Rating: 4.75 stars
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Ash Winters had the world in front of him until his mental illness brought it all crashing down. Now he is a bipolar depressive with anxiety disorder, muddling along writing detective novels and resigned to a life without happiness or much hope of improvement. The cycles of his depression and anxiety mean that even on his good days, Ash lives with the constant knowledge that they are fleeting. As a result he has become insular, a bit selfish, and without much hope.
When Ash meets Darian while out at a stag party, he is surprised how drawn he is the young man. Darian is nothing like Ash, or what Ash ever though he would want. Darian is overtanned, ridiculously sparkly, and not particularly smart. But he is filled with an energy and vitality that calls out to Ash, and he gives in to the attraction for a night of passion, followed inevitably by panic and disappearing into the night.
Ash never expects to see Darian again, having not even sought the man’s name. But despite this he can’t forget the man he thinks of as his beautiful glitter pirate. When Darian tracks Ash down, the men begin a sexual relationship that soon begins to feel like more. There is a simplicity to Darian, an acceptance of Ash, obvious flaws and all. Darian is willing to take things on faith, to trust that something good can come from the two of them together. Yet Ash still feels the chaos in his own mind, the knowledge that he can never be happy, the acceptance that it is too much to even hope for. Ash finds he wants Darian so badly, even as he doesn’t feel he deserves to have him. And so he pushes Darian away, hoping to let the man go before hurting him, the way he inevitably does with everyone he cares about. But Ash must find the strength within him to believe in their relationship before he ruins things between them for good.
Wow, this one really blew me away. It was just fascinating and totally engrossing and I felt just swept along in the world of Ash’s mind. Ash is our POV character and Hall does an amazing job bringing us into his head as he deals with his illness on a daily basis. We see him struggle with reality, knowing that his depression and his anxiety lie to him all the time, making him feel and think things that are not true. He can’t accept his happiness or believe in anything because in the back of his mind he can’t trust his feelings and emotions. It is complicated and overwhelming at times, but always fascinating and engrossing. Hall’s ability to show us the chaos in what Ash is thinking and feeling, while still giving us a coherent narrative with Ash as our guide, is really amazing and creates an incredible story.
I loved the match of Ash and Darian. They are two men who never should work, but somehow do. Darian is from Essex and seems to be of a much more working class than the more posh Ash. He is a bit shallow and vain, way over styled and primped, and lives a life totally different from Ash’s upper class upbringing. He is not stupid, though fairly culturally uneducated. But there is a simplicity to him, an ability to sort of rise above the hills and valleys of Ash’s mind and to be able to move along without getting caught up in the chaos. He is charming and endearing and willing to see the best in people and overlook the worst. I loved them together and how, despite himself, Ash comes to realize how desperately he needs and wants Darian, and how for the first time in a long while, he is willing to do anything to keep him, even risk himself. Here is their first encounter at the club:
I pulled out my phone and checked the time. It was close to midnight, an entirely reasonable hour to slip away and fall apart in the safety of my own home. I leaned over the railing, looking for Niall, only to be arrested by a dazzle of silver through the haze of colour-shifting shadows, bright like clean water. It took me a moment to realise it was the light catching on the epaulettes of a man dancing just below me.
Fuck knew what I was doing staring at someone who thought sparkly epaulettes were any sort of fashion statement but, God help me, I was. Maybe it was the way he was dancing, eyes half closed, a half-smile on his lips, as though he honestly couldn’t think of anything better to do in the world than wriggle his hips to music. To be fair, he wriggled them most effectively, showing off the lines of a spare and slender, lightly muscled body.
He was a ridiculous creature. A vulgar, glittering pirate of a man, all jewellery and fake tan, gold glinting in his ears, on his fingers and round his wrists. His dark hair gleamed with product and had been painstakingly teased into a quiff that defied taste, reason, and gravity. And I couldn’t stop looking at him. It was horrifying but the truth was there, undeniable, like some faint sonic echo deep within my skin, the thin batsqueak of sexuality. I wanted him.
I love how despite himself, Ash can’t help but be drawn to Darian. And as a reader, I found myself drawn to him too. It is even more fascinating to me what Darian sees in Ash. Ash is surly and difficult, selfish and unstable. He says rude things because the idea that someone cares enough about him to be offended barely occurs to him. But Darian lets it all roll off, in and many ways gives it right back, not taking Ash’s crap, pointing out his sometimes ridiculous behavior, and floating along above it all.
