Book Review

Review: Big Sky Country by Linda Lael Miller

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Title: Big Sky Country
Author: Linda Lael Miller
Publication Info: MIRA 2014
ISBN: 9780373776436
Genre: Contemporary Romance

Book Big Sky CountryThe beginning of this book was freaking terrific. As I mentioned in one of the recent books on sale posts, the conflicts – and there are several – are set up immediately. I was really, really into it, and kept sneaking time to read it whenever I could. When it went sour, it went sour in a hurry, and I feel terrible that I'd been so excited about this book. 

This review is really, really long, because I had a lot to say about the things that disappointed me. TL;DR: it started out great, it got silly and bizarre in a hurry, there's a caricature that made me really uncomfortable, and there was some odd grinding. 

Jocelyn Kirk has moved back to Parable, Montana, years after her stepfather swindled half the town out of their life savings in a get-rich-quick scheme. Her stepfather, Elliot, died in prison, and Jocelyn, her mother, and their housekeeper Opal left town in the middle of the night when Jocelyn was in high school so they could avoid the shame and social consequences of Elliot's actions, even though none of them had any clue what he was up to. They'd have paid nonetheless, and Jocelyn's mom couldn't face the shame of it.

Jocelyn has moved back to town because… well, the character herself spends a lot of time ruminating on why she's back in town, and doesn't really have a satisfactory answer. My best guess is: so there could be a novel.

Jocelyn had built a software company by herself, and sold it in order to repay some of the people who were swindled by her stepfather. She downsized everything, sold her car and her home, and mailed anonymous checks through a law firm to the different investors or their descendants in Parable. Then, for whatever reason, she decided to move back to Parable. It wasn't like she wanted to gloat. She doesn't take credit for the checks even when someone brings them up; I think Jocelyn might be the kind of person who presses on her bruises and pokes at her cuts to see if they still hurt. She's got guilt and a lot of time on her hands to think about it.

Slade, the hero, is the Parable county sheriff, and a quiet, contemplative man who was raised by his mom, Celia. It's an open secret that Slade is the illegitimate son of a local ranch owner, though said ranch owner never acknowledged him. Slade grew up in a trailer alongside his mom's beauty parlor, also in a trailer. His life wasn't awful, as his mom busted her ass to make sure they had what they needed, but he didn't grow up in the splendor and financial comfort of the ranch like his legitimate half-brother, Hutch.

The story opens with another conflict as well: Hutch and Slade's dad has just died, and to their shock, he's left the ranch to each of them in a 50/50 split. Slade has now inherited more money than he can spend in a lifetime, and Hutch is pissed. They've never gotten along, for reasons that aren't discussed much, and Hutch immediately offers Slade an enormous sum (which is described as “more than fair”) to buy his half. Slade initially says he'll think about it, but comes to realize that having half of the ranch and the accompanying income and wealth is not a bad thing.

But wait! There's more!

Jocelyn is now living in the guest house of what used to be her home. The mansion she grew up in now belongs to her best friend Kendra, who runs a real estate business out of the first floor and lives on the second. Kendra has hired Jocelyn to be her assistant, which means Jocelyn will work in what used to be the living room and sitting area of her childhood home. Because that's not awkward.

Their whole relationship is wooden and weird. Later in the story, Kendra has to go to England to deal with some of her backstory, and in an almost throwaway line (she says, “And one more thing…”), she asks Jocelyn to move into the main house while she's gone.

For a best friend, she has stunning lack of awareness as to how Jocelyn's presence as a guest and employee in her former home might make Jocelyn feel.

But Jocelyn agrees and moves into the housekeeper's quarters, not willing to take one of the upstairs bedrooms for herself. 

No, wait, THERE is MORE. Really. I'm still explaining the plot and the cast and haven't even gotten to the stuff I liked and disliked yet. All this conflict that's set up in the initial chapters makes for really compelling reading, let me tell you.

Let's see, where was I? Oh – back to Slade. Slade has an ex-wife, Layne, who is absolutely gorgeous and about to marry someone else, which is fine with him because he's over her. But he also has a stepdaughter he adores, and when said stepdaughter, Shea, calls to complain about her mom's rules about something or other, Slade proposes to Layne that she allow Shea to live with him for the summer, while she's off on her honeymoon or whatever. Shea thinks this is terrific, and Layne is like, 'YES PLEASE TAKE TEENAGER NOW,' so they show up in Parable soon afterward.

