BOOK REVIEW: A Country of Eternal Light

I honestly don’t know what to say about this book.

Make no mistake: A Country of Eternal Light is a masterpiece. A literary marvel and the truest example of Darby Harn’s prose expertise. As great as his Eververse series is (and it really is one of the best in the superhero genre), this book is his magnum opus to date.

But as great as this book is, A Country of Eternal Light is a difficult read. It’s raw. It’s emotional. It hits you in ways you least expect, and the book I thought I was getting into was nothing like the book I ended up getting (and I mean this in a good way). This is the sort of book you’ll probably have to put down a few times, get some space away from it. Whether i’s because a line made you think or punched you in the gut, you’re going to have to take breaks.

This is not a page-turner, the sort of book where you lose hours at a time.

Because this book will gut you. Several times over. It will hollow you out. From the first page, hope is but a distant memory, and the result is a story that seems to get bleaker than you think possible. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is the point. The world is, quite literally, ending, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

There’s no last-minute save. There’s no miracle or story-driven contrivance to save the day. There’s despair and there’s death and there’s anguish and you have to sit with that reality just the same as the characters. In the hands of another author, this story would probably focus on the black hole, the how and the why–and it would probably still be good and epic and enjoyable.

But Harn focuses on the people living out the rest of their days, even when they don’t know why. He doesn’t dump exposition on us, explaining away the black hole or even one of the biggest emotional beats of the protagonist. They’re just there, and they’re to be dealt with regardless of what anyone actually wants to do. More than once, this book makes you question why Mairead and others continue to push through and live life when, from our perspective, everything is so pointless and hopeless and useless…and yet.

And yet.

That dichotmoy, that emotion, is is what makes A Country of Eternal Light the masterstroke it is. It’s spec fic that doesn’t feel like spec fic. It’s the human experience, stripped to its hopeless yet stubborn core, and it will break you several different ways.

And you’ll love it. I know I did. Even if I’m not sure I can handle another read-through.

This book is an early contender for Best Book of 2021, and I wholeheartedly give this five enthusiastic (if slightly teary-eyed) stars. Let’s just make sure the stars stay in the sky, where they belong.

A Country of Eternal Light is available on Kindle and in paperback.

It’s Okay Not to Create

I don’t know who needs to hear this, but…

(It’s me. I need to hear this. And chances are, so do you.)

I’ve been writing a lot of these sorts of articles for Medium of late, and I’d love it if you joined me there, but for this, I wanted to speak to my fans–actual and potential–directly. Because this is important.

Fact is, we’re still in a pandemic. A global one. Yes, there are vaccines (of which I have received the Moderna variety), and yes, there are signs of progress and hope. But there’s also at least one super-contagious variant running around (no, not the one with the giant golden horns), lagging vaccination numbers, and a general unease that if we’re not careful, this coming fall is going to look a lot like two springs ago and last summer and…

So yeah. It’s okay if you’re still stressed. Because we’ve all been stressed for the last year and a half. It’s also okay if that stress has manifested itself in you not being as productive or as creative as you feel like you should be.

Hear me out: to this point, I’ve been one of the fortunate ones. I haven’t come down with COVID yet, and neither has anyone in my immediate family or among the few close friends I have. We’re all vaccinated, and we’ve all managed to maintain our employment.

And yet…

I released Betrayal (Jill Andersen #5) in April 2020, when the world was on fire, but it seemed like just a little fire, and as the calendar flipped to 2021, I had big plans. Big, giant creative plans. I was going to write all the things and then publish all the things and I would make money from all the things…only to have barely puttered along in my numerous WIPs (works-in-progress) and find my non-work time taken up more with lying in bed doing nothing and less with dates with my keyboard.

From March through December 2020, I had a lot of free time on my hands. Yes, I was still employed, but being employed in college athletics is strange when there are no athletics going on. Yet I wasn’t making a lot of progress on any of my projects, even as I cranked out my annual 50,000-word vomitfest in November.

Come January 2021, work picked back up. Big time. Tends to happen when you’re trying to complete fall, winter, and spring sports seasons all in a period from January to May.

Naturally, my writing dried up even more. The drip-drip-drip came to a halt.

Even if you take the day job out of the equation–because I understand my situation is mine alone–I don’t think we’re giving ourselves enough credit for just how stressful everything is. Between the virus and everything surrounding it, that little election thing we had in November (can you imagine if that had gone the other way?!), the fact that a bunch of chucklefucks tried to overthrow the freaking government in January (and we still don’t really know the hows and whats of that…?!)…

And oh yeah–we’re still in the middle of a pandemic!

Your priority right now should be doing everything you can to make sure you don’t get COVID. That your loved ones don’t get COVID. We’re all living a historically traumatic experience right now, and have been since two Marches ago. Things are not normal, and haven’t been for a long time. Maybe what you’re interpreting as laziness or exhaustion is simply your body doing what it needs to do to just…survive.

Cut yourself some slack. Tell me to cut myself some slack.

Even when things are normal, free time does not need to be taken up with tasks. Even tasks we enjoy. Even our passions. Free time can just be…free time. That is especially true right now, when we’re all far more stressed and out of sorts than we’d care to admit (even to ourselves).

If you’ve got the mental and emotional fortitude to crank out everything your creative heart desires, then that’s great! Type, type, type away and bare your creative soul for the world to see! But if you find yourself too lethargic or uninspired or worn down to tackle that WIP right now, if you’d rather brew yourself a cup of hot tea, turn on the Game Show Network, and zone out for the rest of the night, that’s fine too!

Because the most important thing right now is staying alive. You can’t write if you’re bedridden in the ER, or if you’re on a ventilator, or if you’re dead. We’re still facing these issues right now, these fears, and if your biological response to that is malaise and vegging, that’s what you need to do.

Your WIPs can wait. They deserve your best, and if you can’t give your best right now, that’s okay.

Hang in there. We’ll get through this and you’ll be pecking at the keyboard thousands of words at a time before you know it.

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.

UPDATE: Upcoming Projects Galore!

If you’ll recall, at the very end of 2020, I announced a slew of new projects that, at the time, I thought would be hitting shelves this year. As it turns out, I vastly underestimated how hectic 2021 would be from a professional standpoint, so the release dates I promised in that original post are…not going to happen.

But those projects are still in the works, and I wanted to offer an update on their progress (since more than one of you have reached out and asked about them).

Also note: the next installment of the Jill Andersen series is in the works. What was originally going to be Bitter End will now be split into two books: Bitter Divide, which will hopefully release in early 2022, and Bitter End, which will (hopefully) follow in late 2022.

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 both 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 mid-2022, with the first book, Land of the Free. Look for a short story collection titled Prelude to Hellion by the end of 2021.

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 tentatively set to release in the summer of 2022.

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.

RELEASE DAY: Warps in the Tapestry

What happens when the world we know isn’t quite the world we know? Perhaps there are Warps in the Tapestry

Warps in the Tapestry, the follow-up to Cracks in the Tapestry, Includes stories from Jason Allard, Deneen Ansley, Joel Byers, Leslie Conzatti, J.D. Cunegan, Arthur David, C. Scott Davis, Kirsten Ireland, Amanda Lane, Liz Rosales, and Lorna Woulfe.

SOTA – A government agent hires a private investigator to help her solve a string of murdered computer hackers.

The Union – What happens when we truly remember and embrace that thing which we truly are? Where would that deep, dark magic take a lonely and troubled boy? Larenzo is about to find out.

Abbadon – Hell, with all that free real estate, it’d be a shame if the demons needed to build a wall.

Finding Her Niche – Ever since Lacey’s brothers joined the superhero task force, it seems that they’re always off saving the world while she’s stuck at home. All she ever wanted was to find a way to see them more often. Who knew that she’d actually find something she was good at, in the process?

Project Fusion – Renowned cybernetics expert Dr. Sebastian Lo finds himself captured by the very people who hired him to lend his expertise to Project Fusion, a secret government experiment designed to create super soldiers.

Agents of the Third Party: Red Hand Day – Croc’s day went simple enough. Go to a bar, get kidnapped, bust up a ring of child spies. Just another day in the life of an international spy. But nothing is ever simple, and soon Croc finds himself traveling to the other side of the world to investigate a new threat to the world along with a new partner.

