Glitterland, Alexis Hall

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.
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August 27, 2013

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

I first heard about Alexis Hall’s Glitterland from one of my friends on Twitter–and it wasn’t a positive recommendation, either. I requested and downloaded it because it looked like it was going to be ridiculous and possibly terrible and I am not a very nice person sometimes.

And then I started reading it–and realized that my initial assessment of the book was completely and totally wrong and considering the themes that run through the book, the fact that I made a snap judgement about the book is deeply ironic. Also, I owe Hall an apology for jumping to such a conclusion.

In my defense, the cover and the blurb don’t do the book many favors. Here’s the blurb:

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?

And the cover–I assume this is supposed to be Ash, as the model isn’t orange (the book is extremely clear about Darian’s orangeness, although maybe English orangeness isn’t as extreme as American orangeness?):

Glitterland, Alexis Hall

Glitterland, Alexis Hall

While this is being marketed as a romance and even though the plot more or less follows a typical romance plot, the underpinnings of this story are not romantic. This is a claustrophobic and unflinching character study of a man who is not particularly sympathetic and who is often utterly unlikable. But he’s always compelling.

And the writing is simply top-notch. That was the first thing I noticed about this book. I found myself highlighting so many sentences and phrases while Ash struggled to not be an insufferable asshole to everyone around him. This book has graphic references to suicide attempts and other self-harm, including cutting.

On that insufferable assholery of Ash’s: the fact that he has a mental illness is separate and the text makes it clear that while Ash does have some pretty serious problems, his assholery is entirely self-inflicted.  His mental illness is never used as an excuse or reason for his poor treatment of others. I found his descriptions of his mental illness evocative and, within my limited experience with depression, accurate (Ash is not strictly a depressive; he has bipolar disorder and anxiety and was institutionalized for a while due to a psychotic break):

In all these years, this is all I have learned: Depression simply is. It has no beginning and no end, no boundaries and no world outside itself. It is the first, the last, the only, the alpha and the omega. Memories of better times die upon its desolate shores. Voices drown in its seas. The mind becomes its own prisoner.

This is the first passage I highlighted in this book and it’s the one that made me realize that I’d made a terrible mistake with my initial assessment.  The book is told in an uncompromising first person point of view–and that’s the only point of view that would work for this story. The only way the reader is going to want to root for Ash is to be Ash–any other point of view would be too distancing.

And oh, some of the imagery (trigger warning: description of cutting):

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.

I know for some readers, this kind of prose is a bit too much but I’d much rather read this than endless descriptions of the hero’s broad chest, majestic mane of hair and the heroine’s slender curves and how her mouth that was just a little too wide to be fashionable (I always think that this makes them look a little bit like frogs and not like Julia Roberts, which I think is what the intent is).

What I’m mystified by is why this book is being marketed as a romance. Well, I know why–because marketing–but it’s not really a romance. Generally in a romance, both characters have an emotional journey to make. In this novel, only the point of view character, Ash, makes such a journey–and at the end, he makes a literal journey, too, to Darian’s home (which he shares with his Nanny Dot and a Union Jack onesie), to beg forgiveness for being a complete and total wanker.

So no journey. There is absolutely a romantic element but there’s an interiority to this story, an intimacy with Ash that precludes this from being a romance. The sense of time is all muddled–when Ash is more lucid and together we have a better sense of the time passing than when he’s not. It lends the whole thing an otherworldly quality that I found really interesting–but again, which other readers may find off-putting (I tend to find the meet/marry/HEA in two weeks in many romance off-putting).

Hall also uses class in a really interesting way–some folks have mentioned that they found Darian’s accent to be difficult or distracting; I didn’t. It served to underscore the vast gulf between him and Ash in a way that his orangeness and fondness for garish clothing didn’t. Ash constantly jumps to conclusions about not only Darian but everyone else as well and a good deal of the plot revolves around Ash being a jerk and apologizing and then doing it again. This may be frustrating for some people who are reading this as a romance because the book is pretty much one giant Big Misunderstanding.

Darian, in contrast, is everything Ash isn’t. In addition to being orange and an aspiring model, he also isn’t shy about telling Ash what he wants and demanding that Ash respect him. Despite his cartoonish appearance, he is a real and genuine character and is a great foil for Ash.

What this book reminded me of, at an almost twenty year remove, is a couple of the books I read in my gay/lesbian literature class that I took in college (fun fact: the class I took was the one of the first ever offered by a public university in the state of Michigan), specifically Dale Peck’s Martin and John and Geoff Ryman’s Was. There’s a elegiac feel to Glitterland that reminded me of  parts of these books, both of which came out of the HIV and AIDS ravaged communities of the 1980’s. An eternal reaching but never quite attaining. I hope, for Ash and Darian’s sake, that they are able to attain their happily ever after (the book ends firmly on a happy for now note).

This is one of the most unusual and interesting books I’ve read this year and if your tastes are congruent to mine, I think it’ll be worth your time. It’s not a perfect book–it’s a bit studied in places and Ash really is an unsympathetic asshole throughout a lot of it–but I enjoyed it for what it was and I’m looking forward to reading what Hall writes in the future.

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9 Comments

  1. Natalie Luhrs

    @victoriajanssen: I was really struck by how good the writing was and how carefully structured the story was, especially in the way the passage of time was conveyed. But for me, not a romance. Which is not a bug for me but may be for others.

  2. Liz Mc2

    Thank you so much for this review. I’d seen several tweets to the effect that “this is really more literary fiction” and they kind of put my back up because they sounded like “Well, it’s GOOD, so it’s not romance.” And now they make way more sense to me. (My understanding is that the author doesn’t read m/m romance so it makes sense that this doesn’t really use the tropes, etc. of romance even if it’s published by an m/m publisher).

