Tuesday 29 September 2009

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years - Donald Miller

When it arrived, I really thought I wasn't going to like this book. It's classified in the "religion/spirituality/general" category and the author, Donald Miller, is described as "the founder of The Mentoring Project (who) serves on President Barack Obama's task force on Fatherhood and Healthy Families". I had also agreed to read and review the book by a specific date (today !) and it only arrived three days ago, so I would have to read it in a few prolonged sittings. I know lots of reviewers brag about speed-reading but I like to take my time and really think about what I'm reading, not just skim through it in the shortest time possible.

I was expecting a religious-oriented self-help book from a very serious, holier-than-thou evangelist/governmental official, telling me what to do to sort my life out in a pretty undigestable and condescending manner.

Instead, I found myself chuckling and imagining the author as the missing member of the Jackass team, as he described holding on to a leather steering wheel cover tied to the back of a car and "sledging" through the snowy streets in a kayak at breakneck speed ! I warmed to him as he mentioned his self-doubts and insecurities due to being overweight and unfit, and I loved his self-deprecating humour.

The story - and yes, this book does have a story, it's not your usual self-help do-this-do-that lecture - explains that the author is contacted by a couple of movie directors who want to turn his memoirs into a film. But his lifestory needs to be rewritten and made more interesting before it will make a good film. This makes the author think that his real life, not just his cinematic fictionalised life, SHOULD be more interesting and he should get out there and do some exciting things. As he says, "A good movie has memorable scenes, and so does a good life." When I was a child, there was a TV programme called "Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead?" That's the guiding principle of this book - carpe diem !

At a seminar for would-be movie-makers, he learns that you need "a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it" and this is what he pushes himself to become. We follow him on his self-imposed challenges and adventures and see him develop as a person. And that's it - he doesn't preach or nag or gloat, he just shows us what he did and how he felt and leads by example, showing us some pretty inspirational moments on the way.

I had a short deadline for reading this book (three days) but I actually finished it within a day ! Partly because it's a quick read - the double-spaces between the lines of text give you less words on a page - but mainly because it sucked me in and kept me interested. I kept reading because I really did want to find out if he rose to the challenges, I did want to keep laughing at his silly tales and I did start thinking about his message too.

I would conclude by saying that this is a self-help book for people who don't like self-help books ! The author's references to his religious convictions are not at all "in-your-face" and would not be at all off-putting to non-believers. He tells you how he feels but he doesn't try to tell you that you should feel the same way. It's a great read and will have you thinking - and probably acting - long after you've finished the final page.

star rating : 5/5

Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (29 Sep 2009)
ISBN-10: 1400202663
ISBN-13: 978-1400202669

RRP : £9.99

Sunday 27 September 2009


The Gro-Clock is made by the same company that makes the Grobag baby sleeping bags, so they are already a company that I know and trust. The Grobags were in fact the only product of theirs that I was aware of, but they could actually be classed as baby/child sleep experts, selling everything you could possibly need in the night time nursery - cot duvets, Gro Anywhere blackout blinds, Gro Egg colour-changing room thermometer/nightlight ...

The Gro-clock is an ingenious clock designed for children who can't yet tell the time, so that they instantly know whether or not it is time to get up. In the daytime - and the great thing here is that you determine what time that is !!! -its cheerful yellow sun face shows children that they can get out of bed without getting told off by mummy and daddy !! When it's bedtime, the sun is replaced by a blue sleeping moon face, which glows gently so the clock doubles up as a nightlight. You can choose the intensity of the glow, depending on how much light your child wants.

At the moment, while our loft conversion is underway, 8-year-old Sophie and 4-year-old Juliette are sharing a bedroom. So even if Sophie can tell the time and is too old for a nightlight, she has been sharing in the Gro Clock testing ! She likes the fact that you can instantly tell if it's too early to get up by glancing at the colour of the clockface instead of rummaging around for her glasses and turning on her bedside lamp to see the time on her normal clock.

Juliette loved the stars that count down the hours to wake-up time throughout the night. And she really enjoyed reading the lovely story-book that comes with the clock and features "her" clock in it. It's become a regular part of her bedtime routine.

The important question is, does it work ? And I'd have to say yes, it does. The girls still wake up early but they know that it's too early to make noise and wake up everybody else who is asleep -we have an agreement on being allowed to play when there's one star left, but any more than that, they have to try to go back to sleep. They seem to love the extra responsibility and Juliette has been proudly telling people that she can "tell the time" now like her big sister.

It is pricey, but it's a brilliant concept, the friendly sun and moon characters really appeal to young children and it does have the added extras of the storybook and doubling up as a nightlight. For older children, it can be transformed into a digital clock with an audible alarm, but we haven't tested those functions yet. That extends the period of time you can use it for though, so it's quite a good investment.

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £39.99

For more information or to buy online, go to http://www.gro.co.uk/gro-clock.aspx

Friday 25 September 2009

The Hydrant hands-free water bottle

I know, I know, it's not very funky - but it is very functional ! And this is designed to be useful, not pretty.

As a breastfeeding mum, I found it really useful. You know those pictures they show you in the adverts, of a mummy snuggling her breastfeeding baby and smiling placidly down at him/her in an oasis of calm and contentment ? Well, snap back to reality and most of the time, I come racing in from the school run or the shops with hungry baby Pierre starting to cry, 4-year-old Juliette saying she's tired and thirsty and can she watch her DVD please Mummy ?, 8-year-old Sophie asking if I can check her homework before she goes out to play with her new Heely's and the phone ringing !!! And yes, I manage to deal with all of that simultaneously because mums are the masters (or should that be mistresses ?) of multitasking !!! ... but when I finally settle down and Pierre is feeding quietly, I suddenly realise how thirsty I am. Breastfeeding is really thirsty work, all that liquid has to come from somewhere !!

