Today's Top Picks

Best Laid PlansClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Gwen Florio

Summary

Nora Best is the envy of her friends. She's just turned fifty and has traded in her home with The Perfect-Ass Husband for an Airstream trailer and an adventure of a lifetime across the US.

But during their leaving party, Nora finds her husband in a compromising position with a friend. Storming out of the party she jumps into her truck with no idea how to tow the Airstream or where she's going.

Nora ends up in a campground in the mountains of Wyoming, drowning her sorrows with its managers, Brad and Miranda. When she is woken by a frantic Miranda after Brad has disappeared and bloodstains have been found around the campsite, Nora finds herself caught up in an adventure she could never have expected...facing a charge of murder.

BookBrowse Review

When starting a series, first impressions are key. Introducing a sympathetic or relatable protagonist – preferably flawed in some way – is crucial so the first book provides traction for character development in future installments. In Best Laid Plans, Gwen Florio's heroine Nora Best has plenty of room for growth. She suffers from subtle character flaws, including an obsession with food, coffee snobbery and judging people based on their sex appeal. Nora's personality didn't make me particularly sympathetic to her plight. Nonetheless, she comes off as remarkably genuine – an urbane 50-year-old woman stuck in the woods.

Nora is an upper-class author from Denver who is married to an attractive lawyer. The fun starts with the couple having sold everything to take a yearlong tour of the United States with a souped-up pickup and a large, bourgeois, customized camper trailer. Their goal is to meander across the country in luxury while Nora writes about exploring the U.S. with her dreamy husband and having lots of sex. She's been given advance money for her as-of-yet unwritten adventure because her editor sees potential after the moderate success of her first book, also about her sex life with her husband.

Fortunately for the reader, this farce of a romance novel never happens.

The night before they are to leave, Nora catches her husband having sex with his best friend's wife. (To add insult to injury, Nora has already derided the woman for letting herself go with age, commenting on fat hanging from under her arms — again, she is not the most sympathetic of heroines.) Nora storms off and hops into the new truck attached to the massive camper trailer, and even though two pages earlier she'd been slamming tequila shots and has never driven a truck with a 20-plus foot attachment, she somehow manages to leave her husband in the dust for Wyoming.

From here, several expected subplots are foreshadowed. Nora overhears news on the radio about a serial killer targeting sex workers in the area. Naturally, she decides to stop at a campsite in the mountains 30 minutes from where the killer last struck. There she meets the attractive man who runs the site with his equally attractive wife.

Alas, that night something very bad happens. We are thrust into a mystery. The attractive man has disappeared! They find a little blood but no body. And as though serial killers and missing hotties aren't enough, we discover that grizzlies are known to roam the area. Could it have been a bear attack?!

Several more cliché male characters are subsequently introduced, including a small-town, not-too-bright sheriff, and a good-looking, super-dependable outdoorsy bear lover named Caleb. Guess which one Nora feels closer to?

Overall, Best Laid Plans is a bit of a tease. It seduces with a quick-moving plot, a few charming characters, and just enough tension to not be a bore. Like all teases, though, it also leaves you hanging for more. The author continually brings up sexual tension; yet there is barely any sex. The book throws new distractions and "what ifs" into the mystery, yet in the end, the villains are probably who you suspect.

That said, Florio is a great writer. Her descriptions of nature and food were vivid and engaging, often nice distractions from the less than suspenseful plot. At times I felt like I was reading a world-class food blog, as Nora waxes on about delicious chicken-fried steak and berry pies from hole-in-the-wall establishments.

If you're looking for some fun, easy reading by a gifted writer, I definitely recommend this one. If you prefer suspenseful thrillers or complex plotlines, you may want to look elsewhere.

Book reviewed by Ian Muehlenhaus

Beyond the Book:
Overcoming Arkoudaphobia: The Rarity of Bear Attacks in North America

Brown bear standing in a grassy area looking at the cameraBears terrify a lot of people. So much so that "arkoudaphobia" — the fear of bears — is a common phenomenon.

