Under-the-radar reads that shone in 2016

“News of the World” by Paulette Jiles
“News of the World” by Paulette Jiles Courtesy Amazon

In December, the usual suspects rushed to compile their lists of what they considered to be the best books of 2016. There were plenty from which to choose. Also, there was plenty of overlap – and disagreement – among the folks at Publishers Weekly, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s City of Books, Good Reads, National Public Radio, Washington Post, USA Today, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle and other sources with big voices.

But those with qualified opinions can’t be expected to read all the key titles, simply because of the landslide. That’s where today’s column comes in, with suggestions for a dozen recommendable books that could have slipped under the radar of everyday readers looking for solid entertainment.

“News of the World” by Paulette Jiles (William Morrow, $23, 224 pages): Each year, five novels are “short-listed” in the final countdown for the National Book Award. Typically, the winner – Colson Whitehead for “The Underground Railroad” this time around – moves on to great acclaim, while the four also-rans fade in the background. That’s what’s happening to Jiles’ moving story about a retired Civil War veteran who agrees to transport a 10-year-old orphan girl to her aunt and uncle, who live 400 miles away. Do not miss it.

“Pharaoh” by Wilbur Smith (William Morrow, $29, 416 pages): The prolific historical novelist sets his latest adventure in ancient Egypt, where Taita, adviser to the pharaoh, quickly goes from being hailed as a conquering hero to being imprisoned as a traitor. Now what? Rousing stuff coupled with well-researched history.

“The Platinum Age of Television” by David Bianculli (Doubleday, $32.50, 592 pages): As TV critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air,” the author brings his sense of appreciation, historial persective and behind-the-scenes dish to dozens of the shows that transfixed and transformed generations – “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” “The Simpsons,” “Saturday Night Live,” “I Love Lucy,” “Peyton Place,” “Dr. Kildare,” “The Good Wife,” “The Walking Dead” and others. Bonus: Interviews with a long list of stars, writers and producers. Bianculli is founder of the website

“Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly” by Adrian McKinty (Seventh Street Books, $16, 320 pages): Things aren’t going well for police detective Sean Duffy. The internal affairs department is investigating him, his significant is having second thoughts, and a gang of killers is on his trail. McKinty, known for his quick and edgy dialogue, belongs to a cadre of Irish crime and thriller writers that includes Ken Bruen, John Connolly and Declan Burke.

“A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women” by Siri Hustvedt (Simon & Schuster, $35, 576 pages): The feminist author and novelist provocatively links the humanities to the sciences in a collection of essays that address, among other issues, gender biases in literature and art, and the notion of how brain chemistry relates to romantic desire and the imagination.

“Strange Tide” by Christopher Fowler (Bantam, $27, 448 pages): This is the 13th adventure of Arthur Bryant and John May, “Golden Age detectives in a modern world” who head the Peculiar Crimes Unit in London, assisted by other “individualists.” When the body of a woman is found in the Thames River, the two entertain traveling back in time to solve the mystery. But wait – how is that possible? Great fun.

“The Best of the Harvard Lampoon” (Touchstone, $26, 272 pages): The editors of the humor magazine combed its 140-year-old archives to find the gems among the stones for this hilarious survey of American humor. Harvard students-at-the-time John Updike, Conan O’Brien, George Plimpton and Henry Beard all have bylines. The boundary-breaking National Lampoon was a spinoff of the campus magazine, publishing from 1970 to 1998. Visit, but be forewarned – it plays rough.

“Behind Closed Doors” by B.A. Paris (St. Martin’s, $26, 304 pages): Jack and Grace are the seemingly perfect married couple – talented, charming, attractive, well-to-do, great hosts. But friends and neighbors start wondering why homemaker Grace is always unavailable to meet for lunch, and why her phone just rings and rings. Come to think of it, why are all the downstairs windows covered in heavy-duty metal shutters? Women’s Health magazine called it “2016’s answer to ‘Gone Girl.’ 

“The Arab of the Future” by Riad Sattouf (Metropolitan Books, $26, 160 pages): The author has “written” his frank memoir in graphic novel form, with pen-and-ink drawings telling the story of his nomadic and politically charged childhood in the Middle East from 1984 through 1985. It was oppressive enough living in Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya and Bashar Assad’s Syria, but the real dictator in his life was his father.

“Ghosts of Havana” by Todd Moss (Putnam, $27, 368 pages): A former assistant secretary of state, the author steps back in recent time with a story that starts when four American sport fishermen are busted by Castro’s navy when they trespass in Cuban waters. State Department “crisis manager” Judd Ryker is dispatched to negotiate their release, but nothing is as it seems. Political and timely.

“Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers,” edited by Graydon Carter (Penguin, $20, 432 pages): “Literature runs in Vanity Fair’s veins,” begins the introduction to this 41-article collection by journalists, editors and novelists who spent time with such literary giants as Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather and Norman Mailer, along with pop-culture figures including Jacqueline Susann and Judy Blume.

“So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood” by Patrick Modiano (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $15, 160 pages): The tale is seemingly simple: Jean lives a solitary life in Paris until one afternoon a phone call sparks his curiosity. That leads to a muddle with a dangerous gambler, a femme fatale and a cold-case murder. The French author won the 2014 Nobel Prize in literature.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe