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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Don't Turn Around by Michelle Gagnon

Release Date: Aug. 28, 2012
Publisher: HarperCollins
Age Group: Young Adult
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Pages: 310
Buy: Amazon / Book Depository / IndieBound
Description: Goodreads
Sixteen-year-old Noa has been a victim of the system ever since her parents died. Now living off the grid and trusting no one, she uses her computer-hacking skills to stay safely anonymous and alone. But when she wakes up on a table in an empty warehouse with an IV in her arm and no memory of how she got there, Noa starts to wish she had someone on her side.

Enter Peter Gregory. A rich kid and the leader of a hacker alliance, Peter needs people with Noa’s talents on his team. Especially after a shady corporation threatens his life. But what Noa and Peter don’t realize is that Noa holds the key to a terrible secret, and there are those who’d stop at nothing to silence her for good.
Hi. I’m Wes. You may recognize me from my previous work as Wastepaper Prose Buffalo Wing critic. This book is about hackers. My job is “computer stuff,” which prompted Susan and Jess to somehow convince me to write a review for this hacker book from a “technical” perspective.  

Many of the technical failings of the book are the same sorts of mistakes made by the rest of popular media. These are the kinds of mistakes that, while irksome to a “techie,” are unimportant in the grand scheme of things. I’d place annoyances like a message board being referred to as a “backup wiki” in this category. Unfortunately, the book makes technical mistakes that undermine the credibility of both its lead characters and makes me question why I should be intimidated by the antagonist at all.

Let’s start, as the novel does, with the heroine, no-nonsense orphan Noa. She gets sucked into the plot while on her way to the Apple Store to buy a new video card for her Macbook Pro. Let’s put aside for the moment that you can’t replace video cards in most laptops (certainly not Macs). The only uses for a higher end graphics card are for 3d rendering and scientific research. Since researchers use them to crank through a ton of data relatively quickly, Noa might still have a use for one if she was, say, cracking passwords from a list she’d already downloaded. Even then, she might reduce the time to crack a reasonably secured password from a few months or years to a few weeks.  And, since Noa is supposedly a “good” hacker, I have trouble believing she’s just randomly cracking passwords. Not only does Noa apparently know none of this, but when she needs to get another computer later in the book, while on limited funds, she spends precious resources on another Macbook Pro, when she could shell out $200 bucks for a netbook and a copy of BackTrack (basically Hacker OS). She doesn’t even know the best tools for her supposed trade.

Next is our hero, Peter, the good-at-everything Gary Stu with his own legion of Internet nerds at his fingertips. Unfortunately, if he’d taken even basic precautions, he’d never have been dragged into the plot. He attempts a hack on a Super Duper Secret Website (I’m getting to that, believe me) from his home computer with no protection of any kind. That’s just...stupid. He should have used any of hundreds of proxy services to keep the bad guys from finding him. While he does try this later and is still found out (technically possible but nowhere near as easy as the book suggests), the fact that he’d basically try to break into a building while standing in front of an waving to a security camera makes it hard for me to take him seriously as a threat. Although, to his credit, he’s the only person in the novel who shows any actual technical prowess as he does, in the end, manage to breach the Big Bad’s network.

The single largest technical problem with the book is that the Bad Guys put their Super Secret website with its whole database up on the public Internet. There are multiple ways to hide this information. If, for some reason, they really needed a public-facing website, they should have divorced whatever machine held the public site from any of their data. Just put them on two networks entirely and not let either one talk to the other. Alternately, and more effectively, they could have placed this Super Secret portal on the unindexed Internet so that only people who actually knew how to get to the Super Secret Site could get there. Letting anyone access this information outside of their actual work facility is horrible security anyway. Had the Bad Guys actually been half as technologically savvy as presented, almost none of the action in this novel would have happened.

Despite the multitude of technical annoyances I had with the book, there are a few sections where the author really nails it. These sections usually occur when she pulls back from specific technical detail and describes things in broad perspective. For example, there is a section where Peter is sitting at a terminal and attempting a hack where the author manages to capture the repetitive and time-consuming nature of solving a computer problem very well. She does a fantastic job of depicting the tedium of trying one thing, waiting thirty seconds, then trying something else, but also how a series of those tries can melt six hours away in what feels like seconds. Another time she nails it is in the heroes’ choice of computer attacks on the Bad Guys. The book also has a healthy respect for just how long most of these processes take, which is something most media lacks. 

I wish I could say that, despite its technical problems, the book is good. None of the characters are that interesting and the books like it’s checking off character and plot beats just because they need to happen. Noa is the closest a character comes to having a third dimension, but really she’s just colored-in in a world of black and white, two dimensional characters. The plot feels about as well-formed as the characters, although there’s a lengthy bit in the middle where our heroes are isolated from technology and shoved into a long chase-and-hideout sequence that works extremely well. 

Both the plot and characters feel like they’re building to something, but then the book just ends with a minor victory and no real resolution of any character or plot arcs. I’m assuming that’s because they’re trying to set this up as a series, but all it managed to do was leave me unfulfilled and unimpressed. 

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