In a cosmic reading mood? Let these three forthcoming books satisfy your search for fresh, unexpected insights into the nature of the universe.

God, free will, quantum versus Newtonian theories — no subject is too big (or nanoscopic) for Cambridge theorist Stephen Hawking who, with Caltech's Leonard Mlodinow, gives readers another graceful, slender guide to the workings of the cosmos in "The Grand Design" (Bantam). "Until the advent of modern physics," the authors write, "it was generally thought that all knowledge of the world could be obtained through direct observation, that things are what they seem." That's a viewpoint that this elegant, accessible book challenges. (September)

Big Bang or Big Bounce? In "Once Before Time: A Whole Story of the Universe" (Alfred A. Knopf), Penn State physics professor Martin Bojowald summarizes humanity's various attempts at understanding the universe — gravitation, for instance, and the shortcomings of Einstein's theory of general relativity — before turning to loop quantum cosmology, which argues for the existence of a "pre-bang" universe. His thoughtful, rigorous (sometimes a bit daunting) book challenges the theory that our universe emerged from a single, infinitely concentrated point with a bolder vision of "a universe that is expanding, recollapsing, and rebounding time and again." (November)

You won't find this star biography in the Hollywood section of a bookstore. In "Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life" (Random House), Richard Cohen surveys humankind's evolving relationship to — and understanding of — its nearest stellar neighbor. He takes us around the world (from the science stations of Antarctica to the top of Mt. Fuji) and across time ( Galileo's discovery of sunspots, Islam's contribution to solar astronomy). He describes unexpected perils posed by the sun (not just skin cancer but also a strange sneezing hazard that afflicts modern fighter pilots). Cohen ends his fine book with a visit to sun worshippers in Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges, noting "a feeling of awe, even something like fear, had filled the air as tribute was paid to forces that hold the power of life and death." (November)

— Nick Owchar