Cover Image: Small Joys

Small Joys

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Member Reviews

This sad but sweet debut novel is told from the perspective of Harley, a 21 year old gay black man who after dropping out of university, is back in the small UK town he grew up in where there are almost no black or LGBTQ people. Harley is suffering from deep depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, but with a small group of friends both old and new he very slowly starts to heal.

Despite the word “joy” in the title, this is quite the sad book, though thankfully it has moments of hope too. If you read Jessica George’s excellent debut Maame, this is not unlike the gay male version of that book - indeed Harley’s dad is from Ghana as well. So if you liked that one and don’t mind sadness, I definitely recommend this one. Harley and his friends were all such great characters that really came to life with all their quirks.

This was a book I cried when it ended - not just because the end was good, but because I had grown so attached to Harley that I needed to know what would happen to him after the book ended and that he would be ok.
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A few times a year—if I’m lucky—I stumble upon a quiet novel, a novel that feels like I’m sitting with a friend, hearing their story; a heartbreaking story that makes me think there’s no hope for humanity, but then delivers a glimmer of hope that becomes a blazing sun. Small Joys by Elvin James Mensah is one such novel.

We meet Harley at a low point in his life. He’s contemplating desperate choices when a stranger, Muddy, takes him by surprise. Unbeknownst to Harley, Muddy is his new flatmate, and as Harley slowly opens up to this new friendship, we see that Harley is kind and good and desperate for love, but broken by being repeatedly hurt. Muddy, as an avid bird-watcher, is patient and perceptive, and he sees that Harley needs help. Their friendship is pure and joyful, and it’s a pleasure to witness. If you’re a fan of Heartstopper, Harley and Muddy may remind you a bit of Charlie and Nick.

This novel is about found families and being young and “finding yourself” alongside your friends who are trying to find themselves, as well. Harley has a small friend group who he hasn’t opened up to much, but as he opens up to Muddy, he also opens up to his existing friends, all of whom take Harley under their wing in different ways.

I found myself highlighting passage after passage, until the whole book almost seemed highlighted. It’s beautifully written, told with a brutal honesty and carefully chosen words. And while it would probably be considered a slow-paced novel, I didn’t want to set it down, desperate to know if Harley would be okay.

There are many content or trigger warnings for this novel that might keep you from picking it up, but the joy and pureness of the friendships outshines the difficult parts. I never found it overwhelmingly sad or too stressful. Mensah delivers the story with a gentle hand.

A few other random things I enjoyed about this book:

It’s full of musical references, and my friends know how much I love for my books to include music. Even if it’s an artist or song I don’t know, I just enjoy when my characters also enjoy music. But I highlighted every reference on my kindle to go back to later and make a playlist, of course, which ended up being the most wonderfully random assortment of songs.

I also enjoyed all the mentions of birds. It gave me a whole new perspective on the hobby of bird-watching, which I’d always thought of as somewhat boring. Now, I can appreciate the peace and healing of the practice.

Impressive and perfect, Mensah’s debut is a novel that builds empathy for fellow humans. It reminds us that even though we may not see it, people are struggling, and one moment of kindness may be just what they need. I feel like Small Joys will stay with me a long time, and I hope this is a book that gets the attention it deserves.
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Small Joys was just the most delightful book. I am partial to a story set in London, but this one was far beyond my expectations. I loved the quirky characters and the dialogue. I want to be apart of their friend group! But also, while this story was really fun to read, it was also really challenging at times. It touches on a lot of heavier subjects (depression, suicide, etc). I really appreciated the real life mixed in and overall I would say this was a fantastic read! I can’t wait to read more from this author.
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A Healing Friendship

Harley is at the end of his rope. He dropped out of college, is estranged from his father, and is working a lower-level job in a movie theater. He suffers from anxiety and depression and is at the point of taking his own life when he’s rescued by Muddy. The boys live in the same rental house and Muddy takes Harley under his wing teaching him to enjoy things in life like bird-watching. 

The boys, although quite different, form a strong bond. With the other young people living in the house they form a type of family to support each other. Harley continues to suffer from his mental health problems, but now there is growth and healing. Muddy is particularly sensitive as he is dealing with his grandfather’s dementia. It is a beautiful story of friendship and support. 

