Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My Year of Books: Best Cover Designs of 2013

As a matter of fact, yes, I do judge a book by its cover—at least, initially.  A good cover has the ability to make or break a book's marketplace success—even in the ever-increasing digital world where cover designs are most frequently seen as small as thumbnails at on-line retailers.  This past year saw some outstanding covers which caught my eye and made me stop to take a closer look.  Here, in no particular order, are my favorite book covers of 2013 (I've listed the designer's name whenever possible).

I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro
Design by Rachel Perry Welty
Aluminum foil was invented in 1910, but it wasn't until this year that it found its true calling: a spot-on perfect design element on the cover of Jamie Quatro's debut short story collection.  There's nothing boring about Quatro's fiction—so don't judge the contents by the cover's mono-chrome of grey and silver.  The fabulous art is by Rachel Perry Welty; you can see more of her work here.  With everything encased in foil—including all but the head and arms of the blonde-haired, droop-winged angel—it's like the book is ready to be broiled in the oven.  I also think it was a smart design decision to use a cursive "font" for the words, making it seem like the ribbon of Reynolds Wrap is endless (in some of Welty's other work, she does indeed use one sheet of foil).

The Good House by Ann Leary
Everything on this cover works for me: the mustard-yellow house buried up to its roofline in snow, the bold black serif font, that solitary red cardinal perched on the eaves.  The novel is about an alcoholic Realtor, just out of rehab, who finds herself embroiled in small-town gossip and eventually up to her neck in scandal.  The cover nicely hints at that domesticity and danger.

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt
Design by Janet Hansen
The cover of Elliott Holt's debut novel cleverly obscures half the face of a person standing at a train window with a black cloud of what could be spray paint, an ink blot, a smear of violent graffiti. Designer Janet Hansen takes advantage of that dark blot of negative space by filling it with the title and author's name. The partial black mask is a nice play on the title's implied theme of identity, assimilation, and homogeneity.

The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan
Design by Mary Schuck
Nothing says "Buy Me!" better than the sight of empty clothes on a book cover.  And when they're found in the shape of a man sprawled across a snowbank?  I say, "Bingo!"  Kiernan's curious novel is about what happens when a man frozen in ice for nearly a century is reanimated by a team of scientists.  In addition to suffering loss of identity, apparently he gets a new wardrobe.

Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Design by John Gray
Yes, yes, the original hardcover version of Alissa Nutting's novel was irresistible to touch—a black-velvet material which could also double as a lint brush if you got bored with the book (which is hard to imagine)—but I want to talk about the cover for the paperback which will be released by Faber and Faber in March 2014.  We live in an era of provocative book covers (see the latest version of Erica Jong's Fear of Flyinghere's the whole, um, spread—or any recent version of Lolita, for instance), but Tampa's might be one of the provocativiest.  Here's all you need to know about the book: junior high school teacher Celeste Price has an insatiable hunger for sex....and not just any kind of sex, but wild, horny humping with one of her students.  Now take a second look at that closeup of a buttonhole on a pink shirt.  Are you blushing yet?

Mozart by Paul Johnson
Design by Jason Ramirez
Paul Johnson's biography is as diminutive as the composer himself (164 pages and "not much over five foot," respectively), but the book's cover design packs all the wallop of a crescendoing aria, cleverly using Barbara Krafft's portrait of Amadeus to make the book leap off the shelf.  I love how the famous painting is layered with a scarlet-red curtain and five-lined music staffs.  The effect is simultaneously subtle and in-your-face beautiful. I would probably read Johnson's biography anyway, but the fire-engine, Canadian-Mountie-jacket, supermodel-lipstick red of the jacket design insists I do so sooner rather than later.  Fortissimo!

edited by Sarah Weinman
Design by Lynn Buckley
This crime fiction anthology is a salute to "the real femmes fatales of the domestic suspense genre," pioneering writers like Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson and Dorothy B. Hughes.  The cover design, by the same token, is a tribute to the popular pulp magazine covers of that bygone era. A Barbara Stanwyckian femme is caught in the beam of a flashlight, startled eyes popping out of her head, hand up, fingers curled, claws out. This is a cover that will reach out and grab bookstore browsers and lead them to this most worthy collection of short fiction.

