Member Reviews

Small joys was an honest, emotional book about a young man's journey into young adulthood. Elvin James Mensah writes beautifully about the main character's experience with mental health, his struggle for parental acceptance and learning just where he fits, all the while, learning to find support within his group of friends. Thanks #NetGalley#BallentineBooks

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This book was a small, no it was a LARGE, joy!!! It was such a delight. It highlights so many important themes and does so with heart, humor and humility!!!!

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"Small Joys" is based on the story about two young men, Harley and Muddy, who form a strong bond despite their completely different upbringings.

Harley is struggling with depression and contemplating suicide due to being shunned by his religious father. He is saved by Muddy, whom he later discovers has a mutual friend with him, Chelsea, and is also staying in the same shared flat.

Muddy takes Harley under his wing, teaching him to appreciate life's simple pleasures, bird-watching, music, etc.Together with other young people in their rental house, they form a supportive family, helping each other through their individual struggles.

The story is more character driven than anything and the topics mentioned were very sadly relatable to me in so many levels.

I particularly loved the subliminal message from it: in our community sometimes the better family is the one we get to choose.

I could have used less amounts of: doesn’t it? Aren’t you?, isn’t he?, am I? Although I can see how it connects to their characters.

Overall I really liked it and for sure will be in my list of recommendations.

I obtained a copy from Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine via NetGalley, this is a genuine review from my part in exchange. #SmallJoys #NetGalley

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Many thanks to NetGalley and Random House Ballantine for gifting me a digital ARC of the debut novel by Elvin James Mensah - 4 stars!

Harley is a young Black gay man who just dropped out of university because of his anxiety issues. His religious father never accepted Harley because of his sexual orientation and they are estranged. The book opens with Harley in the woods contemplating suicide when a housemate, Muddy, finds him. Muddy is straight, in a relationship with another housemate, and is now on a mission to help Harley. He introduces him to the things he loves - birding, rugby, the band Oasis. Along with their other core friends, Finlay, Chelsea, Noria, they form their own found family.

This is a quiet book with strong characters. It's filled with difficult subjects such as mental health, suicide ideation, abuse, but also filled with hope, friendship, acceptance, and love. Great debut!

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I heard so much about this book so I felt like I had a good grip going in on what to expect. I feel like I got so much more. This is such a beautiful, unique portrayal of being a kind human.

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4.5 stars rounded up

This was a quiet book that started with a quiet but potentially traumatic event that slowly wormed its way into my heart. At 300 pages, it's far shorter than many of the books I've been reading, but the emotional impact was much bigger. By the end, I just wanted to hug Harley and Muddy, and yes, even Finlay, Noria, and Chelsey. But mostly Harley and Muddy.

I didn't know much about this book when I began, so I really enjoyed letting the story quietly unfold, even as I made the adjustment to understand UK phraseology. I'm sure I missed references to British pop culture, but that's okay. This story was much more about the characters, and while Harley and Muddy were the obvious characters to love, I started seeing what Muddy and Harley saw in the others.

I loved how inclusive this story was in terms of race, sexuality, and positive platonic relationships. This book did a great job of addressing toxic masculinity and I loved that Muddy and Harley were able to call Finlay out when he said something without really thinking about the impact his words would have and that he really tried to hear them. This story had the potential to leave me sad and depressed and while it does have its dark moments, it also has many wonderful examples of friends who would do anything for each other. By the last few chapters, quiet tears were streaming down my face, but I was also smiling through it all.

TW include homophobia, assault, abusive relationships, racism, depression, and attempted suicide

I highly recommend this book with those trigger warnings in mind.

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Harley and Muddy make an unusual pair. This book seemed to sneak up on me. It was dark and it was deep. But in the end it was such a sweet story. It shows that you have to really get to know someone before you should judge who they are. What was sometimes sad and ugly was also beautiful. This book will stick with you.

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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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