe more deeply into the Nazi-Soviet war on the eastern front. While earlier histories, such as John Erickson’s two volumes published in the 1975 and 1983, remain informative, Erickson was working at a disadvantage, as he would himself have been the first to admit. David Glantz, who has written a number of specialized studies of specific battles and campaigns, has worked with numerous Soviet sources – but he still relies predominantly on ‘official’ Soviet chronicles and…

From the list:

The best books on Stalin and the Second World War

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Book cover of Stalin's Drive to the West, 1938-1945: The Origins of the Cold War

Stalin's Drive to the West, 1938-1945: The Origins of the Cold War

By R.C. Raack

Why this book?

Like Sebag Montefiore and Mawdsley, Raack was the first diplomatic historian to re-evaluate Stalin’s foreign policy in light of documents which became available after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. He exploded numerous myths about the supposed Soviet interest in “collective security” in the 1930s, showing that this was mere projection on the part of French and British and Czechoslovak statesmen who saw what they wanted to see in Stalin’s foreign policy, which was just as territorially “revisionist” as that of Italy, Germany, and Japan, just as expansionist – but better camouflaged.

From the list:

The best books on Stalin and the Second World War

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Book cover of Back Then: Two Literary Lives in 1950s New York

Back Then: Two Literary Lives in 1950s New York

By Justin Kaplan, Anne Bernays

Why this book?

Written in separate voices in alternating chapters, this unusual double memoir by the long-married couple, the novelist Anne Bernays and biographer Justin Kaplan, tells the stories of two privileged New Yorkers.  Growing up on opposite sides of Central Park, they came of age in the 1950s. Dreaming dreams of literary lives, they came to see them realized as their lives converged.

From the list:

The best memoirs through the voices of women

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Book cover of The Korean War

The Korean War

By Sir Max Hastings

Why this book?

Max Hasting’s book described the early days of the war, for example the actions of Task Force Smith. He provides a valuable perspective on the Korean War that includes an interesting balanced account of a war that is still considered by many to be controversial. Hastings considers the perspectives of all sides of the Korean conflict and examines the various motivations of their respective actions, such as the U.S. decision to send troops to Korea in September 1945, and to send them back in June 1950, to the Chinese decision to send their own troops into Korea in the fall…

From the list:

The best books on the Korean War from someone who served there

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Book cover of Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia's Women Pilots in WWII

Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia's Women Pilots in WWII

By Bruce Myles

Why this book?

After seeing a documentary on the History Channel about the female soviet air regiments that were created by aviation heroine and former opera singer, Marina Raskova, in response to the German attack on Russia during the Second World War, I wanted to know more. Bruce Myles describes the varied personalities and challenges faced by these proud, capable, and extremely young airwomen and their all-female ground crew. He tells how the women were not taken seriously at first by the military command and were provided with outdated wooden biplanes that were nothing more than crop-dusters. But the women pilots and navigators…

From the list:

The best books about women in the Second World War

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Book cover of Chennault: Giving Wings to the Tiger

Chennault: Giving Wings to the Tiger

By Martha Byrd

Why this book?

The story of Claire Lee Chennault is the story of American involvement in China’s air war against Japan, 1937-1945, and Martha Byrd’s 1989 work is the definitive Chennault biography. First as an advisor to Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek, then commander of the legendary American Volunteer Group – the “Flying Tigers” – and ultimately in command of the U.S. 14th Air Force, Chennault was the driving force behind Allied efforts to push the Japanese invaders out of China during World War II. While numerous other authors have described Chennault in fawning, simplistic terms, Byrd did the deep research needed to…

From the list:

The best books on the Air War in the China-Burma-India Theater during WWII

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Book cover of The Origins of the Korean War, Volume I: Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes, 1945-1947

The Origins of the Korean War, Volume I: Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes, 1945-1947

By Bruce Cumings

Why this book?

Professor Cumings provides the most detailed, honest analysis of this country’s involvement in Korea from the end of World War II through the catastrophic war that virtually destroyed the entire Korean peninsula, left several million dead, and led this country directly into Vietnam. 

From the list:

The best books on America’s path through the Cold War

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Book cover of Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II

Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II

By Robert Kurson

Why this book?

Back before extreme sports were a thing, people found personal ways to test themselves. In this case, we have guys from New Jersey who did scuba diving to depths that were the edge of both human physiology and the technology of the time, while exploring sunken wrecks over 200 feet below the surface. For fun. Then they tripped over a lost Nazi submarine. Off the coast of New Jersey.  

It sounds like the worst kind of B-movie nonsense, but it’s true. Two of the men become driven to not only document the submarine’s provenance as an actual German vessel, but…

From the list:

The best books about history that read like the most gripping fiction you’ve ever experienced

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Book cover of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II

By Douglas A. Blackmon

Why this book?

I’ve spent recent years discovering all the American history I never learned in school. Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Slavery By Another Name was a major revelation. After the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery, White people found creative ways around it, including convict leasing. Black men, arrested on dubious charges such as vagrancy or breaking curfew, were then leased to employers, such as railroads, mines, and plantations. Conditions were inhumane, even worse than in slave times, because these companies didn’t have a stake in keeping their labor alive. 

From the list:

The best books that explain America’s systemic racism

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Book cover of Unsung Eagles: True Stories of America's Citizen Airmen in the Skies of World War II

Unsung Eagles: True Stories of America's Citizen Airmen in the Skies of World War II

By Jay A. Stout

Why this book?

Unsung Eagles is an intimate tour-de-force of air combat in World War II told, literally, from the perspective of the pilots themselves. The pilots who provided their stories for this book were all unassuming men from humble backgrounds. Yet, after Pearl Harbor, they gladly raised their right hands and swore an oath to defeat the Axis Powers. These brave young men flew various combat missions over the European and Pacific theaters. Yet, after the war, they came home to resume their normal lives and said nary a word about their wartime service, until now.

From the list:

The best books on military aviation

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Book cover of Warlight

Warlight

By Michael Ondaatje

Why this book?

Since my own novel is set partly in post-war England, I was drawn to Ondaatje’s Warlight, which begins in 1945 London as the city is recovering from brutal bombing. Another hook for me was the youthful characters; my book is also populated with war-confused children. Ondaatje’s narrator, 14-year-old Nathaniel, recalls his youth with the benefit of adult wisdom. He and his sister Rachel are abandoned by their parents to the care of some eccentric and slightly dangerous characters. Their teen years are marked by many mysterious events and experiences, only beginning to clarify in retrospect. Do we ever know…

From the list:

The best novels about human relations in the altered reality of wartime

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Book cover of London A-Z Street Atlas

London A-Z Street Atlas

By Geographers' A-Z Map Co Ltd

Why this book?

This facsimile of the original A-Z shows London before huge swathes of the city were destroyed by enemy bombing in the Second World War. It is invaluable when searching for old addresses and presents a picture of areas that had not changed much since Victorian times but would soon be altered beyond recognition.

From the list:

The best books on Victorian London

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Book cover of The Book Thief

The Book Thief

By Markus Zusak

Why this book?

I don’t believe in age recommendations for books, and some of my favourite adult reads are designated as young adult books, including The Book Thief. Narrated by “Death”, the book tells the tale of Liesel, a young book lover who “borrows”/rescues books from Nazi book burnings during WWII. Liesel is a foster child living outside of Munich who shares her love of books and the solace that comes from reading with everyone she encounters, including the Jewish man hidden in the basement. The box office movie version of The Book Thief is a decent rendering as well if you…

From the list:

The best historical fiction novels for nerdy teacher-librarians

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Book cover of Exodus: A Novel of Israel

Exodus: A Novel of Israel

By Leon Uris

Why this book?

Leon Uris is an accomplished researcher and expert in the history of the Holocaust and the Jewish people. Woven into a fictional story, this book explains clearly how the people of Israel came to inhabit the land of their forefathers after World War II. Anyone wanting a better understanding of the Middle East should read this story of present-day Israel’s birth.

From the list:

The best books that have changed my way of viewing the world

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Book cover of Catch-22

Catch-22

By Joseph Heller

Why this book?

This one saved my summer. I got a job between my junior and senior years in high school loading and unloading heavy boxes at a pharmaceutical company. It was labor intense. My only solace was the 15-minute coffee break and the half-hour lunch break, where I could go off by myself, eat a sandwich, drink an iced coffee, and read Catch-22. I didn’t expect to laugh so hard from a book about WWII, but Heller sublimely captured the absurdity of military life. It made me acutely aware that you could laugh at things that might normally make you shiver…

From the list:

The best books to tickle your fancy

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Book cover of Britain's War: Into Battle, 1937-1941

Britain's War: Into Battle, 1937-1941

By Daniel Todman

Why this book?

Book 1 of these 2 is perhaps a better read because it explains, as the young Jack Kennedy famously wrote, “Why England Slept,” and that topic is more intriguing than the tactics of the Second World War itself, treated in Book 2. Nevertheless, if you have time read both books. You’ll conclude that Kennedy (and his ghostwriter) didn’t know what was up, and you’ll wonder if the United States is now repeating Britain’s history as its status as a great power is put under pressure by the rise of China.

From the list:

The best books on history relevant to the present and near future

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Book cover of A Woman's War Too: U.S. Women in the Military in World War II

A Woman's War Too: U.S. Women in the Military in World War II

By Paula Nassen Poulos

Why this book?

This collection of wide-ranging essays, both from women who served in WWII and from historians who have studied them, is a great place to start. It sorts out WACS from WAVES, covers cryptographers and nurses, considers racism and the political rebound of women in the military. The editors also included a useful guide to first-person material in the National Archives as well as a directory to archival collections held around the country.

From the list:

The best non-fiction books by women on women in WWII

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Book cover of God is My Co-Pilot

God is My Co-Pilot

By Robert L. Scott

Why this book?

The archetypal combat flying story, this is an easy, fun, and eye-opening book that Scott wrote only months after returning from the war. Scott clearly loved to fly and had done so since the early 1930s after graduating from West Point. Resourceful and tenacious, he received command of a fighter group in China after having been officially told the previous year that he was too old (at the ripe old age of 33) to fly fighters. This is a rollicking read that will be enjoyed by readers of all ages.

From the list:

The best personal accounts of World War II air combat

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Book cover of Atonement

Atonement

By Ian McEwan

Why this book?

This book, set initially in England just before WWII, is rich with big themes – a love that crosses class boundaries, war, jealousy, guilt. Because of a wrongful accusation, a housekeeper’s son is imprisoned and eventually finds himself going to war. His accuser, the younger sister of his lover, attempts over the years that follow to make atonement. It’s a sad and beautifully told tale of lost love and years of regret, and what might have been if one hasty act had gone undone. The twist at the end is amazing. This story stayed with me for a long time…

From the list:

The best books on the messiness of life and love

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Book cover of La Règle Du Jeu

La Règle Du Jeu

By V.F. Perkins

Why this book?

Virtually any volume in the BFI Film Classics series—now sadly defunct--is worth recommending. But I’m especially fond of this one, about Jean Renoir’s masterpiece The Rules of the Game (La Règle du Jeu)--my favorite movie along with Kubrick’s 2001 (a very different kind of film!). Perkins explores each of the film’s characters, bringing out the full dimensions of Renoir’s humanism, his grand comic flair, and the bittersweet aura of this great movie completed as World War II was about to engulf Europe.
From the list:

The best books about the movies

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Book cover of Armed Truce: The Beginnings of the Cold War 1945-1946

Armed Truce: The Beginnings of the Cold War 1945-1946

By Hugh Thomas

Why this book?

This is a somewhat obscure work, a massive book that apparently did not sell well. But it offers a blow-by-blow description by a great British historian about how the Cold War started, and demonstrates how it was principally Stalin's actions that led to World War II morphing into a cold war.
From the list:

The best books on the Cold War from a journalist who lived it

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Book cover of Enemies: A Love Story

Enemies: A Love Story

By Isaac Bashevis Singer

Why this book?

Though it is set just after the war, the characters in this novel cannot escape from their memories of the Holocaust or guilt at having survived. Yet they are also stuck in a comic scenario—through a complex series of events, the Jewish protagonist Herman has wound up with three “wives,” his first wife from before the war who he mistakenly assumed dead, the Polish Catholic peasant who hid him from the Nazis and he married out of gratitude, and his mistress and fellow survivor he met upon relocating to New York. The novel is both hilarious and heart-breaking—a potent reminder…

From the list:

The best fiction about women’s experiences of World War II

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Book cover of The Cut Out Girl: A Story of War and Family, Lost and Found

The Cut Out Girl: A Story of War and Family, Lost and Found

By Bart Van Es

Why this book?

Written in a simple yet highly effective style, and emotionally very moving, the author goes on a personal journey to follow the story of a Jewish girl, Lien, whom his grandparents sheltered in the Netherlands in the Second World War. The harsh reality of life in Nazi-occupied territory is skillfully brought to the fore, but the book is more than just another account of Nazi atrocities. Just as the author himself is affected, the reader, myself included, cannot fail to be impacted by the story of Lien.

