Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Wrap Up: May 2018

Hey everyone!

So this has been an absolutely brilliant month for me in terms of reading progress and book bargains. I feel like I have become a much more productive reader of late and that I am making progress with my Goodreads goal of 100 books this year. I am still way behind schedule, but I am going to push to get more reading done.  I sit for far too many hours on Social Media and this is time that could be better spent actually reading books.

The month started off with a bang, as it was the Exclusive Books Warehouse Sale. We have not had one on two years, so I was really excited as every single item on sale was R30 each. Everything! I got up super early and drove out to their Warehouse in Kramerville with Nandi (who sometimes contributes to the blog with reviews).

We arrived at 07h30am and the queue was absolutely insane already. It is clear that Jozi loves books, but doesn't always have the money to spend on them.

After standing for an hour or so in the queue and burning my mouth on my coffee, we were let inside to scratch through tables and tables of all kinds of books. I was really pleased with the overall quality of this sale and saw books less than 2 years' old.

My Sale haul.
I got around 27 books and could easily have bought more if my arms and budget allowed for it!

I read 9 books this month, a record for me. It's been a while since I have managed this many books in one month. We will ignore the fact that some of these are Mills & Boons and very quick reads. The point is that I read them. Dammit.

Books I read this month were:

  • Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick
  • The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily XR Pan
  • The Taking by Kimberly Derting
  • Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham
  • The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr
  • Born of Silence by Sherrilyn Kenyon
  • Swept Away by the Enigmatic Tycoon by Rosanna Battigelli
  • The Lieutenant's Online Love by Caro Carson
  • Captivated by the Brooding Billionaire by Rebecca Winters
I will do reviews on some of these in time, as well as a Mills and Boon Mashup Review for May.

A small sample of my TBR.

As much I would like to share my June TBR with you, I have realized that I cannot plan for my moods and never stick to them. Oh well.

If you follow me on Instagram (UrbansedGeek), you will notice an increase in quality and quality posts over the next month or so. I am trying to get my Insta account going properly as I am finding it to be a great way to interact with other bookish people. Also, there is almost no hate there. It's awesome.

Also, you can expect more opinion posts instead of reviews as I have realized that people tend to read those more than reviews, which I suppose can get boring after a while. If you do want to keep up-to-date on my reading, I am on Goodreads as Monique Bernic.

That's it from my side. Have a great June, everyone!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

A Completely Subjective and Judgmental Opinion on South African Bookstores

I have been debating about this post for a few weeks and I decided that, reactions be damned, I have thoughts to get off my chest.

As a disclaimer, the following points are based purely on observation and my own feelings on the matter. I do not want anyone going into this thinking it is well-researched facts. I have limited retail experience and am simply taking this from the perspective of both a customer and book enthusiast. If you disagree with anything I say, please let me know with a comment and we can get the conversation going.

In my younger and more vulnerable years (yes, I am quoting from The Great Gatsby, you clever bookworm, you), I used to work for Look & Listen, a music store known for having a great selection of genres and knowledge staff. Their offerings extended to DVD's, gaming and the like, but the heart of each store was its music. Their slogan was "for the fans" and I believe, for a time, it really was.

I remember, prior to my employment there, spending hours upon hours finding hidden gems, obscure albums and sitting at one of their listening booths, discovering new music that made me feel things. So it was, in many ways, a dream job for me. I got to chat to people about music, sort through new stock and and expand upon my music knowledge. I am not a one trick pony, you know. It's not just about the books in my head.

But, the digital age loomed over traditional music stores, with customers opting to go online and get iPods. The CD was slowly becoming obsolete and this began to hurt stores like Look and Listen. So, the franchise went into survival mode. They began to look for other avenues of revenue to keep their stores alive and bring feet through the door.

Trinkets like gift bags, branded fan items like keyrings, socks and the like started to dilute the merchandise on offer. CD sales continued to plummet and stock levels dropped with the demand. Not even Look and Listen's famous 3 for R99 sales could help them. And people didn't give a damn about the trinkets. They had specialist stores like Cardies for that sort of thing.

Look and Listen lost their identity and their entire reason for being. No amount of innovation was going to stop the inevitable closure of stores and subsequently the whole franchise. And it is sad and makes my nostalgic heart sore.