In the meantime, Slade has realized that he can't live in his apartment any longer, despite the fact that it abuts the back yard of the mansion where Jocelyn and Kendra live, and the fact that Slade thinks Jocelyn is really, really hot and he'd like to explore all her hectares. His apartment is very much temporary living, with a blow up mattress (dude, seriously? what adult male doesn't figure out comfortable sleeping quarters and instead sleeps on an air mattress for months?) and sheets for curtains. Now that he has all this money, he can rent this other property he's had his eye on for awhile, and perhaps buy it. And now, with Shea coming to live with him, he's got the impetus to get off his ass and break his inertia. And also deflate his air mattress.

So by the time I was 40-50% done with the book, Shea's come to live with Slade, they've moved to a ranch, Kendra is in England with her backstory, Slade's trying to figure out what to do with his inheritance and how to get along with his half-brother, and said half-brother is driving in and out of scenes in a mess of gravel flying because he's mad and he can't do anything about it, except that because Slade is the sheriff, he has to control his gravel-flying exits. Oh – and Hutch has it bad for Kendra, but they just stare longingly and kinda awkwardly at each other instead of doing anything. And there's some reason they aren't together but that's book 2).

In the beginning, all of this plot seemed fascinating and made me want to keep reading like whoa. It's very easy to fall into, this story. It's a lot of people talking and people thinking and they're all unique enough that I had no trouble distinguishing one from another. But by the midpoint, what was fascinating became contrived and too convenient, and my reading reaction went from “Oh, wow,” to “Oh, COME ON NOW.”

Take the pets, for example: they all telegraph signals about character and connection. They might as well be wearing animal-sized sandwich boards that say “I AM A FURRY PLOT TWIST TELEGRAM.” Jocelyn finds a somewhat fat and friendly cat lurking about, so she invites said cat in, names her Lucy-Maude, and realizes that Lucy-Maude is quite pregnant. She places an ad for the cat at a local rescue site, asking if anyone has lost theirs, and when the rescue organization coordinator comes to visit, Jocelyn realizes that she really loves Lucy-Maude and doesn't want to give her up, that the rescue organization coordinator is someone that her stepdad swindled, and, added bonus, that said coordinator is also still very good friends with Opal, whom Jocelyn suddenly misses very much now that it's time for Opal to appear in the story. Jocelyn also talks to Lucy-Maude and then scolds herself for talking to the cat – over and over and over.

Lucy-Maude does not give any shits. She's a cat.

Then there's the dog, Jasper. He's another Furry Plot Twist Telegram. Jocelyn finds Jasper, bony and scared, out by her car one morning, and brings him home. She calls the number on his tags, and… dun dun dunnn it's Hutch and Slade's dad's voicemail. But their dad is dead so he clearly can't claim his dog. So Jocelyn calls Hutch, whom she used to date in high school, and Hutch comes over to pick him up, because he's been looking for Jasper since Jasper ran off after the funeral.

Hutch shows up at Kendra's house to pick up Jasper, and Jasper somehow knows that Slade lives next door, so he runs off, jumps the fence, and sits down next to Slade, refusing to leave. Jocelyn and Hutch go to get Jasper, and Jasper is NOT having it. HE IS WITH SLADE NOW DO YOU SEE THAT PEOPLE? Their late father's dog has CHOSEN SLADE in a MEANINGFUL WAY.

Hutch decides Jasper's better off being where he wants to be, and later gives Slade all of Jasper's stuff, including dog beds, water bowls, food, and treats. Jasper was much-loved by their late dad, it seems anyway, but Hutch doesn't put up much of a fight now that Jasper has attached himself to Slade. And of course Jasper is the most well behaved and perfect dog ever, now that he's with Slade. Despite running off from the Carmody ranch, Jasper is now glued to Slade's side and a constant part of his life now.

There are a bunch of other little things that grew bigger and bigger and bothered me as the story went on, and, like I said, what seemed fascinating and compelling in the beginning became ridiculous.

For example….YES there are MANY examples.

1. Slade carries around a lot of resentment toward his dad because his mom had to work so very hard to raise him, and his dad didn't do much to help him and didn't acknowledge that Slade was his son until after he'd died. But Slade's mom, during one of his visits, hints that his understanding of his late father may not be correct… but doesn't elaborate.

Dude. What the hell.

Her son just inherited a giant pile of money and land and clearly has conflicted feelings about his late father. Now seems like a good time to reveal whatever it is she's not revealing. But she keeps it a secret and he doesn't ask, despite her being about as obvious as Jasper, the fence-jumping plot twist telegram dog.

