Jess Lea Shares Her Favorite Comfort Reads

What a great time this is to be a person with an anxiety problem. Seriously, I love it. At last, the rest of the world understands how we feel.

Like most people these days, I’m worried. I worry about elderly relatives and loved ones with chronic illness and friends who are trapped in Milan. When I’m not wondering “Will I lose my job?” and “Did that man across the street just sneeze?”, I’m picturing a desperate mob kicking down my door to carry off my toilet paper.

But there’s one sure-fire way to calm down, and that’s to lose ourselves in the pages of a good book. Here are some of my favorite comfort reads to help with the escapism…

jess lea's favorite comfort reads


Comfort Reads Category: Romance 

Is there any better way to forget your troubles than to lose yourself in a passionate love story? Throw in a haughty ice queen with a secret sorrow, and her eager young assistant, and I’m there. One of my favorite takes on this trope is Lola Keeley’s The Music and the Mirror, a romance between a retired-injured-and-angry-about-it legendary ballerina and the newest, most talented young dancer in her company. The glamour and agony of the ballet make a perfect backdrop to their love story.

And I was reminded yet again of why women need to tell our own stories, because while mainstream popular culture makes the ice queen out to be an “bitch”, writers like Keeley take a different tack, portraying the ice queen’s toughness as a response to her circumstances: demanding work, physical pain, the corrosive sexism that even the most powerful women must battle against. Victoria Ford deserves a happy ending, and it’s so good when she gets it.


Comfort Reads Category: Children’s stories

Favorite books from childhood feel like a guilty pleasure—surely I should have stopped enjoying Enid Blyton’s boarding school stories by now? And yet, there’s such comfort in retreating into a book you loved when you were ten; it’s a kind of time travel.

Lately, I’ve been rereading L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, a firm favourite from my primary school years. As an adult, what strikes me most is how slyly humorous it is, thanks to the rapport between the romantic, exuberant little Anne, always babbling about flowers and fairies, and her sarcastic foster mother Marilla, whom I imagine turning to the camera like someone on The Office. But there’s such sweetness there, too. I can’t read the scene where Matthew faces his terror of perky shop assistants to buy Anne a pretty dress because she’s never had one before, without getting a little choked up.


Comfort Reads Category: Supernatural

Maybe you’re in the mood for something darker? Well, one way to escape from depressing reality is to take a step sideways into the shadows of another, spookier world. I’ve been leafing through Tales of the Grimoire (ed. Astrid Ohletz and Gill McKnight) for creepy tales with a sapphic twist. I especially love R.G. Emanuelle’s reimagining of axe murderess Lizzie Borden as a plucky lesbian vampire hunter. With its lush and sensuous melodrama and its portrayal of an innocent young heroine who comes to suspect that her sinister parents may be the undead in disguise, this story takes me back to the Hammer Horror films I watched as a kid. But this time, the corseted, blood-stained lesbians are the heroes!


Comfort Reads Category: True crime

Why would anyone take comfort from reading about the worst deeds humans have ever committed? But sometimes I do, and I’m not alone; witness the huge audience of “murderinos” glued to podcasts like My Favourite Murder, Sinisterhood, and All Killa No Filla. Why do so many women turn to real-life horror stories to help us cope with anxiety? Maybe we’re confronting our darkest fears, or putting our own daily struggles into perspective, or maybe it’s the grim satisfaction we feel when the most dreadful mysteries get solved at last.

I’ve read some truly disturbing books like Mindhunter and The Stranger Beside Me, but these days I need something a little lighter. A good choice was Tori Telfer’s Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History, a collection of witty short pieces about husband-poisoners, child-killers and axe-wielding female bandits, who fascinated the public and the media as much as they appalled them.

Especially memorable was Tillie Klimek, a black widow in 1920s Chicago, who blasted dance music at her husbands’ funerals after she’d finished them off with rat poison, and told the detective who arrested her “The next one I want to cook dinner for is you”. In a perverse way, these stories help me to look on the bright side: if I’m isolated at home, at least my pasta and tinned soup will be free from arsenic.

Truly, things could be worse, and I still have a lot to feel grateful for.


Jess Lea lives in Melbourne, Australia, where she started out as an academic before working in the community sector. She loves vintage crime fiction, the writings of funny women, and lesbian books of all sorts. Jess can be found writing in cafes, in parks, and in her pyjamas at home when she should be at work. Find her books at the Ylva store! 


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