I found it quite interesting watching Ash interact, and the way his illness shapes his relationships with others. Aside from Darian, we see him with Niall, and old friend and former lover who has sort of fallen into the caretaker role, the one Ash calls when he is falling apart. Niall has seen Ash at his worst, and it almost too much for him. He is sort of resentful that Niall knows how bad it has been, that he has pity for Ash, and that he has been drawn into the drama of his life. They have a strong bond, but neither man is truly happy with the other anymore. Then we see his friend and agent Amy, one of the few people who doesn’t feel bad for him and hasn’t been sucked into the chaos. And with her we see that bit of spark, that glimmer of humor and lightness that Ash has trouble finding with other people. Here they are when Darian asks Ash to make a salad for dinner and Ash’s is panicked at the daunting idea of shopping and cooking, but doesn’t want to let Darian down:
I rang Amy.
“I have to go shopping and make a salad.”
“My God, call the police.”
“No, but seriously.” (When did I say “no, but seriously”?) “How the fuck do you make a salad?”
“Oh, I know this one!” she said. “You go to Marks and Spencer, and they have them there in little plastic tubs. You buy as many as you need, take them home, put them in a bowl, and shout ta-daaa.”
That sounded almost doable except for the Marks and Spencer part. There was probably one nearby, because this was London, but it might involve the Tube. And I certainly wasn’t up for that at short notice.
“I can maybe get to a Sainsbury’s,” I offered.
She thought about it a moment. “Then you’re fucked.”
There was a pause. “Ash,” she asked, “did you ring me because I’m the only person with a vagina you know?”
“Um . . .”
“Because, you know you don’t need a vagina to prepare a salad, right? In fact, I have it on good authority that there are salads prepared sans vaginas all the time.”
“Can you stop saying vagina over and over again? It’s scaring me.”
“It serves you right for being sexist. Vagina.”
Even in spite of Saladgate, I felt a smile threatening at the corner of my lips. “Isn’t it just possible,” I said, “that I rang you because you’re a brilliantly clever and generous person (with a vagina) who I knew would be able to help me in my hour of need?”
“You’re probably right.”
I loved seeing this little bit of lightness and spark in Ash that is so often buried.
Overall I thought this story was wonderful and only had a few tiny quibbles. First, the book is written in a way that makes it a bit hard to sink in to. We are getting Ash’s POV, which is jumbled at best. When he is suffering from panic or anxiety or depression, we are right there in his head. Which is both fascinating and a bit hard to absorb at times and often took some concentration to settle into the language. Along the same lines, Darian speaks with an incredibly strong accent. Again, we are in Ash’s head so we hear Darian as Ash hears him. And I think that it is important that we really see Darian and what he is like, because he is such a distinct and critical character. As someone not familiar with the regions of England, I wouldn’t have heard the accent or speech patterns in my head without getting his dialect. But again, it makes it really hard to read and sometimes follow. Here is an example of Darian’s dialog:
“I dunno. Look, babes, I know you fink I’m a bit shallow and I prob’ly am to be ’onest wif you, but I don’t fink it’s going to be easy, and I don’t fink it’s always gonna be awhight. But even if it ain’t always awhight, that’s awhight as well, cos sometimes fings just ain’t, and that’s ’ow they are. And I defo fink there ain’t no point worrying abaht stuff that might nevva ’appen.”
Now, this excerpt is a bit more daunting that normal because it is more monologue than conversation and Darien is sort of talking in circles here. But you get the idea. I would say if you are someone who goes crazy at Highland romances where there hero is all “wee bonnie lass” and “dinna fash yourself” all the time, then this might bother you as well. For me I see why it works, and I enjoyed being able to hear Darian in my head. It was just a bit hard sometimes to let go into the story because it required part of my brain to always be in translate mode.
My other small quibble is that while I could totally accept Darian being a bit simple (and to be honest, a bit dim, at times), I felt it became a bit much when Ash meets Darian’s friends and they are all exactly like him. Stunned at someone who quotes Shakespeare, confusing leprosy and laryngitis, but at the same time so sweet and endearing you love them anyway. Again, I am not familiar with Essex or its people, but surely they can not all be dim, shallow, and yet somehow magically endearing all at once.
Those small issues aside, I must say I thought this story was just wonderful. It kept me excited from the first page and I couldn’t put it down. Ash is a fascinating character who totally drew me in despite not always being so likable. And Darian is so lovely and sweet and just so perfect for him. I loved them together and found this story so rich and rewarding. I really loved it and highly recommend that you all read it. Just fabulous.