A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares, by Krystal Sutherland

I added this book to my to-read list as soon as I first learned of it, and as soon as it was available at a local library, I checked it out. I’m going to start by saying that I absolutely loved this book, and then I’m going to present a semi-definitive list of awesome reasons I loved it.

– The title, cover, and book description. The title really stands out. The cover, with its pasted-on words and only a few key images, intrigued me. But the book description hooked me. A family cursed to die of their great fears? I love me some YA fantasy / magical realism! A girl trying to ward off the curse by creating the titular list and avoid all those fears? Well, that’s one of the best MacGuffins I’ve ever heard of, and I couldn’t wait to learn how it triggers the plot.

– The writing style. Every page of this book either made me chuckle, made me think, or made me cry. Not going to spoil anything, so I’ll focus on the chuckling. There are many pop-culture and literary references in the dialogue and in the descriptions of people and places and objects, and to someone who knew a solid majority of them, it only enhanced the experience and the visualization of the experience. When, on p. 43 of the hardcover book, author Sutherland described someone as the love child of Tim Burton and Wes Anderson, I started imagining the book as a movie co-directed by them; it’s totally up their alleys.

– The characters. They are all quirky and flawed and passionate about something and real like in a Wes Anderson movie. Main character Esther Solar—she of the titular list—is vulnerable and brave, and definitely worth rooting for. Partner in crime Jonah Smallwood is initially sketchy but overall charming, with complex layers that get peeled back as the story—and his relationship with Esther—progresses. Rounding out the group are Esther’s twin brother Eugene and mute friend Hephzibah, and just the fact that there’s a contemporary character named Hephzibah is another reason I loved this book. Even Esther’s family members—her obsessive casino patron mother, her basement-dwelling agoraphobic father, and her kindly but tortured grandfather—leave an impact. And then there’s the enigmatic Jack Horowitz…

– The magical realism. Esther’s family has been cursed by Death himself. I’m always intrigued by stories that personify Death, especially if it’s done in a new and unique way. Well, here it is. When Esther and Jonah start eliminating the potential nightmares from her list, she hopes that she’ll find Death to have him break the curse. I’m always willing to suspend disbelief and enter fantasy or magical realism if the writing is solid, and it is in this book. At the end—without revealing any spoilers—I really like that there are multiple interpretations of this fantasy element.

– The imagery. I’ve already praised the vivid descriptions of people, places, and objects. But here, I’ll go on a more metaphorical level. There’s a recurring motif of water and drowning that, though not always subtle, worked on multiple levels. Water has the power to cleanse and the power to destroy. Can Esther wash away her fears and the curse? Or will she, and her other family members, be consumed by them?

– The important theme. Yes, you can take this book at face value for what it says about facing your fears. Esther and Jonah embark on a 50-week journey for her to confront all the items on her list, no matter how unexpected they may be. I could mock her listed fear of geese, but that would be hypocritical because I have my own fear of squirrels. But more importantly, the book tackles a variety of mental illnesses: anxiety, depression, and obsession. This book isn’t shy about them, and it never stigmatizes them—and I respect the book and author Sutherland all the more for that. At the end, both Esther in the world of the book and this book in our reality have accomplished a lot that has the power to help a lot of people. That’s something powerful and important.

There you have it, my semi-definitive list of reasons to read A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares, which I most definitively give FIVE STARS.

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A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares is available at Amazon.

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