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.

NEWS: My Books Now Available on Smashwords!

HAMPTON, Va., Aug. 14, 2020 — My six novels — Bounty, Blood Ties, Behind the Badge, Behind the Mask, Betrayal, and Notna — as well as the short story collection Legends of the Gem are now available for digital purchase through Smashwords.Bounty Final

Smashwords users can now buy my books directly on that platform, for the same price as on other outlets. That means Bounty remains just 99 cents, with Blood Ties and Legends of the Gem each coming in at $1.99.

All other books are currently $2.99.

With the new channel, all of my books are currently available for purchase on Amazon (Kindle and paperback), BN.com (Nook and paperback), Kobo, Apple iBooks, Scribd, Smashwords, 24 Symbols, Baker & Taylor, and Vivlio. All future books will also be available on all these platforms.

Click here to view my work and my profile on Smashwords.

Readers can also purchase signed paperbacks directly from me.

 

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, scratching a pencil over a piece of paper, 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 FacebookTwitterGoodreads. and DeviantArt.

The One Thing (I Think) Every Writer Should Do

My current read is Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, and in reading it, I got to thinking about the first King book I ever read cover-to-cover: On Writing.

I’m generally not one for books on writing. There are two exceptions — the Bounty Finalaforementioned King tome and Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story (honorable mention to Libbie Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants!, though I don’t consider that a true “book on writing”) — but for the most part, books on the craft of writing, or how to write, either leave me incredibly bored or intimidated to the point where I no longer want to write.

Suffice it to say, you’ll likely never see me write such a book. The fact is, writing is such an individual vocation that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to it. Sure, there are conventions of spelling and grammar and the like, but the craft of writing? The art of it? Giving advice on that is often a fool’s errand.

Fact is, writing advice is rarely worth the paper (or screen) it’s printed on. Not because whoever shares it is wrong, but because no one thing works for everyone. A tenet of writing I swear by might be the completely wrong approach for someone else, and vice versa. There are so many different paths to writing that to tell us to adhere to one over all others doesn’t work.

But there is one thing I will cling to until the day I die, and every time I get asked what writers need to do (aside from actually writing) to improve, I say the same thing every time:

Read.

I’m not the first to argue this point — King himself extols the virtues of reading in On Writing — but it stands to reason. The only two things a writer can do to improve in the craft is to practice it and study it. The act of writing is, obviously, the practice… which makes reading the study.

I’m not saying you should read solely for the purpose of studying. That’s too much like school, and it was the books I was forced to read in school that robbed me of my love of reading for so long — and I’m sure I’m not alone in that (I couldn’t tell you I enjoyed any of the books I was made to read in middle and high school). Rather, I think the studying inherent in reading, for a writer, is subconscious. You don’t realize you’re doing it while you’re doing it, but the results will show up on your page. You’re still reading for enjoyment, but you’re also adding tools to your box.

Reading, in all its forms, can shape you as a writer. Which is why I believe one should never limit reading to just one genre. You should absolutely read books similar to whatever you’re writing, but also read stories that are nothing like what you’re writing. Read every genre that even remotely interests you… and maybe give a genre you have no interest in at all a try.

Read fiction. Read non-fiction. Autobiographies. Blog posts. Magazines and newspapers are also things you should be reading (yes, the latter still exists). Even if you’re reading these things on a digital device instead of in a paper publication, it still counts.

You’ll expand your vocabulary. You’ll expose yourself to different modes of storytelling, different writing styles. Even something you didn’t enjoy can teach you things about your own writing. Broaden your horizons as a reader, commit to reading at least a little bit each day, and you will see the results without even truly realizing it.

It’s no coincidence that every time I’m struggling as a writer, I’ve also hit a reading snag. The more I read, the better and more productive I am as a writer.

This is why I carve out time each day to read; even if it’s only a chapter, I make sure to read something each day. Not just because I enjoy reading, but because I know it’s helping me every time I sit at the keyboard.

In short, if you’re a writer who doesn’t have shelves teeming with books and/or an e-reader full of things to read, then you’re depriving yourself of a surefire way to both improve and become more productive as a writer.

Besides, didn’t you fall in love with storytelling because of someone else’s stories?

 

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, scratching a pencil over a piece of paper, 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 FacebookTwitterGoodreads. and DeviantArt.

2020’s Half Over (I Know, Right?). So Let’s Take Stock.

Well. 2020 is half over. What a decade this year has been, right?

First and foremost, I hope you and yours are safe and healthy. I hope you’re doing your part to get us through the plague that won’t go away (yes, that means wearing a mask… you know, when you’re not at home getting your hermit on).

But before the world went all to hell (again), I’d had 2020 as the year I got back into creative gear. I set seven goals for myself in 2020:Betrayal High Res (2)

  • Publish Betrayal (Jill Andersen #5).
  • Write and publish Bitter End (Jill Andersen #6).
  • Finish writing the script for Bounty: Origins graphic novel.
  • Write two short stories per month.
  • Submit stories to two anthologies.
  • Announce new series (after Betrayal‘s release).
  • Read at least 30 books.

So let’s see where I stand.

Publish Betrayal (Jill Andersen #5): This one became a reality on April 14. See?

Write and publish Bitter End (Jill Andersen #6): The first draft is well underway, roughly 25,000 words or so in.

Finish writing the script for Bounty: Origins graphic novel: In-progress! The first draft will be complete by Dec. 30.

Write two short stories per month: Honestly, this is the one that’s given me fits. I’ve written hardly anything not novel- or graphic novel-related. The ideas are there, just not the push to put those ideas into, you know, words.

Submit stories to two anthologies: In-progress. I submitted a short story back in January or February to an upcoming anthology titled Warps in the Tapestry (yes, the follow-up to Cracks in the Tapestry). I’m looking for other potential anthologies to submit to.

Announce new series (after Betrayal‘s release): Watch this space come the fall.

Read at least 30 books: 14 books read as we push into July. The goal is still within reach… even as I sit here with more reads in-progress than I care to admit. Last book read?

Aix Marks the Spot by S.E. Anderson.

 

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, scratching a pencil over a piece of paper, 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 FacebookTwitterGoodreads. and DeviantArt.

In Defense of Fan Fiction

I’m gonna let you all in on a little secret:woman-typing-writing-windows

I used to write fan fiction.

Castle fanfic, mainly. There was one where I managed to merge Castle with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was fun to write, but it got lost in the shuffle of life as a full-time worker bee and self-published creative type… I keep telling myself I’ll get back to it, but I haven’t yet.

Now, depending on which corner of the Writer Internet in which I say the words “fan fiction,” there’s no telling the reaction I’d get. In certain circles, fanfic might as well double as one of the late, great George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words. It’s the Thing That Shall Not Be Spoken Of, and people who partake in it might as well wear a scarlet W on their chests.

Acting like fanfic is the second coming of Satan and the director’s cut of Batman v. Superman, all rolled into one.

Now, I don’t begrudge authors who don’t want to see fan fiction of their work. It’s their work, their property, and they’re entitled to not wanting others to play with it. I disagree with that stance (I would flip my shit — in a good way — if I ever found out someone wrote fanfic based on my books), but I’ll never tell another writer how to treat their intellectual property.

And I think some of the anti-fanfic sentiment stems from such works as the Fifty Shades series, which famously started out as Twilight fan fiction before Big Publishing swooped in and left millions of us with a bastardized idea of what BDSM should be (but that’s another blog post for another writer to tackle).

Also worth noting: many of the most active fanfic readers and writers online are female and/or LGBT (and that there’s plenty of adult material in fanfic)… so I can’t help but feel like a good chunk of the anti-fanfic sentiment is society trying, once again, to render things that speak to marginalized people as less than, as The Other.

“You like that?! Ugh, girls and q***rs like that!”

So I write in defense of fan fiction, for several different reasons.

