When Is a Book Too Much of a Comfort Read?

I was looking for comfort reads, the mashed potatoes of literacy, and I read a book that had been highly recommended (lotta five star ratings on Amazon) with the caveat being that it was just the story of what happened to this guy, episodic not escalating. And I thought, “Great, a picaro story” and raced right through it.

It wasn’t a picaro story.

A picaro narrative is an episodic story of a rogue’s progress through life. Think Tom Jones, Moll Flanders, Don Quixote, the Murderbot stories taken as one story in five parts. A picaro’s story is not one goal/one conflict, it meanders, following the rogue’s adventures. I thought the important part of that definition was the episodic nature of it, following a character through different spaces and interactions. Turns out the key is “rogue,” as in anti-heroic, iconoclastic, amoral protagonist.

The book I read has a classic beginning–orphaned boy forced to find his way in the world–and it was fun to start with. For one thing, everybody liked this kid and helped him out because they could see how good/smart/honest he was, and that was comforting when the real world is nothing but conflict. He got a very low status job on a spaceship, but it just worked out that he really knew this job because his now-deceased mother had been obsessive about that a particular task, and everybody on the ship loved him because he was the best there ever was at this one thing. Competence porn. Loved it.

Then he helped a friend pass a test he couldn’t pass before, solved the financial problems of several crew members while evoking fond memories in the captain, aced four advancement tests, got a great idea for saving the ship money, researched another way to make the ship’s trips more profitable . . .

I wanted a comfort read, but by three-quarters of the way through, I really wanted a plague to attack this guy, or a bullet, or at least somebody who slapped him. I wanted him to make mistakes and learn from them instead of always doing the right thing at the right time with the right people. I wanted a protagonist who broke the rules and paid the price, had uncharitable thoughts and flaws, and–for the love of god–engaged in CONFLICT.

I wanted a picaro.

It was right about then that I began to entertain thoughts that maybe this guy was a con man, that he was working the ship for an ulterior motive. For one thing, he lied about things. He said he didn’t like his name, it was embarrassing, but every time he introduced himself, he did it quoting the first line of a classic novel. Yeah, that’s flaunting your hame, not being embarrassed by it. (Also why the hell are people still reading an eighteenth century novel a thousand years in the future, so much so that everybody he talks to gets the reference. I’m not sure a lot of people now would get the reference.). Plus he withholds information from people. He doesn’t tell his friend that he’s arranged for an oral test instead of a written even though that would have eased his friend’s anxiety a lot, although this is also the friend that played a trick on him during a safety drill and got him laughed at, so maybe it’s revenge? This guy has to be on the con, right?

Nope. He’s just a really good guy which everybody recognizes and applauds him for.

And that’s bad because without conflict, this guy can’t arc. He’s essentially the same guy at the end that he is at the beginning, albeit with more skills. Mostly, he’s boring.

So I went back and read some Murderbot again. People keep trying to kill him, he gets exasperated with his clients, he makes mistakes, he’s rude, he hates having relationships with people but he keeps getting drawn into them and panicking, he runs away a lot once he’s saved everybody, he’s flawed and funny and cranky and marvelous, a rogue Security Unit with some human parts and a lot more human emotion than he’ll admit. Like the other protagonist, he’s a really good guy, but a good guy who works outside the law, engages in conflict, and has character arc.

He’s a picaro.

I can’t keep reading the Murderbot books over and over, I can practically recite them now, so for heaven’s sake, Martha Wells, write another one.

Because it turns out I need comfort reads that aren’t that comfortable.

72 thoughts on “When Is a Book Too Much of a Comfort Read?

  1. She’s working on it. Unfortunately, it’s not due out for another year. Fugitive Telemetry due April 2021.

  2. I’m sorry your attempt to put down Murderbot didn’t work out. I’ve been disappointed too many times to trust Amazon reviews, but I’ve done quite well with books recommended here.

    My go to comfort reads are Welcome to Temptation or Manhunting, so that probably doesn’t help you. Have you tried Joanna Bourne (historical spy romances) or Alyssa Cole?

    You absolutely can keep reading the Murderbot books over and over – I certainly plan to do so! Martha Wells also has several other series. I loved the Ile-Rein series and The Cloud Roads.

    1. Comfort reads. Mine would include Welcome to Temptation and Bet Me, and a chunk of Susan E. Philips Chicago Stars books, and definitely Patricia Wrede’s Frontier Magic trilogy, and Lois Bujold’s output (only a few exceptions there). Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is high on that list.

