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Retro-Post: Review of Christmas on My Mind by Janet Daily

This was first posted on an earlier version of this blog on May 13, 2017. I am re-running it because it is relevant to the topic of next Friday’s post. We will return to retro-computing next Wednesday.

I never read a romance novel before joining the Romance Writers of America. It is true that I hadn’t joined out of intent to write romance but because their education opportunities were highly touted regardless of genre. Still, there was a strong compulsion to at least have a clue about the genre of the organization I joined. Something about being in Rome or some such.

I bought a few one dollar paperback romance at Half Price Books. Then I headed over to the library. I was actually there for books on writing. One of the titles they have is Writing Romances. It is actually published by RWA and is a collection of essays on various parts of writing romances.

I figured anyone in it would be a good place to start reading romance. I went to the last section which had chapters on various sub-genres. I couldn’t find anything by the first two I tried. First up was Eileen Dreyer who wrote the chapter on romantic suspense. I do, after all, write detective, fantasy, and other adventure fiction. Second was Susan Wiggs who wrote the medieval chapter, harkening back to my SCA days.

After those two failed to come up at my local branch I tried the paranormal romance author, Diana Gabaldon. I didn’t recognize her name but I recognized the door stop I found as part of the Highlander series. I passed on that for two reasons. First, my branch did not have book one. Second, this was my first tour of duty in romance and I wanted something shorter.

In an odd choice, given the length requirement, I picked the author of the mainstream chapter. The chapter is titled “Mainstream: It’s not just a longer category”. However, it was also a name that tickled my brain, Janet Daily.

Saying my branch had a selection by her was an understatement. I picked not quite at random but I cannot say now what made me pick Christmas on My Mind but I did. It is the first romance I have ever read.

The story is pretty straight forward. Jessica Ramsey, Jess, has left Kansas City for Branding Iron, Texas. She wants to find the birth mother who gave her up for adoption and start a new life after a mysterious police incident in her past. On the Friday after Thanksgiving her car dies a mere 14 miles short of town. Aid comes in the form of Sheriff Ben Marsden, an attractive divorced father of an eight year old boy. There is, of course, instant attraction.

The bulk of the novel covers the roughly one month period from Jess’s car breaking down to the annual Cowboy Christmas Ball where Jess is defended from her criminal ex-husband not only by the hunky sheriff but the majority of the town who have embraced Jess. Short epilog takes place six months later in the bed and breakfast she has opened as she married Ben.

The story, of course, is the path from that broken down car to the wedding. There are no real spoilers in the above. The bed and breakfast is mentioned in the cover flap and it is a romance so the wedding is a given. At least I think it is.

The story is in Jess’s birth mother being a drunk routinely in the county jail and how Jess handles her. The story is in Ben’s ex-wife and the custody dispute over his young son. The story is in Jess finding a place in local circles despite her drunken mother and the woman she beat to win Jessica’s father. The story is in Ben learning about her past including criminal charges and a piece of work for an ex-husband.

I am not a romance reader but I suspect all of those points are cliches in the genre. The summary sounds like it belongs on the Lifetime Channel. Yet, I enjoyed all the 75,000 or so words and don’t give a damn.

As I wrote last week the single biggest thing about this book is it is [well written][]. Big macho middle-aged man that I am I expect to have to work to get through the book. I flew through it. The plot was driving to a more or less know ending (except for some small details). The only real mystery was the exact nature of Jess’s criminal past and it is revealed near the middle of the book.

Yet only one thing strikes a completely sour note. The resolution of the custody story line has more than a whiff of *deus ex machina*. This is somewhat explained a way as a Christmas miracle. This works a bit in the general context and the need for a miracle to solve the issue was mentioned more than once.

The only other part that bothered me is the final confrontation with the ex-husband. It was fine in and of itself. However, the lead up seemed a bit short. It was as though Chekhov’s gun was placed on the mantle but we knew it was unloaded. In the final act it was fired but must have been loaded off stage. I oscillate about the lead being sufficient or not.

Those two issues aside this was a banging story. Neither issue was enough to even briefly toss me out of the novel. Instead, they came to mind after I stopped reading.

I worry that I can’t honestly review my first romance novel as I lack context. However, as a reader looking for a good read I can easily rate it four out of five stars.

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