A captivating portrait of a remote region of the world that many readers may know nothing about.

THE AMUR RIVER

BETWEEN RUSSIA AND CHINA

The celebrated British travel writer takes us on a fascinating journey along the Amur River.

In his latest adventure, octogenarian Thubron planned to follow the river “as it flows through south-east Siberia then meets China, then breaks for the Pacific.” For more than 1,000 of its 2,600 miles (which includes its source river, the Argun), the Amur forms the border between the Russian Far East and northeastern China. The Chinese call it Heilongjiang, which means “Black Dragon River, for the dragon’s imperial grandeur.” One of his first guides, a Mongolian horseman, warned him about the dangerous, “almost impassable” landscape. Shortly after starting out, the author suffered an injury, which forced him to question his body’s ability to keep up—yet, as always, he persevered. Standing out as a foreigner in a region that rarely hosts travelers, Thubron became the object of covert attention. Often, this curiosity resulted only in extended gazes and innocent questions, but he also endured numerous police interrogations and a nagging fear that he was being followed. Accompanied by various guides, the author made his way through this vast, unforgiving territory by car, boat, and train, evoking with beautiful detail and compassion its rich history and culture. Though the region is shrouded with mistrust, Thubron effectively brings it to life. Throughout his trip, the author engaged in discussions with local residents, who openly shared their personal feelings and histories as if they were longtime friends. Many villagers lamented the loss of their native cultures and offered conflicting views about the ownership of the region. The Chinese spoke of Russian land grabs and the profound unease of Chinese artifacts lying inside Russian borders, while Mongolians and Russians claimed that the Chinese were stripping the land and infiltrating every aspect of business. Thubron also laments the demise of the region’s Indigenous cultures and languages. Readers will, too, as they savor this enthralling travel narrative.

A captivating portrait of a remote region of the world that many readers may know nothing about.

Pub Date: Sept. 21, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-06-309968-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 18, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2021

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Occasionally unfocused, but redeems itself by putting a vivid, human face on an unimaginable nightmare.

THE GREAT MORTALITY

AN INTIMATE HISTORY OF THE BLACK DEATH, THE MOST DEVASTATING PLAGUE OF ALL TIME

A ground-level illustration of how the plague ravaged Europe.

For his tenth book, science writer Kelly (Three on the Edge, 1999, etc.) delivers a cultural history of the Black Death based on accounts left by those who witnessed the greatest natural disaster in human history. Spawned somewhere on the steppes of Central Asia, the plague arrived in Europe in 1347, when a Genoese ship carried it to Sicily from a trading post on the Black Sea. Over the next four years, at a time when, as the author notes, “nothing moved faster than the fastest horse,” the disease spread through the entire continent. Eventually, it claimed 25 million lives, one third of the European population. A thermonuclear war would be an equivalent disaster by today's standards, Kelly avers. Much of the narrative depends on the reminiscences of monks, doctors, and other literate people who buried corpses or cared for the sick. As a result, the author has plenty of anecdotes. Common scenes include dogs and children running naked, dirty, and wild through the streets of an empty village, their masters and parents dead; Jews burnt at the stake, scapegoats in a paranoid Christian world; and physicians at the University of Paris consulting the stars to divine cures. These tales give the author opportunities to show Europeans—filthy, malnourished, living in densely packed cities—as easy targets for rats and their plague-bearing fleas. They also allow him to ramble. Kelly has a tendency to lose the trail of the disease in favor of tangents about this or that king, pope, or battle. He returns to his topic only when he shifts to a different country or city in a new chapter, giving the book a haphazard feel. Remarkably, the story ends on a hopeful note. After so many perished, Europe was forced to develop new forms of technology to make up for the labor shortage, laying the groundwork for the modern era.

Occasionally unfocused, but redeems itself by putting a vivid, human face on an unimaginable nightmare.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-06-000692-7

Page Count: 384

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2005

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The definitive biography of a legendary adventurer.

SHACKLETON

THE BIOGRAPHY

A world-renowned explorer and prolific writer turns his attention to Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922), a giant of the heroic age of polar exploration, with entirely satisfying results.

Already a biographer of Robert Falcon Scott, it seemed inevitable that Fiennes would take on Shackleton, who dealt successfully with disaster—a unique trait among 19th- and early-20th-century British explorers. Born to an Anglo-Irish family, Shackleton yearned for adventure from childhood. After years as a merchant seaman, he pulled strings to join Scott’s 1901-1903 Discovery Expedition to Antarctica, where he, Scott, and another engaged in a brutal trek toward the South Pole that reached nearly 82 degrees south, a record, before they turned back. Evacuated because of debility, he returned to England before the others and became a national celebrity for his charisma and speaking skills as well as his accomplishments. Yearning to make his own mark, in 1909, he organized an expedition that, after unspeakable suffering, turned back about 100 miles from the South Pole. Fiennes emphasizes that this decision showed intelligence as well as courage because, starving and ill, everyone would certainly have died if they continued south. Fiennes excels in describing Shackleton’s apotheosis. Leading an expedition to cross Antarctica, in 1915, his ship became trapped in ice; nine months later, the ice crushed it. After months drifting on ice floes, he led his men to an isolated island and then piloted a small boat across 800 miles of stormy seas to a whaling station on South Georgia Island to organize a rescue. Having literally walked in Shackleton’s footsteps, Fiennes is uniquely qualified to describe his experiences, analyze his mistakes, and contradict other biographers. While scholars almost universally condemn Shackleton (and Scott) for eschewing skis, Fiennes explains that skis are a hindrance when dragging a heavy sledge. For those inclined to disagree, he points out that he came to this conclusion dragging his own sledge across Antarctica in 1993.

The definitive biography of a legendary adventurer.

Pub Date: Jan. 4, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-64313-879-4

Page Count: 452

Publisher: Pegasus

Review Posted Online: Oct. 20, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2021

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