Wednesday, May 31, 2023

"The Peacock and the Sparrow"

I.S. Berry spent six years as an operations officer for the CIA, serving in wartime Baghdad and elsewhere. She has lived and worked throughout Europe and the Middle East, including two years in Bahrain during the Arab Spring. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and Haverford College. Raised in the suburbs of Washington, DC, she lives in Virginia with her husband and son.

Berry applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Peacock and the Sparrow, and reported the following:
On page 69, protagonist Shane Collins, a spy, is covertly visiting Poppy Johnson, an expat wife with whom he’s having an affair. Poppy lives in an elite gated community nestled within the Budaiya slums of Bahrain.
Surrounded by slums and prey to stray rubber bullets, Three Palms had even higher walls than Riffa Views. A gated community in the middle of Budaiya appeared odd only if you failed to realize expats could get obscene gobs of house here for the money: gargantuan villas, real marble floors, an Olympic-sized swimming pool if you were lucky. No greenery, no sidewalks for dogs and kids, daily unrest in the streets, but it was all worthwhile, they swore—the Johnsons, the Chaplain and his wife, other expat-resident faithful. Something exhilarating, I suppose, in the contrast of geographic proximity with metaphoric distance, the slums just close enough to remind Three Palms dwellers they lived in a different world.

I hated coming to Three Palms. It was a security risk, I warned Poppy Johnson time and again. Eventually the guard was bound to figure things out, spill the beans for the right sum or favor. Then there were her neighbors, rubbing their backs against the windowpanes, noticing when a man’s hair grew thinner, a woman fatter. Once discovered, I warned her, our affair would travel through expat circles faster than a refugee at night. Poppy had waved her hand dismissively. My neighbors wouldn’t know if a terrorist pulled into my driveway.
This excerpt gives a fair sense of my whole book. While not as action-based as other parts, it touches on key elements of the story.

Primarily, this passage shows the decadence of expat life abroad and its contrast with surrounding deprivation. My book is rife with contrasts and juxtapositions: wealth versus poverty; a small militarized regime versus masses of poor revolutionaries; beauty in squalor; the exhilaration of entanglement. Contrasts are at the heart of the Arab Spring.

This excerpt is also about protagonist Shane Collins’ affair with expat wife Poppy Johnson. Collins is an unremorseful philanderer who disdains fellow expats and grudgingly slogs his way through life, so this passage captures his tone well, giving an accurate glimpse of his personality and worldview, at least in the early portion of the book. (It also shows that he thinks like a spy, evaluating security risks.)

Setting was a crucial element of my story, and this excerpt, like the rest of my book, is descriptive and atmospheric. Bahrain is essentially a character in my story—it’s as complex and changing as a human—so I wrote about it as richly and fully as I would a person.

Finally, savvy readers will find a T.S. Eliot reference in this passage. Literary references are sprinkled throughout my book: Edgar Allan Poe, C.J. Koch, even Shakespeare.
Visit I.S. Berry's website.

Q&A with I.S. Berry.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 29, 2023

"The Paris Deception"

Bryn Turnbull is the internationally bestselling author of The Woman Before Wallis and The Last Grand Duchess. With a master of letters in creative writing from the University of St. Andrews, a master of professional communication from Toronto Metropolitan University and a bachelor's degree in English literature from McGill University, Turnbull focuses on finding stories of women lost within the cracks of the historical record.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Paris Deception, and reported the following:
From page 69:
“Extraordinary,” Goring breathed, and it felt to Sophie as if she’d stumbled upon an intimate moment, the Reichsmarshall caught in something private, obscene. “Simply extraordinary.” He looked up. “Richter, my dear fellow, come closer.”
Page 69 of The Paris Deception draws readers into the real-life Nazi theft of artworks from Jewish collectors and families. We see Hermann Goring – and Goring’s right-hand man, Richter – negotiate for the seizure of Vermeer’s Astronomer from the ERR, the German art commission responsible for stealing art from its rightful owners, while Rose Valland, a French curator who works within the Jeu de Paume, raises objections that are quickly overlooked.

This page does give readers a good insight into The Paris Deception because it provides the real historical context for the story that follows. The Paris Deception follows two fictional characters on a mission to safeguard looted art by replacing the originals with forgeries, and while their mission is imagined, the theft of artwork by Herman Goring and other high ranking Nazis was only too real. The scene in question illuminates the first of far too many seizures of artwork by Goring himself, who viewed himself as a connoisseur, and was inspired by the real-life memoirs of Rose Valland, who was in the room when the theft of the Vermeer occurred.

