Friday, April 8, 2011

Five Umbrella Friday: One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming

If you've been following along, you know how excited I was to get an ARC of One was a Soldier. The book releases on Tuesday, and here's your motivation to be first in line or to start this amazing series--I seriously recommended this series to every reader I know, and I can't say that about any other author. The broad appeal of this series is one of its finest features.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are only two authors for whom I will religiously preorder hardcover—without reading blurbs, regardless of reviews, and regardless of whether we’ll be dining on more beans that month. When I realized that Suzanne Brockmann and Julia Spencer-Fleming BOTH had releases within a month of each other this year, I felt a bit like I do every December—my birthday and Christmas also happen in the same month and what the heck am I supposed to look forward to the rest of the year? My anticipation for One Was a Soldier outshone even my usual pre-release fidgeting as fans have had a long wait for this addition to JSF’s acclaimed Millers Kill Series featuring unlikely sleuth, former Army helicopter pilot and Episcopal priest, Clare Fergusson. One of the cover quotes puts it best, “Welcome back to one of Mystery fiction’s finest writers.” There’s simply no other writer quite like Julia Spencer-Fleming—and I say that as a voracious reader of multiple genres.

This series boasts rabid fans from a diverse cross-section of readers. My mother, who mainly reads traditional mystery and historical fiction, awaited this release with the same fervor as me. My Aunt who reads mainly nonfiction and women’s fiction is reduced to teenage squeals when discussing the series. My friend’s husband whose usual fare runs to science-fiction and fantasy with the odd thriller listened to whole series in audio-book form. Tons of romance readers who never venture over to the mystery aisle love the series as well as mystery readers and literary fiction readers who avoid anything pink and fluffy. Spencer-Fleming’s writing is simply THAT good. Her characterization and innovative plays with narrative structure suck readers in and steamroll over preconceptions.

She doesn’t just try to create another Clare Fergusson mystery using a set formula—instead each book experiments with a structure appropriate for that plot. Some entries in the series take place over days, some over weeks, some over months, one over the course of a year, and one takes place entirely within 24 hours. Some entries feature Clare’s POV predominantly with Russ’s POV secondary. Others feature Russ more in the forefront, and others bring in secondary POVs, some just for that installment and some that will be revisited in later books. We get to visit the tiny town of Millers Kill in upstate New York in the dead of winter, in the mosquito infested days of summer, and as seasons change. Characters get older, relationships blossom, grow, and end, and nothing (other than the local economy) stagnates. It’s an immersive experience unlike any other.

Reader enjoyment is maximized when one reads the series as a whole, starting with In the Bleak Midwinter (available from numerous online venues for the bargain price of 2.99 in e-book form). While One was a Soldier can certainly stand on its own, I think readers who have at least read All Mortal Flesh and I Shall Not Want will feel the most connection to the characters. In fact, One Was a Soldier brings several minor secondary characters to the forefront, and I loved seeing their progression to POV characters and revisiting other characters who have grown over the course of the series. (The earlier books in the series are easily accessible in e-book, audio, paperback formats as well as from libraries and overdrive, making investing in the series less daunting than it might appear.) It is going to be impossible for me to review One was a Soldier without giving away a little of the plot from I Shall Not Want, so if you are all intrigued by the series, GO! Get caught up and then return and tell me what you think.

For everyone else, I am happy to report that One Was a Soldier is the book we have been waiting for. Quite often later installments in long running series fall short of reader expectations, but what sets JSF apart is her constant tinkering with the narrative structure and pacing. This installment takes place over the course of a summer and early Fall, with an interesting structure of sections rather than chapters and well-telegraphed flashbacks and POV changes to pace each section. It’s a series of risks that pays off for JSF as she continues to create her own subgenre—Literary Mystery Romantic Suspense Ensemble Drama. While there is a murder in One Was a Soldier as well as Clare/Russ relationship progression and both provide structure for the narrative, neither is the true focus of the novel. Instead the focus is on veterans returning home to Millers Kill and how that impacts the entire community. Russ’s friend beautifully justifies the book’s focus:
“Your little burg’s not a military town . . . but it’s the kind of town where the military comes from. Small, rural, not a lot of opportunity . . . There are a lot of Millers Kills all over this country. It’s where people like you and me come from, and sometimes it’s where we go back to.”
What happens when a sizable chunk of a struggling town’s citizenry goes off to a war that not enough people are talking about and come back wounded on multiple levels, yet still struggle to provide the community with what it needs? You end up with a support group of a doctor, a police deputy, a book keeper, a beloved son, and a priest, along with their floundering group leader (who is more unprepared for Millers Kill than Clare was at the start of the book). We get to see the POV of each of these group members (some very briefly, others more in-depth) along with Russ, Kevin Flynn and Hadley Knox. It’s a wonderfully meaty, crowded tale of intersecting lives, and Spencer really works to show how one seemingly isolated action—leaving work late, watching a track meet, sharing barbeque, ripple across the community and affect multiple lives in unexpected ways.

