Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Travel: Amsterdam - Impressions of the City

Last week, the boyfriend and I took a trip to Amsterdam to have a look at the city we are planning to reside in. Mike is no stranger to Amsterdam, however, this was my first time in the Netherlands and I was eager to see what the city had to offer.

It is a different experience visiting a city knowing it is going to become your new home. We were especially interested to see supermarkets and how the selection and costs compare to South Africa. You take in more details of daily living rather than just focusing on tourist hotspots, though of course visited those too.

Because Amsterdam is a relatively small and condensed city, it is very possible to see a lot in a short period of time. Most attractions are within walking distance from each other and I really do suggest, if you plan to visit, that this is the route you take.

There is an abundance of bicycles. This is the first thing that I found fascinating. To the Dutch, this is a cheap and popular form of transport as the ground is very level and there are dedicated cycling lanes everywhere. I loved seeing residents starting their day by unlocking their cycles and hitting their commute to work or school.

This does pose a new problem as a pedestrian, however. Not only did I have to look in the wrong direction when crossing streets, but I also had to factor in cyclists as well. And there are none too friendly when it is their right of way!

I loved the canals. Walking along one of the major canals provided me with plenty to see from old Dutch homes to all sorts of odd boats.

Some of the touristy things I was able to do included the following:

  • Anne Frank Huis - I was not able to go in as you need to book in advance, but it was amazing to just stand outside such a historic place, especially having read about Anne Frank as a child. I will take the time to do the tour once we have settled that side.
  • De Poezenboot - This I was able to see and I love that it seems to have a steady trickle of visitors. This is a houseboat that has been converted into a cat shelter. They rely on visitors to buy merchandise and give donations to stay in operation and they assist with the sterilisation of feral cats as well as homing those who are able to adapt to domestic life.
  • Vondelpark - This is a huge, beautiful park situated just south of central Amsterdam. It has flat paths ideal for a stroll or a cycle. There are plenty of dams and some places to get a drink or bite to eat. It was so green and I will definitely go back to explore it further. I have heard, however, that one should avoid walking there after dark as, like any city, Amsterdam does have its homeless and it is not very safe.
  • The Fault in Our Stars bench - Ok, so I don't do conventional tourism. I had to see the famous bench from the film and enjoyed the challenge of finding it. The bench is not the original one from the movie (that was apparently stolen by rabid fans) but there is a replica and it was really cool to sit where Hazel and August did.
  • Red Light District - A mix of parting and prostitution, this is also the safest area to go out at night in Amsterdam. The red-lit windows might hold titillating attractions for some, but I felt pity for the girls who work there. Prostitution is very regulated and the girls protected in the city. They work for themselves and rent their window for the night, but this is a profession that has a limited shelf-life and I wonder where these girls end up when they are no longer able to attract customers. I do recommend going to some bars here though, as there is a great party vibe.
  • Albert Cuyp Market - This is the largest daily market in Amsterdam and is well worth a visit. Here you can find fresh stroopwaffels, a huge selection of souvenirs, fresh fish and much more. The market is visited by tourists and locals alike and it was a fun look at this slice of Dutch life.

Of course, there is no shortage of museums to visit, but we did not have the time and felt this would be fun to do when we are living there. We did see plenty of them from the outside and the Rijksmuseum is particularly impressive from the outside and has lovely gardens surrounding it where visitors can relax and enjoy the flowers and sunshine.

There are small restaurants everywhere offering any cuisine you can think of. Mike and I tried a few and didn't have anything less than wonderful. In a city this busy where competition is tough, I suppose one cannot survive serving mediocre food.

In short, I love this city. It is rich with culture and I cannot wait to explore further. Everything is this mix of modern and historic that just works. The Dutch are friendly yet firm and live by rigid rules that keep their city in check.

I hope you enjoyed this summary of my experiences in Amsterdam! I am going to do a companion post covering Dutch bookshops and my impressions there as of course this is important for any book lover wanting to relocate!

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

My Reading Challenge: 50 Books in 2 Months

Hey all!

So I am relocating to the Netherlands in two months. I have sold my car and also will be spending the next two months at home, sorting out life stuff.

I have decided, partly for my own sanity and partly to get rid of my teetering TBR pile, to try and read 50 books in 2 months (60 days). This might seem impossible for some, but I was taught to read from a young age and, when I am on form, am capable of reading a 350-page book in 2 hours. I am fairly confident I can make this number before getting on a plane.

I plan to record my progress and review all books read here. I am not going to be reading any books longer than 400 pages to keep this challenge within reach, so that means loads of YA!

Books I don't finish because I don't like them will not count towards this.