I even thought about getting one of those novelty baseball caps, with the beer cans on each side and a tube going down to your mouth, so that I wouldn't have to keep asking random members of the family to bring me a drink (and it's funny how everyone suddenly goes deaf at those particular moments !!) Well, the Hydrant is basically a sensible version of my wacky idea !

Designed principally for use by the elderly or the bed-bound, it clips easily on to hospital beds, but you can also clip it anywhere else you want, it works just as well around the home. The basic Hydrant contains 1 litre which is plenty to keep you going, even on the hottest days, and it's a bit like a human-sized water-bottle that you'd put in a rabbit's cage - you only need to change the water once a day and you'll have it at hand whenever you need it.

I'm being very flippant in this review but for the disabled or for people with reduced mobility, this could be a seriously useful piece of equipment. I remember a few years ago, dozens of elderly people in France died during a heatwave due to dehydration and something as simple as this bottle could probably have saved their lives. No need to get up to get a drink, no need to fumble with tricky bottle tops or manipulate glasses with shaky hands. The tube has a bite-valve on the end so it automatically seals after use and if it is placed above head height, the siphon action will make for easy drinking with no sucking required.

There are also smaller "Sports Hydrants" containing 500ml or 750ml that are great for when you're out and about. They are brilliant for clipping on to a pram and are a fabulous way of avoiding the leakages or spills that are invariably associated with toddlers wanting mid-walk drinks from juice cartons or classic sports bottles. For the athletic types, you can clip it to your bike handlebars or even to your clothes, with the clothes clip available in the online shop.

To really break into the home/leisure sector, I think the bottle will need a makeover because it does look like a piece of medical equipment that you probably stole from hospital !! But the Sports Hydrant doesn't look at all out of place in a non-medical situation. I might even sew a funky cloth cover for mine, to jazz it up a bit !

It's a very simple solution to what could be a seriously dangerous issue for some people. I really wish I'd had one during my hospital stay after the birth but even at home, it's very handy. For children who like to take a drink to bed with them, it's also a great way of avoiding knocked over glasses (but don't fill it up entirely or you'll end up with a bedwetting incident in the middle of the night for sure !!)

Available online at www.hydrateforhealth.co.uk/

Priced £12.95 for the Hydrant and £5.99 or £6.49 for the Sports Hydrants

star rating : 4/5

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Russell Grant Baby Horoscope

I don't particularly believe in astrology but when I was offered a personal baby horoscope for Pierre (2 months old), I jumped at the chance ! It's like when people look at your bump and predict whether it'll be a boy or a girl - it's basically a 50-50 chance whether or not it turns out true ! But it's good for a giggle and who knows - if there is something in it, it could give a fascinating glimpse into what is to come when Pierre is a bit older.

Also, this horoscope is specifically written with parents and care-givers in mind and, according to the website, could be a useful tool to improve your parenting skills. "An astro-analysis provides a wonderful tool for you to help a child navigate childhood. It will give you a better understanding of your child and greater knowledge on how to unlock his potential. The report may for instance suggest skills or interests they might enjoy and you could help through supplying him with opportunities to develop these."

I had to email my baby's name, date, time and place of birth - as they say on the website, "a time of birth is crucial to the accuracy of the report", so if you are ordering this as a gift for a friend's baby, doublecheck the information beforehand ! The very next day, Pierre's personal horoscope was awaiting me in my email inbox.

I printed it out - it's about 10 pages, with a nice colourful cover. I skipped over all the "science" bit explaining the position of the stars and planets and what they tell us and the colourful birth chart, which I have to admit I didn't really understand, and moved on to the personality analysis. It's obviously filled in by a computer - about 30 sentences start with his full name, which makes it sound a bit artificial and repetitive! - but it makes really interesting reading.

Some of it is a bit obvious - he'll cry when he needs changing, who'd have thought it !!! - but most of it is really fascinating - he should be artistic, deep, intelligent, an animal-lover, close to his family and friends, always wanting to succeed, but also a bit on the hyperactive side, stubborn and will always test each "no" before obeying. On the plus side, he should tidy his toys and tell his siblings to do as mum and dad said when they don't follow rules !! Now that sounds good to me !

I've known Russell Grant for years on the telly so having the celeb factor makes it all seem more impressive. However, I was surprised that Russell Grant isn't mentioned anywhere at all - no pictures, no personal message, not even his name, anywhere on the horoscope itself or even on the emails. They all come from a lovely man called Kevin and even if he was totally professional and charming, I was a bit put out by this total lack of all things Russell Grant !!

Like I said, I don't really believe it, but it's interesting to look ahead and imagine how he might turn out, just as I enjoy asking the girls what jobs they want to do when they're bigger and how many kids they'll have. It's all a bit of fun and I won't be disappointed or feel cheated if it doesn't actually come true. (There is even a disclaimer saying that it's just a prediction and individuals may not entirely fit the mould.) I have to admit that for the moment, Pierre's personality does fit the description pretty closely but time will tell if this remains true or not.

It's a nice keepsake and as it's sent by email, you can forward copies to the grandparents for them to print out too ! It's bit pricey at £15 though, especially as there is no mention of Russell anywhere at all.

star rating : 4/5

Monday 21 September 2009

Catwalk : A Feline Odyssey - Kathie Freeman

Do you remember at primary school, when the teacher always used to say, "Imagine you're an animal and write your story". Well, this is exactly that story ! It's the delightfully simple, almost childlike, tale of a friendly tabby cat, who finds herself in all sorts of scrapes and adventures. As the old proverb says, curiosity killed the cat - or in this case, curiosity sent the cat thousands of miles away from its owners into a scary, hostile, totally unknown world - and we follow her epic journey as she tries to make her way back home.

