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The Best Books for Grownups — 2013

Here’s your chance to catch up on the books everyone’s still buzzing about

Best Books of 2013 fiction life after life cuckoo's calling signature of things elizabeth gilbert rowling red sparrow matthews night film pessl nonfiction guns last night war western europe knocking heaven's door death this town two parties funeral beloved world sonia sotomayor (Getty Images)

If you love to read, don’t miss these favorite books from 2013. — Getty Images

The year 2013 was one for the books — for the good books, that is, as publishers surprised and often delighted us with new offerings worth sinking our teeth into (or chewing over in book clubs and online).

In nonfiction, for example, Sheryl Sandberg rekindled the national conversation about women and work in her hotly debated Lean In; Mary Roach took us on a wild ride from human stern to stem in Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal; and George Packer searingly summed up four decades of social malaise in The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.

In fiction, you could call 2013 "The Year of the Comeback": Old favorites such as Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch), Sue Grafton (W Is for Wasted) and Stephen King (Joyland and Doctor Sleep — a twofer!) all returned with epic tomes likely to bless — and burden — our nightstands well into the new year.

To pick our "Best Books for Grownups" of 2013, we looked for titles that stand out for their currency, inventiveness, historical sweep, belly laughs and gut punches, or — crucially — their readability. If you've read any of our selections below, let us know how they stacked up for you.

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1. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

It's 1930 when this remarkable experimental novel opens, and Ursula Todd is seated across a table from Adolf Hitler. In her purse there's a gun, but in this setup there's a catch: Ursula does and does not exist, as this compulsively readable story slews back and forth in time. In 1910, for example, Ursula dies at birth; a few pages later she's born again, healthy and hungry to live. Atkinson's novel challenges us to consider which actions we'd revise if life granted us unlimited "do-overs."

2. The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling set the publishing world abuzz when the truth emerged that she had written this pseudonymous crime novel. Set in London, Cuckoo — the first in a series — introduces private eye Cormoran Strike, who lost a leg in Afghanistan. Here he must probe the suspicious circumstances of a supermodel's suicide. Rowling's tale skillfully captures a war vet's struggle to assimilate and envelops us in a gripping, finely plotted mystery.

3. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

This dazzling novel may be the book that Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) was born to write. Set mostly in 19th-century Philadelphia (but spanning the globe), it follows self-taught botanist Alma Whittaker as she bucks all kinds of constraints — on women's education, thoughts and movements, for starters. In language as lush and precise as the horticultural marvels that Alma studies so raptly (and rapturously), her story is a glorious reminder of life's unlimited pathways. (Read an AARP excerpt from the book.)

Next page: More best fiction books of 2013. »

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