Follow along on my socials with the hashtag #50books2months .

Let's do this!

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Magic 101: Upgrading Lord Windgrace (Nature's Vengeance - Commander 2018)

In this post, I am going to be chatting about one of my favourite Commanders, Lord Windgrace. He was one of the Commander 2018 decks, but unfortunately, the deck out the box needs a lot of work in order to be consistently competitive.

Windgrace is a deck that cares about lands. From the number of lands you have to effects that happen when a land hits the battlefield. Fortunately, this is also one of the most straightforward C18 decks to upgrade and there are a few cards that, once included, can turn this into a potent deck.

Before we go into these additions, remember that Windgrace is responsible for sending land to your graveyard for card draw and then bringing that land back to the battlefield in subsequent turns. Whatever you add is of huge benefit if it can playoff with this interaction.

1. Ramunap Excavator

A 2/3 Naga Cleric which has an ability that states "you may play land cards from your graveyard".

With this on the battlefield, you can keep sending the land card you put there with Windgrace without ever using his minus ability and keep taking advantage of card draw for as long as you have a land in hand.

2. The Gitrog Monster

A 6/6 deathtouch frog who can keep Windgrace safe from harm as well as allowing you to play an additional land each turn providing you throw a land into the graveyard as a "tax" for keeping his froggy face around. But. he also states that every time a land hits the graveyard from anywhere, you may draw a card.

Super useful to play with Windgrace and a great blocker too.

3. Ob Nixilis, the Fallen

A 3/3 demon with landfall. So when you play a land, Ob says you can have a target player lose 3 life. If you do this, he gets three +1/+1 counters.

Now, imagine doing that with a card like Scapeshift...

4. Sword of the Animist

Equipment that gives a creature +1/+1 but also states that whenever the equipped creature attacks, you can search your library for a basic land card and put it into the battlefield tapped. Imagine this on Ob Nixilis, for example. He will get bigger before his damage is dealt!

5. Burgeoning

This is a useful green enchantment which allows you to play a land whenever your opponent plays one. You can easily drop this on your first turn and be sitting pretty with loads mana before anyone can do anything about it.

6. Sylvan Awakening

A sorcery which turns your lands into 2/2 Elementals with reach, indestructible and haste. They are still lands.

This is really useful for a targeted attack to clear some pesky tokens or knock down the life total of the biggest threat in your pod.

7. Crucible of Worlds

An artifact which allows you to play land from your graveyard, similar to Ramunap Excavator. Again, you need never to use Windgrace's minus ability to fetch lands you threw there in previous turns.

8. Mina and Denn, Wildborn

This is a 4/4 that also allows you to play extra lands on each of your turns. Also useful to equip with Sword of the Animist or protectors for Windgrace.

9. Titania, Protector of Argoth

a 5/3 Elemental who allows you to return a land from your graveyard to the battlefield when she comes into play. She also states that whenever a land is put into the graveyard from the battlefield, you get a 5/3 Elemental token.

Having both Titania and The Gitrog Monster out, then, is a combination made in EDH heaven.

10. Multani, Yavimaya's Avatar

A gift to Windgrace players from Dominaria, Multani is an Elemental Avatar who has both reach and trample. He starts as a 0/0 but gets +1/+1 for each land you control and each land in your graveyard. You can also fetch him from the graveyard with his mana ability.

There are a lot of other additions you can make, but hopefully, these 10 cards are a great start to start winning some games with this fun deck.

Honourable mentions:

  • Scapeshift
  • The Mending of Dominaria
  • Omnath, Locus of Rage
  • Nissa, Worldwaker
  • Asuza, Lost but Seeking

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Opinion: Stranger Things and its Popularity

3 years ago, Netflix released the first season of a weird show called Stranger Things. It is a blend of horror and sci-fi set in the 80's created by the Duffer Brothers. It is the sort of show that would have gained a cult following if it had been released before the days of streaming media.

But, for reasons I will attempt to unpack now, Stranger Things is immensely popular with a wide audience. The release of Season 3 broke records for Netflix, hitting 40.7 million households within the first few days. That is simply insane, considering the quirkiness of the show.

Set in the town of Hawkins, the first season of the show focuses on the disappearance of a child, following his friends, family and a burly police chief as they try to uncover what happened to him. It doesn't make things easier when weird things start to happen around the town.

I think one of the huge appeals for viewers is that the show is set in the 80's, complete with ridiculous fashions, neon and other memorabilia cleverly and authentically utilised in every scene. It is a nostalgia trip for many and a look into the past for others. The show even makes use of a synthesized soundtrack mixed with iconic songs from the time. The references to D&D will warm the hearts of many a geek.