They say that cats have nine lives and our feline narrator has at least that many, frequently changing name as she is adopted by various humans for short periods of time. She is a bit like a kitty cross between Bill Bryson and Forrest Gump, as she describes the landscapes and wildlife she encounters as she crosses America but frequently showing her delightful naivety and innocence, not always knowing or understanding the things she is witnessing.

The author perfectly depicts the playful feline behaviour any cat-lover would instantly recognise, such as playing with knitting yarn and desperately trying to catch prairie dogs as they pop up in their desert hidey-holes, and these passages are very entertaining and endearing.

Beneath its childlike simplicity, the tale does offer some slight social comment though. It is very subtly done but we can detect the author's viewpoint in her descriptions of the hoboes, the young runaway and the impoverished poacher desperately trying to keep his family's head above water, as well as those heartless owners who abandon their pets when they become too much of a burden.

Despite a few moments of poignancy, the book has a very lightweight, happy feel. It would appeal to younger readers too and I am tempted to reread at least part of it with my daughter at bedtimes. I could easily see this being made into a classic Disney cartoon, like a modern-day remake of The Incredible Journey !

star rating : 4/5

Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Kathleen Mc Pugh (September 20, 2003)
ISBN-10: 0974206237
ISBN-13: 978-0974206233

Thursday 17 September 2009

Crayola Color Wonder Disney Fairies Pad & Markers

Sophie and Juliette both love messy play. OK, I'll admit it - even I love messy play !! After a happy half hour watching Mister Maker on Cbeebies together, I'll quite often join in with the painting-sticking -colouring-cutting frenzy of creative play. I'm quite happy for the girls to get totally filthy and covered from head to toe in glue, paint and glitter in the name of developing creativity and I even encourage them to do so. (I even had to come clean and admit that when the finger-painting progressed on to foot painting, that was my idea so Daddy couldn't tell them off !!)

But there are some times when you just wish messy play could be a bit less messy. Juliette loves colouring but is sometimes a bit over-enthusiastic, so whatever she's leaning on - clean tablecloth, the floor, arm of the cream-coloured armchair ... - often inadvertently gets coloured-in too. Not to mention the fact that she always covers her fingers in felt tip, then touches her face, her clothes, the walls, the fridge door, basically EVERYTHING within reach, leaving multicoloured fingerprints everywhere. And whatever the manufacturers say, most felt tip pens are NOT washable !!

Well, that's where Color Wonder comes in. It's an absolutely ingenious invention that definitely must have been created by a mum - or at least a dad who does the laundry ! The special pens will only work on Color Wonder paper. On anything else - clothes, fingers, the walls, furniture - it's just like invisible ink ! So even tiny tots (it's recommended from age 3 upwards) can colour away to their heart's content without leaving any felt-tip marks anywhere ! It's absolutely fantastic for me, when I have to feed or change baby Pierre and I can't keep a close eye on what the girls are getting up to. I know that there is absolutely no danger of coming back to a multi-coloured disaster that necessitates a mild panic attack and some power cleaning !

The paper is quite pricey but it's worth it for the peace of mind. I won't use it all the time but it's great for in the car, while visiting other people or when you need to leave young children colouring in without supervision for a while.

The girls tested the Disney Fairies Pad but other designs are available (including Disney Princesses and Cars) or plain paper pads.

star rating : 5/5

Ryman Student Stationery Pack - Back to School Lifesaver !

September is a strange time of year for mums - you sigh with relief, thinking that your kids will soon be back at school instead of hanging around the house, telling you they're bored and asking what's for dinner because they're hungry, but you also dread suddenly having to go into a mad rush to get all the "Back to School" essentials, like school uniforms, lunch boxes, PE kit, swimbags, plimsolls ... the list is endless.

And however many times you ask if anything else needs replacing, it's always after the first day back that your kids will suddenly gaily inform you that their pencil sharpener doesn't work any more or they don't actually own any non-chewed pencils or their felt tip pens from last year have all dried out. And because everyone is running around the same shops, trying to lay their hands on the same items (and with the credit crunch, at the cheapest prices possible), you'll be in for a Saturday afternoon of absolute hell trailing around all the stationery shops in the town centre along with 99% of the population.

And that's where those lovely people at Ryman's are an absolute Godsend because they have carefully selected all the classic "back to school/college/university" essentials and put them all together in one value pack. You name it, it's probably in there ! Exercise books, pens - red, blue AND black (OK, we could have done with a green one in there for good measure, but maybe my kids' teachers are just extra awkward !!), pencils, rubber, pencil sharpener, ruler, highlighters, a pencil case to stash it all in, A4 lined paper ... they've thought of everything !!

There's even a calculator. It's only a basic model - the Texet SL8 -with no frills and none of the complicated sine/cosine/tangent buttons you need for doing trigonometry and other things I can only vaguely remember from my own school days, but it's good enough for doing basic maths.

Not only will it save you a hellish couple of hours traipsing around the shops - you can buy it online from the comfort of your own living room ! - it's also a bargain bundle, with the whole pack retailing at under a tenner. Admittedly, it's £9.99 but it's still a great price !

I'm very tempted to buy a couple of extra packs now and put them away for next year - or, more likely, for replacing everything during this school year as it invariably gets lost, broken or worn-out !

star rating : 4,5/5

Tuesday 15 September 2009

San Diego Bath & Body Company

Well, the girls have been getting excited all week with the postman delivering loads of fantastic goodies for them to test and yesterday, it was my turn. As soon as I opened the package, the gorgeous smells and beautifully wrapped products had me oohing and aahing, poking and sniffing and declaring that tonight, the girls would be going to bed early so Mummy could have a pamper session in peace in the bathroom !!