Gone are the days of browsing CD racks and jamming to the latest album from a favorite artist. The era of Empire Records has passed and this generation of teenagers will never experience the joy of visiting a music store that offers that unique experience. Now, they will be streaming Taylor Swift's latest on YouTube or Spotify, in what is essentially a solitary experience from the comfort of home.

I do have a point for you, bookstores. I feel there is a lot of learning that can be done from looking at traditional music stores as an example.

The digital age has impacted the book industry, too. It's just been a slower process probably in part due to the tangibility of books. I could get into the ebook versus paperback debate, but this is not the place for that.

I have seen in some local bookstores that they have also began the dilution process. Bringing in boardgames, trinkets and odd gifty things displayed prominently at till points. Mugs with names, pens and more. Bookstores, I am sure you mean well, but this is going to kill your revenue more that it will help. Fancy chairs and coffee are not why you are here.

I do have some ideas, though. Things which I feel are especially lacking in this country as well.

  1. Educate your staff on not just bestsellers, but also lesser known titles. Carry stock of some of those titles.
  2. Don't just buy off publishers' new release lists. See what else is out there. Rather carry less stock of new trade paperback titles, saving your risk of having to flog these off later with sales.
  3. If book 5 is coming out in a series, make sure you carry stock of books 1-4.
  4. Take advantage of your staff's knowledge and have a staff recommendations shelf unique to your store. If Frankie is a Sci-Fi buff, ask him what's good and get a few copies in your store for Frankie to sell.
  5. Stop buying trinket crap. It's a waste of money and no one actually wants it. I promise.
  6. Stock local authors. Put them in a prominent spot in your store. Lower your profit margins on these titles a little to get them into the hands of the people the books were written for.
  7. Use the power of the human element of physical stores. Make sure every customer has a good experience and feels welcome to hang around and browse. 
In short, bookstores need to continue to sell books and sell them well. Remain specialists of the trade and make sure each customer feels taken care of. Keep your shelves full of interesting titles and not just ones that are on current bestseller lists.

Your buyers need to know their stuff and stock your store according to the customer tastes of your area. The buyer has to interface with visitors too and find out what they are reading and what they want but cannot find. 

Book people love talking about books to other book people. Your staff are key in this interaction. It does not take much to have a good general understanding of each genre and the prominent authors who are the figureheads for it. 

I would hate for bookstores as we know them to become yet another nostalgic memory that the online experience cannot replicate. It loses the personal touch that books and reading should be embracing.

A book is expensive these days and people will be more willing to part with their money if they continue to have good experiences with bookstores. If visiting the store and dealing with the staff makes them leave with a smile, then that is a job well done. 

If you are reading this, please leave a comment below on what bookstores mean to you. Why do you visit your local bookstore over buying from an online store? Or have you made the move to purely shopping online for your physical books? Let me know! 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Review: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

Title: The Hazel Wood
Author: Melissa Albert
Publisher: Penguin (January 2018)

Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the uncanny bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a cult-classic book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate, the Hazel Wood, Alice learns how bad her luck can really get: her mother is stolen away―by a figure who claims to come from the Hinterland, the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother's stories are set. Alice's only lead is the message her mother left behind: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.” 
Alice has long steered clear of her grandmother’s cultish fans. But now she has no choice but to ally with classmate Ellery Finch, a Hinterland superfan who may have his own reasons for wanting to help her. To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother's tales began―and where she might find out how her own story went so wrong.

The Hazel Wood is one of those super-hyped books that pretty much everyone is talking about since its release in January.

I have mixed feelings about it, though. It's like those candied nuts you find at flea markets. They smell really good and you want some, but as soon as you bite into it past the sugar, it kinda loses all appeal.

Melissa Albert is a competent writer. Her prose and pacing are brilliant, as is the build up of suspense. The first half of the book was amazing and I was so, so sure that this would be my new favorite read of 2018.

Of course, like the nuts, I was in for disappointment. Suddenly the book seemed to fall apart and the charm and intrigue simply vanished along with any desire I had to find out what was going to happen next. The worst part about this experience is that I cannot tell you what caused this, exactly.

I think, towards the end, the book tried to be too clever. And what happened didn't meet my expectations leading up to that point. I wanted so much more than what was on the page.