However, the danger bears pose to people in North America is massively embellished in the public's collective psyche. Fantastical representations of bears in literature, television and film have exacerbated arkoudaphobia. The Oscar-winning film The Revenant is one example of bear mauling dramatization. The 1989 book We're Going on a Bear Hunt is an example of early fear-building among children.

In actuality, given how little wild habitat bears have left and the penchant humans have to hike through the bear territory that remains, attacks are very rare. To be so unfortunate as to die by mauling — at least in the jowls of a bear — would require a similar amount of luck (or lack thereof) as winning the lottery. In Yellowstone National Park, an area with quite a few grizzly bears and over 118 million visits since 1979, there have only been 44 total bear attacks and no fatalities. All in all, you only have a 1 in 2.6 million chance of being attacked by a bear in Yellowstone Park. In the last 16 years, there have only been two fatal bear attacks on the Appalachian Trail — one of the most heavily traveled trails in North America.

The major factors impacting the likelihood of a bear attack are: bear familiarity with humans; the proximity of offspring; and whether or not a bear is caught off-guard by its contact with humans. Certain species of North American bears tend to be more aggressive than others, but even this is not as black-and-brown as it first seems!

Black bears, the smallest bears found in North America, weigh between 150 and 350 pounds and tend to be the least aggressive. One reason for their tendency to run rather than fight may be that they have claws that allow them to easily climb trees — no other bear species in North America can do this. This offers black bears an alternative to aggression when they feel cornered in the woods. Like all bears, black bears love to eat. They aren't interested in eating humans, they just want our food. Most black bear disturbances are from dumpster diving, not home invasion. This is fortunate, as the black bear ecosystem overlaps with several of the more populated areas of North America. Their habitat stretches from Florida all the way up the Appalachian Mountains well into Canada, and across the forests of the upper Midwest. Research suggests that black bears that are exposed to humans are far less likely to attack. Turns out, once black bears get to know us, we're really not that interesting to them.

Brown bears, also commonly referred to as "grizzlies," are typically larger, weighing in anywhere from 300-1,700 pounds, depending on their diet and habitat. (If you'd like to see some larger specimens, check out the Katmai Conservancy's annual Fat Bear Week competition.) Though they tend to be more aggressive when defending their offspring, brown bear attacks are even rarer than those by black bears. This is most likely due to sparse human populations where the majority of U.S. grizzlies remain — in Wyoming, Montana and Alaska.

Unfortunately, this statistic may be of little reassurance for arkoudaphobes. Given a typical brown bear's size, it is far more likely to inflict severe corporal damage than a black bear. (Its jaws can crush a human skull!) Research suggests brown bears that are familiar with humans are far less likely to attack. Alternatively, too much desensitization to humans can encourage them to roam further into populated areas, actually increasing the likelihood of dangerous interactions. Regardless, all bets are off if you stumble upon a mother brown bear and her cubs.

Perhaps given that brown bears cannot climb trees, when they feel endangered or surprised, they appear far more likely to charge at and even attack those who come near. Don't bet on outrunning an angry brown bear either. With speeds of up to 34 miles per hour, your best bet may be to climb the nearest tree.

Polar bears are a different story altogether. Though media representations of polar bears are often positive and endearing — think of Coca-Cola commercials, stuffed animals and environmentalist pleas — these black-skinned, white-furred descendants of brown bears are apex predators, and humans aren't necessarily taboo. Though they live in some of the most remote areas in the northern hemisphere (near and in the Arctic), if you're going to rationally fear any type of bear, this is the species.

Polar bears are extremely dangerous when encountered in the wild. They may become more so in the near future, because their natural food supply (seals) are disappearing with the sea ice. (On the morbid side, it is estimated that polar bears will be extinct by 2100. Future generations of arkoudaphobes may be able to check this species off their list!) Whereas the other species of bear almost always only attack humans out of fear — for their offspring or themselves — polar bears, by contrast, have been known to prey on humans. Nonetheless, due to the fact that polar bears and humans do not often cross paths, polar bear attacks are very rare.

Are bears dangerous? Yes! All bears are unpredictable, wild animals.

Are bears vicious? Generally, no. In fact, black and brown bears are often just looking for easy food. Once they get a taste of human food, they prefer digging in coolers and backpacks over finding blueberries or fishing. Unfortunately, a taste for chips and bratwursts may make them a bit more brazen around humans, leading to some unfortunate encounters.

