The Martian, by Andy Weir (Random House 2014), was delightfully gripping. The basic premise--Mark Watney is an astronaut abandoned on Mars after his spacesuit is punctured by a rouge antenna during a storm. His crewmates, in a desperate hurry to leave the planet before it's too late for them all, are sure he is dead. But he's not.
And now he is stuck on Mars, alone. The next manned mission won't arrive for four years; he has food for only a few months. He has no way to communicate with Earth. But Watney is nothing if not resourceful, and he refuses to give in....
What follows is a harrowing survival story, in which human ingenuity is pitted against an environment where the smallest mistake can become deadly. Basically, it's a grown-up version of My Side of the Mountain on Mars, and I enjoyed it very much.
Mostly it's told in Watney's log entries (in which he records all the various technical jury-rigging and repurposing projects that fill his days--don't try these at home), but when he finally manages to communicate with Earth, we get to see how NASA desperately does what it can to rescue him, and how the whole planet becomes riveted by what's happening out on Mars. A lot of what concerns Watney is fairly technical, and I confess I read lightly over his engineering endeavours. But I was riveted by his potato farming adventures--Watney is a biologist, as well as an engineer, and the 12 potatoes that flew to Mars for Thanksgiving turn out to be life-savers (composting for the win!).
I was sad this nearish-future vision of the scientific world hadn't made many strides with regard to the inclusion of women as full fledged geeks- true, the commander of the original mission is female, but NASA command is still pretty much all male. And there were two gratuitous bits of nerd culture slamming that I wish hadn't been there (Watley wonders why one crew member is a nerd when she is so beautiful, and the PR woman at NASA sneers at colleagues who reference the Council of Elrond, which she's never heard of). But I guess it's believable; attitudes take a while to change.
There's some strong language (the first sentence, for instance, is "I'm pretty much f***ed"), but I'd be comfortable giving it to my own eight-grader because there's really no point in pretending he doesn't know the f word at this point.
Anyway, I pretty much read it in a single sitting, and recommend it enthusiastically to anyone who enjoys harrowing survival stories that are chock full of science--instructive as well as entertaining. And of course it could conceivably described as "a testament to the indomitable will of the human spirit" etc. etc. which is, you know, not a bad thing in thing to be reading in these difficult times when one's own spirit might be daunted by all there is to do at home and work. At least I don't have to combine hydrogen and oxygen in the kitchen in order to wash the dishes.