The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

In my blog post about The Martian I warned about pre-judging books because they’re from a genre you might not normally read.


It’s a lesson I learned from a book I read a short while before I read The Martian, when I read The Devil in the Marshalsea.


I think I’ve said on here before that I don’t really like books set in the past. If I haven’t said it, then I meant to.


The Devil in the Marshalsea, Daughter and The Martian are all books from the Richard and Judy Book Club’s Autumn 2014 selection. This is where I get a bit work-y, so forgive me, please.


My job means I get to work on promoting this Book Club in our stores, which means I get to hear a lot about each of the books, including first hand what Richard and Judy think about them when they’re recording the podcasts for the series.


I was trying to read as many of the books prior to the filming day as possible, or at least a bit of as many of them as I could. I figured I’d start with Devil in the Marshalsea because, being a historical novel it was the one I was going to enjoy the least.


Well, I got that wrong, didn’t I?


I worked out a while back that the reason I don’t like historical novels is because often it feels like the author is showing off everything they’ve discovered while researching.


They go into far too much detail about the world their characters inhabit – they either do it in a third person narrative, which ends up being long paragraphs of just descriptive text before the characters even turn up.


Or, even worse, in a first person narrative, the main character wonders around supplying remarkably insightful comments about the political situation of the time or else it’s a surprise they’re not walking into things because they’re so busy describing everything in tiny, tiny detail.


Take any historical novel, lift out a paragraph and ask yourself – if this was set in the present time would anyone really have that much conscious thought about a lamppost? Probably not – yet, it seems a perfectly normal thing to do in any book set pre-WWII


BUT – my point is, that in this book Antonia Hodgson does something quite remarkable. She puts a simple author’s note at the beginning to give a little context about the world we’re visiting – and then she just gets on with the plot – which turns out to be quite a wonderful little murder mystery.


Anything else I might say would possibly ruin the plot, but a handy little hint to anyone who does now read it is to remember the rule about any murder mystery. Don’t try to work out who the murderer was, work out why the victim was murdered in the first place.

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.