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

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: S.E. Anderson

Hey, everyone! It’s time for another Author Spotlight, and I’m excited to feature one of my favorite indie authors, S.E. Anderson! She’s a fantastic sci-fi author, but she’s also a kickass graphic designer (seriously, look at her covers for my series), she’s studying to be a scientist, and… oh yeah, she also happens to be a fan of mine.

Anderson is one of the reasons I love being an indie author, and I’m excited to tell you guys all about her work! First, let’s have a chat with S.E. Anderson.

 

What was your inspiration behind the Starstruck series?

Back when I first started writing the series, it was a joint effort between me and one of my closest friends, Joanna. We wanted to write what we weren’t finding in the books available to us: a girl struggling with real life, but also science fiction that was fun and possibly even hilarious. She wanted to work on characters who lived so long they couldn’t remember where they started out; and I wanted to write an adventure serial about teleportation. The two ideas meshed perfectly!

In my experience, and I know I haven’t read the entirety of it, the science fiction genre can be pretty doom and gloom, and a lot of times, it’s a genre that takes itself far too seriously. How important to you was it for your series to not fall into that trap? How important is the humor in these books?

It’s essential for the series. The universe is a massively chaotic place; the only way through it is not to fight the chaos, but go along with it. Living life by that logic, I’ve been able to have the funnest, oddest experiences. For Sally, it’s on a much larger scale. She struggles with depression and anxiety, so it would be really easy for the series to get quite dark. And it will: some moments are harsh and painful. But it’s in those moments of pure, unadulterated absurdity that she grows.

Tell me a bit about your background as a scientist. How does being a scientist affect your writing? Do you get story ideas from your academic work?

I’m still just a student, but I know enough now to see where science fiction differs from science-fact. I love learning a new concept in lectures and thinking about how to integrate it into my books. It’s fun trying to work out warp drives or faster than light travel with friends! I definitely love to learn, and hints of things that really hit me are dotted throughout the series.

Character vs. plot: the seemingly endless debate over which is more important for a good story. Which side of that debate do you fall on, and how do you approach character when your protagonist grow from one book to the next?

Personally, I’ve read books that fall on either side of the wall: great stories with flat characters and boring plots with amazingly relatable people. But I think character is the most important element. If a book has amazing characters, they could be doing absolutely anything and I’d still read them. I’d read a whole book of Percy Jackson doing his dishes or Harry Potter trying to help Ron with taxes. At the end of the day, those characters are the ones that make you come back to the series.

In my opinion, a plot cannot be separate from characters. Everything (interesting) that happens is driven by choices. So good characters make for a gripping story, no matter what. And authors who treat their world as a character and build it up in the same way usually create something more visually impacting.

Sally is constantly growing through the series. My biggest struggle writing Starstruck(s) comes down to how Sally is going to change. What makes her mad, what drives her to aspire to do more? The upcoming book 4 will make her decide if she wants to take on responsibility or if she’s not ready yet. In the end, the series is Sally’s saga, how she changes from a shy, isolated, self-conscious girl to a strong woman ready to take on anything the universe throws at her. But she’s not there yet.

Are you a heavy plotter, or do you just let the story take you where it will?

The more I plot, the more I procrastinate. I have a premise, my characters, and they lead me along to find the plot as I write. Editing will change a lot of my first drafts!

On top of being an author and a scientist, you’re a graphic designer and a book reviewer. How do you manage all of those different hats, and how does each piece of the puzzle fit into the greater whole that is S.E. Anderson?

I shall answer this with two words, one sound: *pterodactyl scream*

Tell me about some of the other projects you’re working on. I know there’s one more book coming in the Starstruck series, and I think you’re working on a re-telling of The Wizard of Oz?

That’s right! Celestial, book four of Starstruck, is currently with my editor. Book five is being written off and on. My real focus over the next few months is to bring YELLOW (read sneak peek here) to life. The book follows Dora, an illegal clone of the current royal princess, who finds herself trapped on a mysterious planet in the Outer Zone after making a costly mistake. She makes allies with a girl with no memory, a droid with no personality, and a genetically modified soldier with no orders. Together they need to find the Technomage, a genius engineer who could potentially solve all their problems – if he can be trusted. It’s a story about identity, friendship, and taking risks.

What are some of your favorite books right now?

So many! Absolutely loves Atlas Fallen by Jessica Pierce. And Children of Blood and Bone – Phenomenal!
Now, let’s check out her books!

Starstruck (Starstruck #1)

In my experience, science fiction is a genre that takes itself far too seriously.Starstruck

Fortunately, Starstruck — S.E. Anderson’s debut novel — doesn’t have that issue. Don’t mistake: the stakes are high, both in Sally’s life and for the world at large, but this is a quirky tale that isn’t afraid to occasionally stop and take a moment to laugh at itself.

