Monday, December 19, 2011

My Year of Reading: Favorite Covers of 2011

The best book cover designs set the mood before we even reach the first page.  Take The Psychopath Test for instance:

The hard slashing tear, the neon pink, the halves of the two animals, the pursuer and the pursued--I'm already feeling the bile of anxiety rising in my throat just passing this schizophrenic cover on the bookstore's New Arrivals table.

Good jacket designs draw me in with their colors (looking at this year's favorites, I see blues and greens are predominant), simplicity, and humor.  I like the odd, the off-kilter, the quirky.  I also like the symbolic: effective covers tell me what to expect inside through their use of illustrations or photos which carry weighted meaning (those two chairs on Lily Tuck's I Married You For Happiness, for instance).

But, really, the best covers are the ones which do what they're intended to do: persuade me to buy the book, no matter if I'm inclined to like the contents or not.  Dust jackets are carnival barkers--they convince me to step inside the tent flap; it's up to the author to keep me there, enthralled in front of the Bearded Siamese Mermaid Twins.

Here are the covers which particularly tickled my fancy this year:

The Leftovers by Tom Perotta (Rob Grom, cover designer): Those wisps of smoke curling up from a just-emptied pair of shoes say everything you need to know about Perotta's satire about The Rapture.

Lime Creek by Joe Henry: At first glance, I like the colors at work here.  Closer inspection reveals a tiny human figure against this cold, beautiful Wyoming landscape.  Henry's prose style is spare and lyrical; I think the cover bottles that mood perfectly.

Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin (Tal Goretsky, cover designer): There's nothing new about this photo of Dickens--it's one die-hard fans like me have engraved on the backs of our eyelids--but I like the muted aquas and browns which give it a vintage feel while highlighting that look-ahead expression on the Great One's face.

Trapped by Michael Northrop (Phil Falco, cover designer):  This YA novel about a group of students snowbound in their school during a freak storm is marketed as "The Breakfast Club meets The Shining."  I get frostbite just from looking at this cover.  Unfortunately, I have this one on my Kindle so I can't lust for the cover in person.

The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Potzsch (Ben Gibson, cover designer):  There's an excellent use of font and Edward Gorey-style illustration at work here.  Plus, I love the book's French flaps and deckle-edged pages.  And, honestly, who can resist that girl's dangling legs?

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre (Paul Buckley and Gregg Kulick, cover designers):  I've mentioned Penguin's le Carre re-issues before, but I thought I'd trot this one out again.  Those blank spectacles really stand out in the crowd, don't they?

This Vacant Paradise by Victoria Patterson (Gabriel Mason, cover designer):  Here's another excellent use of shapely legs, this time startlingly sexy...and yet a little scary, too.  There is mystery and danger lurking in that dark cleft beneath the short-short skirt.

Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill (Rodrigo Corral, cover designer):  The rusting, shot-up carcass of a car and the graffiti font are perfect indicators of the decadence found in Bill's whiskey-soaked noir stories about characters who more than likely have yards full of cars like this.

I Married You for Happiness by Lily Tuck (Chip Kidd, cover designer):  As I mentioned before, these two chairs, angled away from each other, speak volumes about the sad end of a marriage which is at the heart of Tuck's novel.  I also like how the white bands draw attention to the photo.  This design wouldn't have been as effective if the photo had bled all the way to the edges of the jacket.

The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian:  Bohjalian's ghost story is about what lurks behind an airline pilot's basement door, which is sealed shut with thirty-nine bolts.  On the cover, the door is ajar and we're pulled into the scary green light beyond.

The Glitter Scene by Monika Fagerholm (Gray318, cover designer): I haven't had the chance to read Fagerholm's novel, so I don't know how closely the cover reflects the contents (the story revolves around a lonely girl in Finland unraveling dark family secrets), but I suspect the novel is as jarring and unsettling as the off-kilter cover.

