REVIEW: ‘Sutphin Boulevard’ (Five Boroughs # 1) By Santino Hassell

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*Contains Spoilers*

AUTHOR SUPPLIED AN ARC FOR AN HONEST REVIEW

I approach this book as a great admirer of Santino Hassell’s work, and digging into his first his first solo Contemporary M/M Romance away from the ICoS world was a scary and enthralling prospect. ‘Sutphin Boulevard’ is the first book in his new ‘Five Boroughs’ series. The books will be interconnected standalones featuring a diverse group of gay friends living in NYC. ‘Sutphin Boulevard’ sings of the Author’s love/hate relationship with his home of New York, marrying the abrasiveness of the city with the multi-layered relationship between Puerto Rican Michael Rodriguez and Sicilian Nunzio Medici. A shorter read than Hassell’s past epic works at 90k Words/265 pages. And unlike his previous work, there are no shoot outs and the only explosions happen between the sheets!

The focus of the story is primarily on Michael Rodriguez, a High School History teacher in his early thirties and Nunzio Medici, his best friend of twenty years. The men bonded in their teens while escaping their dysfunctional families in the NYC Borough of Queens, and Nunzio followed his best friend through college to end up teaching in the same school. The story initially sets itself up as a shallow affair of hedonistic thirty something gay men indulging in a very hot porno style rebound sex. I can say without a doubt that Santino writes great sex scenes, but don’t let that scene fool you; this story deeper than sex and anything but dirty, light and breezy.

As the layers of Michael’s story reveal themselves we are shown a deeply flawed character, a man who tries to do right by everyone, but his life is not his own. Outwardly Michael is the strong dependable son in the Rodriguez family, the one who got himself an Education and a proper job, yet he lives his life as a ‘functioning’ alcoholic, reaching for booze or Amphetamines as his go-to coping mechanisms. He tries to hold the threads of his personal life and remaining family together foregoing his own needs and happiness in the process. In places the story reads as being semi-autobiographical, the Author drawing on experiences from his own life as a Teacher in New York and coping with substance abuse issues, therefore the character of Michael comes across as fucked up and very believable.

Michael’s best friend Nunzio is the rock in his life. A hot Sicilian with baby Blue ‘Sinatra’ eyes, amazing body and veracious sexual appetite. He is Michael’s constant playmate, support and comfort. They have enjoyed a platonic friendship for two decades. However, their supposed platonic relationship, to me is anything but, their connection speaking of a deeper intimacy neither will admit to, the boundaries between friends and lovers having been blurred a long time ago.

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This intimacy makes Michael’s surprise when they do ‘fool around’ baffling. I mean, the man must have been blind for 20 years to have Nunzio in front of his eyes to never consider him an option! But when these two do get together the chemistry is incendiary.

I have to mention one thing that did bother me. There are multiple occurrences of unprotected sex. Generally I love reading about bareback in the context of a committed relationship. But Michael and Nunzio are on /off casual. I understand these men trust each other and have known each other since childhood, but they both have long histories of banging around. In my opinion, if you are going to go there with someone, get to the  clinic and get tested so you are not putting yourself or your lover at risk. The repeated occurrence stunned and baffled me; I don’t think I’m the only reader who will have an issue with it.

The book is a challenging read, the threads of the blossoming Romance story being weighted with many very heavy themes: Identity, family, grief, addiction, friendship and the restorative power of Love. Santino writes Michael’s self destructive spiral into the gutter as if he lived it so the exploration of Michael’s fall from grace and subsequent epiphanies come across as authentic and compelling. However, during these chapters the Romance theme takes a back seat. No matter what Michael puts him through, Nunzio remains the ever present constant source of hope in Michael’s life. The resolution to the story was a little abrupt, but satisfyingly life affirming. As a whole, ‘Sutphin Boulevard’ comes across as a very personal work grounded with life experience and authenticity. It wasn’t what I expected, but I’m impressed that Santino has many strings to his bow. Highly recommended.

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