“Embrace the suck.”
That’s the motto that Matt and his older brother T.J. apply to their family, and with good reason. After their mother suffered a mental breakdown and eventually killed herself, they’re left with their father, an ex-military vet who favors physical abuse and yelling over talking out solutions to problems. Matt bears the brunt of it at home while T.J. is deployed, and has to deal with his father wanting him to enlist once he graduates high school.
Because of his tumultuous home life, Matt doesn’t feel like anyone understands him better than his older brother. T.J. is Matt’s best friend and Matt knows him better than anyone.
Until T.J. is killed in Iraq.
So begins the audiobook version of E.M. Kokie’s first novel, Personal Effects. It’s a bit of a heartbreaker right from the get-go -T.J. has been dead for seven months, Matt’s all alone with his abusive father who refuses to let him cry over the loss of his brother, let alone provide a safe space for him to talk about his feelings, and he just got suspended for breaking a kid’s nose at school.
Matt’s not sure what to do with the rest of his life until the day T.J.’s personal effects are delivered to their front door. He has to sneak his way into T.J.’s room to look through them, but once he does he finds things that make him realize that maybe he didn’t know T.J. as well as he thought.
Overall, Kokie’s writing was smooth and casual, and I think she did a great job of capturing Matt’s voice throughout the book. It was refreshing to have a main character who wasn’t perfect, who swore a lot and said shitty things and made mistakes and just acted like a regular seventeen-year-old kid. There were times where she went a little overboard on teenage slang (Matt calls pictures “pics” and snacks “snackage” more than once, and hearing that made me cringe in embarrassment), but for the most part, she held her own and delivered a believable MC.
Although Matt is the main character in the book, the character I loved the most was Curtis. I don’t want to give away his role in the book, but he’s by far my favorite. The complexity and emotion that Kokie gave him for such a short period of time (he doesn’t show up until more than halfway through the book) will hit you right where it hurts.
The only real issue I had with pacing was at the very beginning of the book – it felt like we were thrown into the opening scene with no real backstory or idea of setting. In some cases that can work really well, but here it just made me confused.
The book starts with Matt getting angry at a kid named Pinscher because he always wears anti-war buttons and T-shirts to school. We don’t really know anything about Matt at this time in the book, so I found myself siding with Pinscher at first, and only switching my view about ten minutes into the book after learning more about Matt and his situation.
The narrator, Nick Podehl, was probably my favorite part of the book. I felt like I was listening to a radio drama as he read the story; he wasn’t afraid to get deep into the psyches of these characters he was performing, especially Matt. He also was really good at stammering and getting flustered and trying to hide hitching sobs like a character would, something that hits home and fits so well in a story as intense as this.
Overall I enjoyed Personal Effects, but I wouldn’t have nearly as much if Podehl hadn’t been reading it. Although there is a lot of swearing, dealing with grief, and a decent amount of homophobic language, it’d be a pretty solid novel for high school kids to check out, especially those who are part of a military family.
Book: 3 out of 5 stars
Narration: 5 out of 5 stars
Allison Racicot is the Audiobook Reviewer at Girls in Capes. She spends too much time listening to podcasts and getting overly attached to fictional characters. Follow her on Twitter @allisonracicot.