We all know that natural and chemical-free products are the best for our skin - and our planet - but in my experience, I've found that that often means you have to settle for slightly less efficient products - the soap dries out too quickly, the perfumes are too weak, the bubble baths don't make enough bubbles. You often have to choose between ethics and luxury.

And that was what blew me away with these products - they smell, look and feel divine but ... I just double-checked on the website to be sure !! ... they are 100% natural ! On their homepage, they say : "Our products are made with the best quality natural oils, butters, seeds, petals, and other botanical ingredients we can find. We offer a full line of luxurious and relaxing products to pamper your body and refresh your mind and soul. They're a treat to the senses and a great way to wake up your body and renew your spirit. ... All of our products are handcrafted in small batches here in San Diego, California to ensure quality and freshness." Well, for once, I have to totally agree with everything they say. "Your skin is your largest organ so we believe in putting only nature's best on your body. The endless sunshine, beautiful coastlines, and clear, blue skies here in San Diego provide the natural inspiration behind our luxurious line of all-natural bath and body products." Well, there's nothing I can add to that, time to head to the bathroom for some serious pampering, oops I mean testing !

First up, the All-Natural Orange Blossom Body Scrub. I love body scrubs and the way they make you feel all refreshed after your shower with skin as smooth as a baby's bum, but they often feel a bit scratchy and leave your skin slightly sore and red afterwards. No-one ever said it was easy being beautiful, I know !! The body scrubs I've used in the past have mainly used salt as the key ingredient but the difference here is that they are made with organic turbinado sugar crystals. Not only does it feel super soft and luxurious, the fact that it melts away in the water means that it buffs away dry skin gently. It looks just like brown sugar and smells absolutely divinely of freshly squeezed oranges so keep it out of the reach of children or they'll probably eat it ! The gorgeous smell is great for waking up in a good mood in the morning ! The lovely nourishing oils do tend to sink to the bottom of the pot though, so turn the tub upside down a few times and allow it to sink through all the sugar crystals before use.

Next up, the All Natural Body Sprays - "perfect for a refreshing lift anytime, anywhere" ... "spray onto body for a quick refresher". There were two fragrances to test - Sweet Vanilla and Orange Blossom - but the ingredients, in a refreshingly short list (no nasty additives), were identical : witch hazel, purified water, grapefruit extract, glycerin, citric acid, natural scent. The Orange Blossom fragrance was slightly more acidic and less sweet than in the body scrub but it still smelt natural, uplifting and refreshing. Sophie told me I smelt just like a yummy ice cream when I tried out the vanilla one and coming from an 8-year-old, that's a compliment ! It's a summery relaxing scent that smelt so gorgeous, I reapplied it several times during the day just for that instant feel-good kick ! It has the same effect as a square of chocolate but without the calories !

And finally, the bath bars, both of which were lumpy and bumpy and uneven, which is a sure sign of a genuinely handmade product. With their beautiful wrappings, these would be great as gifts. As samples, having no names or descriptions on them, I decided to do a sniff-test and see how it compared to the write-up on the website. For the first one, I jotted down "smells of peppermint and a walk along a windy beach" - off to check, aha ! Must be the Pacific Ocean Bath Bar ! "This bar combines the refreshing benefits of sea kelp with the crisp, tingly, eye-opening scent of peppermint." How close was I ?! For the second one, I put "it smells of a fern-covered hillside after the rain". Very poetic but not quite as close, it's actually a Lavender Bath Bar. "The subtle, yet classic smell of Lavender is known for is ability to relieve tension, disinfect skin, and enhance blood circulation. "

All of the San Diego Bath & Body Company products are 100% all-natural and 100% vegan. I'll add to that 100% gorgeous and luxurious. You can buy online, use paypal, follow them on twitter or facebook, the co-founder/owner Christy is an absolutely lovely lady - there has to be a catch ! And there is ! At this time, they only deliver to the United States, its territories and Canada. BUT they do say on their website, "We hope to expand our shipping options in the near future" so keep your fingers crossed !!

star rating : 5/5

For more information and to buy online, if you want to treat your friends in the States ! : http://www.sdbathandbody.com/

**** please read additional info in the comments below, international shipping is now possible !

Monday 14 September 2009

Adventure Box magazine / Story Box magazine

Adventure Box is the Bayard magazine aimed at the 6-9 age group. The biggest element is the chapter story, a long story of about 40 pages with big colourful illustrations on each page. The chapters are very short and are ideal for reading aloud with fairly confident readers. Sophie, aged 8, absolutely loved taking on the bedtime story role and reading a chapter a night to little sister Juliette. Juliette, aged 4, liked "reading along" and pointing at things in the picture and the questions she asked showed she understood what she was listening to.

The final pages offer a selection of games and activities (all the usual dot to dot, maze and colouring type activities), as well as a "craftbox" page and a comic strip starring Tom and Lili.

The bright colours, large illustrations and short texts kept both girls interested from beginning to end.

Story Box is the magazine for 3 - 6 year olds. It focuses on four central themes - story, animals, science, games. That sounds just like the structure of a typical day at primary school ! I sat down with Juliette, aged 4, and said we'd flick through the pages and she could tell me which bits she was interested in - we ended up looking at practically every page in detail !

First of all, there is a story to read together with big colourful illustrations that help to explain the text. Next, Juliette was fascinated and highly amused by the "Wonder with Whizkid" section, which dealt with the questions "Why don't we take off when we jump in the air ?" and "Why does the sea have waves ?". The science is simplified enough to make sense to a 3-6 year old.

Juliette loved the Sam Sam comic strip (she recognised him from TV), the pages with big photos describing animals (the giraffe and the fennec fox, in the issues we were reading) and the activity pages, which kept her amused for over half an hour, carefully filling in the maze, the dot to dot and the colouring. There is also a comic strip featuring the Lovett family and "Time for a Rhyme" on the final page.

