Monday, September 3, 2012

Review: Personal Effects by EM Kokie (ARC)

Personal Effects by EM Kokie
Candlewick Press, 352 pages
Expected US Release Date: September 11, 2012
Format: ARC
Source: DAC Arc Tours (thank you!)
Challenge: Debut Author Challenge

After his older brother dies in Iraq, Matt makes a discovery that rocks his beliefs about strength, bravery, and honor in this page-turning debut.

Ever since his brother, T.J., was killed in Iraq, Matt feels like he’s been sleepwalking through life — failing classes, getting into fights, and avoiding his dad’s lectures about following in his brother’s footsteps. T.J.’s gone, but Matt can’t shake the feeling that if only he could get his hands on his brother’s stuff from Iraq, he’d be able to make sense of his death. But as Matt searches for answers about T.J.’s death, he faces a shocking revelation about T.J.’s life that suggests he may not have known T.J. as well as he thought. What he learns challenges him to stand up to his father, honor his brother’s memory, and take charge of his own life. With compassion, humor, and a compelling narrative voice, E. M. Kokie explores grief, social mores, and self-discovery in a provocative first novel.
---------------------Goodreads summary

Notable Quote
...maybe he was trying to figure out if he could tell me, or if he should tell me, or how. Maybe he was already getting ready to leave for good, leave me behind, and didn't know how to tell me that. Whatever it was, I didn't ask because I figured, ultimately, whatever was in his head was about death.
It never occurred to me it could be about life.
If you've read my review of Something Like Normal by Trish Doller, you know how personal military issues are to me. I'm not going to retype everything (if you want to know, it's the first paragraph in the link there!), but I'll shorten it: I have lost someone to the war, I have watched loved ones come and go from it, I have watched friend's endure the losing, worrying and return of soldiers, and I currently have 3 friends serving in Afghanistan. It is impossible for me to approach books that focus on the military impartially, and I will not apologize for that. They are real to me, and these are real stories. I know people with these stories, and it would dishonor them to keep them separate.

That said, something I love about military-centric books are how absolutely different they can be. There are so many facets to war and the military; who experiences, how one experiences it, who we all know experiencing it. I am grateful to say that most of Personal Effects is an area of the military life I don't know - and I know that sounds mean, but I promise it is not.

Matt Foster's dad is the embodiment of all things I hate about gung-ho military men. The meathead ones, the cruel ones, the ones who abuse their kid and bully them into thinking military = only option, military = the Right Way of life, military = manliness. The ones who think toting a gun makes you worthy, the ones who think the trenches are the only way to become someone, and that any man who doesn't have that goal is dishonorable and a "fairy." Any person can go ahead and think that - it's not my place to tell you your thoughts and opinions are wrong - but the ones who hit their kid and drill it into them with verbal jabs and demeaning slurs? I reject them. They are not men. They are less than men, and human in only the literal sense.

I think having such a strong reaction to Matt's dad helped me get through this book - instead of getting immediately sad and filled with the drowning sense of loss I normally do, I was filled with anger and indignation and was able to read on. This is a nod to EM Kokie's writing, in the only way I know how: I hate this type of man, but I wanted nothing more than to read on about him and what he does to Matt and their lives. Her characterization of him is amazing and real, and he is easily the dozens of guys and girls I know who are like him. Even after finishing the book, I hate him; but I appreciate his character.

Since I'm already on characters, I'll tackle that first. You immediately feel for Matt, and even though I don't endorse fighting, I do like his evolution. Sometimes I wish he'd grow a pair, but I understand his personality so well; and truthfully, if he ever stopped being so internal and closed off, it just wouldn't fit him. There is a depth to Matt that took me by surprise, and happily so. TJ is the driving force to the novel, and even though he's rarely here in the story, I do love who we come to know. He's a great big brother to Matt, and my admiration and sadness of his situation only increased the more I read. Shauna is the only one I thought to be a little one-dimensional, but her function as a friend and girl is fantastic and I love her for what she is to Matt. 

So, let's get on with the important thing: the story. Guys, this story broke my heart and left my gut twisted and wrenched in every which way. I want to cry for Matt for the first half of the book, and I actually did for him and everyone involved at the end of the book. I can't spoil it - it would be shameful to wreck what you will come to know and be so invested in - but trust me when I say that this is a story worth reading. That it needs to be read. That this is someone's story, a lot of someone's stories, and the world would be a better place if people took this book, devoured it as I did and found what is there: grief, acceptance, and dealing with the parts of life we have to hide because someone has belittled it. The parts we have to hide because people don't accept it. The parts that we have to hide because maybe you could die for it.

I can't actually talk about the last half of the book, because I fear what I will inadvertently spoil - just know that it's a fairly big surprise. I started to suspect as we get to read some of the letters from TJ's personal effects, but I was never certain. Going through the journey with Matt, trying to understand TJ's life and his's so emotional and real and absolutely special. When you finally learn the truth of things...oh god. I can't even. I was floored and swept away and absolutely riveted to what was going on and how Matt would react. And there is literally one line, that is seven words long, that absolutely broke my heart and opened the floodgates.

Here's the thing: yes, this book is about a military family. Yes, someone is killed in war. Yes, the entire book revolves around TJ's personal effects and what they reveal. And yes, that's pretty much the focus of my entire review. But really? It's not about the military. This is so much more than that: it's about who we are to some people, and who we are to others. It's about our true selves. It is about learning who you are, learning who you can be, learning that some limitations don't have to be your boundary. It's about understanding the truth of love, and just how much that can get a person through. And mostly, it's about perceptions: yours, someone else's, and the flexibility of all of them.

4.5 Stars


  1. fakestephSeptember 4, 2012 at 7:40 AM

    I pre-ordered this and I am SOSOSOSO excited to read it. lol.

  2. Alexa S.September 4, 2012 at 1:28 PM

    I actually just read SOMETHING LIKE NORMAL and really liked it. This sounds really good, and I can't wait to read it!


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