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Break the Skin: A Novel [Kindle Edition]

Lee Martin
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Laney—a skinny, awkward teenager alone in the world—thinks she’s found a kindred spirit in thirty-five-year-old Delilah. Then the police come to ask Laney questions and she finds herself reconstructing a story of suspense, deceit, and revenge; a story that will haunt her forever.

Seven hundred miles away, in Texas, Miss Baby has the hardened heart of a woman who has been used by men in every possible way, yet she is desperate for true love. When she meets a stranger, a man who claims he can’t remember his real name or his past but who seems gentle and trusting, Miss Baby thinks she may have finally found someone to love, someone who will protect her from the abusive men who fill her past.

But Miss Baby and Laney are connected by a terrible crime, and, bit by bit, the complex web of deceptions and seemingly small misjudgments they’ve each helped to create start to unravel. Action, speculation, and contradiction play off one another as the story is told through their first-person voices, which keep you nervously guessing all the way to the shocking, tragic climax. Break the Skin is expert storyteller Lee Martin at his very best.

Editorial Reviews Review

Author One on One: Dani Shapiro and Lee Martin
Dani Shapiro, author of the bestseller Slow Motion, talks to Lee Martin about the writing of his new novel Break the Skin.

Dani Shapiro: Break the Skin is set in two small towns, but they are very different kinds of small towns. Your evocation of small town life is so vivid and beautiful. Where does your knowledge come from? How does small town life inspire your writing? And how did these particular small towns in Illinois and Texas come into being in your imagination? Was this a novel that began, for you, more with character, or with place?

Lee Martin: I was born in Lawrence County, Illinois, where the largest town had a population of just over five thousand people. I lived on a farm with my mother and father, and I attended a two-room country school until I was in the third grade. Although it’s been a number of years since I lived there, that place is always with me. I’m connected to the rhythm of its seasons, the stark beauty of its landscape, the come-and-go of its people.

I lived in Denton, Texas, for five years when I taught at the University of North Texas, and it was my memory of the area around the university--its bars and tattoo parlors, its head shops and drum circles--that produced Miss Baby and first brought me to the story that would become Break the Skin. Place and character are always inextricable for me. The details of Denton and those of New Hope produced Miss Baby and Laney for me, and I let them tell their stories.

Shapiro: Break the Skin is very much a novel about the deep-rooted hunger to be truly accepted and understood by another person. Laney shows the fierce loyalty and submissive qualities of youth, whereas Miss Baby, who has been through so much hurt, is willing to put it all on the line all over again. How do you dig so deeply into the emotional, internal lives of your characters? I noticed that the novel is dedicated to Miss Baby, and found that really interesting. Can you say a bit about that?

Martin: The novel, as you say, is very much about the desire for human connection and validation, which is a universal desire, of course. We all want to be loved. We all want to feel that we matter to others, that our lives have significance. With Laney, I had to investigate and dramatize the sources of her need--a loving father who died too young, a mother whom she disappoints by refusing to put her extraordinary singing voice to good use, the nearly invisible life she’s lived up to the point where she becomes friends with the older Delilah Dade. Creating Delilah, who is so different from Laney--bold, experienced, hard-edged--allowed me to put pressure on Laney until the more hidden aspects of her character emerged.

When creating characters, I like to think in terms of establishing who they think they are and then providing the right pairing with other people and the right sequence of narrative events to bring out who they really are beneath whatever facades they’ve constructed or whatever lies they’ve told themselves. I do this same thing with Miss Baby, who tells herself she’s fine with not having a man in her life and then takes a drastic action to claim one.

I dedicated the novel to Miss Baby, the only time I’ve dedicated a book to a character, because she spoke to me first when I began writing. I dedicated the book to her because without her voice, I’m not sure I would have found the shape of the novel. I also think she deserves the dedication because she’s the character who closes the novel, still believing, even after all she’s gone through, in the power and truth of a love story. She endures with grace and faith, and for all these reasons, she gets the dedication.

