Sunday, July 31, 2022

"A Half-Built Garden"

Ruthanna Emrys lives in a mysterious manor house on the outskirts of Washington, DC with her wife and their large, strange family. Her stories have appeared in a number of venues, including Strange HorizonsAnalog, and She is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, which began with Winter Tide.

Emrys applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, A Half-Built Garden, and reported the following:
On page 69, Judy Wallach-Stevens has just come back from talking with aliens – made more difficult by an unprecedented network crash - to find representatives from an exiled megacorporation in her dining room. They’d really like to get involved in first contact as well, and think they can do a better job of it:
The two associates looked at each other and sat, though they didn’t eat. Adrien leaned against the wall, arms folded casually. Mallory spoke: “The common feed says these aliens – we’re calling them Ringers? – are nation-style territorialists. They argue from shared ideals, and use those ideals as an excuse to make others live as they do. I know the dandelion networks don’t trust us.” I flagged that in my recording, the first point where any of them admitted our existence. “But corporate strength has always come from transmuting the threat of force into softer trade. If we all eat the same food, play the same games, they’ll gloss over any difference in values.”

“They live in space stations,” added Kelsey. With enough trade, they’ll see our interest in planets as simply a place we aren’t in competition. Not that we can’t compete in space, too. Why not get a few stations of our own? Factories with shields of vacuum – think of everything we could accomplish. But first we need to figure out what goods appeal to them. What they’d want from us, if they knew it was on offer.”

So much nuance and threat tangled in those reasonable-sounding suggestions. My undrained mesh stretched its memory to the breaking point. Still I cued problems and questions, ready to go as soon as the network came up, while I thought about how to respond.

When it did come up, I stalled out. It was only a moment – a stutter of status in the corner of my vision. Recordings and questions surged with that flash before it flickered away, and I wondered too late if thousands of cued uploads from across the region had overwhelmed the launch. Redbug would know. Maybe their team could lay down safeties, titrate activity for the next reboot.

They stomped out through the living room curtains, trailed by the tech team, and I braced myself. But their anger wasn’t for me. “What are they doing here?” demanded Redbug.
For A Half-Built Garden, page 69 has the disadvantage of not including any actual aliens. However, this page does introduce a couple of big conflicts that play out through the whole book.

The Asterion representatives see first contact as an opportunity to regain the power that corporations lost in the Dandelion Revolution. If they gain control of the negotiations, they could dominate humanity’s spread among the stars. This is a threat to everyone else because they have no particular attachment to human survival on Earth. But it puts them much more in line with the Dyson-Sphere-dwelling Ringers – when the Ringers are already disturbed by the watershed networks’ attachment to their planet.

The watersheds are also suspicious (with cause) that their network crash stems from corporate sabotage. It’s never happened before, and the corporations are a lot more likely to get their way with the watersheds’ main decision-making technology in chaos.

On the other hand, if the watersheds could prove that Asterion is at fault, the Ringers would be a lot less likely to want to work with the corporations, shared goals or no shared goals. When you live on a space station, you really don’t appreciate people who are prone to breaking your technology when they don’t get their way!

One thing that doesn’t show up on this page is the role that parenting plays in the book. The Ringers treat parenthood as an indicator of leadership ability. This is at least in part because for one of the species involved, a lot of status negotiation is required to determine who plays what role in reproduction!

Judy happens to have her baby along when she first encounters the Ringers, and they latch onto her as a leader for the human side of first contact, despite her dubious qualifications otherwise. The varied ways that human cultures handle parenting lead to a lot of conflict, both between humans and between species. Flip forward ten pages, and you’ll find the Ringers being very suspicious about Asterion’s unwillingness to drag kids along on international jaunts.
Visit Ruthanna Emrys's website.

Q&A with Ruthanna Emrys.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 29, 2022

"Wake of War"

Zac Topping grew up in Eastern Connecticut where, contrary to popular belief, it's not all trust funds and yacht clubs. He spent his formative years on the move, as some do, and it was in the fifth grade where he found an outlet for his active imagination through writing. After high school he joined the United States Army where he served in an artillery unit out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina for four and a half years with two tours in Iraq. He eventually found his way home to New England where he attended college and rediscovered his love of writing. To call it an obsession would be an understatement.

Topping currently lives with his wife in a quiet farm town in Connecticut, and is a fire fighter for the city he grew up in.

He applied the Page 69 Test to Wake of War, his first novel, and reported the following:
From page 69:
“Sir, you might want to come see this.”

Ned Sellers pinched the bridge of his nose, then begrudgingly closed the laptop in front of him. “I’m not accustomed to being interrupted in my office.”

“We need you at the gate, sir,” Markus said. “There’s someone here.”

“Who is it?”

“The RF, sir.”

Sellers’ mouth opened then snapped shut. For a moment, a look of growing panic tried to command his features, but it was gone and in its place the arrogant confidence of a corporate executive.

Markus escorted Sellers to the Prowler parked outside the headquarters building and drove him across the compound to the gate that opened onto New Bingham Highway. Reyes was already there in the guard tower with a few of his men, rifles at the low ready.

As Markus pulled to a stop, Reyes split off from his men and came over to help Sellers out. He ignored Markus.

Sellers was cinching his tie and looking around. “Where are they?”

“They’re outside,” Markus said. “We didn’t want to let them in for security reasons.”

“How many?” Sellers asked.

“Just one truck,” Reyes said. “An envoy. They want to talk. Figured we’d wait for you.”

“Very well,” Sellers said straightening his suit jacket.

Markus unlocked the pistol in his drop holster and wrenched the access door open. Reyes flashed some hand signals to his guys on the wall and joined Markus and Sellers. They stepped through.

Barren fields stretched out before them toward the Copperton slums in the distance. A warm breeze carried the stench of rot and smoke from the city. The eastern mountains reached up from the horizon and Markus couldn’t help but feel boxed in, like the entire valley was some kind of stage. Or arena.
I have to say, the Page 69 Test for Wake of War works really well. This page is the opening of Chapter 10, where a representative of the rebel army has come down out of the mountains to try and make a deal with the CEO of a valuable mining complex as the government military closes in. Markus, a private security contractor tasked with protecting the CEO, must escort the naive corporate executive during this potentially explosive meeting outside the gates of their secured compound.

This scene encapsulates the rising tension that lives at the core of the book. It hints at danger, and the coming fight, and showcases a few different characters with conflicting personalities.
Visit Zac Topping's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

"The Nobodies"

Alanna Schubach’s fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, the Sewanee Review, the Massachusetts Review, Electric Literature, and more. She was an Emerging Writer Fellow with the Center for Fiction, a Fellow in Fiction with the New York Foundation for the Arts, and a MacDowell fellow. She earned an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in New York, where she works as a freelance journalist and writing teacher.

Schubach applied the Page 69 Test to The Nobodies, her debut novel, and reported the following:
The Page 69 Test offers mixed results for my novel. On the one hand, the material is rich in that the event that unfolds on this page between the main characters, Nina and Jess, has significant implications for their friendship and the narrative as a whole. On the other hand, I’m uncertain how clearly the significance comes through without the context for the unique circumstances of their friendship. Probably, a casual browser would know if they glanced at the book jacket the central premise of my novel: that Nina and Jess discover as children they have a unique power—the ability to swap bodies—and that the story will follow them over many years, exploring how they wield this power not only for good but also to manipulate, deceive, and betray each other.

The book jumps around in time, “dropping in” on Nina and Jess over 20 years. On page 69, they’re still kids who have recently discovered their power, and like kids, are experimenting with it, testing its boundaries. There’s an element of menace to their play; it ratchets up “until a vicious current seem[s] to encircle them.”

That menace is present even before the girls learn about their secret, shared ability. We follow them as build their own private little world, full of elaborate games that contain a strong whiff of danger, that allow them to feel strong, powerful, in control despite their age. One of the games is an exclusive “radio show” they create together, to make sense of (and criticize, and ridicule) the adults and other children around them. Another is the “Boyfriend Game,” in which the girls assume the roles of an imagined couple named Clyde and Giselle, and playact what they think adults in love do together. Nina feels a strong draw to this game and seems to want to play it more often than her friend; she experiences a sense of shame over this that she believes she has managed to conceal so far.

But on page 69 she finds that Jess is well aware of her private desires. The girls have switched bodies and are playing a game of impersonation, trying to mimic one another perfectly. Pretending to be Nina, Jess sheepishly asks if they can play the Boyfriend Game. For Nina:
It was the ultimate revelation: all attempts to conceal her desire for the game were proven feeble, her layers of feigned casualness peeled away to the throbbing core, the hunger for closeness with Jess that only Giselle and Clyde could deliver.

“Stop making fun of me,” she mumbled.

“I’m not!” Jess said. “I’m not.” She stood and pulled at Nina’s hands, trying to get her to her feet. “Come on,” she said. Nina allowed herself to be tugged upward, led over to the bed.
This “ultimate revelation”—that Jess knows Nina even better than Nina realized, and therefore has, at least in this way, achieved the upper hand—leads to a moment of new closeness between the two. That closeness comes with major vulnerabilities and is an important development in the ongoing power struggle the girls engage in over the course of the book. I’m happy about how much comes through on this page about the intense and complex nature of their bond, and how their power further complicates it, but I do suspect that the full weight of this scene is clear only once a reader has already read what precedes it.
Visit Alanna Schubach's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 25, 2022

"The Wedding Plot"

Paula Munier is a literary agent and the USA TODAY bestselling author of the Mercy Carr mysteries. A Borrowing of Bones, the first in the series, was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award and named the Dogwise Book of the Year. The sequel Blind Search, inspired by the real-life rescue of a little boy with autism who got lost in the woods, was followed by The Hiding Place in 2021.

Munier applied the Page 69 Test to The Wedding Plot, the new Mercy Carr mystery, and reported the following:
Turn to page 69 in The Wedding Plot, my fourth Mercy Carr mystery, and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a crime scene. The crime scene is a stall in a barn on a goat farm in southern Vermont. Our heroine Mercy has gone there with her retired bomb-sniffing dog Elvis on a mission to find Bodhi St. George, the spa director at the fancy resort where her grandmother Patience is getting married that weekend. Bodhi has gone missing, and the wedding planner from hell—Mercy’s mother, determined to give Patience the perfect nuptials—has gone ballistic. Without Bodhi, wedding guests will miss out on the special spa day she’s planned as part of the extravaganza. She calls upon Mercy to find Bodhi and bring him back. Bodhi lives in a bungalow on the goat farm, so Mercy and Elvis head there. They search his place, and find nothing. That’s when Elvis leads her to the barn—and they find a man skewered by a pitchfork.

And no, it’s not the spa director.

By page 69, the medical examiner and the Crime Scene Search Team have examined the body in the barn. When Dr. Darling and CSST leader Bob come out, Mercy’s waiting for them with Elvis. Game warden Troy Warner and his search-and-rescue dog Susie Bear are with them.

From page 69:
“Have you been able to identify the victim?” Mercy had to ask.

“Go ahead and tell her,” said Dr. Darling. “She’s going to find out sooner or later anyway.”

“No wallet, no ID, no keys.”

“Maybe the killer took them,” said Mercy.

“No cell?’ asked Troy.

“Just a burner.”

“If the killer did empty his pockets, why not take the phone?” Mercy wondered aloud.

“Found the phone hidden in the hay by the gate.”

“So maybe the killer missed it.”

“Anything else?” asked Troy, with an edge to his voice that revealed his growing frustration with the CSST chief.

Bob appeared not to notice Troy’s impatience. “The victim’s clothes and boots are common brands you can buy most anywhere.” He shrugged. “Going back in.”

He trudged back into the barn. Mercy was glad he was gone; Dr. Darling was always the better source of information. Especially when you got her on her own.
Page 69 reflects the fact that The Wedding Plot is a mystery, but there’s a lot more to this story than murder. As anyone who’s ever been in a wedding knows, weddings can be murder in more ways than one. The dead body in the barn is just the first in a series of deadly disasters that plague the resort and the wedding party—and it’s up to Mercy and Elvis to keep the bride and groom safe, till death do they part.
Visit Paula Munier's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Paula Munier & Bear.

The Page 69 Test: A Borrowing of Bones.

The Page 69 Test: Blind Search.

The Page 69 Test: The Hiding Place.

Q&A with Paula Munier.

My Book, The Movie: The Wedding Plot.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 23, 2022

"Killing Field"

Meghan Holloway found her first Nancy Drew mystery in a sun-dappled attic at the age of eight and subsequently fell in love with the grip and tautness of a well-told mystery. She flew an airplane before she learned how to drive a car, did her undergrad work in Creative Writing in the sweltering south, and finished a Masters of Library and Information Science in the blustery north. She spent a summer and fall in Maine picking peaches and apples, traveled the world for a few years, and did a stint fighting crime in the records section of a police department. She now lives on the Atlantic coast with her standard poodle and spends her days as a scientist with the requisite glasses but minus the lab coat.

Holloway applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Killing Field, and reported the following:
From page 69:
I had been so careful. I knew they would be looking for me, and I was not certain how powerful they were. I knew they were rich enough to offer my sister something she could not resist: a chance to change her fate. I had tried to do that for her, but they had offered her more than I was able to. I knew they were resourceful enough to make her disappear until the night Charles Two Rivers from the service station showed up on my doorstep and said I had a call from her.

The moment she whispered my name, I knew this was something bigger, something dangerous. Something worth killing over.

I slid to the floor and crawled to the bed, reaching under it and dragging my backpack out. I didn’t know if taking them would help at all, but I needed someone to believe me. This was all the proof I had.

I had been so careful, but I knew my face had been captured by the reporters. I had been so stupid to claim I was Emma Lewis. It had led them right to me.

I opened the backpack. All of the files I had stolen from that house outside of Denver were still there. I spread them on the floor in front of me.

I had only been able to grab what I could fit in my backpack. The walls of the room I found had been lined with file cabinets. When I broke into the house in the middle of the night, I had been looking for a single file.

I slid it from the pile now and flipped it open. Kimimela Between Lodges was printed neatly on the tab. The records contained nothing that told of how my sister loved to stand outside and watch storms roll over the plains. There was nothing that mentioned how infectious her laugh had been, how she had our mother’s smile, how big her dreams had been. She had wanted to leave Pine Ridge, go to college, and see the world.

There was nothing in the file that told of the fear in her voice when she called me, of the desperation in her plea. She had whispered everything she knew about the organization, voice wavering and tight. She had told me names and dates, descriptions of people and places.

I placed my hand over her name.

There was nothing in the file that told of how her body had been tossed aside on the floor like a piece of trash. There was nothing written down about how this was all my fault.

I did not realize I was crying until a tear fell from my chin to the page. I brushed it away quickly, but the damage was done. The ink where she had signed her name at the bottom of the page was smeared.
This excerpt from page 69 of Killing Field gives readers a sense of the mystery that sent Annie Between Lodges to Raven’s Gap in search of Hector. As a test, this scene captures the tone of the finale of the trilogy, a story filled with tension, twists, and sorrow.

Out of the entire series, Annie was the most difficult character for me to write. She is Oglala Lakota, and a significant amount of research was required to portray her experience and worldview both authentically and respectfully. While she possesses so much courage and tenacity, she is still young. Capturing that teenage voice—with all its bravado and vulnerability, its hope and fear, its jadedness and naivete—was one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a writer.

Annie captured my heart. She is one of the bravest characters I’ve written, and one of the things I appreciate most about her is how she forces Hector to confront his own shortcomings and emotions about the daughter who disappeared fifteen years ago.
Visit Meghan Holloway's website, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The Page 69 Test: Once More Unto the Breach.

Q&A with Meghan Holloway.

The Page 69 Test: Hunting Ground.

The Page 69 Test: Hiding Place.

My Book, The Movie: Killing Field.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 21, 2022

"The Perfect Neighborhood"

Liz Alterman is the author of a young adult novel, He’ll Be Waiting. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, and other outlets. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and three sons where she spends most days microwaving the same cup of coffee and looking up synonyms. When she isn't writing, she's reading.

Alterman applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Perfect Neighborhood, and reported the following:
From page 69:
But our home was in the city, where we could get falafel or a pedicure at two in the morning, where a short walk or subway ride was all that separated us from live music and theater. We weren’t even thirty, we were still figuring it out. We didn’t belong in this area filled with toddlers, found cats, and Stepford dogs.

“We could get a dog!” Chris exclaimed, as if reading my mind.

He beamed, happy, purposeful. How could I not at least look around? I’d “ooh” and “aah” over giant bedrooms and walk-in closets, and then let him come to the obvious conclusion that we weren’t suburb material—at least not yet.

“Sure, what the heck? I said, taking his hand and pulling him toward our car. “Let’s explore!”

We wound our way through tree-lined streets, following open house signs. Nineteen Woods End, a large Colonial filled with natural light, hardwood floors, and high ceilings, was our final stop. We arrived ten minutes before the open house ended, forcing us to rush from room to room. As we entered each one, I could feel Chris’s body hum with excitement beside me, the way it did when he was writing a song.

When we got to the finished basement, he spun around.

“My music studio!” he exclaimed, raising his arms over his head. Even at six foot two, inches remained between Chris’s fingertips and the ceiling.

Before leaving, we took a last look at the living room. Built- in bookshelves framed a window seat that overlooked the side yard where a row of mature arborvitaes provided privacy. I would’ve bought the home on this room alone, but it was what Chris said there that sold me.

“That’s where I’ll put the piano, start giving lessons.” The sparkle I hadn’t seen in months returned to his eyes.

“It’s lovely.” I scanned the information sheet. “But we don’t need all this space. It’s got five bedrooms!”

“Don’t worry.” He raised his eyebrows and slid his arm around my waist, pulling me into him. “We’ll fill ’em up.”
Opening to page 69 in The Perfect Neighborhood offers an accurate glimpse into the story’s setting and themes.

As the novel begins, readers learn that actress Allison Langley has left her handsome husband, Chris, a former rockstar, and fled the affluent town of Oak Hill in the middle of the night. This passage explains how the golden couple ended up moving to the tony enclave in the first place.

Like most residents of Oak Hill, the Langleys believe they're lucky to make their home in the leafy suburb. But as time passes, the bright future they imagine begins to tarnish. They’re not the only ones whose seemingly perfect world is anything but idyllic.

The story’s setting is almost a character in its own right. Much like the people who live there, Oak Hill’s outward appearance can be deceiving.

This passage also sheds light on the Langleys’ relationship. Chris’s charm often convinces Allison to cast aside her own feelings. In this case, she ignores her initial reluctance to leave behind city life and embrace this family-filled community.

Over the course of the story, Allison reveals her true feelings about her life in Oak Hill and what led her to leave—a move that ignites a firestorm of gossip among her neighbors. But when five-year-old Billy Barnes goes missing on his walk home from kindergarten, the focus shifts and residents fear for the safety of their families in this community that they once considered untouchable.
Visit Liz Alterman's website.

Q&A with Liz Alterman.

My Book, The Movie: The Perfect Neighborhood.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

"The Swell"

British-born Allie Reynolds is a former freestyle snowboarder who swapped her snowboard for a surfboard and moved to the Gold Coast in Australia, where she taught English as a foreign language for fifteen years. She still lives in Australia with her family. Reynolds’s short fiction has been published in women’s magazines in the UK, Australia, Sweden, and South Africa. Shiver is her debut novel.

Reynolds applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Swell, and reported the following:
From page 69:
Mikki starts climbing. Victor dances from foot to foot, poised to launch himself at the cliff the moment Ryan hits the water…

Mikki is partway up by now. I feel another burst of pride. She’s clearly been practicing because she’s better than she used to be but she’s gasping for breath and toeing everything…

Mikki raises her foot to waist height, without noticing a lower and easier foothold and uses all her strength to haul herself upward. By the time she reaches her marker, her arms are visibly shaking. Sky lets out a small cheer, but Mikki still has a long way to go before she’s safely back at my side.

I glance at the rocks below her. If she fell, what sound would it make?

A sting of a mosquito on my ankle. I slap it without taking my eyes off Mikki. She’s climbing left now. The waves are licking the bottom of the cliff below her but she’s not far enough over yet. The water’s too shallow…
On page 69, the characters are on Sorrow Bay as dusk falls. Kenna, the female protagonist, stands amongst The Tribe – the reclusive group of surfers she has just met – watching her best friend Mikki free climb a dangerous cliff face, racing against another Tribe member – one of The Tribe’s many dangerous challenges. It’s an action scene, one of many in the book, and I think it gives a fairly good idea of my work. Kenna and Mikki have been friends for years. As kids, Kenna was the fearless one and Mikki was the worrier, but the tragic drowning of Kenna’s boyfriend changed Kenna’s attitude to danger and now she’s the cautious one. She watches her friend Mikki climb the cliff with a mix of pride and terror.

Major themes in The Swell are fear and addiction, and how sports can make us stronger, but they can also destroy us. As a former athlete, I’m fascinated by top athletes, especially extreme sports athletes. As part of the research for The Swell, I looked into the reasons why people are drawn to dangerous sports. For some, it’s an outlet: an escape from a boring or high pressure job, or an unhappy family life. Some people are adrenalin junkies, addicted to danger, others feel guilt or a death wish. People who suffer from anxiety or ADHD sometimes say it’s the only time they feel calm.

I hope The Swell gives an insight into the minds of thrill-seekers and lets readers experience the thrill and tension of dangerous sports such as rock climbing and surfing from the safety of their armchair.
Visit Allie Reynolds's website.

Q&A with Allie Reynolds.

Writers Read: Allie Reynolds.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 17, 2022

"Acts of Violet"

Margarita Montimore is the author of Acts of Violet, Asleep from Day, and Oona Out of Order, a USA Today bestseller and Good Morning America Book Club pick. After receiving a BFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College, she worked for over a decade in publishing and social media before deciding to focus on the writing dream full-time.

Montimore applied the Page 69 Test to Acts of Violet and reported the following:
From page 69:
JANET LURIE: […] Up until recent years, women have made up approximately eight percent of the magic population. Between 1964 and 2014, four women and forty-eight men were given the Alcazar’s Magician of the Year Award, factoring in the husband/wife teams you mentioned. That breaks down to eight percent of the recipients being female, which is in line with the portion of the magic community they represent.

NORIKO TOMLIN: You’re kinda downplaying the tragedy of this eight percent statistic. There’s no other creative industry where women are outnumbered by men to such an appalling degree. And it’s easy to see why: the lack of mentorship and resources for girls and women, the history of ingrained misogyny...

JANET LURIE: If we’re going to take the historical route, it’s also worth mentioning witchcraft hysteria. We’re going back hundreds of years, to be sure, but considering all the women accused, persecuted, and even executed for being witches, I could see, even in more contemporary times, a woman performing stage magic getting muddled with her performing actual sorcery.
This section is from a podcast episode discussing Violet Volk’s legacy. While the Alcazar’s Magician of the Year award is fictional, the statistics are not. Women do in fact make up less than ten percent of the community of professional magicians. This is something that surprised me while doing research for Acts of Violet, and it drove me to bring as much authenticity to the world of stage magic as I could and put a bigger spotlight on the female contributions in the field, even if it had to in the context of fiction. I wish performers throughout history like Adelaide Herrmann and Dell O’Dell were well-known as Harry Houdini. I wish Violet Volk was real and as legendary as I created her in my novel.

In terms of how this passage connects to the larger themes of the novel, there is a recurring question of whether Violet had special abilities since some of her feats defied all explanation. Was she really magic? Is there such a thing as real magic? Her sister Sasha, who has been dealing with the fallout of Violet’s disappearance for nearly a decade, would vehemently say no. However, the enigma surrounding Volk and other unusual occurrences throughout the story suggests otherwise. Perhaps real magic is out there if you know where to look…
Visit Margarita Montimore's website.

The Page 69 Test: Oona Out of Order.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 15, 2022

"Death and the Conjuror"

Tom Mead is a UK crime fiction author specialising in locked-room mysteries.

He is a member of the Crime Writers’ Association, International Thriller Writers, and the Society of Authors.

Mead applied the Page 69 Test to his debut novel, Death and the Conjuror, and reported the following:
As it happens, page 69 of Death and the Conjuror is a pivotal point in the narrative. The story concerns three interlinked and seemingly impossible crimes in 1930s London; a murder, the theft of a priceless painting known as El Nacimiento, and a final equally baffling murder. On page 69 the detective character- a retired music hall magician named Joseph Spector- is discussing the second of these crimes with Inspector George Flint of Scotland Yard:
“Oh, the whole thing’s gone all right. Not a trace of painting or frame,” Spector said almost gleefully. “The window was bolted on the inside, but of course it was much too small to remove the painting anyway.”
So the Page 69 Test works very well indeed: it brings us to a point in the story where two of the main characters are in conversation, imparting several salient clues and details relating to the stolen painting.

The linking factor between each of the crimes in Death and the Conjuror is the fact that there seems to be no physical way in which the criminal could actually have perpetrated them. By the time we reach page 69, the first gruesome murder has already been committed inside a locked room, and the theft of a painting from an upstairs room of a house on the other side of London (during a cocktail party, no less) merely compounds the criminal’s apparent uncanniness. But of course, Scotland Yard has recruited Joseph Spector for a reason: his knowledge of illusion, magic and misdirection gives him a unique insight into what makes the impossible possible.
Visit Tom Mead's website.

My Book, The Movie: Death and the Conjuror.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

"What Jonah Knew"

Barbara Graham is the author of the New York Times bestseller Eye of My Heart, the national bestseller Women Who Run with the Poodles, and Camp Paradox, a memoir. Graham has written for many publications, including O, National Geographic Traveler, Time, and Vogue. Her plays have been produced Off-Broadway in New York, and at theatres around the county.

Graham applied the Page 69 Test to What Jonah Knew, her first novel, and reported the following:
On page 69 of What Jonah Knew, Helen, whose son, Henry, has been missing for months, is rushing Lucie—on the verge of giving birth—to the medical center in Albany. This, after Lucie went into labor prematurely while in Helen’s bakery. It’s quite a significant moment in the novel, though at this point the two women, who don’t know one another, have no idea that someday their lives will overlap in ways that will change them both forever.

At the top of the page, Helen is ruminating about her missing son: Maybe it was time to drag herself to the Parents of Missing Children support group that Will kept hounding her to attend, but which she thought of as the Mothers and Fathers of Perpetual Grief and so far had avoided like a flesh-eating virus.
But then Lucie interrupts Helen’s thoughts: “You know it’s going to hurt, but you never know how much until it’s happening,” Lucie said hoarsely, when the pain subsided.

“True, but as soon as you have the baby, you forget how awful it was. Mother Nature’s amnesia.” Helen glanced at Lucie. Her cheeks were blooming with bright pink splotches and sweat was raining down from her forehead and temples.
A little farther down the page, Helen floors the accelerator when Lucie’s contractions start coming faster.
“I wish my doctor would call, or my husband,” Lucie gulped. “I never thought it would happen like this, without them and… Oh God,” she howled, gripping Helen’s arm. “Big one.”
Though the reader doesn’t know at this point any better than Helen or Lucie that this scene is crucial to the unfolding narrative, it’s one of those turning points that in retrospect seems inevitable and helps to propel the rest of the book forward. As the author, it was interesting for me to take this test and see how just significant these moments between the two women were.
Visit Barbara Graham's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 11, 2022

"Half Outlaw"

Alex Temblador is the award-winning author of Secrets of the Casa Rosada. She has an essay in Living Beyond Borders: Growing Up Mexican in America and a short story in Speculative Fiction for Dreamers: A Latinx Anthology.

Temblador applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Half Outlaw, and reported the following:
On page 69 of Half Outlaw, Raqi has just awoken on the ground of Juana’s backyard. Raqi is on a Grieving Ride for her uncle, Dodge, the man who raised her after her parents died when she was four years old. Dodge was a member of the Lawless, an outlaw motorcycle club on whose behalf he ran drugs and sold guns. A Grieving Ride is a special motorcycle ride taken for all deceased members of the Lawless, one that strictly follows the deceased’s wishes. Dodge has requested that Raqi meet a number of people on the Grieving Ride, and Juana is the first. Juana is a bone-collecting woman that lives in a small town in Arizona. She used to buy drugs from Dodge and helped him to stop using drugs.

In this scene, Raqi asks Juana what happened the night before. She recalls a vivid memory of something fantastical happening with Juana and the bones of an animal that had been laid out on the ground. Raqi assumes that what she remembers was a dream. Juana is pushing Raqi to tell her what she thinks she dreamed about. Raqi says, “You looked different, and the bones came together into—” It is then that Raqi realizes that the bones that were on the ground have disappeared.

If a reader opened Half Outlaw to page 69, I think they would be very intrigued and want to know exactly what Raqi has just been through and why she went through it. However, I don’t think that the page represents the overall story, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I think readers like reading books with an engaging story that has them asking questions like, “What’s going to happen next?” Page 69 of Half Outlaw will have potential readers asking lots of questions, and if that entices them to read the book, all the better.

I would be happy if readers used the Page 69 Test with Half Outlaw. As I mentioned, page 69 dumps reader in media res (‘in the midst of things’) of a very engaging scene where Raqi is trying to figure out an experience she had the night before that is not easily explained. I’m confident that if someone read page 69, they’ll continue to read until page 70 which does offer a better insight into what the book is about.

On this page, Raqi explains that she remembers the bones coming together until they turned into a wolf. The reader might chalk this up to Raqi having an alcohol-induced dream or hallucination, but Juana gives off the vibe that there was something real to the experience. And to that effect, it does speak to how Half Outlaw is a magical realism novel.

Juana also has a few poignant lines on this page that stick out. In talking about how she uses the drugs that she bought from Dodge, Juana says, “I help people in pain, but only when they want it.” And then soon after, she tells Raqi, “Such visions can help people figure out those things in their life they don’t want to examine.”

In Half Outlaw, Raqi is on two different journeys. The cross-country motorcycle ride that she is on is sending her through her past, one that she would prefer to forget. The ride is forcing her to face things in her life she doesn’t want to examine. Raqi realizes that despite her tough exterior, she’s in pain, and she wants to figure out why. By realizing that she needs to change, to seek help, Raqi decides that her life can be so much more.
Visit Alex Temblador's website.

My Book, The Movie: Half Outlaw.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 8, 2022

"The Recruit"

Alan Drew is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Gardens of Water and Shadow Man. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. An associate professor of English at Villanova University, where he directs the creative writing program, he lives near Philadelphia with his wife and two children.

Drew applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, The Recruit, and reported the following:
From page 69:
“Any damage to the inside?” Mr. Clay said, still staring through the broken glass.

“No.” If you didn’t count his trembling wife, his infuriated daughter. Insurance only cared about property damage. America, Bao sometimes thought, only cared about property damage too.

“Well, that’s something to be thankful for, anyway,” Mr. Clay said. He always took his time, like he was typing out a script in his head he would soon read out loud.

Someone made a barking sound from the end of the alley.

“Hey,” Mr. Clay said, spinning on his heels. “Get the hell out of here.”

Bao glanced toward the street and saw three boys, two with shaved heads. The third, a strip of hair down the center of his scalp, barked again. The boys laughed, a couple by-standers did, too. He tried to memorize the boy’s faces, in case they came around the store. He didn’t know what he would do if they did, but he wanted to know who they were, wanted to be able to recognize them.

Mr. Clay started towards them. “Go. Now.”