The Call by Yannick Murphy (Milan Bozic, cover designer): Murphy's novel is a series of journal entries about a rural New England veterinarian making his daily calls.  Rather than crowding the cover with a barnyard of James Herriot-ish animals, the publisher went with one simple cow--a smart choice.  I also like how the cow is intertwined with the "C" of the title.

A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion by Ron Hansen (Gabriele Wilson, cover designer): This gets my vote for sexiest cover of the year.  There's something about that negligee strap slipping off the girl's shoulder which drives me wild--okay, yes, with a wild surge of guilty passion.  We can't see her eyes, but I suspect she's looking with lust at that Jazz Age nightscape.

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan (Abby Weintraub, cover designer):  What I love: the dominant greenish sky; the bold lettering of the font which is almost like skywriting; the multiple geometric angles of the horizon, the white sand, the forearm, the wrist, the legs; and--most of all--the fact that the sunbather is looking away from the camera.  There's a casual tension hard at work here.

Trophy by Michael Griffith (Adnauseum, cover designer):  The entirety of Griffith's Kafka-esque novel is about a single moment in a man's life--the instant of his death as he's crushed beneath a huge taxidermied bear.  I like to think the fuzzy-focus photo of the bruin on the cover is the last image burned on his brain for the 224 pages of the book.

Cabin by Lou Ureneck:  The only place you'll find snow this blue is on a Hawaiian Shaved Ice snow-cone, but it works well here, drawing me into the memoir of how Ureneck and his brother built a cabin in the Maine woods.  The light-blaze from the windows is the perfect color contrast on this evocative cover.

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan (Peter Mendelsund, cover designer):  The stark simplicity of the cover design is perfect for this novel in which the main character--a 200-year-old werewolf--lives his life according to the phases of the moon.

Johnny Appleseed by Howard Means (Tom McKeveny, cover designer):  The titular folklore legend--as we learned courtesy of schoolbooks and that Disney cartoon--was a man on the move, planting trees throughout Eastern states in the early 19th century.  I love the off-the-jacket movement of the design on Howard Means' biography.  Johnny can't sit still; he's got seeds to scatter.

Touch by Alexi Zentner (Chin-Yee Lai, cover designer):  I guess I'm a sucker for snowy covers (see Trapped, Cabin, et al).  On this cover, it's the pipe-straight lines of the trees which also catch my eye.  As I mentioned previously, I also heart the other cover designs for Touch from the UK and Canada.

The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands by Nick Flynn (Scott Sorenson, cover designer):  On this jacket, it's the odd, startling illustration which does the trick for me.  Who wouldn't want to read Flynn's poems after seeing this disturbing bird-man on the cover?

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt (Dan Stiles, cover designer):  Like one of those "Magic Eye" posters, this is a cover with several layers which revealed themselves to me over time.  What at first looks like two gunmen aiming pistols at me against the backdrop of an enormous moon gradually turned into a skull.  And I may be wrong, but isn't that Ben Franklin from a C-note in the background?  I love it when illustrations work on several different levels like this.

Witches on the Road Tonight by Sheri Holman (Charles Rue Woods, cover designer):  This is the Jacket Redesign Success Story of the Year.  The Advance Reading Copy (sent to reviewers like me) for Holman's novel about Appalachian backwoods sorcery during the Depression was, I'm sorry to report, pretty awful.  You can see it here at this earlier blog post.  When I finally received the finished hardcover version of the novel, I was overjoyed to find it had been replaced by a gorgeous woodcut illustration of a woman lying with a panther (a key element of the story).  The startling blue against the midnight-soaked landscape practically makes the book glow in the reader's hands.  This might just be my favorite cover of the year.


  1. The Nick Flynn book cover also appeared as the cover of Shearwater's album "Rook," several years ago. It is indeed a striking image.

  2. I *knew* it looked familiar, but couldn't quite place it. Thanks for reminding me about that Shearwater album cover.