If you do want to read something a bit offbeat and different, do give this a try. But also do not let thr hype fool you into believing this is going to blow you away, either.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Review: The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

Title: The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
Publisher: Pan Macmillan (April 2015)

What if you aren’t the Chosen One? 
The one who’s supposed to fight the zombies, or the soul-eating ghosts, or whatever the heck this new thing is, with the blue lights and the death? 
What if you’re like Mikey? Who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school. Again. 
Because sometimes there are problems bigger than this week’s end of the world, and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life. 
Even if your best friend is worshipped by mountain lions... 

This was one of those books that made me feel guilty just by looking at it. I received my copy as a gift from Pan Macmillan a few years ago and I was so reluctant to read it. And not for the reasons you are thinking!

My copy is this gorgeous hardback edition with blue-lined pages. The best part is that it's actually signed. It is one of only three books I own signed by international authors and I really didn't want to hurt it in any way by reading it. But I am also cheap and wasn't willing to spend the money on a second copy either.

So, on a whim, I decided to finally read it and I am so glad I did.

Before I get into detail, I just want to put it out there that you should take the Goodreads reviews of this book with a pinch of salt. I think a lot of fans went into it with big expectations because of Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy.

This is a quiet, unassuming read. It's very character-driven and might be percieved as slow if you are not into that kind of thing and prefer your reads more action-packed. Although, there is plenty of action, it just takes place on the sidelines, which is the whole point.

If you enjoy a John Green or a Becky Albertelli, give this one a try. You will love all the characters!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Thoughts: 5 Things I Have Learnt as a Blogger

Looking back, I released recently that I have been blogging and writing book reviews for near on ten years. A part of me feels a little disappointed that I have not attained more success and popularity, but another part of me recognizes that I am not the most perfect or consistent blogger and that it can be tough as a South African blogger to attain the sort of stats American and UK bloggers enjoy.

And that's ok. I am here doing my thing and will definitely take what I have learnt the past decade and try more consciously to apply it.

I also didn't start blogging because I was concerned about popularity. It was an outlet for my bookish passions and it serves that purpose well, no matter how many people read my posts.

If you are looking to start a blog or make yours better, here are some of the key things that stand out for me that I have learnt:

An earlier header while I was still figuring out brand identity.

1. Review What You Like

I admit that I fell into the trap of chasing popular titles so that I could have reviews that I perceived as "current" and what people were interested in buying right then. It seemed to be the best way to get page views and growing my audience.

What I didn't realize at the time was that a review of a popular title gets lost in a whole sea of similar reviews being posted at around the same time. If someone is searching for reviews of, say The Hate U Give, a book that has been on the NYT Bestseller list for over a year now, they will find hundreds of them.

Also taking this approach not only makes reading a chore ( I don't know about you, but I am not that keen to read some of these new, hyped books), it is also bloody hard to think of anything unique to say about the book that other bloggers have not covered already.

I can use all the rant reviews for Zenith as an example. They all say pretty much the exact same things about the book and few Booktubers actually have something new to bring to the discussion. But, it's cool to hate so the views rake up anyway.

This year, I am going to be focusing on books that I want to read, not books I feel like I have to read. I will be able to write more reviews and will hopefully also introduce new books to readers they might not have considered reading before. I also want to keep things positive because I need that kind of energy and the Internet doesn't need more mean, petty people.

2. Numbers Don't Matter

I used to get really bummed out that my stats were not that great compared to other bloggers. I felt like I was incompetent and not doing the right thing. It was so easy to let posts that were "poor performers" get me down, that I forgot the whole purpose of the blog.

If you are blogging for popularity, it affects your approach to the posts you write. Also, just because something is popular today doesn't mean it will be popular tomorrow. I mean, look at fidget spinners.

We live in a fast paced world where it is easy to lose your relevance. People have such short attention spans, jumping from one viral thing to the next like bees to flowers. And everything, particularly blog content is so subjective. It's impossible to stay on trend and still write authentically.

Rather than writing content that I assume will appeal to readers, I am just going to write what I feel like writing about. And if it only resonates with one other soul out there, then that's ok.

Write for yourself first. If you can do this, you will be surprised at the results and what posts readers will enjoy.

Blogging became a great networking tool for me. This was the first ever bloggers' event I attended at Skoobs.

