Monday 30 November 2009

Savers where the smart recessionista parent shops ! (Cow & Gate on offer)

I'm just passing on this message from a PR company - anything that can help save a few pennies in the run up to Christmas has to be a good thing !


Babies may be little bundles of joy, but with the average cumulative cost of raising a child from birth to the age of 21 estimated at nearing an incredible £200,000, there is no wonder that in these times of recession parents are keen to tighten the purse strings. But watching your pennies needn’t impact your choice when it comes to you and your offspring. Simply visit Savers where the smart recessionista parent shops !

Savers health and beauty, voted number one for price by the Verdict Consumer Satisfaction Index for UK Personal Care 2009, sells great brands at bargain prices that will see parents keeping both their children and their pockets happy. On offer until the 8th December – pick up the Cow and Gate Baby Food range for just 35p each! (RRP 51p each).

There are 230 Savers stores throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland so you can pick up all your favourite brands at bargain prices. To find your nearest store visit or call 0800 107 8495.

Simplehuman Deluxe Rectangular Recycler

The kitchen bin in our house is always causing arguments. Firstly, because I'm an avid recycler so I refuse to throw all the recyclable plastic/glass/paper/tins in the normal bin, but I can't be bothered to wander down to the recycling wheelie bin in the garage every single time I have something to recycle, so I hang a bin liner on the kitchen door and fill that up. But plastic bottles and cardboard boxes are quite bulky so it ends up taking up so much space, you can hardly get through the kitchen door once it's quite full - not to mention the number of times Mike kneecaps himself on a sharp box corner when he tries to sidle past into the kitchen ! Then there's me moaning at Mike when he puts something recyclable in the normal bin. And thirdly - and most annoyingly - the dogs have worked out how to open the cupboard under the sink and knock over the kitchen bin to go foraging for scraps. To avoid this problem, we now put the kitchen bin up on the worktop whenever we go out or to bed (which is not at all hygienic) because if we forget, you come back to a kitchen floor covered in the contents of the bin to clear up (not to mention two dogs full of whatever they've managed to steal from the bin). Bad news all around !

Well, I've found the answer to my prayers ! The Simplehuman deluxe recycling bin is dogproof and even can't-be-bothered-to-recycle-husband-proof ! The two sections - recyclable and non-recyclable - are side by side in the same unit so it takes absolutely no effort to recycle. Even Juliette, aged 4, has worked out what goes where and runs off to look at the fridge magnet that shows you what is and what isn't recyclable !

On top of the sheer functionality, it's a very good-looking bin ! Made of stainless steel with black plastic trim, it looks very sleek - and best of all, the manufacturers have though about busy mums and used fingerprint-proof stainless steel. My dad laughed at this and said that's good for Burglar Bill ! - but I think it's great, no more constantly wiping off little hand prints.

It's certainly a very well-made bin. The outside stainless steel part is solid but the unit isn't too heavy to move about. The lid opens with a very large foot pedal, and it has a special mechanism that makes it close slowly, therefore cleverly avoiding trapped kiddie-fingers and clanging bin lids ! It also has a handy little switch that you can use to block the lid open which is very useful at times.

Inside the bin there are two sturdy, colour-coded plastic containers, a blue 16 litre one for recyclables and a black 30 litre one for non-recyclable rubbish. They are easy to slot in and out and, although they can be used with standard bin bags or simplehuman liners (they enclose a free sample pack of three liners to try them out), they are solid and totally leakproof so it's easy enough to take them straight down to the bin without a liner, particularly on the recycling side.

They've put a great deal of thought into the bag changing part too. "Integrated handles make it easy to remove the inner bucket. The Bucket Park™ allows you to rest the inner bucket in position for easy bag removal. The Bag tuck™ hides away excess bag in a perforated opening." It really is user-friendly, as well as being a very good-looking bin !

It's not cheap, retailing at £124.99 , but it comes with a ten-year warranty, which is further proof of its durability and quality design. As always, you get what you pay for. If you look on their website, there are 75 customer reviews on this particular product. I find it quite amazing that 75 people have got excited enough about a bin to log on and leave a comment, so it just goes to show that this is no ordinary kitchen bin ! The few complaints are about the recycling bucket being too small in relation to the black one but if that is a problem in your house, you could easily just switch them over and use the black bucket for recycling and the smaller blue one for other kitchen waste.

In any case, in our house, it is the perfect solution. I've also noticed that the girls are so excited about using it that they are constantly tidying up after themselves so they can throw things away - I'm sure the novelty will soon wear off but it's definitely an added bonus until it does !!

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £124.99

for more information and to buy online :

Sunday 29 November 2009

Hands First Power Scrub+ & Moisturiser

My mother-in-law absolutely horrified me this summer. We went out blackberrying for the afternoon with the kids, scaring ourselves silly in the process because we stumbled across a snakeskin that had been shed in the long grass - the long grass that we had all just been wading through ! Then we went home and made jars and jars of blackberry jam. Yummm ! The only problem was, our hands and the kids T-shirts got covered in dark red blackberry juice stains. I wasn't bothered, I'd made sure they were wearing old clothes and I knew the purple fingers wouldn't last forever. When she reached for the bleach, I assumed she was going to try to get the old T-shirts back to pristine condition but no, she proceeded to wash her hands in bleach. Neat bleach ! I stared on dumbfounded as she poured bleach on her hands, rubbed them together as if it was soap, then rinsed them in cold water. Admittedly, it worked and the stains disappeared but all afternoon, I kept checking discreetly, expecting her hands to fall off or her skin to blister or something. It didn't - but she did reek of bleach !

Well, I think I should give her a bottle of this "ultra effective hand cleanser" which is labelled as "cleansing and conditioning for the hardest working hards". It certainly sounds a lot nicer and kinder to the skin that my mum-in-law's bleach option ! The list of ingredients includes : "Natural pumice and walnut shell for deep-down cleansing, Natural blue cypress oil and panthenol for skin conditioning, Natural anti-bacterial grapefruit seed extract".

So it's a triple-action product that will not only clean your hands but moisturise them and disinfect them, which is brilliant in this peak period of swine flu, not to mention normal flu, contamination. Chemist Direct actually includes it on its list of swine flu protection products. It also makes it really good value as you won't have to fork out for a separate tube of hand cream and hand sanitizer.

You use it just as you would use liquid soap. Squirt a bit onto wet hands, massage thoroughly, rinse in warm water and repeat if necessary. It's a fairly thick gel so it's not that easy to get out of the bottle so make sure you give it a good shake to get the product down the right end of the bottle before you start, to save wasting running water while you wash your hands - personally I would have preferred a tube soI could squeeze it out easily.

