Wednesday, September 1, 2021

"Feral Creatures"

Kira Jane Buxton's writing has appeared in The New York Times,, McSweeney’s, The RumpusHuffington Post, and more. Her debut novel Hollow Kingdom was an Indie Next pick, a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor, the Audie Awards, and the Washington State Book Awards, and was named a best book of 2019 by Good Housekeeping, NPR, and Book Riot. She calls the tropical utopia of Seattle home and spends her time with three cats, a dog, two crows, a charm of hummingbirds, five Steller's jays, two dark-eyed juncos, two squirrels, and a husband.

Buxton applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Feral Creatures, and reported the following:
On page 69 of Feral Creatures, our crowtagonist, S.T. is chronicling his flights to the Nightmute library in Alaska. A flightless crow, he must travel on the back of his bald eagle ally, Migisi. The purpose of these trips is to find reading material to educate and buoy the spirits of his charge, Dee. Dee is the last child on earth and S.T. the crow vows to do everything corvidly possible to keep her alive.

I’d say the Page 69 Test works very well for Feral Creatures. It certainly showcases the waggish, witty banter of S.T., our intrepid and loquacious crow. It details where the book begins as S.T. is describing his flight over the Alaskan tundra. It chronicles the specific fauna and flora S.T. spots below him (“We soared over the fiery crimson takeover of dwarf birch, over moose (Meese? Moosees? Dammit, from here on let’s just call them gangly Canadian coatracks) and lemmings and black spruces"), which is certainly indicative of a novel that extols the virtues of nature. It hints at the dilapidation and ruin of buildings in this post-apocalyptic tale and the emptiness of a world without humans who succumbed to a mysterious virus. It even hints at climate change, which continues to be a threat through the pages of Feral Creatures despite the absence of the human race (“even through the worsening storms that plagued us, whose waves pounded us like the fists of impatient gods”). S.T.’s dedication to Dee and commitment to her education is evident across the page as well as being the very impetus for these flights to the Nightmute library. At the end of page 69, S.T. admits to working hard to evolve his own reading ability for Dee’s education as well as confessing to falling in love with poetry. Very specifically, he professes his love for the verses of Emily Dickinson and page 69 ends with a Dickinson poem that S.T. completely misinterprets to be about the apocalypse and how handsome crows are!
Visit Kira Jane Buxton's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Kira Jane Buxton & Ewok.

My Book, The Movie: Hollow Kingdom.

The Page 69 Test: Hollow Kingdom.

My Book, The Movie: Feral Creatures.

Q&A with Kira Jane Buxton.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 30, 2021


Matthew FitzSimmons is the author of the bestselling Gibson Vaughn series, which includes The Short Drop and Poisonfeather. Born in Illinois and raised in London, England, he now lives in Washington, DC, where he taught English literature and theater at a private high school for over a decade.

FitzSimmons applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, Constance, and reported the following:
From page 69:
Con’s mind was reeling, and Kala’s outburst had forced her back down the porch stairs. It took her out of the shadows, and the sunshine lit up her face. Kala stared at her, mouth hanging open.

“What’s wrong with you?” Kala asked, all the fire gone from her voice.

Con didn’t know where to begin.

“Are you sick?” Kala said.


“Then what…?” She trailed off, staring hard at Con’s bare left arm. Self-consciously, Con tried to cover it with her other arm as if she’d been caught in the nude. In a way, she’d never been more naked in her life. Kala glanced up at her face, then back to the missing tattoos.

“Are you a dupe?” It was Kala’s turn to take a step back, her hand reaching blindly for the door.

Dupe was far from the cruelest slang for clones, but it still landed hard. Especially from a friend.
This was a fascinating if not entirely comfortable experiment. As an author, I like to imagine that any page in any of my books could stand on its own and hopefully cause the reader to go back and start from the beginning. That’s surely not the case, and rereading page 69 reminded me of an interview with Mick Jagger who said he hated to hear a Rolling Stones song on the radio, because he could hear all the mistakes but couldn’t fix any of them. I feel his pain in that regard.

