Sunday 28 February 2010

Book review : Scottsboro - Ellen Feldman

I've just been teaching the kids at school all about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement for racial equality in America so I thought I knew my stuff pretty well, but until this book came out, I had never even heard of Scottsboro, Alabama, or the events that unfolded there in the 1930's.

If, like me, you are unaware of the story, the basic facts are that, after a scuffle with some white male hobos, nine black teenagers were hauled off the freight train they had all been riding (and fighting) on by a posse of armed local white men. These law-enforcers were already itching to lynch the black boys but when two white girls, disguised in men's clothes, jumped off the train and, to save themselves from getting into trouble, falsely accused the black boys of gang-raping them, the unfortunate black teens were quickly tried and sentenced to death on the electric chair. This was the Deep South in the 1930's and any black person coming up against a white person didn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of getting a fair trial, let alone winning. Then one of the white girls, Ruby, withdrew her accusations, leading to retrials, appeals, and a bitter judicial battle that would last two decades.

The book is told largely from the viewpoint of Alice Whittier, a young journalist from New York who covers the case and befriends Ruby, the girl who recanted her accusation of rape. In the bibliographic notes, the author explains that Alice is a purely fictional character and talks of "setting fictional characters loose among the ghosts of history". I found the whole historical story fascinating and particularly appreciated the author explaining at the end how much is based on fact and how much is pure fiction, as the blurred boundaries are one of the aspects of "historical fictions" or stories "inspired by real events" that I often find confusing and ultimately disappointing.

The book offers a powerful and very atmospheric evocation of the racial tension that was rife in the South at this time, as well as the harsh living conditions people of all races faced during the Depression. When the media start covering the case and Leibowitz, the "Jewish Commie lawyer from the North" who epitomises everything the Deep South despises, backs up the Scottsboro Boys, the atmosphere becomes explosive as already frayed tempers reach breaking point.

Although the whole book and the whole legal maelstrom focuses around the plight of the black boys, we actually learn very little about them. From reading the book, I had the impression they were in their late teens and twenties. Having researched the real historical facts after finishing the book, I discovered that the youngest of them was just twelve years old ! But the author purposely chooses to present them as flat, stereotypical "Negroes" because, at the time, that's what they were. The Scottsboro trials became more than a fight to acquit nine boys falsely accused and wrongfully sentenced to death, becoming a political battle to bring down a seriously warped legal system (with black people unallowed to serve as jurors). The hatred of the North, the Jews, the Communists, career-minded women and the black-sympathisers boils up in a cauldron of bigotry and intolerance which eventually has little to do with the nine boys themselves, so they become unimportant pawns in their own game.

Ruby Bates, the girl who cried rape before withdrawing her accusation and campaigning for the release of the Scottsboro Boys, is a very interesting character and one who is very hard to pin down. Is she a vicious liar for crying rape in the first place or a courageous heroine for eventually telling the truth ? Does she campaign for justice out of the goodness of her heart and because she has seen the error of her ways or purely for financial gain and her twenty minutes of fame ? Should we despise her, for her heartless condemnation of the boys, or pity her for her own life full of hardships and poverty ?

I was surprised to see how such a historical case, important on a judicial and political but also humane level, could have entirely escaped my notice but, as the book suggests, the escalating war with huge numbers of casualties both of soldiers and civilians, not to mention millions of Jewish victims, presumably made the tale of "just" nine young lives pale into relative insignificance.

This is one of those books that makes you think long after you have read the final page and had me heading straight over to Wikipedia to find out the facts behind this fictionalised version.

star rating : 5/5

RRP: £7.99

Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Picador; 2 edition (21 April 2009)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0330456148
ISBN-13: 978-0330456142

Saturday 27 February 2010

Radox Hand Gel Sanitizers

I'm a teacher so I'm forever being coughed and sneezed on, or at least touching things that have been touched by hands that have been coughed and sneezed on. At the moment, I'm the one doing most of the coughing and sneezing so - although I could gleefully snigger and yell "payback time" ! - I'm very conscious of trying not to spread my germs around too much. (They'd only come back to me tenfold anyway !) But I can't go running out of the classroom to wash my hands every five minutes, after I've coughed or been coughed on, so hand sanitizers are great. Especially on occasions like parent-teacher evenings when I have to shake about 100 hands a night. That's 100-handfuls of germs for me and 100 people I could pass my germs on to. I don't even want to think about how many different germs are on the door handles to the classrooms !

Having young kids at home, I'm always telling them to wash their hands too. Wash your hands before you eat your snack, before you sit at the dinner table, after playing outside, after blowing your nose, after playing with the dog ... Having watched Juliette wash her hands, I've noticed that speed is of the essence so they're never as thoroughly washed as I would like. Again, hand sanitisers are the ideal solution because kids love them - they're much more fun and funky than boring handwashing with soap and water ! Sophie in particular loves taking them to school (after her start of year lessons on hygiene and swine flu prevention). They're also great to keep in your pocket or handbag if you've got a baby, so that you can have a quick squirt after changing nappies and before feeding.

Since the swine flu outbreak, companies selling hand sanitizers seem to have popped up all over the place ! It's reassuring to see a big, well-known brand like Radox coming in to the market, as I've known their products for years and trust them to make safe, high-quality goods.

The manufacturers say "Radox’s Hand Sanitizer kills 99.9% of all bacteria leaving you reassured that your children are safe from bugs and germs when you're not there". Reassuring as that is, that's what all the hand sanitizer manufacturers say, so what's Radox got to offer that the others haven't ?

Well, personally, what I love about these ones are the gorgeous smells and the fact that they offer three different properties. The blue one is Radox Clean & Protect with thyme and tea tree oil (natural antiseptics), which smells fresh like shower gel and not at all horrible and medicinal as I was expecting. It would be a good one for the men as it smells like aftershave to me ! It is very liquid so I thought my hands were going to stay unpleasantly wet but within a matter of seconds, they were totally dry with no sticky residue at all.

Radox Clean & Moisturise with chamomile and jojoba oil - the white bottle - is slightly thicker and does leave the skin on your hands feeling conditioned. The final variety, the green Radox Clean & Refresh with lime and coriander, is fruity and refreshing. After squeezing a tiny dollop on my hands and rubbing it in, I sniffed them and recoiled - it smelt so astringent that it made my eyes water ! But ten seconds later, the unpleasantly intense smell turns into a much less powerful, zingy shower-gel smell. This might all sound familiar because the Hand Gel variants mirror those in the Radox liquid soap range, using the same fragrance, colours, ingredients and names.

