The Premise (from NetGalley): Esther Solar’s family is . . . unusual. Her father hasn’t left the basement in six years. Her brother is terrified of darkness. Esther isn’t afraid of anything – because she avoids pretty much everything. But when Esther is pickpocketed by her cocky old classmate Jonah Walker, Esther and Jonah become friends. Jonah sets a challenge: every week they must work their way through the world’s fifty most common phobias. Skydiving, horse riding, beekeeping, public speaking, reptilehouses – they plan to do it all. Soon their weekly foray into fear becomes the only thing that keeps them tethered to reality, and to each other. But each is keeping a secret from the other – a secret that threatens to rip them apart.
Thoughts: this book grabbed me from the beginning with its cast of eccentric characters and their various quirks. There’s a really intriguing backstory related through flashbacks in which Esther recalls the family curse which led to everyone being so affected by their phobias; I can’t think of another book in which the grandfather character encounters Death in human form during the Vietnam War, to be specific, and so this was another brilliantly original element to the book. As I mention often on this blog, I am slightly obsessed with books about dysfunctional families and that’s a mild way to describe the Solars; Sutherland executes a clever and abrupt shift in tone during the book, as, initially, the focus is on Esther’s eye-rolling coping mechanisms when dealing with her relatives, before events become more serious and potentially tragic. It caught me off-guard, which is an effect that usually guarantees my enjoyment of a book.
Honestly, though, the quirks of each character did become a little much towards the end; initially, I liked that Esther always wears costumes, particularly given that one of them is Matilda Wormwood, but after a while it felt a little self-consciously weird. As in so many YA novels, I also became quite frustrated with her parents. Yes, they have serious problems, but, as a mum, I find my well of sympathy closed off to fictional parents who don’t address their issues for the sake of their children.
In Conclusion: a different and unique YA novel, populated by characters who are both funny and tragic, A Semi Definitive List of Worst Nightmares is a book I’m glad to have come across. It becomes a bit more generic as elements of the plot resolve themselves, but there’s plenty here to set it apart. It is worth noting that there are some mental illness triggers in the book, particularly concerning depression, anxiety and self-harm.