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

BOOK REVIEWS: Part VI

Lots of books in this batch, including strong entries from Jason Luthor, Andrew Mayne, and Christy King.

Floor 21: Descent by Jason Luthor

Floor 21 DescentI thoroughly enjoyed Floor 21, so much so that I had extraordinarily high expectations of Descent. Fortunately, author Jason Luthor not only met those expectations, but even surpassed them. The result is a fantastic sequel that is equal parts intense, terrifying, and adrenaline-packed.

When I read the first book, I considered this sort of a dystopian type of fiction. But this book really hammers home the horror aspect of things, as Jackie and her crew finally come face-to-face with not just the Creep, but scores of other threats that are, at times, downright unsettling. Which highlights one of the many highlights of Luthor as a writer: he has done a tremendous job of world-building in such a limited setting. I mean, everyone’s confined to one building, yet it’s clear that Luthor is building a world and mythology that is all-encompassing. The macro and micro merge together perfectly in Descent, resulting in a wholy satisfying read.

Jackie grows tremendously in this book, and I love how true to her voice Luthor remains. I’ve read far too many books written in the first person that eventually no longer sound like the protagonist telling the tale, but Jackie is Jackie throughout, changes and all. And whereas there were passages in the first novel from another character to add much-needed context, the same is done in Descent.

All in all, Floor 21: Descent is a wonderful follow-up, and it sets the stage nicely for the next installment — which hopefully pops up sooner rather than later. If you loved the first novel, then I can’t recommend this one enough. And even if you didn’t read the first, I really think you should and then give Descent a read.

Definitely one of my favorites of 2016.

Rating: *****
Dirty Deeds by Christy King

Dirty DeedsDirty Deeds by Christy King is a great many things — badass vigilante chick, undercover saga, heartbreaking love story, and supernatural drama that spans over the centuries, behind the proverbial curtain to the point where the reader doesn’t realize the true ramifications of Cameron James’ life until it’s too late.

Even with all of that going for it, Dirty Deeds never feels rushed or crammed too full. A book this ambitious in vision could’ve easily been bogged down by that vision. Yet King never allows the macro to get in the way of the micro, and even when the macro reveal feels like a “Where did thatcome from?!” punch to the gut, hindsight, and well-placed clues, will paint a much clearer picture.

There aren’t many books that surprise me anymore. Dirty Deeds did just that.

One of the reasons this book jumps back and forth so well through so many styles and genres and twists is that King never loses sight of the characters. Cam is many different things to many different people — even to herself — and we never lose that sense of who she is throughout everything. Even the supporting characters, like Dev, have enough life to them that your concern for their predicament outweighs your own bewilderment.

In a way, I wish there was another book featuring Cam in the offing, because King has created a wonderful, vibrant character — to say nothing of a potentially rich supernatural mythology that’s practically begging to dug into more. But long and short of it, I’m a sucker for tough female characters, and this book fits that bill perfectly.

All in all, Dirty Deeds is a fantastic read, one of the best I’ve had so far in 2016.

Rating: *****
Station Breaker by Andrew Mayne

Station BreakerIf you’re familiar with Andrew Mayne’s Jessica Blackwood novels, I’m gonna warn you right now: Station Breaker is not like either of those books, and David Dixon is not Jessica Blackwood.

But that’s a good thing.

Mayne has penned a fantastic sci-fi thriller, one that throws you into the fire from the word go and doesn’t bother letting you catch up. That’s a good thing in this instance, as what is supposed to be the best day of Dixon’s life — his first outer space mission — quickly turns to his worst. He’s on the run for much of the book, and there’s a Jason Bourne quality to this book that works, even if the main character is anything but a spy.

Action sequences are masterful, and exposition chapters aren’t too massive with the info-dumping. Mayne grows as a writer with each book he writes, and the climatic battle toward the end represents some of his finest work.

Two minor quibbles:

1) LOTS OF ALL CAPS AND EXCLAMATION POINTS!!! I get that some of them are sound effects (this being a first-person narrative, Mayne chooses “BANG!!!” as opposed to “Gunfire from behind startled David.”), but a lot of it is also some of David’s inner monologue. It’s effective in terms of giving David a definitive voice, but I can see where it would get annoying from time to time.

2) This book ends on a cliffhanger. Yes, it makes it clear there will be another David Dixon book, but I’m of the mindset that you can end a book in a series without a cliffhanger (pay no attention to Behind the Badge…).

Still, Station Breaker is a fantastic, adrenaline-packed sci-fi thriller, and proof that Andrew Mayne is not just a one-trick writer.

Rating: ****
Transference by Sydney Katt

TransferenceI feel like Transference would’ve been a much better book if it were longer. It’s a fast-paced read, to be sure, and I don’t doubt that would still be the case if several important things were fleshed out. But as it is, this book feels rushed… and that affected my ability to emotionally connect with either Allison or Brad.

Too much of the transformative events in these characters’ lives were mentioned in hindsight, in sort of an oh-by-the-way manner, and I feel this novel would’ve been much richer, much livelier, if the author had written flashbacks in which these events had actually occurred. Don’t just tell me how Allison found herself on her way to prison in the book’s open — take me on that journey with her.

What is here is well-written, crisp and free-flowing. There’s a lot of potential, a lot of stuff that could’ve been extremely compelling if it had just been fleshed out a little bit more.

Transference is a solid, entertaining enough read, but it could’ve been so much more.

Rating: ***