My choice for best book in 2015 is Dominic Ziegler's "Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires" (Penguin Press). This is a sweeping panorama through time and space that probes the remote frontier where Russia, China and Mongolia, and the peoples and cultures of this region, intersect.
The Amur River is the centerpiece of this mesmerizing exploration of fascinating and little-known parts brought to life by astute observations spanning several centuries, and diverting digressions into all sorts of topics ranging from fauna, fowl and furs to freebooters, feral fascists and the forlorn and forgotten in this often woebegone land. Ziegler connects the dots in luminous prose and regales readers with anecdotes — such as being arrested right outside a prison for illicit dealings but then managing to spend the night in a crumbling palace that, like much of the Siberian hinterlands, had fallen into desuetude. And then there is the memorably long drive with only one CD over potholed byways in the Siberian badlands, a Boney M endless-loop inner circle of hell — think "Rah, rah Rasputin, Russia's greatest love machine!"
This is travel writing at its best, giving one a bracing sense of the discomforts endured and the enthralling but endangered ways of life in this vast, remote region of stunning vistas and natural beauty. It is intriguing to consider the clash of empires that yet reverberate, but this pales next to accompanying the naturalist, historian, sociologist, ethnographer and cultural epicurean-cum- journalist Ziegler, who holds forth at The Economist, on his adventures and follies, a riveting reminder of one's own paltry learning.