Looking for a new novel to start over Memorial Day weekend? Reading a book about war might sound like a depressing way to spend your precious leisure time, but war has always been an unfortunate part of the human experience. From Ancient Greece to Afghanistan, people have perished fighting for their country or their cause, for love or for hate, and, sometimes, for no reason at all. Here, in honor of those we’ve lost in war, is a list of some of the best novels that take place during wartime.
Though “The Yellow Birds” is set during the Iraq War, the story’s focus is what happens when vets return home; they can’t simply assimilate into their past lives and forget the horrors that they’ve seen. Before they deployed, John Bartle promised Murph’s mother that he’d keep Murph safe. It’s no spoiler to say that you can guess how well that goes. But the guilt and deep regret are Powers’ focus, and as he is primarily a poet, the novel is beautifully lyrical and begins with this gut-punching sentence: “The war tried to kill us in the spring.” This one is really sad, y’all.
A true masterpiece, “Maus” was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. Using animals (Jews are mice and Germans are cats, for example), Spiegelman recreates the tension and fear of 1940s eastern Europe, while allowing the reader some breathing room — the story is tense and horrifying, but the tension is slightly eased when it’s happening to cartoon animals. The addition of the overarching narrative wherein Art is interviewing his father, Holocaust survivor Vladek, as research for this book reminds us that these atrocities are still all too human. The details of how Vladek and his wife survive the war are both terrifying and fascinating.
Two storylines — one taking place during World War I and the other taking place just after the end of World War II — careen forward and ultimately converge in this page-turning mystery. In 1915, Eve Gardiner is dispatched to northeastern France to spy on the Germans. In 1947, Charlie St. Clair is dispatched to Europe from the U.S., but for an entirely different reason: She’s pregnant and unmarried, and her parents are having the problem “taken care of.” Charlie seizes the opportunity to search for her beloved cousin Rose, who went missing during the second World War. After a chance meeting, Charlie convinces Eve, now a middle-aged recluse, to help search for Rose. While the WWI female-spy narrative is the standout plot, the whole novel is completely engrossing.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie officially reached celebrity status when Beyoncé sampled her speech titled “We Should All Be Feminists” (you’ve probably seen this line on a T-shirt or a notebook — Adichie is the proverbial ground-zero). But before all that, Adichie published her second novel, “Half of a Yellow Sun,” to rave reviews. Taking place primarily during the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s, the story jumps around in time to reveal the hardships that a small group of friends endure, as well as the interpersonal conflicts that don’t stop just because a greater crisis is exploding around them. Adichie didn’t fully hit her stride until “Americanah,” her third novel, and “Half of a Yellow Sun” does drag at times. Overall, however, it’s a story well worth reading: It’s populated with multi-dimensional characters and focuses on a period of Nigerian history unknown to most Americans.
Dragonfly in Amber (Book 2 of the Outlander Series)
The Outlander Series, first published in the ’90s, had a large fanbase even before Starz adapted it for television. Since its small-screen debut in 2015, the time-traveling, swashbuckling saga has never been more popular (a ninth novel is forthcoming). Claire Randall, who lives in England in the 1940s and was an army nurse during World War II, accidentally time travels to 18th-century Scotland and falls in love with a Jacobite warrior named Jamie Frasier. In “Dragonfly in Amber,” Jamie and Claire are trying to stop the Jacobite uprising, because Claire knows it will fail (a benefit of the whole “I come from the future” plotline). These books are long — in the thousands of pages — and the historic detail and depiction of 1700s wartime Scotland add interest to what is already a well-written and compelling romance.
Yes, you’ve probably read this already, but no war-themed list would be complete without this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The book follows Marie-Laure, a blind girl who flees the Nazi occupation of Paris with her father, and Werner, a German orphan who is a genius at radio technology. When the Nazis invade France, Marie-Laure and her father flee to St. Malo, a small city in northwestern France. Meanwhile, Werner’s gifts and lack of options have pushed him to enlist in the German army. Through time-jumps between past and present, and plain, unemotional prose, Doerr somehow crafts a tension around these two children and their fates that never feels heavy-handed.
Another World War II novel, this time with a thriller angle. It is winter 1943 in Germany’s Black Forest region, and Franka Gerber lives alone, having lost her father and brother to the War. She’s anti-Nazi, but when she finds a wounded German airman in the woods, her conscience overcomes her and she nurses him back to health — only to discover that he’s not who he says he is. In short order, the Gestapo is after them and they have to rely on each other to survive.
Though published back in 2011, this book is getting renewed attention because of the success of Miller’s second book, “Circe” (April 2018). “The Song of Achilles” is a unique retelling of “The Illiad” and the Trojan War, from the point of view of Patroclus. A sensitive, frail young man, Patroclus is in many ways the opposite of his love interest Achilles. Even though most of us know the tragedy that awaits the two men on the battlefield, the events are rendered new in Miller’s capable hands.
More from Make It Better:
- 9 of the Best Beach Reads to Pack on Vacation
- One-on-One With ‘Grandbaby Cakes’ Author Jocelyn Delk Adams
- Read an Excerpt From ‘Jolt’ by Local Journalist and Author Mark Miller
Danielle McLimore is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has worked in book publishing since 2009. She lives with her husband, two sons, and a very misbehaved dog. She proudly supports the Center for Reproductive Rights.