Bullet Train (20 Books of Summer #3)


Kimura was an alcoholic. But, when his six year old son was pushed off the top of a department store building by a student, he became sober and determined to do anything possible to help his son who lay in the hospital on a respirator. Now he is held hostage on the bullet train by the student who pushed his son.

Lemon, who likes Thomas the Tank Engine, and Tangerine are two idiots who were given directions to rescue Minegishi’s son while bringing the ransom money in a small black suitcase. They were to rescue the boy, and bring back the ransom money, which seemed simple enough to them. Except, one of them put the suitcase of money in the luggage compartment, and when he went to retrieve it discovered the case is missing.

Nanao, who professes perpetually bad luck, wrestles a man named Wolf on the train. Nanao tries to protect himself as the train unexpectedly lurches, and Wolf’s neck twists. Suddenly he is dead, and Nanao props him up in a seat as though it will appear he still lives.

Such is the opening of the novel, a rapid-fire chain of events where men interact and each one’s plan is thwarted. Then, I learn of the background behind each story, and what seemed like trite action from a film becomes more meaningful.

It seems that each one is held by the power wielded over them by the ruthless Prince Satoshi, or just the Prince. A young schoolboy, with features making him seem soft and almost feminine, he is actually the most evil character of them all. He has no conscience and actually enjoys both manipulating and hurting others.

The Prince turns to looks out the window, just as a Tokyo-bound Shinkansen hurtles past in the opposite direction, so fast it’s nothing but a blur. The whole train trembles. He feels a quiet thrill at the overwhelming speed and force. Against a giant metal object traveling at more than two hundred kilometers an hour, a human being would be powerless…And I’m just as dangerous. I may not be able to move at two hundred kilometres an hour, but I can destroy people just the same. A smile appears, unbidden.

Although the book read more like an action film than a novel, I found myself intrigued. I had to read on to discover the connection between these men, and the powerful rich Minegishi who had hired them. I read to see if the Prince would reign or succumb to power stronger than his.

(A photo I took of the Shinkansen while in Tokyo, 2018.)

Kotaro Isaka is a bestselling and award-wining writer who is published around the world. He has won the Shincho Mystery Club Award, Mystery Writers of Japan Award, Japan Booksellers’ Award, and the Yamamoto Shugoro Prize. Bullet Train is his US debut. It will be published by Abrams Books on August 3, 2021.

Lady Joker, Volume 1 by Kaoru Takamura

Perhaps one of the best places to start thinking about this complex and intricately detailed novel is with the title: Lady Joker. It seems to imply whimsy and confusion both at once, for whoever heard of a female Joker in a deck of cards? Yet the name refers to just one of the characters who suffers from great misfortune. Lady is the daughter of Jun’ichi Nunokawa, who sits in the stands of the racetrack with her father, turning her head and flapping her arms as she utters incomprehensible syllables. Her favorite treats are cream buns and fruit-flavored milk, as her mother denies her sugar at home.

”By the way, Handa-San. Let’s give our group a name,” Monoi said, “What do you think of ‘Lady Joker’?”

”What’s that? English?”

”The other day, Nunokawa called his daughter the joker that he had drawn. That’s when it occurred to me. If a joker is something that nobody wants, then what better way to describe the lot of us?” (p. 258)

Poor Seizo Monoi. He comes from a tenant farmer family, and now he owns a pharmacy. But the opinion he holds of his life fills me with sorrow:

I never had a future. I didn’t escape anywhere after all. (p. 159)

Such is the despair and hopelessness of Monoi and the friends he gathers around him: a detective working in Criminal Investigation, a credit union employee, a truck driver, and a lathe operator. All of them are horse racing fans. All of them feel victimized by the rich and successful, and decide that they will make those who have made a fortune suffer. Thus begins their plan for revenge.

Halfway through the novel the perspective shifts from these unfortunate friends to the kidnapping of Kyosuke Shiroyama, the president and CEO of Hinode Beer. We never hear exactly which of the five have taken him to a hideout, fed him fruit-flavored milk and cream buns, or released him with the demand for two billion yen while holding the beer itself hostage. But, we know that he is personally involved with more than one scandal.

The first stems back from 1990, when his niece’s boyfriend was interviewing with Hinode Beer. He had gone through several interviews successfully, until it was determined that he came from a Buraku background. Suddenly, he was told he would not be considered for employment within the company, and a few days after that he died in a car crash. To make matters worse, the young man’s father later committed suicide by stepping in front of a train after submitting a tape documenting Hinode Beer’s discrimination.

