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Best of the Month: July 2011

Sex-on-the-moon

1. Sex on the Moon by Ben Mezrich

In this true story of love and adventure, nothing can stop Thad Roberts from keeping a promise to his girlfriend Rebecca--not even NASA security. When he's in the lab, Roberts is a brilliant NASA co-op intern, but the other interns know him better for devising thrill-seeking activities, like cliff diving and sneaking into the shuttle simulator. When he realizes that scientists consider moon rocks worthless once they’ve been in experiments, Roberts starts to wonder… if they’re worthless, how could stealing them be wrong? Ben Mezrich, author of The Accidental Billionaires (which inspired the movie The Social Network), starts each section with excerpts of Roberts’s love letters to Rebecca from prison, providing a love-drunk context for Roberts’ journey as the moon rock heist balloons from idle fantasy to stark reality. Behind-the-scenes looks at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and thriller-like action that ranges from the U.S. to Belgium make for an enthralling read for anyone who ever dreamed about being an astronaut--or promised to give someone else the moon. --Malissa Kent

Devil-all-the-time

2. The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock

With The Devil All the Time, author Donald Ray Pollock has crafted an exceptionally gritty, twisted page-turner. This follow-up to 2008's Knockemstiff is set in the Midwest during the mid-century, but reads more like a gothic Western. Lawlessness roams the rural, god-fearing landscape of Ohio and West Virginia, inhabitated by the likes of Pollock's deranged-yet-compelling cast of characters--a husband and wife who take vacations to murder hitchhikers, a faux preacher and his crippled accomplice on the lam for manslaughter, and an orphan with a penchant for exacting violent justice. Needless to say, The Devil All the Time is a brutal novel, but Pollock exacts the kind of precision and control over his language that keeps the violence from ever feeling gratuitous. The three storylines eventually converge in a riveting moment that will leave readers floored and haunted. --Kevin Nguyen




This-burns-my-heart

3. This Burns My Heart by Samuel Park

Tradition, love, and sacrifice--in Samuel Park’s novel, This Burns My Heart, these immensely powerful forces propel the struggles of Soo-Ja Choi in post-war South Korea. Soo-Ja starts out as a privileged young women straining against the suffocating traditions of her family and culture, yet it is her own allegiance that drives her to enter into a loveless marriage rather than break tradition and marry the man who knows her heart. Soo-Ja’s marriage is a yoke she cannot shake, crushing her with familial servitude and hardship, but, like the culture itself, she perseveres--and true love follows her through the years like a message in a bottle waiting to be washed ashore. A heartrending story with a remarkable heroine who is both maddening and humbling, Park’s elegant prose resonates with the quiet force of love in all its guises and a country struggling to be reborn. --Seira Wilson



Adrenaline

4. Adrenaline by Jeff Abbott

CIA agent, Sam Capra, is about to have an extremely bad morning. We’re not talking about I-just-spilled-coffee-on-my-chinos bad. We’re talking about terrorists-bombed-my-office-and-kidnapped-my-wife bad. Sam is in the middle of an important meeting—he’s been closing in on the CIA’s most important target—when he’s interrupted by an urgent call from his pregnant wife, Lucy. There’s panic in her voice. “Meet me outside now,” she begs. In the street, Sam sees Lucy in a silver grey sedan with a strange man in the driver’s seat. Then a blast hits. In a flash, all of Sam’s colleagues are dead. Lucy’s gone. Sam’s the only survivor. And we’re only on page twelve. What follows is a breakneck thriller that delivers on the promise of its title. Adrenaline does indeed get the heart pumping with an exhilarating pace, creatively choreographed action, and intrigue that routinely compels you to read the proverbial “one more chapter.” But Sam Capra remains its most memorable asset. In his quest to find his family, Capra becomes the best kind of hero, one who’s highly capable at kicking ass, but who's also imbued with a large amount of heart, which makes him worth rooting for book after book. Fortunately, Jeff Abbott has promised us more. --Shane Hansanuwat


