Author: Santino Hassell
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Pages/Word Count: 244 Pages
At a Glance: While admittedly not my favorite book in this series, by the end of First and First I loved where Caleb and Oli ended up.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: Caleb Stone was raised on the Upper East Side, where wealth and lineage reign 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.
Review: Having read and mad-crazy-loved Sutphin Boulevard and Sunset Park, I have to confess that I knew going into First and First it was going to be a challenge. I just didn’t know how much of a challenge it’d be getting inside Caleb Stone’s head.
Caleb—David’s ex and Raymond’s arch-nemesis in “Sunset”—doesn’t make it easy to be privy to all his thoughts. His mind is a pretty depressing place, truth be told, filled with a lot of repression and ingrained negativity toward everything from his own appearance to his sexual desires. Caleb’s auto-response is self-deprecation and his primary emotions seem to lean toward anxiety and/or anger, if not posing a cool and unaffected detachment—that is, when he’s not running away from his feelings altogether. In other words, Caleb doesn’t do life-lite, and everything about him reads like a weight that burdens his very existence. This book begins that way and doesn’t let up until nearly the very end.
Oliver Buckley, in a complete 180, is as sex-positive a character as I’ve ever read. Oli loves sex, Oli loves sex with multiple partners, Oli loves orgies. Oli doesn’t do monogamous. But Oli does do the hell out of Caleb on New Year’s Eve—and from that point on, their relationship plays out in a lock-and-key way. Oli takes on the mission of unlocking all of Caleb’s inhibitions, while Caleb battles mentally against letting Oli open those floodgates. Their relationship is a series of lines drawn in the sand, obliterating those lines, and then drawing new ones until there’s no choice but to give in or stop trying. One thing Oli does share with Caleb is this cool and unaffected facade, but where Caleb’s presents as a sort of defense mechanism, Oli’s appears more as just a part of who he is.
First and First is written in what I’m beginning to think of as classic Santino Hassell style. Like the other Five Boroughs novels, this book draws you in from the start and doesn’t let go of you emotionally until you’ve figured out why these characters belong together, or you go nuts trying. Of all the couples so far—Mikey and Nuzio, who had history; and David and Raymond, who were a complete opposites attract story—Caleb and Oli may be opposites in their attitudes toward sex and relationships, but they share one similarity: their dysfunctional family backgrounds. Well, that and the fact that they’re attracted to each other in far out and unusual ways. What brings these guys together and makes them work is that their opposite “everythings” were each what the other was lacking, and, in the end, it allowed them to meet somewhere in the middle. They sort of just made each other better, and what mattered when all was written was that they both ended up wanting the same thing at the same time.
Because this book is pretty much about sex, the freedom and the fear of it and the ultimate embracing of it, it stands to reason that there’s a lot of sex in the book. There’s also no debating that Hassell writes some hot as hell sex scenes—the sort that might make a lady blush… if one had ever professed to be a lady, of course. That being the case, I have to say that First and First doesn’t pull any punches in terms of where Oli wants to take Caleb, and how far he’s willing to go to deliver him there, which means if you like your sex and romance on the conventional side, Caleb and Oli are here to try to make you see otherwise. While the subject of monogamy is an initial sticking point between these two men, how they find their way from opposite sides to the middle is an important part of the erotic journey, especially for Caleb, and I love how Hassell brought them there without the feeling that either man sacrificed a part of themselves in the process.
If I compared the books in this series side-by-side, I have to say that because Caleb is an unreliable narrator—almost an anti-hero when it comes down to it, at least in terms of how he sees himself—I had a hard time connecting with him for a while, but looking back, this was sort of brilliant because while I felt frustrated by him, I also felt a lot of compassion for him. Caleb wanted–he wanted badly–but he had such a hard time admitting what it was he needed. And then Oli would do something so damned sweet, and Caleb would be so endearingly caught off guard by it—he just isn’t the sort of guy who expects spontaneous kindness or compliments—that I was sucked right into their story because hearty eyes romantic stuff wins the day every time.
First and First may not be my favorite book in this series, but in their own right, Caleb and Oli earned their happy ending. And I ended up loving them for each other.
You can buy First and First here: