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

SNIPPET: Life at the Speed of Time

This is the first chapter of my short story, “Life at the Speed of Time,” which is featured in the anthology Cracks in the Tapestry, which was released last month. It’s the first Cracks in the Tapestry coveranthology I’ve been a part of, and this story was a lot of fun to write. Enjoy!

The steering wheel shaking in my hands is actually soothing.

It distracts me from the bead of sweat running down the right side of my face. It gives me a reprieve from the oppressive heat in the cockpit, a stifling one hundred and forty degrees according to a thermometer placed on my seat. The cooling unit attached to my helmet gave out back on lap 120, not ideal for a muggy day in central Florida. I can barely make out my crew chief or spotter when they talk into my ear, the roar of my engine drowning them out.

But all things considered, I’m having a good race. Daytona has never been my favorite race track; I don’t care for this style of racing. I’m surrounded by forty of my closest enemies, our beasts of speed inches apart as we barrel along the banking so fast we should be soaring into the air. This is all I’ve known my entire life, but even if I’m more comfortable at a half-mile bullring, this place is the pinnacle of stock car racing.

And I’ve led laps today. The car’s fast. But a bad pit stop thirty laps ago has me stuck in 30th. I have nowhere to run. I’m stuck in the middle of the pack, with cars on either side of me. If one of us sneezes, or someone gets an itchy arm, calamity is sure to follow.

The field barrels into the first turn. To the fans, we’re little more than a blur of color. But with my competitors going as fast as me, I can read every sponsor logo on their quarter panels. Freddy Bocelli, who wrecked me going for the win at Bristol last season, is to my outside. He has a new team this year, but the way his left front tire twitches tells me he still hasn’t learned how to hold a pretty wheel.

To my inside is Stan Gordon. No relation and not even half the talent of the Gordon you’ve actually heard of. He’s only in that car because he has a sponsor – his father’s chain of hardware stores.

Don’t get me started.

The banking gives way and we’re screaming down the backstretch. Only a concrete wall with energy-absorbing protection, a catchfence, and a row of billboards separate us from the airport behind the track.

Three wide middle. Three wide middle.

My spotter, Earl Webber. He’s probably staring at my car through binoculars from his perch above the press box on the frontstretch. I can only see but so much in this car: out the windshield and through my rearview mirror. Earl helps me navigate through trouble and tells me what’s going on around me. His information is paramount, especially here where the drivers can’t get away from each other.

Clear high!

As soon as the words leave Earl’s mouth, I jerk the steering wheel to the right. My momentum carries me past Stan, then I find myself passing two more cars. Finally, I’m getting somewhere. Earl’s in my ear again, but I’m not listening as the banking tilts me going into the third turn. Several rows ahead, I see a car jump out of line on the high side, making it three-wide.

No one goes with him, and he loses several positions.

Ten laps to go.

I curse under my breath. Ten laps?! I thought I had more time.

Clear low!

I turn left. The tires squeal in protest, but the car does what I need it to. Coming off the fourth turn, coming back to the start-finish line, I’ve picked up three more spots. I can feel the air propelling my car forward. I can’t see the air, but I can definitely feel it.

But I do see a car in the infield grass, on its roof and on fire. I blink and shake my head. The vision’s gone.

What the…?

I pass another car going into the first turn, but I have to jerk the wheel to the right when my rear tires lose traction. If I hadn’t caught it, I’d have wrecked at least five or six cars. That’s how close together we are. I catch my breath by the time we’re on the backstretch again; at this late stage, it feels like we’re taking forever to race along this two and a half-mile track.

The image of the burning car returns. But this time, I hear the crunch of warped sheet metal. Someone screams. The sky above is a ghastly mix of coal black and burnt orange.

But as I barrel into Turn 3, the image is gone.

“What the…?”

You okay in there, Randy?

Before I can answer Scott, my crew chief, Earl’s yelling in my ear.

The leaders are wrecking on the frontstretch!

