Crazy-Making Book Titles

friedagJuly 17, 2014

I have problems with some book titles, maybe because I can't remember them or they seem bizarre to me. Here are a few that drive me a bit nuts: Howards End by E. M. Forster - There is no apostrophe in Howards, but apparently I'm not the only reader/typist who mistakenly inserts one. It's such an ingrained habit. I once read an explanation as to why it's Howards, not Howard's, but now I've forgotten it. I usually mess up Howards End Is on the Landing by Susan Hill, too. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino - Baffling title of a baffling book, in my opinion, but many think the title and story are very, very clever. The Singapore Grip by J. G. Farrell - Not until years after reading the book did I realize this title is a double entendre! I think I actually blushed when someone told me.

What book titles have tripped you? Or fooled you? Or just won't stay in your memory?

I bet you players of the 'book title game that will never end' can come up with some doozies! :-)

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Hmm. Well, in this super slow season I may be posting for my own exercise, but I'm not ready to let go of this topic. So I'll muse some more in hopes that a reader might like to comment on book titles that annoy, bewilder, tantalize, or in some way don't live up to promise. Or maybe you have the opposite experience and a title that meant next to nothing to you, suddenly becomes significant. Or maybe you just like a title because it triggers an association, is clever wordplay, or is so distinctive you can't forget it even if you try.

I often wonder how much a title makes or breaks a book.

A decade or so ago, I ran across Recipes from the Dump by Abigail Stone. My first thought was good grief! Who would want to read something with such a title? I was relieved that it wasn't an actual cookbook; it's a novel with recipes interspersed in the narrative. In spite of the unfortunate (to my mind) title, the story itself is quite readable, although a bit hokey -- intentionally so, I think. I wasn't nearly as offended as I expected to be. So I looked up reviews of Stone's Recipes... and found out that many readers couldn't get past the title and even when they did, they felt compelled to dock their estimation of the story and writing just because of the title! That's kind of sad, in a way...for Ms. Stone especially.

I'm interested whether participants in the Book Title thread post mostly from 'the top of the head'. Perhaps that's why I'm not good at the game because my mental retrieval system doesn't cross reference well. I might pick up an allusion but I'm just as likely to be oblivious. It's a form of mental wordplay for which I obviously have little talent.

I am often amazed at how many titles are in some readers' heads, whether they've read the books themselves or not.

Any thoughts from you?

    Bookmark   July 19, 2014 at 9:36AM
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Frieda, I would have posted sooner but several hours of unusually loud and long-lasting thunder storms meant that it was better not to have the computer 'plugged in'. Plus so-called telephone engineers have spent the last few days digging holes in the road to replace ancient cables leaving us with intermittent broadband connections.
With reference to 'The Game'. I can't speak for anyone else but haven't read all/most/any of the titles I chose.
My method is to look at the last title given and, in my mind, think of a follow-on . . .usually not connected with any known book and then check on Amazon to see if such a title or something similar actually exists. Sometimes it does, occasionally I find something 'better'. It is just a little brain exercise first thing in the morning. Occasionally it takes a few moments to 'get' the eg's from other 'players'.

Titles that I don't enjoy are the clever ones. Chronicles of Hernia and Look Back in Hunger both 'memoirs' by popular UK comedians.
A title I didn't understand and was almost put-off by was A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian but glad I read the book; funny and different.
Some years ago a friend sent me Ethan Frome I had never heard of this before and didn't realise it was the name of a person. For me 'Ethan' is not an everyday first name and 'Frome' is the name of a small market town in Somerset; we pronounce it Froom. Is that the same in the States?
Hilary Mantel's book Wolf Hall has puzzled many readers. It apparently refers to an estate/property that Thomas Cromwell bought/was given (can't remember). I think it hardly rates a mention in her first two books.
There must be plenty more but my brain is running out of steam.

    Bookmark   July 19, 2014 at 4:12PM
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I used to pick books for my mother when I went to the children's library. She loved mysteries and I was so pleased to find "Murder in the Cathedral" for her! Not like our dear Agatha's style at all!
Vee, we have had massive storms and even tornadoes ripping off roofs but luckily not mine so far!

    Bookmark   July 20, 2014 at 1:37AM
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Vee, thanks for describing your game technique. I've wondered how you do it! I don't think it would help me, though, because my brain doesn't seem to be wired for it. I've known people who can complete a Times crossword, but I never have. As much as I love words, I contradictorily don't care much for crosswords at all. I prefer math puzzles and logic problems, e.g. cross sums (Kakuro) and number place (Sudoku) and good old plug-into-a-grid logic games. I can do those quickly before I lose interest, but I find crosswords tedious -- too much back and forth between the clues and where to fill in the letters.

