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.

How Have I Not Read Don Winslow’s Books Before?

I’ve been interested in what readers have been turning to in these days of quarantine. Some open the classics, others prefer romance. While translated literature has great favor in my reading preferences, I must admit to a weakness for thrillers. Crime. Suspense. The problem, for me, is finding a reliably good one.

I remember reading The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum in the late 80’s and being unable to put it down even though we were in the south of France, and I ought to have been more interested in the Mediterranean. I remember reading Shutter Island by Dennis LeHane and thinking it far superior to Mystic River. And there are so many books in between which I don’t remember at all. They seem to tell the same story, over and over.

I bought The Force by Don Winslow for fifty cents at our library’s Used Book Shelf long before the CoronaVirus appeared. In fact, as I perused my Goodreads shelf yesterday, I noticed I’d marked it as “to read” in 2018. After all the emotionally laden work of the Booker International Prize 2020 long list, which was certainly worth reading, it was a great pleasure to me to dive into these books, for the plots and characterization captured my mind and heart.

The Force is about the New York City Police Department’s Task Force, with a hero I will never forget. It was like reading The Godfather; you know some of the characters are dark, and flawed, and deal in illegal territory, but you can’t help loving them anyway. The dialogue alone in this book was remarkable. I saw Manhattan, in all its glory and all its shame, unveiled before me.

The Power of The Dog is about the drug lords in Mexico. And, the DEA. And, the corruption in politics. It is violent, and horrifying, and absolutely mesmerizing in its revelations. When I was a little girl, I thought that doctors healed, teachers taught, and presidents led. I have since had my eyes opened to the true nature of many in these professions. Now I can add law enforcement to my disillusionment, knowing that all of us are living in an often sad, and fallen, world.

I cannot recommend either of these two novels by Don Winslow enough, and now I leave you to begin The Cartel, which is Book 2 in The Power of The Dog trilogy.

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell


It is a guilty pleasure of mine to read thrillers, in between the novels of translated literature which I so adore. But, sometimes I long for something effortless to read. Something distracting. Something which is both an engaging plot and uncontrived.

Perhaps you’ve seen my scorn for Gone Girl. Or, The Girl on The Train. Things got a little better with The Woman in The Window. But, Then She Was Gone turned out to be pleasant surprise.

I began it this week while walking on the treadmill at the health club. I searched my phone for something distracting, something plot driven, and I downloaded this as an audio book. It was narrated, in a lovely British voice, by Helen Duff. And it told a story which I quickly had to read in text rather than listen to in audio, as I am a much better reader than listener.

When Ellie Mack, a brilliant student and lovely daughter, disappears from home no one finds her until her bones are discovered much, much later in a ditch. This is told fairly early on; I am not spoiling any surprises. The novel goes on to explain her story, which is a rather intricate plot involving her maths tutor, specifically, while simultaneously revealing the tender heart of her mother. I found it quite compelling, and I ended it just now oddly satiated at the outcome of a rather distressing story since it was told so compassionately and effectively.

This is one thriller that did not disappoint me. (And now I am off to read We and Me by Saskia de Coster for Boekenweek, which is March 23-31.)

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews “Trouble is the beginning of disaster.”

While I have been wasting my time with “thrillers” like The House Swap, and Something In The Water, extraordinary spy novels have been lying in wait for me to pick them up.

Red Sparrow is such a novel. Not since Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, or Trevanian’s Shibumi, have I been so entranced by actions of espionage. Especially since it concerns Russia, a country toward which I have held a certain fascination for most of my life.

“I started out by following orders, trying to develop him, just as he was developing me,” she said, physically shaking. “It was a race to see who would recruit the other first.” She still resisted, she was still hanging on to the lip of the cliff. This was an evasion, not an admission. (P. 315)

Dominika wanted to be a ballet dancer. She was thwarted from fulfilling her dream not because of inability, but because another jealous dancer had Dominka’s foot deliberately crushed, leaving her unable to pursue dance. When her father suddenly dies, her uncle manipulates her into joining the Service, and then sending her to Sparrow School where the students are taught how to involve men and women in “intimately compromising” tactics.

She is sent to Helsinki to pursue Nathaniel Nash, a spy for the CIA, who in turn is told to find what he can from Dominika. In a spider web of deceit and atrocities carried out by the Russian government, the two fall in love, yet Dominika returns to Moscow where she endures unbelievably horrific methods of interrogation as she is suspected of knowing more than she allows.

A myriad of characters play off of each other, from Putin to his marionettes, to members of the CIA and those willing to collude with them, which makes for a fascinating read of espionage under terribly dangerous conditions. The moles and the agents turn and deceive, disclosing facts where they can, but hiding many others in the hopes they will not be discovered.

I found this a breathless read, and already have the next book in the trilogy (Palace of Treason) lying in wait.

Something In The Water by Catherine Steadman (I’ll tell you what it is at the bottom of this post, if you really want to know.)