3. Be Yourself

I see so many people in the book community trying to emulate those who are perceived as more successful than them. It is so obvious, it make me cringe. The sad part is, I used to do this too. The fact is, bloggers and influencers who gain success and large amount of followers do so because readers and viewers like who they are as people and have trust in what they say.

It takes time to develop your own voice and every writer is influenced by other writers. But, the more you write, the easier it will be to develop your own style. I find if I read my post a few times before hitting the Publish button, I pick up parts that don't sound like something I would actually say if I was in a conversation with someone. I strive to keep my blog in my own voice and it can be quite humbling to realize how often I subconsciously copy someone else.

Being yourself also creates a level of authenticity that will help readers trust in what you have to say. This is why I am so wary of big influencers these days who do paid promotions. Like, are they really that excited about that book or is it just because they are getting paid to talk about it?

Paid promotions are tempting and often how bloggers and vloggers turn this thing into a career. But I will not go that route with this blog. Getting review copies is one thing, but being paid to promote those books completely wipe away the honesty factor.

Also, don't be afraid to use your blog as a networking tool. I have met so many awesome people through blogging and events. 

4. Domains Make a Difference

For the longest time, I thought I could make it work with just my .blogspot.com address. I also thought it was a lot more costly than it actually is to maintain a personalized domain. 

Not having a proper URL unfortunately hurts a lot of bloggers because it shows a level of complacency when it comes to setting the blog and brand identity up properly. Your URL is the first thing potential visitors see and it looks really unprofessional if they have not set up a personalized domain. 

Since moving to www.urbanisedgeek.co.za, there has been a marked increase in traffic and hits from search engines. It was the best move I could have made not just for the blog, but in my overall online brand. There is the added benefit of having an e-mail address that reflects your blog instead of  using a gmail or other generic account.

Set this up sooner rather than later. There are plenty of hosting companies to select from and lots of tutorials that will enable your to link your Blogger / Wordpress site to the domain.

5. Don't Give Up

Many blogs get started up with the best of intentions and then, because life or the realization that it can be hard work comes up like this massive stumbling block, bloggers stop posting.

Like loom bands, there are so many abandoned and neglected blogs out there, cluttering the universe. Don't do this to your blog. You breathed life into it and to just abandoned it is not fair to both the blog and yourself.

There were many times when I had to deal with work and life issues and felt like kicking this whole thing to the curb. I am glad I didn't and stuck with it. Like I said, I started this whole thing for a reason and it still remains a huge passion project for me. The blog is my way of reconnecting with my love of word and reading and it feels so good when someone comments or shares my posts.

People say blogging is dead. That is like saying writing is dead. Passion is dead. If this is something you want to to try, just do it. And don't worry about what you write or keeping on theme. It is your space so own it.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Mini Review: A Proposal For the Officer by Christy Jefferies (Mills & Boon)

Title: A Proposal For the Officer
Author: Christy Jeffries
Publisher: Mills & Boon True Love (March 2018)

She was used to flying solo…
But that was before Kaleb came on board! 
Temporarily grounded combat pilot Molly Markham didn’t come to Sugar Falls to get serious about a man she barely knows! But when Kaleb Chatterson becomes her unexpected hero, she agrees to date the billionaire software developer to keep their secret from getting out. Except the sexy brainiac—and her pretend boyfriend—is fast turning into the man of her dreams…
Another M&B review!

I really loved this one, and found it to be much stronger than Her Las Vegas Wedding in terms of plot and character. Getting the bind-up of these two is certainly worth it, though.

For those cynics who assume Mills & Boon is about fainting females who simply need a male to complete them, this story will completely bust that assumption.

Molly is a strong, independent lead, who in spite of challenges, stands her ground.

Kaleb is a good match for her, as he is just as stubborn.

I also loved how this book dealt with real issues, such as Molly's Type 1 Diabetes. I actually learnt a lot about this condition from reading this and was so happy that it was done in a realistic way.

Mills and Boon are clearly no longer about having perfect characters and I am loving the True Love range in particular.

There will be even more Mill and Boon Mini Reviews this month, so check back!

Don't forget to pick up the latest titles at your local CNA or subscribe to their bookclub if you are looking to get your fix.


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Thoughts: On Second-hand Bookstores and My Top Spots

It's expensive to be an enthusiastic reader in South Africa. Buying books new is just simply not an option for a lot of folks as the price of a new mass market paperback now hovers around the R200 mark.