Oh lord! Chronicles of Hernia is real! Groan, groan, groan. But I'm actually pleased that I 'get' the allusion because I don't know a blooming thing about Narnia.

I read Ethan Frome when I was a teenager but I had not heard the title voiced so I pronounced Ethan the German way with the /th/ sounding like a /t/ -- essentially the same as English 'Eton'. As for Frome, I pronounce it /frohm/ - long O sound -- rhymes with home and roam, but I have no idea if that's correct. I always thought Wharton's book should have been titled Misery in a Cold Climate or some such. I mostly don't like names as titles because they have to be very peculiar for me to remember them. Which reminds me: Vee, a couple of years ago you mentioned a book about two girls (I think) growing up in South Africa during apartheid and the title was a name, if I remember correctly. I searched for South African authors and books with that theme, but it seems every S.A. book has something to do with apartheid. Do you recall the book from my meager clues?

Annpan, I have more troubles with titles of mysteries than any other genre -- they seem to all look and sound alike. That's funny about Murder in the Cathedral. When I was a kid I thought Gregory 'Pappy' Boyington's Baa Baa Black Sheep was a children's book.

    Bookmark   July 20, 2014 at 3:51AM
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Frieda, the book set in SA is Frankie and Stankie by Barbara Trapido. The title might put you off but I heard it recommended on a book discussion on Radio 4 (where would I be without the BBC?) and enjoyed it.
I can't do 'cryptic' crosswords either and occasionally check the answers in the following day's Telegraph and still don't get the connection. I can just about manage the 'quick' one and enjoy the 'General Knowledge' version at the w/end.
Not only do mystery titles appear very similar to me but so also do the plots.
Ann, your storms must have been much worse than ours . . .although this was the first time I had seen blue lightning. More are forecast for later today. All the result of a phenomena called an 'Iberian Plume' ie very hot moist weather blown up to the SE of England from Spain.

    Bookmark   July 20, 2014 at 5:07AM
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I'm not sure how I do the title game. Working in a bookshop certainly means I know a lot of titles of books I have never read and don't intend to, so that might help. I just look at the previous title and think of a way to link (eg bird names, weather, colour etc.) then go from there.

Vee, Wolf Hall is the name of the property belonging to Jane Seymour's family, and it is mentioned in passing in both the first two books.

    Bookmark   July 20, 2014 at 7:28AM
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One book in my local library that I avoided was "Edwin of the Iron Shoes" by Marcia Muller as I thought it sounded like a medieval mystery, which I avoided at the time.
It was in fact the first Sharon McCone mystery and I got into the series later, then had to chase up the book.

    Bookmark   July 20, 2014 at 10:31AM
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Frankie and Stankie, that's it, Vee. Thank you. I don't know why I couldn't remember it because the 'Stankie' part is certainly unusual to me. I think of 'Stinky' when I see it, but is it a name, a nickname, or have anything to do with 'odor'? It reminds me of an adolescent phase my friends and I went through of giving each other 'gross' nicknames (affectionately). One friend was 'Grotty' Jody; another was 'Joqueerdo', her name was actually Jacquetta; and I was 'Leonardo Retardo'. Lovely, weren't we? Only one friend did not take to the silliness in sporting fashion: she was called 'Moo Moo', which was an unkind reference to her ample endowment already at age fourteen. I'm not sure now why I related the above to you except it seemed pertinent for an elusive moment. I guess I'll have to read Frankie and Stankie to find out the significance of the title, but I would like to know, Vee, if my preconceived notion is either way off base or not. You can just say 'yea' or 'nay'. ;-)

Astrokath, I can only imagine the number of titles you have stored in your mind, working in a bookshop and all! Surely you have a few candidates for most obnoxious titles, ones you get tired of hearing customers request. It's probably cyclical, isn't it? For a while, everyone who comes in wants such-and-such book title and then just as abruptly you don't hear it as much or hardly at all.

I think it was you, Kath, who related that alternative titles can exasperate you, such as the penchant of American publishers for retitling books for the American market. I can recall a few: Corelli's Mandolin (Am) for Captain Corelli's Mandolin (UK and elsewhere?)
Smilla's Sense of Snow (Am) for Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow A Coffin for Dimitrios (Am) for The Mask of Dimitrios -- I am so accustomed to seeing and hearing the American title that it seems the 'natural' one to me, especially since it indicates an appropriate ghoulishness that I don't think the original title does. I read that Eric Ambler said -- when he was asked what he thought about the title change: if he had heard or thought of 'A Coffin' first, he would have voted for that title because he liked the 'resonance' of it. I have the impression that writers may not always get the titles they want when they are overruled or outvoted by publishing crews.

