First and First, by Santino Hassell
Series: Five Boroughs #3 (Standalone)
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Release Date: April 18, 2016
Rafa’s Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
El’s Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Caleb Stone was raised on the Upper East Side, where wealth and lineage reigns, and “alternative lifestyles” are hidden. It took him years to come out to his family, but he’s still stuck in the stranglehold of their expectations. Caleb knows he has to build his confidence and shake things up, but he doesn’t know how… until Oliver Buckley enters the picture.
Oli is everything Caleb isn’t—risk-taking, provocative, and fiercely independent. Disowned by his family, Oli has made his own way in the world and is beholden to no one. After a chance encounter on New Year’s Eve, Caleb is smitten.
As Caleb sheds the insecurities that have held him back for years, he makes bold steps toward changing his career and escaping years of sexual repression. But for Caleb to take full control of his life, he has to be brave enough to confront his feelings and trust Oli with his heart.
I was both excited for this book, and a little leery. Excited because it’s another release by Santino Hassell, and leery because surely, surely it could never compare to the first two books in the Five Boroughs collection. Or really, any of his other works.
Well, looks like I was right to be excited, and dead wrong for being leery.
Even though First and First can be read as a standalone, there are several gems from (and unexpected insight into) the previous books scattered throughout. If you’ve read Sunset Park, the first thing that hits you when you crack open First and First is how different Caleb is from the villain we knew.
Hassell clearly has a knack for creating complex, multidimensional, characters. What’s more, he has this ability to let us slip into the minds of his characters, to see with their eyes and breathe the air in their world. And best of all, he’s not afraid to peel back their many layers to reveal just how beautiful these characters are with their imperfections and shortcomings and insecurities.
Simply put, Caleb Stone is drowning in his insecurities. Outwardly, he is cool, aloof and indomitable. On the inside, he’s completely at sea. At thirty-six, he’s recently single and newly unemployed, living in the shadow of his mother’s high society expectations and his father’s disapproving eye. Professionally, he’s in a funk despite having built an impressive career away from his family’s corporate empire. Sexually, he’s repressed his deepest desires for so long, that a drunken, debauched night with Oliver Buckley sends him further into a tailspin.
Sexy, confident Oli is sizzling sex on a stick. He’s gorgeous, independently wealthy, uncompromisingly independent – and unapologetically sex positive. While First and First exceeded my expectations on so many levels, Oli’s openness with sex is probably my biggest takeaway from it all. While many books in this genre can be considered sex positive, not all of them carry such a strong message against slut shaming as I feel First and First does.
There’s a lot of hot sex, but it’s not at all gratuitous (even though that would be perfectly A-okay and fitting with the story). But no, every single sex scene takes Caleb further along into his journey. And Oli is there every step of the way letting Caleb know that it’s okay to want, and experiment, and let go. And Oli is by no means perfect, with his own set of hang-ups. It’s also worth noting that even though the story is told from Caleb’s perspective, I had no trouble connecting with Oli – all credit to Hassell’s on-point writing.
I was really surprised and impressed by the brilliant venture that drives the story and many of the characters’ interactions within the book. Just like the author’s writing style, the idea is genius in its simplicity and so very believable and relevant. We are also introduced to some very compelling side characters that already has me guessing at and excited for the next book in the series.
In short, this book does not disappoint and will leave you wanting more.
Like, right away.
A book about identity and self-discovery seems like something you’d find in the New Adult genre, but Santino has brought us something a bit different with First & First: a man in his 30s who’s trying to redefine himself. Our previous glimpses of Caleb made him out to be… well, not the nicest guy ever, so Santino had a real challenge both in making him enjoyable and relatable to the reader, and in showing a progressive change as he begins his journey.
Being forced into an identity sucks whether you’re rich, poor, or, I don’t know, from the moon. You’re just going through life pretending to be some other guy just so people can tolerate you. That sucks. It’s not living.
But thank goodness for both Caleb and for the story that we have Oli to save the day and show him how to start living!
Caleb is… well, he’s grumpy and honestly kind of boring in many ways. As a solo character, I wouldn’t want to read a book about him. But Oli is the catalyst for all the interesting parts of the story: Caleb’s rediscovery, the plan that ensnares most of the main and side characters, and (of course) the sex!
Santino is well-known for writing the gritty and grumbling characters, but Oli was a delightful treat, and proof of Santino’s versatility in writing! He’s outgoing, sex-positive, unafraid (at least in public).
I enjoyed the hell out of this book, which I’m going to forever describe to people as “the gayrom version of Gossip Girl.” It’s brilliant. And there’s so much here to adore, from the old-fashioned phrases that help paint Caleb as a more complex character to how Oli and Caleb’s first night together reverberates through the rest of the novel. It’s a gorgeous book, and Santino has done an incredible job of taking an unlikable and uptight character and showing his transformation into someone I adore!
Santino Hassell was raised by a conservative family, but he was anything but traditional. He grew up to be a smart-mouthed, school cutting grunge kid, then a transient twenty-something, and eventually transformed into an unlikely romance author.
Santino writes queer romance that is heavily influenced by the gritty, urban landscape of New York City, his belief that human relationships are complex and flawed, and his own life experiences.
To learn more about Santino you can follow him on:
Facebook: theonlysonnyhassell | santinohassellbooks
You can also find him on his website at http://santinohassell.com/
Purchase First and First from:
Dreamspinner Press (eBook)
Dreamspinner Press (Paperback)
The reviewers received an advanced copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.