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

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Book Review – “Carry On” by Rainbow Rowell

Carry OnI was reading the staff review of Carry On at my favorite local bookstore the other day, and the staffer who wrote their own little synopsis captured the twisty back story of this book so perfectly. This entire book review, like the staff member’s synopsis, is a little wacky, so bear with me. The synopsis basically said something about this book being fan fiction based on fan fiction that was originally fan fiction. Accurate, I think…. Carry On was originally conceived as fan fiction by the main character in Rainbow Rowell’s novel Fangirl. The (fake) Harry Potter-esque series in Fangirl was a favorite of the main character Cath, and so she writes her own spinoff fan fiction called “Carry On, Simon.” That fan fiction is actually fleshed out in this book, but Cath isn’t the author of the actual novel Carry On, Rainbow Rowell is, so I guess technically Rowell wrote fan fiction about her own fan-fiction? Whew.

Although I did read Fangirl before Carry On, there is no real need to have read one before the other – this novel can stand on its own. Carry On is about an orphaned “chosen one” named Simon Snow, the strongest magician ever born and consequently the only hope for the “magickal” world. This world is currently besieged by enemies without and within. There is a civil war a-brewing among magickal folks, and on top of that, the magickal world is being attacked by something called The Insidious Humdrum. The Humdrum is a strong, anti-magickal force that eats up magic wherever it appears, leaves nothing in its wake, and just happens to look like Simon did at 11 years old.

The real, 18-year-old Simon can’t really control his magic and is prone to dangerous eruptions. In addition to this, he also struggles with his longtime nemesis and roommate Baz, a Malfoy-esque vampire. He also has to deal with his girlfriend Agatha, who like-likes Baz and yearns to escape the magickal world, his bossy, Hermione-like bff named Penelope, and a mentor called The Mage who is the head of the magickal world and of the school. Much like Harry Potter, Simon has a lot on his shoulders, tasked with saving the world just because he was apparently sort of born to do so. But unlike Harry, he has no exceptional aptitude for it.  Though in this story, the spells are all cliches and common turns of phrase, Simon is not that great at casting. However, it’s kind of fun (and sometimes eye-roll-inducing) to hear him utter phrases like “Up, up, and away!” to cast flying spells, or witness other characters recite Queen lyrics while enacting horrific rituals.

Honestly, there is so much going on in Carry On, it’s hard to condense. The damn thing is over 500 pages long. When I started reading, I was initially a little irritated by how self-referential and cliched it was right out of the gate. I wondered how I was going to make it through the whole thing because from the get-go it seems that the reader has missed something. Simon speaks as if we should already have some sort of knowledge of his world and personal history, and although I did because I read Fangirl first, this method of narration was still a little off-putting. However, after I remembered that this was supposed to be the last book in a Harry Potter-like series, and that the reader in the fictional world (Simon’s or Fangirl’s, I’m not sure) would ideally know what was going on, I was able to accept it and move on. I’m not sure someone who was just jumping into the novel would be able to get past it so easily though.

Anyway, despite my initial reticence, I whipped through all 500-ish pages. Rainbow Rowell’s writing is magical. The story is part mystery (who/what is The Insidious Humdrum?), and part love story (who is really in love with whom?). It all sounds a little silly, but it’s actually pretty engaging. Especially the love story – because let’s not kid ourselves. Anyone who knows anything knows that anyone reading a Rainbow Rowell novel is at least partly reading it for the love story.  And though it’s only after the first 200 pages that Rowell gets to the lovey-dovey stuff, it is worth the wait. I warn you to stop reading now if you don’t want spoilers about the romance at the heart of this book.

Simon and Baz are sworn enemies, but forced to live together due to some ancient, Goblet of Fire-like roommate-choosing rule at their boarding school. Simon is on the outs with Agatha, partly because he caught her and Baz in the forest the previous year, holding hands and staring at each other intently (oh, youth). Simon, muscled and ginger and beautiful and fiery and wild, is a little lost. Baz, lithe and gorgeous and pale and elegant and mysterious and moody, is a little depressed. These two inspire such anger and obsession in one another, especially with Agatha thrown into the mix. But – twist – Baz is not into Agatha. He’s secretly in love with Simon, and always has been; the Agatha thing was just a ruse, at least on his end. He’s worried that Simon really hates him, and so tends to treat Simon like a clumsy oaf, which he admittedly sometimes is. For his part, Simon feels hunted, sure that Baz is going to kill him at every turn, and treats Baz with abject suspicion. But when Simon finally realizes that his incessant need to monitor Baz’s behavior and know his whereabouts is actually affection and concern, rather than fear, it’s incredibly sweet. It is also a surprise to Simon (but not to us), and he does have a brief struggle with understanding his sexual identity. Regardless, we get to see Simon and Baz’s tumultuous enemy relationship transform into what it probably always was under the surface: a strong but sometimes-turbulent bond with affection and passion at its core. And, true to form, these teenagers in love connect so easily, yet continue to treat each other with varying degrees of affection and venom. There was always a hint of competitiveness at the core of their bond too.

I have to break away and mention that I read Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park first, then Fangirl, then Carry On. I became beguiled with Rowell’s writing probably within the first 20 pages of Eleanor & Park, and after reading three of her YA novels, I have definitively confirmed that her writing is, again, magical. I’m not kidding. She is somehow able to transport this seasoned reader back to the days of heart-pounding, unrequited love and naive, optimistic hope. I get butterflies in my stomach every time I read one of her books. Every time. Being an adult in a long-term relationship, that doesn’t really happen to me much anymore. And she does this with WORDS ALONE. I can’t figure out how, but can conclude that maybe that particular part of adolescence is still alive and well in her.

Moving on, all of this mushy stuff is wonderful, of course, but it quickly takes a backseat when things start to get serious with The Insidious Humdrum’s “dead spots” appearing more frequently, Simon’s magickal outbursts getting more out of control, and the impending civil war bubbling up in the magickal community. It’s a mad dash to the end of the book, as dots are connected and everything comes to a head. I won’t go any further plot-wise, mostly because too much happens for me even attempt to explain. Suffice it to say that the sequence of events is wild.

I’m not really doing an adequate or concise job of reviewing this book. Briefly, I really enjoyed it. It’s detailed, engaging, and strange, and once I banged it closed, I immediately wished that it wasn’t over. Rainbow Rowell’s winks at the reader, with her references to other works of fantastical writing, are funny and satisfying. I wouldn’t say that I was particularly invested in the magickal world and all that it had to offer, but I did become invested in the main characters. And she did leave some room for the possibility of a sequel, which left me with some hope. After reading this book, you’ll probably want a sequel too. Trust me, if you pick it up, bear with all of the cheesy puns, and get past the confusing magick-speak in the first section, you will absolutely be rewarded.

 

Recommended For:

Rainbow Rowell fans, fantasy fans, love story lovers, and those who are interested in the fan fiction so central to the plot in Fangirl.