    Too much internet killed my interest in this book. (A lot of the tweeting, etc. was by people who genuinely loved it, I am sure, but the promo started months before release and was all about how lucky we would be to read something so brilliant, and really turned me off). Now I’m more likely to read it, eventually, when the buzz has died down.

  3. Natalie Luhrs

    @Liz Mc2: I missed a lot of the chatter about it on Twitter until I had this half-written and felt like I couldn’t not review it, in part because I did misjudge it so badly. It really does feel like it’s coming from a different place than a lot of m/m romance is–and I wonder how much of that has to do with the fact that the author is male and that the a lot of what (I suspect) so many straight female readers of m/m find titillating is normalized to a certain extent.

  4. Brie

    I see what you mean when you say this isn’t a Romance, especially because as you pointed out, only one of the characters experiences a journey. But it reads like a romance and not just because marketing says so. It’s structured as one (even if it’s 1st person POV) and features shortcuts and elements that are very common in the genre. When Ash has sex with Darian for the first time (and this is after experiencing a sudden, almost supernatural attraction to him) he immediately feels calm and is able to sleep. This is how you know these two are meant to be together: they don’t have much in common and Ash is mostly repulsed by Darian, but boy, they have great sex and Darian makes Ash feel good. Then, Darian overhears Ash saying some nasty things about him, and Ash must grovel and offer his own version of the big gesture.

    The book didn’t work for me for a couple of reasons, and yes, I thought it was a pretty unsuccessful romance, but had I read it as something other than a romance, I still wouldn’t have liked it.

  5. cleo

    I found this review via twitter. I’m so glad to get to talk about this book – I have many, contradictory feelings about it. I pre-ordered it on impulse, before the excerpt was up, during one of Riptide’s sales, because I was intrigued by a bipolar hero and then because I realized that I’ve read the author’s blog posts. After I read the excerpt I was pretty sure I’d made a mistake – I don’t have much patience with self important, snobby narcissists and holy cow did Ash come off badly in the first chapter. But I ended up mostly enjoying the book, even though not everything worked for me. I was surprised by the humor – parts made me laugh out loud.

    I agree that the first person pov really worked. I found it hard to be in Ash’s head at times, which I think was kind of the point. I thought it was interesting how the author used the writing style to indicate Ash’s state of mind – although some of the more flowery language drove me nuts.

    To me, it works better as a coming of age story than a romance, even though Ash is 28. The romance parts of it didn’t work for me at all – I think Darian is good for Ash, but Ash is not good for Darian and I don’t really believe they’ll be happy together for long. I wanted to see more of them together interacting with the world. I did like the progression of Ash’s friendship with Niall – that surprised me in a good way.

    I’m quite sure the guy on the cover is supposed to be Darian, but I agree he isn’t orange enough.

  6. Kaetrin

    Hmm. For me it was totally a romance. Boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy again – HEA/HFN. I think what you said about the timeline is spot on. I didn’t particularly notice it consciously when I was reading – I was too busy getting over my own snobbery. I took the journey, with Ash to discover that Darian was a person worth knowing. I started off, like Ash, thinking that Darian couldn’t be a romance hero, that I could never accept him (as a partner for Ash) but by the end, I totally did. But Darian doesn’t really change. And that’s the beauty of it for me. (I guess that’s why you question the romance genre-ness (is that a word?) of it because Darian doesn’t really grow, but I’ve read plenty of romances where the growth is really only of one character so that isn’t a barrier for me.) The reader can’t escape that Darian is orange, speaks with a strong Essex accent and wears things such as Union Jack onesies (and not as a joke either). There is no pretence that he’s actually a Hugh Grant or David Tennant or [insert popular, sexy UK type hero here] in disguise and there’s no escaping it. He is what he is but as the story progressed I came to love him just as he was. I really appreciated how the text challenged me on that level to accept someone as hero I really didn’t think I would. It kinds of goes along with a bit of a personal journey I guess where, over the past few years I’ve been challenged/challenged myself in a number of areas to broaden my mind. This is just another one.

    I really liked the book. It’s not the best thing I’ve read, or the best thing I’ve read this year, but I enjoyed it very much and I found Darian in particular sticking with me long after I finished the book.

    I think Cleo is right – the cover is supposed to be Darian (albeit that he isn’t very orange here – possibly Photoshop? 😀

  7. Ridley

    I know for some readers, this kind of prose is a bit too much but I’d much rather read this than endless descriptions of the hero’s broad chest, majestic mane of hair and the heroine’s slender curves and how her mouth that was just a little too wide to be fashionable

    This is me arching my eyebrow at your false dichotomy. I rolled my eyes at that quote *AND* dislike the cliched descriptions you mention.

    My Twitter timeline has been so oversaturated with mentions of this book that I doubt I could ever read it. Add in the fact that I find his Dear Author column… problematic, and I think it’s just for the best that I give this a wide berth.

  8. Natalie Luhrs

    @Ridley: I am fully aware of the purpleness of the phrase I quoted and I know it’s totally over the top but it’s also evocative in a way that works for me–I know full well that it doesn’t work for others. This is me sticking my tongue out at you.

    After the Dear Author column and subsequent shitstorm I really had to think hard about whether or not I wanted to review this–I ultimately decided I did because I thought it was doing some interesting things. And then I flailed around WHEN to review it and since it took me two months to read it I didn’t want to take another two months to review it, so. I agree that the mentions on Twitter have been a bit much and if I’d had an inkling that it was going to be this heavily promoted I likely wouldn’t have requested it from NetGalley in the first place.

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