A Sudden Light (or Why Good Book Covers Should Be Reserved for Good Books)

A Sudden Light
Garth Stein
Published September 30, 2014
346 pages (ARC e-book)

Several years ago, blogger John Bertram sponsored a competition that asked designers to create a new book cover for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Bertram sought more appropriate covers for the “novel which has child rape at its core” (i.e., fewer teenage seductresses sucking lollipops, please). The submissions for the contest were so varied and interesting that they eventually became a book: Lolita – The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design (you can read more about the competition and see some of the cover submissions here or here).

This brilliant design was submitted by Jamie Keenan and perfectly illustrates how phenomenal book covers can be:


The creepy and slightly claustrophobic corner of a little girl’s Pepto-Bismol pink bedroom morphs into bare legs and innocent, plain-white panties. It’s creative, provocative, and hints at the book’s subject matter without revealing too much. It is everything a book cover should be.

There’s no question that people (myself included) judge books by their covers. Book covers sell books. I am convinced that Chuck Palahniuk’s success is due in no small part to whoever designs his incredible covers, which are every bit as good as (and, in many cases, a great deal better than) the books themselves. A few shining examples:





A good book cover is eye-catching, intriguing, and makes you want to read the book. A good book with a good cover is delightful (and really quite rare).

But a bad book with a good cover? Ugggghhhh. When a gorgeous cover is wasted on a mediocre (or worse) book, I get downright angry. I feel swindled. I feel wronged. My hopes soar at the sight of vivid colors and unique design only to be dashed by bad writing and weak plot.

Take, for example, Garth Stein’s new book, A Sudden Light. Here is the beautiful cover:


The cool, monochromatic color scheme caught my eye initially. The vivid blues are simultaneously eerie and calming. And the silhouette of a kid among the beautifully gnarled tree branches is both gorgeous and spooky. Also, there’s something going on below the surface–in the shadows below the title. Are those upside-down people? Animals? What are they doing? You can’t quite tell what it is, but it is definitely intriguing and vaguely creepy.

This is one of the best-looking covers I’ve seen all year. So, naturally, my expectations for the book were very high.

Sadly, you can’t judge this book by its cover, friends. The cover is, without question, the best thing about the book.

Rating: 2/5

The story is told by Trevor, who is looking back at the odd and life-altering events of his fourteenth summer. That summer, his parents  separated, his mother returned to her hometown in England, and Trevor and his father went to visit his father’s family on their grand old estate outside of Seattle.

Trevor’s dad hasn’t been home in decades, and this is Trevor’s first trip to the homestead and his first time meeting his aunt, Serena, and his grandfather, Grandpa Samuel (who suffers from Alzheimer’s). Trevor’s dad has always remained pretty mum about his family and upbringing, so Trevor finds himself uncovering dark family mysteries locked in the labyrinthine walls of the crumbling ancestral home. These family mysteries are revealed by cursed family ghosts, trapped in the house due to broken pacts and unfulfilled promises. Meanwhile, Trevor’s dad and aunt have decided to sell the haunted family estate (many, many wooded acres accumulated by Trevor’s great-great-grandfather, a very wealthy timber baron) against Grandpa Samuel’s wishes.

The book aims, I think, to be provocative and shocking. Incest, intrigue, illness, and secret gay lovers! Creepy ghosts appearing in dreams and dancing in ballrooms and using mediums to write messages! Secret passageways and hidden cubbyholes! It should have been so exciting and suspenseful. Unfortunately, it just comes off as unintentionally campy and amateurish.

The book incorporates into its text some of the journal entries and letters that Trevor discovers. Generally, I find this sort of epistolary device interesting—it helps with the readability and pace of a book. But, here, it didn’t win me over. The first half of the novel is very slow going and downright boring, while the second half of the novel is over-complicated and all over the place (with moments of forced sentimentality). The book’s one saving grace (aside from the cover, of course): the characters (especially Trevor, Serena, and Ghost Ben), who are moderately interesting.

You got me this time, Book Cover . . .

The hype:

  • The #1 LibraryReads List selection for October 2014
  • An Amazon Best Book of the Month: Literature & Fiction for October 2014
  • An Indie Next List pick for October 2014

Who should read it: Go admire the cover at the bookstore. Run your hands over it, read the blurb, flip through the first few pages. And then, despite your urges, put the book back on the shelf. Don’t let yourself be fooled by the pleasing colors and pretty design. Buy a good book with a shitty cover, instead (perhaps Geek Love?).

DISCLOSURE: I received a free advanced copy of this book from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:

  • The Girls from Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe (an Amazon best book of the month for July 2014; an Indie Next List pick for July 2014)
  • The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters (called a “gripping, atmospheric story of mind control and self-determination” by Kirkus Reviews)

7 thoughts on “A Sudden Light (or Why Good Book Covers Should Be Reserved for Good Books)

  1. Hmmmm, just the opposite of Ice Cream Queen, eh?? Thank you, I won’t bother, but I would have been intrigued by the cover AND the title!!

  2. When I saw this book at the bookstore, it was wrapped in plastic. Therefore, when you picked it up (because of the striking cover) you weren’t able to open it to scan the pages! I wanted to ask why the book came that way, as I’ve never come across a book on a bookstore shelf wrapped up and closed tight in plastic. Alas, the people behind the counter were busy at the moment and I couldn’t ask.

    • The cynic in me would say that it’s because they don’t want you to discover how bad the book is in comparison to the cover. But the realist in me suspects that it’s a sneaky form of censorship . . . like those white protectors they put in front of magazines at Walmart to keep innocent eyes from seeing scantily clad women (or, heaven forbid, the word “sex”) on the covers of Cosmo. Do you live somewhere where references to gay sex (however abstract) are still considered naughty or taboo? If so, that explains the plastic.

  3. I think even that cover couldn’t have drawn me in, given how much I disliked “The Art of Racing in the Rain”, but I do agree with you about covers.

    • I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard lots of positive things about The Art of Racing in the Rain. Interesting to hear that you disliked it so vehemently. I won’t be able to weigh in on that great debate, because I will definitely not be wasting one second more of my time on any of Stein’s other books.

      • I had heard so many good things too – so maybe my expectations were set too high. I thought there was potential with portions of it but Stein seemed to take the easy way out over and over again. Similar to what you found with his second book, I think.

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