REVIEW: Leah Ashton’s NINE-MONTH COUNTDOWN

Nine_Month_CountdownMiss Bates is a conservative romance reader, as she is in food choices and ownership of sweater sets, below-the-knee skirts, and Edwardian-style shoes. She’s wary and mistrustful of new-to-her authors; reading a tried and true author, one whose sensibility is in keeping with Miss B’s preference for themes of fidelity, commitment, decency, and a minimum of love scenes, is reassuring. It sits well, goes down easy. There’s a streak of break-out rebellion in Miss B, however, and sometimes, from the comfort of her easy chair, she takes the plunge into a new-to-her romance author. With category romance, the commitment, at least of time, is easier. Because, like all of you, Miss Bates likes to get that lift from discovering a gem. Reading Leah Ashton’s Nine-Month Countdown was such an experience for Miss B. Ashton’s Kiss-line category has a few flaws, but it led Miss B. to that wonderful discovery: a romance writer about whom she can say, “I like how your mind works. I want to follow you to see how you’ll surprise, delight, even disappoint me next.” More than anything, it’s how Ashton plays with some contemporary romance conventions that delighted Miss Bates: the unplanned pregnancy, returning soldier, helpless, “caught” heroine and still retain the “fidelity, commitment, decency, and, though hot, minimum in-keeping-with-the-development-of-the-relationship love scenes.”

There’s nothing particularly complicated plot-wise to Nine-Month Countdown; when writing category, that indicates an author in control of her material … for the most part, in this case. (There be niggles, folks – later.) Ivy Molyneux, poised to take her mother’s position as CEO of Molyneux Mining, monied, beautiful, and devoted to her career, has an unprotected one-night-stand with SAS solidier, Angus Barlow, at her sister’s, April’s, wedding, in Bali. The moon, the stars, the beach, Angus’s flashing-white-toothed smile, muscles and girth, olive-skin and kissing know-how … you get it, a girl is carried away. Weeks later, cowering in her company’s marble washroom in Perth, Ivy watches, horrified, as two little pink stripes appear on her pregnancy test. Ivy is an adult, as is Angus, and one of the many reasons Miss Bates loved this book, is they behave as such. Ivy tells Angus she’s pregnant: neither pretend to mystical joining and feelings they do not have; neither deny the importance of their work and how this pregnancy will disrupt their lives; neither pretend to feelings or commitments they’re not prepared to make. Neither keep secrets either; they’re discreet, don’t spill their guts about their challenges, personal lives, or tragic pasts. They’re happy, fairly well-adjusted people stuck with this baby and each other. All of this pragmatism didn’t take anything away from the sheer romance of the narrative: it was funny, heartfelt, and engaging. It was about two people getting to know each other, like each other, and indulge their attraction. The protagonists are flawed, but sympathetic; there’s no antagonism and the reader doesn’t have to take sides, a convention in romance Miss Bates dislikes, as in saintly heroine and asshole hero, (really, you don’t know much about saints if you think it’s all about the martyrdom).

Ashton creates great characters, real, believable, and congenial. She’s also an adept scene-setter: building interesting original scene set-ups and then letting her characters speak for themselves, out of themselves, and true to themselves. One such scene, among many, occurs when Ivy tells Angus about her pregnancy:

Um, the thing is, Angus, I have a plan.”

His gaze shot up, linking with hers in almost desperation. “A plan?”

Ivy nodded slowly. And then she seemed to realise what he was thinking. She looked down, studying her untouched champagne glass again.

“No,” she said, so softly he had to lean closer. “Not that.” Her gaze darted back to his, and she looked at him steadfastly now. With that directness, that realness he’d liked so much in Bali. “I’m thirty-one, and I have money and every resource I could wish for at my disposal. In every possible way this is the last thing I want. But a termination isn’t an option for me.” She barely blinked as she studied him. Long, long moments passed.

Angus cleared his throat. “I’m thirty-four with a career I love that takes me away from home for months at a time and could one day kill me. I don’t want this. I don’t want children.” Ivy’s gaze wobbled a little now as Angus swallowed. “But for no reason I can fathom, I’m glad you’ve made that decision.”