That said, I like what page 69 says about Constance. This scene is Con’s first encounter with someone who knew her from before. All prejudice is a betrayal of the human contract, but when that prejudice comes from someone you know and consider a friend, the betrayal is all the more traumatic. Kala’s repulsion is Con’s wake-up call to what her new reality as a clone has in store for her.

When I was worldbuilding, I thought long and hard about the social repercussions of new technologies. In 1978, when Louise Joy Brown gave birth to the first baby conceived using invitro fertilization, someone, who probably thought they were being terribly clever, dubbed it a “test-tube baby.” Such a nasty, petty way to describe a child. The procedure was also opposed by organizations such as the Catholic Church and by Jerry Falwell, the leader of the “Moral Majority.” Today there are millions of children who were conceived via IVF, but it took years for that stigma to fade away.

It seemed self-evident that the introduction of human cloning would provoke profound reactions across the political and ethical spectrum. I liked this scene between Kala and Con because it portrays that reaction in personal terms, and the book is, at its heart, character driven.
Visit Matthew FitzSimmons's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 28, 2021

"Death in Castle Dark"

Death in Castle Dark is Veronica Bond's first mystery in the Murder and a Mystery series; as Julia Buckley she writes several series for Berkley Prime Crime, including the best-selling Writer's Apprentice Series.

Bond applied the Page 69 Test to Death in Castle Dark and reported the following:
Death in Castle Dark is the first in a new mystery series which pays homage to its Gothic forebears, starting with the setting of a giant castle. The building is utterly ridiculous in that it is merely a copy of a historic European castle, and it appears in the unlikely location of a rural Illinois town. The novel revolves around Nora Blake, an actor who has just lost a coveted part at a Chicago theater and is talked into auditioning for a mystery theater troupe which works out of Castle Dark. Once Nora arrives at this strange place, she finds that it is both beautiful and frightening, comforting and terrifying. When a murder happens within its walls, she begins to fear she has made a mistake.

Readers of page 69 of my Gothic-inspired novel would certainly get a sense of the tone which I have dubbed cozy-gothic. The first evidence I would offer is that the page is full of the vocabulary associated with the Gothic tradition, including surreptitious, crept, stone, marble, castle, shadowy, edifice, gray, lock, hallway, and gallery. This diction serves to emphasize either some aspect of architecture or the suspense that drives the narrative, and many of the words have an antiquated feel.

In addition to the tone, one might also get a good sense of character. Without giving spoilers, when the page begins, Nora Blake, a very new occupant of Castle Dark, has done something very impulsive that she now feels compelled to keep secret. She is assessing her chances of maintaining this secrecy by studying the castle and its various entrances, wondering how she can best be an invisible presence in the dark halls. While the overall premise is lighthearted, the page will reveal the Gothic undertone.
Visit Julia Buckley's website and follow Veronica Bond on Facebook.

Q&A with Julia Buckley.

Writers Read: Veronica Bond.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 26, 2021

"She Wouldn't Change a Thing"

Sarah Adlakha is a native of Chicago who now resides on the gulf coast of Mississippi with her husband and three daughters. Writing is her second career but her first dream job. She retired from her psychiatry practice shortly before relocating with her husband and daughters to Mississippi, where she finally put pen to paper and began telling her stories.

Adlakha applied the Page 69 Test to She Wouldn't Change a Thing, her first novel, and reported the following:
From page 69:
She pressed her lips to Maria’s forehead and, like a ghost, rose from the bed, drifted across the floor, and had almost slipped from the room before Maria bolted upright.

“Mom, wait!”

Her mother slid the door shut and retraced her footsteps back to Maria’s bed before she sank down beside her again and smoothed her hair back. “What is going on, sweetie?”

“Please don’t go,” Maria begged. “Don’t you want to spend more time together? To talk about everything that’s happened since you left?”

“I haven’t gone anywhere.” Her mother fluffed the pillow one last time and with a firm insistence assured Maria that they’d spend the following day together, and the weekend, and every moment thereafter. “I promise,” she said, tucking the covers even more tightly around Maria’s body, as if she could secure her to the bed. “I’ll be here when you wake up.”

The clock read 4:52 A.M. when Maria forced her eyes shut, but the residue of adrenaline that trickled through her veins was potent, and sleep was elusive. It wasn’t what she expected it to be, this rendezvous with her mother, but Maria couldn’t wait to share her experience with Will, to apologize for the years of doubt. His face was all she could see as she slipped away into sleep, searching for him on the other side of her dream.
What. Just. Happened? I didn’t think it would work, but page sixty-nine sums up so perfectly the confusion that follows Maria, my main character, throughout the novel. I’d say it was a pretty accurate representation of what you’ll get if you read my book.

In the above scene, Maria has just woken up in her seventeen-year-old body but thinks she’s dreaming. She is visiting with her mother who died a couple of years earlier (in Maria’s adult life), and they are sitting in her childhood bedroom. Up until this point in the book, Maria is a bit of a skeptic about dreams and spirituality, in direct contrast to her husband, so she is excited to wake up in the morning to tell him about what she experienced. From this point on in the novel, the clock starts ticking as Maria slowly learns that she will not be waking up from this dream and that she has been sent back for a very specific purpose.
Visit Sarah Adlakha's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

"A Scone of Contention"

Lucy Burdette is the author of the popular Key West Food Critic mystery series. Her alter-ego, clinical psychologist Roberta Isleib, has also published eight mysteries including the golf lover’s mystery series and the advice column mysteries.

Her books and stories have been shortlisted for Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards.

Burdette applied the Page 69 Test to A Scone of Contention, the new Key West Food Critic Mystery, and reported the following:
From page 69:
“At least this time it’s not my job to sort it out. Isn’t this supposed to be a honeymoon?” He sighed. “Finally, the ambulance came and carried her off. I hate that my sister is a wreck over it. And so of course is her friend Ainsley because it was her house and her dinner party. And her chef and her food.”

He burrowed down beneath the comforter and pulled me closer. “And apparently Mr. Gavin has a direct line to the chief inspector who promised to send someone over instantly. At that point, Vera and I were dismissed. We may all be questioned again tomorrow if it turns out that they suspect foul play. Let’s not talk about it anymore tonight, okay? I can’t believe I’m playing in a golf tournament in the morning.” He groaned. “Whose idea was it to come to Scotland anyway?”

Within seconds, his breathing grew slow and easy as he dropped off to sleep. I lay awake for much longer, puzzling over the possible poisoning incident. Had I seen anything that was off-kilter in the kitchen? I had been so distracted by Gavin’s buffoonery that I’d noticed nothing out of order at Glenda’s end of the table. I also thought about Nathan’s sister. True, she seemed very much wound up about her project. I liked her very much, but I hadn’t spent enough time with her yet to get a sense of whether she was really anxious about something she interpreted as threatening, or whether the men around her simply couldn’t handle her being emotional and having strong opinions. Either was possible.
I stretched the rules a little and added a tiny bit of page 68 since page 69 began in the middle of a paragraph. Food critic Hayley Snow and her detective husband Nathan Bransford have traveled to Scotland for their so-called honeymoon. So-called because they've included their octogenarian neighbor Miss Gloria. Plus they are staying with Nathan's sister and brother-in-law and his intimidating mother has invited herself along, too. And to make matters worse, the brother-in-law has signed Nathan up for a multi-day golf tournament while the ladies accompany his sister Vera on a work trip to visit "thin" places in Scotland. This page was written after an apparent poisoning at a fancy dinner replete with golfers and Vera's squabbling co-workers. Nathan and Hayley are finally alone together after the terrifying incident at the dinner table.

I'm pretty pleased with this page as a taste test for the novel. The reader gets an idea about what the characters are doing in Scotland, how I the writer conspired to separate Hayley and her husband (necessary because he wouldn't want her investigating and putting herself in danger,) and what the first major disaster will be. I hope it also shows both some of Hayley's inquisitive and caring character, and her relationship with her new husband. I've often heard teachers tell writers that every scene should reveal character, advance the plot, or both. Hopefully this page does both!
Read more about Lucy Burdette's books on her website, Twitter perch, and Facebook page.

