Book Review: Gone by Michael Grant (2008)

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Review #99

Sam watches as his science teacher suddenly blinks out of existence in the middle of a lecture. He soon finds out that all of the teachers and upperclassman have also vanished, leaving everyone under the age of fifteen alone in their small California community. At the same time, an impassable barrier appears in a ten mile radius around the town. Within days the bullies are running the show, threatening anyone who opposes them with violence.

It was finally my turn to pick a book for book club! The theme was “superpowers” and I dug around on Goodreads and Pinterest for a few hours trying to find the perfect book. I finally chose Michael Grant’s Gone based on the fact that it had a 3.8 rating on Goodreads and I had heard about it before on a list of best YA science fiction. When I finally settled in with my Kobo and began to read…

Dud. I had picked a big fat dud.

Here are just a few of the notes I jotted down while reading this book:

  • “Twenty pages. The word “brah” used at least once per page.”
  • “Was written specifically in the hopes of becoming a show on the CW.”
  • “Why is Quinn so racist towards Mexicans? Why is everyone okay with it?”
  • “Trying for LOTF. Failing miserably.”
  • “Please stop saying “brah””
  • “Grant writes teenager characters as if he read about them once in National Geographic.”
  • “They’re not very nice to the autistic kid, either.”
  • “STOP SAYING “BRAH””

 

My rating: 1/5. Points for feminist characters and very diverse cast in general. And the kid who went to work at McDonalds was kind of adorable.

You can find Gone here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

P.S. Next review will be #100 be sure to check it out!!

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Friend Request by Laura Marshall (2017)

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Review #96

When Louise Marshall receives a friend request on Facebook from Maria Weston, she is surprised to say the least. When they were in high school together, Louise wasn’t too kind to Maria. In fact, she was a bit of a bully. So why would Maria be reaching out after twenty-seven years? Plus there’s the fact that Maria is dead. Isn’t she?

My most recent post was entitled I’m Breaking Up With the Modern Thriller Genre. I explained how the recent trend towards unnecessary plot twists, shoddy characterization, and clumsy foreshadowing has killed my enjoyment of recently popular thriller novels. Friend Request by Laura Marshall was the book that broke this reader’s patience.

In this novel are the same tired cliches and overused stereotypes that have made the thriller genre an exercise in frustration. There are the obligatory flashbacks that serve no true purpose except to drum up a false sense of suspense. In this case, we visit Louise and Maria as they go through their senior year of high school in 1989. Instead of giving us a window into this time period which may have been fun or added relevant details to the overall plot, instead we just have Louise continually torn between her desire to be part of the popular crowd and her budding friendship with the new girl at school. There’s potential here for an insightful look at the long-term affects of teenage bullying, but Marshall never really connects the dots.

We also have multiple plot twists which serve no real purpose and fail to offer any surprises. When I think of novels such as Ender’s Game, Fight Club or any of Tana French’s Dublin Murder series, the thing that stands out is that all of the elements of the pre-twist narrative fall into place once the twist is revealed. If you go back and re-read any of these novels, you can logically and rationally follow the plot with the knowledge of the twist already in place. However, the plot twist in Friend Request is a cheat. It’s utterly out of left field and literally made me face-palm once I realized that this was what Marshall had spent so much time and effort building towards. I love a good plot twist but they need to make sense within the larger story, and the one in this novel fell completely flat.

I may have liked this book more if I hadn’t experienced a recent run of similar faux-thriller novels which can all be boiled down to “white woman with quirky but interesting career is somehow surprised when the past comes back to haunt her”. My frustration with Friend Request is ultimately due to my overall frustration with the current state of the thriller genre itself. I’ve decided to take a break and focus on a few other genres for awhile. Perhaps with some time I will be able to come back and appreciate this novel on its own merit.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Friend Request here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

I’m Breaking Up With the Modern Thriller Genre

 

 

thriller

Dear Thriller Genre,

You and I used to be so close. We would stay up all night together, cuddled up on the couch with a glass of wine or a mug of hot chocolate. There was a time when I used to want to spend time with you more than any other genre out there. I will always treasure the tingles I got from turning your pages.