In keeping with this, is the story itself. Told in the style of movies of the time, it reminds me a little of the Goonies and Gremlins.

Another aspect of the show is that it has heart. The majority of the characters are children and I think the experience of connecting with them and their friendships is something not many tv shows can offer these days. In addition, this is supported by fantastic secondary characters, some of whom have amazing character development arcs.

There are serious moments balanced out with clever dialogue that is perfectly delivered by the cast. The acting is so on point at times, that one can easily forget these are not real people. Each character has a unique dynamic with every other character and this is consistent throughout all three seasons.

There is also loads of mystery and action in every episode that will keep you guessing what is really going on. I am also going to warn you now about cliffhangers. You will need to give up a weekend for binging it all.

Without trying the first episode, I imagine it is easy to bypass this series on your passes through what Netflix has on offer and I strongly recommend you don't. It doesn't matter if the genre is not something you would normally watch, as Stranger Things has something for everyone.

I love these kids. I love the story. And I miss them already.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Review: Wait For Me by Caroline Leech

Title: Wait for Me
Author: Caroline Leech
Publisher: HarperTeen (January 2017)

“I am German, yes, but I am not a Nazi. There is a difference, and one day I hope you understand that.” 

It’s 1945, and Lorna Anderson’s life on her father’s farm in Scotland consists of endless chores and rationing, knitting Red Cross scarves, and praying for an Allied victory. So when Paul Vogel, a German prisoner of war, is assigned as the new farmhand, Lorna is appalled. How can she possibly work alongside the enemy when her own brothers are risking their lives for their country? 
But as Lorna reluctantly spends time with Paul, she feels herself changing. The more she learns about him—from his time in the war to his life back home in Germany—the more she sees the boy behind the soldier. Soon Lorna is battling her own warring heart. Loving Paul could mean losing her family and the life she’s always known. With tensions rising all around them, Lorna must decide how much she’s willing to sacrifice before the end of the war determines their fate.

Wait for Me is one of those random second-hand buys that intrigued me because it is set during WWII. This period has inspired some excellent YA books that are both inspirational and educational (A blog post for another day, maybe?).

I binged this one in an afternoon and really enjoyed what it had to offer. Wait for Me is a romance at its heart, set in rural Scotland away from the frontlines. Lorna is an interesting character, who is at first very influenced by what she has been told about the Germans and the War. When Paul, a German prisoner of war, arrives at the farm to work, she is at first disgusted that they have a German on their doorstep.

Obviously, her boundaries and perceptions are pushed by Paul, who is an amazing, well-rounded character to learn about.

I absolutely loved this novel. I feel that it deals with life on the edge of war well. Loved ones who might not return home and the threat of being drafted are part of Lorna's friends and family's lives.

The romance is tender and develops well with the progression of the story and Lorna's own maturity.

You will feel all the emotions reading this and I cannot fathom why it is not more talked about as it's a stunning debut that is wonderfully written. Leech is a very competent writer who never over- or under tells her story.

Obviously, it is not the gritty war tale that is like Rose Under Fire, as an example. I did see a review which commented that this romance makes light of war. This completely untrue and, in fact, I feel that this is a story that shows hope blooms in the unlikeliest of settings.

Recommended for YA romance fans and anyone who enjoys character-driven stories set against the backdrop of war.

Review: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

Title: Radio Silence
Author: Alice Oseman
Publisher: Harper Collins (February 2016)

What if everything you set yourself up to be was wrong? 
Frances is a study machine with one goal. Nothing will stand in her way; not friends, not a guilty secret – not even the person she is on the inside. Then Frances meets Aled, and for the first time she's unafraid to be herself. 
So when the fragile trust between them is broken, Frances is caught between who she was and who she longs to be. Now Frances knows that she has to confront her past. To confess why Carys disappeared… 
Frances is going to need every bit of courage she has. 

Radio Silence is one of those books that I have seen but wasn't really convinced of reading it basically because so few people were actually talking about it. I happened to find a copy at the Exclusive Books warehouse sale and picked it up with very little expectations.

Oh, boy. Was I glad I did. This is probably going to be one of the best books I have read this year.

Radio Silence is a YA contemporary that stands head and shoulders above a lot of the generic John Green wannabes. It puts the themes of friendship and self-discovery above romance with realistic characters.

The book is also diverse without pushing diversity if that makes sense. Like, diversity is just THERE.

I feel like the author also gets what teenagers go through. It's been a while since I have been a teen, but I hate these books with overdeveloped teenagers who quote Faust and are so enlightened. Frances is real because, most of the time, she is lost and hiding who she really is from the rest of the world.

Basically, this book is what all YA contemporaries should aspire to be. I read it in one sitting and actually got super emotional in some parts.

If you want something to get lost in for a few hours with characters you won't forget any time soon, get a copy of Radio Silence.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Opinion: Self-Publishing and Why I Prefer Traditionally Published Books

I have been fortunate to have been on the outskirts of the South African book industry since 2012 or so when the first incarnation of this blog was created. As a result, I have learnt a lot about publishing for someone who has never finished a novel of my own. I am not an expert, but I am a reader and I have some pretty strong feelings on the self-publishing industry which many, especially those authors who are self-published, might take umbrage to.

I am OK with this because there are things that need to be said. Some hard truths that I am going to outline here and explain why I am not exactly enamoured with the Indie book scene.

Please understand that this blog post is simply a generalization. There are many authors whom I respect and to whom these comments don't apply. I also do not feel that self-publishing in and of its self is a bad thing. It is just being abused.

So let us break this down.

1. Being Able to Write Doesn't Make You a Writer

One of the biggest pitfalls of self-publishing is that anyone can throw words together and publish it with a pretty cover. There is no auditing involved other than what the authors themselves deem is necessary.

The problem is that a good editor costs money, so many authors (I use this word with a cringe) feel that they can bypass this process and do the work on their own. Or get the opinion of a best friend or relative. Unfortunately, even NYT bestselling authors have a professional team behind their success. Any writer needs an outside perspective on their writing, especially one who is not afraid to be honest.

Writing is a craft that is honed through practice, reading and more practice. It takes time.

What adds to this is this crazy desire self-pubbed authors have to shit out as many books as possible to make as much money as they can. If corners can be cut along the way, all the better. As long as it looks good with a fancy cover, right?

The result of all of the above is a market flooded with terrible books. Many of them with equally terrible covers. But, we all know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. A rule of thumb for potential authors? If your cover costs you more than anything else, you are doing something wrong.

It is really important that authors set aside any hubris and be realistic about their novel. Stop putting weak, half-assed books out into the world.

2. Quality of Story

Storytelling and writing should be viewed as separate things. A good writer might not be able to tell a good story and vice versa.

Basically, no one wants to read a boring book. Life is too short for boring books.

Of course, this is something traditionally published books also suffer from, but that I blame on literary critics reading overly verbose books in a feigned attempt at intellectualism.

Yeah, I also can use big words good.

Any book worthy of a reader's time should have a plot and well-developed characters who aren't self-inserts. This is pretty rare in self-pubbed books as many characters fall into Mary Sue territory. Mary Sues are boring for anyone else other than the writer.

3. Plagued by Plagiarism

I am not going into detail on the various scandals circulating the self-publishing industry, but they include things like blatant plagiarism, book stuffingridiculous copyright claims and more.

I don't know about you, but this makes me even leerier of buying self-pubbed titles.

Again, it comes down the industry being unregulated. People can literally publish anything and, unless a discerning reader flags it as a problem, they will get away with it.

I have serious trust issues as it stands with the quality of self-published titles. Now I also need to worry about ethics too. This just seems like hard work, honestly.

4. The Authors Themselves

Most self-published authors are, usually by necessity, their own agents and marketing team. This is great if it can be done with, I don't know, some sense of tact?

Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. A lot of authors end up being their own worst enemies by pushing their books too hard and overselling them.

I appreciate that the author feels their series is "the next Hunger Games" but saying it to me doesn't make it true. Especially if the author came up with that marketing tagline themselves.

This makes it very hard to follow and support authors, as 99% of their social media content is promoting their books. Seldom do these authors actually read and talk about books from other authors unless this is an agreed promotion where author A will promote author B's title if they promote author A. I would put money on the fact that most Indie authors have not read the books by other authors they are promoting.

Rolling on from this, writers should never stop reading. They should never stop being advocated for other books they love as this is surely what shapes them into the writers they are today. I am actually shocked at how little many Indies I have been keeping a passive eye on actually read. And if they do, they certainly don't talk about it, perhaps in fear that it would derail their own self-promotion train.

5. Pro-Traditional

Trad-published books are not without their flaws, but I am 99% certain they have been edited, reviewed and refined before they end up in my greedy reader paws. So I am happier to spend my money on them because I know there is a greater chance of me getting a quality product. It is really as simple as that.

In summary, be better at what you do. Spend money on trusted professionals to make your novel be the best it can be. Not everyone is a naturally talented author and it will often take many attempts before your novel is perfect. It is only going to further damage the perceptions readers like myself have of the self-published industry if steps are not taken by the community as a whole to improve quality.