Review – Of Bees and Mist

This is a truly strange book – compulsively readable and annoying in equal measure. The cover is a bit of a giveaway consisting as it does of the title in big art deco letters on a grey background with a few white curlicues ie we’ve got no idea how to classify this. Just above the author’s name is a small picturebook-like silhouette of a tower on a cloud with a windswept woman’s figure. The publisher is tentatively suggesting this might be a kid’s fantasy.

This could be a fantasy book except it is set in a picturebook ‘real world’, in a city that might be northern European, central European or Asian; it has elements of each. It could be in medieval times, the nineteenth century or contemporary times. The clothes don’t help. In one place the heroine, Meridia, wears a knee length dress, yet her father wears a top hat and cloak. Everyone walks – there are no horses, or cars, or trains. In the gardens there are roses and marigolds but also bougainvillea, the food is cakes and sandwiches but also ginger and garlic and noodles. If we accept this hybrid world it is only one step further to accept that there are yellow and blue mists that enfold Meridia’s father when he leaves the house, that the house is perpetually freezing no matter the heat outside, and that Meridia’s mother-in-law dominates her family with vicious attacking bees that aren’t visible to others.

In Meridia’s world there are fortune tellers, invisible friends and people who fade into their spirit beings but there’s also school, romance and marriage, housekeeping and starting up a business. This mishmash of elements would be fatally off putting if it wasn’t for the strong narrative drive and the barrage of mysteries to be resolved. Meridia’s mother-in-law is a truly horrendous character, such a narcissistic sociopath that she doesn’t really need the (supernatural) bees the author bestows on her to perpetuate her horrors. Be warned, her comeuppance is a long-time coming.

The novel has been called magic realism, but it doesn’t quite fit that description, also an adult fairytale. That tag doesn’t really fit either but is closer to the mark. There are sexual references and crudity of language that mark this out as ‘adult’ whereas the story itself could be young adult, or teen. Perhaps as the phenomenon of Harry Potter showed, adults do want to read young fantasy books, and Of Bees and Mist has tapped into this. Interestingly, however, they’ve marketed the novel as general fiction, not fantasy.

I found it unsettling: I thought Meridia a little too self-satisfied, her husband a dolt, the feud between Meridia’s parents unbelievable and the fate of many characters unfair but, bloody hell, I couldn’t stop reading until I’d bolted through to the end.

National pride covered

An article in the UK Guardian newspaper (reprinted from the Observer) by Tom Lamont looks at why books published in different countries have different covers. Any search through Amazon comparing the versions on offer to the Australian book will illustrate this phenomenon. Call me nationalist but I usually like the Australian versions, especially when compared to the US.

The Observer article quotes Julian Humphries, head cover designer at Fourth Estate, as saying, “Different sales channels have different sensibilities. It’s a cultural thing as taste-driven as different countries eating different things for breakfast”. Lamont goes on to say that literary fiction is easier to sell in mainland Europe than in the UK or the US, so publishers in Europe can be “less overt in their attempts to grab the attention of customers.” Hence covers with simple images and plain type. Nathan Burton, a UK designer, says, “The UK book market is more competitive, all the covers in shops shouting: ‘Buy me!’ We have to put on a bit of extra spin.” The US, they say, “signposts its literary fiction more than the UK” and the article compares the covers of Wolf Hall in the UK and US. The US one is more historical and apparently has won awards. Burton says he doesn’t like to look at other cover versions of a book when working on a cover – “It’s always best to work from fresh”. Lamont wonders whether the need for differences between countries really amounts to little more than national pride. Or more likely local publishers insisting that they know their own market better than their OS HQs do. See the original article here.

Clockwise from top left Wolf Hall Canadian edition, UK and Australian paperback, UK hard cover/Australian trade paperback and US version.