  1. It’s fun! Seriously, people are showing their love for their pop culture property of choice by spending more time in it, by creating their own corner of it. People love Harry Potter so much, for example, that they spend their precious free time creating more of it (without payment). Fanfic, at its essence, is a labor of love.
  2. Fanfic can be great practice, for both novice and experienced writers. When writing fanfic, you’re operating in a fictional universe that already exists. The rules are already there, the characters are at least somewhat fleshed out. In writing fanfic, you can hone your skills when it comes to plotting, dialogue, and characterization. Even if the fanfic in question stems from a belief that the source material erred (i.e., “Kate Beckett would never walk out on Richard Castle like that!”), the basics hold true.
  3. Unless a fanfic writer is profiting off the work, fanfic is, at the end of the day, harmless fun. People are reading and writing stories about worlds and characters they love. They’re harming nobody in doing this, and if a new fanfic chapter is what helps someone get through the day, then it’s worth it.
  4. Not to get meta on everything, but if you really boil down to it, almost anything can be considered fanfic of a sort. This is a variation of the “everything derives from everything” argument. That there are no truly original ideas anymore and that every story, explicitly or otherwise, borrows from several other sources. Many of us become creators because something someone else created inspired us, and we pour that inspiration into our work.

I’m not saying everyone has to partake in fanfic; it’s your prerogative if you don’t. But don’t look down on people who read it, and definitely don’t begrudge people who write it. In a way, fanfic is one of the purest forms of written expression, because it’s done without the expectation of reimbursement.

If I publish a book, it’s in the hope someone buys it, and if they buy it, I get a cut of the money. If I write a fanfic, and someone reads it, I get… the satisfaction of knowing someone read my work.

But fanfic is a legitimate form of writing, a legitimate form of entertainment, and a legitimate form of artistic expression. Without fanfic, I’m not sure if I’m a published author at this point, and fanfic is something that I occasionally long to dabble in once more.

It’s fun, it’s harmless, and it’s really just another way for creatives to show support for the stories and characters they love.

 

Sign up for my newsletter! If you do, you’ll get a copy of Boundless FOR FREE!

 

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, scratching a pencil over a piece of paper, 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 FacebookTwitterGoodreads. and DeviantArt.

News and Notes

A lot of really exciting things going on. Let’s get right to it.

-For the second straight year, I’ll be at Tidewater Comicon (this weekend at the Virginia Beach Convention Center in Virginia Beach, Va.). If you’re in the area, come on out!

-On Saturday, June 9, I will be at my first reading and signing! Join me from 6-8 p.m. at Dog Eared Books in downtown Hampton, Va. for an evening of good books, good people, and help support a newly-opened independent bookstore. Visit Dog Eared Books here, here, and here.

Notna is part of a massive giveaway on Instafreebie, the May 2018 Fantasy Extravaganza. This runs through next Tuesday (May 15), and there are over 130 books involved. Check out the first five chapters of Notna for free!

-You can also take advantage of the giveaway on its own by clicking here from now through the end of May.

-If the Jill Andersen books were a comic book series, then the latest release, Boundless, would be issue #0. The best part? It’s a great jumping-on point to the series, and it’s just 99 cents! Pick it up on your favorite e-reader today.

-I’m busy working on Betrayed, the fifth entry in the Jill Andersen series (on top of a few editing projects, and a full-time job…), but I’m really close to announcing a brand-new venture. Check this space in the coming weeks for the announcement of a new project that promises to combine the best aspects of Bounty and Notna.

EXCERPT: Notna

In part to celebrate World Book Day, I present another excerpt from Notna, my upcoming urban fantasy/paranormal book that will be out in paperback and ebook on Oct. 10. Bear in mind, this is a work-in-progress and that any mistakes are my own.

JD_Cunegan-72dpi-1500x2000 (6)

 

Prague, Czech Republic

St. Vitus Cathedral was visible from the Vitava River, towering over much of Prague. With the sun as bright as it was on this bright April morning, the cathedral shined, especially the sea green edifice atop the main tower. The temple of Gothic architecture was housed within Prague Castle, and it was the final resting place of many a Bohemian king.