The Page 69 Test: An Appetite For Murder.

The Page 69 Test: Death in Four Courses.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 23, 2021

"Let's Get Back to the Party"

Zak Salih earned his BA in English and Journalism from James Madison University, and his MA in English from the University of Virginia. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Foglifter, Epiphany, Crazyhorse, The Florida Review, The Chattahoochee Review, The Millions, Apogee Journal, Kenyon Review Online, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications. Let's Get Back to the Party is his debut novel. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Salih applied the Page 69 Test to Let's Get Back to the Party and reported the following:
My debut novel, Let’s Get Back to the Party, is strung between two wildly different narrators who speak in two wildly different voices. Page 69 belongs to Sebastian Mote, a high-school teacher in his mid-thirties. Befitting someone trapped in the past, bricking himself in with his memories and regrets, he speaks in uninterrupted chunks of text. Here is page 69 of the novel, from the first complete sentence to the last:
Arthur threw ideas out for social media pages, for a charter, for a bake sale. I watched him move effortlessly among the students, listened to him talk as if he’d been at this school his entire life. The uncanny confidence he took in his own body, his own identity, only heightened the awkwardness of the other kids in the room. It brought into relief my own high-school days, an adolescence spent hovering below the surface of the social waters, too quiet to be popular—or to be bullied. Of course, I didn’t need peers to bully me at that age. I had myself: a bully I couldn’t escape; a bully I slept with, showered with, ate meals with. A bully who was less a person and more a heavy wool blanket, thick and itchy, suppressing feelings I wanted to feel but also keeping them safe from daylight. Watching Arthur move about the room, watching the others gravitate toward him, I felt a profound sense of loss for my own boyhood. To have been out, to have been comfortable with myself as a teenager, to have talked freely about my identity. God, how that would have changed things! How much more powerful, how much less brooding, I could have been! How much more proud! Only after the meeting ended, as I watched Arthur at the head of the group leaving my trailer, did I realize no one said anything about Thomas Pitt.

A few weeks later, Dani joined me on one of my regular after-school walks around Lake Mortimer. At one point, she turned to me and, wind whipping her black hair in my face, asked if I was ready to start dating again. I asked her if she knew anything about Arthur Ayer. Had him for geometry for a week, she said. Then he transferred up to trig. He’s pretty astute. Scholarly. He’s going to go places. He’s been coming to our LGBT group meetings, I said. Pretty much taking it over from me.
It’s a happy coincidence that page 69 captures so well one of the many thematic through-lines I tried to bring to life in the novel: the incredible gaps of experience between gay men of particular generations. Sebastian came of age in the early 1990s, well before the increased social visibility and acceptance enjoyed by his student, Arthur (who “takes over” the LGBT social group Sebastian’s in charge of overseeing at his school). The result is the “profound sense of loss” for experiences Sebastian was unable to have; a sort of existential FOMO that drives so much of his journey (as well as that of his counterpart, the fiery and irate Oscar Burnham). The regret, the envy for what could have been instead of the acceptance of what is, will lead Sebastian to make stupid—but, I would argue, necessary—choices in an effort to come to terms with his own niche in the span of gay communal history.
Visit Zak Salih's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 21, 2021

"The Perfect Family"

Robyn Harding is the author of numerous books, including the international bestseller The Party, and The Swap, which was an instant #1 Globe and Mail (Toronto) and #1 Toronto Star bestseller. She has also written and executive produced an independent film. She lives in Vancouver, BC, with her family.

Harding applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Perfect Family, and reported the following:
From page 69:
My dad was in a good mood at dinner. He’d picked up pizza on his way home from wherever he’d been. I thought maybe it was a celebration for my new job, but apparently my mom just didn’t feel like cooking. The news was on TV as we ate. My parents kept up a running commentary on the stories of the day, moaning about politicians and policies while my sister and I chewed in silence. No one mentioned that tomorrow was my first shift at the Thirsty Raven. Not until the end of the meal when I excused myself.

