Monday, August 13, 2018

Tips: How to Grow Your Own Seedlings this Spring

Thanks to Checkers and their Little Garden promotion earlier this year, I have become quite addicted to growing things.

Checkers Little Garden
The Little Garden promotion rewarded shoppers with a mystery seedling kit per R150 spent at Checkers. There were 24 different seedlings from flowers to veggies and herbs.

It was just unfortunate that this special was right in the middle of autumn. Even though Checkers promised that the seedlings would survive the mild South African winter, it is still not ideal for new gardeners. Mine mostly survived and I now have a flowering garden to look forward to and enjoy this spring. However, I did want more variety and investigated how to mimic the Little Gardens with my own seeds.

I had great success planting my own seeds and, because it's now a great time to plant them, decided to put together this post to help everyone else wanting to try their hand at growing their own.

It is lots of fun, super rewarding and also cheaper than getting punnets of seedlings from the nursery.

Here is what you will need to start off:

  • Palm peat
  • Seed packets of your choice
  • An old bucket
  • Seagro Organic Plant Food
  • Plenty of fresh water (5 liters to start)
  • small pots - 5cm in diameter

The palm peat comes in a brick and consists of coconut fiber. It is 100% organic and provides a soft, fine medium for the seedlings to grow in. Potting soil is simply too coarse and the seedlings will have to work harder to sprout. It also retains moisture well so you will have to water your seedlings less frequently. 

I have used Starke Ayres palm peat, which retails at around R35. 

You will need to prepare the palm peat first as this will take some time. Find a 10l bucket and fill it with 5l water. Unwrap your brick of palm peat and drop it in the water. Leave it to swell and go read a book or watch some tv. It will take 10-20 minutes for the peat to absorb all the water and soften. 

Because the peat can be lacking in nutrients, you will need to help your seedlings along. I recommend mixing some Seagro into your bucket before preparing your pots. Seagro is made from fish and provides the plants with nutrients for optimal growth. It is also 100% organic and can be used without the risk of burning the plants and overdoing it. It costs around R90 for a bottle that will last you all year.

Now it is time to prepare your pots. I have suggested 5cm plastic pots, as they are super cheap and can be reused for years to come. You can also use old seedling punnets, but make sure you rinse them in a weak dilution of bleach and water to kill any lingering harmful fungus or parasites.

Fill your pots three-quarters full with your peat mixture and compact well. then take your seeds and sprinkle some on the surface of the peat. Six seeds per pot should be sufficient, as some might not sprout at all.

Take some more peat and sprinkle a layer no more than 1cm deep over the seeds. press down gently, as you do not want to damage the seeds.

Now is the time to gently water them, to help the peat settle around the seeds and secure them.

Place your pots in a sunny, protected area and check on them every morning and evening. Water them only if the soil looks dry on the surface. This is easy to see with peat, as it will go a light brown. Your seeds should sprout according to the guide on their packet and will be ready to move to bigger pots when they have 4-6 leaves established.

Remember that sun is essential for growth and will prevent the stems being weak and long, what is termed as "leggy".

This method can be used for starting your flowering plants, herbs, and veggies.

Happy gardening!

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Thoughts: On Comic-Con Africa and South Africans' Tolerance For Mediocrity

I know some of you who know me from various social media will be looking at this post and thinking, "Oh, no. She's actually done it and lost the plot." Let me assure you that is not the case at all. In fact, I remain firmly grounded in a little universe called reality.

A month or so ago, I expressed some unhappiness at the guest list and sponsors for Comic-Con Africa. My basic argument, which I will elaborate on a little more further on, is that I feel that Comic-Con Africa is simply not living up to the hype the name and initial marketing suggested.

As of the writing of this, less than two months before the event, Comic-Con Africa have confirmed a grand total of 13 guests. 13. Six of these are local guys.

So, of the 7 remaining guests, who is there to get excited about?

There's this guy...

When the announcement was made that Jason Momoa would be attending the event, all women with reproductive organs had a mass squee and rushed off to buy tickets to an event that they previously had zero desire to attend.