From the list:

The best books on social and family history

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Book cover of The Mind of the South

The Mind of the South

By W.J. Cash

Why this book?

Though published in 1941, this book remains, for my money, at least, the most insightful book on white southerners. In an account equally rich in provocative thought and vivid phraseology, Cash explored the roots of the historically fierce masculine individualism, and near-visceral hostility to new ideas—the "savage ideal," he called it—that not only kept the South a hot mess most of the time, but sustained it as "not quite a nation within a nation, but the next thing to it" right up to the eve of American entry in World War II. Cash trembled at the prospect of the powerful,…
From the list:

The best books that "tell about the South"

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Book cover of Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy Since the Civil War

Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy Since the Civil War

By Gavin Wright

Why this book?

In this intriguing and highly readable book, Gavin Wright essentially explores both the immediate and long-term economic consequences of slavery for the South. In doing so, he makes a persuasive case that, for the greatest part of its history, much of what passed for a distinctive southern culture and mindset can also be understood as a function of the persistence of its distinctive low-wage regional economy.
From the list:

The best books that "tell about the South"

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Book cover of Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America

Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America

By Annie Jacobsen

Why this book?

Von Braun was one of the hundreds of Nazi scientists hunted by the Americans in the dying days of the war and brought to the U.S. to continue their research—on everything from nerve toxins to human experimentation. Heavily researched and detailed, the book’s a chilling read and ethical challenge.

From the list:

The best books on how science won World War Two

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Book cover of Hangover Square

Hangover Square

By Patrick Hamilton

Why this book?

George Bone is a sensitive drunk with a touch of psychosis and a modest private income. Leading a rackety life in pre-war Earls Court, he’s in love with a sponger, a failed actress who wants to exploit him for his connections, and he bears her humiliations without complaint. But sometimes, something clicks in his brain and he imagines killing her and her seedy sidekick and going home to Maidenhead and peace. Boarding houses and bottle parties, blow-outs in the West End and Brighton: Hamilton captures a miserable, boozy, coarse and uptight world, and provides an ending to match.

From the list:

The best books about madness, drugs, and rock’n’roll

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Book cover of The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy

The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy

By Adam Tooze

Why this book?

Tooze uses his mastery of economic sources to construct a brilliant, often startling, reinterpretation of Nazi geopolitics. He offers a comprehensive economic interpretation of the Nazi drive for expansionism in the 1930s, Hitler’s decision for war in 1939, and the timing and shape of the Barbarossa offensive against the Soviet Union in 1941. The Wages of Destruction also explores the economic dimensions of Hitler’s plans to liquidate the European Jews and other racial enemies. Perhaps his most arresting argument is that the rise of the United States as an economic superpower in the early twentieth century drove the politics of…

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The best books on economics and geopolitics

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Book cover of Strange Love: An Alien Abduction romance

Strange Love: An Alien Abduction romance

By Ann Aguirre

Why this book?

Aguirre is one of my auto-buy authors because she writes smart, complex characters and pulls off compelling plots with panache. Strange Love’s hero is truly an alien, not a muscled humanoid with green skin and horns. The human heroine works at a children’s daycare center, which surprisingly turns out to give her the skills to handle almost anything life throws at her. Don't let the "abduction" part of subtitle put you off (it was an accident), and the romance pushes all the right buttons. So why is this in my list? Don't tell my cats, but the heroine gets…

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The best science fiction stories with pets

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Book cover of American Kid

American Kid

By Constance M. Constant

Why this book?

Katherine, a Greek immigrant to the US, took her American children to Greece in the late 1930s to live on her family’s farm and escape from the Great Depression. Unfortunately, the arrival of the Nazi invaders trapped the family in Greece during the Occupation and the end of World War II. Based on a true family story, American Kid movingly describes the experiences of the children in the remote mountain village of Katherine’s birth, and their efforts to survive the occupation of their home by Nazis. Would they ever see their beloved America again? An authentic glimpse of the devastating…

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The best books for a virtual odyssey in ancient and modern Greece

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Book cover of The Grand Alliance: The Second World War, Volume 3

The Grand Alliance: The Second World War, Volume 3

By Winston S. Churchill

Why this book?

Leave it to Churchill to sum up the events of 1941 that determined the ultimate outcome of the war. In his words, the theme of this volume of his epic account of the war is “How the British fought on with Hardship their Garment until Soviet Russia and the United States were drawn into the Great Conflict.” Much of this consists of letters, reports, speeches, and other original documents from that period, woven together by its skillful narrator. Little wonder that Churchill was later awarded the Noble Prize in Literature "for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well…

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The best books on the view from London in 1941

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Book cover of Fadeout

Fadeout

By Joseph Hansen

Why this book?

Fadeout is the first book in Hansen’s Dave Brandstetter mysteries. The protagonist, an openly gay insurance investigator in 1970s California, is convinced that a man who has been reported dead is actually still alive, and he must hurry to find him. Another classic in the gay mystery canon, Fadeout is vividly noir, grittily honest, and rejects cliches and stereotypes in a way that is still shocking over fifty years later.

From the list:

The best books on gay mysteries (from a gay mystery writer)

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Book cover of The Painted Bird

The Painted Bird

By Jerzy Kosinksi

Why this book?

Unlike the other books on this list, The Painted Bird forgoes bloodshed and serial killers and instead shows us a dark side of human nature plagued with apathy and senseless violence. The book follows a young, abandoned boy during WWII as he travels from village to village only to find that humanity is, despite popular belief, not mostly good. It’s beautifully written and has long earned its place as one of literature’s best novels, but it is also possibly the bleakest story ever written. Unfortunately, humans can be downright awful to each other, and The Painted Bird shows you how.

From the list:

The best books to test your endurance for the dark and disturbed

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Book cover of Paris: Capital of the World

Paris: Capital of the World

By Patrice Higonnet

Why this book?

At first sight, the title evokes a certain Gallic hauteur, but it does not take long to see that this is simply a foretaste of the rich exploration of the myths of Paris – how the great city has been depicted, imagined, and perceived over time. This is the story of Paris as the capital of modernity, art, fashion, revolution, sex, pleasure, science, and crime. With writers, artists, poets, and visitors as witnesses, and lavishly illustrated, this is a colourful meander through the myths and illusions that have shaped the many images of Paris. 

Whatever the actual realities beneath…

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The best books to savour the history of Paris

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Book cover of The Unlikely Spy

The Unlikely Spy

By Daniel Silva

Why this book?

The author clearly did a great deal of research for this book, and this is certainly something I truly love in this World War 2 novel: it provides that solid and rich actual background against which the story is set. It is fascinating to see how both the Nazis and the Allies were playing a game of deception, trying to outmanoeuvre and outsmart each other. The writing is very good, the characters are complex, all with their flaws, all very interesting indeed, all feeling very credible, real. An engaging spy thriller that remains one of my favourite in this genre.

From the list:

The best World War 2 novels for people who love history and fiction

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Book cover of Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II

Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II

By Allan Bérubé

Why this book?

A classic work of war and society by a brilliant scholar of the gay experience during World War II. This deeply researched, lively book tells the personal stories of the gay men and women who were swept into military service in the 1940s. Berube documents how wartime induction put the military at the forefront of defining concepts of homosexuality at mid-century, and he describes the ambiguities and ambivalences that wartime service produced, both for the military and for gay service personnel. While the war brought hundreds of thousands of queer young people together and allowed them chances to create a…

From the list:

The best books on the history of the military, war, and society in the twentieth-century United States

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Book cover of Baseball Saved Us

Baseball Saved Us

By Ken Mochizuki, Dom Lee

Why this book?

It’s been a few years since I shared this picture book with young readers, but I still remember the questions. A terrific discussion starter about immigration, Japanese culture, how we treat our fellow citizens and so much more, this beautifully-illustrated book made me curious about the internment camps. Like so many good stories, it sent me digging for more.

From the list:

The best kids’ baseball books about more than baseball

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Book cover of America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East

America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East

By Hugh Wilford

Why this book?

A deeply interesting dive into the world of espionage and the early days of the CIA, this accessible book by Hugh Wilford provides an excellent entry point into the exciting movements, people, and ideologies that crosscut the Middle East in the years after World War II. Focusing especially on personalities like Kim Roosevelt and Miles Copeland, this book shows why many Arabs even today suspect the CIA may be behind far more than it lets on. For American audiences, this book will provide an intriguing journey into a world that is unfamiliar to most and fascinating to all, illuminating the…

From the list:

The best books on American (mis)adventure in the Middle East

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Book cover of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

By Jamie Ford

Why this book?

Jamie Ford, the great-grandson of Chinese immigrants to the United States, nailed every detail in his debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetHe crafted a gripping love story set against the backdrop of the shameful time in history during WWII when Japanese Americans were imprisoned in internment camps in Seattle. The story begins in modern-day when Henry (Chinese) finds artifacts from his youth at an abandoned hotel and relives the friendship and love he had for young Keiko (Japanese) when they were both school-aged children in the 1940s, despite all the racial barriers that existed…

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The best historical fiction novels for nerdy teacher-librarians

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Book cover of War of the Rats

War of the Rats

By David L. Robbins

Why this book?

It is said that the history of warfare is about battlefields becoming such fraught places that soldiers have been forced to move underground. At Stalingrad, war moved into the cellars, sewers, trenches, and bomb craters as soldiers sought safety and respite from the brutal Russian winter. Because of snipers, safety was illusory, however, and the soldier’s hiding places often became their graves. Robbins spares no details about the horrendous conditions at Stalingrad, but that’s not the focus of his book. 

Instead, he dramatically tells the true story of a one against one battle between two snipers, each their country’s best.…

From the list:

The best novels that show World War II as it was

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Book cover of The Secret Horses of Briar Hill

The Secret Horses of Briar Hill

By Megan Shepherd

Why this book?

I love horses and also fantasy; the chance to dream and let my imagination go at full gallop! This book contains both elements, as well as a WW II premise, and shares the mysterious happenings that unfold when a girl sees winged horses in the mirrors of a children’s hospital that was once the home of a princess. This story will appeal to all fantasy readers, with its emotional content and lovely illustrations. 

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The best middle-grade books about brave kids and horses

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Book cover of The Lost Letter

The Lost Letter

By Jillian Cantor

Why this book?

This is a heartbreaking, yet uplifting novel of love and survival inspired by real resistance workers during World War II Austria, and the mysterious love letter that connects generations of Jewish families. It takes place in both 1989 Los Angeles and 1938 Austria. I love this book because of Jillian’s beautiful writing, and her strong sense of place. I felt transported to WWII Austria, where I became deeply invested in the love story between Kristoff and Elena. I also enjoyed that the modern-day story takes place pre-internet, where a newly divorced woman, Katie, does hands-on research to learn more about…

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The best dual-timeline historical novels

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Book cover of Epitaph for a Spy: A Spy Thriller

Epitaph for a Spy: A Spy Thriller

By Eric Ambler

Why this book?

Another book published in 1938, so it was written in the period. It’s argued that Ambler created the mould for modern thrillers, so it’s another essential stop for anyone interested in pre-War spy fiction. I loved the fact that the hero is an amateur in this story, something that I took into The Fulcrum Files

From the list:

The best historical thrillers set just before the Second World War

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Book cover of Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better

Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better

By John Holt

Why this book?

Holt writes that the best learning experience in his life wasn’t a “learning experience” at all, but serving on a submarine during World War 2. Success – and sheer survival – manifestly hinged on quickly bringing even the rawest and supposedly least educable of the crew to function at the highest level. In such purposive settings, everything about “teaching and learning” is different. School as we know it, Holt argues, is hypocrisy-inducing and soul-crushing, plus stupendously inefficient, but you can take this angry book as also a provocation to rethink pedagogy in a radical but still constructive way... even in,…
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The best books to provoke the impresario in every teacher

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Book cover of Bloomsbury Girls: A Novel

Bloomsbury Girls: A Novel

By Natalie Jenner

Why this book?

Pour yourself a cup of Ceylon and settle into your coziest armchair to transport yourself to Bloomsbury Books, the postwar London bookshop where three determined women are about to make history. Natalie Jenner’s upcoming novel is a quiet and triumphant celebration of literary sisterhood, peopled with real-life literary figures and memorable heroines. 

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The best books to transport you to another era

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Book cover of Defeat Into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-1945

Defeat Into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-1945

By Field-Marshal Slim

Why this book?

This was the book that got me hooked on the Burma Campaign. Bill Slim was the man who engineered and executed the great Allied victory in Burma in 1945. He was an extraordinary man, a great military commander, and an excellent writer. This book, his retelling of the campaign – the longest British campaign of the Second World War – has been described as the best general’s book of the war. I agree. It's beautifully written and is a moving telling of the transition from British defeat in 1942 to profound victory in 1945.

Slim was a very humble man.…

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The best books about the war in Burma, 1941-45

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Book cover of The War That Saved My Life

The War That Saved My Life

By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Why this book?

