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  • PopCo
  • Customer reviews

on 30 May 2011
PopCo presents intriguing insights into the world of code breaking, viewed from the perspective of Alice, an employee of a monolithic toy company, the eponymous PopCo.

The first half of the book gripped me and I found myself still reading it late into the night. However, a warning sign came up when our heroine revealed her interests in homeopathy. The second half of the book slows down into a slightly didactic narrative interspersed with moments of interest - code breaking and Alice's experiences growing up.

The problem lies with the discussions she has with her fellow employees, there's a lot of telling and not much showing. Obviously I don't want to give the hook away but I felt it to be rather disappointing at the end. I wanted more codes and action, less exposition.

Worth reading, but ultimately disappointing.
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on 8 January 2011
I enjoyed the start of the book. I was interested in Alice working for PopCo and her struggles being different to her peers as a child. The addition of code breaking was informative, if a little drawn out at times. The writing style was intelligent and quick paced and all was well until about two thirds of the way through the book.
The rest of the book was disappointing. The ending felt a bit rushed and, as other reviewers have pointed out, the idea of NoCo and PopCo became more implausible as the ending approached. I came away from the book with an uneasy feeling due to the rants about veganism, homeopathy and the many other evils of the world, which was a shame because the first half of the book promised more than the ending delivered.

In short, worth a read but let down by the ending.
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on 13 April 2009
I bought this after reading "The End of Mr Y", by the same author, and am really surprised that this has had the better reviews. The book is fairly smart and the writing is good, but the whole thing leaves you wanting something... more. Toward the end of the book I felt like nothing major had really happened, which was especially disappointing as "The End of Mr Y" gets right into the story from the off. The code-breaking tips and puzzles are ok, though fairly rudementary/common knowledge, but also they aren't really involved in the story, just side-bits of information. Regardless, Scarlett Thomas is a great writer that keeps you interested. If you do like this one and haven't read "The End of Mr Y" then go and buy it now!
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VINE VOICEon 27 November 2009
I'd already read "The End of Mr Y" by Scarlett Thomas, and quite enjoyed it. When I picked up "PopCo" I left it on my shelves for a while, but once I started it my family didn't see much of me. In fact, if I'd thought I'd get away with it, I would have called in sick to keep reading. It probably helps that in many ways I really related to the main character - like Alice, I was raised by academics and was too geeky to fit in well with the popular girls at school. When the novel opens Alice has been working for some time for PopCo, one of the world's biggest toy companies, having been headhunted despite having no previous experience in designing toys. What PopCo are interested in is Alice's mind, because she has been trained by her grandfather in cryptanalysis, and up till now has scraped a living setting crosswords. Alice knows that her grandfather had much invested in making sure she understood codes: the necklace he gave her as a child has a mysterious number on it which points to buried treasure. When PopCo creatives from across Europe are summoned to a residential project deep in the English countryside, Alice begins to receive mysterious coded messages. Who are they from? Are they connected to the treasure? Is she in danger?

Although "PopCo" was written several years ago, it still feels very current. The themes of globalisation and the harms caused by capitalism are perhaps even more relevant post the banking collapse. Alongside the main narrative - the mysterious messages and the hidden treasure - there is the story of Alice's growing awareness of the "inconvenient truths" of working for a multi-national company to devise products that people don't really need which will be manufactured by powerless people in developing nations. Thomas plays with the reader; is "PopCo" an anti-globalisation polemic, a fictional "No Logo"? Or is she poking fun at the type of person who worries about food miles and sweatshops, but doesn't think twice about spending thousands of pounds on the latest technology? Is the whole thing pure fiction, or a fictionalised account of what really goes on in big companies desparate to maintain their market share?

The pace of novel pulled me along, although I have to admit I skipped a lot of the maths bits (like Alice's mother, I had a mathematician for a father and therefore have no interest in maths). But it's the underlying themes that have stayed with me, and given me something to think about regarding the kind of life I want to lead. I guess the joke's on me if you were laughing at earnest geeks, Scarlett.
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VINE VOICEon 1 May 2009
For the first 300 pages or so, this had become my favourite book. Reviews tend to involve a lot of hyperbole, but when I say this was temporarily my favourite book, that's the simple truth.

Let me start from the beginning. While it's wholly irrelevant, aesthetically the book is gorgeous. The page edges are dyed a rich, dark, royal blue and cracking it open feels almost decadent; certainly luxurious. The first few pages are a little disconcerting, inasmuch as, small font, narrow margins, no dialogue... it's a wall of text, and it makes it appear inaccessible. But as soon as you start reading, you've got through that and you're happily sitting on Alice Butler's shoulder while she tells her story.

The first half of Popco is like being in a room with rich, dark green or blue walls; dark painted floorboards; fabrics everwhere, lots of lovely strange trinkets on shelves and tacked to walls; old postcards and photos; jewellery hung from beaded lamps and the fugue of slightly stale, sweet dope in the air... too many things to look at and explore and your senses go into overdrive. Thomas draws you into that room *completely* and you find yourself chewing the inside of your cheek from the shock of reading something so full of texture and imagination.

We follow Alice Butler - toy designer and code-cracker - to Dartmoor; then we follow the story to Bletchley Park, then all the way back to British pirates in the 18th century; forward to chocobos in Final Fantasy VII and virtual worlds; back to the 1980s and a small house full of pure mathematics and the The Voynich Manuscript, then forward again to the present day to an evil toy company conglomerate... back and forth we swing through time and Thomas never misses a beat.

It is a fiercely, frighteningly clever book. She goes into great detail regarding paradoxes, incomprehensible maths, probabilities, codes and how to break them. It's actually rather astonishing. The entirety of chapter 9, for example, is spent discussing codes, specifically the Vigenére code, and how to use it and on page 87 is an actual Vigenére Square. She pours detail and flavour into absolutely everything she writes about and it's incredible... until three quarters of the way through the book, at which point it becomes unbearable, and crosses over into preaching.