That basically means that anyone who would like to meet the man who played Khal Drogo and Aquaman, they would have to elbow and bite their way through queues of estrogen-fuelled fans for a glimpse of Momoa's visage.

There is also this little caveat on the Comic-Con Africa website:
These guests may cancel their appearance/attendance at any time due to personal or professional reasons after confirming their participation.
The Organiser will not be held responsible in any way or held liable to any party for the cancellation of the guests or other invited participants.
All guest profiles will be correct at the time of publication. In the event of a guest cancellation, the organiser will use any or all platforms to communicate this.
What if Momoa cancels his appearance because he has sniffles? All of those folks who have bought tickets solely to see him will have to find something else to get excited about.

Unless you are a huge fan of Kevin Sussman, the guy who owns the comic books store in The Big Bang Theory, I honestly don't see much else for the general public to fawn over.

I know it's unfair to do a direct comparison to San Diego Comic-Con as South Africa is smaller and budget restricted, however, I just want to do a quick example of the problems of expectations versus reality. I am purely looking at actors and not a holistic representation of their Special Guest Showcase.

This year, SDCC saw the likes of:

  • Breaking Bad panel
  • New Doctor Who panel
  • Star Trek: Discovery panel
  • Gal Gadot (WonderWoman)
  • Ben Affleck (Batman)
  • Supernatural panel
... plus many more that featured most of the main cast members.

I am sure that illustrates my point.

Do not call a mediocre event Comic-Con and then deliver something that is a fraction of expectations set by this misnomer.

The second thing about this event that bothers me is there seems to be little or no support from big sponsors. While I am pleased to see this is another platform for local crafters to exhibit their wares, there seem to be no direct sellers of official merchandise.

South Africans have always struggled with getting our hands on official merchandise and most of our events feature hand-made items or a small selection of merchandise at exorbitant prices. Surely, a Comic-Con event should then be a great platform for fans to find items directly from brands such as Marvel and DC?

Not one large international geeky brand is directly representing themselves as far as I can see. Most of the exhibitors are the same folk we see at other local Cons. 

I do not know why this is. Is it due to poor planning or the lack of interest in bringing the goods to South Africa as a whole? Who knows.

I will use Funko to illustrate this point. Funko is a super-trendy range of cute vinyl figurines that can pretty much be seen everywhere these days, including Vodacom and Dischem.

In keeping with the Jason Momoa theme, here is a sample of the Pop for Khal Drogo:

The average cost of a Funko in South Africa is R260 when purchased from a brick-and-mortar retail store. Takealot have them on a slightly reduced price of R235 and you can get them from Raru at roughly R170, but wait at least 3 weeks as they come directly from overseas.

If you live in the US, You can look at paying an average of $10 for a Pop, which equates to around R132 depending on which way the ANC sneezed that week. This is a massive difference!

Funko's local distributor, GammaTek, obviously have to put their cut onto the local wholesale price. This in addition to import duties. So I do understand, but it doesn't mean that I have to purchase said Pops at R260 each.

GammaTek is responsible for the Funko Pop stand at Comic-Con Africa. I do believe that they will have some exclusives, however, these will still be at inflated prices. And most of what they will have, I will be able to walk into a lot of retail stores and get without paying entry as well.

If Funko themselves were directly involved, Pops would surely be more affordable to the average fan, as it would cut out supplier costs from the final purchase price. This logic can be applied to any merchandise made available.

My last point is probably my most critical, given that I am a book blogger. There are no authors confirmed for Comic-Con Africa. None. Not even the more successful local authors have confirmed panel discussions. This is truly baffling because surely this is the ideal platform to promote books and reading.

And there are those, sitting there with their Comic-Con mugs half-full, who will argue that there are comic book artists in attendance. Surely that is the same thing? Actually, it isn't. Comic books / graphic novels appeal to a relatively niche market, while traditional novels have a lot more readers. Of course, this is shifting as the market grows, but traditional novels are simply a lot more accessible.