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s brilliant storytelling brought me into Ada’s world and made me root for her right from the start. I could feel the excruciating physical and emotional pain she experienced both at the hands of her abusive mother and from her clubfoot. She was prevented from ever leaving her apartment and interacting with anyone besides her younger brother Jamie. I cheered Ada on when she secretly taught herself to walk so she could escape London, and her mother, with Jamie as children were being evacuated by train to the English countryside to get away from the dangers of World…

From the list:

The best MG/YA books that highlight the importance of trust and friendship in difficult times

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Book cover of When the Siren Wailed

When the Siren Wailed

By Noel Streatfeild

Why this book?

Several evacuee novels published in the few decades after the war became beloved classics. Michelle Magorian’s Good Night, Mr. Tom, and Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War, for example, are extraordinary. But my favorite of this era’s evacuee novels is Noel Streatfeild’s. Laura, Andy, and Tim Clark are none too happy to be sent away from their London home, so it’s a pleasant surprise when they find themselves comfortable in the care of Colonel Launcelot Stranger Stranger (not a typo… that’s his name). But when the Colonel dies suddenly, the Clarks run away back to London and their mum. It’s…

From the list:

The best middle grade books about England’s World War II evacuations

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Book cover of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial

The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial

By Herman Wouk

Why this book?

A novel about a rusty old destroyer minesweeper, a supremely difficult captain, a mixed bag officers in a dysfunctional wardroom, a horrific typhoon, and a nail-biting court-martial. The seagoing and combat portions of the novel are very realistic, reflecting Wouk’s time in uniform on a similar class of ship in the Pacific during WWII. In my hand as I write this is a battered 1951 first edition of the novel, with a slightly tattered cover, which I treasure above almost any book in the five thousand volumes in my personal library. Over the years of my career, I’ve returned again…

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The best books to know the sea

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Book cover of Midnight in Europe

Midnight in Europe

By Alan Furst

Why this book?

This is a good book to read if you want to know what it felt like to be in France or other European countries in 1938 before the start of World War II when my father was saying how bad Hitler was but people didn’t believe it. Bad things were already happening and much worse things were to come. In some places you couldn't trust anybody because everybody could be a spy. People who lived in France and didn't want to leave had to face the fact that if they didn't they might lose their freedom and their lives. Franco…

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The best fiction and nonfiction books about spies

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Book cover of The Heat of the Day

The Heat of the Day

By Elizabeth Bowen

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.

From the list:

The best books to immerse you in a wartime setting

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Book cover of Love Lessons

Love Lessons

By Joan Wyndham

Why this book?

If I’d been a London teenager at the outbreak of WW2, Joan is who I’d choose to have as my best friend. Joan’s memoirs, taken from her actual diaries, which were written secretly during bombing raids, reveal a conflicted, hormonally charged, humorous woman. This snippet gives you an idea: “Well here I sit in the air-raid shelter with screaming bombs falling right and left…I can’t help feeling that each moment may be my last, and as the opposite of death is life, I think I shall get seduced by Rupert tomorrow.” Written with great wit, and full of joie de…
From the list:

The best WW2 memoirs by brave, witty, resourceful, and downright remarkable women

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Book cover of Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler: A True Love Story

Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler: A True Love Story

By Trudi Kanter

Why this book?

I love taking elements from memoirs and spinning them into historical fiction. But some memoirs are better than novels, and this is one of them. Trudi recounts her life as a chic young hat designer in Vienna in 1938 who falls in love with Walter, a charming businessman. But Trudi and Walter are Jewish, and their love story rapidly becomes a desperate bid for survival, as the Nazis annexe Austria. Trudi is a wonderful writer, and her story is a gripping read of love, escape, and hope.

From the list:

The best WW2 memoirs by brave, witty, resourceful, and downright remarkable women

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Book cover of The Happiest Man on Earth: The Beautiful Life of an Auschwitz Survivor

The Happiest Man on Earth: The Beautiful Life of an Auschwitz Survivor

By Eddie Jaku

Why this book?

I am recommending this memoir for its beauty and kindness, which is even more extraordinary when considering this is Eddie Jaku’s story of being a Holocaust survivor. He tells the reader that "life can be beautiful if you make it beautiful. It’s up to you." These are powerful words from a man whose life was changed forever when he was beaten, arrested, and taken to a concentration camp. For the next seven years, he witnessed the worst of mankind, the horrors of the death camps, first in Buchenwald and then in Auschwitz, and then the infamous Nazi death march. He…

From the list:

The best books about World War II that may surprise you

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Book cover of Dear Mrs. Bird

Dear Mrs. Bird

By A.J. Pearce

Why this book?

There is so much to enjoy in this original and charming novel! Set in London during the Blitz, Emmy is trying to remain cheerful, despite the nightly bombings and disruption of life as she once knew it. Emmy takes on a job helping Mrs. Bird, the renowned agony aunt for Woman’s Friend magazine. But if there is any hint of Unpleasantness, the letters must be cut up immediately – until Emmy decides to take matters into her own hand. Dear Mrs. Bird captures the language of the time beautifully, no doubt influenced by the 1940s magazines the author has collected.…

From the list:

The best books about World War II that may surprise you

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Book cover of The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany

The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany

By Jonathan Petropoulos

Why this book?

The Faustian Bargain is all about the art world inside Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Petropoulos chronicles the artists, art dealers, art professors, art journalists, and many others who were forced to live under Hitler’s cultural rules, which forbade modernist art of any kind. Some profited from this arrangement, others subtly fought against it. This is an inside look at a culture choked and suppressed by its own leadership.

From the list:

The best books about art and culture during World War II

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Book cover of The Ochre Robe

The Ochre Robe

By Agehananda Bharati

Why this book?

Reflections on a quest to find truth as a wandering mystic. Agehananda (whose name means "homeless bliss") was born in Austria and posted to India in World War II. He later joined an order of yogis and travelled the country asking awkward questions. This got him into trouble, and he wound up renouncing monastic life to become an academic in upstate New York. This book recounts a spiritual journey that’s also sharply intellectual. A mind-expanding read.

From the list:

The best books on the truth of yoga

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Book cover of The Last Bookshop in London: A Novel of World War II

The Last Bookshop in London: A Novel of World War II

By Madeline Martin

Why this book?

Martin and I shared the same agent for many years, which is how I came across this novel. It’s set in London and has the most divine main character whom I immediately fell in love with. I find that most readers don’t want too much heavy historical information when they read for pleasure, and Martin has just the right balance of history with her fiction. Also, who wouldn’t love reading about a bookstore that is desperately trying to survive the war!

From the list:

The best books to make you fall in love with WWII fiction

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Book cover of Devil in a Blue Dress

Devil in a Blue Dress

By Walter Mosley

Why this book?

The first crime novel I read is set in 1950s Los Angeles and centers on Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, a Black WWII veteran living in the predominantly Black neighborhood of South Central. It’s beautifully written, and while the mystery is at the forefront, it's very much about the Black experience in Los Angeles, especially for those who came to Los Angeles during the Great Migration. What's striking is how Easy must use his wits to stay alive, avoid prison, and come out ahead, an enduring metaphor for the Black experience. 

From the list:

The best crime novels that explore race in America

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Book cover of Mischling

Mischling

By Affinity Konar

Why this book?

Mischling is the story of twin sisters, Stasha and Pearl, who were sent to Auschwitz during WWII. The connection between these young girls, their strength and willpower, their ability to know what the other is thinking, to protect and care for one another, is astonishing. In this camp, these girls go through puberty, fall in love, and endure more than it seems possible for any child to survive. That they do so, is impressive, and when Pearl disappears, Stasha refuses to believe her sister is dead. When the war ends, and the camp is liberated, Stasha and a young boy…

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The best books with powerful female protagonists

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Book cover of The Venice Sketchbook

The Venice Sketchbook

By Rhys Bowen

Why this book?

If you like intrigue, then welcome to Venice in 1938. This novel features a likable heroine in search of the solution to a mystery contained in a sketchbook. It’s full of art—both real and metaphorical. Set against the backdrop of impending war, this one is full of courage and heart.

From the list:

The best books for historical action...and some occasional kissing

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Book cover of A Separate Peace

A Separate Peace

By John Knowles

Why this book?

Don’t let this book’s appearance on ninth-grade reading lists for the last 50 years convince you that it has no modern message for adults and teens. I toyed with putting a different title on my list here, something scathing and contemporary, but the truth is, few books have affected me as much as A Separate Peace. Yes, I read this in high school, and under duress, like most things I did in high school, but I was captivated by the trifecta of elements that have informed many of my favorite books: New England setting, boarding school, and complex feelings…

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The best novels set in the world of academia, prep schools, and campus life

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Book cover of The Piano Teacher

The Piano Teacher

By Janice Y. K. Lee

Why this book?

Janice Y.K Lee marries historical fiction with music and passion in this epic story set in Singapore in the 1940s and 1950s. Like all the best historical novels, this book highlighted aspects of history not always discussed, and did it with a thread of beautiful music woven through the story. This book is all-consuming.  

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The best novels about love and music

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Book cover of White Gardenia

White Gardenia

By Belinda Alexandra

Why this book?

Much like my first pick, this is an incredible novel that has stayed with me for years. It’s another go-to recommendation for me if anyone asks what my all-time favorite WWII novels are. Alexandra is a Russian-born Australian author, and I’m a huge fan of her other books too. Once again, she creates characters that are impossible not to fall in love with, and she’s a natural storyteller who artfully blends historical detail with fiction. 

From the list:

The best books to make you fall in love with WWII fiction

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Book cover of The Longest Echo

The Longest Echo

By Eoin Dempsey

Why this book?

When I like an author, I do my best to tell everyone about their books, and Eoin Dempsey is one of those authors I often recommend. Lately, the WWII fiction genre seems to be dominated by female authors, but Dempsey is the exception! I fell in love with The Longest Echo by the end of the first chapter, and I haven’t talked to anyone who hasn’t loved this novel. What captured me was that I hadn’t ever read about this moment in history before, and I found myself completely immersed in the story very quickly.

From the list:

The best books to make you fall in love with WWII fiction

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Book cover of A High and Hidden Place

A High and Hidden Place

By Michele Lucas

Why this book?

While not technically a ‘romance,’ this is the remarkable story of one woman’s quest to uncover her past. In 1963, 25-year-old journalist Christine Lenoir watches in horror as Lee Harvey Oswald is shot live on TV. She has flashbacks and vivid dreams about her life as a young child. Raised by religious sisters in a convent in France, Christine is led to believe that her parents died of the flu. In actuality, she discovers that they and most of the residents of her hometown were slaughtered by the Nazis in June of 1944. It’s a difficult read, but this is…
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The best military romance novels for learning about history

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Book cover of Silence of the Sea / Le Silence de la Mer

Silence of the Sea / Le Silence de la Mer

By James W. Brown, Lawrence D. Stokes, Cyril Connelly

Why this book?

This book is about passive resistance to the Nazi occupation; about taking a stand and not talking to the enemy, using silence as a weapon, not letting the invader feel comfortable. There is no action, no fights, no gore, no espionage. A family is obliged to live with a Nazi and endure his presence, but behind the enemy uniform, there is an individual, a human being. I found it touching and beautiful that in the midst of the German invasion of his country, Vercors could write about the enemy in such a tender and tolerant way. This is the book…

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The best books about living with the enemy

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Book cover of Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers

Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers

By Sara Ackerman

Why this book?

I’m a bit of a fangirl when it comes to Sara Ackerman. I love all of her books about real people in Hawaii during World War II. Her characters are believable and compelling, and the Hawaiian setting is a different aspect of World War II than is usually presented. This book features a close-knit group of women who open a pie stand near a military base. Violet’s husband has disappeared without a word, and she suspects her daughter knows something she isn’t telling. When tension and suspicions rise among neighbors, the women are accused of being spies, and Violet must…

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The best historical fiction about Hawaii

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Book cover of The Postmistress

The Postmistress

By Sarah Blake

Why this book?

There are a lot of World War II books out there, and in truth, I was growing tired of them until I read Sarah Blake’s. Partially located on my home turf of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the brush against our local history pre-World War II fascinated me. But Blake doesn’t stay local; she leaves the postmistress to do—or not doher job and flies off to London with a female war correspondent. How their stories cleverly intertwine is part of my fascination with this tale. Blake has a habit of dropping unforgettable characters on my doorstep, where they tease and…

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The best novels for her side of history

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Book cover of People Like Us

People Like Us

By Louise Fein

Why this book?

Although strictly this was set in the run-up to World War two, rather than the war itself, I thought this was a fascinating insight into how a young German girl, infatuated with Hitler and the Nazis, gradually learns to see things from a different point of view when she falls in love with a Jewish boy. It’s a novel for our time, showing how easily ‘ordinary people’ can be sucked into extreme views. 

From the list:

The best World War Two books featuring strong women

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Book cover of The Sand Pounder: Love and Drama on Horseback in WWII

The Sand Pounder: Love and Drama on Horseback in WWII

By M.J. Evans

Why this book?