Annpan, I probably would avoid Edwin of the Iron Shoes, too. It sounds more like a horror tale to me. Did it turn out to be a good book?

    Bookmark   July 20, 2014 at 1:23PM
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Frieda, I honestly can't remember but I have read so many since then!

    Bookmark   July 20, 2014 at 8:49PM
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Frieda, the word 'stanky' doesn't mean anything to me so I looked it up and it seems to be a black US word, one eg is smelly as you implied and the other . . . is too rude to repeat here.
Below I've added an over-long review from the Independent paper which might be of help. It finds a huge amount of deep meaning in the book, most of which I must have missed when I read it . . . and had I come across this article first I would never have bothered to read it at all.

Here is a link that might be useful: Too much about 'Frankie and Stankie'

    Bookmark   July 21, 2014 at 4:39AM
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Frieda, the most annoying thing regarding customers and book titles, is the number of people who are adamant about a title and after much research you discover it is only very tenuously related to the real book title. Many of them won't admit to any seed of doubt.

And you are right, the duplicate titles infuriate me, especially since there rarely seems to be a good reason for it.

    Bookmark   July 21, 2014 at 7:02AM
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Vee, you might mean "skanky" rather than "stanky" ... I've heard the first term quite often, but not the second. Your definition is accurate, though.

Frieda, I play the title game the same way Vee does. I'll think about something that might work as a follow on, and amazingly there is usually a book with a similar title somewhere in the depths of Amazon's book list.

I've been trying to think of book titles that have been exceptionally odd or that have put me off, but haven't be able to come up with one.

Titles that make me crazy are the ones that are either too bland to remember or the ones in a series that use titles that are infuriatingly similar. J.D. Robb (aka Nora Roberts) writes a series with each title being [BLANK] in Death (Concealed in Death, Rapture in Death, Naked in Death, etc., and there are dozens of them), which makes them all interchangable in my mind. I've read everything else she's written, but these titles put me off so much I've never read these.

    Bookmark   July 21, 2014 at 8:12AM
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Ha! Vee, some readers apparently see symbolism and 'deep meaning' in every book. Thanks for the link, which is amusing, in a way; but I like what you said about Frankie and Stankie better than what that reviewer wrote.

Speaking of changed titles: My copy of the Nevil Shute book about the couple who endured WWII to settle afterwards in Alice Springs is titled A Town Like Alice but below that is: (Formerly The Legacy). I have another copy that doesn't mention the original title. Which title is used in Australia?

I agree that title tweaking usually isn't necessary. But I guess the publishing-types see some sort of advantage in doing it; an example that I remember is Joe David Brown's book Addie Pray that was made into the Bogdanovich-directed movie Paper Moon. The book was then retitled. I think Paper Moon is the better of the two, probably because, as I mentioned upthread, I'm not fond of character names as titles. But then there's Jane Eyre and I'm contradicting myself again.

Also, titles that are just one word often stymie me. At least with multi-word titles you have more of a chance of remembering at least part of it, but when it's one word it has to be damn specific. I am currently searching for a book that Janalyn recommended to me about ten years ago that I read and found the story memorable enough but the title has completely eluded me for months now. I was hoping that Janalyn would show up again eventually, so that I could ask her, but in the meantime I'll throw it out here: A young woman was abandoned on an island somewhere in Canada with the intention of her abandoners that she would die there. She didn't and was rescued about a year later in quite good condition. This happened before 1900 and possibly 1800. I think this book is fiction but is possibly based on a real incident.

Sheri, I feel as if I've received 'secret' info about playing the game. I appreciate the help!

Here's a title that I've always liked but I still haven't got around to reading the book: The Jukebox Queen of Malta. Sheri, I believe you were the one who mentioned it. I can't really imagine what it's about, though.

    Bookmark   July 21, 2014 at 1:53PM
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Frieda, I read it so long ago I'm shaky on even the broadest details, but it's set during WWII and I liked it, as I recall. The author was one of my English professors way back when, and he has a few other books to his credit. The link is below.

Here is a link that might be useful: The Jukebox Queen of Malta

    Bookmark   July 21, 2014 at 2:40PM
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Frieda, It is "A Town Like Alice" in Australia where the title makes sense. I can see why it was re-titled.
When I returned for a trip to Australia after an absence of some 12 years, I was pleased to find that my eldest grandchild was a fan of the book and had torn hers to shreds reading it so many times. She asked if I could send her a copy from the UK if I could find one and was thrilled when I went on the hunt in the second hand bookshops in a nearby town and found her one before I left.