It's a green gel (I was surprised at the colour, as it instantly made me think of Swarfega, the original deep-cleaning, ultra-tough hand cleaner), full of tiny black bits of pumice stone and walnut shell and to me it smelt of marzipan - possibly due to the walnut shell, assuming that smells the same as crushed up almond shell. My husband was a bit put off by the texture but to me, it was exactly the same as an exfoliating body scrub you would use in the shower. I'd actually be tempted to use it as a body scrub because it smells so yummy ! It felt really nice, mildly exfoliating but not at all harsh or scratchy. I can't comment on the deep-cleaning aspect as I hadn't done any dirty jobs but I will definitely be trying this on the girls when their fingers are covered in stubborn felt-tip pen or ink stains.

My hands didn't feel at all dried out but I wouldn't say they felt hydrated either. Maybe that's because, as a woman, I'm used to applying very thick hand cream that leaves a slightly greasy feel afterwards. As most men don't use hand cream, they probably wouldn't like that sensation of greasiness so this product is probably perfectly acceptable as a moisturiser to most men (and lets face it, apologies to the feminists out there but it is mainly men who will have their hands gunked up after tinkering with the car engine or various DIY jobs). It has the advantage of leaving hands totally dry, grease-free and not at all slippery, which is just as well if they're about to go back to using potentially-lethal power tools after a quick mid-job hand wash !

Actually, I've just noticed that if you look closely at the photo of the bottle, you'll see that the picture on the front shows a perfectly manicured, very feminine pair of hands washing themselves, next to some hands with incredibly hairy wrists. I'm convinced the hair has been airbrushed in to play up the virile male image and prove that this product isn't just for ladies. Inversely, the female hands make this much more girl-friendly than the ultra-macho original Swarfega targetted at (self-proclaimed) virile grease monkeys ! A friend tells me that this type of product is also great at removing kids temporary tattoos (which I usually end up attacking with nail varnish remover in the bath, not much better than mother-in-law washing her hands in bleach !) so this is a great all-round product for the whole family.

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £5.99 for 225ml

Saturday 28 November 2009

Nuby IcyBite Hard/Soft Keys - teether

Pierre is four months old and hasn't actually started teething yet but whenever any of my fingers finds its way into his mouth, he chonks down so hard on it that it hurts. Especially if he manages to find my knuckles ! I guess this means his gums must be getting ready and maybe hurting a bit already.
As he enjoys his Nuby Bug-a-loop teething ring so much, I thought I'd give him the IcyBite keys to play around with too. I gave them to him at room temperature straight from the packet (after a quick wash in warm soapy water, as recommended) but when he starts seriously teething, I'll be able to put them in the fridge for extra pain relief. The gel inside is clever stuff - it gets cold in the fridge but stays soft and it stays cold longer than water-filled teethers. It's also non-toxic which is handy to know, although he wouldn't get very far gumming it to death at the moment anyway ! (You should still check regularly for leaks or puncture marks and throw it away if you see any.) There are also hard surfaces to chew on, as well as a variety of textures - ridges, bumps, raised dots - for that all-round teething-experience !!

Seriously though, it must seem interesting to a 4-month-old because the first thing he did was hold it in front of his face for 30 seconds, waving it about and squinting at it in deep concentration. He was probably attracted by the different, bright, contrasting colours.

Then he tentatively put one of the soft keys in his mouth and half-sucked, half-chewed it. As he was holding the ring part in his right hand, every time he wiggled his hand (which he does an awful lot !), the IcyKeys moved around and he ended up with a different part in his mouth, so he got to test out all the different feels and textures. He seemed to prefer the hard rubber and plastic parts but I'm sure the soft gel keys will be the big attraction once it's been in the fridge.

As you can see from the photos below, it is just the right size and weight for him to hold on to and move around. He's been playing with it while I type this and he still seems fascinated by it !

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £4.99

available at Asda/Sainsburys/Tesco/Boots

Thursday 26 November 2009

Bentley Organic - Toy Sanitizer & Hand Sanitizer

I've always worked on the assumption that a bit of grime and contact with a few germs does kids good because it helps build up their immune system. I've never been one for sterilising bottles, dummies or teething rings because I breastfeed and I certainly don't sterilise my boobs before each feed so it seems a bit pointless ! But that was before swine flu made an appearance and gave me the heebie-jeebies. I don't know what to believe and what not to believe any more, so if all it takes is a quick squirt of something organic and harmless, then why not ? Especially as we've decided not to go for the swine flu vaccines.

Bentley Organic is the perfect solution. The toy sanitizer is made with 90% organic ingredients (I have to admit, that does make me wonder about the other 10% though !) and is certified "organic standard" by The Soil Association. It's free from harmful chemicals, is environmentally and child-friendly but kills over 99.9% of all household germs. I must admit, I thought only bleach and other highly toxic and potentially dangerous substances could be that effective.

"A pleasure to use, simply mist this citrus-based spray on toys and play surfaces and allow 30 seconds before wiping clean. Bentley Organic Toy Sanitizer leaves no residue or heavy scent." It does smell really nice and fresh and not at all chemical and it certainly doesn't make your eyes water like some harsher products of the same kind. Just a word of warning though - be careful what you use to wipe clean. It's pointless sanitising things then using a filthy cloth or tea-towel to wipe them "clean" or you'll just be wiping germs around again !

It can be used to clean all hard washable surfaces - personally, for me, I use it to squirt on the high chair, table mats and the girls' flower table - but once I've wiped it down and my clean cloth is damp with the product, I wipe over anything that doesn't move, partly for the sanitising aspect but just as much because it smells so nice and clean ! Plus I've seen the TV reports about the hidden nasties lurking on computer keyboards !

Another product that can help knock out harmful germs before they find their way into your mouth or nose is the Hand Sanitizer. Like the Toy Sanitizer, it is 90% organic and kills 99.9% of germs on contact. As well as being anti-bacterial, it is also moisturising, so that's an added bonus in this colder weather. "Alcohol, paraben and fragrance free, this easily-absorbed foam contains 27% organic Aloe Vera, leaving your hands clean and conditioned without stickiness or residue. Simply pump once onto the palms and rub together until dry." Well, I tried it and it really does disappear into nothing. One pump action spits out a big blob of foam (I thought it would be way too much but it was just right), you rub your hands for 5 seconds to cover all the skin then it just disappears - no greasiness, no moisture, not even any smell at all. Amazing !