I found this recent release a fascinating historical fiction for teens and older based on actual events of horses and their riders during World War II. 

Fearing an invasion by German and Japanese forces, the U.S. Coast Guard enlisted horsemen to patrol the beaches along the east and west coasts of our country from 1942 to 1944. The unit was called The Sand Pounders.

M.J. Evans wrote the book in a personal way, introducing In Tillamook, Oregon, a young equestrian, 17-year-old Jane, who decided to join the Sand Pounders. However, Sand Pounders were only accepting men. But that didn’t slow…

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The best horse books for tweens, teens, and young adults

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Book cover of The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany

The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany

By Martin Goldsmith

Why this book?

Martin Goldsmith has penned the story of his father and mother who were talented musicians in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. They met by chance and were invited to play for the Kulturbund, an all Jewish orchestra that was allowed to exist while it was convenient to the Nazi’s. When disbanded, the members were sent to concentration camps. Goldsmith’s parents escaped to America, but carried with them the burden of relatives left behind and the guilt of having played into the Nazi’s propaganda efforts. 

From the list:

The best books of untold stories from World War II

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Book cover of School for Barbarians: Education Under the Nazis

School for Barbarians: Education Under the Nazis

By Erika Mann

Why this book?

Written during the Third Reich itself, this is the hard-hitting book that told the world just how heinous Nazi education policy was – although it was only heeded by a prescient few at the time. Anyone who is worried about how easily schooling can become subject to ideology should definitely read this book!

From the list:

The best books about childhood in Nazi Germany

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Book cover of Stolen Girl

Stolen Girl

By Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Why this book?

I love all of Marsha Skrypuch’s YA books. Page-turning plots, engaging characters, inspired by real events. Her novels focus on Ukrainian and Polish young people’s experiences under both Hitler and Stalin. This one stands out to me, first because of the cover and secondly, because of the author’s ability to wrench my heart. The novel focuses on a young Polish girl, deemed Aryan enough, so she can be raised in a Nazi family. It was a story that opened my eyes. These horrendous things happened to innocent kids.

From the list:

The best Stalin & Hitler-era books for young people and adults

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Book cover of Graffiti Knight

Graffiti Knight

By Karen Bass

Why this book?

This fast-paced adventure novel, set in Leipzig after the Second World War, tells the story from a German boy’s point of view. The Bass novel explores German guilt and the strained relationships that young people had with their Nazi-era parents. That includes me and my own relationship with my father who was a pilot for the Luftwaffe. Graffiti Knight is inspired by the author’s real-life friendship with the daughter of German immigrants to Canada.

From the list:

The best Stalin & Hitler-era books for young people and adults

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Book cover of The Night Portrait: A Novel of World War II and Da Vinci's Italy

The Night Portrait: A Novel of World War II and Da Vinci's Italy

By Laura Morelli

Why this book?

This sweeping dual-timeline novel takes readers inside the minds of German and Allied soldiers fighting to protect Europe’s artistic treasures during WWII, as well as to the 15th century court of the Duke of Milan. A portrait of one of his lordship’s mistresses, painted by Leonardo da Vinci, connects the two time periods.

I found it fascinating to travel to the frontlines of battle with the characters and search – sometimes fruitlessly – for the artwork that had been looted and hidden away by Nazi troops. This novel provides a fascinating insight into what the Monuments Men went through…

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The best mysteries featuring amateur sleuths searching for lost art

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Book cover of To War with Whitaker

To War with Whitaker

By Hermione Ranfurly

Why this book?

It’s rare to find a war diary that makes you laugh out loud, but this had me snorting tea through my nose. Lady Ranfurly broke the law by following her new husband, a British officer, to the North African front in 1940 and staying there for the duration. No pampered aristocrat, she’s a hard-charging career woman who ends up working for, and spying on, a secret war organization running covert missions, and then becomes personal assistant to the Supreme Allied Commander (nicknamed “Jumbo”). Her diary is hilarious and touching as she weathers fear, tragedy, and colossal male egos with maximum…

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The best books about women in wartime

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Book cover of Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece

Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece

By Noah Charney

Why this book?

Noah Charney is an art historian and has written several interesting books that I have read. Even though this book, Stealing the Mystic Lamb, came out too late for my novel, the “altarpiece” of my book is in fact the “Mystic Lamb” otherwise known as the Ghent Altarpiece. My quasi-obsession with this monumental piece of art is matched by Charney and he describes how often it has been stolen and nearly destroyed. No other piece of art has had a history quite like this one. 

From the list:

The best books about art and culture during World War II

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Book cover of The Lost Girls of Paris

The Lost Girls of Paris

By Pam Jenoff

Why this book?

Pam Jenoff is perhaps best known for The Orphan’s Tale, but here she takes on World War II and lands another great read. I especially enjoy novels based on real people and events, and in this carefully plotted novel Jenoff reveals the story of twelve actual female secret agents who served courageously, only to be forgotten as the war waged on. The story is interestingly framed. The narrator discovers an abandoned suitcase with pictures of a dozen women and sets out to investigate their stories. I loved how I, along with the narrator, learned about how these women were…

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The best books about intrepid women spies of World War II

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Book cover of Field Gray: A Bernie Gunther Novel

Field Gray: A Bernie Gunther Novel

By Philip Kerr

Why this book?

Eventually, my travels to understand and write about the times in which I had been born took me to the Auschwitz concentration camp near Krakow, then to its source in Berlin and some excellent walking tours into the heart of its lights and shadows – which is much of the world of Philip Kerr’s fictional Bernie Gunther. A 1930s Berlin detective, Bernie must navigate the attempt to maintain a humanity that is both moral and faulted in a time of brutality and absurdity over the course of fifteen novels that will puzzle through the human dilemma of World War II…

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The best books about some human undercurrents of the World Wars, and a father’s war revealed

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Book cover of The War I Finally Won

The War I Finally Won

By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Why this book?

The title offers an important hint that the focus isn’t solely on exterior events. In this sequel to The War That Saved My Life, World War II still rages across the English countryside, though Ada’s actually emotionally safer than she’d ever been when living with her mother. But memories of that time still give her terrible nightmares, and when a crisis makes her feel like they’re coming true, she discovers that there’s a big difference between fear and what you do with it. The horses, the lushly-depicted historical landscape, and a truly relatable and beautifully-wrought battle with the wars…

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The best middle grade novels that make history leap off the page

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Book cover of The Naked and the Dead: With a New Introduction by the Author

The Naked and the Dead: With a New Introduction by the Author

By Norman Mailer

Why this book?

This is a fictionalized account of Mailer’s WWII experience during the amphibious invasion of a Japanese-held Island and shows the courage and cowardice of men in war. I decided to read this after meeting Mailer at my cousin Jack Gelber’s Manhattan Apartment in 1966. Upon learning that I had received a battlefield commission in Vietnam, Mailer, who was drunk, called me a baby killer, jerked me from a chair, and assumed a boxer’s stance, meanwhile challenging me to fight him. He was unceremoniously shoved into his overcoat and out the door. But the man could write

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The best books to safely satisfy your lust for action and mystery

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Book cover of Operation Drumbeat: The Dramatic True Story of Germany's First U-Boat Attacks Along the American Coast in World War II

Operation Drumbeat: The Dramatic True Story of Germany's First U-Boat Attacks Along the American Coast in World War II

By Michael Gannon

Why this book?

Few people understand just how lousy the East Coast of the United States was with U-boats during the opening months of World War II. Operating with virtual impunity, they sank tankers and merchant ships up and down the coast for nearly a year before the U.S. finally organized an effective defense. Gannon does an excellent job both setting the scene and relating the history of the U-boat war—a story that few people know but will keep you riveted.

From the list:

The best books about submarine warfare during World War II

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Book cover of When the Emperor Was Divine

When the Emperor Was Divine

By Julie Otsuka

Why this book?

This sharply observed novel illustrates in devastating detail how their imprisonments in internment camps scar a Japanese-American family. The point of view shifts from mother to sister to brother and finally to father, who has been declared a traitor by the government and removed from his family. Otsuka’s descriptions bring their stories to life and force the reader to confront one of the United States’ great historical sins. 

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The best fiction about women’s experiences of World War II

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Book cover of Human Voices

Human Voices

By Penelope Fitzgerald

Why this book?

An unsparing portrait of a cast of characters working for the BBC in London at the outset of the war, this novel is both funny and moving, though Fitzgerald’s keen sense of irony assures that the writing is never sentimental. Even the most minor characters come to life, as they adjust to both the bureaucracy of the wartime BBC and the realities of life during the Blitz. 

From the list:

The best fiction about women’s experiences of World War II

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Book cover of A Kiss from Maddalena

A Kiss from Maddalena

By Christopher Castellani

Why this book?

Castellani’s warm and beautiful prose takes us on a journey with Maddelana, an innocent young woman in a tiny Italian village where everyone knows everyone. As she embarks on a journey that will change her life, we watch her future unfold across the ocean and through generations of the family she starts, immigrant descendants making a life in America. The best part is there are two more books following this one! 

From the list:

The best World War Two novels with strong female characters who aren’t spies

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Book cover of The Narrow Road to the Deep North

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

By Richard Flanagan

Why this book?

Australian doctor and soldier Dorrigo Evans has to find a way to survive the last months of World War II in a Japanese POW camp, where he labors, with other dying men, building an impossible railway to Burma. Normally it wouldn’t be worth exploring such intense and prolonged suffering—but the suffering in this novel feels true and terrifying and somehow sacred. It gets balanced out with the light that graces other parts of Dorrigo’s life, and the overall result is a profound reading experience. 

From the list:

The best novels that take you on extraordinary journeys

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Book cover of The Politics of Memory in Postwar Europe

The Politics of Memory in Postwar Europe

By Richard Ned Lebow, Wulf Kansteiner, Claudio Fogu

Why this book?

Although this is my final recommendation, this book is where my interest in the topic of memory and the political, intellectual, and social development of postwar Europe began. As an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College, I had the opportunity to assist my advisor, Ned Lebow, with the preparation of this volume. Following a short theoretical introduction to the paradigm of collective memory, this collection then presents chapters on the specific dynamics of the politics of remembrance in various European states written by local country specialists. This is both a great read and a great resource for further information on the…

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The best books on memory and postwar Europe

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Book cover of Spies, Code Breakers, and Secret Agents: A World War II Book for Kids

Spies, Code Breakers, and Secret Agents: A World War II Book for Kids

By Carole P. Roman

Why this book?

Carole P. Roman has hit a home run with this nonfiction book. It paints an intriguing picture of the life of spies during World War II. Roman details the training, weapons, and tools used in spy craft. I found the chapters featuring biographical portraits fascinating. Chef Julia Child and author Graham Greene operated undercover. Roman discusses double agents and the Native Americans who broke the Japanese code. I would recommend this book to children who love adventure, espionage, and history. It’s a perfect read for middle-grade students, but an eye-opener for adults as well.

From the list:

The best family-friendly books for all ages to enjoy

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Book cover of Noonday

Noonday

By Pat Barker

Why this book?

An accumulation of memories haunt and inform Noonday, a novel that stands alone as the third in a trilogy spanning both world wars. I particularly love Barker’s avoidance of sentimentality. She is an honest writer who digs deep and gives no easy solutions as she follows a cast of characters who originally met as students at the Slade School of Art in London. Elinor, who is central, still suffers from the death of her brother Toby in the Great War. Barker’s skillful evocation of the past gives weight and resonance to every word, reminding the reader of the increasing…

From the list:

The best novels about human relations in the altered reality of wartime

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Book cover of The Emigrants

The Emigrants

By W.G. Sebald, Michael Hulse

Why this book?

Part of Sebald’s value (or the value of his project) is his deep exploration of German guilt, societally after World War II and in his father’s Wehrmacht service. Often, this guilt is explored through the self, in the associative vines that have him examine art, architecture, and history, to name only a few of the digressions one might encounter in all his worthwhile books. The explicit focus, as it were, of the Emigrants is on four uprooted Germans. It’s the saddest of his novels in my mind thanks to this displacement and the characters the reader comes to know.

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The best stories on how people and societies grapple with the end of wars

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Book cover of Suite Française

Suite Française

By Irene Nemirovsky

Why this book?

Nemirovsky never had a chance to finish what was to be a five-part series of novellas about life in France during the German occupation, because she was arrested for being Jewish and sent to Auschwitz, where she was killed. You might imagine that it would be hard for fiction to live up to such a dramatic backstory, but the two surviving novellas are beautifully written illustrations of a society facing catastrophe.

From the list:

The best fiction about women’s experiences of World War II

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Book cover of Pacific Payback: The Carrier Aviators Who Avenged Pearl Harbor at the Battle of Midway

Pacific Payback: The Carrier Aviators Who Avenged Pearl Harbor at the Battle of Midway

By Stephen L. Moore

Why this book?