Veganism and homeopathy are the lifestyles she's pushing, and she pushes them *hard*. At first, it's alright - it's just one of many, many topics she covers. But then she keeps on, and on, and on. More pages about homeopathy (which, incidentally, is bunkum) and more preaching about the evils of eating meat, and dairy products.

I don't think I've ever been quite so frustrated with a book, as every drop of magic she'd infused the book with went away with the pontificating. It took about 40 pages of it for my adoration to turn into something far more disappointed and cynical and the last 80 pages or so became a chore to read. Given the majesty of the first 3/4, it's incomprehensible that it became so dreadful.

And yet, the bits that were wonderful were so glorious, the book as a whole still gets a high 4 stars. The words on those first few hundred pages are so beautiful I want to eat them. That's not something you come across very often and it should be cherished. But I desperately wish she'd kept the over-evangelism to herself. Large parts of the tail-end of the book are used to skewer marketing - and it's justified. But when she's simultaneously marketing her own lifestyle choices and borderline haranguing people into complying, it's also hypocritical. And it's a shame.
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on 12 April 2009
At first Popco seems to be a thriller/ treasure hunt. The narrator Alice Butler, an employee of a large global toy corporation, is participating in an ideas conference but finds herself receiving a series of mysterious coded messages which may or may not allude to the treasure hidden by a distant ancestor, a pirate with a conscience. As the novel moves on, Thomas moves away from conventional plotlines and the narrative takes a more didactic shape as Alice and her colleagues discuss and debate the evils of capitalism and in particular the exploitation of children.
Alice begins to question her own values and we learn more about her schooldays and her relationship with her grandparents who encouraged her fascination with mathematics and with codebreaking. The novel encapsulates much of the theory and discusses it in detail yet it never becomes tedious or technical.
I don't think the novel really reconciles its various elements and this means that the plot stalls halfway through and limps to a rather unsatisfying conclusion but the character of Alice is beautifully composed and has a strong and significant presence in the novel even before we are treated to her painful memories of her schooldays and the torture of being a teenage girl.
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on 3 February 2010
I really enjoyed the style and pace of Scarlett Thomas' writing in The End Of Mr Y, and also in the beginning of this book. It was no surprise to me that Simon Singh's The Code Book was in the recommended reading at the end of the book, I enjoyed reading about the codes in the story, though most I'd heard of before, and I wish the book would have concentrated more on the codebreaking and mystery element.

Like some of the other reviewers I was annoyed by all the preaching about anti-global corporations, vegan-style food choices, support animal rights activists, pro-alternative medicine and anti pharmaceutical companies etc. By the end of the book it just felt that the author was trying to get her agenda across rather than a good story.

I was also disappointed that there were so many similarities between the main characters, Alice, in this book, and Ariel, in End Of Mr Y, both having been english students, similar age (late 20s early 30s), smoking, happy with casual sex, and the use of homoeopathic "medication". It didn't seem especially original or inspiring.

But most frustratingly I found it really weird that Alice who is educated in maths would also be into homoeopathy, when the probability of the active ingredient being in these diluted sugar pills is so extremely low! The reader will be better of reading Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science" than this book for factual information.

I hope in future books Scarlett Thomas will focus more on the story and less on preaching, and drop the subject of homoeopathy.
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on 24 March 2008
After really enjoying The End of Mr Y I decided to buy this book.
I found it truly enjoyable, that is until the end.
Most of the book had great character development and discussion, but when it came to the end it felt a bit rushed, as if she was saying to herself "I'm about the reach my page limit, so I'll just stop here". If it wasn't for this then I would have been able to give 5 stars.
I am especially thankful for the book, as it finally gave the the push I needed to become a Vegan - and for that I thank Scarlett Thomas for the book.
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on 9 March 2009
Being a complete novice when it comes to maths or science, I was attracted to this book because it seemed different from anything I would usually read. I loved the code-breaking and the mystery, and found Alice's character believable and likeable. I can entirely believe that companies such as Popco exist, and indeed that not everyone within those companies is working in their best interests. There are some really interesting concepts and thought-provoking passages in this book - but I was left feeling slightly unsatisfied by the conclusion, and frustrated by the loose ends left untied and missed opportunities. It was as if the author suddenly got bored of her characters or had another idea for a different book, so lost interest. It's a shame, because I think the first two thirds of the book is ground-breaking and hugely enjoyable - the ending is just not quite to the same standard.

It's still worth a read, believe me: it's the kind of book you keep thinking about long after you've turned the last page, and I don't know anything else like it in terms of the ideas. A good beach book when you've time to think, but don't expect the ending quite to live up to the promise.
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on 25 July 2007
...other reviewers mentioning the mathematics and cryptography and dismiss this book as boring for that reason. I find those things boring, and I do confess, I skimmed through those parts rather than put the book down, because the rest of the story was just so damn enjoyable that it more than made up for it!

Thomas could have made the novel much more marketable and commercial by editing these parts out, but I thoroughly respect her decision not to have done this, because it would seem somewhat hypocritical given the moral of the story (which challenges capitalism and our consumer-driven society) and a character who feels disappointed that the toys she has designed with "geeky" intellectual kids in mind have been dumbed down for more commercial appeal. From the other reviews, it appears many readers loved these parts, but even if like me, you don't, they're easy enough to skim through without distracting from the story.

This is nothing like anything else I've ever read, so it's impossible to put it in a box, but I think it might appeal to fans of Chuck Palahniuk, Aldous Huxley or George Orwell.

An unputdownable, thought-provoking book.
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