This week I have read a couple of amazing books. Both The Doll Factory and The Rapture are books that I have mentally filed under ‘potential rereads’. This means they are books that either I have enjoyed so much I can’t wait to dive back in or books I think with be enhanced by a second reading.
But there is a third category of ‘read again books’ . There are those which are my ‘comfort reads’. Books that are so wonderful, so familiar, that sinking back into them is like wrapping yourself in a blanket and shutting out the world.
These are the books that I have had deep relationships with, quite often going back years. They are books that have touched some part of my soul. Often the love doesn’t just come solely from the words within the book but also the context in which which I read them. Who introduced me to the book? What was going on in my life at the time?
It got me thinking , wondering if I could come up with a list of my Top Ten Comfort Reads. Actually it was easier than I thought. Because this isn’t a list of my favourite books or books I would like to reread, it’s a list of books that have very special place in my heart, and it takes more than being just a good book to get there. These are the books I get a wee bit emotional about, books I might just own multiple copies of and they are the books I struggle to debate logically. I would defend these books to the death, in much the same way I would a family member.
This list spans the whole of my reading life so far, so you will notice there are a few children’s books included. I make no apologies for that. Great children’s literature lasts a lifetime and it was definitely my experiences as a child that made me into a life long reader.
So…on with the list.
1. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
I first read this classic when I was 14. I was lucky enough to have several fantastic English Teachers and one of them suggested that I should give this haunting tale a go. I was hooked immediately, drawn into the brooding dark world of Cathy and Heathcliff, marvelling at the intensity and passion of the writing.
I knew very little at this point about the Bronte’s, but as I grew older and more aware, my fascination and awe only grew. How did a young women like Emily Bronte, with her relatively limited life experiences, write such a beautifully dark masterpiece? Imagination, that’s how. If any one book can show you what the creative human mind can achieve for me it has to be Wuthering Heights.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not one of those people who is passionately in love with Heathcliff. On the contrary Heathcliff terrifies me! But I am in love with the intensity and emotion of Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship. I am drawn back time and again, and like a moth to a flame, watching them destroy themselves for a passion that is just too overwhelming for them to control.
Every time I ‘hear’ Cathy tell Nelly:
” My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Healthcliff“
my heart breaks all over again.
I have read this book nearly every year since our first date; 35 years of wandering the moors! I don’t see me stopping any time soon.
2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis
Another book brought to me by a wonderful teacher! Mrs Roberts read this to me when I was 7 years old. At the end of every school day our class would sit on the carpet, some of us bookworms following the story in our own copies, and disappear into Narnia.
I was entranced from the first word, captivated by the idea that there were other worlds waiting to be discovered, magical lands, strange creatures and all of covered in snow!
I reading and read my copy until the cover quite simply disintegrated. I think I have been through more copies of this one book than any other. I made my way through all the Chronicles of Narnia but L,W &W will always be my first love.
A few years ago I shared the book with a class I was teaching. A group of young people with Special Educational needs, they were immediately drawn in. Towards the end of the book we set off on an outdoor learning day. It was winter and we headed up through the Lakes to a snowy tarn. We climbed up through a snow covered forest, passed a frozen waterfall, followed a tame robin through the trees and sat by the lake to read the last chapter. We were just packing up when the trees behind us came alive with the sound of barking and howling. Every child screamed’ The Secret Police’! Actually a pack of trail hounds being exercised, but the joy on their faces that day was beyond belief.
I didn’t think I could love this book anymore than I did. Thanks to that day I was proven wrong.
3. Goodnight Mister Tom – Michelle Magician
I honestly don’t know when I first read this book, or who introduced me to it. This story of Tom and his love for the evacuee Willie Beech has been with me for what seems like forever.
Set in WW2, it is the story of how two broken hearts are mended through patience, respect and an unconditional love. It is a story of second chances and uncovering talents.
It is a book that is also filled with heartbreak. Magorian doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects, she doesn’t patronise young readers into thinking the world is a completely safe place. But her characters provide hope. No one is perfect, everyone has flaws, but equally they have individual talents, no child is written off.
This is hands down that book that I have recommended most often to older children over the years. I must have bought at least 20 copies to give as gifts. It is the book that my Grandad read in his 90’s and loved, despite ‘not being much of a reader’. Everyone needs a little bit of Mr Tom in their lives.
4. Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
It never ceases to amazing me that I am so drawn to this book; a book whose author on first meeting is so meek and cowed by the situation she finds herself in, that she never even revels her own name.
For the ‘Rebecca’ of the title is not the strong lead character we might expect, she is the foreboding first Mrs de Winter. Dead, but most definitely not forgotten. Her presence spills out of the pages, kept alive by the formidable Mrs Danvers, whose grief has warped into something dark and sinister. The very creation of this character is a masterclass in how to create an atmosphere of menace.
This book was first published in 1938 and it has never been out of print. Nor does it feel dated or any less vivid than it did at the time of publication. It truly is a timeless classic.
5. Gillespie and I – Jane Harris
This is a late entry to the top ten! I first read this book in 2011, the year of it’s publication. Like du Maurier, Jane Harris has used a strong, quick witted female character to build an air of pervading menace. The difference is that character is very much alive.
