Book Review: Personal Effects by E.M. Kokie

Matt’s brother T.J. was killed in Iraq.  His mom’s long gone, his dad’s completely absent emotionally, and Matt feels as though he’s just going through the motions of life.  Except for the fights he gets into at school and his best friend Shauna, Matt doesn’t have much that makes him feel anything.  When T.J.’s stuff arrives–his personal effects–Matt knows that the answers he’s been looking for are close at hand.  The only problem is, how can he get at T.J.’s stuff when his dad won’t let him near it?  What he learns about his brother and about himself will change his future–and his present.

E.M. Kokie’s debut novel adds depth and dimension to the growing list of novels about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  With her tense first-person narration, Kokie brings Matt’s voice completely to life.  His world is stifling, and readers will feel Matt’s pain as he struggles to come to terms with the man his brother was–and who he thought he was.  Although this is Matt’s story, Kokie does a nice job with some of the supporting characters as well, though Matt’s father never rises above the stereotypical ex-military man.

Excellently paced, wonderfully written, and completely compelling, Kokie doesn’t offer readers easy answers.  She also doesn’t lead them to any conclusions.  Although Matt’s journey offers him a great deal of healing and hope for his own future, she doesn’t present a totally unrealistic view of what his life will be: he still has to graduate high school under the thumb of his father, after all.

Definitely a stand-out read this year, Kokie’s debut is one that will keep readers up until late into the night.  Authentic narration featuring a believable male character makes this a good choice for male readers–but more than a few female readers should eat this one up, too.  Highly, highly recommended.

Personal Effects by E.M. Kokie. Candlewick: 2012. Library copy.  Read for the 2012 Cybils Round 1 Panel.

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