Book Review – “A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares” by Krystal Sutherland


Semi-DefinitiveAs a general rule, I try not to judge books by their covers, or even by their synopses. I’ve found that typically, neither one can fully capture the essence of a book, which is of course understandable and expected. Having said that, I admit that I initially judged A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares by its cover, to the extent that I put it down without even bothering to read the synopsis at first. The cover is a somewhat cutesy lilac color – not quite what I would have chosen for a story about mental illness, murder, and fear. And what with the disembodied skeleton arm holding a purple orchid and the stereotypical black cat staring out from the bottom, it all just felt like a desperate attempt to cutely convey that THIS BOOK IS SPOOKY.

Once again, though, the old adage has proven true – you can’t judge a book by its cover. This book is much darker than one would think at first glance. The story centers around the Solar family curse, which leads each member of the Solar clan to their own unique death via one major fear (i.e. developing a fear of germs and ultimately dying of a common cold). But there are also heavier themes explored in the book, including severe and debilitating mental illness, rape, murder, neglect, and physical abuse. Had I given into my natural instinct to steer clear of a book with a cover like this one, I never would have discovered this strange and delightful story.

Esther Solar is a quirky, costume-wearing teenager whose family curse has been the stuff of legend for decades, and has set the family quite apart from the rest of society. The curse originated with her grandfather Reginald, a retired detective who is now deteriorating rapidly due to dementia, but whose stories about the curse have plagued the family for a long time. As the family legend goes, Reg met Death himself during the Vietnam War, with Death disguised as a soldier on the battlefield. This “man who would be Death” was just an apprentice reaper at the time, and divulged that Reg would die of drowning. So, convinced that he has been cursed by Death, Reg survives the war but avoids water for the rest of his life, and plants the fear of the curse into his own children and grandchildren.

Now suffering under the curse are Esther’s brother, who is a depressive artist-type with a deathly fear of the dark, her agoraphobic father, who has not left their basement for six years, and her mother, who obsessively gambles and fears bad luck enough that she’s surrounded the family house with rabbits, charms, and a “lucky” rooster. Esther hasn’t discovered her own worst fear, nor does she ever plan to. She creates the titular “Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares” which lists every single thing she is afraid of (many of which seem to come from her screenings of various scary movies), and naturally aims to avoid everything on said list because each item might end up being her undoing. However, after she is charmed and then hilariously pickpocketed by her childhood friend Jonah Smallwood, the two forge a somewhat unlikely bond and start facing Esther’s fears together, one by one, so that fear doesn’t take hold of and destroy her life.

This book flirts with some magical realism, which I always love in a story. Did Esther’s grandfather Reg really know Death as a real person? Does her brother Eugene really flicker in and out of vision/existence? Is her mother’s rooster really a goblin? There are lots of oddities in this book that strain credibility in that wonderfully magical way. There is also a pretty cute love story between Jonah and Esther, and much of the book is centered around them conquering and documenting Esther’s fears together, falling in love in the process. However, I found that the real meat of the book had to do with one of the central questions presented: Does the Solar family misfortune truly lie in the mystical, or is it simply a result of their shared and inherited mental illness?

Having been raised in a family fraught with generations of mental illness, but also raised with an unspoken, innate belief in the extraordinary, I connected with this book almost immediately. I wanted to see where the author would take such a story. Part murder mystery, part love story, part exploration of mental illness, and part commentary on the nature of belief, the book treads all kinds of ground very gracefully. Though it sounds convoluted, the story is actually pretty straightforward, and it’s compelling to boot, told in a way that doesn’t give away every plot point. Finding my way along with Esther, I too constantly wondered what was real and what wasn’t, not knowing if the fantastical happenings were truly inexplicable, or if they were just the result of garden-variety mental illness and family mythology run amok.

Although the ending is a little more outlandish than I would have liked (I preferred the ambiguity of not knowing if the fantastical elements were real or not), I found the conclusion to be satisfying, and the revelation of Esther’s fate to be appropriate, if a little on the silly side.


Final Impression:  

All in all, two thumbs up. I’m glad I ended up buying this one on a whim because, cover and all, it definitely deserves its place on the shelf.


Recommended For:

Fans of darker stories with a comic twist, and those who enjoy magical elements in a book. Also for those who can tolerate some mild but definitely off-putting descriptions of child/teen abuse and child murders.


Book Specifics:

Author: Krystal Sutherland

Publish Date: 2017

Publisher: Penguin Random House

Genre: YA Fiction

Format: Paperback

Pages: 349

ISBN / ISBN13: 9780399546600

US Price: $10.99


Book Review – “The Mistress of Spices” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

the-mistress-of-spicesI originally happened upon the movie adaptation of The Mistress of Spices a few years ago while perusing a going-out-of-business sale at my local Blockbuster (R.I.P.). I liked the film well enough that when I later visited the Half Price Books that is just a few doors down from that now-defunct Blockbuster, I saw the novel and snatched it right up. I knew it couldn’t be bad; the book is almost always better than the movie, right?

