Friday, March 17, 2017

Gardener's Guide: Indigenous Garden Plants of Southern Africa, a review

Everyone who knows me well, will know how passionate I am about southern Africa's fauna and flora, so when this little tome came up for review, I made the grabby hands for it immediately. I'm so glad I did! But a big disclaimer, if you already own a bunch of books of a more heftier and comprehensive nature, and consider yourself a fair boffin on the topic, this book is most likely not going to be for you. It's *very much* an introduction on the topic and it's literally pocket sized. As in the type is tiny, and there's not a lot of space to pack a helluva lot of information.

That being said, it's a super dinky, cute little book – the kind of slim volume I'd gift to friends and family who are budding gardening enthusiasts with a burgeoning interest in indigenous gardening. Most of the the Gardener's Guide is taken up by a list of plants, divided into trees, shrubs, bedding plants and so on, with illustrative photos giving you an idea of flowers, overall shape/situation in garden, and bark/trunk. A quick-reference table lets you tell at a glance whether the plant attracts butterflies, birds, or what sort of cultivation requirements it has. You'll also be able to scan the basic cultivation tips to choose the right species (and how to care for them). Are you looking for a tree, container plant, or groundcover?

And while there is only so much that can be included, Glenice Ebedes has made a lovely selection of species, many of which bear fruit and flowers that are attractive to insects and birds (and by default other small wildlife). I was quite surprised, actually, to see a number of plants I've known for years in gardens in and around the Cape Peninsula, that I hadn't even known were indigenous.

I think what appeals to me most about the book is the fact that it gives an intro into rethinking gardens along the lines of working with nature and not against it. Southern Africa is blessed with different regions, most notably its succulent biome, as well as fynbos, Afromontane forests and bushveld, among others, and Ebedes suggests choosing a theme for your garden along one of these lines (keeping in mind in which region you live and whether you need to be waterwise – so important these days). By planting indigenous, you increase the biodiversity of your immediate environment, and create refuges for insects, birds and wildlife, during an era where the natural wilderness is under so much pressure thanks to urbanisation, agriculture, mining and pollution.

While this is by no means an exhaustive guide for gardeners, it is a great starting point that will, I hope, encourage folks to learn more about the fascinating and beautiful plants that thrive in our often harsh climate.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Warcraft: The Beginning (2016)

As an Orc horde invades the planet Azeroth using a magic portal, a few human heroes and dissenting Orcs must attempt to stop the true evil behind this war. 

With films like this, I'd rather leave my review a while after release, purely to avoid the hype – good and bad. While I never stepped into the black hole that is World of Warcraft, loads of my friends did, and I listened to their tales of derring-do with a fair amount of envy. My own experiences with the game franchise began and ended with Warcraft 3.

So when they announced a film for the game, I was interested, especially considering the cast (um, hello Travis Fimmel, Clancy Brown). Not only that, but this was the first of Duncan Jones's films that I've seen, so I was quite inclined to give the entire production the benefit of the doubt.

It seems in the media that it's become incredibly fashionable to totally bash films like this the moment they come out – the reviewer gleefully tearing the work a proverbial new one mere hours after its release. And oh my dog, if you're looking for issues, you're going to find them with *everything*.

I will say straight up that I enjoyed this film – and I am the target audience (gaming, SFF fan). I was entertained, and in that sense, the film did its job. The graphics were... Well, I grew up during the 1980s with all the blue-screen and stop-motion action. This was a visual feast that hit all the right buttons for me.

I've heard a lot of people bash the story as being weak, and I'm going to disagree. Yes, it was a simplified story considering the large cast of characters and how much is going on with the lore – so to a degree the writers had to paint in broader strokes. This is a movie, after all, not a TV series. But to me the plot was internally consistent. There were some lovely reversals and betrayals – not completely unexpected, but FFS, this was fun. I *enjoyed* myself. That was the point. Games generally are quite pulpy, and watching Warcraft felt like being immersed in one long cut scene. I admit I'm patchy on lore so *a lot* of what happened most likely went way over my head, but I went along with it. Friends of mine who've played WoW were transported saying that the world building was spot on, so that pleases me.

In case you're wondering why the OST is so epic – the composer is none other than Ramin Djawadi of Game of Thrones fame, which only made my experience at the local IMAX all the more awesome.

This is not a deep film by any stretch of the imagination. Stock standard themes abound – of how power corrupts and how we all win when we are able to take a moderate stance (a weeeeedle bit on the propaganda side there, if you ask me). But this one's a keeper, and I'll most certainly watch it again some time in the future. At any rate, there's no stretched-out landscape porn a la The Hobbit and the pacing will keep viewers on the edge of the seat.

Also, griffins. I'm a sucker for griffins. There. I said it.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Favourite Braids by Laura & Marie #review

Big disclaimer: I'm on the list of bloggers for a number of publishers and sometimes print books wash up on my shore that really aren't my thing, but I'll give them a fair review.

