Review: A Look at Santino Hassell’s SUNSET PARK by Kasia BB
Unquestionably brilliantly written, Sunset Park is the second installment in the Five Boroughs story. It has been the most anticipated autumn release for me. The first book, Sutphin Boulevard, was deliciously angsty and featured darker themes. In comparison, this novel constitutes a much lighter read, filled with sweeter, romantic undertones, repartee, and humor. It also has more of a New Adult feel. Still, there’s an edge to it, and plenty of heat - of the Kindle melting variety. Recently I wrote a post on the classic tropes I enjoy within the M/M genre. Coincidentally, Sunset Park is cleverly woven around not one, not two, but three of my favorite themes, turning this book into something of my kryptonite. Clash of Cultures and Personalities Seemingly, Raymond Rodriguez and David Butler - or Rayvid, have nothing in common. Diametrically different on every level, they personify the opposites attract paradigm. It should end up in tears or homicide. It shouldn’t work. Yet, surprisingly, it does. Ray and David understand and – in a bizarre, endearing way – complete each other. Background wise, Ray is a rough around the edges, blue-collar Latino, who grew up in a religious and slightly dysfunctional household in a tough neighborhood. David, on the other hand, a son of liberal middle class parents, is a polished, well-educated white boy. The class divide only enhances the dissimilarities between their personalities. Ray is an easy-going slob, whose relaxed, almost stoic attitude (aided by weed), emphasizes David’s mild OCD and overbearing, neurotic demeanor. Ray goes with the flow, accepting reality as it is, while David over-analyses everything. Ray doesn’t hold particular aspirations, whereas David is ambitious. Even their hang-ups and insecurities are of a completely different nature. Ray struggles with feelings of inadequacy and anxieties around not measuring up. David is slightly inconsistent – while he seems to crave stability and security, he jeopardizes his goal the minute he achieves it. A clever implementation of a double POV in the first person makes those differences even more prominent. This kind of narration was a fitting choice. I enjoyed the interchanges between Ray’s and David’s perspectives, which are as frequent, as they are seamless. Ray’s narrative is hilarious, authentic, and sarcastically cool. I’ve been carrying a torch for him since the first book, but it’s now official – he’s my favorite character. David’s POV helped me understand him a little better, although he hasn’t won me over completely. Fine, he can be amusing, but at times a desire to bitch-slap him was overwhelming. Friends to Lovers Although Ray and David start as friends and, subsequently, flatmates, there’s an undeniable connection and chemistry brewing between them from the very beginning. The sexual tension is thick enough to cut with a knife, and eventually the boundaries of friendship become a little blurred. Under the facade of casual experimenting, a real bond and true affection start forming. At this time, however, the doubts and self-consciousness creep in. That part I find truly compelling. The quality of writing strikes me as visual and tactile. There’s an abundance of physical contact – subtle, seemingly subconscious touches, complete with lingering looks, chaste (#NotSoChaste) kisses, lots of lounging on and friendly (really?) cuddling. All that, coupled with some serious flirting and teasing, makes for a very seductive read indeed. A few witty wisecracks and easy banter, thrown in to relax the increasing friction, make this bromance feel complete. Testing Bi-Curiosity/Out for You David is an out and proud gay man, whereas Ray is bi-curious. I love bi-sexual characters in romances, in particular ones who have yet to figure out or accept their own sexuality. Even though Ray has never acted on it, his attraction to men is obvious. It explains his following Michael around, observing his older brother engaging in a man-on-man action, his teenage crush on Nunzio, and getting all touchy-feely with David. Not to mention the gay porn incident (heads up – weren’t they just – it’s hot!!) Ray’s experimenting leads to the first kiss with David, an uproarious Grindr exchange and a mind-blowing sex scene that follows. Nothing wrong with erotica here. Nuh-uh. Ray, who is generally roughly honest about his choices, comes to terms with his sexuality rather painlessly. Ironically, it seems a greater deal to his brother (who, naturally, blames himself for this and everything else in the universe) and David. Initially, David regards Ray’s bisexuality as merely a phase, which doesn’t make Ray a safe bet relationship wise. Hassell is an imaginative writer. With every new book, he widens the scope of his writing and introduces new elements to his prose, whether it’s dystopian moodiness, gothic fiction, suspense or – in this case – humor. Regardless of the subgenre his characters – be it assassins, vampires or teachers - are relatable and believable. Nobody writes flaws, imperfections, inhibitions and screwing-up quite like Hassell. To my mind, this novel is, above all, about the character’s growth. Ray’s story is a journey to Independenceville through Commitmentham. I also appreciated the fact that the author doesn’t shove everything down the reader’s throat, but demands a considerable amount of perceptibility and attention to nuances. Some hints and clues are behavioral, rather than provided in the dialogue or narrative. The Five Boroughs series has proved to be an enthralling read so far, and I thoroughly recommend it. It doesn’t hurt that the covers provide an aesthetic thrill in their own right. While I enjoyed Sunset Park, which is funny and sexy, Sutphin Boulevard remains my favorite by far. I’m convinced it’s not going to be a widely shared opinion. However, for me Hassell is in his top form, when his writing is colored by darkness and grit and accompanied by a couple of trigger warnings. His usage of anguish and angst resembles the way the addition of salt is required in desserts – it enhances their sweet taste and refines them. When this ingredient is missing, the dish is still damn good, but not extraordinary. I’m excited for the next installment, First and First. It contains Caleb’s story, who, I strongly suspect, might just be the type I end up falling hard for – mature, complex, with various issues. There’s also the matter of his sexual repression, accumulated through the years, which awaits, um, an overdue release. A bilingual Londoner Kasia BB is a literary/medical translator and a proofreader. An avid reader, reviewer and book blogger, she’s currently working on her debut M/M fantasy novel, filled with the shenanigans of assassins and sexy elves. She has a mild coffee and lemon tart addiction, coupled with a slight obsession of all things paranormal. She is a lover of MMA, nature and the great outdoors. She can be found on her website, Twitter, or on Goodreads.
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