Now he glanced away. He didn’t know why he’d said that, or why he felt that way. The logical part of him – which was basically all of him – didn’t understand it. It made no sense. But it was the truth. His truth.

What Miss Bates loved about this initial scene (and Ashton makes a closed-door/beach? of the initial one-night-stand, which Miss Bates thought clever of her, letting the relationship develop before we have the first love scene) was its honesty, directness, and clarity about who these two are. She loved that abortion was considered and then rejected for not-terribly-clear reasons: who’s to say they have to be. We make decisions on more that our cerebrality, Miss Bates hopes. The honesty of the scene lies in how the characters acknowledge their feelings; they may not understand them, but they give them greater credence than circumstance and convention.

Ivy and Angus’s romance develops along two lines: the impending baby (details of parturition are at a minimum, thank goodness) and Ivy and Angus’s very different personalities. Ivy is a woman who wields a lot of power, but so does Angus: she’s a corporate bigwig and he’s in Special Forces (not your ordinary grunt). She’s about pencil skirts and control and he’s about rugged bravery and a laid-back attitude to anything but the mission. She’s about withdrawal and protecting herself and he’s about freedom and pursuit. She wants to box him into legalese and lawyers over custody and parenting and he wants to get to know her and work things out by talking. At the same time, and this is such a great feat of characterization, she’s soft-hearted and loving and he’s decent but believes himself incapable of love. In so many ways, they’re different and alike, complex and interesting. Miss Bates thought Angus’s logical, no-feelings bar makes an abrupt turn to getting-to-know-you, but there was so much to enjoy in this slip of a romance that she forgave readily.

To return to Ashton’s scene-setting, there are quite a few accomplished scenarios. Firstly, there’s an incredible scene of banter, honest getting-to-know-each-other and desire set at a waterfall in the Karijini National Park. Mostly, Miss Bates loved the wake-up scenes: out of dreams and sleep, Ivy and Angus, separately and apart, muse, in the morning-way we all do, about the directions their lives are taking, how their hearts are engaged by each other, how their lives will change, what they feel for each other, how desire comes calling.

Lastly, Miss Bates loved how Ashton played with some pretty standardized romance conventions. The pregnant heroine isn’t helpless, or vulnerable; on occasion, Angus may see her that way, but we know she can do this just as easily on her own. She chooses to make Angus a part of her life and give her baby a father, even if nothing works out between them. The portrayal of the career woman is realistic and nuanced: Ivy loves her job, but isn’t defined only by it. It’s a life-long dream, but it doesn’t mean her baby detour will end it, or sacrifice it. It means it’ll change it. Angus is a refreshing portrait of a soldier who loves what he does: he’s not tormented, or guilt-ridden, or traumatized. He doesn’t diminish the ugly aspects of his job, but he doesn’t magnify them either. Does all this convention-turning-on-its-head make this romance any less romantic? Any less of a magnificent HEA? It’s sexy and romantic and heart-stoppingly beautiful and true. In Leah Ashton’s Nine-Month Countdown, Miss Bates found “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma. (Also, she’s glad Ms Ashton has a bit of a backlist.)

Leah Ashton’s Nine-Month Countdown, published by Harlequin, has been available since November 1st, 2014, in the usual formats at your favourite vendors. Miss Bates gratefully received an e-ARC from Harlequin, via Netgalley.

 

16 thoughts on “REVIEW: Leah Ashton’s NINE-MONTH COUNTDOWN

  1. I really liked the KIss line but I think it’s gone and they’ve farmed out the authors (for lack of a better term) into other lines such as Presents and Desire where I don’t think they’re always such a great fit.

    One of my favorite Sarah Mayberry books, More than One Night, deals with a similar storyline–what happens when you’re having a baby with somebody you don’t really know at all. Of course, I’d read Sarah’s grocery list, but it’s definitely in my Top 10 favorites.

    Thanks for the recommendation. I’m also very fond of books set in Australia, so I’ll check it out.

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    • Yes, Kiss is defunct and sadly so; like you, I liked it too. Also, one of my favourite category writers, Jessica Hart, was writing for it. I really want to see her back, under any rubric.

