Review – The Prince by Tiffany Reisz

This review was seriously delayed by an attack of evil migraines (yes, plural).  The next time you see a migraine, punch it in the face for me.  Don’t worry: that migraine totally deserves it.

Cover image, The Prince by Tiffany Reisz

I adore that cover.  Anyway, as always, I begin with the plot summary courtesy of Goodreads:

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer…preferably in bed. That’s always been Kingsley Edge’s strategy with his associate, the notorious New York dominatrix Nora Sutherlin. But with Nora away in Kentucky, now it’s Kingsley’s chance to take her place at the feet of the only man he’s ever wanted — Søren, Nora’s on-again, off-again lover — until a new threat from an old enemy forces him to confront his past.

Wes Railey is still the object of Nora’s tamest yet most maddening fantasies, and the one man she can’t forget. He’s young. He’s wonderful. He’s also thoroughbred royalty and she’s in “his” world now. But Nora is no simpering Southern belle, and her dream of fitting into Wesley’s world is perpetually at odds with her dear Søren’s relentlessly seductive pull.

Two worlds of wealth and passion call to her and whichever one Nora chooses, it will be the hardest decision she will ever have to make… unless someone makes it for her…

Tangent: Perhaps the reason I hate plot summaries so very much is that I am consumed by a powerful jealousy – I want that job.  I want to write teasers like “…it will be the hardest decision she will ever have to make… unless someone makes it for her…” that hint at ominous doings.  But I don’t./tangent

Anyway.  I am attempting a thematic review of this book (in keeping with my previous Original Sinners series reviews).  I’m fairly certain I can write the review without including any spoilers, but if you’re itching to read The Prince and just haven’t gotten to it yet, it’s probably a good idea to read the book first and then come back to read my review (just in cases).

I unequivocally loved The Siren and The Angel.  I also loved The Prince, but not unequivocally.  Don’t get me wrong–it still earned the 5-star review it will get from me on Goodreads–but there were a few random elements that sort of poked me in a not entirely good way.  I figured I would get them out of the way before I delve into a discussion of some of the book’s themes.

  1. Zoolander.  There’s this moment towards the middle of the book wherein Kingsley ruminates about how folk think he’s handsome, and Søren definitely is handsome, and Eleanor is beautiful, but another character is just stunningly gorgeous.  And I’m sure I’m completely ridiculous, but when I read that line, this is what played in my head:
  2. I really hate cliffhangers, and this book ends with a big one.  Of course, my personal dislike of cliffhangers (I hated ’em in Harry Potter, too) has nothing to do with the book, but this is my review, and I’ll bitch about cliffhangers if I want to.
  3. Super-duper unsexy sexy sexy times.  (I think Anachronist at Books as Portable Pieces of Thoughts really has the best commentary on the unbelievably unsexy sex in certain parts of this book.)  Overall, I liked the book, but I was still shocked and slightly embarrassed to encounter explody spuge and seriously awkward conversation.  I get that those scenes had to be at least a trifle awkward (they would have been unrealistic, otherwise), but that doesn’t mean that all the awkwardness was even slightly pleasant.  Goodness.

So, caveats aside, The Prince is dark.  It is arranged in two parallel story lines that are intercut, with the “North” story (past and present) following Kingsley and Søren and the “South” story following Nora and Wes.  I enjoyed the intercutting because it helped the pacing throughout the story and gave me time to recover from some of the book’s darker moments.  I’ve seen some comments from other readers that read all of the “South” sections first and then all of the “North” sections, and I thought it was funny (not really ha ha, but a little) that those readers turned Reisz into Tolkien, just a bit.  On the whole, I thought the “North” segments were stronger than the “South” ones.  Kingsley absolutely shines in this book, and Wes seemed a trifle flat, especially by comparison.

If Søren bore a resemblance to the God of the Old Testament in The Angelhe seems to be the spittin’ image in this book, when he appears as a teen.  As an adult, Søren still bears a resemblance to God but it’s to the God of the New Testament (I think).  He makes sacrifices and has to deal with their consequences.  He loves, and he has to watch his loved ones battle it out and make mistakes, and he can’t really know how it will all end.  He’s a God who went from being in complete control to having to wait and hope that his people (person, really) will come back to him.  Uncertainty does not sit well with the Almighty, and neither does Søren handle it without considerable friction.  I loved every one of Søren’s scenes, even the brutal ones.

