The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer, and the Meaning of Murder by Claudia Rowe

spider and the flyIn 1998, police in Poughkeepsie, New York discovered the decomposing bodies of eight women in the home of Kendall Francois, a mild-mannered young man who lived with his father, mother, and sister.  At the time of Francois’s arrest, journalist Claudia Rowe was living in the area and writing for The New York Times.

Determined to understand Francois’s crimes and state of mind, Rowe began exchanging letters with him.  As she convinced him to share more about his life with her, their correspondence grew into a strange and often disturbing friendship.  The Spider and the Fly is a fascinating memoir about the journalistic drive to uncover the truth — and the human desire to confront evil.

Note: trigger warning for descriptions of sexual assault.

Quote:
“Residents here were professionals, doctors and academics living above well-trimmed lawns crowned with generous porches.  The Francois home, however, looked nothing like its neighbors.  A sickly mint green, it sat back from the sidewalk atop a few cracked steps, its windows opaque with dirt.  An enormous oak had grown into one of the side walls, and even crawling with investigators the house exuded a sense of isolation, as if trying to recede from view.”

Author:
Claudia Rowe has written for The New York Times, The Stranger, The Seattle Times, Mother Jones, and the Huffington Post.  Her work has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and The Spider and the Fly is her first book.

Published:  2017
Length:  320 pages
Set in:  Poughkeepsie, New York, U.S.

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The Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

killers of the flower moonWhen vast oil depositories were discovered under the rocky Oklahoma land belonging to the Osage Indian Nation, tribe members quickly became some of the richest people in the country.  As their wealth skyrocketed, they built extravagant homes, purchased fancy cars, and became the topic of incredulous news stories.

And then, in the 1920s, someone began killing Osage members who had a stake in the oil rights.  From bullet wounds to poison to sudden explosions, the murders came one after another.  One woman saw her sister, brother-in-law, and mother all killed under suspicious circumstances.  When the death toll reached two dozen, the newly formed FBI stepped in — helmed by a young J. Edgar Hoover — and the Osage murders became one of its first highly publicized cases.

In The Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann illuminates the brutality of the murders, the complexities of the investigation, and the systemic racial injustice entwined in the case.

Quote:
“Gray Horse was one of the reservation’s older settlements. These outposts—­including Fairfax, a larger, neighboring town of nearly fifteen hundred people, and Pawhuska, the Osage capital, with a population of more than six thousand—­seemed like fevered visions. The streets clamored with cowboys, fortune seekers, bootleggers, soothsayers, medicine men, outlaws, U.S. marshals, New York financiers, and oil magnates. Automobiles sped along paved horse trails, the smell of fuel overwhelming the scent of the prairies. Juries of crows peered down from telephone wires. There were restaurants, advertised as cafés, and opera houses and polo grounds.

Author:
David Grann is the author of The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, The Lost City of Z, and The Killers of the Flower Moon.  He has also written for He has previously written for the  Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic.

Published:  2017
Length:  352 pages
Set in:  Osage County, Oklahoma, U.S.

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The Piano Maker by Kurt Palka

piano makerWhen Helene Giroux arrives in the small coastal village of Saint Homais in Nova Scotia, her presence is instantly the talk of the town.  As she settles in and begins working as the church pianist, the local people begin to accept her — until the police begin asking questions about her mysterious past.

By turns charming and suspenseful, The Piano Maker is a deftly written historical novel that spans two continents — from World War I France to post-war Canada — and grapples with questions of violence, mercy, and sacrifice.

Quote:
“In the thin white light from the sky and the yellow from the streetlamps she crossed the square to the church and at the side entrance used the key the priest had given her.  She stepped inside.  So quiet and dark at this hour.  Only the eternal flame by the altar and the street-side windows gave some light.  She found her way to a front pew and sat there with her hands in her coat pockets.  She looked at the piano, at the fine shape of it, the classic footed legs and the delicate prop stick, and in her mind she could see each part of it, the cabinet pieces still raw from the milling floor, the key-board and its nerve endings, the fine soundboard with the bridge applied.  The harp so heavy it took two men to raise it and four to set it in its lockpoints.”

