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  • PopCo
  • Customer reviews

on 2 September 2017
One of the most engaging books I have read this year, I could not put it down. It's rare to find a book that encompasses mystery, coding, and the world of children's toy invention, but somehow this works!
It's an easy book to get into and not an overly taxing read (not a criticism), but still touches on complex topics (coding, consumerism, etc).
The characters are likeable and have enough depth that you are invested in the story. Although I wasn't thrilled by the ending, I found myself wishing this were a series so that I could see how the story develops.
I have recommended this to a number of friends.
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on 14 March 2011
In all honesty I really couldn't make up my mind with this book.

The first thing to say about it is that it is a beautifully written novel and Scarlett Thomas is clearly a very intelligent and thoughtful writer. She presents some maths that is complex and methods of coding that I couldn't begin to understand. The characters are intriguing and certainly not your usual bland and cliche recycled personae of many novels. The main character, Alice, is an enigma even though we are hearing from her point of view. In fact she is almost (I stress almost) a Byronic hero. She is intelligent and perceptive, world weary, self critical, anti-establishment and not to mention is troubled by her past. I enjoyed reading about her and enjoyed reading from her perspective. The story itself is also interesting, a novel which questions establishment and to what extent we can trust what we know. I believe it is a book which intends to make you question your own beliefs and I was genuinely hooked by the novel.

And yet... Everything that made this book good also contributed to its flaws. At times there is too much description. Do I really want to read for four pages about what cough medicine the protagonist prefers? And whilst the maths fascinated me I'm sure for many people the amount of time dedicated to describing complex bits of mathematics would just bore others. Yes the characters are interesting, but some seem enigmatic and mysterious when they play no real role in the book. For example I was convinced that the character of Kieran would eventually play a central role, but no. He was just a slightly peculiar person who seemed to float around the novel. This leads me on to the ending of the novel. It felts rushed, almost as if the author were unsure of how to finish the novel. I think I actually felt slightly cheated at having the ends of the novel tied together so quickly.

And then, as many others have said, I felt lectured by the book. I think that at times this novel turned into more of a rant at society. It felt as if Scarlett Thomas was actually judging the readers of the novel. And the there's the feeling I couldn't shake all whilst I was reading this novel - that the reason that there is some many nuggets of information about maths and codes is because she is desperately trying to stop this novel becoming a 'chick-lit'.

As I said, I couldn't decide with this novel. I do however believe it is worth reading this book, it's does provide some interesting concepts and a fascinating story.
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on 6 August 2017
Brilliantly original ideas and very well written. Again "something completely different" from this author but wonderfully presented and developed. In truth could have been twice as long, there were so many interesting threads which could have been followed.
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on 21 February 2014
The story is this: Alice Butler works for a toy company called PopCo, and has been assigned to a new special elite team who have been instructed to invent, or design, the ultimate product for young girls. And that's it.

In her other novel, The End Of Mr. Y, I found a lot of the scientific facts interesting, albeit sometimes overbearing, but in this novel the facts are all the story has. Instead of science, this time they mainly revolve around maths and cryptography/cryptology. It's as if the author got A's across the board in every subject at school and now she writes novels about whatever subject she's digging at that moment. One novel: science. Another novel: maths. Another novel: French, maybe. Or history. Who knows?

Her other novel worked to an extent, mainly because the facts interested me, but also because it had a plot. This novel is merely a mathematical manual disguised as a novel. It's also a condemnation of corporate companies who dump all over the world to make their millions. And it's preachy. It felt like every pointless scene was there so the main character can have a conversation with someone about how cruel animals are treated before they're slaughtered for our consumption, or how sweatshops are used, or how marketing is a big fraudulent lie perpetrated by all the fat cats, and how prime numbers are blah blah blah. For a while it seemed as if the novel was going somewhere, moving toward a point. Yet, paradoxically (and this word crops up a lot in the novel) this book is merely propaganda about how bad propaganda is. This is an attempt at marketing the evils of marketing. It would almost be ironic if it wasn't so pointless.

Plus almost ninety percent of the conversations are stilted and contrived, merely to elaborate on a point I don't care about, or to teach me some `neat' paradox, or a `cool' maths trick. The End Of Mr. Y had similar faults in its storytelling, except it wasn't preachy. Another annoyance is that in almost all of the scenes, everyone frowns, ALL THE TIME. These fictional characters are confused by almost everything someone else says, so that the person then has to elaborate, talking like a manual or a robot.

On top of that, the book is split into two sections: her past, as a child, growing up; and her present, as an adult, in the toy company. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, both of these sections are written in present tense.

But what really kills the book is its anti-climactic ending. Just to save you the reading time, here it is (LOOK AWAY NOW): the main character, who has been doing nothing for the entire book, is recruited by an underground guerrilla warfare tree-hugger sect who want her help them take down the toy companies from the inside out.

Her recruitment is the END OF THE NOVEL.

Having said all of that, if you want to learn some interesting facts about maths, then check it out.