Should you be fearful of going in the woods because of bears? No.

Every year around 150 Americans die from hitting deer while driving. Likely because death by mammal stepping in front of your car isn't as sensational, few Americans suffer from elafiphobia — fear of deer. By contrast, only 68 people have been killed by bears in the United States and Canada since 1960. A large percentage of these deaths have occurred in remote areas of Canada, where bears are less familiar with humans. Statistically, at least, it makes more sense to be scared of death by deer on the way to the woods than death by bear while in the woods.

Brown bear in Alaska's Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge by Yathin S. Krishnappa

Last Night at the Telegraph ClubClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Malinda Lo

Summary

"That book. It was about two women, and they fell in love with each other." And then Lily asked the question that had taken root in her, that was even now unfurling its leaves and demanding to be shown the sun: "Have you ever heard of such a thing?"

Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu can't remember exactly when the question took root, but the answer was in full bloom the moment she and Kathleen Miller walked under the flashing neon sign of a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club.

America in 1954 is not a safe place for two girls to fall in love, especially not in Chinatown. Red-Scare paranoia threatens everyone, including Chinese Americans like Lily. With deportation looming over her father--despite his hard-won citizenship--Lily and Kath risk everything to let their love see the light of day.

BookBrowse Review

Author Malinda Lo takes readers to Chinatown, San Francisco in 1954, where 17-year-old Lily Hu is looking to her future amidst the Red Scare, cultural pressures and discovering who she is – and who she loves – in Last Night at the Telegraph Club. The young adult novel follows Lily as she navigates her last year of school as a Chinese American girl who has aspirations of a career in math like her Aunt Judy who works for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Lily starts a friendship with Kathleen Miller – the only other girl in the advanced math class – while grappling with questions about her sexuality, feelings she does not have words to express, but that she cannot deny. Kathleen takes Lily to the Telegraph Club to see a male impersonator, and in this new world, Lily finds the space and words to better understand herself, and the feelings she realizes that she has for Kathleen. But unfortunately, it is still the 1950s; Joseph McCarthy might have fallen out of favor, but the Red Scare is far from over, and Lily is doubly threatened as a lesbian and as someone of Chinese descent as the United States becomes more opposed to China's leftist movement. Lily's freedom in discovering who she is conflicts with her loyalty to her family — her father's citizenship papers are taken by the FBI after she inadvertently associates with someone suspected of being a communist. At the same time, Kathleen's presence in Lily's life leads to tension with Shirley, her best friend since childhood. But the Telegraph Club remains a stolen space of freedom, and having found that space, Lily cannot just go back to who she was before. Lo gives readers a deep exploration of love across boundaries, unfettered in both its joy and its pains, that's easy to empathize with.

The novel is told primarily from Lily's time, but also includes flashbacks to her parents' lives, interspersed with historical context. The latter is thorough but far from dry, and an author's note further explores some of the themes. Lo explains that the inspiration for Lily came from two books on uncovered histories of women in rocket science and a queer history of San Francisco that included people of color in this community. She also provides specific histories on language, the 1950s, San Francisco and Chinatown specifically, plus a bibliography of further resources. Lo's extensive research makes this a YA novel with real historical teeth, grounded in the time period, geography, culture and history it is representing, offering a new window into an underrepresented intersection of identities. She does not sugarcoat reality, but still leaves readers with a sense of hope and appreciation for the power of young love and the true freedom of knowing oneself.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a powerful coming-of-age story that expands on hidden histories of a particular period of the United States from several angles, in beautiful, moving prose.

