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Bookbed reviews ‘A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares’ by Krystal Sutherland

BY KB MENIADO

I don’t want to blame my superstitious upbringing for my irrational fears but my best bet is that it plays about 30% of why I experience anxiety. (I am not clinically diagnosed, but feelings of constant worry and fear are there. They are valid, and yours are, too.) Clipping nails at night? A big NO—somebody will get sick and possibly die. Pass by a hearse? Throw coins and/or blow your horn to avoid bad luck. Woke up from a nightmare? Bite your pillow and bite wood thrice. The list goes on, but I assure you, it’s commonplace here in the Philippines to have many of these so-called weird beliefs so I’m not exactly a snowflake. A lot of us lead our lives with these strange practices.

Just like Esther Solar.

THE STORY

Ever since Esther Solar’s grandfather met Death, her entire family has been doomed to suffer one great fear in their lifetime—a fear that will eventually lead each and every one of them to their graves. Take Esther’s father, for instance: He’s an agoraphobe who hasn’t left the basement in six years. Then there’s her twin brother, Eugene, whose fear of the dark goes far beyond the things that go bump in the night. And her mother, Rosemary, is absolutely terrified of bad luck.

As for Esther, she’s managed to escape the curse…so far. She doesn’t yet have a great fear because she avoids pretty much everything. Elevators, small spaces, crowds—anything that might trigger a phobia is off-limits and is meticulously recorded in her semi-definitive list of worst nightmares. 

Esther thinks she has it all figured out, until she’s reunited with an old elementary school classmate—and first crush—Jonah Smallwood. The encounter leaves her stranded at a bus stop and swindled out of her phone, all her cash, a Fruit Roll-Up she’d been saving, and her list—not to mention her dignity. But the theft is also the beginning of an unexpected friendship between the two, one that sends the pair on a journey of self-discovery as they try to break the curse that’s consumed Esther’s family. Together they face their greatest fears, one debilitating phobia at a time, only to discover the one fear they hadn’t counted on: love.
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WHAT I LIKED

The blurb is impeccable, and the cover art looks glorious… which kind of scared me at first because I’ve had moments before when I fell in love with the ‘packaging’ and then later, ended up rating the book so low on Goodreads instead. With this one, I’m pleased to report that the content is just as good, if not even better.

Now, this is my first Krystal Sutherland book, and I’m impressed. (You, Aussie writers, you.) The writing is rich in description and also kills it with the dialogues. Even though I prefer first-person POV in YA lit, I was swept into the third-person perspective and thought it was the most effective way to tell this story of family, mental health and death. I say that, because there are more than two subplots in this novel, and it wouldn’t have been told as thoroughly and efficiently had there been a one-sided narrator.

When I say ‘more than two subplots’, I’m saying that I found layers in this story that I didn’t expect. I especially enjoyed three parts: one about Eugene (Esther’s twin), one on Heph (Esther’s BFF) and one on The Man Who Would Be Death. While some would argue these were subplots were not fleshed out as much, I still appreciate how these characters were woven into what could have been a linear story about teens conquering their fears. (Spoiler alert! Highlight succeeding text to read.) The author could have straight out written about Esther and Jonah creating a YouTube channel, filming how they overcome Fears #1-50.  The author succeeds in telling one story, packed with great adventure, to send across multiple messages that might just be helpful for some readers.

Speaking of helpful, I liked how this was a mental health book that dealt more with solutions, rather than the internalization. I’m not saying those with the latter are not good in any way, or that I don’t love them (mulling about my anxiety is something I also tend to do A LOT)—just that, this is a refreshing way to see how people ‘fight’ for themselves.

To those who enjoy pop culture references, there are quite a number of mentions of books (Harry Potter, for one), TV shows and films. Lots of lists, too, which eliminated the ‘boredom’ of blocks and blocks of text.

HOWEVER

The romance between Esther and Jonah had its ups and downs. There were times I felt like (Spoiler alert! Highlight succeeding text to read.) Esther should just stay the heck away from Jonah, especially that he did a few questionable things in the course of their friendship and courtship, and that Jonah was better off as a best friend than a love interest.

tl;dr

A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares by Krystal Sutherland tackles mental health issues through fresh and exciting adventures. Recommended to those who enjoy reading about the concept of overcoming and a little bit of magic realism. ☁

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