Hand sanitizers are ten a penny these days and the choice is overwhelming but I have to say that I was impressed with the Radox Hand Gels for a number of reasons. Firstly, the fact that they disappear to nothingness, leaving no hint of sticky or greasy residue on your skin. Secondly, they're from a company that has stood the test of time and proved that its products are high quality. Thirdly, the packaging - the bottles are just the right size for slipping into a pocket or handbag and don't leak at all. But the big selling point for me is the lovely fresh and fruity fragrances - even when you're not worried about germs, they're great for neutralising odours that linger on your hands after chopping onions, using bleach or changing a toxic nappy !

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £1.29

Giveaway #4 - Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief Nintendo DS game - CLOSED - winners Deidre & Ellagirl

How about that then ? Two giveaways this week ! And I get the feeling this is going to be a popular one !

Last week, I reviewed the new film tie-in game from Activision, Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief. You can read that review here.

If you'd like to get your hands on your own copy, I have two to give away. To enter, just answer these two easy peasy questions.

1. Name any character (god, hero, monster, ...) from Greek mythology.
2. Name a famous person (real or fictional - might help if you watch Eastenders !) who has the surname Jackson - you might even get a bonus entry if your own surname is Jackson !

You can also get up to two bonus entries - one for retweeting this competition on twitter and another one for leaving me a comment on any one of my reviews. Don't forget to leave me an extra comment here to tell me you've done it and where so I count your extra entries.

Put your answers and bonus entries in the comments box along with a way of contacting you if you win (email, twitter name or sign in)

UK only. Closing date : Monday 8th March 2010

Friday 26 February 2010

giveaway #3 - 3 pairs of tickets to the Vitality Show 2010 - CLOSED - winners Sarah, LouisaB and Livingwithkids

Taking place from the 18th to the 21st of March is the UK 's largest health, beauty, fitness and wellbeing event for women returning to Earls Court 2, in association with Simply Health.

With over 350 health, beauty, fitness, healthy eating and wellbeing companies, the 2010 Vitality Show really is the ultimate girls’ day out!


Vitality Show 2010

18th – 21st March 2010, Earl’s Court 2

Whether it's taking some time out for yourself or finding the perfect opportunity to get together with the girls, this year’s Vitality Show - sponsored by healthcare provider Simplyhealth - is an essential date for the 2010 diary.

The UK's largest health, beauty, fitness and wellbeing event for women returns to Earl’s Court 2 in March, and welcomes the inspirational One Life Live Show as a brand new attraction to the annual show.

One Life Live is the ideal destination for anyone who is looking for a new challenge, wants to learn new personal skills or just fancies a little change. One Life has everything one needs to make a real difference to their future, boasting everything from motivational Life Coaching sessions to alternative and holistic therapies. This exciting new area also hosts the One Life Theatre, featuring talks from inspirational experts including John Lees, Jessica Chivers and Pete Cohen.

Along with all the visitor favourites, The Vitality Show has also introduced a series of new and interactive attractions for 2010 including the POM Wonderful Kitchen, with residents chefs on hand to whip up tasty healthy snacks using pomegranate juice, a skin consultation bar offering free advice on how to keep your skin looking fresh and young and a gluten free village, full of information and advice on the latest allergies and food intolerances.

With over 350 health, beauty, fitness, healthy eating and wellbeing companies, indulgent VIP pamper packages and celebrity experts all under one roof, this year’s show is the perfect place to revitalise, invigorate, inspire and spoil yourself.

The 2010 Vitality Show, sponsored by Simplyhealth, really is the ultimate girls’ day out! Go to for further details.

Opening Times
Thursday 18 March 1pm – 9pm late night opening
Friday 19 March 10am – 6pm
Saturday 20 March 10am – 6pm
Sunday 21 March 10am – 6pm

Ticket prices :
Adult -£14.50 in advance, £17.50 on the door
After 5pm (Thursday only) - £5
Senior/Student -£7 in advance, £8 on the door
Child (5-14) £6
Pamper package £69 in advance, £89 on the door
I have three pairs of tickets for the Vitality Show 2010 up for grabs. To be in with a chance of winning, just leave me a way of contacting you (email, sign in or twitter name) in the comments box and one of the girls will pick out the winners on the closing date (much more fun than using an online random number generator - plus I don't know how they work !!)
UK only - closing date : Sunday 7th March 2010
Good luck !

Thursday 25 February 2010

Pampers Underjams Pyjama Pants

Up to half a million children aged between 4 and 12 in the UK suffer from bedwetting - but nobody ever talks about it so if it's happening to you or your child, you probably feel very alone. I can't understand why bedwetting is still seen as such a taboo problem. Other childhood issues, like headlice or even things like worms, have lost the stigma they once had - Mums at the school gates are quite happy to talk about those ! - but bedwetting remains a deep dark shameful secret. If grownups suffer from incontinence, that's not even a big deal any more, thanks to big media campaigns from people like Tena - so isn't it about time kids got a break too and stopped feeling so bad about any little (or big !) accidents they might have at night-time ?

Pampers have finally decided to address the issue, bringing out a new pyjama pants product and working alongside ERIC (Education and Resources for Improving Childhood Continence), whose website is a mine of information, advice and support.

So what's so good about the new UnderJams Pyjama Pants, I hear you cry ? After all, Huggies have been producing DryNites for absolutely donkey's years ! Well, coming from a brand as popular and reliable as Pampers, I don't even need to tell you that they're great in terms of absorbency and fit - they've already proved that with their baby nappies.

What I love is that they have really taken into account kids' feelings and tried to produce a product that they will feel good about wearing, partly because it's funky but mainly because nobody need ever know that they're wearing protection, even if they go to a friend's house for a sleepover. The low waistband is designed to be easily hidden by pyjama bottoms but what really impressed me was the fact that they don't make that giveaway creaky-crinkly nappy noise ! They're really pretty, with girl and boy designs, and they're so comfortable that they won't stop your kids getting a great night's sleep.

They come in two sizes, S/M (38-65 lbs/ 17-29kg) and L/XL (58-85 lbs / 26-39kg). I received a pack of the S/M Underjams to review so I haven't seen the L/XL ones. If they have the same design as the small ones, I can't help thinking that older kids will find the designs a bit babyish but younger kids will love them. They look like funky, pretty knickers/pants.

After chatting to a friend who has two boys (I know I've got Pierre but I'm still on a learning curve when it comes to all things boy-related !), she made me think about a possible design fault
for the boys' pants. If they have a low waistband, you'll have to try to make sure little willies are pointing down rather than up, otherwise the chances are you might have a leak to deal with ! As experts in making nappies, I can't help thinking Pampers must have taken this into account in their design though.

