Archive for September, 2009


I enjoy books for different reasons. Popco, by Scarlett Thomas, (ISBN 978-1847673350) is one of several novels I’ve read this summer and which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. It strikes me the novels I’ve read are all very different and I wondered if maybe I enjoyed such diversity in the same way I enjoy the company of diversely different people.

When it comes to a novel my main prerequisite is that it’s a good story. I love a good story, and this one drew me in right from the start. Popco, is an imaginary multinational toy company, supposed to be the third largest in the world, and the narrative takes place in a country retreat out in the wilds in southern England, where a select group of Popco employees are receiving classes in the mindsets of teenage girls to try and come up with some new products to crack this notoriously difficult sector of the market.

The narrator is a quirky, bright, highly intelligent young woman. She heads up one of Popco’s sections related to producing kits for children who want adventure – spy kits, code kits, survival kits and so on. She’s not someone who really fits in very easily with others, and I imagined her to be a bit like Chloe O’Brian from “24” – geeky, socially clunky, very bright, and interesting! The novel interweaves the story of her early life brought up by her grandparents, one a maths genius, and the other a professional code-breaker, with her present day experience on the idea-generating retreat for Popco.

I think it was the rich and varied subject matter which really hooked me in this novel. I loved all the explanations about code-making and code-breaking (took me right back to my early teenage years), and I enjoyed the discussions about prime numbers and mathematical patterns. Also, almost as an aside, I loved the way she used homeopathy for self-care and explained the homeopathic method so clearly but modestly. What disturbed me most about the novel was the way the company worked. I don’t mean the structure. I mean the way it operated in the world, dividing children into demographic segments, codifying them according to their interests, desires, and maturity, then producing marketing campaigns to sell loads of branded merchandise and toys to them. I found that all scarily believable. It was all so manipulative, and slick. I think it’s the fact that it was a toy company targeting children that made it especially uncomfortable. I’m pretty cynical about marketing anyway, but this book just made me wake up again a bit, and see behind the TV schedules, comic and magazine tie-ups and marketing campaigns.

There are a couple of interwoven plots which drive the book along. One about a treasure map (yes, really!), and one about a  fightback against globalisation and consumption. I enjoyed both of those plots, and I’m not going to reveal any detail about either of them (in case you decide to read the book)

I like novels which make me think, and ones where I learn something too, but I mostly like novels where the author tells a good story.

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The other day Ian sent me an email with a link in it (he does this quite a lot!). It was to a book which he thought would interest me. I followed the link and, yes, it sounded really up my street. The book was called “Friends in Low Places”, by James Willis and it seemed to be a plea for a human approach to medicine, instead of a protocol-imprisoned one. I clicked “buy’ from one of the amazon marketplace resellers (I do that quite a lot!). I then picked up a book from my bookshelf as I walked out of my front door. I wanted something to read on the train and I’d just finished reading “Popco” by Scarlett Thomas (VERY enjoyable). The book I picked up was “Pharmakon“, by Dirk Wittenborn, and I’d read a review of it in the BMJ about a month before, thought it sounded like just the kind of novel I’d like to read, and clicked “buy” from one of the amazon marketplace resellers (I told you I do that quite a lot!)

I settled down on the train and started to read it. I got to page 21 and this little piece of dialogue hit me between the eyes

“But how did you get it here?” “Friends in low places.”

The identical phrase. Twice in the same morning. No, twice in the same hour! What are the chances of that? Have you ever even come across that phrase before?


This story isn’t finished yet. Pharmakon is a great novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The following day, before leaving for work I was browsing through my rss feeds in googlereader and came across this astonishing video –

Go on, watch it. It’s amazing. It’s about how the Hubble telescope was pointed by scientists at a part of the sky where they could see nothing. Nothing at all. Just darkness. Watch the video to see what they saw when they looked where there seemed to be nothing……! Then I left for work, got on the train and continued reading Pharmakon. Page 95. Here’s what I read…..

Caspar tried to distract himself by looking out of the window in the direction of galaxy clusters not visible to his human eye

Well, I don’t know about you but it sent shivers down my spine. How does that work?

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