Review – The Angel by Tiffany Reisz

Cover image, The Angel by Tiffany Reisz

I was afraid to read The Angel, and I put it off for several weeks.  My fear was a little bit ridiculous, because I loved The Siren, and I was confident that The Angel would be just as good, but I worried that it would break my heart the way The Siren did, and I wasn’t eager to put myself in the path of that kind of pain.  I needn’t have worried.  Tiffany Reisz is that excellent variety of sadist who never offers the same pain twice.

The blurb:

No safe word can protect the heart. Infamous erotica author and accomplished dominatrix Nora Sutherlin is doing something utterly out of character: hiding. While her longtime lover, Søren—whose fetishes, if exposed, would be his ruin—is under scrutiny pending a major promotion, Nora’s lying low and away from temptation in the lap of luxury.

Her host, the wealthy and uninhibited Griffin Fiske, is thrilled to have Nora stay at his country estate, especially once he meets her traveling companion. Young, inexperienced and angelically beautiful, Michael has become Nora’s protégé, and this summer with Griffin is going to be his training, where the hazing never ends.

But while her flesh is willing, Nora’s mind is wandering. To thoughts of Søren, her master, under investigation by a journalist with an ax to grind. And to another man from Nora’s past, whose hold on her is less bruising, but whose secrets are no less painful. It’s a summer that will prove the old adage: love hurts.

Unless you’re accustomed to the vagaries of erotica (and few of my readers are), you might read that blurb and think, wow… that sounds kinda lame.  But it’s just a case of badblurbitis.  Everything that is brilliant about Reisz’ writing cannot be adequately summed up or even hinted at in a traditionally plot-focused publishers’ blurb.  I am convinced that Reisz could drop her characters into a room and give them nothing to do except react to each other, and the result would still be beautiful, but what would the blurb say?

As with The Siren, the main theme in The Angel seems to be love (seems to me, anyway… other folks might think the theme is BDSM erotica, but I happen to think all that stuff is just the byproduct of a story about these characters).  The Angel begins with an idyllic glimpse of Nora’s life with Søren.  Through a mysterious plot device, Nora and Michael (if you haven’t read The Siren, you won’t know who he is.  I didn’t bother mentioning him in my post about The Siren because I was so distracted by other things.  Just read The Siren, and all will be explained.) hie off to Griffin’s estate (that place where the hazing never ends, if the publisher’s blurb is to be believed).  At the estate, new love blossoms, and it’s beautiful and tender.  It is also a foil for the more complicated love that exists between Nora and Søren (and Nora and Wes and Suzanne and Patrick) and, maybe, contains a little seed that might help us to understand what drew Nora to Søren in the first place.  Let me add a quick warning to those who may not be quite ready for m/m scenes. They happen, but I thought they were handled really well.  I enjoyed the side-by-side comparison of new love and old love, acknowledged love and hidden love, easy love and difficult love.

Given the state of their relationship in The Siren, it is surprising how innocently happy Nora and Søren seem at the start of The Angel, but readers of Tiffany Reisz should know that everything is not always what it seems.  For example, I was repulsed by Søren when I read The Siren and, especially, Seven Day Loan.  I thought him the least sympathetic character in The Siren, though I didn’t like Zach all that much, either.  His arrogance and blatant manipulation seemed despicable, and I judged him harshly as a result.  But after reading The Angel, I have to reflect back on The Siren and admit that Søren doesn’t appear in the best light throughout that book, and most of what we see of him is through Nora’s memory colored by her relationship with Wes.  Søren could not possibly have won me over in such circumstances, and I began to wonder if he was such a bad fellow as he seemed.

I had a conversation with Tiffany Reisz on Twitter recently, and she pointed out that she based Søren’s character on the God of the Old Testament, who, depending on how you look at it, is kind of sadistic and manages to balance love and a need for blood offerings, who is feared and loved simultaneously by his people, who is implacable and just, who is jealous.  When you consider a character like Søren paired with Nora, who feels the strong desire and inclination to submit to him (naturally enough) and an inclination to be independent, to be his equal even though no one can equal an Almighty, you know that the rest of the story Reisz is building will be epic.  This is not a story of tawdry sex; it is a tale of human nature and a human understanding of the divine.

I jotted down some rough notes immediately after I finished The Angel: Love is like a coral reef – I should explain this.  Two people grow together and fill in the spaces with shared experiences and new growth in each.  This is good, because it makes them stronger, but if something/someone/some event comes in and breaks off a piece, there are these sharp edges left behind.  The Angel is very cool as a book, because you get to view the very beginning of that reef-growing process–the falling in love–and you get to compare it to the full-grown and many-times broken and tested reef that both unites and divides Nora and Søren.

My favorite moment in The Angel is a little bit silly, compared to all the epic stuff I’ve alluded to elsewhere in this post (and in the one on The Siren).  There’s a moment, towards the end of the book, when a new character meets Nora for the first time, and it’s a little bit shocking to see Nora once again as someone new.  After all the stuff that happens in The Siren and The Angel, the reader really knows Nora and is accustomed to her quirks and her strength and, at least in my case, sees her as charming rather than scary.  Then all of a sudden you get to see her through the eyes of a stranger, and you know that she’s actually been scary all this time.  That’s good writing, because it was so subtle that I almost didn’t notice it, and it made me think back and wonder why I didn’t have a similar reaction at the end of The Siren when Grace meets Nora for the first time.

I do have to be honest and admit that I felt the beginning of The Angel was a little slow to build.  At first I thought it just hadn’t been edited tightly enough, but now I’m not convinced.  I am inclined to suspect that the pacing, lightness, and idyll of the first quarter of the book are actually a clever trap designed to lull readers into complacency before hitting them with the rest of the story.  Shortly after Nora and Michael arrive at Griffin’s, the story hits its stride, and from that moment on it wends its inexorable way through heaven and hell, dragging you along with it.

Reisz writes great stories, stories without boundaries, but the best thing about them is that they are entirely open to interpretation.  Søren can be a hero or a villain, and it’s entirely up to the reader to decide what she thinks about him.  The true benefit of that style of writing is that readers can discuss the ideas that are introduced in the book and help each other along in the process of achieving a better understanding not only of the books but also of themselves and their lives.  It takes courage to write a story that can and will be interpreted in so many different ways, and I’m right glad that Reisz has that courage along with a strong sadistic streak.  Wherever she takes us, I’m along for the ride.

The Angel is scheduled to be released on September 25 by Harlequin MIRA in both e-book and print format, I believe.  For more information about the author (including a selection of free bedtime stories that are well worth a read–but read The Siren first–check out the author’s website http://tiffanyreisz.com.  If you click on the cover image above, you can visit the book’s page on Goodreads and follow links to purchase through Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from Harlequin through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

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BDSM – tie me up, tie me down

Usually I wait a few days after I finish a book before I even think about writing about it, but in this case, I think it will be a good idea for me to record my initial responses, and maybe I’ll do a follow-up post later to log any further reflections I may have.

Did the title freak you out a little bit?  Don’t worry, I still haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey, and I’m fairly certain that I never will.  I read The Siren by Tiffany Reisz, thanks to a recommendation from Kim over at Reflections of a Book Addict.  I’m not really reviewing this book, per se, but if you’re looking for a fabulous review of the book, please check out Kim’s post here.  It’s a fabulous post, and I see no reason to attempt to re-create that wheel.  It done been did.

Cover image, The Siren by Tiffany Reisz

This book is amazing, straight up.  How amazing?  Well, let me count the ways.  1. I honestly did not have a single snarky thought while I was reading the book.  2. When posting updates on my progress on Goodreads, I couldn’t think of any punchy quips that summed up my feelings – I was reduced to quoting Keanu: “Whoah.”  3.  It’s erotica and cerebral literature, and I honestly didn’t think that combination could exist.  4.  It’s BDSM erotica, but it doesn’t glorify the lifestyle; instead, it cuts a cross-section of that life and lets you form your own conclusions about it.  5.  No topic is off-limits to this book–I went into it expecting fairly good erotica and I got discussions of the Trinity (the Trinity!!!) and art history and literary theory and the nature of love.  6.  The ending may not be what you want, but it is what you need.

Let me start off by saying that I am vanilla through and through.  I do not understand the BDSM lifestyle.  I don’t understand why anyone would be turned on by hurting or being hurt.  That is not to say that I think BDSM is sick or twisted–for those people who actually enjoy the combination of pain and pleasure, it’s what the doctor ordered–but it isn’t for me.  So when I read The Siren, although I kept an open mind about all the…interesting…stuff that happens in it, I found it more disturbing than titillating.  What was most disturbing to me was the idea that the millions of people who have read, are reading, or will read 50 Shades of Grey might be inspired to dabble in a lifestyle that is really not for the faint of heart and might end up harming themselves or others in the process.  So my starting and ending position on this whole cha is: if BDSM gets you off, awesome, but if it doesn’t, there’s really no need for you to be buying this stuff:

Hey, it’s the Bondage Seductions board game!

I’m not saying you shouldn’t try new things to heat up your sex life, but I think that fooling around with BDSM is either silly or dangerous, unless you’re actually into it, and if you are, you won’t be buying these kinds of products–you’ll buy the real thing.  Not that your sex life is any of my business (it isn’t, and please don’t tell me about it).

Back to the book.  My favorite thing about The Siren is that it lets you form your own conclusions.  It doesn’t glamorize BDSM.  Reisz isn’t a charlatan proclaiming that a little bondage and dominance is going to save your sex life.  However strange it might seem, the book actually takes a very neutral stance on both BDSM and vanilla sex (that latter term refers to the more straightforward sex practices of the majority. I hesitate to call it normal, because that would imply that BDSM is abnormal, and I don’t want to make that kind of value judgment.)  Essentially, the book’s stance is that there are vanilla sex people and BDSM people, and both types are good in their own ways, but they shouldn’t mix.

I think the central theme of this book is love and all the ways that love can be/need to be expressed.  There are a lot of relationships – Nora and Søren, Nora and Wes, Zach and Grace, Zach and Nora, Nora and Kingsley, Nora and Sherridan, etc. – and each involves some sort of love, whether expressed or unexpressed, friendly or passionate, and every relationship is complex.  I enjoyed the complexity available in this book.  Human emotions and relationships are messy, and that messiness is given free rein in this book.

It instinctively bothers me that love could be the motivation for one person causing another person pain and humiliation, but maybe that’s how some people need to love/feel love.  It seemed to me, though, that while much ado was made of how much Søren loves Eleanor, considerably less ado was made about how much Eleanor/Nora loves Søren.  She belonged to him, was utterly submissive to him, was his, but he was never hers. Doesn’t love require either an equal or dominant position in order to exist as love?  It seems to me that a submissive can feel devotion, but when all control and decision-making power in a relationship is given over to one party, love is given over also.

This is all my opinion, of course, and it’s worth what you’re paying for it.  Love is something you choose.  I love my husband not because I am in awe of him but because, his faults notwithstanding, I choose to love him, to accept him as he is and as he will be.  I am not sure that the choice to love is possible unless one has the independence from which to choose.  To put it another way, I love my children, but I don’t think they love me because they are not yet mentally or emotionally independent and able to choose to love me.  (As an aside, the 3-year-old always repeats after me: “I love you Allie.” “I love you too, Mom-mom.”)  To put it yet another way, I believe that God loves me, but I am not so arrogant that I think myself capable of loving God; I may feel devotion and awe, but that’s not the same thing as love.

I’m a fan of Paulo Coelho, and his Eleven Minutes is one of the most thought-provoking and arresting books I’ve ever read.  I kept thinking about a couple of scenes from Eleven Minutes while I was reading The Siren, and I think the two books dovetail wonderfully, even though they are very different.