Also, if one reads 5-10 books in a month, this can tally up very quickly!

This point was made very clearly to me yesterday evening when I was browsing at my local Exclusive Books (Ok, I was really hoping for them to finally get stock of Children of Blood and Bone, with no luck...). A girl was clutching at a copy of The Red Ribbon by Lucy Adlington and asking her mother if she could get it. The mom turned the book over and, with a dismissive sneer, said, "I am not paying R170 for a book. We can go look at the second-hand book store and get four books for this price."

I felt bad for the kid. She clearly wanted the book and might not find reads she was as enthusiastic about owning at a second-hand store. What makes this even sadder for me is that The Red Ribbon is not some fluffy faire. It looks at the fictionalized lives of the seamstresses of Birken-Auschwitz and weaves in a message of friendship and hope. While this is not the focus of this post, I felt that, had the mother not been so dismissive and read the back of the book, she might have seen more than just the price and realized the true value of the book.

However, readers do need to buy new books as they are ultimately the suppliers for second-hand bookstores, so it can be a bit of a vicious circle.

Therefore, I do advocate supporting local bookstores and buying brand new books, however, I also love bargain-hunting and searching for hard-to-find older titles. There is definitely a place for both kinds of stores as long as books find their way to readers.

There are some really awesome second-hand stores in Johannesburg with really helpful staff and excellent selections. Here are my top 5 recommendations.

All these stores offer the option to trade books back for store credit.

1. Books Galore - Lonehill

One of my favorite spots, Books Galore in Lonehill Shopping Center has been around for many years and offers a great selection of genres, often getting in newer titles as well.

They have, in particular, a fantastic children's selection for all ages and will usually have stock of the more popular titles.

The staff are dedicated and friendly with an excellent knowledge of stock-on-hand.

Shop LL03
Lonehill Shopping Center
Lonehill Boulevard

Telephone: 011 465 5524

Opening Hours:
Monday to Friday: 09:30-18:00
Saturday: 09:30-15:00
Sunday & Public Holidays: 09:00-13:00

2. Books Galore - Edenvale / Greenstone

This branch is a new discovery for me, but I was impressed by the helpful and knowledgeable staff.

They have a well-organised store with a nice focus on Fantasy and Sci-Fi.

I particularly loved the recommendations shelves from the two managers, as it adds a personal touch to the store and experience.

The store can be challenging to find if you do not know the Greenstone area well. It is located in one of the smaller centers opposite Greenstone Mall. Just look for Builder's Express and you are in the right place.

Shop 2a
Greenstone Crescent
Stoneridge Drive
Modderfontein Hill
South Africa

Telephone: 011 452 2421

Opening Hours:
Monday to Thursday: 08:30-18:00
Friday: 08:30-19:00
Saturday: 08:00-17:00
Sunday & Public Holidays: 08:30-16:00

3. Tales and Fables - Victory Park

Based in Victory Park, Takes and Fables has been around since 2006 in it's current form and has an amazing selection of Fantasy titles, including older series such as Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms.

They also boast a large children's section and seem to be very well-supported in the community.

I have been there a few times and have always found something interesting, such as a complete set of The Liveship Traders, by Robin Hobb.

Shop 14A
Victory Park Shopping Centre
Cnr of Rustenburg and 2nd Ave
Victory Park

Telephone: 011 782 3660

Opening Hours:
Monday to Saturday: 9am - 6pm
Sunday: 9am - 3pm

4. Bookdealers of Rivonia

If you are not a regular in the area, it would be hard to find Bookdealers of Rivonia's new store. Located opposite Rivonia Primary School, this specialist store is away from the hustle and bustle of shopping malls.

They have a great selection of history books, as well as collectible titles.

Their crime and contemporary sections are also well-stoked and reasonably priced. As an example, I found a decent copy of The Snowman by Jo Nesbo for R47!

If this is out of your way, there are other Bookdealers located in the following areas:

  • Melville
  • Birnam
  • Craighall Park
  • Greenside
40 Wessel Road

Telephone: 011 234 1250

Opening Hours:
Mon: 9am - 5pm
Tue-Fri: 9am - 6pm
Sat-Sun: 9am - 3pm

If you feel I left out some good spots, please comment below and let me know.

Happy bargain hunting!