Another scream startles me. I cry out and have to corral the car as it swerves back and forth. No one hits me, and I scrub off enough speed that I’m lingering hundreds of feet behind the pack. The scream returns, louder, and when I squeeze my eyes shut, the car on fire explodes. The driver was still inside.

I know because that’s when the screaming stops.

Randy! Randy?!

Other than Earl’s voice, everything is silent. My car comes to a complete stop by the entrance to pit road. My grip on the steering wheel is so tight my hands start to cramp.

Then I open my eyes.

Nearly half the field is wrecked in the curve along the frontstretch, torn sheet metal and roll cages strewn about the asphalt and infield grass. Safety vehicles have already begun approaching the carnage, and some of the drivers have exited their cars after lowering the black netting over the drivers-side window.

Most of the safety crews are heading for the infield grass. When I see why, my heart stops and my stomach drops. In the grass, there is a car, upside down and on fire. The red No. 54 car, piloted this season by hotshot rookie Chase Flanigan.

Randy, you alright?

I yank the cords from my helmet – both the cooling unit that no longer works and the radio. Gritting my teeth, my heartbeat far quicker than it had been when I was going 200 miles an hour, I pull off my helmet, and the neck restraint device attached to it, and head sock underneath. I dislodge the steering wheel from its column, tear down my window net. The six-point harness trapping me in my cocoon of a seat is the next to go before I pull myself out of the car and run toward the wreckage.

No one sees me. The safety crews and ambulances are too busy tending to the wrecked.

Stock car racing is as safe as it’s ever been. To the point where we sometimes foolishly think we’re invincible. Never mind the guy who at this track a couple years ago hit a concrete wall so hard he snapped both of his legs. Or the fact that our most beloved driver had to hang it up, in part, because of head injuries.

But no one’s died in almost twenty years, so…

The fire’s grown by the time I reach the grass. The car’s on-board extinguishing unit must have broken. I push my way through three safety workers, unable to shake the déjà vu. I gulp down air as fast as I can, willing myself not to drop to my knees and hurl. I’ll be sick later. Right now, I have to get Chase out of that car.

“Hey!”

I ignore the safety worker. Once I’m within feet of Chase’s car, the heat pushes back against me like a wall. I cringe and push through it as best I can, shielding my eyes from the brightness. The smoke is black as night pouring into the sky, and I drop to my knees by the passenger’s side. Peering into the window, I see Chase’s eyes wide as they can go through the visor of his helmet. He stares right at me, tugging on his belts. We’re always told to pull those belts a little bit tighter before the green flag waves; right now, Chase needs them to loosen.

Springing back to my feet, I run across to the driver’s side. One member of the safety crew grabs me by the shoulder. I shake him off and point at the fire. “Put that out!”

No… no no no no no!

Not even five minutes ago, I had seen this exact scene unfold. And the first time Chase screams, I freeze. It’s the exact sound I’d heard just moments before the wreck happened. I still don’t know how it started. I imagine TV will be playing the incident over and over again on a loop, and non-racing media will even pick up on it. Train wreck spectacle, nothing more.

But Chase needs to get out of the car before the worst happens.

Reaching in, I tug with all the strength I’ve got. But those belts won’t budge. Cursing under my breath, I turn my head to cough. The smoke is so bad my eyes are watering. I gag and nearly lose my lunch. But a deep breath keeps me from blowing chunks all over the rookie, and I reach in again with both hands.

Still, the belts won’t move.

“Help!” he screams.

Part of me wants to be sarcastic in return, but the kid’s freaked. As he should be. His car’s on fire and he’s stuck in it. The plume of smoke has grown to the point where the wind gust is carrying it into the grandstands. Fans are fleeing, covering their faces as they seek refuge. Some fans have stuck around, either to get photos or to see Chase emerge from the car.

But if I can’t those belts off…

Three safety workers grab me by the shoulders and pull me away.

“No!” I try to free myself, but a fourth worker joins the fray. “I have to help!”

“There’s nothing you can do!” one worker, his firesuit reading Jenkins, shouts. “The car’s gonna blow at any minute!”

I whirl around in anger. “So you’re just gonna leave him there?!”

Jenkins points, and over my shoulder, I see two men in fireman gear drop to their knees. One reaches in, and after what feels like an eternity, both he and the other fireman begin the process of extracting Chase from the vehicle. What’s left of the crowd roars in excitement when Chase’s head emerges from the window, but his shoulders get caught on the damn belts.

Those six-point harnesses are great when you’re in the car. In a situation like this… my stomach falls again.

The four crewmen who had pulled me from Chase’s car grab me and yank me back again. We retreat to pit road and leap over the wall separating the crews from their pit stalls, and I don’t know why. I trip over the wall and grunt, scraping my hands on the pavement. When I turn around to yell at the crewmen, I don’t see them. Because they ducked.

Then Chase’s car explodes.

He had only been halfway extracted. Both he and the two firemen trying to rescue him are engulfed in the fireball. Fans scream in horror. Fellow drivers fall to their knees on the track.

And I throw up all over a set of unused Goodyears.

 

Like what you read? Check out the rest by picking up your copy of Cracks in the Tapestry, available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions! The anthology also features work from Leslie Conzatti, Arthur David, C. Scott Davis, Benjamin D. Pegg, R. Eric Smith, and Lorna Woulfe.

 

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, 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, and you can also become a Patron.

Pre-order CRACKS IN THE TAPESTY

Exciting news!Cracks in the Tapestry cover

Cracks in the Tapestry, the first anthology I’ve ever been a part of, is now available for pre-order on Amazon! Cracks in the Tapestry will release on Kindle and paperback on October 21, but you can secure your copy now!

From the book’s Amazon listing:

What happens when the mundane and the fantastic meet? We get Cracks in the Tapestry.

Can a former secret agents sister return from the dead? Bringing with her mysteries surrounding her miraculous return. 
Reverend Josiah takes his message from God to a new planet eager to spread the gospel.
A NASCAR driver discovers there is much more happening on the track then he ever had imagined.
The legend of an ancient warrior who discovers a gift from the gods above.
A scientist discovers something very peculiar about an archaeologist exhibiting 
A newborn siren discovers a man who can resist her song.
A Sioux warrior must face off against the might of the US Military Remnant to defend his home and people. 

Will you peer through the Cracks in the Tapestry

Cracks in the Tapestry collects stories from Leslie Conzatti, J.D. Cunegan, Arthur David, C. Scott Davis, Benjamin D. Pegg, R. Eric Smith and Lorna Woulfe.

My story, “Life at the Speed of Time,” was a blast to write — unlike anything I’ve written before, and the first time I got to work my love for auto racing into my work. I can’t wait for you all to see it.

Click here to pre-order your copy of Cracks in the Tapestry!

 

Official SealBounty has been nominated for a TopShelf magazine Indie Book Award!

It’s a big deal for my debut novel to even be nominated — and there are plenty of perks therein — but if by some stroke of luck I actually win, then there’s no end to the awesomeness that would ensue. Mostly I’m just jacked that someone thought enough of my work to nominate it. That’s pretty damn cool.

Anyway, check it out (and if you haven’t got your copy yet, do so)!

 

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, 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.

Support J.D. Cunegan on Patreon

On Passion

“Passion. It lies in all of us. Sleeping… waiting… and though unwanted, unbidden, it will stir… open its jaws and howl. It speaks to us… guides us. Passion rules us all. And we obey. What other choice do we have? Passion is the source of our finest moments. The joy of love… the clarity of hatred… the ecstasy of grief. It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion, maybe we’d know some kind of peace. But we would be hollow. Empty rooms, shuttered and dank. Without passion, we’d be truly dead.”

The above passage, a speech from the classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Passion,” is but one interpretation of passion itself. It’s an admittedly dark take, fitting in perfectly with a TV show in which the titular character’s boyfriend had just gone evil and began exacting his unique brand of treachery in a personal way. But I think passion is more than all that.

Though it does bear asking: without passion, what are we?

DSCN1724I have two true passions in life: auto racing and writing. Everything beyond that never really evolves past “interest.” Baseball is an interest. Video games are an interest. They’re great, they bring me happiness, but if I had to go the rest of my life without them, I could do it. Racing and writing? Without those two things, I’m not me. Without those two things, I might as well be little more than a name carved into a hunk of stone.