Of course. Both versions have their own merits, but I can honestly say that the book is so different from, and much better than, the movie.

The story revolves around Tilo, a woman who has basically lived a few vastly different lives within her short existence. Each phase of her life is so unique that she adopts a new name upon each transition, although I find it hard to remember any but “Tilo” since that is the name she uses for the longest time. She is born into an unremarkable family, but with the innate power to grant wishes. Her gift makes her family the most powerful one in the village, attracting the attention of some vicious pirates. They eventually burn her village to the ground and kidnap her, yet she becomes their pirate princess in time, taking on a new name. Eventually borne away from the pirates as well, not-yet-Tilo lands on a mysterious island and learns how to manipulate spices from an ancient crone called the First Mother. When we first meet her, she is already in what is basically her third incarnation – Tilo, a mistress of spices who has just woken up in a magically constructed shop, inhabiting the body of an old lady and communing with spices in order to help people.

Tilo does her best to cater to everyone who comes into her shop, letting the spices speak to and guide her in helping abused wives and unhappy, bullied children. She never leaves the confines of her shop, but is happy knowing that she is living a life of service, and will never want for anything. However, her whole world is turned upside down when a beautiful American man comes into the shop, seemingly able to see past the old lady facade to Tilo’s true self. Oooooh!

Now, I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about the movie version. It skips over some of the major plot points in the book, and while that’s not unexpected, it’s a little annoying. The star of the movie is the beautiful, young Aishwarya Rai – already a huge departure from the book, since Tilo is supposed to be a young woman trapped in an old lady’s body…. Thanks, Entertainment Industry. I mean, the movie is good, and if you want to see it, I’m sure you can find it somewhere. It’s fluffy and light and doesn’t capture the depth or beauty of the book, but it’s an enjoyable watch nevertheless.

I’ve only read one other book by the very prolific Ms. Divakaruni – Sister of My Heart – and I remember liking it, but this book is already much more memorable to me. Her writing style is very lyrical and sensual, and the manner in which she weaves the real world with the mystical one is reminiscent of Isabel Allende. The imagery in The Mistress of Spices is so incredibly rich and colorful, I can still see Tilo riding on the backs of sea serpents, sassing the First Mother during her magical spice training on a remote island, summoning the courage to go against the spices’ wishes in order to fulfill her own, scooping out mounds of turmeric, packaging up fennel seeds for a customer, and even standing nude, clutching a single red chili as the walls of her shop tumble down. So many images continue to reverberate in my mind, which to me is the sign of some seriously imaginative storytelling.

I also find Divakaruni’s approach to the immigrants’ stories fascinating. The entire book is populated with immigrants, mostly Indian families living in California. The struggles and horrors that I imagine many non-native people face in America are fleshed out in agonizing detail through the people that Tilo meets and helps. To be sure, there is no glossing over bullying, racism, and violence here. I had to close the book a few times because I was so upset by these fictional people’s very real experiences. But just as the awful experiences are laid out in detail here, so are the joyful, lovely, and loving moments. I became so invested in the characters that watching them fall in love, narrowly escape terrible situations, and find their own personal versions of happiness truly felt like such a triumph. I eagerly plowed through the last few chapters to see if this character had managed to leave her abusive husband, or if that one had found his way out of gang life. I felt like I knew them and only wanted the best things to happen in their lives.

The central love story involving Tilo is pretty compelling as well. Her struggle to reconcile her past choices with her wishes for the future makes up much of the book, and that struggle is so relatable. As Tilo begins to grapple with this newfound love and what it might mean for her lifestyle, she finds herself becoming less in tune with the spices (less objectively magical) and more human. Yikes, haven’t we all been there – trying to hold on to our personal truths while becoming engulfed in something/someone else. This was probably the most accessible part of the story for me, if only because I often get consumed with things (typically my working life and how much I hate the daily 8-5 grind) and only remember who I am and why I’m here in snippets. Tilo’s ability to balance it all and stay true to herself to the end was inspiring for me. Basically, this book spoke to me on another level, which, in my opinion, is what good writing is meant to do.

All in all, this is a wonderful and engaging book. It will remain on my shelf, until I loan it out to any friends in need of a richly detailed, satisfying story.


Recommended For:

Fans of Isabel Allende and/or magical realism. And those who, like me, enjoy the story so much that they can’t quite bring themselves to give movie adaptations away . . . even if they are a little inferior.

The Mistress of Spices Movie