“Will you be home for dinner tomorrow night?” Mom asked, stacking the plates.

“No. My training shift starts at four.”

“Here.” My dad handed me the pile of dirty plates. “Your first training shift.”

From anyone else, it might have been funny. From him, it was condescending and belittling. I stomped to the sink and dumped the dishes, then headed up to my room. Behind me I heard Dad say, “What? It was a joke.”
If a potential reader were to pick up The Perfect Family and turn to page 69, they would get an excellent snapshot of this novel. On page 69, the Adler family is sitting down to a family meal of takeout pizza. The parents are distracted by the news on the TV, and both kids eat in silence. Their son, Eli, stews about his new job – specifically, his parents lack of acknowledgement of it. He’s just been hired as a busboy at a nearby gastropub and his parents are less than impressed. They’d prefer Eli had an internship at a bank or a brokerage firm, something they could brag about to their friends. When the subject of the job finally comes up, Eli’s dad makes a joke of it, which feeds into the boy’s simmering resentment. As he storms up to his room, the reader can safely assume that Eli’s anger is just the beginning of problems to come.

I have tried the page 69 test with some of my other novels and it hasn’t been indicative of the overall theme, but in this case, it nails it! While this page focuses on the tensions between father and son, the overall picture is of a family keeping up appearances. They eat together, but don’t speak, don’t connect, and most of all, don’t share their secrets. And that secrecy is going to turn deadly.
Visit Robyn Harding's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Robyn Harding & Ozzie.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 19, 2021

"Phantom Heart"

Kelly Creagh is the author of the Nevermore Trilogy, Nickolas Claus and other books filled with darkness and light. Her stories often explore themes of duality, the shadow self and heroes (and villains) who find themselves battling their own psyches. Creagh's major literary influences include Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Gaston Leroux, Susan Kay, J.K. Rowling, Robin McKinley, Stephen King, C.S. Lewis, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Carroll, Libba Bray, Holly Black and too many more to name. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Theatre Arts and a Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Creagh applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Phantom Heart, and reported the following:
By page 69 of Phantom Heart, seventeen-year-old skeptic Stephanie Armand has experienced enough strangeness in her new house—a crumbling Victorian mansion named Moldavia—to begin to reexamine her disbelief in the paranormal and seek further information regarding the home’s history. This leads her to Lucas Cheney, the hot, vintage-wardrobe-wearing boy from school who seems to know something about the creepy house her father is hoping to flip. What Stephanie doesn’t bargain for when she joins Lucas at his cafeteria table is an impromptu meeting with the entire paranormal research team he happens to belong to. In this scene, Stephanie is not only pitched into the thick of a tight-knit group of ghost hunters who operate semi-professionally under the name SPOoKy (Scientific Paranormal Organization of Kentucky) but she also begins to learn more about the notorious masked entity supposedly stalking the halls of Moldavia. Though Stephanie is eager to garner as much information from Lucas and his friends as possible, she quickly finds herself caught between personalities, opinions, jokes, and banter. She might also be the target of a bit of jealousy. Also, her attraction for the strapping, suspenders-clad Lucas who claims only to be interested in her house is growing.

If readers flipped to page 69 of Phantom Heart, I think they would indeed get a good feel for the overarching story of the book, which centers around the strange presence in Stephanie’s home. Her sudden appearance at the SPOoKy lunch table sparks debate, argument, speculation, and fear surrounding this ominous figure known as “Zedok.” Stephanie’s questions also stir up information regarding the involvement of a famed celebrity medium, Rastin Shirazi, and the controversial episode of a TV show he filmed in her home with another paranormal investigator who died mysteriously after recording.

While the troubling and even outright terrifying information that Stephanie gathers from SPOoKy aligns with the unnerving experiences her six-year-old sister Charlie has been reporting, the revelations are slightly at odds with her own experience. In fact, the catalyst for Stephanie’s appearance at Lucas’s lunch table had been the previous night’s dream, in which a gorgeous young man resplendent in Victorian garb appeared to warn her about the dark entity haunting her home. The boy, who introduced himself as Erik, wants Stephanie to leave Moldavia as soon as possible. On page 69, Stephanie is granted evidence as to why Erik’s advice is sage. And yet, there’s something about the dashing British boy from her dream that suggests there’s more going on in Moldavia than just the dark influence of a malevolent spirit. Whatever this something is, it tugs at her innate sense of curiosity. All while something about Erik tugs at her deeper desires.