Book reviewed by Michelle Anya Anjirbag

Beyond the Book:
Anti-Chinese Sentiment Past and Present

Mannequins wearing masks that say I Am Not a VirusIn Last Night at the Telegraph Club, some of the pressure that Lily faces in her family life is related to their precarious situation as immigrants, specifically as Chinese immigrants in the aftermath of the anti-communist hysteria of McCarthyism. Chinese immigrants have a long, often obscured history in the United States, which includes several exclusion acts that were essentially part of a strategy to keep U.S. immigration, and the country's citizenry, of white, European descent. Despite the gradual repeal of these measures, Sinophobia, or Anti-Chinese sentiment and racism, was prevalent in the U.S. at the time the book is set, and it still persists today, as has been made more openly apparent by some of the national discourse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy became a prominent voice of anti-communist sentiment as the Cold War persisted. His Red Scare tactics included assertions that the U.S. had been infiltrated by foreign agents who intended to subvert both the fabric of society and the federal government. Accusations flew, with government representatives, Hollywood elite and ordinary citizens alike being reported as communists or communist sympathizers. Individuals from communist or communist-leaning countries, such as China, were considered especially suspect. However, the idea that East Asian cultures posed an existential threat to "Western" ways of life — often called "the yellow peril" — had been part of the American imaginary since the 19th century.

This is the situation Lily's family would have been facing. When her father's citizenship papers are confiscated by the FBI, Lily's mother remarks, "They are looking for scapegoats…They're using these investigations as an excuse to deport Chinese." The threat hangs doubly for Lily, who is not only Chinese American but also discovering her sexuality and becoming involved in San Francisco's underground lesbian subculture. McCarthy and his followers also propagated anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, equating homosexuality with communism.

Despite the gains made in the Civil Rights Movement, Sinophobia persists in the United States. China's rise to a global superpower has led to a polarized relationship in which the two countries are often positioned as antithetical to each other. Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and subsequent administration kicked off an uptick in anti-Chinese sentiment through trade wars, harsh rhetoric and increased visa restrictions and revocations on Chinese national scholars and students. Sinophobia was compounded in 2020 by Trump's rhetoric (repeated by his followers) about COVID-19, which he called the "Chinese virus," "Wuhan virus," "Wuflu," "Kung Flu," and other slurs implicating those of Chinese descent as culpable in its spread. Organizations like Human Rights Watch have linked such statements and attitudes to a worldwide increase in Anti-Asian racism, xenophobia and violence.

There has been a recent spate of crimes against Asian American elders in particular, with many incidents reported in the Bay Area where Malinda Lo's novel is set. If you want to help deter crimes like these and/or donate to the victims or community organizations that badly need support, check out the list of resources in this article from Bustle.

In the contemporary United States, Lily's dream of working on rocket development in Last Night at the Telegraph Club might be more easily attainable and she might feel more comfortable about being queer, but her Chinese identity and heritage would still be a source of tension and marginalization

Anti-Sinophobia masks, courtesy of Kentoh/Shutterstock

No One Is Talking About ThisClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Patricia Lockwood

Summary

As this urgent, genre-defying book opens, a woman who has recently been elevated to prominence for her social media posts travels around the world to meet her adoring fans. She is overwhelmed by navigating the new language and etiquette of what she terms "the portal," where she grapples with an unshakable conviction that a vast chorus of voices is now dictating her thoughts. When existential threats--from climate change and economic precariousness to the rise of an unnamed dictator and an epidemic of loneliness--begin to loom, she posts her way deeper into the portal's void. An avalanche of images, details, and references accumulate to form a landscape that is post-sense, post-irony, post-everything. "Are we in hell?" the people of the portal ask themselves. "Are we all just going to keep doing this until we die?"

Suddenly, two texts from her mother pierce the fray: "Something has gone wrong," and "How soon can you get here?" As real life and its stakes collide with the increasingly absurd antics of the portal, the woman confronts a world that seems to contain both an abundance of proof that there is goodness, empathy, and justice in the universe, and a deluge of evidence to the contrary.

Fragmentary and omniscient, incisive and sincere, No One Is Talking About This is at once a love letter to the endless scroll and a profound, modern meditation on love, language, and human connection from a singular voice in American literature.

BookBrowse Review

If anyone knows the ins and outs of living online, it's Patricia Lockwood. Before her stellar memoir Priestdaddy, Lockwood was well known for "Rape Joke," a 2013 self-referential poem that was published on the website The Awl and soon went viral; she's also pushed the boundaries of social media content as literature on Twitter, with her hilarious and sometimes inscrutable "sext" tweets dancing on the lines between poetry, absurdity and obscenity.

