Continuing to build up my TBR for 2021, especially with lockdown looming from Boxing Day and this time I am looking at some of the non-fiction that I want to read in the coming year. I have a lot more of my list, as I like to delve into non-fiction in between SFF especially those that leave me with a book hangover.
Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia – Christina Thompson
A blend of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Simon Winchester’s Pacific, a thrilling intellectual detective story that looks deep into the past to uncover who first settled the islands of the remote Pacific, where they came from, how they got there, and how we know.
For more than a millennium, Polynesians have occupied the remotest islands in the Pacific Ocean, a vast triangle stretching from Hawaii to New Zealand to Easter Island. Until the arrival of European explorers they were the only people to have ever lived there. Both the most closely related and the most widely dispersed people in the world before the era of mass migration, Polynesians can trace their roots to a group of epic voyagers who ventured out into the unknown in one of the greatest adventures in human history.
How did the earliest Polynesians find and colonize these far-flung islands? How did a people without writing or metal tools conquer the largest ocean in the world? This conundrum, which came to be known as the Problem of Polynesian Origins, emerged in the eighteenth century as one of the great geographical mysteries of mankind.
For Christina Thompson, this mystery is personal: her Maori husband and their sons descend directly from these ancient navigators. In Sea People, Thompson explores the fascinating story of these ancestors, as well as those of the many sailors, linguists, archaeologists, folklorists, biologists, and geographers who have puzzled over this history for three hundred years. A masterful mix of history, geography, anthropology, and the science of navigation, Sea People combines the thrill of exploration with the drama of discovery in a vivid tour of one of the most captivating regions in the world.
The Outlaw Ocean: Journey’s Across the Last Untamed Frontier – Ian Urbina
There are few remaining frontiers on our planet. But perhaps the wildest, and least understood, are the world’s oceans: too big to police, and under no clear international authority, these immense regions of treacherous water play host to rampant criminality and exploitation.
Traffickers and smugglers, pirates and mercenaries, wreck thieves and repo men, vigilante conservationists and elusive poachers, seabound abortion providers, clandestine oil-dumpers, shackled slaves and cast-adrift stowaways — drawing on five years of perilous and intrepid reporting, often hundreds of miles from shore, Ian Urbina introduces us to the inhabitants of this hidden world. Through their stories of astonishing courage and brutality, survival and tragedy, he uncovers a globe-spanning network of crime and exploitation that emanates from the fishing, oil and shipping industries, and on which the world’s economies rely.
Both a gripping adventure story and a stunning expose, this unique work of reportage brings fully into view for the first time the disturbing reality of a floating world that connects us all, a place where anyone can do anything because no one is watching.
The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands – Huw Lewis-Jones
It’s one of the first things we discover as children, reading and drawing: Maps have a unique power to transport us to distant lands on wondrous travels. Put a map at the start of a book, and we know an adventure is going to follow. Displaying this truth with beautiful full-color illustrations, The Writer’s Map is an atlas of the journeys that our most creative storytellers have made throughout their lives. This magnificent collection encompasses not only the maps that appear in their books but also the many maps that have inspired them, the sketches that they used while writing, and others that simply sparked their curiosity.
Philip Pullman recounts the experience of drawing a map as he set out on one of his early novels, The Tin Princess. Miraphora Mina recalls the creative challenge of drawing up ”The Marauder’s Map” for the Harry Potter films. David Mitchell leads us to the Mappa Mundi by way of Cloud Atlas and his own sketch maps. Robert Macfarlane reflects on the cartophilia that has informed his evocative nature writing, which was set off by Robert Louis Stevenson and his map of Treasure Island. Joanne Harris tells of her fascination with Norse maps of the universe. Reif Larsen writes about our dependence on GPS and the impulse to map our experience. Daniel Reeve describes drawing maps and charts for The Hobbit film trilogy. This exquisitely crafted and illustrated atlas explores these and so many more of the maps writers create and are inspired by—some real, some imagined—in both words and images.
Amid a cornucopia of 167 full-color images, we find here maps of the world as envisaged in medieval times, as well as maps of adventure, sci-fi and fantasy, nursery rhymes, literary classics, and collectible comics. An enchanting visual and verbal journey, The Writer’s Map will be irresistible for lovers of maps, literature, and memories—and anyone prone to flights of the imagination.
Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies – Alistair Bonnett
A tour of the world’s hidden geographies—from disappearing islands to forbidden deserts—and a stunning testament to how mysterious the world remains todayAt a time when Google Maps Street View can take you on a virtual tour of Yosemite’s remotest trails and cell phones double as navigational systems, it’s hard to imagine there’s any uncharted ground left on the planet. In Unruly Places, Alastair Bonnett goes to some of the most unexpected, offbeat places in the world to reinspire our geographical imagination.
Bonnett’s remarkable tour includes moving villages, secret cities, no man’s lands, and floating islands. He explores places as disorienting as Sandy Island, an island included on maps until just two years ago despite the fact that it never existed. Or Sealand, an abandoned gun platform off the English coast that a British citizen claimed as his own sovereign nation, issuing passports and crowning his wife as a princess. Or Baarle, a patchwork of Dutch and Flemish enclaves where walking from the grocery store’s produce section to the meat counter can involve crossing national borders.
An intrepid guide down the road much less traveled, Bonnett reveals that the most extraordinary places on earth might be hidden in plain sight, just around the corner from your apartment or underfoot on a wooded path. Perfect for urban explorers, wilderness ramblers, and armchair travelers struck by wanderlust, Unruly Places will change the way you see the places you inhabit.
