Friday, May 8, 2020

10 Books That Will Stomp All Over Your Emotions and Have You Begging for More

It's been a while since I've done one of these wrap-up posts. My current read, LIFE LINES, is about an American woman who comes to Germany in the 1970s and experiences culture shock when she realizes just how thoroughly World War II has left its haunting impression on the people there. It got me thinking about this other WWII-era book I read, also with an American coming to Germany, also about culture shock and being haunted by a tragedy that weighs so greatly on the conscience, which got me thinking about all the books that have left their mark on me. Books that were a struggle to get through, not because they were bad, but because of how deeply they made me feel.

During this period of quarantine, I often find myself reaching for a happy book that's a fun or flighty escape, but sometimes you need those sad books-- that terrible, crushing despair reminds you that it's okay to feel powerful emotions, even if they're negative. These are some of my favorite ones so far.

(Tell me about some of your devastating faves in the comments ⬇️)

9. OUTLANDER by Diana Gabaldon
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

Genre: historical/time travel romance

I know what you're thinking. "Nenia, isn't this a romance? Don't those, by definition, have HEAs or HFNs?" Yes, gentle reader-- but that doesn't mean the author won't put their characters through hell and back on the road to getting there, which Gabaldon does with a sadistic glee for torturing her creations that rivals that of George R. R. Martin. Whether it's the controversial beating scene, the gruesome witch trial/witch burning, or that notorious rape and torture scene at the end, OUTLANDER is filled with a number of really emotionally wrenching scenes that make it pretty tough to read, and make it more similar to the cruel bodice-rippers of the 1970s than some of the more gentle contemporaries of its age (Lisa Kleypas, this is not).

8. FORBIDDEN by Tabitha Suzuma
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️

Genre: New adult contemporary

What if FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC was way more disturbing and written in a much more realistic way? This book. Incest is one of those squicky subjects that's really hard to read about for most people but I felt like the book portrayed an interesting dynamic that might foster such an icky arrangement. Lochan and Maya are used to acting as the stand-in for their neglectful mother, parenting their younger siblings and taking care of them when no one else will. But playing house suddenly starts to feel less like a game when Maya develops feelings for her brother and he for her.

I actually argued in my review that Maya is the villain in this book since she is the one who pursues her brother sexually and basically ends up putting him in a series of compromising positions through emotional manipulation. I'm surprised no one else has really discussed this angle, especially with an ominous line towards the end about female abusers. Either this is the best-kept unrealiable narrator secret ever, or I'm just way more jaded than anyone else reading the book. It probably won't surprise you that this doesn't, can't, have a happy ending, and it's probably not what you'd expect, either.

8. LEMONADE by Nina Pinacchi 
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

Genre: Historical romance

Again, a romance? Whaaat? But Nina Pinacchi is another author who loves to torture her characters. I'm going to be totally upfront about why this book is on here: the hero rapes the heroine, and then he ends up feeling totally broken by the act, and tries to grovel when he realizes that he loves her. He has to grovel long and hard. The heroine is also devastated by the act, but understands that she has the moral high ground and (rightfully) despises him for what he's done. The more we read, the more we learn, through flashbacks, about just how disturbed the hero is, and what he's undergone in his past to make him the way he is. It is never really offered up as an excuse, in my opinion. He still needs to prove to the heroine how he's changed and really put himself through the wringer for it.

LEMONADE appears on my 9 Romances Where the Villain Gets the Girl list, as well, but I think it's a good fit here, too. The claustrophobic misery and deep emotions of hero and heroine make this such a compelling read. I've compared it to Hana Yori Dango, but it also kind of reminds me of the TED talk by Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger, which is also a book, in that both beg the question of whether it's possible to forgive the person who wronged you so deeply and what that might entail.

Powerful stuff.

7. THE BOOK OF YOU by Claire Kendal
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

Genre: Thriller

THE BOOK OF YOU is often compared to Caroline Kepnes's book, and while I love both, I think I love THE BOOK OF YOU more because it just really captures the persecution and emotional turmoil of what it's like to be stalked. The heroine is being stalked by a man who took advantage of her while she was drunk and upset, who raped her, and has essentially inserted himself into her life, thinking that they are destined to be together. The more she learns about him, the more sick and depraved he reveals himself to be. Worse still, he's a master manipulator, and manages to make Clarissa come off as paranoid, heartless, and foolish.

I couldn't put this book down. I was desperate to find out what happened, and so frightened of Rafe, who is a fucking creep in all caps. The whole book was like an ingenious Criminal Minds episode, and as I read on, afraid of the ending but desperate to see things to the end, I couldn't help but marvel at how effectively Kendal had Rafe weave his web and how compelling Clarissa's trauma was. This is definitely not a book for the faint of heart, but I'd recommend it to anyone who likes dark thrillers.

6. MY DARK VANESSA by Kate Elizabeth Russell
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

Genre: Literary fiction

Any book that talks about child sexual abuse or pedophilia is going to be a tough read. MY DARK VANESSA was already making waves months before its release to the point where I was like, "Oh my God, is it STILL not out?" As soon as it was, I immediately checked out a copy from the library with tempered expectations, because books that are so overhyped rarely pay off. But this one did... my god.

The heroine, Vanessa, is groomed by her English teacher and they end up in a relationship when she is fifteen. Told in alternating time lines, we see Vanessa as a young teen and as a fully grown woman, and the mark the teacher left on her life. Vanessa is an unreliable narrator for reasons I can't get into because ~spoilers~, but let's just say that the way she views things reveal some deep-seated trauma that cognitive dissonance has led her to try to smooth over, like an oyster with a pearl. It's a tragic, upsetting book with a tragic, upsetting message: there are some emotional wounds so deep that they will change you forever and never heal. The bittersweet ending reflects that accordingly.

