Book Review: Togwotee Passage

For deep thinkers, lovers of the great outdoors and readers who value a character-driven story, this is an ideal read.


The world is facing many reckonings at the moment, but the one that unites all countries, cultures and continents across the world, is the real threat of climate change and human extinction. And this threat is something we have manufactured ourselves, through the repetitive cycle of human greed, overconsumption and the incessant materialist culture that is perpetuated by the capitalist framework.

Togwotee Passage has a very unique feeling and sense of unease carried with it, but always reminds the reader of the beauty of nature and how it’s relationship to us, as human beings, is more than essential. 

It tackles some of the greatest issues of our times, through the exploration of climate change, inequality, and materialism. It is a stark critique of the Western world and our mindset, told through the life and perspective of Calan, living in Wyoming in the 1940s, but feels very close to the present day.

Please note, a copy of this book was kindly gifted to me by the author, in exchange for an honest review.


About the Book

Literary Eco-Fiction, published in 2019. 

Calan flees his family life early on due to the upsets caused by growing up within a dysfunctional family, his father was a drunk and Calan was regularly exposed to his mistreatment of his mother. Due to this, he finds great solace in the outdoors and befriends Derek, a boy who lives on the Shoshone land.

Their friendship blossoms through a shared appreciation of the outdoors and their conversations reveal a deep and philosophical battle centred on the human relationship with nature and our problematic image as the dominant species. Together, they engage in important conversations centred on these issues, which causes readers to think about the world around us.

This book is character-driven, but the plot follows the course of Calan’s life over the years and his reckonings with the world as influenced by many conversations he had with his best friend. 

All of this is intertwined with beautiful descriptions of the natural world and Native American mythology. Through Calan’s relationship and time spent with Derek, the Shoshone Indian culture is revealed and paralleled with his traditional American upbringing. The reader learns about this Native American tribe, which is made up of around 8,000 people living in the Eastern Shoshone in Wyoming, and the many opposites and pitfalls of consumerist, American culture that they oppose.

It’s a book about nature, human selfishness, destruction and relationships all rolled into one. It causes the reader to think, re-assess and re-evaluate the power of the natural world.


About the Author

L. G Cullens is an author born and raised in western Wyoming, the United States. After beginning a career in civil engineering and computer sciences, in his fifties, he decided to pursue woodworking and has since taken up writing.

Cullens is passionate about the natural world and aims to spread awareness of it, which shines through in his book, Togwotee Passage.

To find more information about the author, or contact L.G Cullens, you can visit his website.


My Review

Rating: 4 out of 5.

As soon as I started reading this book I knew two things from the offset. I knew I would like it, and I knew it would be different from anything I have read. 

As a committed fan of literary fiction, the character-driven plot, executed by the protagonist, Calan, already appealed to me.

The story tracks the life of Calan as he navigates the great outdoors and forms a close friendship with Derek, a boy who lives on the Shoshone reservation. Through countless conversations, he learns about the pitfalls of the Western world and the dangers of an excessive materialist mindset and what this can do to our planet.

Through these conversations, and the raising of many philosophical questions to do with climate change, inequality, materialism and the purpose of humanity itself, Cullens exposes the many faults and imperfections at the heart of human life itself. It’s a sharp portrayal of the faults of our species and how our actions damage nature.

Intertwined throughout, are beautiful and charming descriptions of the outdoors, as Calan and Derek go on their many hikes and explore the mountains littered throughout the Wyoming landscape. 

As a lover of the outdoors myself, I couldn’t help but feel enchanted by these descriptions. I found these parts calming to read and Cullen’s words paint a picture of the Wyoming scenery that I am yet to be fortunate enough to explore.

Above all, this book is a deep exploration of someone’s inner thoughts and how they perceive the world around them. It is a plea to look back at nature and treat it with the respect it deserves, but also, a plea to divert from our current mindset and way of life, which is only self-destructing. The destruction of nature is a result of ongoing human selfishness which is at the heart of the story, explored through conversations between Calan and Derek.

Reading this was a pleasurable experience in itself, due to the stunning prose and character-driven plot, but it also caused me to think a great deal. This book reflects on the threat of climate change through the human path of greed, exploitation and capitalism which can overthrow the nature and beautify of the outdoors that we all know and love.