Defending Azazel – After Earth’s first war with an alien species, one soldier confesses to crimes he could not have possibly committed, unshakable in his insistence that he is guilty.

Time on Earth – A tale that takes the reader on a science fiction journey into an alternate ending to a popular piece of mythical lore.

Arisen – After a series of natural disasters causes all of the cities of earth to crumble into ruin and all anyone can do is survive. But what happens when the dead refuse to stay dead? What happens when these dead come back as something else entirely? Something… superhuman?

The InBetweens – London, 1985. Pauli feels like an actor who’s lost the script – to her own life. Belonging nowhere, everything is familiar and at the same time incomprehensible. There’s a ripple in the fabric of time…

Midnight at the Five and Dime – Being a cop was all I ever wanted. Descending from a long line of law enforcement professionals, I felt the calling to serve and protect. I was also one of the few with an interface. Along with my AI partner S.A.M. ; we kept the streets of NYC safe. Everything was great… until all hell broke loose.

Will you dare to explore the Warps in the Tapestry?

Warps in the Tapestry is out now! Get your copy here. Also, the first collection, Cracks in the Tapestry, is available for just 99 cents for a limited time.

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.

Writing About Law Enforcement in the BLM Era

I published Behind the Badge, the third book in the Jill Andersen series, in 2016. Not only was it a consequential book in terms of the overall series arc, but it also marked the first time I wrote about the issues of police brutality. On the heels of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and too many others, Behind the Badge was my attempt at examining how Jill Andersen would respond to a case in which the suspects happened to be her own colleagues.

Behind the Badge, which was loosely based on the Gray case, is my worst-selling book (not that surprising, given the subject matter). It is also, sadly, still my most relevant.

It’s a simple concept at face value: the police should not be indiscriminately killing people, particularly Black people who have already endured centuries of violence and oppression and indignities for no other reason than the color of their skin. There are those who disagree with that idea, and they need to be called out for what they are and cast aside as social pariahs.

Then this past summer saw George Floyd murdered by police. In front of a crowd. In broad daylight.

It felt like the discussion surrounding race and police brutality shifted after that. Got deeper. It was no longer enough to call for the cops to stop killing Black people. Now the very notion of policing itself is under scrutiny. The history of it. The need (or lack of need) for it. Some will tell you how bad a slogan “Defund the Police” was from a political strategy standpoint, but it struck at the very core of what the discussion had become, a reality made apparent following Floyd’s murder: what if the police can’t be reformed?

Considering my flagship work features several characters who work in law enforcement, and I’ve already used the series to examine the issue of excessive police force, it feels like I’d be doing a disservice if my series didn’t continue to touch on and examine the same conversation that’s going on in our country.

That’s not to say that’s all the series will become — this is, after all, a story about a cybernetically-enhanced superhero. But the fantastic can offer a window into the mundane, and the overall notion of what role, if any, law enforcement has in society is a thread that fits into Jill’s character narrative. Jill always wanted to be a cop, looked up to her father who also served, and she steadfastly believes that at its best, law enforcement can be a good and vital thing.

But what if she’s wrong?

What if everyone who believes that is wrong?

The entire reason Jill became a superhero was because she saw, early in her law enforcement career, that simply being a cop wasn’t good enough. The reasons for that are numerous, and go far beyond the “cops shouldn’t kill Black people” argument. They strike at the core of Jill as a character, and they strike at her relationships with so many of the people closest to her.

Is Jill a hero? If so, is it because of her badge, or because of her suit, or because of her deeds?

I feel like I have a moral imperative to tackle the issue of police violence and inherent bias and everything tangled within, but tackling Black Lives Matter and police brutality and racism and the role of law enforcement more broadly provides me, as a writer, with a tremendous opportunity to really dive into my characters and examine the reason this series still exists.

I feel like so much of what we, as a society, think of law enforcement stems from popular culture’s portrayal of it. Between mystery novels and buddy cop movies and the umpteen thousand TV shows about detectives and SWAT teams and federal agents, we’re being fed this all-American, badass version of law enforcement where the violence is justified, the heroes are never wrong, and those with badges should never be questioned.

