Rated 4 stars out of 5
Max comes from a family of Naval officers and he wants nothing more than to continue that legacy and join the Navy. In reality, he’s bullied so often and so badly at school that now all he wants is to make it out of there alive. When his mother’s fiancé, Aunt Donna, decides enough is enough after Max is kicked so hard in the head by a bully that he ends up in the hospital she calls in a favor and gets Max set up with Muay Thai boxing classes. Aunt Donna knows what she is talking about, being a victim of bashing herself. While Max is against this with all the power a 15-year-old can muster, Aunt Donna has made it very clear that without the classes Max will lose out on the job in her shop and will need to continue two more years of school. He’s stuck. So he sucks it up and goes. He’s mortified, because being overweight makes physical things difficult and even worse, Max is confronted with his first real crush, his sparring partner and the nephew of his boxing coach, Cian.
Cian is fearless, fearsome, blunt and bold. I loved him, even as I knew what it must have taken for him to get to that attitude. He is fit and in amazing shape but he never makes Max feel like he is anything less than worthy of being there. Lewis, the coach, is the same. Aunt Donna had shared the reason behind Max needing the lessons but there is no pity here, just acceptance that this is who you are and Muay Thai is what you are there to do. Beautiful sparring partner? Bonus both in embarrassment factor and joy factor.
Where even to begin with this. We start off right away with a serious attack on Max. The bullying was so difficult to read, more so because you know that there are so many kids out there going through the same thing, whether for being overweight, gay, too smart, not smart enough – just anything that makes them different. In Matthew’s case, the bullying has resulted in some serious self-loathing, which again, I found to be realistic. He’s come to be ashamed of who he is because of those angry, bigoted classmates. It was heartbreaking. Now, since he was actually put in the hospital by the bullies, Aunt Donna has had enough. She can come across as too blunt sometimes, but she is all about having that boy’s back and making sure he knows how to defend himself so that he won’t have to. I also appreciated that while Mom had married and loved Max’s dad, the fact that she was now in love and marrying a woman wasn’t a huge deal – it was just mom in love.
When he realizes Cian is who he’s working with, you can feel the conflicting emotions from him. Here’s this amazing person, badass, fit, tough, who is about to see him be physical and sweaty. You have to remember also – this is a YA book. Max is fifteen. It’s been quite a while since I was fifteen but the shadows of those years never leaves you and that clawing need to be part of something, to not stand out in case you are the focus of something negative, stays. It was one of the reasons I was so happy to see Max progress from the thoughts of “useless lump” to a badass in his own right who knows when to elbow jab to defend himself. He has the most negative thoughts about himself and has no confidence that he can do what he sets out to do.
While some of his better view can be attributed to his new friend in Cian (and that takes a while) more of it is due to the martial arts and how knowing you can keep yourself safe will improve your confidence. And Lewis. “You could really be something, Max,” Lewis said quietly, “and the only person standing in the way is you.” Max has spent so much time being put down and belittled that it’s hard to believe anything else.
Cian – let’s just give him a shout out now. He’s been through things just like Max has and has come out confident and showing exactly what he needs to. “If you ever call me anything but a boy, or he, or him, or call those facts into question, I’ll hit you.” His conversation with Cian about grappling really just hurt my heart. And Cian’s response to it, “When you strip away the self-loathing….There’s somebody beautiful. Right. Here.” Ahh, it was a catch your breath moment. The romance here is between teenagers and it was true to that – I didn’t feel these were older adults talking and just giving lip service to being in high school.
Things, of course, aren’t just easy after that because there are still nasty people in the world who get even nastier when they face consequences for what they have done. The retaliation from the evil three bullies, especially Tom, was awful and I kept thinking, will it ever stop for this boy? Max has the support of adults, including his teacher Mrs Pellow, but that isn’t enough to avoid it. So when he finally has had enough, I wanted to stand up and cheer. The epilogue was sweet and I enjoyed it, but the end of the chapter before was, in my head, perfection. Way to go, Big Guy.
The cover art by Natasha Snow doesn’t give you a visual of Max or Cian and I liked that. It is instead a beautiful view of the water with footsteps leading to the edge. I read a lot into that cover.
ebook, 210 pages
Published April 9th 2018 by NineStar Press