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  • PopCo
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on November 16, 2005
One of the most interesting and intelligent books I've read in a long time, PopCo ties together its spiky protagonist Alice Butler's childhood as a junior cryptanalyst with her current job developing products for a massive toy conglomerate. As she wrestles with her latest corporate challenge--how to market toys to teenage girls--she reflects on the nature of codes, cryptanalysis, cryptography, buried treasure, the ethics of marketing, and veganism.

This is definitely one of those books where you either read it and think it's an utter waste of time and mildly seditious, or you really wish the author was a friend of yours and you could call her up just to chat (to paraphrase Salinger).
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on March 30, 2006
Popco is an intriguing and intelligent novel that manages to present a smart, interesting and likeable heroine, several engaging plot lines, thought-provoking themes, and powerful writing. If you want a fast-paced action adventure story with lots of movement and dialogue, this isn't it. Instead, this story explores fascinating topics well and with depth, while keeping several mysteries humming along. Cryptology, the hierarchies of teen girls, marketing, virtual worlds, math, religion... this story touches on all of these topics and many more, but without being boring or trite. This novel is an excellent choice for anyone who wants to think about what they're reading.
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on April 27, 2007
This is a book with so much promise. The central character, Alice, is intriguing and the characters who surround her, particularly her grandparents, are real and likeable. The author keeps several plotlines on the boil at once, and all of them get you in: now-Alice as she struggles through a work conference in rural England, then-Alice as a child growing up in her grandparents' household with a growing interest in codes and cryptography and a mystery where someone at work is sending Alice encoded messages. Scarlett Thomas really gets you in and hooks you into the story, while doing a great job explaining code concepts, as good as Neal Stephenson in Cryptonomicon.

Unfortunately about two thirds of the way through the novel everything Thomas has built up started to just run out of steam. Alice starts having various crises of confidence both in the contemporary storyline and in her flashbacks and it all just starts to get a bit tedious.

For me, Thomas fails to bring any of the various storylines she has developed to any kind of satisfying conclusion. Most limp to a whimpering conclusion. A couple actually peter out altogether. The main "mystery" that's run throughout the book is a complete disappointment, with the denouement being a large dose of ill-thought out "let's all just only ever buy organic products and oppose globalisation" speechifying. I found myself reading the wooly-headed hugfest ending and exclaiming out loud "oh, please".

Such a pity for a book with such initial promise to end up like this!
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on February 11, 2006
This book is an amalgam of many many stories: a young girl's growing up following abandonement by her father (and living with grandparents); growing up as an adoclescent and dealing with problems of fitting in or not fitting in and what that all means; interpersonal relationships as a twenty-something; the creative approach to problem-solving for a toy company; a "down with corporations" group of guerrillas; codes; mathematical theory; homeopathic medicine; have I left anything out?

And, some of these are more successful than others. For instance, the young girl/adolescent passages are very well written and moving and heartfelt. But, the math seems to be ladled on for reasons that stop the story cold, although I did like the dissertations. But I felt that I had to re-start the story at the end.

It's a fine book, one that I truly enjoyed. But, the parts don't really add up and the end of the book comes with a whimper.
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on February 16, 2006
This is a four-star book with a one-star ending. I read this for a book club and was enjoying the story, the characters, and the milieu when the book took a dramatic right turn and fell off a cliff. The first four hundred pages were worth reading (a little editing of the parts about the trials of adolescent girls would have been nice), but the last hundred pages sucked.

All of us in my book club pretty much concurred.
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on March 28, 2012
I ordered this book after reading one of Scarlett Thomas's other books, The End of Mr. Y. This book was just as good as that one!! I kept trying to decide whether I wanted the protagonist's idea for the bracelets to work out or whether I wanted her to say "screw it" to her whole company. This was really a good book, with enough mystery to keep you reading.
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on October 4, 2005
PopCo brilliantly combines a fun, smart, quirky, yet realistic heroine; mathematical and cryptographical history; a tale of ominous modern marketing ploys that seems to be alarmingly accurate; and even a treasure hunt! Alice, the heroine, is surprisingly easy to warm up to, despite (or because of?) her odd and somewhat paranoid personality. The path that the book takes to the end, in which the reader gets to experience with Alice the awakenings that she has throughout the book, makes the conclusion, which may seem a little too canned otherwise, seem appropriate and not cheesy. The characters are fun to experience, because while they're all clearly hipper than average, they balance it out with a fair bit of geekiness.

The best part of the book is that it's delivering a great message, although it's the kind of message with which a lot of readers will already be on board. To those readers, the appeal of the book (besides the captivating story, interesting subplots, and varied characters), is that in the process of delivering its message, it will make you feel like you're not alone. In the modern world of corporate branding, aggressive, sinister marketing, and massive consumerism, it can often feel as though no one else recognizes the evil effects these have on both society as a whole and on individuals. The book makes it apparent that there are many people who care about these issues, both in Scarlett Thomas' fictional world, and, by extension, in the real world as well.
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on January 25, 2008
Scarlett Thomas is the author of "The End of Mr Y", an impressive book which was highly original and quite entertaining. So I had high hopes for "Popco". Unfortunately, this time it seems that Ms Thomas may have bitten off more than she could chew. The discipline that was evident throughout the tightly constructed "The end of Mr Y" is sorely missing here - one senses early on that things are spiralling out of the author's control.

This is an ambitious, but also a profoundly irritating, book. The author clearly has a point to make, but does so in a fashion that manages to be both preachy and clumsy. There's a lot of faux-erudition, the parading of little tidbits of knowledge for no particular reason. But the author fails the basic requirements of the writer's trade -- she doesn't tell a credible story, and her habit of breaking off the narrative to include assorted heavy-handed, poorly thought out, mini-lectures on everything from prime factorization to networking is disruptive and pointless. These various digressions do not move the plot forward, and ultimately lead nowhere - the account of how the final code is cracked is presented at such a sketchy level of detail that the reader simply has to take it as a given - so why all the little lessons in codebreaking along the way?

Ultimately, the book just collapses under the weight of the various digressions, whose relevance is never really made clear.

Better accounts of some of the topics dragged into this book can be found in:

Simon Singh's "The Code Book"
Naomi Klein's "No Logo"
Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point"

A more successful synthesis of some of the ideas, incorporated in a skillfully told story is in Neal Stevenson's "Cryptonomicon".

But give this book a miss. Hopefully Ms. Thomas will regain her earlier form next time out.
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on August 24, 2007
Some other reviewers mentioned the meandering plot and it seemed to me to be an integral part of the story. At one point the narrator states that the rich don't read or finish books that don't have to do with 'moving cheese' or business tactics. It occurred to me that the first 4/5th's of the book are a test to see if you're sympathetic to the author's ideas. It is a very anti-corporate novel with all the monkey wrenching shown only at the end. The mystery code, while a major plot point, is really analogous to the search for the author's/narrator's point or goal for her life. The search for the answer to the code really being about the journey, not the discovery. Over all, a very wise novel and a lot less preachy than other books with the same ideals.
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on April 16, 2006
I loved this book. Besides enjoying books set in England and smart independent female protagonists, Thompson's book had so many elements I crave in a book; adventure, romance, philosphy. Books that make you think rock. I now question consumerism, traditional medicine, and our entire meat eating society. While I have made a few changes in my diet, if I finally make the radical shift to being a vegan, it will be a result of Thompson's convincing argument. I also really want to learn to play Go. I am happy for the final chapter but would still love to see the answers to the puzzle. I got a lot of it but not all.
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