International Standard Book Numbers, or ISBNs — those ubiquitous barcodes responsible for making books one of the earliest online commodities (and gifting Amazon an auspicious beginning) — are also useful in quantifying how many books a particular country the publishing world releases each year.
Recent statistics indicate that that number was nearly 3.5 million in the United States alone, and about 3.3 million more than its nearest competitor, the United Kingdom, which issued less than 200,000 ISBNs during a comparable time frame.
However you page through that data, that’s a lot of books — and enough that you might have missed some of the best from the past few months.
From Alabamian nonfiction to North Carolinian poetry; from thrillers, sci-fi, fantasy and old-fashioned storytelling, the following is a curated and publication-dated list of 15 books — including a notable work of poetry from the High Country — that might have missed your literary calendar. Now, as we move into high summer, it’s worth noting that any of these would be a welcome addition to your beach bag — ISBN, sand and all, which is timely, since a few have a next installment blooming this season, or as soon as fireplace weather begins to kick in.
‘When Light Waits For Us’ (Main Street Rag Publishing Company) by Hilda Downer, $14, softcover, 69 pages, May 6, 2021
Hilda Downer, a member of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative, completed her master’s work at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., and earned a MFA in poetry from Vermont College — all factors she weaves into deeply interior vignettes in “When Light Waits For Us.”
Like the best poetry, those scraps of life speak to each of us as individuals. “I know what it is / about the rain’s hard knuckles on the roof / before leaking down the chalky wall / that chills me more / than the risk of hypothermia: / It is the poverty of childhood,” she writes in “The Scamp.”
Accessible and touching, “When Light Waits For Us” began as a collaborative effort with a photographer — a relationship that fell into free verse. The aftermath, this solitary release, is better for that experience.
‘Miss Molly’s Final Mission,’ by Rick DeStefanis, $23.95, hardcover, 234 pages, Aug. 24, 2021
The subtitle of Rick DeStefanis’ most recent novel might read, “A Vietnam War veteran flies into Central American Revolution and finds love in the jungle” — and that puts it squarely in the writer's wheelhouse.
The author of three series — The Rawlins Trilogy, Southern Fiction Series and The Vietnam War Series — DeStefanis is a gifted storyteller who offers here a standalone military adventure, even as long-time readers will be rewarded with some familiar characters, such as Buddy Rider from the “Valley of the Purple Hearts.”
As always, the story is heavy on adventure and light on romance, as in this book, with echoes of DeStefanis’ “The Birdhouse Man.” As in that novel, Buddy is a lone Vietnam veteran and pilot who is pulled into a mercy mission to help save several Maryknoll Sister missionaries embroiled in revolution-torn El Salvador in the 1980s.
Meticulous research and credibility are hallmarks of "Miss Molly," and the author’s Vietnam series overall. A satisfying novel based on a war that reverberates through America today.
'Gated Prey (Eve Ronin Book 3)' (Thomas & Mercer) by Lee Goldberg, $9.99, paperback, 267 pages, Oct. 26, 2021
Lee Goldberg’s third Eve Ronin book almost didn’t make this list — but only because the fourth installment in the series, “Movie Land,” was recently released. Goldberg is a gifted television writer who knows how to keep the pages turning in his novels, and turn out bestsellers, which he does to myriad acclaims in his Eve Ronin series.
Ronin is a Los Angeles County sheriff’s detective who, in this third edition, is embroiled in high-dollar thefts and murder in gated communities with a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit hanging over her.
True to form, Goldberg neatly ties up multitudinous loose ends before setting up the next in the series. “Gated Prey” works as a series starter, but if you begin here, the recommendation is that you consume one and two before four. Continuity really isn’t the concern — Goldberg is fluent enough to drop enough details to make each a standalone — but series readers are rewarded with subtle Easter eggs as one novel builds into the next. "Movieland (Eve Ronin Book 4)," continues the suspense with a series of sniper attacks in California that echo real-life events from the past.
‘The Dangers of an Ordinary Night,’ (Crooked Lane Books) by Lynne Reeves, $17.49, hardcover, 288 pages, Nov. 9, 2021
Dark secrets propel the mystery of two 17-year-olds kidnapped and left to die. When one of the teens is found, dazed and disoriented, the story moves into a web of truth, half-truths and buried pasts that threaten family members and a detective scouring for clues in an affluent community. Personal redemption by that detective is possible, and needed on personally visceral levels, but only if all is revealed before the denouement.