The reason page 69 does provide a great snapshot of the novel, is that it captures the story’s essence. Like this moment, Phantom Heart is imbued with a little bit of everything—horror, romance, humor, tragedy, and plenty of heart. Not only that, but as he does throughout the novel, my phantom lurks covertly on the page, a larger-than-life presence with secrets to spare. The truth about him is murky, hidden, and dark. Zedok insists on hiding. He is not present in this scene and yet, he is, hidden behind a mask that, in this instance, is more metaphorical, though he possesses plenty of literal ones as well. Who is this “ghost,” this “phantom” really? On page 69, that remains unclear. What does become clear, though, is Stephanie’s ironclad determination to find out.
Visit Kelly Creagh's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

"Gone for Good"

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

Schaffhausen applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Gone for Good, and reported the following:
Page 69 does not do to a lot to advance the “A” plot, which involves the effort to track down a serial killer who went dormant twenty years earlier. The amateur sleuth, Grace Harper, was part of a group calling themselves “The Grave Diggers” because they pursued cold cases that the police failed to solve. Grace set her sights on The Lovelorn Killer, and she may have figured out how to find him because she ended up dead, strangled in the same ritual fashion as the original victims. Detective Annalisa Vega is now talking to other members of the group to see what Grace might have turned up in her search.

Page 69 instead leans into the “B” plot of Annalisa’s search for home and family.
Despite her rough personal history with it, Wicker Park remained one of Annalisa’s favorite areas of the city, thanks partly to its booming restaurant business. Whatever you were hungry for, whether it was fine dining with starched napkins or a grungy bar with greasy burgers, you could find it in Wicker Park. She loved the Middle Eastern food at Sultan’s Market, fresh sushi at Enso, carnitas tacos at Big Star, and a big steaming bowl of ramen at Furious Spoon. When she did venture out on a rare date, she often suggested drinks at the Robey hotel. The art deco–style Coyote Building gave sweeping views of the city that guaranteed that the evening would rate at least a 9/10, even if the guy turned out to be a total zero.

“Chris Colburn has a nicer place than we did,” Nick remarked as they rolled up in front of his building.

“Sewer rats have a nicer place than we did,” she replied.
Annalisa’s lived in Chicago all her life, rarely venturing beyond its borders, and it’s part of what says “home” to her—even as her first love, Colin, travels the world. Now she’s working the Lovelorn case alongside her ex-husband, Nick Carelli, a reminder that she’s still single after all these years apart. She loves her city and her large, close-knit family, and she’s impatient to put down roots of her own.
Visit Joanna Schaffhausen's website.

My Book, The Movie: Gone for Good.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 16, 2021

"The Family Plot"

Megan Collins is the author of The Winter Sister and Behind the Red Door. She received her B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, and she holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University, where she was a teaching fellow. She has taught creative writing at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts and Central Connecticut State University, and she is Managing Editor of 3Elements Review. A Pushcart Prize and two-time Best of the Net nominee, her work has appeared in many print and online journals, including Compose, Linebreak, Off the Coast, Spillway, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Rattle. She lives in Connecticut.

Collins applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Family Plot, and reported the following:
On page 69 of The Family Plot, thirty-six-year-old Charlie Lighthouse barges in to a room where a detective is interviewing Charlie’s sister—the book’s narrator, twenty-six-year-old Dahlia—after the discovery that her twin brother, Andy, was murdered. Dahlia and Elijah, the detective, are conducting their interview in “the victim room,” dubbed so by the Lighthouse family because it’s where they display their newspapers and books about true crime.
The door gives way, and Charlie barrels through. His hair is tousled, face red, and he has a streak of dirt on his sweater.

“Detective Good Boy!” he says. “Sorry, I didn’t know Dolls had company.”