It was the carrier-based dive-bombers that carried the day at Midway, and Moore’s narrative non-fiction account of the battle through the eyes of the actual men who fought at Midway in these dive-bombers is an entertaining and gripping page turner. You learn of their fears, the uncertainty, and of their humble courage. Moore brings you with them in their SBD Dauntless cockpits. These men were what the United States had at the onset of the Pacific War, and Moore’s tribute to them is moving.

From the list:

The best books about the Battle of Midway (from a U.S. Navy Pilot)

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Book cover of The Battle of Midway

The Battle of Midway

By Craig L. Symonds

Why this book?

Perhaps the best book on the epic World War II Battle of Midway, Craig Symonds brings together all the pieces that became the turning point in the Pacific War. Looking at the leadup to the battle from both the Japanese and American perspectives, Symonds shows how the Japanese, in their typical style, created a battle plan that was overly complicated for its objective. Symonds explains how American Joe Rochefort and his eclectic band (he even had commissioned naval musicians) worked to bend (but not entirely break) the Japanese naval code. This allowed the Allies to surmise Midway as the Japanese…

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The best books about how to break things (encryption, passwords, etc.)

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Book cover of Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunters, 1939-1942

Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunters, 1939-1942

By Clay Blair

Why this book?

Yes, there was a naval war in the Atlantic, too. Had not the Allies defeated Hitler’s U-boats over a multi-year battle—the longest of the war—World War II would likely have been lost no matter the heroics in the Pacific. Hitler’s U-Boat War does for the Battle of the Atlantic what Blair did with Silent Victory for submarine actions in the Pacific. Hitler’s U-Boat War is exhaustive in detail—pick a boat or an engagement and Blair has chronicled it— but taken overall these volumes show the tenuous nature of the battle that was won in the aggregate by individual conflicts between…

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The best books on naval battles in WW2

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Book cover of The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries, 1939-1955

The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries, 1939-1955

By John Colville

Why this book?

John “Jock” Colville, a 24-year-old Foreign Office staffer, was assigned to work at 10 Downing Street, Britain’s equivalent of the White House, at the outbreak of World War II. When Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as prime minister, Colville, who kept a detailed secret diary, chronicled the new leader’s every move as he rallied his countrymen to keep fighting Hitler’s Germany. His entries for this critical period offer a vivid behind-the-scenes portrait of Churchill, his inner circle—and his strenuous efforts to forge a close partnership with President Roosevelt, who had vowed to keep his country out of the war.

From the list:

The best books on the view from London in 1941

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Book cover of Yesterday's Gone

Yesterday's Gone

By N.J. Crisp

Why this book?

The book tells the story of the fictional Squadron Leader David Kirby, from the slums of Southampton, to flying training in Oklahoma, to his final operation in command of a Lancaster. Crisp was one of the most prolific stage and TV writers of his generation (credits include Secret Army, Colditz, and Enemy at the Door), and his novel has all of the authenticity of a man who clearly went through many of the experiences he describes. If you know nothing about Bomber Command and want to bring some meaning to the experiences they went through and the…

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The best books on British Bomber Command in World War 2

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Book cover of Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze

Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze

By Peter Harmsen

Why this book?

This was a major battle that happened in 1937, right before the Rape of Nanking. After the fall of Shanghai, the Japanese army would march toward, Nanking (Nanjing), the capital of China then. Although it was front page news throughout much of the world then, few people other than historians know it today. It is no hyperbole to call the battle Stalingrad on the Yangtze. The book reads like an engrossing historical novel.

From the list:

The best books about the Pacific Theater in WW2

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Book cover of Operation Barbarossa and Germany's Defeat in the East

Operation Barbarossa and Germany's Defeat in the East

By David Stahel

Why this book?

The author provides an analysis of the initial stages of the fighting on the Eastern Front that effectively revises several of the prior generally accepted views of that critical portion of the war. Here is one book that extensively utilizes German sources without becoming enslaved by them as too many works appear to become.

From the list:

The best books on WW2 from a military historian

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Book cover of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945

By Tony Judt

Why this book?

My own background, process, and style have me reaching for ever-tinier stories that I think I can go deep on, in order to hopefully excavate something larger. Judt’s Postwar is the opposite: a colossal swing at a multi-decade period across European history. In this, he synthesizes political, economic, social, and cultural histories to guide the reader through Europe’s development after World War II. It’s a book where you find yourself going over each line a few times in order to make sure you’ve wrung all meaning from it and every sentence returns you to your notes.

From the list:

The best stories on how people and societies grapple with the end of wars

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Book cover of In the Ruins of the Reich

In the Ruins of the Reich

By Douglas Botting

Why this book?

There are dozens of excellent books about Germany and Germans in the wake of defeat – I could mention Giles MacDonogh’s After the Reich, or R.M. Douglas’s Orderly and Humane – but Douglas Botting’s book is by far the most engaging history of the subject that I’ve ever read. It was written in the 1980s, so it is not quite as up-to-date as the more recent histories, but what it lacks in cutting-edge research it more than makes up for in narrative immediacy. It is impossible not to be moved by Botting’s descriptions of postwar chaos, of orphans hiding in…

From the list:

The best books on the immediate aftermath of World War 2

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Book cover of Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

By John W. Dower

Why this book?

Winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction, this book gives the reader an in-depth analysis of the effects of World War II on the political, economic, and social life of the Japanese people. It depicts the ways in which Japan moved into the twentieth century and gave up many of its feudalistic habits – some for the better and some for the worse. 

From the list:

The best books to peer into the traditional and modern Japanese mind

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Book cover of Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956

By Anne Applebaum

Why this book?

People in the West tend to celebrate 1945 as a year of liberation; but, of course, in Eastern Europe, the defeat of Germany merely heralded the beginning of four more decades of repression. In this book, Anne Applebaum describes the Communist takeover of three European countries – East Germany, Poland, and Hungary. It’s a masterpiece both of research and of analysis. Communism, just like capitalism, had many faces: this book shows brilliantly just how varied repression can be. In 2013 it won the lucrative Cundill Prize, and deservedly so.

From the list:

The best books on the immediate aftermath of World War 2

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Book cover of The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville

The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville

By Clare Mulley

Why this book?

This is the biography of female spy, Christine Granville, originally born Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek in Poland. As the daughter of a Polish Count and a Jewish mother she always felt she was not totally accepted by members of the family and sought a different life. That opportunity came after Nazi forces invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 and she was engaged as a spy in Poland. Fiercely brave, Skarbek eventually escaped to Britain and was recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and returned to Poland several times on spying missions. Under the false name Christine Granville, she became…
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The best books on spies and their greatest stories

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Book cover of A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII

A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII

By Sarah Helm

Why this book?

Sarah Helm’s biography of Vera Atkins is perfectly titled. On one level, Vera was the 2nd in command of SOE’s French Section, responsible for recruiting, training, and deploying SOE operatives into France. On another level, there were the closely guarded secrets of her own life.

Sarah Helm’s biography revealed a workaholic, an immigrant who became more English than the English, and whose loyalty to her charges, and the Allied cause, was unswerving. After the war, when 118 SOE agent didn’t make it home, Vera launched a personal crusade to find out what happened to them – a mission that…

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The best books about the real-life, kick-ass female agents of WW2

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Book cover of The American Home Front: 1941-1942

The American Home Front: 1941-1942

By Alistair Cooke

Why this book?

At the end of February 1942, British-born journalist Alistair Cooke set off upon a road trip across wartime America, to “see what the war had done to people.” His observations provide a series of fascinating snapshots of the home front in the early months of the war. Shortages of civilian goods showed up everywhere, from the West Virginia soda fountain with the forlorn sign over an orange-squeezer that read, “Regret. Out of Coca-Cola,” to Houston, where rubber and gas rationing led to overcrowding on city buses that threw whites and Blacks into unwonted jostling proximity.

On the West Coast, Cooke…

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The best books on what life was like on the American homefront during WW2

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Book cover of One Man's Meat

One Man's Meat

By E.B. White

Why this book?

No one wrote better than E. B. White, and no one captured the essence of daily life on the home front better than White in this collection of essays. “This is my country and my night,” he wrote from his farm in Maine, “this is the blacked-out ending to the day, the way they end a skit in a revue.” Yet White acknowledged that it was nearly impossible for him or anyone else to truly convey all the ways that the war was changing ordinary Americans. “You write something that sounds informative, throwing the words around in the usual manner,…

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The best books on what life was like on the American homefront during WW2

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Book cover of The Huntress

The Huntress

By Kate Quinn

Why this book?

From a small office in Mariahilferstrasse, former reporter turned Nazi hunter Ian Graham exercises the war’s demons by narrowing his gaze on infamous war criminal Die Jägerin. While the action eventually moves to America in a cat and mouse chase.  Ian’s time in the occupied city, a side trip to Salzburg, and even a trip up the famous Riesenrad ferris-wheel are highlights of this atmospheric historical read proving that the shadows of Hitler’s Vienna and leftover Nazi sympathizers can be found under every uprooted cobblestone. 

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The best novels that are set in Vienna and will create a lifelong love for the city

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Book cover of Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies

By Ben Macintyre

Why this book?

I could have picked any of Ben Macintyre’s books. He writes history as yarn, which is what I tried to do in Agent Jack. That definitely doesn’t mean making things up, but it means trying to tell the tale in a way that will keep the reader on board. British intelligence’s Double Cross operation – playing German spies back against their masters – was huge, but Macintyre keeps it at a manageable size by focusing on a few key agents. There’s a real skill too, in writing a book where everyone knows the ending but that still keeps the reader…

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The best books on secret wartime histories around WW2

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Book cover of The Glamour Boys: The Secret Story of the Rebels who Fought for Britain to Defeat Hitler

The Glamour Boys: The Secret Story of the Rebels who Fought for Britain to Defeat Hitler

By Chris Bryant

Why this book?

A history of a different sort of secret, this is the story of a mostly gay group of British members of parliament who tried to warn their government about Hitler. Many had traveled to Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s to enjoy the nightlife, so they had an early sense of how the Nazi government was turning out. But their personal lives made it dangerous for them to oppose their own leaders at home. There’s a personal edge to the book for me, because one of the MPs, Ronald Cartland, was my great-uncle’s commanding officer, and they were killed in…

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The best books on secret wartime histories around WW2

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Book cover of The Second World War: A Complete History

The Second World War: A Complete History

By Martin Gilbert

Why this book?

This 900-page history is a vivid account of WWII across all fronts. Though the research is meticulous and covers the length of the war, the explanations are clear and fascinating and the chronology makes it feel like a guided tour through time. Along the way, Gilbert interposes a human face and a very personal account, revealing upheaval and atrocities, but ensuring that there is a permanent record of those civilians, particularly Jews, who died without just cause. And the examples and conditions endured are at times difficult to read and heartbreaking. The book covers all aspects, from battle lines to…

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The best books on WW2 occupation, resistance, and the aftermath

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Book cover of Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II

By Liza Mundy

Why this book?

Mundy’s unputdownable book tells the story of the women behind some of the most significant code-breaking triumphs of the war. The work of women like Elizabeth Friedman – who got her start unpicking the codes of Prohibition-era liquor smugglers – was one of the war’s best-kept secrets.

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The best books about American code-breaking in World War II

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Book cover of Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal

By Ben Macintyre

Why this book?

Nowhere is the phrase "stranger than fiction" more appropriate than in describing Agent Zigzag. Charming British conman Eddie Chapman turned himself into one of the best double agents his country ever produced. But for whom was he really working? None of his handlers seemed to be sure. His squirming loyalties allowed him to keep a family and a mistress, to remain alive despite interrogation by both sides, and earn an Iron Cross from Germany's Abwehr and a pardon from MI5 for blowing up a British factory. I was astonished by this tale, and left wondering if Chapman, in the…

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The best books about the weirder side of World War II

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Book cover of Chasing Portraits: A Great-Granddaughter's Quest for Her Lost Art Legacy

Chasing Portraits: A Great-Granddaughter's Quest for Her Lost Art Legacy

By Elizabeth Rynecki

Why this book?

Rynecki’s great-grandfather, Moshe, was a painter who documented moments of Jewish life in the interwar years: women sewing, children playing, wedding celebrations, men in prayer. When WWII broke out Moshe’s paintings were hidden, and afterward only a fraction were recovered. In this book, Rynecki recounted her decades-long quest to locate and archive the lost artwork. It’s a memoir about the lengths one will go to to ensure a lost family legacy will never be forgotten.

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The best books on contemporary WWII family searches

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Book cover of A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century

A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century

By Ben Shephard

Why this book?

It was working with the author on this book that first put me on to Monte Cassino – the whole place was one massive nervous breakdown. Compassionate but utterly unsentimental, Shephard tells the story of the very different diagnoses and treatments for what was called Shell Shock, then Battle Exhaustion, then PTSD. At its heart is the military doctor’s dilemma – the incompatibility of his role as healer and his obligation to get men back to the front. Nowhere else have I read such a vivid account of the effect of combat on the minds of soldiers.

From the list:

The best less-well-known books about World War 2

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Book cover of Shrapnel

Shrapnel

By William Wharton

Why this book?

