This is a tough one. I don’t have many comfort reads, while the few that I do have I tend to read too many times, almost. So, the books in this list aren’t necessarily ones I’ve re-read many times, but include books that I would like to re-read, as comfort reads.
What is a comfort read? That’s an easy one. It’s a book that, no matter your mood, you can snuggle down with. A book that you know, because you’ve read it before, has the power to absorb you, de-stress you, shine a little light on your soul for however long. It’s a book where the characters are like family, a book that has associations and memories for you – good ones. A book that’s like your best friend, like a cuddly old jumper that you will never throw out no matter how tattered it becomes. It might be an ugly edition, it might have water damage and dog ears and wrinkles on the spine, or it might be immaculately preserved (especially if you’re as careful with your books as I am!).
A comfort read is, quite simply, a book you read to comfort yourself with. You know what happens but that’s never a problem. It’s the characters and the story that you love, like a favourite movie or comforting song. And, for me, I think it needs a happy ending. I want to be left with that feeling of wholeness that is happiness.
The books I’ve selected here will no doubt pop up on other Top Ten lists that I have yet to compile, but not every book on a Top Ten list is by default a comfort read. Actually, I’d say few are! It’s also very almost a Favourites list, though, like before, there are a few favourite books of mine that simply aren’t comfort reads. This has turned out to be a lengthy post, and if you read it you will also get a sense of me as a person, and my childhood. Don’t you love how books can serve like markers for particular times in our life?
(original publication dates in brackets)
Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody (1987)
YA Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy
I sometimes think that we’re all dormant book lovers – or dormant humans – until the right book comes along. If you’re lucky, and many aren’t, that will happen when you’re young. I was in grade 5 or 6 (so, 10 or 11 years old) when I found a first edition of Obernewtyn on the shelf of my primary school library. This was a big deal, because I scoured those shelves every single day looking for a book that wasn’t 30 years old and dull-looking. I had read everything that looked remotely interesting, and nothing really grabbed me. This book was different. It was like nothing I had ever read before. And indeed, at the time, it was highly original.Set in a post-apocalyptic world after what was most likely a vast nuclear disaster, the remaining humans have reshaped their society on those parts of safe, arable land left. Among them are misfits, those born with unusual gifts most likely caused by radiation. Hunted down and executed, it is a death sentence to be found out. There are a lot of orphans, as a consequence, and they’re given dangerous work and not expected to live long. Elspeth is one such orphan, and she hides her own misfit gifts carefully. Able to use telepathy and speak to animals, she also has the gift of coercion: making someone do your bidding. She is sent to a home for orphans called Obernewtyn, where she discovers that almost all the orphans have talents of different kinds – and where the managers of the place are looking for just the right misfit to help them uncover something dark and dangerous from the past.
I don’t know how many times I’ve read this book. It is still my favourite book of all books. I can’t tell you how it changed my life – that sounds like a melodramatic thing to say but it did have an enormous impact on my young life. Aside from how it affected me personally, it got me into Fantasy (the story also gets classified as science fiction, but to me it has always been Fantasy – a discussion for another day, perhaps). It also gave me very high expectations of fiction and Fantasy in particular. Carmody has a degree in philosophy and journalism, and the philosophy side always comes across in subtle ways.
I haven’t read it in a few years now, and I’m one book behind in the series – Carmody takes years to get out the next book (seriously, as long as ten or more years!) – and I need to re-read them all before starting the fifth book, The Stone Key. It’s a comfort read because it’s so familiar, because the characters are so beloved by me, and because I feel a kind of personal connection to the story.
The Blue Castle by LM Montgomery (1926)
One of the wonderful things to have come out of book blogging is finding out that you really aren’t the only person in the world to love a certain book. The Blue Castle is one of those books where, once you mention how much you love it, suddenly all your friends do too and you discover something else you have in common.