This will definitely be going into Sophie's schoolbag. At the beginning of term, they did a big lesson on swine flu and germs. The golden rule was, wash your hands often with soap and warm water. At breaktime, they all piled out to the playground and headed to the toilets to wash their hands (they're only 8, they still listen to the teacher and do as they're told !) and ... there was no soap anywhere ! So the teacher advised them to ask mum to buy a hand sanitizer. As I said above, I'm far from being a germ-freak but Sophie thinks it'll give her extra Brownie points with the teacher if she takes one in. There have been some horror stories circulating around on the net about children becoming dangerously ill after licking their hands that have alcohol-based hand sanitizer on them. This one is alcohol free so there's no chance of that happening.

It comes in a 50ml bottle, small enough to fit in your handbag or even a pocket, but contains enough for 125 applications. I might actually use one myself when I go back to work because kids are notorious for sneezing and coughing all over everything without putting their hands in front of their mouths so I bet my classroom will be full of germs just waiting for me to bring them home at the end of the day !

star rating : 5/5

Bentley Organic Toy Sanitizer RRP: £5.00 for 500ml, available at Jo Jo Maman Bebe stores and catalogue.

Bentley Organic Anti Bacterial Moisturising Hand Sanitizer RRP: £2.99 for 50ml.

For more information, log onto

Tinti - Bathtime fun for kids

I'm always getting in trouble with Mike for focusing more on playing than on washing at bathtime (for the girls, not me, in case you were wondering !) but that probably comes from my childhood memories of Matey bubblebath when the advert was "clean kids, clean bath, clean fun" and you got clean while you played without having to do much scrubbing ! These days, the girls are 8 and 4 but still laugh hysterically when we sing "Here come the Rubbadubbas Splish Splash Splish Splosh" and play endless games of "here comes the sponge and it's going to do a big weewee on your head" ! I know it's childish but if it gets their hair washed with no whingeing, I'm game ! So these Tinti bath products are right up my street.

The Bath Foam is brilliant fun. You can spray it on your hair or body and make silly punky hairstyles or draw foamy patterns on your body before washing it off. It doesn't stain the skin or, just as importantly, the bath - but if you go slightly mad and use loads, you will find it tends to stay on the top of the bathwater so you might need a quick squirt of clean water with the shower attachment before you get out of the bath if you don't want coloured foam on your towels ! It comes in red or green and smells lovely and fruity.

I was slightly concerned about Sophie having a reaction as she tends to get mild eczema with certain bath products, but she was fine. It's actually quite a natural product, believe it or not. "Tinti offer a range of fun coloured bath products, which have been specifically designed for children of three years and upwards. They have been specially formulated by a company called Heidelberger Naturfarben, who strives to create colours which are made from renewable sources such as blossoms, leaves, fruits and roots. In creating these colours, Heidelberger Naturfarben employs new plant ingredients as well as traditional colouring agents that have been used as dyes for centuries. Tinti contains no preservatives or SLS, is bio-degradable, and free from all known allergenic fragrances. All products are soap free and dermatologically tested, and 100% good clean fun !" The bath foam also contains calendula and panthenol which are apparently good for soothing and protecting the skin.

If used on the hair, the product is said to have the "added advantage of leaving hair tangle-free and easier to comb". It's true that the girls hair was shiny and knot-free, but I had used shampoo and conditioner beforehand. It's actually a shame it doesn't double up as a shampoo. It's very handy for making sure hair is thoroughly rinsed though, as the girls - especially Juliette - don't particularly enjoy the rinsing part when the water goes in their eyes. This way, I could point out that they still had bogey-hair (we were testing the green foam !) and needed to wash out this or that bit. Zero whingeing !

The Bathwater Colours were slightly less entertaining. The girls are used to using all sort of bath smellies, including bubble bath and bath confetti, so they were a bit underwhelmed because there were no bubbles. It did make the water go a much darker colour than with our usual bubblebath though and, as you get three tablets of three different colours (red, blue and yellow), you can have fun turning the water from yellow to green or purple (you might want to break the tablets in half if you do this though, to make them last a bit longer !).

There are other options in the Tinti range that sound good fun - Crackling Bath Pops, Painting Soap, Bath Confetti, Magic Bath Bombs (with a sea creature-shaped sponge that pops out when it's dissolved, how cool is that ?!), Tooth Foam, A Magic Wand (to use with the colour changing tablets so it look likes you're making it change by magic !), plus an Octopus Tub Toy and a Bath Puzzle.

Just remember to add some extra hot water in because they'll want to stay in the bath for so long, the water will go cold !

star rating : 4/5

Tinti Bathwater Colours : £2.99 for 3 pack and £6.50 for 9 pack
Tinti Bath Foam : £3.75
Tinti Crackling Bath Pops available in 3 pack for £2.99 or 6 pack for £4.75

For more information :

Virginia Hayward - Christmas Hampers & Gifts

Aaaah Christmas Hampers - I remember those from when I was a kid ! After Mum making weekly payments for months, the big day would arrive a few weeks before Christmas when the delivery man dropped off a huge cardboard box and we'd have great fun emptying it all out and working out how to fit it all in the kitchen cupboards ! There always seemed to be several items that stayed in the back of the cupboard gathering dust for months - chopped ham, tinned pilchards, a can of butter beans ... I don't know what eventually happened to them but we certainly never ate them so I presume they ended up in either the bin or the dog !

Well, the first thing that I noticed when looking at the Virginia Hayward website is that there isn't a dodgy tin in sight ! These are all delicious-looking luxury items - think posh pots of jam, biscuits that look almost home-made and other gorgeous fayre that would look at home in the Harrods food court. Yeah yeah, I hear you say - and how much is that lot going to cost ? Well, surprisingly little actually. You can search by occasion, product, recipient or price, and if you go for the price option, the first category is "up to £24". If you click through, the first product shown is a beautiful gift box containing organic lavender smellies that's just £9.99, so they really have got products for all budgets.

Hang on, organic lavender smellies ? That doesn't sound like a typical Christmas hamper ! Well, there are the traditional selections, such as the Merry Christmas basket containing wine, mince pies, luxury biscuits, fruit cake, fudge and other festive goodies, but there is also a whole lot more. Hampers with champers ? Mais bien sûr ! " Champagne seems to us to be the very merriest of drinks as it sparkles and fizzes in the glass. We can send it on its own, we can send it by the magnum and we have paired it with wonderful truffles. If you want to dispense some effervescent joy to toast the season, then one of these beautiful gifts should be exactly right. " A Hamper for Grampa ? I'm sure he'd love the Highland Fayre hamper with whisky, whisky chasers and even whisky cake that is sure to help provide some festive spirit ! A Hamper to Pamper ? They have a whole range of pamper gifts including some very different and surprising options, like a Pet Photoshoot Experience Day or a Treat Yourself Haircut Experience ! Hampers for Campers ? How about the Chilli Hamper packed full of fiery goodies to keep the cold out ! OK, I think you get the idea (and I've run out of rhymes !) - they have products that would suit everybody, even those that are really awkward to find presents for.