Shapiro: Miss Baby works as a tattoo artist, a profession which I imagine you didn’t know much about at the outset. Did you know you were going to write about a tattoo artist when you were first beginning the book? How did you go about your research? (Any tattoos?) Why did it seem important that Miss Baby be in this line of work?

Martin: Well now, what makes you think that I didn’t at some point work as a tattoo artist? In between the years when I cooked crystal meth, robbed banks, and worked as a hit man, maybe I was pounding ink. (Nah, that sentence was just a feeble attempt to establish my street cred.) After all, as one review of the novel says, I’m “crackling with dark deeds and bad intentions...” I love that line! I want it to be part of my introduction at future readings and events: “Here he is, crackling with dark deeds and bad intentions, Lee Martin.” Ha! I told my students that and they laughed so hard you could see how far from the truth of me such a description actually is...or is it? Hmmm...I’ll never tell, nor will I reveal my tattoos, not even the ones that glow in the dark.

My research involved a conversation here, a visit there, some things read, some things watched--just the usual methods of immersing oneself in an unfamiliar world. I’m always fascinated with the details and the lingo of someone else’s job, and as soon as Miss Baby stepped onto the corner of Fry and Oak Street in Denton, Texas, I knew she had to be coming from a tattoo parlor. Don’t ask me how I knew that. I just did. I like to think that my subconscious mind had already started to sense the rich possibilities with metaphor in this practice of drilling into the skin and leaving something to live in scar tissue.

Shapiro: You’ve written novels, memoirs, a story collection. Can you tell me a bit about how each form differs for you? Did working on Break the Skin feel different to you than your other books--and if so, in what ways?

Martin: A short story is a burst, a compressed narrative under so much pressure it explodes at the end, often quietly so with a moment that subtly but irrevocably changes people’s lives forever. It’s a form I still practice when I have the material that calls for it. More often, as I get older, I’m drawn to the reach of a novel and the texture of lives that stretch back into time and forward into the future. A story made up of so many layers of characters, places, and time periods. A novel is a daily march for me. I make myself curious about characters and their situations, and I set out each day to complicate my curiosity. That’s what keeps me writing. I’m trying to deepen my understanding of characters and the events of their lives. I’m trying to discover how they came to be who they are and who they’ll be after the last page of the novel. It’s not so different when I write memoir, only then the subject is me and there are perhaps some things that I do with voice that I don’t necessarily need to do in a novel.

Working on Break the Skin challenged me to hold two different narratives in balance and to bring them to a point where each was necessary to the other. So Miss Baby and the man she’s claimed go on with their lives in Texas while Laney’s narration lets us see the place this man had in her life in Illinois and the plot for revenge gone terribly wrong. Those two storylines are on a collision course, and once they meet lives change in ways that can’t be reversed. Along the way, I hope readers feel the hearts of these two women beating with all their complications and all their layers of fear and desire and courage. That’s what I felt every day when I sat down to write more of their stories--Laney and Miss Baby, noble and loving and confused and misguided and brave and full of want and fear and uncertainty, just like all of us, even the people in those small towns of the Midwest that I dearly love.


“Young and lovesick, Lee Martin's low-rent heroines live the stuff of country music.  Earnest and innocent, they get caught up in trailer park romances and what Alice Hoffman called practical magic. Break the Skin is a gossipy, rollicking Witches of Wal-Mart.”--Stewart O'Nan, author of The Speed Queen 

“I was worried for these characters as I'd worry for my own friends. The women want normal things--connection, stability--but get in their own way of finding peaceful lives. This is a suspenseful, engaging book.”--Alice Elliott Dark

“Martin, whose kidnap novel The Bright Forever (2005) was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, expertly applies shades of James Cain–like noir to
modern story that might have been inspired by one of the Lucinda Williams songs on this book's soundtrack. Black magic, daughters cursed by the loss or absence of their fathers, post traumatic stress syndrome, small-town secrecy and lies, pre-teen voyeurism: Welcome to life 'on the other side of right thinking.'  An intoxicating small-town thriller that quickly gets under your skin.”--Kirkus Reviews