Author:
Kurt Palka is a novelist whose books include The Piano Maker and Clara.  He currently lives in Ontario.

Published:  2015
Length:  288 pages
Primary Setting:  Nova Scotia, Canada
Secondary Setting:  Montmagny, France

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Euphoria by Lily King

euphoriaWhen married anthropologists Nell Stone and Fen Schuyler arrive in the Sepik River region of New Guinea in 1933, Andrew Bankson’s entire life is inverted.  Irresistibly drawn to Nell’s intelligence and charm, Bankson finds new purpose in his own ethnographic study of the area’s people.  But as rivalry and jealousy mount, a series of unexpected events unfold — leaving the trio to grapple with their own complicity in the lives of the tribes they live among and study.  Written in compelling and clear prose, Euphoria is a heart-wrenching study of friendship, marriage, violence, and gender roles.

Quote:
“The rain hit the lake water loudly and it took my ears several minutes to get used to the roar. You don’t realize in the dry season how much is held in, but now all the sounds and smells came back, stirred up by the wind and humidity, flowers and roots and leaves exhaling their full flavor. Even the lake itself released a pungent peat odor as the rain dug into it. Nell seemed smaller and younger and I could see her easily at thirteen, at nine, a little girl on a Pennsylvania farm, and all I could do was keep looking.”

Author:
Lily King is an American novelist.  Her books include Euphoria, The Pleasing Hour, and Father of the Rain.  Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and several anthologies.

Published:  2014
Length:  261 pages 
Set in:  Papua New Guinea

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Evening Is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan

evening is the whole daySet in Ipoh, Malaysia, Evening is the Whole Day revolves around the Big House on Kingfisher Lane, where the wealthy Rajasekharan family have lived for several generations.  Skipping back and forth through time, the novel creates a vivid portrait of the house’s inhabitants, including Aasha, a curious six-year-old who sees ghosts as clearly as the living; her older sister Uma, desperate to escape to college in America; and Chellam, a young servant dismissed on the basis of unexplained crimes.  Filled with lush prose and a striking sense of place, each chapter of Evening is the Whole Day reveals to its readers the family’s heartbreaking and seemingly endless secrets.

Quote:
“On Kingfisher Lane the sun lies straight ahead, liquid as an egg yolk in the valley between two distant limestone hills, quivering, ready, turning the surrounding foliage to gold.  Closer and closer they draw to its beating light, and then, without warning — in the split second when Appa takes his foot off the accelerator for no clear reason — the sun looses itself, slides down into the foothills, and surges out into the street.  It brings the water in the monsoon drains to a boil and singes the whiskers of stray cats.  It crisps the ants on the asphalt and scorches the grass on the verges.  It rolls all the way down the street and finally, against the windshield of the Volvo, comes to a reluctant rest.”

Author:
Preeta Samarasan was born in Malaysia and moved to the United States while in high school.  Her writing has appeared in The Asian Literary Review, Hyphen, The Michigan Quarterly Review, and EGO Magazine, among others.  Evening is the Whole Day is her debut novel.

Published:  2008
Length:  340 pages
Set in:  Ipoh, Malaysia

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The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo

statues that walkedWhen archaeologists Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt began field work on Rapa Nui — called Easter Island by its first European visitors — they knew the prevailing theory about its history:  that the labor-intensive construction and transportation of the island’s famous stone statues led to clear-cutting forests, and that the resulting environmental destruction caused the population to dwindle.  Yet as they carried out their research, Lipo and Hunt continued to find clues that subverted this long-held theory, and their discoveries led to a completely new understanding of the island’s technology, culture, and history.

Drawing on well-explained scientific research and historical documents, The Statues that Walked is a fascinating look at the island of Rapa Nui and the ingenuity of the people who created the hundreds of statues that line its shores.

Quote:
“Mention Easter Island to just about anyone and ‘mystery’ immediately comes to mind.  The Mystery of Easter Island is the title of untold books and modern film documentaries.  The mystery surrounds how so few people on a remote, treeless, and impoverished island could have made and transported hundreds of eerie, gargantuan statues — called moai — for which the island is so famous.  The awe-inspiring, multi-ton stone statues, some standing nearly forty feet high and weighing more than seventy-five tons, were carved out of the island’s quarry of compacted volcanic ash and then somehow transported several miles over the island’s rugged terrain.  Not all of them survived the journey.  Many lie scattered across the island, some broken, never to take their intended places on platforms along the shoreline or elsewhere throughout the island.  To see these statues, many of them situated on equally impressive platforms called ahu, is to sense a hidden drama of compelling human proportions calling out for explanation.  Facing inward, rather than out to sea, they seem to be gazing back in a vain search for the noble society that created them.”

Authors:
Terry Hunt has spent 35 years conducting archeological research in the Pacific Islands.  He lives in Hawaii, where he works as a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.  Carl Lipo teaches archaeology at California State University Long Beach; he also lives in Long Beach, California.

Published:  2011
Length:  237 pages
Set in:  Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile

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Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey

wife of the godsWhen a bright young medical student is found dead outside the small village of Ketanu in Ghana’s Volta region, Detective Inspector Darko Dawson is called from Accra to consult in the investigation.  A loving father and sometimes overzealous officer, Dawson has personal ties to the town — it is where his mother disappeared many years ago after visiting family.

When he arrives in Ketanu, Dawson must juggle a stubborn local police chief; several unlikely suspects; accusations of witchcraft; and an unsettling religious custom in which families give their teenage daughters to priests to become wives of the gods.  As the case deepens and the suspect pool narrows, Dawson struggles to maintain both his subterranean temper and faith in his own investigative skills.

Quote:
“On the way again, Dawson noticed how the vegetation began to change from open bush with isolated skyscraper trees to denser semi-deciduous forest, but that in turn gave way to buildings as Dawson approached Ketanu.  He passed a sign announcing YOU ARE ENTERING KETANU and slowed down over the brain-rattling speed strips.  If Ketanu had been an impressionist painting, it would have been dots and daubs of tan and brown.  Buildings were a cream color or darker, and the rusted tin roofs exactly matched the color of the ground.  Tro-tros and taxis plied the streets, and shops and trading kiosks lined the roadside with entertaining appellations like Nothing but Prayer Electrical Goods and God Is Great Hair Clinic.  Dawson loved these names.” 

Author:
Kwei Quartey is a physician and author of crime novels, including Wife of the Gods, Children of the Street, and Death at the Voyager Hotel.  Raised in Ghana, Quartey now lives and practices medicine in Pasadena, California.

Published:  2009
Length:  311 pages
Set in:  Accra and the Volta region, Ghana

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Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt

becoming nicoleWhen Kelly and Wayne Maines adopted twin baby boys, they named them Wyatt and Jonas.  From an early age, there were clear personality differences between their sons:  Jonas was shy and gravitated toward sports and other stereotypically masculine interests, while Wyatt was more assertive and loved dressing up as the Little Mermaid and playing with dolls.

As they grew older, Wyatt expressed discomfort about his body, asking repeatedly when he would turn into a girl and pleading to wear skirts instead of pants.  The Maineses — especially Wayne — struggled to accept the fact that Wyatt was transgender, but they gradually threw their full support behind their child’s true identity as Nicole.  And when Nicole began to face discrimination and bullying at school, they fought fiercely for her rights to be treated as any other female child — pursuing a legal battle that made headlines nationwide.

Written with compassion and insight by Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Amy Ellis Nutt, Becoming Nicole is the remarkable portrait of a family confronting widespread prejudice and emerging victorious.