Another link is that the highly-acclaimed author fought at Cassino. In my book, I tell how US servicemen in waterlogged fox-holes suffered terribly from ‘Trench Foot’. Wharton lifts the lid on how he and his fellow GIs did everything they could to get it as it meant being withdrawn from combat! Utterly unheroic, Wharton tells of the muddle, confusion, boredom, and exhaustion of frontline infantrymen – an account much closer to the stories I heard from veterans than almost anything else I’ve read.

From the list:

The best less-well-known books about World War 2

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Book cover of Four Soldiers

Four Soldiers

By Hubert Mingarelli

Why this book?

Not strictly speaking World War Two, this rather strange miniature masterpiece by a French author is set during the Russian Civil War and tells the story of the friendship of four very different soldiers. It is very short – it only takes about two hours to read – but its perfectly-drawn themes of life stripped bare, of comradeship, survival, and futility will stay with you for a very long time.

From the list:

The best less-well-known books about World War 2

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Book cover of Churchill: Walking with Destiny

Churchill: Walking with Destiny

By Andrew Roberts

Why this book?

When approaching Churchill, it is often very difficult to know quite where to start. That dilemma is solved by Roberts’ scholarly study. He is extremely balanced and nuanced in his approach to the country’s most famous prime minister and wartime leader. His depth of research is breath-taking and Roberts’ work will rightly remain a standard text for years to come.

From the list:

The best books on Winston Churchill and which book to start with

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Book cover of Winston's War

Winston's War

By Sir Max Hastings

Why this book?

Churchill is perhaps best remembered for his bulldog premiership during the Second World War. Max Hasting’s excellent study graphically portrays the enormous political and strategic stresses and strains endured by Churchill. Coalition warfare was one of vigorously competing interests and Hastings shows how Churchill achieved a quite remarkable juggling act.

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The best books on Winston Churchill and which book to start with

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Book cover of Churchill

Churchill

By Clive Ponting

Why this book?

Left-wing historian Ponting has his detractors for what many regarded as a critical revisionist approach to Churchill’s life. However, there is no denying the depth of his research. Furthermore, far from coming over as an overt critic, his study is far more balanced than often thought.

From the list:

The best books on Winston Churchill and which book to start with

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Book cover of The Fall of Berlin 1945

The Fall of Berlin 1945

By Antony Beevor

Why this book?

I quote Beevor in my memoir because he helped me understand both the broad historical context of the city’s last days and the experiences of ordinary people caught in it. Beevor combines tireless research with consummate storytelling. This is his eerie description of the night of April 29, a terrifying date also for my grandfather: “the flames in bombarded buildings cast strange shadows on the otherwise dark streets. The soot and dust in the air made it almost unbreathable. From time to time there was the thunder of masonry collapsing. And to add to this terrifying effect, searchlight beams moved…

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The best WWII memoirs and stories about ordinary people caught in the horror of war

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Book cover of The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944

By Rick Atkinson

Why this book?

The Day of Battle was Volume Two of Rick Atkinson’s acclaimed Liberation Trilogy. While all three volumes of this series are well worth reading, Atkinson was at his best in the second volume which deals with the much-neglected campaigns of Sicily and Italy. The doyen of British military history and a veteran of the Italian campaign, the late Sir Michael Howard wrote that The Day of Battle was ‘one of the truly outstanding records of the Second World War’. I think it is too.

From the list:

The best books on World War 2 published after 2000

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Book cover of The Second World War

The Second World War

By Antony Beevor

Why this book?

It's too easy to dismiss the Second World War. To relegate that epochal conflict into realms of ancient history, action films, kitset models, unread Father's day gifts, and black & white footage. But we all live through the consequences of this epic global struggle. This was the last time western civilisation brought itself close to destruction and it was a close call. 60 million lives were lost and no one died easily. The war was also raging just shy of 80 years ago. In the scheme of human history, that's recent.

Beevor's history of the global conflict - and it…

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The best books about Armageddon

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Book cover of The London Cage: The Secret History of Britain's World War II Interrogation Centre

The London Cage: The Secret History of Britain's World War II Interrogation Centre

By Helen Fry

Why this book?

Intelligence was collected in multiple ways by all sides during World War II. The British housed German prisoners at a site called the London Cage, which was located in an upper-class London neighborhood. The London Cage was later used as a Nazi war criminal detention site. While in residence, the German prisoners underwent interrogation, in some cases what we would now call “enhanced interrogation” and in others while under the influence of “truth drugs.” As Fry’s book reveals, the post-9/11 “enhanced interrogations” were not the first of its kind. I recommend this book because it demonstrates the lengths to which…

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The best books on World War II intelligence history

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Book cover of Destination Casablanca: Exile, Espionage, and the Battle for North Africa in World War II

Destination Casablanca: Exile, Espionage, and the Battle for North Africa in World War II

By Meredith Hindley

Why this book?

This is an exciting new book by Meredith Hindley. Instead of Humphrey Bogart and Rick’s Café, this book features interesting real people, such as the famous singer Josephine Baker, who, although not members of armed forces, still did their part to help the Allied cause. After conducting extensive research in archives and secondary sources, Hindley crafted an engaging narrative in which she connects exiles who gathered information about the Germans with the fight for control of North Africa and the Mediterranean. I recommend this book because it provides a human dimension to the story of the Battle for North Africa.

From the list:

The best books on World War II intelligence history

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Book cover of Song of Survival: Women Interned

Song of Survival: Women Interned

By Helen Colijn

Why this book?

A little-known aspect of the Pacific War was the imprisonment of Allied civilians. While these Japanese-run prison camps were not deliberate death machines, as were the Nazi-run concentration camps, large numbers of women and children died of starvation and disease there, or at least had their health permanently ruined. Many stories would come out of these camps, both horrific and inspiring. Perhaps the most brilliantly creative story of the latter category was the vocal orchestra, a group of imprisoned women who sought to recreate symphonic music with their voices. Colijn’s memoir was made into the film, Paradise Road.

From the list:

The best books on the Pacific Theater of World War II

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Book cover of I Saw The Fall Of The Philippines

I Saw The Fall Of The Philippines

By Carlos P. Romulo

Why this book?

The Philippine resistance of WWII was, in my opinion, the most admirable resistance organization of the war, whether European or Pacific. In fact, resistance among the Philippine people was so widespread, that the Japanese occupiers were almost correct in assuming any civilian they encountered was a resister on some level. Carlos Romulo, a Philippine aide de camp to General MacArthur and a hero to his countrymen, gives his personal account of the war in this excellent memoir.

From the list:

The best books on the Pacific Theater of World War II

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Book cover of The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century

The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century

By David Reynolds

Why this book?

David Reynolds is simply one of the smartest and most original historians operating today. Do we imagine that no one thought much about the poems of Wilfred Owen until the 1960s? Do we think about how important the fiftieth anniversary of the Somme was for the politics of Ireland? This book is packed full of perceptive and original insights about the Great War’s very long legacy.

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The best books on the legacy of the First World War

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Book cover of Paul Nash: Outline, An Autobiography

Paul Nash: Outline, An Autobiography

By David Boyd Haycock

Why this book?

Nash never managed to finish his autobiography, and it was originally published with notes, letters and fragments edited into the second half to attempt to complete his story. This new edition adds his wife Margaret’s Memoirs of Paul Nash, 1913-1946, from a surviving type manuscript held at the Tate, to add many more colours and details to this fascinating portrait of an artist and his genius loci – sense of place. I’d also recommend James King’s biography Interior Landscapes.

From the list:

The best books on Paul Nash and the impact of WW11 on artists who lived through it

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Book cover of Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II

Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II

By Stephen Budiansky

Why this book?

It is hard to underestimate the significance of code breaking during World War II. Without the work of dedicated mathematicians, linguists, and others the great conflicts such as the Battle of Midway and the German U-boat "wolfpacks" that sank over 13 million tons of Allied supplies could have easily been up for grabs. But due to the codebreakers the balance shifted to the Allies. And what is even equally impressive is that the Axis powers never knew that their encoded messages were being read. Stephen Budiansky traces how the codebreakers pulled off this feat while at the same time often…

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The best books about how to break things (encryption, passwords, etc.)

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Book cover of Joe Rochefort's War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway

Joe Rochefort's War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway

By Elliot Carlson

Why this book?

The first biography of Captain Joseph Rochefort, who led “Station Hypo”, the Navy’s code-breaking unit in Hawaii. Tragically, those running the U.S. cryptanalysis effort in Washington had decided to focus on breaking Japan’s diplomatic code. Only after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor were Rochefort and his team permitted to throw all their efforts at breaking Japanese naval codes. Their work led to America’s resounding success at Midway, only months after the disaster at Pearl. Carlson does an admirable job of bringing to life one of the forgotten men of the war.

From the list:

The best books about American code-breaking in World War II

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Book cover of Combined Fleet Decoded: The Secret History of American Intelligence and the Japanese Navy in World War II

Combined Fleet Decoded: The Secret History of American Intelligence and the Japanese Navy in World War II

By John Prados

Why this book?

A groundbreaking work of research that is at the same time a page-turning read that sheds new light on the epic battles of the conflict. Prados interweaves the intelligence successes and failures of the U.S. and Japanese combatants in a way that has not previously been attempted. The resulting work adds hugely to our understanding of the war in the Pacific.

From the list:

The best books about American code-breaking in World War II

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Book cover of The Cold War: A World History

The Cold War: A World History

By Odd Arne Westad

Why this book?

This is a thick history of the Cold War that breaks new ground in that it shifts the emphasis from Europe, where the Cold War started and ended, to the Third World where it was actually fought in a bloody manner through a series of proxy wars, large and small.
From the list:

The best books on the Cold War from a journalist who lived it

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Book cover of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

By Anne Frank, B.M. Mooyaart

Why this book?

Anne’s diary is the world’s foremost first-hand account of coming of age in a time of peril, and also while in hiding. Anne’s own words are smart, funny, and profound. She bears witness to her plight, her growth, her hardships, and her joy. She embodies the concept of lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. Anne is a symbol of the power of the written word to illuminate everything and resound eternally. Anne’s diary is both intimate, personal, and a sweeping testament to the power of a single voice to speak to generations. I love how her daily observations,…

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The best books with protagonists coming-of-age while facing seemingly insurmountable challenges

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Book cover of KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps

KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps

By Nikolaus Wachsmann

Why this book?

To ensure we’ll never repeat the Holocaust, we must understand it. One of the most difficult books you may ever read, KL is a comprehensive and impressive history of the Nazis’ camp system. The New York Times called this nearly 900-page work by Nikolaus Wachsmann, a history professor at London University, a work of “prodigious scholarship.”

Time and again, when researching my own book for young readers, I turned to Wachsmann for nuanced detail, impeccable research, and a better understanding of some of the “choiceless choices” faced by Jewish men, women, and children. Not for the faint of heart, but…

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The best books on World War II in Europe

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Book cover of Solomon Islanders in World War II: An Indigenous Perspective

Solomon Islanders in World War II: An Indigenous Perspective

By Anna Annie Kwai

Why this book?

Anna Annie Kwai is a Solomon Islander historian who brings together documentary historical sources with oral history and personal recollections to tell the story of the war in the Southwest Pacific from the point of view of Solomon Islanders themselves—including the work of the famous “coastwatchers,” the Battle of Guadalcanal, and the rescue of the crew of Lt. John F. Kennedy’s PT-109. An essential addition to the study of the Southwest Pacific war.

From the list:

The best books on indigenous experiences of WW2 in the Pacific Islands

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Book cover of Island Encounters: Black and White Memories of the Pacific War

Island Encounters: Black and White Memories of the Pacific War

By Lamont Lindstrom, Geoffrey M. White

Why this book?

Anyone interested in the War in the Pacific will find this collection of 175 photographs showing the variety of interactions of Islanders and foreign servicemen interesting. It goes beyond official military photos (though there are plenty of those) to include photos from Japanese sources and veterans’ personal photographs. The text gives insight into the conditions of war and how Islanders and foreign fighters perceived and dealt with each other. A beautifully produced book.

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The best books on indigenous experiences of WW2 in the Pacific Islands

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Book cover of The Winds Of War

The Winds Of War

By Herman Wouk

Why this book?

Although a war novel, in essence, Herman’s second book in the trilogy is infused with a great deal of history. Wartime offers an author a wide spectrum of events, be they political or economic, philosophical or psychological, or personal challenges, which add dimension and emotional impact. In this regard, Herman’s novel offers readers a riveting rollercoaster ride on The Winds of War.

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The best historical fiction to capture the essence of 19th & 20th century America

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Book cover of The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War

The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War

By Samuel Eliot Morison

Why this book?

This book was published in 1963 on the heels of the fifteen-volume set by Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison. I served in the U.S. Navy, Pacific theater of war, and found this supplemental work by Morison to complement particular portions of his fifteen-volume series.