      1. I so love SEP’s newest Dance Away With Me. Love interest is an artist aka Banksy. Of course she can definitely bring the conflict. And, sorry Jenny, I love her epilogues.

        1. How did I miss a new release by SEP? Now I know what I will be doing next weekend!

    2. Love Joanna Bourne, a very old time style, which I adore. I can’t get into Alyssa Cole for some reason.

  3. I read the first three books in that series, and I don’t think Ish ever arcs. He also starts having all kinds of women throw themselves at him because he’s suuuuch a great guy, so it got pretty unbelievable.

    1. Lol. This is why I can’t read Sookie Stackhouse. Every single man in her orbit falls desperatly in love with her. The dialog is fun and the plot is interesting, but I can’t stop smacking myself on the forehead.

      1. I pretty much check out of a series as soon as it becomes clear that the protagonist is just serving as wish fulfillment for the author. Nothing turns me off like a breathtakingly beautiful/handsome character who infatuates everyone who comes in contact with them and are magically good at everything they do.

        There’s competence and then there’s pushing the bounds of believability.

  4. I read the entire Murderbot books (devoured them) and somehow came away thinking that Murderbot was a ‘her’ not a ‘him’ — lol. But you’re dead on–the cranky, would rather not be involved, screws-up-but-learns is way more interesting.

    1. Me too. Even though the books are very clear that Murderbot is an it, I persist in hearing their voice as female.

    2. I keep making that mistake. It’s an “it.”
      It’s my obsession for seeing him as Wentworth Miller. Too much Captain Cold in my past.

      Hey, Causey, how are you?

      1. LOL.

        I’m good — isolating like a pro over here. (I think all us hermits are like, “Can this last until 2050?”)

    3. I think that Murderbot has a male body, because if I am building an intimidating weapon, it is going to be shaped like Thor, but with a female voice. It made me think a lot about gender neutrality and transgender and so on, and done in such a subtle way.

      1. I can’t imagine them giving it sexual characteristics–breasts, penis–so “it” is the androgynous way to go, but you can’t help imagining it as you read.

        1. I think the key is that Murderbot doesn’t eat, nor eliminate waste. If it did, it would need the appropriate organs for elimination, which for simplicity might resemble sexual organs. Obviously, no vulva required, and a penis could be vestigial, not needed for penetrating anything. OTOH, could be built like Barbie and Ken in front, the liquid could use the other exit.

          1. That always bothered me about Barbie and Ken. That oblong lump on the front of Ken’s pelvis: I had a little brother. I had a reasonable idea of what was supposed to be there.

            Yet, when I was 11 or 12, I and my girlfriends made B&K have sex. Why are on-the-cusp-of-adolescence girls kinky? Or was it just us?

          2. It says pretty clearly that when it has to fake eating, it stashes the chewed food in a lung. Gross.

          3. My Ken doll was a ROUGE. Definitely would have done jail time or been the unliked villain in Cabot Cove and Mrs Fletcher would solve the murder but not tell the detective and let the killer go. Because my Ken was bad to the bone. I mean nub.

    4. Hey Toni. I’ve wondered how your rehab in the French Quarter ended up? Ignore me if it is something you don’t want to talk about.

      1. We got about 3/4ths done, and then I had the year from hell. Someone very close to me had a crime committed against them that hurt them badly, (I can’t mention it online), and there was a lot I needed to do to help; and then my parents lost everything in the flood that happened three months later. Then three months after that, I was diagnosed with a rare auto-immune illness… which just got worse and worse until they hospitalized me and basically said, “yeah, you almost died.” We had slowed down in between, but that brought it full stop.

        Fortunately, a new doctor had just transferred in the month before the hospitalization and he is *phenomenal* and from Johns Hopkins and was friends with the ONE doctor who had done the only major study into my Myasthenia Gravis, and they had a potential… fix. Still on-going.

        All that to say, we’re not in a big hurry, though I would love to get the rest done. I’ve got lots of plans and things stockpiled. I think we’ll be able to get back to it seriously by fall.

        When I get done (I refuse to say ‘if’), I’ll post some photos.

    5. They’re a them – their pronouns are they, them, theirs, they’re non-binary, and not human. A Person, and entity, but not a human.

    6. Yes, I just had a violently visceral NO HE FOR MURDERBOT NO response to this post. I use she, I probably should use they.

        1. In that interview you linked to with Murderbot and ART they were asked their pronouns and said they were an “it”, but in my head I get a female vibe. I think it’s interesting how different people interpret the characters in different ways.