As an optional extra, you can order an audio CD to accompany the magazine. This was of a very professional quality and kept the child's attention. Once Juliette realised that there were no pictures to go with it (I put it in the DVD player to listen to it !), she soon settled down and laughed along with the story. As Bayard magazines are available internationally, this would be a great addition for non-native speakers, who would hear an authentic British accent and pronunciation.

All of the Bayard magazines were entertaining and educational, and gave us the opportunity of spending some quality bedtime-reading time together as a family, with each member - even the youngest - taking an active role. The subscriptions are quite expensive but they are certainly worth it.

star rating : 4/5

For more information and to subscribe, go to http://www.bayard-magazines.co.uk/

Discovery Box magazine

The Discovery Box magazines, aimed at 9 - 12 year olds, focus on the central themes of history, science, the world and animals. Using an exciting mix of photos, drawings and texts, which maintain the reader's interest from cover to cover, they deliver a wide range of interesting facts, even for the grown ups !

In the issues that Sophie read, the main topics were - in the first magazine - South Africa, King Arthur, bones and the birth of a dolphin, and - in the second magazine - the exploration of the moon, Cambodia, hamsters and basketball ! There is something to interest everyone and the themes are quirky enough to bring up different information that the children have probably never come across before. As I mentioned before, even I learnt some interesting facts that I was unaware of and I picked up the magazine for a sneaky read after Sophie had finished with it !

It is in-depth enough to offer a lot of information but concise enough not to be too long and boring to young children, who often have a limited attention span. The short texts are also simple enough for slightly unconfident readers.

The front cover promises that it is "more than a book" and that is certainly true - Sophie loved the giant fold-out section full of facts at the beginning and also the special hands-on projects to illustrate the themes. I loved the numerous "Guess what Mum" moments that led to Sophie teaching me a thing or two and gaining in confidence due to this unexpected role reversal with her being the one imparting the knowledge !

star rating : 4,5/5

For more information and to subscribe, go to www.bayard-magazines.co.uk

Sleepless Nights - Sarah Bilston

Quinn (or Q, as everyone calls her) has just come through the pregnancy from hell (the subject of the first instalment, Bed Rest, which I haven't read, although I would now like to). And she survived ! But now, much as she loves him, she finds herself living with the baby from hell, who spends all his time crying uncontrollably and screaming for hours on end for no apparent reason. Baby Samuel is six weeks old at the start of the book, exactly the age of my own baby, so I could really sympathise with Q's emotional turmoil, stress and, at times, sheer panic. The ups and downs of life as a new mother are accurately portrayed, not without humour, and several times, the storytelling reminded me of a watered-down version of Kathy Lette - who just happens to be my favourite author. She'll make you laugh, she'll make you cry - but maybe that's just my post-pregnancy hormones settling down !

But this book is a real "three-for-the-price-of-one", bringing together three distinct parts. We have an emotional tale of maternal angst. Then we have a detective story - Q goes back to work and, along with her husband, takes on a small-town law firm and their first case. And thanks to Jeanie, Q's sister who has come over from England to help look after her nephew, we have the romantic elements of a classic, complicated, chick-lit love story.

The book therefore will appeal to multiple audiences. But, unfortunately, it is also a case of "Jack of all trades, master of none". The story of Q's problematic motherhood is all-encompassing for the first part of the book. Q cannot bear to have her baby out of sight (or even out of touch) and both parents are terrified, taking him to hospital in the middle of the night and contacting specialist doctors. But then, when they are ready to go back to work and the book is reading to move into its next phase as a detective novel, baby Samuel suddenly gets better, stops crying and his parents stop being obsessed with him. It's all just a bit too convenient ! The love story element is also a bit too superficial and predictable.

But then I glanced at the cover and wondered if the book's structure wasn't actually supposed to be representative of its main character. The author seems to have tried to blend three things into one, just as Q must try to juggle her triple role as mother, career woman and wife. The number three seems to be strangely important in fact, as we have three sisters, the career-driven Q in America, fun-loving Jeanie temporarily in the States and full-time mum and wife Alison, back home in England.

I actually had trouble working out if the girls were English or American to begin with. Quinn seems to be the classic hyperactive, intense American woman, Alison is the strait-laced, semi-aristocratic woman that you could imagine setting out afternoon tea on lacy doilies and Jeanie, the Brit abroad, is in between. This was not helped by American terms, such as crib death, coming out of the mouths of supposedly English characters. But this slight identity crisis is surely the result of the author's transatlantic lifestyle (an English girl, married to an American and living in Connecticut - just like Q ! ) and the fact that I was reading the American edition so perhaps some words were americanised.

All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable read. If you specifically want a detective story, a love story or a "new mum" story, you'd be better off picking someone who concentrates on just one genre, but for a lightweight, heartwarming read (just right, when you're going through your own sleepless nights !), it's perfect.

star rating : 4/5

Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Harper (August 11, 2009)
ISBN-10: 0060889942
ISBN-13: 978-0060889944

Thursday 10 September 2009

FRUBI Shades Children’s Sunglasses

These days, nobody in their right mind would allow their kids to go out in the sun without slapping on some high factor suncream, because we all know about the risks of skin cancer. We also all know that protecting our children's eyes from the harmful effects of the sun is just as important, but that one can be a bit more tricky to deal with ! First of all, you have to convince your child to actually agree to wear them and not keep taking them off. Secondly, once they're feeling cooperative, you have to find a way of actually making them stay on their face and not fall off every time they move ! And kids move and run and jump about a lot !

