Alexis Hall's Glitterland is a flawless gem of a novel. Certainly the best thing I've read all year. Maybe one of the best things I've read ever. When I start ranking books in my head, it approaches Prince of Midnight, my favorite Laura Kinsale book and Stardust, my favorite Neil Gaiman book. So I think I must have really liked it a lot. I liked it for what it is, a love story about two guys who are super different and yet still manage to find common ground in each other. I liked it for what it represented to me with its themes of forgiveness and redemption. I liked it for how it did both those things, with language that is elegant, funny, erudite and witty. I'm not sure what else one could look for in a book. So, yeah. Flawless.
Ash Winters is a novelist, a former Golden Boy of the British literary scene turned detective fiction writer with a trust fund and a Cambridge education. The detective books he writes keep him busy, but he thinks the work is beneath him. However, the state of his mental health makes him feel like he can't do anything else. Simply put, Ash is a mess and has been one for so long that he may even think he's more of a mess than he is. Technically speaking, he's bipolar, which manifests in manic highs and depressive lows, but he's also agoraphobic and suffers from anxiety. For much of the book, he comes off as selfish, callous, snobby and insecure. He feels awful about himself much of the time and some readers may not readily sympathize with him. But if you've even been on the inside of depression, his struggles will be intimately familiar. Like this:
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.
If opposites attract, then it makes perfect sense that Darian Taylor and Ash would want each other. Darian is an "orange glitter pirate" with an Essex accent, a lower class upbringing and little formal education. Between his fake tan, his sequined wardrobe and his modeling career, Darian is the last person Ash could have seen himself falling for. But right from the start they have an explosively hot sexual connection and even though Ash would prefer to dismiss the experience and call it a one night stand; Darian is more honest about how rare and special they really are together. Ash gives Darian the brush-off, but charming, simple Darian isn't easily dissuaded. He likes Ash and isn't willing to give up on him quite that easily.
The entire plot of the novel revolves around the differences between the two main characters. Different social classes, different hobbies & interests, different education levels, different work and friends and family situations. Ash is jaded, cynical and experienced while Darian is fresh, hopeful and innocent. Ash has largely isolated himself from the people who care about him. Darian has a cadre of close friends and lives with his grandmother. Though on the surface, Ash's life might seem the ideal one with his posh apartment, bespoke wardrobe and fancy education, it's Darian, who lives with his grandmother, loves reality television and is secure enough to wear a Union Jack onesie, who seems to have mastered the whole living thing. And Darian is gracious and patient in a way Ash has never learned to be, most especially with himself.
But even Darian can be pushed too far. Three-quarters of the way through the book, Ash finally succeeds in pushing Darian away. Once they're separated, Ash realizes two important things, one which is typical of romance novels, the other which really isn't. The typical thing he realizes is that he doesn't want to live without Darian. The atypical thing Ash discovers is that he has to let Darian make his own choices about what he can handle instead of making Darian's choices for him by persistently claiming that he will make Darian miserable and by minimizing their relationship. He has spent so long trying to control every variable in his environment in order to lessen his anxiety that allowing himself to let go of this one thing represents a huge step for him.
I enjoyed this story all the way through. It's hilarious and sexy and sweet all at once. The language is breathtakingly poetic in spots. But what has stuck with me in the few weeks since I read it was how tremendous the ending was. Ash undertakes a necessary journey of redemption, despite the pain and anxiety and embarrassment it causes him and Darian receives him with such generosity. The way Darian reacts to Ash's fumbling, groveling apology is miraculous, wise and generous. Of course Ash doesn't deserve it, but he gets Darian's forgiveness and love anyway. The miracle of that ending is what will keep me rereading this book for years to come.
I've got no idea where this recipe came from. I make it at least once or twice a month, mainly because my husband really likes it and I cook dinner for our Dungeons & Dragons group when we play and they like it too. I mean, what's not to like? It's basically meat and potatoes. I grew up next door to a British family who had a daughter just a year younger than me and we were constantly back and forth to each other's houses, mainly through the fence that divided our backyards. I remember my neighbor frequently making cottage pie for tea, which is the perfect thing for kids to eat at the perfect time of day. I think I searched this particular recipe out while I was at university, but I've been making it from memory for so long that I don't even think I could lay hands on whatever paper copy I might have had way back when.
