Book Reviews XIV

Consistent Creative Content: A Guide to Authoring and Blogging in the Social Media Age by Lee Hall

I honestly believe every indie author needs this book on their shelf.

I’ve made no secret on several different platforms my creative problems of late. The reasons for this struggle are numerous, but at least through Consistent Creative Content, I now have a road map for getting back on the proverbial horse. At the height of my writing powers, I was publishing two novels a year and averaging a blog post a week — and it’s no coincidence that numbers, meager though they were, were much better than they are now.

Lee Hall’s brief how-to not only offers a road map; it’s also inspiration (for things I can do going forward) and validation (that, in some ways, I was on the right track when I was at my best and most productive). I also appreciate that Hall didn’t just tell us how to promote our work — he also offered concrete examples of promotions he had run, and the results therein.

I still have a long creative road ahead (and patience is not one of my virtues), but Hall’s Consistent Creative Content is another example of a book I needed, right when I needed it. This is the sort of book I wish had existed when I first published Bounty back in 2015, but I’m glad to have it now.

Indie authors of any stripe — whether they’ve never published before or they have a backlog dozens of books deep — would do well to have a copy of this book. There really is something in here for everybody, and if 2022 winds up being my creative resurgence, this book will be a big reason why.

Rating: *****

Consistent Creative Content is available in paperback and Kindle.

The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu by Tom Lin

A book I bought solely based on the blurb, The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu wound up being a much more languid, slower-paced read than I expected — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Make no mistake: this book is every bit as violent as promised. It is brutal, frank, and visceral, yet Tom Lin’s prose reads like that of a more practiced author, not someone who’s graced our bookshelves for the first time. His style has a cadence and a flow to it, almost like he’s dancing with the words on the page.

That rhythm pairs nicely with the blood. It’s even better when things slow down.

As brutal as Thousand Crimes is– a brutality reflecting an America not only then, but an America now in a lot of ways — this book is also ponderous. Almost philosophical at times. As is sometimes the case, though, the protagonist is the least interesting character of the whole lot, and much of the fun comes not in Ming making progress in his mission, but the way the characters in orbit interact — if not with him, then with each other.

There’s also the matter of an abrupt ending — so abrupt, it almost feels like it snuck up on the author, too. It’s an ending with finality, if not a satisfactory one, and for a book that truly felt like a journey, the proverbial brakes screeching was slightly disorienting.

Still, Lin has penned a magnificent debut. A deft, beautifully written tale of love, loss, hate, betrayal, and blood. Lots and lots of blood.

Rating: ****

The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu is available in hardcover, paperback, audiobook, and Kindle.

The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig’s latest, The Book of Accidents, is a horror novel. As such, it is equal parts disturbing, unnerving, and, to some degree, terrifying.

It is also surprisingly touching.

I will admit to some ignorance when it comes to the horror genre – whether in print or on screen, it’s not a genre I’m familiar with or interested in – but Wendig is one of those authors whose work I’ll support regardless, so I was eager to get my hands on The Book of Accidents. And what I found was a lot of heart – much more than I expected – beyond the mind trips and the blood and the general aura of “what the ever-loving f***?!”

Because if there’s one thing Wendig is particularly good at, it’s the “what the ever-loving f***?!” Whether it’s this book or Wanderers (to date, his best work) or the Miriam Black novels or even, to an extent, Damn Fine Story, Wendig makes a habit of having you asking yourself WTF, even as you continue to flip the pages.

Pacing is this book’s biggest sin, but only occasionally, though I admit that’s a by-product of me being emotionally invested in certain characters more than others. Wendig’s command of the written word is as strong as ever, and he takes great pains in making sure you care about who you’re supposed to care about – otherwise, none of the scary stuff would matter.

If you like the genre, this is probably already on your shelf. If it’s not, it really should be.

Even if it ends up being too disturbing to pick up again.

Rating: ****

The Book of Accidents is available in hardcover, audiobook, and Kindle.

The Best Books I Read in 2021

I had high hopes for 2021. Then it reminded me why I’m a natural pessimist.

But 2021 did give me another crop of really good, really strong books to read. So while I didn’t accomplish much writing-wise these past 365 days (or really much of anything other than “don’t get the plague”), I can at least look back at my bookshelf and realize I was thoroughly entertained, enlightened, and educated.

NOTE: These are not necessarily the best books that came out in 2021, just the best books I read throughout the past calendar year.

5. Ever the Hero by Darby Harn

If you need a reason why the superhero genre is exploding, books like Ever the Hero are why.

Darby Harn gives us a mash-up of superheroes and science fiction (and a pleasantly surprising amount of political reality). For a story about aliens and spaceships and glowing, flying superheroes, Ever the Hero is remarkably grounded. This is where the relatively slow-paced opening half is so critical (if only in hindsight), showing us who protagonist Kit is, what makes her her.

