A(nother) Review: Sal by Mick Kitson

It’s that glorious time of the year for people in the business that is books… no, not my birthday, or the re-stocking of titles that are going onto the school reading lists for the next term.


No, better than that, publishers are starting to send out the first proofs of new books coming in 2018. Happy August!


Of course, I’ve already had a couple, notably Fear and White Bodies – and though I enjoyed both, this latest is probably my favourite. So far.


Sal has run away with her sister Peppa to live in the woods. She had planned her escape to get away from her mother’s abusive boyfriend for nearly a year, and we slowly learn how and more importantly why she planned this escape.


Sal is not a long novel, at just over two hundred pages long, however that is no bad thing. Our eponymous heroine drags us straight into the narrative with incredibly engaging descriptions of how she and her sister even begin to survive.


We’ve all listened to Desert Island Discs – A current obsession of mine, I’m not the only one who’s listening to everything in the archive am I? – and one of the questions original host Roy Plomley asked each guest was whether they would be able to survive on a desert island.


I am probably not alone in thinking that I would be able to give it a good go. I’m not deluded enough to think I’ll be the next Robinson Crusoe, however I’d lay money on lasting longer than the average.


And then I read Sal.


Thirteen year old Sal has been planning this for a year, and she’s very good, but, gosh is it complicated. She knows things that I wouldn’t have a clue about.


Turns out, living on my own in the wild, I would have likely died of some kind of infection fairly soon. However, I’m now confident I might last a day longer than I would have done previously.


This isn’t about me, though, it’s about how Sal and Peppa survive – and how long they survive.


Despite some of the subject matter, this is a very easy read, one that pulls you into the story, turning each page until you suddenly realise you’ve ready fifty pages more than you were intending to.


It’s all slightly implausible, but at the same time utterly believable – with the drama surrounding the two missing girls happening on the periphery of our attention.  This isn’t a book about the plot, though, it’s about the characters, how they grow when left in the wilds of Scotland away from all civilisation.


Sal and Peppa are two great characters, managing to swerve the trap of becoming annoying know-it-alls as characters of their age (thirteen and ten) are wont to be – however it is the elder character Ingrid, who comes complete with her own fascinating backstory that really grabs the attention.


While it might be possible to suspend disbelief that Sal and Peppa have managed to survive a day or two in the wild, Ingrid has been there years – and through learning her story, I’m more than willing to bet she probably has. Heck, she’s probably still out there somewhere.


Sal probably won’t end up being my favourite book of 2018, but I suspect it will make a few people’s top tens quite easily – and I will certainly be packing it as my book to take to that desert island, if only to help me survive an extra day or two.

Sal will be published by Canongate in early 2018

The Martian by Andy Weir

We all know that you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, but often we do. And not just by the cover, but by the title and blurb as well.


Take The Martian by Andy Weir for example. Published in paperback last week, the title alone will put some people off, because it infers an alien, which infers science fiction, which infers geeks living in a basement watching Star Trek.


Let’s see past the title for a second. The blurb reads as follows:


I’m stranded on Mars.


I have no way to communicate with Earth.


If the Oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate.

If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst.

If the Habitat breaches, I’ll just kind of explode.


If none of these things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.


I’m screwed.


It’s space travel gone wrong. It still seems a bit Star Trek-y. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, I quite a like a bit of Star Trek, but your average Joe in a bookshop might be put off and put it down.


You might be put off right now, and maybe you’re considering not reading this blog any further.


I’m going to tell you now why you shouldn’t put that book down, why you should carry on reading.


This isn’t science fiction, not really. Sure, the premise, the setting and the plot are all, quite literally, out of this world, but the story… the story is about one man’s fight for survival, against all odds.


Sandra Bullock in Gravity

James Franco in 127 Hours.

Robinson Crusoe in… well, Robinson Crusoe


These are stories all quite different from each other, but they have one thing in common. One character, stuck somewhere, the odds against survival are astronomical and all they want to do is get home.


Mark Watney, the ‘Martian’ in question, is no different. Mankind’s third trip to Mars is abandoned after six days when a massive sand storm sweeps through the camp. The rest of the crew make it to the escape rocket, but Watney is struck by an antenna, his spacesuit pierced, and carried off by the wind. His fellow astronauts presume he is dead and get out of there.


The blood, the sand and the air pressure all combine to make a seal against the hole and Watney’s life is saved. But he’s alone, on Mars, with seemingly no hope of getting home, and no way of contacting Earth.


The story is told through his log entries – a clever technique by the writer, as although being told to us by Watney, we can’t be sure if he survives to tell us – and we follow his first few weeks of solitude as he starts calculating how long he can survive with the rations he has – and how long he can extend that by reducing his intake


He soon works out that, he has only one option. Survive until the next Ares mission to Mars arrives – three years later.


Watney working all of this out actually makes for a very interesting read as he tries to come up with a way to grow potatoes on Mars, but runs the risk of becoming repetitive. At the right time the story comes back to Earth where a team at NASA suddenly realise that he is on the planet. The remainder of the book travels between Earth and Mars as it becomes a race against time to save Mark Watney.


This book got to me really early on. There’s a moment that fills our protagonist with such hope after having been alone for such a long time, that it made me cry. From that moment, I was beyond invested, I needed for him to escape and I stayed up until stupid o’clock in the morning to finish the book.


What is most remarkable about that is I can’t tell you anything about Mark’s life. We learn next to nothing about him, despite knowing and discovering things about the other members of his crew, and the people at Mission Control.


Regardless of this, we finish the book knowing him. I’ve never read a book where you’ve ended up more inside the character’s head, and that’s part of the brilliance of this book.


The ending of the book is almost perfectly timed as well, coming at a point where you’re confident of how it all ends, but never quite reaches it. It’s hard to explain this without spoiling the ending, but imagine seeing someone fall from a building, but not watching them hit the ground… You could be fairly certain they’ll hit the ground, but at the same time, maybe… just maybe………


I’ve been on a run of good books lately, having read several that I’ve really enjoyed, each one of them better than the last, each one of them ‘the best book I’ve read this year’


But this is one of the best books I’ve EVER read. To the point I’m not entirely sure I want to start another book now… because it won’t be as good.


Forget the label of sci-fi, don’t judge this book by it’s cover. This is a book that defies genre. Anyone who enjoys reading will enjoy this book.


Of course, if you did want to judge The Martian by it’s cover, you wouldn’t go too far wrong. There’s a GORGEOUS male model on the front with the most remarkable eyelashes you’ve ever seen. I think I may be a little bit in love.