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Page Turners — The best books we read in 2013

“Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson”

“Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson”

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Updated: April 14, 2014 4:47PM

There’s nothing like a good book to tickle our imaginations, invite passionate conversation and debate, take us to places far away, inform and elighten us, and frankly just take us away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Our writers and editors were busy turning many a page in 2013. Here are some highlights from our literary journeys:

“The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown; 784 pages)

Donna Tartt’s 784-page novel has been described as everything from Dickensian to Proustian, with a bit of latter-day “Catcher in the Rye” in the mix as well. A bit of all of those things, and also very much its own entity, it is narrated by Theo Decker, who is 13 when his beloved mother is killed in a terrorist explosion at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. He himself manages to escape the chaos with a small, masterful painting of a bird by Rembrandt’s student, Carel Fabritius, in hand. And that is the beginning of a crazy, 14-year-long odyssey that takes Theo from a friend’s Park Avenue apartment to Las Vegas (with his feckless, alcoholic dad) to the New York art underworld, with friends ranging from Boris, his Ukrainian immigrant pal, to two very different young women. At times Theo’s “voice” sounds too much like the author’s, but his story ensnares you. — Hedy Weiss

“Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen,” by Al Jourgensen with Jon Wiederhorn (Da Capo Press; 336 pages)

It’s almost impossible to believe this is a work of non-fiction. As Jourgensen’s first official biography, the Ministry singer’s torrid life is recapped in colorful and uncensored anecdotes of Timothy Leary experiments, near-death experiences, FBI raids and alien encounters, many of which are set against the background of Chicago in the glory days of the Wax Trax! industrial machine. — Selena Fragassi

“Life After Life,” by Kate Atkinson” (Little, Brown; 529 pages)

Kate Atkinson’s latest bravura work is challenging until you let yourself become entranced by its rhythm of life and death. Ursula Todd is born on Feb. 11, 1910. Within minutes, she dies and is reborn a pattern that continues over and over again. This fascinating twitch in Ursula’s being allows her to relive (and repurpose) the events in her life, the lives of others and history itself. In a steady career, this is Atkinson’s best book yet and one a reader won’t soon forget. —Mary Houlihan

“Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World,” by Matthew Goodman (Ballantine Books; 480 pages)

I’ll admit it: As a female journalist, I was not altogether familiar with this marvelous tale of adventure, determination and newspaper “reality show” centuries before television reality shows were, well reality. The competition begins in 1889, when rival female reporters set out by steamship from New York City heading East to break the record for the fastest trip around the world (in the vein of Jules Verne’s fictional character Phileas Fogg). One is the World’s Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Jane Cochran’s pen name). Her competition? Cosmopolitan’s Elizabeth Bisland, who took off headed West by train to accomplish the same. (The circulation of their respective publications had as much to gain from the spectacle as the milestone the winner would achieve.) The 28,000-mile race is covered in meticulous detail as the story of these two pioneering women unfolds amid the excitement, setbacks, crises, missed opportunities and a global trek unlike any other in its time. Who won? You can Google it, of course, by why would you want to miss out on the incredible journey that takes you to the finish line page after nailbiting page? — Miriam Di Nunzio

“Escape from Camp 14,” By Blaine Harden (Penguin Books; 224 pages)

Shin Dong-hyu is the only person known to have been born in and eventually escape from North Korea’s prison camps. This is his compelling story of the hardship of life in these camps, where through incredible brutality and starvation the prisoners learn to trust no one and turn on everyone, even if it is your own family members. The title alone haunts me still, because if Shin was in Camp 14, that means at least 13 others exist, right? — Sue Ontiveros

“Americana,” by Ray Davies (Sterling; 320 pages)

Often heralded as pop’s great British observer and lover of Britain, Kinks frontman Davies turns his attention and affection toward America. Having endured a U.S. performance ban during the ’60s and a more recent shooting while living in New Orleans, he’s got frustrations, too. Americana avoids the “experimental non-fiction” of 1995’s X-Ray. — Jeff Elbel

“Night Film,” by Marisha Pessl(Random House; 624 pages)

This book about a journalist’s pursuit of a cult filmmaker and answers about his daughter’s suicide is more than a mystery — it is about obsessive fans, how we process art, Internet message boards, TMZ-style journalism and fear. And it is really scary. — Wendy Fox Weber

“Bad Monkey,” by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf; 336 pages)