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £5.19

Green & Black's Organic Chocolate

For some reason, when it comes to chocolate, I always think that you have to choose between "organic" or "fairtrade" and great taste. I don't mean that organic or fairtrade chocolate tastes horrible, it's just that I often find that it lacks that wow-factor that makes it really stand out from the rest. My favourite all-time chocolate, for example, is Galaxy because it is so decadently rich and creamy and velvety, and that's a taste and texture that I have never managed to find with fairtrade or organic varieties.

So recently, when I was asked to review some Green & Black's chocolate, I jumped at the chance - let's face it, who wouldn't for some free chocolate ?! - but I wasn't really expecting my tastebuds to have their little socks knocked off. Well, I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised.

We received 8 different bars to review, which I thought was a pretty impressive range until I checked out their website and discovered that they actually have 15 different varieties on offer : white, milk, espresso, creamy milk, caramel, almond, Maya gold, ginger, butterscotch, hazelnut & currant, raisin & hazelnut, cherry, mint, dark 70%, dark 85%. Not to mention ice cream, cereal bars, biscuits and a whole range of other chocolate goodies like Easter eggs and cooking chocolate. With a range that extensive, you're almost guaranteed to find something that takes your fancy.

Green & Black's take their chocolate very seriously and target the gourmet chocolate-lover, rather than the kiddie market, so I wasn't really that surprised to see that on their website, they offer a guide to chocolate tasting, very similar to wine-tasting. Well, in the name of serious reviewing, I read it and followed some of the guidelines, to get the most out of the chocolate-tasting experience : "Ensure your chocolate is at room temperature. Limit yourself to around six different chocolate varieties. Allow roughly two squares per person. Any more will give you tasting fatigue. Start with the lightest variety, e.g. White, and finish with the darkest, e.g. Dark 85%". However, I admit I didn't do the pinching my nose and letting it melt on my tongue or making it melt between my fingers parts (Mike was already telling me to stop faffing around and give him another square to try when I was reading all the labels !). Oh, and I might have slightly transgressed the "no more than two squares" rule too ! Nevertheless, I could really appreciate the differences between the varieties, even when they sounded very similar in name. Each bar has a different percentage of cocoa and the higher the percentage, the stronger the chocolate taste. It really does make a big difference.

The dark chocolate varieties are very intense, slightly too intense for me as I'm more of a milk chocolate girl, but even I could tell that they were of a high quality and they didn't have the bitter or grainy aftertaste of some dark chocolates I've tried in the past. The basic milk chocolate bar was nice enough but then I tasted the creamy milk variety and was seriously impressed - it had that Galaxy-like texture that I was saying that you never find with organic or fairtrade chocolate. If I hadn't been reviewing several varieties, I could have eaten the whole bar ! The next one with real wow-factor was the butterscotch one, which tasted vaguely like a more refined, less sickly sweet Crunchie bar. It was lovely and slightly crunchy, and the little bursts of sugary sweetness from the butterscotch combined and contrasted deliciously with the relatively intense milk chocolate flavour - yummmm ! The cherry variety is also delicious, combining sweet but tart cherries with the slightly bitter taste of 60% dark chocolate. By now, my tastebuds were positively zinging !

Whether you're a total chocoholic or just an occasional chocolate-nibbler, I really recommend you try out a couple of bars of Green & Black's. They have such a wide range of flavours and varying percentages of cocoa that you really can taste the differences between the bars and the chocolate-tasting experience, comparing the different bars, is really fun and educational. The variety pack of mini bars would be ideal for this and would make a great chocolate-themed Mother's Day or Easter gift for the more discerning chocolate-lovers out there !

star rating : 4.5/5

for more information :

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Harvest Cheweee Cereal Bars

5-year-old Juliette doesn't like cereal bars, so when we received a box of Harvest Cheweee (yes, there are that many e's !) "Milk Choc Chip Scrummy Cereal Bars" to test, I gave her a bit to nibble so she didn't feel left out but was waiting for her to come and give me the soggy sucked bit when she'd decided she didn't like it. But she didn't ! She came back and asked for a whole bar, like big sister Sophie (who had already wolfed down her complete bar and declared it delicious) ! Unconvinced, I broke off another small piece for her and watched her eat it and ask for more again ! By now convinced but totally confused, I had a quick nibble myself before giving her the rest (which she ate). Well, they are nice, but to me, they don't taste any different to various other cereal bars I've tried so I honestly don't know why she likes these ones but turns her nose up at the others !

Whatever the reason, I'm not complaining ! They may have choc chips in (that's not the reason she likes them, by the way - she's turned her nose up at other cereal bars with choc chips in !) but they're certainly a healthier option than the usual crisps or biscuits she wants.

The Harvest Lunchboxes website says that they contain wholegrain wheat and oats, vitamins and iron and are a source of fibre. What they don't contain is artificial colours. If you look closely at the list of ingredients, you'll notice that sugar is the first thing on the list - further down the list there is also Partially Inverted Syrup, Glucose Syrup, Glazing Agent and Tapioca Dextrine, which sound like other sugar-related ingredients to me. So maybe the relatively high sugar content is what made Juliette give them the thumbs up ? They do seem to be slightly smaller, kid-friendly sized bars though, so each 22g bar only contains 92 calories, which isn't too bad. Each bar contains 5.6g of sugar, 3.2g of fat and 0.1g of salt. I don't know how that compares to other cereal bars, but I would think it's better than most snacky foods like crisps or sweets.

There are probably healthier, lighter cereal bar options on the market, but these bars are obviously designed to be midway between healthy bars and the sweet treats that kids love. The other flavours reinforce this idea, offering white choc chip, strawberry mallow and toffee chip varieties, which all sound delicious and decidedly naughty !

They're great as a semi-healthy treat and I love sneaking one into Juliette's pocket on the way to school if she hasn't felt like eating much breakfast before heading off. It's quicker and easier to eat than a bowl of cereal, and I'm sure it's no less healthy than many of the kids sugary cereals that find their way into the breakfast bowls !

star rating : 4/5

Monday 22 February 2010

Dorset Cereals Tasty Fruit and Fibre Flakes

I've already tried and been won over by the taste of Dorset Cereals porridge (as you'll know if you've read this review here ) so I was keen to try out the two boxes of Tasty Fruit and Fibre that I was sent to review. The box promises "500g of unadulterated breakfast pleasure" in each box, so I was expecting a seriously tasty breakfast - and I wasn't let down.

The breakfast cereals market has gone through a bit of an overhaul over the past few years. You used to have a choice of tasty but sugar-packed kids' cereals or healthy but boring grown-up brands that tasted like eating sawdust. Well, these days, you really can get the best of both worlds - cereals that are packed full of healthy dried fruit and that are easy on the sugar and fat content but big on taste. Pretty much everyone has jumped on the bandwagon now, offering luxury, delicious mueslis and cereals that appeal to grown-ups, so this new product from Dorset Cereals already has a lot of competition.

So is it as good as the other similar brands I've tried ? Yes, definitely. Is it any better ? Well, I haven't sat down and studied the ingredients and calorie/fat/sugar figures on each packet to see how they compare but taste wise, it's on a par with the competitors. What I did really love however was that even at the very bottom of the box, there was no yucky dust. Also the chunks of juicy fruit went right down to the bottom of the box - they weren't just on the top so it looks impressive when you first open the box but soon gets boring and tasteless, as is often the case !

I tried two different varieties : "delicious dates & almonds with chilean flame raisins" and "exotic pineapple & papaya with toasted coconut". I liked both but my particular favourite was the tropical fruit one - the chunks of pineapple and papaya were great for adding a few rays of edible sunshine to my breakfast bowl on a grey rainy morning and were guaranteed to put a smile on my face first thing in the morning. The flakes don't go soggy in the milk - they stay nice and crispy and combine really well with the sweet, chewy, gooey chunks of fruit.

The Dorset Cereals website shows how seriously they take their products. "To make this healthy, crisp and scrumptious breakfast, we've sourced the finest natural ingredients we could find. We've taken the crunch and goodness of wholegrains, the malty taste and high fibre of bran, then we've added delicious fruits including the exotic taste of pineapple, papaya and coconut. Finally, we've blended them carefully to create a cereal that's light but satisfying - and utterly delicious." If that's not enough, it's Vegetarian Society approved and they cover the green angle by declaring that "the card for our packs is unbleached and made from 100% recycled fibre".

And if that's still not enough, you can go on the website to discover fascinating facts while you eat your bowl of cereal like this one : " In the wild, the natural pollinator of pineapple is the hummingbird, though some types that only open their flowers at night are pollinated by bats" ! Bet you didn't know that !

A bowl of 40g of this cereal with skimmed milk will provide just under 200 calories. There is also a low fat option, with just 2% fat, but the nutritional information about this variety seems strangely ambiguous. The writeup says : "With Tasty Low Fat Flakes, you’ve got great taste. We make this deliciously low fat, light to eat breakfast cereal with a blend of moreish flakes including barley and wheat, which we toast and malt to bring out their flavour. Then we add the perfect mix of fruits, and that’s it – tasty low fat flakes and delicious fruits, a seriously satisfying breakfast that’s only 101 calories a bowl with just 2% fat." However, the chart just below says that a 30g bowl with skimmed milk will provide 159 calories - and it seems strange that a serving of this variety is given as 30g whereas for the other two varieties it is 40g. Hopefully it's not just a deceptive ploy to make it look low-calorie, because if you compare the calorie content per 100g, they're pretty much identical (338 for the low-fat flakes, 349 for the dates & almonds variety and 321 for the pineapple & papaya variety). With the slogan "Simple, but then the best things in life usually are", my one little criticism would be that I'd prefer to have some more transparent nutritional information at my fingertips.

star rating : 4/5

Friday 19 February 2010

Make ! - Cath Kidston (pocket edition)

I'm a keen sewer - as in one who sews, not a stinky pipe full of poo that runs underground ! - and I have been for years, but apparently sewing has become ultra-cool all of a sudden. Maybe it's the credit crunch that was the catalyst, as people realised it was cheaper to "make do and mend" than buy new. I've been recycling the kids' clothes for years, cutting out pretty sparkly motifs from old, worn-out pyjamas and Tshirts and sewing them over the inevitable rips and stains on clothes that are otherwise quite OK. Not only is it ecological and economical, it also means you can get totally individual and personalised clothes - although admittedly, the finished creations probably go down best with the under 12s ! Sophie and Juliette still think their customised garments are really funky so we'll see how long it lasts.

If sewing has become a new trend, the name that seems to be on most people's lips these days is Cath Kidston. People who had never picked up a needle until a few weeks ago are now gushing about how gorgeous her vintage fabrics are and how fabulous her designs are. So when the opportunity came up to review one of her books, I couldn't say yes fast enough.

Well, it's a nice book but I have to admit it's not as brilliant as I thought it would be. If you're a total novice, the first section will get you started, explaining - with simple instructions and diagrams -how to master the basics of appliqué, embroidery and the main stitches. I was surprised that Bondaweb is used systematically in the sewing instructions - although it's probably great stuff, I've always managed just fine without it so it shouldn't really be listed as an absolutely essential piece of kit.

Where I felt most let down was in the choice of designs. I expected to go through the book oohing and aahing and not knowing which project to do first. Well, I loved the Stanley the dog and the country cottage designs and the racing car, breakfast and strawberry motifs could almost certainly be incorporated into one of my projects somewhere. But do we really need a template of a circle, a flower and a star ? Surely people could make their own with a compass and a piece of paper ?! It seemed like a cop out to me and having such simple designs for four out of the sixteen templates was a waste.

Also, the title seems a bit misleading as you are not actually given instructions on how to make anything from scratch. It's all about customising and embellishing ready-made items like shopping bags or clothes. If it didn't have the name Cath Kidston attached to it, it would be a reasonable sewing book for beginners, but somehow, I just felt it didn't live up to the hype.

star rating : 2.5/5

RRP: £8.99

Paperback: 144 pages
Publisher: Quadrille Publishing Ltd; Pocket ed edition (5 Feb 2010)
Language English
ISBN-10: 1844008258
ISBN-13: 978-1844008254

Thomas 65th Anniversary celebrations - free fun day at Hamleys & make your own Thomas cake !

Last month, I reviewed (click here) a DVD that we had been sent featuring the first episodes of the new series of Thomas & Friends on Milkshake. The Thomas & Friends Press Office (which still sounds like a fun place to work to me !) have just sent me a press release about a fabulous free Thomas-themed event coming up at Hamleys, to celebrate the 65th birthday of the talking train, as well as details of how to make a funky Thomas cake as part of the festivities. Wow - I wonder if I'll manage to pull that off for Juliette's 5th birthday party next week !


On Sunday 7th March Thomas is taking over Hamleys toy store in London and as part of our celebrations we are hoping to create the world’s longest Thomas cake train!

Thomas & Friends Steam In To Hamleys For The Ultimate Birthday Party!

- Family fun and party madness to celebrate Thomas The Tank Engine’s 65th and Hamleys 250th Anniversaries -

Make tracks to a fabulous destination on Sunday 7th March 2010 as everyone’s favourite little blue engine, Thomas the Tanks Engine, celebrates his 65th Anniversary in style at everyone’s favourite toy store, Hamleys!The double celebration, as Hamleys celebrates its 250th anniversary this year, will see an afternoon of FREE family fun and Thomas & Friends based activities taking place at the famous Regent Street store.

