Barry Eisler: The Detachment (John Rain Thrillers)
This is a satisfying installment in the John Rain series. Rain continues to grow in complexity as a character, but I fear that in an effort to make each book a bit more sensational than the last Eisler may have written himself into a corner (actually, there are probably books subsequent to this one, but I haven't checked). The Detachment gives us not Rain against a few sleazy bad buys, or even a formidable underworld empire. In this one he's busy thwarting a coup in the United States. What next? Space aliens?
Takashi Hiraide: The Guest Cat
This is the third Japanese novel I've read in a row in which cats play an important part. None of these books, though, are what might be called cat books, though the cat in Takashi Hiraide's The Guest Cat, Chibi, has a larger role than the felines in the other novels. Chibi, though he actually belongs to their neighbors, enters the lives of a couple, both free-lance writers, living in a leafy Tokyo neighborhood. As the couple become more involved with the cat, they also seem to become more engaged with life and with each other. In a simpler novel, that would be the story: an animal friend helps its people wake up to the beauty of life. Cats die, though, and cottages in leafy Tokyo neighborhoods with rents that free-lancers can afford are just as transitory. The narrative becomes complicated, and also the manner in which it is told: we learn that the novel we are reading is, in part, an account of its own creation, an act which may not, without Chibi, have taken place.
Mieko Kanai: Oh, Tama!
Cats. If you spend any time at all on the Internet, and you're not a cat person yourself, you've had enough of them, even when they're riding on Roombas. It would be a shame, though, if the same impulse--quite a healthy impulse--that makes you scroll past the cat pics on Facebook caused you to miss novels like Mieko Kanai's Oh, Tama!. Tama is a cat, but the novel is not about cats, and indeed Tama, gravid when when we first meet her, seldom emerges from the closet where she nurses the kittens she soon has after being dumped on our protagonist, a sporadically employed free-lance photographer called Noriyuki. She is in the novel for a reason, though. It is unlikely she could identify the father of her kittens, and Oh, Tama! has much to do with parents, or rather paternity, and children. We see, as the novel unfolds, how several characters who lack strong family ties form a family of sorts for themselves, a family with all the ambivalence of a biological family. If that sounds trite--isn't this the premise of several popular TV shows now?--it isn't. The odd bits of life that Kanai captures in the interactions of these characters draw us in even as they are never exactly important. This novel is one in a series of "Mejiro" (a Tokyo neighborhood) novels that Kanai has produced. Upon finishing this one I immediately ordered the only other entry that's been translated into English. One character who I'm sure will recur is the "lady novelist" who falls asleep at parties.
Dorothy L Sayers: Murder Must Advertise
I've never really warmed to the English jocular tradition, but I've just finished, with real enjoyment, a Lord Peter Wimsey novel by Dorothy Sayers. The mystery is . . . well, who really cares who done it . . . but the incidental observations, the jaundiced view of advertising (Wimsey is embedded at an advertising agency), and the fun with language made the novel a great deal of fun. Perhaps I'm growing up . . . or old. Maybe I'll finally get P.G. Wodehouse?
Miklós Bánffy: They Were Divided (The Transylvanian Trilogy) (The Writing on the Wall the Transylvanian Trilogy)
One can't expect a trilogy of novels that climaxes with the advent of World War I to end happily, and Bánffy's masterful trilogy does not. He sees the war as having been avoidable, and that it was not avoided as a disaster. The political thread that forms a significant part of the novels is bleak, and so are the stories of the characters' lives. The cousin whose self-destruction we have followed comes to a sad end, as does the romance Balint, the upright and well-meaning cousin, has pursued for years. The three novels together form a fascinating ride through pivotal years in Hungarian history, a history I now wish to know better.
Jake Arnott: The House of Rumour: A Novel
Scientologists, Nazis, alien-abduction enthusiasts, rock glitterati, science fiction writers who take themselves entirely too seriously: Southern California has them all, and they all strut their stuff in Jake Arnott's novel House of Rumour, along with real-life oddities like the Ayn Randian borderline-fascist sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein, scientologist-in-chief L. Ron Hubbard, and physicist and occultist Jack Parsons. Arnott successfully choreographs this ragbag of Southern Californian eccentricity (and worse) into an engaging novel that is a successful depiction of that charged locale in the immediate aftermath of World War II, a time when the space program was just taking off, and science fiction writers and readers saw their dreams coming true (thanks in part to the conveniently de-Nazified physicists now at work in the hills above Pasadena). Lay over this an occult grid—which may be just a creation of various countries' secret services, or maybe not—and one has a picture of the times at once accurate and intriguingly bent.
Miklós Bánffy: They Were Found Wanting (Writing on the Wall: The Transylvania Trilogy)
A lot of trilogies sag in the middle. This one doesn't. Indeed, rather than seeming like a discrete entity, it's very much a continuation of what has come before and is just as excellent. We continue to watch as one cousin loses himself to debauchery (and maybe loses his life--we're left uncertain), while the other tries to live up to what he sees as his responsibilities as an aristocrat and a land-owner while at the same time he continues to be involved in an affair with a married woman whose husband is fond of firearms and far from stable. As this volume proceeds it calls to mind more and more "The Grand Illusion." The aristocrats dance and play and the politicians concern themselves with trifles as Europe skates closer to the disaster of World War I.
Donald Fagen: Eminent Hipsters
Anyone who's ever paid attention to Steely Dan's lyrics knows that Donald Fagen can write. They will also know how he writes: cynically, sardonically, and with consummate style. That carries over to his prose in this book, the first half of which is a series of essays about the eminent hipsters--Henry Mancini, Ike Turner, Ray Charles, et al--of the title, artists who showed young Donald, when he was growing up in suburban New Jersey, "how to interpret [his] own world." (Note that the use of the word "eminent" with regard to these hipsters is a rare example of Fagen not being ironic.)
The second half is a diary he kept while on a Dukes of September tour in which he makes it clear that going on tour when you're sixty-four is a very different thing than going on tour when you're twenty-four. One reviewer suggested that Fagen was channeling his crabby Uncle Morty as he bussed from venue to venue. If that's the case, Uncle Morty was very funny indeed.
Ross Macdonald: Find a Victim: A Lew Archer Novel
This entry in the Lew Archer saga seems slightly less well-constructed than the others, but still there are sentences, paragraphs, and pages that will bring a smile. Also, further hints are dropped about Archer's past: he was, we learn, married and divorced.
Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (The Transylvanian Trilogy) (The Writing on the Wall: the Transylvanian Trilogy)
They Were Counted is the first book in a trilogy published in Hungary in the 1930s and '40s. Anyone reading this first entry will be happy that it is a trilogy, that having finished it one is not expelled from Edwardian-era Hungary, a world unfamiliar and fascinating. Miklós Bánffy has populated this world with human beings—Hungarian aristocrats for the most part—who are entirely convincing even as they live a social round that will be strange to all of us except for the glimpses we've seen of it in literature: we follow two cousins as they move from ball to hunt to duel to casino, from mountain castles to town houses in Budapest, and watch one destroy himself with debauchery, and the other try diligently to do the right thing as a large landowner and a politician. All of it is fascinating, elegantly and leisurely told.