IYCRMM: Four for the road less traveled

IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND: If you’re looking for books that can serve as traveling companions, here are four new novels that take storytelling to new heights.

Garmus’ novel is historical women empowerment, while Goddard’s is dependable crime fiction. Chao has her own take on the immigrant experience, and Guterson returns to a courtroom drama.

Empowering the disenfranchised?

‘Lessons In Chemistry’ by Bonnie Garmus

If you’ve enjoyed films like “Hidden Figures” or plays like “Silent Sky,” then this new novel by Bonnie Garmus has your name written on it. Set in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, its subject is women in science and the raw deal they have to experience, in an arena where men make the rules. And yes, you don’t have to be a woman to appreciate where this book is coming from or the themes it tackles. Elizabeth Zott was molested as a chemistry major graduate and works as a gofer at the Hastings Research Institute. Intelligent and resourceful, she’s working on her own abiogenesis research project when she meets the Hastings genius-in-residence Calvin Evans. Naturally, he first presumes she’s some lowly assistant, and when properly corrected and chastened, he then pursues her.

Both Elizabeth and Calvin are emotional cripples, thanks to the strange childhoods they’ve had to endure. Somehow, they find happiness with each other but it’s short-lived. Years later, as a single mother raising a precocious daughter, Elizabeth is offered a cooking show, which she proceeds to conduct in her own inimitable style. The show becomes a controversial rallying cry for women relegated to being housewives and told they couldn’t aspire for anything more. It’s also Elizabeth’s medium for trying to create a better future for her daughter. There are strong, vivid characters drawn here, and you’ll even fall in love with daughter Madeline and Six Thirty, the family pet. Don’t be surprised if you get misty-eyed, then smile through the tears, as you read this wonderful novel.

‘This Is the Night They Come For You’ by Robert Goddard

Set in Algeria with a history lesson thrown in, this still qualifies as Crime Fiction as it involves a convicted politician who was under house arrest in his Algiers mansion, suddenly absconding and possibly ending up in France. The novel opens with us being introduced to old-hand Superintendent Taleb, as he’s being put on the case. Coasting to retirement, Taleb has never played the game of interoffice politics or offering subservience, just to be promoted. Now he’s paired with a young female secret service agent as they try to find out what happened to the politician, without opening a big can of worms—as Algeria’s fractured past still casts a long shadow over what’s happening today.

Initially set up as mismatched comrades, the two law enforcement officers begrudgingly discover that they have to work together, if only to survive. It’s the backdrop of Algerian history that dates back to the 1960s that propels this novel into regions beyond your regular crime fiction novel. As an acknowledged master of the double cross narrative, you’ll find Goddard more than adept as he sends us from Algeria, to England and on to Paris, while the noose gets tauter and the screws are effectively tightened. How he brings home the fact that the violence and events of the 1960s and the 1980s still impact on contemporary Algerian affairs and history is never less than breathtaking, and the complicity of France, its former colonizer, never strays from the spotlight.

Family first?

‘The Family Chao’ by Lan Samantha Chang

This celebrated novel starts off as a family drama that depicts a Chinese-American family who runs a restaurant in small town Wisconsin. Big Leo Chao is the patriarch, with wife Winnie, and their three sons, who all were supposed to exemplify the American dream as Stateside born products of the struggling years of Winnie and Leo. Dagou is the eldest, who had artist aspirations in NYC but has since returned and works as the chef at the Fine Chao. Then there’s Ming, who is into finance and basically escaped Haven, Wisconsin. The third son, in med school when the novel opens, is James. But wait, this isn’t your typical rising against the odds story, as there are fissures and cracks in this dream.

Leo is a philandering tyrant, an arrogant schemer and has compelled Winnie to leave for a Spiritual Convent, now that the three boys are fully grown. Dagou lives above the restaurant and has never been considered anything more than cheap labor to his father. Ming avoids Haven like the plague and James is cocooned in self-imposed naïveté. And the story suddenly shifts when Leo is found dead in the resto’s walk-in freezer, apparently left locked in as the key suddenly disappears. Fingers point to Dagou and the second half of the book has to do with the trial that puts the whole town in a tizzy, as rumors of patricide, of eating dogs, of stealing money from an old off the boat immigrant, all begin to swirl and add fuel to the sensationalist aspects of an already controversial trial by publicity.

‘The Final Case’ by David Guterson

“Snow Falling On Cedars” in the early 1990’s, would most likely have been your first exposure to author David Guterson. It was unique back then, a novel filled with poetic and literary passages, but all about a murder trial in Washington state, and having to do with a stoic Japanese-American accused of killing a white man who’s a leader of the local business community. There’s a courtroom drama tucked into that novel, and it’s a device that reappears in this latest from Guterson. There’s a girl from Ethiopia named Abeba (Abigail), who’s been adopted by white fundamentalist Christians, Devlin and Betsy Harvey. Responding to a 911 call, the police find Abeba dead under very suspicious circumstances.

Royal, an octogenarian lawyer, takes on the case to defend Betsy, and it’s Royal’s son who narrates the novel. The first third of the novel is devoted to understanding the relationship of father to son, and their respective back stories. The middle portion of the novel is the court room narrative and it’s one that’s both shocking and horrific, as we get to understand what Abeba went through in the Harvey home. Far from being “rescued” from Ethiopia, she’s brought into a stranger hell outside Seattle, and it brings into focus one of the themes of this novel—the presumption that it’s some reward or advantage to be adopted and brought to the US, when the truth can be very far from that. Justice and its absence, the strength of family and connections, are other themes addressed in this novel.