St. Vitus was a magnet for tourists, dozens of whom were milling about the grounds. Cameras hung from their necks, and many of the visitors stared up in awe at the rose window on the front of the cathedral. Tourists not wearing cameras had instead pulled out smartphones, squinting into the sun as they tried to frame just the right shot on their screens.

One tourist who held neither camera nor phone, a brunette woman, instead sat cross-legged at the base of a fountain with a large sketch pad splayed over her lap. She stared intently at the cathedral, chewing on her lower lip as the pencil tucked in her left hand scratched back and forth over the paper. Pamela Daly occasionally glanced down at her work, making sure she was capturing the church’s architectural elements.

This may have been Pamela’s Spring Break, but she still had to nail her final on Gothic architecture at the end of the semester. These sketches were going to go a long way toward fleshing out that section of her research paper. As much as Pamela detested art history, the fact was she wouldn’t graduate from Syracuse if she didn’t pass classes such as this.

A group of children ran through the square, chasing after a dirty, ratty soccer ball. Their laughs and shouts of glee carried through the square, and Pamela couldn’t help the smile spreading across her face even though she couldn’t understand their native tongue.

A flash of light erupted from the sky, and was gone was quickly as it had appeared. Everyone briefly glanced at the sky, including Pamela. The pencil dangled between her fingers as she used her free hand to shield her eyes from the sun. A flock of birds flew from one grove of trees to the next, crossing St. Vitus on the way.

Everything appeared to return to normal.

With a shrug, Pamela returned to her sketch. The soccer ball skipped along the cobblestone ground. Tourists snapped pictures of the cathedral and took selfies with their smartphones. The sound of Pamela’s pencil scratching against the rough paper was the only sound that filled her ears, even as something in the back of her mind told her to glance at the sky again.

Mouth agape, Pamela stood. Her pencil and sketchpad both fell to the ground. Her eyes widened, and Pamela brought up a hand to cover her mouth.

“Oh, my God!”

The horror in Pamela’s voice caught everyone else’s attention, and as they looked to the sky, they saw a human figure plummeting toward the Earth. Women gasped, grabbing children as the men stared in silent horror. The children watched in wonder, a few of them smiling and pointing.

“Angel!” One of the children jumped up and down like a kid discovering presents under the tree on Christmas morning. “It’s an angel!”

The figure crashed through the top of the cathedral, and the gasps from the onlookers turned into shrieks and cries of horror. The body burst through the main tower, leaving a gaping hole and showering pieces of stone and other debris onto the ground. Tourists scattered to avoid the debris, some of them stopping just long enough to scoop up the children who were still staring.

As everyone else distanced themselves from the cathedral, Pamela ran toward it. Her body began moving before she could stop herself, and she abandoned the sketchpad lying open on the ground. She could hear the body crashing through the buttresses and the ceiling of the main worship hall as she shoved her way into the church. With a grunt, she pushed the heavy double doors open with her shoulder.

Pamela paused for a few seconds to catch her breath and allow the throbbing in her shoulder to subside. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the dim of the cathedral, in stark contrast to the bright sunlight outside. Starting to walk again, Pamela silently thanked herself for leaving the heels in her suitcase.

Pamela weaved her way into the worship hall, jumping with a start when she heard a groan from a pile of rubble near the altar. The stained-glass windows called out to her from the corner of her eye, and in more normal circumstances, she would’ve allowed her curiosity to get the best of her. Even the Mucha window, in all its colorful glory, was begging for her attention.

Pamela passed by John of Nepomuk’s tomb, giving it a passing glance before pained groans again called her attention to the altar. She dropped to her knees, tossing aside a few bits of rubble and waving the dust out of her face, only to gasp when she saw a man lying face-down on the floor. His silver breastplate shone in the sunlight beaming through the hole in the roof. His brown leggings were tattered and covered in burn marks. His dark hair was matted to his face and tied back into a ponytail.

Looking up at the ceiling, Pamela frowned in confusion. Not only was it unclear from where the man had fallen, but he had clearly plummeted a great distance. No one should have been able to survive a fall that far, especially after crashing through stone and wood along the way. In some ways, the man appeared to be in better shape than the cathedral.