Cinematic in scope, Reeves notes that “The Dangers of an Ordinary Night” is my love letter to the theater … (with a) setting central to both the way the story is conceived and in the dramatic themes the novel explores.” Those dramatic themes? Mental illness and addiction top the list — two dangers found in an “ordinary night.”
A self-assured novel, Reeves, a veteran school and family counselor, builds relationship upon relationship with a deft touch in constructing characters and story that will linger after the last page.
The author's next novel, “Dark Rivers to Cross” (Crooked Lane), is an origin story involving a mother and her two sheltered sons — and the past family connections she has sought to erase. “Dark Rivers” is scheduled to release Nov. 8, in plenty of time to first safeguard a bit of reading time for “Dangers.”
‘The Dark Hours: (A Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch novel, 4),’ (Little, Brown and Company) by Michael Connelly, $29, hardcover, 400 pages, Nov. 9, 2021
Another in a series on this list with a next installment in the works (“Desert Star,” Nov. 8), Connelly’s Ballard series are books that could be consumed alone, but most savored when read in order for the nuances of character development the author so ably constructs. Unlike his Bosch series, which runs now to more than two dozen books, now is a good time to get on the four-book and counting Ballard-Bosch bandwagon.
In “The Dark Hours,’ Connelly neatly twines a single bullet from a New Year’s Eve shooting-death case of LAPD Detective Ballard’s with an ancient case of Detective Harry Bosch’s. Tying in a pair of serial rapists, the Midnight Men, the story moves quickly toward plot connections only a master such as Connelly could devise. Set in near-real time, the global pandemic has altered the makeup and resources of the department, leaving Ballard and Bosch to recognize that the only way to solve both crimes is by again joining forces.
‘The Becoming: The Dragon Heart Legacy (Book 2)’ (St. Martins Press) by Nora Roberts, $28.99, hardcover, 448 pages, Nov. 23, 2021
After eons, the worlds of man and magic have been split and divided, but some, including Breen Siobhan Kelly, can move between both. Reading the second offering in Nora Roberts’ fantasy series, “The Becoming: The Dragon Heart Legacy,” gives you just enough time to get caught up on the series (“The Choice: The Dragon Heart Legacy,” book three is due Nov. 22), and if you do, you’ll find why November’s cliff-hanger resolution (the publisher isn’t quiet about labeling the series both fantasy and suspense) is so highly anticipated.
Perhaps more known for her romance novels — Roberts has published more than 220 of those — the author’s talents for fantasy are well-recognized and deservedly earned with the Dragon Heart series, a world-building series destined for the big screen.
‘Struggles of the Soul: Where to Now, Lord?’ (Legaia Books) by Hollis Arban, $7.95, paperback, 181 pages, Jan. 11, 2022
This touching, coming-of-age story, ‘Struggles of the Soul,’ by Hollis Arban, formerly of Athens in North Alabama, will appeal to teens — especially as the author adds a note of realism by inserting himself both into the story as the middle-aged Hal, and into the lives of a young family he befriends during a friendly game in the park.
As Hal’s life is revealed through stories, meals and outings, bonds deepen, boys learn to become men and a special young girl learns the value of friendship. Written from personal experiences, this short novel takes us to simpler times when learned life lessons lasted a lifetime.
And also on the subject of those simpler times, look also for Arban’s most recent book, “Short Stories for my Students” ($9.95, paperback, 175 pages, July 15, 2022). Written with middle- and high schoolers in mind, the 10 stories in this volume similarly come from the experience and imagination of earlier times — such as the story told to the author by his father, narrating the tale of a panther roaming the family’s Alabama farm in the early 1900s.
‘The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections’ (Poisoned Pen Press) by Eva Jurczyk, $26.99, hardcover, 336 pages, Jan. 25, 2022
An accomplished debut, “The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections” by Eva Jurczyk takes us with an expert’s pen into the world of rare books in a large university. Part mystery — and, as the title promises, one which centers on an irreplaceable ancient tome — and part relationship storytelling, the tale of a priceless book and the curator who’s told to keep the theft quiet is much more than it appears on the surface.
Look beyond the cover, Jurczyk tells us, and we’ll find the substance of a woman struggling to move past the shadows of the powerful men who loom over her. A heartbreaking twist infiltrates this story in a novel that teaches us about the transformational power of books in our lives.