Frubi Shades deal with both of those problems instantaneously. The soft foamy mousse material is very comfortable to wear and the choice of funky colours and patterns will appeal to the most fashion-conscious toddlers. Even the boys will love black pirate design !

The velcro-fastening on the wraparound band can be adjusted to find the perfect fit and the glasses can then be pulled on and off without undoing them every time so it's foolproof, even for tiny fingers. They fit so snugly that they even stayed on when my daughters starting doing handstands while wearing them !

The age range is supposed to be 6 months - 6 years but Sophie, aged 8, didn't want to be left out so she wore them too. She said they were really comfortable and soft and they were funny because they make you look googly-eyed ! They're also very resistant - Juliette, aged 4, was bending them inside out, putting them in her (doggy-shaped !) handbag over and over again, leaving them lying on the floor (the only bad thing is the material seems to be irresistible to puppies so keep them well out of chewing-range !) and they were not scratched or damaged in any way. They passed the rough and tumble test with flying colours !

Despite being fun and funky, they have been designed and tested by ophthalmologists so they do offer serious protection. They will definitely be a permanent fixture in my beach bag from now on, right next to the sun cream and baseball caps !

star rating : 4,5/5

price : $9.99 (approximately £6)

Sophie and Juliette modelling the Black Pirate and Baby Blue Butterflies Frubis

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Breakfast : Food Worth Getting Out Of Bed For - Greg Duncan Powell

With a title like that, I was expecting great things - but the cover photo is of a boiled egg and soldiers, which is hardly ground-breaking or inspiring stuff !

The author explains in the preface that as a farmer in Australia, his daily routine involved tea and toast half an hour before dawn, then off to milk the cows until 9am, when a three-course breakfast would be served - porridge, eggs or stewed meat on toast, then toast and jam - before heading off for some more physical work then lunch. While this was great for our ancestors or for those who still have a very physical job, I think most white-collar workers - or even busy mums come to that ! - these days would have a hard job fitting this into their daily routine. Not to mention all those excess calories to burn off due to our modern sedentary lifestyle.

He goes on to say : "I truly believe that human existence would be much more pleasant if more importance was placed on breakfast. Most of the ills of the modern world can be traced back to three things : not enough sleep, not enough sex and not enough breakfast. While this book can't do much about the first two, it does aim to change the latter." (Well, as a mum to a 6-week-old baby, I guess I should be grateful for small mercies then ! ) The witty comments continue throughout the book.

Time to see what's on offer then. I consider myself to be fairly adventurous and am happy enough to sample exotic local delicacies, even first thing in the morning, but even I admit to turning my nose up at a couple of these breakfast suggestions - cabbage and oil on toast ? It doesn't sound particularly appealing at any time of day, let alone at breakfast-time ! Gehacktes -otherwise known as steak tartare ? For breakfast ?! I think I'll stick with tea and toast, however boring they may be, thanks !

I'm sure my next comment will make the author's hackles rise because it's exactly the kind of prejudice he's trying to overcome, but a lot of the recipes seem to me to be more suited to a light lunch or - dare I say it ? - brunch. For example, being married to a Frenchman, I can safely say that croque monsieur (like a cheese and ham toasty) and savoury crêpes (la galette de Brettone) are certainly not breakfast food in France - in fact, the latter is not even correct French, if you want to get really picky !!

There are recipes for more traditional breakfast fare, like muesli and granola, but to be honest, do we really need recipes for such simple dishes as stewed rhubarb, grilled mushrooms and sardines on toast ?

Some recipes did tickle my tastebuds though - banana bread and huevos rancheros sounds like a fabulous way to start the day to me ! The exotic recipe ideas and witty anecdotes providing a potted history of breakfast made it a worthwhile read.

I can see myself trying out of several of these recipes, but for lunch or supper. Sorry Mr Powell but I think I'll stick with a bowl of cornflakes and a glass of orange juice for now !

star rating : 3/5

Hardcover: 172 pages
Publisher: Murdoch Books (17 Aug 2009)
ISBN-10: 174196380X
ISBN-13: 978-1741963809

Snowflakes and Schnapps - Jane Lawson

If the stark white, cold imagery on the front of the book isn't a big enough hint, the blurb on the back will immediately set the scene :"Join Jane Lawson as she takes you on a culinary journey through the magnificent cold-climate cuisines of the snow-cloaked regions of Northern, Central and Eastern Europe ... Celebrate the season of winter !" As you turn the page and see the closeup photo of thick, luscious red shagpile carpet, you feel all warm and snuggly and know you're in for some serious comfort-food that will warm the cockles of your heart, and your belly !

The author, Jane Lawson, sounds like a bit of an anomaly ! She is Australian but has a passion for cold weather and wintry snowscapes, linking back to her possible European ancestry. Before perusing the table of contents, I tried to guess what I'd find and some of the classic, predictable dishes are there : potato flatbreads with smoked salmon and a side serving of pickled cucumber. It's the stereotype of a Nordic lunch ! But other classic dishes are given a slight tweak to make them more interesting - such as goulash soup with caraway dumplings.

As I continued to turn the pages, the mouth-watering photography and the author's way of making authentic recipes accessible by proposing alternatives for hard-to-come-by ingredients, won me over and I soaked up the unusual and sometimes surprising recipes. The Karelian open pies - salmon or ham, with a creamy cheese sauce, in a rye crust - are unique and unlike anything I've ever seen before. Gingerbread-spice coffee and mulled wine transport me mentally to snowy Christmas markets. Exotic ingredients that sound like they should exist in fairytales make me wonder what the food would taste like - cloudberries, honeycake snowballs ...

