Wednesday, January 2, 2013

My Year of Reading: Best Book Cover Designs of 2012

As much as I love the convenience and space-saving qualities of my Kindle and Kobo e-readers, I rue the day I lose the magnetic appeal of book cover designs (one thing I like about Kobo: it uses the cover design of the current book being read as a screensaver).  I do judge a book by its cover--at least initially.  I'm drawn to simple, startling designs--uncluttered canvases with pops of color and weighted with symbolism, something that gives me a little indication of what I'll find inside.

The best book jackets stick with us and shape our opinions of what we read.  Sure, a book is made or broken by the quality of its writing; but later, when we think back to the book, it's usually the physical object we picture in our minds rather than any specific sentence, isn't it?  Cover designs become our sensual memory of the book.

Here are my favorites from the books published in 2012, starting with my absolute favorite design of the year, then presented randomly after that.  Where possible, I've included the designer's name; my apologies to those I missed.

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan
Months after receiving an advance reading copy in the mail, this remains my favorite cover of the year.  Everything conspires to pull my eye toward that solitary lifeboat in the center of the ocean.  The novel is about a small group of survivors adrift on the waves after an explosion sinks their ocean liner in 1914.  Notice how the subtle "lines" of the waves and clouds move the focus toward the small boat.  I also like how there is a tension between the looming storm clouds, the turbulence of the waves, and the dazzling spotlight of sun.

Cascade by Maryanne O'Hara
Cover design by Emily Mahon
In her debut novel, O'Hara tells the story of an aspiring artist named Desdemona who, in 1935, settles in a small town which is destined to be flooded to provide water for Boston.  I've seen more than my fair share of "averted-women's-heads" jacket designs lately, but I like how this one makes use of what must be going on inside of Desdemona's head: the clash of art and falling water.

May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes
Designed by Alison Forner
Homes' novel begins and ends with a family gathered unharmoniously around a Thanksgiving Day dinner.  What could represent T-Day more precisely than a quivering tube of cranberry sauce fresh from the can?  In its own soft way, this cover screams "Dysfunction!"

Dare Me by Megan Abbott
Cover design by Jason Gabbert
Featuring the sexiest pair of lips I've seen since Wild Cherry's eponymous 1976 album, Dare Me's cover hints at a dangerous flirtation and a touch of violence (teeth about to sink into lip-flesh).  The inside of the book delivers on that promise with its dark tale of mean girls on a high school cheerleading squad who try to unravel the circumstances behind a suicide in their town.

Threats by Amelia Gray
Cover design by Charlotte Strick
There's something unsettling about the messy, handmade nature of this cover with the wadded, rolled and discolored pieces of paper forming the words of the title while sitting on top of fresh soil.  The fact that the design is oriented on its side only convinces me I need to open up Gray's debut novel about a husband who may or may not be going crazy after his wife's death.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Jacket design Darren Haggar
Another wife, another disappearance, another cover that made my skin itch.  The scribble of hairs on the side of the design could be the last traces of Amy Dunne as she's whisked out of the frame....or they could be forensic scraps on a medical examiner's table.  Either way, she's gone, and I'm in.

The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's Twentieth Century by Margaret Talbot
This is a brilliant use of what could have been a title card from the opening credits of a classic Hollywood movie of the 1930s.  It's the perfect gateway to Talbot's memoir about her father who started as a romantic lead in early talkies, then went on to be an actor in major Warner Bros. pictures with stars like Humphrey Bogart and Carole Lombard, and eventually wound up as an actor in B-movies and playing a recurring role in television shows like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver.  I can practically hear a Max Steiner score playing in the background of this cover design.

The Liberator by Alex Kershaw
Jacket design by Eric White
Yes, the photo by Robert Capa is striking--a weary soldier heading back into the smoke of a World War Two battle--but it's the simplicity of the font and the placement of the title and author's name which first drew me to this riveting story of one officer's "500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau."  All focus is on the solitary figure of the soldier, just as it is in Kershaw's excellent account of Felix Sparks.