If you want something with a little more meat, check out The End Of Mr Y instead.
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on 5 March 2009
...Scarlett Thomas is a 'What if' writer; at the core of her novels are some really clever concepts and ideas. The plots twist and turn like shapes shimmering at the bottom of a clear pool - sometimes you think you can make them out, only for them to shift slightly, leaving you with the realisation that things aren't quite as they seem.

It's so difficult to write reviews for her books, because they rely upon setting the reader challenges of intuition and interpretation along the way; it would be so easy to take away the delicious pleasure of having the story develop as it is read by revealing too much in synopsis.

This tale has codes at its heart: those that hide information by encryption; those that we learn as we grow up and use to identify others in our peer groups, and those that corporations use to sell their products. The narrator, Alice Butler, works for such a corporation - PopCo - which is one of the top three toy manufacturers in the world. She has a natural inclination towards ciphers and codes, as she was raised by her grandparents who were both involved with codebreaking during the war.

Scarlett Thomas is my favourite writer at the moment. Her characters speak a lot like those in Douglas Coupland's novels (he is a big fan of hers by the way); she disseminates a great deal of incidental facts and statistics through their casual asides in a similar way to him - they tend to inhabit a similar geek-like position in the world, surrounded by high-tech equipment and using a zeigeist-loaded language that makes them sound like voices from the very near future, rather than the present - she shares Coupland's ability to let them discuss concepts between themselves whilst letting the reader in on the subject without it seeming like learning.

Where Doug can be almost Chekhovian in the directionlessness of his characters, Scarlett distinguishes by having strong concepts that she wants to illustrate which drive her narrative on - similar to Philip K. Dick, for those of you that know his work - they are rarely allowed the time to reflect too much, as the reader always feels that something unexpected could be just around the corner. Furthermore, she leaves the reader seeing and feeling about the world slightly differently for a long time after the book has been read - I'm seriously considering becoming vegetarian now, for example.

I'm convinced that she's going to become big news in 2009 - discover her for yourself before she becomes someone that everyone is reading.

Finding her has been a huge pleasure for me, and I can't recommend her highly enough.
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on 13 April 2009
The code-breaking information was fascinating and the beginning of the book gripped me almost instantly. Scarlett Thomas writes in a way that I feel she is expressing things I've thought about, but never contemplated writing.

Ultimately though I found long stretches of the book where I felt I was being condescended to and preached at: Despite having been a strict vegetarian (on-off vegan) and immersed in that kind of literature for two decades I felt the pieces about the negative impacts of factory farming and the milk industry were too heavy handed and almost propaganda-like. There are some similar stretches about beauty, identity and fashion which were also patronising.

Unlike some of the other reviewers who were wowed by the ending, I left the book wondering if I had missed a chapter. To me, the ending felt rushed and a little forced (Thomas even seems to hint at this with her protagonist writing a book which she is unsure how to finish), almost like stories I used to write at school for English homework, thinking "I'm bored of this now, how can I get to my planned end piece?"

Despite my comments above (and below) I do recommend this read, although I preferred "The end of Mr Y". I might be a little more wary of her other books, I'm not fond of being preached to and I think thomas needs to be careful of preaching to the converted.

--Please don't read this part of the review if you haven't read the book in its entirety--
Whilst reading this book, I couldn't help harbouring a sense of doom wondering what sinister reason there could be that the NoCo members were coincidentally the same people that PopCo chooses as its elite marketing crack team. Thinking that 'they are the smartest' wasn't a reasonable explanation I was convinced the board had laid a trap or that there was something deeper going on. It x just the way the story went and I felt that it was maybe a tad implausible, which was a shame because the rest of the novel was much more credible.
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on 22 February 2009
I'm beginning to think I've really found a kindred spirit in Scarlett Thomas. First, I was mesmerised by The End of Mr. Y, loving the myriad of subjects she touched on, before searching out 'Going Out', a book with a very differnt style, set in the heart of South Essex, with the most non-stereotypical characters I've read about in a novel...

...then comes 'Popco', a cross between Simon Singh and Douglas Coupland. Popco is a book of many facets. It is a sharp critique of mass commercialisation and underhanded advertising, a study of cryptography and code-breaking, interspersed with several very likeable and off-beat characters. Even the format of the novel, which throws in a crossword (and thankfully, the solution to the heroine's treasure hunt), is well-thought out.

It does frustrate me that Thomas is being lumped in with the overblown & overhyped (such as Kate Mosse), or the 'chick-lit' novelists. For what it's worth, anyone who dismisses a novel because the writer is female, and the cover looks a bit wishy-washy, are going to miss out on what is a wry, intriguing, and thought-provoking novel.
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on 17 January 2012
I really wanted to love this book in the same way I did 'The End Of Mr Y' but I just couldn't.

The premise is interesting - an eccentric toy designer - Alice - and former crossword compiler is sent away by her company to a mysterious corporate brainstorming event where we find out about her childhood, learn that she's very clever and she spends half the book ill in bed with an unspecified illness.

Parts of the book are very good but other parts are not and some of it is just downright annoying. For example, detailed explanations of codes and code-breaking were great in parts but then reams of numbers seemed to me to be merely page-fillers and of no use at all.

SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT: I found the jump to the 18th century initially very interesting but after several pages began to feel it was far too detailed - yes, we get the point about what this relates to!