Now, don’t be put off by the hideously tacky cover. It doesn’t deserve such a cover and Bantam should be ashamed of themselves. I still think we should do a petition to get them to reprint it with a lovely cover. My copy is so well-read (and so cheaply made) that a chunk of pages fell out and my mum had to staple them back in – with the result being that there are several pages that are very hard to read!
This is the story of plain, inconsequential Valancy who lives in a small town with her widowed mother and Cousin Stickles who call her “Doss”, long past marriageable age, very much in the shadow of her perfect cousin Olive, her hair in a dreadful pompadour because that’s what some relative told her was the only hairstyle she could ever have – in short, she has a half-life. Constantly pitied and ridiculed and always at fault, she is often the focal point of all her relatives criticising eyes.
Everything changes when she hears from Dr Trent that she has an incurable heart defect and has only a year to live – less, if she gets any sudden shocks. After a night reflecting on her life, Valancy decides to stop doing the things she does because someone else decided that’s what she must do; she decides to say what she really thinks; and she decides to have a life of her own.
This is one of the most wonderful, witty, lovely, endearing books of all time, very much under-appreciated except by those who have actually read it. I first read it, hm, I think I must have been about 17? It is a story that will stick in your head even if you only read it once. It still makes me laugh, and cry. It’s not a sad story, though – it’s a love story, and at its heart it’s the story of a much put-upon young woman finally growing up and owning her own life, and the beauty that comes of it. Oh, and of course we all love Barney Snaith – only he could get away with a name like that!
I can read this book in a day, and as such it’s one of my ultimate comfort reads. That, and it’s so comforting!
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)
This is another book I first read when very young – about 11 years old, I think. I had got it from the book club – you remember those? Scholastic used to sell books through the schools, and sometimes they didn’t send you the book you’d ordered but something else altogether! I can’t remember if this was one I’d actually ordered or not but it was very fat and I was so proud of myself for reading it; I liked to carry it around on the school bus so the high school kids could see how mature I was!!
It had a shocking cover (see right), but I still have it, as well as this much nicer Sandstone edition that got water damage when my brother was looking after a few boxes of my books while I was in Japan – he put them under the house, which was just the side of the hill, and when it rained … But it’s not so bad I had to throw it out, like a couple of others. Still, this is one of those books that I want to collect editions on. I love the one with the white cover and black silhouette of a woman’s head – so simple and elegant!
I’m sure you know the story of plain Jane and Mr Rochester, the big old house and the crazy woman in the attic. It’s a gothic love story, humorous and charming but also at times dark and scary and bleak. It’s nothing at all like Wuthering Heights. I’ve read it several times since I was a child, and seen several adaptations (the most recent BBC mini-series with Toby Stephens is the best, though Timothy Dalton was also good :D), and while I actually find her writing to be a bit … unskilled at times, I can still tear through this book and relish reliving all the ups and downs. Though, the last time I read it I skimmed through parts of the St John plot – I can’t stand him! I hate that he gets the last word. But actually, because he’s so ugh and domineering in a different way from Rochester, you just come to love Rochester more, which makes the climax all the more satisfying!
Polymer by Sally Rogers Davidson (1995)
YA Science Fiction
From 16 to 18 I attended Launceston College for grades 11 and 12. I got Austudy – as it was called then – when I turned 16 but it wasn’t much money. The government paid for my education, and during the week I lived in The Villas, a student residence that used to be a motel. It was like flatting but without the responsibility of paying any bills except rent, which was, I think, a hundred dollars a week – or fortnight, can’t remember. Anyway, the point is it didn’t leave me with much money to spare, so buying myself a book was a real treat. When I was 17 I came across Polymer in the YA section – which was a very small section in those days (1997). YA has really taken off in the last ten years, since adults started reading Harry Potter.