This is pretty similar to the dish Darian cooks for Ash in Glitterland, with slight modifications. Darian's recipe even appears in the back of the book. The main difference between the two is the absence of grated cheese here, which is amusing to me because Darian makes fun of Ash for not being able to properly operate a cheese grater. For the record, I can't grate cheese either. I'm a fairly accomplished cook, but every time I pull out a cheese grater, I end up grating my fingers. I have actual scars from doing this. I will get the food processor dirty to grate a 1/4 cup of cheese because I loathe bleeding into my guests' food.
I've nearly always made this recipe with ground beef, but you can certainly use two pounds of whatever ground meat you'd like. In the past I've used ground lamb because my husband likes it, ground turkey and more veggies when I was feeding health-conscious people, and ground elk when a friend brought us some from a hunting trip. So this is a pretty flexible recipe.
Between the association with my childhood and the fact that it's an easy recipe I can make quickly from memory with stuff I always have in my pantry, this is definite comfort food. Which makes it pretty funny that Ash calls his fancy friend Max for a salad recipe and produces some froofy thing involving pears and blue cheese that doesn't go well with this dish at all. It's not unlike this recipe, only with pears instead of apples and cheese instead of hazelnuts. Hall reflects that they had "served each other a metaphor": Darian's simple comfort food and Ash's complex and weirdly inappropriate salad meant to impress. Rather, plain lettuce, chopped tomatoes and some generic salad dressing are probably what's called for here. At most, maybe a spinach salad with warm bacon dressing if you insist on being fancy, which I did (I'm much more like Ash than like Darian), so this one from Alton Brown is what's pictured here. I cut the recipe in half for two because it doesn't keep.
Oh, and one other thing: I often don't bother to make mashed potatoes from scratch like I did here. I sometimes just get two pounds of refrigerated mashed potatoes from the deli case, heat them up and spread them on top. That cuts the preparation time by about half an hour so if you're in a hurry, just do that.
See, I'm not a total snob.
Makes: 8 servings
Time: 1 hour (Hands on time: 45 minutes)
2 pounds Russet or other non-waxy potato, peeled & cut into 1" chunks
8 tablespoons (1 stick) salted butter, melted
1/2 cup half & half, hot
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion
3 cloves garlic
2 pounds ground beef
2 packets brown gravy mix
2/3 cup water
1 cup frozen peas
salt & pepper
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Add potatoes and a pinch of salt to a large pot and cover with water by about 1". Bring to a boil and allow to simmer for 15-20 minutes, until potatoes can be easily pierced with a fork. Heat the half & half over low heat while you prepare the filling.
3. While potatoes simmer, peel and dice carrots and onions. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When olive oil is shimmering and fragrant, add the carrots and onions and cook until onion is soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for and additional 30 seconds.
4. Remove carrots, onions and garlic to a 9x13" glass or enamel baking dish (enamel is better because you can finish the dish under the broiler, but I don't have the right size--so sad for me). Add the ground beef to the same skillet and cook until browned, about 5-7 minutes. Drain the fat from the meat and return to the heat.
5. Return the carrots, onions and garlic to the skillet. Add the brown gravy packets and water to the skillet and mix thoroughly. Allow to simmer for 3-4 minutes until all water has been absorbed. Add the frozen peas and cook for an additional 1-2 minutes. Remove mixture to the baking dish.
6. By now the potatoes should be done, or close to it. Drain the potatoes and return them to the pot. Using a food mill or potato masher, mash the potatoes until smooth. Add the melted butter and combine. Add approximately 3/4 of the half & half to the mashed potatoes and combine. Add more half & half as necessary to achieve the desired consistency.
7. Smooth mashed potatoes over the top of the ground beef mixture. Bake for 15 minutes. If you're using an enamel baking dish, you can finish the dish under the broiler for another two minutes to achieve a slightly browned and crisp top. Don't do this if you're using a glass baking dish as the heat of the broiler can cause the glass to explode.
8. Serve with salad of your choice.
Disclosure: I received Glitterland from the publisher for review purposes. The book's editor, the book's author and I follow each other on Twitter.