The second scandal involves the Okada Association, which is a group of corporate extortionists.

Through the working class, and executives, the police force and media, author Kaoru Takamura brings to her readers a Japan which is complicated and often corrupt. The disenfranchised working class who commit a crime seem no better (or worse) than the corporate executives who commit crimes in their own, more subtle, ways. Neither Americans, nor Japanese, are above the horrors of discrimination, crime, or the search for power.

From the publisher, SoHo Crime: “Since its Japanese publication in 1997 Kaoru Takamura’s sublimely detailed epic of crime and decline has pushed beyond the stigmas surrounding genre and shattered the Japanese literary glass ceiling. Lady Joker, Volume One is a novel about the sweeping dissatisfaction felt by those left behind by a culture whose new god finds no sacrifice too insignificant, no cost-cutting measure too inhumane, and no individual indispensable. Spurned and ostracized, driven to grief and desperation, the criminals at the heart of this groundbreaking heist story want what society has denied them: belonging. Dignity. Power. Revenge. They will purchase this with fear and outrage and pay whatever it takes.”   

Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (“What does it mean to love another person?”)

GoodreadsWhat was on your mind when you wrote Klara and the Sun?

Kazuo Ishiguro: There is usually one big thing behind each of my books and then a constellation of other little things. At the center was this question: What does it mean to love another human being, particularly in an age when we’re questioning whether we can map out everything about a person through data and algorithms? It’s that old question: Is there a soul? Maybe there isn’t anything in there that’s unique that can’t be reproduced. Perhaps we are reducible to just data and algorithms. 

Many of my other books have been about things like that. But the age we’re in, and the age we seem to be hurtling toward, made me look at that same question in a slightly different way.

This is an excerpt from an interview with author Kazuo Ishiguro which was published on Goodreads. And while I appreciate that Ishiguro tried to address the issue of love in an age of “data and algorithms”, for me the book fell short of that. It felt more like he was mechanically ticking off all the boxes for our present day agenda: pollution, technology, women’s independence, and false gods.

Here is a brief summary of the novel: Josie is quite ill. We never know what her disease is, but we know that she becomes terribly weak and needs to rest; we know that her mother has lost one daughter already and is all the more concerned about losing Josie. When Josie sees Klara in the storefront window, she knows that is the one for her. Klara is the AF (Artificial Friend) that Josie wants. But, Josie’s mother wants Klara for something much more. She hopes that Klara will learn Josie well enough to become her daughter if Josie dies.

As if a robot can be a friend.

As if a robot can replace a daughter.

Because the Sun provides its “special nourishment” to Klara, she goes to Mr. McBain’s barn (where she can see it set) to ask the Sun to heal Josie. If the Sun can make Klara strong, she reasons, why can’t it restore Josie to full health? It was bizarre to me, though, to read about a robot essentially praying to the Sun, and then realizing that her prayer was at first unheard because she hadn’t done anything about the pollution caused by a huge machine outside the store where she stood in the window.

It was all very strange, and I could not wrap my mind around a robot taking on human characteristics to such a degree that it could replace humans. I cannot wrap my mind around the idea that humans think they can be God in what they can create. For me, Kazuo Ishiguro did not answer any questions about what it means to love at all.

The Wild Geese by Ogai Mori (Japanese Literature Challenge 14)


The Wild Geese is one of the most elegant, subtle love stories I have read. It is one of those pieces of classic Japanese literature which lead you into thinking not much is going on until you finish it, and find yourself unable to think of little else.

Like so many works of Japanese literature, the reader enters the story and leaves, with little resolution. We are free to decide what we will about the beautiful mistress of a usurer, and her subsequent scorn of him, who makes eyes at a handsome young university student. Every day he passes by her window, and soon, he is taking off his hat with a little bow.

She longs for him. She makes plans to invite him to her home while her master is away on business. And we wait, wondering if the master will come early; wondering if the university student will come to her home at all.

Things have a way of taking unexpected turns, just like the innocent goose at the end of the story. It is suddenly killed with a deftly thrown rock while napping, as the rest of the flock flies away. Free.

I will not stop thinking of this piece for a very long time.

Before The Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (A Review and a Give-away)

I can picture the café with its windowless room in sepia tones, the three clocks all pointing to different times, and the aromatic coffee coming from a silver kettle, pouring slowly into the cup of the person who is sitting in that seat. The seat which is usually occupied by a woman in a white dress, who is destined to sit there forever, a ghost of her former self.

She didn’t follow the rules, apparently. The rules which state that if you want to go to the past, you are allowed to do so if the person you want to see has been to the café before, if you realize that you will not be able to change the present, and if you finish your conversation before the coffee grows cold.

The steam from the coffee shimmers as you gradually shift from the present to the past. And, there are a few people who wish to do exactly that. One wants to know why she didn’t stop her boyfriend from leaving for America. Another wants to give his wife a letter in a brown envelope, which he has been carrying around for quite some time. A third longs to meet with her sister, from whom she hid, before she was in a car accident; the fourth longs to see the face of her daughter…

What would you want to change, who would you want to meet, for one last time?


Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi would have been a good choice for the Japanese Literature Challenge 14 read along. So many of you have read and reviewed it already! I am getting to the party where the coffee is already getting cold, but what a fascinating book it is. If you would like to enter the give-away for a copy of your own, please mention it in your comment below. (U. S. only, please.)

Find more reviews at The Reading Life, Clearwater Daybook, and Real Life Reading.

Congratulations to the winner who is Words and Peace!

Breasts and Eggs by Meiko Kawakami “We’re all so small, and have such little time, unable to envision the majority of the world.”

Mieko Kawakami, author of “Breasts and Eggs” | YUTO KUDO / MADAME FIGARO JAPON

Breasts and Eggs was not the book I thought it would be. I knew there would be mention of women’s roles, and women’s parts, in contemporary life. I knew it won the Akutagawa Prize and was highly praised by Haruki Murakami. But, I didn’t know we would spend so much time considering identity. Artificial insemination and donor conception. Single parenting and family.

Natsuko Natsume is 38 years old and single. She is a writer, and she begins her story by telling us what it means to be poor. “Maybe you’re poor now. Maybe you were poor in the past. I’m both…“ She lives in Tokyo, while her older sister, Makiko, lives in Osaka. They struggled to raise themselves, as their father left the family, and their mother died when they were girls.

When Makiko comes to visit her younger sister, she is focused on having a breast augmentation. Her make-up is thick, her body is excessively thin, her skin is gray and drawn, but she believes that larger boobs will make her beautiful. Her daughter, Midoriko, will not speak to either her mother, or her aunt. She writes everything on a pad of paper, or in her journal.

Writing is the best. You can do it anywhere, as long as you have a pen and paper. It’s free, too. And you an write whatever you want. How sweet is that.

While I agree that keeping a journal is a marvelous tool to sort one’s thoughts, or keep one’s memories, I couldn’t understand why Midoriko would not speak out loud until I came to this section of her journal:

So I got in another fight with Mom, over money. This one was way worse than the last one. In the middle of everything, I asked, why’d you even have me? I asked myself that all the time, but it’s a horrible thing to say out loud, I know…I thought it would be better if we didn’t talk for a while. I mean, we’d just end up fighting again, and I’d say something mean. (p. 58)

Buried within this quote is the beginning of the theme which Meiko Kawakami establishes throughout the novel: “Why’d you even have me?” In other words, why do parents have children?

While Makiko wishes to have her breasts enlarged, Natsuko longs for a child. Centered around this longing are great moral dilemmas. Does she have the right to bring a child into the world as a single mother? How will the child feel not knowing who the father is, or worse yet, finding out the father they thought was their father was actually not? An even bigger question is, “Is it fair to bring a child into the world, not knowing what kind of pain or disability the child may encounter?”

Meiko Kawakami explores these questions throughout the novel’s plot and within the character’s conversations. Yuriko and Aizawa are two people who discuss the reality of being conceived through donor conception with Natsuko.

“You’re betting that the child you bring into this will be at least as happy as you’ve been, at least as fortunate as you’ve been, or, at a minimum, that they’ll be able to say they’re happy they were born. Everyone says life is both good and bad, but the majority of people think it’s mostly good. That’s why people go through with it. The odds are good. Sure, everyone dies someday, but life has meaning, even pain and suffering have meaning and there’s so much joy. There’s not a doubt in your mind that your child will see it that way, just like you. No one thinks they’ll pull the short straw. They’re convinced everything will work out fine. But that’s just people believing what they want to believe. For their own benefit. The really horrible part is that this bet isn’t yours to make. You’re betting on another person’s life. Not yours. (Yuriko, p. 276)

But, Jun Aizawa has come to terms with the origins of his birth. I loved the realization he makes toward the conclusion of the novel:

