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Reaper Review: The Wrap-Up List by Steven Arntson

“Dear Gabriela,

You’ve been chosen for departure.  How about next Wednesday?  That gives you a week. Save a dance for me.
– Hercule”

Some people die, others simply depart.  They are escorted by death from this life into the afterlife.  The process is pretty straightforward:  they send you a notice, you write a wrap-up list, and then they give you hints.  If you can guess their Noble Weakness, you may find a way to get a pardon.  And 16-year-old Gabriela desperately wants a pardon.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EpfssQRKc_0]

I was pleasantly surprised by this book.  It had a great balance between pathos and snarkilicious humor, most in the form of Death himself, Hercule. Half-way through the book Gabriela and her three best friends do a summoning ceremony to capture Gabriela’s Death – he is just one of many – and they learn that he is now literally bound to her until her departure.  This makes for some fun scenes and insightful interactions.  Hercule is a great character, as Death should be.

There is also some really great family and diversity stuff happening here.  Gabriela herself is half Mexican, and there is a textured subplot about how her mother’s family disowned her because she married a Mexican man.  Gabriela’s friends are, as she describes them, a gradient color of hues, and they include a male named Raahi, who is Indian.  One of Gabriela’s friends reveals that she likes girls, which Gabriela struggles with some because of her faith.  Speaking of faith, this is a rich look at a family that is steeped in Catholic traditions.  Yes, even in this fantastical version of reality where Deaths are known to come and take people for departures, there is a rich discussion of the Catholic faith. A touching portrait of strong friendship, an interesting examination of faith, and some complex family situations – there were a lot of things I liked about this book.

As you would expect, Gabriela finds herself doing a lot of introspection as she counts down her last 5 days until departure; the meaning of life, love, and the ongoing idea that we all put on uniforms as we face the world, Arntson does some thoughtful introspection here.  And it’s just not what she thinks about that moves you, but the wording that Arntson puts forth:

“As the years pass, the marriage they fought for is settling into acid.  It makes me think again about uniforms.  When Mom and Dad fell in love, was it with the person or with some disguise put on to impress?  On the other hand, maybe they really did love each other, and now they’ve forgotten – each presumptively dressing the other in the uniform of their own annoyance.  When do you see the person, and when the facade?” – page 93.

It’s a quick read, coming in at only 236 pages.  Thoughtful, at times heartbreaking, at times funny – you’ll find yourself hoping that Gabriela finds a way to trick Death so she can get her pardon.  The Wrap-Up List by Steven Arntson is a sleeper, one of those quiet novels that can sit unnoticed on a shelf, but if you pick it up and read it you will be pleasantly surprised.  Recommended, 3.5 out of 5 stars.