Judging A Book By Its Cover

Usually, I write about what’s inside of a book…the words, plot, characters, sense of place, the story.  But recently, I’ve been thinking about how very much book covers impact my perception of a book before I even begin to read.

If I was reviewing movies on this blog, it might seem obvious to talk about the colors and art in the film.  Film is a visual medium, with  the pictures outside us, whereas with books, the images are ostensibly our own, personal visualizations. But I’ve noticed that the cover of a book gives me a starting place in which to ground my imagination.

In part, judging a book by its cover is useful, as when I scroll through Goodreads or NetGalley, and  use the book cover as one clue as to whether the book is something that will appeal to me.  But on the other hand, the cover gives me preconceptions about whether the novel is literature or a beach read, whether it’s self-published or not, etc..  And I think these first impressions affect how I react to the story itself, and  my final opinion of it, in a big way.

Where this becomes especially interesting to me is when publishers put contrasting covers on the same novel, because of their own ideas of what will appeal to the viewing public.

A great example of this is Starter House, by Sonja Condit.  I read the UK version of this book, which features a wistful, pastel-colored view of a curtain fluttering in a window.  To me, the writing in the novel held up to this delicate, lyrical, quality, which was part of what I loved about it. I saw Starter House as a shivery ghost story, rather than an in-your-face horror novel. However, the recent US publication of The Starter House has a cover with a completely different feel. This cover features bold red and blue writing, with a rocking horse planted in the center of in a white room. Right away, this cover reminded me of the twisted, disturbing, psychological thrillers by authors like Sophie Hannah.

Take a look at the two covers below.

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Having loved Starter House, I think the garish US cover may have done it a disservice. Several negative reviews I’ve read about this novel expressed disappointment that it was not the horror story they had expected. I think that if I had seen the US cover first, I would have been predisposed to think of the novel in that way, myself.  The cover of a novel can either enhance the mood of the writing, or do the story a disservice.  Readers derive some initial impressions of a novel by its cover, and as such, the cover is powerful stuff!

Here’s another example of book covers (Australian, and US) that portray the tone of the same novel differently:

17317855  17802724

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here’s one more good example: (note the change in title in the US version as well).

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What do you think? Are there any book covers that you feel have strongly affected your perception of the story, or that you think give a misleading first impression? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke

Mind of WinterMind of Winter by Laura Kasischke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is very, very difficult to write a review of this book without giving away major spoilers, thus…
My first recommendation would be that if you are at all interested in Mind of Winter, avoid anything beyond the Goodreads or cover blurb you’ve seen about it, until after you’ve read the book yourself.
That said (and I will try to completely avoid any spoilers here) I found Mind of Winter to be atmospheric, disturbing, haunting, lyrical, and sad.
For most of the novel, I really, really had no idea what was going on. I give author Laura Kasischke and her publishers credit that in this day and age, when thrillers with twists are almost the norm, that I did not realize the plot twist until near the end of the novel.
This said, part of being so in the dark meant that, for most of the book, I was unsure where the author was going, and whether I was reading a colossal mess.
The entire novel takes place during one Christmas day, while Holly and her daughter Tatiana are snowed in to their home by an unexpected blizzard. Although we are privy to Holly’s memories, as well as phone calls she makes to the outside world, the story has a slow, bland, insulated feel, much like the rising snow that surrounds the characters.
Author Laura Kasischke, who is a university professor and award-winning poet, makes references to poetry and fairy tale images throughout the novel. Many of these seemed repetitive and slightly bombastic to me, however, this style to some extent reinforced the atmosphere of claustrophobia that I believe Kasischke was aiming for.
After finishing the novel, I feel like the poetic references are not the simply the show of intellect that I feared they might be, but neither am I convinced that the writing was brilliant.
Mind of Winter had a satisfying ending, one which for me, justified reading the novel. However, despite having many great elements, such as a strong sense of place and of unease, I didn’t love it. For me, Mind of Winter was an intriguing, but imperfectly executed, novel.

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You Can Never Go Back(?): books that make me feel like a child again

Over my coffee this morning, I was pondering books that I really love. Books that feel like a hug, or a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter’s night, or looking at a starry sky up in the mountains.

As a child, I read like a maniac…picking up picture books and “reading” them to myself in baby language before I could speak properly. Once I had  a basic grasp of a language other than my own, and then, a few years later, when I could read, I gobbled up everything I could. I especially remember looking forward to summertime, and the library reading club, when I would spend most of each day engrossed in a book, eyes tired, legs cramped, but in absolute bliss.

As an adult, one of my disappointments is realizing that in many ways I have lost that ability to fully immerse myself in the world of books. And I don’t mean fantasy worlds, specifically (though Peter Pan’s Neverland will always be a personal favorite). The intense absorption that I felt as Nancy Drew climbed the hidden staircase, or Harold stalked, and “steaked” seemingly harmless Bunnicula, or the little princess discovered her attic room transformed, has never been equaled as an adult.  A few times, recently, I have reread childhood favorites, and found, to my dismay, that I do not experience the same enchantment as I did 25 years ago.

However, I still enjoy reading immensely, and once in a blue moon, I stumble upon a magical book that reminds me of how reading used to make me feel. Here are a few recent finds that have managed to take this clock-checking, calorie-counting, responsible(ish) adult back, for a little while, to never, never land.

  1. Darling Jim– by Christian Moerk- a tale based on true events in Ireland, it has an adult fairytale quality. Colors that describe it would be red and black, and despite being about obsession and murder, remembering it makes me feel like my heart is getting a hug.  A delight.
  2. The Ocean at the End of the Lane– by Neil Gaiman- captures the feel of being a child, and allowed me to experience that possibility again as an adult. I quickly forgot the specifics (which is interesting, given the story itself) but the joy I felt remained.
  3. Nine Coaches Waiting – by Mary Stewart- First published in 1958, Nine Coaches Waiting delighted me with a safer, more innocent world, where people do their best, and midnight picnics after a ball seem possible. Set in the Rhone-Alpes region of France, this gothic romance is pure escape.
  4. Tethered– Amy MacKinnon -strange, strange, strange. The front cover, which shows a girl floating in water with her hair spread out behind her, captures the feel of the story to me. I didn’t give Tethered a high rating at first, and I didn’t get the “twist” until I read it in others’ reviews. However, Amy MacKinnon’s utterly unique voice, and the mournful, quiet, mood she creates with her fragrant greenhouse and tortured heroine have stayed with me over time.
  5. Starter House – Sonja Condit- I just loved this book. A gorgeously described drama that also happens to contain a murderous ghost.
  6. The Girl on the Stairs– Louise Welsh- Another purely escapist read. A solitary mind-f*ck of a novel with crumbling graveyards, broken hearts, and a pregnant, lesbian protagonist who may or may not be losing her mind. Utterly unique- I have yet to find another novel like it.
  7. A Summer of Drowning – John Burnside (who is also a poet)- I have no idea what this book is really about, but it transported me to a strange, bright world of danger and freedom, where reality and fantasy merge and sunlight dances on the sea.
  8. The Falcons of Fire and Ice– Karen Maitland- a world of ice and beauty, and of blood, mud, and tears. Lust, torture, witchcraft, murder, but also, somehow, love. Karen Maitland’s world is visceral; you smell it, you feel it, and you will delight in it.

What books have brought the magic of childhood reading back to you as an adult? I’d love to hear.

Don’t Try To Find Me (8 July 2014) by Holly Brown

 

