As you know by now, I believe there is no such thing as too many reading ideas. This one is indeed full of books that you will enjoy reading that will also not add nightmares to your sleep.
Comforting Books for Hard Times: Soothing Reads in Every Genre
Laura Sackton Apr 7, 2020
I don’t know about you, but in the past three weeks, I’ve abandoned everything on my TBR in favor of my favorite comforting books. If you’re someone who’s able to dive head-first into your reading during this pandemic, I salute you. But I’ve found myself unable to focus on reading. There’s a lot of scary news out there. The daily rhythms of life have shifted significantly for many of us. Whether you’re working from home, quarantined with a houseful of kids, or are out there providing the rest of us with essential services—it’s a lot.
If you, like me, are not eagerly diving into that 800 page novel sitting on your bedside table, these comforting books are for you. These books have gotten me through personal crisis before, and they’re getting me through this one. They are not completely without danger or death of any kind, but they make me laugh out loud, transport and distract me, and remind me that kindness hope, and humor abound among humans.
I use the term “genre” loosely. I’ve included books in most of the major genres here, but I’ve also included books in some categories that aren’t genres: audiobooks, comics, YA, middle grade, and children’s literature. Obviously these categories include books of all genres, but sometimes I’m just in the mood for a YA novel or a comic, so I decided to expand the list to include formats and age categories as well as genres.
Everyone has their own idea about what constitutes a comfort read. I’ve included two very different books for each genre, in the hope that this list will provide comforting books to the widest array of readers possible.
The Martian by Andy Weir
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Lovelace is an AI who was a ship’s computer, until she wakes up in a new body and has to figure out who she is and what she wants. This character-driven story is an utter delight and laugh-out-loud funny. The universe is lush and detailed. There are incredible aliens who communicate through colors in their cheeks, superb gender inclusivity, a truly dizzying array of galactic food traditions, and, as always in Chambers’s books, a celebration of queer family.
His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
The pitch: the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons. Look, I am not into military fiction, but I love this series. Will Laurence is an ordinary Navy captain until his ship captures an unhatched dragon egg. That egg hatches Temeraire, who bonds to Lawrence, sending them both headfirst into the world of the British Aerial Corps. There is plenty of action, but the true delight of this book is the relationship between Lawrence and Temeraire, who is no ordinary dragon.
The Second Mango by Shira Glassman
Okay, there are dragons in this one, too, but they aren’t the star of the show. Set in a Jewish-inspired fantasy world, this is the story of a young queen who sets off on a quest to find a girlfriend, because she’s tired of being the only lesbian she knows. She doesn’t find a girlfriend immediately, but she does find a best friend in the badass warrior Rivka, get into a whole lot of adventures, and, eventually, yes, meet the girl of her dreams.
Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan
I’ve reread this short romance novella than once because it’s not only a delightful story about two old ladies falling in love, but one of the most hilarious and satisfying take-down-the-patriarchy books out there. There are shenanigans, there is comfort food, there is queer love, and there is a Terrible Nephew who gets everything he deserves.
Work For It by Talia Hibbert
This book is a great example of how angsty romance can also be deeply comforting. Griff is a grumpy farmer who likes plants more than people. Olu is a city boy who decamps to the country in search of some clarity in his messy life. They do not like each other at first and they have a lot of emotional trauma to work through, but obviously it ends happily. Hibbert writes with so much tenderness and generosity toward her characters that even in the midst of the angst, it never feels too heavy.
The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
Set in 1920s Bombay, the beautifully rendered historical atmosphere of this mystery is as compelling as the story. Perveen has just joined her father’s law firm, making her one of the first female solicitors in India. While working her first case, she runs into a whole slew of various tensions simmering under the surface. Perveen is a fantastic character who I’d follow anywhere, but it’s Massey’s brilliant depiction of time and place that make this novel so easy to sink into.
Think of England by KJ Charles
Yes, this is another historical mystery, but it’s nothing at all like the above, and it’s also a romance. A murder mystery set in an English manor house in 1904, this is basically Edwardian pulp, but queer. There is a lot of sneaking around in the library, there is blackmail, there is stumbling around in the dark, there is poetry, there is a happily ever after.
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
This is not a fluffy read. But because so many people associate literary fiction with “depressing fiction,” books like this are both refreshing and important. Patsy leaves Jamaica, and her young daughter, in search of her best friend and first love in America. Over the next ten years, both Patsy and her daughter wrestle with the consequences of her decision. The novel delves into a whole lot of hard subjects, but it is also full of joy. The ending is not bleak and hopeless. It’s a serious, immersive novel that will make you cry and laugh in equal measure.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Look, you have to be in the mood to read about a financially secure, reasonably successful white gay dude going through a not-at-all life-threatening crisis. But if you are, this book is a delight. It’s tender and funny, cheerfully optimistic and a little absurd, it never takes itself too seriously, and there’s no queer suffering.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amos Towles
I honestly don’t think I can come up, offhand, with a character who is kinder or more generous than the protagonist of this novel. In 1922, Alexander Rostov is sentenced to house arrest in the grand Metropol Hotel. What follows is the delightful story of his years in the hotel and the people he meets there. Despite the sometimes grim history it depicts, this is a book that’s full of warmth, and that wholeheartedly believes in the goodness of people.
River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
1890s Louisiana, with hippos. Feral hippos. Hippo ranchers and outlaw hippo wranglers. Queer misfits on a quest. Did I mention hippos? It’s as weird and fun as it sounds. You’re welcome.
Dream Work by Mary Oliver
This is the first book of Oliver’s poetry I read, and the one I return to over and over again, but any one of her books will provide you with pages of beauty and a reminder to breathe deeply and pay attention to joy. Her poems are so easy to read, that even if you’re not a poetry person, you’re bound to find at least one that speaks to you.