One of the things that I love most about Suzanne Brockmann is her ability to juggle many character arcs and plot lines within a single story. In All Mortal Flesh and I Shall Not Want, JSF showed me that she could rival Brockmann’s talents. I have to confess, I think JSF is in a class of her own here as she deftly juggles all the balls she in play to create a cohesive plot and griping read out of almost a dozen subplots and character arcs.

Of course, the side affect of all this juggling is that I want the next book like NOW! NOW! And I spent a lot of the last third of the book begging and cajoling characters. I woke the sleeping baby more than once with my “No! No! Tell him! Now!” and my “Go after her! Don’t do this!” and “Your boss needs to know NOW! Go!” and “This is NOT going to end well for you!” And yeah, I cared about the murder, but I cared about the people more. The Veteran’s Support Group turned crime solving team was brilliant as it allowed the characters to work together in a much deeper way and forced more issues to the forefront. At times it was difficult to read because these issues—legs lost, severe PTSD, head injuries, infidelity, addiction, and destruction of relationships—are happening to GOOD people. People I’ve cared about for several books now, people for whom I want better, who I think deserve better, but that’s not how war works. And JSF captures that gut-wrenchingly beautifully.

I particularly didn’t want Clare to be struggling as much as she was. Heck, I was livid with Clare when she re-upped with the guard and spent a lot of time begging her to reconsider, yet it was already too late. Clare ran back to the military because it *was* something of a safe place for her—she understands helicopters and orders more easily than she does Episcopalian politics and messy relationships. It was, perhaps, inevitable from In the Bleak Midwinter that the priest would find herself at war. And the homecoming is not one of “Thank the lord for delivering me back safely, now I can put THAT behind me and get on with the business of the Lord and Russ.” Clare’s trauma isn’t something that even the most fervent of prayers can overcome—she needs serious help, but she’s the last person to willingly go in search of it. And when she finally, FINALLY does? It’s one of most beautiful moments EVER. EVER. All seven books made priceless by one single paragraph that I’ll resist the urge to quote—context is, in fact, everything.

My other favorite scene of the book deals with the ongoing saga of young deputy Kevin Flynn (who has grown up in all sorts of intriguing new ways in this installment) and his interest in Hadley Knox—Millers Kill’s only female police officer. I knew from Hadley’s first scene in I Shall Not Want that it was entirely possible that I would end up loving her even more than Clare. I have already re-read my favorite Flynn and Hadley scene from this volume probably eight times trying to dissect it as well as to have another chance to have another chance go “Oh, Flynn!” and “Oh Hadley. No. No.” and “HADLEY. You will listen to me. This is the voice of reason talking. DO NOT DRAG THIS OUT FOR FIVE MORE BOOKS. Let’s agree together on TWO. Two more books: One for you to relocate your head to your upper body and one for a HEA. That’s it. I like my hair. I like my sanity. You are sorely trying both right now. And yet, I still love you. And hurt for you. And wish you would figure out that bravery isn’t just a skill you need to work on for your job.” And “Oh, Flynn. I love you so much. It’s a darn shame I think I am done with having babies as Flynn would make an awesome name. You are one of the very best things about this series.”

And I mean it. It has taken Clare and Russ seven books to get to this point, and I’m ecstatic about where things end up in One Was a Soldier, but SEVEN BOOKS? If Flynn and Hadley take seven books, I will be bald, babbling, and bloated from my chocolate IV. And still first in line, but PLEASE. I don’t think my nerves can handle it. And if there ISN’T a HEA? I don’t even want to contemplate it. I don’t think JSF would be that cruel. If she found a way to get Russ and Clare to this place, she can find a lion heart for Hadley without destroying Flynn in the process. And it will be well worth the wait. Besides, this book is really Russ & Clare’s book relationship-wise, although their journey is far from done. And now, I want Book Eight. Yesterday would be nice. I want to re-read the whole series immediately. I want everyone I know to do the same so that we can pass the next year or so conversing about Millers Kill minutiae and counting down the minutes until we get to visit it again.

And if you read it? Please, please, please come back and tell me about it. I’ve tried to keep the review as spoiler-free as a possible, but I seriously need someone to discuss with.

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