    Bookmark   July 21, 2014 at 11:03PM
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Sheri, I just ordered The Jukebox Queen..., as well as Frankie and Stankie, to be delivered to my son's house in Arizona where I will be going next week. I don't go outside during summer in AZ so I need to stock up on plenty to read during my stay. Neither my son nor daughter-in-law is an avid reader and they have very few adult books, so otherwise I would be stuck reading my granddaughter's picture books or my D-I-L's Nancy Drew mysteries.

I adore Valletta and want to shake my fist at those who damaged it during WWII. The whole of Malta (along with Gozo) is an archaeological and geological dream site and all the more interesting because it's such a puzzle. I think I'll be able to relate to your former professor's historical novel. I'll post something about it here and let you know what I think.

Annpan, that's great about your granddaughter loving A Town Like Alice so much that she read a copy 'to shreds'. I understand the title change, too.

Do Australian publishers, with any frequency, retitle American books? Or do you get most of them straight from the U.S.?

I've been collecting Arthur W. Upfield's books and have wound up with several duplicates -- same books with different titles. I remember his first Bony book, The Barrakee Mystery, was changed to The Lure of the Bush for the U.S. market and Mr Jelly's Business (set at Burracoppin and Merredin) to Murder Down Under. Both changes actually make sense for American readers unfamiliar with the environs, I think, but probably seem a bit ridiculous to Australians.

This post was edited by friedag on Tue, Jul 22, 14 at 0:52

    Bookmark   July 22, 2014 at 12:47AM
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Frieda, I don't think that US titles get changed here as they are usually published and printed in the US. Kath would know more than I do about that.
i am currently reading "Murder at Honeychurch Hall" by Hannah Dennison, set in Devon and written by a British author but the book has been printed in the US and has US spelling!
Sometimes I read a lot of US mysteries and then when I get back to a British or Australian book, I notice with a start that the "u" is missing in a lot of words and it looks odd!

    Bookmark   July 22, 2014 at 3:53AM
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Frieda, these days there seem to be fewer title changes, and generally it is only the covers which vary (not sure why that is either). There is an Australian book by Kate Morton called The Shifting Fog here and The House at Riverton in the US - I can't see any reason for this.

And my biggest complaint is for one of Bill Bryson's books.
In the US, it's called In a Sunburned Country which would mean nothing to most Americans (it's a line from a famous poem here). In Australia it's called Downunder which is not a term we use - surely this would be better in the US? And finally the German version is called Früstück mit Känguru - Breakfast with Kangaroos!

    Bookmark   July 22, 2014 at 6:57AM
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Frieda, I'll be very interested to hear what you think of The Jukebox Queen of Malta. I don't know if I still have my copy, but if I find it, I may give it a re-read.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2014 at 8:27AM
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Annpan, as I type this, I have the cover of a book by Ellis Peters at eye level with the insolent title, Black Is the Color of My True-Love's Heart. I checked and sure enough it was printed in the U.S. But inside the British spelling is intact: centre, theatre, colour, ardour, etc. are a few I noticed. The changed spelling is one of my pet peeves that I've fulminated about often.

I read Kate Morton's book in a U.S. edition as The House at Riverton. Neither do I see why it was changed from The Shifting Fog, except the original might seem generically vague to Americans.

You're right, Kath, that most Americans would not make the connection between the title and the line in the poem. But Americans do associate Australia with its 'burning sun' so the Sunburned part doesn't seem inappropriate to me for Americans. Is the word 'sunburned' in the poem, Kath? I would have expected 'sunburnt'.

Breakfast with Kangaroos is absurd, but I remember another title, Kangaroo in my Kitchen about an American woman who followed her business executive husband to Australia and spent several years living there (in 1960s or 70s). I don't know why she wrote the book. She did nothing but kvetch about Australia's shortcomings in her eyes. I wanted to slap her cross-eyed.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2014 at 8:43AM
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I remember thinking that the title The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was just too cute - not at all indicative of the type of book I normally seek out. Little did I know what a gem it was. Luckily it was a selection of my book club. Otherwise, I might not have read it.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2014 at 1:20PM
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Kathy, my thoughts were similar to yours about the Guernsey Potato Peel book. I read the title and remarked to a friend that it was so silly-sounding that I would give it a pass.

She retorted: "The title is brilliant! It's a grabber. Just you wait; people will want to read this book because of the title."

