ARC Review: C.J.: A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares by Krystal Sutherland

review         book

Book Covertitle: A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares
author: Krystal Sutherland
pages: 368
format: Paperback ARC
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 5/5 (from hated to loved) or 8/10 (all books I've ever read)
recommended for: Fans of dark comedy, of contemporary with an edge, of books like Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer and It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini. // CW: Death, Suicide, Child abuse 
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.

in depth

  • Hands down one of my favorite books of 2017, and on the shortlist for all time. Esther's story is a dark comedy that toes the line between giddy and heart-wrenching, delivering on both fronts. It's also one of the few books that I could look into like a mirror, because Esther's particular struggles with depression and anxiety were so familiar I almost cried.  I don't know if it's Own Voices, but it feels so true to my experience that I can only imagine many others will find themselves in it. 

  • The premise sounds supernatural--every member of Esther's family has a special phobia that will kill them--and Sutherland leads you on a merry goose chase trying to guess whether it's real or not. It's such a clever way to make phobia concrete, because when you're scared shitless of something like that, the quasi-magical menace feels real. Esther's journey to break the curse pokes gentle fun at the more ridiculous aspects while still being 100% empathic and respectful towards its characters. 

  • The characters! I love them all, my bizarre and broken darlings. Esther, terrified of basically everything. Her brother, who sees monsters in the dark--and has a much scarier monster inside himself. Her father, who hides in the basement. Her mother, who fills the house with charms and is magnetically drawn to the casino. And the most amazingly adorable Jonah, a biracial artist whose charm and vivacity belies a vicious home life. Each has such depth and personality that you could almost pry them off the page. 

  • Wrapped in sharp prose and a snarky whimsical package is a list-style rom com ala All the Bright Places (I do love my checklists, don't I?) but on a much, much lighter note. Esther and Jonah face each fear on Esther's list in increasingly unusual ways, and obviously they find love and friendship along the way. But it's not about love saving you and all that BS, so no worries there. I only wish Esther's bestie got more of a role and wasn't so sidelined by Jonah; YA best friends get the shaft a lot.  On the other hand, her brother and family are all hyperpresent and fairly treated. 

  • If you don't like "mental health books", try this one anyway. It's a masterful mix of comedy and pathos, with quirky characters, snappy dialogue, and a whole lot of heart. Sutherland plays on a lot of tropes while casually turning them on their heads, and the result is absolutely stunning. 

in a sentence

A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares is a quirky dark comedy that tackles real issues with heart, depth, and a little tongue-in-cheek.  


will i read this author again?  Yes! Definitely want to go back and read My Chemical Heart 
will i continue the series?  N/A, but I'd definitely read more of them 

Note: I received this copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.

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