Quote:
“Kelly and Wayne could tell Wyatt was moodier than Jonas; he would occasionally lash out at his brother as if frustrated just by his presence. There was something else, too. At night, when she bathed the boys, Kelly would catch Wyatt staring into the long mirror hanging on the inside of the bathroom door. As she pulled off Jonas’s clothes and plunked him into the tub, she’d notice Wyatt standing naked and transfixed in front of the mirror. What did the two-year-old see? Himself? His identical twin brother? It was impossible to know, and impossible to ask Wyatt, of course. But often it seemed as if the little boy was puzzled by his reflection, unsure of the image staring back. There was some inscrutable pain behind his eyes. He seemed tense and anxious, as if his heart was in knots and he didn’t know how to untie them.”

Author:
Amy Ellis Nutt is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and author.  Her books include Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family; The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Gide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults; and Shadows as Bright as Glass: The Remarkable Story of One Man’s Journey from Brain Trauma to Artistic TriumphShe currently lives in Washington, D.C., where she is a science reporter for The Washington Post.

Published:  2015
Length:  279 pages
Set in:  Maine, United States

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An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

an unnecessary womanIn a quiet apartment in Beirut, Aaliya Saleh lives alone, surrounded by her books.  Every year, she begins to translate a favorite into Arabic, and, when she is done, she hides the translation away in a box, never to be read by another soul.  Her solitude is only occasionally interrupted by the other women in her building — whom she calls “the three witches” — and by the bothersome demands of her estranged family.  As the days pass, Aaliyah walks the streets of Beirut, reliving her memories and reveling in the words of writers she admires above all others.  And when an unexpected and tragic event intrudes on her peaceful life, she must confront the consequences of her self-imposed isolation.

In An Unnecessary Woman, Alameddine has conjured a vivid portrait of a woman retreating gently into her later years, unconcerned by the strictures of society.

Quote:
“Whereas most people will tell you that they prefer the city on spring afternoons when she fills her lungs with briny air, when bougainvilleas, purple and crimson, and wisterias, lavender and white, begin to bloom, or during summer sunsets, when the water is decked with a panoply of gold and hyacinth so vibrant that the city practically rocks on her promontory, I prefer her in this subdued light, under roiling gray clouds, rain-filled but not raining, when the neutral air gives contrast to the authentic colors of the city.  These clouds prevent me from seeing the brilliant new white on the mountain peaks, but they offer spectacular city sights as compensation.”

Author:
Rabih Alameddine is the author of Koolaids; I, the Divine; The Hakawati; An Unnecessary Woman; The Perv; and The Angel of History.  He grew up in Lebanon and Kuwait, and now divides his time between Beirut and San Francisco.

Published:  2014
Length:  291 pages
Set in:  Beruit, Lebanon 

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Arrowood by Laura McHugh

ArrowoodWhen Arden inherits the large, historic mansion called Arrowood on the Iowa banks of the Mississippi River, she is both thrilled and apprehensive to claim it as her home.  Though she lived there happily with her family until she was eight, the house was also the site of her two younger sisters’ disappearances.

Taken from the front yard while Arden was supposed to be watching them, her sisters’ abduction has haunted her for almost two decades.  And when she moves back into Arrowood, the creaking house itself seems to be urging her to seek out the long-buried family secrets that may hold the key to Tabitha and Violet’s fate.

A modern-day Gothic mystery with a perfectly eerie atmosphere, Arrowood is page-turner until the last chapter.

Quote:
“It was strange, crossing into Iowa, that I could feel different on one side of the bridge than the other, yet it was true.  Each familiar sight helped ease a bone-deep longing: the railroad trestle, the cottonwoods crowding the riverbank, the irrigation rigs stretching across the fields like metal spines, the little rock shop with freshly cracked geodes glinting on the windowsills.  I rolled down the window and breathed the Keokuk air, a distinct mix of earthly floodplain and factory exhaust.  The Mississippi lay to my right, and even though I couldn’t yet see it beyond the fields, I could sense it there, deep and constant.”

Author:
Laura McHugh is the author of The Weight of Blood and Arrowood.  She currently lives in Missouri.

Published:  2016
Length:  270 pages
Set in:  Keokuk, Iowa, United States

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