PopCo by Scarlett Thomas

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: PopCo

Author: Scarlett Thomas

Type of Book: Fiction, cryptography, veganism, mystery

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Like the works of Chuck Palahniuk, this book can be seen as a gateway odd book. While a bit strange, it is not wholly odd but for the right reader, it will open all kinds of odd doors. For some, a mere mention of the Voynich Manuscript is virtual assurance of hours spent in a very odd world.

Availability: Published by Fourth Estate in 2004, it appears to be out of print and in the “bargain book” stage. However, you can still score a new copy online:

Comments: A few years ago, I ran a blog called Ghostroses, a terribly unfocused journal wherein I just wrote aimlessly about whatever topic came to mind. I reviewed some books over there, too. This month I noticed that I was getting some hits on IROB from a cryptography site. I was never able to pin down any entry here that would ping the interests of a cryptography enthusiast, but I ended up reading that site for a couple of hours because it focuses heavily on one of my favorite unsolved mysteries: the Voynich Manuscript. If you have time, check the site out. It’s quite interesting. As I read, I remembered the long discussion I wrote five or six years ago about PopCo, a book which discusses in depth cryptography in general and the Voynich Manuscript specifically, though briefly. No idea why I have visitors from a cryptography site now (hello and welcome!), but I am pleased I remembered this old discussion, because I really liked the book a lot.

Since I am preparing for Bizarro Week and spent far too much time fielding some unrelated nonsense on this site, I am behind on my discussions.  So I decided to edit (and in some places gut) my old discussion of PopCo.  It was interesting to realize that I was just as verbose back then, and that despite not having a brain cut out for the hard logic and mathematics of cryptography, I am not quite the dilettante I thought I was, as my interest in the topic persists to this day. Or maybe I am just a persistent dilettante.

At any rate, this book covers a lot of ground – media and marketing studies, mathematics, cryptography, veganism, toys, and social resistance.It is interesting for me reading this discussion because I wrote it not to discuss a book but rather my reaction to a book, which may seem like a specious distinction given my still intense, personal reactions to books. But in this review, I was just regurgitating how this book affected me and didn’t talk enough about how the book was excellent outside of my reaction to it. Like any personal blog entry, this is just a discussion of my life – it just so happens that this one is shaped around a book. Still, even in this somewhat disjointed discussion, I hope I convey what a fabulous book this is.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Author: Stieg Larsson

Type of Book: Fiction, thriller, mystery

Why Did I Read This Book: I read this book because I am a narcissist. You see, while I am not THE girl with the dragon tattoo, I am A girl with a dragon tattoo. The title sucked me in. Then I flipped through the pages and saw that a character had my own name. I have not read a book with an Anita in it since the book Anita and Me by Meera Syal. Those reasons were reason enough for the likes of me.

Availability: Published by Vintage Crime, is is widely available. You can get a copy here:

Comments: It’s been a while since I have been this enthralled by a best-seller. This is a seriously good book on many levels and I think that you should read it. I feel this way for a variety of reasons.

Larsson’s ability to write a multi-layered mystery with so many characters is in itself amazing. Generally, books with more than one sub-plot can become tiresome, with too much competing for the reader’s attention. Larsson’s tale has several sub-plots neatly woven together so tightly and interdependent on one another that the book is near seamless.

I will not attempt to summarize the plots more than this: Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist is hired by wealthy man to try to solve the decades-old mystery of his niece’s disappearance. He meets Lisabeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, because she had been hired by a security company to investigate Blomkvist. When he reads her dossier on him, her abilities as an investigator and a hacker impress him and he engages her to work with him to find the missing heiress. Together they uncover far more than just a missing girl, but rather many missing and dead girls, whose disappearances all lead to a shocking and dreadful conclusion.

The carefully laid plot is worth the price of admission, so to speak, but really, the reason this book is so captivating is because of the girl with the dragon tattoo, Lisabeth, and her intriguing, sad, maddening life.

I read some reviews of this book after I finished it and was puzzled by some of the words people used to describe Lisabeth Salander. Words like spunky. Fiesty. She is not fiesty. She is not spunky. She is not plucky. Those words describe a character in a Reese Witherspoon movie. There were those who think she is a deliberate outsider, choosing to live as she does because she’s some sort of personal agent provocateur. She is not a charming loser, a female Cool Hand Luke. Then there was a discussion online as to whether or not she had Asperger’s Syndrome, which does not even seem reasonable to me, but several felt that she did have the condition. It beggars belief that people found her personality spanning so many characterizations, from a plucky heroine who lives by her wits to a funky anarchist whose tattoos and hacking are a rage against the machine to a computer savant whose interpersonal relationships are limited because she has a psychological or behavioral condition.

How could so many people leave this book with such different conclusions about Lisabeth, though wrong most of them are in my eyes? Because in Lisabeth, Stieg Larsson managed to create a character wholly unique. So unique in fact that she is hard to pin down and even my attempt may be a shoddy representation of her.

Candy from Strangers by Mark Coggins

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Candy from Strangers

Author: Mark Coggins

Type of Book: Fiction, Mystery

Why Did I Read This Book: A couple of reasons. One, the cover is sexy, featuring the torso and neck of a shapely woman in various poses. Second, the premise of the book – women getting harmed as a result of “cam-whoring” (my term, not the author’s) – was a new one, something I could imagine Andrew Vachss writing about, and it intrigued me.

Availability: Published by Bleak House Books in 2007, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I am a voracious and indiscriminate reader, and buy books for a variety of reasons and seldom think twice when the urge to buy a book hits me, so were I less a book whore, I would have read the blurbs closer and realized I was reading the third book in a series. August Riordan, the private investigator in this book, is featured in two other other books by Coggins, but thankfully, the plot for the third novel stands independently from the other two. There are small elements that clearly are set up in previous novels, like Riordan’s relationships with women, his friendship with an old jazz and blues performer, and similar, but ultimately, no one would get lost reading this book before the others.

This book is a bag of potato chips. It really offers nothing new, but as you eat, you don’t really think, “My god, I am eating potato chips for the thousandth time in my life. I really need to get some of those wasabi rice crackers and mix it up a little.” For snack food is snack food and regardless of the form it takes, you enjoy it and sort of forget about it until the next time you need a snack. This is no slam of this book, calling it snack food. I would never turn up my nose at a competent mystery, and this is a competent mystery. There is a lot going on in this book, so much that it is almost impossible for me to give one of my regular, encompassing synopses, but here’s the lowdown:

A disgraced cop’s daughter goes missing. Her mother contacts Riordan to find her, and in the process of the investigation, he discovers the girl has a shared camgirl site with another girl, a fellow art school student. Much happens and Riordan solves the case, and in the process, plays a jazz gig or two, finds a dead body, annoys the denizens of an art school, interacts with and punishes a skeevy psychiatrist (best scenes of the book, in my opinion) and engages in pulp detective clichés that I ordinarily would snert at, but he does it competently enough that I don’t in this case.

Here’s one of the clichés in the book: In one of the side stories, the grandson of a famous but impecunious musician steals his grandfather’s bass, an instrument that has a lot of sentimental value. Riordan helps get the bass back and in the process finds out the grandson has musical talent and is a hoot on the old horn. So Riordan gets him a place in a gig and the misunderstood, strung out youth accepts and BOOM! It all seems right in the world. Jazz gigs, not drugs, kids. Just say blow (on the horn, not up your nose, yo!).

But this snert aside, a book doesn’t have to necessarily have something new under the sun. It is, at times, enough for a book to be entertaining. This book was entertaining. The characters, though at times caricatures (like the flamboyant cross-dressing Chris), engage the reader. At no point did any character bore me or alienate me and sometimes this is all I need from a good thriller. Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series used to be a lot of fun until Scarpetta became more strident, brittle and preachy as the plots became more and more outrageous. Neither of these are problems with Candy from Strangers. The plot makes sense, the characters are believable and likable, even Riordan’s snaptastic sarcastic rejoinders ring true when you read them. Riordan also has a good sense of humor, or at least his sense of humor resonated with me.

The only real unrealistic plot element in the book was this: The book involves female characters getting huge tattoos on their bodies. One of the women is an art model and when the photographer for whom she is a muse discovers she got the tattoo, he asks her to remove it and she does. The way the tattoo is described is that it is very large. Not only would it take several sessions to get such a tattoo, to remove it would be expensive as well and would take a long, long time and would leave scarring, even with the best laser technology. The time frame in the book does not allow this character the time she would need to get the tattoo and to later get it removed. One wonders where she, a struggling camgirl and student, would get the money for the extremely expensive laser treatments. And even if all of that were not problematic, traces of the original tattoo or the resulting scarring would remain and mar her nude photographs. Laser removal does not work like an eraser on the flesh. Small plot point but the only real issue I had with the book.

So know this book for what it is, common snack food for the mystery reader, and you’ll enjoy it well enough. If I ever see any of Coggins’ other works, I would be tempted to buy them. I might not seek him out actively, but I would definitely buy the two preceding August Riordan books if I stumble across them in a book store.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Mark Haddon

Type of work:

Why Did I Read This Book:
I worked briefly at a used bookstore (waves to all my awesome coworkers at the Half-Price Books in Round Rock, if any of them ever find this review site) and a woman told me she had read it for her book club and wanted a copy for her daughter because she liked it so much. Her daughter worked with special needs children and despite the number of times I had seen copies of the book in new stores, I had no idea the book revolved around a “special needs” kid. On the basis of that woman’s like of the book and tantalizing premise of an autistic teenager writing a book, I decided to give it a try.

Published in 2003 by Vintage Books, this book is still widely available. You can get a copy here:

Comments: I do my best not to be an armchair psychiatrist because invariably such endeavors show my utter ignorance in the realm of psychiatry and the workings of the human brain, but I wonder what my extreme love of the spare style used to write this book says about me. The trope of the book is that Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old autistic savant, discovered a neighbor’s dead dog, stabbed to death with a pitchfork, and decided to write a book about his attempts to solve the dog’s murder. As he writes his book, Christopher uncovers a shocking family secret and is forced to crawl outside the extreme limits his autism place upon him. Of course, I won’t spoil the ending but the plot, while at times a little obvious, is overshadowed by the experience of spending time in Christopher’s head, a time that is nerve-wracking, saddening, frustrating and amazing.