One of the most chilling aspects of the Nazi theft and destruction of artwork was the fact that many members of the Nazi top brass considered themselves to be cultured people, dedicated to the preservation of certain kinds of art and literature while destroying whatever they felt to be “ideologically impure”. Starting on page 69, Goring provides his self-serving justification for stealing artwork from Jewish collectors, and to me this is the most terrifying part of the novel: to see how high ranking Nazis were able to reason their way into dehumanizing others. It was an important inclusion, and sets the tone for the many thefts and injustices that follow.

Of course, this event also serves as the inciting incident, so to speak. Sophie, our eyes and ears within the Jeu de Paume, takes Goring’s words and actions as a challenge, and begins to steal works of art to safeguard them for their rightful owners.
Visit Bryn Turnbull's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Paris Deception.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, May 27, 2023

"Your Plantation Prom Is Not Okay"

Kelly McWilliams is a mixed-race writer. Agnes at the End of the World was a finalist for the Golden Kite Award, and Mirror Girls was a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection and Target Book Club Pick. She’s written for Time, Bustle, and Publishers Weekly among other outlets.

McWilliams applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Your Plantation Prom Is Not Okay, and reported the following:
On page 69 of my novel, my main character, Harriet Douglass, has just walked into the old plantation house next door to argue with the actress planning to turn it into an offensive prom and wedding venue. The actress is in the middle of a party, but Harriet doesn’t care. She must confront her, and tell her that what she’s doing is wrong. The scene cuts straight to the core of the story, which is about a contemporary teenaged girl’s struggle to protect a sacred historical place from grave misuse.

In the South, only a few plantation museums teach the history of human enslavement from the perspective of the enslaved. Most of them champion fine furniture and architecture, while underplaying the horrible fact of enslavement—if they bother to mention it at all. Harriet, who grew up on a museum doing the hard work of telling the truth with her professor father, finds this so abominable that she struggles to control her temper at this point in the story. It’s a fine snapshot of the novel as a whole, because Harriet’s character arc is all about learning to channel her overwhelming anger into powerful activism. It’s the very essence, in this young adult book, of her coming-of-age.

From the top of the page:
There are too many white people in this house, nibbling tiny canapés. I cannot—repeat, cannot—wig out. I struggle to relax my chest. Breathe in, out.
There’s also an interesting conversation, below that, between Claudia Hartwell—the actress-turned-wedding-planner—and her daughter Layla (who disagrees with her mother’s choices, and is allied, for now, with Harriet), about social media. When Layla objects to her mother’s pandering to the movie star who hopes to get married there soon, her mother snaps back:
“Watch your tone, young lady. Sunny’s been dreaming of her fairytale wedding since she was a little girl, and she won’t let anything ruin it. Not allergies, or internet trolls, or anything.”

Trolls? Is it too much to hope that Sunny Blake and Randy White are already getting dragged online?

“Those weren’t trolls,” Layla says heatedly. “People have every right to be mad about a movie star’s plantation wedding!”
In the end, it will be through social media, and especially TikTok, that Harriet puts the heat to Claudia Hartwell’s plans—though she doesn’t know it yet.

All in all, I have to say, the Page 69 Test performs exceptionally well for Your Plantation Prom Is Not Okay. Both the main argument of the book and its eventual solution are made reference to in one conversation!
Visit Kelly McWilliams's website.

The Page 69 Test: Agnes at the End of the World.

Q&A with Kelly McWilliams.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

"Playing It Safe"

Ashley Weaver is the Technical Services Coordinator for the Allen Parish Libraries in Louisiana. She has worked in libraries since she was 14; she was a page and then a clerk before obtaining her MLIS from Louisiana State University.

Weaver applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Playing It Safe, and reported the following:
Page 69 of Playing It Safe sees my heroine, Electra McDonnell, sharing a dance in a pub with her military intelligence handler, Major Ramsey, as they’re undercover trying to catch a band of Nazi counterfeiters during World War II.

The test does a nice job of introducing the two lead characters as well as highlighting certain elements of the book’s plot.

A reader browsing page 69 would get a good idea of the dynamic that exists between my characters. As Ellie and Major Ramsey dance, they discuss the case and what they’ve learned so far. Readers will get a glimpse of Ellie’s more sanguine outlook on things and the good-natured humor with which she views even unexpected obstacles. In contrast, the more formal, non-nonsense personality of Major Ramsey is also on display. While they are opposites in this way and have their conflicts, there is a clear sense of unified teamwork between them–and in this scene it’s especially apparent since they’re on the dancefloor, literally moving in sync.

There is also mention of a mysterious death that has occurred and the subsequent investigation Ellie and the major have been conducting. A reader opening the book to this page would have hints of the adventure–and perhaps even the danger–that Ellie and Ramsey will face over the course of the story.

In the case of Playing it Safe, the Page 69 Test does a great job of giving a sample of the tone and plot of the book!
Visit Ashley Weaver's website.

The Page 69 Test: A Most Novel Revenge.

The Page 69 Test: An Act of Villainy.

Writers Read: Ashley Weaver.

The Page 69 Test: A Dangerous Engagement.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 22, 2023

"Don't You Dare"

Jessica Hamilton was born in Australia but grew up in Canada. She has lived and worked in the Czech Republic, Taiwan, India and Japan. She studied writing at the Humber School for Writers as well as George Brown College. She lives in Ontario, Canada with her husband, son, and daughter. Her debut novel is titled What You Never Knew.

Hamilton applied the Page 69 Test to her new thriller, Don't You Dare, and reported the following:
Page 69 of Don't You Dare begins with these two sentences, "There were some rules. Or at least the guise of rules; who could actually put boundaries on what we'd created." Page 69 is the beginning of a flashback section of the novel. The novel has a dual timeline of present day and past, which is a college setting. The page outlines the dynamic that Hannah, my main protagonist, her best friend, Scarlett and other best friend, Thomas, have developed in their friendship which crosses boundaries between the platonic and the sexual. One main element to the threesome's friendship is the playing of something called The Daring Game, giving one another dares to complete. Another quote from page 69 explains this intense, risk taking dynamic, "We only wanted each other, the Daring Game, and our nights twisted together in Thomas's bed, one body of three."

If browsers were to open my book to page 69, they would get a very good idea of the whole work. What is described on page 69 about the relationship of Hannah, Scarlett and Thomas is essentially what becomes replicated in the present-day timeline—the sexual attraction, the obsession with the Daring Game and having complete disregard for others to get what they want. Page 69 provides a brief glimpse into what was the foundation of their friendship back in college and therefore what Hannah and Thomas would quickly return to when reunited sixteen years later. It also gives the reader the ominous sense that only bad things could come of the risk taking and debauchery of their threesome dynamic which is also the sense that the reader has in the present-day timeline when Hannah and Thomas pick up where they left off even though Hannah is married with two children. Don't You Dare is essentially a novel about making bad choices to escape from the things you don’t like in your life, on page 69 Hannah says, “For the first time in my life, not fitting in with the masses felt like something I’d chosen.” In college the bad choices were made in order for her to feel like she fit in somewhere, in adulthood her bad choices are made to escape a rocky marriage and the boredom of day-to-day adult life—either way, bad choices lead to bad outcomes and therein lies the heart of Don't You Dare.
Visit Jessica Hamilton's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, May 19, 2023

"Murder for Liar"

Verlin Darrow is currently a psychotherapist who lives with his psychotherapist wife in the woods near the Monterey Bay in northern California. They diagnose each other as necessary. Darrow is a former professional volleyball player (in Italy), unsuccessful country-western singer/songwriter, import store owner, and assistant guru in a small, benign spiritual organization. Before bowing to the need for higher education, a much younger Darrow ran a punch press in a sheetmetal factory, drove a taxi, worked as a night janitor, shoveled asphalt on a road crew, and installed wood flooring. He missed being blown up by Mt. St. Helens by ten minutes, survived the 1985 Mexico City earthquake (8 on the Richter scale), and (so far) has successfully weathered his own internal disasters.

Darrow applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, Murder for Liar, and reported the following:
From page 69:
“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Desdemona, but my friends call me Dizzy.”

“If I save Brenda, I’ll probably get to call you Dizzy, right?”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I was flirting. In the midst of this absurd situation, in front of virtual strangers, I was actually flirting.

“That’s right,” she answered, smiling again.

“Pardon my curiosity, but aren’t you Black anyway?” I asked. “I mean under the shoe polish or whatever.”


“Never mind.” I paused and thought a moment. “What are the other alternatives?” The wind kicked up right then, whistling in my ears. I zipped my nylon jacket and turned up the collar.

“We can’t leave her,” the man said.

“And we’re not about to call 911,” Dizzy added.

“Jail isn’t an alternative,” Zig-Zag agreed. “Brenda’s wanted as it is. She’d probably get two or three years.”

“Why? Did she blow something up? Two or three years seems rather extreme for criminal trespass.”

Everyone looked at everyone else.

“Maybe,” the large girl replied.

“Great. Is there a bomb up on the tower?”

“No,” the man answered. “We had other plans, but they’ve been scuttled.”

“So will you do it?” Dizzy asked.

Obviously, the sane choice was to drive home immediately and go back to sleep. But I found I didn’t want to do that. What I wanted to do was concoct convincing reasons to myself to stay and help. I tried for a while, but I couldn’t think of any, so I just said yes,
I think the page is representative of my writing. There's looming action, breezy dialogue, a glimpse into the head of the psychotherapist protagonist, and the passage introduces one of the novel's main characters. If someone hated this page, they probably wouldn't enjoy my book.

