Houghton Mifflin, 2103
Steven Arntson had me from the get-go with The Wrap-Up List, which begins as follows,
Some people die from heart attacks, and some from falling off ladders. Some are killed in car accidents. Some drown. Some, like my grandfather Gonzalo, die in war.
But some people don't die - they depart.
When sixteen-year old Gabriela is selected for departure, she receives a letter from her Death, informing her that she has seven days to wrap things up.
All Deaths are extremely tall, skinny, and greyish-silver. They live in a place called the Silver Side and only cross over into the ordinary world when they're scheduled for a departure. The earth's atmosphere is thick and buoyant to Deaths, which makes it always look like they're walking underwater. At departure time, they grasp hands with the person who is departing, and that person is transformed into a Death as well.
The particular Death that contacts Gabriela is Hercule, and her friend, Iris (who is sort of a Death afficionado) helps her do some research to try to determine his Noble Weakness. Determining a Death's Noble Weakness is the only way to get a pardon once you've been sentenced to depart.
Meanwhile, Gabriela is preparing her wrap-up list: the things she would like to accomplish, with her Death's help, before she departs. In her case, this consists of first kisses - for herself and her three closest friends.
With this kind of premise, you could hardly go wrong, but Arntson adds additional depth to the story by introducing several compelling subplots that blend very naturally with the primary narrative:
When Gabreila learns that one of her friends is a lesbian, she begins to question some of her family's strongly held Catholic beliefs (without denying the significance of religion in her life).
When Gabriela's friend Raahi is drafted, he wishes he could trade places with Sylvester (Gabriela's crush) who wants to volunteer for military service in spite of the fact that his father lost his own leg in the war.
And when Gabriela's mother's wealthy white parents attend her departure party, her Mexican-American father causes a scene in response to their disavowal of their daughter when she married him.
The exploration of these social issues emerges naturally as a result of real teenagers living in the real world and trying to come to terms with its difficult truths and contradictions. The supernatural component of the story doesn't seem at all incongruous with this grounding in reality.
The Wrap-Up List is suspenseful and compelling and the ending is surprising and wholly satisfying. It will not only appeal to teenagers as recreational reading, but will get them thinking as well.
Steven Arntson lives in Seattle, where he divides his time between writing stories and playing music. He is also the author of The Wikkeling, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. More information about Steven can be found at his website: www.stevenarntson.com.
Renée Vaillancourt McGrath has worked at Montana Public Radio as a program host since 2002. Her background is in librarianship and she currently works as a freelance editor, blogger, and website developer. Check out more of her book reviews at reneesreads.com.