I also did not understand the ending at all and agree with other reviewers who felt it was a bit of a fudge - 'Mmmm, not sure where to go with this next - I know! I'll go all meta-fictional and then it won't matter what I write!'.

I felt some editing was in order as well. As with other novels of Thomas's I have read, the word 'just' is used to an extent that makes me want to scream.

I became confused with a number of the characters as well - what was the difference between Chloe and Grace for example and did we really need both of these people?

I wasn't convinced by the relationship with Ben - from the narrative, particularly relating to her childhood, I got the impression that Alice was a very quiet and self-contained person. She doesn't say much yet Ben wants to have a relationship as soon as he meets her - I couldn't understand why.

I was irritated with repetitive descriptions of Alice's unruly hair and the products she had to use to try and tame it yet I had no idea what she looked like!

I disagree with other reviewers about the heavy-handedness on veganism - I read the reviews before reading the book and thought there was going to be a lot more about it, but there was far less mention of animal rights and treatment than I was expecting.

I only finished the book because I was at home unwell and had nothing else to read. I think if I'd read 'PopCo' prior to 'The End Of Mr Y', I would have thought more highly of it, but it was a complete come down for me.

I feel guilty not giving this 5 stars but I can only write how I feel.
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on 20 August 2015
There are people who like novels that are purely plot driven, that move along at a brisk pace but at the expense of character and dialogue. There are people who like novels that manage to integrate plot, character, skilful writing and ideas to not only draw them in, but also inform and provoke them. Then there are fans of novels of that consist of exposition and lectures that reduce characters to ciphers and plot to a mere info-dump. For these people: welcome to PopCo, by Scarlett Thomas.

The staff of a games manufacturer gather at a secluded country house for a works weekend to discuss strategy and to bond. Some, needless to say, bond better than others. Our narrator/heroine is a cryptographer who concocts games and puzzles for the company, while the rest of the characters come across as corporate nerds, the kind of people who suffered bullying in school and then went on to make a packet out of their pursuits as grown-ups. Our heroine is initially scowled at across a crowded room by a handsome and brooding young man who, natch, turns out to fancy her. They go to lectures, they take part in exercises, they go to more lectures. At one point, for instance, everyone attends a lecture on networking which takes up six and a half pages, including one character saying "I don't get it" and having it explained to her until she does. At another point, they attend a staff meeting where future strategy is discussed, and that really is as much fun as attending a work meeting, or having to spend a weekend with those blokes from accounting. At about page 140, we learn something about the heroine's past and...OMG!!! A PLOT, AN ACTUAL PLOT!! Unfortunately, it's soon buried by slabs of exposition. In fact, this whole book seems to practice a literary version of Whack-a-Mole, and as soon as any plot point appears, it's swiftly hammered down by further lessons on history or cryptography or maths or the history of cryptography and/or maths. For when the heroine isn't being lectured, she's lecturing us, the readers. There are several pages, for instance, on the Vigenère cipher, quite a bit on homeopathy and flower remedy, more on the pioneers of mathematical theory, and, occasionally, on our heroine's upbringing by her grandparents and...OMG! PLOT POI...nope...nope, it's gone: no sooner surfaced than swept away on a tide of facts and figures. Our heroine, meanwhile, has sex with Mr Broody or thinks about the time she had sex with her boss, while people on walks on the moors say things like "I haven't been able to look at flowers the same way since I learnt about the Fibonacci sequence", which cues up a primer on said sequence that you've been waiting for.

It would be wrong to say that "PopCo" is a bad novel, as such. Misguided perhaps, as Ms Thomas labours to impress upon the reader every last shred of research she's done, but this seems to be quite de rigeur in fiction these days. Alongside Murakami's "IQ84" and McEwan's "Solar", she takes a very "Don't show, tell. Then tell, tell and tell again" approach, which makes it about as much fun as a late-night Open University program.

There was one surprise in store for me: After 290 pages, I just couldn't take any more and, for the first time in over twenty years, I abandoned a novel before finishing it. Maybe one day I'll go back but, frankly, I'm in no hurry.
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on 22 February 2009
Have recently discovered Scarlett Thomas (Mr Y) and am now trying to track down her earlier (non-detective) novels, as she herself seems to be less than pleased with the 'tec ones.

She is a real find - like others, I picked up on the Murakami connections - and also, I think there is a real whiff of David Mitchell. She's a sophisticated story teller, and has clearly written a book around ideas and concepts which interest her (corporate culture and its brain-washing us into consumerdom, animal rights, veganism, third world exploitation, homoeopathy, mathematics and cryptanalysis) She juggles these diverse interests beautifully, and whilst I share some of them, I found her writing pulled me into fascination with those interests I had not been drawn by (the maths!)

I'm always grateful to writers who can make their passions understandable to the previously uninterested.

I loved the puzzles, she exercised my brain as well as telling an inventive and interesting story

Alice is a quirky, interesting young woman, and the funny, painful references to being a young girl on the verge of adolescence, the finding of identity and FITTING IN with one's peers were great - the backwards/forwards story of Alice now and Alice then worked magnificently.

Good luck all you NoCo cell members out there!
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