Thursday, December 18, 2014

My Year of Reading: Best Book Covers of 2014

It seems appropriate to be talking about favorite book cover designs around this time of year.  Christmas, after all, is all about bright, attractive paper wrapped around surprises which are just a finger-rip away.  Sure, sometimes those concealed gifts turn out to be puzzling disappointments like socks embroidered with leaping trout or the annual Avon soap-on-a-rope from a well-meaning grandmother (I'm speaking from personal childhood trauma here), but even those Christmas duds are usually nice to look at before the paper is torn away.

Book jackets are the gift-wrap of the publishing world.  While we shouldn't judge the contents of a book by its cover, it's hard to ignore that first impression, isn't it?  I'll be the first to admit, I sometimes buy a book based entirely on the lure of its cover (including a couple of the ones listed below).  Call me shallow, but I like my words packaged in eye-candy.

Here are my favorite designs of books published in 2014. I've listed the designer's name whenever possible; some of them also popped up on last year's Best Covers list--that's because they're damned good at what they do.

The Secret of Raven Point by Jennifer Vanderbes
Design by Gabrielle Wilson
The cover design for Vanderbes' novel about a young woman searching for her brother who is missing in action in Italy was one of the first to catch my attention in 2014.  Half a profile and one eye of a World War Two-era WAC can be seen behind a sheet of yellowed, stained and torn memo paper which bears the book's title and a small red cross (nicely linked to the girl's bright red lipstick as well as her job as an Army nurse).

Design by Gray318
Turning the cover into birch bark itself may have seemed like an obvious move, but I think the simplicity of those little slits and the big bold font of the title are all we really need.

The House on the Cliff by Charlotte Williams
Design by Andrea Cardenas
I love how the titular building is so faint you can barely see it perched above the dark grassy knoll which is under most of the title and the author's name.  This is as atmospheric as a fog-swirled Manderley.

Design by Christopher Lin
Sideways landscapes seem to be all the rage lately (see also: California by Edan Lepucki and We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas), but I think the design and illustration for Justin Go's debut is one of my favorites--both for the deep, delicious blues which contrast the white peaks and the egg-yolk-yellow moon in "of," but also for the subtle way the mirror image of the mountain range takes on an hourglass shape, linking back to the title itself.

Winterkill by Kate A. Boorman
Design by Maria T. Middleton
Illustration by Shane Rebebschied
Here's an instance where I did buy the book based on the cover.  Sure, the perspective is all skewed if you really think about it, but the illustration muscles its way right into our eyes to announce what the book is about: a girl fleeing a threatening place (I love those whittled-sharp points on the title's lettering!), making her way along "the wayward path" through deep snow.  I immediately wanted to know why she was running and what she'd do once she got to her destination.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Design by Allison Saltzman
In this novel, set in Amsterdam in 1686, a bride receives an unusual wedding gift from her husband: a miniature replica of their house.  That world-within-a-world idea is nicely echoed in the snowy street scene found in the folds of the parakeet-bearing woman's dress.  While I love the spectrum of blues at work here, the green exclamation point of the bird and the splash of yellowed scroll beneath the title are brilliant notes of beauty.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Design by Tal Goretsky and Lynn Buckley
Photo by Manuel Clauzier
I really seemed to have a thing for blue covers this year and with that wide expanse of sky, the design for Doerr's masterful novel was one of the best.  If you've read All the Light We Cannot See (and if you haven't, what are you waiting for?!), you know the central role the walled citadel of Saint-Malo plays in the story of a blind French girl and a German boy whose lives intersect during World War Two.  This design wins the prize for Most-Looked-At in 2014: as I got deeper and deeper into the novel, I kept turning back to the cover to stare at the landscape of Saint-Malo.

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris
Design by Rodrigo Corral
Photo by George Baier IV
Katherine Faw Morris' debut novel about a 13-year-old girl involved with the drug trade in North Carolina is raw, relentless and in-your-face with language that scarcely pauses to take a breath.  Likewise, Rodrigo Corral's cover design of that powder-dusted (cocaine?) hand literally reaches out to beckon us onto the first page.  I love the wry humor of putting the title and author text on the middle finger.

