Updated: Aug 4
" Max Mayfield doesn't fit in. She isn't soft or frilly like her mom wants her to be. She never seems to say the right thing. And she'd rather spend her days at the arcade than anywhere else. At least back in California she had friends, and her dad was only a bus ride away. But then Max's mom married Neil, and her stepbrother, Billy, entered the picture. Now Max and her new family live in Hawkins, Indiana. Her stepdad calls her Maxine, Billy is out of control, and her mom can't change things. Max keeps thinking she's found friends to replace the ones she left in California, but they all put up walls as soon as they start to feel vulnerable. That is, until Max discovers just how serious- - - and strange - - - things in Hawkins really are. Soon Max finds herself the newest character in a bizarre story featuring demodogs, a dangerous Mind Flayer, and a real live Mage. Max has to make some serious choices if she's going to save Hawkins from the darkest parts of the Upside Down - - - assuming violent, crazy, out-of-control Billy doesn't get in the way first. "
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Brenna Yovanoff wrote this novel after season two of Stranger Things debuted on Netflix. And it reads exactly like season two, but from Max's point-of-view with some flashbacks of her life before Hawkins mixed in to make a pleasurable meal for the eyes.
Max Mayfield is a pre-teen that just moved to Hawkins, Indiana after her mother remarried and added an abusive step-father and step-brother to the family equation. She spends most of her time trying to not want to fit in with the kids at her new school, riding her trusty skateboard behind the building during recess and telling a group of boys who can't stop staring at her to leave her alone. Max's home life has become unbearable to the point that she debates running back to her real father in California. Fortunately, two of those boys that couldn't stop staring try to be friends with her, but when she begins to hang around them, she learns that things are not what they seem in Hawkins, Indiana. Merging with this group of boys, Max's life is forever changed, and probably for the better.
Runaway Max doesn't focus on the supernatural aspect that Stranger Things is known for. Instead, the focus is on a girl's life that gets turned upside down [pun intended] by the introduction of two abusive people that enter it with the intent of either destroying her or making her compliant, the struggle with who she is and who everyone else says she should be, to the desperation for just one real friend. Personally, I believe Yovanoff did an amazing job at telling Stranger Things fans the backstory of our Mad Max. As a result, I have no complaints about this novel whatsoever.
Yovanoff starts readers off with Max riding her skateboard through downtown Hawkins, with Max telling us how she was happy there was an arcade in this small town. Max wipes out on her skateboard, where a woman who will be very familiar to fans, runs out of a store to help her to her feet until the loud sound of engine comes pulling up; enter Billy and his Camaro. All throughout the story, readers get to see more of what was going on inside the Mayfield/Hargrove's household, which viewers of the series were only witness to one of the abuses happening to Billy by his father.
Runaway Max picks up the pace when a familiar scene happens with Max joining Stranger Things regulars: Lucas and Dustin, for Halloween around Hawkins. But with this story, we follow Max home after Will's encounter with a creature from the Upside Down. We learn that Billy never picked Max up, as he was suppose to, and that his father, Neil, is beyond angry when Billy comes home drunk and high:
" When Billy came slamming into the house, the smell came with him, rolling like the clouds of smoke and alcohol wafting out of a dive bar. Like bad weather. He was stumbling a little. His eyes were red-rimmed and heavier than ever, and he still had the leather jacket on, but he wasn't wearing a shirt. The light from the stained-glass lamp on the end table made him look deranged.
Neil breathed in through his nose and heaved himself out of his chair. 'And where the hell have you been?'
'Nowhere,' Billy muttered, and tried to brush past him, but Neil stepped in front of him and stopped him with a hand on his chest.
'What was that?'
Billy ducked his head and mumbled something about a flat tire. I couldn't tell if he was being honest or not - - - probably not - - - but as soon as he said it, it was pretty obvious that I had been lying. Whatever he'd been doing, it definitely hadn't been giving a school friend a ride home.
Neil had stayed ominously quiet, but now he drew himself up and took a step forward so he had Billy trapped against the wall. 'I'm curious to know where you learned to be so disobedient.'
Billy stared back at him. He was standing with his chin down and his jacket open, looking mutinous. He smelled like beer and the dry-skunk smell of Nate's brother, Silas, and all the other eighth-grade boys who got stoned behind the baseball diamond back home. It was the smell of not caring. 'Bite me, Neil. I'm not in the mood.'
For a second, they just stood looking at each other.
Then Neil spoke in a low, dangerous voice. The air was heavy and metallic, like right before a thunderstorm. 'I don't know where you've been or what you've been up to, but you will show me some respect!'
He shouted the last part. His voice sounded much too big in the smallness of the living room, and I winced, even though I was willing myself not to."
After Max quickly heads to her room to count her Halloween candy...
"Out in the living room, Neil was tuning up. For a while, it was just a rumble of voices, softer sometimes, then louder. There was a short, sharp cry and then a flat, meaty sound, like punching the pocket of a baseball glove. "
Runaway Max does a superb job of detailing abuse and the psychology that plays a role in it. Readers, also, get to see more of Billy's abuse towards Max. Focusing on the shift of personality Billy goes through (those who have watched season three of Stranger Things will have more of an understanding behind Billy, I recommend that if you haven't watched that season yet, that you do after reading this book). While all of this is going on, Yovanoff also retells season two, winding it within Max's story effortlessly and concisely:
"Dustin bent over the table, gazing at the creature in his hands like it was the sweetest, most adorable thing. He kept calling it a he, even though it was so weird and shapeless that how could you tell?
When he saw me staring, he asked if I wanted to hold it, and I shook my head, but he turned and tipped it out of his cupped palms and into mine.
It felt cool and squishy, heavier than it looked, and I passed it to Lucas fast. Lucas handed it off to Will, and it made its way around the circle. I was a little relieved to see that I wasn't the only one shrinking back from it. Will was looking at it like it had some kind of disease, and even Mike didn't exactly seem thrilled to touch it. He was the bravest, though, and held it up for a closer look. "
All-in-all, Runaway Max is season two of Stranger Things to-a-tee. But with Max's relationship with Billy being molded more by this novel, it can make even the most die-hard fans look at the two in a different way. There are even small splotches of scenes where Billy seems to want Max as a little sister, one such, when Max catches him in the garage of their California home, working on his car and smoking a cigarette:
" I leaned forward with my knees on my elbows and cupped my chin in my hands. 'At the health assembly in school, they told us that we're not supposed to smoke.'
Billy straightened and closed the hood, wiping his hands with a rag. 'And do you always do everything your teachers tell you?'
That idea was so wrong it was hilarious. My grades were usually okay, but my conduct cards were a mess. I was always in trouble for something- - - talking back, or drawing cartoon hot rods on my desk with a felt pen. I laughed and shook my head.
That seemed to make him happy. He smiled in a slow, lazy way, then pulled the pack of Parliaments out of his shirt pocket. He held it out to me and waited, watching my face until I took one." When readers get to see the small moments between the two, it hurts more to know that Billy is just an abused young man that is reflecting his father's behavior.
Overall, I really enjoyed Max's story, but was it needed? Before season three, I would have said yes, but with what we learned of Billy in season three, I don't think it was completely necessary. I think only die-hard fans of the show will enjoy this book, otherwise watching the series is the majority of the novel.