Sunday 29 June 2008

Quentin Blake Addendum

Can't believe I forgot this one: the current Penguin cover to Evelyn Waugh's darkly brilliant The Loved One is by Quentin Blake.

Saturday 28 June 2008

An Unfortunate Resemblance

Something struck me the other day looking at the cover of a book I read last year. It's Black Juice, a collection of dark fantasy tales by Australian author Margot Lanagan. Here's the cover, with a sinister woman on it:

And here's every-prize-but-the-Nobel-winning Canadian author Margaret Atwood:



In other news, i recently visited a Borders for the first time in a while. I remember when this shop opened in Adelaide, my home city: it was huge, and had a vast array of books. Now it has many, many fewer books, and seems to be all about expensive magazines, coffee and DVDs. Apparently this is normal operating practise for this chain. In any case, I was looking around, and couldn't help but notice that the entire shop had only two (2) books by Chekhov, one (1) book by Patricia Highsmith, and five (5) whole frigging shelves of books by 'Robert Ludlum'.

This made me quite angry, and I inadvertently said aloud, "Well, fuck you, Borders!", at which point a woman near me browsing the Alexander McCall Smiths gave a start and darted away.

Thursday 26 June 2008

More Blood-Curdling Shenanigans

A couple of months ago I looked at the available covers for the upcoming series of horror classics from Penguin. Two titles at that point were without cover designs: The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins, and The Virgin of the Seven Daggers by Vernon Lee, which was also the only book in the series I hadn't read in some other edition, and knew nothing about.

Well, here are those two covers, which are a lurid match with the rest of the set.

And here's the blurb for Virgin...: "The brutal Don Juan – an unrepentant sinner – makes a pact with the Virgin of the Seven Daggers. He promises to forever proclaim her supreme beauty and asks that in return she save him from damnation. Emboldened by the deal and driven by insatiable greed, he embarks on a necromantic journey to an enchanted palace beneath the Alhambra. In an orgy of beasts, demons and slumbering infantas Don Juan is called upon to uphold his side of the bargain and in doing so lose everything his lustful heart desires."

So, yes, I'll be getting that.

UPDATE: The most excellent Coralie Bickford-Smith informs me that she is responsible for these brilliant covers. She says that "[t]he process I used was inspired by Romek Marber, a freelance designer noted for his work on Penguin crime books in the 1960s. Like Marber I have used light sensitive paper to produce stark graphic images."

I also find that Coralie did the covers for the Penguin Red Classics adventure books I discussed in an earlier post. For more about Romek Marber, see my Simenon Retro post.


As a child I worked my way through pretty much every book in the local library that had a Puffin on the spine; more often than not it was a very good book. Certainly bringing Tove Jansson's Moomin books into English and keeping them in print is justification enough for Penguin's children's imprint to be toasted to the heavens.

Puffin have now launched a new series of Puffin Classics, modelled on the Penguin Classics. They're a great series of books, very attractively designed. Each has a very appealing illustration on the cover (usually with part of it protruding over the white band, making them more childishly anarchic than the adult classics) and bold, limited colour schemes that catch the eye. Click for much bigger versions.

I'm not sure whis responsible for most of these illustrations, although the Alice in Wonderland cover must be by the man who wrote the introduction, Chris Riddell (a children's writer who I know better through his great covers and cartoons for the Literary Review magazine). The cover for A Little Princess looks a lot like Vania Zouravliov's work, but I may be wrong.

(UPDATE: Indeed, I'm completely wrong--an anonymous commentor informs me that A Little Princess's cover is the work of Kate Willis-Crowley.)

Penguin India have also got in on the act, releasing three Indian children's classics as part of this series. The covers are mostly photographic rather than illustrative, but they are also very nice-looking books. I've got hold of a copy of Making a Mango Whistle, which looks very interesting.

My only objection would be that for the non-Indian titles, the authors of the introductions get bigger billing than the authors of the books, which seems a bit rough.

Wednesday 25 June 2008

Quentin Blake's Other Covers

Quentin Blake, born 1932, is deservedly well-known for his wonderful illustrations to his own and others' children's books: Roald Dahl, Russel Hoban, William Steig, Joan Aiken, JP Martin's Uncle books, and the wonderful Beatrice and Vanessa by John Yeoman, to name a few.

What is less known is his extensive background in providing covers for adult books, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. Usually using monochrome or limited colour schemes, his sketchy, appealing cartoons adorned a huge number of works.

Here, for example, are some of his Penguin covers for Evelyn Waugh (as always, click on the images for more detail)...

..and for Kingsley Amis (including Lucky Jim, one of my favourite books ever, so good it made the rest of Amis's fiction a significant disappointment)... well as hardback dustjackets for Margaret Drabble...

..and lovely covers for the Folio Society editions of Orwell's Animal Farm, Gibbons's Cold Fomfort Farm, and Cervantes' Don Quixote.

Here are more of his numerous covers.

Thursday 19 June 2008

The Bananas and the Books

Like Louise Brooks, Josephine Baker was a talented and beautiful Jazz Age American performer who found herself much more comfortable in Europe. In Paris she was a jazz singer and dancer, famed for her performances wearing a skirt of bananas and not much else.