Date: Sunday 7th March

Time: 12pm onwards

Location: Hamleys, 188-196 Regent Street, London

Entry: FREE

Children and grown-ups alike will be able to participate in fun storytelling sessions, exciting competitions and Thomas & Friends screenings. There will also be a fantastic Thomas window display, the opportunity to meet the Fat Controller and make your very own Fat Controller hat to take home at special workshops.On the 7th March, Thomas & Friends will also be setting out to create the world’s longest Thomas train cake at Hamleys.

With help from National Autistic Society’s patron and renowned cake maker, Jane Asher, everyone coming along to the party is asked to help by baking their very own carriage cake to be added to a very special Thomas cake created by Ms Asher.Find out how to make your own carriage cake to bring along, visit the Thomas website for the perfect recipe and video guide from Jane Asher herself.

Throughout March, the following fun and free Thomas & Friends activities will continue at Hamleys:

- Storytelling sessions at 1pm, 3pm and 5pm everyday

- Meet the Fat Controller: Saturday 6th, 13th, 20th and 27th March at 11am or 3pm, Sunday 7th, 14th, 21st and 28th March at 12pm or 4pm

- Fat Controller hat making workshops everyday at 12pm, 2pm and 4pm

- Daily competitions to win great Thomas prizes

I won't be able to make it but if you do puff along, have fun !

Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief - Nintendo DS game

Let's start at the beginning. Percy Jackson originally came to life in a series of books, Percy Jackson & The Olympians, written by Rick Riordan, the first of which is The Lightning Thief. The author's website summarises the plotline of this book : "Percy Jackson is a good kid, but he can't seem to focus on his schoolwork or control his temper. And lately, being away at boarding school is only getting worse - Percy could have sworn his pre-algebra teacher turned into a monster and tried to kill him. When Percy's mom finds out, she knows it's time that he knew the truth about where he came from, and that he go to the one place where he'll be safe. She sends Percy to Camp Half-Blood, a summer camp for demi-gods (on Long Island), where he learns that the father he never knew is Poseidon, God of the Sea. Soon, a mystery unfolds and together with his friends - one a satyr and one the demi-god daughter of Athena - Percy sets out on a quest aross the United States to reach the gates of the Underworld (located in a recording studio in Hollywood) and prevent a catastrophic war between the gods." The book has now been made into a film, which was released last week on February 12th, and a Nintendo DS game, which we were asked to review.

The film has a PG rating, which makes sense as the books are aimed at children. However, the Nintendo DS game, produced by Activision, carries a 12 rating, which Sophie (age 8) was really disappointed about. Having looked at the pictures on the back of the box, I showed her the monsters in the gameshots and asked if she thought they were scary - she said no, and I don't think they look worse than anything in Pokemon type cartoons. I said that we'd have a sneak preview together and I'd tell her if she was allowed to play on it or not. The 12 rating is apparently linked to violence and it's true, you do have to fight and kill people in this game an awful lot, but again, this is the stuff of cartoons and there's not a drop of blood to be seen. I asked Sophie if she thought it was too scary for 8-year-olds and she said "well, it might be a bit scary for people who are less than 8, but for people like me who are older than 8 (she's 8 and a half !), it's not scary at all. It's really good !".

As parents, you'll know your own kids well enough to know if it's suitable for them or not. If they're under twelve but used to the Ben 10/Totally Spies/ Batman/ Spiderman kind of cartoons with goodies and baddies and fights, I'm sure they'll be able to play without being traumatised or having nightmares.

So what do you actually have to do ? Well, you control Percy Jackson (who looks like a clone of Harry Potter minus the glasses to me !) and you have to help him team up with his friends to combat fantastical opponents, find secret objects and explore a world ruled by vengeful Greek gods. It's a kid-friendly role-playing game which really appeals to Sophie, whose experience up to now of role playing games has been limited to being a baby sitter, a horserider or a Pet Shop ! Welcome to the world of more grown-up gaming, Sophie !

If, as a parent, you like your kids' TV and video games time to be educational, you can delve a bit deeper into the Greek mythology aspect. As well as numerous gods and goddesses, Percy will encounter several of the classic mythological monsters, such as the Hydra, Medusa and the Minotaur. I remember doing a project on Greek mythology at school years ago so it's good to see Sophie getting interested in the classic tales too. But if you (or your children) just want a game they can play on auto-pilot veg-out mode, that's not a problem either - you can quite easily play the game with no background knowledge of the book, the film or Greek mythology.

Basic reading skills are necessary to fully appreciate the game, as are a few tactics - you need to rely on teamwork and cooperation to defeat some opponents, using each other's skills at fighting and healing to help each other out and gain experience points and new rewards.

Sophie absolutely loves it, despite having never read the books (although she now wants to) or seen the film. Dad also enjoyed having a quick play, until Sophie pinched it back off him, so it appeals to adults too ! She keeps coming to show me different objects and skills that she has unlocked and asking me what different Greek gods and goddesses represent - who said playing on games consoles couldn't boost your neurones ?!

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP: £29.99

Thursday 18 February 2010

On The Fly Air-Activated Bottle-Warming Kit

As a breastfeeding mum, I haven't had that much use for this kit, but I can see that if I had gone straight on to formula, it would have been a godsend in those early days when baby needs to feed very regularly and going out of the house, even for a short time, can be complicated. I can remember meeting up with some other new mums just after Pierre was born who were constantly flapping around trying to beg a cup of hot water in restaurants to stand their baby's bottle in to warm, or to find somewhere to plug in their bottle warmers or worrying about the temperature of the milk because they'd purposely made it too hot, knowing that it would cool down while they were out, and hoping that it would be just about the right temperature at just about the right time.

What I love about this kit is that it takes the guesswork out of getting baby's bottle just right. You don't have to worry about being in a location where you will have no access to hot water or a source of electricity because the amazingly high-tech pouches magically heat up on contact with the air. How cool is that ? It sounds like something NASA would invent ! It doesn't sound quite so amazingly scientific when you read the list of ingredients (iron powder, water, activated carbon, wood, powder and salt) but the technology is still impressive.

The sachets provide up to 8 hours of continuous heat and can be used for keeping a bottle warm or for warming one up from cold. That means that the milk will stay at the perfect temperature for a much longer time than with the usual isothermic bottle bags you can buy. I also thought the packs could be customised and used as brilliant hand-warmers for the girls, who were busy playing in the snow and freezing their fingers off, but I read the warning labels that said you risk burns if you place them directly on the skin so quickly decided that was a bad idea. I'm sure there's a marketable idea there though for self-warming gloves if anybody wants to get inventing !