Here is a sampling of the authors who attended SDCC 2018:

  • Cory Doctrow
  • Elizabeth Hand
  • Deborah Harkness
  • RA Salvatore
The sad part is that we don't even have to look overseas to get reasonable author representation as we have many fantastic writers in genres that would appeal to the typical Convention visitor. And I am sure many of them would love the opportunity to attend as a Guest Speaker.

Some of my suggestions for South African authors are:
  • Lauren Beukes (she is also involved in graphic novels)
  • Deon Mayer
  • Zukiswa Wanner
  • Charlie Human
  • Sarah Lotz
  • Henrietta Rose-Innes
  • Nerine Dorman
.. and the above list is certainly not exhaustive.

So, I am not impressed. There is very little distinguishing this Con from the few others we already have locally other than a higher entry fee and some tactical smoke and mirrors marketing.

South Africans also have this amazing tendency to be happy with mediocrity. When we get served crap on a silver platter we go "Ah, well at least the platter is pretty." And this is wrong because it means ventures like Conic-Con Africa will continue to be sub-par and not even come close to international standards.

Stop dressing events like this up and making more of them than what they actually are. There is very little difference between Comic-Con Africa and rAge besides one ex-Dothraki.

I will not be attending based on my thoughts above. I simply do not see the value of time or money in this event. I also expect many to disagree and that is perfectly fine. I am entitled to not attend just as you are fully allowed to go. I am not stopping anyone from going and I am sure initial attendance will be huge. But it remains to be seen if they can sustain these numbers for future events.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Thoughts: Why I Play Magic: The Gathering

Those who know me well will be familiar with my near-obsession with a little trading card game called Magic: The Gathering. I don't think they necessarily understand it, however. It probably takes a Magic player to really get another Magic player, but I am going to attempt to explain my journey into Magic and the cornerstone it has been in my life.

During high school, I dabbled a little with the game, getting some free cards and the like at an early incarnation of ICON,  the original gaming convention. I remember looking through boxes of cards and playing in an event where some boy decided that I was perhaps easy game as my wide-eyed wonder must have been very apparent. He offered me a stack of cards to start my collection if I could beat him. I beat him and he generously gave me the cards, which I took home and put in a shoebox.

I think I gave them away a few years later, not really aware of the potential value these cards may have had later on. The story of many regretful players, I am sure.

I didn't give Magic much thought for a long time. The bustling community of players was simply outside of my world of experience, even when I played and collected Pokemon for a time.

And then, in 2014, I was introduced to a venue for geeks, DeeTwenty. There were supposed to be more players for a boardgame session, but I grew bored and someone offered to teach me the basics of Magic. I found out that it was a regular thing for players to meet and compete every Friday night and decided to start playing, as I was looking for a means to meet more likeminded people.

Little did I realize then just how much Magic would influence my life. As my card collection grew, so did my social circle and skills in the game. I started attending more serious events, in spite of feeling out of my depth, and began to take the game a little more seriously.

I even taught my boyfriend to play and now it is a hobby we happily share and get excited over, especially when new cards come out that we want.

These days, I am a more casual player, passionate about introducing new players to the game. I play at least twice a week and love the banter and camaraderie the community offers. I feel a bit lost if I do not get my weekly fix.

What can you gain from playing Magic?

  • A sense of community - I have made so many friends through the game that I have lost count.
  • Feeling of accomplishment - Magic is a gradual process. You will not suddenly become a good player after a few games. It takes a while to learn the dynamics and nuances involved in playing.
  • Confidence - At your local store, you will meet so many people from all sorts of walks of life and you will learn how to communicate and interact with these people.
  • Analytical skills - Magic has taught me to think a few steps ahead and plan for possible outcomes. You can never control what your opponent will do but you can certainly plan for it! Your computational maths skills will also improve.
  • Improved memory - Magic is complex and has literally thousands of different cards which many rules and interactions associated with them. Learning these and remembering them at a critical point in the game could mean the difference between a win or a loss.
If you want to learn more about Magic, pop into your local store where they will give you an intro pack and a quick lesson on how the game works. There are also many educational YouTube videos for new players looking to improve their knowledge and skill.

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!