We love all the best superheroes because of who they are beyond their splash page-worthy heroics. We can’t love Superman if we don’t love Clark Kent, and Harn gets that. For all Kit’s many strengths once she has powers, it’s who she is independent of those abilities that makes her so easy to root for and invest in.

This book is equal parts epic and tragic and frustrating in how plausible and realistic certain parts of it are. It’s the very best of a rapidly growing genre, and the perfect foundation for what promises to be a fantastic, engrossing series.

Ever the Hero is available in paperback and Kindle.

4. Inalienable by S.E. Anderson

Inalienable is the seventh entry in S.E. Anderson’s quirky, irreverent sci-fi series, and it’s every bit as funny and intense and fresh as the six books that came before it. Such liveliness this deep into a series is a rarity, yet Anderson manages to bring something new with each book while still keeping the themes and the humor that have become her hallmark.

The core trio of Sally, Zander, and Blayde manage the delicate balance of staying true to themselves while still growing, and the humor infused in their never-ending hijinks helps keep every installment fresh. In fact, we’re as out of our element in this book as Sally is, and that works to the narrative’s benefit.

Each book in the series offers something different, a taste of a different genre aside from the science fiction that rests at the foundation. Inalienable is no different, as it takes on a space opera feel to it—this book is certainly not as grounded as its predecessor.

But that works to keep the series fresh. Sally and her pals never know what’s coming, and neither do we. Anderson is to be lauded for her ability to keep this series as lively and interesting seven books in as it was when that hot air balloon first crash-landed into Sally’s window.

Inalienable is available in paperback and Kindle.

3. How the Word in Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith

Given the racial reckoning that’s taken over America since George Floyd’s murder, books like Clint Smith’s How the Word is Passed have seen a surge in interest. To be frank, though, the content of Smith’s book should be rendered moot by the subject matter having been taught in our history classes.

But the American education system’s failure of choice means Smith has to start candid, important, and uncomfortable conversations – conversations too many of us are still refusing to have. Almost every issue facing America can be traced, in one way or another, to our racist history (and present), and our collective refusal to acknowledge that leaves us…

Well, here.

As mentioned, How the Word is Passed is uncomfortable at times – both in predictable and unexpected ways. I was particularly struck by one chapter in which Smith takes a tour of a prison in Louisiana, because I cannot wrap my head around the concept of a prison giving tours to the public. Yet one more offshoot of how America continues to have – and ignore – a race problem.

This is a book everyone needs to read. Especially white people.

How the Word is Passed is available in hardcover, audiobook, and Kindle.

2. A Sky Beyond the Storm by Sabaa Tahir

An emotionally satisfying ending is not necessarily a happy ending.

Sabaa Tahir’s A Sky Beyond the Storm, the finale in the Ember series, taught me that lesson. While the conclusion was every bit as violent and intense as expected, it was also the kind of ending that satisfied, even if the conclusion was (perhaps in hindsight) inevitable and far from what anyone would consider happy.

Because it made sense for the characters.

Through four books, and through possibly just as many points of view, Tahir never once lost sight of her characters. Through each book, Laia, Elias, and Helene were at the center of every twist, every shocking reveal, every tragedy. Tahir’s almost obsessive reliance on her characters above all else made for an emotionally tense and visceral tale.

And whereas many a series stumbles on the dismount, Tahir suffers no such fate with Sky, because of her insistent need to center the characters. Tahir’s series is a masterclass in not just fantasy storytelling or the practice of telling a story through multiple POVs, but also in the importance of character over plot.

Tahir’s masterstroke of a finale proves that characters are what make us fall in love with stories.

A Sky Beyond the Storm is available in hardcover, audiobook, and Kindle.

1. A Country of Eternal Light by Darby Harn

Harn pulls no punches in his magnum opus, a spec-fic classic that feels less like spec fic and more like a thorough examination of the human condition. Specifically, what do human beings do when stripped of all hope, of all optimism?

It turns out, they…keep on living.

If that sounds cheery…it’s not. Harn makes A Country of Eternal Light a difficult read—not because he lacks narrative skill or understanding of what makes great characters (he certainly possesses both qualities in spades), but because he forces the reader to examine, to experience, to feel everything his characters feel. There is no hiding in this book. Not for the characters, and not for us.

And yet, the pages keep turning. There is no last-minute save. Harn does not concoct some plot device to wave away the despair that lies at the core of this book. We have to sit with the woe and the death and the hopelessness as much as the characters do. This book is the human experience, stripped to its hopeless yet stubborn core.

It’s a modern masterpiece that will break you several different ways.

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

Honorable Mention: Consistent Creative Content: A Guide to Authoring and Blogging in the Social Media Age by Lee Hall, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, Bag Man by Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz, Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings, The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig, The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu by Tom Lin, A Promised Land by Barack Obama, Deferred Glory: Heroes of the Negro Baseball Leagues by Danny A. Ingellis, The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig, The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl, War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi.

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 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.

Upcoming Projects Galore!

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

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

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

The Art of Reading will release in January 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

Not the final cover.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

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