It's not just for Christmas either. There are specific categories for Birthdays, New Baby, Thank You gifts, Wedding Gifts, Self Indulgence... Kids (and big kids ! ) would love the huge boxes full of sweets - I would love to receive the Blast from the Past Hamper full of the retro sweeties that I used to spend my pocket money on years ago !

Looking through the terms and services, I noticed that you can order up to 120 days in advance of delivery. That's brilliant and if you're really organised, actually means you could get all your Christmas shopping done at the end of August before the kids even go back to school ! You can pay by Visa, Mastercard, Amex, Maestro or Visa Debit - I would have liked to have had the option to pay by Paypal, particularly as my French bank card is often refused if I want to send my order home to England (something that you only find out when you've spent ages selecting products and placing your order before reaching the final "confirm your payment' page that comes up with a "Computer says no !" message when it realises you've got a foreign card). But they do deliver worldwide so hopefully they've taken this into consideration. If you're one of those people who always waits until the last minute for Christmas shopping then have a panic attack because you can't find anything left in the shops and it's too late to order online, you'll be pleased to know that orders received between December 2nd and December 18th inclusive will be delivered in time for Christmas. That's really handy if you suddenly realise you've forgotten someone and need a last minute gift (without braving the manic pre-Christmas queues in the shops). You can even buy empty hampers to fill yourself, along with all the packing material needed to get a professional finish, although I have to say that £6.49 for a small pack of shredded paper does seem slightly excessive. But that's just me nitpicking because I've been looking (really hard !) for something to criticise to present a balanced view.

If the word "hamper" reminds you of the Christmas hamper fiasco a couple of years ago when a certain company went bankrupt leaving loads of people high and dry with no money and no Christmas food as planned, you'll also be reassured to see that Virginia Hayward are a long-standing company and are celebrating their 25th anniversary. I wonder if they sent themselves a hamper to celebrate !

for more information :

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Nuby 3 Stage Natural Nurser - Breast Size Nipple / No Spill Spout

I've just written a glowing review of the Nuby Natural Touch Softflex Silicone Nurser, a product that really made my life easier in getting Pierre used to drinking from a bottle which is something that will be indispensable when I return to the world of work in a couple of weeks. (Boo, hiss ! Although I do only go back for a week before getting a fortnight off for Christmas so I can't really complain !!)
Well, this 3-stage nurser is the logical progression. It has the same Natural Touch breast-sized nipple that mimics the shape, feel and function of a mother's breast (honestly !!) or you can swap over to a no-spill spout. I haven't actually tested the spout yet because Pierre gets on absolutely fine with the teat, but if you're worried about nipple-confusion (babies who won't breastfeed any more once they've tried a bottle) or want to get older babies on to the next feeding stage, you could give it a try.

As Pierre has literally only drunk out of a bottle about 4 times, I thought it would be a total waste of time trying out the detachable handles but I was totally gobsmacked when he reached out and grabbed hold of them then continued to hold on to them and feed by himself. He's only 4 months old - is he going to be a child genius ?! But when I was breastfeeding him later, I noticed that he grabs hold of both sides of my boob as he's drinking so I suppose it just mimics this action. It might be more reassuring for babies to have something to hold on to, so they feel more secure and in control.

In any case, as you can see in these photos taken just this morning, Pierre gets on absolutely fine. There have been no spills, no colic, no bottles falling on the floor and, although I keep a very close eye on him in case he regurgitates milk or swallows too fast and chokes, the fact that he can feed himself frees up my hands so I can deal with dinner or the washing up at the same time.

Well done Pierre ! What are you going to think up next to impress Mummy ?!

star rating : 5/5

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Nuby Natural Touch Softflex Silicone Nurser - Ideal for Transition from Breast to Bottle

All good things must come to an end and - although I intend to continue breastfeeding for a long while yet - that means I have to start getting Pierre used to feeding from a bottle for when I go back to work and he's at the childminder's. It's a delicate stage to get through. Either he might totally refuse this strange cold plastic thing that doesn't smell or taste anything like mummy's boobies that is being shoved in his mouth. Or alternatively, he might suddenly realise how much less effort it takes feeding from a bottle rather than sucking hard to breastfeed and decide he only wants to feed from a bottle from now on thanks very much.

Well, the Nuby Natural Touch Nurser (that's a bottle to you and me !) is designed specifically for breastfed babies with a breast-sized nipple. It does look like a breast, in a funny sort of way ! It's much wider than a classic teat and I noticed that it pushed Pierre's mouth open really wide, just as if he was latching on to breastfeed.

When I first pushed the silicone teat into his mouth, he pushed it out with his tongue and howled ! Which in a warped kind of way made me feel good because he wasn't ready to give up on the boobie-juice quite yet ! I tried again and he howled some more. So I relented and put him on the breast for a few minutes. He instantly settled down and suckled away happily. Awww Mummy's boy knows what he wants !! But despite the lovely snuggles and mummy-son bonding going on, that would be no help at all in a few weeks when I - and my boobs ! - will be back at work.

After two or three minutes, I gently eased away from him and put the silicone teat near his mouth again. He took it in his mouth and started happily sucking away, none the wiser ! After several minutes, I wanted to check he was actually managing to drink properly so I pulled the bottle away to see how far the milk had gone down. He moved straight back over to my breast and carried on sucking. A quick stroke on his cheek so he opened his mouth and I offered him the bottle again which he switched straight back on to. He obviously saw absolutely no difference between the breast and the bottle so there's proof, if you need it, that the silicone teats designed to resemble mummy's boobies are perfect. Success ! I laughed when I read on the packaging that "the Natural Touch Breast Size Nipple feels and reacts like mother's nipple" (no silicon implants here, thank you !) but I take my hat off to the scientists, they really do know their stuff.

As this was his first ever bottle, I let him drink about half then moved him back over to the breast. On the second attempt, he drank the whole lot and didn't need a booby-top up. But at the other feeds during the day, he was quite happy to go back to the breast. Mission accomplished, bottle or breast, he now feeds quite happily from either.

Although he does do huge burps after feeding from the bottle - he barely burps at all when breastfeeding - he hasn't had any colic or stomach aches at all. When I went on to using bottles for the girls several years ago, I remember the nipples collapsing every few minutes so you had to stop and start, letting the air back into the teat so the milk would flow. This didn't happen at all with this bottle, which is obviously great for baby, who can drink uninterrupted. Looking on the box, the nurser has a silicone anti-colic base and an anti-colic valve in the nipple too (little holes to let the air flow), so that technology obviously works too.