Okay, for those of you who know me, they'll be well aware that I'm not big on the whole hair and make-up thing. My hair is long and mostly loose, mainly because I'm not bothered with doing exciting things with it. There are days when I strangle it into a bun because it annoys the ever-loving hell out of me. If I were into doing all manner of braids, Favourite Braids by Laura & Marie would most certainly be useful. (And I mean, with hair down to my butt, I really should look at doing something more exciting but who'm I kidding? When I go out, I wear my top hat 'cos that's my vibe and the hair must maar hang and do its own thing.)

Yet, this book is filled with some suitably awesome, elaborate hair styles, as well as the step-by-step instructions and photos to guide you into making them or at least give you plenty of ideas (if you're a budding hair stylist in the making). But I'm not that girl (though I'm sure they're out there.)

My main beef with the book is its design. Here my critic is creeping out of the woodwork to say that whoever designed this book is still stuck in the 1990s with the choice of fonts, colour palette and layout. But if you look at what the purpose of the book is, and the fact that it's probably marketed towards preteens who're not particularly savvy with YouTube and the Interwebz then this is a fun book. I can see this in a school library, for instance. Or it might be the kind of gift a well-meaning aunt or grandmother would gift to a girl who has an interest in hair and beauty. Or a girl she thinks is interested in hair and beauty...

(I was that girl who who had read The Lord of the Rings twice at the age of 12, can't you tell?)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Children Who Chase Lost Voices #review

A coming of age story involving young love and a mysterious music, coming from a crystal radio left as a memento by an absent father, that leads a young heroine deep into a hidden world.

Also know as Journey to Agartha, this film, written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, is one of those that punched me right in the feels. Strongly themed along the lines of Orpheus's decent into the Underworld, this is a story about a young girl, Asuna, who inadvertently stumbles into the secret world of Agartha with its ancient, crumbling mysteries.

Generally I steer clear of your bog-standard anime, but Children Who Chase Lost Voices (which we caught on Netflix) resonated with so much mythic gravity and such strong story writing, that it begs a second look. I gained the sense of startling depth in world building with a solid mythos. Though on the outside, this is very much a young girl's coming of age story and her dealing with her absent father, it is also very much a tale about how one comes to terms with loss through death.

While I'm no fan of cute critter side-kicks, Mimi the cat was adorable while being suitably pesky, and her own story arc was apt, and I won't say any more for fear of spoilers. Characters all have strongly developed narrative arcs that interlace well, and have satisfying conclusions.

The production is exquisite down to every last detail, and the plot gradually unfolds, taking you from the everyday to the absolutely downright fantastical to the point where I was watching with the gooseflesh creeping up my arms. I will add that up until now, my experience with anime has been (mostly) limited to a few Studio Ghibli films, so I don't have much of a repertoire to draw on in order to make comparisons save to say that this compares favourably to the likes of Spirited Away and My Neighbor Tortoro.

Also, I really need to watch more quality anime, so if you have recommendations, please feel free to make them.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Crossroads by Calyah, a review


Ever since KeeperLavellan over at AO3 gutted me with her Solavellan hell in Apotheosis (seriously, go read it and its Dark Solas companion piece) I've been struggling to find another F!Lavellan/Solas piece that works for me. Or, even as I've later developed an unfortunate fixation on the Sentinel Abelas (and how do you even name that ship?) I've enjoyed seeing how writers bring his story out of the brief encounter in Mythal's temple.

Abevellan?

I guess so. Google can't be wrong.

Anyhoo, so somehow I stumbled across the writer Calyah, and she'd started writing a rather sweet Abevellan, but then I think she hit the same speed wobble loads of writers did after the Trespasser DLC that knocked our entire storylines sideways. Now, some may gamely have continued with their headcanons despite everything. Others, like Calyah, took down her chapters and revised.

At the time, I remember being quite put out (and more than a bit worried) as I'd thought she'd just deleted the fic. But no. She cam back. Better and with so much bite. She has grown tremendously as a writer when I compare the earlier piece in the series to what she has going with The Crossroads.  Essentially, this is a retelling of the Trespasser DLC, with a whole lot of author headcanon and retelling of the main storyline, giving Abelas and his fellow Sentinels a far more active role in opposing the Big Bad.

And it's every bit as awesome as you can imagine. And satisfying.

If I'm going to nit-pick, I'll mention that there were a few little wibbles and wobbles with grammar and typos et al, but not so much to make me grumble or grouse because the story had me scrolling down, dead keen to see how Calyah was going to let things play out. Her action sequences are exhilarating and the emotional tension strong with few places where the pacing flags or the ball gets dropped. (At any rate, the rough patches didn't bother me – this is still one of the better Solavellans out there.)

And the payoff at the end. Yussss, it was bloody perfect and well worth the wait. The happy-for-now is a perfect set-up for if she should feel the need to leave the story as is, or pick it up later.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Departures by Schattenriss, a review


Yes, I'm still compulsively reading Dragon Age fics written by Schattenriss over at Archive of Our Own. Maybe it's because I've got a mild crush on his Inquisitor Kai Trevelyan and his rather wry humour. Departures is pretty much the origin story of the Shit That Got Weird before the events that occurred at the Temple of Ashes sent everything for a ball of shit with Coryphy-whatsis-face.

So if you've read and enjoyed The Wrong Sort of Whatever – which expands upon the events that transpire during the Trespasser DLC of Dragon Age Inquisition, Departures will be especially sweet and meaningful.

In brief, before he became Inquisitor, Kai Trevelyan was a mage in the Ostwick Circle, and when we meet him, it's pretty much the point in his life where he's had it with his existence. He never asked to be a mage – and he's a damned good one too – and he's had it with being locked up like a dangerous animal. When the shit gets ugly between the mages and templars (thank you, Anders) Kai sees this as his opportunity to scarper. Which he does.

The only problem is that he's got no idea how to fend for himself in the outside world. He can't bloody well walk about openly being a mage unless he wants a lynching, and apart from reading and writing, he doesn't have any marketable skills. So essentially the story is all about how he adjusts to life on the outside, how he finds some comfort with lovers and also his prickly relationship with his parents.

There are some truly awkward social situations that happen, some of which really made me hurt for Kai. And of course there's The Awful Thing that happens near the end that I won't spoil, but it was heartening to see how Kai got through that dip.

There isn't an awful lot of action in this story, so if you're looking for fireworks and earth-shattering events, this is not that story. What you will find here are nuanced, sometimes intensely awkward interactions with people, and often some lively debate too. And loads of foreshadowing for events to follow.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Hot, quick tips to be a BS detector

Of late I find myself getting into a bit of a frothy when folks share sensationalist BS and hoaxes via social media. Seriously, folks, there is already so much garbage out there, you *don't* need to add to the pile. However, something else I've realised is that many folks don't stop and think before they share nor do they possess the skills to tell when they're (sometimes) unwittingly sharing garbage. So, here are my hot, quick tips to help guide you.

VERIFY YOUR SOURCES
Recently an unidentified voice message was doing the round on the community WhatsApp groups, where a chap was mouthing off a currently popular conspiracy theory. I immediately smelled a rat. Why? The guy did not identify who he was nor who he represented (always a warning bell). Nor could he back up any of his so-called facts with actual names and dates. So here's the deal, see what the source of your information is. If it's not an official news site or authority within the field then for the love of dog, don't share the information.

Here's an example: someone claims that a spate of fires in a region are being started by arsonists with political motivations. If that someone isn't the police, the official spokesperson of your local Fire & Rescue or a credible news source (like your local daily paper) then it's probably some idiot trying to get everyone all wound up with his fear-mongering. Avoid! Don't share! Don't pay attention to this!

CHECK YOUR EMOTIONS
How do you feel after you've read or listened to the supposed "news"? Are you angrier than usual? Do you feel like you want to go and punch someone? If so, then there's a very good chance that that particular snippet of "news" has been created specifically for that purpose – to get you all GRRRRR riled up and emotional. People who're all GRRRRR are known for making poor decisions. You're being manipulated. Take a step back. Take a breath. Go look for other news sources to compare to the one you've just read. Look at the language usage. See which one is offering a more measured response.

CONSPIRACY!
We all know that there are loads of wingnuts and Flat Earthers out there who believe in chemtrails and Reptilians and all manner of really crazy stuff. And they will try to get others to share in their cray-cray by the way that they share their information. Remember this: every weird hoax doing the rounds has a little grain of truth. This is what makes it so appealing for us. We don't like situations that are difficult to explain. We want to have order in our lives, to be able to say that ABC is the reason for XYZ.

First off, it's okay that we don't have all the answers. It's okay to say "I don't know" and spend time looking for a solution ourselves or waiting for the experts to deliver a report. Remember also that all that fake news and the clever hoaxes out there pander to our own biases. So when you read a story that makes you go hmmmm, first check with yourself.

For instance, if you're religious, you're less likely to question the authority of your local pastor or imam. However your religious leader is also just human, and is himself prone to fallacies.

So, check your biases before you go off on a half-cocked tangent. If something sounds unbelievable or just plain odd, go ask the experts. Phone your local police station, speak to a medical doctor, or your city or town's helpline. Or, if you are faced with strange advice (the most recent one being folks claiming that little bags of water taped to windows repel flies), go check it out on Snopes.com. HOAX-SLAYER is also a fantastic site, among others.

You really have no excuse. Google is your friend. Question everything and go do your research before you share misinformation.