The kit looks pretty complicated when you first open it but it's actually really simple. You pull the sock over a bottle of warm milk, open the plastic wrap on the sachet to activate the warming magic, wrap it around the bottle and pull the top part of the sock down over the heat sachet to keep it in place, maintain warmth and protect you from directly touching the sachet. And that's it ! You have a really cute, funky, cowskin-patterned bottle of milk, ready and waiting for whenever baby wants it. The socks are designed to fit all bottles, even the wide-mouthed ones, and come in two sizes, depending on the size of the bottle.

The website says that this product is ideal for "mothers and fathers ‘on the go’ that desire a functional and chic product for their baby. Whether parents are running errands, travelling, working or playing, this product offers a simple solution and better alternative for heating baby bottles." However, it would also be fantastic for people who can't or don't want to move around too much - new mums who have had a c-section and need to stay in bed for a couple of days, those with mobility problems or exhausted parents with sleepless nights taking their toll. As each pouch gives 8 hours of heat, that will provide a whole day (or night) of no-fuss milk-warming in each pouch. Although each sachet can only be used once, 8 hours of continuous heat is long enough to warm several bottles so it's also a brilliant solution for long journeys by car, train or plane.

If you're one of those people that likes to be prepared for all eventualities, you could store a carton of ready-to-drink baby milk or powdered formula and a bottle of water in your changing bag or in the glove box of the car, just to be on the safe side. When the Eurostar trains broke down in the Channel Tunnel just before Christmas, some parents found themselves facing an unexpected whole night with nothing for their children to eat which must have been a nightmare for those with babies. This kit is ready to use at a moment's notice and allows you the benefits normally reserved for breastfeeding mums - baby's milk, warmed to perfection, whenever and wherever you need it, with no hassle or worry. And let's face it, new mums (and dads) have enough to worry about already so one less thing on the list has to be a good thing !

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : starter kits $30 (small) & $35 (large), replacement sachets $15 (small) & $17 (large) for 5

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Book review : Hiding Edith - Kathy Kacer

Like most people, I've read numerous novels, mainly based on true life stories, about the plight of Jewish people during the second world war - The Secret Diary of Anne Frank, Schindler's Ark (which was the book that the film Schindler's List was based on) and the more recent Sarah's Key, and probably others that I can't remember. I therefore came to this book expecting to learn nothing new.

The basic story is the same, as you would expect, but this tale is told from the point of view of the Jewish children, separated from their families and hidden away in secret in a village in the south of France. I was unaware of the role played by the French Jewish Scouts movement and it was great to see a glimmer of positivity and kindness in what was such a dark era for humanity. It's easy to condemn whole nations for not coming to the help of the Jews in their hour of need, but Edith's story, told by Kathy Kacer, describes a whole village who clubbed together to keep a house full of Jewish children safe, thereby putting their own lives in peril. It is quite amazing to learn that of the 500 Jewish children taken in, only one didn't survive and that was because her parents took her out, thinking she would be safer with them. Despite the horror and tragedy going on around them, it is heart-warming to read of the devotion and seflessness of Shatta and Bouli Simon, who ran the children's home, as well as the mayor and inhabitants of the village who did all they could to help keep them safe. Edith is one of the lucky ones, her whole family coming through relatively unscathed, but it is ironic and doubly tragic that the only person who died, Edith's father, lost his life when the war was over and his malnourished, weakened body couldn't cope with the sudden copious gifts of food given by American soldiers who liberated him from the concentration camp.

As an adult, this was a quick, light (despite the subject matter), poignant but above all positive read. The vocabulary and tone of the book make it perfect for children too - they will identify with Edith and the other children in the home and the book effectively evokes the tragic plight of the Jewish people without recounting in detail the horrors they endured. It's a child-friendly insight into life in Nazi Europe and the black and white photos will help to show them that this is real life, not just some made-up story that never really happened.

star rating : 4/5

RRP : £6.99

Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: A & C Black Publishers Ltd (1 Sep 2009)
ISBN-10: 1408113651
ISBN-13: 978-1408113653

Tomy Top Tips for Today's Parents

Tomy were recently asking parents to name their top baby buys for new mums and dads and my suggestion of a baby poncho (like this one) was picked for the final ten for inclusion !

The guide has been printed into hard copies, which will be distributed at the Baby Show, beginning on the 19th Feb in London, but it will also be available online as from next week.

You get to have a sneak preview here before it's made widely available though - hope you find it useful !

(Blogger doesn't seem to want me to embed it in this blogpost but if you click on the link, you can view it there )

Tomy Top Tips for Today's Parents

Book review : My Last Confession - Helen FitzGerald

One of my all-time favourite authors is Kathy Lette, who - if you don't know her - is a hilariously funny, loud-mouthed Australian author who somehow manages to absolutely capture the feelings and thoughts that I, and presumably millions of other women, have had at key moments in life, such as getting married, pregnancy, being a new mum ... For some reason, as soon as I read the blurb on the back of this book (including a short extract), it sounded just like it could have been written by and about Kathy Lette and this feeling stayed with me throughout the whole novel. Reading the little author's biography on the first page, I noticed that Helen FitzGerald grew up in Australia, although she now lives in Glasgow with her husband and two children, so maybe that's why it reminded me so much of Kathy Lette.

The front cover, showing a lady curled up in bed in a nightie and some swirly flowery designs, screams chick-lit but my initial thoughts were that this was more like a crime thriller. There is a love story and a tale of working, overstretched mum trying to deal with everything life can throw at her, but there is also so much more.

At one point in the narrative, Chas, the lead character's significant other, declares that a love story isn't a straight line, it's a circle, with the two people constantly coming together then moving apart before rediscovering each other and learning to know and fall in love again time and time again. This image of the circular tale perhaps explains why the author decides to start the book where it should finish, telling us in the opening chapter how the book will end. We know that Krissie will be sobbing with terror on her wedding day, screaming at someone to phone for an ambulance as she watches Chas's life slipping away. Once she's told us where we are heading, we return to the beginning and watch and wait while the book goes full circle to take us back to this heart-rending final episode. I was initially disappointed because, although watching Krissie's life spiral out of control as she gets herself deeper and deeper into trouble is fascinating, it did remove any element of suspense about, for example, whether the star-crossed lovers would get back together again after a disastrous party leads to a temporary break-up. That said, the end does still maintain a couple of mini-surprises.