A big difference to other bottles I've used is that it's all soft and squishy and you can squeeze the sides of the bottle to help baby feed. That's really handy for small babies, those just starting out on bottles who might need a helping hand to get the idea or sleepy babies who fall asleep mid-feed and need a little encouragement. It also makes it much easier for little hands to hold on on to because it's not so slippery, as you can see below !

So, if you're wistfully thinking it's about time you got baby used to drinking from a bottle so you can go back to work, I highly recommend this nurser to make a smooth, tear-free (save the first couple of seconds ! ) transition from breast to bottle. And that's one less thing to worry about !

star rating : 5/5

Silicone Nurser (300ml) RRP : £7.99

available at

Monday 23 November 2009

Colour FX Spray-in Wash-out Intense Colour Hairspray

The girls are going to love me. I have two cans of Party Purple and Blazing Blonde coloured hairspray that they will be allowed to wear to jazz up their Christmas party outfits ! I'm sure my sister-in-law will have a heart attack but I'm going to try to convince their cousins to spray some on too ! Who knows, I might even join in myself !!

The great thing is, these are spray-in wash-out products so you can go as mad as you like, knowing the results will only be temporary until your next shower ! You could go for a punky look with wild and wacky colours - or the website suggests men might like to wear the colours of their favourite footie team in their hair !! Why not ?! I remember an Irish pub landlord who used to dye his long white beard and hair bright green for St Patrick's Day every year after all !
Whatever look you decide to go for, you're bound to find the colour scheme you want because they have a huge range of colours available. "The ColourFX Collection offers an array of sprays in 11 different eye-catching shades, which can be used to transform the over-all hair colour or multi-coloured streaks for the more adventurous look! The gels provide extra styling control and are available in eight different shades. Both products even provide a UV glow under the spotlight! " How cool is that ? It almost makes me want to go out clubbing again !!

The whole rainbow of colours available is - for the sprays - Bizarre Blue; Blazing Blonde; Brilliant Black; Glistening Gold; Groovy Green; Outrage Orange; Party Purple; Punk Pink; Radical Red; Sacred Silver and Wicked White, and - for the gels - Bizarre Blue; Blazing Blonde; Brilliant Black; Groovy Green; Party Purple; Punk Pink; Radical Red and Wicked White. But you could always mix and match, choosing a base-colour with the gel, for added hold, and adding finishing touches with a spray of a different colour on top.

The website gives you a few ideas of looks you can try to create (see above) but I'm sure your kids will lock you out of the bathroom, telling you that you have got absolutely no idea of what's cool these days and please leave them alone to sort themselves out !!

If you're feeling brave, there's even a competition on the website where you can send in a picture of yourself with your funked-up hair and win a selection of their products and the chance to feature in their gallery. Go on - you know you want to !! Or wait until Grandad has fallen asleep after Christmas lunch and spray his hair all different colours - I bet he'd win the competition !!

star rating : 4/5 (for the idea, I haven't actually tested them yet ... watch this space after Christmas !)

RRP: sprays £3.49 /75ml , gels £2.99/50ml

available at Claire’s Accessories

For more info, log onto

Camouflage Company - Foldaway Wipe Clean Shop Box

This is another great idea, staying on the Camouflage Company's "Glamour up clutter, make mess look less!" theme. Used for storage, it can hold just as much as the standard rigid plastic crates but looks a whole lot funkier, especially as you can choose from several "natural camouflage" designs to bring a bit of the outdoors indoors if you want !

This weekend, we had to move all of Sophie's toys and clothes up into her new room in the loft. This box was a Godsend because we had to keep squeezing between the washing machine (which hasn't been replumbed in in its new location) and the bottom of the bannisters to get up the stairs. The solid plastic crate we usually use would have got stuck and made it really awkward but with the flexible sides of this box, we could just squish it until it fitted through the gap. It was also much more comfortable to hold than the solid plastic crate which really digs into your hands as soon as you put any weight into it.

I have to admit, one thing that was a bit of a pain was that it kept folding up when we didn't want it to. If you stand it up empty, it automatically springs back into the folded up mode, so we needed two pairs of hands to hold it open and fill it up. However, you can also buy a matching foldaway tray in the online boutique, which is designed as a lid or firm base for the large shop box. I would think that solves the problem so I highly recommend buying that to use with the box. (UPDATE - The lovely Louise from the Camouflage Company has been in contact to say they are aware of this problem and it will be resolved in the new improved model with extra plastic inserted in the sides so they stand up better.)

Once the bottom layer is full, it stays open perfectly though and is great for transporting papers and cardboard to the recycling bin. It looks funky enough to be a permanent fixture in the living room or next to the computer so that people use it all the time and aren't tempted to fling paper straight in the normal rubbish because they can't be bothered to make a special trip to the recycling bin ! As it's waterproof and wipe clean, it could also be used for transporting the glass and tins to be recycled, which often leave more of a mess. It's much sturdier and prettier than cardboard boxes and will avoid the inevitable accidents when you overload the box and end up with the bottom falling out of the box - how many times have I done that ?!

The shop boxes com in two sizes but both are designed to fit inside shopping trolleys so they would be a handy way of carrying your groceries from the shop to the car and into the house. I already use eco-friendly bags-for-life or jute shopping bags but the box-shape is so much easier to carry and stash in the car, especially if you're buying boxes or bottles that are awkward to carry.

Sophie has already got it earmarked as funky storage in her new room, because it's easy to squish into the awkward-shaped space under the sloping walls !
star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £12

The Things That Keep Us Here - Carla Buckley

I'm not a huge fan of horror films or novels. On screen, the bad acting and incredible amounts of tomato-ketchup-blood being sloshed about make them more comical than scary. Add in a paranormal element, with blood-sucking alien parasites or gun-toting Martians and it's so unbelievable that it's about as terrifying as a fairy tale ! And in literary form, the plots are often wafer-thin and full of inconsistencies.

Well this book is a horror novel that is so totally believable and realistic and - worst of all - totally plausible that it will chill you to the bone. You read on in horror thinking, this could really happen. Soon. Maybe it is happening right now ! In fact, I'm amazed the authorities haven't censored it to prevent mass panic and hysteria !

So what's it all about ? Who is the evil monster lurking in the shadows ? Well, quite simply, it's the bird flu virus. What can you do when the enemy is unseen and could be on every little thing you touch or even the air that you breathe ? What steps can you take to protect yourself and your loved ones ? How far would you be willing to go to survive ? Add in a huge power cut and a winter storm that stops vital supplies getting through and the scene becomes apocalyptic. And, as the post-Hurricane Katrina looting showed us, in the aftermath of a huge-scale disaster, you can't count on the sense of community and human kindness to help you through, it's each for their own.

