I've heard Seattle writer-musician Steven Arntson perform in the late lamented band called The Toy Boats, which used toy instruments to orchestrate funky renditions of folk songs, soundtrack music and original compositions. So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that Arntson's take on first love, death and friendship (not necessarily in that order) is also fairly quirky - as demonstrated in his new young adult novel, "The Wrap-Up List."
This story - a blend of dystopia, magical realism and teen angst - presents a world in which 1 percent of all fatalities are scheduled in advance. A race of tall, silver, gilled creatures (they're called Deaths) is tasked with sending letters to the people slated for imminent "departure" - giving them a chance to address any unfinished business before the Deaths escort them to their demise.
In the midst of a turbulent time, teenager Gabriela receives her notice from a Death named Hercule. Dutifully, she composes her wrap-up list. This is something that everyone receiving a letter must do, knowing that they may receive some assistance from their attending Death as they try to accomplish the final goals they have set for themselves.
In the week she has left, Gabriela decides the most important thing she can do is try to facilitate first kisses for her best friends, as well as for herself. She also puts a "pardon" on her wish list - pardons are like a "Get Out of Jail Free" card - they grant a reprieve from one's imminent expiration date. But pardons are rarely granted, because Deaths suffer something akin to a career setback if the individual they are responsible for is allowed to continue living.
As Gabriela furiously tries to accomplish the items on her wrap-up list, she discovers many things about the people who figure in her life and develops some of her own conclusions about faith, fear, service and courage.
"The Wrap-Up List" is set in a neighborhood we might recognize - there are apartment buildings, the coffee shop, the high school, the church. But beyond town, there is a field that is the departure point for death. And of course, those tall, silver creatures that skulk around town are a bizarre addition to the scenery.
The story simmers with undercurrents of tension. Gabriela's parents bicker corrosively at home. Students gear up for a rumble after the football game. And there's ominous talk of a looming war beyond the horizon - already the kids at school are being conscripted for cannon fodder.
"The Wrap-Up List" is a curate's egg - parts of it are excellent, other areas seem sketchy. If this book were a painting, there would still be areas on the canvas that had not been filled in with color or detail.
But this seems to be by design. Arntson's intent appears to be less about creating a neat package of a story than it is about positing a world and then inviting readers to use the story to examine their own values and beliefs.
Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org