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Staff Picks: “Personal Effects” by E. M. Kokie

Personal Effects by E. M. Kokie gets you in your heart with its very simple and real story. Matt is full of anger. Frustration. Even young men who have not experienced the devastating loss of a brother dying during combat will relate to this character.

The story opens with Matt at school trying to ignore the jabs of another student who is part of the pro-peace movement and walks around wearing shirts that say “Bush lied” and such. When he taunts him with a shirt that bears his brother’s name, Matt snaps, and the boys get into a fistfight which lands him in the principal’s office.

While home from school during his suspension, Matt’s brother’s personal effects are delivered. His father has all but erased the memory of TJ from their house, hiding the flag from his casket and the pictures of him that used to be scattered around the house. Matt risks a beating from his angry, violent, former military father to explore the contents of his personal effects, and what he finds sends him on a journey: dozens of very intimate letters signed simply “C” and one letter from TJ to the address on the postmark of all the others. Matt has to deliver it, and in doing so, finds out who is brother truly was and the kind of person he wants to be—an accepting one, who’s strong enough to stand up to his father.

I’m not gonna lie; this book is heart-wrenching, through and through. Matt’s best friend, Shauna, who he is in love with, is a bright spot. Her unfailing support even when Matt is being a total jerk is endearing, and their shy romance is well done and feels true to anyone who has suddenly realized they were in love with their best friend.

I loved this story, with it’s believable, compelling plot, and I loved these characters, who all felt full and lively. Yes, it’s a book about grief, about the military, about domestic abuse, and about mental illness. But it’s also about friendship and family and identity. The book transcends its themes to get at the truth.

If you are interested in other books about siblings of veterans or the aftermath of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, you might like these novels: Badd by Tim Tharp; Something Like Normal by Trish Doller; In Honor by Jess Kirby or This is Not a Drill by Rebecca McDowell.

–Molly, YA

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