A book set across two historical time periods, it is the tale of the spinster Harriet and her relationship with Glasgow painter Ned Gillespie. It is a book which is constantly evolving before your eyes, each page throwing up more questions than answers. It is a book which is hard to read in a linear fashion. I guarantee that you will be flicking back and forth, questioning what you have read as new revelations come to light.
I must have reread this book at least 5 times in the last 8 years, and it never gets tired. Each time there is a small detail I have missed, something that takes the air of suspense and doubt to the next level. It is a story woven with the finest skill. If characters you love to hate are your thing, then this one is a must read.
6. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Quite possibly this was the first piece of great American Literature I read. I was around 15, studying for my GCSE’ s and busy developing my own social conscience. Maybe I was a late developer, or maybe I had been lucky enough to be raised in a truly multicultural school but To Kill a Mockingbird was a benchmark in my understanding that the world wasn’t always a very nice place. It was in these pages that I was first understood what racism really looked like. It wasn’t just that list of words you shouldn’t say, it wasn’t name calling in the dinner hall; it was a systematic denial of opportunity, human dignity and justice.
Harper Lee’s great novel sparked my interest. It opened my eyes to injustice and inequality. It led me on to other great American novels, such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Alice Walker’s ‘ The Color Purple’ . It is the book that I will return to time and time again when I need a quick reminder of how far we have come and just how far we still have to go in upholding human rights for everyone.
7. Charlotte’s Web – E.B White
Another book read to me by the lovely Mrs Roberts, this book was the cause of two firsts in my young life.
Firstly it was the first time I had ever truly cried at a book. I remember reeling in shock when Charlotte died, alone in the corner of the fairground. It was the first time that I had read a book where everything didn’t ‘turn out all right in the end’. My seven year old self was blown away by the fact that Charlotte wouldn’t be around for ever.
And suddenly it dawned on me, that I wouldn’t be around for ever either. Charlotte’s web was my first understanding of mortality, my own and other people’s. And yet it wasn’t a terrifying experience, it was oddly comforting that life went on without Charlotte. Yes, people were very, very sad, but no one forgot her; she was alive in their memories and in her children .
Charlotte’s Web taught me lots about life and death. It taught me about friendship and how helping other’s brings it’s own rewards. and it still reminds me to make the most of every single day because tomorrow is not guaranteed.
8. The Cazalet Chronicles – Elizabeth Jane Howard.
Ok, so technically this might just be cheating, as this is a series of books not just one. But quite frankly it is my list and therefore I make the rules.
I found the first 4 of these books on my Mother in Law’s towering book shelves during the summer I finished University. Searching for something to read my eyes landed upon The Light Years, and away I went, swept up in a family saga that begins in 1938 and ends in the mid 50’s.
It has everything; love, life, death, marriage, deceit, birth, divorce. Three generations of Cazalet’s guiding you through their lives, growing and maturing before your eyes. Draw up a chintz chair in the Duchy’s drawing room and I guarantee you won’t want to leave.
A semi autobiographical account of her marriage to Peter Scott, this is Elizabeth Jane Howard’s masterpiece. My copies are dog eared, and the audiobooks, read perfectly Penelope Wilton got me through half marathon training. Even typing this I am coming over all nostalgic and misty eyed!
9. The Woman in Black – Susan Hill
Ok, so I might be deviating slightly from the ‘warm fluffy blanket comfort read’ brief here, but this book is always going to be in my top ten rereads list.
Another throwback from my teenage years, when I was experimenting with scaring myself half daft with Stephen King, another of my wise teachers suggested I might like to try this little gem. She explained that it wouldn’t be the level of horror King was dishing up but I might enjoy the psychological element.
Long story short, I scared myself witless and I loved it! Set in a house surrounded by marshes, only reachable by a causeway often submerged in water, a young solicitor is sorting the affairs of a recently deceased widow. The locals are suspicious and reluctant to help, never a great sign, and the scene is set for one of the best ghost stories of the 20th century.
This is a short novel, but it is 192 pages contain some of the most precise writing you will ever read. There isn’t a word out of place and every single page builds to it’s terrible conclusion.
10. Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders
This 2017 Man Booker prize winner is the most recent addition to my little list. It is there quite simply because it blew me away. I read it in the Spring of 2017, immediately recommended it to every single person I knew, and read the whole Man Booker long list that year, just in case there was something better out there.
In essence it is the story of Willie Lincoln, young the US president who died from typhoid fever, age 12. Saunders takes the President’s grief and makes it the centre of portrayal of the Bardo; a place that is sandwiched between life and death. The novel is populated by a cast of characters, all trapped in the Bardo, all refusing to move on because of unresolved issues in their life.
Saunders plays with style, plays with emotions and turns everything we expect on it’s head. It is one of the best portrayals of grief and loss I have even experienced in literature. There is great pathos and regret, but also tremendous black humour providing a great insight into the human condition.
Since first encountering this book, almost exactly 2 years ago I have reread it 3 times and listened to the audiobook once. Every time I see a copy in a charity shop, I want to push it in to someones hands and say ‘ Take it, read it, love it.’ It may just have become my obsession.
So there you have it, my very personal list of comfort reads. All there for different reasons, but all books I hold lightly in my hands but close to my heart. I doubt anyone out there will have the same list as mine and neither should you.
However I would love to know what your top ten would be. Who wants to go first?