The only aspect of this book I struggled to contend with, was the ending. After documenting the course of Calan’s life thoroughly through the decades, I found the final few chapters confusing and felt like there was no definitive endpoint. I got a bit lost and struggled to see how Calan’s story ended, however, this is a very minor point and may have been missed by my misinterpretation.

You can purchase a copy of the book here


Final Thoughts

For deep thinkers, lovers of the great outdoors and readers who value a character-driven story, this is an ideal read and one I enjoyed immensely. My many thanks go to L.G Cullens for providing me with a copy of this book.

“I ask you who’s the more primitive, a culture that believes in respectful coexistence with the natural world that sustains us all, or a culture that is rife with selfish, material greed to the point of trashing this little blue canoe our children will need to get by in?” 

L.G Cullens, 36.

Originally published on Medium in Write and Review, 22 October, 2020.

Book Review: Such a Fun Age

It has been a while since I’ve posted, but after spending lots of time trying to eek this out for as long as possible, I’m back with a review of Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, which was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. It was the only book on the list that I liked the sound of – and it by far exceeded my expectations.

Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid (2019)

Coming of Age/Fiction

Synopsis (Goodreads)

“In the midst of a family crisis one late evening, white blogger Alix Chamberlain calls her African American babysitter, Emira, asking her to take toddler Briar to the local market for distraction. There, the security guard accuses Emira of kidnapping Briar, and Alix’s efforts to right the situation turn out to be good intentions selfishly mismanaged.”

The Review

Rating: 5 out of 5.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that feels so close to our current moment. 

Kiley Reid provides, “a beautiful tale of how we live now” (Elizabeth Day). The story is nestled in the city of Philadelphia, and draws upon the social and racial injustices at the heart of modern, American society, through the young, black protagonist, Emria.  

The story alternates between the perspective of Emira and Alix, a white middle-class blogger. They are worlds apart but are brought together by Alix’s employment of Emira as a babysitter for her daughter, Briar. This dual perspective Reid uses allows the two polar experiences of class and race to be played off against each other, which illustrates the existence of Alix’s inherent privilege and mistreatment of Emira. 

Alix struggles to see why her treatment of Emira is problematic, despite making her wear a uniform and her history of only employing black childminders. It’s almost as if she thinks by having a black babysitter, she is doing her bit. Emira is half aware of all this, and it is her boyfriend, Kelley that exposes it more blatantly. But Emira loves looking after Briar and doesn’t want to break that bond between them. And also, the job is a lifeline, in just keeping her above the water. It takes her a while to confront these microaggressions – but the best thing of all, is that she eventually triumphs. 

The novel also looks at the influence of race in relationships. Emira meets Kelley during the incident with the police and then once again on the subway, and they hit it off immediately. But there are many differences between them, and these are explored by drawing upon their relationship,

“Emira had dated one white guy before, and repeatedly hooked up with another during the summer after college. They both loved bringing her to parties, and they told her she should try wearing her hair naturally. And suddenly, in a way they hadn’t in the first few interactions, these white men had a lot to say about government-funded housing, minimum wage, and the quotes from Martin Luther King Jr.”

Reid eloquently raises the potential fetishisation of race in relationships through the perspective of Emira and her group of friends. Emira and Kelley’s relationship is topsy turvy but explored in such a human and real way, that it’s hard not to be drawn in by it. Additionally, through their relationship Reid explores the issue of microaggressions – forms of indirect or subtle forms of racism that can often go unnoticed. There’s a performative element to the type of equality Kelley tries to portray in his social standing and worldview, that doesn’t go unrecognized by Emria,

“Like… I get it, you have a weirdly large amount of black friends, you saw Kendrick Lamar in concert, and now you have a black girlfriend…great.”

Emira

As a white, privileged person, this strikes a chord and left a profound effect on the way I perceive race, and how it influences class and relationships. It is written in a way that makes it embody the current moment. It illustrates the simmering and overt racism that exists within American society, and the small acts of unintentional racism that can go unnoticed. 