I am not sure if it is just a case of contrast, but I really disliked Wes in this book, and I was confused by Nora.  While Søren and Kingsley are confronting and, to an extent, reliving the past, Wes and Nora spend their time building an incongruous fantasy dream world and exploring the brutality of the thoroughbred racing world.  (I should point out that I enjoyed the latter explorations as they provided insights to both Wes’ and Nora’s view of her world in the underground.)  Perhaps this issue is just that a lot of the “South” scenes were written from Wes’ point of view, and I didn’t enjoy being in his head nearly as much as I enjoy Nora’s.  She’s funny; he’s sappy.

I recommend this book to anyone who read and enjoyed The Siren and The Angel and is tolerant of very dark subject matter.  There are some extremely intense scenes, and sensitive readers should approach with caution.  I am one of those sensitive readers, actually, but I found enough interesting material and often starkly beautiful writing to compensate me for the few panic attacks this book brought on.  Speaking of starkly beautiful writing, this book contains one of my favorite sentences of all time.  For that one sentence alone, I would give this book a 5-star review; but, of course, I found many more reasons for that rating.

The Prince was released on November 20 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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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?

From deepest woe I cry to thee… Oh Lent, I miss you.

In a recent email to a friend, I mentioned that I vastly prefer the music of Lent to the music of Eastertide.  Obviously, I’m just going to have to shore up all of that lamentation and penitence for next year.  To tide me over, however, I will here present a sampling of some of my favorite Lenten music.  If you play the videos embedded below, you’ll notice a certain trend.  My favorite Lenten music is full of drama and honesty.  Lent is not a time for smugness, and I have to admit that I revel in all that honest soul-searching.  However odd it is, Lent is the one time of year that I feel almost normal.

As an example, here’s the text of verse three of “Creator of the Earth and Skies”: “We have not loved you: far and wide, the wreckage of our hatred spreads, and evils wrought by human pride recoil on unrepentant heads.”  I couldn’t find a performance of the hymn to post, but it’s Hymn 148 from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, words by David W. Hughes (1911-1967), Uffingham tune.  Anyway, what I like about this hymn, along with many of my favorites from the Lent section of the hymnal, is that it strips away the veneer that we use to cover our humanity, that lovely fig leaf of self-delusion that we use to convince ourselves that we are naturally good.  I’m not entirely certain why I get so annoyed by this veneer, but I do.  When I encounter it in life or in hymns, my fingers itch to point it out as folly, to tear it away.

Not sure what I mean? Here’s verse 3 from “Onward Christian Soldiers”: “Like a mighty army moves the church of God; brothers we are treading where the saints have trod. We are not divided, all one body we, one in hope in doctrine, one in charity.”  (Words by Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), music by Arthur S. Sullivan (1842-1900), St. Gertrude)  I infinitely prefer the version of humanity and Christianity offered by Hughes, because that’s what I see on a daily basis.  I can’t recall ever looking at the whole picture of humanity and supposing that we were united in charity.

I’ve divided these music selections into three groups: (1) hymns that focus on individual penitence, (2) hymns that focus on how much it sucks to be Jesus, and (3) choral anthems that carry the themes of Lent.

1.

“Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir” – BWV38.

It’s hard for me to choose a favorite from among the two hymns featured in this section.  This hymn, whose German title is shown above (from the original words by Martin Luther in 1524) is styled as “From deepest woe I cry to thee” in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 from an English translation by Catherine Winkworth (1863) that was slightly altered for the hymnal.  The words beautifully encapsulate the themes of Lent: penitence and the acknowledgement both of God’s grace and mercy and of our own unworthiness. My favorite verse is the second:

Thou grantest pardon through thy love;
thy grace alone availeth.
Our works could ne’er our guilt remove;
yea, e’en the best life faileth.
For none may boast themselves of aught,
but must confess thy grace hath wrought
whate’er in them is worthy.

 Perhaps I should explain a bit of my theological background in order to shed some light on this reflection.  I grew up in a funky church that emphasized works and glossed over that whole faith/grace/all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God bit.  As an early teen, I switched to a somewhat evangelical church that comprehended a better balance between works and faith, but, both because of my earlier background and because of the twisty ways teenage minds shape and bend theological messages, I began to view God as implacable–no matter how much I repented, I still felt condemned for my sins, unable to accept the grace of God.  Now, I could spend an awful lot of time attempting to work out all of the intricacies of that one sentence, and maybe I will at a later time.  For now, suffice it to say that I was still attempting to earn my salvation through good works, and I was never able to be quite good enough to attain it.  After I switched to the Episcopal Church, I had the good fortune to interact with a priest who felt strongly about grace, and I began to understand just why it’s so difficult to accept it.