"Disaffected teenager Laney has no one in the world but the older Delilah, whom she clings to like a raft. Then the police start asking Laney questions that link her to the sadder-but-wiser Miss Baby, who thinks she’s finally found true love with a gentle man who can’t remember his own name, and the story of a wrenching crime emerges."--Library Journal

“Provocative… Crackling with dark deeds and bad intentions, Martin snakes through the lives of the desperate without casting pity.”--Publishers Weekly

“Carrying an almost archetypal resonance, this well-crafted tale of romantic desperation feels as sad and inevitable as an old murder ballad and should have an appeal beyond readers of serious fictio...

Product Details

  • File Size: 384 KB
  • Print Length: 290 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0307716759
  • Publisher: Crown (June 14, 2011)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B004J4WKQU
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #661,918 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Four lonely women desperately wanting love are at the center of Lee Martin's beautiful, harrowing, sometimes tender BREAK THE SKIN. How far would someone go to find and keep what she's always wanted?

We begin to discover an answer to that question in the words of a shy high school drop-out who describes herself as "Little Laney Volk, as ordinary as bread from the wrapper, nothing to take note of at all unless, that is, you could get her to sing...." She does have an off again - on again boyfriend, Lester Stipp, a strange little fellow who always wears a derby hat.

Alone and uncertain Laney works at Wal-Mart where she meets Delilah Dade, a woman twice her age who invites Laney to share her trailer home. Laney believes, almost imagines that Delilah is the sister she never had. The third occupant of the trailer is Rose MacAdow who is a bit dark, sinister, if you will.

There's not a great deal to do in Mt. Gilead, Illinois, so it's a big night when the trio dresses to go to a local hangout. There they see a musician called Tweet whom both Rose and Delilah want. Two women after the same man can ruin any friendship and it certainly wrecks this one. Before long Delilah feels Rose is casting some sort of spell on her, so with the help of Laney and Lester she takes matters into her own hands.

Quite suddenly the action shifts from snowy Illinois to September, 2009 in steamy Denton Texas, and the voice of tattoo artist Betty Ruiz, "... but most folks know me as Miss Baby, owner of Babyheart's Tats right here on Fry. You want barbed wire on your biceps? A rose on your ankle?" She, too, yearns for true love.

Then outside her shop she sees a man wearing a Derby hat who seems a bit lost.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Couldn't put it down! July 16, 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is a must read! Excellent story line. The characters kept me wondering, throughout the book, what they would be up to next. Couldn't put it down until I finished it and then wished it wasn't done!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book! July 3, 2011
By grioni
Break the Skin was a great book, and a definite page-turner. I read it in one day as I simply couldn't put it down. I won't go into a summary of the book since I think the previous reviews have that pretty well covered, but it is beautifully written and has wonderfully complex, human characters and a gripping plot. Although all the characters have their (very human) flaws, I cared for all of them and was deeply moved by the book. I think everyone can see at least a little bit of themselves in these characters. I highly recommend Break the Skin!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars dark ballad of human foibles June 18, 2011
In Mt. Gilead, Illinois, police officers question skinny teenager Laney Volk who lives in a trailer with fellow Wal-Mart associate thirty-five-year-old Delilah Dade and Rose MacAdow. This is the second time they interrogate him over the course of a few months. While Delilah and Rose competed for the attention of singer Tweet, Laney liked band member Lester Stipp. When Tweet chooses Rose, Delilah rages.

In Denton, Texas, lonely tattoo artist Miss Baby hates men for using her but fantasizes that one day her prince will come. Although she knows better having been hurt frequently by strays, she takes in a stranger who says he suffers from amnesia. However, Lester could be lying about knowing his name as mendacity and lonely desperation link Texas and Illinois.