Reading this made me laugh, cringe, feel angry, and annoyed all at the same time, but one thing for sure – it touched me completely. I fell in love with Emria’s ballsy personality and sense of determination. Reid provides the reader with characters who come alive through the pages and makes you feel something, and that is the greatest gift a writer can have – I can’t believe this is a debut novel and feel excited at the prospect of Reid writing more in the future. 

This is sharp, witty, well-executed and grips you right from the start – there’s simply no messing about. I would describe it as a millennial coming of age story that combines the important, intertwining messages of class, race, privilege and how to navigate this within families and relationships.


Like many others, I am still learning about the best ways to talk about race. As always, If you think I need to phrase something differently or I’ve said something out of line – please let me know. I won’t take offence but will be thankful you have pointed it out.

Book Review: Salvation Station

Firstly, many thanks to She Writes Press and Book Publicity Services for providing me with a copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.

Salvation Station, Crime Fiction

Synopsis (from Goodreads)

“When committed female police captain Linda Turner, haunted by the murders of two small children and their pastor father, becomes obsessed with solving the harrowing case, she finds herself wrapped up in a mission to expose a fraudulent religious organization and an unrepentant killer.
 
Despite her years of experience investigating homicides for the force, Captain Linda Turner is haunted by the murders of the Hansen family. The two small children, clothed in tattered Disney pajamas, were buried with their father, a pastor, in the flower garden behind a church parsonage in Lincoln, Nebraska. But Mrs. Hansen is nowhere to be found—and neither is the killer.
 
In St. Louis, the televangelist Ray Williams is about to lose his show—until one of his regular attendees approaches him with an idea that will help him save it. Despite his initial misgivings, Ray agrees to give it a try. He can’t deny his attraction to this woman, and besides, she’d assured him the plan is just—God gave her the instructions in a dream.
 
Multiple story lines entwine throughout this compelling mystery, delving into the topics of murder, religious faith, and the inherent dangers in blindly accepting faith as truth. While Reverend Williams is swept up in his newfound success and plans for his wedding, Captain Turner can only hope that she and her team will catch the Hansens’ cunning killer—before more bodies surface.”


Combining a classic whodunit and an exploration of Christianity and blind faith, Kathryn Schleich in her debut novel, creates a unique and gripping read. Schleich combines multiple story-lines to uncover the corruption and horror at the heart of a devout Church community in Nebraska.

The Review

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Do not be deceived by the disturbing front cover depicting a plastic doll, left abandoned in the leaves. This book despite appearances is not a horror story, but rather, a classic crime fiction whodunit. I had my reservations when I started, as the cover led me to think it would be more of a horror/thriller, but alas, it wasn’t.

The first thing that stood out to me, was that the lead police investigator was a woman, which I loved. Of course, there are some writers within the genre that feature female leads, like Kay Scarpetta in Patricia Cornwell’s novels, but even then, Scarpetta is the chief medical examiner, rather than the lead police role.

It was so refreshing to see and made a change from having a typically male leading character as the head of police. The story features different perspectives, but Linda Turner and Reverend Ray Williams are the main narrators. I got on with Linda as a character and valued her honesty and commitment to solving the horrific crime.

Schleich has an eye for creating great characters. Ray Williams, the Reverend and host of The Road to Calvary, a hit evangelist organization, soon to be a successful TV commercial, is very likeable. Although gullible and a bit haphazard, Ray desperately cares about his local community.

Susannah comes into Ray’s life out of the blue and goes headfirst into wanting to improve The Road to Calvary. Ray falls in love with her ambition and readiness to help, and their relationship blossoms, but all is not what it seems. Susannah from the off is dislikable in her manipulation of Ray – but she also makes him happy, so what’s the problem?

Having a range of good characters for me is key in any good story, and Schleich definitely provides this.

The plot is simple, mirrored on a classic whodunit premise. The reader is hit with a dark and ominous feeling at the beginning and this is continued right through to the end. The chapters are short and sharp and give a sense of pace – which I liked. Aside from the gripping beginning, the novel isn’t suspenseful and not a page-turner by classic definition – but I was so invested that I didn’t need an added incentive to keep reading.

Moreover, I liked the way it wasn’t just a crime novel. Using The Road to Calvary, and other religious overtones, Schleich can make a poignant comment on religion and the notion of blind faith. The story and community in which Ray, Linda and Susannah are a part of, is religious and benevolent by nature, but of course, this is a false misconception.