Now, don’t be put off by the cover illustration – that’s how YA books looked back in the 90s. We’ve all seen worse. At the time it was a perfectly good cover. It’s the story of Polymer – a nickname – who grew up on an affluent space station where everyone had everything they needed and old people could be kept technically alive thanks to modern medicine, long past their natural deaths. Her life of friends and parties is destroyed when the space station is invaded by the Gloman Empire. Separated from her family and everyone she knows, she tries to resist the invaders and instead manages to catch the eye of one Captain Nemo (yes, his name makes her want to giggle at first). Events lead to events which lead to events, and it’s quite the story.
I can’t count how many times I’ve read it – though sadly I haven’t read it in a number of years. What’s even more sad is how hard this book is to find now. If I hadn’t got it when it was a relatively new release (one or two years old), I would have completely missed it. You might be able to find it in some school or public libraries, but that’s it. It’s not even available online. And it’s a real shame. Considering how much YA has exploded over the last decade, Polymer would fit right in there and find a new home very easily. It’s got a feisty, intelligent heroine, a hero who I had a big crush on (still do) and makes Edward Cullen a pretty routine character, lots of action and some romance and some travel across space. It’s a great one to snuggle down with!
Eucalyptus by Murray Bail (1998)
This is another book, like Obernewtyn, that marked a turning point for me. It had been slowly building up inside me for several years, but I was completely unconscious of it until this book. See, growing up in Tasmania, you have an odd mix of pretty Englishness and rugged Australian landscapes. I grew up loving the pretty Englishness and strongly disliking the dirty, dusty, dull-coloured native landscape, and was alienated by all the silvery dead trees and dry yellow grass. Barren, it looked to me. Unfriendly, for sure. Dead, even. Though I did love the rain forests that my parents took us into.
Looking at images like the ones above, today, my heart sings. But when I was little my appreciation for the beauty of Australia – in all its different forms – was, shall we say, suppressed. It lay dormant and unknown, until at uni I took a couple of classes that focused on Australian literature – one in particular I remember the name of: A Place in the Wilderness. Eucalyptus was one of the books assigned to us to read, and as I read it that first time I felt like my soul was being opened up and the land I called home was flooding in, softly and gently but persistently, making me a whole person. It is a book that grasped aspects I already loved – things that I couldn’t possibly put into words but can only loosely define as culture, humour, an urban setting that I can taste on my tongue, like reading the picture book The Tram to Bondi Beach (ooh, I only just remembered that book just now! Absolutely have to get a copy) or My Place (one of the books I listed in my Top Ten Picture Books) – with the classic Sydney terraces:
It’s a vibe, a resonance, it’s hard to describe let alone capture. Anyone seen the movie Malcolm? Watched some D-Gen? Getting warmer. So, Eucalyptus is the story of a man who buys a treeless farm in NSW and becomes obsessed with planting every kind of eucalyptus tree on the property. Of which there are thousands. He is a widower and has a beautiful daughter; he comes up with a plan to solve the problem of suitors: the man who can name every single tree on the estate can marry his daughter. They come in droves, get only so far in naming the trees, and trickle down. While her father is walking across the farm with these men, the daughter encounters a man who, instead of naming the trees, tells her stories that are inspired by the trees. So it is a story that features many stories within it.
The Australian landscape came alive for me, and breathed and owned its own identity, one that was not so alien after all. It stands apart from its human occupants, but its occupants are an intrinsic part of it and have added various new flavours. It took on a whole new personality for me, and I suddenly saw the beauty in the dead silver trees, in the dry brittle gold grass. In the smell of the earth and the trees and the animals, the taste of the air, the way shadows look. It is unique, and stunning, and it is home.
Whenever I re-read the book, especially now when I’m living in Canada which is often a completely different landscape and culture, I feel both comforted and extra homesick. The story is familiar to me now, but I love it still, and each of the smaller stories read fresh every time. I open the book and am transported. Not just Bail’s beautiful prose but the images that are conjured, capture my imagination. It also inspires me. Eucalyptus was a starting point for a major transition in me, but will never be an ending to it. My love for my land only grows stronger.
