The Best Books I Read in 2020

Well, 2020 was… a year.

We all know the dumpster fire the last 366 days have been, and we know the road ahead heading into 2021 will be rocky. But there are signs for optimism, and there are even a few things from 2020 on which I can look back fondly — for instance, I published Betrayal (Jill Andersen #5) and got the ball rolling on The Art of Reading, which will be out on Jan. 12.

I also read a lot of really good books in 2020 — and that’s not including two books I’m currently in the process of reading, but won’t finish before the giant ball drops at Times Square.

NOTE: These are not necessarily the best books that came out in 2020, just the best ones I read this year.

5. Earthstuck by S.E. Anderson

Six books in, S.E. Anderson’s Starstruck series is as funny and action-packed as ever. And yet Anderson still manages to bring something new to each installment, something that adds a new dimension to the series without negating what came before. The result is a world that is as vibrant as Sally, Zander, and Blayde — a world that is, in many ways, a character itself.

Which is impressive, given how many worlds they visit.

Earthstuck is no different, even though there’s a sizeable chunk that takes place decidedly not on Earth. A murder mystery element is the shiny new toy on the sixth installment in the series, which has a decided weight to it after the events of Starbound. But that new weight doesn’t rob Anderson’s writing of its wit or its light, airy quality, and this entry holds up just as well as the five that came before it.

There are weighty questions this time around, far weightier than before. But Sally is still Sally, a key distinction even as she and those around her are irrevocably changed. Running gags lead to plot twists, action sequences are familiar yet new, and as is usually the case in stories like this, moments of calm are short-lived and portend even worse things to come.

But this book will still make you laugh. You still find yourself looking forward to the next journey, even as the companions are who they’ve always been. Earthstuck is very much the result of the five books that came before it, and it hints of much, much more to come, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it can’t stand on its own, because it absolutely can.

Earthstuck is available in paperback and ebook.

4. Lightning Wears a Red Cape by Errick Nunnally

With books like Lightning Wears a Red Cape, it’s easy to see why the superhero genre is one of the book market’s fastest-growing subsets. Errick Nunnally simultaneously manages to write a love letter to the genre, while also spinning a fast-paced, intense, intriguing tale. I’m not usually one to re-read books (who has the time?), but I’ll probably be giving Lightning another read, both because of how good it is and to pick up on details I probably missed along the way.

Because this book is dense. The good kind, that gives the material on the page depth without suffocating the reader. This book has an ensemble cast in the truest sense of the term; I’m hard-pressed to even pick out a protagonist, which works here where it might not in other books (even as I notice I’m no longer alone in writing cops who are also superheroes).

Superheroes in prose fiction can be tricky to pull off, since prose doesn’t have the visual cues available to TV, movies, and graphic novels. But Nunnally is up to the task, writing action-packed fight scenes and ensuring each characters’ powers practically leap off the page. That’s not easy to do, but he has accomplished that and more with Lightning.

This book is a worthy addition to the superhero genre, and the sort of book anyone who likes fast-paced, action-packed stories would do well to have on their shelf.

Lightning Wears a Red Cape is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

3. Destroyed by Madeline Dyer

I suppose with a title like Destroyed, an unhappy ending was inevitable.

And that’s all I’ll say about the ending, because to spoil the ending would be to deprive you of the satisfying yet heart-wrenching conclusion to one of the best, most intense, most well-written dystopian series I’ve read. Madeline Dyer is at her best in Destroyed, the fourth and final installment in the Seven Sarr series. The result is a fast-paced, action-packed, intellectually-fraught read where neither the characters nor the reader can relax and take a breath.

The pacing issues from previous installments are a thing of the past. Seven is at her strongest now, but she’s also stretched beyond her limits, she constantly questions herself… as Chosen One tales go, I feel like this series does a great job of balancing the certainty of action with the uncertainty of being human.

Being “the Chosen One” is a heady responsibility, one I feel most in this genre forget. Dyer makes sure her protagonist never feels relief from the weight that responsibility places on her. And with such a worthy antagonist in Raleigh, who is at his most devious (if not his most violent), and this is the satisfying build-up and payoff a series finale should be.

I did have to read the ending twice, because I’m so conditioned to expect a zig that any zag, of any degree, hits at first with a sense of “…Huh?” But it fits perfectly with Destroyed, and it fits perfectly with the series as a whole. The TV show Angel‘s finale was controversial in some circles because of how different it was, but it fit the overall philosophy of the show.

Such is also the case with Destroyed.

Dyer has become an author whose work I will support no matter what genre she tackles, and given how deft she showed her skills in Destroyed, I eagerly await her next narrative venture.