Krissie is a wonderful character, and could indeed have stepped straight out of a Kathy Lette novel. She's exuberant, spontaneous, loud-mouthed and funny and throws herself into everything, be that motherhood, her relationship with Chas or her new job, with 100% of her being. She's also gullible, naive and decidedly wreckless but above all, she is so totally human that we can't help but totally empathise with her and shudder at the situation she finds herself in. We've all had one too many at a party and done something we regret at some point in her lives so even if we can shake our heads and will her not to be so silly, we can't condemn her actions. She could be any one of us.

The crime story is really interesting because of the narrator's viewpoint. We're used to seeing crime fiction narrated by the murderer, the victim or the detective investigating the case, but in this tale, Krissie is a parole officer. A new one, who's only been in the job for a few short weeks and who finds herself totally out of her depth. Again, she makes all the mistakes that any one of us could make.

The back of the book gives us a quote from the Sunday Telegraph, saying that "For quality chick-lit with a murderous twist, look no further than FitzGerald's brand of thinking woman's noir". The chick-lit label initially annoyed me - this is so much more than the usual fluffy, bland, one-dimensional tales of romance and shopping and why, just because the lead character is female, should we assume that this book is aimed at women ? But then I got down off my high horse and reluctantly agreed that women probably would most closely identify with Krissie in, for example, such trivial (to everyone but a new mum) but emotionally-charged moments as leaving their child for the first time to go off to work. If he cries, it breaks your heart, but if he doesn't cry, it breaks it even more - it totally strikes a chord with mums everywhere but would probably go over the heads of most male readers.

So yes, it is chick-lit, but it's also a whole lot more. It's a fascinating glimpse into the life of parole officers and social workers (Helen worked as both for over ten years), a high-octane crime novel and an emotional rollercoaster ride that will have you laughing out loud and sniffing into your hankie by turns. I totally enjoyed this as a standalone novel but have since discovered that Krissie appeared in an earlier novel, Dead Lovely so I'll definitely be adding that to my list of books to be read. Watch out Kathy Lette, you have some serious competition now !

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £10.99

Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Faber and Faber (4 Jun 2009)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0571239676
ISBN-13: 978-0571239672

Monday 15 February 2010

Giveaway #2 - 2 Carbon Monoxide Alarms up for grabs ! CLOSED - WINNERS madmagz and Julie Henderson

Thanks to the lovely people at EI Electronics, I have two Carbon Monoxide alarms (one each for two people) to offer to my readers.
Ei Electronics Ei204 Carbon Monoxide alarm is a portable battery powered alarm that detects both high and low levels of Carbon Monoxide and can be placed anywhere around the home. The alarm uses an electrochemical cell sensor which checks Carbon Monoxide concentration in the air every 50 seconds. Its portability also means that even whilst asleep the Ei204 can help protect you and your family from the dangers of Carbon Monoxide. The Ei204 features a low and high Carbon Monoxide level indicator and horn to warn users of any Carbon Monoxide in the atmosphere. The Ei204 alarm from Ei Electronics carries third party approvals (EN52091), is kitemarked to British fire safety standards and is available online or at Homebase stores for £24.95
To enter this giveaway, check out my post here telling you about the dangers of Carbon Monoxide poisoning and tell me, in the comments box, one thing that you can do to protect your home against carbon monoxide poisoning or one of the warning signs to look out for. Don't forget to leave me a way to contact you (sign in to your account, leave an email address or a twitter name). If I can't contact you, you can't win ! Closing date, next Sunday - 21st February 2010. UK entrants only.
At the end of the competition, I will email you asking for your adresses so that I can send them on to the lovely PR person, who will send them out directly to you.
Good luck everyone ... and if you don't win, you can find out where to buy one here :

Carbon Monoxide Awareness campaign “Don’t Become a Headline”

As a mum with three young kids in the house, this is an issue that I'm really happy to be blogging about. Some security equipment has become standard issue these days - people do up their seatbealts in cars and install smoke alarms in their homes without a second thought now, whereas nobody even contemplated doing it when I was a kid - but carbon monoxide alarms still haven't been widely accepted yet. Which is a real shame, because they're dead easy to install and don't cost that much. ( The Ei204 alarm from Ei Electronics costs just £24.95, which is a small price to pay for peace of mind.)

Ei Electronics, the UK’s largest smoke and Carbon Monoxide alarm manufacturers has found that over 30 deaths a year occur because of Carbon Monoxide poisoning yet many people either don’t have a Carbon Monoxide alarm in their home or aren’t even aware of Carbon Monoxide and the dangerous effects it can have. To help combat this, they've teamed up with the COCAA (Carbon Monoxide Awareness Alliance) for the Carbon Monoxide Awareness campaign “Don’t Become a Headline” to raise public awareness of Carbon Monoxide poisoning and get the public to make sure fuel burning appliances are checked regularly.

So what can you do ? It's really quite simple :

- Check the colour of gas flames: if it’s blue it’s normal, if it’s orange or yellow this could be an indication of a problem with the appliance in question.

- Obstructing ventilation of a heating appliance to prevent draughts does more harm than good so make sure vents and filter areas are kept clear.

- Make sure your boiler and gas heating systems are checked regularly and serviced annually.

- Look for discolouration and staining around pilot lights and fire places as this is often a sign of the incomplete burning of fuel.

- Make sure that gas and heating appliances and systems are installed by a Gas Safe registered and approved engineer.

- Properties with working chimneys should make sure chimney flues are swept regularly.

- If you are renting a flat or house make sure it states in the contract that the landlord regularly maintains and services any heating systems within the property. You are also lawfully allowed to request a gas safety certificate for the property before moving in.

- Buy an EN Carbon Monoxide alarm so wherever you are in the home you are alerted to a Carbon Monoxide leak.

You also need to be aware of the effects of Carbon Monoxide poisoning so that you can react in time. EI Electronics explain : "Carbon Monoxide which is odourless, tasteless and colourless, making it difficult to detect, is a residual product of vehicle emissions and gasoline fuelled heaters. When inhaled by humans Carbon Monoxide binds with blood meaning the body is starved of Oxygen, leading to symptoms such as headaches, nausea, vomiting and drowsiness. Mild Carbon Monoxide poisoning can bring on symptoms similar to flu, but moderate to severe Carbon Monoxide poisoning can lead to chest pain, confusion, unconsciousness and, in the worst case scenario, coma and death. Ei Electronics advises that in family homes in particular it is important to be aware of the warning signs of Carbon Monoxide as the most vulnerable to poisoning are the elderly and children. "

For more information on the Carbon Monoxide Awareness campaign please visit: .

There's one other thing you can do to protect your home against the dangers of Carbon Monoxide and that is ... enter my giveaway coming up in a second to win two Carbon Monoxide Alarms !

