Monday, September 3, 2018

Review: Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Katherine Webber

Title: Only Love Can Break Your Heart
Author: Katherine Webber
Publisher: Walker Books (August 2018)

Sometimes a broken heart is all you need to set you free… Reiko loves the endless sky and electric colours of the Californian desert. It is a refuge from an increasingly claustrophobic life of family pressures and her own secrets. Then she meets Seth, a boy who shares a love of the desert and her yearning for a different kind of life. But Reiko and Seth both want something the other can't give them. As summer ends, things begin to fall apart. But the end of love can sometimes be the beginning of you...

I received a review copy of this book from PanMacmillan SA, so a huge thank you to them for thinking of me and continuing to be so awesome.

I admit I had not heard of this book before receiving it, though I was eyeing the author's debut novel, Wing Jones. 

This is a YA Contemporary with a small twist on the genre, where it dips its toes into magical realism. This aspect was not overdone and simply added a unique touch to the storytelling experience.

I particularly enjoyed the departure from the usual YA trope of girl-meets-boy, boy-heals-girl.

Reiko is a strong character that you will definitely care about by the end of the book. She doesn't have that affected John-Greenesque way of talking that seems to infect a lot of emotionally-charged YA books these days.

I really don't want to give too much away, but I can tell you that if you enjoy Jandy Nelson and John Green, you will adore this.

I cannot wait to read Wing Jones!

Friday, August 31, 2018

Magic 101: Tips for Getting into Magic: The Gathering

I imagine that for players looking to start playing an established game like Magic: The Gathering, it's kind of like standing on the edge of a pool, wanting to dive on. Only, when you do, you realize that the pool was a mirage hiding a stormy ocean filled with overwhelming waves, crosscurrents and hidden rocks.

This is literally when I felt like when I started playing again four or so years back. Magic is vastly complicated. Not only are there various kinds of formats to play, there are so many cards, products, and events to choose from, that finding an easy point of entry is challenging.

For this post, I am not going to be discussing any of the rules and other technicalities around actually playing Magic. This is simply going to focus on the best ways to get started with minimal confusion and wastage of money. This is based on my own experiences and observations and I am sure other players may disagree with some of these points. However, I feel that players who have been competitive for a long time can forget how confusing it can be as a beginner and sometimes give advice that can be either overly complex or impractical.

Let me shatter the first myth that a lot of new players believe. You cannot simply buy a preconstructed deck, learn the basic rules, and go play at your local game store (LGS) and expect to do well. Preconstructed decks are those sealed products many stores sell as an entry point into the game. The current incarnation of these are the Plainswalker decks, which include a 60 card deck and a single booster.

I am not being dismissive of this product at all, as I also maintain that this should be the first item any new player should buy.

A Plainswalker deck is only really enjoyable if you play against another Plainswalker deck as they are designed to be at a similar power level. To take this deck to an event, where you will be playing against people who have spent thousands on building finely tuned decks, is just madness and would be a soul-crushing experience for any new player. However, if you attend events purely with the intention of gaining experience and seeing other decks in action, then you will not be disappointed in your final standings and will hopefully remain encouraged keep playing the game.

Also, new players should be misled into buying boosters. This is the biggest waste of money as you would be better off looking for specific cards you need instead of relying on chance. Each booster only contains one rare card, which might not even be of any monetary value. Boosters are good for a format of Magic called Draft and as prizes. That's about it.

Magic has a very complex rules system, so one should master the basics first. Practice as often as possible so they become second nature and you are able to put more focus on what your opponent is doing and your potential interactions with him/her. You will never stop progressing and developing as a player, so you should treat every person you meet and play with as an opportunity to expand your skills and knowledge. There are a plethora of resources online and, if you are unsure about anything, rather look it up right away before assumptions breed incorrect habits.

Pick a local store that has regular events and get to know the people there, as these will be your best resources to not only learn from but also to trade with when you are ready to build your first deck. Even if you are not playing in an event that day, hang around and watch others play. Most Magic players are in the habit of talking through their turns to assist their opponent in understanding what they are doing and to give the opportunity to respond. This is a great way to pick up information and learn how various cards and decks work.

