Monthly Archives: May 2013

Blog Business

I just wanted to take a second to apologize for my sporadic schedule of late. I WILL be getting back on a reliable two-post-a-week schedule fairly soon, hopefully by the middle of June. I’m just having some issues adjusting to new real-life things.

In other news, the Nebula awards came and went and I totally failed at my no-stakes-no-consequences reading challenge. (Let’s all blame my budget for that). Of course, one of the four books I didn’t make it to, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, was the winner. It’s on my to-read list, but who knows when I’ll get to it.

So the start of that feature was kind of a bust, but I’ll take suggestions. What do you think I should challenge myself with next?

I’m in a little bit of a reading rut, wherein all I even want to deal with are predictable YA paranormal romances and historical novels. That’s fine as far as it goes, but nothing really screams out to be reviewed. Any wish lists for future reviews?

Thank you all for continuing to read as I work to figure out this whole blogging thing. If you’d like, friend The Bastard Title on Facebook (I post random, amusing book related links!). And remember to tell your friends!

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Review: The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

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The Other Typist

Title: The Other Typist

Author: Suzanne Rindell

Rating: 4.5 stars.

Done well, there are few things I find more enjoyable than an unreliable narrator. We are all the heroes of our own stories, but it can cause delightful feelings of schadenfreude to watch a narrator to get their own story so unbelievably wrong. It is of course even better to think you as a reader know where a story is going, only to have the rug ripped out from beneath you.

Rose Baker, the protagonist of Suzanne Rindell’s debut novel The Other Typist, is a slightly prudish, old-fashioned type of girl who falls unwittingly under the spell of a charismatic conwoman. Or is she? There are as many different realities in this stunning and enjoyable novel as there are characters, and it is incredibly difficult to determine what truth, if any, there is to be found.

In Roaring Twenties New York, Rose works as a typist in a police precinct, taking down criminal confessions. She thinks herself an excellent judge of character, but in most cases she is spectacularly unaware of what is actually going on around her. She also prides herself on her strict morals and decency, but very early on, even before the intriguing Odalie Lazare shows up to upset Rose’s world, Rindell drops hints that not all is right with Rose. In the story she tells us, she passes herself off as quiet, unassuming, good, but underneath there are hints of a sociopath peeking out.

Once under Odalie’s spell, Rose moves from her drab world of convent orphanages and boarding rooms to the glittering, wild paced realm of speakeasies and house parties thrown by millionaires. Odalie is beautiful, enigmatic, rich; she has a dozen stories to explain her past, but none of them quite add up. And as the novel goes on, Rose is drawn into a complicated web of crime, lies, and murder.

The real joy of The Other Typist lies in the narration, the eerie moments when the real Rose breaks through the façade she has constructed to show her underlying violence, manipulation, anger. The descriptions are so vivid that you can almost smell cigarette smoke leaking off the page, feel the seasons as they pass. And the magnificent final scene is something I’m still trying to parse out in my mind. I still don’t quite know what happened there, but I loved it.

If her first novel is this good, I can’t wait to see what else Rindell has in her future.

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We are not just your wives and daughters: a feminist rant

It’s no secret from anyone that I’m a fairly liberal person and a feminist; I have very strong opinions on many womens issues. However, I don’t like to stand on a soapbox and shout. Prickly, condescending griping is never going to convince people your opinions are right, and will probably push them further from the direction you want them to go.

But there’s this thing. And the more I see it, the more it bothers me. And so, since I’m still firmly in the middle of the next novel I’d like to review, I figure it’s time for a rant, to get things off my chest.

Have you ever noticed how many titles there are out there defining a female (supposedly main) character in terms of the identity of her parent or her husband? The Time Traveler’s Wife. The Aviator’s Wife. The Shoemaker’s Wife. The Hangman’s Daughter. The Bonesetter’s Daughter. The Witch’s Daughter. This is just a small sampling of what can be found in the first few pages of relatively simple Amazon searches. These types of titles are all over the place. Walk through a bookstore and I’m sure you can find a dozen at a shot.

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what’s with this trend, anyway?

I can think of only one recent male-centered title that follows this form, The Orphan Master’s Son, and Amazon doesn’t reveal many more. Sure, there are titles featuring husbands and sons, but rarely do they contain that oh so sneaky possessive noun, rarely are these male titular characters defined by their relationship to someone else.