From the list:

The best books on World War II in the Pacific

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Book cover of Ships for Victory: A History of Shipbuilding under the U.S. Maritime Commission in World War II

Ships for Victory: A History of Shipbuilding under the U.S. Maritime Commission in World War II

By Frederic Chapin Lane

Why this book?

This hefty 881-page book covers in detail the story of the greatest shipbuilding program in America’s history. When America entered WWII in December 1941, I was chomping at the bit to get in the action, but I had to wait a year until I turned seventeen. I applied for a job at the Kaiser Shipyard in Vancouver, Washington, and trained to be a welder on the big ships.

From the list:

The best books on World War II in the Pacific

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Book cover of Everyone Brave Is Forgiven

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven

By Chris Cleave

Why this book?

Chris Cleave’s fourth novel was inspired by memories of his grandparents and their letters during the war. The novel follows the lives and relationships of four young people in Britain during the early years of World War II. It also follows action on the island of Malta, a part of World War II history not as well known. It’s also a story of love, friendship, and surprising choices. A warning: Do not read ahead. The novel has an incredible last scene and you don’t want to ruin it!

From the list:

The best books on World War II in Europe

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Book cover of Journal à quatre mains

Journal à quatre mains

By Benoîte Groult, Flora Groult

Why this book?

A funny and moving account of life in occupied Paris by two young sisters, one sensible and studious, the other fun-loving. Written in diary form by each sister in turn, hence the ‘four hands’. Some signs of touching up with hindsight before publication in 1962. There is an English translation, ‘Diary in duo’ (1965) but currently out of print.

From the list:

The best book about France in the Second World War

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Book cover of Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family, Fatherland and Vichy France

Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family, Fatherland and Vichy France

By Carmen Callil

Why this book?

A wonderful and troubling piece of historical sleuth-work by the founder of Virago press, who went to see her therapist in London as usual in September 1970 only to find that she had committed suicide. It turned out that she was the daughter of Vichy’s Commissioner for Jewish Affairs, a failed businessman who was promoted into a position to eliminate as many Jews in France as possible. A real-time account of the banality of evil.

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The best book about France in the Second World War

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Book cover of Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944

Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944

By Arthur Goldhammer, Henry Rousso

Why this book?

A path-breaking book on how the puppet Vichy regime of 1940-44 was remembered in France in the decades after it vanished. It shows how collective memory and commemoration shapes and is shaped by rival political cultures and changes over time. It could do with updating beyond 1990 – something I have tried to do in my own work.

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The best book about France in the Second World War

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Book cover of Day of Infamy: The Classic Account of the Bombing of Pearl Harbor

Day of Infamy: The Classic Account of the Bombing of Pearl Harbor

By Walter Lord

Why this book?

Few authors have ever matched Walter Lord for his ability to put a reader inside a historical event as it was unfolding. In Day of Infamy he puts his readers vicariously on the ground, in the air, or aboard a ship during the Pearl Harbor attack, and through his use of eyewitness accounts draws the reader into what becomes an almost visceral experience.  While some details Lord recounts have been invalidated by more recent research (the book is over sixty years old yet is still in print!), that does nothing to detract from how convincingly he conveys the Americans’ feelings…

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The best books about naval battles in the Second World War

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Book cover of Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege

Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege

By Antony Beevor

Why this book?

A definitive history of the most lethal battle of WW2, told with exceptional clarity, academic rigor, and narrative flair, benefiting from access for the first time for a Western historian to the Soviet archives on a battle that would prove the nemesis of Nazi Germany.

With Stalingrad, Beevor broke the mold of traditional military history, reaching a wide readership who found themselves in possession of something more than an absorbing account of a decisive battle. Stalingrad reflects the human condition in extremis.

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The best books on 20th century conflict

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Book cover of Chanel's Riviera: Glamour, Decadence, and Survival in Peace and War, 1930-1944

Chanel's Riviera: Glamour, Decadence, and Survival in Peace and War, 1930-1944

By Anne De Courcy

Why this book?

There have been so many biographies of Coco Chanel, good and bad, that it must be hard to find anything new (or nice) to say about her. This capsule history offers fresh insights into her lifestyle, inspirations, and obsessions. At La Pausa—her entirely beige bolt-hole on the French Riviera—Chanel waited out World War II alongside the likes of Colette, Igor Stravinsky, Edith Wharton, Aldous Huxley, Jean Cocteau, Wallis Simpson, and Somerset Maugham, who famously called the Riviera “a sunny place for shady people.” That reputation is certainly borne out by de Courcy’s book, which paints Chanel and her circle as…

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The best biographies of fashion designers

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Book cover of The Longest Winter: The Battle of the Bulge and the Epic Story of World War II's Most Decorated Platoon

The Longest Winter: The Battle of the Bulge and the Epic Story of World War II's Most Decorated Platoon

By Alex Kershaw

Why this book?

If stories of divisions and corps advancing and retreating over battlefields don’t pique your interest, then this book will. Kershaw’s tale of a single reconnaissance platoon under the command of a fresh-faced 1st Lieutenant Lyle Bouck as it fights for its life and delays an entire German kampfgruppe for several crucial hours is the stuff of legend. The platoon’s sacrifice contributed significantly to the eventual defeat of the 6th SS Panzer Army, whose mission was to seize Antwerp. Thanks to Bouck and his understrength platoon, that didn’t happen. I wonder why Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have not made this…

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The best books on the Battle of the Bulge and the soldiers who fought there

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Book cover of D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II

D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II

By Stephen E. Ambrose

Why this book?

Published in time for the 50th anniversary of D-Day (Operation Overlord) in 1994, Ambrose’s 656-page tome covers the broad scope of the massive, history-changing operation, with special attention paid to the parachute and glider operations. The author details the overall planning of the air-and-sea operation—and analyzes why the most carefully planned invasion in history nearly went terribly wrong. This is the ultimate history of the battle that changed the outcome of World War II.

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The best books on D-Day airborne operations

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Book cover of Pegasus Bridge: June 6, 1944

Pegasus Bridge: June 6, 1944

By Stephen E. Ambrose

Why this book?

One of my all-time favorite books; it inspired me to become a military historian. Through extensive interviews with the actual participants, Ambrose detailed how gilder-borne British commandos pulled off a nearly textbook example of how to take an enemy-held bridge. Whenever I lead tours to Normandy, I always make sure we stop at Pegasus Bridge and recount the valor of the British troops who performed what many said was impossible.

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The best books on D-Day airborne operations

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Book cover of The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King

By T.H. White

Why this book?

If you’ve only seen the Disney movie, The Sword in the Stone (the first part of this book) then you will be wonderfully surprised when you read this book. It may appear from the title to be just another version of King Arthur and his round table of Knights battling dragons and green knights, but it is so much more than that. It is at times hilarious, magical, heartbreaking, tragic—and yet, at its center, it is a profound political allegory about government, political leadership, and the horrors of war. 

From the list:

The best "classic" YA titles we think we know but don’t

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Book cover of Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan

Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan

By Tsuyoshi Hasegawa

Why this book?

Using newly available Soviet sources, along with Japanese and American documents, Hasegawa fills a gaping hole in the vast literature on the dropping of the atomic bombs and the conclusion of the Pacific war in August-September 1945. For too long, western historians have told this story without reference to the immense Soviet role in the drama – or if they mention the Soviets at all, it is to use the Red Army’s last-minute intervention to argue either for or against the necessity of dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to break Japanese resistance. What Hasegawa shows is how…

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The best books on Stalin and the Second World War

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Book cover of Stalin’s Secret War

Stalin’s Secret War

By Nikolai Tolstoy

Why this book?

This book is the one exception to my rule about access to Soviet documents. Writing at a time when he had no such access, Tolstoy nonetheless blew up the field with bold arguments deriving from sources to which he did have access, from Soviet dissident memoirs to a vast trove of material he discovered in the Public Record Office in Kew Gardens, London, in particular on the often-neglected “Phony War” period of WWII between the fall of Poland and Hitler’s invasion of France and the Low Countries – a period during which Britain and France nearly went to war with…

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The best books on Stalin and the Second World War

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Book cover of A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II

A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II

By Adam Makos, Larry Alexander

Why this book?

Pound-for-pound, this is perhaps the best military aviation book on the market today.  During the darkest days of World War II, A Higher Call tells the story of a seemingly-improbable act of gallantry in the skies over Europe.  A wounded and hardly-airworthy B-17 limps through the sky near the conclusion of its first mission. It is soon tailed by a Bf-109, the Luftwaffe’s deadliest fighter. The Messerschmitt pilot could end the B-17 crewmen’s lives with the pull of a trigger.  But what happens next will shock the reader.  

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The best books on military aviation

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Book cover of In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War

In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War

By David Reynolds

Why this book?

“Another book on Churchill?” asks Reynolds on the first page. “Can there be anything new to say?” Yes, is the emphatic answer. Churchill’s magisterial memoir shaped how many readers came to understand World War II. In this equally magisterial book, Reynolds dissects how Churchill wrote his memoir, exploring how the politics of the post-war era were often as important in shaping Churchill’s judgments as the events of the war itself. Methodologically sophisticated and elegantly written.

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The best books to understand WW2 from eyewitnesses and historians

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Book cover of Implacable Foes: War in the Pacific, 1944-1945

Implacable Foes: War in the Pacific, 1944-1945

By Marc Gallicchio, Waldo Heinrichs

Why this book?

This is simply one of the finest books to be written on the final critical two years of the Pacific War, with extensive detail on the Japanese side of the conflict and plenty of new insights into the better-known American story. It is a big book, but this was a large conflict both in terms of space, time, and the resources deployed. It was also chiefly a story of amphibious naval warfare, an original and significant development in modern warfare that too often gets understated. By the end of the conflict, the American armed forces had created the shape that…

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The best books about key events in World War II and the soldiers who fought in them

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Book cover of Brave Men

Brave Men

By Ernie Pyle

Why this book?

I came close to picking James Tobin’s brilliant biography, Ernie’s Pyle’s War, but decided that it was impossible to overlook Pyle’s own prose. This anthology contains the articles he wrote in Sicily, Italy, and France in 1943-44. It shows, more movingly than any other eyewitness account, just how terrible the fighting could be in what is too often glibly remembered as America’s “good war.”

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The best books to understand WW2 from eyewitnesses and historians

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Book cover of A Village with My Name: A Family History of China's Opening to the World

A Village with My Name: A Family History of China's Opening to the World

By Scott Tong

Why this book?

Also formerly a public radio reporter based in Shanghai, Scott Tong takes us inside his own extended family, scattered across China. Personal stories of the relatives he found reveal not just their troubled histories but also the unvarnished stories of their varying ability to adapt to the opportunities of a modernizing China. Published in March 2019.

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The best books to understand China today

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Book cover of American Nightingale: The Story of Frances Slanger, Forgotten Heroine of Normandy

American Nightingale: The Story of Frances Slanger, Forgotten Heroine of Normandy

By Bob Welch

Why this book?

I confess to a passion for WW2 fiction and non-fiction, so this book was a no-brainer for me. Frances Slanger, a Polish Jew who immigrated and grew up in Boston, was the first nurse to due during the D-day invasion at Normandy. She left a legacy in writing that helps the author piece together her story and offer insight into what military nurses faced.

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The best books on wellbeing for nurses

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Book cover of A Mad Desire to Dance

A Mad Desire to Dance

By Elie Wiesel

Why this book?

A beautiful novel about Doriel, a European expatriate living in New York, who was a hidden child during the war, while his mother was a member of the Resistance, and who is still haunted by his parents' secrets. A psychoanalyst finally helps him deal with his own ghosts, which reminds me of decades of PTSD I myself inherited from that war and the associated sufferings of family and friends I had to witness.

From the list:

The best books on viewing World War II through the eyes of children

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Book cover of A Boy in Winter

A Boy in Winter

By Rachel Seiffert

Why this book?

I loved this beautifully written novel which embraces and honours the Ukrainian spirit. It is 1942 and the Germans have arrived in a small town in Western Ukraine. When the schoolmaster and his wife are rounded up and murdered along with all the other Jews, Yaisa, a local peasant girl, instinctively hides their two young sons away. The massacre is witnessed with horror both by a Ukrainian Auxiliary, now remorseful at having joined the German police, and by a German engineer who is building roads with forced Ukrainian labour. Now the hunt is on for the Jewish boys – and…

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The best books that capture the spirit of the Ukrainian people

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Book cover of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

By John Boyne

Why this book?

Berlin, 1942: Two young boys encounter the best and worst of humanity during the Holocaust in this powerful book. Here Bruno meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different from his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences. This reminds me of the day when my own best friend, Dieter, was fatally shot by a Spitfire while standing just two feet away from me, a scene featured on the cover of my book.

From the list:

The best books on viewing World War II through the eyes of children

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Book cover of The Bronze Horseman

The Bronze Horseman

By Paullina Simons

Why this book?