The main character of her debut novel No One Is Talking About This, then, feels like a type close to the author. Having become — in a turn of events surprising even to herself — famous for tweeting "Can a dog be twins?," the book's unnamed protagonist now spends her time traveling around the world, appearing as a social media expert at conferences and bookstores, and delivering guest lectures at universities and museums:

During these appearances there entered into her body what she thought of as a demon of performance, an absolutely intact personality that she had no access to in ordinary times.

These rarified moments seem all the more extraordinary when coming from a woman who sits on panels and tries to explain "why it was objectively funnier to spell it 'sneazing.'"

The first half of the novel is largely formless and plotless, consisting of bursts of insight into modern life — especially the internet (which she calls "the portal") — alternating with absurdity and disorientation as the protagonist travels both literally and figuratively through this brave new world: participating in exchanges with total strangers online and with other so-called experts on panels, trading funny texts with her husband and with her sister, who's expecting a baby. Throughout, the narration is fluid, with frequent shifts of perspective between "I" and "she" further off-balancing the reader. In a way, this half of the book feels like the internet itself — disjointed, bawdy, infused with unearned confidence and genuine bewilderment that this is what we have come to, individually and collectively, both despising the online world and being incapable of disengaging from it:

When she set the portal down, the Thread tugged her back toward it. She could not help following it. This might be the one that connected everything, that would knit her to an indestructible coherence.

And then, in a moment, the direction of the novel — and the protagonist's life — changes abruptly: "...her phone buzzed and there were the words, from her far mother, Something has gone wrong, and How soon can you get here?" In that moment, a different kind of life comes rushing in, one in which her sister's unborn baby fails to practice her breathing in utero and, later, is diagnosed with a rare and catastrophic genetic disorder.

This second half is written largely in the same fragmented style, but its focus is drastically different; now its concerns, unlike the portal, are fully embodied, virtually the antithesis of the quips and memes that have been foremost in the protagonist's mind up until this point. Fetal distress, late-term abortion restrictions and, eventually, the immediacy and bodily urgency of life with a newborn take center stage as she embraces a new kind of reality, one that requires very different things of her and that may both change her heart and break it.

It would be simplistic to suggest that what happens in the achingly lovely and at times devastatingly sad second half is a repudiation of a portal-based existence. Even in the midst of grief, it's clear that the protagonist's life and the lives of those around her are inextricable from their online presence. Furthermore, any urge to somehow be transformed into a better version of her prior self is recognized as impossible. "After this I will be able to talk only about what matters, life and death and what comes after," she vows, yet the sentence immediately continues, "but still she went on about the weather."

This is the life we've built for ourselves, Lockwood seems to say, for better or for worse; and even though it's preposterous and shallow and sometimes hurtful, it can also be a way to carve out a moment in history, a place in this world, for the short time we're here to live it.

Book reviewed by Norah Piehl

Beyond the Book:
Proteus Syndrome

Midway through Patricia Lockwood's novel No One Is Talking About This, the unnamed protagonist learns that her sister's baby has been diagnosed with Proteus syndrome. You might recognize this as the condition believed to have affected Joseph Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man, whose late-19th-century life has been dramatized in a 1979 play and a 1980 Oscar-nominated film.

Merrick's medical condition was not theorized to have been Proteus syndrome until nearly a century after his death. The condition was first reported in the late 1970s and is an extremely rare disorder, with only around 200 cases recorded worldwide. It is characterized by a highly variable and unpredictable overgrowth of skin, bones, muscles, fatty tissues and blood vessels.

Proteus syndrome is named after the Greek sea-god Proteus, who could see the future and change his shape at will, and who plays a role in Homer's Odyssey. Proteus was a "shepherd" for Poseidon's flocks of sea creatures, and he is Poseidon's son in some versions of mythological tales. His name is also the basis for the adjective "protean," meaning both able to change and versatile.

