Friday, April 19, 2013

Old Books, Old Friends by Pamela Sherwood

"Find The Stars Look Down not quite soothing enough for a bed book--will fall back on Through the Looking Glass."

            --Dowager Duchess of Denver in Busman’s Honeymoon

The last six weeks or so have been an intense time, full of transitions from the old to the new--a new month, a new season, and a new schedule (thanks to Daylight Savings Time). Some of us may be starting new jobs, moving to new locations, planning or promoting new projects . . . but I would hazard a guess that all of us are extremely busy with one thing or another!

At unsettled times like this, when I’m not writing, I find myself reaching for my stash of tried-and-true comfort reads. The books that feel like that favorite old sweater or broken-in pair of slippers. The books that you can sink into like an armchair or a warm bath.  The books in which you know exactly what you’re getting, and the experience never disappoints.

What makes a comfort read? Well, mileage may vary. But here are some things that the books I tend to reread in stressful times have in common.

1. Sympathetic characters: I have to like the protagonists. Or at least feel interest in them and sympathy with their aims. Which doesn’t mean there can’t be antagonists or even villains, over whom I can root for the hero or heroine to triumph. The better developed the antagonist, the more completely I relish the hero’s victory. Some of my favorite comfort reads feature main characters up against their controlling, domineering families, such as Valancy Stirling in L. M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle. Or up against a whole repressive social order, like Miles Vorkosigan in Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign.

2. Humor: Some readers like a good cry in their comfort reads, and they’d be in good company. (I remember Jo March retiring to her garret with a plate of russets to have an enjoyable weep over The Heir of Redclyffe.) I don’t mind occasional teary scenes, but I must have something to laugh at too. Witty dialogue, absurd situations, events that snowball into a hilarious climax . . . some of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, such as The Unknown Ajax and The Grand Sophy, provide all of the above. And even her quieter ones have enough humor to satisfy. Most of Heyer’s works, in fact, make excellent comfort reads.

Prince Edward Island near Cavendish, Photo by Chensiyuan

3. Setting: Whenever I open a book, I hope to lose myself in the world the author created. That’s especially true of a comfort read, because I’m seeking a respite from my own world. And the more vividly realized that fictional setting is, the happier I am as a reader, whether it’s based on a real place, like Prince Edward Island (Anne of Green Gables) and 18th-century Cornwall (Poldark), Victorian Egypt (The Amelia Peabody mysteries), or one that exists only in the author’s imagination, like Barrayar and Hogwarts. One of my most recent comfort reads was Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Falcons of Montabard, set in Jerusalem during the First Crusade. My knee-jerk reaction to the setting was less than enthusiastic: “Oh. Heat. Dust. Disease. Religious Fanatics. Battles. Fun--Not.” While the novel certainly contains those things, it’s also a moving story about a beautiful, dangerous country (often called Outremer, the land beyond the sea), its fascinating diverse culture, and the hardy pilgrims and adventurers who find new life and purpose there. Cracking good romance too.

 4. A Sense of Community: Characters forming connections, which can be as basic as two solitary people falling in love and becoming a couple (Eve and Roarke of the In Death series), or, alternately, a group of people forming ties and learning to work together towards a shared goal (the English-Egyptian excavation team in the Amelia Peabody mysteries, or the seven stage-struck children in The Swish of the Curtain, who discover a vocation, along with a fledgling acting company, when they convert an abandoned chapel into a theater.)

5. Happy Ending: Another absolute must in a comfort read! Not that everything has to be rainbows and kittens, and I don’t mind ambiguous or bittersweet tones if they’re in keeping with what’s gone before, but a comfort read must never end with “Rocks fall. Everybody dies.” The happy ending could be the lovers, who have worked through all their issues, sharing a passionate kiss (Peter and Harriet in Gaudy Night); the team of oddballs coming together in the final competition to defeat their heavily favored rivals (The View from Saturday); the tortured hero unlocking the riddle of his past and finding lasting love and peace at journey’s end (The Lymond Chronicles); the heroine breaking the spell that has trapped the hero in the body of a beast (Robin McKinley’s Beauty, though there are other lovely versions of the tale too).  

What are some of your favorite comfort reads? And what makes a comfort read for you?

(Traveling this week, so I may be late responding to comments. But I look forward to reading them when I'm home again.)


  1. One of my favorite comfort reads is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I also like to pull out my old Julie Garwood historicals.

  2. I have to say that your post was beautifully written and soothing. I enjoyed every word.

  3. I agree that Heyer is one of my go-to reads for a fun satisfying read. My favorite (at the moment) is Cotillian. Or maybe it's The Corithian. So many good books!

  4. Lovely post...there are bookcases at my house of old friends who get me through tough times and hot summers!

  5. I have a number of authors that I re-read :) Julie Garwood, Nora Roberts, Sherrilyn depends on my mood whether or not I go for contemporary, historical or paranormal :)

    Great blog!

  6. Shana, Pride & Prejudice is an excellent comfort read! And to think Austen worried about it being "too light, bright, and sparkling."

    Amelia, glad you enjoyed my post. I'd like to think my subject matter inspired me.

    Amanda, Cotillion is another Heyer novel with a wonderfully absurd climax where characters are coming, going, fighting, eloping, and finally admitting their love. I read that one fairly late, but it's become a favorite.

    Carolyn, summers are also ideal for revisiting comfort reads. It goes with the vacation state of mind, I think.

    C. H. Admirand, I agree that mood definitely determines reader choices. Sometimes only a certain kind of book will do in you're in a particular frame of mind. When I'm feeling frustrated, I gravitate towards a good mystery/romantic suspense. I want to see justice done and the villain get what's coming to him. :evil laugh: