Saturday, December 21, 2019

Review: Now Entering Addamsville by Francesca Zappia

Title: Now Entering Addamsville
Author: Francesca Zappia
Publisher: Greenwillow Books (October 2019)

Zora Novak has been framed. 
When someone burns down the home of the school janitor and he dies in the blaze, everyone in Addamsville, Indiana, points a finger at Zora. Never mind that Zora has been on the straight and narrow since her father was thrown in jail. With everyone looking for evidence against her, her only choice is to uncover the identity of the real killer. There’s one big problem—Zora has no leads. No one does. Addamsville has a history of tragedy, and thirty years ago a similar string of fires left several townspeople dead. The arsonist was never caught. 
Now, Zora must team up with her cousin Artemis—an annoying self-proclaimed Addamsville historian—to clear her name. But with a popular ghost-hunting television show riling up the townspeople, almost no support from her family and friends, and rumors spinning out of control, things aren’t looking good. Zora will have to read between the lines of Addamsville’s ghost stories before she becomes one herself. 

Eliza and her Monsters is one of my favorite reads of the past few years. I was really excited for this one, as I also love a good spooky read and expected the author to deliver with a fun story and quirky characters.

Alas, Now Entering Addamsville was a bit of a letdown for me. The story had so much potential, but I wonder if Zappia was rushed to produce this in time for Halloween release, as the story felt rushed and half-formed.

What should have been a creepy mystery felt like a bunch of scenes thrown together in which we get told how much the town hates Zora and the injustice of it all. There was not much plot to hold this up and, while I liked the supporting cast of characters, felt very little for Zora herself.

I guess if you are looking for a read like this, you would be better off with The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater.

I have not written this author off and will definitely check out her next book, but this time with fewer expectations.

Review: Serpent and Dove by Shelby Mahurin

Title: Serpent and Dove (Book 1)
Author: Shelby Mahurin
Publisher: HarperTeen (September 2019)

Two years ago, Louise le Blanc fled her coven and took shelter in the city of Cesarine, forsaking all magic and living off whatever she could steal. There, witches like Lou are hunted. They are feared. And they are burned. 
Sworn to the Church as a Chasseur, Reid Diggory has lived his life by one principle: thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. His path was never meant to cross with Lou's, but a wicked stunt forces them into an impossible union—holy matrimony. 
The war between witches and Church is an ancient one, and Lou's most dangerous enemies bring a fate worse than fire. Unable to ignore her growing feelings, yet powerless to change what she is, a choice must be made. 
And love makes fools of us all.

I am back and have been reading up a storm!

The first of this batch of reviews is the much-hyped Serpent and Dove, a book that sold me on the cover alone.

This is a hard review for me to articulate because I really did love this book, but it has massive flaws that bothered me throughout the narrative.

Lou, our protagonist, reminds me a little too much of Celaena Sardothien with her badassery and sass, however all it did was make me want to return to the Throne of Glass universe (which I will do when my books arrive from South Africa in the next week or two). But, she at least isn't a complete carbon-copy and carries her story well.

The story is well-paced and told from alternating points-of-view which suits the duality of this story. We need both sides as these are very different characters from different worlds and seeing their opinions of the other side is imperative to the plot. This is, at the core, a romantic fantasy and it makes for fun reading.

I did also have a problem with the romance and the building of sexual attraction between the two leads. There were times where their interactions felt a little forced and this is perhaps due to this being the author's debut novel. I just wasn't rooting for the couple as hard as I have other fictional couples and don't feel the need to look up fanart or any of that fun stuff to fill the void left until the next book releases.

***Also going to make a note that there is pretty descriptive sex in this for a book aimed at teens. There is no "fade to black" here kids, so be aware if you are getting this for a younger teen.***

But if you like YA fantasy and hate-to-love romance tropes, this is worth picking up.

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.