Maybe it’s time for some law enforcement-centered fiction that pushes back on that a little?

The Wonder of WandaVision

Marvel Studios’ WandaVision was, largely, a triumphant debut for its Disney+ slate of series — but maybe not for some of the reasons one might think. It’s not the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) at its finest — I still give that honor to the film Captain America: the Winter Soldier — but the new format has given the MCU a blueprint for what should be some quality storytelling going forward.

I’m a serious thinker. Sometimes.

First, a disclaimer: I originally had no interest in WandaVision — mostly because I have no love for the sitcom genre and, as MCU characters go, Wanda and Vision are two of the ones I care the least about. And to be frank, the first couple episodes were a slog. Old sitcoms, to me, are cringeworthy endeavors, and the only thing that kept me from tuning out was the overwhelming curiosity to find out where this was all going.

But once we started venturing out of SitcomLand (or WestView, if you prefer) and started digging into the how and why, things got interesting. It’s no coincidence that some of my favorite episodes are the ones that spend the least amount of time in the realm of the sitcom, but the format served the story, the characters, and the MCU as a whole well.

I cared so little for Wanda and Vision, in part, because they were but bit pieces in the MCU films — some of which were so stuffed to the gills with characters (and focusing so much on the big names) that it was hard for Wanda and Vision to truly get the spotlight. (It also didn’t help that Vision came from one of my least-favorite MCU films, Avengers: Age of Ultron.) Now they have a TV show in which to shine, and the format made for some fantastic character development — development that simply wasn’t possible in the Avengers films that were more apt to focus on the Starks, Rogers, Thors, and Danvers of the world.

WandaVision, as a serialized story, was better able to serve the characters. Standout performances from Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany (and let’s not forget Kathryn Hahn) helped. But comic books, as serialized stories, aren’t always best served by the big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. Sometimes, the series format is better suited for these tales and characters (and good on Disney+ for not releasing the whole series at once to be binged; we’ve lost the joy of anticipating a new episode of something, and I hope this is the beginning of a return to that).

WandaVision even added some context to some of the films. Those Eureka moments are a lot of fun to experience.

But what I enjoyed most about WandaVision was how it did something we so rarely see in the superhero genre: it allowed a superhero — a female superhero, at that — to experience a story about grief. Grief is so rarely examined in superhero fiction, and when it is, it’s almost always for a male superhero and it almost always devolves into the hero flying into a blind rage that results in epic fight scenes and, depending on the hero, a body count.

Female superheroes seldom get even that luxury. But WandaVision allowed Wanda to experience, reckon with, navigate through, and even deny her grief. The grief over everything she lost, not just after the events of Avengers: Infinity War, but the grief over everything in her life. The trauma of her childhood, the trauma of what happened to her and her twin brother Pietro. Whereas the films couldn’t deep-dive into all of that, WandaVision makes all of that front and center.

That’s not to say WandaVision was perfect. It wasn’t. There’s the ever-present whitewashing of Wanda’s character. There’s the fact that the finale fell into the typical MCU trap of big, flashy CGI fight scene followed by everything being cleaned up a little too tidy. There’s the fact that Wanda’s character still has a massive plothole in it (a plothole that made sense when she was first introduced in Avengers: Age of Ultron and the MCU couldn’t even so much as breathe the ‘M’ word… but now?).

Still, WandaVision proved the Disney+ series format can work and it provided female superheroes with the kind of story they’re not usually allowed to tell. I’m looking forward to what the other series can give us (especially after that post-credits scene — more Monica Rambeau, please!) and I hope the MCU continues experimenting with its storytelling. Because I think the MCU’s at its best when it tries to do something outside the typical flashy superhero epic.

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.

The Pitfalls of Idolizing Creators (AKA Joss Whedon’s a Dick and JK Rowling’s a Bigot)

Earlier this week, Charisma Carpenter made a lengthy social media post in which she alleged inappropriate, sexist, and dangerous behavior on the part of Joss Whedon while she was on the sets of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, where she played the character Cordelia Chase on both shows. Carpenter was showing solidarity to Ray Fisher, the Justice League actor who has made similar allegations against Whedon, and again, the man who was once held atop a pedestal as a paragon of feminism (simply because he helmed a genre TV show with a female lead at a time when that thing was still a rarity) was being exposed as a fraud.