Without saying too much – the ending was dramatic and satisfying. I would recommend this to anyone who loves a good crime fiction novel with a twist, and for fans of police procedurals.

Please note – this post does contain Amazon affiliate links and if you choose to use them, I will earn a small fee but this doesn’t impact my review in anyway.


Book Review: How I learned to hate in Ohio

Many thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a e-ARC copy of this book, I am slowly but surely getting through my shelf! How I Learned to Hate in Ohio is due to be published in January, 2021. You can pre-order your copies via Amazon, if you wish to do so.

How I Learned to Hate in Ohio

David Stuart MacLean

The Overlook Press, January 2021

Coming of Age, Fiction, Literary Fiction

3.5/5 stars

Synopsis (Goodreads)

A brilliant, hilarious, and ultimately devastating debut novel about how racial discord grows in America
 
In late-1980s rural Ohio, bright but mostly friendless Barry Nadler begins his freshman year of high school with the goal of going unnoticed as much as possible. But his world is upended by the arrival of Gurbaksh, Gary for short, a Sikh teenager who moves to his small town and instantly befriends Barry and, in Gatsby-esque fashion, pulls him into a series of increasingly unlikely adventures. As their friendship deepens, Barry’s world begins to unravel, and his classmates and neighbors react to the presence of a family so different from theirs. Through darkly comic and bitingly intelligent asides and wry observations, Barry reveals how the seeds of xenophobia and racism find fertile soil in this insular community, and in an easy, graceless, unintentional slide, tragedy unfolds.

Review ~ 3.5/5

I would describe this book in a nutshell as a dark, seemingly poignant demonstration of the hate that inflicts many communities across America.

Through the exploration of racism, Xenophobia, Islamophobia and white, middle-class discontent, this novel shines a light onto the forms of hatred and division which remain at the heart of many American communities.

Barry Nadler lives in Rutherford, Ohio, and is beginning his freshman year of high school in the 1980s. It’s a time in American history that was fraught with divisions and rising race wars, amidst the backdrop to the Iraq war and the War on Terror to follow. Barry is very much alone and likes it that way, but soon meets Gurbaksh who quickly becomes his one and only friend. Gurbaksh is a Sikh and frequently gets belittled at school and within the neighborhood due to his beliefs, which allows the book to illuminate the extent of Islamophobia present in the community.

I enjoyed this book and the themes it aimed to explore – however, it only really starts to take shape at the end of the book and has no real structure to it. The chapters are remarkably short and snappy which creates a nice pace to it but without this, I fear I would have struggled to get through it. I naturally finished it quickly due to the structure of the book.

The narrator, Barry, was likable enough, but I didn’t like the way he didn’t do a whole lot to challenge some of the racist rhetoric that was thrown around within his community. Maybe he was just too young?

This is the second book I have read that has centred on Ohio and portraying a social commentary through its main character, Ducks, Newburyport offers a similar feel but narrates observations from the present day, rather than the past. I think this book is important and has a place but I was constantly waiting for something to happen and when it did, it was pretty short-lived and left more questions than answers.

The feel of it, mainly executed through its young, teenage narrator, reminded me of The Catcher in the Rye – a novel I didn’t particularly enjoy. I would argue this is better as it is far more poignant and ambitious, and I was quite struck by the penultimate ending.

Fundamentally, this is a novel about multiple forms of hate and how it can divide communities.

“Hate is safe. Hate is urgent. Hate is unkind. Hate is ubiquitous. Hate singes the hated out and provides anonymity for the hater.”

Aside from the rampant exploration of racism, the novel also deals with dysfunctional families and relationships. Barry’s father and mother have a complex relationship which unfolds throughout the novel, eventually resulting in disastrous consequences and I can’t help but think this has some kind of effect on Barry – possibly quelling his ambition.

I enjoyed this book and appreciated what it was trying to do and think it is incredibly relevant to the current climate. I would probably recommend it to others who are fans of books that issue a type of social commentary placed within a distinct community.

Thank you for reading!