A Familiar Beast by Panio Gianopoulos
Design by Daniel D'Arcy
If you aren't getting Nouvella's regular releases of contemporary novellas, then you're missing out on some tight, pleasurable reading.  Each of the small books are beautifully packaged with care by an editorial team that takes pride in what they do--never more evident than in the treatment they gave Panio Gianopoulos' story of Marcus, a man hoping to find peace and forgiveness after an affair sours his marriage.  He goes to visit an old high school buddy who promises to help him restore his manhood with a deer hunt.  There is so much to love about this cover design--the simple handwritten font, the use of white space, the way the horns are like hands cupping the title--but what's most thrilling is the way the deer seems like he's already on top of us, just as Marcus is overwhelmed by his approaching destiny.

We Only Know So Much by Elizabeth Crane
Design by Robin Bilardello
Ordinarily, I'd say there's too much going on in this jacket design--the big, insistent font and the pull quote distract me--but in the end it totally succeeds for me thanks to a single factor: red.  The cardinal in flight, the gables of the house, the author's name, and even the "P.S." circle at the lower right are like little individual crimson eye hooks.

Ex-Boyfriend on Aisle 6 by Susan Jackson Rodgers
Cover design by Alyssa Hughes and Martha J. Baker
Cover photo: "Shopping Cart" by Colby Johnson
The short stories in these pages are about, as Anthony Doerr blurbs, "women in the full, confusing bloom of adulthood."  There's something sad and lonely about the cover which evokes a Carveresque bleak regret: a tipped-over shopping cart in an empty parking.  It's either dawn or dusk, an ending or a beginning.  But no one's around to witness it--except for that solitary tree stripped of its leaves and standing outside the halo of the overhead light.

John Saturnall's Feast by Lawrence Norfolk
Jacket design by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich
To hold this book is to love this book.  Nothing beats the sensuous touch of a well-designed cover, starting with the paper stock and the gilt letters.  The rich colors and simplicity of the silhouettes, so cleverly compartmentalized by the silverware, are harbingers of the feast that waits for us inside--a meal that continues with original illustrations by Andrew Davidson and colored fonts.

Let Me Clear My Throat by Elena Passarello
Cover design by Kirkby Gann Tittle
Talk about your excellent use of negative space.  Passarello's collection of essays about voices--from Billy Idol and his “rebel yell” to eighteenth-century castrato Farinelli, who mesmerized audiences with his high C--is wonderfully introduced by the screaming woman set against a deep-space black background.  It's like she shouted all the other words off the cover.

Breed by Chase Novak
What looks at first like a sickle-shaped splash of blood quickly reveals itself as the outline of a breast and pregnant belly.  I didn't need Stephen King's blurb about Breed being the best horror novel he's read since Peter Straub's Ghost Story; I was already convinced that this story about a pregnancy gone very, very wrong would be the creepiest book I read all year.  I was totally right.

Misfit by Adam Braver
Cover design by Janet Parker
Braver's first-rate novel is an exploration of the Marilyn Monroe who exists (or, rather, doesn't exist) between myth and reality.  As he tells the story of her last days on the set of the film Misfit in the Nevada desert, at Frank Sinatra's Cal-Neva resort at Lake Tahoe, and finally on an embalmer's table in L.A., Braver shows us how Norma Jeane Baker gradually faded from our view.  It was the smart designer who decided to give us the iconic white dress from The Seven-Year Itch without the body that usually inhabits it.  We remember Marilyn as a cinematic commodity, rather than as a flesh-and-blood person.  Also, if you squint, the dress on the cover sort of looks like a Mapplethorpe flower at the height of its bloom--just before it fades into decay.


  1. You forgot one. Yours. It's simple and when I saw it in the bookstore I realized just how well it stood out from the rest.

  2. Fantastic post! Love your take on each and every cover.

  3. Awesome covers - and awesome analysis, David. I always enjoy your posts. Now when is that lovely Fobbit cover going to grace The Undercover Soundtrack....?

  4. i was inspired on this post because i really like to become a
    ebook cover designer &
    book cover designer
    but im still studying how to become a professional on illustrator.