Sunday, April 21, 2013

Personal Effects by E.M. Kokie

Unabridged audiobook on 1 MP3-CD. Read by Nick Podehl. Candlewick on Brilliance Audio, September, 2013. 9781469206677. (Purchased)

Seventeen-year-old Matt is still reeling six months after the death of his much older brother, TJ, in Iraq. He's barely holding it together at school, even knowing that if he blows it, his abusive father will force him to enlist. He's a walking time bomb of bottled rage, which he unleashes on an obnoxious classmate, whose in-your-face anti-war sentiments rub Matt the wrong way. 

While Matt is cooling his heels at home during an out-of-school suspension after sending said classmate to the hospital when he crosses the line of decency by wearing a provocative tee shirt bearing TJ's name, Matt ponders the months since the casualty assistance officers knocked on the front door to inform his dad and him of TJ's death, the closed-casket funeral where Matt was terrified of crying in front of his father, the unopened condolence cards, the missing dog tags. It seems that Matt's dad is determined to erase TJ's existence in the same way he erased Matt's mother after she left the family and ultimately died. So when three trunks of TJ's "personal effects" are delivered, Matt knows he must act fast if he is to be able to hold on to anything that was TJ.

When he does summon the courage, in addition to the familiar items, sweatshirts, iPods and hiking books, he discovers bags filled with letters that reveal TJ's life away from Matt, which leads Matt to question whether he knew his brother at all. When Matt finds an unsent letter, TJ's last to this mystery girl, who may or may not have had TJ's kid, he decides to ditch finals despite the fact that his father will surely kill him and travel to Madison, Wisconsin to deliver the letter and learn more about TJ.

This is actually an audio reread for me. I read the arc way back last April and was totally blown away by this sad, sad story. My heart broke for Matt and TJ over and over and over. Even though it was one of my favorites of 2012, I never did blog about it. Terrible omission, though I did give it 5 stars on Goodreads. 

I can't remember where, but I happened upon a review, which I believe was starred, where I learned that one of my favorite narrators, Nick Podehl, performed the story. A quick check of my library cooperative revealed that no libraries owned it, so I purchased it.

I fell in love with the recording within minutes. Matt's voice is heartbreaking from moment one and Podehl absolutely nailed it. I could feel it. He didn't just narrate; he inhabited Matt. 

The present-tense, first-person narration makes for an emotional, often suspenseful read with one's eyes. Matt is an earnest, endearing, wounded, and bewildered young man. He's a memorable character and I just wanted to hug him and call DYFS on his awful, hateful father. In Podehl's capable hands, Matt felt as though he was sitting in the car with me. (I listened in the car.) That's how real it felt. Even though I already knew what Matt would discover in Madison, Matt's shock and rage still surprised. 

That this was a debut novel is most impressive. I can't recall any "ah, no" moments, even upon rereading. I don't understand why it didn't get any Morris committee love. I've read only two titles from the list, Seraphina and one other. Seraphina, the winner, was spectacular. The other, not so much. I will get to the other three eventually. I was happy that it made the BFYA list. I'm also eager to read Ms. Kokie's sophomore novel. 

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