After all, Sally goes from a relatively dead-end life to one in which she’s knee-deep in aliens and trying to save the world. It’s an absurd concept, and the narrative not only acknowledges that absurdity, it embraces it. Sally is a great protagonist who is surrounded by equally remarkable characters. Zander is a treat, and Blayde was so much damn fun to read — very Faith Lehane-like — that I want much more of her going forward.

Most protagonists with Sally’s backstory spend the entire story feeling sorry for themselves, but she doesn’t fall into that trope. Instead, Anderson gives her remarkable agency, revealing layers of depth and bravery even Sally doesn’t realize she has, and it is viscerally satisfying to see how much Sally grows from the first page to the last.

In a way, the ending is a little bit of a head-scratcher, but a) that’s by design, and b) this is clearly the first in a series I have on good authority will be at least five books in length. And if the future volumes are anything like Starstruck, then sci-fi fans are in for a treat.

Anderson’s debut is a fun ride with more depth than it might appear on the surface. It’s not afraid to go for a laugh, but it also takes great care in making sure Sally is at the forefront of everything. She is a fantastic character, one I’m eager to accompany on future adventures.

Starstruck is one of the best books I read in 2017, and it is highly recommended.

Rating: *****

Buy Starstruck now!

 

Alienation (Starstruck #2)

Alienation, the follow-up to S.E. Anderson’s debut sci-fi romp Starstruck, is grander in scale and far more intense than its predecessor. Don’t worry, though; there are still 20623566_10213617375530787_675999032_oplenty of laughs to be had, and Anderson never loses sight of what drives Sally and what keeps her going in spite of… well, everything.

This is very much a fish-out-of-water story. I suppose Starstruck was, to a degree, but whereas the first book had a supporting character learning a new world in Zander, Alienation puts Sally through the proverbial wringer, plunking her on a foreign planet, separating her from Zander and Blayde, and… I’m not sure which winds up harder for her, the mental anguish or the physical pain.

Seriously, Sally goes through some stuff here.

But all the qualities that made Starstruck so great remain in Alienation. Sure, the fantastic world and strange alien species are cool, and it’s fascinating to see how the locals react to Sally as much as vice versa, but the strength of this series remains the humor and the heart. There’s a certain whimsy throughout much of this book, which makes the darker, heavier passages easier to navigate, and Sally’s continued growth is evident.

For all the change Sally endured from the beginning of Starstruck to the end, she grows even more here in Alienation. To see someone so anxious, so used to life being an absolute dumpster fire, seeing Sally stand up straight, ball up her fists, and pretty much say “Alright, enough of this crap” is as satisfying a journey as zooming through the cosmos.

Too much science fiction anymore is dark, gritty, and so damn focused on apocalyptic futures. That’s fine – there can be some great stories to come from that backdrop – but Anderson’s insistence on not falling into that trope is a large part of what makes Alienation every bit the excellent read Starstruck was.

Anderson is not afraid to go for a laugh, but she also takes great pains in crafting a memorable protagonist who’s easy to fall in love with. More than anything, Anderson proves that science fiction can not only be funny, but it can also have tremendous heart.

Rating: *****

Buy Alienation now!

 

Traveler (Starstruck #3)

Traveler, the third installment in S.E. Anderson’s Starstruck series, might not be as laugh-out-loud funny as its predecessors, but it is quite possibly the best, most well-rounded entry in the series to this point.38469649

A cross between Galaxy Quest and Clue, this latest has us join Sally, Zander, and Blayde as they appear on a rather large spaceship — one that winds up being not quite was it seems. In fact, very little is as it seems in this book, which in the hands of a less capable writer would be frustrating. But Anderson’s attention to character detail, and her ability to know when to let a moment breathe, make the journey worthwhile.

Though the outright laughs are not as plentiful in Traveler, there is still a whimsy to it all. The doom and gloom are doomier and gloomier than before, but Anderson never lets us forget how utterly ridiculous this all is. After all, Sally’s on a spaceship. There’s Star Trek fanfic. And a robot trying to do its best Billy Graham impression.

Yet it all works.

All three books in the series to this point have taken place in different locales, and Anderson is showing that she’s just as good at building multiple worlds as she is in crafting memorable characters. Her love for the genre is obvious, even in the moments when she lampoons it, and that’s just another piece of the puzzle that makes Traveler such a great read.

If you’re not in on this series yet, you really should be.

Rating: *****

Buy Traveler now!

 

In addition to the Starstruck series, be sure to catch S.E. Anderson’s work in several anthologies. Check out S.E. Anderson’s website, as well as her Amazon and Goodreads pages. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and be sure to check out her covers, too!

The Best Books I Read in 2017

Well… 2017 was a year.