Ann Brooks is a very strong leading character - she's one tough lady, but just how much can she take until she finally breaks ? She just gets on with it, doing what she has to do - however heartbreaking the decisions at times - to protect her loved-ones and Mums all over the world will recognise her and empathise with her. The whole novel focuses around this one family unit but we gets sneaky peaks at the bigger scale of things, across town, across the state borders and across the whole world.

It really reminded me of Raymond Brigg's graphic novel in the 1980's, When the Wind Blows. That showed a perfectly ordinary couple trying to get on with their lives in the aftermath of a nuclear attack on Britain and the radiocative pollution and scared me to death when I was a teenager ! The nuclear threat has now taken a backseat and the modern danger is pandemics. Nobody talks much about bird flu these days but just change the animal species to pigs and you have a totally contemporary, chilling tale.

Right from the beginning, I was totally gripped - especially when I read that the author is married to an environmental scientist, so she probably knows exactly what she's talking about. Unfortunately ! Read it if you dare (but probably wait for a while if anyone in your house is currently suffering from swine flu !)

star rating : 5/5

Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Orion (18 Feb 2010)
ISBN-10: 1409113078
ISBN-13: 978-1409113072

Camouflage Company - Duffel Carrier

This is one of those items that is so versatile, you keep thinking up new uses for it and wonder how you ever coped without it ! It is so simple, and I love sewing, so I can't believe I didn't come up with the design myself years ago - I wish I had, it would have saved me loads of time cleaning and tidying up after the girls !

So what is it ? Well, it's basically a square of sturdy plastic sheeting, like a thicker version of the plastic used for supermarket bags-for-life, with a cord threaded through so that you can bunch it up into a handy bag. It's got carry straps so you can hoik it up on to your shoulder as a bag for transportation too.

As you can see from the photos, it folds out totally flat so I absolutely love using it as a play mat. The worst thing ever is wandering into a child's bedroom, half asleep and/or with just a tiny nightlight on, and stepping straight on to a sharp pointy piece of lego. Not to mention the hours spent chasing Hama beads with the hoover for weeks after the tub has been knocked over. And all the miniscule Playmobil pieces getting sucked up too. Well, if you put the mat on the floor as designated play area, when it's time to tidy up, you just bunch it all up and it's done in seconds. Genius ! No more whingeing about "I'm too tired to tidy up Mum" !
As it's waterproof and wipeclean, it's also absolutely perfect for water play, messy play, painting, sand, glitter, and everything else that little kids love but that makes a lot of cleaning-up afterwards. Just use it as a mat, wrap all the rubbish/mess all up, empty it straight into the bin then wipe down in the sink - no annoying globs of glue to peel off the table or messy water spills to clean up. It's big enough for Sophie and Juliette to play on together at the same time with no arguments too.

It's also great as a laundry bag. Put it flat on the floor in the hall, do a laundry raid in each bedroom and just fling all the dirty clothes out through each door, bundle it all up and you're off - no more dropping socks or knickers half way to the machines for the dog to pinch and bring into the lounge when you've got guests !! As it's waterproof, it's also brilliant for transferring wet washing, either from the washing machine to the tumble drier (just open the door and pull it all out on to the mat on the floor then slide across to the drier) or for things that need to drip dry (carry the wet clothes in the bag to avoid drips on the way, leave it flat underneath as they drip dry to prevent wet floors and then, when everything's dry, drag everything off the drier rack to the mat on the floor to take it back to the ironing pile). It's so much easier, less cumbersome and cleaner/drier than using normal laundry baskets.

The website suggests a few more possible uses : "For general clutter around the house and garden. Fill with clothes and toys, duffel up and turn into a stylish alternative to a weekend bag.
Use flat as wipe clean car boot protector, a play mat or waterproof ground and picnic sheet.
Pinch the corners closed and it's an ideal potting sheet. Carry plants home safely from the garden centre. Pop plants inside the flat sheet then pull the cord until they are securely held. No more messy earth to clear up. Keep a set of our matching shop boxes in the car boot for the ultimate in 'car boot style". The best part is, there are so many different ways to use it, you'll be able to adapt it to suit your needs - and then just keep thinking up more and more uses for it.

It folds up totally flat when not in use so it takes up very little space (if you want to keep it at hand in the car, for example) and it's very light. It's delivered flat and looks very impressive as a gift, delivered with two removable velcro straps (which have a mutitude of potential uses in themselves !).

The hardest part is choosing which of the funky natural-camouflage designs to choose from - Evergreen, Long Grass, Indie Chic or Rose & Petals. As they say on the website, "Revolutionize your life with this exclusive Multi-Purpose Duffel Carrier. Glamour up clutter, make mess look less." Love it !

UPDATE : A couple of new uses that we've discovered since I wrote this review - it is great for instant tidying up after pass-the-parcel at kids' parties and makes a fabulous sledge too !

star rating : 5/5

RRP : large (100cm x 100cm) £18, extra large (152 x 152cm) £25

Saturday 21 November 2009

Toddler Speak Dictionary - great stocking filler that helps charity

Kids are always coming out with funny sayings - some are cute, some are unintentionally rude and some make absolutely no sense to anyone over the age of 2 - but they all have that aaah-factor guaranteed to put a smile on your face. And some of them stick for life and end up being integrated as part of your family's daily vocabulary - everyone in our house now calls the clock tower across the road "dingdongman" without batting an eyelid !

Recently, on Twitter, Mums Like You and Moixx (Mothers of Innovation - who created the fab Rockin Hood poncho that I reviewed on here too !) were asking for people to share their own examples of Toddlerspeak and it made hilarious reading. I even sent a few of mine in - such as spatiti bananese for spaghetti bolognese courtesy of Juliette, age 4, and diggidyboo for didgeridoo, courtesy of ... Mike, age 38 !!! But he is French so we'll let him off just this once !

Now, you can have a good giggle yourselves if you buy a copy of the 20-page Toddlerspeak booklet. It only costs £1.99 (plus 40p post and packing) and all profits (that's about £1 per booklet) goes to help BLISS, the premature baby charity. But as they say on the website : "All profits go to Bliss, at present that is just over 50% of the cover price, but if you help us sell more we will be able to get better print prices to enable us to give even more to Bliss."

There are blank spaces left throughout the book for you to add in your own child's words or stories so it would make a wonderful personal keepsake alongside the baby photo album. There are cute little drawings too, guaranteed to make you feel even more nostalgic if you've ever ben a parent.

It's a lovely little gift, ideal as a stocking filler, and it's a great way of helping a good cause too. If you didn't get around to donating to Children in Need, now's your chance to do your bit - and not a sponsored silence or homemade cupcake in sight !