Don't Try to Find MeDon’t Try to Find Me by Holly Brown

4 out of 5 stars

I would like to thank William Morrow/HarperCollins publishers for my advance reader’s copy of Don’t Try To Find Me. This novel was interesting to read and review, in part because it was not what I expected.
Don’t Try To Find Me is told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of Marley, a 13-year-old girl who is “missing,” and her mother Rachel, who is desperately trying to find out what has happened to her daughter. Given the promotional comparisons to Gone Girl, Don’t Try to Find Me was a lot less edgy than I thought it would be. However, this novel, which straddled the line between adult and young adult fiction, was still a pleasure to read.
What I found most compelling about Don’t Try To Find Me was the character development of Marley, Rachel, and the father and husband, Paul. They are all, in their own ways, trying to find themselves, as well as exploring how their relationships with each other may have led to Marley’s disappearance. So to me, this book was more about relationships, self-respect, and identity, than about shock value or violence. However, this focus meant that at times, the discussions between Rachel and Paul, or Rachel’s own muddled self-evaluation, seemed overlong.
I definitely found the chapters narrated by Marley to be most intriguing. Her character, angry, smart, but also full of the self-doubt of being a young teenager, was relatable and easy to care about. Rachel, on the other hand, was so self-absorbed and scatterbrained, that I often cringed at her actions and thoughts.
It’s difficult to go into more detail about Don’t Try To Find Me without giving away key elements of the plot, but what I will say is that I was surprised by how tame the story turned out to be. This is not to say that some truly terrible things did not occur, but, given the buildup at the beginning, as well as the reactions Marley and Rachel had to their experiences, I had expected things would get worse than they did. Especially in the case of Rachel, her own concept of how traumatizing her marriage was did not impress me.
One reason I was initially attracted to Don’t Try To Find Me was that promotional descriptions implied a cutting edge use of the internet in the novel. While emails and Facebook played a part in the story, social media was not utilized in any way that I found especially ground-breaking.
For all this, I did enjoy Holly Brown’s debut novel. My main critique, which is not one that I have often, is that it could have had more impact if it had played it less safe. I never felt much of a sense of true danger. More than anything, Don’t Try To Find Me was a novel about finding oneself, and about growing up. In this, it was a satisfying read.

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

 

Northanger AbbeyNorthanger Abbey by Val McDermid

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From the first page, I adored this rewrite of Northanger Abbey by author Val McDermid.  McDermid, better known as an award-winning crime writer, has here taken on the task of reimagining Jane Austen’s heroine Cat Morland in the present day. McDermid states in her prologue that she hopes Jane Austen would enjoy her take on the classic novel, and I think McDermid has succeeded in this aim.
Val McDermid is clearly an author who is intimately familiar with Jane Austen’s work. Happily, I had just finished reading the original Northanger Abbey, as well as watching the Masterpiece Theater film adaptation, so I had many of the sentences, and the particular wit that Austen employs, fresh in my mind. Thus, I was truly impressed with the way that McDermid captures the essence of Austen’s classic so succinctly. Using her own words, McDermid somehow manages to convey the sound, rhythm, and tone of the original Northanger Abbey. And even more remarkable is how she is able to do this within a contemporary setting.
What McDermid has achieved here is no small feat, as I can attest to, having read, and been disappointed by, numerous novels by contemporary authors which fail to achieve an authentic sense of the past. The problem of a superficial gloss of old buildings and costumes over disappointingly contemporary characters is also apparent in popular television series. One example is Lost in Austen, in which a present-day heroine goes back in time to visit the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice. What these artistic attempts, and quite a few others, show, more than anything, is how difficult it is for contemporary writers and filmmakers to capture a convincing sense of the past. Somehow, Val McDermid has reached that difficult goal, creating modern characters who manage to almost seamlessly capture the essence of an Austen novel. Basically, Northanger Abbey feels like the novel Austen would have written herself, if she was alive in 2014.
That said, Northanger Abbey stays true to the plot of the original novel. It is a credit to this rewrite that, despite having recently read the original, I was completely enchanted with McDermid’s version, even knowing every conversation and situation the characters would encounter. This is indeed high praise from someone who rarely rereads a book or rewatches a movie.
The only slight quibbles I would have, which are not really complaints, but just interesting observations, were that to me, the Henry Tilney of McDermid’s Northanger Abbey lacked the charm, self-effacing humor, and integrity that made him such an endearing character in Austen’s novel. McDermid’s Henry was a pretty nice guy, but he didn’t seem quite so intelligent, gallant, or mature as Austen’s character. At times, he came across as harsh. The same goes for Ellie, and for Cat. Ellie seemed a little less graceful and angelic, and Cat seemed a little less ingenuous. The closest thing I can compare it to is how different actors portray characters in film adaptations of a novel. An example would be Johnny Lee Miller and Jeremy Northam in the different Emma adaptations. Each actor had slightly different takes on the character of Mr. Knightley, though I must say, in that instance, I would have a difficult time deciding which one I would rather fall in love with.
All said, McDermid’s Northanger Abbey was a delight to read and a worthy tribute to the Jane Austen classic. It will definitely be more fully appreciated by readers familiar with the original novel. And I was so impressed by McDermid’s writing that I began her crime novel, A Place of Execution, while still in the middle of Northanger Abbey. Though utterly different in tone, I am happily engrossed in this mystery, and am so glad to finally become familiar with this truly gifted and versatile author.
 