Not that it was all bad. I got a new full-time job that gave me more financial freedom and the work-life balance I had been looking for. I published two novels — the lifelong labor in Notna and Behind the Mask, the latest in Jill Andersen’s saga. And I read some really good books.

As with last year, this list is not of the best books released in 2017, but the best books I read in 2017.

5. Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

stalking-jack-the-ripperMurder mysteries are a dime a dozen (says the guy who writes his own), to the point where it’s the twist on the genre that can make or break a book. In the case of Kerri Maniscalco’s debut, Stalking Jack the Ripper, the genre is tossed all the way back to 19th-century London, and we’re introduced to a teenage girl who is studying forensics.

That twist brings with it some societal commentary (impossible not to, given what was expected of women and girls back then). Fortunately, Maniscalco doesn’t preach to us; instead, she takes us on a journey where Audrey Rose uses her wit and impressive intellect to track one of history’s most notorious killers. A sci-fi twist at the end punctuates the thriller nicely, and the historic backdrop is almost a character in an of itself.

Stalking Jack the Ripper is an exciting, intense, and surprisingly emotional tale — one that will likely be pigeonholed as YA because of its teenage protagonist. But this is a fantastic book for readers of (almost) any age, and it sets the stage nicely for future adventures (including Hunting Prince Dracula, which came out this past September).

Stalking Jack the Ripper is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

4. Beasts of Babylon by E.A. Copen

Beasts of BabylonI’m already a huge fan of E.A. Copen — her Judah Black series is some of the best mystery/urban fantasy I’ve read in recent years, and she proved she can go dark with the short Kiss of Vengeance. But with Beasts of Babylon, Copen merges the traditional western with the horror genre, and the result is her finest work to date.

Anastasia Throne is dead. Only she’s not. She’s also one hell of a gunslinger, and she’s got a tragic past that still clings to her even as she trudges through what now passes for her life. Beasts of Babylon is dripping with tension, the rare horror novel I’ve read that manages to scare without relying on visuals.

Heroes are not as virtuous as they seem, and the villains aren’t quite the monsters we might wish they were. Copen has introduced us to a vibrant, disturbing world, one I can’t wait to revisit. The monsters and the fights are matched only by deep character moments that give Beasts of Babylon more depth than one might expect at first glance.

A true must-read.

Beasts of Babylon is available in paperback and ebook.

3. Starstruck by S.E. Anderson

StarstruckScience Fiction has a problem. It takes itself too damn seriously.

Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with gritty, end-of-the-world, dystopian sci-fi. There’s a place for it. But S.E. Anderson has given us a sci-fi romp where the stakes are high, but laughs are still to be had. Sally Webber has her admittedly dreary life turned upside down, and she finds herself knee-deep in aliens and a life change that proves too good to be true.

Along the way, Sally, Zander, and Blayde set the stage for future adventures. Make no mistake: this is not just a frolicking journey through the cosmos. The stakes are high, the risks are real, and when appropriate, the violence is quite bloody. The humor is not here to detract from the overall narrative; instead, Anderson uses that humor to defuse the tension, to remind us that above all, science fiction should be fun.

And fun Starstruck is. The pages fly by, not just because of Sally, because of Anderson’s deft prose, and because of the action, but because all of those elements combine to create one of the most engrossing, most complete books I’ve ever read in the genre. If you’re a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fan, or you’re into Guardians of the Galaxy, this book might just be for you.

Starstruck is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

2. Grave Dealings by R.R. Virdi

Grave DealingsThe 2016 list should’ve made it clear how much I enjoy R.R. Virdi’s writing. Witty, intense, consuming… and the Vincent Graves books are perhaps the best example of his grip on the craft. Grave Dealings, the third installment in the series, takes what made the first two entries great and builds on it.

No, literally — Grave Dealings is twice the size of the first two installments. Graves has yet another murder to solve, only this time, he’s faced with distractions that threaten his safety and sanity… he faces uncomfortable truths he hadn’t confronted in the first two books… and for the first time, the carrot of potential long-term answers are dangled in front of him.

You don’t have to read Dangerous Ways in order to follow along with Vincent Graves, but having done so makes reading Dealings more satisfying. Virdi has not only crafted memorable, easy-to-root-for characters, but we’re watching him construct and round out a vibrant world that’s almost a character on its own. If you’re an urban fantasy reader, and R.R. Virdi’s not on your shelf, you’re missing out.

Grave Dealings is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

1. Floor 21: Judgement by Jason Luthor

Floor 21 JudgementHorror doesn’t get better than this.

Jason Luthor’s brand of horror — on full display again in his third novel, Floor 21: Judgement — doesn’t rely on jump-scares or moments that make you practically soil yourself in fear. Rather, he prefers to toss you into a room where the tension pushes down on your shoulders, the shadows are always just out of the corner of your eye, and the walls always seem like they’re closing in.

There is no rest from the tension in Judgement, the end of the trilogy that also leaves plenty of bread crumbs for future installments. One of Luthor’s strengths is developing a vibrant, all-encompassing world — all housed within one building. The characters continue to grow and develop; not just Jackie, but supporting characters who were but bit players in previous installments.

The simple truth is this: Floor 21: Judgement is the best book I read in 2017, and if you’re new to Luthor’s work, then I suggest you devour all three installments. Few indie authors can weave a tale as expertly as Luthor, with a delicate balance of action, character, and heart. Judgement has all of it in spades.

Floor 21: Judgement is available on Kindle.

Honorable Mention: The Seekers by Cait Ashwood, Black Fall by Andrew Mayne, Alienation by S.E. Anderson, Playing With Fire by E.A. Copen, Steele-Faced by Alex P. Berg, The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig, Finding Home Again by Mary Head

BLOG TOUR: Alienation by S.E. Anderson

J.D. Cunegan

Welcome to the Alienation BLOG HOP TOUR.

Please take your seat and strap yourself in, as we take you on an intergalactic tour. You will be amazed, entertained, and educated. Manoeuvre through the cosmos and be astounded at all you see. Hunt down the hidden words that will get you to your final destination where a one-of- a -kind award awaits one lucky traveller.

You are here to celebrate the release of Alienation, book two of the humorous Sci-Fi series, Starstruck.

20623566_10213617375530787_675999032_oSally Webber’s dream is coming true: Zander is back and taking her out for a night on the town–on a planet hundreds of light years away from Earth.

But when an accident separates her from her alien tour guide, she’s thrown into the seedy underbelly of an insane city where nothing is as it seems. Suddenly lost and desperate to get back home, Sally is willing to do anything to get out, even if it means accepting spontaneous marriage proposals, crashing some fancy parties, or joining what appears to be the space mob.

All she wanted was some decent interstellar pizza, but now it might be the end of the world as evil nanobots and an out of control AI try to take the universe by force, and the only one who can stop them is missing in action. Sally has no choice but to try to stop them herself–if she can stay alive that long.

Pre-order your copy now!

Alienation is the fantastic sequel to the hit sci-fi comedy, Starstruck by S.E.Anderson.

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An Interview with Zander

You’re immediately impressed by the striking figure who walks in. Zander strikes through the room like he owns it. You feel slightly unsettled, actually: you can somehow feel him taking in the room, counting people and exits. There’s no doubt in your mind that he could easily subdue you if things get out of hand. But when he reaches your table, he brushes a hand though his gravity defying hair, and smiles. Instantly, you’re at ease.22218159_10214098773365432_2004129849_o

Blog: Hi, you must be Zander!

Zander: That’s me! You want to interview me? What’s this all about?

Blog: This new book you’re in. Alienation? It comes out soon, and I want to give my readers the inside scoop. If that’s alright with you, I have a few questions.

Zander: Fire away!

Blog: I love your enthusiasm. Right. So tell us a little about yourself. You’re not from Earth, are you?

Zander: Nope, I’m from… somewhere else. It’s really complicated. I could through a few syllables together and call it a planet, and you’d believe me. I won’t stoop that low. I’m from, in short, space.

Blog: O…kay. So you’re an alien. You look rather human, though.

Zander: A lot of ‘aliens’ in this corner of the Milky Way do, you might be surprised to learn. We all share some common ancestors, got separated over a few million years. We’re cousins to the stars.

Blog: Does that mean you have special powers?

Zander: My sister, Blayde, makes me call them abilities, for some reason, But yeah, I have spooky powers! I can jump – basically, teleport – from any one place to the other in the universe. It’s a little limited: while I can jump really well to a place I can see right before me, when it comes to the intergalactic vastness of space, the locations I reappear seem to be completely random.

Blog: Fascinating. So when you take Sally somewhere out in the universe, you have no idea where you’re taking her?

Zander: Nope! Isn’t that fun? The universe is a surprise planet grab bag.

Blog: But what if it’s not safe?

Zander: We’ll be fiiiine. I’ve been alive for thousands of years, I know how to keep my friends safe. I’m immortal! It’s pretty awesome.

Blog: If that were the case, we wouldn’t have much of a book…

Zander: Aww, come on! Fine, sometimes I mess up. I’ll admit it! When it comes to Sally, I completely lose my bearings.

Blog: And why’s that?

Zander: I’m not… not quite sure. I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Follow this exciting blog tour starting at your first stop UrbanHype101 and if you get lost in cyber space, come back to UrbanHype101 for the tour map.

There’s something new to read, see, or hear on each of these stops.

Don’t forget to hunt for that special word and if you find ALL of them, send them to scavengerhunt@bolidepublishing.com and you could win a signed copy of Alienation and a gift pack of unique swag. This contest is open internationally.

15th October Readcommendations

Downdwellers