We human beings hate feeling grateful or obliged to someone else.  It is an extremely difficult emotion for us to manage.  From early childhood, we want to be independent, to do things all by ourselves, to feel a sense of pride in what we’ve accomplished.  My elder daughter is almost three, and she has reached the independent stage with a vengeance.  She wants to climb the stairs all by herself and put her shoes on all by herself, and she becomes incredibly frustrated when she is not able to do so.  As we grow into adulthood, we like to think that we cast off all of the quirks of childhood, but we do not.  We yearn to be acknowledged for the things we have done, to have others recognize that we did them “all by myself,” and it is almost shameful for us to have to admit those occasions when we have received timely assistance from others.  It is as though we are convinced that there is no value in accomplishing some task if one does not do it entirely by oneself.  But how foolish is that?  When was the last time you accomplished anything entirely by yourself?  I would be nothing without the assistance of my husband, my children, my parents, my friends, my coworkers, etc.  Even the very few things that I do well I cannot really claim: I write well, but isn’t that largely because of the efforts of one Frank Jansson (my high school English teacher)?

If it is difficult for us to acknowledge an obligation or gratefulness to another person for assistance in our day to day lives, how much more difficult is it for us to acknowledge that our salvation (however we comprehend it) is entirely outside our control.  I still struggle with it.  At the evangelical church I attended, we teens in the youth group were taught that each sin we committed was another nail piercing Jesus’ flesh–that if we could stop sinning, he could stop suffering.  As an adult, I view that teaching as patently ridiculous.  First, we really can’t stop sinning because it’s in our nature to be schmucks sometimes.  Second, Christ died once–it isn’t a continual sacrifice, it’s a continual redemption.  When we repent, God doesn’t say, “Um, let me think about it… I’ll get back to you later when I decide whether or not you deserve to be forgiven for that one.”  Instead, our forgiveness and atonement is already there, just waiting for us to accept the gift, because we never deserve to be forgiven, but we are forgiven regardless.

During Lent, we are encouraged to take an honest look at our lives and to reflect with penitence on the need for redemption and the beautiful gift of mercy God gives us.  This season of reflection prepares us for the yearly celebration of this gift at Easter.  I have a tendency to live in Lenten ways all the year through, because I find such comfort in the idea that God loved me enough to make such a sacrifice that no matter how much of a schmuck I will ever be, that unconditional love will never fail.  I no longer believe that God is implacable, unwilling or unable to forgive my great transgressions.  Instead, I happily believe that no matter how much nonsense I dish out, God is more than capable of forgiving it.

“Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun” – John Donne (1631-1673), Dresden, arr. John Ness Beck (1930-1987).

I expended all of my theological mumbo-jumbo in discussing the first hymn of this section, so I’ll just highlight my favorite verse from this hymn, from a poem by John Donne.  Verse 3:

I have a sin of fear that when I’ve spun
my last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
shall shine as He shines now, and heretofore.
and having done that, thou hast done, I fear no more.

2.

“Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended?” – Johann Heermann (1585-1647), tr. Robert Bridges (1844-1930), Herzliebster Jesu, arr. J. S. Bach (1685-1750).

I’m not quite as fond of the ‘boy, it sucks to be Jesus’ hymns as the hymns from the first section.  Honestly, I think a meditation on the sufferings of Christ can be overdone.  However, I truly love the two hymns I’m posting here.  My favorite verse from “Ah, holy Jesus” is verse 5:

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee;
think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,
not my deserving.

“O sacred head, sore wounded” – Robert Bridges (1899), Passion Chorale

For true Lenten drama, you can’t really outdo “O sacred head, sore wounded.”  My favorite verse is verse 4, which is starred in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 (meaning it can be omitted).  Thankfully, we sing all 5 verses at my church.

What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend,
for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?
Oh, make me thine forever! and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never, outlive my love for thee.

3.

I sing in the choir at my church, and I just adore the music we do during Lent.  I find that I cannot get sick of renaissance motets.  Anyway, here are two of my favorite Lenten anthems.

“Call to Remembrance” – Richard Farrant (c. 1530-1580)

“God So Loved the World” – John Stainer (1840-1901)

If you made it through all of this giant post (and watched all those videos), cheers, and thank you for your patience!