But how was that possible?

The man groaned again, rolling onto his back with a grimace. More debris fell to the floor around him, the resulting dust causing Pamela to break into a small coughing fit. By the time it passed, she locked eyes with him; they were blue, impossibly so. Blood ran from his nose and a cut on his right cheek oozed even more blood.

“My God,” she muttered with a shake of her head.

The man erupted into a coughing fit of his own, rolling onto his side. Something silver caught Pamela’s eye, and she looked down to see a blood-soaked sword on the ground. Its gold hilt shined brighter than anything else on the altar, even the candle holders in the center. She squinted; an angel ascending to the heavens was carved on the handle.

“Are you…” Her frown deepened. “Are you alright?”

For the first time, the man acknowledged her. He glanced wearily at Pamela before nodding and rolling onto his back once again. Aside from the cuts on his face, the man didn’t appear to be injured, which was impossible on so many levels.

He sat up, the wounds closing before Pamela’s eyes. His eyes still held a faraway look, and the stubble on his face was at least a week old. Pamela glanced over her shoulder, confident that no one had followed her into the cathedral. Was it because they were off calling for help, or had they gone about their day assuming the man had died?

Probably the latter, which begged the question: how was he still alive? And where did he come from?

“Wow…”

Her eyes went skyward again. The man’s eyes followed.

“That was some tumble,” he muttered. “What happened?”

The man lowered his gaze, fully taking in Pamela for the first time. His lips opened, but no words came out. With his mouth agape, the faraway look returned.

Pamela frowned as dread built in her stomach.

“Well, uh,” Pamela paused. “What’s your name?”

The man furrowed his brow, chewing on his lower lip. For the first time, char marks were visible on his breastplate. Pamela’s heart sank when saw them, resisting the urge to reach out and run her fingers over the marks. If the man didn’t understand how he wound up face-down in a church in Prague, perhaps he didn’t know much of anything else.

“I,” he began, his frown deepening when the words caught in his throat. His eyes widened when they locked on Pamela’s. “I don’t remember.”

OUT NOW: The Bounty Trilogy

Bounty trilogy coverHAMPTON, Va. — Where can you get three full-length novels for just six bucks?

Amazon, where you can now pick up The Bounty Trilogy — a Kindle exclusive — for just $5.99. The Bounty Trilogy bundles together BountyBlood Ties, and Behind the Badge, the first three novels in the Jill Andersen series.

In addition, I’ve thrown in the first four chapters of Notna, which will release on Oct. 10.

From The Bounty Trilogy‘s Amazon listing:

Jill Andersen is a war vet. She’s a homicide cop. And she’s a vigilante.

But don’t call her a hero.

When Dr. Trent Roberts’ body is fished out of the Chesapeake Bay, it triggers a series of events that leaves Jill facing the prospect of her darkest secret coming to light. On top of solving that murder, she must decide who she can trust – all while trying to prove her disgraced father’s innocence.

A shadowy billionaire, a mysterious cabal, and an underground cybernetics experiment weave a complicated path to telling Jill’s tale – one that takes an even more dramatic turn when four cops murder a 17-year-old boy in cold blood and a mysterious, powerful figure delivers his own brand of vigilante justice.

With Jill at a crossroads in the upcoming Behind the Mask, catch up on J.D. Cunegan’s adrenaline-packed blend of murder mystery, science fiction, and superhero comic books that one reader called “a delightful mix between Daredevil and Castle.”

EXCERPT: Behind the Mask

Below is an excerpt from Behind the Mask, the upcoming fourth novel in the Jill Andersen series. Please note that this is an early draft that has not yet been subject to strenuous editing. All mistakes are my own. Also, be warned that there are spoilers if you haven’t yet read Behind the Badge.

JD_Cunegan-72dpi-1500x2000 (7)Every time sirens whirred to life, Jill Andersen’s heart skipped a beat.