I enjoyed both main characters. However, Muddy was particularly effective, dealing with his own problems and finding the compassion to befriend someone in need and help them to heal. The book is a character based novel with little action. However, the dialogue and the sensitive topics covered move the book along well.

This is a coming of age story. It is very satisfying to see the two young men helping each other in a difficult world. This is a book that can bring you joy as you read it. 

I received this book from Random House for this review.
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Within a few pages, I was deeply immersed in SMALL JOYS by Elvin James Mensah. At the start of the story, Harley, the hero of the story, is saved from disaster by Muddy, a remarkable man who becomes housemate, friend, and self-proclaimed special person. Time and again, Muddy rushes in with his huge heart, boundless enthusiasm for birding, and love for his special person and close friends. While parts of the story felt slow, I loved reading it, enjoyed adding unforgettable characters to my world. A remarkable, singular read -- such a pleasure. I received a copy of this book and these opinions are my own, unbiased thoughts.
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Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for the eARC

Small Joys is a beautiful book about living, acceptance, and healing. It swept me off my feet and I hope it does that for you as well. 
Harley has dropped out of college and doesn't know what to do with himself. he has an estranged relationship with his father, who is not accepting of his son's identity and keeps finding ways to remind him of that, so he moves in with some friends. Chelsea, Noria, Finlay, and Muddy comprise this friend group. Muddy is a birder. He has a hobby for watching birds and cataloguing them for his grandfather. After their first meeting, Muddy and Harley are fast friends. Muddy is different from Harley. He's easygoing, has dated every girl in their friendgroup and yet can still remain best friends with them, and won't leave Harley's side. Harley is hurting due to his father, the expectations he has set for himself, and a poorly devised relationship with a much older man. He has to learn throughout the course of this novel how to trust his friends and his heart and learn to fall in love with life again. 
This book certainly surprised me. I went in just expecting it to be another contemporary novel, but it subverted my expectations in multiple ways. All the characters are dynamic and memorable. The friend group is filled with banter and tough love. There are the people in the group that are more problematic, but they're called out on what they need to be called out on. The found family that Harley and the reader both find is heartwarming and moving.
I also loved the subtle but incredibly important asexual representation. I was suspecting it pretty early on in the book, but was very happy to see it represented in this. I need ace rep like this where the character comes out and the other person makes the most sarcastic remark ever. 
So give this book a chance. I know I'll be remembering this one for a while. 

CW (not an exhaustive list): suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, self harm, conversion therapy, religious trauma, age gap relationship, sexual abuse, physical abuse.
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There’s a common middle-school science experiment you can do (bear with me here) to demonstrate osmosis: you soak an egg in vinegar overnight to remove its shell, then you put it in a bowl of water and leave it until it expands to twice its normal size, from all the water it absorbs. SMALL JOYS made my heart feel like one of those science-experiment eggs: softened, and then swelled up until it almost bursts, from all the wonder and tenderness this story contained. 

This isn’t a romance by any standards, but it is, profoundly, a story about love. After dropping out of his university program due to his mental health, Harley – a young gay Black man – moves in with an old friend (Chelsea) and her new roommate, Muddy, who happens upon Harley at an important moment, and becomes a fast friend. The book follows Harley as he deals with this new friendships, the complicated relationships of his friend group, his fraught relationship with his father, and his own mental health, in a series of ups and downs. 

This is a quiet, gorgeous book. the writing is excellent; Harley’s voice absolutely shines, and he’s an excellent protagonist, but the cast of characters around him are all lovely and compelling in their own right, even though we get them only through Harley’s — relatively limited — view. 

