Friday, February 28, 2020

"Death in Avignon"

Serena Kent has been a journalist, a banker, a music composer and a sheep-shearer - and is also the nom de plume of Deborah Lawrenson and her husband Robert Rees. They live in Kent in a house full of books, and own a ramshackle old farmhouse on the slopes of the Luberon hills in Provence which is also in desperate need of some more bookshelves.

The authors applied the Page 69 Test to their new novel, Death in Avignon, and reported the following:
From page 69:
“I want to see you struggle to even crawl out of here!”

“It takes a great deal to defeat us where food is concerned!” Valentine waggled an index finger.

Penelope laughed nervously. The crispy roast potatoes and caramelised parsnips could go into the oven again now for a final blast. The sponge and a second tin of golden syrup were consigned to the steamer at the back of the hob, which rattled and shook alarmingly, every so often disgorging a large puff of steam, like Robert Stephenson’s prototype Rocket engine.

As the clock’s hour hand reached one, there was another knock at the kitchen door. Penelope opened it to a smiling M. Louchard and his fiancée Mariette. How things had changed in the past three months. Her farmer neighbour, a former Foreign Legionnaire, had been a lovesick recluse when she arrived. But now the loneliness and shyness had disappeared from his demeanour. Penelope noted with approval the large bottle of his homemade plum brandy in his hand. It had magical properties, of that she was convinced.

She showed her guests through into the sitting room. They were all keen to see the changes she had already made and offered helpful advice. “It is your blank canvas, madame,” said M. Louchard, “waiting for you to make your mark on it.”

He was obviously in one of his philosophical moods. Now that Penelope had come to know him better, she appreciated Pierre Louchard’s idiosyncracies and the way he found simple pleasures and solace in nature. Whilst tending to his field of lavender and his herd of brébis, a goat-like breed of sheep, he would speculate on the world’s ineffable questions, and then expound his revelations to all and sundry. It had earned him the nickname “The Thinker,” after Rodin, in a not entirely respectful fashion. For unfortunately his delivery of the Great Truths while out in the fields never quite attained the heights of his internal musings.
Penelope Kite, middle class Englishwoman of a certain age, has already taken a big risk in moving to a tumbledown farmhouse in Provence alone after her divorce, and she is taking another on page 69. She is about to serve a traditional British Sunday lunch to her new friends and neighbours in the village of St Merlot in Provence - and these Provençal folk are a tough crowd to please when it comes to good food.

Actually, this incident is based on several true stories. Whenever we have tried to introduce French friends to English dishes, it has always caused some consternation! The French have long regarded British cooking with suspicion and disdain, and here they are about to get up close and personal with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Will Penelope win them round or invite ridicule?
The group’s main focus was on the dish of Yorkshire puddings. Like a team of botanists discovering an entirely new species of plant, they leaned forward on their chairs and peered over the rim of the bowl, incomprehension writ large on their faces.
Death in Avignon has a good, strong mystery at its heart, but the series is also an optimistic look at life for a single woman of fifty in a strange land. This scene is about establishing Penelope’s growing confidence in St Merlot and re-introducing some village characters, but food does play a crucial part in the story.

Controversial expat painter Roland Doncaster chokes on an almond-stuffed olive at an exhibition and dies. A tragic accident, or poisoning? As Penelope is drawn into the mystery, her knowledge of forensic science proves invaluable as it takes her deeper into the history of paint pigments and the murky world or art dealing.

As in the first in the series, Death in Provence, there are luminous landscapes, authentic descriptions of the Luberon valley’s hilltop villages, the return of Penelope’s larger-than-life best friend Frankie, further annoyance to Police Chief Reyssens, and lashings of self-deprecating British humour along the way.
Visit Serena Kent's website.

The Page 69 Test: Death in Provence.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 26, 2020


Dan Vyleta is the son of Czech refugees who emigrated to Germany in the late 1960s. He holds a Ph.D. in history from King’s College, Cambridge. His novels include Smoke, Pavel & I, The Quiet Twin, which was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and The Crooked Maid, which was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and won the J.I. Segal Award.

Vyleta applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, Soot, and reported the following:
Page 69 finds us in an alternate New York, in the midst of a slightly re-configured Central Park that runs from river to river and literally separates Downtown from Uptown. This shift—along with many other slight re-configurations—is a result of Smoke, that mysterious and highly infectious substance that rises out of human bodies whenever their passions are enflamed. The year is 1909. A theatrical company that works with Smoke—that uses manifest emotion which can be communicated from body to body, like a fever, as part of its performance—has just finished a show. Eleanor, the troupe’s newest “talent”, and Etta May, who controls the spectating crowd by curbing its most unruly desires, are having a conversation. Eleanor has a secret: she is the niece and ward of the most powerful man in Britain, which has been engulfed in Civil War these past ten years. On page 69, she is disturbed: things happen during the performance, spectators come up to touch her, kiss her garments, bow. She approaches Etta May to talk it out.
[...]For the longest time they simply sit. Etta May does not push for con­versation, is patient, placid, waiting for rain; Eleanor awkward, precise, stockpiling words. At last Eleanor breaks the silence and describes it: the odd conviction that she has been accumulating followers at the end of each play; the shy obeisance paid to her by men and women twice her age.

Etta May absorbs it matter-of-factly; shifts her big rump in her chair.

“They come to you to be blessed, do they? Well, why not? Sometimes I feel like getting a blessing from you myself!” She pauses to retrieve a cigarette from her sleeve, lights it, then speaks through a wreath of smoke. “You take their pain away, girl, their anger. It curls out of them, all their nastiness, right into you and there it stays. What comes back out is lighter, kinder. The parts of themselves they like.”

“You’re a Soother, Em. Isn’t that what you do?”

Etta May snorts at the suggestion. “I am merely slow to rouse. Sluggish Smoke— it calms things down, dampens them. And the Shapers are differ­ent, too. They are actors, see; they step into an emotion and broadcast it, making sure it dominates. But you don’t act. It’s quite the opposite. I have never met anyone quite so still.”

When Eleanor does not respond, the big woman leans closer and touches Eleanor’s shoulder as though testing her solidity.

“Balthazar says your uncle kept you in some kind of machine. It pun­ished you when you smoked.”

“It didn’t. It taught me to punish myself.”

“And now he’s looking for you. What does he want?”

“Cruikshank said that I hurt his pride. That I was his vision for the future but I ran away instead.”

“And what do you say?”[...]
At the heart of all stories are characters, talking to one another. It’s the great lesson of the theatre: that talk is the real action. Nobody much remembers the sword-fight in Hamlet—it’s two men waving sticks; but the good Prince telling his poor mother that she is a whore (“Nay, but to live/In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed/Stewed in corruption”)—now that is memorable. And this is what we find on Soot’s page 69: a bit of scene-setting followed by a conversation: two women who have but recently met, probing each other; each line imbued with its own emotional inflection.

Then is page 69 a good place to get a sense of Soot? Yes and no. There is a reason, after all, why we start books at the beginning: narrative builds; moods, plot hooks, characterisation are all carefully orchestrated to produce specific effects. Storytelling is a sequential art (like life itself). So to jump in, willy-nilly, at some random page will always hurt the author just a little. That being said, the page does provide a sense of the rhythms of the narrative (there will be many conversations, many confrontations; information will be bartered for; friendships will be founded and broken), as well as of the rhythms of its language (for a novel is like a score: it has its range of tempos and is just as much composed for rhythm as is poetry).
Visit Dan Vyleta's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 24, 2020

"Follow Me"

Kathleen Barber is a former attorney, incurable wanderer, and yoga enthusiast. Originally from Galesburg, Illinois, she is a graduate of the University of Illinois and Northwestern University School of Law. She now lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and son. Her first novel, Truth Be Told (2017, originally published as Are You Sleeping), has been adapted as a series for Apple TV+ by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine media company.

Barber applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Follow Me, and reported the following:
Follow Me is about a woman named Audrey who shares every aspect of her life with her more than one million followers on Instagram, and who unwittingly attracts the attention of someone more interested in following her offline than online. I applied the Page 69 Test and discovered that, while the main suspense element—the steps Audrey’s stalker takes to get close to her and the mystery of his identity—isn’t present on that page, the page passes the test because it reveals a couple of important aspects of Audrey’s character. The page opens with Audrey reflecting on strangers recognizing her from her Instagram presence and noting that “[b]eing recognized like some sort of celebrity was the best high I’d ever experienced.” Knowing this about Audrey helps explain why she’s compelled to share so much of herself online. The rest of the page shows Audrey in conversation with her best friend’s love interest, and, although Audrey intends to build inroads for her friend, she can’t help but flirt with him a little. Audrey’s impulsive, wanton flirting is an ingrained part of her personality and something that plays a role later in the book.
Visit Kathleen Barber's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, February 22, 2020

"The Illness Lesson"

Clare Beams is the author of the story collection We Show What We Have Learned, which won the Bard Prize and was a Kirkus Best Debut of 2016, as well as a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award. After teaching high school English for six years in Falmouth, Massachusetts, she moved to Pittsburgh, where she now lives with her husband and two daughters. She has taught creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University and St. Vincent College.

Beams applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Illness Lesson, and reported the following:
From page 69:
On a chill Wednesday afternoon, six of the girls, in cloaks and shawls, circled on the grass under the birch by the front step. The Darkening Glass lay open on each lap. Caroline spied them from her bedroom window, went down the stairs, out the back door, and around the house. She wasn’t creeping up on them—she was going for a walk. They would see her when they saw her.

In the meantime, she could hear Abigail’s voice, reading. “‘Night approached quickly, but not as quickly as the answering night within.’ Caroline drew nearer. Half of them looked down at their pages, dutiful as if this were a classroom. Livia fidgeted, Tabitha stared up into the leaves—Caroline had yet to see Tabitha attend to any reading, or really any sustained task, without several promptings—and Eliza reclined on one elbow, watching Abigail, whose face, tipped to the words, seemed to glow in the sunlight reflecting off the page. “‘A fear, nay, a terror for her grew in him.’” Eliza’s eyes on Caroline now.

“Hello,” Eliza said.

Abigail stopped, startled.

“Aren’t you all a picture of industry.”

Had Abigail volunteered, or had Eliza called on her?

“How are you finding your reading?”

“Wonderful,” Tabitha said.

“It’s the best book I’ve ever read,” Rebecca added. Rebecca who had now read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and the Bible.

Eliza smiled. “They’re so kind to me.”
I’m amazed at how much of the meat of The Illness Lesson is here on page 69. The novel is about a 19th-century school for girls, founded on idealistic, noble principles but with important blind spots (some inadvertent, some willed)—and about an episode of mass hysteria amongst the students. Caroline, the protagonist, is the daughter of the school’s founder, an aging philosopher, and she’s also a teacher at the school; at this point in the novel she’s beginning to feel unsettled by the power of one of the students, Eliza. The (invented) novel the students are reading here, The Darkening Glass, is a gothic, schlocky page-turner written by Eliza’s very famous, long-dead father. The girls’ impromptu circle-study in this scene seems to Caroline to be a mark of Eliza’s growing influence, and she worries that Eliza is starting to shape the other girls in ways that don’t always accord with the school’s own shaping. A lot of the novel’s drama will hinge on the questions that are raised in this scene: of who or what is doing the shaping, and what the costs are, and to whom. Here the girls have already begun to move past what the school has planned for them, and Caroline is faced with the dilemma of what she should do in response; this is a pattern that will persist and intensify in the coming pages.
Visit Clare Beams's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 20, 2020

"Mercy House"

Alena Dillon is the author of Mercy House, a LibraryReads and Amazon book of February 2020, and the humor collection I Thought We Agreed to Pee in the Ocean. Dillon’s work has appeared in publications including LitHub, River Teeth, Scary Mommy, Slice Magazine, The Rumpus, The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review, Bustle, and The Smart Set. She teaches creative writing at Endicott College and St. Joseph’s College and lives on the beautiful north shore of Boston with her husband, newborn son, and little black pup named Penny.

Dillon applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Mercy House, and reported the following:
The majority of the book is in third person limited, focused on Sister Evelyn, a, funnily enough, 69-year-old nun who runs a women’s shelter in Brooklyn and is investigated by the Vatican for breaking church doctrine in her operations. But page 69 is from the first person point of view of Lucia, the newest resident of the shelter. We hear from each of the residents in her own chapter, but the majority of the book is zeroed in on Evelyn. Still, the Page 69 test demonstrates how important the voices of the residents are to the novel. Inspired by the MeToo movement, I wanted my characters, survivors of abuse, to have the opportunity to own their stories, which included experiences they shared in common with the protagonist. Therefore, the book itself—Mercy House—acts as a home to these women. And the cover, the front door, invites you to open and enter.
Visit Alena Dillon's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

"The Other Mrs."

Mary Kubica is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Good Girl, Pretty Baby, Don't You Cry, Every Last Lie, and When the Lights Go Out.

A former high school history teacher, Kubica holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in History and American Literature.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Other Mrs., and reported the following:
The Other Mrs. is the story of a Chicago family, Will and Sadie Foust, and their sons, Otto and Tate, who inherit a home on a remote island off the coast of Maine when a sister of Will’s dies. What they’re hoping for is a fresh start after a number of personal and professional setbacks in Chicago; what they find instead is their family entangled in a shocking murder mystery when a neighbor – one Sadie fears Will may have been having an affair with – is found stabbed to death in the middle of the night. Soon after, all eyes in this close-knit, unwelcoming community look to the Fousts as suspects, which begins on page 69 when the island’s police officer informs Sadie that a witness claims he saw her fighting with the deceased just days before she died. Sadie finds this accusation absurd; she never met the victim. Her career as one of only two physicians on the island keeps her too busy for any sort of social life. Sadie begins to wonder what reason this witness would have to lie, and why she is being scapegoated. From here, the tension escalates as Sadie realizes the only way to clear her own name is to solve this murder herself. The Page 69 Test is an accurate representation of this book; by picking up the book at that page, a reader is dropped directly into the unfolding mystery of who killed Morgan Baines.
Visit Mary Kubica's website.

The Page 69 Test: Every Last Lie.

The Page 69 Test: When the Lights Go Out.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 17, 2020

"The Dark Corners of the Night"

Meg Gardiner is the critically acclaimed author of the UNSUB series and China Lake, which won the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original and was a finalist for NPR’s 100 Best Thrillers Ever. Stephen King has said of Meg Gardiner: “This woman is as good as Michael Connelly…her novels are, simply put, the finest crime-suspense series I’ve come across in the last twenty years.” Gardiner was also recently reelected President of the Mystery Writers of America for 2020.

The Dark Corners of the Night is the third novel in her Barry Award–winning UNSUB series, which received three starred reviews from the major trade publications and is soon to be a major television series.

Gardiner applied the Page 69 Test to the new novel and reported the following:
My thriller The Dark Corners of the Night is the newest novel in the UNSUB series, and throws FBI profiler Caitlin Hendrix into her most challenging case yet. A killer who calls himself the Midnight Man is wreaking havoc in Los Angeles, slaying parents and leaving children alive as witnesses. As his attacks escalate, the city is gripped with fear. Caitlin and her FBI team must stop him before he turns his wrath on survivors who could identify him.

On page 69, Caitlin and FBI technical analyst Nicholas Keyes take a late night visit to a crime scene—a suburban home where only a toddler was left alive. There, they try to understand the killer’s methods and psychology.
Keyes turned toward the front of the house. “I think he parked on the street, under the broken light.”

He towered over her in the dark, always an uncommon phenomenon, because Caitlin was five-ten and even taller in her Doc Marten’s.

“I do too,” she said. “He gains a sense of power by standing outside a home’s front door—the face it presents to the world—while the family inside is oblivious to the danger they’re in. He wants to savor the sight, and the sensation that he’s Destruction itself, about to descend. And to bask in the thought that once he breaks in, all that will be left is death and fear.”

He said nothing for a cold moment. “Deep,” he finally murmured. He pointed at the corner of the house. “The gate.”

“There’s no lock on it. No mention of one in the police report. The toddler’s too little to have reached the latch. This is a safe neighborhood. They didn’t lock it.”

“Safe neighborhood,” he said.

She couldn’t read his face. But his voice had an undertow.

She walked back across the patio. “He came in from the street. No lights on. No barking when he opened the gate. He prowled around back and saw a little kid’s toys. No dog bowls. No curtains on the kitchen window. This was where he staged.”

Keyes gazed at the sky. The half-moon going down. “He attacked at this time of night, but six weeks ago. The moon was waxing crescent. It had already set.”

“He calls himself the Midnight Man for a reason,” she said.
This is the tenth time I’ve put one of my novels to the test. So I really shouldn’t be surprised that Page 69 captures the plot, tone, and main characters of the novel. Because it does! The novel delves into both psychology and procedure. Much of it takes place deep in the night. The killer has spread a pall of dread over Southern California, and the heroes are desperate to stop him. Page 69 brings all that out. It also hits on a point that becomes increasingly important as the story develops: The killer attacks “safe” neighborhoods. Why? What is he trying to accomplish? How can Caitlin unwrap this M.O. and use it to identify him?

