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Book Review: Break the Skin by Lee Martin

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Summer is here, that time of year reserved for escapist reading. Vacation books are on the agenda now, no heavy lifting required. Lee Martin’s new novel, Break the Skin, may very well fit the bill.

Break the Skin is a light thriller with dark undertones, a story with a secret at its heart. It opens with Laney, a 19-year-old small-town girl, being led away from the Wal-Mart where she works by the police. Laney has a secret to spill, and she is going to take to her time doing it.

First, the author introduces the main players in her story: her best girlfriend, Delilah, who has never been lucky at love; her boyfriend, Lester Stipp, an odd duck who always wears a derby hat; and their former friend, Rose, who they say they have to “put away forever.”

Before Laney gets too far into her story, the point of view shifts time and location, from winter in isolated Mt. Gilead, Illinois, to sticky-hot summer in Denton, Texas, from Laney’s voice to the voice of Miss Baby, a tattoo artist. Miss Baby is fretting about her brother, who is on the run from the law and his vengeful ex-partner in crime.

At first, the switch seems to have no connection to Laney and the story she has been telling. Then Miss Baby spots a man outside her shop, a man wearing a derby hat, who has forgotten his name and where he came from. She gives him a name and takes him in. Yes, Lester Stipp has appeared on Miss Baby’s doorstep, but whether he really has amnesia or is faking it, and what exactly he is running from remain a mystery.

Martin deftly makes the reader wait to find out how these two story lines, alternating between past and present, between Laney and Miss Baby, will come together. There is one thing Laney and Miss Baby clearly have in common, besides Lester Stipp: They are both desperate to love someone.

Desperation is what this story is all about. These characters cling to whatever they can to escape from the confining reality of their dead-end lives. They cast spells and surround themselves with statues of fairies in the vain hope that magic will somehow save them. But it’s all self-delusion, which will unravel by the end as surely as the secret of what happened between Laney, Delilah, Lester, and Rose will be told.

What we really want from our summer reading is a chance to escape ourselves, to disappear for a while into the lives of other people. Break the Skin allows us to do that, while delivering a fast, suspenseful read. But when the story is done, we feel relieved that the tragic lives of its characters are not our own.

Break the Skin by Lee Martin will be available in stores on June 14.
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