But something happened a few years ago. You changed, thriller genre, and not for the better. I think it all started with The DaVinci Code, when millions of people began noticing how a few well-placed plot twists could reel a reader in and keep them glued to your pages. People love to hate Dan Brown, but I really enjoyed DaVinci. I thought it was the first step on a whole new journey we could take together.

Then along came a little novel called Gone Girl. Now don’t get me wrong, this book was amazing and kept me captivated for all of its four-hundred page running length. Gillian Flynn didn’t pull any punches and every aspect of her novel came together to form a cohesive plot-line. It’s remembered for having a crazy twist around the halfway mark that turned everything on its head.

Unfortunately, my dear thriller genre, too many of books published in the years since Gone Girl have taken the “crazy plot twist” aspect of the bestselling novel while neglecting the “cohesive plot-line” part. They’ve exchanged memorable characters for clumsy foreshadowing. There is now a puzzling trend to have a last page “final twist” that is left unresolved, like Michael Myers coming back for one last scare. It’s all just starting to feel terribly cheap and lazy.

Not to say that these aren’t talented authors who are contributing to the thriller genre. I just think that the publishers understand that these “predictably unpredictable twisty” thrillers are huge sellers right now, and are choosing the books that they publish with the idea that they can use the tagline “The Next Gone Girl” over and over again.

I’m hoping that this current trend will die off in a few years, thriller genre, because I really do admire the authors that have contributed to your lists in the past. I’m just weary of being continually disappointed every time I hear about this great new thriller, only to find that it contains the same exact tired tropes arranged in slightly different ways.

This is not to say that I am giving up on thrillers entirely, just that I’m going to have to be a bit more discerning. I’m not going to be taking recommendations from “most popular” lists. I’m going to begin avoiding some of the most popular thriller authors that are currently writing. There are a few writers out there who haven’t forgotten what it means to truly draw in their readers using tension and suspense, and I’ll continue to read their work.

I hope I don’t sound ridiculously pretentious. I definitely don’t consider myself a “high-brow” reader, one who feels that certain genres or types of books are beneath them. But of all the modern thrillers I’ve read this year, only a slim few have managed to bring me anything in the way of surprise or originality.

So for now, thriller genre, I’m afraid I’m going to have to quit you. Hopefully the annoying changes that I’ve seen in recent years will begin to wane once there’s a new trend for publishers to follow. At which time, I’ll be waiting with open arms.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (1991)

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Review #75

Larry Cook has decided to retire and turn his three-generation Iowa farm over to his three daughters. When the youngest daughter, Caroline, does not react with what he deems to be the appropriate enthusiasm, Larry cuts her out of the deal. This triggers a chain of events that will rock the lives of Ginny and Rose, his elder daughters, as well as their husbands and children. They find themselves struggling to cope with their aging father, their angry younger sister, their respective husbands, and the demands of running a vast acreage with little help from their community.

I was initially attracted to this novel because it’s set in the farmlands of Iowa. As a child of the American Midwest, I love to see this much-ignored region represented in popular fiction. Author Jane Smiley does a great job of setting the scene of a farming community. Iowa is where endless fields meet endless sky, and the weather is fickle on the best of days. Smiley’s descriptions of Zebulon County and its inhabitants made me nostalgic for my hometown. Except perhaps without the overbearing humidity.

A loose retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, this novel focuses on middle child Ginny as she is forced to come to terms with the failings of her family. After nearly forty years of dealing with her father’s unreasonable demands, she has her feet firmly planted on the path of least resistance.  Ginny is passive to the point of submissive, and her main reaction to any given problem seems to be to sweep it under the rug and smile. The more interesting parts of A Thousand Acres deal with Ginny when she stands up for herself and begins to assert her dreams and desires for her own future.

Unfortunately, those moments don’t arrive until the last third of the book, and the first two hundred pages failed to capture my interest. I think Smiley may have been striving for a slow and creeping sense of desperation, but A Thousand Acres continually comes across as tedious. Imagine the plot as an old farmer, content to plod along without much emotion or action as he methodically carries out his daily tasks. Said farmer is respectable and worthy of admiration, but I’m not sure I would want to spend too many hours in his company.

This novel won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize. There is an inherent anxiety present when reading a book that has won such high accolades. In a sense, one feels that if they do not enjoy said novel, it must be they who is in the wrong. There must be some hidden layer of meaning, of depth that the critics saw that they cannot. In the words of a thousand pedantic literature majors, perhaps I just didn’t get it.

Well I didn’t. I found myself falling asleep while reading this book, and ended up having to read it in daily twenty page increments to resist the urge to simply put it back on the shelf.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find A Thousand Acres here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. Make sure to buy a strong cup of coffee along with it.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Ten Novels Everyone is Supposed to Read (That I Just Couldn’t Get Into)

If you Google “Books to Read Before You Die” or “Must-Read Classic Novels”, you will receive hundreds upon thousands of book lists compiled by various magazines and blogs. These are the novels that, supposedly, one must check off their literary bucket list at some point in their life.

There’s just one problem. Just because a book is very popular, or has been around for a long time doesn’t necessarily mean that it is well-written, or has a compelling plot. Here is my list of ten novels that so often appear on these “must-read” lists that, in my opinion anyway, failed to impress.

 

  1.  Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Image result for hamlet shakespeare  I absolutely love Shakespeare. He was my primary focus while I was completing my Bachelor’s degree, and I have had the privilege of performing Shakespeare in amateur productions. However of all his major works, I have always found Hamlet to be the least impressive. The character’s are incessantly whiny, the “play within a play” is an interesting idea that fails to materialize, and I’ve always found the female characters to be weak and useless compared to some of his other works. If you’re looking for a truly remarkable Shakespeare play, I would suggest Macbeth or Othello.

2. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Image result for sound and the fury This was required reading for my AP Literature class when I was seventeen, which may explain why I didn’t enjoy it. I read the first hundred or so pages and then gave up. The early sections of the novel are narrated by a mentally challenged child from the South, and his young sister. Ultimately, I couldn’t follow the plot at all, couldn’t figure out what was going on, and had to throw in the towel.

3. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein

Image result for lord of the rings books I adore Peter Jackson’s LOTR trilogy. I’ve seen the extended edition so many times I can damn near quote it word-for-word. However, Tolkien’s novels lack characterization to the point where Frodo and the gang feel more like chess players being arbitrarily moved around Middle Earth than real people. And the complete and utter lack of meaningful female characters doesn’t help. Trying to read the books always makes me appreciate just how spectacular a job Jackson did with his film adaptation.

Beowulf by Anonymous

Image result for beowulf book I dislike Beowulf for the same reason I could never get into Canterbury Tales; the language is so frustrating that it’s just not diverting. I read in order to immerse myself in another time and place, and while I can enjoy the history and legacy behind an epic poem like Beowulf, it’s just so much effort. Does this mean I’m lazy? Possibly, but I prefer reading as a form of entertainment, rather than a cerebral exercise.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Image result for frankenstein by mary shelley As an avid horror fan, I remember being really excited to read Frankenstein, which has contributed so much to both the horror and science fiction genres. However,  this novel is incredibly boring. The parts of the book that deal with Frankenstein’s monster are interesting and beautifully sad, but too much of the plot focuses on the Doctor as he lists his many regrets in life, leaving me underwhelmed and underscared.

Les Miserables

Image result for les miserables To the best of my knowledge, Victor Hugo was one of many nineteenth century novelists who was paid by the word, and my God does it show. I got three hundred pages into Les Miserables, realized that literally nothing had happened yet, and had to set it aside. At one point, Hugo dedicates an entire chapter to describing an alleyway, at which point I just couldn’t take it anymore. I also can’t stand the musical, which is terribly written except for one really good song. Also Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe should never, ever sing.