Destroyed is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

2. What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner

In a lot of ways, this book is a much-needed balm for the soul of anyone who’s had to endure the past four years of nonsense in America. Rather and Kirschner paint the picture of how America should be, how the country could best live the ideals in which it professes to represent and believe — but we have seen otherwise far too many times over the past decade or so.

Rather, once one of America’s most reverent and trusted voices in journalism as a reporter and anchor for CBS News, has seen America at its best and at its worst over his nearly nine decades, and he brings that perspective and those experiences to every page of this collection of essays. It’s not quite prose and idealism on par with Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing or The Newsroom, but it’s impossible to read this book and not feel just a little bit better about America.

This book is non-partisan, but if it reads as a screed from the left — well, that says far more about the state of the American political right than anything. If America is going to find its way back to being what it can be, then What Unites Us provides a pretty solid blueprint.

And as someone who grew up on Rather’s reporting, I’m grateful we still have his voice.

What Unites Us is available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook.

1. Aix Marks the Spot by S.E. Anderson

Already a massive fan of S.E. Anderson’s work (both as an author and a cover artist), I eagerly awaited Aix Marks the Spot, so much so that I didn’t even really bother reading the blurb. Anderson’s one of my read-no-matter-what authors, so I dove into this one without much in the way of preconceived notions.

Well… not only was this book Anderson’s finest work yet, it was emotional and charming and funny and heartfelt in ways I didn’t know I needed. While I don’t share much in common with most of the characters in Aix, the drama and the heart behind all of it is evident on every page, and the result is one of the most visceral and emotionally satisfying books I’ve read in a long, long time.

While Aix is mostly charming and light — this is, more than anything, a love letter to Provence, France — there is a dark undercurrent to it, one Jamie hints at throughout before the proverbial chips are finally laid bare near the conclusion. They inform Jamie’s every thought and feeling throughout, even if only in hindsight, and they ground Aix in far more depth than I anticipated.

Anderson is at her best here as she takes readers on a tour of southern France. Her prose is luminary and evocative, and it’s easy to get so lost in these pages… it’s hard for me to get so sucked into a book I finish half the thing in one sitting (that’s a me issue, not the books I read), but Aix sucked me in unlike anything I’ve read in years. I mostly find myself drawn to monsters and magic and the end of the world, but this quirky, charming coming-of-age story is going to have a permanent place on my shelf.

This book has heart in spades, and it is equal parts charming and adorable and funny (this is S.E. Anderson, after all) and, perhaps most importantly, emotionally heavy. I don’t mean that in the utterly depressing sense, but in the sense that you feel Jamie’s plight. You feel what she’s been through, what those around her have been through, and how that informs every single page.

You will laugh. You will cry (I know I did). You will scream at certain characters in exasperation and you will wish you could hug them when they shatter. Aix is S.E. Anderson at her absolute best, even though it is night and day from anything else she’s written before. There’s even a nice plot twist.

I’m hard-pressed to think any other book I read this year will be so engrossing, so emotional, and so fulfilling. I don’t care if this is your cup of tea or not; you need Aix Marks the Spot on your shelf or your e-reader.

Aix Marks the Spot is available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook.

Honorable Mention: A Superhero’s Duty by Patricia Gilliam, Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis, Burden of Solace by Richard L. Wright, Someday I’ll be Redeemed by Kelly Blanchard, Order of the Lily by Cait Ashwood, Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American by Andrew L. Seidel, Storykiller by Kelly Thompson

THE ART OF READING Cover Reveal & Release Date

My first non-fiction release, The Art of Reading: How Reading Can Help You Become a Better, More Productive Writer, will be out on all major e-book outlets on Tuesday, Jan. 12!

Sometimes, it feels like everyone’s got some advice for how to write.

But what about how to read?

A full library can be a writer’s best friend, and reading plays a far bigger role in the creative process and a writer’s productivity than you might think. Stephen King, international bestseller and uber-productive wordsmith, said it best in his book On Writing, when he argued for the importance of reading, and The Art of Reading dives deeper into just why that is.

J.D. Cunegan (Bounty, Notna) examines how a healthy reading habit can feed and sustain a productive and successful life as a writer. The Art of Reading will not tell you how to write, but it will show you how reading can help you improve as a writer.

After all, most of us fell in love with creating because of something we read, right?

Pre-order The Art of Reading on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Apple iBooks, and Smashwords. A paperback version will also be available on release day.

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books and art, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Find Me on Smashwords’ End-of-Year Sale

Starting today, all of my work is on sale at Smashwords, 50 percent off now through Jan. 1, 2021!

Bounty, book one in the Jill Andersen series, will be free on the site for the duration of the sale, and the rest of my catalogue will be half-price during that same timeframe. That means Blood Ties, Jill Andersen #2, will be just 99 cents — as will the short story collection Legends of the Gem.