Inside-scientology

5. Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman

Whatever your opinion of Scientology, the truth is more extreme. Inside Scientology is journalist Janet Reitman's incredible book-length follow-up to the Rolling Stone cover story of the same name, a 2007 finalist for the National Magazine Award. Founded by wayward science-fiction writer and historical revisionist par excellence L. Ron Hubbard, "America's Most Secretive Religion" is perhaps best known for high-profile adherents like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, but its tenets, processes, and internal organization form a story as surprising and captivating as that of any investigative work released this year. Reitman's extensive research--including hundreds of interviews with devotees and defectors alike--culminate in an expansive, page-turning survey of the origins, development, crises, beliefs, and scandals of this fascinating incorporated religion, all with a fair-minded approach that favors diligent curiosity over judgment at every turn. "It has been my goal to write the first objective modern history of the Church of Scientology," Reitman writes in the book's introduction, and to this end, Inside Scientology succeeds in spades. This book will remain the definitive study of the subject for a long time to come. --Jason Kirk


Ladies-and-gentlemen

6. Ladies and Gentlemen by Adam Ross

"Boys can’t stay mad at each other about girls for too long. That’s a job for men." Adam Ross’s new collection of short stories, Ladies and Gentlemen, is filled with moments of such prickly poignancy, headshaking disbelief, and melancholic side glances. Ross, the author of last year’s Mr. Peanut, has nearly perfected this thoughtful style of prose with a punch. The title story, about a woman contemplating an affair with a college crush, has an air of overwrought introspection, but ends with a surprisingly heartening notion of marriage. "Futures" follows a downtrodden middle-aged man as he searches for a job and mentors a young neighbor in whom he sees a younger version of himself, ending in a horrifying, if hilarious, job interview. In "When in Rome," a story of two brothers--one perfect, one not so much--Ross describes the vast expanse that can exist between siblings, as "a birthright that’s as strong and arbitrary and ineluctable as love," and one realizes that this could illustrate Ross’s feelings on life itself: "Because we feel we must honor this accident of our relatedness, we try to swim against it again and again." Each story a completely singular vignette, Ladies and Gentlemen is a darkly pleasurable read. --Alexandra Foster


Supergods

7. Supergods by Grant Morrison

According to Supergods, Superman comics say less about Superman than they do about Clark Kent. Superman was conceived as a symbol of strength and individualism for the Depression-era middle class--perhaps a more compelling portrait of the era than much literature of the time. But this is just one of the many superhero mythologies author Grant Morrison unpacks to give colorful historical and cultural context. Morrison, a prolific comics storyteller with a career spanning 20 years writing for both Marvel and DC Comics, may be the world's most qualified superhero scholar. (Morrison's reinvention of the Man of Steel, the All Star Superman series, is arguably the best comic of the past decade.) But Supergods isn't a book that appeals strictly to fanboys. Like his comics, Morrison's prose is swift yet powerful, and it's the broader strokes of the Supergods narrative that resonate most. The book succeeds at being a great history of comic books over the past century, but it's an even more convincing exploration of humankind as a whole. --Kevin Nguyen


Forever

8. Forever by Maggie Stiefvater

Forever is a fitting finale to the lovely Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy by Maggie Stiefvater (after last year's Linger). This time, the stakes are higher than ever: while Isabel’s father plots to wipe out the wolves once and for all, Sam and Isabel search for ways to save the pack, and Cole races to find a cure for Grace. But the real centerpiece of the series is the romance--between Sam and Grace, of course, and between Cole and Isabel--and Stiefvater’s luminous, poignant writing does not disappoint. Sam and Grace steal breathtakingly sweet moments together between Grace’s unpredictable transformations, and Cole and Isabel struggle to melt each others’ icy exteriors. Readers will melt, too, and find a satisfying, but not too-perfect, ending to this bestselling saga. --Juliet Disparte

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