Heaven and Hell by Kristen Ashley, narrated by Felicity Munroe

Heaven and Hell audioWhy I read it:  I had the ebook on my TBR, having picked it up for 99c in a sale some time ago. I saw the audiobook at Audible for $1.99 on a whispersync special so I bought it.

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  After making a bad decision when she was very young, Kia Clementine finds herself in hell. Then, suddenly, within the time it takes for a shotgun to blast, her hell changes. Completely. Then, out of the blue, she sees Sampson Cooper, her celebrity crush. A man the whole world knows is decent. A man the world knows is loyal. A man the world knows is good. All of these very unlike her now dead husband. He’s sitting at a table right next to hers. And she catches his eye.

Terrified of the interest Sam shows in her, Kia finds the courage to go out with him. Not long after, she shares her dark secrets, and Sam shares that he’ll stop at nothing to gain her trust. As Sam leads Kia to heaven, Kia realizes that Sam is living his own hell. Although he gives her beauty and she gives him everything, he withholds his trust. Even with all the beauty Sam shows her, Kia wants it all. But Sam forces Kia to make a heartbreaking decision, and only she can decide. It’s all or nothing.

Trigger Warning: Domestic abuse (in heroine’s first marriage)

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  As is often the case when I start audiobooks, I hadn’t looked at the blurb and so I didn’t really know much about what to expect, other than that I remembered it was a contemporary. In many ways, the story has the same vibe as the ‘Burg series (even having cameos from some characters from that series, including Joe Callahan and Tanner Layne) and the Colorado Mountain series. Pretty much, if listeners enjoyed those series’, they’re like to enjoy this book.

I suppose I should say more than that though shouldn’t I? 🙂

Kia Clementine had a very bad marriage. Cooter (yes, that’s his name) Clementine was the high school football star but his fame didn’t outlast high school. Kia married him and found out, too late, that he was an abusive asshole. He regularly beat her and he was otherwise extremely controlling and not in any kind of sexy Alpha-caretaker way either.  After Cooter dies, Kia finds herself in possession of newfound freedom and an unexpected inheritance of sorts. She sells her house (chosen by Cooter), plans to sell all her furniture (chosen by Cooter) and get a place of her own. But first, she will take a holiday and enjoy some of that freedom she never had with Cooter.

The story picks up again when Kia is in Lake Como, on week three of her five week European holiday. It has been a little over four months since she was widowed. At breakfast one morning, her ever-romantic waiter seats her with another lone guest. He is Sampson Cooper. Sam is a half white, quarter Mexican and quarter African American guy from California. He played NFL football and had a very successful career until his brother, Ben, who was in the Army, died while deployed. Sam then quit the NFL and enlisted in the Army and spent four years as a super-commando Army Ranger-type. He’s not in the Army anymore. He’s not only gorgeous. For Kia, Sampson Cooper was the man she dreamed about when her life with Cooter sucked so much. Sampson was the man she wished Cooter could have been. She is gobsmacked and flabbergasted that she is now sitting eating breakfast in Lake Como with Sampson Cooper. She cannot imagine ever being at ease with him.

Surprise surprise however, Sam Cooper, the man she has breakfast with (as opposed to Sampson Cooper, NFL star & military hero) is able to put her at ease rather quickly and they have a wonderful time together. A couple days later, they go on their first date and from then on, they are inseparable.

Kia has a lot to get through. Sam is a big man and he is authoritative and bossy. When he gets annoyed, Kia shuts down and goes into defensive mode because her experience (all of it, with Cooter) was that when a big man gets annoyed (or even when he isn’t in Cooter’s case) things get dicey for her. Sam would never hit or kick Kia but he does have to learn to handle her with a bit more care and this is a learning process for the both of them. Kia has to deal with the stuff from her past and learn how to interact with a non-asshole and Sam has to modify some of his behaviours. Sam is never abusive to Kia; I want to make that crystal clear. But he does scare her from time to time because he’s angry. In the circumstances, he has a right to be angry but even so, it is something Kia doesn’t cope with very well. This push/pull takes place over a period of months in the book. It’s not constant but rather, something which they circle back to from time to time as their relationship progresses. And, eventually it gets to the point where Kia fights back and this is directly symbolic of Kia showing she is not frightened of Sam ever hurting her and evidence of her trust in both her and him.

There are strong female friendships, as I’ve come to expect from Ms. Ashley, and plenty of humour as well. Kia is hilarious and I had so many laugh out loud moments during the listen. This was only enhanced by excellent narration by Felicity Munroe. She is a new-to-me narrator but I thought her performance was brilliant here. Her accents were very good – with one exception: one of the secondary cast was an Australian who had spent a lot of time in America. I don’t really know what that accent was but it certainly wasn’t Australian. It was even worse than Meryl Streep’s appalling accent in Evil Angels. And that’s saying something. However, Thomas doesn’t actually speak much so it was only a very tiny percentage of the listen.

