Friday, November 27, 2020

"The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories"

Caroline Kim was born in South Korea. She has an MFA in Poetry from the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award and an MA in Fiction from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener Fellow. She was nominated by Jellyfish Review for a 2019 Best of the Net award. Kim lives in Walnut Creek, California with her husband and three children.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her new book, The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories, and reported the following:
Page 69 will find the reader close to the beginning of “Seoul,” the fifth story in the collection. The Korean War has just broken out, surprising a young boy and his family.

An excerpt:
Sung’s family was surprised to find that they were on the northern side of the line dividing Korea. They were happy the Japanese were gone but wary of the Communists. They just wanted to be left alone. What did it matter who controlled the government? Communism. Democracy. Really, who cared? What they wanted was so simple: to be able to eat and breathe freely, work their small li of land, have children and grandchildren, live and die facing the same sunset they had watched all their lives.

The changes came slowly over the next five years and were mostly seen in the larger town of Kumchon. Posters of Stalin and Kim Il-sung appeared pasted on municipal buildings; sometimes Russians passed through, tall and thickly bearded with eyes of startling bright colors. Sung’s family kept their heads low, gave monthly to the soldiers who came to collect their share of rice and vegetables, and hoped to escape notice. Life went on. Instead of giving to the provincial office, they now gave to the Communists.
Given that this is a collection of short stories, I was surprised at how well this test worked. The above excerpt shows how suddenly your life can change due to nothing you’ve done. It’s shocking at first, but then you get down to the business of figuring out how to survive in your new reality. This idea appears in many of my stories. Ultimately, how my characters deal with their new lives reveals who they are. I’m just fascinated by how anybody gets through life. In the story above, Sung and his family escape south, ending up in Seoul. Even though the capital is chaotic and terrifying at times, Sung still feels the excitement of a young boy discovering a big city. He suffers and experiences joy while trying to remain a decent human being. In the end, I think that’s all we can really hope for.
Visit Caroline Kim's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

"The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany"

Lori Nelson Spielman is a former speech pathologist, guidance counselor, and teacher of homebound students. She enjoys fitness running, traveling, and reading, though writing is her true passion. Her first novel, The Life List, has been published in thirty countries and optioned by Fox 2000. Her second novel, Sweet Forgiveness, was also an international bestseller. She lives in Michigan with her husband and their very spoiled puppy.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her third book, The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany, and reported the following:
On page 69 of The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany, the entire Fontana Family is gathered in Nonna Rosa’s dining room for Sunday dinner. An anxious Emilia announces that she and her cousin Lucy are going to Italy.
Heads turn. Confused looks are exchanged. Slowly, my family find their voices.

“Why is she going to Italy?”

“Is it safe?”

“Not for a young woman.”

“Europe is teeming with crime these days.”

“Yes,” Aunt Carol agrees. “Terrorists.”

"And gypsies. They’d steal the blood from your veins if you let them.”
The situation is made worse when Lucy confesses that they’ll be traveling with Aunt Poppy, the black sheep of the family.
A silence takes over the room, so profound you could hear dust drop. I run a finger over my scar. Finally, Nonna’s chair scrapes against the wood floor.

Wordlessly, she rises. Gripping her espresso cup, she moves into the living room, as if she hasn’t heard a word I’ve said.
I’d say the Page 69 test works fairly well in the case of The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany. It’s a story about a 200-year-old curse on second-born Fontana women, dooming them to lives without true love. Two cousins, Emilia and Lucy, resign themselves to never finding lasting romance, that is, until their estranged great aunt invites them to Italy, vowing that the curse will be lifted on her 80th birthday, when she’ll meet her true love on the steps of the Ravello Cathedral and break the curse, once and for all.

Though page 69 fails to mention the second-daughter curse directly, we hear boisterous laughter when little Mimi asks if Emmie has a boyfriend. It also illustrates the conflict between the elder family members and the younger Emilia and Lucy. And when Poppy’s name is thrown into the mix, the tension escalates greatly. Overall, page 69 is a fairly good snapshot of the book. Thanks for letting me test Marshall McLuhan's theory!
Learn more about the book and author at Lori Nelson Spielman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

"The Turning Tide"

Catriona McPherson was born in Scotland and lived there until immigrating to the US in 2010. She writes the multi-award-winning Dandy Gilver series, set in the old country in the 1930s, as well as a strand of multi-award-winning psychological thrillers. Very different awards. After eight years in the new country, she kicked off the humorous Last Ditch Motel series, which takes a wry look at California life. These are not multi-award-winning, but the first two won the same award in consecutive years, which still isn’t too shabby.

McPherson is a proud lifetime member and former national president of Sisters in Crime.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her latest Dandy Gilver mystery, The Turning Tide, and reported the following:
From page 69:
… certainly concerned with Vesper. Why? Who owns the island? And who owns her cottage? Who is the girl’s employer? Whoever it is, why doesn’t he just sack her and put her out? I know it’s brutal and I’m not recommending it, but it doesn’t make sense that a girl so clearly incapable of carrying out her job is managing to scupper all the plans to turn Cramond Island into Valhalla.’

‘True,’ Alec said.

‘And besides, it makes no sense that the local publican is so dearly concerned with a few holiday cottages cut off from her pub by a coastal causeway. Why does she care? Why does Miss Speir care if it comes to that? And then there’s this place.’ I laid my hands against the stones of the tower.

‘What about it?’

‘If Miss Speir needs money, or cares deeply about Cramond, or both, and has got this eyesore sitting in her garden, why is she merely selling off the stone?’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Alec said. ‘There are so many new houses going up in Edinburgh these days, nasty little things to be sure, but they’d be improved no end with a few mediaeval stones here and there. And this is a bit close to her own house for her to be fixing the roof and getting tenants in.’

I shook my head. ‘What about these mythic tourists?’ I said. ‘Americans, even. If there was a castle in the offing.’

‘It would take a large investment to get a crumbling tower fit for Americans,’ Alec said. ‘But speaking of the tourists: I find it odd that an island earmarked for rich guests to lark about on has been turned over to potato trials. If we’re airing puzzles.’

‘We certainly need to speak to these lads who’re vouching for Vesper.’

‘Apart from anything else they can confirm whether or not Peter Haslett was drunk.’
Hmmmmmmmm. It’s not the easiest page to slip into as far as content goes, is it? What with two people – Dandy and Alec – talking about three others – Vesper, Miss Speir, and Peter Haslett – and flinging out all those questions and theories.

On the other hand, it gives a good impression of the tone of the book and sets it firmly in its historical context. Those “nasty little houses” going up all over Edinburgh in the 1930s were solid, stone-built bungalows set in large gardens, which now sell for millions. And the people who live in them are complaining about “nasty little townhouses” ruining the city. Plus ├ža change.

I was tickled to see American visitors get a mention on the page picked at random for this post. Luring tourists from the US was as dear a hope for Brits then as it is now, and I know from when I used to live in a county bristling with castles (Galloway) that moats, drawbridges and crenulations are a key part of the deal. As for “getting a crumbling tower fit for Americans”, I’ve been here ten years now, and all I can say is I could never go back to British plumbing, castle or no castle!
Visit Catriona McPherson's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Turning Tide.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 23, 2020

"This Is Not a Ghost Story"

Andrea Portes is a bestselling novelist. Her novels include: Hick, Bury This, Anatomy of a Misfit, The Fall of Butterflies, Liberty, Henry & Eva and the Castle on the Cliff, Henry & Eva and the Famous People Ghosts.

Portes applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, This is Not a Ghost Story, and reported the following:
From page 69:
Suddenly I am anxious at the idea of talking to her. Anxious at the idea of talking to anyone… The room seems smaller, shrinking somehow, and suddenly I am terrified of any interaction whatsoever.
This happens just after Daffodil has made an elaborate day-dream scenario of the waitress at the local diner. It’s a wonderful, cinematic, zombie-including day dream… full of life and love of character.

But then, almost immediately, Daffodil suddenly shuts down and has to leave, running out of the diner.

Page 69 isn’t representative of the book, really. It’s a moment of the book, a dalliance. It does, however, give the reader a tiny peek into the machinations of Daffodil, our protagonist. She is, in one moment, brimming with life, full of love and understanding and imagination and wonder. Then, almost immediately, all of that energy seems to turn in on itself… to cannibalize itself. Daffodil has this kind of psyche, restless and brilliant and scared of its own shadow.
Visit Andrea Portes's website.

My Book, The Movie: This Is Not a Ghost Story.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, November 22, 2020

"Infernal"

Mark de Jager isn’t sure if his love of writing led to his love of gaming or vice versa, but his earliest memories involve both. He now spends his time trying to find a balance between these and working a full time job in banking, a process made slightly easier by his coffee addiction. An ex-MP in the South African army, de Jager now lives in Kent with his wife Liz (herself a published author) and their lazy dog in a house that is equal parts library and home.

He applied the Page 69 Test to the US debut of his novel Infernal and reported the following:
From page 69:
‘I am Stratus...’ I tried to say the rest of it; I really wanted to, but I couldn’t. His magic was sly and cunning, but it wasn’t strong enough to reach a secret that was buried as deep within my mind as that was. ‘I am going towards the city.’

‘Which city, Stratus?’

‘I ... I don’t know. The closest one.’

‘Why, Stratus?’

‘I seek the counsel of your wise men.’ I had an inkling of what he would ask me next, and I really didn’t want him to ask it but had no way of stopping him. Every word that the spell coaxed from me strengthened its intent and power, like a chain being forged link by link.

‘What is the counsel that you seek, Stratus?’