2. There is so little mention of Slade and Hutch's dad, it's weird. He was a very, very rich landowner, and he died and left his estate to two people who hate each other, but no one seems to be talking about it aside from Slade and Hutch and their attorney. There's no real mention of their dad's influence on the town, or how the town is adjusting to his death – and usually people like that do have some presence in the community, right? Wouldn't his death affect other people, and not just the two sons?

Also, after the initial offer Hutch makes to buy Slade's half is turned down, Hutch comes up with what he thinks is a great plan but what I thought was completely ludicrous.

Slade is down by the creek, hanging out with Jasper, when Hutch rolls up in his truck. Slade's already turned down Hutch's offer, and Hutch's ass is still very chapped. Asshurt has never been asshurted like Hutch's asshurt.

SPOILER (highlight to read): So Hutch makes him an offer he should refuse: they'll have a horse race.

If Hutch wins, Slade gives him his half of the ranch. If Slade wins, Hutch will move out of the house (the house Hutch grew up in, which Slade hasn't ever asked for, but ok whatever), live on a trailer somewhere on the ranch (probably one with a neon sign on the roof saying STILL ASSHURT JUST SO YOU KNOW) and they'll figure out how to run the ranch together.

All property decisions involving a few bajillion acres and the livelihood of ranch hands (who I presume are there because it's a working ranch, though they are never seen or heard during the story. You'd think Hutch runs the whole operation by himself) should be decided on a horse race, right? A lifetime of resentment and rivalry between two people who know they're related but don't talk about it, and the class differences, and issues of upbringing, and the question of multi-million dollar inheritances, that will totally be resolved easily.

By a horse race. For really reals.

Nothing says cowboy hero like an asinine horse race of destiny.

The only thing better would be if their dad's will required them to get married, except they're in Montana and I don't think Montana has gay marriage, or marriage between half-brothers.

3. For being best friends, Kendra and Jocelyn barely speak unless it's plot development time. Kendra doesn't realize that maybe living in her former home might be painful for Jocelyn; Jocelyn doesn't ask Kendra about what's bothering her, even when it's obvious something is wrong. They've been friends since school, but there's no shared memories, or mentions of how one has changed or not changed, or recollections of previous conversations. For two people who have been friends for a long, long time, there's very little evidence of that friendship except what the reader is told. They're friends. Because reasons. And also plot.

This story takes place very much in the present. Not in the sense that it's written in present tense – it's not – but in the sense that the only time which matters in the story is the current moment. Normally, I'm all about dialogue and I've been known skim the descriptions.

But in this case, I started to miss the descriptions because there hardly were any. There were no explanations of the town, what it looked like, the land around it, the ranch, the county, any of it. I wasn't sure if they were in the mountainous part of western Montana, or the flat part in eastern Montana until Slade mentioned going to a livestock auction in Missoula. I'm guessing maybe somewhere in the middle, possibly? Honestly, I didn't know.

There's so little mention of the place, what it looks like, how it affects the characters, what they do to live on and with the land, that is struck me as increasingly odd and frustrating, especially because one of the major conflicts is the inheritance of land.

Plus, Hutch and Slade are responsible for the places in which they live, though in different ways. Hutch owns (well, now co-owns) an absolutely massive amount of land. Slade's the county sheriff, so he's responsible for a similarly massive amount of space, too. But to me, while I was reading, the only parts that had a vibrancy and energy were the pieces of dialogue about what was happening right then. Any mention of the past or of what happened when they were all teenagers is barely mentioned and quickly dropped, and seemed much flatter to me.

The characters operate with little context and as the story progressed, that lack of context seemed more and more bothersome to me. There is also an incredible amount of time and attention paid to minutae. If it drove you nuts that Bella Swan chopped peppers and made enchiladas step by step in Twilight, this book may irk you, too. Jocelyn's point of view is very deep and very meticulous. She doesn't have dinner. She selects a chipped plate, eats, washes the plate, leaves it on the drain board, etc etc etc. Minuscule step by step acts are detailed to such a degree I wanted to shout at the book, Get on with it!

It's weird – normally I really like details like that, ones that immerse me in the point of view of the character and allow me to feel as if I'm in the story with them. Deep pint of view is fun for me to read, usually. But by the midpoint of this story, there was so little larger context and setting development that I felt like each character was floating in white space with no anchor and no backdrop, and I got impatient with the minute details because they were aspects of a realism that wasn't present otherwise. Jocelyn could put chipped dishes in the drainboard, but I had no idea what the room looked like, aside from what furniture was in the next room. Bland, large, and cursory descriptions were employed before the character moved in with all her detailed actions, and the lack of development of the setting made the detailed step-by-step actions of the characters more irritating.

