Book Review: Breaking and Entering, by Jeremy Smith

The Story of Alien

My daughter and I rifle the computer section of our Barnes and Noble weekly, looking for anything new. I’m most interested in the philosophy of computing and AI and math. Not her. She stays up ’til two most nights studying JavaScript or Python or linear algebra. So when I saw Breaking and Entering and read the back blurb, I was hooked. It felt like reading tea leaves.

Alien captured me immediately. She’s the protagonist of this truthy-but-reads-like-fiction story. The back cover calls the book a ‘taught thriller’ and it’s what I expected from a writer with his bio.

Alien is a girl who runs off to MIT to study computing. She’s incrementally drawn through the course of the book into the world of black hat and white hat hacking. She wears a white hat, but seems happiest wearing a black hat for spy ops. I have no question this was good for the schools, labs, and hospitals where she worked. If she were to truly switch hats, this would be a very different book.

Don’t worry: the writer never assumes that you know this underworld lingo or how it works. Alien didn’t either when she first got to Boston. Along with explaining the nuances of this world, I like how the author writes in shortish blurbs, kind of like dashing off emails between sips of coffee.

For me, the book isn’t what I supposed it to be. It was not a ‘taught thriller.’ In fact, it reads flat, like a series of taped-together blog posts. We watch Alien grow in her understanding of computers and hacking, but don’t see any actual change or growth. This is non-fiction, of course, so character arcs aren’t as important as they are in Wuthering Heights, but the flat writing makes Alien look flat, too. If anything, Alien calms through her arc, bowing to the necessities of accounting and business cards of having a family. And of taking off her black hat. Even if it was for play. Because of this, the book peaks early, around the time she is let go from her favorite position, for reasons apparently undisclosed.

The book is an excellent read if the topic interests you. It’s not so great if it doesn’t. It has a Goodreads rating of 3.7 which I think is about the right. Amazon readers rate it at 4.3.

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