“He’s not company,” I say.

Charlie smirks as he heads for the shelves. Running his hands over the newspaper folds, he plucks some out, letting them fall to his feet. Soon, the floor looks carpeted in black and white.

“What are you doing?” I ask, and I can’t help the shrillness in my voice. I see flashes of victim names—JonBenét Ramsey, Christopher Byers—as he plucks and drops, plucks and drops. This isn’t how Mom taught us to handle the papers; she always warned us to be careful with the pages, make sure our hands were clean and the corners never bent. Then again, Charlie often flouted Mom’s wishes when it came to respecting victims—goofing off during Honorings, wagging his candle in the air instead of holding it solemn and straight. Andy and I giggled at it then, but now, seeing those murdered people tossed so casually to the floor, my chest feels tight.

“I’m pulling out options for the LMM,” Charlie replies.

“The LMM?” Elijah inquires.

Charlie stops, head turned over his shoulder to strike me with a mock scowl. “You didn’t tell him, Dahlia?” He spins around, rubbing his hands together. “The Lighthouse Memorial Museum. In honor of our brother and father. Tate will debut a new diorama, we’ll be—”

“A diorama of what?” Elijah interrupts.

Impatience creases Charlie’s forehead. “Andy, of course.”

Elijah gives me a curious look before returning to his notes.
I’m actually a little creeped out by how perfectly the Page 69 Test works for this book! There is so much about the story and its characters that’s shown or alluded to here, from the Lighthouse family’s strange traditions (the newspapers in the victim room; the ceremonies in which they honored victims of murder on the anniversaries of their deaths), to the kinds of people Dahlia’s siblings grew up to be: Charlie with his smirks and swagger and dark humor; Tate with her crime scene dioramas, which she exhibits on Instagram to an impressive following. The passage also hints at how Dahlia feels about Charlie throughout much of the book: appalled and distrusting.

But most apparent on this page is an introduction to the Lighthouse Memorial Museum, an event that Charlie is curating to honor the dead in their family while showcasing “artifacts” of the Lighthouse siblings’ childhood. He claims it’s a way to show the people who have always misunderstood and gossiped about them—going so far as to refer to their house as “Murder Mansion”—that the Lighthouses are, in fact, human; that their lifestyle was unusual, yes, but ultimately harmless. But the fact that Charlie throws himself into this project, almost immediately upon learning of his brother’s murder, disturbs and unsettles Dahlia, prompting her to spend less time with her family and more time figuring out what happened to her twin.
Visit Megan Collins's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 14, 2021

"You Can Never Tell"

Sarah D. Warburton lives in the mountains of Southwest Virginia. For ten years she was the lead writer for the monthly magazine UpClose. She has studied writing with Pam Houston at the Taos Writers Workshop and with Justin Cronin in Houston. Her work has appeared in the Southern Arts Journal, Women on Writing, Embark Literary Magazine, and Oyster River Pages.

Warburton's first novel, Once Two Sisters, was a Publishers Weekly pick of the week, a Crimereads recommended debut, and a PopSugar featured title.

Warburton applied the Page 69 Test to her latest novel, You Can Never Tell, and reported the following:
From page 69:
The women all exchanged a little smile that made me feel stupid, and then Rebecca said, “These women—-and Alondra, especially Alondra—-are extremely talented at getting donations.”

“But it’s a good question.” Elizabeth’s tone was a little too sharp, and Rebecca’s eyes widened in surprise.

Mina jumped in. “But the better question — more fun at least — is the theme.”

Surely it wasn’t my imagination that Elizabeth seemed on edge around Rebecca? But Mina spoke rapidly, throwing out fantastical ideas from Carnivale to a Time Traveler’s Ball.

We all were laughing at the idea of a junior-prom theme, when another woman, tall with a round face and blunt-cut bob strode purposefully through the restaurant. She dropped into the chair beside me and held out her hand. “Hi. Alondra.”

Surprised, I put my own hand into hers for a brisk shake, as she looked around the table. “Thanks for meeting downtown, ladies. I know it’s a little out of your way. Catch me up.”