Moby Dick

Image result for moby dick book Has anyone actually enjoyed Moby Dick? Or is it just one of those novels that people buy to keep on their bookshelf in order to feel cultured? Cause I guarantee that’s why I read it. It’s the “Great American Novel” after all. Except it’s not. It has amazing plot with wonderful characters that gets completely buried under extraneous detail and useless segues.

Eat Pray Love

Image result for eat pray love The only “nonfiction” book on this list is also the only one that made me actively angry. I had to put nonfiction in quotes because I doubt nearly every word of Elizabeth Gilbert’s supposedly transformative experience through Italy, India, and Bali. Gilbert is a monster of selfishness who abandons her life and her family in order to “find herself”. Travel does not solve all your problems, and Gilbert consistently comes across as shallow, trite, and privileged.

The Golden Compass (His Dark Material series) by Philip Pullman

Image result for dark materials I actually rather enjoyed the first installment in this series. The Golden Compass is an entertaining children’s story that does a great job of introducing an alternative world to ours and populating it with interesting and compelling characters. In the following books, Philip Pullman goes completely off the rails and foresakes character and plot development in favor of soapboxing on the evils of organized religion. The final novel, The Amber Spyglass, barely made sense at all.

Anything by Charles Dickens

Image result for dickens books Image result for dickens books Image result for dickens oliver twist I’ve tried, I really have, to enjoy the works of Charles Dickens. I made it all the way through A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol, and about halfway through Oliver Twist. Like Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens was paid by the word, which encouraged him to never use just one word when thirteen would do. This leads to overly long descriptions which don’t contribute anything to the novel. I think that Dickens does a wonderful job of developing plot and characters since I’ve enjoyed the film adaptations of his works. However, his novels just get bogged down with unnecessary detail which ultimately took away from my enjoyment.

Which of these books did you enjoy? What are some other “classic” novels that don’t live up to their reputations?

Happy reading everyone!

Ashley

 

 

Book Review: Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay (2016)

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Review #63

Late one night Elizabeth Sanderson receives devastating news. Her fourteen year old son Tommy has gone missing while out with friends in the woods of a local park. As the days go by with no news and no clues as to where Tommy may have gone, Elizabeth begins experiencing odd occurrences around her home. She comes to believe that the ghost of her son may be trying to communicate with her, to help solve the mystery of his disappearance.

This was yet another book that I had been waiting to read until I was on my annual camping trip. I had heard good things about author Paul Tremblay and had hopes of a creepy suspenseful ghost story to read in the woods. However, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock turned out to be more of a look at how different family members deal with grief, with a few strange happenings once in awhile. It isn’t really a “ghost” story in the classic sense of the word.

The main narrative focuses on Elizabeth and her eleven-year old daughter Kate as they navigate the increasingly fruitless attempts to find Tommy. The different ways that they deal with the frustrations, fear, and desperation come out in wildly varying ways. Elizabeth believes that she may or may not have received a vision from Tommy’s spirit, and becomes increasingly sure of that her son will not be found alive. Grace begins searching through Tommy’s things in an effort to understand the events leading up to his disappearance, and finds some disturbing sketches and diary entries made by her brother in his final days.

The second, lesser part of the plot is from the perspective of Tommy and his friends in the week before he goes missing. The boys roam the woods freely on their bicycles, eventually meeting a stranger who tells them a folktale involving a devil trapped in the rocky hills of the park. Their lives begin to spin out of control, and they attempt to form a plan that will rid them of the menace that has begun to stalk them.

This novel has an intriguing premise but ultimately fails to deliver. Too much of  the narrative is given over to Elizabeth staring at the phone, or off into space. The character of Grace is more compelling, but she is given little to do except go to places her mother tells her not to and listen to angsty music from the ’90s. I kept waiting for Devil’s Rock to pick up the pace and ramp up the tension but it never quite managed. The final act is also delivered in a very odd way that actually served to distance me further from Tommy and Elizabeth’s story.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find The Disappearance at Devil’s Rock here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

I seem to experiencing a pattern of disappointing horror novels lately. Any suggestions?