The Dark Corners of the Night is a high-stakes rollercoaster ride, and I can’t wait for you to read it.
Learn more about the book and author at Meg Gardiner's website, blog, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

The Page 69 Test: UNSUB.

The Page 69 Test: Into the Black Nowhere.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 14, 2020

"The Seventh Sun"

Lani Forbes is the daughter of a librarian and an ex-drug-smuggling surfer, which explains her passionate love of the ocean and books. A California native whose parents live in Mexico, she now resides in the Pacific Northwest, where she stubbornly wears flip-flops no matter how cold it gets. She teaches middle school math and science and proudly calls herself a nerd and a Gryffindor. She is also an award-winning member of the Romance Writers of America and the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

Forbes applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Seventh Sun, and reported the following:
From page 69:
“What supplies will you require for the ceremony?”

“Um.” She swallowed hard. “Some water?”

“How much, my lady? A bowl? A jar?”

Her palms started sweating again. Mayana wished more than anything she could run home and hide behind the waterfall gushing off the temple pyramid in Atl. It was one of her favorite places in the world, listening to the roaring water, watching the rainbows in the mist dancing on the stone wall. An idea hit her like a ball from a ceremonial game.

“I just need a bowl.”

The servant dipped her head and left the room.

“You look beautiful, Mayana.” Yemania appeared in the doorway. Her red skirt and top did not reveal as much skin as Mayana’s, but it flattered her figure. The designs painted in red on her cheeks distracted from her nose.

“You look beautiful too.” Mayana gave her a sad smile.

“Do you know what you are going to do to display your power?”

“I have an idea. But it’s a little risky,” Mayana said.

“I wanted to know if you’d help me with mine.” Yemania shuffled her feet and didn’t meet Mayana’s eyes. She needed to display her ability to heal ...

“That depends.” Mayana involuntarily leaned away from the princess of Pahtia. She could barely handle pricking her own finger to bring forth blood. A sudden image of Yemania driving a spear through her stomach and then healing her to great applause popped into her head.

“It won’t be much. If you go before me, just let me heal your hand. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I just need to show that I am a descendant of Ixtlilton.”

Mayana’s instinct to avoid pain warred with her instinct to help. Yemania’s eyes opened wide to implore her.

“As long as you promise to heal it as fast as you possibly can.” Mayana gave a great, exaggerated sigh.

Yemania beamed.
I am surprised by how well page 69 does in fact represent The Seventh Sun. This scene takes place before the princesses are to be presented to Prince Ahkin as possible brides. Each daughter is descended from a different god or goddess and must display that ability as part of the opening ceremony for the selection ritual. I love that this scene captures the idea of the overall plot, but that it also shows Mayana’s internal struggle. She very much despises the rituals that she’s told protect them from another apocalypse because her compassionate heart tells her they aren’t necessary. Ultimately, even though she hates spilling her own blood for the sake of rituals she doesn’t agree with, she is willing to do it to help her friend. I think it is an excellent foreshadow to the ultimate theme the novel wrestles with, which is how sacrifice is the ultimate form of love.
Visit Lani Fobes's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

"A Witch in Time"

Constance Sayers received her MA in English from George Mason University and her BA in writing from the University of Pittsburgh. She is a media executive at Atlantic Media. She has been twice named to Folio’s list of “Top 100 Media People in America” and was included in their list of “Top Women in Media.” She is the co-founder of the Thoughtful Dog literary magazine and lives in Kensington, Maryland.

Sayers applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, A Witch in Time, and reported the following:
At first glance, page 69 looks like one of those pages where characters get moved from one scene to another—like blocking on a stage. But, a closer look at this page, there are many clues to the ultimate conclusion of the book. I’ll avoid any spoilers.

On this page, the LaComptes are leaving their neighbors, the Bussons’ house after a dinner to celebrate the upcoming engagement of Juliet to Michel Busson. When they are alone, Michel Busson cruelly injures Juliet—giving her an ominous look into their future together. Juliet’s father scoops her into his arms and carries her home. As they walk back to their house, her mother is furious with what she perceives is her daughter’s lack of respect for the much more prosperous Bussons. She scolds her, reminding Juliet that they need the marriage. She then utters the cryptic line to her husband, “You know very well why she needs to marry the boy.” Juliet’s father responds, “I do, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

This scene is like the swell before a big wave. It sets many things in motion. Juliet’s family is desperate. It seems to be all economic—they need the marriage between their daughter and the wealthy Busson boy—but that might not be the entire reason for the marriage. This page hints at everything that will burst from the pages immediately after. At the end of the page, Juliet has decided she will not marry Michel Busson and she will go to her lover, painter Auguste Marchant and ask for his help. The events that get set into motion on this page, set the tone for the rest of the book—and Juliet’s many lifetimes.
Visit Constance Sayers's website.