The rest of my works — Behind the Badge, Behind the Mask, Betrayal and Notna — will be $1.49.

Don’t miss out on this sale! Whether you’re looking to stock up on new reads for yourself or you’re trying to find something for the book lover in your life, Smashwords is the place to be going into the New Year.

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books and art, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Upcoming Projects Galore!

Creatively, 2020 wasn’t a total loss for me. I published Betrayal, the fifth book in the Jill Andersen series, and I’ve got two short stories in consideration for inclusion in various anthologies. But more than that, I’ve got a road map for some other projects, a snapshot–so to speak–of what my creative world is going to look like over the next two years.

So for better or worse, consider the below passages to be official announcements of future works.

The Art of Reading: How Reading Can Help You Become a Better, More Productive Writer
I’ve argued before how important I think it is for writers to also be voracious readers–I’ve written blog posts and recorded YouTube videos about it–but now the topic will be the subject for my first (and probably only) non-fiction book. The Art of Reading will examine the ways in which reading can help writers in their craft, from inspiration and motivation to genre conventions to the unique and specific ways reading fiction and non-fiction can help a writer’s productivity and quality of work.

The Art of Reading will release in January 2021.

Operation: Hellion series
Several months ago, there was an attack on our nation’s capital.

The mad Underworld king, Seraphus, summoned a demon from under the Earth and watched as the creature rained death and destruction on Washington, DC–even tearing through the Capitol and killing three members of Congress. A small group of unknown heroes defeated the creature and eventually saved the world, but the damage had already been done. A message had already been delivered: Monsters were real and America wasn’t ready.

Newly-elected President Amanda Crawford, in conjunction with her predecessor and disgraced former Army scientist Dr. Sebastian Lo, has an idea for how to deal with the growing supernatural threat: a clandestine task force called Operation: Hellion. Dr. Lo supplies the technology, while President Crawford’s various contacts have allowed her to recruit some of the world’s sharpest supernatural minds and strongest demon fighters.

Borrowing from both Notna and the Jill Andersen series, the Operation: Hellion series will act as a cross between The West Wing and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The Operation: Hellion series will debut in late 2021, with the first book, Land of the Free.

Not the final cover.

Summertime, Assassins, and Other Skullduggeries
Summer Rhoades kills people for a living.

Except when she doesn’t. Which usually isn’t a problem, unless she promises she will and then doesn’t follow through. Assassins command top dollar, so to take a job and not follow through with it is almost unheard of. But Summer’s target is not who her employer told her, and Summer makes a judgment call.

Which is fine and dandy, until her employer comes after her.

So now Summer is on the run, during the time of year she refuses to work. Several of her former colleagues (if you can call them that) are after her, but one assassin in particular is especially eager to have Summer in the crosshairs.

Summer has 30 days to survive the price on her head. Where she goes from there…even she doesn’t know.

Some of you may recognize this as my 2020 NaNoWriMo project–the one I’ve already knocked out 73,000 words on…only to discover I’m not even halfway through the story yet. Chances are, Summertime, Assassins, and Other Skullduggeries will be broken up into a trilogy–the sort where I write the entire thing before publishing any of it.

The Summertime trilogy is currently set to release in the summer of 2021.

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books and art, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Vote for BETRAYAL in Superhero-Fiction’s 2020 Superhero Cover Contest!

Betrayal is in the running for Cover of the Year in Superhero Fiction’s 2020 Superhero Cover Contest! Every superhero release from 2020 is in the running, and the winner will be featured on superhero-fiction.com‘s homepage for the entire 2021 calendar year.

The contest runs through Thursday, Dec. 31.

Click here to cast your vote!

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books and art, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Black Friday, Superhero Style

Through Tuesday, Dec. 1, the fine folks over at Superhero Fiction are hosting a 99-cent Black Friday sale! A grand total of 35 awesome superhero books on sale for less than a dollar. There’s no better time to load up your e-reader with superhero goodness, or to grab the next great read for the superhero lover in your life.

(Full disclosure: yes, Bounty is part of this sale. But there are lots of other kickass books too.)

Click here to see what’s out there, just waiting for you!

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books and art, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Introducing the J.D. Cunegan YouTube Channel!

You asked for it (okay, you didn’t, but still!)…

As of today, I now have a YouTube channel! The official J.D. Cunegan YouTube channel will feature several different types of videos, including — but not limited to — readings from my various works, video essays on writing and pop culture, book reviews, and more.

The first video on my channel will be a chapter reading from my urban fantasy novel Notna.

Expect at least one post a week.

So check out the first video, and if you like what you see, click the Like button and subscribe so you can be notified whenever I post a new video.

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books and art, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard, scratching a pencil over a piece of paper, or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Join Me on the Fantasy/Sci-Fi Focus End-of-Summer Event

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On Friday, Aug. 28, I will be a participant in the Facebook group Fantasy/Sci-Fi Focus end-of-summer event, where several authors will be in the group reading from their published works, hosting Q-and-A’s, and interacting with readers.

I’m scheduled to go live at 8 p.m. EST.

Join the group here.

 

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books and art, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard, scratching a pencil over a piece of paper, or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitterGoodreads. and DeviantArt.

NEWS: My Books Now Available on Smashwords!

HAMPTON, Va., Aug. 14, 2020 — My six novels — Bounty, Blood Ties, Behind the Badge, Behind the Mask, Betrayal, and Notna — as well as the short story collection Legends of the Gem are now available for digital purchase through Smashwords.Bounty Final

Smashwords users can now buy my books directly on that platform, for the same price as on other outlets. That means Bounty remains just 99 cents, with Blood Ties and Legends of the Gem each coming in at $1.99.

All other books are currently $2.99.

With the new channel, all of my books are currently available for purchase on Amazon (Kindle and paperback), BN.com (Nook and paperback), Kobo, Apple iBooks, Scribd, Smashwords, 24 Symbols, Baker & Taylor, and Vivlio. All future books will also be available on all these platforms.

Click here to view my work and my profile on Smashwords.

Readers can also purchase signed paperbacks directly from me.

 

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books and art, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard, scratching a pencil over a piece of paper, or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitterGoodreads. and DeviantArt.

The One Thing (I Think) Every Writer Should Do

My current read is Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, and in reading it, I got to thinking about the first King book I ever read cover-to-cover: On Writing.

I’m generally not one for books on writing. There are two exceptions — the Bounty Finalaforementioned King tome and Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story (honorable mention to Libbie Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants!, though I don’t consider that a true “book on writing”) — but for the most part, books on the craft of writing, or how to write, either leave me incredibly bored or intimidated to the point where I no longer want to write.

Suffice it to say, you’ll likely never see me write such a book. The fact is, writing is such an individual vocation that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to it. Sure, there are conventions of spelling and grammar and the like, but the craft of writing? The art of it? Giving advice on that is often a fool’s errand.

Fact is, writing advice is rarely worth the paper (or screen) it’s printed on. Not because whoever shares it is wrong, but because no one thing works for everyone. A tenet of writing I swear by might be the completely wrong approach for someone else, and vice versa. There are so many different paths to writing that to tell us to adhere to one over all others doesn’t work.

But there is one thing I will cling to until the day I die, and every time I get asked what writers need to do (aside from actually writing) to improve, I say the same thing every time:

Read.

I’m not the first to argue this point — King himself extols the virtues of reading in On Writing — but it stands to reason. The only two things a writer can do to improve in the craft is to practice it and study it. The act of writing is, obviously, the practice… which makes reading the study.

I’m not saying you should read solely for the purpose of studying. That’s too much like school, and it was the books I was forced to read in school that robbed me of my love of reading for so long — and I’m sure I’m not alone in that (I couldn’t tell you I enjoyed any of the books I was made to read in middle and high school). Rather, I think the studying inherent in reading, for a writer, is subconscious. You don’t realize you’re doing it while you’re doing it, but the results will show up on your page. You’re still reading for enjoyment, but you’re also adding tools to your box.

Reading, in all its forms, can shape you as a writer. Which is why I believe one should never limit reading to just one genre. You should absolutely read books similar to whatever you’re writing, but also read stories that are nothing like what you’re writing. Read every genre that even remotely interests you… and maybe give a genre you have no interest in at all a try.

Read fiction. Read non-fiction. Autobiographies. Blog posts. Magazines and newspapers are also things you should be reading (yes, the latter still exists). Even if you’re reading these things on a digital device instead of in a paper publication, it still counts.

You’ll expand your vocabulary. You’ll expose yourself to different modes of storytelling, different writing styles. Even something you didn’t enjoy can teach you things about your own writing. Broaden your horizons as a reader, commit to reading at least a little bit each day, and you will see the results without even truly realizing it.

It’s no coincidence that every time I’m struggling as a writer, I’ve also hit a reading snag. The more I read, the better and more productive I am as a writer.

This is why I carve out time each day to read; even if it’s only a chapter, I make sure to read something each day. Not just because I enjoy reading, but because I know it’s helping me every time I sit at the keyboard.

In short, if you’re a writer who doesn’t have shelves teeming with books and/or an e-reader full of things to read, then you’re depriving yourself of a surefire way to both improve and become more productive as a writer.

Besides, didn’t you fall in love with storytelling because of someone else’s stories?

 

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books and art, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard, scratching a pencil over a piece of paper, or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitterGoodreads. and DeviantArt.