      I loved that Sarah Mayberry title you mention, as a matter of fact I discussed it here at MBRR, in reference to a less successful “unplanned pregnancy” romance. Hah, your quip about Mayberry’s grocery list would definitely be seconded by this reader. I haven’t read a category by her I haven’t loved and I count Best Laid Plans as a watershed category romance. If I was teaching a course on the romance novel, that one would be in it.

      I think you’re going to find this one quite quite lovely and fresh. Happy reading!

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  2. I read Ashton’s RITA winner (Why Resist a Rogue?) and I had a similar experience. At first I thought “This is fine but nothing special, why on earth did it win?” and then it ended up using some familiar elements in different and interesting ways and really won me over.

    I was going to say I am mourning Kiss as well, except this is the only one I’ve actually read (let’s not talk about what’s in my TBR). But a lot of my favorite Presents and Romance authors were writing for that line and it was nice to find their sensibility all in one place. I suspect most of them will go back to writing in those other lines. I hope so! I think Kelly Hunter’s West Family series went from Presents to Kiss and back again (in the US, because of course elsewhere these lines are all called something different).

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    • That RITA winner is one that I’ve been eying for a long time now: and was awaiting some nifty Kobo code to pick it up. The cover model is blond and that discouraged me (I’m superficial that way), but the RITA win had me quite intrigued.

      I really really liked this one for that very playing around with familiar elements that you mention. Angus’s portrayal (and what a great choice of name for a hero!) was particularly interesting: he had doubts himself about being too robotic, too okay with his ability to do his job and not feel any effects. Ashton does have one of Angus’s buddies suffer from PTSD to show the “other experience,” so to speak, but also to show Angus’s rejection of him as one of Angus’s vulnerabilities: his fear that he will end up like his buddy and his fear that he won’t because he’s heartless. It’s most interesting and jars the reader out of the conventional expectation that somehow war has broken the hero. While many vets do suffer from PTSD and that makes for an angsty romance portrayal, many don’t.

      I’ll just be happy when I see Jessica Hart back, no matter the line. Hee hee … I have SEVERAL Kiss-line romances in the TBR as well, including one by Jackie Braun I’m saving for that particularly bad day.

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    • I did see that the final book in that Kelly Hunter series is up for pre-order. Finally get to find out what happened to the brother! It’s a Presents.

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  3. Your reviews are so bad for my pocketbook and groaning TBR bookcase. Now I want to read this one, too, and I’m generally not a category reader but you’re going to get me there long before the year’s out.

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    • Lots of lots of chuckles at your comment! What fun!

      Categories are the purest form in romance, I think. There are marvelous writers (and I think Harlequin still must have some great editors) in them. There are super-duds too.

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  4. I wasn’t going to comment, feeling that it was churlish, and then decided I would anyway. I really hate unplanned pregnancy as a setup. I find it hard to believe that so many smart, otherwise responsible people would have unprotected sex without a discussion, and whatever the author attempts as an explanation still doesn’t convince. Forget babies; what about STIs?

    The very first contemporary romance I enjoyed, Theresa Weir’s Last Summer, uses this trope. Given that the female MC is characterized as cautious and conventional, Weir’s attempt to portray her as so carried away by sex (in a car, no less) that she doesn’t notice or care that condoms are not being used (with someone with a bad boy reputation, no less) didn’t convince me. It smacked more of “must do this for the plot to work.” It was my one major quibble with the book.

    It may be the case that my personal experience — I’ve never not thought about birth control — biases me on this score.

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    • I don’t think it’s churlish: I think it’s a very valid point about setting up a romance. The unplanned pregnancy is a hard sell for me too: I agree with you, but also think that people DO have reckless and stupid moments. Like you, it’s not something that was less than uppermost in my mind, so I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the set-up. I think that to continue to read in the genre means, for me, that I have to rescind my eye-roll about the genre’s conventions, and this is one that is less appealing, I admit, and see what individual writers do with them. What followed, in Ashton’s book, I found quite charming. But if it’s taking you “out of the book,” then I can see why you couldn’t abide with a narrative arc whose starting point is this problematic and foolish behaviour.

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