The Sleep Room by F. R. Tallis

The Sleep RoomThe Sleep Room by F.R. Tallis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I find it fascinating to read other reviews of The Sleep Room by F.R Tallis, because some people found this story to hit the perfect note of classic suspense, while others found it slow, predictable, and a letdown. It seems that the biggest disparity of opinion comes in reader’s perceptions of the final twist of the novel…some people thought it was brilliant, and others felt it undermined the rest of the book.
Here are my thoughts about the The Sleep Room. First of all, I enjoyed the setting, the isolated mental asylum of Wyldehope Hall on the Suffolk coast. Crashing waves, misty bogs, shadowy corridors…the novel is a pleasure of gothic escapism.
However, like some reviewers, I felt that the main character, James Richardson was difficult to root for, even though I tried. Although in many ways, his intentions seemed altruistic, there was also a lascivious, narcissistic, unforgiving side of him that made him rather repellent.
Furthermore, the plot was a lot of buildup with not a lot of follow through. The ending of the The Sleep Room was confusing…and almost seemed to consist of two distinct stories.
On the one hand, there was a more traditional partial explanation for the mysterious events that were occurring at Wyldehope Hall. And on the other, the author threw in a twist, that for me, undermined the significance of the entire story that had gone before. The surprise felt unnecessary, and cheapened what could have been an enjoyable, classic ghost story without it. It almost seemed to me like the twist was an excuse to create a flashy distraction, and let the author off the hook from the more difficult task of coming up with a compelling explanation for the mystery that he had created.
In The Sleep Room, F.R. Tallis has written a novel with a strong sense of place and an intriguing premise. Unfortunately, in my opinion, he was unable to back this up with a convincing conclusion, or compelling main character.

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The Unseen by Katherine Webb

The UnseenThe Unseen by Katherine Webb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Unseen was a pure pleasure to read. I’ve been on a bit of a Kate Morton, Hannah Richell, kick recently-give me the British Isles, a little bit of mystery, a few ghosts, and a little romance, and I’m in literary heaven. 🙂
The Unseen was all these things, and was also a story which affected me deeply.
On the surface, the novel follows Reverend Albert Canning and his wife Hester during one formative and tragic summer in 1911. The newlyweds live quietly in a small village in the English countryside, and have just hired a new maid named Cat. The other main player in the drama that enfolds is a young theosophist named Robin, a charismatic, handsome young man who hopes to make his name by proving the existence of fairies.
Without revealing spoilers, it is safe to say that the novel deals with big issues, such as freedom, women’s rights, homosexuality, and the detrimental affects of guilt. The theme of deception, of oneself, and of others, runs throughout.
What I really enjoyed about the novel was how much I empathized with most of the main characters, flawed as some of them were. Even as they made horrible choices, it was clear to see how their violence and insanity was exacerbated, if not excused, by their own suffering and guilt.
In contrast to the narrative taking place around the turn of the century, part of The Unseen also follows journalist Leah in the present day as she investigates those past events. I found Leah’s story, which includes a rather tepid romance, to be much less compelling than the narrative set in 1911. In fact, I almost think that The Unseen didn’t need the present-day investigation as a structure, and would have been stronger if it had left out the dual-time aspect.
Regardless, I really, really enjoyed The Unseen. It gave me insight into a fascinating period in history, as well as introducing me to a group of characters who I connected with deeply. On a scale of emotional intensity from 1-10, I would rate The Unseen an 8. I fell in love with Cat, with her, earnest, loyal, and kind, lover George, and with Hester Canning, struggling to understand her husband and her world.
I left the characters of The Unseen with reluctance, and highly recommend this memorable novel.

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