It's unfortunate that it isn't until a good way into the text that a reader who limits herself to this one page finds out that the characters are discussing a protester who's scared and frozen on a power tower.

I can see how some other pages would misrepresent my book. There's a major twist that leads the reader astray for a time. And Tom the protagonist goes through a transformative process in order to cope with various extraordinary events--including murders. A random page might merely represent a stage in Tom's process as opposed to defining his character. For that matter, when bizarre things happen with no context, they might mislead the reader into thinking the book is a fantasy or even a horror novel, which it is not. All is eventually explained in a satisfying denouement.

I like the page 69 concept. As a therapist, I wonder about the choice of the number 69. What would Freud say about Marshall McLuhan's psyche?
Visit Verlin Darrow's website.

Writers Read: Verlin Darrow.

My Book, The Movie: Murder for Liar.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

"Murder on Mustang Beach"

Alicia Bessette is the Edgar® Award-nominated author of the bestselling Outer Banks Bookshop mystery series. Before writing fiction, she worked as a reporter in her home state of Massachusetts, where her journalism won a first-place award from the New England Newspaper & Press Association. A pianist, published poet, and enthusiastic birdwatcher, she now loves living in coastal North Carolina with her husband, novelist Matthew Quick.

Bessette applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Murder on Mustang Beach, and reported the following:
On page 69 of Murder on Mustang Beach, book 2 in the Outer Banks Bookshop mystery series, your heroine Callie Padget visits the vacation home occupied by the relatives and friends of a murder victim. Callie is shown the last known photograph of the man who was killed. It was taken during a deep-sea fishing excursion.
I had the same sobering thought as when I saw the wedding photo. There he was, so alive, so animated—when in reality he was cold as a headstone, lying in the morgue.
She goes on to observe the quirky décor surrounding her:
… the living room was brimming with bric-a-brac. There were stacks of old books, which I definitely would have riffled through if weren’t trying to be unobtrusive. There was a crate of hammered screws. A basket of whelk shells. A doll carriage spilling over with dolls. In fact, now that I looked, well-organized junk was pretty much everywhere, next to little signs saying FREE. Apparently, not many renters had taken advantage of that offer…
Page 69 pretty well captures the vibe of the cozy mystery. While Murder on Mustang Beach is on the lighter, breezier side of crime fiction, Callie keeps in mind that murder is no laughing matter, and that its repercussions are far-reaching. Her sensitivity makes her a trustworthy sleuth.

Speaking of sensitivity, I’d say that page 69 showcases Callie’s powers of observation. She lets her senses guide her, taking in sights, sounds, smells, and so on. It’s a habit she developed during a previous stint as a newspaper reporter, and it serves her well as she tracks down killers.

Page 69 also hints at the bibliophile themes in Murder on Mustang Beach. Callie works in a small island bookshop and finds loads of inspiration within the pages of books. It’s no wonder she has to resist the urge to paw through the titles inside the rental home!

Murder on Mustang Beach is the sequel to book 1, Smile Beach Murder. Eleven months have passed. Spring is blooming as Callie’s soon-to-be boyfriend nears the end of his year-long celibacy experiment, so there’s lots of tension and energy crackling in the salty air of Cattail Island, where Callie lives, loves—and solves crimes.
Visit Alicia Bessette's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 15, 2023

"The Rules of Us"

Jennifer Nissley (she/her/hers) is the author of the queer young adult novels The Mythic Koda Rose and the newly released The Rules of Us. Although her first love is writing, she is powerfully attracted to video games, horses, and pretty much any piece of clothing or interior design with an animal on it.

She received her MFA in Fiction from Stony Brook Southampton and lives in Queens with her spouse and their pets, but sadly no horses.

Nissley applied the Page 69 Test to The Rules of Us and reported the following:
Page 69 of The Rules of Us features a pivotal conversation between the protagonist, Jillian, and her ex-boyfriend, Henry. Not only have Jillian and Henry recently both come out as gay, and broken up as a result — they’ve also just learned that their plan to remain best friends, and attend the same college together on a prestigious scholarship, is in serious jeopardy. Despite their meticulous planning, they’ve failed to meet all the scholarship criteria, and must now enroll in a summer class to demonstrate “academic well-roundedness.” Now, on page 69, the two unexpectedly find themselves at odds as they grapple with that mistake.

Nobody was more surprised than me to discover that page 69 is, in fact, quite representative of the book! At its heart, The Rules of Us is about how Jillian and Henry coming out, and breaking up, shatters their view of themselves and their relationship—platonically, romantically, and every shade in between—which leads to messy but necessary growing pains for both of them. Page 69 represents the beginnings of that tension. Readers also get to see the differences between Jillian’s and Henry’s mindsets here, and catch glimmers of how that will lead to more intense conflict later on.