Of course, this review is already nearly 2500 words long, so I'm probably equally guilty now of all the things that irritated me about this book. 

The biggest problem for me, though, was the character of Opal. Opal was the housekeeper when Jocelyn was a teenager, and she left town with Jocelyn and her mother after Elliot was arrested. Jocelyn thinks about Opal sporadically, but when it's time to re-introduce Opal to the story, suddenly that's all Jocelyn can focus on.

Opal mentions that she originally came to Parable when she answered an ad to be a ladies' companion to Elliot's mother, Jocelyn's step-grandmother. I'm not sure how old Elliot's mom was at that time, but it makes sense that Opal is much older than the other characters in the book. Jocelyn looks up to her as a mother figure, certainly.

Opal lost contact with Jocelyn and her mom. (Why they didn't bother to make sure she was ok after she fled town, and thus her employment, with them, I have no idea). When she gets back in contact with Jocelyn, Opal is retired, a widow whose husband died a year after they married. When Opal decides to come for a visit, Jocelyn drops everything to welcome her, and puts her in the guest house now that Jocelyn's living in Opal's old quarters.

Opal's arrival is when my opinion of the book plummeted. Opal seemed to me to be, for lack of a better term, a Mammy stereotype. She doesn't have children of her own, but she acts as a mother-figure to Jocelyn, from worrying about how thin Jocelyn is to attempting some matchmaking between Jocelyn and Slade. But what really bugged me was Opal's repeated assertions about work, and the fact that the only context in which she seemed to exist permanently in her mind and in the minds of others, was work.

“Work doesn’t kill half as many people as retirement does, to my way of thinking,” she declared. 

“…this has all the earmarks of an answered prayer, as far as I’m concerned. Like I told you, I miss working.”

Within 24 hours of being back in Parable, her time as Jocelyn's guest comes to an end when Slade hires Opal to be his housekeeper. Opal insists on meeting Shea and seeing the house where Slade lives, but she's already made up her mind that she wants to take the job.

The limited scope of Opal's role really bugged me and made her seem like a caricature more than a developed character. She isn't happy or “herself” until she's working in a domestic role as a housekeeper and cook while helping to raise a young person through their teen years. Except this is the second (or possibly third?) time she's done this job, and her existence as a role and not as a person coupled with her cheerful insistence on working made me really uncomfortable. Initially she wasn't described at all, and I kept thinking, I really hope she's not a black woman. Please don't let Opal be a black caricature.

Nope, she's black. And that was when my forehead met the table.

It's a huge bummer when a story I start out really enjoying becomes a story that makes my forehead flat and achy. I wanted to like this book SO MUCH. And at the beginning, I did. But the lack of context, the lack of description and fully-developed history between the characters and where they live, plus the addition of a character that I read as a caricature soured me on the story. I should have paid more attention to the 1-star reviews. They were dead on.

But I will leave you with my two favorite moments from the book. No, it's not the horse race part, though that was completely infused with WTF.

First, there's some foreshadowing. It's not even really a shadow. It's kind of like a billboard that's 90 miles wide: 

“Here’s to coming home!” Kendra said, making sure her voice carried, raising her glass high.

Joslyn was briefly reminded of the three-of-cups, a Tarot card showing a trio of women raising chalices high over their heads in the same sort of pose. She was struck by the strange poignancy of the moment, the beginning of some new era— one of those times when people and situations just fit together like the pieces of a puzzle.

Congratulations! It's a series! 

And even though I made a note in the book (it said, “Mazel tov!”), I was still on board at that point. I was so into the beginning of this book, I can't even tell you. And I don't regret it, either. If I hadn't read Big Sky Country, I wouldn't have found this perfect moment, which occurs when Slade sees Jocelyn wearing a loose fitting dress and sees the top of her breasts:

There was a painful grinding sensation low in his groin.

Grinding? Really? Awwww, yeah. No, wait… OW.

Even better, the sentence that follows:

He wished he'd brought his hat along, decided that was a stupid thought and dismissed it.

Yes. Your hat totally helps when your groin is grinding. Slade spends a lot of time hiding behind things because he has an erection. 

Also, unrelatedly, “Groin Grinding” will be the name of my cover band.