I am going to talk about religion (even though God don’t think stuff’s funny)

I like writing and thinking about religion, but I really hate talking about it.  You know how it is–you’re talking with a friend or a stranger about some random, innocuous subject, and all of a sudden Jesus joins the conversation.  And it isn’t even Jesus, really, it’s your version or her version of Jesus, and maybe those versions don’t match up.  All of a sudden, instead of being able to listen to one another and continue your formerly give-and-take conversation, you’re caught up in a battle of right and wrong (your opinion invariably representing the side of Right and your interlocutor’s opinion invariably representing the side of Wrong).  Ugh–I hate it!

I so hate talking about religion with people whom I do not yet trust to control that oh-so-human instinct to do religious battle at the drop of a hat, that I often hide my participation with my church until it seems safe to give it a casual mention.  After a year of knowing someone, if the topic of music comes up, I might mention that I sing in my church’s choir.  If a conversation happens to veer towards leadership or service, I might mention that I serve on my church’s vestry (as an aside, I didn’t know what a vestry was until I joined mine, so this mention tends to be safe due to general obscurity).  For the most part, however, I hold to a scrupulous silence about everything even remotely connected to religion.

Why?  Well, the fault is mine, really.  Religion tends to be viewed as a Serious Subject about which one should not joke, and I just can’t help but find parts of it funny, even while I believe in it.  I have offended more than a few people with my manner, an odd mix of irreverence and sincerity.  When I am glib about Serious Subjects (like the Eucharist, the Bible, God the Father, the Apostles, the Holy Ghost, etc.), folks who feel strongly about those subjects tend to reason, unsurprisingly, that my mortal soul might be in peril.  I don’t particularly like it when other people try to save my soul, so I tend to get even more snarky and glib, and it may be that I hold grudges.

This year, though, I have challenged myself to stop doing things just because I’ve always done them.  So I’ve had a problem in the past with people misunderstanding me… Since when do I have the right to control how other people view me?  Why in the world should I allow the potential for misunderstanding to justify my not being myself at all times?  Do I really have to be so damn neurotic all the time?  (Answer key: since never; I shouldn’t; no, ideally.)

On Saturday, I attended the Diocesan Ministry Fair for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, along with a host of clergy and old people.  (Seriously, out of a few hundred, there were probably fewer than 20 under the age of 35.)  It isn’t exactly accurate to say that I learned a lot–most of the plenary session seemed to be pitched towards the clergy and other folk who keep up on their modern theology (I don’t), so I spent at least the first half hour trying to figure out what the speaker’s topic was, what she meant by “Emergence Christianity” or “The Great Emergence”.  She seemed to presuppose that we would have a passing understanding of those terms, and it was my first time hearing them.

Once I caught on, I learned that we are on the cusp of a great cultural shift between the before and the after.  Advances in science and information technology have created a new world and a new culture, and people who are 45 and younger tend to accept these changes as a fact of life, while people who are 46 and older view them as scary change that is best resisted.  Quite aside from (or perhaps in concert with) these cultural changes, Christianity is changing as well.  The Emerging Church (which is apparently not the same thing as the Emergent Church, but hell if I know what the difference is) focuses on narrative and the power of story and will not be content with the simple sales pitch of traditional Christianity (believe in Christ or go to hell).  The Emerging Church wants to know about the Holy Spirit.  The Emerging Church believes in many paths to God.  The Emerging Church believes in mission, outreach, social justice, doing good in the world, and serving the Kingdom of God in all its many forms.  That last is, perhaps, the most important point about the Emerging Church: rather than believe that the Kingdom of God is encapsulated in the universal Church (the small-c catholic church), the Emerging Christians believe that all churches (all religions, perhaps?) are encapsulated within the overarching and universal Kingdom of God.

These are big thoughts, and I would never have expected to encounter them at a Diocese-wide event for an established Church.  Honestly, it was amazing (awesome, almost, in the real sense of the word… not awesome like hot dogs) sitting there hearing my secret thoughts about religion amplified around the room by a voice with a charming Tennessee accent (Phyllis Tickle.  You can look her up here: http://www.phyllistickle.com/index.html).

I have always felt vaguely heretical for believing that there are many ways to reach and serve God, for refusing to believe that I have magically stumbled across the right answer to the big questions of life.  What are we doing here?  What’s the point?  Those are big questions, and I really don’t believe that any human being has the ability to even comprehend the answers.  Maybe we aren’t even asking the right questions.  So it turns out that I’m a quasi-Emerging Christian–decidedly un-evangelical–and that there are millions worldwide who entertain similar thoughts about religion.  Goodness!

As an aside: for a blog about reading, I haven’t talked about books in a while.  I’ll have to fix that.