My Top Ten Books for 2018


It is no surprise that when I review the list of approximately fifty books I read in 2018, the ones which are my favorite are all (but one) in translation. But, that does not make them inaccessible for readers who do not normally pick up translated literature. In fact, if you are tired of the same boring mysteries, the same boring love affairs, the same boring story told over and over again, I can’t recommend each one of these enough.

My Top Ten for the Year 2018:

  1. Flights by Olga Tokarczuk: Because it deserved to win the Man Booker International Prize this year for its breathtaking writing and memorable recounting of our lives.
  2. From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan: Because I have never seen three disparate stories woven together so seamlessly, or with such power.
  3. The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti: Because it won both the Strega Award and the Prix Médicis étranger, and faultlessly told the story of two boys’ friendship, as well as their relationship with one’s father.
  4. Fever and Spear by Javier Marias: Because Javier Marias is my favorite Spanish author; everything he writes is downright lyrical.
  5. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata: Because I was enchanted by this quirky character who loved convenience stores, the reason for which I could completely understand when I was in Japan this October.
  6. Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami: Because it is an accessible, brilliant novel by my favorite Japanese author whom I never pretend to fully understand.
  7. Chess Story by Stefan Zweig: Because the tension mounted with every move, and the author wrote it in less than 100 pages.
  8. Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck: Because of the compelling side she shows for the immigrants who have no home.
  9. Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz: Because it was the most startling and upsetting book I read this year (ever?) and I will never forget it.
  10. Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Enard: Because Mattias Enard captured Michelangelo in a fresh, new way when I thought I knew him already.

And now, I wish you a Happy New Year, and many joyous reads ahead in 2019!

Of Wych Elms, Shiny Bells and a Star (Thoughts on Tana French’s latest, Henny’s color-along, and Yukio Mishima’s book coming in April)

It took me three weeks to finish Tana French’s The Witch Elm, partly because I’ve been quite distracted this Fall and Winter, and partly because I found it quite long. In between reading chapters about Toby and his cousins, and detective Rafferty’s exploration behind the finding of a body in the wych elm of their uncle’s garden, I have been coloring.

In particular, I have been enjoying Henny’s Christmas color-along of Shiny Bells on YouTube. The template was only $1.75, and she has been putting up daily tutorials here. I figure if more people come to see the origami pages I have published, than the thoughts I have on books, it can do no harm to post a few thoughts on colored pencil. While my drawing only vaguely resembles hers, it is great fun to follow along and learn what she has to say about shading and blending.

I found myself comparing The Witch Elm to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, one of my favorite novels. They are similar in that both authors create such an atmospheric mood, while bringing their characters to life. The Witch Elm was less than a mystery, I think, than an exploration of relationships, as well as the way that Toby had to manage a series of consequences that had deadly results. I liked it until the end, where I must absorb Toby’s new nature. Or, perhaps it was the nature he had within him all along.

In other news, I am ready to begin two new novels by Yukio Mishima.

One is entitled The Frolic of The Beasts. The other was send to me by New Directions Publishing, entitled Star which will be published April 30, 2019. It is described as such: “For the first time in English, a glittering novella about stardom from “one of the greatest avant-garde Japanese writers of the twentieth century” (Judith Thurman, The New Yorker)

My passion for Japanese literature never wans, and I will be sure to post some thoughts on these as soon as I have read them in case you would be interested in picking them up as well.

From A Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan (Man Booker long list 2018)

Sometimes I think my book review posts ought to consist of nothing more than, “Read this now.” But, how many times do I come across a book which is truly spectacular? Not enough to warrant that kind of statement. So, I write the quotes which have impressed me. I try to give a summary without disclosing too much of the plot. I rarely say how truly special a book is until now.

This book is truly special.

It has been listed for the Man Booker Prize 2018, and if it wins I won’t be a bit surprised. Or, sorry (even though it’s the only book from the long list which I have read so far).