Since Carpenter’s post, other Buffyverse actors — including Sarah Michelle Gellar, Michelle Trachtenberg, Amber Benson, and Anthony Stewart Head — have come forward in support and, in the cases of Gellar, Trachtenberg, and Benson, to allege their own firsthand experiences. For Whedon, who has also been accused of adultery and other inappropriate behavior by his ex-wife Kai Cole and has been fending off such allegation at least since he was tapped to write and direct the first two Avengers films, it’s yet more damage to his reputation.

More importantly, it’s a lesson in how we’re supposed to view people like Whedon.

First off, I believe and support Carpenter and her co-stars. Rumors of Whedon mistreating Carpenter have persisted for years — that he retaliated against Carpenter for getting pregnant in real life and he used Angel season 4 as a means to get back at Carpenter before writing her off the show. Whedon’s track record is now well-established, both when it comes to how he treats his female actors, his history with characters of color, how he treats just about everyone…

Joss Whedon is a person. A bad person, by all accounts. A bad person who just happened to create stories a great many people still enjoy to this day. I’ve written repeatedly that Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were both key to my creative resurrection and the fact that I’m now a published author. That’s still true. I still (…mostly) enjoy both shows. Firefly and Serenity were enjoyable, and I even liked Dollhouse for a time.

But all that’s tempered by the realization that the man whose name is forever attached to those stories is a bad man.

For some, that means his work can no longer be enjoyed. That’s valid, and I’m not here to argue otherwise. The same is true for those who can no longer enjoy the Harry Potter franchise because author JK Rowling has, in recent years, revealed herself to be a virulent, unrepentant transphobe and bigot.

Rowling’s station is not that dissimilar to Whedon’s; they both created pop culture milestones, stories that touched millions of hearts and made them household names (at least in some circles). Both Buffy and Harry Potter should have created enough goodwill for them both to spend the rest of their lives. But Rowling and Whedon being who they are, blew through all that goodwill and revealed themselves to be what they are. Gross, abusive, bigoted, and — especially in the case of Whedon — the exact opposite of what we were told they were.

Creators are, for better or worse, people. We like to think they’re larger than life, like the stories and properties they helped bring to life, but they’re not. The same is the case for Gina Carano, who just lost her job with The Mandalorian because… well, everything; for Nathan Fillion, who was accused of bad behavior and having a bad relationship with his co-star on Castle; for David Boreanaz, who fielded his own allegations of inappropriate behavior on the TV show Bones; etc. etc. etc…

(And lest you think Boreanaz suffered for that, I remind you he’s now the lead in another show on CBS.)

How much of this is institutional? A fair bit, which is why we don’t hear from the likes of Carpenter and Gellar and Trachtenberg until decades after the fact. They understood, then and now, that speaking up would’ve jeopardized their respective careers, that Hollywood would’ve likely sided with Whedon over them. Which is why Fisher speaking up so soon after Justice League as he did so remarkable. There’s an institution behind the abuse and the disgusting behavior and the bigotry and the inappropriateness. Just ask anyone who ever crossed paths with Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein.

Still, the lesson remains: even the creators who have made things you love, things you adore with every fiber of yourself, things that have defined you in one way or another, are human beings. And human beings are often capable of incredibly messed up things, of horrible behavior. Sometimes, it can be impossible to separate the art from the artist (I know I have no desire to ever read any of Orson Scott Card’s work, and there are novels I’ve passed up on specifically because of who wrote them), but it’s also necessary.

It’s important not to put creators on a pedestal, to treat them as if they are gods among us. Because they’re not gods. They’re people.

Creativity is not some divine gift, handed down from on high, that gives us humans a free pass to act as we please. Sometimes, they’re good people (please tell me Lin-Manuel Miranda’s a good dude, at least). Sometimes, they’re not. Bad people can create great things, and we can’t let inappropriate behavior slide just because the offender created something we like.

No TV show is worth the abuse Whedon has allegedly perpetuated. No book is worth Rowling’s transphobia.

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.