Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review: Personal Effects

Personal Effects
By E.M. Kokie
Expected publication September 11, 2012 by Candlewick Press

Matt's life just isn't the same since his brother, T.J., died in Iraq. His father basically acts like he never existed, taking down all the photos and other evidence of T.J.'s life. Add to that some jerk at school, constantly expressing his political opinions in a way that just gets on Matt's nerve and you've got a volatile situation. So, when things come to a head, Matt finds himself in serious trouble. It only gets more complicated when T.J.'s personal effects show up and Matt finds among them letters. Letters from what can only be T.J.'s girlfriend. Matt soon realizes that he needs to meet this person and learn more about his brother in the process.

I received a digital galley of this book while attending School Library Journal's SummerTeen event. I don't usually read books about war, or the consequences of war, but I wanted to give this one a try. I do tend to read books about kids and teens dealing with grief, especially the death of a sibling, whenever possible, so that aspect of the story definitely appealed to me. I'm a bit of two minds about this book. I want to preface this by saying that this is a really good book. It's well-written with a compelling storyline and I definitely felt an emotional connection (I teared up a few times). I think this is an important book (though sometimes it pains me to say that) and one that teens and young adults today can certainly relate to. Its release on the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks is fitting. Let me try to explain where my two minds regarding this book come from without spoilers.

On the one hand, I think this is a fantastic book with something important and relevant to say. I've said it before and I'll say it again - there is not nearly enough literature dealing with the experience of losing a sibling out there. This is something that happens and, just like any other situations, kids and teens need to see their own experiences reflected back to them in some of the literature they read. On that note, this is a great book about this particular experience. Though my personal experience is not an exact mirror of Matt's, I certainly related to much of what Matt went through after the death of his brother - the anger, the hurt and pain, the confusion, and even the silence surrounding the deceased. Matt's reactions and actions strike me as "normal" for someone going through his experience. I felt a lot of the same feelings and wanted to do a lot of the same things during the first year after my own loss (and, if I'm honest, still sometimes these days, some six years later). As a novel about a teen dealing with the exceptional emotions related to the loss of a sibling, I think this book is fantastic.

On the other hand, Matt discovers something about his brother, a secret he'd been keeping. While this adds another layer to the book (and is very interesting and also realistic), I found it a bit unnecessary. This is not the first book I've read dealing with sibling loss where the narrator uncovers a bit of previously unknown information about the deceased sibling. While this certainly happens in real life, I feel it might be overrepresented in fiction (though my sample is admittedly quite small). Not everyone who dies was leading some secret life or keeping some life-changing information from their family. Sometimes you find out the person who died was exactly the person you knew them to be when they were living. I think, in this book, the secrets are especially moving and really do add to the story; I just wish I knew of more books where there wasn't some hidden truth to be discovered after one's death.

All in all, I think this is an incredibly strong novel with a powerful message (actually a number of powerful messages) that is relevant to today's teens.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy provided via NetGalley.

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