This will appeal to fans of books like ALL THIS COULD BE DIFFERENT, or any other quiet and atmospheric queer litfic reads; I recommend it wholeheartedly. thanks so much to Netgalley and Ballantine Books for the ARC!
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This one hits the emotions from the get-go, as we first meet Harley as he's about to take a very final step to end his depression. Things take a while to get better after that, yet his meeting Muddy and the time he spends surrounded by those who care for him are a balm even for readers. 
Harley's story is dark and the story could have easily been as dark as how this poor young man is feeling, but Mensah goes all in on finding the small joys in life and it makes the story so much better. The relationship between Harley and Muddy is a pure serotonin and dopamine shot. Everyone could do with a Muddy in their lives. And it's not just that relationship, it's every interaction that Harley has with friends and people other than the horrid, toxic men he had before. The interactions are all different because all the personalities are different and it brings varied dynamics into Harley's life that show him life is hard for everyone in different ways and that there are ways to live through hard times. It's a wonderful message of everybody needs somebody sometimes and I loved it. 
I do feel like this could probably be rated higher, but I'm honestly so exhausted of books about/featuring depression and anxiety that I can't bring myself to properly like one that is so expertly handled. I get that it's a big part of today's life, but that's precisely why I'm tired of it in books. I also get that it shouldn't affect how such a well-done book is rated, but I'm still deducting a star for depression burnout. 

Happy thanks to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for the stirring read!
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A gentle novel about five 20-somethings set in 2005 that explores mental health, acceptance, and found family.  Muddy saves Harley, who tells this, from himself and then becomes his great and unexpected friend.  They're flatmates and part of a universe that includes Chelsea, Noria and Finley- all different, all protective of one another.  Harley's dropped out of university and he's back working at the movie theater where Chelsea is now his boss.  He hasn't told his father, a Ghanian with strong opinions about homosexuality who refuses to acknowledge what Harley has told him about himself.  He's struggling with depression, anxiety, and challenged by his inability to move forward even as his friends do.  Muddy is dealing with his beloved grandfather's dementia.  These two form a bond that's stronger than those between the others- who are no less important to the story.  They all help Harley when he's assaulted.  This is very much a coming of age story.  It's beautifully and lovingly written (Mensah is clearly committed to his characters). Thanks to Netgalley for the arc.  A good debut and a worthy read.
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This is an odd but interesting book that holds no punches.  The narrator, Harley, has dropped out of college and moved back to his small home town and is giving up hope of finding joy.  He’s estranged from his religious father who can’t accept his gay son and just doesn’t see what the point of his existence in the world is.  He has a good group of friends and a new housemate Muddy catches him off guard.  This story is about a lot of things and most of the topics are heavy.  It’s not really a happily ever after story, but I also didn’t cry.  The characters were interesting even when they were being a bit odd.  I had a hard time getting into this book, but once I pushed into it, the story was beautiful in a very sad kind of way.  Overall I gave this one 3.5 stars rounded up for the brutal, tragic, honesty.
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Harley is struggling and has dropped out of university and is living and working with some friends. He is very depressed and suicidal, mainly as a result of his father's refusal to accept Harley's sexual orientation. When his new roommate comes across Harley attempting suicide, a strong bond is formed between the two that forms the foundation of the story. Frequently while reading, I thought back to David Santos Donaldson's Greenland. The situations felt very similar with young gay men of color diminishing themselves; however, this story went in another direction with the inclusion of a small group of very interconnected friends rallying to support Harley. I also enjoyed the inclusion of Muddy's grandfather, bird watching, and frequent musical references. I felt like it gave the reader a place to rest and absorb the horrific details of the what Harley was going through before continuing on. Though I'm still a bit uncomfortable with how the other members of the group constantly treated Harley as though he were many years younger than them, despite the only 2-3 year age difference. Even knowing it was from a place of love, it chafed me a bit when it came up. I suppose if Harley was comfortable with it then I should be, right? Ultimately, this was not only a story of Harley coming in to his own but also a great one of friendship and found family.
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Small Joys
By Elvin James Mensah

Small Joys is an appropriate title for this book.  It is the story of Harley, a young, gay, black man who has been shunned by his father and who has sunk into a depressed state wanting to end his meaningless life.

As he is about to kill himself, he is stopped by a young stranger nicknamed Muddy, who happens to be bird watching in the woods. It turns out that the two have a friend, Chelsea, in common – and they are both staying in a flat owned by her father.  From there the story lays out the small joys of friendships which develop and the mutual discoveries about people who may be different from you but can still love you for who you are.

This is an interesting read about assumptions we make and the reality of what can happen if we reach out to others.
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DNF at 15% because the writing style is not working for me at all. The story is intriguing, so I might pick it back up in the future, at which time I’ll update this. Thank you to Random House and Netgalley for the ARC of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.
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This was a lovely book about friendship/found family and mental health.

