Monday, November 19, 2012

YA Fiction: "Personal Effects" by E. M. Kokie

It's not easy, being a teenage guy. E. M. Kokie reminds us of this in her debut novel, "Personal Effects," which centers on the life of Matt Foster in what is probably one of the most difficult times of his life. On top of the normal problems of senior year in high school (like being totally in love with your best friend, learning to balance your mental and physical urges, and passing the last of your classes to graduate) add the trauma of having just lost your older brother on his last tour in Iraq.

TJ was Matt's hero, and with his mother dead and his father as emotionally unavailable as they come, he's left at a loss when it comes to coping. Until he goes through TJ's personal effects in secret, knowing that his father refuses to acknowledge that TJ is gone. There he discovers that TJ had a whole other life separate from both the Army  and his family, a life with someone special. In a last-ditch attempt to make sense of TJ's absence, Matt decides to disobey his father, his principal, and even his own reason to deliver TJ's last, unsent letter to the love of his life.

I didn't really understand what was going on to Matt, didn't really start to feel what it was to be him, until maybe midway through the story. But then again, I'm from a fairly liberal family without close relatives in the military. While I didn't understand on a personal level some of the things that Matt describes, like his father's mood swings and the physical abuse that he just tries to see as affection, I'm sure that it will resonate with someone whose situation better parallels the one in the book. It's a very visceral book, in an impressively convincing voice, considering that the author is a middle-aged woman and her protagonist a 17-year-old boy. Kokie isn't shy about dropping vulgarity or describing the *ahem* physical effects of feminine wiles. She does it all with a hint of humor and a grain of salt, and I found myself really caring about Matt and how things would or would not come together for him in the end.

I especially liked the play on words in the title of this work. "Personal Effects" can refer to TJ's belongings, which were sent home after his death and which started Matt's search for real closure. However, it also refers to the personal effects of TJ's death on different people, specifically Matt, their father, and TJ's lover. The two interpretations collide in the form of the unsent letter, and the personal effects that this personal effect causes.

Young adults today are living in a world that contains problems that weren't there just a few years ago. New technology, new wars, a whole new world gives rise to the need for new books to address these things in a way that can communicate to us what it feels like, and communicate to young readers that they are not alone. "Personal Effects" steps up to the challenge with all its gut-wrenching discovery of self and others. I'd recommend this to teenage guys, since it's "real" and not touchy-feely, but still deep and kinda tough to handle at times. It was also effective in showing me, someone without experience in a conservative military family, what the other side of the spectrum sees when it comes to war, politics and family.

E. M. Kokie's "Personal Effects" was released in September. Look for it at your favorite independently owned book store now. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Historical Fiction: "The Art Forger" by B. A. Shapiro

Continuing the recent trend in art-themed novels is B. A. Shapiro's "The Art Forger," published by Algonquin Books. Shapiro's seventh book, this story centers around starving artist Claire Roth. Black-balled from the Boston art community because of a scandal three years ago, Claire makes  (very) modest living copying great works of art for an online reproduction company. When an old acquaintance from her pre-scandal days approaches her about copying a painting with questionable origins, Claire has to make a choice between her career and her personal integrity.

But wait, don't roll your eyes and walk away from this tired Right versus Wrong setup quite yet. Claire obviously chooses the "wrong" thing to do, otherwise there wouldn't be a story. But the Faustian (and, frankly, underwhelming) premise leads the reader on a merry chase through art history, forgers past and present, the finer legal points of art, and the established authority of "art experts." What looks like it might be a boring "learn your lesson" novel at the beginning is actually a lot more complicated, and rewarding, than it first appears.

In order to make all of these details and story lines fit together, though, there was some format finesse involved. Shapiro effectively intertwines three (connected) stories from three different time periods: the present, three years ago (the scandal), and in the late 1800's when Degas was still alive and painting. Not only are these distinct times clearly labeled at the beginning of chapters, they're done in different fonts and formats too, which is a nice touch.

The research that went into historical art forgers, painting techniques, nomenclature and practices featured in the novel is impressive. I learned a lot about different types of painting, different approaches to it and the mechanics of it as well, just by reading the details that were added to the text and story line. However, I'm sorry to say that this attention to detail seemed to backfire on occasion: when you spend so much time writing details into your text, your readers pay them more attention, so when you make a minor mistake (say, for example, he requirement of being fingerprinted to volunteer at a juvenile detention center) it jumps out.

Additionally, while the story's play was interesting, I'm sorry to say that the main character, in fact, was not. Aside from the tired cliche of the starving artist character, which is drenched in pained, labor-of-love desperation to not sell out, Claire Roth was one of those women who you just want to shake until their teeth rattle, then wash your hands of them because no matter how many mistakes they've made in the past, they just don't seem to have learned anything. You kind of start to think that maybe they actually deserve what they get when, somehow, their misguided decisions in love and life just keep turning out to be - well, bad.

I'd recommend this book to "mystery lite" lovers, as it's high on the suspense and discovery scales but lacks the grit of a lot of modern crime novels. It's also good for a book club or reading group, which is where I picked it up, because it seems like everyone can find something they enjoyed and something that irritated them about the story, and it's a different combination thereof for almost every individual. Look for "The Art Forger" now in the local bookstore of your choice.