I was doubtful, but I was wrong. I would never make it in book marketing, obviously. I admit to grudgingly reading it only to be pleasantly surprised. I probably don't admire it as much as many do, but I like that it has been a safe book for me to recommend to those who ask me if I can suggest something. I usually shy away from making recommendations.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2014 at 11:36PM
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re Guernsey . .. Pie I think 'cute' summed it up very well. Many many people, especially in the US, absolutely loved it but the real people of the Channel Islands strongly felt otherwise. The only 'truth' contained in the book seemed, to them, to be that the Germans invaded the islands. They objected to the idea of fraternization with the enemy, the lack of information about starvation and forced labour of the population, the peculiar names the author gave the characters plus their 'bumpkin-like' attitudes. They also strongly objected to the fact that the author hadn't even been to Guernsey to carry out any research.
They all recommend reading 'The Book of Ebenezer le Page' for a real look at life there at that time.
Frieda I know you read Ebenezer and wonder if you felt you 'knew' the islands/islanders better afterwards. I know this isn't easy as one book is little more than a light romance with slight overtones of nastiness and the other is in the form of a diary . . .probably over-long at that.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2014 at 5:20AM
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I remember thinking how peculiar both titles are re Alexandra Fuller's memoirs about Africa: "Don't Let's Do to the Dogs Tonight" and "Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness." Both turned out to be fascinating reads, however. I still do not quite get the "dog connection" in the first one.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2014 at 12:09PM
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Vee, to me there's no contest between The Book of Ebenezer Le Page and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: Ebenezer is, by far, the better and the more authentic book -- Edwards, after all, was a native and actually lived through the times. However, Ebenezer is not the easier of the two to recommend. I have been blistered a couple of times for even suggesting it. It seems that it takes a particular kind of reader to appreciate 1) very dry humor, 2) a geezer as a narrator, and 3) anything written with too much dialect. See, just by mentioning those three things, a good portion of potential readers will be automatically turned off. And the title doesn't exactly jump out and grab readers, either, the way a potato peel pie evidently does.

However, I don't think it's contradictory to like both books, for different reasons. TGLaPPPS is a cream puff; Ebenezer is boudin.

Mary, those titles of Fuller's books are very odd to me, too. I haven't read them but I think I will now.

A book title that I got tired of hearing and seeing a few years ago is Running with Scissors, but according to many readers it's 'stellar writing'. The imagery makes me cringe!

    Bookmark   July 23, 2014 at 9:59PM
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Frieda, the poem is indeed 'sunburnt', but the book isn't.
I include a link to the poem.

Here is a link that might be useful: My Country

    Bookmark   July 24, 2014 at 7:10AM
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Kath, I recognize Mackellar's poem after reading it at your link. Thank you for the memory refresher! I wonder now if the bungled American title was intentional -- the title makers thinking we Americans would prefer 'sunburned' to 'sunburnt'. Sigh. Such patronization is irksome. I understand your exasperation, Kath! Bryson's book was titled stupidly for every market, it seems.

    Bookmark   July 25, 2014 at 10:20AM
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Kath, I wasn't familiar with Mackellar's poem, thanks for posting it. UK book titles are the same as the Australian ones. Downunder is still a a recognised term for Australia here though I don't suppose they call England 'Upover' anymore than they used to refer to us as home.
BTW I felt that Downunder was rather thin on substance. I don't think BB had spent long enough there.
I never realised that A Town Like Alice had an American title. I remember when I first heard the book mentioned, as a child, it sounded 'unusual' but can't see why US readers seem not to be expected (by editors/movie folk) to be capable of dealing with the occasional oddity.
Whatever the title I think it is still a cracking read.
On the Beach is another one with a most unusual 'plot' that works surprisingly well . . . for a story dealing with nuclear fall-out.

re Fuller's book. I think the title is Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight which has been well-recommended over here. I haven't read it but usually the expression 'going to the dogs' or if you are from London 'going down the dogs' means spending the evening at the local 'dog track' ie greyhound racing.
I think the book is set in Rhodesia and I have no idea if there were any 'dog tracks' or if white people would have been seen there.
'Going to the Dogs' also means a deterioration in ones circumstances/business/way of life.
Mary does any of the above appear in the book?

    Bookmark   July 25, 2014 at 1:53PM
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Vee, A Town Like Alice is the American title. The original UK title was The Legacy, but apparently was changed there, as well, to A Town.... I think nearly everyone thinks that's a much better, more memorable title.

    Bookmark   July 25, 2014 at 3:15PM
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Well, I stand corrected. According to Wikipedia, if it can be trusted, The Legacy was briefly first used in the U.S. but was changed soon after. My Penguin edition -- which is the one that stated (formerly The Legacy) -- misled me. My U.S. edition from 1951 says A Town Like Alice without mention of The Legacy. Argh!

    Bookmark   July 25, 2014 at 3:31PM
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