He slapped her again and again, whether she deserved it or not, and she felt the pain and felt the humiliation–which was more intense and more potent than the pain–and she felt as if she were in another world, in which nothing existed, and it was an almost religious feeling: self-annihilation, subjection, and a complete loss of any sense of Ego, desire or self-will.

And later (the “you” below is the “she” above, by the way):

“You experienced pain yesterday and you discovered that it led to pleasure.  You experienced it today and found peace.  That’s what I’m telling you: don’t get used to it, because it’s very easy to become habituated; it’s a very powerful drug.  It’s in our daily lives, in our hidden suffering, in the sacrifices we make, blaming love for the destruction of our dreams.  Pain is frightening when it shows its real face, but it’s seductive when it comes disguised as sacrifice or self-denial.  Or cowardice.  However much we may reject it, we human beings always find a way of being with pain, of flirting with it and making it part of our lives….And so it goes on: sons give up their dreams to please their parents, parents give up their lives in order to please their children; pain and suffering are used to justify the one thing that should bring only joy: love.”

I haven’t proven anything, but this is my analysis, anyway, and I don’t feel a compelling need to convince anyone.  I think that if we choose to have our immediate choices taken away from us, to enter a state where we are completely dominated (even by our choice) by another’s will, we lose the ability to feel and be and act with love for as long as we are without our will.  So, in The Siren, Søren maintains his ability to love Eleanor, but Nora can only really love Søren after she has left him.  When in his presence, Eleanor is in awe of Søren, and he holds a god-like status.  That awe is mandatory – one does not choose to be in awe of the Grand Canyon or a full-grown lion… one simply is.

Anyway… The Siren is thought-provoking in all the best ways.  You’d never expect to ruminate about the nature of God or love because you read some erotica novel, but that’s exactly what this book has in store for you.  This book is art the way James Joyce described it in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (and if you don’t know what I mean, go read that book… now).  I highly recommend it.  (And when you’re done, read Eleven Minutes.)

God = Love = God, ad infinitum

I’ve been thinking about–I’m hesitant to call it religion, but I guess that’s close enough–religion a lot lately, so I suppose it’s time for another post about it.  I’m not sure what the consolations of religion are for other people–I suspect that it’s different for everyone–but there are definitely consolations for me, and they vary from day-to-day, week-to-week.  The primary consolation, though, is always that my practice of religion helps me stay focused on love, on being loving, kind, generous, and understanding.  It helps me stay compassionate, and I’m happiest in that state.  Looking around at the world, though, I have to admit that there are a lot of people out there who don’t get that sort of thing out of their religion.  They get judgment or anger or a sense of righteousness (paradoxically without actually being righteous…), and I have a difficult time comprehending how all of that could be personally fulfilling.

If we basically get to decide what kind of god we want to believe in–and with the vast menu of church and non-church options available to us, we pretty much do–what does it say about us if we choose to believe in a god who’s a total asshole?  Does anyone really want to be the person who believes that God hates whole sections of the society he supposedly created in love?  Doesn’t it rather take away from the “God so loved the world…” message if he only loved certain parts of the world, but the others can just go to hell?  I just don’t get it.  If love is really the crux of the whole thing, why do we humans get so unbearably focused on hate?

Perhaps I just answered my own question: maybe love isn’t always the crux of the whole thing.  I mean, it is to me, but that’s my choice.

I love it when poetry (because hymns are poetry) sums up what I feel in a manner far more beautiful than I could ever manage.  Here’s the text of the second verse of one of my favorite hymns (“God is love, let heaven adore him” from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982):

 God is love; and love enfolds us
all the world in one embrace:
with unfailing grasp God holds us
every child of every race.
And when human hearts are breaking
under sorrow’s iron rod,
then we find that self-same aching
deep within the heart of God.

That’s the God I believe in, and maybe it’s all delusion on my part–I’m OK with that, actually–but I’d rather delude myself to believe that beauty and love exist in the world than to believe that all is an awful ugliness.  I know life isn’t nearly as simple as that, and there are as many reasons not to believe in God as there are reasons to do so, but wouldn’t it be great if it were that simple?