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My favorite “comfort books”

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After several extremely trying days, I read some of my favorite “comfort books” in order to feel better and be able to keep going.   And that got me thinking about what, exactly, is a “comfort book?”

To my mind, a “comfort book” is one that will give you a positive feeling time and time again.  It’s a book that gets your mind off your troubles, or at least diverts you from them somewhat.  And it’s a book that you tend to admire for some reason — maybe due to how well the writer in question uses language, maybe because the characters “speak” to you, maybe because it has a bright and lively feel to it, or maybe just because these characters have survived something terrible but have lived to tell the tale.

These books all inspire me to do more, be more, and to keep trying, no matter how hard it gets and no matter how long it takes.  Though the plotlines are disparate, and the situations all over the map, they all have in common one thing — they reach me, no matter how awful I feel, and no matter what sort of chaos is going on all around me.

So in no particular order, here are my favorite books that I turn to again and again when I’m feeling the most down and out:

MIRROR DANCE, Lois McMaster Bujold — Mark Vorkosigan’s story goes from anti-hero to full-fledged hero, has huge peaks and miserable valleys, and contains some of the best writing of Ms. Bujold’s career to date.

CORDELIA’S HONOR (omnibus of SHARDS OF HONOR and BARRAYAR), Bujold — Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan’s story is humane, interesting, revealing, and engaging.  Cordelia makes her own life her own way, yet realizes she’s as fragile down-deep as anyone else.   Finding a mate as extraordinary as she is in Aral Vorkosigan is half the fun — watching what they accomplish together is the rest.  This is my favorite of all Ms. Bujold’s novels/novel compilations; it also was my late husband Michael’s favorite work by Bujold.

Poul Anderson, the “Dominic Flandry” series (two outstanding novels in this series are A KNIGHT OF GHOSTS AND SHADOWS and A STONE IN HEAVEN) — Flandry is an interstellar secret agent, a literate and erudite man with impeccable taste who still manages to be a flawed human.   He’s also a bon vivant with an alien valet and a romantic heart buried beneath his cynical exterior.  If you haven’t read any of these stories yet, you should.

André Norton, FORERUNNER FORAY and ICE CROWN — Note that Miss Norton wrote many, many outstanding novels in the science fiction, fantasy, romance and historical romance fields; these are my two favorites.  The former novel has a heroine in Ziantha who goes from unwanted child to highly-trained psychic, albeit in thrall to the latter-day version of the Mafia; how she breaks free and finds friends and companions is well worth the read.  The latter features Roane Hume, an unwanted cousin forced to do her uncle’s will on a backward planet that knows nothing of space travel or advanced societies; Roane finds her own inner strength and throws off her shackles while finding the right man for her (more alluded to than delineated, but there), proving that knowledge indeed is power.  (Note that André Norton was Michael’s all-time favorite SF&F writer.  He had good taste.)

Stephen R. Donaldson — A MAN RIDES THROUGH.  This is the second book of the “Mordant’s Need” duology and is a rousing tale of romance, mistaken motivations, political intrigue, and contains an unusual magic system dealing with the shaping and control of various mirrors.  The two main protagonists, Terisa and Geraden, go from not knowing anything to being supremely powerful and confident in and of themselves while maintaining their fallible, undeniably human nature in a realistic way that reminded me somewhat of medieval epics (albeit with magic).  Excellent book that works on all levels, and as always, Donaldson’s command of language is superb and worth many hours of study.

Rosemary Edghill, TWO OF A KIND and THE SHADOW OF ALBION (the latter written with André Norton) — the first is a hysterically funny Regency romance, the second is an “alternate Regency” with magic.  Excellent books.

Mercedes Lackey, BY THE SWORD and Vanyel’s trilogy (MAGIC’S PAWN, MAGIC’S PROMISE, MAGIC’S PRICE) — both emotional and well-conceived, these books draw you in and don’t let go.  Ms. Lackey is one of the most popular novelists in fantasy literature, and it’s easy to understand why.

KRISTIN HANNAH, WHEN LIGHTNING STRIKES — I go back to this book again and again because of the strength of its romance between contemporary woman Alaina “Lainie” Constanza and the outlaw John Killian in 1896; this is a paranormal, time-traveling romance that gets everything right.  The characters are engaging though deeply flawed, and have had terrible things happen to them in the past but manage to overcome all difficulties by believing in the power of their love — but taking time to get there, which makes things far more realistic.

Linnea Sinclair, AN ACCIDENTAL GODDESS.  I enjoy all of Ms. Sinclair’s work, but it’s the story about psychic priestess Gillaine “Gillie” Davré in the far future (she’s a Raheiran, is also a soldier and member of the Raheiran Special Forces) that always draws me back.  Gillie is a complex heroine that, despite her special abilities (of which she has many), still remains a flawed human being.  (The Raheirans think of themselves as human.  Other types of humanity, such as the Khalarans Gillie works with, tend to think of them as lesser Gods and Goddesses, which discomfits Gillie no end.)  Her love story with Khalaran Admiral Rynan “Make it Right” Makarian, a man as complex and interesting as she is, holds my interest time and time again.

Jane Austen, EMMA and MANSFIELD PARK — these are my two favorite novels of Miss Austen’s output, partly because the first is a biting satire and the second a morality play in addition to the “comedy of manners” Miss Austen seemingly could write in her sleep.   I appreciate Miss Austen’s work more and more as I get older; her craftsmanship was outstanding and her eye for detail even better.  (Note that Jane Austen, like André Norton, was one of Michael’s favorite writers.  It was because of Michael’s insistence that I re-read EMMA and realized the fluffy nature of it concealed biting wit and savage satire, then I went on to re-read everything else.)

Finally, there’s the writing team of Sharon Lee and Steve Miller and their entire “Liaden Universe” series.  I can’t say enough how much I admire these two writers, how much I appreciate their fine series of books (twelve or so to date), and how much I’m looking forward to GHOST SHIP, the sequel to both SALTATION and I DARE.

These books are all emotionally honest, they get the issues right, they don’t play games with the reader and the way these writers use the English language is superb.   I gain more every time I turn to these authors and their books, and I believe you will, too, if you give them a chance.