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Please note – this post does contain Amazon affiliate links and if you choose to use them, I will earn a small fee but this doesn’t impact my review in anyway.


 

8 Thoughts From Reading The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt

As a committed Donna Tartt fan, I was very much looking forward to this. The Little Friend was Tartt’s first novel and has mixed reviews. Having read and loved The Goldfinch, I had high expectations, but I was definitely not blown away. These are 10 thoughts I had whilst, during, and after reading, The Little Friend.

*Caution* ~ may contain spoilers.

The Little Friend

Donna Tartt

Novel, fiction, bildungsroman

Bloomsbury Edition, 2017 / 2002

Rating: 3 out of 5.

What is going on?

I found the book incredibly hard to follow, despite its simple premise. The novel is told mainly through the perspective of Harriet, a young girl growing up in Alexandria, Mississippi. Harriet spends the book trying to find out what happened to her brother, Robin, who was found hanging from a tree in the family’s front yard, many years ago. The novel jumps about from person to person, which I don’t usually mind, however in this case I found it hard to see how the different perspectives linked together, to aid the overall story.

There are so many characters and I’m struggling to keep up with them

Although the narration is mainly told through Harriet, it is alternated with the perspective of Danny Ratcliff, who Harriet thinks has murdered her brother. His life, and daily activities are paralleled with Harriet’s attempt to track him down, but this is also executed with no real structure. Ratcliff also introduces many other characters into the story – including Farish, his accomplice, Eugene (another accomplice), Curtis and Gum – who I never quite worked out.

And of course, there’s all the characters in Harriet’s family – her sister, Allison, Ida, the family’s maid, her mother and all her aunts and grandparents. And of course, Helly, her best friend. It really is a mind field and I struggled to keep track of them all and work out who was who.

Image: Jp Valery for Uplash

I’m really near the end and I still haven’t found out what happened to Robin

As I kept getting nearer towards the end, I was waiting for something to happen and it never came. Although the events towards the end of the story are quite exciting, we never find out who murdered Robin which I found so frustrating as this is what the novel is set up to do. It was just so unsatisfying that the whole premise of the book just wasn’t fulfilled.

I love Tartt’s writing but this novel feels jumbled and like it doesn’t have a structure

You cannot fault the writing stylistically, as Tartt undeniably has the ability to write and create a sense of atmosphere, which is executed well in this novel. However, there was just no structure to the story and I found it hard to want to keep reading. The only thing that kept me going was that I thought I was going to find out what happened to Robin. It was a pleasurable reading experience because the writing was good, but there was just so little substance to it.

I’m sad as I thought I would love this as much as her other books

I’d be lying If I said I didn’t finish this book feeling endlessly disappointed. Maybe I’m judging it too harshly as it was her first book and I have the benefit of having fallen in love with her more recent books but I did really want to like this. Part of me is also sad because I’ve now read all of her books and I know she takes a while to write.

Everything changes when Ida leaves

About 3/4 of the way through the book Ida, the household maid leaves as Harriet’s mother decides she no longer needs her services. Tartt portrays this noticeable break in the novel through incredible symbolism. The character of Ida is symbolized as being the carrier of normality in the household and Harriet’s life more widely, “Time was broken. Harriet’s way of measuring it was gone. Ida was the planet whose round marked the hours…” The story noticeably shifts to something more sinister when Ida leaves, and this crafting of the novel is the most sophisticated part.

I love Donna Tartt’s writing, but this novel was really redundant for me

The more I read, the more I was getting frustrated. There didn’t seem to be any climax to the story, yes there are a few exciting events, but the overall crux of the novel is never executed, which is such a shame because the writing as usual is spot on. Tartt has this unique ability to craft in depth character studies that drive the story forward, but unfortunately, in this case there was a lack of story in the first place and a plot that was unfulfilled.

The feeling of the book and the setting is infallible

Tartt’s characteristic attention to detail and use of sensory language portrays the feeling of growing up in Mississippi in in the 1970s from the perspective of a young girl. It is a fascinating character study – but I can’t help but feel it is nothing more than that. Her language creates an atmospheric feel to the book, my only wish was that it had a definitive story arc with a penultimate ending.

I’m currently trying out a few different formats for book reviews, let me know what you think of this one!