It is a story of three men who have each lost something in their lives. Farouk has had to leave Syria with his wife and daughter, searching for safety for them all. Lampy has had to deal with the loss of Chloe, whom he loves with all his heart even though the feeling is not reciprocated. And, John has to face life without his brother, without the love of his father which he so desperately craves.

These apparently disparate stories are told with such clarity, such sensitivity, such a tenderness, that I savored every word to fully dwell on the story. Each character is so fully realized I feel as if I have met them personally, had them tell me their story in their own words while we sat across from each other. Perhaps best of all, they are intertwined in wholly unexpected ways, bringing them into perfect syncopation with each other.

I loved it. From a Low and Quiet Sea is the best book I’ve read all year.

(Find an excellent review from Booker Talk here.)

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Man Booker long list 2017)

IMG_4294 Never have I read a book like this, one long sentence with no periods in it whatsoever, just a conma thrown in here and there but that does not make it any less readable or powerful as Marcus Conway reviews his life as an engineer, husband, and father at the kitchen table, waiting for his wife and kids

the wife and kids whom we are told about so clearly we feel we have inhabited their home and physically suffered Mairead’s illness from the virus she caught after attending their daughter’s art exhibition in the city, an exhibition of art done in her own blood; or Darragh’s Skype sessions from Australia where  he has temporarily landed; or fought the powers who want to pour cement for the school’s foundation even though Marcus knows the foundation will not hold,

for he knows of everything that will not hold and can name it all, from politics to infidelity to illness to raising one’s children to ultimately, dying.

I cannot imagine a book I will want to win the Man Booker Prize more than this one. You surely must read it.


A quote which contains the title, but by no means a summary of the novel:

“…just before the world collapses

mountains, rivers and lakes

acres, roods and perches

into oblivion, drawn down into that fissure in creation where everything is consumed in the raging tides and swells of non-being, the physical world

gone down in flames

mountains, rivers and lakes and pulling with it also all those human rhythms that bind us together and draw the world into a community, those daily

rites, rhthyms and rituals

upholding the world like solar bones, that rarefied amalgam of time and light whose extension through every minute of the day is visible from the moment I get up in the morning and stand at the kitchen window with a mug of tea in my hand, watching the first cars of the day passing on the road, every one of them known to me….


(Solar Bones was sent to me by SoHo Press, a most timely and precious gift.)

Reading Ireland Month

The Company of Books, Dublin

It’s a photograph that bids me to enter. But the best I can do is read Ireland with Cathy and others this month, before the Man Booker long list is announced on March 14.

I hope to squeeze in a new book I received, by Catherine Dunne, entitled The Years That Followed. Catherine is an author I’m looking forward to discovering; here is a bit about her:


“Catherine Dunne is the author of nine novels including The Things We Know Now, which won the Giovanni Boccaccio International Prize for Fiction in 2013 and was shortlisted for the Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. She was recently long-listed for the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction Award 2015. Her work has been translated into several languages. She lives in Dublin.” ~Simon and Schuster

Will you be adding anything for Reading Ireland this month?

The Secret Place by Tana French

The Secret Place

A Retir’d Friendship


Here let us sit and bless our Starres

Who did such happy quiet give,

As that remov’d from noise of warres.

In one another’s hearts we live.


Why should we entertain a feare?

Love cares not how the world is turn’d.

If crouds of dangers should appeare,

Yet friendship can be unconcern’d.


We weare about us such a charme,

No horrour can be our offence:

For mischief’s self can doe no harme

To friendship and to innocence.


~Katherine Philips


Could not put it down, this mystery by Tana French. It brought me back to girls’ mean ways, cliques and bonds, manipulations and trickery. But in this case, there is also evil of the worst kind; unspeakable actions disguised as loving intent. It’s a powerful mystery, one that had me absolutely riveted for the past two days. Rarely have I read dialogue so true, nor a plot more expertly woven.

Irish Short Story Month: The First Confession by Frank O’Connor

I am not Catholic.
I’ve often attended Catholic services and longed for the cathedrals of stained glass, the ancient prayers and liturgy, the solemn dress of the priest.
But, I belong to a Protestant church with my husband in which the sanctuary is now called an auditorium, the time honored chants are replaced with drums and instruments, the stained glass windows are only cement blocks.
I think I would like many of the traditions found in a Catholic church, even though I’ve heard people who were raised in one sound very scornful of rituals such as the Holy Days of Obligation, the first Communion, and Confession. So I come to this story by Frank O’Connor rather unaware of how confession is supposed to work.
I found myself laughing at the poor boy’s trial in learning the process for himself. In five printed pages our narrator takes us through the whole experience, of hearing about hell and being dared to taste it by “holding one finger-only one finger!-in a little candle flame for five minutes.” Not one child in the school would take the old woman’s promise to deliver a half-crown to anyone who would submit to this experience, and “at the end of the lesson she put it back in her purse. It was a great disappointment; a religious woman like that, you wouldn’t think she’d bother about a thing like a half -crown.”
When he makes his first confession, he is completely baffled once he is inside the chapel. “I knew then I was lost, given up to eternal justice. The door with the coloured-glass panels swung shut behind me, the sunlight went out and gave place to deep shadow, and the wind whistled outside so that the silence within seemed to crackle like ice under my feet.”
His confusion and fear become worse when he finds himself within the confessional with his pious sister waiting outside. “With the fear of damnation in my soul I went in, and the confessional door closed of itself behind me. It was pitch-dark and I couldn’t see priest or anything else. Then I really began to be frightened. In the darkness it was a matter between God and me, and He had all the odds. He knew what my intentions were before I even started; I had no chance. All I had ever been told about confession got mixed up in my mind, and I knelt to one wall and said: “Bless me, father, for I have sinned; this is my first confession.” I waited for a few minutes, but nothing happened so I tried it on the other wall. Nothing happened there either. He had me spotted all right.”
What follows in this story, is an account of the whole experience through the eyes of  a young Irish boy who discovers in the process that perhaps he is not as sinful as he first suspected. It is a charming story, for Catholics and Protestants alike, for any one who has been a child and subjected to the tyranny of adults. The refreshment of a compassionate priest must be like the Balm of Gilead.
Thank you, lovely Jillian, who asked me on Saturday if I’d read The First Confession by Frank O’Connor. I had not, and so she sent me a link to the work, which is a perfect choice for March and Mel’s Irish Short Story Month.
“In his 63 years, Frank O’Connor produced an impressive amount of work…but it’s his short stories that guarantee his immortality. They are encapsulated universes. While most modern stories focus on a single moment, Frank O’Connor’s generally sum up the patterns of whole lives ….Each [story] is, in its own way, shattering.” — Anne Tyler, Chicago Sunday Times
“Walter Benjamin says in his essay on Leskov that people think of a storyteller as someone who has come from afar. O’Connor’s best stories put the same thought into our heads; how far, in some imaginative sense, he has to travel to achieve such wisdom and to accomplish it with such Flair.” — Denis Donoghue, New York Times Book Review
“In almost all the stories in this excellently balanced collection O’Connor’s people explode from the page. The nice are here and the nasty: the gentle, the generous, the mean, the absurd, those rich in dignity, those without a shred of it….Without adornment, he simply tells the truth.” — William Trevor, Washington Post Book World
Read the story online here.

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

Fiachra, for example, ‘always knew’. He knew it before I did. ‘I am in love with him,’ I said, sitting in the back room of Ron Blacks after too many gin and tonics. And Fiachra waited a tiny, unforgivable moment, before he said:
‘I am sure you are’.
But it was the first time I had said the words out loud, and it might have been true all along but it became properly true then. True like something you have discovered. I loved him. Through all the shouting that followed, the silences, the gossip (an unbelievable amount of gossip) there was one thing I held on to, the idea, the fact, that I loved Sean Vallely and I held my head high, even as I glowed with shame. Glowed with it.
I love him.
Saying that this novel is about an affair is like saying a home is about bricks and glass. That’s true enough, in a way, but it’s not getting any where near the substance within. I have never read writing like that of Anne Enright’s. It is powerful, and funny, and thought provoking all at the same time. I read ever so slowly to capture every phrase, and reread sentences or whole paragraphs over again, to contemplate their meaning which resonated deeply within me. She’ll write something profound in a long paragraph, and then bam! follow it with a single sentence as reinforcement.