Henry approaches the problem pragmatically, attempting to explain to Jillian what “academic well-roundedness” means according to the scholarship’s website and how they can correct their mistake. But Jillian is letting her fixation on the fact that they misinterpreted the criteria at all get in the way of moving forward to a solution. She’s also still reeling from the revelation that she and Henry are both queer, and nursing a not-so-very-secret infatuation on Carla, a cool girl at school. In a matter of days, the boundaries and structure she reveled in with Henry were upended. This unexpected scholarship trouble only throws her further off balance.

So, when Henry tells Jillian, “If we want to get this scholarship, we need to play by their rules,” Jillian doesn’t hear this as a plea for flexibility. Instead, she digs in harder, telling readers, “I hear what he’s saying, and I get it, but honestly, this well-roundedness requirement doesn’t feel like playing by any sort of rule at all. It feels like kissing Henry with a head full of Carla, every rule you’ve ever stuck to switched up midgame.” Perceptive readers might sense that Henry’s becoming a bit frustrated with Jillian’s rigidity in his quest to define himself beyond her. And they might also see that Jillian, for as much as she insists on knowing Henry inside and out, isn’t picking up on these clues at all.
Visit Jennifer Nissley's website.

Q&A with Jennifer Nissley.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, May 12, 2023

"A Wealth of Deception"

Trish Esden loves museums, gardens, wilderness, dogs and birds, in various order depending on the day. She lives in Northern Vermont where she deals antiques with her husband, a profession she’s been involved with since her teens. Don’t ask what her favorite type of antique is. She loves hunting down old bottles and rusty barn junk as much as she enjoys fine art and furnishings.

Esden applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, A Wealth of Deception, and reported the following:
On page 69 Vermont art and antique dealer, Edie Brown, is examining photos she’s received from a friend. They are of collages created by an elderly and reclusive outsider artist known only as Vespa.
…I set to work downloading the photos from Jimmy’s email—a total of twelve images. Besides the beach scene, there was a collage of a railroad station, reminiscent of the townscape in tone and theme. Jimmy was right. The photos I’d taken had been poor at best. Still, like my photos and unlike the images of Vespa’s work I’d seen online, Jimmy included extremely close-up shots that allowed me to view what I assumed had gotten him excited.

Identical small “V’s” were scratched into both pieces. Actually, in the case of the beach scene, there were a bunch of “V’s” disguised as stylized seagulls, some right side up and others upside down, all perfectly symmetrical. Both pieces also featured a man looking away from the viewer. I’d noticed a similar man in Anna’s townscape, standing in an alleyway near a puddle of blood. At that time, I’d guessed he was relieving himself. I wasn’t as sure about that anymore…
A Wealth of Deception is the second book in the Scandal Mountain Antiques Mystery series. Like the first book in the series—The Art of the Decoy—the mystery isn’t centered on a murder investigation but rather on an object and a crime. In this case the book’s focus is a townscape collage that has the earmarks of a Vespa piece, but the owner insists it was created by a relative who’s suffered a traumatic brain injury and does art for therapy. Determined to uncover the truth, Edie’s sets out to verify or disprove the piece’s provenance. As such, page 69 gives the reader a good look at A Wealth of Deception’s main plot, the book’s tone, and a peek at what it’ll be like for the reader to solve the mystery alongside Edie. However, I should add that Edie gets in a lot more trouble and dangerous situations than this snippet might lead a reader to believe.
Visit Trish Esden's website.

Q&A with Trish Esden.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

"The End of The Road"

Andrew Welsh-Huggins is the Shamus, Derringer, and International Thriller Writers-award-nominated author of the Andy Hayes Private Eye series, featuring a former Ohio State and Cleveland Browns quarterback turned investigator, and editor of Columbus Noir. His stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Mystery Magazine, the 2022 anthology Paranoia Blues: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Paul Simon, and other magazines and anthologies. Kirkus calls his new crime novel, The End of the Road, "A crackerjack crime yarn chockablock with miscreants and a supersonic pace.”

Welsh-Huggins applied the Page 69 Test to The End of The Road and reported the following:
Page 69 of The End of The Road is the beginning of Chapter 15, narrated from the perspective of J.P., a sheriff’s deputy introduced a few chapters earlier. In the scene, J.P. is eating lunch on a Friday afternoon at the Dutch House Inn in the small (fictional) town of Darbytown, Ohio. He’s feeling a little guilty about being at the restaurant because his wife, June— away for a few days visiting her parents—prepared an enormous sandwich for him that J.P. promptly ignored in favor of dining out. As he considers the weekend ahead, his server—Tina, a distant cousin—arrives at his table and underscores the nature of small-town gossip by immediately asking J.P. about June’s trip.

