As I was thinking about which recent reads I'd like to blog about, two very different titles came to mind. One is a War World II spy thriller that takes place in Germany in 1939 and the other is a magical, sensual tale of an exotic spice merchant from India.
Both books were recommendations from library customers that I've spoken with at the Welcome Desk. It's more frequent that I suggest titles for them, based on their interests and previous reads. But I love when the situation reverses and I am compelled to jot down a title on scrap paper to add to my "to read" list on Goodreads. Here are two….
"Zoo Station" by David Downing (2007) is the first book in a four book series called "A John Russell World War II Spy Thriller." The central character, John Russell is a British journalist living in Berlin in 1939 who writes for international news agencies about the current political situation in Nazi Germany. As a British national, Russell has more leeway as a journalist, allowing him to publish stories that he couldn't if he were German. Hired by the Russians to write sympathetic articles about Nazi Germany to maintain Russian support for Germany, Russell attempts to balance what the Russian government requires with his personal values in helping a Jewish family. A compassionate protagonist, Russell takes personal risks to assist the Weisner family, headed by a previously prominent physician, who has been jailed and wants his daughters to emigrate out of Germany. To further complicate matters, John Russell's girlfriend, Effi, is an actress who frequently vocalizes opinions of her country's treatment of Jews and the increased regulations and expectations for everyone in Germany. Russell continually attempts to balance his journalism without compromising his values, co-parenting his German son with his ex-wife, his relationship with Effi, and following his heart, at possible personal danger.
"The Mistress of Spices" by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (1997) is a magical, romantic novel that found additional popularity as a movie starring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Dylan McDermott. The novel intermingles the magical qualities of spice that Tilo, the Indian spice mistress who operates a grocery store in inner-city Oakland, uses to heal the emotional and physical ailments of her customers. The book is divided into chapters highlighting different spices such as red chili, fenugreek, sesame, cinnamon and asafetida. The spices are used in the story as flavorings for favorite recipes and more importantly, to alter lives, such as the boy who is continually picked on by his mother and classmates, the abused wife who is thousands of miles away from her parents and siblings, the young man who is desperate, and the lonely man, who Tilo takes a personal, forbidden interest in. Dedicated to her life as a spice merchant, but emotionally involved with the "Lonely American", Tilo has to decide whether to follow the promise to her mentor to maintain a personal distance from her customers or to follow her heart for the first (and likely) last time in her life. Divakaruni nicely intermingles the twentieth century with a mythological element that allows the reader to dream about a romantic fictional world where the talents of a spice merchant can bring happiness to everyone.
Always searching new authors and stories, I'm glad to have found both of these books through conversations with library customers. Next on my list are follow-ups to both of these: David Downing's "Silesian Station" and the movie version of "The Mystery of Spices."