  5. I liked the Ishmael Wang books, but I had low expectations for internal drama or conflict when reading them. Yes, the main character is unrealistic. Reading the series is like eating cotton candy. And every now and then, I want cotton candy.

    I really liked Martha Wells earlier series as well. Murder bot is the best, but try The Fall of Ile Rien too. First book in the series is “The Wizard Hunters.” I loved it. Tremaine is a glorious imperfect character. I’ve reread the series almost as often as Murderbot.

    1. me too!! And the Raksura hit a sweet spot for a friend who needed high stakes adventure that had nothing to do with their own current life.

  6. This post makes me think of Bujold’s Vokosigan saga. I have read all the Miles books more times than I can count, and I love that she gave Ivan his own book because I always thought he was under appreciated. But I’ve never cared for the first two that were Aral and Cordelia’s stories. Aral was a little too perfect, and Cordelia came across as rather smug. If I had read those first, I might never have tried the rest, and my life would have been sadly lacking without the little admiral. Miles is flawed all over the place, but at heart a good guy who garners a lot of loyalty and definitely arcs through the course of the series.

    My question is, do you have the same standard for video as you do with a book? I ask because I think maybe I read/view for different things. Or maybe its harder to arc a character in a tv series and still keep your audience interested.

    1. I think so. There’s a lot of video commentary on this blog, and I think I’ve always gone for the flawed protagonist: Nate from Leverage, Sam from Life on Mars, definitely the women on PoI. I thought the big problem with Grimm was that Nick was such a Good Guy. Then they gave him some rage and everything got better.

      I’m looking at Venom right now in terms of the first three HWSWA topics, and I’m definitely using the same criteria for that movie that I do for books.

    2. That’s really interesting to me, because I find Cordelia really compelling, and it took me a while to warm up to Miles.

  7. Hahahaha. You just “Write another damn book, Cruisie” at Martha Wells.

    Beyond that, I got nuthin. I’ve stagnated on cleaning out the classroom hoard. So am a tad sad/disappointed/demoralised – dunno.

  8. I’ve become rather addicted to R.J. Bain’s Magical Romance Comedy (with a body count) series. Some of them have more of a plot than others do. A recent novella (or short story) has no plot; it has amusing aspects, but not her best. The two that have plots (with some hanging threads, but who’s perfect?) and flawed characters are quite fun, but I basically like them all. Magical creatures, divine beings from all pantheons, angels, the devil (yes, *the* devil — he appears in several of the books). Totally entertaining. The two with the most plot are Hoofin’ It and Whatever for Hire. For an intro to the world, there’s Playing With Fire, which has a fire-breathing unicorn in it.

    Two more comfort reads: Changeling Sea by Patricia McKillip (just bought ebook bc paperback is in storage) and The Forgettable Miss French by Kristen Painter — a rather original story. In both of these books, the mc isn’t especially flawed, they just have to learn a lot. In interesting ways. Magic all over the place. Sea serpent, lake serpent, mage, curse …. And not heavy. Not dark. I don’t read dark books. I don’t read *realistic* (i.e., like real life) books, unless it’s by mistake because I’ve had a helluva a lot of real life in the last several years and I don’t have room for any more. It’s not that everything I read is all sweetness and light, it’s that they have HEAs and I don’t have an anxiety attack while reading the. That’s key.

  9. Georgette has always been my comfort read, to the point that I know them SO well that they don’t work quite as well as they once did.

    But I am understanding your definition of “too much comfort” as “no conflict” or perhaps “no growth”. The “no growth” thing is a deal breaker for something I am going to bond with on a deep level. One of the reasons the really good Dick Francis books are good – people change and grow and learn about themselves, not just best the bad guy. Why Kathleen Gilles Seidel books are good comfort reads – very believable growth. In fact, I can’t think of a real comfort read that isn’t essentially about transformation – with some humor.

    1. That’s a good point. If there’s no growth, then the events of the story didn’t have enough of an impact on the protagonist to inspire change.

  10. Then we get to the topic of favourite reads v comfort reads. Probably not quite comforting, but so satisfying by the end that they’re worth the challenges on the way (and we’ve read them before so they can’t freak us out too much). I tend to become obsessive in my interests, so stand alones rarely do it for me when it comes to a great, big favourite binge. I’m talking all summer long bingeing, not the serial stuff we indulge in for the rest of the year.

