Book Review: A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares

A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares – Krystal Sutherland – G.P Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers – Published 5 September 2017




Ever since Esther Solar’s grandfather was cursed by Death, everyone in her family has been doomed to suffer one great fear in their lifetime. Esther’s father is agoraphobic and hasn’t left the basement in six years, her twin brother can t be in the dark without a light on, and her mother is terrified of bad luck.

The Solars are consumed by their fears and, according to the legend of the curse, destined to die from them.

Esther doesn’t know what her great fear is yet (nor does she want to), a feat achieved by avoiding pretty much everything. Elevators, small spaces, and crowds are all off-limits. So are haircuts, spiders, dolls, mirrors and three dozen other phobias she keeps a record of in her semi-definitive list of worst nightmares.

Then Esther is pickpocketed by Jonah Smallwood, an old elementary school classmate. Along with her phone, money and a fruit roll-up she d been saving, Jonah also steals her list of fears. Despite the theft, Esther and Jonah become friends, and he sets a challenge for them: in an effort to break the curse that has crippled her family, they will meet every Sunday of senior year to work their way through the list, facing one terrifying fear at a time, including one that Esther hadn’t counted on: love.

My thoughts

This amazing books takes mental health and family breakdown and wraps it in a layer of magic and imagery so strong it glows like a thousand candles in the dark. It is a story of family and fear and bravery and love. It is funny and clever and sad and just a little bit frightening.

Esther Solar’s family is cursed. Cursed to die of their greatest fear. It’s why her father hasn’t left the basement in six years, why her brother is constantly surrounded by multiple sources of light, and why she herself has decided to never find her greatest fear. Instead, Esther has created a list of her worst nightmares and has worked hard to avoid each and every one of them. But then an old classmate (and crush) reappears in her life, pickpockets her belongings, and discovers her list. Jonah decides that Esther must face her fears and that he will help.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book – a true realistic contemporary or something that crosses the boundaries of magical realism. I think we readers were treated to a little of both. It’s unique and hard to describe. It’s one of those books that I will recommend to readers by saying “aghhh, there are no words! Just read it.” Anyone who loves stories about characters who are pushed to their limits, who must face the worst of humanity and choose to survive, will love this book. Is everything in this book real, is some of it just a colourful and wonderful metaphor? That’s up to you to decide. I would love to unpack this book, discuss every nuance, and yet I would also just like to revel in its amazing quality, that undefinable thing that makes you flip the last page, close the cover and go, “hmm, well that was pretty damn cool.”

If course, the synopsis doesn’t allude to one of the best things about this book, which is Esther’s relationship with her twin brother. They have an incredible bond and a wonderful friendship. It isn’t just her own life that Esther changes by facing her fears and attempting to break the curse – she also changes her whole family. Jonah, too, is an excellent character. It takes Esther a while before she starts seeing past the happy-go-lucky exterior he presents to the boy who is faced with just as many demons and fears as she is. There are so many important and delightful themes in this book – fears, mental health, phobias and therapy, family breakdown and domestic violence, facing death, suicide, family relationships, friendship, romance and being brave enough to be oneself. This book hits the perfect balance between delightfully uplifting and never shying away from the hard choices and situations the characters face.

The publishers provided an advanced readers copy of this book for reviewing purposes. All opinions are my own.

More information

Category: Young adult fiction.

Genre: Contemporary.

Themes: Mental health, romance, phobias, therapy, family breakdown, domestic violence, death, suicide, family, friendship,

Reading age guide: Ages 14 and up.

Advisory: Sexual references – mild innuendo. Frequent coarse language, f*** (35), sh** (37), bit** (15), assh*** (7), di** (6), sl** (3). Mature themes – attempted suicide, self-harm and domestic violence.

Published:  5 September 2017 by G.P Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers/ Penguin Australia

Format: Hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook. 368 pages.

ISBN: 9780399546594, 0399546596, 9780143573913

Find it on Goodreads


  1. kozbisa

    I am getting all emotional thinking about Esther and Eugene. They did have a beautiful relationship and I was glad they had each other and that they never gave up on each other. Esther and Jonah have quite the meet-cute, eh? I adored those two. They were so alike in how fiercely they loved their families, but different enough to offer an alternate perspective to the other when necessary. It was a sweet romance, and I am smiling just thinking about them. Great review!

    • Madison's Library

      Thanks Sam. This really is an amazing book and the romance played a big part in that but I think I liked the sibling relationship even more. Very powerful.

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