My Book, The Movie: A Witch in Time.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 10, 2020

"Don't Look Down"

Hilary Davidson is the bestselling author of One Small Sacrifice. Toronto-born but based in New York, she’s also the author of the Lily Moore series, the standalone thriller Blood Always Tells, and the short-story collection The Black Widow Club. Her work has won two Anthony Awards and a Derringer Award.

Davidson applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Don’t Look Down, and reported the following:
From page 69:
He slipped out of his shoes, padding down the hallway in sock feet, and glanced at his watch. Four o’clock. He wanted to strip off his suit, but he knew he’d have to head back to work in twenty minutes if he didn’t want to lose his job. He had to move fast. The door to Jo’s office was ajar. He pushed it open and stepped inside.

Jo was an extremely organized person, and her office was spartan. There were boxes filled with makeup samples—an occupational hazard, Jo always joked—but otherwise just a desk, a chair, and a bookcase. Jo had never bothered to decorate her office much beyond adding a series of framed photographs of her icons: Helena Rubenstein, Elizabeth Arden, Madam C. J. Walker, Estée Lauder, Bobbi Brown, Lisa Price, Marcia Kilgore. Cal wouldn’t have recognized any of them without the little nameplates attached. There were no pictures of friends or family ... or of him. Cal didn’t let that fact ruffle him. Jo got to see his mug every morning and night.

He woke the desktop computer and entered Jo’s password. The screen shook as it rejected it. He tried again, wondering if he’d screwed it up. He hadn’t; Jo had already changed it.

It was a small detail, but it felt ominous. Jo kept a plastic figurine of a crow on her desk, and its eyes seemed to gleam knowingly. She changed it because of the video, Cal realized. Whatever the hell that was on her screen, she didn’t want me to be able to find it.
I think I’ve taken the Page 69 Test for each of my books, so I shouldn’t be surprised anymore by how one page can capture the essence of a book! Don’t Look Down has four point-of-view characters, and at first glance, Cal McGarran—the perspective character here—seems the most straightforward. Cal doesn’t know it yet, but his girlfriend, Jo Greaver, is being blackmailed, and the reader has already seen her shoot a man. Cal has been living with Jo for months, but she hasn’t let him in on her secrets. The truth is she doesn’t trust him… which isn’t a comment on Cal’s character so much as a comment of Jo’s reluctance to trust anyone at all.

What’s interesting about Cal is that he’s upset enough about something he saw on Jo’s computer screen that he’s still obsessing about it. Cal comes across as happy-go-lucky—he’s an attractive guy born into a well-off family—but as we see here, Cal is also a man who will sneak home when he knows his girlfriend isn’t there to spy on her. He’s got a dark side, too, even if it’s not fully in view yet.
Learn more about the book and the author at the official Hilary Davidson site.

The Page 69 Test: One Small Sacrifice.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, February 8, 2020

"A Cold Trail"

Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed New York Times, #1 Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon bestselling author of the Tracy Crosswhite series, the Charles Jenkins Series and the David Sloane series. Since 2013, Dugoni has sold more than 5,000,000 books, and My Sister’s Grave and The Eighth Sister have been optioned for television series development. He is also the author of the best-selling standalone novel, The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell and The 7th Canon, a 2017 finalist for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for best novel. His expose, The Cyanide Canary, became a Washington Post Best Book of the Year. He is the recipient of the Nancy Pearl Award for Fiction, and the Friends of Mystery, Spotted Owl Award for the best novel in the Pacific Northwest. He is a two time finalist for the International Thriller Writers award and the Mystery Writers of America Award for best novel. His David Sloane novels have twice been nominated for the Harper Lee Award for legal fiction.