Prisoners of Geography – Tim Marshall
In the bestselling tradition of Why Nations Fail and The Revenge of Geography, an award-winning journalist uses ten maps of crucial regions to explain the geo-political strategies of the world powers.
All leaders of nations are constrained by geography. Their choices are limited by mountains, rivers, seas, and concrete. To understand world events, news organizations and other authorities often focus on people, ideas, and political movements, but without geography, we never have the full picture. Now, in the relevant and timely Prisoners of Geography, seasoned journalist Tim Marshall examines Russia, China, the USA, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Japan and Korea, and Greenland and the Arctic—their weather, seas, mountains, rivers, deserts, and borders—to provide a context often missing from our political reportage: how the physical characteristics of these countries affect their strengths and vulnerabilities and the decisions made by their leaders.
In ten, up-to-date maps of each region, Marshall explains in clear and engaging prose the complex geo-political strategies of these key parts of the globe. What does it mean that Russia must have a navy, but also has frozen ports six months a year? How does this affect Putin’s treatment of Ukraine? How is China’s future constrained by its geography? Why will Europe never be united? Why will America never be invaded? Shining a light on the unavoidable physical realities that shape all of our aspirations and endeavors, Prisoners of Geography is the critical guide to one of the major (and most often overlooked) determining factors in world history.
Underland: A Deep Time Journey – Robert Macfarlane
In Underland, Robert Macfarlane delivers an epic exploration of the Earth’s underworlds as they exist in myth, literature, memory, and the land itself. Traveling through the dizzying expanse of geologic time—from prehistoric art in Norwegian sea caves, to the blue depths of the Greenland ice cap, to a deep-sunk “hiding place” where nuclear waste will be stored for 100,000 years to come—Underland takes us on an extraordinary journey into our relationship with darkness, burial, and what lies beneath the surface of both place and mind.
Global in its geography and written with great lyricism, Underland speaks powerfully to our present moment. At once ancient and urgent, this is a book that will change the way you see the world.
Unnatural Causes: The Life and Many Deaths of Britain’s Top Forensic Pathologist – Richard Shepherd
As the UK’s top forensic pathologist, Dr Richard Shepherd has spent a lifetime uncovering the secrets of the dead. When death is sudden or unexplained, it falls to Shepherd to establish the cause. Each post-mortem is a detective story in its own right – and Shepherd has performed over 23,000 of them. Through his skill, dedication and insight, Dr Shepherd solves the puzzle to answer our most pressing question: how did this person die?
From serial killer to natural disaster, ‘perfect murder’ to freak accident, Shepherd takes nothing for granted in pursuit of truth. And while he’s been involved in some of the most high-profile cases of recent times, it’s often the less well known encounters that prove the most perplexing, intriguing and even bizarre. In or out of the public eye, his evidence has put killers behind bars, freed the innocent and turned open-and-shut cases on their heads.
But a life in death, bearing witness to some of humanity’s darkest corners, exacts a price and Shepherd doesn’t flinch from counting the cost to him and his family.
Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town – Barbara Demick
Just as she did with North Korea, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick explores one of the most hidden corners of the world. She tells the story of a Tibetan town perched eleven thousand feet above sea level that is one of the most difficult places in all of China for foreigners to visit. Ngaba was one of the first places where the Tibetans and the Chinese Communists encountered one another. In the 1930s, Mao Zedong’s Red Army fled into the Tibetan plateau to escape their adversaries in the Chinese Civil War. By the time the soldiers reached Ngaba, they were so hungry that they looted monasteries and ate religious statues made of flour and butter—to Tibetans, it was as if they were eating the Buddha. Their experiences would make Ngaba one of the engines of Tibetan resistance for decades to come, culminating in shocking acts of self-immolation.
Eat the Buddha spans decades of modern Tibetan and Chinese history, as told through the private lives of Demick’s subjects, among them a princess whose family is wiped out during the Cultural Revolution, a young Tibetan nomad who becomes radicalized in the storied monastery of Kirti, an upwardly mobile entrepreneur who falls in love with a Chinese woman, a poet and intellectual who risks everything to voice his resistance, and a Tibetan schoolgirl forced to choose at an early age between her family and the elusive lure of Chinese money. All of them face the same dilemma: Do they resist the Chinese, or do they join them? Do they adhere to Buddhist teachings of compassion and nonviolence, or do they fight?
Barbarians at the wall: The First Nomadic Empire and the Making of China – John Man
The people of the first nomadic empire left no written records, but from 200 BC they dominated the heart of Asia for 400 years. They changed the world. The Mongols, today’s descendants of Genghis Khan, see them as ancestors. Their rise cemented Chinese unity and inspired the first Great Wall. Their heirs under Attila the Hun helped destroy the Roman Empire.
We don’t know what language they spoke, but they became known as Xiongnu, or Hunnu, a term passed down the centuries and across Eurasia, enduring today in shortened form as ‘Hun’. Outside Asia precious little is known of their rich history, but new evidence reframes our understanding of the indelible mark they left on a vast region stretching from Europe and sweeping right across Central Asia deep into China.
The Natural Navigator – Tristan Gooley
Starting with a simple question – ‘Which way am I looking?’ – Tristan Gooley blends natural science, myth, folklore and the history of travel to introduce you to the rare and ancient art of finding your way using nature’s own sign-posts, from the feel of a rock to the look of the moon.
In this fully updated edition you’ll learn why some trees grow the way they do and how they can help you find your way in the countryside. You’ll discover how it’s possible to find North simply by looking at a puddle and how natural signs can be used to navigate on the open ocean and in the heart of the city. Wonderfully detailed and full of fascinating stories, this is a glorious exploration of the rediscovered art of natural navigation.