A browsing reader who opened my book to page 69 would find herself in media res without a strong sense of the plot. The novel is told from the perspective of three characters—J.P.; a young woman named Penny out to avenge her boyfriend’s shooting; and Pryor, the villain who shot and left the boyfriend for dead before disappearing. Several major developments have taken place before we meet J.P. at the restaurant, including the shooting; Penny’s anguished decision that she must go after Pryor alone, without involving the police; and hints from Pryor about the crime he’s intent on carrying out next. A few more chapters must pass before J.P.’s relationship to any of that becomes clear. That said, page 69 gives the reader some insights into J.P.’s personality and the milieu of the world he lives and works in.

The End of The Road loosely uses the structure of Homer’s Odyssey to tell the story of Penny’s own odyssey in pursuit of justice. The action rotates between her, Pryor, and J.P., with one of my goals being to gradually weave together the three characters’ stories until they are brought together in a climactic finale. Although Penny and Pryor knew each other distantly before the events of the novel begin, neither had any reason to interact with J.P. without the circumstances that ultimately force them to meet. Before that fateful moment, Penny and J.P. both embark on bildungsroman-style travels that will either make or break them. If nothing else, the brief glimpse we get of J.P. on page 69 suggests how his journey is progressing so far.
Visit Andrew Welsh-Huggins's website.

My Book, The Movie: An Empty Grave.

Q&A with Andrew Welsh-Huggins.

The Page 69 Test: An Empty Grave.

Writers Read: Andrew Welsh-Huggins.

My Book, The Movie: The End of the Road.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 8, 2023

"The Island of Lost Girls"

Alex Marwood is the pseudonym of a former journalist who has worked extensively in the British press. She is the author of the word-of-mouth sensation The Wicked Girls, which won the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original; The Killer Next Door, which won a Macavity Award for Best Mystery Novel; The Darkest Secret; and The Poison Garden. Her novels have been short-listed for numerous crime writing awards and been optioned for the screen. She lives in south London.

Marwood applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Island of Lost Girls, and reported the following:
This is page 69 of The Island of Lost Girls:
Chapter 9

She waits with the lights off, reading on her phone in the darkness on her daughter’s bed. But the long wait, and her long day at work, get the better of her and she falls asleep. And she’s woken by the overhead light coming on, and her daughter’s slurred cursing.

She sits up. Gemma stands in the doorway of her bedroom, glaring, make-up awry, dressed like a whore.

‘Fuck,’ Gemma says.

The alarm clock tells that her it’s three a.m. Gemma’s dress barely covers her crotch, and it looks as if it’s glued to her skin. It actually is, in places, for it’s damp with sweat, and sticky. She has scraped her curls up into a topknot, looks a bit like a pineapple. She looks more forty than sixteen. The skin beneath her foundation is pale, and greenish.

Ridiculous, thinks Robin. You look ridiculous.

She’s wearing diamond earrings, and smells of Diorissima.

Christ, thinks Robin, where’s she getting the money for this stuff? And where’s she hiding it? I’ve not seen anything like this dress in the laundry. Diamonds? At her age? Maybe they’re fake and I just don’t have the eye. Please, please let them be a guilt gift from her stupid dad. And those ankle-breakers she’s wobbling on have scarlet soles, and we all know what that means.
In many ways, this scene is completely isolated from the rest of the novel. The characters, although we have met them briefly in passing, are not primary characters, and this is one of a very small number of scenes that aren’t set on the fictional island of La Castellana, a dot in the Mediterranean that has undergone a swift transformation from poverty-stricken feudal outpost to billionaires’ playground with the construction of a superyacht marina and the introduction of favourable banking laws.

And yet… the chapter that this scene opens is pivotal for Robin, and for Gemma, for it is the last time they will see each other, and it explores themes that run through the whole: how much we turn our eyes away from the dangers that face girls as they progress through adolescence, how communication collapses within families when bad things happen, the darkness that always accompanies glamour. In the aftermath of a miserable divorce, her parents still at loggerheads and using her as ammunition, Gemma’s yearning for positive attention has rendered her a sitting duck for groomers. And Robin, distracted by her own unhappiness, sees only a rebellious child who has become another burden among burdens. The apocalyptic fight that ensues from this scene is what will lead them, eventually, to La Castellana.

The majority of the novel is set thirty-odd years before, and a year or so after, this scene. It follows islander Mercedes Delia as she watches her homeland corrupted, and her family destroyed, by the arrival of property developer Matthew Meade and the Yacht People who trail in his wake. Adopted as a plaything at twelve years old by Tatiana, Meade’s bored, spoiled daughter, she has been caught in their employ ever since, helpless as a fly struggling in a spider’s web. She works, now, in the Meades’ ostentatious house on the cliffs, facilitating their luxuries and awaiting her opportunity to break free.

