I’ve been living in the dark time of World War II lately, and it looks like I’m going to stay there for a while. 

When All the Light We Cannot See came out, I spent days reading the novel, savoring every word and marveling at the superb technique and lyricism. Now I’m finding myself rereading The English Patient again, after spending days on Ondaatje’s Warlight. Then, of course, I dove into the Polish city, Krakow, where Schindler saved many Jews from the gas chambers. Less known is Shusaku Endo’s The Sea and Poison, a heartbreaking novel of Japanese doctors conducting vivisection on captured American soldiers, which, I have to say, made me cry. Taking a different approach to war is Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, a glorious novel about family and, well, World War I, but no matter. So many captivating novels about war and survival, and each book provides a sharpened lens into the violent yet vivid past which we hope to forget but can’t help remember. 

Imagine my delight, then, with more books about World War II to read! As a bonus, and from another angle, these are by talented female authors who breathe life into these otherwise obscure figures buried under the dust of history. Here, you’ll see books about female spies, resistance fighters, pilots, and just ordinary women who find the strength to make difficult choices, books that paint a broader and more intimate picture of the roles the women took on to support — and survive — the war. 

“Will this trend of novels about war end?” someone once asked the editors at the Historical Novel Society conference I attended. My answer? I don’t know, but I surely hope it won’t! 

Courage, My Love
by Kristin Beck  

This book highlights times when ordinary women do extraordinary things. It’s 1943, and widowed Lucia, trying to raise her son in German-occupied Rome, does her best to ignore escalating tensions until it becomes impossible. Francesca’s father and fiancé have been taken by the Nazis, and despite her disability, she decides to fight back. Their lives converge in a breathtaking story inspired by the Italian women who joined the partisans during Italy’s darkest days.

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Daughters of the Night Sky
by Aimie K. Runyan  

A troop of female pilots becomes the enemy’s worst nightmare. Katya has always wanted to fly — even though she’s a girl and must prove herself over and over. Then Russia joins the war and Katya joins an all-women flying squad to serve her country. The women soon earn a nickname from their enemy: the Night Witches, feared by the Germans for their deadly nocturnal raids. But war also demands sacrifices, and agonizing choices, from Katya and her sisters-in-arms in this novel inspired by the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces.

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The Library of Legends
by Janie Chang

Students embark on a perilous journey to safeguard both human lives and a priceless library. When Japanese forces invade China, university student Lian must flee to the interior of China with her classmates and professors, taking with them an ancient library of Chinese legends. Lian’s friendships and a budding romance are threatened when one classmate is murdered, another arrested, and her own secret is in danger of being exposed. She also realizes the gods and spirits described in the Library of Legends are on a journey of their own, and as a result, China will never be the same. Chang’s novel is an enchanting blend of history and fantasy that brings forward a little-known chapter in history about the mass evacuation of Chinese universities during the war. 

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The Invisible Woman
by Erika Robuck 

World War II’s most improbable spy was born to high society, but was more interested in adventure than fashion or debutante balls. Virginia Hall jumps at the opportunity to spy for her country. Betrayed during her first operation, she realizes how fatal it can be to misplace her trust, and that the stakes are too high to make any more mistakes. This riveting novel is based on the life of American spy Virginia Hall, who defies the odds and becomes one of the Allies’ most effective spies despite her disability: a prosthetic leg that made her limp.

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The Last Year of the War
by Susan Meissner 

Wrongly accused and interned by her own country, Elise is German-American and a typical Iowa teenager until the day her father is arrested on suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer and her entire family is sent to an internment camp. Living behind barbed wire, she meets Mariko, a Japanese-American teenager whose family has also been interned. Their friendship makes camp life bearable, but will it survive the war? This is a moving story about the destruction of innocent lives, but Meissner also infuses it with sweetness, courage, and hope.

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The Paris Orphan
by Natasha Lester

War prompts a woman to reinvent herself in 1942, when Jessica May leaves New York and her modeling career to cover the war in Paris as a photojournalist. Thwarted at every turn, her tactics change when she meets the famous female journalist Martha Gellhorn, who tells Jess it’s okay to bend the rules. When a little orphan named Victorine enters her life, Jess finds the strength to do the impossible, though it comes at a price. This New York Times bestseller is inspired by model-turned-journalist Lee Miller, one of only four women accredited by the US military to report on the war.

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The Rose Code
by Kate Quinn 

Three former best friends must work together to uncover a spy in their midst. When war begins, Osla, Mab, and Beth are recruited to work in secrecy at Bletchley Park with the best minds in Britain to break enemy codes. Their friendship falls apart after betrayal, loss and the pressures of war. Now they must locate the evidence that identifies a spy from Bletchley Park, who may still be operating in England. This is an exciting page-turner of a story based on real women, with appearances by real historical figures, including Prince Phillip. 

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The Woman with the Blue Star
by Pam Jenoff 

A remarkable friendship is carried out in secrecy. In 1942, Sadie lives with her parents in Kraków’s Jewish Ghetto, but when Germans begin rounding up the ghetto’s residents, Sadie and her mother hide in the sewers beneath the city. Ella, a young Polish woman, lives in a comfortable home but is shunned by friends because her stepmother entertains the occupying Germans. One day at the market, Ella looks down and sees Sadie looking up through a grate. Their friendship, always dangerous, becomes even more precarious as the war intensifies and Ella finds it harder to help Sadie. Jenoff was Inspired by the true sagas of Polish Jews who hid beneath the city of Kraków.

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