Look. I know there are a lot of factors that go into titling a book. Authors, editors, and publicists want to find something memorable, something that pops, that will appeal to casual browsers looking at table displays and sound good on talk shows and in review columns. There is something incredibly compelling about such titles, an air of mystery that immediately makes you want to know who these characters are. But just as gendered cover designs and exploitative character poses have been heavily discussed and debated in book circles recently, I think this an issue worthy of attention.

When I see a title like The Aviator’s Wife, to choose a completely random example, the first thing I think is that, no matter how interesting the wife, no matter even if she gets to narrate her own story, she will probably never be as interesting as the aviator himself. In those three words, the very first impression readers get of her, the character is completely defined, and it is only in relation to someone else.

Lady Edith has no patience for this crap.

To be fair, I haven’t read any of the books I’ve mentioned, except for The Time Traveler’s Wife (which happens to be one of my most hated reads of all time, so perhaps that has biased me to the whole convention). I can’t say whether specific protagonists are flat or well-rounded, whether the titles reflect something meaningful about the books or are just slapped on for good marketing buzz. But the whole trend concerns me.

Deliberately or not, what these types of titles say to readers, very often the women readers they are specifically marketed to, is that that the characters meant to resonate with them have little or no worth outside of who their spouse is, who their lover is, what their father does or who their mother was. That without those titular relationships, these characters would literally have no other reason to exist, no other story worth telling.

Look at it another way. Published today, Anna Karenina might have ended up The Government Official’s Wife or The Count’s Mistress; To Kill a Mockingbird could be The Small-Town Lawyer’s Daughter. I’d certainly rather read Jane Eyre than Mr. Rochester’s Governess.

There’s no one solution to this issue. For some books, these types of titles may be the only appropriate or interesting options available. But publishers, authors, and yes, readers too, need to be more conscious of the messages being sent by the ways books are packaged and marketed. Instead of turning a blind eye and pretending that we live in a perfect, egalitarian world without gender or racial disparity, these issues should continue to inspire discussion and debate. This will make better readers of us all.

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Review: Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

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Island Beneath the Sea

Title: Island Beneath the Sea

Author: Isabel Allende

Rating: 3 stars

Set first against the backdrop of the Haitian Revolution and later in pre-American New Orleans, Isabel Allende’s Island Beneath The Sea is the story of Zarite, a young slave, her master Valmorain, and the various complicated relationships that came out of the slave culture of the late eighteenth century.

The characters are vivid and varied–from the cowardly, oblivious Valmorain to the seductive and frivolous yet loyal and kind mulatta Violette, from the hot-blooded young warrior Gambo to the daring doctor Parmentier. At the center of it all is Zarite, a slave who is bought by Valmorain at the age of 9, and for the next three decades is raped, degraded, and lives at his mercy, while raising two children and trying to forget the loss of another.

At times, Island Beneath the Sea is sweepingly historical, as it details the lives of real revolutionaries and historical persons and gives an account of the Haitian Revolution. But it always comes back to the personal narrative of Zarite, and it is here where the novel works best. Zarite’s story is that of a slave yearning for freedom, a mother anxious for her children, a woman learning how to love. Nothing revolutionary per se, but it was a great way to tie the greater themes of the novel together, and add some humanity to the sometimes overwhelming scope of the historical plot.

There are elements here that you find in a lot of Caribbean fiction–the mad (white) wife, voodoo conflicting with and adapting around Christianity–and I certainly think this book will appeal more to readers who are fans of books by authors such as Jean Rhys and Maryse Conde. I found it a little flat. Despite being interested in the characters and aesthetically pleased by the setting, I was rarely moved or invested in Island Beneath the Sea. The ending in particular felt rushed and a little strange–here be spoilers I can’t figure out how to totally avoid–incest is brushed off as pretty much no big deal because one partner is white and the other is biracial, and nobody seems overly surprised or bothered. It was an odd resolution, and I felt like there was much more book to be told, or that the book we were presented with turned out to be mostly prelude to a story that was never fully explored. It was unsatisfying, and certainly not the best Allende has to offer, but certainly worth reading if you’re interested in the history or the setting.

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