This book is available from Goodreads | Amazon | BN | Kobo | All Romance eBooks.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Jan says:

    Oh my god, thank you.  When you first wrote how you were enjoying the book, I kept thinking “what is wrong with me? What am I missing?”  While I understand guilt about the father swindling the town folks out of their money, depriving yourself of a life to make amends, is way over the top.  The only plot device missing is the whip for daily self flagellation.  Oh, and the salt to pour over the wounds every time she runs into someone that was swindled by her father.  She still hasn’t explained why she came back.  Frankly at this point, who cares.  I was also disturbed about dropping the step daughter off with Slade.  Daughter, maybe, step daughter, no.  And Opal.  As soon as I read the name, I cringed and hoped she wasn’t going that route. She did. That ended my investment in the book, and I stopped reading and skimmed the remaining book.  Took about 5 minutes to finish.
    This was my first book by this author, and while I hardly remember names of books and authors, when I see her name, I cringe.  We have a free library where I work, and there are many books by her on the shelf.  So she must be popular.  I just don’t see it.

  2. 2
    SB Sarah says:

    @Jan:

    I’m so sorry that my enthusiasm gave you the “Wait, what?” feeling. I was enjoying it so much and then WHOOSH, plummeting. (And of course I needed 3000+ words to explain all the reasons why I was so disappointed. Geez. Your comment totally sums it all up!)

  3. 3
    PamG says:

    Furry Plot Twist Telegram is the name of my next band.

  4. 4
    ppyajunebug says:

    WHAT is this author’s obsession with illegitimate sons and brothers splitting properties???  I’m finishing up her Orphan Train trilogy and EVERY FREAKING BOOK has at least one of those plot points in them.  IT DOESN’T NEED TO BE EVERYONE’S PLOT!!!!!

  5. 5
    garlicknitter says:

    @Jan Actually, here’s something I’ve noticed about libraries and used book stores:  When you see a lot of books by a particular author on the shelves, that doesn’t mean the author is really, really good.  It means a lot of people bought their books and then decided they didn’t need to keep them.  The books by really, really good authors are often harder to find because people are keeping them or they’ve already been bought or checked out.

  6. 6

    @garlicknitter @Jan Yes, a quarter of the romance section at my favorite UBS was all Danielle Steel…and they never moved. (I resented them for taking up romance space.)

  7. 7
    Carolanne says:

    This is a six-book series (at least) and there’s lots of people who have to be dragged in and introduced. Opal is a magic minority (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MagicalMinorityPerson) who is very wise and makes everything better and she works for other characters later in the series. She ends up getting her own HEA in a later book, so there’s that.

    LLM is big on rescue animals. The characters almost always have them.

  8. 8
    Phyllis says:

    Yep. It started well then plop. I read the next book, too, because series and compulsion. Named to curb the compulsion on further entries to the series.

  9. 9
    Genghis Mom says:

    Yeah. She has a thing for the Mammies, it seems. I admit, I really liked quite a few of the McKettrick books, mostly the historical ones, those quiet, stoic cowboys are crack for me. But I just read McKettrick’s Heart and I did the same thing you did. “Don’t let Florence be black. Don’t let Florence be black.” And sure enough Florence the happy housekeeper/nanny was a complete caricature. I cringed every scene she was in.

  10. 10
    Christine says:

    I had to go back to see how many stars I gave this one on Goodreads after I read your review because I know that I’ve liked books by this author, but I also remember having pretty much the same reactions to this book as you did—right down to the “please don’t let Opal be a magical black housekeeper/surrogate mother character” let-down. (I gave it 2 stars, and I think that was somehow an average of Yay! Good start! + WTF? middle and ending = something better than abject disappointment.) So anyway, it was the McKettricks series that I enjoyed (by which I mean they were pleasant, 3-star reads for me). I stumbled on those by mistake and enjoyed them and then have been very perplexed by the few books of hers that I’ve picked up since then… Like, all the signs were there that they could go this way, but somehow the McKettricks books stayed above some mysterious threshold for me.

  11. 11
    crystal says:

    I read the first 3 books in this series, because I had already bought the next 2 after this one, & the plot Moppets in each book drove me nuts.

  12. 12
    Susan says:

    Yeah, but now I want to know the outcome of the horse race. . .

  13. 13
    jane says:

    I missed the whole horse race thing because I had stopped reading at that point. I had already gotten the second in the series and read that one, thinking it would get better. Nope. It did not!! Plus, I had stopped reading in the first book so I was totally confused by the twin daughter thing . . . what a ridiculous plot point.

    Anyone remember that LLM wrote three pretty good romantic suspense stories a long time ago? I remember trying to read her romances (again, lots of her books at the library) and couldn’t, but I remember liking the first two, at least, of her romantic suspense trilogy. The third might have gone off the rails, too. I tried this series but it was just so, so dumb.

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