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Jacob Kendricks is three months out of prison, estranged from his daughter, and ready to get his life on track. Taking care of the bum curled up on his doorstep isn’t part of the plan. When he realizes the man has been assaulted, Jake takes him to the hospital, where he learns that Max is his downstairs neighbor… and that he could really use a friend. Keeping Max in the friend-zone would be easier if he wasn’t so damned cute.
Maxwell Wilson has been bullied for years, and the only person who ever cared lives too far away to come to his rescue. Now his upstairs neighbor is offering support. Max remains cautious, suspecting he is little more than a project for the handsome Jake. When he learns Jake has had boyfriends as well as girlfriends, Max has to reevaluate his priorities—and muster the courage to take a chance at love.
Just when a happy future is within their grasp, life knocks them back down. A devastating blow leaves Max lower than ever and Jake wrestling with regret. They both have to find the strength to stand on their own before they can stand together.
It’s the rare romance that features a character or characters without emotional baggage, so I had an embarrassment of riches to choose from when deciding on my book for this month’s TBR Challenge prompt. Kelly Jensen’s Block and Strike (2017) is a character driven hurt/comfort slow-burn romance that features two men who’ve been dealt crappy hands in life, and follows them as they tread a difficult and sometimes painful journey towards love and self-acceptance.
Jake Kendricks is three months out of prison and doing everything he can to get his life back on track. Coming home one night to find some bum passed out on his doorstep is more than inconvenient – he can’t exactly drag him along the alleyway onto the street without inviting questions that could land him back in trouble, so he settles for laying the guy in the recovery position and steps past him to open his front door. It’s only when the dim light of the hallway shows there’s blood on his sleeve and hand that Jake realises the guy outside must be injured rather than drunk or stoned – turning back, he can now see the guy looks like he’s been beaten to within an inch of his life. Starting to panic, Jake calls his sister Willa, who is a nurse, and asks her to come over, but when she arrives, she insists they have to go to the ER. Jake later finds out that the guy is his neighbour, Max Wilson, who moved into the crappy basement studio apartment of the building a month ago.
Around a year earlier, Max’s dad threw him out when he discovered him flirting with another guy, and Max moved to Philly intent on a fresh start and finally being himself, but somehow… he’s still hiding, still the small, runty kid who’s been bullied all his life and has learned it’s quicker and easier not to put up a fight. His dad only ever told him it would toughen him up, and Max is so used to being used as a punching bag that he doesn’t really think twice about being attacked on his doorstep; all he wants is to get out of the hospital and on with his small, insignificant life, but with a serious concussion, he won’t be allowed to leave unless he has someone to keep an eye on him. He’s frustrated and fretting about losing his job when the nurse – Willa something? – suggests that if he really wants to go home, she could ask her brother to come get him. Max is confused, until Willa explains that Jake is the one who found him and then drove him to the hospital. Max puts two and two together and works out that Jake is the gorgeous blond guy who lives upstairs, and protests even harder that he’s fine and can make his own way home. He doesn’t realise his protests have fallen on deaf ears until he’s discharged and makes his way outside on very shaky legs – to find Jake waiting for him.
Jake and Max have both been through a lot in their young lives (Jake is twenty-seven, Max twenty-two) and although it looks, at first, as though Jake has everything figured out and Max is a mess, as the story progresses, we discover that neither of those things is completely true. Or untrue. Behind Jake’s solid, dependable exterior lies a man who knows what it’s like to be broken; we don’t learn why he was in prison until later in the book so I’m not going to spoil it, but it’s clear that he’s still dealing with the issues that (in part) led to that happening and that he’s still got work to do. He’s kind, funny and protective; he’s never met anyone quite as stubborn as Max, yet he can’t help liking him and wanting to help him however he can – and that Max is really cute doesn’t hurt. Max hasn’t had anyone in his corner since his mother died, and seems to have accepted that his lot is just to take whatever crap life dishes out. He’s desperately lonely and can’t help wondering if he’s some kind of ‘project’ for Jake – who can’t, surely, be interested in a guy like him for any other reason – and it takes him a while to tamp down those insecurities and accept Jake’s overures of friendship as genuine.
The romance between Jake and Max is rooted in a strong friendship and is very much a slow-burn, which is absolutely right for who they are and what they’ve been through. Jake senses that the attraction he’s feeling towards Max may not be all one-sided, and the last thing he wants to do is to spook him, but Max is so up in his head with internalised homophobia and self-doubt that he gives off mixed signals. It takes a while for the two them to work things out, but it’s lovely when they do and there’s a real sense that they see each other for who they really are and that they’re exactly what the other needs – Max needs someone to help him learn to stand up for himself and Jake needs someone who doesn’t see him as the fuck up who let his temper screw up his life.
Kelly Jensen is one of those authors whose stories are often deceptively simple, the depth of the emotions and realism of the characters and situations almost taking the reader by surprise. She also manages to create characters who feel very authentic and nuanced, and Jake and Max are no exceptions. They’re beautifully developed – flawed and complicated with a genuine warmth and relatability – and their differences, Max’s prickliness and Jake’s kindness and compassion, really complement each other. I liked that Jake encourages Max to go with him to his martial arts group so he can learn some self-defence moves and maybe gain some self-confidence, and that he helps Max to see the core of inner strength and resliliance that enables him to keep getting up after the blows he’s been dealt.
For all the good things about the story – and there are a lot of them – there are a couple that have affected my final grade. One is that the people who attacked Max are never properly punished; the other is related to what landed Jake in prison, so I’m going to put it under a spoiler tag.
Click to read the spoiler
His ex-girlfriend Kate – the mother of his daughter – called him, crying, after her current boyfriend Dominick (who had always been possessive) hit her. Jake went over and beat him up, and was later convicted of assault. At the end of the book, we learn Kate has forgiven Dominick for what he did and that he’s vowed never to do it again – and part of Jake’s journey is accepting that. But I was uncomfortable with it – not only does it downplay the domestic abuse, it ignores the fact that Kate brought Jake into the situation, likely knowing what would happen as a result.
While that last thing didn’t affect my enjoyment of Jake and Max and their romance, I realise it might be problematic for some readers, which is why I’ve made mention of it here. In the end, though, Block and Strike is a charming, beautifully written romance, full of warmth, humour and genuine emotion, and well worth reading.