Doll Palace by Sara Lippmann
Design by Kelly Rae Bahr
Sara Lippmann's story collection from new small indie publisher Dock Street Press is brightly decorated with a rainbow of paper dolls; making one of them battered and crumpled was a brilliant move.

Bicentennial by Dan Chiasson
Design by Carol Devine Carson
When I bought this collection of poetry at Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana, the girl behind the counter groaned, "God, now I'm hungry for pizza."  Well, yes, the cover is a tasty one, but the contents are just as delicious.  Bicentennial celebrates America's 200th birthday in the 168-line poem that serves as the collection's rousing finale, but fireworks shoot off everywhere on these pages in stanzas about growing up in Vermont, Chiasson's mixed feelings about his absentee father, and, yes, what's it's like to wait for the delivery of a pizza when you're a young, hormone-fueled kid.

I love the Michelangelo vibe going on here.  Are the hands reaching out to connect, or have they just let go and now they're falling away from each other in space?  The ambiguity is pertinent to this big novel which is bursting with ideas about faith and love and global apocalypse.

I Love You More by Jennifer Murphy
The tagline for Jennifer Murphy's novel is "One man, three wives, the perfect murder."  As far as I'm concerned, this is the perfect cover for a novel about scheming widows.  That gleaming gun set against the black dresses introduces just the right air of mystery and menace.

Design by Gretchen Mergenthaler
Speaking of menace, is anyone else creeped out by the stare-down contest coming from Paula Daly's new novel?  This girl--the "other woman" who threatens to break up a marriage--has Trouble written all over her face.  The fact that designer Gretchen Mergenthaler fenced off that face behind the big font of the book's title doesn't make me feel any more relaxed.

The Disunited States by Vladimir Pozner
Design by Janet Bruesselbach
Vladimir Pozner's Studs Terkel-esque "travelogue" about life in Depression-era American was originally published in French in 1938.  Seven Stories Press released it in a fresh translation this year here in the U.S. and, from what I've read in its pages, The Disunited States is an evocative verbal photo album of what life was like during those hard times.  Dorothea Lange's photo on the cover shows two vagrants heading down a highway in search of their dreams...or perhaps just their next meal.  Extra kudos for that spot-on line-break in the title.

Cementville by Paulette Livers
Design by Michael Kellner
No, the neatly-folded flag floating in a creek seems rather unlikely, but I get the symbolism.  Paulette Livers' novel, set in a small Kentucky town in 1969, is about how families and friends are torn apart by the news that seven young men from the town have been killed in a single ambush in Vietnam.  When their bodies come back in coffins, that's when trouble really starts brewing in Cementville.  So, yeah, maybe somebody does toss a flag into a muddy creek.  One of the things I like best about this cover is the way the title seems to rise out of the landscape itself.  Symbolism again.

Straight White Male by John Niven
Design by Sam Wolgemuth
I don't know about you, but I see a martini glass.

Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall
Design by Martha Kennedy
David Mendelsohn's photo of former U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall's face is cropped to perfection.  We need a roadmap to navigate those dry creek beds, the hilly pouches, and that magnificent forest of a beard.  I could stare at Donald Hall's face all day long and come away with a dozen different stories.  Mortality is one theme of Hall's new collection of essays (he writes: "In the morning, I turn on the coffee, glue in my teeth, take four pills, swallow Metamucil and wipe it off my beard, fasten a brace over my buckling knee...then read the newspaper and drink black coffee") and this in-your-face jacket design lets us know we're in for some bracing, honest discussions about death, beards, marriage, cooking and sex--all told from Hall's ancestral home on Eagle Pond in New Hampshire.  The state's famed "Old Man of the Mountain" granite outcropping collapsed in 2003.  I nominate Mr. Hall's visage as a suitable replacement.


  1. I like your comment on turning back to the cover of All the Light We Cannot See. I did the same thing with Peter Mendelsund's cover for Leaving the Sea, Ben Marcus' book of short stories. It became a part of the stories. (Another blue cover, they seemed very popular this year)

  2. Great post, David. Thanks!

  3. awesome, lots of great covers here.. I especially like the one with Birch Trees

  4. I just saw this, months after you published it. But I was glad to see the book at the top of the page, The Secret of Raven Point, which used my photograph for the cover being one of the books you selected.