I’d been spending all of my time trying to find my father, thinking that was my only hope of discovering who I was. I thought that if I didn’t know him, I couldn’t know myself…Maybe there’s some truth to that, but now I have a sense of what’s really at the heart of it. I realize what’s been bothering me all along, ever since I heard the truth, is that I never got to tell my dad, I mean the dad who raised me, how I felt….I wish I could’ve found out earlier, when he was still alive. I would’ve told him that it didn’t change the way I felt, that he was still my dad, as far as I was concerned.” (Aizawa, p. 320)

Some quotes I found particularly intriguing, which perhaps we could discuss:

  1. “I was young once, but I was never pretty. When something isn’t there, inside or out, how are you supposed to seek it out? (p. 41)
  2. “Start judging people by their genetic profiles, and pretty soon you’re seeing them like handbags, ranking them like brands.” (p. 147)
  3. “Who has the right to have a child? Does not having a partner or not wanting to have sex nullify this right?” (p. 219)

Did you like this novel? Do you agree with the decision Natsume ultimately made? Do you have any thoughts that I did not bring up in this post? I’m eager to know of your reactions to this novel.

Find more reviews at Japan Times, Books & Bao, Tony’s Reading List, and Words Without Borders.

Read-along in January: Breasts and Eggs by Meiko Kawakami (All Are Welcome!)

The story of three women by a writer hailed by Haruki Murakami as Japan’s most important contemporary novelist, WINNER OF THE AKUTAGAWA PRIZE.

“BREASTS AND EGGS took my breath away.”—HARUKI MURAKAMI 

Challenging every preconception about storytelling and prose style, mixing wry humor and riveting emotional depth, Kawakami is today one of Japan’s most important and best-selling writers. She exploded onto the cultural scene first as a musician, then as a poet and popular blogger, and is now an award-winning novelist.

Breasts and Eggs paints a portrait of contemporary womanhood in Japan and recounts the intimate journeys of three women as they confront oppressive mores and their own uncertainties on the road to finding peace and futures they can truly call their own.

It tells the story of three women: the thirty-year-old Natsu, her older sister, Makiko, and Makiko’s daughter, Midoriko. Makiko has traveled to Tokyo in search of an affordable breast enhancement procedure. She is accompanied by Midoriko, who has recently grown silent, finding herself unable to voice the vague yet overwhelming pressures associated with growing up. Her silence proves a catalyst for each woman to confront her fears and frustrations.

On another hot summer’s day ten years later, Natsu, on a journey back to her native city, struggles with her own indeterminate identity as she confronts anxieties about growing old alone and childless.

Kawakami’s first novella My Ego, My Teeth, and the World, published in Japan in 2007, was awarded the Tsubouchi Shoyo Prize for Young Emerging Writers. The following year, she published Breasts and Eggs as a short novella, and won praise from Yoko Ogawa and Haruki Murakami. The newly expanded Breasts and Eggs is her first novel to be published in English.

A MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF 2020 
Vogue・Thrillist・The Millions・ Literary Hub・Now Toronto・Metropolis Japan

“One of Japan’s brightest stars is set to explode across the global skies of literature . . . Kawakami is both a writer’s writer and an entertainer, a thinker and constantly evolving stylist who manages to be highly readable and immensely popular.”— Japan Times

“Mieko Kawakami lobbed a literary grenade into the fusty, male-dominated world of Japanese fiction with Breasts and Eggs.”— The Economist

“I can never forget the sense of pure astonishment I felt when I first read Mieko Kawakami’s novella Breasts and Eggs . . . Kawakami is always ceaselessly growing and evolving.”—HARUKI MURAKAMI, author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

The author

Mieko Kawakami
Born in Osaka prefecture in 1976, Mieko Kawakami began her career as a singer and songwriter before making her literary debut in 2006. Her first novella My Ego, My Teeth, and the World, published in 2007, was nominated for the Akutagawa Prize and awarded the Tsubouchi Shoyo Prize for Young Emerging Writers. The following year, Kawakami published Breasts and Eggs as a short novella. It won the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prestigious literary honor, and earned praise from the acclaimed writer Yoko Ogawa. Kawakami is also the author of the novels HeavenThe Night Belongs to Lovers, and the newly expanded Breasts and Eggs, her first novel to be published in English. She lives in Japan.


All of the text above is quoted from Europa Editions. I hope that entices you to join Frances (@nonsuchbook) and I, as well as others who said they were interested, to read this book in January. Feel free to post about it during the month, or save your thoughts until the end. Either way, it should be a marvelous read. A marvelous discussion.

