Among my fondest childhood memories are days, usually in winter, when I was just sick enough that my mother thought I should be kept home from school. The feeling of absolute comfort would start with my mother’s hand on my forehead and then her words, “I think you’d better stay home today.” Oh the joy of settling back in a warm bed and dozing for another hour or so, knowing that the day held TLC in the form of ginger ale and chicken soup and orders to “just take it easy and I’ll bring you a book.” A stuffy head might make me miserable for a bit or I might recall that I was missing showing off in a spelling bee or giggling at lunchtime with my BFF, but those were small sacrifices when weighed against hours of coddling and of losing myself in my favorite, familiar fictional worlds.
All these years later, when I hear the term “comfort read,” it is these memories I recall, and the books I consider comfort reads today are the ones that provide me with the same feelings of safety, warmth, and escape from temporary miseries that my mother and my childhood favorites offered then. Barbara Vey understands my idea of comfort reads. She once blogged about her own reading when she was feeling ill and out of sorts: “For me, the comfort book is all about spending time with characters I've grown to love and enjoy being around, even when I'm not fit for social situations.”
So when All About Romance announced they were polling for favorite comfort reads (along with favorite hanky reads and favorite holiday reads), I gave careful thoughts to the books I turn to when I need to forget the stress and strife that upon occasion overwhelms me.
Comfort reads and favorite reads are not synonymous, although they may overlap. For instance, The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie is one of my favorite reads of 2009, and I expect when I next list my all-time top 100 romances that it will be on the list. But I would never consider it a comfort read. The same is true of Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm, Barbara Samuel’s No Place Like Home, and Carla Kelly’s Reforming Lord Ragsdale. These are all books I cherish, books I reread, but they are too emotionally wrenching to be comfort reads.
My comfort reads are not light reads, although many of them contain humor, but they are books in which hope is a steady presence, redemption—however it is defined for the particular book—is in process, and the happy resolution is never in doubt. They are books that remind me of simple pleasures, essential goodness, and subtle strengths. They are books that are heavy with memories of other readings. Rereading them is effortless, the way conversation with old friends whose company demands no pretenses or defenses is effortless.
Those of you who know me will not be surprised that I found it nearly impossible to limit my list to ten. Twenty-five would have been easier. After all, I have been reading a long time, and my keepers are in the four digits. But I persisted. I weighed choices, turned pages, reread passages, and finally settled on my ten favorite comfort reads. I had to rank them when I sent my AAR ballot, but since the ranking is subject to change at any moment, I present them here in alphabetical order by author.
1. Simply Love, Mary Balogh
I fell in love with the character of Sydnam Butler when I read A Summer to Remember and hoped then that Balogh would give him a happy ending. I had to wait through seven books (not a hardship when reading Balogh), but I did get the story I wanted. I wanted it badly enough to buy it in hardcover too.
Simply Love is the kind of story I love best. It’s all about character and internal conflict. Both Sydnam and his heroine, Anne Jewell, have torturous pasts, but they are not defined by those pasts. Each has built a life that has meaning and purpose. Together they create a life that is freer and richer than their separate lives, a life in which reconciliation takes place, impossible dreams are realized, and love—romantic and familial—is triumphant.
2. Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta Chase
What is left to say about this book so beloved by readers that it ranks at or near the top of almost every list of all-time favorites? Like Simply Love, it’s a beauty and the beast story, a theme that I adore. It combines easy humor and emotional punch. It has a hero who captures my heart early in the story and a heroine who is one of the best ever created IMO. She is strong, intelligent, and sensually aware despite her lack of experience. Their exchanges exemplify what great banter is.
And I would love the book for this scene alone:
With the world securely in order, Dain was able to devote the leisurely bath time to editing his mental dictionary. He removed his wife from the general category labeled "Females" and gave her a section of her own. He made a note that she didn't find him revolting, and proposed several explanations: (a) bad eyesight and faulty hearing, (b) a defect in a portion of her otherwise sound intellect, (c) an inherited Trent eccentricity, or (d) an act of God. Since the Almighty had not done him a single act of kindness in at least twenty-five years, Dain thought it was about bloody time, but he thanked his Heavenly Father all the same, and promised to be as good as he was capable of being.
3. Frederica, Georgette Heyer
I classify all the Heyers I love as comfort reads. With the exception of An Infamous Army, they are easy, pleasurable reads filled with moments that linger in the memory and bring a smile. But Frederica is the one I turn to most frequently when my spirits need a lift. Both the love story and the family dynamics delight me. Rereading this one is as warming and reassuring as a hug.
4. Pleasure for Pleasure, Eloisa James
Since I met many of you on Eloisa James’s bulletin board, you know that I am a huge fan of her books. Even the couple of books that feature a character I don’t like are keepers for me because other qualities redeem them.. I think A Duke of Her Own is her best book, Rafe is my favorite of her heroes, but none of the other books can match the emotional investment I have in PFP. I even wrote an essay about all the reasons I was sure Mayne and Josie would end up together, and I can vividly recall the excitement of getting an ARC (my first one), ripping the package open, and reading the ending by the interior light of my car. Just thinking about Mayne in that pink dress, the garden scene, the consummation scene, and others makes me laugh or sigh with satisfaction.
5. Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand, Carla Kelly
Carla Kelly is a genius at creating characters I feel as if I might have known had I lived in Regency times, characters who are not movers and shakers, but who have a core of goodness and honesty, although they are not without faults. Roxanna Drew and Fletcher Rand are such characters. Mrs. Drew is a widow who genuinely grieves for her husband, a clergyman who is remembered in such loving detail by his wife and children that the reader knows him as well as she knows the characters in the book’s present. Fletch, another of Kelly’s military/ex-military heroes, is unusual in that he is being punished by his world for having divorced a faithless wife rather than accommodating her infidelities. He is also a lonely man with a great capacity for love. The two come together in a marriage of convenience that turns into a romance and a family story. Reading this book reaffirms my faith in people and in the romance genre.
6. Dreaming of You, Lisa Kleypas
This is another of those perennial favorite romances that shows up on most all-time best romances lists. Lisa Kleypas is the queen of the creators of the self-made hero, and Derek Craven gets my vote for the most unforgettable in a memorable group. Derek and Sara are opposites--a child of the streets who has used brains, brawn, and daring to achieve wealth and power and a sheltered innocent. But both are more than they seem. He is truly a romantic hero, not just a sexy one, capable of words and actions that melt the heart. Beneath a proper exterior, Sara is an intelligent, passionate woman who knows what she wants. And while Kleypas writes sizzling love scenes, she also knows the value of creating and increasing sexual tension.
7. Shattered Rainbows, Mary Jo Putney
Integrity is an old-fashioned word; some would say an old-fashioned concept in the 21st century, but it’s a word that comes to mind when I consider this book. Catherine and Michael are both characters who refuse to compromise their honor. Catherine is a nurturer who gives loyalty to her charming but weak husband, devotion to her young daughter, solid friendship to a few, and compassion to the deserving and undeserving. Michael is a man consumed with guilt over a past betrayal and determined to live the remainder of his life with honor, regardless of temptation. The two belong together, but their journey to an HEA is a difficult, dangerous one. The scene in which their intimacy finally encompasses the physical as well as the emotional is worth waiting for. It’s my favorite love scene.
Integrity is also an apt word for this author who stints on neither the history nor the romance in this near-perfect historical romance. The depiction of military life, the details of the Battle of Waterloo and its aftermath, the practice of medicine in horrific conditions, and the insularity of life on the island of Skoal are vividly and powerfully rendered.
8. For Now, Forever, Nora Roberts
I love Nora Roberts’s fictional families. I visit the MacKades, Stanislaskis, O’Hurleys, Quinns, Concannons, etc. regularly, but I am fondest of the MacGregors. First, I have known them longest. All the Possibilities (MacGregor #3) was my first Roberts book in 1985, and I fell in love with the managing, matchmaking patriarch of the clan in that first book. For Now, Forever is the story of Daniel MacGregor and his beloved Anna.
The book begins in the present with patriarch Daniel MacGregor in the hospital and his wife, Dr. Anna Whitfield MacGregor, at his side. The story then moves backward to the first meeting of a brash, young Scotsman well on his way to building a financial empire and the surprisingly rebellious daughter of prominent and proper Bostonians. The story of their courtship includes the things they must learn about themselves and one another. Anna’s struggles to become a doctor at a time when few women entered the profession, her rejection of her parents’ rigid standards, and her determination that Daniel allow her to be true to her own dream make this story an unforgettable example of all a gifted writer can accomplish within the limits of a category romance.
9. Till the Stars Fall, Kathleen Gilles Seidel
I don’t use the word “perfect” lightly, but for me this is the perfect contemporary romance. The heroine and hero are multi-dimensional characters—strong, creative, intelligent, vulnerable, and deeply human. The reader understands how the pieces of their separate and shared pasts have made them into the adults they are. The setting, both place (Minnesota, Princeton, concert circuit, Washington, D. C.) and time (1970s, 1990s), are integral to the story. The story itself with all the layered relationships is compelling, and Seidel’s use of reviews, interviews, and retrospectives of Dodd Hall give the reader both exterior and interior views of the band’s history.
The prose is pitch perfect; the voice is endlessly appealing. I saw a used copy of TTSF offered for sale online. The price was over $50. I wouldn’t sell my copy for that because I consider it priceless.
10. In the Midnight Rain, Ruth Wind
I wish Pine Bend, Texas were real. I’d love to talk writing with Ellie, check out Blue’s orchids, and listen to music with them both in companionable silence. I’d love to meet all the other Pine Bend characters too. I’d laugh at their jokes, listen with interest to their stories, and congratulate them on their town. Ellie and Blue are characters who have known loss, but they become strong at the broken places. Their lives, indeed all of this book, from the wonderful title to the final scene, are like a good blues song—slow, smooth, sad, but with redemption at hand. And just like a favorite piece of music, each experience with it intensifies the pleasure it offers.
What are your favorite comfort reads? Have you voted in the AAR poll? If not, you still have time to do so.