This incredible book had me hooked! Before I share my review though, which will come at the end, I am so pleased to share a blog post from Mitch Johnson all about the inspiration for Pop!
There is an urban myth I heard as a child that has always fascinated me. It goes along the lines of: Only two people know the recipe to the world’s most popular fizzy drink, and they are not permitted to travel together in case they have an accident and the recipe is lost for ever. I have no idea to this day whether it’s true or not, but it’s the kind of factoid that raises far more questions than it supposedly answers.
But my main question, then, as now, has always been: What if those two people travelled separately, but their vehicles somehow collided? What if the recipe was lost? What would happen then?
This is how Pop! begins, with two private jets crashing in mid-air over the Pacific Ocean. The sole passengers are executives of the Mac-Tonic Corporation, and the trillion-dollar recipe in their keeping goes down with the wreckage. Within weeks, the most ubiquitous of products has disappeared from shelves and refrigerators, and its thirsty consumers – deprived of their sugar-loaded soda – are beginning to crack. Civilization itself appears to be coming apart at the seams…
But then, miraculously, the recipe washes up in a plastic bottle on the Californian coast, at the feet of a girl called Queenie de la Cruz. It isn’t long before the news gets out, and soon Queenie finds herself being chased across America by bounty hunters, black-ops helicopters and bloodthirsty mobs. As her journey progresses, Queenie witnesses the destruction and pollution caused by the Mac-Tonic Corporation, and she resolves to put the recipe out of their reach for ever. The question is whether she can evade capture long enough to make a difference.
Pop!, like all books, has its fair share of literary inspirations. Most prominent has to be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a childhood favourite. The sugary excess, the sinister glimpse behind the curtain, the overlooked protagonist and their golden ticket moment of discovery: you’ll find them all in Pop!. But I wanted to write something that ramped up the drama, where it wasn’t just the fortunes of one boy and his family at stake, but those of the entire world. I wanted a tycoon who wasn’t just morally ambiguous but actively dangerous. I wanted, perhaps most of all, a story where it was not the greed of children but the greed of adults – men – that was under the spotlight.
There are other, less obvious, literary inspirations. When I first pitched the idea to my agent, I described it as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas meets The Lorax. An unlikely couple, but if you blend a desperate and decadent road trip through the desert with a plucky eco-warrior standing up to a company’s environmental destruction, you get something that looks a lot like Pop!. Millions and Trash – two tales of sudden, unimaginable, life-threatening wealth – were also on my mind. I had a true heart-in-mouth moment (minutes before starting an event in a school library) when I first came across Liquidator, Andy Mulligan’s story of a soda giant gone bad, but fortunately for me he explored a different avenue of corporate villainy.
And then there is Kurt Vonnegut, whose wry words serve as an epigraph to Pop! and who made me realize that it’s okay to have a kooky sense of humour and to let it show in your writing. I read several of his novels while researching Pop! and they taught me that bringing your personality to a story can really elevate the action and dialogue and humour. It’s quite a vulnerable position to put yourself in as a writer, but I think it’s a risk that’s worth the rewards.
I also borrowed heavily from my childhood. Growing up, I was fascinated by unexplained phenomena, weird trivia and conspiracy theories. (Back then, conspiracy theories tended to be outlandish stories told by mostly harmless eccentrics, rather than dangerous lies peddled by prominent politicians.) My younger self would be thrilled to read a story that featured Area 51, the assassination of JFK, and layer upon layer of corporate intrigue. Hopefully there are lots of other children out there who will be equally enthralled.
And then, of course, I took inspiration from the world around me: the endlessly regenerating supply of trash that lines the gutters and drifts across the oceans. Pop! may have ultimately been inspired by an urban myth, but in a story driven by the topsy-turvy logic of capitalism the weird and the wild often turn out to be true. The crises it features – climate change and plastic pollution – are real, and so is our need for heroes like Queenie who are prepared to take a stand.
This book fizzes with excitement and bubbles over with greed and addiction! These two themes run the length of the book and take many forms. From the Mum who can barely tear her eyes from her phone, to Queenie’s brother spending multiple hours a day in front of the television and Queenie herself, who is completely addicted to Mac-Tonic. Addictions will push the characters and the plot to the ultimate running for your life extreme and it is so brilliant to read as the action unfolds.
When the Mac-Tonic recipe is believed to be lost, the company decides to play roulette with the people addicted to the drink. Shortages in supply lead to a daily death toll on the national news, read out like baseball scores. We get to see into the boardroom where the greed and ambition overrule logic, common sense and empathy. These men are ruthless and will stop at nothing to protect themselves.
Queenie, making a monumental discovery now must fear for her life as she is hunted for knowledge she didn’t want! Her eyes were beginning to open before this huge adventure and she was starting to see the rubbish and damage to the environment caused by Mac-Tonic, who admittedly aim for 51% of the pollution.
This thrilling book will have you gasping with the twists and turns, double taking when information is revealed and jaw dropping at the way Queenie learns to stand up for what she believes in and who she is.
This is completely wonderful and I read it in one late night reading session. There was no way I could stop reading through Area 51, through alligator infested water or with black ops helicopters chasing Queenie!