‘The Silent Sisters’ (Charles Jenkins Book 3)' (Thomas & Mercer) by Robert Dugoni, $24.95, hardcover, 400 pages, Feb. 22, 2022
Those who have read Robert Dugoni’s past books would purchase anything, sight unseen, with the author’s name on it. Were he to publish his grocery list we’d still press “buy” because readers know even that would be laced with suspense and story.
And so we come to the third book in Dugoni’s Charles Jenkins series — a story we desperately need today.
Set in Russia, Jenkins is a master spy who thinks he’s done with his craft until the final two of seven sleeping American assets, women under decades of deep cover and dubbed “the sisters,” drop all communications from their contacts.
By this point in the series (preceded by “The Eighth Sister” and “The Last Agent"), Jenkins is on a Russian kill list, leaving him what he believes no moral option other than infiltrating the country in disguise — made harder since Jenkins is a Black man in a sea of white — to either save the Russian counter spies or determine if they’ve been turned against America as double agents.
Layering Russian organized crime into the story, Dugoni weaves a Russian spy story where, beyond all odds, the underdogs might just have a chance to win. Begin with the first two books in the series to capture shades of story, or dive into No. 3 for a solid summer read.
‘Girl In Ice’ (Gallery/Scout) by Erica Ferencik, $27.99, hardcover, 304 pages, March 1, 2022
A most strange novel, the setting of Erica Ferencik’s “Girl In Ice,” the Arctic Circle, is beautifully drawn and rendered, painting with words what is perhaps the most rural and inhospitable place in the world — making it, of course, the idea setting for a thriller that is at once both physical and psychological.
Linguist Valerie Chesterfield is trained in dead languages, which is fortunate as she travels to a remote science station off the barren coast of Greenland in search for answers to what appeared to be her scientist twin brother’s suicide. At the station, the discovery of a young girl frozen in both ice and time — the reason why the small team there wanted Valerie to join them — is a seemingly medical impossibility: the girl has been unfrozen, thawed out alive and speaks a language no one understands. Strange indeed, but as Valerie gets closer to comprehending the language of the girl, in addition to unraveling the circumstances behind her brother’s death, the ending comes with answers that are just as unexpected.
Ferencik works hard to put a lot of moving pieces together in this novel, but too hard in places. There’s an awful lot going on in terms of text and subtext and those, mixed with the austere climate, at times trip over one another. Still, the author earns high points for crafting a credible world inside an incredible story. You won’t soon read another book such as this.
‘The New Neighbor’ (Poisoned Pen Press) by Carter Wilson, $16.99, paperback, 400 pages, April 12, 2022
Carter Wilson writes tough, muscular novels and his particular brand of psychological thrillers grab you by the throat from page 1. To wit, the opening of his latest, “The New Neighbor”:
“I thought I couldn’t handle another minute in the funeral home, but this church is worse.
“My wife doesn’t belong here.
“Thirty-four years old and and the count stops there. Her biological clock runs backward now, ticking decomposition. ...
“‘Daddy, your tie,’ … Maggie points at my neck, her fierce, blue eyes gift-wrapped with streaks of red. Easy to tell when she’s been crying.”
Tough indeed. And it gets worse, much worse, way before the story even hints at getting better.
On the day of his wife’s funeral, Aidan Marlowe learns he’s holding the winning Powerball numbers — he’s superstitious to a fault and his same weekly numbers are on autoplay — manufacturing phenomenal wealth and unbearable loss at the same time.
But while the loss is inconsolable, the wealth can buy Marlowe and his two children a fresh start, which they do by purchasing a mansion in Bury, N.H. (a crossover town from Wilson’s “The Dead Husband” in this standalone story).
Because he’s won in one of the few states that allows lottery winners to remain anonymous, Marlowe is hoping for a complete, fresh start. And this he has — until mysterious notes appear, letting him know that someone is watching his family, very, very carefully.
Building toward a denouement that is both solid and satisfying, “The New Neighbor” constructs collective consciousness fears made fresh under Wilson’s pen. The author has eight standalone thrillers in his canon to date, with each one a worthy successor.
’Strangers We Know’ (Thomas & Mercer) by Elle Marr, $15.95, paperback, 283 pages, May 1, 2022
Suspense and thrills in one package, Elle Marr’s “Strangers We Know” offers a fresh approach to the “FBI needs my help in tracking down a serial killer” motif.