It is possible to diagnose Proteus syndrome before a child's birth based on ultrasound observations; however, most people with the condition do not carry any physical manifestations of it at birth. Instead, tumors and other atypical growth patterns are likely to arise in early childhood and continue progressing throughout an affected individual's lifetime. Those with the disorder have a reduced life expectancy due to its side effects, which include pulmonary embolisms and other blood clotting issues. They can also experience chronic pain and arthritis due to limb and organ overgrowth.

Proteus syndrome is caused by a mosaic variant in a gene called AKT1, a mutation that takes place during development rather than being inherited from a parent. Mosaicism occurs when a single individual has two or more genetically different cell sets in their body. In the case of Proteus syndrome, this appears to contribute to the highly variable characteristics of the disorder, as well as its mosaic, or patchy, presentation — affected and unaffected areas develop in a seemingly random pattern.

There is no single treatment for Proteus syndrome; rather, therapies are directed to the particular manifestations of the condition in patients and their specific medical needs. Some patients require multiple orthopedic surgeries to counteract bone overgrowth, especially when that growth interferes with joint function. A study appearing in the American Journal of Human Genetics suggests that a cancer drug, miransertib, can help control pain and lesions in people with Proteus syndrome. Like many rare diseases, Proteus syndrome is less well understood and intensively studied than better known disorders. Although there is no cure, ongoing research appears to be generally focused on improving quality of life for those affected by this condition.

A Thousand ShipsClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Natalie Haynes

Summary

This is the women's war, just as much as it is the men's. They have waited long enough for their turn...

This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of them all...

In the middle of the night, a woman wakes to find her beloved city engulfed in flames. Ten seemingly endless years of conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans are over. Troy has fallen.

From the Trojan women whose fates now lie in the hands of the Greeks, to the Amazon princess who fought Achilles on their behalf, to Penelope awaiting the return of Odysseus, to the three goddesses whose feud started it all, these are the stories of the women whose lives, loves, and rivalries were forever altered by this long and tragic war.

A woman's epic, powerfully imbued with new life, A Thousand Ships puts the women, girls and goddesses at the center of the Western world's great tale ever told.

BookBrowse Review

Recent years have seen a trend in reinventions of Greek myths and legends, some from the perspectives of women. Novels like Madeline Miller's Circe and Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls have done wonders for fleshing out and adding dimension to the library of stories from ancient Greece that we have been telling and retelling for centuries. We have even been gifted a fresh translation of the Odyssey by Emily Wilson, the first-ever rendering of Homer's epic into English to be completed by a woman. Now, classicist Natalie Haynes makes a dynamic and important addition to this library with her novel A Thousand Ships.

While Circe and The Silence of the Girls take overlooked women characters — from the Odyssey and Iliad respectively — and add weight and perspective to their stories, Haynes opts for a different approach here. And it is this approach that ultimately allows A Thousand Ships to shine: There is no central protagonist, nor one established narrator. While the muse Calliope appears and vanishes several times, the story is also guided by The Trojan Women, a group left vulnerable and frightened as the Greeks sack their home. They speak of the Amazon queen Penthesilea and Briseis, wife of the king of Lyrnessus; this leads into lengthy chapters exploring the lives and exploits of the mythological female characters.

After a prologue of sorts that sets the tone as Calliope teases at what is to come, Haynes' novel begins with the sacking of Troy. Creusa, wife of Aeneas, beholds her city — sieged for 10 years by the Greeks — burning. Twisting the tradition of Greek epics right from the start, A Thousand Ships opens with a muse for a narrator and a queen for a protagonist, rather than a poet-narrator and male-warrior-protagonist, as we see in the Iliad with Homer and his hero Achilles.

This is not to say that there aren't men in the novel. Readers well-versed in Greek epics will find familiarity at the mention of Hector, Odysseus, Agamemnon, Priam and more. But it's the women who take center stage. War has affected them as much as it has the men, and at last they're having their stories told.

A Thousand Ships takes us through different locations in time and space, covering established moments and events in Greek history and mythology, even seamlessly incorporating deities such as Gaia and Artemis. In jumping back and forth — gently yet unpredictably — it is as though Haynes is casting a length of string between various points and stitching them together through the experiences of the novel's featured women.

