Great books that deserved more buzz in 2016

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The publishing industry cranks out thousands of titles each year, all vying for attention in an oversaturated marketplace. A small number of titles manage to hog most of the buzz, and many terrific books slip past unnoticed. As 2016 draws to a close, Newsday’s book reviewers look back at 12 unsung fiction and nonfiction titles that deserved more praise this year.

'The Adventurist,' by J. Bradford Hipps

Could there be a better novel about the
(Credit: St. Martin's)

Could there be a better novel about the modern world of work than “The Adventurist?” Witty, elegiac and bursting with unerring observations, it’s a shameless — and worthy — homage to “The Moviegoer,” Walker Percy’s classic of comic alienation. Yet it dramatizes the tawdry manipulations of the cubicle crowd like a comic rewrite of “Othello.” Our guide through this air-conditioned underworld is Henry Hurt, a software engineer with a philosophical bent and a longing for love, who is under pressure from his enigmatic boss to rescue the office from lagging revenue. Whoever imagined that software sales could be the basis for a work of such aching tenderness?  (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99) — DANIEL AKST

'Just Another Jihadi Jane,' by Tabish Khair

This confession by a British Muslim girl who
(Credit: Interlink)

This confession by a British Muslim girl who runs away with her best friend to join Daesh (the Arabic name for ISIS) is a novel, but it feels electrifyingly real. Jamilla and Ameena have grown up together in industrial Northern England, navigating between the precepts of Islam and the temptations of soccer players and cigarettes. Through Facebook and Twitter, they follow various preachers and Islamists; they meet young women around the world who share their religious interests. One of their contacts gradually persuades them to run away from home, join her in Syria and become jihadi brides. Every bit of illusion they have about the movement will be burned away as the disaster of this choice becomes clear.  (Interlink Books, $15) — MARION WINIK

'Now and Again,' by Charlotte Rogan

Rogan's second novel (after
(Credit: Little, Brown)

Rogan’s second novel (after “The Lifeboat”) is set in 2007 in an Oklahoma town, home to a munitions plant and a for-profit prison. Two women, unknown to one another, begin campaigns to end the appalling abuses being covered up in the two businesses. Their crusades overlap with that of some soldiers back from a deadly, bungled mission in Iraq. The story grows to include over a dozen voices and points-of-view, chiefly those of ordinary working people sacrificed to expediency and profit. Tragic, poignant and often funny, this is a beautifully executed novel, and a timely one too in its depiction of a callous managerial class, the uses of spin and marginalization of whistleblowers.  (Little, Brown and Co.; $27) — KATHERINE A. POWERS

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'Consequence,' by Eric Fair

After a heart condition took him off the
(Credit: Henry Holt)

After a heart condition took him off the police force in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the author was hired by a contractor to be an interrogator in Iraq. Fair, who had initially aspired to the clergy, learned on the job how to bully, intimidate and hurt people in service of information they might or might not have, at prisons that included Abu Ghraib. Back home, his sense of guilt and horror nearly destroyed his health and his marriage, and if writing this book offered him some relief, it in no way seeks absolution. In the most unadorned prose imaginable, he asks us to see what happened, and we must. (Henry Holt, $26)   — MARION WINIK

'The Gloaming,' by Melanie Finn

A tiny press has published a psychologically astute
(Credit: Two Dollar Radio)

A tiny press has published a psychologically astute thriller that belongs on the shelf with the work of Patricia Highsmith. In the opening paragraphs, the narrator in Switzerland has discovered her husband’s infidelity, and the shock of the deception leads to a lethal car accident. For reasons that only gradually become clear, she decamps to Tanzania. Alternating chapters between two continents, the book is brilliant on the pervasiveness of corruption and the murkiness of human motivation. When the narrator disappears, five of the characters she has encountered take over the story, which ends with an existentially perfect flourish. Here is a page-turner that leaves its reader wiser. (Two Dollar Radio, $16.99 paper)  — KAREN R. LONG

'The Golden Age,' by Joan London

From Australia came this glowing, melancholy, understated but
(Credit: Europa Editions)

From Australia came this glowing, melancholy, understated but powerful novel of life at a convalescent home for children with polio in the Perth suburbs during the early 1950s. It is the story of a tender romance between two teenage patients at the facility, Frank and Elsa, whose loneliness is offset by the powerful affection they feel for one another. With quiet authority, London channels Frank and Elsa’s inner lives, as well as those of the characters around them: Frank’s parents, Hungarian Holocaust survivors; Sister Olive Penny, a nurse at the home; and others. With its deep reserves of sympathy — and its clear-eyed observation of human foibles — “The Golden Age” recalls works such as Colm Tóibín’s “Brooklyn” and the stories of Alice Munro. (Europa, $17 paper) — TOM BEER

