The Best Books I Read in 2019

There’s no sugarcoating it: 2019 was rough.

I went another year without publishing a full-length novel, my writing was sporadic at best, and I had a hard time finding the time, energy, or focus to read. I wanted to read 40 books in 2019, but couldn’t even get to half that number. But, as always, I read my share of books I fell in love with.

NOTE: These are not necessarily the best books that came out in 2019, just the best ones I read this year.

5. Slayer by Kiersten White

Slayer

Set in the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this entry is heavy on the nostalgia — which admittedly colors much of my love for this book. Taking place after the proverbial “season 8” that unfolded in the form of Dark Horse Comics, Slayer tells of a new Chosen One, when there shouldn’t have been a Chosen One, and all that entails.

Don’t expect any cameos from our beloved Sunnydale folks (or even the Los Angeles crew), but the lore is there, the nostalgia is real, and the characters are fleshed out well enough that returning to the Buffyverse feels like slipping on one’s favorite pair of shoes.

You know the kind: they’re a bit frayed, but as comfortable as ever.

Slayer is available in hardcover, paperback, ebook and audiobook.

4. Take Off Your Pants! by Libbie Hawker

Take Off Your PantsI know, it’s weird to have a book on writing on this list — especially since by and large, I’m not a fan of books on writing. There are a few exceptions, but I often find these books incredibly boring or intimidating to the point where I don’t want to write anymore.

But this book is different. Don’t let the head-grabbing title or cover fool you; there is nothing naughty about this book. Instead, you’ll find a method of outlining palatable for the pantsers among us, an outlining method that breaks down the narrative in such a way that the story (almost) writes itself.

This book helped me finish Betrayal — and I’ve used its teachings to map out some future projects as well. If you’re a writer — especially one struggling with their work — you want this book on your shelf.

Take Off Your Pants! is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook.

3. Star Shepherd by R.R. Virdi

Star ShepherdA love letter to Firefly and Cowboy Bebop, R.R. Virdi’s first foray into the world of sci-fi and the space western is a treat. At its heart, Star Shepherd is very much like those two. Ragtag ship, lonesome good guy captain who’s maybe not as good as good guys go. Big-time, overbearing government and factions of resistance.

That familiarity, which could be a liability for others, is a warm blanket in R.R. Virdi’s capable hands, aided by memorable side characters and a willingness to (occasionally) buck expectations.

Well-written, tension-filled, and just fast-paced enough to be exciting without leaving the reader wondering what’s going on, Star Shepherd shows Virdi to be a more versatile writer than some might think, and his love for the genre is clear throughout.

Star Shepherd is available in paperback and Kindle.

2. Starbound by S.E. Anderson

StarboundS.E. Anderson’s sci-fi opus is as funny as it is epic, and the latest installment — while being a bit of a head-scratcher at times — is every bit as action-packed and fast-paced and hilarious as the ones that came before. Anderson’s latest has all of the same elements that made the previous four installments so great: heart and humor.

The two go hand-in-hand, and again, I mention how refreshing it is to see a sci-fi series that doesn’t take itself so damn seriously. Anderson’s writing prowess is again on full display, even as she weaves through the first half of the book in such a way that you might feel like you’ve missed something. But that’s by design and the beauty is, her characters feel the same way.

Starbound is excellent, every bit the equal of its predecessors, and you need it in your library.

Starbound is available in paperback and Kindle.

1. Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

WanderersChuck Wendig is quickly becoming one of those authors whose work I will devour, no matter what, and Wanderers may well be the crowning achievement of his career. This book is a little bit of everything, with very much a throw-everything-including-the-kitchen-sink quality to the story — but it works. Wendig has found a way to herd the unruly plot bunnies, and the result in a dramatic, heart-pounding, stomach-churning opus.

This is part sci-fi thriller, part dystopian epic, part contagion film, part commentary on modern political fuckery, part romance, part tripping-on-acid coming of age thing… Wanderers is all of these things and more. Wanderers may very well be Wendig’s defining work, but aside from that, it is an all-encompassing, everywhere-at-once, engrossing read. It’s the sort of book that needs to be on everyone’s shelf, regardless of taste or genre preference.

This is easily the best book I’ve read in quite so time.

Wanderers is available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook.

Honorable Mention: Dyson’s Angel by Otto Linke, In the Lurch by Beth Martin, Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig, Unclean Spirits by Chuck Wendig, Zer0es by Chuck Wendig.

The Best Books I Read in 2018

In many ways, 2018 was a struggle.

That includes my reading. I went into 2018 hoping to read 40 books. I’ve managed 28 — and frankly, I’m lucky to have even gotten that far. But I did come across some gems this year, and in this, the third year of me compiling this list, we have a first: a non-fiction entry.

NOTE: These are not the best books that came out in 2018, just the best ones I read this year.

5. Reaper at the Gates by Sabaa Tahir

Reaper at the GatesI can’t compare Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes series to the rest of the YA dystopia set of genres, but I know her novels are intense, emotional, and a blast to read. Reaper at the Gates, the third entry in the series, is no different, and I daresay it’s the best of the series to this point.

This book juggles three points of view — Elias and Laia and Helena — and what could become a jumbled mess instead takes readers on a journey between three disparate and occasionally overlapping perspectives, which only adds to the readability. A great book leaves you wanting more once the last page is turned, and Reaper at the Gates delivers in that regard.

Reaper at the Gates is available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook.

4. Death Rites by E.A. Copen

Death RitesWhat do you get when you take Harry Dresden and drop him in a mythology-rich city like New Orleans? Something a lot like Death Rites, the first book in E.A. Copen’s Lazarus Codex series. While I will go to my grave defending Judah Black (Copen’s other mystical whodunnit series), she’s found a winner in Laz.

Copen shows a deft touch not only when it comes to worldbuilding and creating memorable side characters, she’s a master at making Laz a sarcastic little son of a bitch who’s also the sort of lovable loser you can’t help but root for. In a genre that’s almost overflowing, Copen has found a way to stand out, and I put the Lazarus Codex on the same level as R.R. Virdi’s Grave Report books.

Death Rites is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook.

3. Divided by Madeline Dyer

DividedWhile I enjoyed Fragmented, the second book in Madeline Dyer’s dystopia Untamed series, it lacked something that made me fall in love with the first book. But with book three, Divided, Dyer has fully returned to form, and what unfolds is a gripping, intense, at-times uncomfortable read.

Yet you’ll keep turning the pages. You’ll have to know what happens next. Even knowing there’s another book to go before everything wraps up, the journey is such a thrilling ride that you can’t help but want more. The first book, Untamed, laid out the stakes for Seven, but Divided is the first time I could actually feel them. Divided was so good that I want to read Destroyed *now.*

Divided is available in paperback and ebook.

2. Racing to the Finish by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan McGee

Racing to the FinishFor the first time, a non-fiction book makes this list, and for good reason. Retired NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. paired with ESPN’s Ryan McGee to offer a first-hand account of Earnhardt’s final few years behind the wheel, his battle with concussions, and why that battle ultimately led to his decision to step out of the car.

The intimate first-hand account is hard to read at times, and the revelations contained should put any racing fan’s mind at ease as to why Earnhardt retired. Also, this book was written to help others dealing with head injuries and their aftereffects — and if just one person reads this book and seeks the help they need, then this book is an unmitigated success.

Racing to the Finish is available in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook.

1. Celestial by S.E. Anderson

CelestialJust when I think I can’t love S.E. Anderson’s Starstruck series any more, she puts out a new release. Celestial, book four in the series, is every bit as lighthearted and funny as its predecessors — but for the first time, the stakes feel as heavy as they should. The stark reality of just how out of her element Sally really is slaps you in the face, and you can’t help but keep going.

Anderson strikes a delicate balance in this book, showing how dire everything is without Celestial falling into the same taking-itself-too-seriously trap that so many others in the sci-fi genre do. There are still laughs, but there are also thrills, chills, and a few tears. And with how Celestial ends, the next installment can’t come soon enough.

Celestial is available in paperback and ebook.

Honorable Mention: Console Wars by Blake J. Harris, Words for Pictures by Brian Michael Bendis, Elevation by Stephen King, Traveler by S.E. Anderson, Miracles Not Included by C.A. King, Fortunate Son by E.A. Copen, Leading the Way by Steve Letarte and Nate Ryan

The Best Books I Read in 2017

Well… 2017 was a year.

Not that it was all bad. I got a new full-time job that gave me more financial freedom and the work-life balance I had been looking for. I published two novels — the lifelong labor in Notna and Behind the Mask, the latest in Jill Andersen’s saga. And I read some really good books.

As with last year, this list is not of the best books released in 2017, but the best books I read in 2017.

5. Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

stalking-jack-the-ripperMurder mysteries are a dime a dozen (says the guy who writes his own), to the point where it’s the twist on the genre that can make or break a book. In the case of Kerri Maniscalco’s debut, Stalking Jack the Ripper, the genre is tossed all the way back to 19th-century London, and we’re introduced to a teenage girl who is studying forensics.

That twist brings with it some societal commentary (impossible not to, given what was expected of women and girls back then). Fortunately, Maniscalco doesn’t preach to us; instead, she takes us on a journey where Audrey Rose uses her wit and impressive intellect to track one of history’s most notorious killers. A sci-fi twist at the end punctuates the thriller nicely, and the historic backdrop is almost a character in an of itself.

Stalking Jack the Ripper is an exciting, intense, and surprisingly emotional tale — one that will likely be pigeonholed as YA because of its teenage protagonist. But this is a fantastic book for readers of (almost) any age, and it sets the stage nicely for future adventures (including Hunting Prince Dracula, which came out this past September).

Stalking Jack the Ripper is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

4. Beasts of Babylon by E.A. Copen

Beasts of BabylonI’m already a huge fan of E.A. Copen — her Judah Black series is some of the best mystery/urban fantasy I’ve read in recent years, and she proved she can go dark with the short Kiss of Vengeance. But with Beasts of Babylon, Copen merges the traditional western with the horror genre, and the result is her finest work to date.

Anastasia Throne is dead. Only she’s not. She’s also one hell of a gunslinger, and she’s got a tragic past that still clings to her even as she trudges through what now passes for her life. Beasts of Babylon is dripping with tension, the rare horror novel I’ve read that manages to scare without relying on visuals.

Heroes are not as virtuous as they seem, and the villains aren’t quite the monsters we might wish they were. Copen has introduced us to a vibrant, disturbing world, one I can’t wait to revisit. The monsters and the fights are matched only by deep character moments that give Beasts of Babylon more depth than one might expect at first glance.

A true must-read.

Beasts of Babylon is available in paperback and ebook.

3. Starstruck by S.E. Anderson

StarstruckScience Fiction has a problem. It takes itself too damn seriously.

Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with gritty, end-of-the-world, dystopian sci-fi. There’s a place for it. But S.E. Anderson has given us a sci-fi romp where the stakes are high, but laughs are still to be had. Sally Webber has her admittedly dreary life turned upside down, and she finds herself knee-deep in aliens and a life change that proves too good to be true.

Along the way, Sally, Zander, and Blayde set the stage for future adventures. Make no mistake: this is not just a frolicking journey through the cosmos. The stakes are high, the risks are real, and when appropriate, the violence is quite bloody. The humor is not here to detract from the overall narrative; instead, Anderson uses that humor to defuse the tension, to remind us that above all, science fiction should be fun.

And fun Starstruck is. The pages fly by, not just because of Sally, because of Anderson’s deft prose, and because of the action, but because all of those elements combine to create one of the most engrossing, most complete books I’ve ever read in the genre. If you’re a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fan, or you’re into Guardians of the Galaxy, this book might just be for you.

Starstruck is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

2. Grave Dealings by R.R. Virdi

Grave DealingsThe 2016 list should’ve made it clear how much I enjoy R.R. Virdi’s writing. Witty, intense, consuming… and the Vincent Graves books are perhaps the best example of his grip on the craft. Grave Dealings, the third installment in the series, takes what made the first two entries great and builds on it.

No, literally — Grave Dealings is twice the size of the first two installments. Graves has yet another murder to solve, only this time, he’s faced with distractions that threaten his safety and sanity… he faces uncomfortable truths he hadn’t confronted in the first two books… and for the first time, the carrot of potential long-term answers are dangled in front of him.

You don’t have to read Dangerous Ways in order to follow along with Vincent Graves, but having done so makes reading Dealings more satisfying. Virdi has not only crafted memorable, easy-to-root-for characters, but we’re watching him construct and round out a vibrant world that’s almost a character on its own. If you’re an urban fantasy reader, and R.R. Virdi’s not on your shelf, you’re missing out.

Grave Dealings is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

1. Floor 21: Judgement by Jason Luthor

Floor 21 JudgementHorror doesn’t get better than this.

Jason Luthor’s brand of horror — on full display again in his third novel, Floor 21: Judgement — doesn’t rely on jump-scares or moments that make you practically soil yourself in fear. Rather, he prefers to toss you into a room where the tension pushes down on your shoulders, the shadows are always just out of the corner of your eye, and the walls always seem like they’re closing in.

There is no rest from the tension in Judgement, the end of the trilogy that also leaves plenty of bread crumbs for future installments. One of Luthor’s strengths is developing a vibrant, all-encompassing world — all housed within one building. The characters continue to grow and develop; not just Jackie, but supporting characters who were but bit players in previous installments.

The simple truth is this: Floor 21: Judgement is the best book I read in 2017, and if you’re new to Luthor’s work, then I suggest you devour all three installments. Few indie authors can weave a tale as expertly as Luthor, with a delicate balance of action, character, and heart. Judgement has all of it in spades.

Floor 21: Judgement is available on Kindle.

Honorable Mention: The Seekers by Cait Ashwood, Black Fall by Andrew Mayne, Alienation by S.E. Anderson, Playing With Fire by E.A. Copen, Steele-Faced by Alex P. Berg, The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig, Finding Home Again by Mary Head