Break the Skin is a terrific tale that rotates between the women in Illinois and the woman in Texas; their bond is a deep Eleanor Rigby level of loneliness. Character driven by the four women whose catalyst for their respective behavior is the two band members, fans who relish an atmospheric thriller will want to read this dark ballad of human foibles.

Harriet Klausner
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Love Gone Wrong; Gothic Murders in a Midwestern Village September 23, 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
'Break the Skin' is based upon a series of events that actually occurred in southeastern Illinois in the last decade. The Mt. Gilead of the story is Olney, a town where the author attended junior college. Although the name of the town has been changed the names of streets, businesses and other local places have not. The adjacent village of New Hope where the murders take place is actually Claremont, a village a few miles east of Olney. Although the story of the crimes has been altered in the novel an active duty soldier of the US Army was killed after he managed to fire a shotgun into one of his attackers. Following a series of trials all of the surviving attackers, including those involved in planning the hexing have been sent to prison.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Break the Skin July 27, 2011
By chaspat
A good tale, well written. Martin continues to take his readers into the time and locale of his mysteries. Every bit as engaging as The Bright Forever.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Terrifically Big Story Set in a Small Town July 24, 2011
Lee Martin's recent book fulfills all the things we know about him as a writer: it is haunting, it is real, and it's incredibly rich in texture. Aside from the obvious craftsmanship of the language, which is spare and musical, the story has a sense of urgency that makes readers want to invest in all of the characters, from the brash and determined Delilah Dade to gap-toothed Lester Stipp, who roams from Mt. Gilead, IL to Texas, running away from his own memories. The characters are most remembered for their sense of longing, which can be echoed in the reader's own experience. We follow the characters because we see parts of ourselves in their stories. Martin seems to really understand small-town life, in a way that is nuanced and sympathetic. His work is never a parody, only a faithful narrative about these vivid places and these vivid people. One of the things that struck me most about this book was how well Martin inhabits the female perspective. I felt thoroughly convinced by the voices, particularly those of Miss Baby and Laney--so much so that I still hear them, long after I've put down the book.

A true pleasure, from the first note to the last!
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing
I chose this book because I love this author and his vivid characters. A great story of love and loss.
Published 6 months ago by Curt Falls
5.0 out of 5 stars love these characters
I really like the down to earth dysfunctional characters Lee Martin comes up with. They are colorful, and really bring you into their world. I am also from southern indiana.
Published 7 months ago by Patricia Rasdall
3.0 out of 5 stars Characters far too desperate
I received this book through a First Reads giveaway from Crown Publishing, thank you!

This book was very well written. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Ashley F
5.0 out of 5 stars Break the Skin is a page turner
This novel has all the makings of small town life with conflict and drama between the characters that keeps the reader interested and turning pages. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Netty
4.0 out of 5 stars Summer escape
Summer is here, that time of year reserved for escapist reading. Vacation books are on the agenda now, no heavy lifting required. Read more
Published on August 8, 2012 by S. Turlington
5.0 out of 5 stars Break the Skin...will break your heart
Until I looked at the author's photo, I'd have sworn Lee Martin is a woman. He writes in an uncannily female voice. Read more
Published on July 21, 2011 by nancynotjames
5.0 out of 5 stars Of hopes and dreams in small town Americana
Break the Skin: A Review
Why would you want to read this novel? There are so many to choose from. What makes Break the Skin stand out from the crowd? Read more
Published on July 17, 2011 by barbara
5.0 out of 5 stars Poignant tale of good-hearted people whose bad decisions and misplaced...
This was a compelling read - after I finished it I felt like I'd just come back from Mt. Gilead and New Hope, Illinois. Read more
Published on July 3, 2011 by W. George
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More About the Author

Lee Martin is the author of the novels, The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; River of Heaven; Quakertown; and Break the Skin. He has also published three memoirs, From Our House,Turning Bones, and Such a Life. His first book was the short story collection, The Least You Need To Know. He is the co-editor of Passing the Word: Writers on Their Mentors. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Harper's, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where he was the winner of the 2006 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.

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