Man vs Bookshelf

Man vs Bookshelf: Amazon Recommendations and Noughts and Crosses

This entry is part 60 of 79 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

Last week, just before I started this blog, I was sitting in bed thinking about it. Wondering whether I could write two blogs in a row opening with a section about the word count of my latest novel.

I decided that I could, and for a good reason. So, I grabbed my laptop, wrote the title for this blog (called something different at the time) and prepared to begin.

Then something happened.

In the bottom of corner of my screen there appeared a little pop-up. Arrogant and unconcerned with how it was distracting me from the critical work of blog writing.

I wanted to ignore it – should have ignored it – but it was just hanging out in my peripheral. Doing nothing more than sitting there. It knew that was enough.

Not a single word of my blog written, I glanced at the notification, took it all in.

It was one of those recommendation emails from Amazon, and it changed everything.

Well, it changed the title and subject matter of my blog, and sometimes that feels like everything.

Sad, right?

In theory, Amazon recommendations are a great idea. Hey, I like Harlen Coben books, so go ahead and recommend me authors like him. Same goes for games and films I want.

Even kitchenware, if you must.

Only if we’re honest, Amazon, that’s not what you’re sending me.

You’re not sending me recommendations for things I would like at all.

No, sir.

It’s been going on for years, but the example that comes to mind started last December (2017).

Christmas was approaching like a train, and I was tied to the tracks, desperate. Present shopping was going as well as usual – not well – and I had mere days to sort it out.

Being human – or something close – I turned where we all turned in times of desperation when there’s no booze in the house.

Amazon.

I had my step-grandma in mind and I quickly click-clacked to something suitable.

In this case, a statuette of a cat.

I ummed and ahhed over whether to buy it – I’ve never been good at making decisions – but in the end, I whacked it in the basket, and paid.

Maybe two days later, the nightmare began.

I was sat at my laptop with an alcoholic beverage in hand – my default position – and the first pop up arrived.

WE SAW YOU BOUGHT THIS ONE ANIMAL STATUETTE THIS ONE TIME HERE ARE A THOUSAND MORE ANIMAL STATUETTES YOU MIGHT LIKE.

But I don’t like. Why would I like? It’s a little tiny animal statue.

Actually, I did see some pretty cool ones, but that’s not the point.

I deleted the email, but of course, that doesn’t help. Amazon were just beginning their campaign of terror, and it wouldn’t stop.

Day after day the recommendations came. My inbox was awash with tiny models of cats and dogs and bats and whatever else.

Worse, I began to see them in my sleep. I’d close my eyes an I’d be drowning in little stone animals while above me the Amazon Recommendations matrix stood and laughed like a maniac.

Okay, maybe I’m dramatic.

Amazon Recommendations doesn’t have legs.

Nor a heart.

You don’t even have to buy anything, that’s the real disaster.

One false click and your inbox is full of irrelevant notifications.

Smug bastard. Get out of my house!

YOU SPENT 0.34 SECONDS LOOKING AT 50 FIRST DATES YESTERDAY. HERE’S EVERY OTHER ADAM SANDLER FILM. BUY THEM ALL? DON’T WORRY ABOUT PUTTING YOUR CARD DETAILS IN. WE HAD THEM SAVED AND HAVE PROCESSED YOUR PAYMENT. THE MOVIES ARE ON THEIR WAY, HAND DELIVERED BY ADAM SANDLER.

Okay, that might have been another nightmare – a recurring one, but it isn’t far off, and where does it end?

WE NOTICED YOU WERE THINKING ABOUT CHEESE THE OTHER DAY. HERE’S ALL OF THE CHEESE, AND ALSO PASTA BECAUSE THAT’S FOOD TOO, AND A SOFA BECAUSE YOU NEED SOMEWHERE TO EAT YOUR CHEESE AND AND AND

It has to stop.

You might think that if Amazon are too stupid to realise shopping done around November December is likely Christmas shopping and not something you would want recommendations for, then it must be too stupid to create an algorithm that could take over the world.

Or are they too stupid not to?

It’s time to put an end to Amazon Recommendations. Stop it now before it goes too far. Before they begin recommending us toast because they know we eat breakfast.

To be safe, let’s end recommendations altogether.

We won’t regret it, and our wallets will thank us.

That’s all I have to say.

By the way, before we move on why don’t you go back right to the start of this series and start Man vs Bookshelf again?

I’d strongly recommend it.


Malorie Blackman and Me

Obviously, this Amazon recommendations issue has shaken me and, as such, I may be unable to remember too much of what happened in whatever series it is I’m reviewing today.

So, to put that off, we can add in this section, which I’ve not done in a while: The author and me section, where I talk about my previous experiences with the series writer – in this case, Malorie Blackman.

Malorie Blackman is one of those authors you’ve probably heard of, even if you don’t think you’ve read anything by her before.

After all, she’s mentioned in a Tinie Tempah song.

For me, I’d had experience of the Noughts and Crosses series before this challenge, so I knew her from that, but couldn’t think what else she might have written, so scanned her bibliography.

There were a couple more works I remembered.

The Stuff of Nightmares is one. I’ve no idea what it is, but I think it takes place on a train. I remember this because at one point I owned the book. I distinctly remember the cover, though I’m sure I never read it.

No idea why.

The other I remember is Pig Heart Boy – the children’s book about a boy who is dying and has a pig heart transplanted into him.

I remember little about it. I think I read it for school but couldn’t say when. I also remember vaguely the TV show – a scene by a swimming pool maybe – but little more than that.

So while I have limited knowledge of other works by Malorie Blackman, for me the beginning middle and end of what I know is the Noughts and Crosses series.

And the Tinie Tempah song, of course.


The Noughts and Crosses Series

I have all four of the Noughts and Crosses books and, as usual, I’ve no idea when I acquired them, or why.

Not like usual, however, I have actually read quite a lot of the series.

I know for a fact I have read Noughts and Crosses and Knife Edge (books one and two) and from how much I remember I’m sure I must have read at least most, if not all, of book three, Checkmate.

The final book – Double Cross – I have in hardback so must have got not long after it was released in 2008 – I would have been 16 – but I’m almost sure I didn’t start it and know for a fact I didn’t finish it.

Until now.

I may have mentioned this before but when I typed up a spreadsheet of all the books I had to read I put each into one of three categories based on how excited I was to read them – woe, mid and pro.

The Noughts and Crosses series was in the pro category, as I remember enjoying the first couple of books in my early teams.

Now, in my mid-twenties, how did they stack up?


World

I’m not going to talk too much about theme and message A) because I find such discussion boring, B) this isn’t secondary school literature homework and C) because it’s pretty obvious.

The world within which the story is set is divided between the ruling class of (black) Crosses and the downtrodden class of (white) noughts.

There are slur words (blanker for noughts and dagger for Crosses), terrorist groups, and a hell of a lot of racial prejudice all of which is reflective of a time in Western history that is too recent for us all not to feel ashamed of it.

Having done the history of civil rights in America for A-Level some of this was familiar to me, although these books are set in the UK, rather than.

The books begin with Callum (a nought) being one of the first children to be admitted into a previously all Cross school following a change of law.

The incident is blighted by protests and Crosses being dicks about the whole event as you might expect and was reminiscent of what happened with the Little Rock Nine in 1957 where nine black children were let into a previously all-white school, and the whites were real dicks about it. 

Concerning world building, Blackman gets it just right.

It would be a rookie error to spend the first five chapters dumping the whole world and all the facts of it upon us, but it does happen.

Not so with this series.

Throughout the books, the world is cleverly fed to us through the story, and we only learn what we need to learn without delving too far into the politics etc. we don’t require for the story to progress.

As someone who writes myself, I know how difficult it can be to resist putting in a load of extra information just because you think it would be interesting, even if it detracts from the story.

Malorie never does this and, in a book where the story is so important, that’s a big win.


Story

The four books span roughly thirty years and follow – for the most parts – the fortunes of two families. The rich and powerful Cross Hadleys and the poor nought McGregors. 

Book one, Noughts and Crosses. Is the story of Sephy Hadley, and Callum McGregor, and their attempts to stay friends while growing up in a world where everyone – including their own families – want to keep them apart. 

The second book, Knife Edge, revolves around Sephy as she raises her and Callum’s baby, Callie Rose, and Jude, Callum’s brother, who is part of a terrorist nought group and hates all Crosses’, especially Sephy.

The third book, Checkmate, revolves around Callie’s life from an early age to her sixteenth birthday as she learns her father was a terrorist, gets wrapped up with Jude and his terrorist organisation, and almost loses her soul.

The final book, Double Cross revolves around Callie, a little, but is mainly about Toby, Callie’s nought friend as he struggles to maintain his integrity while being pushed from all sides into a criminal world.

For me, book one was far and away the best story. It knows what it is trying to do and it tells it’s tale perfectly.

We move quickly through the lives of Callum, and Sephy and all the problems feel real as tragedies befall both our leads.

The whole book is tinged with sadness, and the ending is bleak, but it needs to be that way. This is a story reflecting what racist society was like, and if it all came up smelling of roses, it wouldn’t feel right.

Malorie Blackman does shy away from saying what needs to be said and that’s what makes this book so enjoyable.

Did I enjoy it as much now as I did in my youth? No, but it was still a good quality story.

As with book one, book three, Checkmate, works well to integrate all the stories. Where Callum and Sephy’s tales intertwined in book one, so do Callie’s, Jude’s, Sephy’s and Jasmine’s (Sephy’s mother) in book three.

Book two doesn’t manage this so well as two stories are told. Sephy’s and Jude’s.

While it is evident throughout how much Jude hates Sephy, their stories don’t intertwine until right near the end, when Sephy is responsible for getting Jude out of prison.

While this was a good story, it feels in many ways that this is a novel designed to set up book three. A slight dip between one and three.

My copy of Checkmate calls it the end of the Noughts and Crosses trilogy, and it feels like this. The stories of Sephy, Callie and Jude are brought to a head in an explosive conclusion.

I’m guessing Blackman didn’t expect to write a fourth book, and it certainly feels like this, reading it.

Double Cross could have belonged in a different cannon. It pushed the series away from the obvious political and domestic nature of the Cross/ Nought conflicts and introduced gang warfare (which had never really been mentioned before) instead.

It also took the story away from the Sephy/ Callum family for the first time. While Sephy, Callie and Callum’s mother do all feature, Toby is the centre point here; it is his story.

Not long before I began this challenge, I read Christine, by Stephen King.

It may not feel that can be relevant, but it is.

The first third and the end of Christine are narrated in the first person by – uh, the friend of the owner of Christine – I can’t remember his name.

At the end of the first act, King decides he needs… this person, out of the way, and so something happens that puts him in the hospital for a large chunk of the book.

This felt like cheating, and it was a similar story here.

It seems like Blackman realised Callie needed to be involved here, but wanted to focus on Toby. So Callie is shot early on and put in the hospital until near the end, getting her out of the way so Toby can take centre stage.

As I’ve said above, it felt odd to take a series that has been around the struggles of two families and throw in someone unrelated (in a literal sense) as the lead in book four.

That’s not to say it was a bad book; it just feels like maybe the story didn’t need to be written if the Sephy/ Callum Hadley/McGregor tale had ended.


The Cast

Given there are lots of POV characters in these books, Malorie has quite a task keeping them all different and does a great job of it.

From the start, Callum and Sephy feel like strong, unique characters, and Callie-Rose becomes a great blend of the two of them as she comes to the fore in book three.

Jude, Callum’s brother, is the perfect angry kid. Furious at the way he is constantly shit on by the Cross establishment he becomes a terrorist, and refuses to empathise or trust any Crosses.

The one time he grows close to one, he loses his temper and murders them.

The only thing Jude is lacking is a redemption arc to his story, but for the series, this fits. It’s meant to be realistic, and the sad truth is people like Jude never redeem themselves. Never see that what they’ve been doing is wrong.

I might not have liked it, but it felt right.

The other prominent narrator is Toby, introduced in book three and taking centre stage in book four.

While, as I’ve said, it didn’t feel right to have him as a central character, he was still well fleshed out. Smart, and calm, he is driven to the edge, and it was interesting to see him develop throughout the final book, even though it did feel like he was pressed too far too fast to be realistic early on.


Summary

The series didn’t grab me as it did when I was a teenager, but they are books for young adults, so I guess that makes sense.

The stories were engaging and fast moving, and no characters let the side down.

The series was at its strongest in book one but then – that’s not so unusual.

The real success here is Malorie Blackman creates an immersive and realistic world and travels through it at a speed that allows us to see the scenery, without ever getting boring, and the only downside is a found some of the writing a little clunky.

I’m not sure I’d reread the books, but I am glad I’ve read them.


Next Time

Next we’re stepping away from the wonderful world of fiction to look at everyone’s favourite topics –

The English language!

Of course it’s written by an American, but it’s Bill Bryson, so could be worse. 

At least he knows what a pavement is. 

See you then. 

Series Navigation<< Man vs Bookshelf: Word Count & The Good GuyMan vs Bookshelf: More Word Count and Mother Tongue >>
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International worst selling author Mark Ayre has been writing since before he could pick up a pen (somehow). Recently he is taking the internet by storm with his Man vs Bookshelf Challenge where he aims to read the 210 books on his bookshelf in 210 weeks, reviewing them on his blog and Goodreads along the way. He is also publishing books on Amazon, his most recent being the family suspense novel, Poor Choices, which you can find here.

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