Alexander is dating Tatiana’s much-loved sister, and they’re both in love with him. I live and breathe romance novels—especially high-stakes, forbidden romance—and when someone asks me which one is my forever favorite, there is only one answer: The Bronze Horseman. An epic novel set in 1941 war-torn Leningrad, this may be the most intense, tension-filled romance you will ever read. Why did it have such an effect on me? Firstly, I have long been in love with Paullina Simon’s angsty, feel-everything writing ever since I read her debut novel. Secondly, the fact that the Red Army soldier Alexander is…
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The best forbidden romance books to tempt and hook you

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Book cover of The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism

The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism

By Thomas Robertson

Why this book?

This is a brilliant intellectual history of US environmentalism and its rooting on what in the 1960s was seen as a global ‘population bomb’. The global population kept growing in the 1980s and 1990s, but slower, and the bomb has, for the time being at least, been defused. It is time for environmentalists like myself to reflect on the legacy of our roles as prophets of unrealised doom, and this book helps us get the historical record right. Paul Ehrlich is a key figure in this story of overpopulation scare, that was not a marginal academic debate, but one that…

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The best books on living within limits

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Book cover of Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code

Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code

By Amy Kiste Nyberg

Why this book?

Amy’s book takes on the same topic, but from the perspective of an academic—and with a more balanced, objective approach. In particular, she examines the role of anti-comics crusader Dr. Fredric Wertham, arguing that his “role in the crusade against comics has been largely misinterpreted by fans and scholars alike, who dismiss his findings as naïve social science, failing to understand how his work on comic books fits into the larger context of his beliefs about violence, psychiatry, and social reform." 

From the list:

The best books on the history of golden age comics

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Book cover of Into the Teeth of the Tiger

Into the Teeth of the Tiger

By Donald S. Lopez

Why this book?

When I met Don Lopez in the late 1970s while he was the deputy director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, I was interviewing him for a magazine article about his exploits as a fighter ace in China during World War II. The intelligence, graciousness and sense of humor I noted that day come through loud and clear in this memoir published in 1997. In contrast to the rest of the books I’m highlighting here, Lopez provides a vivid, first-hand account of what it was like to actually do the fighting in the skies over China, 1943-45. A…

From the list:

The best books on the Air War in the China-Burma-India Theater during WWII

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Book cover of The Tenth Air Force in World War II: Strategy, Command, and Operations 1942-1945

The Tenth Air Force in World War II: Strategy, Command, and Operations 1942-1945

By Edward M. Young

Why this book?

If you could only have a single book about American involvement in the air war over Burma during World War II, this would be the one. Ted Young’s history of the Tenth Air Force has it all, from high-level political maneuvering (and there was plenty of it) and seemingly endless reorganizations to in-the-cockpit combat accounts and a generous selection of photos and maps. He describes in detail the constantly shifting priorities and strategies faced by the Tenth Air Force, along with the many innovative tactics and techniques developed by units such as the First Air Commando Group. In addition, Young…

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The best books on the Air War in the China-Burma-India Theater during WWII

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Book cover of A Gallant Company: The Men of the Great Escape

A Gallant Company: The Men of the Great Escape

By Jonathan Franklin William Vance

Why this book?

While Paul Brickhill's book was written by someone who was actually there during the escape, it is incomplete by necessity, since Brickhill was not himself privy to all of the secrets behind the scenes.  Professor Vance's book required a great deal of painstaking research to uncover the whole story of this most famous escape of World War 2. Brickhill's book gives the basics, Vance's gives every last minute detail.


From the list:

The best POW escape books of World War 2

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Book cover of Free As a Running Fox

Free As a Running Fox

By T.D. Calnan

Why this book?

Tommy Calnan was as brave as they come.  Flying an unarmed Spitfire of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, Calnan's plane was hit by flak and set afire.  He bailed out, but was badly burned in the process. Barely surviving his wounds, including third-degree burns to his face and hands, Calnan spent several months recovering in a German hospital. One might think that he had done enough for the Allied cause, but despite his face being badly scarred, Calnan became a serial escaper of great courage and determination.

From the list:

The best POW escape books of World War 2

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Book cover of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

By Timothy Snyder

Why this book?

Timothy Snyder is perhaps the leading active historian of Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Recently, he has also become a leading public intellectual highlighting the dangers of totalitarianism at the start of the twenty-first century. Much like Judt, Snyder seeks to redirect our attention away from western European history toward the East, where most of the killings occurred during the Holocaust, and where the people were subjected to renewed occupation by communism after 1945. Unlike many historians, he is not only keenly attuned to the power of memory, but also to the importance of political theory for historical thinking and vice…

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The best books on memory and postwar Europe

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Book cover of Darkness at Noon

Darkness at Noon

By Arthur Koestler

Why this book?

Set during Moscow Show Trials in 1938, this chilling novel by Arthur Koestler chronicles the purging of intellectuals and politicians in the Communist Party. Stalin used these trials to strengthen his one-man role, setting a pattern for future autocrats. 

From the list:

The best books on horrible years

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Book cover of Fly for Your Life: The Story of R. R. Stanford Tuck

Fly for Your Life: The Story of R. R. Stanford Tuck

By Larry Forrester

Why this book?

A classic biography about one of the Royal Air Force’s most colorful fighter pilots during the early part of the war.  Robert Stanford Tuck was born into a wealthy family, but had an individualistic spirit that was sometimes at odds with that family.  Prior to the war, he went to sea aboard a tramp steamer where he did much growing up. Upon his return, he was drawn to the excitement of flight and joined the Royal Air Force. Not an intrinsically gifted pilot, he nearly washed out of training, but ultimately flourished. He excelled as a leader as one of…

From the list:

The best personal accounts of World War II air combat

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Book cover of Code Talker

Code Talker

By Chester Nez, Judith Schiess Avila

Why this book?

Chester Nez was not his name. The American government gave him it. They punished him for speaking his native language, and he faced discrimination. Yet after Pearl Harbour, he accepted the call to serve his country.

This memoir is both a poignant and fascinating story of how the military trained Native Americans to develop and implement a secret code, which remained unbroken, and helped to secure victory for the United States. I recommend it because it was gripping, and completely different from anything I have read in the WW2 period.

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The best books about the Second World War

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Book cover of Three Came Home

Three Came Home

By Agnes Keith

Why this book?

Again, it’s Agnes Keith, but this time using her gentle voice to describe the trials that she, her husband, and their son and their neighbors and friends endured during their stays in Japanese World War II prison camps in tropical Borneo. One critic wonderingly comments about this book that it “records but never renders pain, observes human nature but never attacks any individual” and concludes “the author’s writing is restrained and touching.”

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The best books on 20th Century Borneo

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Book cover of Adventures of a Bystander

Adventures of a Bystander

By Peter F. Drucker

Why this book?

Peter F. Drucker is the most famous and influential management thinker of the 20th century. He grew up in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which fell at the end of the First World War. His classic education, his knowledge of history, his broad horizons, his understanding of business processes make him unique among management thinkers. He outshines them all. And he is an outstanding, captivating writer. Anyone who wants to learn and understand about management must read this book. I have read it three times. I mourn this late friend.

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The best books on how to become a global business leader

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Book cover of An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin's Master Agent

An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin's Master Agent

By Owen Matthews

Why this book?

Soviet master spy Richard Sorge's high-level infiltration of the Japanese government and German embassy in Tokyo during WW2 enabled him to warn Stalin that Hitler was going to invade Russia (ignored) and that Japan would not invade Siberia (believed). The latter intel allowed Stalin to call his Eastern army to reinforce Moscow and reverse Hitler's march. As remarkable as these feats of espionage were, perhaps Sorge's greatest achievement originated years earlier in Shanghai, where he captivated and recruited Ursula Kuczynski (who became Agent Sonya) to spy for the Soviets, which ultimately brought them The Bomb. Sorge had a penchant…

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The best spy books set in Asia

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Book cover of The Forgotten Highlander: An Incredible WWII Story of Survival in the Pacific

The Forgotten Highlander: An Incredible WWII Story of Survival in the Pacific

By Alistair Urquhart

Why this book?

Many British, Australians, Canadians, Dutch, and Americans have written about their appalling treatment by the Japanese as POWs during World War II. Urquhart's account is one of the more compelling, all the more so because he waited for more than 60 years to tell this harrowing, anecdote-rich story.

From the list:

The best books on Japanese history from the outside looking in

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Book cover of The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell

The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell

By George Orwell, Sonia Orwell, Ian Angus

Why this book?

This is a four-volume collection. First, because the first thing you should read about Orwell should be by him. Second because by getting away from the more famous stuff - Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm especially – the essays, journalism, and letters get you closer to the life he lived. The inside cover says I bought them in January 1973. I remember reading out extracts to my girlfriend in bed in wintry Leyton. Make of that what you will, but the three of us are still together. Sonia Brownell was Orwell’s second wife. Ian Angus is an Orwell scholar, librarian,…

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The best books on George Orwell

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Book cover of The Agitator: William Bailey and the First American Uprising Against Nazism

The Agitator: William Bailey and the First American Uprising Against Nazism

By Peter Duffy

Why this book?

In this deft work of nonfiction, Duffy tells the life and times of William Bailey, a rough-hewn, big-hearted longshoreman turned Communist activist, and how on one summer day in 1935 he and several compatriots came to stage a remarkable protest by hauling down a swastika flag from the SS Bremen, the flagship of Hitler’s commercial fleet. Events unfold as the deluxe passenger liner, which was heartily patronized by many Americans and Europeans, hosted a glitzy party while docked in Manhattan harbor. It was years before the outbreak of World War II, but Hitler already had commenced his anti-Semitic and…

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The best books on spies and radicals

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Book cover of In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

By Erik Larson

Why this book?

Does Erik Larson really need another plug? I can’t help it – his work is popular for a reason, and this one is among his best. It is full of extraordinary and well-drawn characters who are struggling to make sense of what is happening to Germany. I initially found the main character, William Dodd, US Ambassador to Berlin from 1933 to 1937, a bit of a bore. He could be humorless, hectoring, sanctimonious, and arrogant (and a history professor to boot – yawn!). But as the story unfolds he emerges as the moral centre, a voice crying in the wilderness…

From the list:

The best books by and about eyewitnesses to the rise of Adolf Hitler

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Book cover of Tarawa: The Incredible Story of One of World War II's Bloodiest Battles

Tarawa: The Incredible Story of One of World War II's Bloodiest Battles

By Robert Sherrod

Why this book?

This is the best book on the Pacific campaign in World War 2. Tarawa was a small island the USA wanted to build a landing strip on and the Japanese put 5,000 soldiers in elaborate well built bunkers to defend it. Robert was a war correspondent who was on the beach for the invasion. You are right there with him as he is huddled in fear behind a burned-out tank during the landing. You can feel the bullets pinging near your head and see the dead all around you.

It was a massacre. It started with a rare low tide…

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The best books on war and what it all means

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Book cover of Edson's Raiders: The 1st Marine Raider Battalion in World War II

Edson's Raiders: The 1st Marine Raider Battalion in World War II

By Col. Joseph H. Alexander

Why this book?

When I was writing Gunner’s Glory and needed to know real details about Edson’s Raiders on Guadalcanal, an old Raider named Cpl. Ted Eleston told me to read this book. Mr. Alexander is a retired Marine Colonel, and his research in writing this book is fabulous. Old Ted wanted it made clear that for the record, our first so-called “Special Forces” were just a bunch of very hard men taken from the 5th Marine Regiment and named Raiders.

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The best books about war and the Marines

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Book cover of This is New Jersey from High Point to Cape May

This is New Jersey from High Point to Cape May

By John T. Cunningham

Why this book?

John Cunningham Was a journalist who became a historian -- and a great one. The World War II veteran and Newark Evening News columnist wrote innumerable books about his native state, and they were all great. Perhaps his most significant contribution to the state’s story was This is New Jersey, a classic which has remained in print since its initial publication in 1953.
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The best books on New Jersey history

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Book cover of The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler's Ghettos

The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler's Ghettos

By Judy Batalion

Why this book?

This well-researched and well-written book describes the heroism of Jewish women in Poland during the killing of Jews by the Nazis. Usually, the women get overlooked in war, but in Poland, their bravery and deception along with the men sabotaged the Nazis, and saved Jewish people and families because of incredible sacrifices. Even though the story is non-fiction, it reads as a fast-paced novel. The information was taken from old diaries and out of print books in Yiddish which shed light on the unbelievable war in Poland.

From the list:

The best books to understand World War 2 through the eyes of an individual

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Book cover of The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War

The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War

By Andrew Roberts

Why this book?

There’s an expression among investigative journalists: follow the money. That’s exactly what the historian Andrew Roberts has done in this highly original and brilliant history of World War 2, full of economic insights. How about this, for instance? “Hitler’s anti-Semitism  .. did nothing to aid Germany’s chances of winning the war, and possibly a great deal to retard them. The Holocaust was a mistake, tying up railway stocks … but above all denuding Germany of millions of potentially productive workers and potential soldiers.” In other words, if railway trucks heading east through Germany had been full of soldiers heading for…

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The best books on World War 2 from several different perspectives

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