Ms. Munroe delivered the heart and humour of the story so well. She kept me engrossed in the story even when some aspects of it went on a little too long. Seriously, only Kristen Ashley can have an epilogue that’s nearly an hour long! Kristen Ashley tends to bed down that HEA so well; every tiny little thing is wrapped up in neat bows. Now, I love my HEA but there were a few times here where the text dragged a little and things delved too much into minutiae. However, the narration was enough to keep me interested and engaged the entire story nonetheless.

I loved Kia. As a hero-centric reader, it is not often that the heroine gets the majority of my focus. And it’s not because the story is told from Kia’s first person POV either. I was all about Tack in Motorcycle Man after all (as much as I adored Tyra). Sam is a great hero but a little opaque. He doesn’t really open up to Kia until nearly the end of the story and this kept me somewhat distanced from him I think. I liked him very much but Tack is still my favourite KA hero.

What else? What’s interesting to me is that both Cooter and Sam were alpha males. Cooter was the abusive asshole kind who felt so small in the rest of his life he had to control and abuse Kia to feel big at home. Sam was nothing like that. But it’s intriguing to me, the juxtaposition of the two men. There’s been a lot of discussion in Romancelandia lately, of apha heroes, alphaholes and douchecanoes and the differences therein (for some readers, there isn’t any difference). Sam and Cooter have some things in common even though they are vastly different. Sam has a tendency to take decisions out of Kia’s hands and announce what they’ll do. This drifts perilously close, occasionally, to some of Cooter’s behaviours (although, without the menace). What’s different is, eventually (and as discussed above, it does take some time before Kia finds her feet and is comfortable doing so), Kia pushes back when she wants something else. Kia didn’t “let” Cooter abuse her of course. But she found that answering back or taking a stand on anything just led to more pain and abuse from Cooter so she learned not to do it. With Sam, she learns she can push back and that Sam respects it. They get to a point where they can have arguments and get their feelings off their chests without Kia being frightened or intimidated and with both able to get their point across and reach a compromise.

I’ve long said my alphahole tolerance is inversely proportional to the doormat factor of the heroine. If her doormat factor is low (ie, she pushes back and will not be walked on), then I can take a pretty alphahole guy. She’ll put him in his place and he will learn new ways of dealing with things. If her doormat factor is high (ie, she all but has a tattoo on her forehead which says “walk on me”) then I will hate the hero with the passion of a thousand fiery suns.  (None of this relates in any way to Kia being abused by her first husband. I’m not suggesting that Kia was a doormat in her first marriage. She was abused and that is different.)

I could probably write a whole post (but I won’t) on the ways in which Cooter and Sam were the same and the ways in which they were different. Sam was VASTLY better in all the ways of course. But the TL;DR version is that I think Ms. Ashley may well have been making a point about where the lines in the sand are between an alpha hero and a pus-bucket loser abuser jerk. For me, her lines work. YMMV.

Grade: B+

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2 comments on “Heaven and Hell by Kristen Ashley, narrated by Felicity Munroe

  1. Merrian

    I read this book recently. I also had thoughts on the similarities between Cooter and Sam. I was interested in the quite nuanced approach to Sam’s military career and suffering. His thoughts on how endless war makes the death of a friend meaningless and without purpose because ‘making us safe’ is an undefined mess of a concept. I liked and believed Kia’s evolution and recovery and how her friends were part of that. In the Epilogue I enjoyed seeing Kia and Sam put their skills towards building a community. My niggle is that if Cooter represents the bad would-be Alpha and Sam the good guy actual Alpha we are left with the Alpha thing only working if the man is a good guy. Where I wonder if the elephant in the story is that the Alpha thing creates/channels the badness in (some) men by giving them expectations of themselves they can never meet?

  2. Kaetrin

    @Merrian: I have so many thoughts about this! Unfortunately, they’re often contrary and possibly therefore don’t make a coherent argument.

    Ultimately, I think the difference between Sam and Cooter is in their level of respect for others. Sam and Cooter both used controlling behaviours from time to time – Sam would say his was for protective purposes but at a certain point the motivation becomes somewhat irrelevant because the result is that the “protective” coercion/control has resulted in harm. But Sam respects Kia (and other people) and when they push back, he listens and takes on board what is said. He respects pushback and is not threatened by it. Cooter, on the other hand, doesn’t respect anyone else. In relation to everyone else, he sees himself as the victim and he despises the people who make him feel small. As for Kia, he doesn’t respect her either but for different reasons. Perhaps he despises her because he sees her as weak simply because he can get away with abusing her? I suspect it is far more complicated than that – I’m certainly not an expert on domestic abuse. But I think the core difference in the two men isn’t unrealistic expectations on themselves, it’s how they think of others and what value they place on others. Cooter didn’t value anyone but himself. That isn’t the case for Sam. So yes, Sam is alpha and gets a bit too controlling at times, but he respects Kia and when she says “no” he respects that too. Cooter never did any of that.

    That’s very much an off-the-top-of-my-head response though. Probably I can give it more thought and see it a completely other way too!

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