Here she was captured in lithography by the talented graphic designer Paul Colin, who, like Georges Simenon, became her lover.

I was inspired to write about her here by seeing that same lithograph used as the cover for John Fuller's forthcoming book of poems, Song & Dance...

..which reminded me that Baker was also on the hardcover of Umberto Eco's recent illustrated novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

Baker has been on a lot of other book covers. Book designers have undoubtedly been aided by the profusion of eye-catching portraits of Baker. Many of these images are on autobiographies and biographies, of course...

..while others are studies of her milieu.

You can see from some of the covers above that, as with Louise Brooks, Baker was still easily recognised even when reduced to a few major distinctive features (the hair and the grin).


I don't watch anywhere near as many films as I mean to: the siren call of the books is too strong, and I tend to enjoy reading a lot more. However, I have a real addiction to film noir, and was thrilled when the slightly clumsily titled Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style finally arrived at my home yesterday.

This is a very useful and gigantic book: a comprehensive guide to pretty much every American noir movie from the 1930s to the 1970s, with critical commentary and technical details. It explores what is best about these films: their murky morality (sometimes ruined by studio-enforced 'happy' endings), the beautiful cinematography, the funky jazz scores, the subversive stories, the femme fatales...

Noir was powered by the emigre film directors and writers who were refugees from Germany and the collapsing Austria-Hungary, who brought their often expressionistic style to hardboiled US crime movies. They're the perfect mixture of European and American, low and high culture.

The cover to this encyclopaedia is a still from a minor noir, featuring two of the less noir-associated actors of the era--Joan Crawford and Jack Palance in Sudden Fear. If you want to see a man whose head appears to have been modelled on an Easter Island statue, the young Palance is your first port of call (see also Panic in the Streets).

Co-editor of this volume is the ubiquitous Alain Silver: he's produced numerous film noir books, some of which I own and have thoroughly pored over. One of the best is The Noir Style, essentially a photographic coffee table book of arresting, gorgeous black-and-white stills from noir movies. The cover features Rita Hayworth in that famous dress from Gilda.

Of the four books of essays on noir that Silver has edited, I have only the third (they're priced like academic textbooks). It has a lot of intriguing interviews with some of the genre's best directors, and the cover shows a behind-the-scenes shot of Barbara Stanwyck and Billy Wilder on the set of Double Indemnity.

Silver also put together this book for art publisher Taschen's film series. The cover is a detail from The Night of the Hunter; Robert Mitchum's compelling psychopathic lay preacher turned woman-killer has 'HATE' tattooed on one hand and 'LOVE' on the other.

The Rough Guide to Film Noir is a good beginner's guide, well-written and surprisingly comprehensive: it also makes use of Double Indemnity, with Stanwyck's partner-in-crime being Fred MacMurray.

Then we have Virgin's more in-depth guide to the genre. This has Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past, and captures the sleepy-eyed charm that, as it aged and turned puffy and sour, Mitcham would turn to such good effect in the original Cape Fear.

Finally, we have Death on the Cheap, a useful but somewhat erratic to the lesser-known noir B-movies. I have no idea what the cover is drawn from, besides it being an RKO production, but it's a great image.

Sunday 15 June 2008


Tamara de Lempicka--the Polish bisexual Art Deco painter and refugee from Nazism; born Maria Górska before marrying the adventurer Tadeusz Łempicki; resident of Poland, Russia, Switzerland, France and the US--is one of those painters most people know the work of without necessarily knowing anything of the artist. Her distinctive, somewhat unsettling paintings crop everywhere, and are much used on the covers of books.

Here are six of the many books about her. The woman in the green Bugatti on the first cover is a self-portrait.

Given the era in which she flourished, her work is well suited to decadent (or allegedly decadent) books from the inter-war years...

..and she is much used on the covers to feminist books with a transgressive or sensual/sexual bent.. well as sinister stories with strong, morally ambiguous female characters*...

..books by, about and for selfish motherfucking fascists "objectivists"..

..and all sorts of other books.

She gets around.

*In Nabokov's wonderfully black and cruel Laughter in the Dark, the main character marries a young movie starlet. When he is blinded she secretly moves her lover into their house. Said lover then proceeds to creep silently around the house, tormenting the husband, who is never sure if the sounds he hears are real or delusions. Nasty, gripping stuff.

UPDATE: Boktoka pointed me in the direction of another Lempicka cover, this one from Sweden:

Wednesday 11 June 2008


There's an image I like a lot which I found in a Dover reprint collection of fin de siecle French advertising posters, Masters of the Poster.

The image is an 1896 advertisement for Absinthe Robette by Privat-Livemont. I love it so much I had it made into a (possibly copyright-defying) shirt.

I just wish I actually liked absinthe itself more--in fact, I can't stand the taste of it. It's one of those things where the idea of something is more appealing than the reality.

There's another famous Absinthe poster, this time from 1901, that was done by Leonetto Cappiello for Absinthe Ducros.

Here are the original posters: click for much bigger versions.

And here they are on the hardcover and paperback covers for Jad Adams' Hideous Absinthe:

And here they are again, on the covers to issues 1 and 8 of Absinthe: New European Writing magazine.

That's a lot of absinthe.

UPDATE: A cartoon from 1904...