Dugoni applied the Page 69 Test to his new Tracy Crosswhite novel, A Cold Trail, and reported the following:
On page 69, Tracy is with Cedar Grove Police Chief Roy Calloway, and they are following a lead to determine if a murder could somehow be related to two others in Cedar Grove, though years apart. As the copy on the back cover deftly summarizes, this is the crux of the novel. Three murders in a small northwest town, decades apart, but with some seemingly tenuous connections. Can they be related? Can Tracy put the threads together? Chief Calloway represents the old school of law in Cedar Grove, back when things seemed bucolic and the town a great place to raise children. Tracy, however, knows better. She experienced evil in this small town when her sister disappeared, never to be seen or heard from until twenty years later. Now she’s back in Cedar Grove and she doesn’t remember everything as being bright and beautiful. She sees the town for what it is, a place where a murder, perhaps two, maybe three, could all be related, and indicative that the town’s dark past is not in the past.
Visit Robert Dugoni's website and Facebook page.

My Book, The Movie: A Cold Trail.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 6, 2020

"Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes"

Kathleen West is a writer, teacher, reader, and semi-professional minivan driver. A life-long Minnesotan, she holds degrees from Macalester College and the University of Minnesota. She lives in Minneapolis with her hilarious husband, their two sporty sons, and an ill-behaved goldendoodle.

West applied the Page 69 Test to her debut novel, Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes, and reported the following:
From page 69:
On his way home, [Henry] replayed Martin Young’s call in his head. “Bruising to the abdomen,” Martin had said. “Shock,” “stress,” and Melissa’s “lingering feeling” after Witches Over Willow Street that Julia didn’t like her. Something about the wrong look for the part? Her feet far too big? It all seemed trivial. He glided his BMW into the three-car garage and sighed.

As he opened the back door, Henry recognized the familiar smell of warm butter and melted cheese, béchamel sauce for one of Julia’s famous baked pastas. “It’s me!” he called.

“Hi, honey!” Julia said without turning around. “I’m doing mac and cheese for dinner. I know it’s heavy, but it’s Andrew’s favorite. We have to celebrate!” Tracy raised her eyebrows at her father from the kitchen table. Her wet hair dripped on her gray sweatshirt.

“Dad,” she whispered as he approached, “didn’t you get my texts?”

“I did, sweetheart.” He avoided her eyes. He wasn’t entirely comfortable in his new complicity with their teenagers when it came to managing Julia. He could see their adoration of their mother waning each year, their eyes rolling harder when she offered advice. Their texts imploring him to forbid her from calling their teachers made him faintly queasy. Parenting had been more fun when he ran alongside their bikes and took them for ice cream.

“Julia” –he stood next to her at the stove—“we really need to talk.”

“I know.” She set her spoon down to the right of the burner. “I got the most insane call from Wayne Wallace. You know, the principal? He wants to meet with me tomorrow morning at seven thirty. There’s been a crazy misunderstanding.”
I’m happy to discover that Page 69 is indeed indicative of Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes as a whole. In this section, Henry Abbott is primarily concerned with managing his wife, Julia, the consummate helicopter parent. In her latest transgression, rather than waiting at home (like all of the other theater moms) for news of the high school musical auditions, she goes to school to see the cast list for herself. In a crowd of kids, and in the midst her overzealous celebration dance—her son, Andrew, has scored a sizable role—she inadvertently injures the female lead of the play. Once again, Henry is stuck smoothing things over. Things become immediately worse for them all when video of the incident surfaces on social media, and Julia’s notoriety reaches a new scale.

As a teacher for 20 years, I enjoyed building a fictional high school in Minor Dramas. I populated it with familiar characters (including a devoted English teacher who shares some of my physical traits and lesson plans), amped up the workplace politics, and delved into the ideas that have always fascinated me as a teacher and a writer: competition, ambition, parenthood, and redemption. Teachers are generally firm believers in second and third chances, and all of the characters here benefit.
Visit Kathleen West's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

"All the Best Lies"

Joanna Schaffhausen wields a mean scalpel, sharp skills she developed in her years studying neuroscience. She has a doctorate in psychology, which reflects her long-standing interest in the brain―how it develops and the many ways it can go wrong. Previously, she worked as a scientific editor in the field of drug development. Prior to that, she was an editorial producer for ABC News, writing for programs such as World News Tonight, Good Morning America, and 20/20. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and daughter.