The Japanese Literature Challenge 14 (Coming January 2021)

I have been seeing posts of reading plans for 2021 on many of my friends’ blogs, and I hope that you will find time this coming year to join in the Japanese Literature Challenge now to begin its fourteenth year.

As in years past, it will run from January through March. We will read books in translation (unless you are able to read Japanese), and review them on our blogs. You may also choose to leave thoughts on social media with #JapaneseLitChallenge14. I have now set up a review site for you to leave links, as before.

Here are some of the titles, many coming in 2021, which I will review during the challenge:

Coming from Penguin Random House on April 6, 2021
Coming from Penguin Random House on March 2, 2021
Coming from Abrams Books on March 9, 2021
From Pan Macmillan on September 19, 2019
Breasts and Eggs took my breath away.” ~Haruki Murakami


Also, there will be a group read of Breasts and Eggs, by Mieko Kawakami who has been “hailed by Haruki Murakami as Japan’s most important contemporary novelist.” The novel also won the Akutagawa Prize.

I hope that you will join us this year, whether for the first time or the fourteenth. Please leave a comment if you’re interested in participating, so that I can add you to the review site.

The Makioka Sisters Read-along: Final Discussion

Hopefully, by now, all of us who set out to read this book have finished, for there are so many intriguing things to discuss. I am setting forth some questions that occurred to me as I read, to which I do not readily have a clear answer. I would relish an opinion from you should you care to respond to any, or all, of them listed below. Let us begin…

…(the family’s) habit of leaving everything to others led to a reputation of haughtiness. (p. 404)

Do you think the Makioka family is haughty? Or, is their concern for their sister’s future simply careful?

Do you think the sisters support, or hinder, one another?

What could the dark spot above Yukiko’s eye, which sometimes is evident and other times not, represent?

Is Yukiko’s reluctance to give direct answers to the marriage arrangements which have been made for her merely shyness? Or, is there another reason she is so reluctant to enter marriage?

To which of the sisters do you most closely identify?

I do not wish to leave my answers here. Instead, I would far rather read your opinions and respond to them in the comments section below. And, may I thank you each one, for the opportunity of reading this classic piece of literature together. I relished each page and comment.

The Makioka Sisters Read-along: Book Three

By the very end of Book II, Itakura has died; we know, at the very least that Taeko will not end up with him. But, the focus has already shifted back to Yukiko, and we see yet another attempt at finding a suitor for her as Book III opens.

It is around this theme, finding a suitable husband for Yukiko, that the whole novel has revolved. Within this context, we see the closeness of the sisters, and their disappointments. We see the trouble Taeko brings, and although she is much loved, surely she cannot be an easy sister to manage.

In Book III, Taeko becomes deathly ill with an intestinal catarrh, or dysentery, or could it even be gonorrhea? She stays with Okubata, even though she does not love him, and while visiting her sister there, Sachiko discovers what the two have been doing for money. It seems that Taeko and Okubata have had no qualms about stealing jewels from his family’s store, and selling them not only for daily expenses, but for great luxuries.

Eventually Taeko does overcome this illness, though I feared she may not, and attention returns to Yukiko’s future. A suitor is found once more, and through more polite machinations than I can even begin to describe, arrangements are made for her marriage. It seems a very well grounded one, but before the wedding can take place, two unsettling things happen.

The first is that Taeko has been found to be with child. She is sent off with the maid, O-haru, to live in secret. Has she no thought of what this situation could do to hamper Yukiko’s marriage arrangements still in the making? Then, worst of all, the baby dies at birth due to the doctor’s unintentional negligence. Taeko returns to live with the baby’s father, ironically leaving the home before Yukiko does, after all.

And Yukiko? This quiet, extremely shy sister finally agrees to the wedding, which we the reader never see. We are left with the knowledge that she has diarrhea, and no joy about the arrival of her wedding kimonos. Instead, she sighs, and responds to her sisters’ questions with a verse:

On clothes I’ve wasted

Another good day.

Weddings, I find,

are not always gay.

There is so much to think about within the pages of this novel. I do not have a sister, let alone three, and I have not experienced the dynamics of their relationship personally. But, I am most intrigued by the strength of one, the selfishness of another, and the emotional reservedness of a third. Let us discuss these things in a week, as we wrap up the read-along, giving time, I hope, for all who were reading to complete the novel.