‘I ...’ The strain of my mental struggle against the compulsion was spilling into the physical word, the chain that linked my wrists rattling as my body tensed. ‘I want to know .. who .. what I am.’ ‘Who do you think you are, Stratus?’
First thing to say is that the person questioning Stratus in the extract above is using a very formulaic way of speaking because it’s part of an ongoing spell!

That said, this is actually a very fitting exchange for this test. In this scene Stratus, who had been wandering through a war zone, has been captured and is being interrogated by a wizard. He’s confused, and as the wizard’s spell burrows deeper into his mind, trying to pry the truth from him, he’s afraid of what it will uncover and what it might mean for both of them.

The one certain truth is that he doesn’t actually know who, or what, he is at this point. Even as he’s trying to fight the wizard’s influence, he’s finding out more about himself, and that’s a key concept for his story.
Follow Mark de Jager on Facebook and Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 20, 2020

"Bright Shining World"

Josh Swiller is the author of Bright Shining World, a YA eco-thriller published by Knopf. He is the author of The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa. He lives with his family in the forest in Upstate New York.

Swiller applied the Page 69 Test to Bright Shining World and reported the following:
From page 69:
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s talk this through. A tennis ball is following you.”

“Yes.”

“One with T. rex arms.”

“Don’t mock me.”

“Four feet tall.” I held out a hand. “So, about this high? Or this?”

“Don’t.”

“With big feet or just big shoes?”

“Don’t! Don’t make fun of me!” Her lip curled. “You think I don’t know this is crazy? You think I’m not scared?”

“Have you asked her to go play with a wall?”

“Of course I tried that! Many times! She cries if I do. So loud I can’t even think. But I’ve got things to do, Wallace! I’ve got the SAT! I’ve got plans! I can’t take care of a freaking tennis ball!”

Sometimes you hear something so strange that you question the very act of hearing things. Like, maybe words didn’t mean what you thought they did. Their meanings changed overnight, and now the word love is actually another way of saying egg salad. Or maybe…
Yeahhh, this page captures a lot of the mood of Bright Shining World, a novel about how relentless planetary destruction is starting to really warp and deplete our inner lives – and what, goddamn it, we can do about that. Wallace Cole, the narrator, has just arrived to a strange, hysteria-stricken town and has a crush on Megan Rose, who is describing her encounter with, yes, a walking tennis ball. Megan Rose to this point has appeared to be the stereotypical high school superachiever and Wallace has been a loner for so long his best efforts at empathy are full of sarcasm. But she is not who she appears to be. And he does really care. This interaction captures how they’re dancing around each other while at the same time uncovering a mystery bigger than they can grasp.

I love characters who are fun and complicated and alive. They’re fun to read and easy to root for! I’m hopeful this page captures that.
Visit Josh Swiller's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 19, 2020

"Northern Wrath"

Thilde Kold Holdt is a Viking, traveler and a polyglot fluent in Danish, French, English and Korean. As a writer, she is an avid researcher. This is how she first came to row for hours upon hours on a Viking warship. She loved the experience so much that she has sailed with the Viking longship the Sea Stallion ever since. Another research trip brought her to South Korea where she also learned the art of traditional Korean archery. Born in Denmark, Holdt has lived in many places and countries, taking a bit of each culture with her.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Northern Wrath, the first book in The Hanged God Trilogy, and reported the following:
Should an eager reader flip open Northern Wrath and land on page 69, they would find only a few lines to digest. They would land at the end of a chapter and this particular chapter is from the point of view of a minor character in Northern Wrath. One might therefore assume that it would not be representative of the novel as a whole, and yet… On this very page, the reader would discover the heart of the initial conflict of the novel:
‘If there really were southerners this far north in Jutland, someone would have seen them and told us,’ a woman finally dismissed.

‘Someone, just did.’ Siv’s answer killed the laughter.
While page 69 might not yield the most extensive representation of what the book and its characters are like, it gets to the heart of the matter and presents the conflict integral to the story. Southerners are attacking, how will the villagers of Ash-hill respond to this threat?

On this short page we also get a glimpse of the temperament of two of our protagonists: Siv and Hilda. They both appear strong and decisive in the snippet.
Pontius bit his nails. They might ruin this, he thought, as he watched Siv chase after Hilda down the road. In their womanly stubbornness, they would bring on the destruction of Ash-Hill.
Many readers have noted that the women in Northern Wrath carry the story in more ways than one, and so, it is notable that the strength of two of the female protagonists is precisely the focus of page 69 of Northern Wrath.
Visit Thilde Kold Holdt's website.

Q&A with Thilde Kold Holdt.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

"A Frenzy of Sparks"

Kristin Fields grew up in Queens, which she likes to think of as a small town next to a big city. She studied writing at Hofstra University, where she was awarded the Eugene Schneider Award for Short Fiction. After college, Fields found herself working on a historic farm, as a high school English teacher, designing museum education programs, and is currently leading an initiative to bring gardens to public schools in New York City, where she lives with her husband.

Fields applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, A Frenzy of Sparks, and reported the following:
From page 69:
The teakettle whistled on the stove downstairs, and her mother hurried off. Gia blinked away the sun as a new round of counting started from the yard. Leo was doing push-ups while Eddie stood over him, sipping from a coffee mug in his favorite black-and-white tracksuit. From high up, his scalp was visible through his hair, and it creeped her out to see the lumps in his skull. Leo’s T-shirt was plastered to his back. His arms wobbled, but when he finished, Eddie demanded fifty more until Leo puked in the grass.

The whole thing felt like an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Gia made her bed, put her uniform on, everything she would’ve done anyway without being told. She even opened the bag of makeup and did what she could. The concealer erased the dark circles under her eyes, but the eyeshadow made her look punched, so she wiped it off and rolled lip gloss on until it was sticky enough to catch bugs, pleased with herself for trying. She took an osprey feather from her drawer and put it in her pocket for good luck.
Wow! I’ve always believed that every word, sentence, and page of a novel should be working towards the greater goal of the story. A Frenzy of Sparks is a coming of age story for 13-year-old Gia in 1965 after drugs are introduced to her close-knit community. Gia is beginning to understand that as a woman, that the world is not open to her in the same way it is for her brother, and that the expectations her parents have of her are very different than those of her older brother, Leo.

Just a little before the excerpt above, Gia and Leo have had a wild night out with their cousins. Leo wound up being taken home by the police. They were all drinking. This is especially embarrassing for their father, who is also a police officer, and so both kids are expected to tow the line now. Leo, by exercising, which shows the old world Italian American belief that men should be strong. But for Gia, she opens up the makeup bag her mother has been encouraging her to use, because girls should be pretty and well behaved.

But Gia loves nature. She is wild at heart. She tucks the osprey feather in her pocket for luck to carry a little of her wild with her in a tame world. It’s a beautiful reflection of who she is.

Conclusion: A Frenzy of Sparks passes the page 69 test!
Visit Kristin Fields's website.

My Book, The Movie: A Frenzy of Sparks.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 16, 2020

"The Chimera Code"

Over the years, Wayne Santos has written copy for advertising agencies, scripts for television, and articles for magazines. He’s lived in Canada, Thailand and Singapore, traveling to many countries around South East Asia. His first love has always been science fiction and fantasy, and while he regularly engaged with it in novels, comics, anime and video games, it wasn’t until 1996, with his first short story in the Canadian speculative fiction magazine On Spec that he aimed towards becoming a novelist.

He now lives in Canada, in Hamilton, ON with his wife. When he’s not writing, he is likely to be found reading, playing video games, watching anime, or trying to calm his cat down.

Santos applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, The Chimera Code, and reported the following:
From page 69:
“Is it really him?” Cloke said. “Or just some convincing code pretending it’s him?”

“If the code believes it, does it matter?” Victor asked.

“Can code believe?”

“And thus the circular argument completes its circuit,” Victor said.

An appropriately serious, older looking, formally dressed attendant entered the room and greeted Cloke. “You’re the executor?”

She nodded and indicated Victor and Zee. “They’re here for moral support.”

“Of course, of course,” the attendant said. “Our bandwidth here is pretty good, so we can broadcast a sim signal to you wirelessly, though we still have cabling for a direct jack if you prefer. Always cleaner and crisper, obviously.”

“No,” Cloke said, indicating the big altar with a nod of her head. “We’ll use the display; I don’t have any implants for receiving.”

The attendant’s face went into confused shock, mirroring Zee’s own feelings.

“No receivers of any kind? At all?” Zee asked.

Cloke shook her head. “Virgin.” She lifted her hair and turned her back to Zee to show the clean, unbroken flesh of the back of her neck.

“I assume your display is in working order,” Victor said.

The attendant looked to the altar that dominated the room. “It’s normally just used for saying a few words, accenting the presentation with some visuals, video reminiscing and the like… but yes, it’ll work. Most people prefer the first meeting to occur in simulation. It’s… a gentler transition.”

“Holography will be fine,” Cloke said. “I don’t feel like applying saline paste to my head, and I don’t know if you even have any analog interfaces lying around.”
I think the Page 69 test gives a decent glimpse into a major aspect of the novel, and that’s the way different kinds of tech have pervaded everyday life. This scene involves the characters visiting a kind of “funeral home,” except that instead of burying the dead, they electronically resurrect a digital copy of the deceased, if they purchased that service.

It’s a fair representative of the world building that takes place in the book, but, being a quieter scene, doesn’t cover the explosions and property damage that make up the other, significant chunk. It does, however, hint at the difficulties faced by a 22nd century combat mage in a world largely dominated by technology.
Visit Wayne Santos's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, November 14, 2020

"Ana on the Edge"

A. J. Sass (he/they) is a writer, editor, and competitive skater. A long-time figure skater, he has passed his U.S. Figure Skating Senior Moves in the Field and Free Skate tests, medaled twice at the U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships, and currently dabbles in ice dance. Sass lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his boyfriend and two cats who act like dogs.

The author applied the Page 69 Test to Ana on the Edge, his first novel, and reported the following:
Page 69 in Ana on the Edge is near the beginning of chapter 7. It is set during the first evening that main character Ana, the reigning US Juvenile figure skating champion, will be assisting with her new rink’s skate-school classes in exchange for free ice-time for her own training. Ana is having a conversation with the skate-school director, Corinne, about her new responsibilities as a class assistant. At the beginning of their conversation, Ana has the following thought: “If Corinne is the director, that means she’s a big reason I get free ice-time.” Near the end of the page, Corinne makes a request: “We’re lucky that someone so accomplished is giving back to our community. I also hope you might consider performing in our end-of-session recital …” Readers who are curious whether or not Ana agrees to perform will have to read on to page 70.

I initially felt that the test failed for my book because this page is largely a setup for Ana learning there is a skate-school student who uses a different name and pronouns than what is on the class roster, which occurs just a couple of pages later. There’s nothing interesting about learning the ropes of assisting with skate-school classes, right?

But after I sat with it and reread the page a couple of times, I’ve come to a different conclusion. Because this page highlights one of the major conflicts throughout Ana’s story: finances. Ana is a rising star in an incredibly expensive sport that her single mother works hard to pay for. Affluent athletes don’t need to volunteer their time teaching group classes in exchange for free ice to train on. They don’t have to consider taking a skate-school director up on her request to consider performing in an end-of-session recital, which also takes precious time away from training. While we really only get that one line of Ana’s thoughts, I think it’s enough to pique some readers’ interest in wondering why twelve-year-old Ana feels the need to help pay for her training in the first place. Reading the rest of the book will give them that answer.

Ultimately, if all readers know about this book before reading page 69 is based on the skating-centric cover, this page fulfills the expectation that this book will focus on that particular sport since it discusses not only Ana’s training setup but a potential obstacle to having enough time to train. For readers who’ve read the inside dust jacket flap and know that the story also explores gender identity, this test might fail, however, as page 69 doesn’t address any aspect of Ana’s internal identity. The test’s success is really subjective, like so much else in the world of literature (and the world of figure skating, for that matter!).
Visit A. J. Sass's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 12, 2020

"Muffled"

Jennifer Gennari is the author of Muffled (2020), a Junior Library Guild selection, and My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer (2012), a Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year selection and an American Library Association Rainbow List title. A graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, she lives on the water in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Gennari applied the Page 69 Test to Muffled and reported the following:
Our curious reader enters the children’s section of a bookstore or library and whimsically turns to page 69:
Dinner is soup and we’re so busy slurping and dipping bread it takes me awhile before I notice that Mom is not talking tonight, even when Dad brings up my costume idea. I’m quiet, too, thinking about school tomorrow and how I’m going to quit flute.

“I’ll let you two tackle the kitchen tonight.” Dad excuses himself to go fold the laundry.

Mom begins putting away leftovers. Earmuffs on, I start washing the dishes. They help me concentrate on my thoughts, which are running like water from the faucet.

“It’s great you are in flute class with Deb,” Mom says, suddenly talkative. “Why didn’t you mention that you two are practicing together?”

I wipe away soup on the inside of the pot. “Only once. And Deb is friends with Kiki now.”

“Deb can have more than one friend,” she says.

“Just because we live in the same building doesn’t make us instant friends.” Mom is forgetting that Deb and I have only been sort-of friends since third grade.
These are the words on page 69 of Muffled, a middle-grade novel about fifth grader Amelia, noise-hater and reluctant trombonist. If the cover drew in our curious reader, this moment after dinner is a peek into the story’s heart. We get a sampling of Amelia’s trouble—which instrument to play, who her friends are—and we feel the tension rising at home as her parents differ on how to address her noise sensitivity. Best of all, if the reader turns to the next page, she will see Amelia’s first outburst.

What’s telling about this scene is the portrayal of the parents. Dad was easy to write—he is like Amelia, and they have a quiet connection. It was harder to create Amelia’s mom as both loving and obtuse. She doesn’t quite get why Amelia can’t just put aside the earmuffs and make friends. This kitchen scene is one of those moments where the reader sees how Mom cares and yet misunderstands Amelia. Amelia is also keeping her feelings in and not telling her mother what’s going on.

Hope can always be found in my books for young people, and this mother-daughter clash will resolve in a sweet reconciliation. And so, perhaps, our curious reader takes Muffled home to find out if Amelia drops the flute, finds a friend, and reconnects with Mom.
Visit Jennifer Gennari's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

"Agatha Arch is Afraid of Everything"

Kristin Bair is the author of the novel Agatha Arch Is Afraid of Everything. Under the name Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, she has published two novels, The Art of Floating and Thirsty, as well as numerous essays about China, bears, adoption, off-the-plot expats, and more. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Baltimore Review, The Manifest-Station, Flying: Journal of Writing and Environment, The Christian Science Monitor, Poets & Writers Magazine, Writer’s Digest, and other publications.

Bair applied the Page 69 Test to Agatha Arch is Afraid of Everything and reported the following:
In Agatha Arch is Afraid of Everything, an already-fearful author-mom discovers her husband in flagrante delicto with their town’s most beloved dog walker. Heartbroken and vengeful, Agatha invests in a pair of spy pants with dozens of pockets so she can easily carry all the things she needs to spy on her soon-to-be ex and his new chickie-babe.
She stashes a small bag of the boys’ favorite candy in the calf pocket of the right leg so that if they happen to catch her in a suspicious activity, she can sweeten them up. Anything for Sour Patch Kids. In various other pockets, she stashes a headlamp, gum, rubber bands, a nail file, a mini-roll of duct tape, waterproof matches, a whistle, firecrackers, a ball of twine, and a few other bits and pieces. She Googles what Bear [Grylls] takes on his adventures, then adds a survival blanket, a sewing kit, and a snare wire to her stash. You never know.

While the kitchen cleaver would fit just fine into the long-knife pocket, she opts for a Leatherman Super Tool 300 EOD with a fold-down blade not more than an inch long. Better to avoid temptation, no matter what Shrinky-Dink believes.
Page 69 absolutely gets to the heart of Agatha Arch is Afraid of Everything. The list of things Agatha stores in her spy pants reveals her devotion to her kids, her rather unique response to a terrible situation, her sense of humor, her obsession with Bear Grylls, the depth of her relationship with her therapist, and, most importantly, the dangerous edge on which she is perched. But while she’s heartbroken, afraid, angry, and tempted to do lasting damage to her soon-to-be ex-husband, it’s significant that she chooses the Leatherman Super Tool 300 EOD, and not the kitchen cleaver, for the long-knife pocket.

Agatha is not your average anything, but she’s authentic. I like exploring characters who seem to be outside the box, but who actually reflect, in some way, each and every one of us. While it would be easy to assume this is a story about a woman wronged by her husband, it goes much deeper than that. It’s really a story about how a woman consumed by fear for an entire life is given a chance to face those fears and grow.
Visit Kristin Bair's website.

My Book, The Movie: Agatha Arch is Afraid of Everything.

Q&A with Kristin Bair.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, November 8, 2020

"A Dangerous Breed"

A native of Seattle, Glen Erik Hamilton was raised aboard a sailboat and grew up around the marinas and commercial docks and islands of the Pacific
Northwest. His novels have won the Anthony, Macavity, and Strand Magazine Critics awards, and been nominated for the Edgar®, Barry, and Nero awards. He now lives in California with his family, and frequently returns to his hometown to soak up the rain.

Hamilton applied the Page 69 Test to his latest novel, A Dangerous Breed, and reported the following:
From page 69:
His name was Panni. For the purposes of our meeting, I was told to call him Mark if I had to say his name out loud. Hollis had said Panni would be more comfortable if we used aliases, and I was trying to make friends here. Panni was probably only a year or two out of grad school, finding his criminology degree of limited use in a low-level position in the Records department of the FBI’s Seattle branch office.

After another moment of reconnoitering the lily pads, Panni sat down on the bench beside me. While his jaw was so hairless that it might never have seen a razor, his embroidered skullcap bulged with long locks tucked beneath it.

“How do I know you’re not wearing a wire?” he said.

“You can check if you want.”

He thought about it. Maybe it had already occurred to him that if OPR, the Bureau’s version of Internal Affairs, were on to him, they would have busted him the moment he tried to leave the field office with confidential files.

“Never mind,” he said.

“And I’ll trust you, too.” The little receiver in my pocket hadn’t emitted the buzz alerting me to any cellular or two-way signals within a dozen feet. Panni wasn’t wired.

“I don’t know why we couldn’t go through our mutual friend,” he said, sitting next to me on the bench.

“Because our friend isn’t always available,” I said, “and if I need information quickly in the future, it’s better that you and I know each other.” I patted Panni on the back.

“I can’t do this a lot,” he said. I wasn’t sure if he meant logistically or emotionally.

“Let’s just take care of today.”

“So how do we . . .”

“You leave what you brought on the bench. Then you go to your car and find yourself a party.”

He frowned. “What about the rest?”

“It’s already in your pocket, Mark.”

He pressed his elbow against his North Face ski jacket and was rewarded with the crackle of paper from the folded envelope I’d placed there. His eyes widened.

“Happy New Year,” I said.
Not having heard of McLuhan's test, I was startled by how accurate a snapshot this passage made of the novel's tone, and of the personality of the protagonist, Van Shaw. Van is a reformed professional thief and former soldier. He balances a natural inclination for trouble with careful preparation and wry humor, not least towards himself.

