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Book Review :: Absolution by Alice McDermott

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Absolution, Alice McDermott’s latest novel, is technically an epistolary novel, though it doesn’t read like one. It’s an exchange of only three, long letters between Tricia and Rainey, mainly focusing on Charlene, Rainey’s mother. Tricia and Charlene met in Vietnam as the war was beginning there, both married to men who worked for the American government, but who were not actually part of it or the military. Rainey was a young girl then, but she remembers Tricia and reaches out to her to inform her of the death of a common acquaintance.

Charlene is, as almost everybody describes her, a “dynamo,” always working to try to do good, whether that’s raising money for toys and candy for children in the hospital or visiting a leper colony to provide them with nice clothing. Tricia is much more passive, but Charlene is able to use her shyness as a way to get other women to invest in her ideas, passing them off as Tricia’s.

The novel portrays the women, even Charlene, as hemmed in by their gender, exploring their role in a place where they have no choice but to be, much like the soldiers, but for a very different reason. The main question of the novel, though, is who needs absolution and why: while the obvious answer is the U.S. government and those associated with the horrors of the war, there’s enough unspoken guilt in this world to go around.


Absolution by Alice McDermott. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2023.

Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Twitter @kevinbrownwrite

Book Review :: The Bee Sting by Paul Murray

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

The Bee Sting, Paul Murray’s latest novel, set primarily in rural Ireland, follows a family of four that is clearly having a difficult time. Dickie, the father, is in the process of running the family car dealership into the ground, while Imelda, his wife, is trying to understand who she is when she can’t define herself by spending money. Cass, their daughter, begins making some poor decisions around school, due largely to the family’s disintegration. PJ, their son, is experiencing the normal struggles of early adolescence and in desperate need of a friend.

Those problems sound like the setup for a typical domestic novel, but this book isn’t typical, as the bee sting of the title echoes back to Dickie and Imelda’s wedding and marriage, which is much more complicated and fraught than first seems. In fact, all of the characters have secrets that Murray slips out through a variety of flashbacks, as he allows each of the four main characters their own sections, so the reader can see them as they truly are, not as others see them.

That theme of appearance versus reality runs throughout the entire novel, and Murray is not about to let the reader off easy with a tied-up ending that will make it clear how this family fairs. Like all of us, they will continue to struggle, one way or another.


The Bee Sting by Paul Murray. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, August 2023.

Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Twitter @kevinbrownwrite

Book Review :: Western Lane by Chetna Maroo

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Western Lane, Chetna Maroo’s debut, Booker-Prize-shortlisted novel, follows Gopi, a British Indian teenager after the death of her mother. Before her mother’s death, her father had been taking her and her two sisters to Western Lane to play squash, but the game was nothing more than a hobby.

After the funeral, their father takes it much more seriously, mainly due to their Aunt Ranjan’s complaint that the girls are wild and need discipline. While her two sisters lose interest in the game, Gopi becomes obsessed with it, mainly as a way to build a connection with her father, but she also becomes quite good at it.

She is too good to play with her sisters, so she begins playing with Ged, a non-Indian boy whose mother works at Western Lane, a relationship that threatens to develop into something more. While her father grieves the death of her mother, Aunt Ranjan and Uncle Pavan offer to take in one of the girls to help him, which complicates Gopi’s burgeoning squash playing, as Aunt Ranjan thinks it’s unacceptable for a girl to participate in such a sport.

The novel is quiet and concise, as the characters and the narrator often leave what is most important unsaid, but readers can see the relationships fray and deepen as Gopi grows into a formidable player and teenage girl.


Western Lane by Chetna Maroo. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, November 2023.

Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels.

Book Review :: Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe

Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe book cover image

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Christina Sharpe has written an incisive and insightful book about what it means to be Black in America today. Though the 248 notes that make up the book are brief, they dig deeply into the realities of white supremacy as a central tenant of American culture. Sharpe draws on a wide variety of contemporary and historical writers, artists, and thinkers, ranging from some most readers would be familiar with—such as Toni Morrison and Frederick Douglass—to a number who will be new to those same readers. Her 248 notes include 208 footnotes, in fact, as she steps into the long and deep river of Black thought and art. Sharpe structures her book around the various meanings of the word note, whether as a verb meaning to notice or a noun in the musical sense. She’s interested in definitions and words in general, as one of the longest sections of the book is what she refers to as “preliminary entries toward a dictionary of untranslatable blackness.” Given her investment in the tradition of Black thought, she calls on other thinkers to help her provide definitions for “unbuilding,” “spectacle,” “property,” and a number of other terms. All of her notes—like a piece of music—combine to create a composition that is more than its individual parts, one that celebrates Black culture and history, while reminding readers of the White supremacist reality that Black tradition has been and currently is being forged within and against.


Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023.

Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Twitter @kevinbrownwrite or kevinbrownwrites.weebly.com/.

Book Review :: Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton book cover image

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Eleanor Catton’s title, Birman Wood, should immediately make the reader think of Shakespeare’s Macbeth; however, Catton isn’t writing a contemporary retelling. That said, Catton’s characters have ambition and are willing to do what they need to do to achieve those ambitions, but the characters are more nuanced than in a typical tragedy. Mira has created Birnam Wood, a collective that legally (and not) plants crops in undeveloped areas, but is struggling to stay afloat and might suffer because of Mira’s ego. She meets Robert Lemoine—an American billionaire who has created the persona of a doomsday prepper to purchase land in New Zealand for which he has other, even-less-savory plans—and he agrees to help Mira fund a development on the land he has not quite purchased. Tony used to be a member of Birnam Wood, but he has been teaching overseas for the past several years and now wants a career in investigative journalism, so he sees a career-propelling story in Lemoine’s plans. Shelley has been working with Mira since Tony left, but she’s now considering leaving Birnam Wood, tired of Mira and of living on the margins. While the clearest tragedy in the novel is climate change—the moving of woods, in a different sense—there will be others, and, as in a Shakespearean drama, perhaps nobody is innocent.


Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, March 2023.

Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Twitter @kevinbrownwrite or kevinbrownwrites.weebly.com/.

Book Review :: Reward System by Jem Calder

Reward System by Jem Calder book cover image

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Jem Calder’s collection of interlocking short stories in Reward System follows a group of British Millennials, focusing on Julia and Nick, as they try to navigate relationships, technology, and jobs during the approaching pandemic. Calder renders his characters with sympathy and compassion, even when they make poor decisions, given the challenges they face. Julia and Nick (and their friends) live with roommates or their parents, move from one job to the next—sometimes by choice, sometimes not—and try to find ways to truly connect with those around them. Society exacerbates all of these problems, whether the structural oppression women (especially) push against or the technology that more often separates than connects (though not always). This focus on technology works especially well in the stories “Distraction from Sadness Is Not the Same Thing as Happiness” and “The Foreseeable.” In “Distraction” a female user of a dating app connects with and meets a male user (Calder uses no names), exploring the new dating landscape, for good and ill. “The Foreseeable” ends the collection, as Julia and Nick are both sheltering with their parents during the pandemic—one more enjoyably than the other—while talking via FaceTime. The connection keeps breaking in and out, a metaphor for all of the relationships in this collection.


Reward System by Jem Calder. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, July 2022.

Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Twitter @kevinbrownwrite or kevinbrownwrites.weebly.com/.