You will also notice that Magic has several formats to chose from. The one you pick will depend on your goals as a player and is also influenced by funds. I will only detail the more popular ones here for simplicity's sake.
  • Standard: This is the most popular entry point for new players, as it can only be played with cards from the most recent card sets. It can get expensive as older cards are no longer legal to play and new decks are required to be built. Also, this format tends to inflate the secondary market card value if certain cards see a lot of play, making it even more pricey to stay competitive in.
  • Modern: This format has a larger base of cards to work from, dating back to 8th Edition (2003) upwards. This means that, in theory, one would have a wide choice of decks to chose from. However, there are very popular decks that do well and will continue to dominate the format. However, it is still possible to put together a cheaper deck and still do well in Modern. I always suggest Elves or Goblins, as these decks only use one colour and are straightforward to learn to play well.
  • Commander - This is a fun, multiplayer format that has some great preconstructed decks available on the market. It's casual and a good pick for those wanting to play social Magic. It can also be as inexpensive or expensive as your tastes allow. However, you do need to understand the fundamentals of Magic before diving into this format, as it can get very complex, especially when you need to keep track of and understand what 3 other players are doing.
When you are comfortable, you can then start collecting cards for the deck you would like to build. I reccomend checking out various decklists online so that you can get an idea if you 

As mentioned, the internet offers a host of resources to learn from. Here are some of my top choices for new players:

I hope this has been of some help! Please let me know if you have any questions?

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

5 YA Books With Kick-Ass Female Leads

Because it's Women's Month here in South Africa and I needed a good excuse to do another list, I thought I would recommend some underrated YA novels with memorable, independent female leads.

I didn't want to point out the obvious books that most people have read already, so hopefully, there is something here you haven't tried yet.

1. Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

"It is this kindness of his that unsettles me most. I can dodge a blow or block a knife. I am impervious to poison and know a dozen ways to escape a chokehold or garrote wire. But kindness? I do not know how to defend against that.” 

Grave Mercy is the first book in His Fair Assasin trilogy. This series has always been a bit of a mystery to me because, frankly, more people should be reading it and talking about it.

The first book focuses on Ismae, one of a select group of assassin nuns, trained to do the bidding of Death himself.

Ismae is awesome and 100% fierce and capable. This reads more like a Historical novel than a Fantasy and, if you enjoy books with an atmospheric setting, then this is the book for you.

2. Sabriel by Garth Nix

“Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?”

Perhaps more well-known, Sabriel is the first installment of an exciting fantasy series by Australian author, Garth Nix.

Sabriel, at the age of 18, finds out her father is missing and is given the responsibilities of his job as the Abhorsen, a special kind of necromancer. She is forced to use her ingenuity and wits to survive and figure out what happened to her father.

I first read this novel in high school and it has remained a firm favorite. Sabriel is still one of my favorite characters along with her demon-feline companion, Mogget.

3. The Mediator by Meg Cabot

“Sometimes, the only way you can make someone listen is with your fist. This is not a technique espoused, I know by the diagnostic manuals on most therapists' shelves.Then again nobody ever said I was a therapist.” 
The Mediator series is probably my favorite of Meg Cabot's books, which is really saying something as I went through a serious Meg Cabot phase in my late teens. I mean, I have probably read over thirty of them.

This series features Suze Simon, a sassy teen with the ability to speak to and help the dead. This often ends up with her in some dangerous situations, throwing punches and saving her fellow classmates from the restless dead. This series was well before the days of Twilight and I think, had it been published a good decade later, it would have been even more popular.

I know it's been over 18 years since the first book came out, but I am still waiting for this series to be made into a CW series or something. Hope springs eternal.

4. The Magician's Guild by Trudi Canavan

“How am I going to make friends with these people if all I can think of is how easy it would be to rob them?” 
The first in The Black Magician trilogy, this novel introduces us to Sonea, a street urchin who suddenly discovers she has magical abilities and is thrust into the elite world of The Magicians' Guild, where she is the first from the slums to be considered to train.

I loved Sonea and her growth as a character throughout this series. In the early naughties, it was also unusual for a fantasy series to have a female lead, so that's why this series also stood out for me.

5. The Dark Days Club - Alison Goodman

"I am no warrior, sir, nor do I aspire to be. I have been taught to sew and sing and dance, and my duty is to marry, not fight demons. Look at me: I am an Earl's daughter, not a man versed in swords and fisticuffs.”
Set in Victorian England, The Dark Days Club follows Lady Helen as she discovers that demons lurk in the shadows and sets about to follow a destiny beyond society parties and finding a handsome Duke to marry.

Helen is an interesting character, as she has to deal with the gender oppression of the 1800's that demands women be meek and obedient. This creates a fun internal conflict to read as Helen learns more about herself and fights with her desire to be a true lady.

Have you read any of these? And have I left anyone off who deserves a mention? Let me know in the comments!

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!