Dying different ways

The covers for Debra Adelaide’s (Australian) novel The Household Guide to Dying for different editions shows a variety of approaches and the difficulty in marketing a book that is, at once, about dying, a spoof on self-help “guides”, an exploration of the value of relationships and of loss, and about the joys of domesticity. Of all the covers I like the UK edition (left) best, it’s colouful, arty and suitably mysterious. The first Australian cover was mysterious, but in an irritating way. There’s that sombe grey/blue and a see-through teapot with a steam heart coming out of it (below left). The second Australian edition is a little better, capturing the domestic angle, and the design is neat and attractive (below right). I have no idea what the Americans were thinking with the hardcover edition there: it is very severe and has a non-fiction look about it (bottom left). As if to compensate for this they’ve gone too far in the opposite direction with the paperback version – a dinky, jaunty, twee, Maeve Binchy look suggesting the book is much, much more lightweight than it is. The novel might have an ironic voice but it has a serious intent.

But a cover I love is …

The image of Carmel Bird’s Child of the Twilight is from a work by Victorian photo-artist Samantha Everton. Vogue Living describes her work as: Everton now shoots her magic realist worlds while approaching her art as a director might visualise a theatrical film set. The images slide the viewer into a hyper-real colour-saturated world.


APA book design awards

The shortlist in the Best Designed Literary Fiction Book category includes: (Plus The China Garden see previous post)

For general fiction best book design are (plus American Rust which I’m not incuding):

A True History of the Hula Hoop, Ransom and Valley of Grace are the fiction finalists for Best Designed Cover.

I think the Andrew McGahan cover is lovely and I also like Good to a Fault which stands out in the bookshop but I can see Ransom has a wonderful simplicity as does The China Garden. We await the results!

Cherry blossom in Zimbabwe

Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly was published April 2009 in the UK and was available here from Allen and Unwin in paperback C format with the same cover. The book won the 2009 Guardian First Book Award and is available here now in paperback B format.

But compare the two covers. I picked up the book under the first cover in a bookshop thinking that it was set in the either China or Japan — the stylised trees looking like cherry blossom in snow and the red patch of sun is very Japanese — only to be confused by the description of the stories on the back cover. The second cover places the book firmly in Africa from where, indeed the author comes. Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean writer now living and working in Geneva and An Elegy for Easterly is a book of short stories set in Zimbabwe.

Going to Petina’s blog I now realise the row of trees on the first cover is an avenue of beautiful Jacarandas.

Here’s what Petina says on her blog about the new cover: “Here is the cover of the paperback version of “An Elegy for Easterly”. I love it in a million different ways. Thanks to the support of all my readers, we are approaching the end of the print run for the trade paperback (that’s the Jacaranda trees cover), just in time for the launch of this paperback, which goes on sale on 7 January 2010”.

Females sans heads

What is it with girls and women without heads and book covers? Is it because a face is too specific and can thus be off-putting to a reader, legs or a torso being generic and therefore acceptable? Never mind what feminsim has argued about the objectifying of women and girls. Another reason might be that designers think parts of bodies can be arranged into more pleasing designs.

Fugitive Blue

I just finished first time novelist Claire Thomas’ novel Fugitive Blue and it struck me how close in structure it was to Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book. Claire Thomas’ book was promoted quite heavily by Allen&Unwin when it first came out in 2008 but sales, I think, were disappointing. Could this be because of the wishy-washy cover? It shows no hint that this is essentially a historical novel but suggests it is some high brow literary affair on the nature of art. Compare this to the cover for Brooks’ immensely popular People of the Book. There is immediately human interest, the marks of age and the clues the protagonist finds in the ancient text she is restoring (insect wing, a strand of hair).

Fortuitously I went to Claire Thomas’ website and found that A&U are reissuing FB in paperback B format this year and guess what? They’ve changed the cover. This one is better. At least we have an image of a woman (possibly supposed to be the narrator or the 15th century painter of the panel she is restoring) even if we only get her back view but the colour is still insipid. In the novel the colour in question is ultramarine, originally made from crushed lapis-lazuli, which I thought was a darker blue but I could stand corrected on that.