Title: SUTPHIN BOULEVARD
Author: SANTINO HASSELL
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Release Date: 31/07/2015
Book Review by Kasia BB (Contains spoilers)
ARC provided by the Author in exchange for an honest review
This contemporary M/M romance is the first instalment in Santino Hassell’s new ‘Five Boroughs’ series set in New York City, intended to comprise of five novels.
Before reaching for this book, I purposely avoided reading the blurb and dove straight into it with minimal previous knowledge. Being a hard core and near obsessive fan of ICoS (co-written by Santino Hassell with Ais Lin), I automatically presumed it would be another dark and violent modern dystopian fantasy tale. This time however, instead of encountering an array of deadly characters placed in a fictional setting, I was acquainted with a bunch of high-school teachers, living and breathing the urban environment of the Big Apple. After the initial frown of surprise, I jumped into Queens, immediately became captivated and never looked back.
There are four significant aspects of this novel I particularly appreciated:
Firstly – Masterfully written characters, containing some interesting personality types.
Michael Rodriguez is a tragic and deeply flawed character. While carrying a lot of guilt and grief, he cares enormously about his friends, family and students and unrealistically aspires to shoulder all responsibility for everyone around. Eventually he snaps under the pressure and follows the path to self-destruction. Michael’s avoidance issues lead to using sex, alcohol and substance addiction as coping mechanisms to deal with reality and life’s expectations.
Nunzio Medici, Michael’s best friend and subsequently his lover, is the person who indirectly saves him. This sexy, charming, dirty-talking Sicilian has a big heart and highly developed protective instincts. Fiercely loyal; his competitive, arrogant and self-confident bravado is merely a front, put on in order to hide his sensitive and affectionate core.
David, also an intriguing character, is the person who accidentally brings Michael and Nunzio together. I enjoyed his transformation from a meaningless hook up to a colleague and, finally, a friend.
However, it was Michael’s brother, Raymond, who stole the show for me. Seemingly immature, unreliable, jobless, forever stoned, women chasing and X-Box playing Ray really comes through when it matters, showing personal integrity and emotional intelligence nobody expected of him. And he’s funny!
Secondly – I appreciated the amount of grit and darkness featuring in the book. In between the events taking place and steam coming out of the bedroom, some serious meaningful issues – dysfunctional family dynamics, domestic violence, parental rejection due to sexual orientation, depression, alcoholism and prescribed medication dependence – are being tackled in the background. This is not just another silly romance.
Thirdly – Authenticity. It’s obvious that the issues the Author writes about are well-known and personally important to him. That’s why it all screams true and believable to me. There are no exaggerated or phony qualities about it. And I’m saying that as a person with first-hand knowledge of education setting and experience in working with people battling addictions and mental disorders.
Finally – The Erotica. Sex is passionate, incredibly intense and completely mind-bending. The opening threesome rebound porno-like session is undoubtedly the hottest sex scene I’ve ever read. What makes is even more fervent, is the fact that it isn’t just about sex. The random, alcohol-induced encounter with the third-party becomes for Michael and Nunzio a turning point; the beginning of something meaningful and poignant. It forever alters their twenty-year-old friendship and lays foundation for what is to come between them later.
It’s puzzling, that apparently Santino finds writing sex scenes embarrassing and uncomfortable (there has been talk of blushing on social medias) because damn, they read so well and are written effortlessly and with a flourish.
While it is not a regular occurrence for me to get teary, this book had me overwrought with emotion and on the verge of crying on couple of occasions. The scene where Michael, at the height of his internal numbness, apathy, confusion and alcohol addiction, pushes Nunzio away is simply heart wrenching. Another soul-stirring moment happens when Michael, having been hit by his epiphany, leaves Nunzio a moving, pleading message that marks the beginning of his road to recovery.
I don’t have much to say in terms of criticism here. The only thing I need to mention is that with Michael remaining the focus of the story and being the narrator, I personally missed Nunzio’s perspective in the book. He is such an enthralling character; getting a more in-depth glimpse at his motivation and internal unravelling would have made the story fuller and the novel holistically perfect. I would have loved a dual POV narration, with both Michael and Nunzio presenting the events respectively. That would have also solved another one of my minor issues, which is… the book’s length. I confess I was slightly disappointed in that respect. Being spoilt rotten by ICoS, I expected something more wordy and was surprised to find the book has only 265 pages.
To my mind, Sutphin Boulevard is a phenomenal and clever read. It is a book about life choices – positive and detrimental ones – but more importantly, it is a book about relationships. Relationships between family members, friends, lovers, colleagues, students and teachers. Nunzio’s words: “Teachers are supposed to be smart or the world turns out stupid” perfectly encapsulates the essence of the entire book for me.
I give this novel 4.5 rating and highly recommend it. I will be impatiently awaiting the next instalment in the ‘Five Boroughs’ series and for Santino Hassell to unfold Ray’s story.