Alexis Hall is a debut author whose book has been getting a lot of publicity and critical acclaim, which made me curious to read it and see if the reviews were right. Unfortunately, the book didn't live up to the expectations.
Our main character and narrator is Ash, a bipolar, clinically depressed writer who is struggling with his illness and his career.
Ash meets Darian at a friend’s bachelor party. He manages to be equally drawn and repulsed by Darian who, with his thick accent and flamboyant appearance, embodies the stereotype of the Essex boy. But we know these two are meant to be together, because after they have sex Ash feels calm and is able to sleep, something he hasn’t felt or been able to do in a while. But other than that, Ash continues to judge and make fun of Darian even when the latter is clearly hurt by it. But this is a Romance, so we know they will eventually make it work, even if it is just because the rules of the genre say they must.
The writing style is overly embellished and forced. It’s hard to separate the author’s voice from the character’s, but even if it’s all Ash, the writing is either trying too hard to be beautiful or incredibly pretentious. Unfortunately, it only succeeds at being purple.
“His skin was as smooth as the hidden interior of a shell and as supple as velvet as it flowed over the taut muscles of his back.”
“I flipped onto my stomach, and he covered me like sunlight in a rush of warm skin.”
“And then I remembered: the sharp silver nothing of the knife as it glided down my forearm like a tall ship with a scarlet wake.”
“My skin, at least, remembered the softness. Like a kiss from a ghost.”
Those are all random quotes, and they do fit the character, so, distracting as it was, it gets a few points for effort.
The book is also a character study, so Ash is front and center all the time. The use of the first person narrator is incredibly effective and perfectly conveys Ash’s state of mind. He isn't a likeable character, but he is certainly complex and layered, which makes him interesting. I'm not equipped to speak about its authenticity, but the portrayal of Ash's mental health felt raw and real. Also, his mental illness isn't used to excuse his attitude, and finding love doesn't automatically cure him. I wasn't surprised by any of this because the attention and care put into making Ash a nuanced character was obvious.
I had a lot of issues with the treatment and portrayal of Darian. This guy is over the top from the way he talks to the way he dresses. Everything about him is designed to be judged and found lacking. And that’s exactly what Ash does. It’s not enough to use him for sex and then discard him, but when they get together again, Ash keeps reducing Darian to the traits he finds more offensive and refuses to call him by his name and instead refers to him as Essex. But this is somewhat excusable because Ash isn't a good person, and the class issues run deep between the two of them. But by making Darian perfect (his default moods are either incredibly cheery or somewhat hurt, and he’s kind, open, sincere and possesses a childlike innocence that is more than a little disturbing) his appearance and accent become his only negative traits. It’s not just Ash who sees something wrong in Darian, the narrative sees it too. Not only that, but by making the accent so exaggerated and hard to read, the text forces the reader to judge and be annoyed by it.
Ash and Darian are opposites who (for some reason I can’t fathom, because Ash doesn't have that many redeeming qualities) are attracted to each other and ultimately fall in love. There’s a social and cultural barrier separating them, and crossing it is the way to their HEA. This is a story about finding value within a person despite what they look like. But considering that Darian’s accent and clothes are cultural and social expressions and an integral part of who he is, finding value despite those things sounds like a shitty message. It should be finding value in those aspects, and about not being so judgmental and classist. I didn't feel like the class issues were properly addressed, thus making it impossible for me to believe in their happy ending.
The secondary characters are another mixed bag. Niall is Ash’s best friend. They are occasional lovers and it’s made clear that Niall is only with Ash out of heartbreak (because the love of his life is about to marry someone else) and out of guilt (because Ash once tried to kill himself). It’s a complicated relationship that had uncomfortable undertones, because it’s fairly obvious that what’s keeping Niall from leaving are pity, worry and guilt. I actually thought this was the most compelling relationship in the book.
Amy is Ash’s editor and the woman Niall’s ex is about to marry. She is so very, very nice, that she will even tell you:
“It’s, well, it’s about Niall. I mean, trying to shag Max on his stag night was kind of not okay with me. But, equally, I know you guys all go way back, and I don’t want to be some kind of evil-bitch, straight-girl stereotype.”
We know M/M Romance has issues with its portrayal of women, so what better way to show self-awareness than by making a joke about it, right? And in the meantime, let’s strip the most prominent female character of any personality traits that aren't being extremely nice and understanding, even when someone else tries to fuck her fiancé at his bachelor party.
The one thing these characters have in common is that they have a condescending attitude toward Ash because of his mental illness. They are patronizing and let him get away with a lot of crap and bad attitude because he is bipolar. There was a lot of pity and not enough love. I wold have liked to at least see all these relationship more developed and explored, because as they were they felt frustrating and wrong.
The book had its moments of almost brilliancy in which the author’s talent and potential shined through. But it was also a distracting, overwritten mess.
And in case someone was wondering, the word “glitter” (including variations like “glittering” and “glittered”) appears 34 times.
Review by Brie
The universe is a glitterball I hold in the palm of my hand.
Once the golden boy of the English literary scene, now a clinically depressed writer of pulp crime fiction, Ash Winters has given up on love, hope, happiness, and—most of all—himself. He lives his life between the cycles of his illness, haunted by the ghosts of other people’s expectations.
Then a chance encounter at a stag party throws him into the arms of Essex boy Darian Taylor, an aspiring model who lives in a world of hair gel, fake tans, and fashion shows. By his own admission, Darian isn’t the crispest lettuce in the fridge, but he cooks a mean cottage pie and makes Ash laugh, reminding him of what it’s like to step beyond the boundaries of anxiety.
But Ash has been living in his own shadow for so long that he can’t see past the glitter to the light. Can a man who doesn’t trust himself ever trust in happiness? And how can a man who doesn’t believe in happiness ever fight for his own?Glitterland by Alexis Hall
Riptide. August 26, 2013.