I have the feeling of being too near to something I don’t want to be near to. To something dangerous. I can’t quite see what it is yet, but I feel it; it feels close. I feel the trapdoors in my mind creaking under the strain of what lies underneath. But then, of course, it could just be free money and everyone loves free money. Someone might have made a mistake, and if it doesn’t hurt anyone…then we could keep it. Free money for us. And it’s not like we don’t need it. (p. 119)

Who knew that Reese Witherspoon was a reader, or even the host of her own book club? And who knew that Catherine Steadman, who played Mabel Lane Fox in Season 5 of Downtown Abbey, calls herself a writer? Actresses becoming book mavens…I had to see what the fuss was about. For Something in The Water, one of Reese’s Book Club picks, is popping up on every screen I open with accolades too bold to ignore.

The title alone bears the immediate question, “What? What is in the water?” Could it be lemon sharks? Blacktipped sharks? Tiger sharks? Could it be panic from scuba diving more deeply than one is comfortable with doing? I must admit I was a little curious from the title, but not from such boring writing as the text quoted in the beginning of this post.

Erin and her new husband, Mark, are on their honeymoon in the South Pacific when they chance upon “something in the water.” (I’ll tell you what it is in the spoiler below, in case you don’t want to read the whole book; truly, I wish I had just known what it was so that my curiosity could be abated, and I could begin a new piece of translated literature of which I am so fond.) Their lives are immediately complicated by the allure of this discovery compounded with one foolish decision after another.

One can almost see how a young couple would be tempted to thwart professionals in their naivety, but I tired of their stupidity (particularly Erin’s stubborn perseverance into realms she had no business entering). Worse yet, I knew that her husband was not entirely straightforward when I was halfway through the novel. I’ve read Need to Know, The Girl on The Train, The Woman in The Window, The Couple Next Door, The Wife Between Us, The House Swap, and Our House, all of which are presented as thrillers only to resemble themselves in poor mimicry more often than not. I have been truly surprised at a novel’s conclusion quite infrequently, such as Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent which was over 30 years ago.

Something in The Water may be the “talked about book of the summer”, but frankly, I don’t see why. I’m still waiting for a truly spectacular thriller to find its way into my hands. Something that held the power of The Day of The Jackal, Shibumi, or even The Bourne Identity which I adored in college.

Spoiler: This novel does have an interesting premise, that while out on the Pacific a young couple should find themselves suddenly surrounded by floating sheets of paper. Then, they hear a thunk-thunk-thunk against the side of their boot which turns out to be a nylon bag which has been zipped up and locked. They bring it to their hotel room, cut it open, and find two million dollars as well as a bag of 2 carat diamonds, an iPhone and an USB port. When they go back to the coordinates they have recorded, and Mark dives underwater to explore further, they find that a small plane has crashed and landed on the ocean floor with several people dead inside. The rest of the novel carries us through their temptation to keep the money, as well as the jewels, and the efforts they will make to hide their tracks in doing so. Somewhere along the way, Mark’s true character emerges which leaves Erin saddened, and as we knew from the first chapter, widowed.

Personally, I think that both Reese and Catherine ought to stick with acting.

How about you? Have you read it? Do you think I am the only one who is yet again disappointed with today’s “psychological thriller”?

The Woman In The Window by A. J. Finn

The Woman in the Window was one of the choices offered by the Book of The Month club, but I didn’t make it my selection because I was reluctant to go with anything titled The Woman…or Girl…(fill in the blank). But, as it kept popping up on every feed I happened to see, be it Instagram or the NYTimes book review, I wanted to see for myself what the fuss was about it.

It’s surprisingly good. The writing isn’t stellar, but the plot was interesting, and the pacing was rapid, and the conclusion was satisfactory in tying together all the complicated bits we’d been given previously. There were surprises throughout, and it was the one in the middle that pleased me the most.

How can I write about a thriller without revealing anything crucial? That’s impossible. But, I will tell you that the woman in the window could be our narrator, telling what she saw out of her four-storey home’s window (where she is “trapped” due to her agoraphobia). Or, it could be the woman in the home across the street looking back at her, as her hands slide down the glass in agony.

It is an interesting story told by a woman with emotional complications in her life, not in the slightest helped by her drinking or abuse of medications. So we wonder, as we read carefully on, is she reliable? Is she telling the truth? More specifically, is her story only her truth and no one else’s?

It was interesting to find out. It was a most satisfactory psychological thriller.

Origin by Dan Brown “Where do we come from? Where are we going?”

Where did we come from? Where are we going?

These are the essential questions posed in this thriller set in Barcelona where all the art and architecture is real, even if the questions are elusive. 

Edmond Kirsch, former student of Harvard professor Robert Langdon, has staged a dramatic presentation in which he plans to reveal his findings on the origin of man. Were we created? Did we crawl out of a primordial ooze? Or, is there a third possibility no one has yet understood? But, before he can reveal what he wants to share he is shot, setting forth a series of dramatic events such as only Dan Brown can write.

Two of the central characters are led by a computer with a British voice named Winston, in an often charming parody of Churchhill with his insight and witticisms. But, brilliant as the computer may be, it is still only a machine, and technology can be as fallible as the man who created it.

Brown closes each chapter with us hanging suspensefully on an unfinished idea, or unresolved event, so that we are compelled to go on to the next chapter. (You might be familiar with his techniques if you read The DaVinci Code.) He does a brilliant job of creating a scene, posing fascinating theories, and revealing the meaning behind symbols. Best of all, to me, is the way that he gave equal weight to science and religion, making a case for neither as he leaves it up to the reader to establish his own conclusion. 

Even though I tired, somewhat, toward the end, there is an implication about technology which is so stunning, and so unnerving, I think Origin is well worth the read. It makes me think of the famous quote by Mark Twain, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”

Need to Know by Karen Cleveland (My favorite thriller of the year, to be published this January.)

Need To Know is a remarkably well-written thriller by Karen Cleveland, who spent eight years as a CIA analyst focusing on counterterrorism. She clearly knows of what she writes as every sequence of events seems entirely realistic. And worse, plausible.

“Sometimes,” she begins haltingly, “we think that shielding the truth will protect those we love the most.”

Vivian Miller works for the CIA, particularly uncovering information regarding Russia. From the very beginning, we feel her shock as she comes across a folder entitled Friends which belongs to a handler named Yurey. She opens the folder to discover that one of the faces is very familiar to her.

It is the face of her husband.

What she does with that information, how she strives to protect her children and be faithful to both her country and her family, comprises the novel in its entirety.

It is a gripping novel, one that had me turning pages as rapidly as I could. It is one of those rare thrillers that makes you lose the sense of time and place as you seek the conclusion; dreading, but suspecting deep down, that what you are afraid of happening will in the end be revealed as fact.

Need to Know brings into question what we accept as truth, and how far we will go to protect those we love. Or, even ourselves.

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips


As he’s speaking, a sharp, loud sound carries through the woods. Two cracks, then several more. Pops, like balloons bursting. Or fireworks. She tries to imagine what anyone could be doing in a zoo that would sound like small explosions…

There is another bang. Another and another. It sounds too loud to be balloons, too infrequent to be a jackhammer.

The birds are silent, but the leaves keep skittering down.

The tension is real from the very first chapter. It is the kind of tension I key right into. What was that sound? What if I arrive at the gate too late, and the park is closed locking me within? Worse, what if something endangers my son?

The quiet man and the loud man are in the zoo,  hunting. People have fallen in various positions all around the entrance, and more are in hiding, particularly Joan and her four year old son, Lincoln.

She has her cell phone, from which she has informed her husband that  she is hiding with their son in the empty porcupine cage. She is behind a huge rock, telling her son to be quiet while she holds him tightly against herself, and the tension is palatable. I feel that I am her, hiding, hoping desperately that I will not be found.

I am her, holding my son, who when he was four asked the same kind of existential questions Lincoln asks. “What do strangers look like?” my son once asked me. “How can bad people be happy?” Lincoln asks his mother when he hears the men with guns laugh.

When Joan leaves her hiding place with her four year old, because he is hungry and she wants to find him something to eat, I want to scream, “Don’t leave! You have been safe where you are.” But they venture forth, finding a living colobus monkey standing over a fallen one, a dead elephant which at first appears to be an “ink-stain shape on the ground.”

This novel is mesmerizing and terrifying on several counts. For once, it’s not the gone girl, or the disappearing woman, or a girl on a train.  It’s a mother, in a situation which feels entirely possible in today’s world. It’s a mother and a son and evil, twisted men that are scarier than a clown holding some balloons could ever be.

Milena, or the most beautiful femur in the world by Jorge Zepeda Patterson (a thriller for Spanish Lit Month)


Milena isn’t Russian, as supposed, and she didn’t come to Mexico of her own free will. She was captured as a teen in Croatia by a human-trafficking ring and forced into prostitution.

When the novel opens, her benefactor has just died in her arms. He is the owner of El Mundo, and has prepared for such an event by writing a letter which instructs his daughter to protect his love, Milena, and to take the black book away from her because it could ruin the family.

What black book? How could it destroy the family? The secrets are many and multi-layered in this Spanish thriller which won the  Premio Planeta. (A literary prize of $800,000.)

Milena, or the most beautiful femur in the world was sent to me by Restless Books. I read it for Spanish Lit Month with an ache in my heart for the women who suffer in this trade, and the men who are oblivious to their suffering.

The next day, each of them (the men who came to the prostitutes) went on with his normal life, beyond the boundary of that hell they financed, thinking they had integrity and that paying a stack of euros got them off the hook for any wrongdoing.

Jorge Zepeda Patterson does a brilliant job of portraying the darkest aspects of prostitution and its inherent evil; of men taking advantage of anyone they can to gain power. He shows us the inner workings of the mafias engaged in human-trafficking and the groups laundering money for organized crime.

A far cry from Javier Marias’ gentle, even enigmatic prose, reading this novel is like watching a film. One that carries scenes all the more horrifying because they can be found in real life. It is a shocking book, and violent, incredibly fast paced and an exceptional thriller for those who enjoy this genre.