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.
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. »
4. Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews
A hypnotic plot. A tantalizing female protagonist. A scandal that reaches the halls of the U.S. Capitol. These are the creations of ex-CIA officer Matthews, and they help Sparrow fly to the heights of the spy-thriller genre. Smart and alluring, Dominika Egorova is a graduate of a Russian "sparrow school" — a twisted sort of academy where spies (both male and female) learn to charm priceless secrets from the "foreign nationals" they compromise. The pages catch fire as Egorova morphs from pliant tool of the state into revenge-seeking missile.
5. The Son by Philipp Meyer
You can't resist being drawn into this epic novel, which begins with Comanches kidnapping 13-year-old Eli McCullough from his Texas home in 1849. As sprawling as the state in which it's set, Meyer's big, bold story of one family's triumphs and catastrophes sweeps through the years and into the 21st century. Think Lonesome Dove meets Dallas.
6. Night Film by Marisha Pessl
The young author's wonderfully imagined second novel has been called everything from a "literary scavenger hunt" to "the next phase of the American novel." To enhance her noirish tale of the suicide of Ashley Cordova — the 24-year-old daughter of cult horror-film director Stanislas Cordova — Pessl created all sorts of narrative multimedia, from faux website pages to imaginary magazine articles, case notes, medical files and even phone-book entries. Pessl keeps you gasping for breath as the story nears its odd conclusion — certain to spark book-club battles!
Next page: Best nonfiction books of 2013. »
1. The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-45, by Rick Atkinson
From the anxious nausea of waiting to storm the D-Day beaches to the frozen desperation of an isolated foxhole in the Battle of the Bulge, readers will feel they're fighting alongside the G.I.s who are the main characters in this capper to Atkinson's "Liberation Trilogy." Unearthing new material and marshaling it with both a granular and cinematic eye, the Pulitzer Prize winner vividly paints the grit and steel the Allies wielded to crush the Third Reich at last.
2. Knocking on Heaven's Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death by Katy Butler
This visionary examination of death, seen through the eyes of a scientist who is also a loving daughter, is a poignant must-read. Don't be fooled by the title; Butler's tale of the final decade of her smart-but-suffering parents abounds with insights about how society and medicine shape the way we live now. Her main concern: Modern treatments keep us alive longer but ignore our quality of life. After a pacemaker cruelly extended Jeffrey Butler's years of dementia, his wife, Valerie, refused life-saving surgery and bravely met death on her own terms.
3. This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America's Gilded Capital by Mark Leibovich
If Washington's bad behavior and Fellini-esque tomfoolery doesn't yet have your knickers in a twist, they'll be beaucoup bunched by the time you finish this gimlet-eyed take on our acrimonious "political culture." It's a funny, discomfiting and brutally honest portrait of D.C.'s power players, whose mania to preserve or boost their status means they never stop their Schmoozengrüven — not even at funerals.
4. My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
President Barack Obama called Sotomayor "the embodiment of the American Dream." In this moving memoir, she candidly and gracefully relates her journey from an impoverished childhood in the Bronx to her appointment as our first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. It's a thrill to watch someone with her analytic mind materialize in these pages as a natural-born storyteller. All in all, this coming-of-age tale is a testament to the power of guts and brains to set lofty goals — and attain them.
Carol Memmott's book reviews have appeared in USA Today, the Chicago Tribune and People.
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