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Reading … Book Covers of the Year 2017

Reading started ten years ago with just the covers of whatever I was reading — or about to read, blogged at the start. Then I added a paragraph or two about why I was reading whatever. Definitely not a review, I kept on repeating. More or less they’ve become reviews which I write either some way into the reading or at the end. Sometimes still at the beginning. Reviews, not reviews, whatever, reasons for reading. This last year at least, that’s turned into multi-thousand word essays on some books.

Fark! But wot about the cover art, Frances?

Reading is about the object, its materiality. The weight of the paper, the typography, the width of the margins, the smell of the ink and binding, the texture of the cover, the volume it occupies. The cover art.

A good cover thrills me. A bad one makes me cringe. Cover art is bound as much to genre constraints as it is to budget — and every class and decimal of Dewey is a genre. A good cover on a mass market paperback is not diminished by the crappiness of the print (cos the paper will yellow and grow brittle in the space of years), but no amount of expensive binding or price makes up for shiteful cover art and typography. So here are my favourite covers from 2017.

I love thematic consistency, editions or series by the same designer with a common style. I know it’s been done for decades, but it still seems new to me, maybe because I enjoy seeing the idea developed across multiple books. I especially love it when there’s a consonance between cover and story, like Steph Swainston’s Castle series, of which I read Fair Rebel this year (no idea who did the cover art, but it reprises the original trilogy). Totally fits the world. I see these covers and I immediately have images of the Fourlands, the Circle, of Jant fill my head.

Becky Chambers, whose The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit I read this year do attractive simplicity — lowercase typeface in shifting colour over astrophotography and silhouette of small figures on a hill in the lowest fifth. Again, I see these covers and know the world and characters. At the opposite end, full design, where typography and art are one, there’s Ben Aaronovitch’s Moon Over Soho and Rivers of London (cover art by Stephen Walter, and cheers again to Gala for introducing me to his brilliant series). Aesthetically, they’re not really my thing, but they suit the novels in a way (or you could go the whole Ayize Jama-Everett direction, or South London Grime, which might be more congruent, though scare off the nice readers).

I have Iain M. Banks covers. Not published any time recently but just as he’ll never not be my favourite author (“On what timescale, Frances?” “Oh, you know, heat death of the universe?”) the unified cover art of his various editions I love. The original editions are by Mark Salwowski (and I just discovered I can buy prints!), then the 2005 imprint was done by blacksheep, some of which I like more than the originals, but some, like Feersum Endjinn are iconic. No matter what edition or genre, these covers do solid typography and art. The post-2005 novels retain the 2005 style, but — for The Hydrogen Sonata at least — Lauren Panepinto is the artist. I could easily throw in any of these late-Banks covers here, but this is his last Culture novel and I have a deep fondness for it. The colour of the cover is that of the story.

Returning to Gesamtkunstwerk territory, China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution is a glorious piece of art. Andrea Guinn’s responsible for that slab of Russian Constructivism. If I was going to go all Cover of the Year, this would be one of them. Caroline Walker Bynum’s are around half the time understatedly gorgeous — academic publications act like they don’t have much to prove with their covers, but Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe is a pleasure to hold. I’d love to see her work redone entirely by someone like Andrea Guinn. Another Cover of the Year would be Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, by Christopher Norris, also gets best fucking title of the year, along with being my non-fiction Book of the Year. Which leaves Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger, which I have got more than a couple of friends to read, and is my fiction Book of the Year. The image here does it poor service, in the real world, the almost matt black is a light-deadening rectangle that looks larger than it is, it’s a suitably unfriendly cover to go with a disturbing story that I’ll be reading again and again.

11 covers then, in my first — and perhaps last — dance with cover art. Slightly less than a third of the books I read have covers (or complete design and binding, which is an even smaller subset) I think really gives the author and writing their due — and the reader, ’cos there’s nothing I love more than a beautiful book. So cheers to all you designers and artists and typographers, and cheers to the publishers who represent their authors with such art, you make the world a better place.

And my full list of what I read in the last year: Reading … A 10th Anniversary.

sometimes i paint …

Emile took me along to see an exhibition of Peter Saville while we were in Zürich. I’m really surprised at myself for not blogging it. Firstly because his album art for Factory Records, and especially New Order is unequivocally a unique and important body of work that goes far beyond cover art and design. To look at his processes for creating the images, his collection of typography, the bands he worked with who had a profound influence on me, all that should have been enough for a blog.

Beyond the archaeological though, his cover art for Suede’s Coming Up was one of the pivotal influences on hell. Conceptually, it solved the progression of all the Vampiros Lesbos reanimated corpse stuff, and opened up the scene into the demonic incubi and succubi and what followed. And visually, for any of you with either the DVD or the flier, if you compare the scrawled text ‘coming up’ and ‘hell’ you’ll suddenly go, “Oh, Frances cut all those letters up and rearranged them”. (For an easy clue, ‘o’ is ‘e’.)

Anyway, last night I got to see a couple of bands. The headliner was this old group that split up years ago and got back together to make an easy buck. They were one of the seminal groups from the late-80s and early-90s, and most people who hang around any inner city could probably sing along to them. It was kinda like a gig your parents would go to, and you’d be all like, “Aw jeez, my parents are so uncool”, trying to relive their youth. I keep thinking Air Supply…

And once this band could really rock out. A lot of my friends loved them so they’ve swirled around my life for ages, though as usual – like the second band Phoenix that are quite the tasty new things at the moment – I’ve been listening to too much Black Metal and missed all the excitement, then and now. It was a trip down memory lane for most people there, a sing-along karaoke of all the hits. But … no heart. Music by numbers, all played tight and cool, and hard, raw lights. Empty. So like their parents before them, Generation X has become nostalgic for their own past. The band was the Pixies.

But who cares?

JARVIS!!!!!

This man is a rock god. I never listened to Pulp, but Peter Saville’s artwork for This Is Hardcore was also in the exhibition and had me giddy with its utterly disinterested sexuality. Leo, who has just moved here from Adelaide to go to Art School jumped on me earlier in the night and provided a running commentary of what Jarvis would say in an interview (“sometimes I paint …”), and sang me cool cheerleader songs dedicated to him. And all the while, this skinny guy in tight trousers and black-rimmed glasses so distant in the crappy Myer Music Bowl managed to engage the entire audience, to sound as though he genuinely enjoyed being there, a witty, intelligent raconteur, and deliriously sexy man.

And when he danced. This man has the best stage moves since Black Sabbath before they started snorting coke. He has this geeky, can’t-dance aura that is completely shattered when he does split jumps and every rock god move one after the other. I just wanted to buy a DVD of him live, learn all his moves and stalk him with my unsightly homage of Black Magic. The rest of the night was entirely devoid of what rock is supposed to make you feel, but Jarvis!!! … I want you!!!

(I took some photos with my phone … I’m never going to wash it.)

jarvis … black magic
jarvis … black magic
jarvis … more of the same
jarvis … more of the same