Hell yeah I'm a botanist! Fear my botany powers! - Mark Watney
When a massive sandstorm endangers the third manned mission to Mars, astronaut Mark Watney is tragically killed during the evacuation and his crewmates are forced to leave his body behind.
There's just one thing.
Mark's still alive.
The Martian, by Andy Weir, opens shortly after Mark wakes up alone on Mars and follows him as he deals with the difficulties of being stranded, not just on a deserted island or in the harsh wilderness, but on another planet. When the crew evacuated they left everything apart from the MAV (Mars ascent vehicle). So Mark has a pressurized habitat with working oxygen and water reclamation equipment as well as enough food to last him about 400 days. Too bad the next Mars mission isn't scheduled to land for four years, and nobody on Earth has any idea they need to rescue him in any case. The primary communication equipment was destroyed by the storm, and the backups were in the MAV.
On the up side, Mark's areas of expertise are botany and engineering. He'll need both as he tries to find a way to supplement his food supplies, come up with a way to alert someone that he's still alive, and figure out how he would rendezvous with a rescue mission even if one did arrive. For a book with no antagonist apart from the environment, this was an often tense page turner. Not everything goes to plan, and Mark has to think fast on more than one occasion.
Considering that we're pretty much following Mark as he fights alone against a hostile environment, it's a good thing that he's a very likable character. He's clever and willing to take calculated risks without being unbelievably hyper-competent. He's also a smartass and deals with stress by cracking jokes, so what could have been a relatively straightforward (and dry) survival tale is in fact often very funny. The majority of the book is presented as log entries over the course of his time on Mars written in a very conversational tone.
Weir made a special effort while writing The Martian to ensure that everything in it was scientifically accurate. No bug-eyed aliens or future technology here; everything is within the reach of modern science. The book actually started as a thought experiment by Weir to plan out a manned Mars mission and consider the ways things could go wrong and the contingency plans that would need to be in place.
I tore through this book in just a couple of days; it was that good. I absolutely and unreservedly recommend The Martian to any science fiction or outdoor survival fan. If you've seen the trailer for the upcoming movie version, everything in there is remarkably accurate to the book. Believe me, it's worth your time.
Next week's book is going to be a rough one. Not because it's terribly long or because I expect to dislike it. It's a book I've been anticipating for most of two years. It's also the last book by one of my all-time favorite authors. Next up, I'm reading the last novel of Discworld, The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett. Tune in next Saturday to see if I can make it through the whole thing without crying (Spoiler: I can't).