The Resurrectionist by E. B. Hudspeth
One glance at the book's plot synopsis and you know this creepy skeleton is the perfect gateway to the novel: "Philadelphia, the late 1870s.  A city of gas lamps, cobblestone streets, and horse-drawn carriages—and home to the controversial surgeon Dr. Spencer Black.  The son of a grave robber, young Dr. Black studies at Philadelphia’s esteemed Academy of Medicine, where he develops an unconventional hypothesis: What if the world’s most celebrated mythological beasts—mermaids, minotaurs, and satyrs—were in fact the evolutionary ancestors of humankind?"

The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei
Design by John Gall
You'd be forgiven if you thought the title of this novel was "A Novel."  Mattei's satire about corporate hypocrisy gets an appropriately slutty design which boldly subverts our expectations, starting with the size-reduction of the already quirky title.  When you reduce this cover to a thumbnail on the Internets, the white bleed at the edges makes its borders disappear and that huge "A Novel" just floats there in midscreen suspension, forcing you to exclaim, "Hey, whatsis?"

Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem
The subtitle of Mooallem's book about wildlife conservation is "A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America" (this gets my vote for Subtitle of the Year, by the way).  Nothing says "conservation" quite like a spotlit polar bear trapped in a glass case.  The cover is simultaneously simple, complex, beautiful, and horrible in its meaning.

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates
Design by Allison Saltzman
Using a detail from Giovanni Boldini's Profile of a Young Woman, designer Allison Saltzman focuses our attention on the exposed, alabaster-white neck—appropriate, given the fact that Oates' big novel about turn-of-the-century Princeton includes vampires in its cast of characters (along with Woodrow Wilson, Jack London and Mark Twain).  One of the other things I love about this cover is how Saltzman echoes the bunch of lavender in the title's font color, with the blood-red of the author's name coming between them.  For such a beautiful art design, there's a lot of underlying tension at work here.

Manson by Jeff Guinn
You were expecting the beard and the crazy-eyes, weren't you?  No, for this biography, we get a curious, atypical photo of the titular monster.  The unsettling school photo, along with the yellow crime scene tape, works well to dash our image of Manson.

Shouting Won't Help by Katherine Bouton
Design by Jenny Carrow
This book about hearing loss gets a nicely metaphorical treatment for its cover.  Bouton, an editor at the New York Times, describes how she slowly went deaf—she was, as she puts it, “the kind of person who might have used an ear trumpet in the nineteenth century.” As the title and cover design imply, to the hearing impaired, our efforts to understand and help are no better than if we were screaming underwater. One other thing—and maybe I'm reaching here—but it looks like the upper half of the submerged woman's head is an island—further indicative of Bouton's isolation.

Johnny Cash by Robert Hilburn
Design by Julianna Lee
The cigaretted face dominates the cover, as well it should since the Man was almost too large for his own life.

Design by Adam Johnson
I'm a sucker for artistic photos of people suspended in mid-water (see also: Tethered by Amy MacKinnon) and this one used for Neil Gaiman's beautiful adult fairy tale completely captivated me from the start.  There is such sublime perfection in this cover design, I hardly know where to begin:  The icy chill of the blue?  The way the title is set off by the blurred oval?  The stark white of the font?  That cloudy net of bubbles coming from the girl's mouth?  As good as Gaiman's prose may have been (and it was very good), I couldn't stop closing the book and gazing with lovesick sighs at this cover.

Tinderbox by Lisa Gornick
Design by Rodrigo Corral
Okay, admit it—you want to know what a toy triceratops is doing playing with matches, don't you?  So do I.  It's enough to get us inside this novel about what Daniel Menaker calls "the story of a family undergoing seismic changes brought on by a stranger who unwittingly forces her hosts to face themselves."  That calm pink border belies the incendiary tension within these pages.

Fosse by Sam Wasson
Design by Martha Kennedy
Can't you just hear Bob Fosse exclaiming, "It's showtime, folks!"?  The legendary choreographer, director and actor deservedly gets the spotlight in Wasson's biography.  The cover also seems to catch Fosse in the spotlight, beckoning to an unlit stage.  The only thing that would have made this cover any better is if the F-O-S-S-E were made of blinking lights.


My Year of Books is the annual backward glance of my literary life.  All this week, I'll be posting lists of the best things I read in 2013.  Be sure to visit the rest of the series (links posted as they're published):

Monday:  By the Numbers
Tuesday:  Best First Lines
Wednesday:  Best Cover Designs
Thursday:  Best of the Backlist
Friday:  Best Fiction of 2013
Saturday:  Publisher of the Year

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