I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time focusing on anything right now. I’ve mentioned in other posts the difficulty I’ve had writing, and how I can’t watch anything new, relying instead on old tried-and-true formulas.
This lack of focus has been especially true for me when it comes to reading. I normally read anywhere from 2-3 books a week. Now, it’s a challenge to finish anything. At first I blamed the books I attempted to read–but after I DNF the seventh book in a row, I realized the stories themselves were not to blame. I needed to apply the same criteria to my reading that I did to my television watching: something familiar enough not to hurt me but still powerful enough to engage. In short, my comfort reads.
When compiling this list, it occurred to me that many of my favorite comfort reads are set in the past. I’m not sure why that is. I enjoy period pieces as a rule (hence my love for Agent Carter and The Miss Fisher Mysteries), but I don’t think that’s the entire story when it comes to comfort reads. I suspect it’s because the setting is different enough that it takes me out of my current existence, and that’s one of the important criteria for a comfort read for me. I like crime dramas because I like the mystery and the satisfaction of solving the puzzle. But also because it bears no resemblance to my daily life. I can’t watch House because as compelling as the drama and the actors were, I found myself competing with the residents to solve the medical mystery before the end of the episode. Too much like the day job, thank you very much.
I think it’s also because one of the beauties of many period pieces is that the stakes are often much lower. There’s something soothing about having the biggest trauma in your life being cut dead at a social gathering or having your sister run off to Gretna Green. After struggling to read anything from my enormous TBR stack, I went back to my old favorites. And I noticed two things when I did this. By sliding back into the well-worn groove of reading, I hit that quiet zone that not only allowed me to enjoy newer material as well as old favorites, but I found myself writing again, too.
If you’re having a hard time being creative right now, I suggest turning off social media, the news, and the television. Pick up a book and read. Reading is a form of meditation, and I believe it primes the brain for writing.
And although comfort reads are intensely personal, (and what one person finds comforting is not necessarily the same for another) I thought I’d share mine. No doubt you’ve heard of or read most of them yourself, but I hope I can introduce you to some new reads.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I know. I know. I can see some of you backpedaling away right now while others are nodding and smiling. But hear me out. The works of Jane Austen are probably the cornerstone of the Regency Romance Genre. I recommend going to the source to find out why the tropes are so compelling. While I enjoy all of Austen’s books, Elizabeth Bennett is my favorite of her heroines, and Darcy is the Original Grumpy Hero who is captivated by a Sunshine Heroine. Not to mention, but P&P has been adapted into movies and mini-series again and again, so not only do you get the pleasure of reading this book, but you can watch the story in all its many forms. I highly recommend the 1995 BBC mini-series with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. I think due to the length of the series, this is one of the most faithful adaptations of the book. There is, of course, the famous scene where Firth as Darcy walks up in a wet linen shirt from having taken a dip in a pond to find Elizabeth unexpectedly a guest in his home. For many, this is the quintessential adaptation. And I love Ehle’s portrayal of Elizabeth–it’s probably my favorite. Ehle is also reading P&P from quarantine on her Instagram account right now. So worth watching!
Then there is the 2005 movie version with Keira Knightly and Matthew MacFadyen. I think they did a bang up job of condensing the book into movie form. The cinematography is breathtaking. But it is the chemistry between the leads that is truly compelling to watch. So in addition to being able to read Austen’s delicious words, you can immerse yourself in these lovely adaptations.
For a complete 180 on subject matter, the next comfort read I’m recommending is the In Death Series by J.D. Robb. I can hear you now: What are you smoking, McKenna? How can a series with the word “death” in the title be a comfort read? Trust me, they can. In part because the good guys win. I don’t know about you, but these days, I need to know the good guys are going to win. Unlike most of the books on my list here, the In Death books are futuristic gritty crime stories featuring Lt. Eve Dallas and her enigmatic billionaire husband, Roarke. Robb (aka Nora Roberts) has produced something like fifty books in this series (while also writing under the Roberts name–her productivity is amazing), so you have a LOT of books to read.
When I was going through the worst of my personal losses, I read one of these books every 24 hours. The crime pulls you in from the first page, but it’s the characters that bring me back again and again. My favorite television shows feature teams and I love team dynamics and found families. When I finished the series, I turned around and started it all over again. It’s not without some trauma at times but overall, you know the key players will be okay. (The series is ongoing, so it may shock me at some point…)
My hope is one day to create a series as compelling. I know, reach for the stars, right? I want the same kinds of things: the team dynamics, the found family aspects, the push-me pull-you between the leads. I love case-based stories too, and by setting them in the Redclaw Universe, I can follow a team of Redclaw agents as they solve crimes, as opposed to couple-based stories in the current Redclaw Security series (each of which can be read as a standalone). I doubt most people would consider the In Death series a comfort read, but there is great comfort in knowing what to expect when you pick up a book. I’d watch the hell out of a Dallas and Roarke series too.
But in general, I reach for period pieces when I need a comfort read.
The Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters. I love these books. I tend to re-read them a lot, especially the first three in the series. These are truly delightful stories. Amelia Peabody is bluntly outspoken and forthright at a time when women were supposed to be decorative, delicate creatures. Her inability to see the humor in her own statements or actions adds to the hilarity, and in the irascible Radcliffe Emerson, we find the only man that is her match. Peabody dashes in where angels fear to tread, usually brandishing a pistol and packing a first aid kit that would allow her to perform minor surgery, if called upon. I have a deep love for archaeology, and the details of Emerson’s work fascinate me, though very little progress is made on the digs due to the frequent nature of criminal activities that must be investigated each season.