My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️

This military boarding school story is no Harry Potter. In fact, it shares many of the same themes as LORD OF THE FLIES as it explores the cruelties young boys can stoop to when enabled or left unchecked. Our hero, William, is asked to serve as a sort of bodyguard/go-to for a young black man accepted to the military school as part of the desegregation process. Which maybe wouldn't be a problem, except for a secret society in the school known as "the 10" known for its brutal (sometimes lethal) hazing, and their upholding of the group-- and the school's-- honor at all costs.

This was my first book by Pat Conroy, but it won't be the last. Friendships are tested. Limits are pushed. Secrets hidden, and revealed. Alliances formed and broken. I wasn't expecting the book to be as harrowing and devastating as it was, but man, there were scenes in here that were brutal. It's not an easy read in any sense of the word, but it's one of the most knuckle-clenching stories I've read.

4. THE TIED MAN by Tabita McGowan
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]

Genre: New adult romance

Usually, I hate new adult romances. At first, I thought I was going to hate this book, too, but it ended up completely winning me over. The heroine is a famous artist who ends up being forced to commission a portrait for a wealthy and reclusive woman who owns an artists' retreat of sorts. Once there, she learns that the woman (who is older) has a young lover her own age. At first, he seems like a hedonistic gigolo, but then she learns that he's essentially a prisoner.

Readers, this book has essentially ALL the trigger warnings. If you can think of a trigger, this book has it. Drug use, sexual abuse, physical abuse, child sexual abuse-- all of it. And yet, the way it's written, it comes across as feeling very believable, even though it's written in the same breathless, soapy tone as one of the V.C. Andrews originals. I read through this book so quickly, desperate for an HEA, because the hero and heroine connect as friends first, before they become lovers, which makes you that much more invested in their burgeoning relationship and its outcome.

3. KINDRED by Octavia Butler
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]


Genre: historical fiction/time travel

I almost feel like anything I say about this book will downplay how seriously amazing it is. The black heroine ends up time traveling-- totally by accident, every time she incurs injury-- back into the times of slavery where she ends up on the plantation owned by her white ancestor. It is, without a doubt, one of the most glaringly realistic portrayals of slavery times I have ever read and it does not pull any punches. When I put this book down, I felt drained. This is like OUTLANDER without the romance; just a really in-depth, unromanticized look at a time period where people were treated horrendously.

2. THE LAST INNOCENT HOUR by Margot Abbott
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️]  


Genre: historical fiction

This is another book where less is more, although I will take a moment to humble brag and say that everyone I've recommended this book to has loved it. That said, it is not a book for everyone. This is a story about an American woman who is investigating the perpetrators of war crimes during WWII, and while identifying faces, comes across one that might be her German ex-husband. The POV then shifts to first person, with her as a young girl and the daughter of the American ambassador to Germany, falling in love with this young man who once captured her with his beauty and cleverness before slowly becoming entrenched in the Nazi party. It is a dark story of corruption, lies, grief, abuse, and hideous crimes of humanity. There is a love story in it, but it is a love story that ends up festering, as the heroine becomes disenchanted with her husband's actions, and terrified of what is happening to the country she used to love. There is no HEA. The ending is devastating.

That said, I think this is a story that will stay with me forever.

1. A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara
My Goodreads review: [⭐️]
My blog review: [⭐️

This is a book that people either seem to love or hate and I totally understand why people hate it. I actually tried to read this two times before finishing. The first time, when I received a copy of this as an ARC, I had a panic attack during one of the scenes of medical gore and had to stop. Like THE TIED MAN, this is a book with all the triggers. If you can conceive of it, it exists. I don't think I've ever read a story where the main character has this much shit piled on them. Like, even George R. R. Martin (whoops, penny in the jar) would shake his head and say, "Madam, this is far too much."

Jude's slow and grueling story is held over for the reader for a while as we first see him through his friends. We know something horrible has happened to him but don't know what... until we do. I cried. Several times. I just felt so bad for this character who experienced all these terrible things, and how he never, ever managed to catch a fucking break. It was so hard to read, and then having it end miserably just seemed to be a giant middle finger to the reader. So yeah, I understand the people who read this and felt betrayed, hoping that maybe this character would heal and have a happy ending.

I get why it doesn't, though. Some people don't get happy endings, and that's a reflection of our messed up society, and the way institutions can facilitate abuse and let those with serious psychiatric and physical ailments just slip through the cracks. It's horrible. This book is horrible. It's beautifully written and reminds me of Donna Tartt in terms of its epic scope, but man, is it b l e a k.

I actually left a note inside with a list of the trigger warnings because I'm never affected by anything (steel heart, baby), but this book was too much the first time around, and it was only with forewarned is forearmed attitude that I was able to get through it the second time. I hoped that the note would maybe help whoever picked it up from the used bookstore I donated to, because the trigger warnings in this book are NO JOKE. Books like these are why trigger warnings are so necessary.

So those are my top 10 books that are miserable favorites. They're bleak and miserable, but all of them are beautifully written with great stories, and I'd recommend to anyone in a heartbeat who is looking for that kind of despairing, gloomy, densely atmospheric vibe.

What books have you read that will haunt you for life? Let me know in the comments below!

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