The two weeks since Jill had marched into the WJZ studios, hacked into the live television feed, and broadcast to all of Baltimore who she really was had crawled by. It was almost reminiscent of when Jill and her younger brother Brian were children, eagerly awaiting Christmas morning. Each day that drew closer to the holiday seemed to drag along slower than the last. The only difference this time was the overwhelming dread that came with waiting. It almost literally pressed down on Jill’s shoulders, the bone-chilling and stomach-churning realization that any night would be the night Jill finally lost her freedom.

And in a way, Jill thought she should. After all, every time she donned the black leather, every time she assumed the mantle of the vigilante, she broke the law. Her day job centered around bringing those who broke the law to justice; if Jill broke the law, wasn’t she supposed to face the same fate?

In a perfect world, she would — but then again, that same perfect world would have seen the four officers who tortured and killed Devin Buckner suffer the same fate. Instead, the Baltimore Police Department aided and abetted them, threatening Jill in the process, and it got to the point where those four wound up in a watery grave thanks to a nameless, faceless vigilante.

That ultimately led to Jill turning in her badge. As for the reveal? Well, that was a much more complicated, much more sordid tale. Jill had kicked herself plenty for her rash decision over the past couple weeks, whenever a close call nearly had her hunched over in the back seat of a squad car with her wrists shackled together behind her back. It was the reason she wore a bulky black overcoat on top of her leather. It was the reason she had chopped much of her hair off and dyed it jet black. It now curled up at the sides around her ears, bangs forming over her forehead. It was the reason she abandoned her apartment and hadn’t so much as spoken to her brother or her former partner, outside of an untraceable text from a burner phone. It was the reason Jill kept her trademark katana hidden in an abandoned warehouse on the corner of Lee and Charles.

It was the reason Jill’s heart just now leapt in her throat and she peered over her shoulder around the corner of the building. The sirens were growing louder, and Jill couldn’t help but wonder if this was the night the cops finally cornered her. To her relief, the warehouse in question still had one of those old-style fire escapes. The metal was rusted from lack of care, and it chaffed against the leather on Jill’s palms when she jumped to grab it, but her enhanced strength made ascending the warehouse’s six stories a relative walk in the park.

As Jill made her way to the roof, she peered over her shoulder again. The police vehicle, which was actually a K-9 SUV, had stopped a block to the north, blue overheads spinning to announce their presence. The light bounced off the buildings in the vicinity, and despite having height to her advantage, Jill crouched down to stare over the ledge. A husky officer named Yancey emerged from the driver’s seat, sauntering to the rear of the vehicle and producing two adult German Shepherds. Jill cursed under her breath and pressed her back against the ledge.

Jill knew almost nothing about dogs, other than her childhood memories of Brian begging for a puppy for his tenth birthday. She had no idea how good their sense of smell really was, if they would be able to sense where she was and when. A side effect of being with the Homicide unit her entire career, Jill hadn’t taken the time to learn how other divisions operated. She wondered if that ignorance would be her undoing, and part of Jill bristled at that. She didn’t want Fido to be the reason she wound up behind bars. She was a superhero, a freaking cyborg… she was so much better than that.

Pushing off the ledge, careful not to let her boots crunch too loudly against the gravel, Jill tried to keep an eye on Yancey’s route. He stuck to the sidewalks, lighting a cigarette and seemingly content to let the dogs lead the way. Their black snouts were pressed to the pavement, their tails remarkably still.

Yancey turned around, giving Jill a full view of his face. He pushed the brim of his cap up, puffing out a drag of his smoke. Even from six stories up, Jill could see the bags under his eyes and the general disinterest on his scruffy features. Pulling the cigarette from his mouth and tapping out a few ashes, Yancey shook his head and glanced toward the sky. His gaze wasn’t in Jill’s direction, yet she still crouched down further in response. Yancey looked as if he was none too pleased with this particular assignment, and he didn’t notice as the two dogs wandered into a nearby alley. Instead, he kept sucking away at his cigarette before finally flicking the spent butt out onto the street without bothering to snuff it out.