A lot of the recipes are very surprising and I can't decide whether or not the author is audacious and adventurous or just a total gastro-lunatic ! I've never seen so many contrasting flavours coming together in one recipe since watching Celebrity Masterchef ! Liquorice custards with coconut-lime macaroons and plums. Grilled oysters with cauliflower custard and caviar. Coriander roast chicken with walnut sauce. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating for these and other mind-boggling creations. Other recipes use more homely ingredients but still come up with surprising combinations : Pork in milk with a polenta crust. Pork and cabbage cakes with sweet-onion relish.

This is as much a coffee-table book as a recipe book, guaranteeing armchair travelling and tingling tastebuds without ever setting foot in the kitchen let alone outside of your front door. It is a weighty, luxurious, artistically-presented tome which justifies the hefty £25 price tag.

star rating : 4.5/5

Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Murdoch Books (7 Sep 2009)
ISBN-10: 1921259027
ISBN-13: 978-1921259029

Monday 7 September 2009

My Flipper Toothbrush Holders

When I first saw these products on internet, I thought they looked cute, I knew the girls would love them but I couldn't really see how they were any different to any of the other toothbrush toppers we've had, used and discarded in the past.

When they arrived, as predicted, the girls fell in love with the cute animal shapes and bright colours. They immediately ripped them out of the box and that was when I noticed the suckers to fix them to the wall. I inwardly groaned because every time we've ever had anything with suckers, it has never stayed attached to the wall ! But I played along and stuck them to the tiled surface above the sink.

It's actually a great idea for keeping brushes up out of the way. It's more hygienic, and whereas other brush covers without suction pads end up on the side of the sink and then get knocked on the floor, these ones stay clean and tidy - genius ! No more toothpaste stains on the sink, I love it already ! And despite months of previous nagging to put the toothbrushes in the glass and not on the side of the sink that fell on deaf ears, as soon as these Flippers arrived in the bathroom, the girls didn't need reminding at all !

I was also impressed with the automatic mechanism for opening and closing the animals' tummies to put in or take out the toothbrush - and the girls loved it so much they played with it for five minutes non stop !! As it says on the website, it definitely encourages and motivates young children to remember to brush their teeth.

An hour later, I heard a bonk and resignedly went to the bathroom. Sure enough, the suckers hadn't stuck and the toothbrushes and holders had fallen off the wall. I was disappointed because the girls loved them so much, I really wanted them to work. So I persevered, this time moistening the suckers before sticking them to the tiles and - bingo ! - this time they stayed on all night and are still stuck fast as I type. Looking at the website this morning, I notice that it does tell you to moisten the suckers before sticking them to the wall (or glass). I didn't notice that on the packaging so don't forget or you'll be unimpressed !

I get a feeling these new animal friends will be permanent fixtures in our bathroom now !

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £4.95

BBC Cbeebies Waybuloo magazine

Looking at the cover of the magazine, it doesn't look any different to any of the other kiddies' magazines on offer. Even the characters, cute as they are, with their enormous eyes and pudgy baby faces, look very similar to numerous other children's TV characters, like the Teletubbies, In the Night Garden, etc. They are called the Piplings, and even their names are reminiscent of other TV shows : Lau Lau (not to be confused with Laa Laa the Teletubby), Nok Tok (sounds strangely like Ninky Nonk), Yojojo (anyone thinking of Yoho Ahoy ?) , De Li (ahhh finally one that doesn't immediately make me think of another Cbeebies character !!)

Flicking through the magazine, it offers all the same type of activities too - a hide and seek observation game with stickers, a maze/follow the dots to practise fine motor skills, spot the difference, colouring, storytime ... The editor explains that it's all based around five key areas : feeling good, communication, being creative, finding out and physical development. It's the same old same old.

Nevertheless, Juliette, aged 4, was immediately sucked in and excitedly did the whole thing from cover to cover in one sitting, whereas normally she will get bored after a few pages and move on to something else. She loved the Yogo "copy the pose" exercises. I loved the little comprehension questions in the storypages to check she was following and understanding what I was reading.

One interesting moment was the "draw and spot" page when she had to copy a narabug (butterfly). She immediately said "oooh it's difficult, I won't manage that" but I showed her the step by step instructions, she followed the lines (concentrating so hard her little tongue was sticking out !) and she succeeded ! She was really excited about doing something she thought was beyond her capacities and rushed off to show her dad ! That's got to justify buying the magazine just for that one feel-good moment !

I realised as I was working through the magazine, and confirmed my suspicions by reading the introduction to parents on the first page, that the whole focus of this magazine is feelings and emotions. It's not always easy for pre-schoolers to explain how they're feeling so giving them the vocabulary of emotions - happy, pleased, clever, excited, disappointed - has to be a good thing. The topic for this issue was kindness but presumably that changes in each magazine.

When I took a closer look at the sticker sheet, I realised that the reward stickers were in two parts. Some for the parents to give to the children for good behaviour (with specific instructions on what needs to be done to get the sticker) but also stickers that the child can give to the parent (thanks for playing with me, thanks for looking after me, ...). I thought it was a great idea for the sticker exchange to work both ways, cleverly reinforcing the kindness/sharing/your actions making others feel good message of the magazine.

My only slight quibble would be the price, which seems a little high at £2.35 when it's for a pre-schooler and will inevitably get ripped apart and scribbled on within minutes ! I also thought it was lacking in fan pages/competitions/send in your drawings and photos pages, but as this is a new magazine, that may be introduced in later issues.

star rating : 4.5/5

Friday 4 September 2009

The Undrowned Child – Michelle Lovric

What’s in a name ? Quite a lot really, when your name turns out to be Teodora-of-Sad-Memory and everyone calls you the Undrowned Child, destined to save the dying city of Venice. The beautiful city is under attack from the fearsome ghostly traitor of the dark past, “Il Traditore”, who has returned from beyond the grave, along with his monstrous allies, to wreak his revenge and destroy the city he once lived in long ago.

