Review of audiobook, narrated by Joyce Bean
Reading Level: Adult Romance
Release Date: July 25, 2008
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Listening Length: 10 hours and 55 minutes
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry
Zoe Luce (AKA Sara Cleland) is a widow whose husband Preston was murdered several years ago. When, at that time, Zoe kept insisting, loudly and publicly, that Preston’s cousin, who is CEO of Preston’s family’s huge corporation, killed him in order to get control of Preston’s shares of the company, the cousin had Zoe legally declared incompetent and committed her to the Candle Lake Manor Psychiatric Hospital. This institution is so evil, it reminds me of the insane asylum in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Though there is no exact duplicate of Nurse Ratched, the inmates are kept constantly drugged to sedate them into compliance, and there are brutal, rapist guards patrolling the hospital building and the grounds. In short, it is run like a private prison, where inconvenient relatives are locked away, at extortionist rates, on behalf of wealthy clients. Zoe and her best friend and fellow inmate, Arcadia Ames, an attractive, 40-something woman, nicknamed the hospital, “Xanadu,” presumably as a reference to the fictional estate of Charles Foster Kane, the titular protagonist of the 1941 film Citizen Kane. The symbolic meaning of Xanadu in the years since this film has come to be a Gothic prison that one builds for oneself. The term is sarcastic for Zoe and Arcadia in that they are not in this Gothic hospital prison by choice. Zoe was trapped there for over six months until she and Arcadia brilliantly contrived a daring escape. (I am not listing this information as a spoiler, because all of this is in Zoe’s backstory and is not the main plot of this book.)
At the time the main events of this book begin, it has been one year since Zoe and Arcadia fled Candle Lake. They are living under assumed identities in Whispering Springs, Arizona, a fictional small city which is a typical artsy-craftsy, New Agey, tourist destination similar in spirit to nearby Sedona. Arcadia is hiding from her on-the-lam, criminal husband, who has vowed to murder her, and Zoe is determined that her evil in-laws shall not imprison her again. Zoe has developed a career as an interior decorator, based on her degree in fine arts. Arcadia has created a thriving shop selling handmade jewelry and expensive, silver, hand-cast knickknacks to tourists. Both have taken strong steps to recover from their ordeal at Candle Lake by learning how to better keep themselves safe. In particular, Zoe has gotten training in self-defense, and Arcadia has bought and learned to use a handgun.
Ethan Truax is three-time loser in the marriage stakes. Several years ago, his relentless pursuit of justice on behalf of his murdered younger brother, a CEO in Los Angeles, caused his third wife to desert him, both because Ethan’s obsession left little emotional space for their marriage, and because Ethan had gone bankrupt and could no longer offer her a luxurious lifestyle. His highly successful, multi-million-dollar, private-investigation corporation in Los Angeles was vengefully destroyed by powerful bigwigs. They were enraged that Ethan’s successful efforts to expose the murderer, a fellow mover-and-shaker in LA with whom their businesses were linked, drastically damaged their bottom line.
Ethan has taken responsibility for his sister-in-law, Bonnie, and his nephews, currently aged six and eight, stepping in as a father figure for the boys in his brother’s place. He and Bonnie agreed, soon after the resolution of Ethan’s hunt for justice on behalf of his dead brother, that it would be best for all of them to resettle far away from LA. They decided on Whispering Springs where Ethan’s uncle, a fellow PI, lived. Due to the uncle’s retiring, Ethan purchased both his uncle’s PI business in Whispering Springs and took over responsibility, at a too-generous purchase price, for his uncle’s unmarketable monstrosity of a house. This enormous, gaudy mansion from the 1930’s is appallingly decorated, inside and out, in glaring shades of bright pink.
The inciting incident of this book, and the impetus for the first meet of Zoe and Ethan, occurs when Zoe, who is psychic, hears metaphysical screams emanating from the walls of the master bedroom in the home of a rich, potential client. The man informs Zoe that he wants his whole house redecorated due to his ongoing divorce from a wife who has deserted him, but Zoe strongly suspects he has actually murdered his wife. She hires Ethan to try and find out if the missing wife is still alive.
This is Book 1 in a duology and, fair warning, no romance reader who demands a HEA (happily ever after) will be satisfied with the “happy for now” ending of this book. To get the full story of the romance between Zoe and Ethan and a complete HEA, it’s crucial to also read Book 2, Truth or Dare. I had no trouble with this ploy in this particular case, though as a general rule, I rarely bother to invest time in reading multiple-part novels by anyone else. JAK has only created multiple-part novels a few times that I can personally recall. In addition to this duology, she wrote a two-part story in the form of the first two Harmony books written as Jayne Castle, After Dark and After Glow. She also did a three-book story as Amanda Quick, the Lake & March trilogy. In all three of these cases, I enjoyed spending extra time with the sympathetic, compelling protagonists of these books.
I have read this particular book in Kindle format in the past, and this past week, I experienced it a second time in audiobook format. The narrator, Joyce Bean, has also recorded many other JAK novels. I myself much prefer Barbara Rosenblat, who has narrated some of Krentz’s Amanda Quick historicals. Ms. Rosenblat is a fabulous narrator, capable of voicing both female and male characters equally well. Unfortunately, Ms. Bean is only a 3-star narrator by my preferences. She does children and all ages of women’s voices well, but she is merely adequate when voicing male characters because she cannot effectively deepen her voice.
JAK’s protagonists are almost invariably age 30-31 for the heroine and 39-40 for the hero. She does not specifically say how old they are in this book, so readers who care about such things are left to do their own calculations based on the protagonists’ backstory. Or, if you are a fan of her books, as I tend to be, you can simply assume that 30/39 are their ages. In addition, though all of JAK’s heroines are slender, they are never beautiful, except in the eyes of JAK’s heroes, who are always blazingly sexually attracted to her heroines. JAK’s heroines, including this one, look like JAK herself and are always vegetarians who like wine, with an occasional shot of brandy to settle their nerves (which is always offered to them by the hero, who always drinks brandy as his booze of choice). Her heroes are also never handsome, but instead described as ruggedly attractive. And, of course, her heroines are always as wildly sexually drawn to the heroes as these heroes are drawn to them. All JAK’s heroes, and Ethan is no exception, are always physically fit with a fine physique and are fabulous lovers, which is, of course, a genre expectation of all romance heroes, not just those of JAK.
This story has a bit of the paranormal in it, though far less than JAK’s Arcane Society or Harmony books. Zoe can psychically hear screaming in the walls of rooms where violence has occurred. Beyond her paranormal ability, Zoe is a classic, feisty, JAK, romantic-suspense heroine. Like all of JAK’s heroines, Zoe fights to remain on co-equal footing with the hero while solving a murder mystery, and she often takes foolhardy risks in the process, which gets her into life-threatening trouble. However, when she gets into terrible danger, also as occurs for all other JAK heroines, Zoe doesn’t just sit around waiting for the big, strong hero, in this case Ethan, to rescue her from evil villain(s). She is excellent at defending herself.
Ethan is a very sympathetic romance hero. He is a loving, loyal brother-in-law and uncle, and he is a determined, accomplished, and extremely ethical PI who, once on a case, never gives up until it is solved. It is a relief to read a modern romance novel in which the hero is not a billionaire. In fact, in this case, Ethan is far from it. As mentioned above, Ethan is struggling to get out of a financial hole.
Arcadia is also a strong, sympathetic, female character, who is a survivor like Zoe. I enjoyed reading about the friendship between her and Zoe and how (as narrated in flashbacks) the two of them bravely worked together to escape the evil insane asylum.
Ethan’s sister-in-law Bonnie is a third, strong, sympathetic, female character in the book. She becomes a good friend to Zoe and Arcadia, and there are some fun, female bonding scenes between the three of them.
Bonnie’s two little boys provide some lighthearted diversion in the midst of the intense suspense situations in the book. They also allow the reader to directly experience what a great guy Ethan is as he kindly and affectionately parents them.
Over the course of this book, JAK introduces two other intriguing, strong, honorable, male subcharacters as love interests for Bonnie and Arcadia. Together, these six characters and the two little boys form a band of quirky misfits who become a caring, supportive family of affiliation. This element of the book is very appealing to me personally, because a family of affiliation is one of my favorite tropes in popular fiction.
There are multiple antagonists and villains in this book because, as always, JAK has both a main suspense plot and several, complementary suspense subplots. Several of her villains have a rather melodramatic, one-dimensional, Snidely Whiplash feel to them, which is fairly characteristic of JAK novels. You either enjoy that sort of thing or you don’t. I don’t particularly like it, but I don’t actively dislike it either. What I do appreciate about the way she creates her villains is that, compared to some of the other bestselling romantic suspense authors out there, JAK is not nearly as graphically brutal in the violence portrayed in her books as those other authors are. Her books are about as gruesome as I can personally stomach.
I rate this book as follows:
Romance Plot: 4
Suspense Plot: 4
Suspense Subplots: 4
Audiobook Narrator: 3