Ivy Hon was adopted as an infant and so knows little of her family history. When a mysterious illness necessitates a genetic test, the results are unexpected. According the her DNA, she’s related to the Full Moon Killer, a serial murderer who has been stalking the Pacific Northwest for decades.
A fast, engaging read with well-drawn characters and credible story, Marr is showing herself to be a true working author, offering here a strong complement to her previous offerings, “Lies We Bury” (April 2021) and “The Missing Sister” (April 2020).
‘Our Little World’ (Dutton) by Karen Winn, $26, hardcover, 352 pages, May 3, 2022
Karen Winn’s “Our Little World” is poised to be the sleeper hit novel of 2022. To date, the attention it’s earned — despite strong critical reviews — pales with the depth of emotion and gravitas of the story.
Bee Kocsis has come of age. Encapsulating the story that is to unfold, she says as much in the first pages of this masterfully precise debut — a remembrance tale of two sisters growing up in Hammond, N.J., on the cusp of first love, loss and depths of turmoil that belie their young ages.
The remembrance year is 1985 and Bee’s sister, Audrina, is alive. It’s no secret that Audrina is dead when the novel opens — “My sister isn’t the only dead girl I’ve known, and not the first either,” Bee tells us — but it is a poignant set-up for secrets to come and the soul-crushing actions that will define not only the sisters, their friends and their families, but a community.
Bee and Audrina live in the type of upper middle-class block where moms take turns on summer days carpooling and chaperoning the neighborhood children from one activity to another. At Deer Chase Lake on one such outing, Sally, the preschool sister of a young, teen friend, Max, goes missing. Max unfairly takes responsibility after a community search proves futile, and so sets up one of the prominent parallels throughout the novel. Max’s misguided ownership of his sister’s disappearance will echo the responsibility Bee will ultimately feel for Audrina — although the sisters’ narrative is much more complicated.
Winn chronicles well the growing distance between the siblings even as Bee longs for a deeper relationship with the younger, but more socially adept Audrina: “Our fights were Cold War epic. When she hugged me, it was a Supreme Court ruling. We were hot and cold, and both at once. Sin and virtue, virtue and sin. An entire world occurred within our small, confined existence. Sisters were we.”
What comes of this wonderfully drawn period piece is this: the most self-assured kids can be the most self-tortured, teenage angst is not the sole privilege of teens and secrets will eventually out.
“Our Little World” is an encompassing look at small town American, circa mid-1980s, when the world felt different because it was. With a technological revolution still on the horizon — the first commercial mobile phone had launched two years earlier, but the iPhone and social media were a brief generation away — the pure unconnectedness of society parallels the impending unconnectedness of family relationships. Winn captures this beautifully.
‘The Local: A legal thriller’ (Doubleday) by Joey Hartstone, $28, hardcover, 320 pages, June 14, 2022
Joey Hartstone is a gifted screen- and television writer (“LBJ,” “Shock and Awe,” “The Good Fight,” “Your Honor”) and offers in “The Local” a fast-paced, well-executed legal thriller on par with anyone writing such fare today (looking at you, John Grisham).
James Euchre is a patent lawyer living in patent lawyer Mecca, the town of Marshall, Texas, when a beloved mentor and judge is murdered. The person accused of the crime turns out to be the man Euchre is already representing in a patent lawsuit. That the client is wealthy and arrogant adds to building a deep internal conflict over Euchre’s defense of a man who could be the killer of a man he considered a father. Second chances factor deeply into this narrative, but Hartstone tangles those well with grief and addiction before unraveling the final mystery.
‘The Force of Such Beauty’ (Dutton) by Barbara Borland, $27, hardcover, 383 pages, July 19, 2022
Barbara Borland has been more than once in serious contention for major writing awards — an Edgar best novel finalist, a peer contest, among those — and her most recent novel, “The Force of Such Beauty,” is a case in point. Her third novel, a “phantasmagorical fable of love and marriage,” tells the story of Caroline, a princess who longs to break the confines of royal isolation — and attempts to do so, more than once.
Turning upside down the typical girl-prince dichotomy, Caroline is certainly no passive princess in this thriller masquerading none-to-subtly as a deep introspective on our notions of privilege, station, womanhood and marriage. The messages are not lost, but enhanced in this haunting, smart satire.
Tom Mayer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.