It all starts with a human arm in the freezer. Weave in Florida real estate speculators, voodoo and, yes, a monkey, and you have typical Hiaasen magic. The cop this time is Andrew Yancy, who is on such bad paper that he is relegated to restaurant inspections. Safe territory, right? Not in Hiaasen’s hands, as Yancy ends up chasing the owner of the arm and finds himself tangled in a confounding web. While you are laughing, you will also ask: How does someone think up this stuff? — Linda Bergstrom

“Claire of the Sea Light,” by Edwin Danticat (Knopf; 256 pages)

This work touches upon what’s both beautiful and hellish about life in Haiti’s lovely seaside town Ville Rose. Peppered with magical realism and intermittently sprinkled with Haitian Creole, Danticat weaves a tale of Claire, a girl who goes missing on her 7th birthday — which is also the same day her mother died. The story deals with several tragic characters, including her widowed fisherman father, who had been contemplating giving Claire up for adoption to a townswoman who recently lost her own daughter. In this novel, everyone has a tragic back story. And yet, there is light. Danticat is an award-winning storyteller who relocated from Port-au-Prince to Miami in the ’90s. Danticat was twice nominated for the American Book Award for previous works; this latest novel is one of my faves for 2013. — Adrienne Samuels Gibbs

“Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football,” by Rich Cohen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pages)

I’d never read a book about football before. But Rich Cohen is a personal favorite, for books such as “Tough Jews” and “Sweet and Low.” “Monsters” continues his string of successes. It’s packed with fascinating details to intrigue fan and non-fan alike, who will be surprised to learn how the Chicago Bears got their name directly from the Chicago Cubs. Or that Jim McMahon had bruised his heart, literally. As does Cohen, figuratively, following the joy and heartbreak that is Bears football. — Neil Steinberg

“Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” by Michael Moss (Random House, 480 pages)

Beware — once New York Times journalist Michael Moss takes you inside the world of processed food and the “big three” ingredients it relies on, you can’t forget what you know about your favorite products. That “can’t stop eating them” feeling? Unfortunately for your waistline, chips are designed with that in mind. Moss’ book shows how processed-food companies — like Kraft, headquartered in the Chicago area — must choose daily between the big three and certain profit, or the public’s health. — Diana Novak

“The Double,” by George Pelecanos, (Little, Brown and Company, 304 pages)

What makes George Pelecanos one of the best at literary crime fiction isn’t his punch-to-the-gut writing or spot-on takes on: 1) Washington, D.C.; 2) race; and 3) pop culture. It’s how he keeps inventing new ways to paint the color gray, with complex characters like P.I. Spero Lucas, back for a second turn in “The Double.” Bad things happen to good people — sometimes, they’re the ones doing them. Another great series from Pelecanos, a producer on HBO’s “Treme.” — Paul Saltzman

“The Crypt Thief,” Mark Pryor (Seventh Street Books, $15.95, paperback original)

The problem with favorite writers: However prolific, it’s tough to keep pace with their fans’ appetite. That makes Mark Pryor an especially welcome discovery. Just seven months after a memorable fiction debut with “The Bookseller,” Pryor followed up with “The Crypt Thief,” again featuring the appealing Hugo Marston, head of security for the U.S. embassy in Paris. Spies, bodies, romance, even Jim Morrison make appearances. Next month: more Marston in “The Blood Promise.” Keep ’em coming. — Paul Saltzman

“Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland,” Ace Atkins (G.P. Putnam Sons, $28)

Robert B. Parker’s been dead nearly four years, but Ace Atkins keeps doing his best to make us forget that. That’s good enough to suspend disbelief once again in “Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland,” Atkins’ second book since picking up the mantle of Parker’s iconic, wise-cracking (and one-named) detective Spenser. Not as masterful as 2012’s “Lullaby” but still the kind of literate crime writing Parker made an art form of. — Paul Saltzman

“The Black Stiletto: Stars and Stripes,” Raymond Benson (Oceanview Publishing, $25.95)

Raymond Benson has written crime fiction, James Bond novels and a couple of Tom Clancy books. More improbably, he created “The Black Stiletto” novels: the unfolding story of a middle-aged accountant from Chicago’s northwest suburbs who discovers, through her diaries, his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother’s secret past as a crime-fighting, costumed vigilante. In “Stars and Stripes,” she saves JFK, fights off gangs and dates a foreign spy. — Paul Saltzman

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