The historical fiction genre is booming and provides readers with an escape from today's world and a glimpse into a different time period in history. Novels set during World War II remain particularly popular; there are still so many stories to be told from the era. I have created a comprehensive list of historical fiction books set during World War II that are true standouts in the genre. In addition, I included a few that are coming out in 2022 and sound intriguing.
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Set in the Philippines during World War II, Angels of the Pacific focuses on the Angels of Bataan, a group of U.S. Army and Navy nurses who courageously endured four years in the Santo Tomas Internment Camp after the Japanese Imperial Army invaded the Philippines. Hooper also weaves in the role that Filipinas played in the resistance, working to thwart the Japanese invaders. Hooper’s historical-fiction tale honors the various women who fought back under horrific circumstances and highlights a part of World War II that people are not as familiar with – the Pacific arena.
The Baker’s Secret by Stephen Kiernan
The Baker’s Secret takes place in Le Verger, a French town on the Normandy coast, on the eve of D-Day. The town is occupied by the Nazis who have beaten down the townspeople with countless acts of cruelty including rationing food to the point that everyone is slowly starving. Kiernan tells the tale of the courageous baker Emmanuelle and her fellow villagers who worked to defy the Nazis in their own subtle ways. The Baker’s Secret is a tear-jerker (have plenty of tissues handy), but the book’s message is one of optimism and the ability of humans to overcome even the most tragic circumstances.
Harmel’s novel chronicles the story of a skilled forger who risks her life during World War 2 to help hundreds of Jewish children escape the Nazis in this pick for best historical fiction in 2020. To ensure that the children’s original identities will not be permanently erased, Eva and a fellow forger create a coded system to secretly preserve the real names and identities of the escapees. Decades later, the code is discovered but cannot be decoded, and Eva must decide if she has the strength to revisit the past.
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
Told from the unique perspective of Death, The Book Thief is a stunning and evocative masterpiece. Zusak’s characters are courageous and authentic and his story focuses on everyday people enduring Nazi rule in a small town outside of Munich, the power of books and the written word. Frequently chilling and often heartbreaking, the novel does not shy away from describing the horrors of war; however, it ultimately champions the human spirit and its refusal to be cowed by evil. The Book Thief is a tale that will not soon be forgotten, and it remains one of the best books I have ever read.
The Chilbury Ladies' Choir by Jennifer Ryan
Jennifer Ryan tells her story in an epistolary format using a series of journal entries and letters, a method that is very effective for this novel. Chilbury is a fictional small town in England close to the eastern coast. As the story opens in 1941, most of the men have left to fight in the war causing the vicar of the local church to disband the choir until the war has concluded. A group of women, lead by a spirited newcomer, rebel against the vicar’s wishes and create the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. The effect of the choir on Chilbury and several neighboring towns is immense, and the book contains both hilarious and heartbreaking storylines. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir includes countless valuable sentiments and statements about both the war and life generally, and the book and its characters have stayed with me several years after I finished reading it.
The Codebreaker’s Secret by Sara Ackerman (coming August 2022)
After helping crack the German Enigma code, Isabel Cooper is sent to Pearl Harbor’s Station HYPO, its code breaking center, to help break the Japanese Magenta codes that are being grabbed from the airwaves in an attempt to win the war. Angry that her brother was killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor, Isabel believes the only way she can avenge her brother’s death is to crack these codes, but she quickly learns that life may have more in store for her when she meets her brother’s best friend, a pilot with his own secrets. Two decades later, a young journalist is sent to Hawaii to cover the opening of the Rockefeller’s latest project, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, and is roped into the hunt for a prominent guest who goes missing. While searching for the guest, she uncovers a wartime secret that she must work to unlock.
Dear Mrs Bird by A.J Pearce
As the book opens in 1940s London, Emmy Lake arrives for a newspaper interview thinking the position is for a lady war correspondent when instead the position is to sort through letters written to a Dear Abby type named Mrs. Bird. She is hired and, unhappy with Mrs. Bird’s opinions on many of the letters she receives (and Mrs. Bird’s refusal to answer any that she deems unpleasant), Emmy decides to secretly answer some of the truly desperate letters. While it might sound like a light read, the story is actually thought-provoking, occasionally heart-wrenching and simply superb. Pearce’s descriptions of blitzed and war-torn London are so vivid that at times readers will find themselves in London with Emmy and her friends. The plot is creative and original and Dear Mrs. Bird is a great addition to this sub-genre.
