Covers of Richard Mabey's books against a botanical background.

Image: Ryan McEachern/Penguin

Sometimes we read to be entertained, sometimes we read to learn more, and sometimes, every once in a while, we want to read something that simply makes us feel better. The books that gently transport us away from the world, and into someone else’s; the books that have a surefooted happiness at the end. For a few hours, whatever’s happening outside those pages can hit pause: there’s some seriously comforting reading to be done in these titles.

Miss Benson's Beetle (2020) by Rachel Joyce

The premise of Joyce's follow-up to Joyce's The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy (and, before that, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry) may sound far from comforting - an unlikely mission to discover a beetle so rare it may not even exist - but the bestselling author knows how to imbue a grand narrative with irresistable humanity. Journey, adventure and a delightful poignancy are steeped into Miss Benson's Beetle, about two "leftover women" defying social stereotype to find courage and conviction in themselves. A gorgeous reinvention of the Girl's Own Adventure. 

Before My Actual Heart Breaks (2021) by Tish Delaney

This debut from Irish writer Delaney may not initially seem all that comforting: the opening pages show a life of frustration for its delectable first-person narrator, Mary Rattigan, who grows up too soon against a backdrop of The Troubles. But for all the conflict – at home and on the streets – Before My Actual Heart Breaks moves compellingly into something more heartfelt, an unconventional love story that shows the value of a chosen family and the power of perseverance in hard times.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (1988)

Japanese cult classic Kitchen will transport you to 1980s Toyko – but if you’re thinking Blade Runner, imagine blending it with Julie and Julia and you may be nearer the mark. Yoshimoto’s debut was a sensation in Japan and translated into more than 20 languages; more than 30 years on it remains one of the most uplifting reads on grief and sympathy. When orphan Mikage loses the grandmother who has raised her, she finds comfort in the home – and kitchen – of a friend and his cross-dressing father. As a trio, they find an understanding all three of them had been missing.

Braiding Sweetgrass 2013 by Robin Wall Kimmerer

If you're after some consolation, but don't fancy fiction, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer's best-selling examination of the outdoor world and our interaction with it may do the trick. Kimmerer draws on a life lived as an indigenous scientist to share the kind of facts about too-often overlooked natural occurrences – such as moss, or fungi – in a beautifully soothing way, that will make you think afresh about your footprints in the world and how you live in it.

The Flip Side by James Bailey (2020)

If you like your comfort comedic, then The Flip Side offers both. The concept of Bailey’s novel is simple: in the wake of a break-up, his protagonist Josh decides that life must be dictated by one thing alone – a coin toss. What happens if you leave everything to chance? In this case, a journey around the world and a chaotic chance at a happy-ever-after. The book version of a Richard Curtis film.

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender (2020)

If you’re inclined to be put off by the YA classification, don’t be. Callender’s second YA novel (they have also written two books for younger children, and two fantasy books) is a story for all ages. Felix, a Black, queer, transgender teenager, is conscious that he is “one marginalisation too many” to fall in love. But when an attempt to avenge a troll that attacks him online turns into a complicated love-triangle he learns that there’s an important step to take before loving anybody else – and that’s learning to love yourself.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend (1982)

If you’re familiar with Townsend’s utterly brilliant creation, consider this a prompt to read her books again. If not, you’re in for a treat: Adrian Mole may have become a household name for an Inbetweeners-prototype, but his diaries offer an unexpectedly poignant – and funny – insight into the human condition. For those who consume the first one in one giddy afternoon, good news: Townsend wrote seven more, charting the journey through Mole’s life and adulthood.

Call Me Red by Hannah Jackson (2021)

If you’ve ever found that in complicated times, you yearn to be outdoors, working with your hands and breathing fresh air, this might be the book for you. Call Me Red is the uplifting, inspirational memoir of Hannah Jackson, known online as The Red Shepherdess, where she shares stories and photos from her Cumbrian sheep farm. Jackson’s book tells the story of her farm, from her youthful decision to raise sheep to the values she’s learned along the way. The story of hard work and determination paid off will be sure to raise your spirits.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman (2020)

You may know Backman from A Man Called Ove, a heartwarming story about the grumpiest man in the world that sat on the New York Times bestseller lists for most of a year. Now, he’s back, with Anxious People, in which Backman twists the hostage narrative on its head in a sleepy Swedish town. This may not sound like consoling material, but it’s a sign of Backman’s skill in depicting the human condition that it is; Matt Haig called it “a brilliant and comforting read”.

All Adults Here (2021) by Emma Straub

Few authors manage to suck the reader into the heart of a fictional family like Emma Straub, who makes skipping through generations of love stories and fallouts look easy. All Adults Here comes from a resolution made by 68-year-old Astrick Strick, a widow who vows to make amends for the way she raised her children. But now they’ve flown the nest, will they be as keen? Straub’s a brilliant writer for capturing the sense of a place – her previous novel, Modern Lovers, brought Brooklyn brilliantly to life. All Adults Here is set in Upstate New York, so be prepared for some wholesome new territory.

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes (2019)

The perfect book for those who have found themselves a little out of love with reading lately: not only is Jojo Moyes's tale of horseback librarians (a real thing, in Depression-era America) a brilliant adventure, but an ode to the power of books themselves. Also in this bestselling novel: unforgettable female friendships, love lost (and won) and some beautifully journies through the Kentucky wilderness. Bliss.

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