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £1.99

Regents Park - real English food in France !

As a Brit abroad - especially in France, land of gourmet cooking - you soon get used to all the little remarks about British cooking. Usually along the lines of "Euurrggghhh it's disgusting, English people will eat anything ! What's that fluorescent green jelly all about ? And jam with roast chicken ? And some of the sweet and sour mixtures ? Yuck !" But ... I've noticed that these same people who love criticising British delicacies always ask me to buy a few foodie-items for them on my trips home. So UK food can't really be that bad, can it ?!

Well, I am delighted to have discovered the brand Regents Park, which sells authentic British products that really are made in the UK and that will certainly appeal to the French market. I was lucky enough to sample a whole range of their products and they're all delicious. There were even things that I haven't eaten since I was a kid, like crumpets (see below) - yummmm ! And the usual suspects are there too, like tea and biscuits.

Regents Park is one of the brands in the Fresh Food Village company (which distributes other equally-delish British products like Firefly Tonics). I love the 1950s-style black and white photos and the unmistakably-British sense of humour on their packaging and their website carries on in the same vein. They explain that "what prompted the creation of Fresh Food Village was a secret held by the English nation : the softness of the British loaf ! After years of trying to reconcile the soft white bread from the other side of the Channel and stale, pale French imitations, Jean Marc Krief and Antoine Weil decided to get real British foodie-treats into French supermarkets for everyone to enjoy." See ? I told you that English food isn't necessarily inferior to French cuisine !

Everything you need for a quintessentially English teatime (which seems more popular in France than it ever was in England ! ) is there. Just in case you aren't familiar with some of them, there are : crumpets - kind of like the British version of American pancakes, delicious hot with lashings of butter (my grandad used to toast them over the open fire on a toasting fork and if they fell off (which they invariably did !), we'd just wipe off the ash and eat them anyway !!). Then there are muffins - but not the sugary cupcake variety, these are little bread rolls that you can fill with bacon and eggs for a full English breakfast on the go (they even sell Egg McMuffins in McDonalds in the UK !). Scones - which you can pronounce like bones or the Fonz, depending on which part of Britain you come from ! - crumbly currant buns, delicious cut in half with butter and jam, or even clotted cream. "It's de-li-cious", as Dora the Explorer would say ! Then there are various cakes - real moist date and walnut or cherry cakes, not the stale things that the French call "cake" !

If you ever get past the fresh baked goods, you'll find the UK's favourite drink - no, not beer, tea bien sûr ! Loose tea or teabags, the choice is yours. And pots of delicious-sounding jams, marmalades and ... lemon curd ! How can you explain lemon curd to the French ? I always say it's like a "tarte au citron" that you spread on bread ... but it's better than it sounds !

I would show you photos of the delicious goodies we sampled but by the time my husband and daughters had got to the box, there wasn't much left !

If you're another Brit abroad and are now pining for UK food, I have an exclusive offer to share with you ! Use the code FPMAMANBLOG for free postage on all orders over €20 in their online shop (valid until 31/12/2009). So go and fill your boots !!

note : cinq sur cinq !

Thursday 19 November 2009

Easystic Wall Art Stickers

The loft conversion is almost finished and Sophie is about fit to burst because she can't wait any longer to move into her new bedroom ! To help her bide her time while the last bits are done, we put up her cool ballerina wall art sticker this weekend. It was our first time using these stickers so we weren't sure what it would come out like but it's brilliant.

We chose this sticker at easystic, "the expert in wall decoration". It took us ages to choose because not only are there a huge range of designs - anything from American cars to Japanese flowers, the Empire State Building and baby pandas ! - but also you can personalise them to the very last detail by choosing the size and colour you want. Just a quick glance through the list of categories gives you an idea of how huge and diversified their range is - Atmospheres : Paris, Nature, Noah's Ark, For youngsters, Suitable for age 7-77, Journeys, Music, Oooh scary ! and

Spirit of the times : Baroque, retro, pop, urban, Japanese-inspired and movies. You can also search by room if you're looking for inspiration and, with the wide range available, you're bound to find some !

The stickers are delivered rolled into a sturdy tube which is itself inside a cardboard box, so they are very well protected. The day after our order was placed, we received an email giving us our tracking number and the very next day, it was delivered to our door. How's that for speedy delivery ?! What took the longest was actually choosing the design we wanted in the first place !

We decided to stick this sticker on one of the slanty walls, as the big problem of decorating a converted loft is that you can't hang picture frames on walls that slope ! Having read the instructions and the warnings about air bubbles, I was a bit worried we'd mess it up but it was dead easy ! If you've ever stuck a temporary tattoo transfer on to your kid's skin, it's the same idea. You rub over the sticker with the scraper that is supplied (to help ease it off the protective paper), carefully peel off this paper, stick it on the wall (four hands are easier than two for this delicate step !), rub over it again to make sure it's firmly stuck then gently pull off the sticky backing. And that's it ! Even thought this was our first ever attempt, there wasn't a single air bubble !

Having looked a bit closer at the website, this success story is more down to the quality of the stickers than our expertise ! "Our wall stickers are made to measure in our workshops from a very flexible, matt quality plastic film that has been specifically designed and developed for interior wall decoration. It clings perfectly to surface contours. The exceptional quality of the material ensures that it is very easy to apply and guarantees that it can be removed without a trace. The adhesive has been designed so that it doesn't polymerise and can be easily removed, even several years later, with no glue residue. ... It's ideal on all smooth surfaces : paint, metal, varnish, laminates, glass, plastic, ...".

I'm sorry but there is no way I'm testing the fact that it can be removed without a trace - Sophie would kill me because she loves it so much !

star rating : 5/5

RRP (for this design) : €31

Although the site is currently only available in French, the stickers can be delivered anywhere in the world.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Organic Meltdown Chocolate

"Eating this chocolate saves trees" ! How's that for an attention-grabbing slogan ?! If you're browsing the chocolate aisle in the supermarket when you spot this, the chances are you don't really need much convincing anyway but as they come, that is actually a very good reason/excuse for buying chocolate.

But what does it actually mean ? "Organic Meltdown has teamed up with the World Land Trust charity to preserve trees in Ecuadorian forests. Each wrapper of each bar carries a unique number which corresponds to its very own tree, and chocolate-lovers are encouraged to log onto and register their number to find out where ‘their’ tree is situated. Organic Meltdown hopes to save 5 million trees by 2012 – helping to preserve valuable habitats and caring for endangered species." That's quite an ambitious target but around 108,808 trees have already been saved - and four of those were saved by me ! Yay, go me !! What I love is the small print that says "Any unclaimed trees will still be saved. Forever." For once, the small print is working FOR you and not AGAINST you !