The Forgotten Waltz is a story about an affair. About marriage. About a family whose child’s needs have divided the parents; or the parents’ needs which have divided the child, because who can tell, really, what was the cause and what was the effect? It is a story which makes us look at our parents, at our loves, and most importantly ourselves.
It makes us ask if we are willing to accept the responsibility for the choices we have made, and were they, after all, worth the cost?
I loved it.
Anne Enright is a critically-acclaimed, internationally-bestselling Irish author. She has published essays, short stories, a non-fiction book, and four novels, including The Gathering, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2007 and was named the 2008 Irish Novel of the Year. The Forgotten Waltz was published in October of this year.
Thank you to W. W. Norton & Company for sending me this book to review.

The Matchmaker of Kenmare

From the very first few pages, I knew that this would be a very powerful novel to me. I understood Ben MacCarthy, the collector of folktales, as if I’d met him in person. Lines such as these created a vision of him which are to me both real and piercing: “At that time, July 1943, I viewed myself as a man alone and grieving, with those night soldiers, doubt and fear, hammering always at my door.”  (Have you had those night soldiers pounding upon your door? If not, how lucky you are.)
The setting takes place in the 1940’s, mostly in Ireland, but it is not the picturesque Irish countryside you see on the cover of the published book. It is a neutral Ireland, to be sure, but Ben MacCarthy, and Kate Begley, the matchmaker of Kenmare, are anything but neutral. They become entrenched in the war as deeply as if they were soldiers themselves because Ben is searching for his wife, Venetia, while Kate is searching for her husband of seven days, intelligence operative Charles Miller.

By telling the tale of Kate Begley and me, with its wide canvas, its wild swings of emotion, its heroes and villains, and its extraordinary conclusion, I’m opening old wounds to examine why I took the actions that I did, some of them terrible. Once more I’m hurting myself, and even though I long since traveled past all that, even though the life I’ve lived rewarded me acceptably,  I’m still, as I write these words, having to calculate the control that I’ll need merely to tell you.

We discover that Ben is narrating his story to his children, and therefore to us, and it is a tale with dangers and decisions which remind me of William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice. Of course, those who lived through World War II must have nightmares untold, not only of the bombings they heard but of the sufferings they endured.

One of the things I loved about this book was the importance Delaney placed on literature. Ben’s ‘spiritual parents’ gave him his first major reading list, with Miss Fey asking, “Did you know that books can save your life?”

So I took on every writer whom they recommended, from Chaucer to Dickens and Hardy; from Franklin to Hawthorne and Thoreau, from Balzac to de Maupassant and Zola.

And then I went on to read ever more widely, finding all the while many new friends on the page. I read Plato and tried to understand what understanding is; I read Socrates and learned how to argue with myself; I read Ovid and wished that I had been the one to collect those legends.

More important, I grew a kind of new skin–meaning, I gave myself a private identity. A librarian in a town where I’d been staying for two weeks introduced me to the work of a woman from Belfast, Helen Waddell, who had translated Chinese poems, some of which were written twelve centuries before the birth of Christ…the book became my constant companion, The Wandering Scholars.

Which, in fact, is an apt description for Ben himself.

Sometimes–if not always–we have to depend on others to tell us the truth of ourselves. Bobby Bilburn, with his wobbling stomach and a jowl big as a briefcase, and his elegant, orotund speech, captured for me the essence of why I’d liked the road around Ireland. It had nothing to do with the outer world; it had to do with the landscapes within me, and my own mountains and rivers and lakes. No wonder I’ve so loved my Wandering Scholars. They understood the inner terrain that we all have–and the need to travel it.

It is a profoundly meaningful journey that Delaney helps us to travel. One I’m in awe of him creating.

Frank Delaney’s novel, The Matchmaker of Kenmare, was released by Random House on February 8. You can learn more about Frank Delaney and his books at