Into this world comes Robin, riddled with guilt and desperately seeking her missing daughter, to find herself in a country whose entire population is dedicated to welcoming incomers’ money while maintaining rigid incuriosity as to what goes on in the villas that block their view of the sea. She’s got wind via the internet that her daughter might be among the crowds attending the flashy party the local Duke is throwing for his seventieth birthday, and is determined to get her back.

Gemma, meanwhile, has been travelling the world as a curated call-girl, servicing the super-young tastes of the super-rich and only vaguely aware that she qualifies, in legal terms, as one who’s been trafficked. Closeted with a group of other teenagers in the holiday home of billionaire Matthew Meade and his socialite daughter, Tatiana – a perk for their business contacts – she is beginning to realise that the glamour that first attracted her to this life has a darkness at its core that she may not survive…
Visit Alex Marwood's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, May 5, 2023

"The Magistrate"

Brian Klingborg has both a B.A. (University of California, Davis) and an M.A. (Harvard) in East Asian Studies and spent years living and working in Asia. He currently works in early childhood educational publishing and lives in New York City. Klingborg is the author of two non-fiction books on Shaolin kung fu; Kill Devil Falls; and the Lu Fei China mystery series (Thief of Souls, Wild Prey, and The Magistrate.)

Klingborg applied the Page 69 Test to The Magistrate and reported the following:
From page 69:
He turns left and enters the lounge; plush carpeting, comfortable seating, a bar in the back, karaoke stage up front. He checks ashtrays for smudges, the seating for lint, the surface of the bar counter for sticky residue. Tang runs a tight ship and any dereliction of duty by his staff will result in a heavy fine.

Next, he heads up to the second-floor west wing and inspects the bedrooms where his hostesses service clients to make sure the sheets have been changed, trash emptied, supply of condoms and lubricant and sex toys replenished. He traverses the mezzanine to the east wing, unlocks the door with his key card and walks down a hallway lined with offices on either side. A facility as grand as the Little Red Palace requires a great deal of administrative work, and already his staff is hard at work, crunching numbers, paying bills, ordering supplies.

At the far end of the hallway, opposite Tang’s personal office, is a rein- forced door leading to a control room. Only two people have a key card that will unlock this door—Tang and his head of security, a big ex-fighter nicknamed Chaiyou—“Diesel.” Tang unlocks it now and enters to find Diesel sitting at a monitor reviewing CCTV footage from the night before.

“Morning, boss,” Diesel says.

“Anything good?” Tang says.

“Pull up a chair.”

Tang lights a fresh cigarette while Diesel cues up video of the director of Heilongjiang’s largest steel manufacturer attempting to have drunken sex with one of Tang’s hostesses.

“I’d say he’s less of a steel magnate,” Tang jokes, “and more of a dofu peddler!”

In addition to the standard security measures one expects—cameras at the front and back gates, the entrances to the main residence, scattered around the grounds—there are hidden feeds in LRP’s lounge, gambling room, and bedrooms. Naturally, Tang’s guests don’t know they are being filmed—if they did, there would be hell to pay—but the cabinet lining the back of the control room is stuffed with fastidiously labeled hard drives commemorating the sexual hi- jinks of some of Harbin’s most important citizens.

Even some of Tang’s own brothers in the NBA, including Chiefs Xu and Hong, Deputy Mayor Wan, and Judge Ren, make guest appearances.
You could certainly do worse than gauging what’s going on in The Magistrate by leaping directly ahead to page 69.

The plot concerns a group of corrupt politicians in Harbin, China who are being targeted by a shadowy figure who calls himself the Magistrate. Our hero, Inspector Lu Fei, gets involved when he comes to suspect his own investigation into the sex trafficking of young women from North Korea is somehow connected to this group of crooks and their anonymous tormentor.

On page 69, we meet the de facto leader of the badly behaving politicians, a man named Tang Fuqiang, as he makes his rounds in the establishment he calls the Little Red Palace. Here, he plies the rich and powerful with whatever they fancy – women, wine, games of chance - and secretly records their bad behavior. (Tang and the Little Red Palace are based on a real case that occurred in Shanghai in just a few years ago).
Visit Brian Klingborg's website.

My Book, The Movie: Wild Prey.

Q&A with Brian Klingborg.

The Page 69 Test: Wild Prey.

Writers Read: Brian Klingborg.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

"Hotel Cuba"

Aaron Hamburger is the author of a story collection titled The View from Stalin’s Head which was awarded the Rome Prize by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and nominated for a Violet Quill Award. He has also written three novels: Faith for Beginners, nominated for a Lambda Literary Award, Nirvana Is Here, winner of a Bronze Medal from the 2019 Foreword Reviews Indies Book Awards, and Hotel Cuba.

Hamburger applied the Page 69 Test to Hotel Cuba and reported the following:
When I teach fiction, I often say that a novel is like a human body, which is composed of cells, and each cell contains enough DNA to recreate the whole. So this Page 69 Test is right up my alley!

However, page 69 of my novel is the end of a chapter, with more white space than text. To make this work, I’d have to cheat a bit and add a paragraph or two for context.
When Isidro and Pearl turn a corner, she recognizes the street. “Gracias, gracias,” she says, so grateful she’s crying. Isidro waves away her thanks, and she dashes to the workshop, pushing the door open with her shoulder. She’s here, safe.

“Howdy, Pearl,” says Mr. Steinberg, perched on a stool and making a note in the little brown book he carries with him all the time.

Howdy, she repeats to herself. Isn’t that what I said earlier?

He gestures to the gold and black turban she’d been working on. “This is quite exceptional. Such talent. And to think it’s being wasted on me.”

No talent, she thinks. I’m just copying from a model. Even a monkey can do it.

“Thank you, sir.” She steals a glance at the clock. She’s not so very late, and he’s not mad. Don’t they say in English “Time is money”? But maybe that’s only a rule in America, not in hot countries like this one. Maybe here, a little late is okay.

Mr. Steinberg is preparing to leave. He’s got more workshops to visit. “Pearl, you’ve got magic in your hands,” he says.

“Yes, sir,” she says, but it’s a lie. Magic, she thinks. No such thing. It’s just me.
Here’s how this scene fits within the book’s premise, based on my grandmother’s true story.

It’s 1922. Following the chaos of World War I and the terror of the Soviet Revolution, Pearl Kahn and her younger sister Frieda are fleeing their Russian shtetl, trying to get to America. But America is closing its doors to Jewish immigrants like them. Instead they go to of all places the sultry, hedonistic world of Prohibition-era Havana, Cuba.

Pearl, who’s a talented seamstress, has found work for herself and Frieda making hats in one of the many small workshops in Old Havana. Just before page 69, Pearl has gotten lost in Old Havana’s winding streets and fears she won’t make it back to her workshop in time to meet her boss, Mr. Steinberg, who’s waiting. Will he fire her? If so, where will she go? How will she survive?

This scene shows Pearl’s talent, that she’s capable of much more than the rote work she performs to pay her keep. Her boss recognizes her skill, though as a struggling small businessman, he can’t afford to reward her for it. We see Pearl’s cultural confusion, her struggles to adapt to her new surroundings, and her mix of self-doubt and inner steel. Perhaps most vividly, we get Pearl’s intense fear and determination to survive. In her world, there is no magic. All she can depend on is her own will.
Visit Aaron Hamburger's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 1, 2023

"No Two Persons"

Erica Bauermeister is the author of the bestselling novel The School of Essential Ingredients, Joy for Beginners, The Lost Art of Mixing, and The Scent Keeper, which was a Reese’s Book Club pick. She is also the co-author of non-fiction works, 500 Great Books by Women: A Reader’s Guide and Let’s Hear It For the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14, and the memoir, House Lessons: Renovating a Life.

Bauermeister has a PhD in literature from the University of Washington, and has taught there and at Antioch University.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, No Two Persons, and reported the following:
No Two Persons is a novel-in-stories which explores the idea that no two persons ever read the same book. We follow a single, fictional book, Theo, from its creation out into the world, where it is encountered by nine very different readers. The characters are separated by geography and time, and yet linked by their shared experience of reading—as well as in other ways they will never know. The readers include a literary agent and her assistant, an angry artist, a troubled free diver, a bookseller looking for love, a homeless teenager, a widower wishing for one last conversation with his wife, an intimacy coordinator for movies dealing with a slow point in her marriage. Theo enters each of their lives and changes them in ways that are as different as the characters themselves.

Page 69 is found in the middle of a story called The Actor. Rowan is a golden boy movie star who has fled into isolation after developing an unusual skin disease. His sister encourages him to use his beautiful voice as an audiobook narrator. He is resistant at first, but as he trains himself—listening to audiobooks while reading the print version, highlighting punctuation, figuring out how to turn physical descriptions into sound—he begins to fall into books. He becomes the characters, holding each one inside himself.
At first he, whose acting had always been so active, found the not-moving strange. His first fencing coach had always talked about stillness in motion, the inner calm within the outward movement. This was the opposite. Motion in stillness. Everything held in the voice.
In a way, The Actor is a microcosm of what I am asking readers to do with No Two Persons. Take a character into yourself. See Theo, and the world, through their eyes. Then do it again. And again. My hope is that in the end you see that difference is a beautiful thing, and reading is magic.
Learn more about the book and author at Erica Bauermeister's website.

The Page 69 Test: The School of Essential Ingredients.

The Page 69 Test: The Lost Art of Mixing.

The Page 69 Test: The Scent Keeper.

--Marshal Zeringue