Schaffhausen applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, All the Best Lies, and reported the following:
From page 69:
Camilla sat on the cement steps with a baby boy in her arms, his expression blank and bewildered. She squinted in the sun her hair held back in a bandana, but her thousand-watt smile shone back through the ages. Reed’s chest tightened as he turned over the photo. Me and Joey, it said, and she’d drawn a little heart next to his name, rather like Tula liked to do when she fashioned Reed a homemade card. His throat thickened and he swallowed painfully as he righted the picture once more so he could see Camilla’s beaming pride. Love. He’d been loved at the start. This precious knowledge burst joy in his heart that quickly flared into an old, familiar shame, like this longing was a betrayal of his second family. He hurried to tuck the picture away.
This page 69 passage is a nice capture of some of the major themes of All the Best Lies. It shows FBI agent Reed Markham examining some faded photos in the cold case file of his mother’s murder. Camilla was stabbed to death when Reed was only a few months old, so he never got a chance to know her. The story is about Reed’s search to find his mother’s killer, but it’s also about Reed’s search for himself. He wants to understand his origins and know more about what his life might have been if he’d been raised by his biological mom. His adoptive family is not entirely comfortable with his quest for a variety of reasons, not least that they may know more about his mother’s murder than they ever revealed.

What is also fun is that these overlooked photos eventually provide Reed the answer to his mother’s fate. It is only after he learns more about Camilla and the people who surrounded her at the time of her death that he is able to see the truth in the pictures.
Visit Joanna Schaffhausen's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 2, 2020

"Buzz Kill"

David Sosnowski has worked as a gag writer, fireworks salesman, telephone pollster, university writing instructor, and environmental protection specialist, while living in cities as varied as Washington, DC; Detroit, Michigan; and Fairbanks, Alaska. He is the author of three previous critically acclaimed novels, Rapture, Vamped, and Happy Doomsday.

Sosnowski applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, Buzz Kill, and reported the following:
From page 69:
The only problem: Rupert Jr. wasn’t online to be cheered by the good news of the proletariat. He’d been hoping to find misery to cheer him out of his own. … But instead of feeling better by comparison, what he found was this: average Americans trying to make other average Americans jealous. While that’s frequently what people got in their news feeds even without manipulation, what Rupert Jr. got was as relentlessly upbeat as a motivational speaker in an ice cream truck playing “Happy Days Are Here Again.” This amplification was achieved by stripping out the political rants, fake news, proselytizing, and click bait that clogged most news feeds, leaving behind a highly curated glimpse into the lives of others as they portrayed themselves online. The results, unsurprisingly, skewed toward the full spectrum of bragging, including but not limited to: the humble brag; the brag brag; the proxy brag (“Look at my kids, my parents, my lovely spouse...”); the brag with parsley (“Look at my breakfast, lunch, dinner...”); the anthropomorphic brag (“Look at how much my dog, cat, pony, goldfish, et al. loves me...”); the geo-tag brag (“Will you look at that view...”); and the holier-than-bragging brag (“Click here to donate to a cause you never heard of, you heartless bastard...”). All in all, it was too much vicarious self-adulation for a celebrity-by-proxy to handle, suggesting not only that money couldn’t buy happiness but perhaps it bought the very depression he’d been grappling with.
The above passage portrays the lead up to a triggering event that propels several plotlines in Buzz Kill: the online suicide of a celebrity’s son that goes viral. While a bit more overtly satirical than most of the novel, the passage was nevertheless inspired by the real-world abuses of certain social media companies that shall remain nameless (and faceless) that have conducted social engineering experiments on their unsuspecting users by manipulating news feed content. The purpose of these experiments was to determine if altering a user’s mood would change their responses to paid-for content in the form of clicks, likes, and ultimate purchases.

My goal in satirizing this behavior was to counterpoint the self-serving, happy-happy Kumbaya propaganda these companies tend to roll out whenever they’ve been caught once again doing real harm in the real world by facilitating everything from cyber bullying to election fraud to genocide. That being said, I didn’t want to let the users off the hook for their complicity in reality distortion made possible by these media, hence the taxonomy of bragging that takes place so often in cyberspace. Ultimately, my message is the same as Mary Shelley’s when she wrote Frankenstein over two hundred years ago to warn us about how technology can seduce us into ignoring its downside, often at our peril. The difference is that while Shelley used horror to deliver that message, I’ve opted for the more tongue-in-cheek vehicle of satire.
Visit David Sosnowski's website.

My Book, The Movie: Happy Doomsday.

The Page 69 Test: Happy Doomsday.

Writers Read: David Sosnowski.

--Marshal Zeringue