In this scene, Van is making contact with a source of information and trying to set the man at ease. But he can't quite help teasing the nervous fellow, even while he keeps the transaction quick and to the point. Having confirmed his own safety, Van will have some fun.

As an example of the novel, it's a reveal for how I prefer scenes to be: fast-moving and letting the dialogue do the work whenever possible. Pace is crucial in thrillers. Having a first-person POV requires limiting some scenes to descriptions while Van is alone and prowling, but even so, those scenes are internal conversations that should be just as urgent as this exchange.
Visit Glen Erik Hamilton's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 6, 2020

"The Redshirt"

Corey Sobel is a graduate of Duke University, where he was a scholarship football player and received the Anne Flexner Award for Fiction and the
Reynolds Price Award for Scriptwriting. He has reported on human rights abuses in Burma, served as an HIV/AIDS researcher in Kenya, and consulted for the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations. He has written for numerous publications, including HuffPost, Esquire.com, and Chapel Hill News.

Sobel applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, The Redshirt, and reported the following:
From page 69:
show up to camp and it’s like someone hands you three balls and says, “Juggle, asshole,” and you never juggled in your life, but you gotta do it anyway. Getting homesick?

—Not really, sir.

He turned to that Polaroid.

—I grew up three hours away from here and still got so lonely I’d call my grandma every night. That’s her. Raised me after she already brought up nine kids.

I was learning smiles were rare with Coach Hightower. If he was pleased by something, he’d do a little shoulder shake, as if the laughter had snagged on something inside him.

—So, what? he said, turning back to me. You just come up to shoot the shit?

—No, sir. I wanted to see what else I needed to do to make the twos.

He nodded.

—You’re gonna find I ain’t sentimental—I don’t put someone on the field because I’ve known them all these years. Fade’s got the best physicality and the best grasp of the defense, so he’s one. Chase has the physicality, but he’s shaky as shit on execution. Two. I know you’re a smart player, Miles, that’s why we brought you here. So now I need to see how physical you are. Especially since you’re a little lighter than we’d like.

He stopped to think.

—Oklahoma is Saturday morning. You show me you can hold your own with the big boys, I’ll start getting you some reps with the twos.

“Oklahoma” was the first full-contact drill of the season. It would be the first time I tackled as a college player, and on Saturday morning the tunnel that led to the practice fields was nothing less than a birth canal, with me inching through the dark of preexistence toward a blinding light.

—Meat!
As it’s a novel about a college football team, The Redshirt is chockfull of dialogue—talk during meetings, bullshit sessions in the locker room, late-night confessions in the team hotel the night after a training camp practice. In that sense, this page does get at how talky the book is, and more specifically captures a basic dynamic that drives much of that conversation: the interplay between the dominant coaches and the submissive players. In this instance, the two people speaking are the bullying linebackers coach, Radon Hightower, and The Redshirt’s narrator, Miles Furling, an undersized freshman linebacker. Miles has taken the elevator to the top floor of the football building to press his advantage with his coach and convince him that he deserves a chance to practice with the second team defense. Coach Hightower, in so many words, is here reinforcing that he alone controls Miles’s fate, which Miles knows perfectly well. This insistent, redundant reinforcement of the team’s hierarchy is integral to football culture, and The Redshirt at base is a story of what happens when players become skeptical of that structure and decide to push against it. All that said, Miles is a quiet, observant narrator, and where Page 69 falls short in representativeness is that it doesn’t get at how much of the book is comprised of Miles thinking, obsessing, and silently worrying about his place on the team—which is to say his place in the world.

But I am still fascinated by this test. As soon as I agreed to write this column, I was reminded of a quote from The Great Gatsby in which Nick Carraway says, “personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures.” What’s so brilliant about this idea is how it gets at the fact that personality in itself doesn’t exist in some absolute sense, but is rather comprised of consecutive moments—smile, sigh, eyebrow raise—that the people who observe them smooth over, join together, and conceive of as what we refer to as the “self”. I think novels function the same way; so, it’s not that page 69 of my book (or any book) contains some special essence that you can extrapolate to all the other pages, but rather that it is one moment in a larger network of moments that the reader (if the writer is any good) experiences as a whole. Readers fictionalize just as much as novelists do.
Visit Corey Sobel's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

"Critical Point"

S. L. Huang has a math degree from MIT and is a weapons expert and professional stuntwoman who has worked in Hollywood on Battlestar Galactica and a number of other productions. Her novels include the Cas Russell series (formerly known as Russel's Attic), which begins with Zero Sum Game, followed by Null Set.

