Cover Versions

Thursday March 27, 2008 in books | meme

From Booking Through Thursday:

While acknowledging that we can’t judge books by their covers, how much does the design of a book affect your reading enjoyment? Hardcover vs. softcover? Trade paperback vs. mass market paperback? Font? Illustrations? Etc.?

I’m often too swayed by a book design. I’ve bought bad books because they look good, and avoided good books because they look bad. I never read Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh because the cover looked awful. An awful choice in itself, but I couldn’t help it. I’m also tempted – or put off – by too much misleading blurb, which appears to have crept onto the cover of paperbacks in recent years. Even new releases in hardback have blurb these days and sing the praises of an author’s previous work.

So because I am easily tempted by eye-catching design, I like a book cover to catch the essence of a book, without telling me too much about it or misleading me. A good recent example is The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Its cover picturing a row of dying trees told me what to expect and suited the mood of the book perfectly. Both hardback and paperback versions of the book used the same design, so it obviously worked in the eyes of the publisher. Another recent design I found effective was the creepy cover for Darkmans by Nicola Barker, although the subsequent paperback noticeably went for something much lighter. And even though I’d read about the book and wanted to read it I suspect that the paperback would have made my decision harder, presenting me with what looked more comic than sinister.

Bad covers are ones that perplex and only make sense with some knowledge of the book’s content. I’m currently reading Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel. The cover is an illustration of a lady in colourful garb with a vacuum cleaner. This begins to make sense when you discover that the lead character in the novel is a medium. The colourful garb is a reference to tarot cards. The vacuum cleaner is a reference to a passage very early in the novel, which suggests to me that the designer only read a couple of chapters in before sketching out the cover. Am I being hard on the designer?

Probably the best thing about cover design is that it can serve to nicely date a book. Films and tv set in the fifties and sixties ask their props departments to line the bookshelves of their set with the iconic orange covered Penguins of the period. Since book design has become less uniform in later years it’s probably still possible to tell from which decade a book belongs to, whether the cover shows art, typography or actors in ridiculous poses (I’m thinking of mass market horror, romance and detective fiction over the years).

Sometimes though it’s just the quality and packaging of a book that impresses. The hardbacks of Susanna Clarke’s two recent books Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu, are just beautiful. Quality design, printing and illustration. The writing’s good too. And let’s not forget that this is the most important thing.

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I Don't Know What the Matter is...

Tuesday March 4, 2008 in books |

…but I’m terribly unsettled in my reading. It took me real, concentrated effort to finish Day by A.L.Kennedy, a book I’d been very much looking forward to. I usually do so well with Costa winners (Stef Penney, William Boyd) and expected to enjoy this Second World War themed novel, but it was such hard work to read that it was like trudging uphill whilst wearing a particularly heavy and bulky knapsack.

But I’m also worried about writing too many negative posts in quick succession, so I have been trying to pick my next read with care. After years of treating him coldy I’ve started flirting again with Will Self. After buying my copy of The Book of Dave I sat down to read it but I’ve realised that it’s still too soon to get back together with him; the experience wasn’t the pleasure it might have been. I closed the paperback and put it aside for another day, like ruefully putting the cork back into an ill-chosen bottle of wine.

Panic set in. I started J.G.Ballard’s The Drowned World last night. Although it wasn’t quite the sobering Self experience, the important work meeting I had looming the next day spoilt my enjoyment of the book, and then proceeded to spoil life itself until I’d got it out of the way. What to do? A trip to Borders this afternoon saved the day. Following the meeting from hell (a.k.a Stephen against the world – alternative a.k.a Stephen comes out quite well after a potentially confrontational and nasty meeting) I decide to treat myself to a few new books, including Essays in Love by Alain de Botton.

Sitting in the school library as I wait to pick my daughter up from netball I dip in to de Botton and he’s a joy to read. I feel no heavy burden. The wine is nectar. Choosing the right book shouldn’t be so difficult, I shouldn’t ponder on it as much. Do you really want to know? But when the pleasure of reading kicks in there’s nothing like it, so I feel that I need to tell you. And I bought the Duffy album too, which helps to calm the mood. A review of Essays in Love coming soon…

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Reading But Not Writing

Monday February 25, 2008 in books |

This corner of the blogosphere is becoming increasingly silent. I’m still reading, but there’s never much time for writing at the moment. I finished The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas, a writer who was annoyingly hovering just outside my radar – for too long for me to continue not reading them. Reading this novel helped me to conclude that I am useless at crime fiction, not giving my full concentration and missing the clues as they are scattered before me. For me, Vargas writes too much like Agatha Christie – I have trouble differentiating between the various characters that just appear too similar. At the end of the book I had just about learnt the names of Vargas’ three evangelists – but I couldn’t tell you any more about them. And I also kept forgetting that Vargas is French, the novel is French-set and a translation. It could have been set in New York, Berlin or Bristol for all the local atmosphere it gave me.

So I’m passing on to Day by A.L.Kennedy, a novel that might just be more my cup of tea…

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Mister Pip and the Breakthrough

Thursday January 24, 2008 in books |

Do you bother reading the blurb on the inside cover of paperbacks? I certainly wouldn’t buy a book on the strength of them, and I rarely read them on the books I do buy. And when I do read them I tend to read only the lengthy ones – a paragraph or two on the virtues of the book rather than the quick great read or magnificent book.

I’m currently reading the paperback copy of Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. It features more than the average amount of snippets from rave reviews. No problem for me, I think it’s a great read so far – it might even be a magnificent book. What I did notice for the first time was that the snippets included a quote from a book blog. This is the first time I’ve ever noticed this on a UK paperback. Is it a first?

Alas, it’s not a great quote, but it’s a great start. One of the reasons I rarely read paperback blurb is because it always comes from newspapers and magazines that give their reviewers free copies of the latest releases and then, shockingly, pay them to write reviews. Unless I’ve got this all horribly wrong, I understand that the majority of book bloggers don’t receive their books for free and certainly don’t get paid for their reviews. In most cases they’ll be out of pocket, buying a book and sharing their thoughts for free. Call me romantic, but somehow this makes me more interested in what they have to say. So here’s to more quotes from blogs on the inside covers of paperbacks. More of us might even read them.

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McCarthy and Other Plans

Saturday January 12, 2008 in books |

There’s an excellent essay on Cormac McCarthy in today’s Guardian by Jason Cowley. It’s well worth reading and, although I’d decided to lay off McCarthy for a while, I’m itching to start the second part of his Border trilogy, The Crossing. The Coen Brothers film of No Country for Old Men is also out soon. I predict McCarthy mania.

Following on from the last post, I’m slowly rebuilding my TBR pile, which is looking something like this:

  • The Girl at the Lion d’Or by Sebastian Faulks. This is my first (and overdue) contribution to the Reading the Author challenge at Incurable Logophilia.
  • I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. I have no interest in seeing the recent Will Smith film, although I still have fond memories of the adaptation called The Omega Man with Charlton Heston. So I thought it was time I tried the original novel.
  • Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. I think I may have overdone Booker nominees recently, but we shall see.
  • Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Praised too much for me to keep ignoring.
  • Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. This is an intriguing looking new vampire novel set in Washington.
  • Chamber of Horrors. An anthology of ghost and horror stories from 1984 purchased this morning. I’d not planned to read any more of this type of thing for a while, but who could resist a collection that includes H.G.Wells, Sheridan Le Fanu and W.W. Jacobs?

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