Sunset Park, Romance at its Best

sunset park cover Raymond Rodriguez’s days of shoving responsibility to the wayside are over. His older brother wants to live with his boyfriend so Raymond has to get his act together and find a place of his own. But when out-and-proud David Butler offers to be his roommate, Raymond agrees for reasons other than needing a place to crash.

David is Raymond’s opposite in almost every way—he’s Connecticut prim and proper while Raymond is a sarcastic longshoreman from Queens—but their friendship is solid. Their closeness surprises everyone as does their not-so-playful flirtation since Raymond has always kept his bicurious side a secret.

Once they’re under the same roof, flirting turns physical, and soon their easy camaraderie is in danger of being lost to frustrating sexual tension and the stark cultural differences that set them apart. Now Raymond not only has to commit to his new independence—he has to commit to his feelings for David or risk losing him for good.

Disclaimer: We have had the honour and pleasure of reading an early copy of Sunset Park for which we are very grateful to the very generous Santino Hassell. We have, of course, all also pre ordered the book from  Dreamspinner and Amazon.

More Disclaimers: there are spoilers below, however minor, if you haven’t read the book or Sutphin Boulevard.

Fra: Before I even start this review; can we hear it for the very talented Santino Hassell who, in a very short space of time, has published three new books: Sutphin Boulevard – an incredible novel at the top of my favourite this year, Stygian the rocking Southern Gothic and today, book 2 of the Five Boroughs series Sunset Park! I mean, fantastic achievement there!

Karen : Yes, I would agree, I think that his ability to create an emotional and realistic narrative is well developed, and with each book he builds upon this. So far, these books have all been wonderful, and different.

Fra: Sutphin Boulevard introduced us to the main characters of Sunset Park, Raymond Rodriguez and David Butler. With Michael and Nunzio (sigh, hi Nunzio *makes googly eyes at Nunzio*) making progress in their relationship and wanting to get a space of their own, Ray is left with no choice but to get his act in gear and look for alternative accommodation out in the big bad world and away from Queens. This sets Sunset Park’s narrative in motion.

In Sutphin Boulevard, Ray’s character fascinated me (also reminded me greatly of my dopehead brother and the damage done by mollycoddling mothers all over the world): it is a credit to Hassell’s master characterisation that he showed us first an “overgrown baby” through Michael’s eyes and as Michael discovers that there’s so much more to Ray so did we as  readers.

Miki: I need to say that Sutphin Boulevard was a strong book, a force of nature. It was what I’m used to reading in  Santino Hassell’s books: risky, brave, a bit cynical, laced with social criticism, irreverent. Sustained with a lot of research that gave the story a substance that´s very hard to find in the romance genre. I feel that changed radically in Sunset Park.

Karen: my first impression of Sunset Park was twofold, that this was more of a classic romance than Sutphin Boulevard, and bloody hell, he’s made David a sympathetic character.

That it’s more of a classic romance is perhaps because it’s lighter than Sutphin Boulevard, possibly. But also because it’s much more apparent here that these guys affect change in each other. And David, I thought that in Sutphin Boulevard he was an arse, and it is the ability of a gifted writer to take your preconceptions and turn them. Although David  never became for me someone that I connected with in the same way as I did, for example with Michael.

Fra: The narrative journey of Ray and David in Sunset Park is firmly ensconced in the m/m romance genre while still delivering what I have come to cherish as  two of the main strengths of Hassell’s writing: flawless world building and superb characterisation in believably realistic settings.

In Sunset Park, Hassell delivers the perfect friends to lovers trope beloved of romance writing – he does it in, possibly, the most lighthearted that we have seen of this writer yet. And still, both characters are firmly rooted in the world they inhabit and in their narrative growth.

It felt to me that their journey to lovers was in fact very realistically described – there was obviously attraction but the journey was mostly mental as both Ray and David analise their feelings, bounce them against their beliefs and preconceived ideas of one another.

Miki : regarding precisely that, Fra, personally I felt a bit disappointed. The romance between the two protagonists is the only/ main narrative thread, and that no longer attracts me in the least. I feel that, eventually, romance is a genre which cannibalises both talent and rule breaking in favour of sales and commercial success.

Santino Hassell´s books always have something else to sustain the main relationship. In his books, *things* happen, and as a part of that, he places some kind of “love story”. Never traditional.

The first book had that, the story had  strong social content and an attempt to break structures. I did not find it here, holding the big frame.

Fra: I feel that the genre is becoming too much of a small box for writing as good as Hassell’s and that there is way too much pressure for writers to deliver “what’s expected”.

But even in this context I do think that, albeit Sunset Park is certainly a more immediately recognisable romance, rules are still being broken and very well indeed.

I particularly appreciated the fact that Ray’s attraction and eventual need and love for David does not stem from that most ridiculous of  m/m romance narrative devices: GFY. Ray Rodriguez accepts his sexuality as a matter of course, as part of whom he is and most of his journey of self discovery here is not an endless rumination on “OMG I like guys, should I or shouldn’t I” but pretty much the self discovery of any 25 year old who has to go from sheltered mamma’s boy to being his own man in a very short period of time and under rather dramatic circumstances.

Karen : Fra, you’ve kind of hit upon something here for me, when I first read Sunset Park I got caught up in the WAY it was written. It’s realistic while still retaining a romantic overtone (which sounds dumb because it IS a romance). The second time I read it I focused less on the romance, and more on the personal development. I agree that Ray’s ability to accept his sexuality was atypical in m/m. I have read so many books where all the conflict was internal because one of the characters couldn’t deal with the fact that they had either had or acted upon feeling for someone of the same sex.

Ray’s inner debate has nothing to do with “struggling” with his bisexuality or curiosity, it is woven around the need to get a  move on and start depending on himself.

Miki: I didn’t feel that exactly, but I agree that Ray´s character was the only one developed with a certain originality, avoiding the typical m/m development. In the end, though, I felt that the relationship, as a whole,  fell into one of the boxes that the genre allows for the romance. Maybe because of David´s character.

Fra: Ray’s personal growth is one my favourite parts of Sunset Park. It is neither extremely difficult nor is it simplistic: I admit to having been very worried about a sequel relating to a beloved secondary character since I was so very disappointed early on in the year in very similar reading circumstances. I should haven’t worried – Santino Hassell is a very talented writer and his portrayal of Ray’s growth is rather realistic and expertly done.

However  as much as I love Ray and his journey I must admit that I really, really dislike David. This is not new, to be honest, I really, really disliked David in Sutphin Boulevard also. Interfering, dramatic for drama’s sake he started grating on my nerves the moment he walked out the door of Nunzio’s apartment in  Sutphin Boulevard! Eh, what can I do? Nunzio disliked him from the start and who am I to doubt Nunzio Medici?

Miki: I totally agree with you. I’m not sure if it was done on purpose, but David’s unsubstantial drama was what annoyed me the most and what killed the story for me, in the end. With all due respect, because I think Santino Hassell is one of the most talented authors out there, I felt it became a bit like a soap opera. Unnecessarily.

Karen : I actually thought that Nunzio’s preconceptions were part of the problem. He was so convinced that David was reacting to Ray because of his ethnicity. And because Nunzio is such a sympathetic character we tend to side with him. Again, I thought this was really clever writing.

However I would say that what made David both unsympathetic and conversely more believable was his attitude to Ray’s bisexuality. It didn’t stop him from having sex with Ray, but it did make him question having a relationship. I know I may be perverse, but that made me warm to David. Because as he started to grow he dealt with this.

Fra: In all seriousness though: David Butler is not a likeable character; he is melodramatic and calculating, he wants the “perfect” looking relationship and the status of being with Caleb in spite of the fact that he knows he doesn’t love him. He cheats and then gets back to Caleb every time.

Now, I have a feeling that, as readers, we were supposed to dislike Caleb, there were hints of Caleb being manipulative: I don’t buy it. Don’t get me wrong, it is possible that Caleb wants the “facade” relationship as much as David, and yet – if I am not completely mistaken – he is the one that keeps coming back for David.

Wow, that felt good!

That said, though, I always think that it is a sign of great writing that a character mightn’t be the most likeable of the lot and yet the tension between the MCs sustains a story which is ultimately really well told. Still spent a good part of my reading hoping Ray would get with Oli just for the craic* though.

(*Irish for fun, not the drug)

Still their journey towards each other and a relationship felt very real to me including,  and perhaps specifically, because of David having no qualms having sex with Ray but doubting he could have a relationship with him because he is bisexual. I thought it was most ironic that Ray – the character we are supposed to believe is immature and needs to “grow up” – is very much sure of his feelings and attraction straight away even while being cautious, whereas David – out and proud, who seems to having to be taken as a cornerstone of “mature” creates all this drama out of nothing more than his own preconceived ideas of bisexual men.

Sutphin Boulevard is one of my top reads of 2015, it is raw, realistic and rule breaking; political even, in a way that resonated with me rather deeply. Sunset Park is decisively less dark and less angsty if not less real than its big brother. Pretty much a novel embodiment of the two Rodriguez brothers now that I think about it!

Where the political undercurrent worked incredibly well for me in Sutphin Boulevard, it sort of grated my nerves in Sunset Park and was a little too close to this idea of the “ liberal usian who must utter several Political Correct Statements for the benefit of the PC brigade and seize every opportunity to take a dig at hipsters  or office workers or people who – god forbid live/drink in Williamsburg”  especially when it came from David!

Miki: This. Exactly this. Maybe the problem for me was that I was expecting this novel to be  on the same level as Sutphin Boulevard regarding the delivery of political and social aspects. But it was more a classic romantic story, that follows the standards if not the rules of the genre. Which is perfectly fine, of course, but it’s not my thing anymore.

Fra: I think that all in all Sunset Park is the perfect romance novel, it firmly places Hassell way ahead of the majority of writers in the genre, it showcases the range of his writing skills even as it seems to pay more than its fair dues to a genre that I have also started to consider slightly stale and repetitive.

In conclusion, Sunset Park is a highly recommended romance novel: it explores relationship themes that are dear to the genre in a realistic and perfectly delivered manner. There is no doubt that Santino Hassell’s talent and writing reach is a force to be reckoned with: it has the strength, the scope and the potential to change the face of a genre in dire need of a good shake up.

We are very much looking forward the next books in the Five Boroughs series as well as all of the groundbreaking, diverse novels that this talented author is going to publish in the near future.

Get the book. Sunset Park is published today and is available at the links below



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