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To Infinity, And Beyond: Rocket-Powered Summer Reading

Who needs destinations? This summer, we're focusing on the journey. All these books — some old, some new — will transport you: by train,plane, car, bike, boat, foot, city transit, horse, balloon, rocket ship, time machine and even the odd giant peach. Bon voyage! (Taxes and fees not included).

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Book Your Trip: Rocket

The Sirens of Titan

by Kurt Vonnegut

Malachi Constant, the wealthiest man in America, is on a journey through space, time, and the purpose of man. From Earth to Mars, Mercury, and back again to Earth, our fearless protagonist's mission proves to be quite enlightening — and Vonnegut's humor and intelligence make for an addicting read on many levels. Through Constant's life and travels, Vonnegut makes bold statements about man's relationship to religion, destiny, and the meaning of life; this is the book that gave us the famous quote, "I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all." It's a ride packed with bold declarations and equally hilarious lines: "His response was to fight it with the only weapons at hand — passive resistance and open displays of contempt." One of Vonnegut's most beloved and unconventional novels, Sirens is a testament not only to one of literature's brightest and most inventive minds, but also to the unending possibilities of fiction.

-- Juan Vidal, book critic

The Right Stuff

by Tom Wolfe

If there's a short list of contemporary authors who changed journalism and creative nonfiction forever, Tom Wolfe is near the top, along with the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion. Wolfe's chronicle of early American test pilots and NASA astronauts reads like an expertly paced novel. It's tense and frightening, and filled with characters who would be almost larger than life, had they not actually existed — the folksy Chuck Yeager, the sober-to-a-fault John Glenn, and the quicksilver Gus Grissom. Wolfe has long been a national treasure, and The Right Stuff is probably the best book ever written about the space race of the 1960s.

-- Michael Schaub, book critic


by Philip Reeve and David Wyatt

In a ramshackle mansion called Larklight, young Art Mumby and his older sister, Myrtle, are excited to learn that they will have a visitor. This is unusual, since Larklight orbits the Earth in a gloriously alternate universe where man began to explore space in the 18th century and Queen Victoria rules over Britain, the American colonies and Her Majesty's Extraterrestrial Possessions (Mars, Jupiter and the moon). The visitor turns out to be a giant, angry space spider, sending Art and Myrtle on a grand adventure involving hidden keys, space pirates, flying pigs, kidnapped industrialists, self-aware thunderstorms, Martian secret agents, plucky orphans and quite possibly the coolest mom ever! Not to mention more exotic modes of transportation than you can shake a walking stick at. A rousing tale of dauntless pluck, indeed.

-- Mara Alpert, children's librarian, Los Angeles Public Library

The Sparrow

by Mary Doria Russell

Upon its publication in 1996, The Sparrow was lauded as a landmark science-fiction literary crossover. It's also a deeply cinematic story — in fact, it's currently in development as a miniseries at AMC. And even in its darkest moments, it's a compelling read: The Sparrow follows the crew of a near-future first-contact expedition to an alien planet, alongside the testimony of Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, who is recovering from his part in the ordeal. This isn't just a story about the rigors of space travel and the difficulties of establishing communication after contact. It also explores the way travel forces us to acknowledge what we've left at home, how travel can be an act of faith (regardless of religion), and the ways in which journeys demand internal audits to determine how we've changed in the crossing. (And if you can't get enough of Sandoz, you can follow him in The Sparrow's sequel, Children of God.)

-- Genevieve Valentine, author, most recently of The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

Sweet Starfire

by Jayne Ann Krentz

Considered the first-ever futuristic romance, Sweet Starfire is, at heart, a classic road trip story that just happens to take place on a spaceship. Beautiful Cidra, born into a serene race that admires perfect harmony, wants nothing more than to find a legendary relic that will help her fit in on her home planet. However, once she agrees to barter work skills for passage on a mail ship belonging to the very un-serene Teague Severance, she begins to think that harmony might be overrated. Especially if it means turning her back on her newly discovered resourcefulness, resilience, and fiery passion. As she and Severance travel into interplanetary jungles replete with human and alien dangers — and some really big extraterrestrial insectlike creatures — Cidra makes a satisfying journey of self-discovery and is rewarded with a love match for the ages.