Salad Anniversary by Machi Tawara
This is a book I often recommend to people who don’t like poetry. It’s a collection of Japanese tanka—short poems often capturing a fleeting moment or emotion. Tawara’s poetry is jubilant, playful, and alive. There’s nothing lofty or pretentious about it. She writes about everything: new love, cooking, pop music, nature, baseball, breakups, walking through the city. Each poem is like a tiny burst of life.
Born A Crime by Trevor Noah
This is the perfect example of how a book can be serious, devastating, hilarious, and comforting all at once. Noah recounts his childhood in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa as the child of a black mother and a white father. His stories are always captivating, and though he delves into some horrifying history—both personal and global—his infectious warmth and sharp humor permeate the whole book, making it one that’s easy to return to again and again.
The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks
If you’re looking for soothing, this is your memoir. Rebanks is a Lakes District sheep farmer whose family has been farming the same land for generations. In this gorgeous memoir, he shares his love for the landscape, for his sheep, and for a way of life dictated by animals, weather, and the seasons. It’s full of quiet meditations on work, tidbits about the life of modern shepherds, and lots of fascinating history about the land and its people.
Here For It by R. Eric Thomas
These essays are exuberant. Thomas writes about a whole range of subjects, from the serious to the mundane. He gets into his relationship with the internet, coming of age as a writer and a gay man, falling in love with a pastor, navigating race and sexuality in college. He provides a lot of important insight into modern American politics and culture, but he’s also playful and funny. His tone is warm and friendly and full of kindness, for himself and his readers.
The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
If you’ve been reading Book Riot book lists in recent weeks, you might have noticed this one keeps popping up. That’s because it’s perfect. A collection of short essays celebrating small moments of delight, it’s joyful, playful, and soothing, but doesn’t ignore the real mess and pain of the world.
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Reading this book is like taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. Kimmerer writes about her relationship to nature, about the lives of plants, about her native culture and the indigenous stories and traditions that have had meaning in her life. Her writing is beautiful and honest and clear, full of joy, grief, wonder, science, and myth.
Tiny, Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
I don’t know about you, but when things get rough, there’s no one I’d rather turn to than Sugar, the advice-column persona of Cheryl Strayed. In this collection of the best of the Dear Sugar columns, her open heart and deep compassion are evident. This is not a light book; people write to Sugar about heartbreaking and impossible problems. But Strayed is so open about her own life and struggles that reading it is a balm. It is likely to make you cry, but it will also comfort and uplift and inspire you.
The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzie Lee
While this is technically a sequel to The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, you don’t have to read that one to enjoy it. All Felicity Montague wants is to be a doctor. But in 18th century Europe, that is no easy task for a young woman. Her quest to build a meaningful life for herself is full of unforgettable characters, the best female friendships, fascinating details about 18th century medicine, and a little bit of magic. If you love feminist historical YA without any romance, you will love this book to pieces.
When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
Looking for a feel-good YA romance with two MCs you’ll be rooting for from page one? Here you go. Set at a summer camp for teenage web developers, Dimple just wants to focus on her dream career. Rishi, on the other hand, when he learns that he’ll be attending the same summer program as the girl his parents want him to marry, is ready to start courting. This whole book is light and adorable and utterly charming.
Middle Grade & Children’s
Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman
A father goes out to the corner store for milk. When it takes him forever to come back, his two kids demand an explanation, and he gives it to them. It involves time travel, a dinosaur inventor, aliens, and milk (obviously). It is the most funny and the most charming. Read it to yourself, read it to your kiddos, listen to the fantastic audiobook: you will not be sad.
Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai
If you like realistic middle grade fiction, this is one of the best I’ve read. Mai is looking forward to spending her summer on the beach, so she is not excited when she learns that instead, she has to go to Vietnam with her grandmother and spend the summer with relatives she’s never met in a country she doesn’t know anything about. Once she’s there, she learns a lot about herself and her heritage. It’s lovely to watch Mai’s slow and realistic transformation from pouty and uninterested to engaged and thoughtful.
Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu
This is an adorable comic about a freshman hockey player who is also a gay vlogger and exuberant baker. Basically, hockey + pies. Also, lovely friendships, a sweet romance, and a total lack of homophobia and toxic masculinity in a setting that is often full of both. This is escapist comfort reading at its finest.
Relish by Lucy Knisley
I’ve read all of Lucy Knisley’s fabulous books, but this one is my favorite. There’s so much food joy packed into one small volume. In a series of stories and memories, she explores all the ways food has shaped her life. You don’t have to be a cook or a foodie to appreciate this book. It’s full of so much exuberance and delight that if you love anything at all, you’ll relate to it.
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, read by Meryl Streep and a full cast
Friends, this is, in my opinion, the most comforting book on this list. I hadn’t read Charlotte’s Web since I was a kid when someone recommended this audiobook to me. It’s perfect. A star-studded cast of exceptional narrators bring Fern, Wilbur, Charlotte, and the residents of Homer’s barn to life. It is beautiful and cozy and life-affirming and full of wonder. If you need a reminder that kindness and beauty still exist in the world, this audiobook will do the trick.
Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes, read by Shonda Rhimes
I am sure you will enjoy this self-help/memoir if you read it in print, but the audio is truly delightful. Rhimes outlines a year of her life, in which her mission is to say yes—to doing things that scare her, to accepting help, to, sometimes, saying no. She reads the audiobook, and there’s just something about her honesty, her realness, the emotion in her voice, that rockets everything she’s says to the next level. It’s an audiobook you can dip in and out of, listen to a chapter here or there when you need a little friendly motivation and encouragement. It also includes recordings of speeches she’s given, and they are phenomenal.