Tuesday 29 December 2009

Little Croc's Purse - Lizzie Finlay

"One hot day, Little Croc finds a lost purse. "Finders keepers!" tease his friends, imagining a treat of lemonade and a lovely cool swim. But Little Croc is determined to find the purse's owner ... Will his honesty be rewarded ? Or will he be tempted to spend the money instead ?

A delightful, humorous tale of honesty, generosity and friendship."

The blurb on the back of the book sums it up nicely and, although the book has a very strong moral, it is in no way condescending or holier-than-thou. Little Croc does consider all the options before deciding to give the purse back and his friends all think he should just keep it, so your kids get the added message of not having to go along with what their friends say to fit in - Little Croc goes against the general concensus of opinion but his friends still like him and respect him. When he comes up against the lying, slightly intimidating Murdock, he stands his ground - a good message for anyone being bullied at school - and even gives him a gift at the end. I love the fact that although Little Croc is rewarded for his honesty and can keep the money, we also see that the owner is really happy to have found a precious locket that was hidden in a secret part of the purse - so kids get to see that sometimes, our actions can have unexpected consequences on others.

The illustrations are lovely too, with lots of details that will appeal to adults reading the story at bedtime - such as the name of Mrs Doolally or the restaurant Croc Monsieur - but also little touches that children will pick up on. 4-year-old Juliette loved seeing a crocodile with a moustache, for example.

The story is just the right length for bedtime - I didn't feel the need to skim over a few pages to speed things up, as is often the case ! - and Juliette stayed interested right up until the end. It's also the perfect length and level of difficulty for an elder brother or sister to read to their younger sibling.

It's a lovely story with great morals and values, nicely packaged with interesting, highly detailed and brightly coloured illustrations. I know this is one book that will be pulled out time and time again for bedtime reading !

star rating : 4.5/5

Red Fox Picture Books
publication date : 07/01/2010
32 pages

RRP : £5.99

Nestle Black Magic

I'm not a huge fan of dark chocolate - I usually find it bitter and much prefer milk chocolate or even white chocolate - but when I was asked to review the new Black Magic chocolates, my chocaholic streak made it impossible for me to turn down. And I'm glad I didn't because I was pleasantly surprised.

I remember years ago when I was little, my dad, in a moment of romance (or maybe he was trying to get out of the doghouse, I can't remember which !) brought a box of Black Magic home for my mum. She said "Yuck, I don't like dark chocolate" and the poor bloke took them back to the shop and changed them for a box of Milk Tray ! Well, my mum was here last night when I was taste-testing these chocolates and she ate some and loved them, so either her tastes have changed or maybe the recipe has been changed.

From doing a quick bit of research online, I wouldn't actually be surprised if it's the latter. The original Black Magic chocolates, made by Rowntree, first appeared on the shelves in 1933. After several decades on the market, the product disappeared for several years before being relaunched in 2007 with a new (shock horror !) white box and different flavours that had the diehard fans up in arms and petitioning Nestle (who had since taken over Rowntree's) to bring back the original version. Well, it looks like their complaining paid off : " After thousands of Black Magic fans bombarded the makers with letters pleading for its return, the favoured classic dark chocolate selection is making a welcome comeback. Reverting to the iconic stylish black and white box with a hint of red, Black Magic has clearly listened to its loyal fan base and is returning with six of the best traditional flavours - all set to be firm favourites once again."

The flavours available in the new boxes are raspberry parfait - almond crunch - orange sensation - whole hazelnut praline - dreamy fudge - caramel caress. The coffee creme has been dumped, which suits me just fine as I hate coffee, but this is apparently sacreligious, according to the fans of the originals, who seem to be giving the new boxes the thumbs down ! I was actually very surprised to see the negative reviews I've seen online as I loved all of the different varieties I tried - they were not at all bitter and to be honest, if I'd been tasting them blindfolded, I'd never have realised that they were dark chocolates. This is a marked improvement on the original Black Magic chocolates for me, as they taste more like milk chocolates which I much prefer, but looking around online, the new recipe hasn't gone down well with the fans of the old generation of Black Magic chocs - presumably for the same reasons that I prefer them !

In the end, it all comes down to personal taste but my one piece of advice would be, if you've eaten Black Magic in the past and not liked them, give them another go because the chances are, you might like the new version.

They are available in two sizes - one layer with three of each of the six varieties, or a double layer box with six of each.

star rating : 4/5

RRP : £3.22 and £6.23

Sunday 27 December 2009

Checkout : A Life on the Tills - Anna Sam

The blurb on the back of the book says : "Anna Sam spent 8 years as a checkout girl. Checkout - A Life on the Tills is a witty look at what it's really like to work in a supermarket : the relentless grind and less-than-perfect working conditions, along with people-watching and encounters with every kind of customer from the bizarre to the downright rude. "

The book is a translation of the original French novel Les Tribulations d'une Caissière, a book that evolved from Anna Sam's blog of the same name. . Anna worked in a Leclerc hypermarket in Rennes, one of the big towns in the Brittany region of her native France, but I'm sure her tales of life at the tills will strike a chord with anyone who's ever worked in a supermarket anywhere in the world. It did bring back a few memories of my own first ever holiday job as a student when I worked in a huge cash-and-carry store.

Some of the tales will have you sniggering - the naughty people who try to hide CDs inside round camembert boxes, who follow her from checkout to checkout as she hunts down a chair so that they can be first in the queue at her till, who (not so) discretely wipe bogies on the goods that go down the conveyor belt ... Other anecdotes will have you cringing guiltily as you recognise some of your own behaviour - the busy shoppers who don't take the time to say hello and goodbye, those who carry on their mobile phone conversations as if the checkout girl isn't there, those who try to put eleven or twelve items down the 10-items-or-less express checkouts ...

Anna has certainly got her revenge on those inconsiderate shoppers by revealing their less than perfect behaviour and she may, as she says she hopes, change the attitude of some shoppers so that they are more courteous to their checkout girls, seeing them as humans rather than an almost robotic extension of their constantly beeping tills.

However, I must admit that her constant complaining did start to irritate me slightly towards the end. I quite understand and empathise that spending eight hours a day at a checkout hearing that annoying bleeping noise and dealing with rude customers isn't the most enjoyable way to spend your time. But I think that must be the case for pretty much anyone who works ! I'm a teacher and I could fill several books with the rude behaviour we have to put up with too, from pupils but also their parents. We often have a whinge in the staffroom but to me, it's just one of the downsides of the job and I wouldn't think of whingeing about it to people outside of the job, let alone write a book trying to reeducate people about the way they treat those around them.

There are some amusing anecdotes, some interesting facts and some wity social comment, but I would say it's an instantly forgettable book, not something that will have bookgroups debating its finer points. I am therefore a bit surprised at how much it has taken off - according to this article in the Telegraph online, "Sam has become an unlikely literary success. Her book, The Tribulations of a Checkout Girl, has sold 100,000 copies in France so far, and is set to be published all over the world, including the UK, later this year. There is a French film in the pipeline, a play, a comic strip and – this last bit she finds impossible to say without a gurgle of pleasure – "even 'ollywood" has expressed an interest. " Hmmm. Maybe I should write that book about life as a teacher that I mentioned earlier !

Another thing that slightly bothered me was the translation aspect with regards to the facts and figures. Anna Sam wrote the book in French and quoted data concerning French shoppers. Morag Young then translated it into English. Somewhere along the way, the facts and figures were transformed into data concerning UK shoppers. So did either Anna or Morag do the research and modify the figures or just change the nationality from French to English without changing the numbers ? It's just a detail but it seemed strange (and probably inaccurate) to see data about UK shoppers in a French book.

If you've ever worked behind the tills, or even if you haven't because you'll recognise some of your fellow shoppers, this book will have you sniggering many times. But from there to basing a Hollywood movie on it, it seems a bit too far to me.

star rating : 2.5/5

RRP : £6.99

Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Gallic Books (15 Jul 2009)
Language English
ISBN-10: 190604029X
ISBN-13: 978-1906040291

Chelsea Cain - Evil At Heart

Wow ! I was really looking forward to reading this book and I wasn't disappointed in the slightest. I first discovered the evil but strangely seductive serial killer Gretchen Lowell a couple of years ago in first book of the series, Heartsick. I was blown away by the compellingly complicated relationship binding together The Beauty Killer Gretchen and her victim-of-choice, Detective Archie Sheridan - a real mixture of emotions for Archie combining love and hate, desire, anger, longing, obsession, gratitude ... Gratitude because as well as torturing and maiming her victim, Gretchen also saved his life at the very end and handed herself in. She is so manipulative and toys so much with her plaything-victim Archie that he is left mentally and physically wrecked. The sheer cruelty and vindictiveness of a killer and torturer who carves lovehearts into her victims' flesh left me with goosebumps.

When the second volume of the series, Sweetheart, came out, I really wanted to read that too but due to my never-decreasing pile of to-be-read-and-reviewed books, I never got round to it. When a proof copy of Evil at Heart, the third book in the Archie and Gretchen series, arrived in the post, I decided to give it a go, even if I had missed an episode. Well, I still loved it, so it works perfectly as a stand-alone novel, even if you haven't read the previous books. There are numerous flashbacks to past episodes that fill in some of the background and remind you of some of the key episodes in the previous novels. And the scenes of a killer/torturer giving her victim painkillers as a treat if he docilely drinks his drain-cleaner is as chilling as the first time I read it.

Reading Evil At Heart is a bit like watching one of the Die Hard movies. After the first episode, you know what to expect but, like all big blockbusters, you still can't help but be blown away by the big budget special effects. Well, the same is true here - the surprise element may be gone but you still can't help but shudder at the sheer evil and warped nature of the crimes. And Chelsea Cain still has numerous twists and surprises up her sleeve to keep us on the edge of our seats.

The different angle in this episode is the superstar status of Gretchen who has been transformed into a seductive anti-hero by the press, with the general public lapping up the Gretchen-merchandise, "how-to-look-like-Gretchen" fashion articles in the magazines and bus-tours. On the internet, Gretchen Lowell fansites have sprung up all over the place too, so when a new spate of Gretchen-esque murders start up, nobody is sure if the Beauty Killer is back to her old tricks or whether some of her fans have started imitating their muse. Archie may come out of the psychiatric ward he has spent the past two months in, trying to recover from his Vicodin-addiction and Gretchen-obsession, but he is supposed to be a civilian and stay out of the whole affair. But Gretchen still has a hold on him and knows exactly which strings to tug to get him back into playing her cruel, twisted games.

Right up until the very end, you'll be trying to separate the truth from the lies and even at the book's close, we're still no closer to understanding Gretchen or her motivations. The greatest criminal profiler in the world would have a hard job defining who she really is, but she never fails to shock and horrify. Just when you think she can't do anything worse than what she has already done, she'll pull another warped mindgame or act of evil torture out of her bag and give you the shivers all over again.

I'm sure Chelsea Cain will keep the series going on for several more episodes, and I'll certainly be looking out for them every time.

star rating : 5/5
RRP : £6.99
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Pan (2 April 2010)
ISBN-10: 0330449826
ISBN-13: 978-0330449823

Thursday 24 December 2009

Spade & Archer - Joe Gores

I came to this book really expecting not to like it, so much so in fact that several times, it got bumped down my pile of "to be read and reviewed" books. Part of the reason was the bland orange cover that looked cheap and uninspiring to me - I couldn't find any images of this orange coloured book jacket online so I'm wondering if that's just the cover for the proof copies. The second and main reason is the phrase proudly displayed on the front cover -"The prequel to Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon". I have never read The Maltese Falcon and have never had any desire to do so, thinking - for some reason - that it was a war novel. It turns out I was completely wrong and it's a classic detective novel, featuring private detective Sam Spade. The Maltese Falcon was published in 1930 by Dashiell Hammett, who died in 1961, so we'll never know what he would have thought of this prequel, but I have to say I loved it.

We meet Sam Spade - who reminds me a lot of TV detective Columbo - when he's just starting out as a private detective in 1921. The book is split into three parts, each one dealing with a separate case a few years after the previous one, but all of which are linked together by an evil criminal mastermind - Sam's "one that got away" who is out to get Sam as much as Sam is out to get him, so the cat-and-mouse game goes on throughout the years.

The writing effectively transports us back to the shady 1930's underworld of San Francisco and even if (like me) you have never read The Maltese Falcon, you can really get a feel of who Sam Spade is. It works perfectly as a standalone novel, even without the added prestige of being a prequel to the great classic. There seems to be a huge amount of cigarette-rolling, cigar-smoking and "hooking of hips" over the corner of someone's desk, but I can only assume this is an attempt to mimic the tone, language and atmosphere of Dashiell Hamett's writing.

At times, the tone reminded me of a Famous Five novel - for example when they all jump into a boat and follow a map to a mysterious island to dig up treasure ! - but in the 1930s, there were less guns, drugs and technology than today so the criminal masterminds all seem a bit childlike and naive by today's standards.

Even the minor characters, like Sam's secretary Effie Perine, are well developed and have their share of the action. The plot is intricately woven and held more than a few surprises - I didn't see the end coming. The fact that it is so well-written and atmospheric has actually made me want to go on and read The Maltese Falcon, so I hope I'll find that as interesting and well-written as Joe Gores' writing. That in itself must be the best praise I can give to Gores' novel.

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £12.99

Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Orion (19 Nov 2009)
ISBN-10: 1409113248
ISBN-13: 978-1409113249

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Asda Little Angels Go Eco Baby ! baby products

Ahhhh being a parent is never easy. You always want to do - and buy - the best for your little bundle of joy but in these times of credit crunch, you don't want to waste money on big name brands that aren't any better than the cheaper versions. And these days, you can throw in some added guilt about your child's carbon footprint and all the green but not overly practical options (like washable nappies) that you feel you should be using. Well, the Asda Go Eco Baby ! range of baby products strikes the perfect balance as far as I'm concerned. The products are cheaper than the big brands but don't look cheap and nasty like some budget value ranges, they all do the job perfectly well and they've been designed with the environment in mind.

According to the press release : "ASDA is the first supermarket to have a full range of ‘no nasties’ environmentally friendly toiletries and products. All products in the ‘go eco baby’ range are derived from naturally sourced ingredients, helping you to care for your little angel’s skin AND the world they will grow up in. Brand new this winter is the go eco baby toiletries range. At a wallet friendly price, everything in the range is hypoallergenic and dermatologically tested, and contains environmentally friendly ingredients and no parabens or artificial colours. Not only are they made from natural, sustainable ingredients so they are kind and gentle to your baby’s skin, the bottles are made with 25% recycled material so they are kind to the environment." Sounds good to me - but if you've read my other reviews, you'll know that I only like eco-friendly versions if they work as well as the non-green options. Well, I have to admit, I had pretty low expectations but I was pleasantly surprised.

Apart from the Asda eco nappies, which I reviewed here, the first products to be tested were the wipes and the nappy sacks. I never pay much for nappy sacks because they're designed to go straight in the bin anyway so I don't see the point of paying more than I have to. Most of the time I don't even use them, doing my bit to be green, but they are very handy if you're out and about or baby has done a particularly smelly/leaky nappy (as is often the case at the moment, as Pierre's just starting weaning !).The only difference I could see between these ones and the more expensive brands was the fact that they aren't fragranced but let's be honest, however nicely perfumed the nappy bags are, they never totally mask the pooey smells anyway ! What I love about these ones is that they are 100% biodegradable and have a special ingredient which helps them degrade 30 times faster than a normal nappy sack. Definitely well worth the price, £1.71 for a pack of 75 bags, as I'm happy to pay a bit extra for the eco-friendly aspect. And they also come in handy for dirty bibs and wrapping up spoons or bottles after baby-lunch on the go.

The wipes were lovely and, if I hadn't seen the label, I'd never have known that they were a supermarket brand because they are just as soft and efficient at cleaning up as the market leaders. They are moist enough to tackle even toxic number twos but not overly wet and they are soft enough to use on chocolatey big sister faces with no complaints too. I opened the resealable packet with no problems at all but Mike somehow managed to rip it completely on his first attempt. (He blamed it on the packaging until I pointed out that I'd had no problem at all !) They are very mild and perfect for sensitive skin, as they are fragrance free, enriched with certified organic aloe vera and chamomile, and free from known irritants including alcohol and soap. At £1.96 for a pack of 72, they're mid-price, cheaper than the big brands but more expensive than the other Asda own label wipes, but for the quality and the green aspect, I'm happy to pay that bit extra.

Next up were the bathtime smellies - baby shampoo and baby bath. I must admit, as Pierre hasn't got much hair, I tend to use one or the other for squirting in the water and all-over washing, including the hair - it's not as if you haven't got enough to juggle with a slippery baby without adding in numerous bottles to open and pour ! Well, they both did the job perfectly without causing any irritation and left Pierre smelling lovely and clean. I always end up getting water in Pierre's eyes when I wash his hair and face and although he doesn't complain, he does sometimes have red eyes after his bath - this wasn't the case with these products so the no-tears formula obviously works. At 98p for a 250ml bottle, they're as cheap as the stuff you'd find in the pound shop and probably contain a lot less chemical nasties !

And finally, the baby skin products - baby lotion and baby oil, both with the same 98p price tag (250ml for the lotion and 150ml for the oil). I'm not a great fan of baby oil because I find it too greasy and oily (funny that !) and I don't like the residue it leaves on the skin, but it is good for getting rid of cradle cap so I tried it out. It's as good as the other big brand baby oils I've tried in the past (I didn't like those either !!). The baby lotion is gorgeous. Labelled as a "deliciously smelling lotion that contains natural remedies including relaxing chamomile and soothing witch hazel", I liked the smell so much that I slathered it all over myself as well as Pierre ! It sinks into the skin, leaving it nicely moisturised but not greasy or sticky. The smell is, as they say, relaxing so it's great for smoothing over baby's skin, not to mention your own, at the end of a long day to help you wind down into sleep mode. My only very slight criticism is that I didn't like the look of the brown dots and streaks that had risen to settle near the top of the bottle - presumably one of the ingredients that hadn't dissolved properly ? I used the top of the bottle on myself, just to be on the safe side, and it all disappeared when I rubbed it into my skin and I had no adverse skin reactions so it's obviously nothing to worry about !

All in all, it's a great range. If you want really bargain basement prices, you can find cheaper products in the classic Asda baby ranges, but if you're happy to pay a little extra for the lack of chemical nasties and the environmentally-friendly aspect, these products work out a lot cheaper than many of the green products on the market and they work just as well. And that means you can save your guilty feelings AND your pennies by getting the balance just right.

star rating : 5/5

ASDA little angels baby oil 150 ml - £0.98
ASDA little angels baby shampoo 250ml - £0.98
ASDA little angels baby lotion 250ml - £0.98
ASDA little angels baby bath 250ml - £0.98
ASDA Little Angels eco wipes 72pk - £1.96
ASDA Little Angels eco nappy sacks 75 - £1.71

Monday 21 December 2009

Method baby - Squeaky Green bubbly bath

First of all, I absolutely love the packaging. I still haven't quite decided what animal it's supposed to be - I thought it was a penguin at first but it's got whiskers so I'd guess at an otter ! (correct ! it says so on the website !!) - but whatever it is, it's really cute. Now, if you've read my other reviews, you'll know I'm a big kid when it comes to the kids' bathtime so I just know that once it's empty, this bottle will be recycled as a bath toy. I can imagine the scene already - Juliette squealing as I squirt her, yelling "Careful, here comes Mr Otter and he's about to wee on your head to get the shampoo out" !

OK, time to get serious again ! Besides being incredibly cute packaging that can be used as a bath toy, I also love the little scratch and sniff panel on the bottom of the bottle that allows you to smell it before you buy without tampering with the seal. It smells soft and snuggly and babylike which sounds silly but I'm sure you know what I mean if you've got a baby, as most of the baby products smell pretty much the same ! It's a calming scent and isn't overpowering. If it was a fabric softener, I'd certainly use it for my laundry because I really like the smell.

The list of ingredients has some scarily scientific-sounding names on it, like dehydroacetic acid, disodium cocoyl glutamate and phenoxyethanol, but as Method's whole ethos is about being environmentally friendly, I wouldn't think they're as bad as they sound. The website says : "Moisturisers derived from sugar, natural extracts from rice milk and mallow, and gentle cleaners made from coconut oil come together to make a hypo-allergenic, tear-free and biodegradable bubble bath. Does not contain any dirty ingredients like numbing agents, phthalates or parabens". Ahh I thought as much - I love their chemical-free household cleaning products so I don't see why they'd suddenly ditch their values for their baby range !

I've been using it for all the family and nobody - even Sophie who has very sensitive skin - has had any adverse reactions to it. Just lots of bubbly fun in the bath !

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £5

Babyboomboom's multi-lingual CDs

Sophie, Juliette and Pierre (well, when he starts talking !) are all bilingual so I know first-hand how easy it is for children to pick up a foreign language when they are little. You can learn a language at any age but to get the pronunciation totally right, you need to start right from the very early days. That's why, even if I'm 99% bilingual, I'll never have a totally French accent. So if you're from a bilingual family - or even if you aren't but you want to introduce your children to other languages - the Babyboomboom CDs are a fantastic fun way to do this.

Each CD contains nursery rhymes and well-known children's songs in English and a second language. According to the website, they are designed for use from birth to pre-school age to familiarise little ones with a second language. The CDs are available in French, German, Polish, Spanish or German and can be part of a band-bag which contain a CD and four instruments designed specifically for small hands.

We received the German-English CD to test and it's actually playing in the background as I type this - there's proof that it's a nice gentle, calming CD and not some headachey racket that is so manic you can't think straight while it's playing !

Sophie says "it's really good because I can learn words in German and the lady has got a really nice voice". (Apologies to the second, male singer !) Juliette proudly told me that she knows all of the words of some of the songs already (in English - not in German yet !) and that she can be grown-up like Sophie who is already learning a second language at school because she's big !

I was really pleased with the choice of songs because, as Juliette said, they are all really well-known songs that children can already sing along with in their own language, so they are immediately aware of what the German lyrics mean. I noticed that every time the German verses came on, it all went quiet so the girls must have been really concentrating on the German words. I also love the fact that the lyrics in both languages are printed on the CD cover so older children can look at the written language that goes along with the sounds they hear on the CD.

There are 17 songs in total and although I didn't make a note of the total length of the CD's playing time, it was short enough for it not to become irritating for the parents or for the children to start getting bored. We've got an 8-hour drive ahead of us on Wednesday and I'll be quite happy for this CD to come along in the car with us, as it's much calmer and not at all annoying like some of the other children's music CD's we've used in the past.

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £9.99 for the CDs, £19.99 for the band bags

Asda Little Angels 'Go Eco Baby’ nappies

**** IMPORTANT - please see here for product recall information as of July 2010 ****

I've been testing various products from the Asda Little Angels 'Go Eco Baby' range and I have to say, they are totally unremarkable and don't stand out in any way from any of my usual brands ... which is absolutely amazing as they cost a fraction of the price ! As Pierre is my third baby, I think I've probably tried pretty much all of the big name brands at one time or another, either through buying them or through testing out the free samples in various Bounty and Emma's Diary packs, and they do all offer very high quality products. Some of them do offer little pluses - such as the Pampers Baby Dry nappies with their unique "soaks up wee but also liquid baby poo" lining - but after the first few weeks, when you compare the prices of supermarket own brands with the big name brands, it's very tempting to test out the cheaper alternatives.

I must admit, I came to the Asda baby range expecting them to be cheap copies of the originals, unable to live up to the high standards. Well, they certainly are cheap copies, being much lighter on the pocket, but the quality is amazingly good. As good as many of the much more expensive products in fact.

Nappies are always tricky. The cheap ones often leak, the attachments don't stick, they're not absorbent enough so baby gets nappy rash and you feel really guilty and go back to the expensive brands ... Well, I have to admit, on two occasions, these nappies did leak and Pierre ended up with poo on his body suit, so it's easy to say "ahhh rubbish cheapie nappies, you get what you pay for". But I had exactly the same problem with Pampers the week before so I think it's more down to Pierre doing a few huge mega-poos after his change of routine and diet (I've gone back to work so he's on to mixed feeds at the childminder's now) rather than any failing of the nappy design. The Little Angels nappies passed the test with flying colours for all the usual problems listed above and the design of the nappy and the packaging are as cute and eyecatching as any of the more expensive brands.

I love the eco-friendly mentality too. (Alright, I know, it's not as green as using washable nappies but every little helps !) The website says : "Go eco baby ! Little Angels eco nappies use unique plant derived materials. All pulp used is from sustainable and managed forests, protecting the planet for your little angel. Dermatologically tested & hypoallergenic. 100% biodegradable backsheet. Contains some natural super absorbent particles."

The biggest advantage has to be the price though. The RRP is £5.68 but if you go to the asda online store, they're only £3.75 a pack and are actually on offer until the end of next year so you can get 3 packs for £10. That's a huge saving, especially when you consider how many nappies you actually get through in the first few years of a baby's life. The cost per nappy depends on the size - each pack costs the same but the number of nappies in the pack varies so the minis currently work out at 8.9p per nappy, midis are 11p each, maxis are 12.5p and junior are 14.4p each. I'll leave it to you to check the other big brands price per nappy breakdowns but I don't think you'll find much cheaper.

So I'd definitely say, Go eco baby ! - both ecological and economical. Can't say fairer than that !

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £5.68

online price : £3.75 per pack (currently on offer, 3 packs for £10)

Sunday 20 December 2009

Kitty Sewell - Bloodprint

When I'd finished reading the opening chapter with the breathtaking hurricane scene, I was expecting great things - high energy and tension, fast action, unexpected twists, lots of emotion. But just as the hurricane died away to nothing, so did the exhilirating plotline and for most of the book, I was left wondering why this impressive opening chapter was even used, as it had very little at all to do with the rest of the story, apart from a tenuous link to Cuban ancestors and gods.

Then the scene moves to a prison visit in England with the lead character, psychoanalyst and hurricane survivor Madeleine Frank, in a new country and a new life. The problem for me was, the scene just reminded me 100% of Clarice Starling talking to Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs. The perverse friendship and mindgames had a sense of déjà vu and lacked originality. I had this same sentiment when the serial killer justified his crimes with a "I only kill the scum that deserve to die" speech that could have come straight from an episode of Dexter !

One of my major problems with the novel is that there isn't a single good and totally virtuous character. I started out thinking that the female characters were all seriously damaged, either mentally, physically or both, and that it would have been nice to have at least one strong, undamaged character to balance this. Then I realised that similarly, every single one of the men is an evil piece of work - either morally, through infidelity and abandoning loved ones in their hour of need, or physically, through physical abuse and violent control of immigrants forced into prostitution.

There are a lot of interesting and original elements in the novel - Madeleine's fascination with ants, human trafficking and sex slavery, domestic abuse, adoption issues, women befriending convicts, black magic ... In fact there were so many elements, I felt that many of them were dealt with too superficially. In particular, I found the Cuban tales of santeras, evil eye and voodoo-type rituals absolutely fascinating, but it was all barely touched on.

The happy ending was a bit too predictable and convenient so it seemed slightly unbelievable to me. I'm sure gangland thugs wouldn't really give up that easily. The final chapter, a decade on, didn't really add anything to the plot and left me with the same confused "what has this got to do with the rest of the story ?" feeling as the opening chapter, so I think it could have been edited out.

All in all, it was an enjoyable and interesting read though. Some of the characters - particularly the really nasty ones or the strangely exotic ones - could have been developed much further, perhaps in a different novel, which left me wanting more and wishing that the novel had gone off in a slightly different direction.

star rating : 4/5

Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd (2 Feb 2009)
ISBN-10: 1847372651
ISBN-13: 978-1847372659

Wednesday 16 December 2009

EA Flips on Nintendo DS - The Fun New Way for Kids to Read

Sophie takes after me and is a total bookworm - she will devour a book within days of buying it or taking it out of the library. She's only been reading fluently for about the past couple of years and her bookshelves are overflowing with books already so I suggested she might like to swap books with her friends - lend them out, read them and then swap them back. She was up for it but nobody else was - they don't like reading much, according to their mums. Sophie also loves her Nintendo Ds and, funnily enough, her friends are quite enthusiastic about swapping around their games cartridges from time to time. Flips combines the best of both worlds, offering fun, interactive books for kids to read and play about with on their Nintendo DS. I'm intrigued to see how well they take off with Sophie's reluctant-reader friends.

As far as Sophie's concerned, they're brilliant. The main advantage according to her is that she can read in bed without turning the light on ! I'm not sure if that means she's been reading under the covers in the middle of the night but she hasn't got dark rings under her eyes or started yawning all the time so I don't think so ! It's great for in the car on long journeys though, especially now that the nights are drawing in and it gets dark really early, making a lot of the usual car-friendly games and activities impossible. I also love the way they take up so much less space in the luggage than traditional books - last time we went to visit the grandparents for a fortnight, Sophie took a whole carrier bag full of books with her !! You could replace all that with a handful of tiny games cartridges because each cartridge contains several books. That means a lot less books lying around in the bedroom to be tidied away too !

The Flips virtual books also offer a lot of fun features that no paper book could ever offer - you can interact by clicking on certain words and pull up character profiles, quizzes, jokes, recipes, and extra information, or even make funny sound effects. They remind me a bit of the Leappad books that work in a similar way with sound effects and little games but that kids have long outgrown by the time they can read properly, so this is like the next stage on. For those who are used to playing video games and want an extra challenge, you can unlock hidden content as you go by collecting special tokens. It's really motivating and, if the other Nintendo DS games are anything to go by, all the kids in the neighbourhood will soon be comparing notes to see who has got the furthest and unlocked the most content on each game, so it could be just the boost some kids need to start really enjoying reading.

I think whoever picked the titles to be made into Flips deserves a huge pat on the back because he or she has really got into the heads of youngsters and picked all their faves - assuming they're all like Sophie anyway. There's Cathy Cassidy, Eoin Colfer, Enid Blyton, ‘Too Ghoul for School’ - all of which are big hits with Sophie and should appeal to a wide variety of ages and profiles, including boys who often don't get overly excited about reading books.

It reminds me a bit of the grown-up trend for e-readers, that have suddenly made geeky bookworms reading on the tube on the commute into work look like über-cool techno-whizzes who follow the latest trends ! If Flips can "sex up" (or whatever the kid-version would be !) reading in the same way for the younger generation, that's got to be a good thing. There are only a few titles available at the moment because they're brand new but the range will surely be extended in the months to come.

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £24.99

Urbanz Vibe Headphones

Well, people (mainly men !!!) always say that size doesn't matter but that doesn't seem to be true for headphones. Size-wise, they seem to have gone full circle. I can just about remember the really chunky, heavy headphones from the end of the seventies ... then in the 80's the (what seemed at the time) tiny lightweight spongy headphones that used to attach to the original cassette-playing Sony Walkmans (how old is this making me feel ?!) ... then we had the tiny earbuds that go with mp3 players in the 90's and noughties. Well, judging by the teens and twenty-somethings I see every day on the bus - you know, the ones who are so cool they wear their baseball caps sideways or just perched on the very tops of their heads ! - big headphones are back at the top of the fashion stakes these days.

I have to say I'm secretly quite pleased about this "new" fashion. I could never really get on with the tiny earbuds because for some reason they always fall out of my ears with no warning - not a cool look when you're in amongst the "so trendy it hurts" teens and twenty-somethings ! You can see them almost want to snigger and say "You're too old to have an MP3 player if you can't even keep the earphones in your ears" !

And for kids, especially my own, it always worried me putting loud music right inside their ears - I'm sure it must do more damage than the headphones that stay well on the outside of their ears. And at least parents have a very small chance of being heard when yelling at their offspring to come down for dinner if ther earphones aren't totally blocking their earholes !!

The Urbanz (so cool it's spelt with a z !!) Vibe Headphones are designed with kids in mind, but they can also be worn by adults - I'm sure I won't look any less cool than with a pair of earbuds falling out of my ears as I walk down the street so I tried them out ! They come in pink or blue so are really visually appealing to teens and pre-teens. They even have a cute cartoon-type drawing on the speaker parts. Fed up of hearing the annoyingly repetitive Nintendo DS game music and sound effects, I asked Sophie to see if they would fit on her console and I was overjoyed to see that they do !

Sophie, aged 8, says : "They're really good when we have to be quiet because we can listen to whatever we want and it doesn't do loads of noise. It also means that when your little sister is trying to annoy you, it blocks out the sound of her whining and being annoying ! Also I can listen to the music and the sound effects when I'm playing on my Nintendo DS which is good because usually I have to turn the sound off so it doesn't annoy mum and dad !"

Juliette, aged 4, says : "They're pretty and gorgeous and they make the music go in my head !"

They're really soft and squishy and the padding makes them extremely comfortable to wear. The sliding size-adjusters allow for a number of sizes so anyone, even someone with a huge head, could wear them quite easily ! They block out the sound very effectively for anyone in the vicinity - Sophie can play her Nintendo DS while sitting next to Juliette on the settee watching Cbeebies and neither of them can hear the other one, although she has been warned to keep it at a reasonable level that won't blow her brains out or make her deaf !

The website lists the features as : Volume control - super bass - light weight comfort fit and colour coded cable with 3.5mm gold jack. 1 year warranty with your purchase PLUS Register at www.urbanz.co.uk for FREE lifetime warranty.

They're pretty cheap too at £14.99, especially if they come with a lifetime guarantee (although I'm sure there's lots of small print so check out the conditions !). Definitely worth it for a bit of peace and quiet !

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £14.99

Sunday 13 December 2009

LIV Fashion Dolls - 'Real Girls, Real Life'

My mum loved playing with her Tressie and Barbie dolls, I loved my ballerina Sindy, my much younger sister loved Bratz and MyScene ... it's seems that every generation has a new range of dolls to play with. Well, I wouldn't be surprised if the new generation's favourite doll is the LIV fashion doll.

As a mum, I breathe a huge sigh of relief because they look so wholesome and normal. I was always vaguely worried about Bratz dolls - they looked like the kind of girls I used to steer clear of at school because they were into heavy makeup, snogging boys and sneaky fags behind the bikesheds and I always thought they'd be the school bullies ! As a mum, it seemed slightly wrong to have such sexy little-Lolita rolemodels for our daughters to play with in their formative years ! Well, the LIV girls look like lovely, well-behaved girls you'd be happy for your daughters to be friends with and bring home for tea ! They have a cheeky, daring side - represented by the fashionable wigs and funky colourful streaks in their hair - but they look like they have good values and morals.

My 8-year-old daughter Sophie obviously loves the fact that one of the dolls is called Sophie ! I'm sure she'll soon want me to buy Daniela, Alexis and Katie to complete the set. Little sister Juliette is always drawn to these dolls in the shops too, even though - aged 4 - she's still more into the big baby dolls than the more grown-up fashion dolls. This seems to fit in with the design brief of the dolls : "In the competition to be the doll on every girl's Christmas wish list, LIV is a bold new line that stands out with its ‘Real Girls, Real Life’ positioning, celebrating what’s cool about being a teen in today’s world. Designed for girls aged 6-10 years, LIV is in the here and now, about girls being girls and aspiring to be like their teen sisters".

They are billed as "The Hottest New Fashion Dolls to Dazzle the UK" after causing a storm in the US. Stuart Grant, Buying Director for The Entertainer says : "LIV really stands out not only because the dolls look amazing, are incredibly realistic and fantastically designed, but each doll has a detailed relatable story that girls will love." So what are these stories, that little girls are going to be relating to ? "Sophie's a real teen . She's wildly creative - an aspiring hairstylist who recruits all her friends to try new looks. But maybe if she'd wear her glasses, some of those new looks wouldn't turn into such bad hair days ! Alexis is a super-charged fashion diva. She can carry off any colour, any pattern, anywhere. Life would be nearly perfect for Alexis if her little brother Miles wasn't always around ! Daniela takes her singing career and dance lesson extremely seriously. She performs at the local cofee shop, school dances and even at her nearby retirement home. Katie is a fun, active girl. She loves skateboarding, snowboarding and cycling, but whenever she's not on her board or bike she's so clumsy !" So, they love sport, have hobbies, are not scared to create their own look and be individuals, are kind to others - all great values - and they need glasses, are clumsy, have annoying little brothers - so little girls get to see that nobody's perfect or has a perfect life either.

So mums are won over by their personalities and values, and little girls are won over by the look and the playability. Each doll comes with a whole range of accessories - for example, Sophie has 2 wigs, 1 short and one long, a hairstyle stand, bag, glasses and hairbrush. Each doll also has a secret code that allows you to unlock a virtual character in the Liv world online, "the first website of its kind to deliver engaging daily narrative on each girl’s life. The code opens up the online world and invites girls to become best friends with their LIV doll as they interact with daily diaries, games, virtual wardrobes and much more, upon parents’ approval and guidance." Now, how cool is that for a pre-teen who has outgrown most of her CBeebies computer games but isn't yet old enough to be let loose on internet ?! Other features, according to the packaging, are stunning 'real' looking eyes, detailed fashion outfits with fab accessories, lovely soft wigs for hours of hairplay fun and an amazing 14 points of articulation so she can do lots of moves and poses.

“Extensive research told us that young girls today are searching for a new fashion doll brand to connect with and one that better reflects their world of friendship, fun and individuality,” said Kevin Jones, Managing Director at Spin Master Toys UK. “Liv fashion dolls have instant appeal with engaging stories and personalities, plus contemporary fashions, all of which look sure to resonate with today’s girls.” They've only been available in the UK since the 1st of November so if you get in quick, your daughter will be able to show off for having one of the newest, hottest toys in her Christmas stocking !

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £19.99 per doll

available from Argos, Toys R Us, The Entertainer and all good toy stores .


I absolutely love all the old retro toys that are making a comeback these days but I have to admit that, when I stumbled across an old Etch-a-Sketch in a doctor's waiting room recently and attempted to give a demonstration to the girls, it really did seem quite pathetic and impossible to use ! Since the days of the original toy, we have seen Magnadoodles, that gave you much more scope for creativity, then Aquadoodles, that let you use a magic water-filled pen that disappeared like invisible ink when it dried out. Well, now we have the latest version, Glo-Doodle, which is starting to look and sound very high tech !

The manufacturers describe it as the "first ever mess-free drawing toy with a transparent surface that uses bright coloured light to draw and trace. (Red, Green and Yellow). Simplistic design without pen trays as the same pen is used for 3 colours which change at the flick of a switch. Does not use marker pens ! Transparent surface makes it possible to trace anything you desire. Trace marks can change colour simply with light switch. Flip lid erases drawing surface instantly. No mess or smudge marks. "

Well, it looks brilliant on TV and Juliette always hones in on it in the supermarket toy aisle for a quick play when we go shopping so it obviously has kid appeal. It is really simple to use and allows you to be as creative as you want, either drawing freehand or tracing pictures through the screen, which is great for little ones who are not very artistically-gifted and who suddenly manage to create astoundingly good likenesses of their favourite TV characters (or whatever else they decide they want to trace) ! In my day, we used to use tracing paper but now that I come to think of it, I haven't seen that in years so I don't know if you can even buy it any more !

Juliette loves the fact that she can draw in the car when it starts getting dark. As usual, I love the mess-free aspect that makes it a brilliant toy for playing on the go or out-and-about at friends' houses. It's also fabulous that, as well as using the stylus, you can use your finger to draw so it's possible to share and play together, especially handy for playing noughts and crosses in the car on long journeys. I love the eco-friendly aspect that avoids using reams and reams of paper for scribbling on too.

Just one quick word of warning if you're buying this for Christmas - it requires 3 x AA batteries that are not included so make sure you buy some in advance to avoid an emergency trip to Tesco for battery supplies on Christmas Day !

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £19.99


If we start with the manufacturer's description, "Bendaroos are magical, flexible building sticks that allow for endless creativity. They stick to paper, windows and walls and always hold their shape for moulding--with no mess. Choose from an array of 12 rainbow colours, create and recreate. Includes stencils for colouring, drawing and decorating. Build, draw, transform, decorate and more. Encourages creativity and new ways to play."
I have to say, I love them, as do the girls, both Sophie (aged 8) and Juliette (aged 4). I love them because they are so clean and mess-free - no glue, so no sticky fingers all over the walls and doors, no spillages on clothes, no gluey tangles in their hair. Absolutely no clean-up operation afterwards, which is amazingly rare when it comes to creative arts-and-crafts activities. They just ball them back up and stuff them in a box or plastic bag until next time. That also means that they are ideal as toys on the go - in the car or when out visiting friends or grandparents. The kids can play and put them away to finish off when it's time to go home because they hold their shape (as long as you don't squash them !) - no annoying "but I haven't finished yet" whining that you invariably get when they're doing puzzles or beads or anything else that will have to be broken up and started all over again if it's not finished.

The girls had two kits to test - Zoo Animals and Creepy Crawlies. As I predicted, they were more taken with the cuddly zoo animals, but the best part about Bendaroos is that you can do whatever you want with them. So they both ended up making cuddly animals rather than creepy crawlies - even if they both decided the spider looked more like a sun and was quite nice actually ! Older children will love making 3D models, but you will need quite a lot of Bendaroos to make those so you'll probably need to buy extra packs. Younger children love sticking them on paper to follow templates - there are templates included but Juliette loved using them to make the letter and number shapes I drew on paper for her. It ended up being quite educational as she had to really think hard about each letter or number then proudly tell me which one she'd done. That was really good as it's what they are doing at school at the moment. The girls also both loved making pretty multi-coloured plaits that they then made into rings or necklaces and crowns for their My Little Ponies.

My only slight criticism is that they are almost identical to a product called Wikisticks - a product that I must admit I had never heard of until the girls won a pack in a competition last year. Bendaroos have definitely benefitted from a much bigger advertising campaign so they will be the ones on every little girl's wishlist this Christmas ! The advantage of Bendaroos over Wikisticks is that they offer you much more guidance in the way of models and templates, which is handy when you're just starting out and aren't sure what to do with them.

They remind me of the furry pipecleaners that I used to play with when I was a kid so I love getting involved too and we can all happily play together for hours, either separately or all working together on one big project. It's great for little ones to learn their colours with too, as big sisters can ask little sisters to find the colour they need in the pile - a brilliant way of getting little ones involved when they're slightly too young to be able to make the models themselves.

The only time you will have to stop playing is when you've run out of inspiration, so it's a good way of getting kids to use their imagination and be creative. Oh, and also if you've dropped them on the floor so much, they're covered in dog or cat hair - you have been warned !!

star rating : 5/5

RRP : available in various sizes and prices, but to give you an idea -
Bendaroos Theme Pack £4.99
Bendaroos Activity Pack £10.00
Bendaroos Mega Pack £19.99

Bakugan Battle Pack

"Bakugan is unique, refreshed and taking the world by storm! Combines battling action, collecting, trading and gaming strategy - everything that boys love! "

Well, that's my problem really. Pierre's only just coming up to five months so, although he's already taught me that you have to point willies downwards in their nappies to avoid leaks and that it's a really really good idea to put a wetwipe over a little boy's willy at changing time if you don't want to be sprinkled, he hasn't really completed my education in being mum to a little boy yet !

If you ask me anything about arts and crafts kits, dolls in any shape or form, Littlest Pet Shops, My Little Ponies or absolutely anything pink, fluffy or sparkly, I could answer you in a trice but I'm still a bit non-plussed when it comes to boys' toys !

As far as I can tell, this looks like a winner. It reminds me of all the Pokemon, Magic : The Gathering, Gormiti and goodness knows what other collectibles and trading cards there are and they are as popular now as they were about a decade ago so this is bound to be an instant hit in the playground.

The manufacturer says : "Easy to learn... A lifetime to master! Master your precision shooting skills by rolling your Bakugan onto the special Bakugan gate card and transform it into a powerful Bakugan warrior! Action Figures pop open from the magnetic marbles when they land on the Special Bakugan Card!" Wow, it sounds great - but I bet it's one of those things like Transformers that I could never master how ever many times my five-year-old (male !) cousins showed me ! I don't adhere to the whole 'pink stinks' campaign that has just kicked off, but there are some things that appeal to, and seem amazingly simple to, little boys that somehow, little girls - or their mums ! - just never get the hang of. What little boy could resist the slogan "Answer the call to brawl and decide the fate of the galaxy with the Bakagun Battle Pack! " It's definitely one for little lads to play with with their dads on Christmas morning !

star rating : 3/5 - but I'm sure little boys would give it 5/5 !

RRP : various kits available, but to give you an idea -

Bakugan Battle Pack £19.99

Saturday 12 December 2009

Paperoni - "Paper and fun rolled into one !"

Sophie (age 8) saw the TV commercials for Paperoni and told me it was on her Christmas wishlist. I, having not seen the TV commercials, had to then find something that corresponded to the description "you have long and short rolls of paper and you can cut them to the size you want and make a dog and a pig and loads of other stuff and it's got a dog on the box". Hmmm. After some online searching that came up with nothing, I eventually took her to the toyshop to show me what she meant and sure enough, she found the Paperoni kits. But she was the one who said, in actual fact, they didn't look as good in real life as on TV because she thought you could make loads and loads of different things out of one box but if you could only make one or two things, that wasn't so good. OK, scrap that idea then ? What's next on the xmas wishlist ? But when the offer came through to test a Paperoni kit, obviously I jumped at the chance. We were sent the pig kit.

I have to admit, in a number of ways, Paperoni reminds me of Hama beads - which the girls often play with - with many of the same advantages and disadvantages. As with Hama beads, you need a lot of patience to complete each design and if you accidentally knock over the box, you'll be picking little tubes of paper off the carpet for days ! Also, to really get the most out of the product, you'll have to keep buying add ons and extra kits to allow more scope for creativity and avoid boredom creeping in. The big advantage of Paperoni over Hama beads is that you don't need an iron to make it stick so there is no danger involved and kids can see the project right through to the end without mum or dad's intervention. (In my experience, Hama bead projects, especially the big ones, always get finished just as you're watching the chip pan or feeding the baby or something else that can't be left and you're always paranoid, often rightly so, that they'll get knocked over and ruined before you can get anywhere near the ironing board !) Also, as you stick the little rolls of paper on to the adhesive template as you go, if you're a bit clumsy and jog it, it's more likely to stay in one piece, unlike the Hama beads which will ping all over the floor at the slightest jolt and waste hours of work.

It's quite enjoyable but it is very fiddly, so if you want to do it properly (Sophie's a bit of a perfectionist), it can be frustrating at times. She was also slightly disappointed that, however hard she tried, she couldn't get it to look exactly the way it did on the box. The cute paper eyes and other accessories do help you get a "professional" looking result in the end though, and I love the fact that you can download extra templates and eyes to cut out on the Paperoni website.

star rating : 4/5

RRP : various priced kits available but for a rough idea,
Paperoni Studio. £19.99
Paperoni Variety Starter Pack £9.99

Matthew Walker - Christmas Pudding manufacturer since 1899 !

"Oh, we all want some figgy pudding;

Oh, we all want some figgy pudding;

Oh, we all want some figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer

We won't go until we've got some;

We won't go until we've got some;

We won't go until we've got some, so bring some out here !"

I'm never actually sure whether figgy pudding is the same as Christmas pudding, but Christmas pudding in some shape or form is an integral part of Christmas celebrations. Even when you're totally stuffed out on turkey and all the trimmings, you just have to have a bowlful of Christmas pud to finish off the meal, even if all you can manage is a token serving ! Different families have different traditions - my dad has his with lashings of custard, I prefer the "lighter" option of vanilla ice cream (it makes it seem less stodgy when you're almready fit to burst !) and Mike has a bit of both on his !

Other traditions go much further back. I can remember my nan starting to make her Christmas puddings just after the end of the summer, then keep topping up the pudding bowl with alcohol about once a month ! And hearing the tales of stirring in sixpences then repeatedly telling everyone to be careful they didn't break their teeth on them ! And putting the pudding on to steam was one of the first things she did on Christmas morning. I wonder what she'd make of shop-bought puddings that you can serve after just 3 minutes in the microwave !

Other traditions go back even further : "Matthew Walker – the oldest Christmas pudding manufacturer – have recently teamed up with Caroline Yeldham, a renowned food historian, to investigate the wonderful history of the famous Christmas pudding. She’s gone right back to Medieval times to uncover the first ever pud as we may know it (Plum Pottage made with beef and intestines plus lots more strange ingredients!) and worked through the ages, to reveal long lost recipes from Tudor times and forgotten traditions. We’ve even uncovered bygone family games and rituals such as Snapdragon, a pre-cursor to the flaming of the Christmas pud where members of the family have to retrieve currants from a flaming bowl." Blimey, I think I will stick with a shop-bought one that I can microwave !

I have actually been meaning to test out a Matthew Walker Christmas pudding for the last couple of weeks, but somehow I just can't bring myself to do it. It seems wrong somehow to eat it before the big day - like eating Easter eggs at any time before Easter Sunday !

Just looking at the box has had me salivating though - it's labelled as "Recipe N° 13, The Perfect Christmas Pudding Recipe" (wow, they're not superstitious are they ?! I wonder how many people will avoid it because of the number 13 !!). "This beautifully moist and fruity pudding combines the finest fruit and our unique blend of spices with cognac and an award winning local stout." And - I've checked the ingredients - it's suitable for vegetarians because it contains vegetable suet. There's not a whiff of beef or intestines in these puddings, rest assured ! A 250g portion does contain 326 calories, 46.5g of sugar and 6.2g of fat but hey, it's Christmas, so who's counting ?!

RRP : £1.79 for an individual 100g pudding, £6.99 for a family 454g pudding

for more information and to buy online : http://www.matthewwalkerchristmaspuddings.co.uk/

There's even a video featuring Santa on there !

Nestlé Christmas selection boxes: greener, smaller and lighter for 2009

Like most of us, I eat chocolate all year round but some chocolate just goes with Christmas. For me, it's Terry's Chocolate Oranges (the round ones that you can break into segments, I'm quite happy to eat the bars all year long !), big bars of Toblerone, mint and orange-flavoured Matchmakers and ... selection boxes. Even if you can (and do) buy the separate sweets in all seasons, there's just something extra special about getting them all in one go and in one festive box. Our Christmas stockings just wouldn't be complete without them - well, OK, they don't actually fit in the stockings but they do get stacked just underneath them !

Well, this year, it's nice to see that Nestlé have taken steps to reduce the amount of excess packaging that their selection boxes have. I always feel guilty about the quantity of binbags of used wrapping paper and empty cardboard boxes that get put out for recycling each Christmas so every little gesture helps.

As they say on their website : "For Christmas 2009, Nestlé’s selection boxes will be the greenest on the market. Favourite brands such as SMARTIES, KIT KAT and AERO remain unchanged, but packaging has been reduced by 40% from 2007 levels and will be 100% recyclable card. To ensure our selection boxes are a real treat, Nestlé is committed to improving recyclability for the consumer. Nestlé is the first confectionery manufacturer to remove plastic inserts from our boxes, a move that makes recycling your selection box easier than ever before. The drive to improve recyclability has already yielded great results. Across the whole of the Nestlé UK business, 900 tonnes of waste has been diverted away from landfill in the last two years, the equivalent of 150,000 Christmas Turkeys!"

Wow, that's a lot of turkeys ! Well, they can go gobble-gobble-gobble while I go off and gobble the yummy delights in my selection boxes ... with a clear conscience !

You have a choice of three different selection boxes this year : "The boxes are available in three different festive designs and range from large and medium-sized gift boxes to a smaller Santa-themed selection box for younger children where all the products contain no artificial colours or flavours." So if they go absolutely hyper, you'll know it's down to all the excitement of awaiting Santa and nothing to do with the E-numbers in their sweeties !

star rating : 5/5

RRP and contents :
Large Selection Box, 8 x full-size bars (1 x KIT KAT SENSES, 1 x ROWNTREE’S FRUIT PASTILLES, 1 x MILKY BAR, 1 x SMARTIES, 1 x KIT KAT Four-finger, 1 x ROLO, 1 x AERO and 1 x AERO Mint) RRP £3.62
Medium Selection Box, 6 full-size bars (1 x AERO, 1 x MILKYBAR, 1 x KIT KAT Four-finger, 1 x SMARTIES, 1 x TOFFEE CRISP and 1 x ROWNTREE’S FRUIT PASTILLES) RRP £2.44
Kid's Medium Selection Box, 6 treats (2 x SMARTIES, 1 x MILKYBAR, 1 x MILKYBAR BUTTONS, 1 x ROWNTREE’S TOOTY FROOTIES™ and 1 x ROWNTREE’S JELLY TOTS) RRP £2.44

available ... pretty much everywhere but get in quick before I eat the lot !!

Love2Read Personalised Photo Book

When I was asked to review this personalised photo book for toddlers, I knew the girls would love it but I wasn't expecting anything out of the ordinary. I made a photo book for them a few months ago with all the photos of our dog Vicky and her puppies and they love it to bits, looking at it over and over again, even taking it in to school to show their teachers and friends.

But as soon as I went to the love2read website, I could see that this was a totally different concept. As well as presenting a selection of your favourite family photos, these books teach your children to recognise key words. I reviewed a Ladybird book earlier in the week and got all nostalgic about my childhood days reading "Here is Janet. Here is John. Here are Janet and John." Well, now you can be Janet or John ! You choose the text and complete the simple phrases - such as I like ..., I see ..., My friend ... - so that they correspond to the photos. The same simple phrase is repeated on each page and the final page asks your child to try to recognise and read the words that they have seen in the book. Pure genius ! (You can put totally different text on each page in certain templates, if you are buying for an older child.)

Making the book couldn't be simpler. The website offers a whole range of templates so you can choose the colour or phrases that most appeal to you. Then you just have to upload ten photos, complete the text under the photos and you're done ! You can alter border colours if you like and rotate photos but if you just do the basics, within about five minutes you can be ready to order(not counting the time you take to select the photos - you'll get sidetracked and spend ages looking through old photos and feeling all nostalgic !).

As we live a long way from most of our family, I decided to make an "Our family" book showing the photos and names of all our family members, including those that we don't see very often. You only have ten photos but if you choose a few pictures with more than one person in, that's plenty. One thing to bear in mind when adding your photos to the book is that the first four pictures will feature on the front cover, so make sure you put the ones you want on the front of the book in first. The back cover will also show a funky mosaic with nine of the photos (check the position of the small pictures to make sure they're centred properly, some of mine weren't - but you just click and slide them across to the right position).

I did have a slight problem when ordering my book - the website had a bit of a wobble and didn't save my changes so I had to start again - but the website owner is amazingly helpful and really listens to your feedback so that she can make things even better. I said that the problem seemed to come from me using French accents in some of the names, because it worked absolutely fine when I removed them. She replied : "This is a problem we have only just discovered as we are selling a lot of books to people in Ireland at the moment. In the New Year we are going to make some changes to the site so that it copes with accents." I also mentioned that I was surprised and a bit disappointed that there wasn't a template for "Our Family" - there's "My family", "Our Grandad", loads of other variations, but no "Our family", which seemed an obvious choice to me. Again, the lovely Caroline was very helpful and said : "It obviously isn’t clear on the site that we are always keen to hear from customers if there is a book title they want us to create. When I launched the company we only offered 4 books, we now have nearly 70 mainly due to customer requests ! The list is I think now a bit confusing and we are hoping to do some work on the site soon to “group” the books and also to offer a blank book so customers can choose their own title. We’ll add a Our family… book to the range today." Wow, how's that for customer service ! And it allows you to create a really unique and personal family keepsake that is perfectly suited to your requirements.

The book is lovely quality and small enough for little tots to flick through easily. The website informs us they are 17cm x 17cm, printed on 300gsm card, folded and stapled with a laminated front cover. The website tells you if any of your photos are of insufficient quality - a few of mine were but, as they were the only photos I had available of some family members, I still went ahead and ordered. Although they obviously would have been more defined with a higher resolution photo, the quality was perfectly adequate.

I mentioned the fabulous customer service above, and that continues after you have placed your order. The order is put through very rapidly and arrives within a couple of days.

One thing I have just noticed that is fantastic is that they do worldwide delivery (to Europe, Australia and the USA) for just £2. For families that live far apart or that may be temporarily separated, for example for daddies in the armed forces, this would make an absolutely perfect gift. The website help section says : "Contact us by email before ordering your books from other countries at outsideuk@love2read.co.uk giving us the delivery address and we will email instructions back to you. "

If you're now thinking that this looks like a great idea for Chrsitmas, get in quick ! Last orders for Christmas are the 15th December !

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £14.99

for more information or to order online : http://www.love2read.co.uk/

Friday 11 December 2009

Miamoo - Nanight Balm

If you haven't already read it, I suggest you start off by reading my review of Miamoo's Huggy Lotion, where I tell you all about the green ethics and cute story behind the Miamoo name.

Now that you know all the background, I can get straight on with telling you about this gorgeous lavender-smelling bedtime balm. As with the other products in the Miamoo range, I love the name Nanight Balm and the connotations of snuggles and kisses before bed that it evokes. The pale blue packaging and the cute cow pictures match the other products in the range and are equally cute.

The balm itself is amazing. I thought I wasn't going to like it at first but I was blown away. It comes out as a really thick, dense cream which looks like it will stay on the skin as a barrier cream. But it doesn't. Despite being really thick, you just rub your finger gently over the cream two or three times and it is instantaneously and perfectly absorbed into the skin. It just disappears and leaves no greasiness at all - just the wonderfully relaxing lavender scent, perfect for getting little sleepyheads off to the land of Nod.

Read the instructions carefully though, or you'll get frustrated for nothing ! "Unscrew the lid completely and squeeze the tube hard to expel a small amount." If you don't, it is really really hard to get out because it is so thick !

The label says it is chock-a-block with lavender and cocoa butter, but although my skin feels smooth and soft, it doesn't feel as nourished as with the huggy lotion. I would therefore definitely use this cream after a bath before bedtime but not as a daily moisturiser. If you read the website, they have a whole host of uses for it, that I wouldn't have necessarily thought of but that all sound like really good ideas : " This is a calming balm which is ideal to use when baby is feeling blue or during teething. Great in the summer to keep skin cool and moisturised." The lavender scent really is calming and relaxing so I'll definitely give that a try when Pierre is grizzly when he's cutting teeth or after his monthly jabs. It does feel cold on the skin too, so I bet it would feel lovely in the summer or when baby's running a fever. "Great to put on baby’s chest when full of cold and also rub a small amount on baby’s nostrils before bedtime. It’s a great remedy during baby’s teething times." Is there anything it can't do ?!

As with the other Miamoo products, it's as lovely for mums as it is for babies. The website suggests : "For mummies who are always on their feet, nanight balm is the answer. Get your husband/ partner to massage into feet and ankles for an instant pick me up and feel the magic of nanight balm. Keeps feet cool and fresh and keeps the head clear and calm." Now that sounds like absolute bliss - although I get the feeling I'll be massaging it into my own feet, I don't think Mike would oblige !!

I predict that this will be an absolute Godsend in the coming weeks - for Pierre, who seems about to start teething, and for me, because my maternity leave ends today so I'll be back to charging about like a loony from Monday morning onwards and will need some relaxing pampering in the evenings !

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £10 for 50ml

available in Boots, Waitrose, Ocado and NCT

for more information : http://www.miamoo.co.uk/
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