It was lovely to see Harley be taken under the wing of Muddy. And see Muddy and Finlay decide they will watch out for Harley and his mental health. I liked seeing the interactions between all the friends, no matter how messy.

There were some wonderful talks about mental health and sexuality. 

[cw - suicide attempts, passive suicide ideation, depression, homophobia, assault]
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Content Warnings: Suicide attempts, suicidal ideations, depression, anxiety, toxic relationships, domestic abuse, child abuse, sexual content, racism, homophobia, and hate crimes.

Small Joys is one of those novels that deals with some heavy topics, takes you through so many emotions, but in the end you're left with warm feelings and hope for a brighter future.

What I really enjoyed about this book was there was no clear's like we just popped into one summer of someone's journey of self discovery. We get to see someone who hits their lowest slowly begin the journey towards finding love for themselves and finding their place in the world around them.
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Small joys was a great debut novel - and not really what I was expecting.. It tells of the developing friendship between Harley and Muddy, as they navigate the difficult waters of early adulthood. 

Harley dropped out of college and moved in to a flat with friend Chelsea. Muddy is a new roommate who very quickly understands that Harley has secrets, and really needs a friend. 

This is a touching story of a small group of young people, Harley, Muddy, Chelsea, Noria and Finlay and their difficulties with families, romantic relationships and with their path in life. Harley in particular has a very fractious relationship with his father, and has struggled with mental health issues for a while. Muddy is ever the optimist, determined to help Harley find love and joy. 

This was a relatively slow moving and gentle book, with a very 'real' feel to the relationships described.

A good read.
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Beautiful story. Likable characters - I’d go birding with Muddy any time. Once I was through a tough opening chapter, it was a breeze of a read. Some triggering topics, but they were explained well and handled gently. My only complaint is that I want to know how everyone is doing now!  4 stars for a very lovely debut novel.

Thank you to NetGalley for allowing me to read and review (my first) this wonderful book!
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A heartwarming story about the friends who get us through our darkest times.  It took a while to get used to the British slang (and I had to look up some of it!), but once that was accomplished, the dialogue was fast, smart, and witty.  Loved all of the mid-2000s music references.  Some of the characters felt a little too selfless, perhaps an idealized version of friendship for plot purposes.  Overall, it was a beautiful, uplifting book.

Thank you to NetGallery and Random House for an ARC in exchange for an unbiased review.
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Worth the slow start, this is a quirky, but sweet book about how the constants of friendship, love, and support can help you find the space to turn a corner and live for yourself.

With a cast of characters that seem strange at first, a romantic interest named Muddy, a “rich” best friend who only wants to talk about herself, and her attractive, but shallow new boyfriend, this book was hard for me to get into. Set in 2005, a huge part of this book is how the characters use music to relate to each other early on in their friendships, which was a miss for me since I’m not a fan of rap. But as they all start to fall in and develop deeper relationships, I appreciated that their connections were genuine and the characters deepened to be more multifaceted. I particularly enjoyed the birding excursions, and the sharing of hobbies that happened between the friends.

Harley is struggling with anxiety and depression and has just dropped out of school. He is about to take his own life, when he first encounters Muddy, an avid birder out for a quick walk in the woods by his new place. While not making a a fuss about it in the moment, from this point on, Muddy takes an intense interest in helping Harley out, being supportive, making him feel included in their group of friends, and sharing his infectious joy with him whenever possible. As a gay black man, Harley has struggled a lot with his identity and his estranged relationship with his religious African father, and so his friendship with a black woman, Noria, and new additions, straight white men Finn and Muddy, is healing for him. But what he feels for Muddy is stronger than friendship, and he worries about the complexities of falling in love with a friend, particularly a straight one.
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Unfortunately this book was a dnf for me. But it has nothing to do with the story or anything. I just didn’t vibe with the writing style but I know so many people will really enjoy this. The characters are interesting and I think it can really tug at your heart strings. I don’t know anything about the author but this felt very self insert to me so I know this book means a lot to them. I hope it finds its audience because I would love to check back in on this author in the future to see what they are coming out with.
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