For my "once in a while lighter reading" I took this book from my parents. They've been long praising Akunin for his detective stories, and given that "Diamond chariot" is about Japan, I decided to give it a try.
The book has a weird structure: two volumes - the first about 150 pages long, the second about 550 pages long. Quite unusual, eh ? The first volume tells about a Japanese spy in Russia during the war of 1903. His goal is to detonate an important railroad, to ruin the Russians' ability to transfer food and ammunition to their eastern front. Akunin's main character (who appears in many of his books, I was told) Fandorin takes the detective role, trying to stop the spy.
The second volume goes 25 years back, when Fandorin came as a young attache assistant to Yokohama. There, he goes through many adventures, investigating the death of a Russian ship-captain, fighting for a woman, exposing double-agents in the Japanese police, fighting against, and then with the ninjas, etc. It's needless to say that the two volumes are tightly connected. The end is, at the least, quite shocking.
"Diamond chariot" is a nice, light read. That I finished a 700 page book in 4 days (with my schedule...) itself tells a lot. You just can't put it down... It's also full of curious historic and cultural facts. Akunin studied Japanese history/art and lived in Japan, so the book is packed with interesting information. I learned quite a lot about the life in Japan in the end of the 19th century - the culture, the mix with the foreigners, the politics. I also didn't really know much about the Russia vs. Japan war in the beginning of the 1900s, before I read the book. I don't know how much about the ninjas and various Japanese customs is true, but in any case it makes a great read.
I confidently recommend this book - it's really good. But you would have to know Russian to read it. Or get your hands on a translation (I don't know of any, but I didn't really look).