So what about the chocolate itself ? "Available in four mouth-watering flavours, Organic Meltdown chocolate is made using carefully selected Fairtrade ingredients from Ecuador, Madagascar and Peru, and is a premium organic range. Choose from Swiss dark chocolate with candied orange (58% cocoa), Swiss milk chocolate with hazelnuts and currants (33% cocoa), Swiss dark chocolate (71% cocoa) and Swiss milk chocolate (33% cocoa)." So not only you're saving trees and helping the planet, it's also Fairtrade so you're helping the poor farmers in developing countries too. Forget the chocolate, it's already given me that snuggly warm-inside feeling when you know you've done your bit to help others !

The chocolate is tasty though. It's not my ultimate all-time favourite chocolate, which still has to be the unbeatably creamy Galaxy, but the added "good cause" element would certainly be enough to make me throw it in my trolley from time to time. I love the bitter-sweetness of the candied orange variety but Sophie preferred the hazelnuts and currants one. Juliette liked all of them except for the dark chocolate, which she found slightly bitter - I have to agree with her but that's because I'm not a fan of dark chocolate in general, this is certainly not as bitter as some dark chocolate brands I've tasted. And Mike liked all of them so it's all a matter of personal taste. Flavour-wise, they reminded me of the similarly ethical Seeds of Change brand.

So, Eat Chocolate - Save the World ? Well, you can certainly help - and you can definitely Save your Conscience too ! Right, I'm going back to the website now to check on my trees ! I love this feature : "If you want to dedicate your tree to someone and keep tabs on the area around your tree using Google Earth then register your email address below and watch yourself rise up the tree of treesavers." Aww that feel-good feeling is coming back again !

star rating : 4/5

RRP : £1.99

Organic Meltdown is available in more than 150 Waitrose stores and from independent stores, delis and other outlets across the UK.

Ecover Ecological Power Cleaner

As far as possible, I like to use eco-friendly cleaning products but there is one condition - they do have to be as tough on grime as their less eco-friendly counterparts. When I was sent the Ecover Ecological Power Cleaner to test, I was a big meanie and waited for the big post-Sunday lunch clean up when the kitchen is at its absolute worst.

According to the label, Ecover guarantees that this is a powerful degreaser for ovens, hobs, grills, pots, pans, BBQ’s, work surfaces, extractor fans ... Those three little dots give you wide scope for imagining what else you could use it on but basically, you can use it as an all-purpose kitchen cleaner.

I started with a quick squirt on the hob. It comes out as a fairly thick foam so I didn't put it everywhere, I focused on the toughest grease splatters, leaving it to work for a couple of minutes before wiping over with a damp sponge. I couldn't believe it ! The grease just wiped off with no elbow grease whatsoever and didn't leave any streaks. I rinsed the sponge, had a final wipe and the result was perfect. If it had been an advert on TV, they'd have added a little sparkle to show how shiny and perfectly clean it was !

Next test, the big wooden chopping board which Mike had used for carving the roast chicken - in other words it was dripping with grease and chicken juices. Wood is never really easy to get clean but a quick squirt and 30 seconds with a kitchen scourer and the job was done.

The spray smells so nice that I was inspired to keep on cleaning and ended up doing the whole room : the table, the worktops, the walls, a quick squirt on the oven door, the greasy fingerprints on the kitchen door ... and everything was left sparkling. For once, you don't have to choose between efficiency and eco-friendliness. I think it smells of oranges but that may be psychological because the nozzle is orange ! In any case, it's a "fresh plant based fragrance". They also say on the packaging that there are no fumes and that's true too, it leaves a lovely natural fruity smell that smells more like a posh air freshener than a cleaning product.

What I really liked was the fact that I'd found a really efficient product that smells lovely but is also green. Ecover's promises are "Based on renewable plant and mineral ingredients", "Fast and complete biodegradability" and "Minimum impact on aquatic life". Extra Brownie points for Ecover.

I really want to try out the rest of the Ecover range now to see if I can make my house even more environmentally-friendly. It may only be a small step but at least it's one in the right direction !

RRP : from £3.99

star rating : 5/5

Monday 16 November 2009

Chosen - Jerry Ibbotson

The blurb on the back includes the quote : "This is what first-class fantasy is all about." Well, I'm not a huge reader of fantasy fiction - the last time was probably when I was a teenager and spent hours sitting with a pen and paper, dice and a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Dungeons & Dragons roleplay book ! - so I came to this novel with a totally open mind. I wasn't sure what to expect and the uninspiring black front cover didn't help much.

Right from the start, this book kept reminding me of things I'd read or watched as a child. The central character Alex, disappearing into his daydreams, made me think of Mr Daydream in the Mr Men series (probably because I reread it just last week with the girls !). When he goes through the strange door into a mystical, magical land, I immediately thought of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, or the more recent novel The Poison Garden. Not forgetting Mr Ben - I kept expecting the strange smiling shopkeeper to pop up somewhere ! The story of Samuel the Guardian of Archangel and the loving little girl who looks after him vaguely recalled Beauty and The Beast. And the scenes in the desert where Alex tries to single-handedly stop a war were reminiscent of the TV series Heroes and Superman !

But in spite of the fairy-tale atmosphere and this compendium of throwbacks to childhood literature and TV, it's certainly not a children's book. Alex, despite his superhuman magical qualities, is a perfectly ordinary Joe Bloggs, with an insipid life and career. Most of us can relate to him and empathise with him as the story unfolds. He's an ordinary man experiencing extraordinary things. Or so we - and he - think.

Much in the same way that Terry Pratchett demystified and humanised the Grim Reaper in the character of Mort, in this book we have a far-from-perfect, recognisably "normal" God-figure. Again, the epic good-versus-evil battle reminded me of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe but there were some nice, highly original mini-tales within the central framework, such as the Lezard (could be straight out of Jason and the Argonauts !) and the zombified undead reverend wreaking revenge on the parishioners who abandoned him.

There are no huge surprises but it's still an enjoyable read. Although Alex is already a grown-up at the start of the book, I'd call this a coming-of-age story and Alex is a rounded-enough character that we actually are interested in what becomes of him and his adventures as he finds his way. Despite the mystical, magical, monster-filled parallel universe behind the secret door, the story stays firmy tethered to the real world and Alex remains a recognisably normal human being, so even if you are not a huge fan of fantasy fiction, I think you'll still enjoy this, because - wait for a really bad pun ! - you do get the best of both worlds !

star rating : 4/5

Paperback: 307 pages
Publisher: Media Mill; paperback / softback edition (31 Oct 2008)
ISBN-10: 0956063500
ISBN-13: 978-0956063502

RRP : £7.99

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