Bao, embarrassed now, turned to sweep up a few glass shards. Then Mr. Clay was back, running his right hand through his thick hair, as though to gather himself. “360,” he said. Mr. Clay jostled loose the remaining shards of glass in the door frame and dropped them on the cement. “Three hundred and sixty dollars. You got your deductible, but that’s on me this time.”

“No,” Bao said. “We’ll pay the deductible.”

No gifts. No handouts.

“We can talk about that later,” Mr. Clay said, glancing back to the crime scene tape.

“No.” Why this insistence on charity? “We will pay.”
Hmm, I’m not sure if a browser would get an accurate sense of The Recruit from page 69, though to a degree some of the central elements in the book are set-up or hinted to on this page. Bao Phan’s family grocery has been attacked that morning by a local group of white supremacists. Bao’s a refugee from the Vietnam War—or the American War, as he would call it—and he’s recently moved to Rancho Santa Elena from Little Saigon, some twenty minutes away. Bao and his family are part of a growing Asian population in Santa Elena, a community some are chafing against in the mostly white town. Lucas Clay is Bao’s insurance agent, and Bao is perplexed as to how Lucas knows about the attack and the broken window since Bao has not called him to put in a claim. Lucas is a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD who sometimes attacks his son, Jacob Clay—who is the antagonist in the novel--when he is in the throes of a flashback to the war. Lucas is keeping a secret from Bao at this point in the novel, one that explains how Lucas knows about the attack, and one which sets in-motion a chain of events that ultimately results in a terrible murder. But three of the four central characters in the novel are absent from this scene—Detective Ben Wade, forensic medical examiner Natasha Betencourt, and the troubled teenager, Jacob Clay. Those characters, plus Bao Phan, are the heart of the novel.
Visit Alan Drew's website.

The Page 69 Test: Shadow Man.

Q&A with Alan Drew.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

"A Dress of Violet Taffeta"

Tessa Arlen is the author of the critically acclaimed Lady Montfort mystery series—Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman was a finalist for the 2016 Agatha Award Best First Novel. She is also the author of Poppy Redfern: A Woman of World War II mystery series. And the author of the historical fictions; In Royal Service to the Queen and the newly released A Dress of Violet Taffeta.

Arlen lives in the Southwest with her family and two corgis where she gardens in summer and writes in winter.

She applied the Page 69 Test to A Dress of Violet Taffeta and reported the following:
From page 69:
“Daisy Brooke is over the moon about the dress you did for her, Lucy. She hasn’t stopped talking about it to everyone! With her as a patroness I think we can say that you have arrived!.” Elinor linked arms.

Lucy’s natural caution had prevented her from being too carried away by the countess’s effusive note the day after the presentation. “Natural beauties are so easy to—"

“It should have been a success,” Mrs. Kennedy rushed in. “I don’t think Lucy had a single night’s sleep until Lady Brooke’s gown was finished.”

“I’m just grateful Lady Brooke was satisfied. Oof how we worked,” Lucy laughed, remembering the long hours she had spent with her sewing women, listening to their gossip, their stories about their families. “But she looked simply lovely in it—and she is very well connected.”

“And it would have been even more of a success if Lady Brooke had actually paid for it. The silk: yards and yards of the stuff. I hate to think of how much it cost us.” Mrs. Kennedy waved her muff in the air.
Page 69 of A Dress of Violet Taffeta, set in England at the turn of the 20th century, works pretty well because it is a prelude to a family spat between a mother and her daughters. If we turn the page things get a little more interesting as the perennially discontented Mrs. Kennedy, the volatile Elinor Glyn, and the subject of the squabble, Lucy, drop all pretense and air their grievances.

Lucy has come through a divorce—scandalous at the time—and is struggling to support herself and her five-year-old daughter by doing the only thing she knows how to do: make dresses. As the disagreement gathers force, Lucy realizes that the three of them have spent one day too many together and the tensions of the last two years are about to break. She tries to keep the peace between Elinor and Mrs. Kennedy only because it takes all her energy to keep her head above water as she tries to break into the cutthroat world of London fashion.

Mrs. Kennedy feels utterly justified in voicing her frustrations because in 1893 nice women from the upper-middle class did not divorce their husbands—even if they had run off with a pantomime dancer—neither did they go into ‘trade’ and encourage complete strangers to come to their house for dress- fittings in the dining room.

Elinor has domestic problems of her own. She is married to a man who is whipping through his fortune, at lightning speed, by renovating his country house and living the life of an American millionaire. So she is more than ready to be irritated and impatient with her mother, because it was she who worked hard to bring an influential and well-connected client to her sister. Clearly her mother knows nothing about ‘useful business contacts.’

A Dress of Violet Taffeta is a novel of real-life Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, a self-taught fashion designer, who went on to open fashion houses in London, New York and Paris at a time when the world was on the cusp of social and political change and women were determined to take their place in it.
Visit Tessa Arlen's website.

See Tessa Arlen’s top five historical novels.

Coffee with a Canine: Tessa Arlen & Daphne.

The Page 69 Test: Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman.

The Page 69 Test: Death Sits Down to Dinner.

The Page 69 Test: A Death by Any Other Name.

The Page 69 Test: Death of an Unsung Hero.

The Page 69 Test: Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders.

Q&A with Tessa Arlen (April 2020).

The Page 69 Test: Poppy Redfern and the Fatal Flyers.

Q&A with Tessa Arlen (December 2020).

The Page 69 Test: In Royal Service to the Queen.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 4, 2022

"After Everyone Else"

Leslie Hooton is the author of three novels. Her debut novel, Before Anyone Else, garnered a Zibby nomination. Her second novel, The Secret of Rainy Days, was a book club favorite. Her newly released third novel, After Everyone Else, is the sequel to Before Everyone Else.

Hooton applied the Page 69 Test to After Everyone Else and reported the following:
From page 69:
Without a warning. Charlotte's departure left my heart full and sad at the same time.... Most of us carry our own burdens without any idea of what is weighing others down.

"But you may see something that I miss," he said, and he started the footage. But then I saw it. I recognized Griffin's hoodies and his bracelets.
Turning to page 69 in After Everyone Else gives a pretty accurate description of the book. There are two distinctive passages.

First is a scene after Bailey has been arrested for the murder of her ex-husband. As she is reviewing footage of the murder scene she recognizes her husband and tries to keep that recognization from her attorney. This is a cornerstone of After Everyone Else which is about the lengths Bailey will go to in order to protect the one she loves.

The second one features Bailey and her grown daughter. You see that there is tension between the two of them which is indicative of their relationship in After Everyone Else.

I describe After Everyone Else as a "family drama, murder mystery mash-up," and this page has both.
Visit Leslie Hooton's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 2, 2022

"The Most Precious Substance on Earth"

Shashi Bhat’s fiction has won the Writers’ Trust / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize and been shortlisted for a National Magazine Award and the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Threepenny Review, The Missouri Review, The Fiddlehead, The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, subTerrain, Best Canadian Stories 2018 and 2019, and The Journey Prize Stories 24 and 30. Her debut novel, The Family Took Shape, was a finalist for the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. Bhat holds an MFA in fiction from the Johns Hopkins University. She lives in New Westminster, BC, where she is the editor-in-chief of EVENT magazine and teaches creative writing at Douglas College.

Bhat applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Most Precious Substance on Earth, and reported the following:
On page 69 of The Most Precious Substance on Earth, the main character, Nina, is helping her best friend Amy dye her hair black. (They’re going through a goth phase. It’s the ‘90s.). While Nina fluffs the other girl’s hair with a towel, the characters recall the day they first met:
“Remember the Phantom of the Opera towel?” She snickers.

On the first day of Grade 6 music class, we’d been seated together because of the extremely unlikely coincidence of us both playing the oboe…

Then Mr. Miller gave a bitter speech. Amy does an impression of it now, furrowing her brow and deepening her voice: “The music program will be dead before you graduate elementary school.” He said things about funding that we didn’t understand, and then played a video biography of John Philip Sousa while glowering behind his desk in the back corner, under a massive Phantom of the Opera poster. During the video, Amy passed me a note that said: The Phantom of the Opera poster is a bath towel. I looked up at the poster/bath towel and realized it was true, and after class we discussed the possible reasons why Mr. Miller would purchase such a bath towel, and that’s how we became friends.
If I had to choose one page to best represent this book, page 69 wouldn’t be it. I don’t think it captures the book’s tonal range, its darkness and poignancy combined with humour. However, it does illustrate a few of the book’s characteristics and topics: nostalgic use of pop culture references, absurdity, female friendship, a hint of jadedness, stories about complicated teachers and about school music programs.

The friendship between these two girls anchors the first half of the book. Both girls will experience pain and suffering, and their paths will diverge in a terrible way. I think the intimacy of one girl helping the other dye her hair, the fondness of their recollection, the entrenched and goofy nature of their inside jokes, and the innocence of the memory make what happens to them feel even more tragic. These are girls who could have been lifelines for each other but weren’t.
Visit Shashi Bhat's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 1, 2022

"The Second Husband"

Kate White is the New York Times bestselling author of sixteen novels of suspense: eight standalone psychological thrillers, including the newly released The Second Husband, and eight Bailey Weggins mysteries.

White applied the Page 69 Test to The Second Husband and reported the following:
Once again, this Test proves to be uncanny. Halfway down page 69, you find this paragraph:
She felt like a traveler who starts off to explore a foreign city, game for adventure and a look at the unknown, and accidentally ends up in a forbidding neighborhood, one ripe with a sense of imminent danger.
This segment is part of a flashback chapter, in which the protagonist, thirty-something trend forecaster Emma Hawke, is beginning to have grave doubts about Derrick, the man she’s about to marry. He’s in a stressful new job and has become increasingly unpleasant and nasty to her. She’s very tempted to call off the wedding, but since her parents have already paid a great deal of money for the reception, and they’ve booked their flights from London, she decides to go ahead, convincing herself that things will get better with Derrick over time. We eventually learn that they didn’t get better, and that Emma was miserable in the marriage--and had to fake her grief when Derrick was murdered in what appeared to be a random street crime. Just over a year later, she marries a charismatic, successful widower named Tom. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the police reopen the investigation into Derrick’s death, and it’s clear they’re viewing Emma as a suspect.

Here’s what I find so interesting about the Test. Though the highlighted section above refers simply to how Emma feels when she realizes her first husband is not who she thought he was, it’s really an incredible metaphor for what begins to happen to Emma through the rest of the book. She begins to question and fear everything around her, including her new marriage. Her entire world now feels ripe with danger.
Visit Kate White's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

The Page 69 Test: Even If It Kills Her.

The Page 69 Test: Eyes on You.

The Page 99 Test: The Gutsy Girl Handbook.

The Page 69 Test: Have You Seen Me?.

--Marshal Zeringue