Thunderwith by Libby Hathorn (1989)
Another book from my childhood. I was in grade 5, in 1990. I borrowed it from the school library (a rare new book!) and loved it so much my mum surprised me with my very own hardcover copy. We rarely ever got impromptu gifts like that so it was doubly special.
It is the story of Lara, who lives alone with her mum until she dies of cancer. Just before she dies, she manages to track down Lara’s father, Larry, who now lives with his wife and their four young kids on a farm in the bush. She goes to live with them and finds her father’s wife and the oldest girl to be hostile. The farm is hard work, her father is often away, and there’s trouble with a boy at school. It is in the bush that she befriends a dog and names him Thunderwith. He is her only true friend in this new world.
When I said that my love for the land was dormant until uni, I was thinking of instances like this. I absolutely loved the bush setting, but in a mostly unconscious way. I have no idea how many times I’ve read this book, but when I read it today, at age 30, it still holds great power over me. Even though I know what’s going to happen, I still cry my eyes out. It comforts me because when I’m feeling disconnected, aimless, lost, it units all the parts of me, the present with all the past, and shows me a future that’s mine for the making.
It’s meaningful to me on a personal level as well. I first read this when I was 10, and that same year we kids discovered that all this time we had an older sister. I won’t go into it but the short version is that she was very reluctantly adopted out at birth, and when I was 10 she was 18 and got in touch with our parents. The interesting thing about this big secret was how it completely clicked into place, like I had always known about her on some level. So it was a surprise and yet it wasn’t at all a surprise. The connection with this book is that I saw my sister somewhat like Lara, a big sister suddenly joining the family. The similarities end there, really, but I think the book helped show me what my new sister must have been feeling.
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (2005)
YA Paranormal Romance
My comfort read list would be incomplete without owning up to Twilight. I say “owning up”, like there’s something to be ashamed of in liking this book, because of all the fuss it’s received in its popularity. It’s no longer a book you simply like or dislike. No, it has to be scrutinised and torn apart in psychiatric assessments as to its religious undertones, unhealthy relationships and promotion of obsessive and domineering “love”.
I first read the book in 2007, just before it really took off. Which was very fortunate. My good friend Maria recommended it to me; at the time, no one had heard of it and I didn’t know what it was about except there was a vampire in it. I had never been a fan of vampire stories. I’m not a fan of horror in general – it tends to bore me – but with this book I encountered, for the first time, a romantic vampire story. This was completely new to me, and started me on a vampire-romance binge that lasted two years and hasn’t really faded yet (it’s just that all the stories are starting to sound the same).
The series became addictive quite easily, and I’ve read books 1 and 3 many times over. They’re both comfort reads, and I have book 1 as an audiobook so I can play my favourite scenes whenever I like (like when I’m doing the dishes or a jigsaw puzzle!). I try to avoid the furore, and it’s not as if I don’t agree with some of the criticisms out there – I just don’t care. When I read the book, I get so completely drawn in, the real world fades away. I believe I described it, in my review back in ’07, as like chocolate. Try reading this while eating some good quality chocolate, and you’ve got Comfort Heaven.
I’ll just add that, after my big crush on Captain Nemo at 17 (see Polymer, above), I loved Edward as a character but not on any personal level. Am I too old for crushes with fictional characters? No, not really! But I was more drawn to Bella’s love for Edward; that was the intense story I liked to read. I wouldn’t want to live it myself! Edward and I would never get along 😉
In a way, this is the ultimate comfort read. You don’t have to feel threatened by it, or put on your feminist knickers and scrutinise it for the dangers it poses to the health and self-esteem of teenage girls (and some pre-pubescent girls). Just enjoy it for what it is.
The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer (1934)
I’m noticing that romances, or books that can be called romantic, dominate my comfort read list. I’m not at all surprised – at heart, I’m a romantic, and romantic stories can be infinitely comforting. That warm glow feeling, y’know.
There are several Heyer books I could have picked for this list, among them Beauvallet, April Lady and The Masqueraders. I’ve read all her historical romances and some of her historicals (but none of her detective novels), and there are a few that I can re-read precisely because I know what I’m getting and it’s what I need, right then.
The Convenient Marriage is a silly story, but fun. Horry wants to help her encumbered family and save her older sister, who is in love with a soldier, from marrying a duke who would solve all the family’s problems. So, being a daring, unconventional girl, she proposes to the duke that he marry her, instead. It goes ahead. The duke finds himself with a young bride who hasn’t yet grown up and who gets into all sorts of scrapes, but she’s loyal and they start to fall in love. If we were to look at this book with the kind of scrutiny Twilight gets, we’d be aghast at the implications. A young girl and an older man, hm. But lets not strip the fun out of fiction, eh? This is a fun, harmless story that can still make me laugh, and there are plenty of times when I need that!
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling (2003)
I was living in Japan when this book came out; I didn’t have to wait any extra time to get a copy because they imported lots of these from England. I loved this new cover – at the time I had no idea they were doing “adult” editions with these more “adult” covers, I just thought it was a different country’s version. I know this one isn’t as popular with people because, let’s face it, nothing much happens in it. Which is remarkable considering it’s 766 pages long.
For me though, I love it. Even though it’s incredibly sad at the end, I love the story and the time spent at the school – I get to live it too, it’s like getting a free year in my own life. There’s just something about the Harry Potter books that I can always snuggle down with, not just with this one, but I love some more than others. The pages are yellowed now but it’s still in perfect condition; because it’s almost a filler year in the series, I can read it as a standalone, as a novel complete in itself. I know they’re all complete stories within a larger story arc, but this one in particular resonates with me. Harry’s growing up, maturing, facing up to things, and also seems quite alone. He’s seen death, in the previous book, and that has changed him. Gone is the innocence of youth. And the leader comes out in him. It has great character development.
Scatterlings by Isobelle Carmody (1991)
YA Post-Apocalyptic Fiction
I wasn’t sure what to include as my final comfort read – I really don’t re-read books all that much (mostly because I have too many unread books to get through), and there are a few comfort reads that I have that just aren’t interesting enough to include. But it’s fitting to end where I started: with Isobelle Carmody, my favourite writer. She does write adult fantasy as well, but her YA and children’s books go beyond age boundaries.
This is another book that opened my eyes and that I returned to again and again over the years. I even used it in my Honours dissertation on Fantasy Fiction! It’s the story of a girl called Merlin who wakes up in a crashed helicopter, with a metal collar around her neck and a broken metal chain hanging down her back. She is alone, and as she makes her way from the wreakage she finds herself in an unknown world, a forest where signs of asphalt roads still exist underfoot, and ancient ruins of buildings she can clearly picture in her mind lie broken and rusting on the ground. She makes a friend of a young man called Ford, who takes her to a gathering of tribes in the hope of finding her community and helping her amnesia. For although she can remember all about our world, she has no memory of this one.
Scatterlings raised my expectations of similar fiction quite high, in terms of originality and philosophical meaning. I began to see fiction as something more than just fun stories: I started realising the possibilities inherent in the stories, in what they explored and taught. In how they can reflect on our own society and world, no matter what fantastical place they are set in. Such possibilities!
It is a wonderful story, with a twist that, when I first read it as a young teen, I did not see coming. Perhaps adults can predict it, but I hope not. I could just as easily, for this tenth comfort read, have used Carmody’s Green Monkey Dreams, or Darkfall, or The Gathering. Or any other book of hers she’s written. She is starting to be published here in North America – you can, at least, get Alyzon Whitestarr and the Little Fur books and the Obernewtyn Chronicles here, though they make changes and I am wary of that. She writes comfort reads that make me think and feel and experience, which is an ultimate is it not? Because her books have had such a huge influence in my own life, I wish they were more readily available here for other generations of Young Adults.
So, that’s my list. I would love to hear what your best comfort reads are, and why. If you have your own post, please, leave me a link and I’ll add it in!
Do you have a list to add?