 

 

Book Review: The Devil’s Banker by Christopher Reich (2003)

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Review #14

 

If post-9/11 hysteria ever attained sentience and wrote a novel, it would bear a striking resemblance to Christopher Reich’s The Devil’s Banker. Here can be found all of the elements that would make any upstanding rifle-toting American break into a sweat. A secret Muslim terrorist group. A bomb detonation on the streets of a major city. A radicalized youth with plans for murder. And only a few dashing patriotic government agents racing against the clock to foil their plots and save the day.

This was the January pick for my monthly book club, and it marks my very first foray into the world of spy-thriller novels. I’ve avoided them like the plague in the past, and at least now I can say that my reluctance was wholly justified.

Holy anti-Muslim sentiment, Batman! Within just the first few pages we’re introduced to one radicalized man who is plotting to “kill the infidels”. He is quickly joined by a threateningly shadowy group of other Muslims who also hate our beloved Western values. They all have names like Mohammed Al-Saleeb Al-Mohammed and exist only to be thwarted at the proper moment by our democracy-loving group of agents.

In this novel, all Muslims are hell-bent on the destruction of the Western world. The French are surrender monkeys. The British are only as useful as their alliance with the United States. Torture is totally acceptable as long as they get the answers they need. The Patriot Act is touted as the most sacred doctrine since the Declaration of Independence. At one point a character unironically states:

If you’re not stepping on someone’s rights, you’re not doing your job”

Seriously everyone, this book pissed me off. I get that this was written in 2003, when the U.S. was still recovering from the September 11 attacks. I get that the spy-thriller genre needs a villain. And I get that this genre is primarily targeting men who perhaps will enjoy the “chase” and not focus so much on the glaring xenophobia.

But I couldn’t. And I have to ask, are all the books in the spy-thriller genre this repulsive?

My rating: 0/5

You can find The Devil’s Banker here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber (2017)

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Review #9

 

Having spent her entire life on the island of Trisda and under the thumb of her bullying father, Scarlett Dragna has dreamed for years of Caraval. A yearly game run by an enigmatic man known only as Legend, Caraval entices participants with the prize of a single magical wish. With the help of a renegade sailor, Scarlett and her sister Tella escape their island and arrive at Legend’s magical island. But Scarlett quickly learns that nothing in Caraval is what is seems, and the consequences could be deadly.

The last two books I read for this blog were both about horribly dysfunctional families and the lasting scars they leave on their children. Having been through the emotional wringer, I wanted my next book to be something a little lighter. I chose Caraval because its cover is gorgeous and I knew it was YA fantasy. Turns out I might have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction.

Caraval is a fantasy that exists in a vacuum. The novel opens on the “Conquered Isles” in “Year 50 of the Elantine Dynasty”. Yet we are never told why these Isles were conquered, or by whom. What is the Elantine Dynasty, and what happened fifty years ago to set it in place? A lot of the place names are derived from Spanish such as the hotel La Serpentiene and the Castillo Maldito. Even the name of Scarlett’s home island, Trisda, comes from triste, the Spanish word for sadness. So we’re on Earth? In the past or the future? None of these questions are addressed which made it increasingly difficult to envision this world as a place that has weight and meaning.

Caraval is also a fantasy that exists without any meaningful character description. The only thing we know to be true of Scarlett is that she loves her sister. This is repeated twice a page, lest we should forget. When the generic love interest is introduced, we are subjected to the familiar “I hate him but he’s so intriguing”. Which of course changes without warning to “I cannot live without him”.

Then there are descriptions such as this:

“He tasted like midnight and wind, and shades of rich brown and light blue. Colors that made her feel safe and guarded.”

What does that even mean? What the hell does midnight taste like? But that’s not the only example:

“The world tasted like lies and ashes when Scarlett woke.”

“Every touch created colors she had never seen. Colors as soft as velvet and as sharp as sparks that turned into stars.”

“She remembered thinking falling for him would be like falling in love with darkness, but now she imagined he was more like a starry night: the constellations were always there, constant, magnificent guides against the ever-present black.” 

None of that makes a bit of sense, and it kept pulling me out of the novel because I had to roll my eyes. I can get on board with a bit of purple prose, but when you use it at the expense of actual character development it becomes tedious.

The biggest problem was that, at the end of the day, this book was not written for me. It was written for thirteen year old me. Thirteen year old me would have bathed in all of those overly romantic descriptions. She would have reveled in the countless descriptions of gorgeous ball gowns. She would have relished the oh-so passionate and yet determinedly chaste romance between Scarlett and Julian. This book was written for thirteen year old me. Thirty year old me is just too savvy (cynical?) to fall for it.

In the immortal words of Agent Murtaugh, I’m getting too old for this shit.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Caraval here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Bell Witch: An American Haunting by Brent Monahan (2000)

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I found this novel on a Buzzfeed list of scary novels to read around Halloween. I had high hopes that it might be a historical account of the Bell family and the facts surrounding the numerous accounts of the Bell Witch. I was very, very wrong.

Written in the voice of Richard Powell as a letter to his children, The Bell Witch is a fictionalized account of the famous Tennessee haunting that took place in the early 1820s.

The Bell Witch is a short little novel, under two hundred pages. All I can say is thank goodness. By page one hundred, I was frustrated. Fifty pages later, I was getting ready to tear my hair out. I finally finished the book yesterday evening and actually gave a sigh of relief.

I can sum up my problem with The Bell Witch in one short sentence. It is boring. Presented in its book jacket as nonfiction, this is instead a fictionalized account masquerading as a recovered letter. This letter, which drags on with no chapter breaks, chronicles in agonizing detail the account of the least frightening spirit ever recorded. An unnecessarily racist spirit too, as the author insists on dropping the n-word around like bigoted breadcrumbs. If this was supposed to add historical accuracy it was a horrid misstep, as it simply upped my lack of sympathy for any of the idiots that were supposedly involved in the haunting.

My rating: 1/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. However, if you’re looking for a ghost story with actual ghosts, I would recommend Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Or The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson if you enjoy a true life account of a haunting.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Burning by Jane Casey (2011)

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After the fifth girl is found brutally murdered and burned in a London park, Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan must hurry to find the killer before he strikes again. The only problem is that there are subtle differences between the most recent murder and the previous deaths. Has the Burning Man struck again, or is there a copycat killer on the loose?

This novel was recommended to me after I finished reading one of Tana French’s novels; and on the surface, Jane Casey’s The Burning does share some similarities with French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. DC Kerrigan is Irish, though the novel is set in London not Dublin. We focus on Kerrigan’s relationships and struggles with her fellow police officers. The police are treated as fallable, unlike some books in the detective genre where the lead officer is basically an omniscient God.

However, that’s where the similarities end. One of the reasons why I am such a fan of Tana French’s novels is that it never feels like I am reading the script for an episode of Law and Order. With Casey’s novel, there was a strong “police procedural” vibe that got a little tedious in later chapters. Casey also made the strange decision to split her points-of-view between two female characters using first person narrative. It might be a personal pet peeve of mine, but I find it’s much easier to do split-POV from a third person perspective. I can only occupy headspace with one character at a time.

Overall, The Burning was a very “by the book” murder-mystery. It kept my attention throughout, but didn’t provide anything particularly exciting. If you like whodunnits, you’ll probably like this novel.

I have other things to say but there are spoilers so scroll down if you dare!

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find The Burning here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Image result for spoilers doctor who

 

The ending of this book was bullshit. The Burning took its time building to a climax. We solved the mystery. We caught the killer. And then it all got thrown in the toilet with a nonsensical “suicide letter” wherein the murderer explains their dastardly plot in exquisite detail like a second-rate James Bond villain. It was such a cop-out. Either the police needed to gain a confession through interrogation, or actually I was kind of hoping that in the end they weren’t going to have enough evidence and the killer was going to walk free. That would have been at least passingly original. It was almost like Jane Casey couldn’t figure out what to do, had to meet a deadline, so she just tacked on this “Morgan Freeman showing up to explain the plot” ending. It completely ruined the novel for me.