    The Night’s Dawn Trilogy by Peter F Hamilton, Space opera, spectacular growth of the main players, cast of thousands, unfortunately, because of the genre there’s a heap of scene setting and technology stuff to wade through. Every time I reread I’m astonished again by the scope of it, the concept is, um, out there, brilliant, thought provoking? I don’t know. Definitely not everyone’s cup of tea and I haven’t read it in a while, maybe it’s shit now I’m almost 50? This is why I never suggest things! What if someone hates it and picks it apart and ruins it for me forever?

    Anyhoo, back on topic. As a younger woman (late teens and such) I read David Eddings. As a proper adult, he pisses me off because everything goes well. Our heroes are always at least two steps ahead and it’s just bland.

    I’m going to blame the good drugs for my unusual garrulousness and I’m off to ignore my toothache some more.

    Love you all

  11. Please, please please consider giving Ilona Andrews’ Innkeeper series a shot. Or if you want something short, their novella Silver Shark. Major comfort/competency porn rereads for me. I know that I sound like a broken record, but they are one of the few authors I recommend broadly reguardless of genre (Jennifer Crusie is the other go to, along with Forthright) and always get good results for.

    They are short, with humor and a strong central character who makes mistakes but follows her moral compass. Also lots of intergalactic diplomacy and housekeeping, which I enjoy.

    1. Ditto, Lupe. And Silver Shark is a comfort read for me, too. Innkeeper is much more of a comfort-read series than her other series’.

    2. I believe IA has an omnibus collection of the first 3 novellas on sale still for 99 cents!

    3. I think I might have read the first one. Clean Sweep? It was good but I didn’t look for the next one. No idea why.

      1. There are now three mainline, one about Dina’s sister that follows the third one, then a holiday novella. Sigh. So satisfying.

      2. I think that they get better as they go, more polished. The first one was written as a free serial experiment and then they really started to figure out who their characters were and dig into them, build them up. Maude and Helen are fabulous, if you don’t mind the space vampires. I know the seemingly silly kitchen sink style bothers some people.

  12. I think Jennifer/Nennifer and jenny hit upon why I was struggling with what i though would be a good book. I had a book from a series that had always made me laugh. I was feeling that it had become threadbare, though. However, I read one (in the late teens) that made me think “this was what I loved about the series – it’s closer to what I remembered about the first ones I loved.” But, with time and distance, the book that I have now, just one or two beyond, is a real struggle for me to get into. I really wanted this to be mu summer beach read (although I’m never really at a beach in the summer, much less this summer.) But I just can’t seem to push myself into it.
    I realize this is an expanded re-hash of yesterday’s comments, but the character-arc is something I really need. I thought familiarity and a cast of familiar characters would be enough. But it isn’t.

  13. I’ve been giving up on books when I realize that the plot is `the main character is always right!’. I had me a little wonder about whether this is a response to increasing anxiety of YA readers, but then I remembered that I used to think of it as the Menolly Disease of plots. Everyone who criticized her was Bad, everyone who liked her was Right.

    Usually this is just dull, but there’s a series that started out well and then in the fourth book declared another important character a parricide just to point up that the protagonist’s only flaw was in not believing he was universally loved. I have deleted those, and they started so well.

      1. I loved her anyway. Well, I haven’t read her in about 20 years or so. But I loved her then. The newer ones are not good.

        1. I have dusted off my old ones to try to have a virtual reading time with my nephew. I couldn’t interest my kids in them, although my oldest still plays Nancy Drew games on her computer (she may have read one or two books but I still have many of the ones I collected.)
          Anyway, I’ve been curious to revisit them. I didn’t re-read them as a child, actually, but I would tear through them pretty quickly.

  14. Reminds me of a book, it wasn’t great so I won’t mention the title. The best bit was the hero describing his former fiancee. He was the heir to a powerful organisation. He had been matched with her via a matchmaking site. And she was perfect, she was everything he wanted in terms of interests, personality etc her background made her acceptable to his family and she and his mother started planning the wedding. Only he wasn’t happy and he didn’t know why, then discrepancies started turning up in her past and he was actually glad there might be flaws. Only when he mentioned them to her, she tried to poison him. Oh well at least she wasn’t boring. No one should be perfect all the time. People assemble a team of people they trust around them, they don’t wake up with one they trust, Things can always go well for them, but without adversity they aren’t tested and when things don’t go well for them they could crack like an egg

  15. I’ve read and reread the David Eddings Belgarion/Mallorean series, and keep going back. The characters grow and change, there’s always a scene that makes me laugh out loud, others that make me chortle. It’s fun to reread, knowing the outcome, and pick up on elements I hadn’t noticed before.

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