-- Bobbi Dumas, book critic

Saga Vol. 1

by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

The war between Landfall and its moon Wreath has spread throughout the galaxy, afflicting a multitude of other planets and races. But Marko and Alana, soldiers from Wreath and Landfall respectively, have fallen in love, and, in a supreme act of treason, conceived and borne a child together. Now on the run, they dodge fellow soldiers, spider-legged bounty hunters, planetary horrors, TV-headed robot-people and the governments they represent, all while searching for a fabled forest of rocketship trees to help them escape. Winner of three Eisner awards and the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Novel, featuring stunning art by Fiona Staples and a brilliant cast of memorable characters, Saga is one of the most imaginative and compelling comics of the last decade. It's an excellent introduction to the medium (and genre) for the uninitiated.

-- Amal El-Mohtar, book critic and author of The Honey Month

The Doom Machine

by Mark Teague

The year is 1956, and Isadora Shumway is traveling with her mother through the sleepy town of Vern Hollow when their car breaks down. Meanwhile, Vern Hollow resident Jack Creedle — who's no stranger to juvenile detention — thinks he sees a flying saucer. No one believes Jack ... at first. But before long, everyone in town is fleeing the aliens. Jack helps repair the Shumways' car and they try to escape with his odd Uncle Bud in tow — but the aliens have other ideas. Why? Only Uncle Bud knows — but once they are imprisoned in the spaceship, it's up to Jack and Isadora to set everyone free. Teague's delightful illustrations add to this wacky, intergalactic adventure. (For ages 8 to 12)

-- Lisa Yee, author, most recently of Warp Speed

Stone Gods

by Jeanette Winterson

Winterson's 2007 novel features a female robot named Spike, who longs for the scientist Billie Crusoe, the main character in this story of worlds dying and being reborn. Billie and Spike board a spaceship bound for a new planet where a culture similar to Earth's just might get a second chance. But then the new world is destroyed and Billie ends up back in time on Easter Island in the 18th century (the site of the Stone Gods of the title). Because of plot turns like this, first-time readers of Winterson may find themselves a little baffled. But as Winterson moves back and forth in time, she explores important questions such as what makes us human and what is freedom and what is love — overturning a lot of stone idols with her answers and entertaining the reader no end with her provocative shuttling between worlds and histories.

-- Alan Cheuse, book critic


by Malinda Lo

When flocks of birds begin inexplicably hurling themselves at U.S. aircraft, the government grounds all planes, leaving Reese and her debate-team partner David stranded in Arizona. On the drive home to San Francisco, a bird collides with the car and sends them careening off-road. Reese is knocked out — only to wake up with David 27 days later in a military medical facility, mysteriously unhurt. No one's willing to tell them what's been done to them — but it's apparent to both that they've changed. I loved this book for its straightforward representation of bisexuality, its evocative description of comfort foods in amidst the chaos of plot, and its compelling characters and relationships. Area 51 also makes an appearance, as do several conspiracy theories — absolutely none of which have anything to do with the heading under which this review's filed. Move along. Fast-paced and thoroughly engaging, with very effective stakes-raising and threat levels, this is a thrilling read.

-- Amal El-Mohtar, book critic and author of The Honey Month

Explorers On The Moon

by Herge

The first words spoken by Tintin on the lunar surface aren't quite as iconic as those uttered by Neil Armstrong, but the cartoon character's first steps came more than a decade before NASA put its man on the moon — and for that matter four years before the Soviets put a satellite in space. I've been a Tintin fan since long before I knew how to read, and what strikes me today about this book (as well as its prequel, Destination Moon) is that if you take away the science (of which there is a lot; both accurate and not), Herge's elaborately detailed ligne claire art, the comedic asides of Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, Snowy and Thomson and Thompson, what you have is a wonderful adventure story: A group of men and a dog climb aboard a rocket and willingly head into the great unknown.

-- Krishnadev Calamur, editor, NPR News