Alondra sipped her iced tea, made a face, and flagged a waiter. “I’d like a water without ice or lemon, and a Whitmeyer’s single barrel neat.” Then she glanced around the table and arched an eyebrow as if to ask am I drinking alone?
On page 69 Kacy is at lunch with Elizabeth, Rachael, and Inés. From the very first line Kacy feels like an outsider. She wants to keep her past a secret, she’s been burned by a previous friend, and this is her first real foray into social life. This page definitely hits the “suburban secrets” part of the novel. Kacy’s desperate to keep her past a secret. And we get a hint that poised and polished Elizabeth has a secret too in the way she’s on edge around Rachael. Alondra’s arrival is an important moment. Alondra’s confidence is a contrast to Kacy’s current state of mind, and her profession—criminal defense attorney—will be crucial for Kacy in the future. This page in isolation gives a very different version of the book that some other pages. There’s a stark contrast between this polished society where the biggest stakes are the agonizing flush of social humiliation and the life and death danger in which Kacy will find herself. On the previous page Rachel and Inés were gossiping about an abandoned car they’d seen. They’d just learned the drivers were found murdered in the swamps. And on the following page Kacy’s fears are worsened when Alondra interrogates her. Page 69 is a bridge between these two competing tensions. From the first page of the novel, we know Kacy’s living through a “true crime” experience, but at this point she still thinks the worst things that will happen are social embarrassment and isolation.
Visit Sarah Warburton's website.

Q&A with Sarah Warburton.

Writers Read: Sarah Warburton.

My Book, The Movie: You Can Never Tell.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, August 13, 2021

"Déjà Doomed"

A physicist and computer scientist, Edward M. Lerner toiled in the vineyards of high tech for thirty years, as everything from engineer to senior vice president. Then he began writing full time.

His novels run the gamut from near-future technothrillers, like Small Miracles and Energized, to traditional SF, like the InterstellarNet series and Dark Secret. Collaborating with New York Times bestselling author Larry Niven, Lerner also wrote the Fleet of Worlds series of Ringworld companion novels. Much of Lerner's short fiction has been collected in Creative Destruction and Countdown to Armageddon / A Stranger in Paradise. His nonfiction articles on science and technology centerpiece Frontiers of Space, Time, and Thought: Essays and Stories on The Big Questions.

Lerner's 2015 novel, InterstellarNet: Enigma, won the inaugural Canopus Award for interstellar-themed fiction. His writing has also been nominated for Hugo, Locus, and Prometheus awards.

Lerner applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, Déjà Doomedand reported the following:
This page concludes a chapter, so it’s better to offer context and summarize than merely to quote.

By this point in the novel, we’ve been introduced to Russian and American groups newly at work on the Moon. A small American team has been drafted to investigate—in total secrecy—suspected ancient alien relics. On page 69, an undercover FSB agent embedded in the Russian lunar contingent struggles to understand the Americans’ sudden—and implausibly explained—excursion far from their under-construction base. And that agent very cleverly deduces the CIA must be up to something it really doesn’t want anyone else to know….

Would this page give the reader a good idea of the work?

Good? I’d like to think so. Complete? No.

Page 69 shows the spy-vs.-spy aspect of the novel—without any hint of the alien elements soon to follow. Beyond a single-word mention of “Farside” (likely cryptic out of context), nothing on the page suggests that the scene is set on the Moon, much less any of several other settings, some exotic, of the novel.

You might suspect that nothing good can come of poking around ancient alien relics—even if the novel’s title weren’t Déjà Doomed. And you’d be right.

Okay, that teaser might suggest this is a horror novel. It’s not, although there’s the almost certain likelihood of a horrible outcome. It’s most definitely science fiction. The space-based parts of the novel draw extensively from the Apollo experience, recent NASA plans for a return to the Moon, and the evolving capabilities of such private aerospace companies as SpaceX. As for any clarification of the doom part of the title, readers will thank me for not being too specific today.
Learn more about the author and his work at his website.

My Book, The Movie: Déjà Doomed.

--Marshal Zeringue