But how does one differentiate between interest and passion? Well, think about when you get up in the morning. When you crawl your achy, sweaty carcass out of bed, scratching at that itch buried in your dirty, unkempt hair, what’s the first thing that brings a smile to your face? What’s the one thing you have to do? Not in the “if I don’t do this, I don’t get paid” sense; I mean in the “if I don’t do this, I feel incomplete” sense.

The truly lucky among us have the same answer to both questions. I’m not quite there yet, but I’d like to think I’m on my way.

It became clear to me a long time ago that I could never actually be a race car driver or work for a race team. Despite my love for racing, I’m not what you’d consider a car guy. I can’t take apart an engine or change a transmission; I just love watching the competition and immersing myself in the sensory overload that is being at a race. Hearing the roar of the engines, feeling that powerful purr in my ribcage, smelling the burnt rubber and the fuel, feeling the wind rush by as 40 of those ad-splashed suckers roar by at 200 miles an hour… there’s nothing like it, and I’m not sure I can adequately put it into words.

Probably why I haven’t written a story about racing. Yet.

NASCAR is my vehicular poison of choice, though I’m also partial to IndyCar, Formula 1, drag racing, sports car racing… if it’s got four wheels and an engine, chances are I have at least a passing (natch) fascination with it. I can’t go through a weekend without watching a race, nor can I go a NASCAR season without attending at least a couple races. Racing is in my blood, and it will be until the day I die.

As for writing… well, I have a visceral need to tell stories. To take in stories, realize how Me at Comiconthey make me feel, then do everything I can to make others feel the same way. I’ve been a writer, in one way or another, since I was in middle school; by now, writing is such an intrinsic part of who I am that not writing would be an affront to everything I’ve built for the last… almost 36 years.

Every time I read a comic book or a really good novel, or I see an engrossing TV show or movie, I come away with this jolt of adrenaline, this need to plunk my pasty ass down in front of my laptop and make with the typey-type. Every time I write a book, or a short story, or even a blog post like this, I’m scratching an itch buried deep under my skin that never truly goes away.

Every morning, I wake up with one thought: what am I going to write today?

Rarely, the answer is “nothing.” Those days are rough.

I say all that to ask that you all find your passion in life and pursue that. For there lies the route to happiness. If you don’t know what your passion is, that’s okay. If your answer changes over time, that’s fine too. We all grow and change. What you loved at 15 and what you love at 35 doesn’t have to be the same thing. Sometimes, finding your passion boils down to realizing there are only but so many hours in the day, and you have to give up something.

That thing you can’t give up? That thing you refuse to let go of? That’s your passion.

If there’s one piece of writing advice I could give (and only one), it’s to follow your passion. If you’re in the middle of a story you’re not passionate about, stop writing it. Set it aside (but never get rid of it entirely). Find what you are passionate about, and work on that. Time is too fleeting to waste it on something you don’t feel.

Share your passion with others. There is comfort and happiness in numbers. I understand how that sounds, coming from an introverted hermit like me, but few things bring me as much happiness as sharing my joy with like-minded individuals. I don’t even just mean selling books (though that it a kickass feeling, I won’t lie). Fanboying/fangirling over a favorite book, sharing tricks of the publishing trade that worked (or didn’t)… that sense of community only fuels my passion further.

If writing’s your passion, write. If it’s art, then paint or draw or sculpt. If it’s tinkering with the innards of a computer or a 1967 Pontiac GTO, then tinker away. But don’t let the hours and days pass you by without your passion. If there’s one thing you have permission to be selfish about in life, it’s your passion. Indulging in your passion is what gives you the strength and the drive to handle the parts of life you aren’t that jazzed about.

Got a full-time job that stresses you out? Make time before or after for whatever you love. Stressful family life? Tuck yourself away in solitude and take in whatever it is that makes you tick.

Because at the end of the day, Angelus was right. Without passion, we’d be truly dead.