All this would be for naught if the characters weren't interesting, and it certainly is a tall order to ensure that each mother, daughter, soldier and civilian is given a unique voice, but Haynes does so with gusto. Her women are fully realized people with distinct personalities — most memorable, perhaps, is Penelope, wife of Odysseus, whose chapters come in the form of sarcastic, witty letters to her voyaging husband (a stylistic choice made by the author rather than an imposition of modernity). However brief characters' appearances may be, they are always given time to embed themselves in the story before it moves on. This is the book's other great strength: In its tapestry-like approach to telling its tales, A Thousand Ships succeeds in giving equal attention and flavor to every piece of the narrative.

The book does have an Achilles' heel, so to speak, that being the feeling of alienation that some readers are likely to experience. While Haynes' novel can certainly be enjoyed by anyone — its themes of war, loss, struggle and sisterhood are universal — the more familiar a reader is with classics, the more the characters will mean to them. Many mythological figures lack introduction, with the author assuming we know who they are. Readers who pick up the book without knowing the story of the Trojan War (see Beyond the Book) — along with the characters of Helen, Paris and Priam — may at times feel a little lost.

Despite this one shortcoming, A Thousand Ships is still a faultlessly drawn depiction of human life and wartime experiences. It gives new color to not only the women of Greek legend but also their men. Reading Haynes' novel feels like seeing a two-dimensional world in 3D for the first time, as so much depth and consideration is given to people and stories who have been mentioned for centuries but never fully explored in this way until now.

Book reviewed by Will Heath

Beyond the Book:
The Truth Behind Helen of Troy and the Trojan War

Head of Helen of Troy, painting by Guido Reni The story of the Trojan War, fought between the Greeks and the people of Troy, has been told and retold for thousands of years. This is in large part thanks to the efforts of Homer, the ancient Greek poet who penned the Iliad and Odyssey, recordings of epic stories set during and after the war. Legendary figure Helen of Troy plays a significant role in depictions of the conflict, which is said to have been sparked when she was whisked away from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta, by the Trojan prince Paris. But did the Trojan War actually happen, even if it didn't occur exactly as Homer and his contemporaries described it? Where was Troy and who was Helen?

As explained in a BBC article by Daisy Dunn, the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the 5th century BCE, placed the Trojan War nearly 800 years previous to his own time, within the late Bronze Age. When the poets and playwrights of ancient Greece were telling stories of the war, they generally believed it to have really occurred. But its events, even for them, would have been a distant cultural memory.

In the late-19th century CE, a Prussian businessman by the name of Heinrich Schliemann set out with the intention of finding the site where Troy had been located. The artifacts that he eventually discovered at Hisarlik, on the west coast of Turkey, did indeed suggest the existence of the city. As Dunn explains, "Most historians now agree that ancient Troy was to be found at Hisarlik. Troy was real."

So if the consensus today is that Troy once existed in what is now Turkey, does that also mean the events of the Trojan War happened? Evidence of fire and weapons found in the area suggest the possibility of warfare. Ancient inscriptions also tell of a conflict over the city. However, Dunn writes, "It is hard to imagine a war taking place on quite the scale the poet described, and lasting as long as 10 years when the citadel was fairly compact." As for Helen of Troy, she seems to have been a fantasy. If the Trojan War never happened, at least as Homer depicted it, then Helen likely never existed either.

In another BBC article, historian Bettany Hughes discusses what we know about the real-life basis for the character of Helen, explaining that "there were indeed high-ranking female aristocrats whose infidelity was enough to spark threats of war" and that Helen appears to be "a combination of real flesh and blood women of the day, and salivating fantasies about female sexuality combined with a sharp fear of female power." Hughes' comments culminate in a rather inspiring observation: "[T]he delight of Helen's story, if you read Homer carefully, is that it offers a glimpse of actual women in Europe and Asia who enjoyed status and standing and agency. When women were generally written out of history, Helen of Troy was written in."

To conclude, Troy was real, Helen was likely not, and the Trojan War — if it did happen — was not the 10-year-long epic that Homer described. Nevertheless, these stories have already lasted for millennia, and will likely last as long as humanity does.

Head of Helen of Troy, painting by Guido Reni (1575-1642) located at the National Trust in London. Source: Art UK

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BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.