'Multiple Choice,' by Alejandro Zambra

Is it A) a novel; B) a prose
(Credit: Penguin)

Is it A) a novel; B) a prose poem; or C) both? Perhaps the answer is all and none of these, but certainly it is something to treasure. Written as an SAT-like test — and based on a Chilean university entrance exam — Zambra’s latest work defies categorization. This isn’t the first time the author has dabbled in formal inventiveness, but somehow Zambra keeps taking originality to new heights. With sections containing multiple-choice exercises, absurd fill-in-the-blanks, reading comprehension and more, the book playfully explores political, pedagogical and familial issues. Throughout, Zambra strikes provocative notes and mocks the rigidity and biases of the typical standardized test. (“Each question has five possible answers.”) This strange, charming book, which is  translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, proves poignant, too. (Penguin, $15 paper) — CARMELA CIURARU

'Teethmarks on My Tongue,' by Eileen Battersby

Set in the mid 1980s, Battersby's debut follows
(Credit: Dalkey Archive)

Set in the mid 1980s, Battersby’s debut follows a couple of years in the much disrupted life of Helen Stockton Defoe of Richmond, Virginia, a teenager who witnesses her mother’s shooting death on television. Unable to bear life with her heartless, dismissive father, she heads off to France, where she adopts an ancient, incontinent dog. Wondering, as she tells us, “where to head for in mainland Europe with my elderly bed wetter,” she finds a job at a horse-training establishment in the Loire Valley and embarks on a completely new life. Psychologically penetrating, deft in emblematical resonance and leavened by dog love and dark wit, the novel is a very fine coming-of-age story. (Dalkey Archive, $19 paper)  — KATHERINE A. POWERS

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'The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West,' by Peter Cozzens

It was one of America's longest conflicts, lasting
(Credit: Knopf)

It was one of America’s longest conflicts, lasting three decades after the Civil War and pitting the U.S. Army against the native peoples of the continent. In his impressive new book, veteran historian Cozzens brings verve and a mastery of the era as the chronicles the personalities, politics and bloody clashes. Celebrated Union Gen. William T. Sherman brought hard war tactics to the Great Plains: “We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women, children.” But other officers questioned such tactics. Cozzens does full justice to the complexities of this history, weaving together the stories of soldiers and such legendary figures as Red Cloud, Geronimo, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. ( Alfred A. Knopf, $35)  — MATTHEW PRICE

'Lab Girl,' by Hope Jahren

Almost every child has a favorite tree, and
(Credit: Knopf)

Almost every child has a favorite tree, and this beguiling memoir will make you recall your own. It coaxes delight in botany writ large, as well as the author’s discovery that the pit of the hackberry seed is made of stone, specifically opal. Jahren writes with vivid poetic flair about geochemistry and her improvisational life — the science and scientist intertwine. She grew up restless and adept with her hands in rural Minnesota and eventually starts and builds three laboratories of her own. Along the way, she wins a slew of professional awards, navigates her own perilous chemistry — she is bipolar — and confronts plenty of sexism. Like Robert M. Sapolsky’s “A Primate’s Memoir,” here is a new classic by a researcher in nature. (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95) — KAREN R. LONG

 

'The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America,' by Steve Fraser

This brilliant and mordant book is a useful
(Credit: Basic)

This brilliant and mordant book is a useful guide to a much reviled native species, and given the state of today’s Democratic Party, its appearance could not be more timely. The author recognizes that there really are limousine liberals — though lately we seem to be paying a lot more attention to a limousine populist — but his larger interest is in demonstrating how rabble rousers for much of our history have used the concept to incite the working classes against progressive change. They did this even before Mario Procaccino coined the term in his unsuccessful 1969 campaign to become mayor of New York City. Fraser is a nimble writer and thinker in whose company there’s never a dull or uninformative moment. (Basic, $27.50) — DANIEL AKST

'One of These Things First,' by Steven Gaines

Who knew that Gaines -- known for his
(Credit: Delphinium)

Who knew that Gaines — known for his books on the shenanigans of the superwealthy in Manhattan and the Hamptons — had this good-hearted memoir in him? “One of These Things First” paints an indelible portrait of his youth as a gay, Jewish kid in 1950s and ’60s Brooklyn, where one block in Borough Park, home to his grandmother’s ladies garment store, was his entire world. After a suicide attempt at 15, he convinces his middle-class Long Island grandfather to pay for six months at Payne Whitney, the tony Manhattan psychiatric hospital that had once treated Marilyn Monroe. Gaines’ tenure there, and the odd friendships he forms, make this coming-of-age story a real gem. (Delphinum, $24.95) — TOM BEER

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