Dragonfly by Leila Meacham
Leila Meacham’s incredible World War II saga chronicles a fictional team of young Americans recruited as OSS agents to infiltrate Nazi-occupied Paris. The team is code-named Dragonfly, and upon arrival in Paris, the group disperses and sets about to fulfill their unique missions while also pursuing their own individual agendas. The genius of Dragonfly is Meacham’s ability to vividly portray German-occupied Paris and the treachery that constantly existed for those working to thwart Hitler and the Nazis. Her novel frequently proves the maxim “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” as each agent must quickly and intelligently adjust to the challenges and unexpected issues that regularly arise. Clever, suspenseful and character-driven, Dragonfly is a tour-de-force and a fabulous addition to this genre.
In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen
The central plot of the book is set at the ancestral home of Lord Westerham, named Farleigh Place, which is serving as headquarters for one of the British armed forces groups. Lord Westerham has five daughters, three of whom play large roles in the story: Pamela, Margot and Phoebe. Pamela works at Bletchley Park breaking German codes, Margot is in Paris working for the French Resistance, and Phoebe is at home worried about her discovery of the body of a soldier whose parachute failed as he tried to land near Farleigh Place. There are various subplots that develop as the story progresses and by the end, they tie everything together very effectively. Bowen’s exhaustive research is evident. The extra tidbits she includes add to the storyline in spectacular ways.
Robuck brings real-life American heroine Virginia Hall to life, highlighting her immense bravery as an Allied spy in German-occupied France during World War II. She vividly depicts Hall’s extraordinary heroism amid the horror of the Nazi atrocities while also shining a light on the thousands of regular people who bravely joined the Resistance (and put their lives on the line) to ensure that their country would not fall to the Nazis. I read this one in less than 24 hours and absolutely loved it.
The Librarian Spy by Madeline Martin (coming July 2022)
Ava works as a librarian at the Library of Congress until she is recruited by the U.S. military to spy during World War 2. She is sent to Lisbon to pose as a librarian while gathering intel for the war effort. Meanwhile, Elaine is working in Lyon helping to operate a printing press run by the French Resistance, but the Nazis are frantically searching to locate the press and silence the printer. As the war continues, the two women begin communicating through coded messages and working to help win the war. I learned so much about Portugal during the war - something I knew absolutely nothing about and was completely fascinated. My Patreon group is doing an early read and author talk with Madeline on June 8th. Join Patreon.
The Lost Letter by Jillian Cantor
Jillian Cantor fashions an intriguing and fascinating tale of resistance to the Nazis while highlighting the innovative ways resistance workers used to evacuate Jews from Austria. Inspired by actual events, The Lost Letter focuses on stamp engravers who helped the Austrian Resistance by sending covert messages in stamp designs and forging papers for Jews trying to leave the country. Cantor uses a dual timeline format, World War II and the present, and ties them together splendidly and seamlessly. The Lost Letter is a simply fabulous and stunning read.
The Lost Vintage by Ann Mah
The Lost Vintage is a beautifully crafted tale focusing on the French Resistance during and after the war. In the present-day tale, Kate is studying to pass the Master of Wine Examination and travels to her family’s estate in Burgundy to attempt to master the Burgundian vintages. While there, she uncovers a hidden room filled with World War II resistance pamphlets and a vast amount of valuable wine. Spurred on by her discovery, Kate delves into her family’s past and uncovers a great aunt named Helene who was expunged from the family history because she had been labeled a collaborator following the war. Mah’s novel addresses the way the French dealt with collaborators, particularly women, following the war and the way these women were treated once denounced as collaborators (with or without evidence).
One Woman’s War by Christine Wells (coming October 2022)
Based on the woman who inspired Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond stories, One Woman’s War chronicles the life of Victoire (“Paddy”) Bennett, a British Naval Officer during World War 2. Paddy begins working as a secretary for Commander Ian Fleming but quickly rises through the ranks to become a full-fledged spy. When Fleming creates a dangerous plot to outfox the Germans about Allied invasion plans, he recruits Paddy to help. Newly married, Paddy is eager to work in the field but quickly realizes that the operation will impact her marriage as she struggles to balance duty to her country and her personal relationships.
The Rose Code opens in 1947 just days prior to the British royal wedding, when Osla, a codebreaker who worked at Bletchley Park during the war, receives a coded letter that makes her question certain things about her time at the code-breaking facility. Alternating between 1947 and an earlier timeline that begins in 1940, The Rose Code tells the story of three very different women who work as codebreakers at Bletchley during the war and who then must later ferret out the traitor who once operated among them. Many of the chapters open with a quote from the hilarious (and fictional) “Bletchley Bletherings,” the weekly newspaper that recounts the current gossip, an addition to the book that ties the story together and provides some fabulous foreshadowing. Full of fascinating details about Bletchley Park and the many unique individuals who worked there during World War 2, The Rose Code is a must-read.
Sisters of Night and Fog follows two women in Europe whose contributions to the war effort during World War 2 have been largely forgotten. Virginia is an American married to a Frenchman who helps downed soldiers escape her new country. Violette is recruited by the British Special Operations Executive because she is a crack shot. Their journeys come together when both courageous women are sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp where they fight to survive in hopes of rejoining their families following the war. Told in memories on a return trip to Ravensbruck, the novel highlights the impact of these women’s bravery on the people they worked to save during the war.
Sisters in Arms by Kaia Alderson
Debut author Kaia Alderson’s book is inspired by the true story of the women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion (the Six Triple Eight), the only all-Black battalion of the Women’s Army Corp during World War II. Tasked with crossing the Atlantic to ensure U.S. servicemen received word from their families during the war, these brave women not only dealt with the regular dangers of war, but they also had to contend with racial injustice and those who wanted them to fail. Sisters in Arms is a wonderful book about courageous women whose stories deserve to be told.
The Stolen Lady addresses the art saved by the French during World War 2 with a particular focus on the Mona Lisa. Set in Florence in 1479 and during World War 2 in France, the book follows two women separated by centuries who hide the famous painting with unintended results. In 1479, Leonardo da Vinci paints his now-iconic masterpiece, and a revolt against the Medicis leads to the disappearance of the painting. Hundreds of years later, a woman working at the Louvre is tasked with keeping the art and other treasures in the Louvre safe from the Nazis and finds herself trying to stay one step ahead of the Germans in a complex game of cat-and-mouse.
In her latest book, Gaynor brings to life teachers and students at a British-operated missionary school in Chefoo, China. Inspired by a true story, the tale chronicles the group’s experience as captives of the occupying Japanese army during World War II. The Chefoo School educated the children of missionaries and diplomats, and in peaceful times, the teachers were tasked with not only educating but also serving as stand-in parents to children whose parents sometimes left them there for months or years. When Japan declared war on Britain and the United States, the Japanese forces (who had already invaded China) took control of the Chefoo School and eventually moved it to an internment camp, requiring the teachers to help their students weather unimaginable adversity. Alternating between two characters, teacher Elspeth Kent and student Nancy Plummer, Gaynor vividly portrays the horrors of war, life in captivity, the resilience of humans, and the importance of relationships.
Wickwythe Hall by Judithe Little
Judithe Little has a way with words, and readers will quickly be drawn into Wickwythe Hall. Little covers a wide range of aspects of the war deftly, and her writing is so descriptive that readers will feel as if they are waiting on the dock in Dunkirk as the soldiers arrived, walking with the French people as they fled German-occupied France, and fleeing Mers el-Kebir, Algeria as the British bombed the French ships during Operation Catapult. I was fascinated to learn about the bombing of French ships by the British during World War II, a little-known event today that demonstrates the complexity and horrors of war.
I would love to hear your favorite World War 2 historical fiction books. Please comment below with all of your thoughts and recommendations!