The dogs barked in unison and Jill flinched. But Yancey just stuffed his hand into the pocket of his bulky overcoat, producing a flashlight and heaving a sigh before turning around and joining his pooches. It was in the opposite direction of where Jill was, and she released the breath she hadn’t even realized she had been holding. Chances were, Yancey was simply following orders — reluctantly so, if Jill had correctly read his demeanor. So if he was the one to catch her, would she really be able to blame him?

And for all the bravado Jill tried to pump herself up with, for all the times she would catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror and remind herself that there were those in this town who worshiped her… this was wearing on her. When Jill wasn’t actually on the run, she was having trouble eating. She certainly wasn’t sleeping. Her titanium skeleton and enhanced strength weren’t doing her any good when she was this run down. If only Project Fusion had rid her of the need for food or rest…

The barking in the distance stopped. Jill glanced over the ledge again, but she didn’t see Yancey or the dogs emerge from the alley. At first, she didn’t think anything of it, but with each second that passed, and as the traffic lights at the intersection of Charles and Hughes went through three cycles, dread built in her gut. Her first instinct was to go investigate; whether as a cop or as Bounty, that was what Jill’s body was practically trained to do. Yet she kept still, because there was too much at risk. If someone else saw her, if Yancey was, in fact, alright… the last thing Jill wanted to do was fall into a trap.

Minutes passed without any sign of Yancey or the dogs. Jill got to her feet, deciding she could no longer ignore the intuition plucking away at her subconscious. One of the first lessons she had learned as a cop was to trust herself when her gut told her something wasn’t right. A cop’s gut wasn’t gospel, despite what some old-timers had tried to tell her, but Jill had eventually learned that listening to her proverbial spider sense was beneficial more often than not.

But when Jill got to her feet, the sound of gravel scraping gave her pause. Jill held her breath, her hands balling into fists seemingly on their own. She held her breath, training all of her senses to hone in for that sound again. She was met with nothing more than the howl of wind off the bay, her hair fluttering in the breeze, but she could feel the presence behind her. Tightening her fists, Jill turned to regard whoever was now on the roof with her. She wasn’t sure what she expected — if it was a cop, chances were they would have already announced themselves, but once Jill caught sight of the lanky man wearing a black and orange overcoat and a matching baseball cap hung low over his forehead, she frowned. This was not what she expected.

“Erikson?”

“You’re a hard woman to find,” the Baltimore Sun‘s investigative reporter said with a sideways grin. “Though I guess that’s by design these days.”

Reluctantly, Jill unfurled her fists. “Sneaking up on a paranoid superhero’s not a very good idea.”

“Even if I have a tip?”

“Please tell me the next words out of your mouth are that the cops aren’t after me.”

“Not quite, but just as good.” Stanley Erikson glanced over his shoulder and tugged on the bill of his cap. His eyes narrowed when the wind picked up. “Tomorrow night, an associate of David Gregor’s will be awaiting a shipment at the Port of Baltimore.”

Jill’s spine stiffened at the sound of that name. “While he’s across the Atlantic. The perfect alibi.”

“My sources tell me he’s resuming the drug trade,” Erikson explained. “If you’re not too busy playing hide-and-seek with your former employers, might be worth checking out.”

“That it? You could’ve just texted me.”

“There’s also this,” Erikson said, producing a black USB drive from his pocket and handing it to Jill.

She took the device with a frown and a quirked brow, shaking her head. It wasn’t like she had ready access to a computer to read whatever was on here, yet her fingers curled around the small stick regardless. “What’s this?”

“Something I have a lot of questions about,” Erikson said, zipping up his coat and stuffing his hands into the pockets. “Questions I know you have answers to.”

Something about the way Erikson said that rubbed Jill the wrong way, yet she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the flash drive… nor could she ignore the intel he had provided just moments before. If she could corner one of Gregor’s associates while he was out of the country… oh, the possibilities were endless.

“I’m guessing you won’t take a ‘no comment’.”

A rueful smile crept onto Erikson’s face. “Oh, something tells me you’ll have plenty to say about this.”