Posted in book reviews

A Semi-Definite List of Worst Nightmares – Krystal Sutherland

Ever since Esther Solar’s grandfather was cursed by Death, everyone in her family has been doomed to suffer one great fear in their lifetime. Esther’s father is agoraphobic and hasn’t left the basement in six years, her twin brother can t be in the dark without a light on, and her mother is terrified of bad luck.

The Solars are consumed by their fears and, according to the legend of the curse, destined to die from them.

Esther doesn’t know what her great fear is yet (nor does she want to), a feat achieved by avoiding pretty much everything. Elevators, small spaces, and crowds are all off-limits. So are haircuts, spiders, dolls, mirrors and three dozen other phobias she keeps a record of in her semi-definitive list of worst nightmares.

Then Esther is pickpocketed by Jonah Smallwood, an old elementary school classmate. Along with her phone, money and a fruit roll-up she d been saving, Jonah also steals her list of fears. Despite the theft, Esther and Jonah become friends, and he sets a challenge for them: in an effort to break the curse that has crippled her family, they will meet every Sunday of senior year to work their way through the list, facing one terrifying fear at a time, including one that Esther hadn’t counted on: love.

 

Thank you to Netgalley & the publisher for this in exchange for an honest opinion!

I was considering putting a quotation at the beginning of this review but I highlighted so, so, so much while reading this novel that I wouldn’t know what one to pick. I love Krystal Sutherland’s writing style. Her dialogue is witty and painfully honest. The characters feel honest and it’s easy to connect – for example, Esther’s casual inner commentary like “well, this isn’t going to go great,” just felt so honest, and real. I don’t really know how to explain – but it gave Esther such a strong voice. Sometimes it almost read like reading a recap of an event from a friend.

Once again, much like with Our Chemical Hearts, I like the way mental health is discussed. It isn’t romanticised at all, but rather shown to be a real and painful thing that effects everyone in different ways, but all of it horrible. It shows that you shouldn’t be afraid to speak about it but this novel deals with the fears of coming out with it.

I do think sometimes though it felt a bit dismissive – it was constant questioning of “do they have mental health issues? Is this a magic realist world? Should I be concerned she believes in this stuff?”

So yeah. I don’t think the line between it was always clear. Turns out, this does have some paranormal elements?? I think?? Like I said – I’m still not really sure and I’m not sure how to feel about that. I’m one of those people with books like these that I want it to be defined – is this actually elements of the paranormal or just straight contemporary with a “wacky” character?

That’s also what’s great about this – the book kind of makes fun of itself. Several times Esther is called out because of how she is a “special snowflake” and she admits she wants to be one. While this is only a small dig at itself, because in the end it becomes to have a much greater relevance and heavier meaning towards plot/character development towards the end of the novel.

“You being scared of cornfields and alines doesn’t make you some special snowflake.
Everyone’s fear sounds the same in their head.”

“How dare you, I am a special snowflake.”

Everything did tie in nicely. I don’t feel like anything was added as a “filler” and that in the end everything made sense. You could see the links connecting things together.

On the other hand, I think more of these “links” should have been explored further. I.e the absentee parents and domestic abuse. Yes, this was semi-resolved towards the end and the realisation that “parents are human too” I feel like it should’ve had more to it.

There’s a lot of interesting discussions in this novel. There’s the obvious ones about mental health and how it can take over your life, and how people just want to fix it for you, but it’s not always that easy etc. But it also takes on interesting discussions about fear and what it means to live.

“It’s like a broken bone, you know? You can’t keep walking on it and expect it to heal.”

“Is this the surreptitious Esther Solar acknowledging the existence of mental illness and not just behaving like I’m cursed?”

That’s also what I love about this: the views uttered by the characters on mental health and how to deal aren’t always perfect. They can say harmful things and their outlook can sometimes be negative and wrong, but the great thing about this is the character development. These then negative opinions have been challenged / developed and I think that’s a beautiful thing. It’s showing that even if you’ve got it wrong before you have the chance to listen and to learn and to grow. The novel does this without ever feeling preachy.

Overall, I really liked it and I’m a definite fan of Krystal Sutherland.

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