A word of warning: on a recent re-read, I became aware of a degree of fat-shaming I hadn’t picked up on before. It doesn’t come up often (and I suspect it’s generational; my mother was the same) but it’s disappointing and I can see where it may be enough to put some off the series. It’s dimmed my love of these books somewhat, and yet I still reach for these books when I need to be comforted. For the life of me, I don’t know why they haven’t been made into movies. We NEED Amelia Peabody on our screens!
Make Way for Lucia by E.F. Benson. Another period series, this is quite different from the recommended reads in that the stories center around Mrs. Emmaline Lucas (“Lucia” to her friends) who is a well-to-do middle-aged woman in England in the 1920s and 30s. Lucia is a force of nature: vain, opinionated, and pretentious. She pretends a fluency in Italian with her platonic friend “Georgie” Pillson that she doesn’t possess, claims a scholarly interest in Greek and Latin, practices Mozart on the sly so she can pretend she’s never seen the piece before when asked to play, and in general is the Queen of Riseholme, the village in which she resides at the beginning of her story. Halfway through the series, having vanquished all her foes in one small English town, she moves to Tilling, where she finds a more formidable adversary in Miss Elizabeth Mapp. Like any true Tillingnite, we wait with baited breath to see who will win the current round in this clash of the Titans. Will Mapp expose Lucia’s Italian deficiencies? Will Lucia retaliate when Mapp orchestrates the rejection of her painting to the Tilling Art Society? Newcomer Lucia is pushy and irritating, and some long to be out from under her yoke. At the same time, life would be terribly dull without her. As reviewer Phoebe-Lou Adams for the Atlantic once said, “Nothing Lucia and her enemy, Miss Mapp, did was ever of the slightest importance, but they did it with Napoleonic strategy, Attilian ferocity, and Satanic motive. It is a sad fact that Benson borrowers usually become non-returners.”
You don’t have to read the whole series–you can jump right in with Mapp and Lucia to get at the heart of the conflict–for it is not until these two meet that Lucia finally faces a worthy opponent. But to appreciate the series in delightful detail, I’d strongly recommend reading it from the very beginning.
Another series I adore (but also has some problematic issues, particularly with stereotypical portrayals of Jewish characters) is the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers. Written in the 1920s and 30s, we follow the adventures of the younger son of the Duke of Denver, who finds his brains and his talent for playing the fool in public advantageous in solving murders. We also see the character growth of Lord Peter over the series, from a dilettante solving murders for his own amusement to the man who falls violently in love with mystery novelist Harriet Vane while she is on trial for murder–and he must act to find the real killer to save her from the death penalty. The Harriet Vane books are among the best in the series, and you can start with Strong Poison if you like. The only non-Harriet Vane book that I re-read for the sheer pleasure of it is Murder Must Advertise, which in addition to a murder mystery, is a searing insight into the workings of the old-style advertising firms of the 1930s.
Gaudy Night remains one of my all-time favorite books. It contains one of the most powerful scenes of sexual awareness I’ve ever read, and I point to it as the book that taught me what healthy adult relationships should look like. I wanted what Harriet Vane had with Lord Peter, and I refused to settle for less. When I recognized the same qualities in my husband, I knew I had a keeper. 🙂
The 1987 BBC series starring Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter is a treat, if you can find it anywhere online.
But I can hear some of you hoping for something a little more contemporary. Well, I adore the London Celebrities series by Lucy Parker. I love all these books, but Pretty Face may be my favorite. As a former actress (on a very small scale) I love stories about the theater, so I was drawn to the series by the first book, Act Like It. Parker does Grumpy Hero and Sunshine Heroines extremely well, which is another plus for me. It’s not always easy to make a hero justifiably grumpy without also making him an asshole, but Parker handles this conundrum with ease.
I also appreciate the fact her characters face real challenges to being together–not the sort of misunderstandings that make me want to clack heads together and tell the leads to get over themselves. There’s character growth over the course of each book, another factor that places these stories in the re-read stack. And I’m all about the slow-burn romances! It’s also happy-making to have characters from one story turn up in another because they all inhabit the same universe. But it’s the satisfying resolution to each installment in the series that places these books on the comfort read list for me.
I could go on. I could list the horse and dog books of my youth, or the Dick Francis mysteries, always a good way to spend an afternoon. There are series that I love (like the Hidden Legacy books by Ilona Andrews, or the Psy-Changeling books by Nalini Singh) that I’ll re-read given the chance, but they don’t quite make the comfort read list. I’ve read some really outstanding books this year, and it feels odd not to mention them here, but you can love a book without it being a comfort read, if you know what I mean. Comfort reads are so personal, so individualized, and I find it interesting that my needs during COVID-19 are somewhat different than my usual levels of stress. What made my list might not make yours. But I hope you enjoy these suggestions, particularly if some of these stories are new to you.
What are YOUR comfort reads? I’d love to know what you choose and why! Make your case. Perhaps you’ll convince me to try out your comfort read. 🙂