We join Teo in her journey of self-discovery, as she goes "between the linings", becoming part human - part ghostly invisible child, unlocking the secrets of her own past and destiny, along with those of the city she must save. She enlists the help of Renzo, the Studious Son of the old prophecy, and together they embark on an epic journey, peopled with strange mystical and magical creatures who help them on their way. I particularly love the curry-quaffing mermaids who converse entirely in sailor-speak punctuated with archaic oaths !

The book tells an adventure of epic proportions, slightly reminiscent of Narnia, bringing together all the forces of good and evil for a final heroic battle. The story incorporates a number of wholesome values, such as friendship, solidarity, courage, perseverance, self-sacrifice. It also explores some other characteristics, evoking both sides of the coin, for example vanity (Maria is overly-vain and is transformed into an ugly dwarf whereas Teo is gently chided into taking more care over her appearance), patriotism (Renzo will courageously defend his city whatever the cost, but he also comes to realise that his instant dismissal of Teo as a non-Venetian is purely based on false racist stereotypes) and loyalty (many characters, including Teo and Renzo, are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend their friends and allies, but Teo also learns the hard way that her naively blind trust of and loyalty to Maria could have been her – and the whole city’s -downfall ).

I think this has the potential to be made into an absolutely brilliant film. It ticks all the right boxes, offering the suspense, the adventure, the epic battles, the fantastical creatures, the humour, the well known landscapes. It could be a crazy mixture of Harry Potter, The Little Mermaid and Cloverfield ! I actually wonder if it would have more success and reach a wider audience as a film, because although I loved reading it as an adult, I did wonder at times if it was a bit too ambitious in length and literary style for the target audience of children and teenagers.

As a teacher, I also love the section at the end that explains which elements really exist or existed in Venice and Venetian history and which were purely invented. Used along with the map at the start of the book, there is scope for some great class projectwork here.

star rating : 4,5/5

Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Orion Children's Books (2 Jul 2009)
ISBN-10: 1842557025
ISBN-13: 978-1842557020

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Vtech Kidizoom Splash Digital Camera

My two little testers (and I've no doubt their little brother will follow suit as soon as he's old enough !) haven't stopped playing with this - oh sorry, "testing" it, they take their new role very seriously ! - ever since it arrived. While Mum and Dad fussed about reading the box (does it need a memory card ? what do you have to do to get the photos on to the TV or computer ? how many photos can you take ?), they just picked it up and immediately started taking photos, as simple as that. So it passes the first test - it really is very easy to use, even for small children.

As an adult - particularly as a mum, who invariably has to find space for it in my bag, it seems a bit too heavy and chunky but it does seem totally comfortable for little hands. It's shock-resistant and has in fact been dropped several times and come through unscathed, thanks to the protective rubber edging.

The photos are not of a brilliant quality, unless you decide to purchase an additional memory card so that you can use the high resolution option. But to be honest, even when they use our grown-up digital camera, the photos are a bit blurred because they don't take the time to get them properly in focus or they invariably wobble a bit, so the quality is comparable. The in built memory can hold about 200 photos or 5 minutes of video, which is plenty.

Sophie (aged 8) absolutely loves the added features. You can edit photos to add special effects, like putting a pig's nose, devil's horns, a pirate hat, fox ears or big cartoon eyes on people, which has provided hours of hysterical giggling on the floor ! She also loves the little games (memory game, photo puzzle, tic tac toe), even if they seem incredibly basic to me !

Juliette (aged 4) enjoys snapping anything that moves, as well as most things that don't (the floor, the fruit bowl, daddy's shoes !) so I'm sure it's good for developing creativity and imagination !
The video option and waterproof case for taking photos underwater haven't been tested yet because the main appeal is for taking photos, but I'm sure they'll get round to it eventually. It's good to have some extra features to discover in a few months time when the novelty has worn off too (although it's been a few weeks already and they're still fighting over it !!)

It would make a great gift for budding photographers. It is quite pricey but provides hours of fun for all the family (yes, I guarantee even mum and dad will end up taking silly photos of people with pigs' noses and Viking helmets ! ) and it is solid enough to give a few year's good service.

star rating : 10/10 (Sophie said 5/5 wasn't enough !)

Joni Lamb – Surrender All

Joni Lamb is a working wife and mum. She is also the executive producer of and talk-show host on the Daystar Television Network, the world’s second largest faith-based television network -or in other words, a TV Evangelist. I can relate to the former but not the latter, so I don’t always share her point of view. But she always comes across as a genuinely nice, caring person. And she knows how to write in a friendly, approachable way and draw in the reader, giving the equivalent of a big literary hug to those who need one !

The basic idea behind this book is simple – Surrender All to the Lord and all will come good. Follow your heart, not your head and listen to what God wants you to do. He moves in mysterious ways but He has a plan for all of us and if you allow Him to guide your life, this will be – as it says on the cover – “your answer to living with peace, power and purpose”. Don't worry about a thing, don't try to make any decisions yourself, just let God take total control of your life and trust in Him.

I’m sure this is a very reassuring and enlightening read for believers or those in need of guidance. It is basically a catalogue of feel-good stories showing time after time that everything works out in the end. But I have to admit that I personally read it pretty much as I would watch the Jerry Springer show, at times with the same wide-eyed, head-shaking sense of total incomprehension as I discovered people’s lifestories. I have no intention of criticising other people’s beliefs, but as I personally don’t adhere to this school of thought, I admit to finding the book somewhat overlong, oversimplified and tedious.

star rating : 1/5 (but I admit I'm not in the target audience)

Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: WaterBrook Press (September 16, 2008)
Language: English

ISBN-10: 1400073758
ISBN-13: 978-1400073757
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