Huang applied the Page 69 Test to Critical Point, the latest Cas Russell novel, and reported the following:
The sixty-ninth page of Critical Point is the end of a chapter:
loud with our breathing and pounding feet and the buzz of the drones above us. My mind whizzed through the other probabilities and urgencies. Setting aside for a moment just how much Willow Grace knew that she hadn’t shared yet, the binary explosive meant—what? I didn’t know much about them beyond the basics: two chemicals that were harmless when separate, but would detonate with great prejudice once they met. So the initial powder, the one already caking us, would be inert by itself. Another wave of drones would have to come and spray their payload around all at once . . . and then the entire place would go up like another Independence Day display. Without knowing what the chemical compositions were, I couldn’t make a reliable estimation of destructive power, but I was guessing big and flamey.

Assume the same type of drones for the second payload, though, and we’d make it past the fence and out before anything could go off. We were already probably far enough away from the buildings, which was where the drones were concentrating themselves— “There’s a person!” gasped Pilar, pointing.

I swiveled, every nerve ending instantly wiring with adrenaline.

But it wasn’t the man from the lawn. Instead, a much smaller, black-clad silhouette was bobbing in and out of the screen of cypress trees a few hundred yards down from us.

A silhouette I recognized. And this time not from my nightmares.

Oh, fuck.

I grabbed the other women to stop them. “Keep an eye on her,” I commanded Pilar, pointing at Willow Grace. I wasn’t sure whether I meant Pilar should protect her or keep her under guard, but Willow Grace was right about one thing—any more answers on that had to wait.

“Now run,” I said.

They took off into the night, and I sprinted in the opposite direction, back across the lawn toward where Arthur’s daughter was sneaking into the wellness center.
Annnnnnnd right as they’re running from the explosion, my main character sees the teenaged daughter of one of her friends sneaking into the place that’s about to blow up.

Believe it or not, this is a fabulous encapsulation of the entire book. Explosions? Check! The novel is chock full of explosions cover to cover, and on page 69 we’re right at the point of running from one. Family? Check! Even though it’s an action thriller, I think of Critical Point as being all about family, and right here we’re about to see the exact dynamics of the main character with the friends she regards as family ... and, in this case, their precocious sixteen-year-old daughter.

I suppose one thing this page doesn’t have much of is math, and considering my antiheroine’s superpowers are the ability to do math really, really fast—and murder people with it—that might be a drawback to page 69 being quite representative. On the other hand, I think one thing that’s very normal in my work is to have four women naturally appear as part of an action scene together with no men around at that moment, and we do see that here. I tend to have enough women in my work for me to get plenty of scenes where I randomly have mostly or all women driving the plot; it never feels contrived to me, as it makes sense when my casts have that many diverse, skilled women in them!

So yeah, if this page gets across page-turning action and badass women, and also hints at the upcoming family and character feels, I think it’s nailing what the book’s about. Plus math that can kill you.
Visit S. L. Huang's website.

The Page 69 Test: Zero Sum Game.

The Page 69 Test: Null Set.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 2, 2020

"Hysteria"

Jessica Gross's writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, and The Paris Review Daily, among other places. She holds an MFA in fiction from The New School, a Master's degree in cultural reporting and criticism from New York University and a Bachelor's in anthropology from Princeton University. She has received fellowships in fiction from the Yiddish Book Center (2017) and the 14th Street Y (2015-16), where she also served as editor of the LABA Journal. She currently teaches writing at Eugene Lang College at The New School.

Gross applied the Page 69 Test to Hysteria, her first novel, and reported the following:
Here, in part, is what appears on page 69 of Hysteria:
I rifled through my mother’s clothing. My frame was similar to hers, but a less comely version, as if someone had made a copy of her in a great hurry and it had come out pixilated and lumpen. Her clothes fit me poorly, the almost of them highlighting just how much better they looked on her. I chose a pair of black slacks that hung off her hips like a waterfall. On me they gaped in awkward places, looked like dress-up, nothing like real glamour. I tucked my shirt in. I wanted to leave. I wanted to climb out my parents’ bedroom window. I wanted to go back to Pilz Bar. I wanted the bartender to watch over me while I napped, so I could sleep in peace knowing I was safe. Could I go back to the bar and ask to just sleep for a bit, ask him to sit in a chair while I closed my eyes? Would he ask me what I’d been up to since we’d met, where I had been? I wondered what he’d say about Sam, about him pulling my hair, about harder! Harder! I wondered what he’d say about Langham. The thought of telling him made me nauseated, my throat tightening around the feeling—but there was relief there, too, that someone might know. Maybe he knew already.
When I received the instructions for this test, I was skeptical, but page 69 gives a remarkably accurate snapshot of the novel! Holy cow. So much of Hysteria is about my narrator's relationship with her parents: where it went wrong; what she craves but cannot attain. It's also about her psyche, which is full of shame and self-loathing, and about the ways in which she thwarts her own need for connection and love. This passage gives a great sense of the narrator's perseveration (her past actions replay in her mind on a loop, haunting and taunting her) and of the novel's intense, desperate, frantic tone.
Visit Jessica Gross's website.

--Marshal Zeringue