MGG’s Summer Reads: True Crime, Memoirs, & Narrative Non-fiction 

Something about these hot summer nights makes me want to crank up the AC and bed down with a good page-turner, especially if there’s some of that heat lighting going on!  Now it’s no secret that I consider myself an “armchair detective” with a healthy interest in true crime, and my appetites for reading materials certainly reflect that. I’ll list my recent favorites in the order in which they were read (or listened to- audiobooks rule!) by me.  Below you’ll find the memoirs, novels, true crime stories and a few books which are a mix of all three (my personal favorite).


1. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

I had to start my summer reading off with a classic… the O.G. of “based on a true story”.  In my humble opinion, Capote’s much lauded masterpiece lived up to the hype.  The tale centers upon the baffling small town murder of a family of four in 1959 rural Kansas.  

The crime had no apparent motive and there were very few clues… at first.  Be careful with this one… You may catch yourself sympathizing with a character you don’t even like. 


2. My Story by Elizabeth Smart with Chris Stewart

If you grew up when I did in the nineties, Elizabeth Smart’s story was something you heard snatches about on the news and knew she was one of the lucky ones.  More recently, I’ve become a fan of her investigative work as well as her poise and dedication to help young ladies that find themselves in harm’s way.  In My Story, Smart tells her nightmare of a tale of being kidnapped, raped and forced to “marry” a religious nut job who stole her from her own bed to join his culty family. 

Elizabeth was made to live in a tent on top of a mountain for months, within walking distance of her home and the family that was desperately searching for her.  She does push her Mormon faith a bit too much for my liking, but I still found the book engrossing and inspiring.  I don’t want to give away all the twists but even if you think you know this story, I promise there is more to learn. 


3. Salt of the Earth by Jack Olsen

This moving and detailed work of true crime tells the heartbreaking story of Brenda Gere’s disappearance and her family’s endless search for justice. The intelligent and headstrong 12 year old was snatched from her suburban home by a Mr. USA hopeful, possibly one of the douchiest villains of all time. 


Salt of the Earth will leave you reeling, wishing you could do something to change Brenda’s fate but will also leave you inspired and in awe of her dear mother’s resilience and strength.

4. The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

This first person work of narrative nonfiction tells two stories woven together intricately in the author’s instantly farmilar voice.  The daughter of two lawyers, Alexandria sets out on her own legal career traveling to Louisiana and helping to defend Ricky Langley, accused of a horrible crime towards a child.   As she digs into Langley’s childhood, dark and disturbing memoirs from her own past are unearthed.  


Marzano-Lesnevich weaves her own deeply personal story together with that of a ruthless killer which has quite an interesting affect on the reader.  Her bravery brings up moral issues I never even thought of before. On a completely honest note, the book was sluggish and depressing for me at times, but I’m still happy to have read it and to know  Marzano-Lesnevich’s story. 

5. People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry

Lucie Blackman was a beautiful blond Brit, only 21 years old who vanished during the summer of 2000 while she was living in Tokyo. When her dismembered remains are found in a seaside cave months later, many secrets come to light about the jobs  Lucie had been forced to take on in order to make ends meet and how she crossed paths with the serial killer who took her life. 

  

I’ve always been interested in missing persons cases and true crime but the insiders looks at the underbelly on Toykyo’s nightlife culture and the Japanese justice system is what really piqued my interest in this case.  Parry does an excellent job of piecing together not only Lucie’s story, but that of the Blackman family’s struggle as well.


6. Columbine by David Cullen

I was 11 years old the day we all came home from school to see the carnage of Columbine on television. My parents didn’t try to hide it from me and I can even remember an administrator at the middle school I attended mounting a roudy bus one afternoon where I sat close to two boys scuffling and telling us all to “Remember Columbine!”.  


Cullen’s extremely well researched and carefully constructed book tells the story that everyone else got wrong- first the media, then all of us.  Dylan and Eric, the terrible twosome, were not the bullied goths as we were all led to believe. In fact, they were quite proud of bullying their fellow classmates long before that tragic day.  I was particularly impressed by Cullen’s astute postmortem psychoanalysis of the two.

Note: If you’re a member of Audible, People Who Eat Darkness and Columbine are both available for free in the Truly Crime audiobook collection.


7. American Kingpin by Nick Bilton

Okay, I know I said I wasn’t going to play favorites but this book is an instant favorite of mine.  I couldn’t stop thinking and talking about it.  American Kingpin tells the compete story of the swift rise and even quicker fall of the Silk Road and the genius behind it. The subtitle actually calls Ross Ulbricht a “criminal mastermind”,  but I’ll let you draw your own conclusion on that one. 


Ulbricht aka “Dread Pirate Roberts” was a 26 year old computer programmer when he lit upon the idea that would make him a multimillionaire, and a fugitive. The Silk Road, a site where people all over the world could buy and sell drugs, guns and other black market goods eventually ran wild beyond his wildest dreams and changed the course of many lives forever. 

I don’t have the writing skills to tell you how enthralled with everything about this book I was…. the inner workings of the FBI, internet crime and the moral issues it brings up.  If you read one book on this list, make it this one so I can talk to you about it!! 


8. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

An offshoot of obsession with true crime is the gritty memoir. Vance has an incredible story to tell and by the end you feel as if his Mamaw and Papaw are your own.  He rises above the expectations for his class by first becoming a marine and then a Yale graduate, but that isn’t what makes this memoir such a gem. Vance passionately invites us to understand his people, the poor white working class “hillbillies” as he calls them, a group we are all very much trying to understand right now.  He talks about taking a piss drug test for his mother and getting fighting tips from his grandmother. 


I certainly wouldn’t put myself if the inspirational genius and probably future politician category with Mr. Vance and my parents would ever need me to pass a drug test for them, but I can relate to him.   The “traitor” status reserved for hillbillies and southern folks who come home with different opinions after seeing a little more of the world has never sat right with me. Hillbilly Elegy gave me a fresh perspective on a culture I have admittedly discounted in the past and lit a fire under my ass to work just as hard as J.D. did.  


9. The Spider and the Fly by Claudia Rowe

A twisting tale of a young journalist and the serial killer she… “befriends” just isn’t the right word, but it’s close.   Rowe was living in Poughkeepsie, freelancing for the New York Times when the story of Kendall Francois broke. Francois was accused of snatching prostitutes off the streets and bringing them back to the nearly condemned house he lived in with his family. The house was so much like a Hoarder’s episode that the police actually believed that the other family members had no idea there were quite a number of decomposing hooker corpses sharing their abode.


Rowe begins to write the Francois and the relationship they develop is very Hannibal/Clarice reminiscent. He demands she send a photograph, which she declined to do since many have commented on how similar she appears to his victims.  The climax comes when she finally meets the monster face to face, signed in as his “friend” (which she fervently decides she is NOT) on the prison’s visitor’s log. Tense and gripping, with bits of Rowe’s own personal journey thrown in to make it less like a movie plot. 


10. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The only novel on my list, maybe that’s why it was extra terrifying to me.  Atwood’s modern masterpiece is a perfectly timed summer read with our current political climate.  I’m sure you’re at least aware of the Hulu series based on the book that just came out, but I’d absolutely recommend reading or listening to the original, before or after.   I won’t summarize since I’m pretty late to the party on this one.  I will however recommend the audiobook special edition voiced by Claire Danes.  She has such genuine inflection and is soothing to listen to, considering the subject matter.

There – you have an idea of what’s been floating around in my head lately.  Let me know your thoughts on these, or any others you think I’d like. I love a hearty book-talk!

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