Sunday 14 February 2010

Eurax Cream - "Stops Itching Fast"

8-year-old Sophie occasionally suffers from rashes and itchy redness that doesn't last long but looks decidedly like eczema. Last week, she complained of itchiness under her arm. Sure enough, the usual red flare-up was there, alongside three red spots that would have passed for chickenpox if they'd been all over her body. Curiouser and curiouser.

As I'm a bit of a free sample freak and as this has been going on for quite some time, we have various lotions and potions at our disposal to deal with redness or itchiness. The trouble is, Sophie always complains when I put them on because, even if some of them are relatively effective at getting rid of the rash, more often than not they sting quite a lot. When I spoke to her doctor about it, he said to use nappy rash cream, which we have done but Sophie doesn't like the idea of using not only baby products but above all "bum cream" on her body ! So this seemed the perfect time to try out a tube of Eurax cream that I'd been sent for review.

Bearing in mind that the doctor has only said that what she has is "probably mild eczema" but that this time she had a few red spots too, it's sometimes difficult to know what to use. Eurax is a great solution because it deals with pretty much everything that can cause itching. "Lasting up to 10 hours, Eurax cream or lotion quickly relieves the itching and irritation caused by the following 10 common itchy skin irritations : Itchy Dermatitis, Dry Eczema, Allergic Rashes, Insect Bites & Stings, Hives, Nettle Rash, Heat Rash, Sunburn, Chickenpox, Personal Itching". Umm just in case you misunderstand "personal itching" in the same way as me, I should point out that this is explained as "an allergy or reaction to external factors such as washing powders (NB consult a doctor or pharmacist if suffering from genital itching)" !!

Wow, if it covers that many different minor ailments, I'll be adding a tube to my permanent first-aid kit and sticking another one on the car, just in case. So, does it work ? Well, the redness and spots haven't disappeared but they do itch less once the cream has been applied, but above all, it doesn't sting, so that's certainly a definite improvement on what we have been using. It rubs easily into the skin without leaving a greasy residue that feels icky on clothing too. I'll be stocking up for over the summer when insect bites, nettle rash and sunburn will all be more common with all the playing outside.

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : 30g tube £3.48, 100g tube £6.06, 100ml lotion £4.60


I've been asked to pass on this press release about baby basics offers at Boots. You'll have to get in quick though, these offers end on the 16th Feb !


This New Year Boots is offering Mums and Dads a series of fantastic deals on everyday baby essentials. From now until 16th February 2010, parents shopping in Boots stores or online at will be able to take advantage of 3 for 2 on Huggies and Pampers Wipes 4 packs. Furthermore, and as part of the company’s ongoing commitment to provide customers with big name brands at fantastic value, Boots is offering a range of price promotions on branded baby products including:

- 2 for £18 on Pampers Jumbo Packs
- Half price on Pampers Easy Up Carry Packs
- 2 for £10 on Cow & Gate Growing Up Milk

Furthermore, Boots Parenting Club members are entitled to double Advantage points on over 1,000 baby products every time they shop in store or online. That’s a huge eight Advantage Card points for every pound spent on products in the Boots Baby range.

Boots Advantage Card users usually earn four points for every £1 they spend
 Applies to stores in England and Wales and on only. Points cannot be collected on prescription items, infant milks (up to 6 months), gift vouchers/cards, gift boxes, delivery charges or postage stamps.

Random - Craig Robertson

At times, I actually found this a really uncomfortable book to read. I love crime fiction and have read many tales of blood-thirsty, psychotic serial killers that have had my eyes glued to the page. This is the first time in all my years of reading that something I have read (I'm talking fiction) has left me feeling actually physically sick and made me look away from the page. The problem is, unlike when you're watching a gory bit on a TV programme, you can't hide behind a cushion for a few minutes and tell your other half to let you know when you can look at the screen again ! Your only option is to skip a few lines and jump back in, hoping that the sickeningly gory bit is over. (And if you're wondering, the bit that made my stomach churn was the bit involving a screwdriver and somebody's eyes.)

I can't deny that the basic plotline is clever - a serial killer who hides his real intended victim in amongst a load of random killings to cover his tracks. I can also understand and, dare I say it, empathise with the killer's motivations for seeking revenge on his intended victim (I won't tell you what that motivation is, I'll let you find out for yourselves). But the killer seems so enthusiastic and almost gleeful in his complicated, playful methods of selecting random victims that you can't help thinking that these secondary murders become more than a means to an end. OK, he has to make the killings look realistically violent for the police and the public at large to believe it's a serial killer - but he seems to take real pleasure in the thrill of the chase and uses some horrific methods in his killings.

So can we get write him off as a sick, sadistic psycopath ? Well, we could - but surely all the scenes of him with his wife, particularly at the end, are supposed to make us feel some degree of sympathy for him ? Is he not in some ways a victim himself ? Is he justified, as he seems to believe, to be seeking vengeance ? If so, it's a shame he remains anonymous. It would be easier to feel sympathy for someone if we at least knew his name. So we're stuck in a nowhere man's land, midway between condemning and condoning his actions, and as a reader, that's not really a great place to be.

The press angle is fascinating, particularly when you read that the author is a top journalist. His biography on Amazon says "During his 20-year career with the Sunday Post in Glasgow, Craig Robertson has interviewed three recent Prime Ministers; attended major stories including 9/11, Dunblane, the Omagh bombing and the disappearance of Madeleine McCann; been pilloried on breakfast television, beaten Oprah Winfrey to a major scoop, been among the first to interview Susan Boyle, spent time on Death Row in the USA and dispensed polio drops in the backstreets of India." He presumably knows what he's talking about then, when he talks about some journalists tweaking the truth and presenting facts in whichever convenient light they choose ! It certainly explains why the newspaper articles seem so authentic.

The end of the book came as a surprise to me but, with hindsight, is probably the best ending it could have had. There is some kind of rough justice there for most people involved in the book, except maybe the wife.

If you like Tarantino-esque tales of gangland killings, violent hardnuts and people's sad little lives spiralling out of control, you'll probably enjoy reading this. It's dark and depressing, violent and disturbing but does have some nice little unexpected twists tucked away to keep us reading to the end. Not one of my favourite reads this year but I don't regret spending time reading it.

star rating : 3.5/5

RRP : £12.99

Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd (1 April 2010)
ISBN-10: 1847377297
ISBN-13: 978-1847377296

Thriller & Suspense Reading Challenge 2010

I've just signed up for a fun reading challenge on the Book Chick City website to read twelve thrillers in 2010 - shouldn't be too hard as I already review more than that on here as it is ! If you're a bookworm, I strongly recommend you do the same thing and, if you read any of the same books as me, we can swap notes (feel free to leave comments, whether or not your agree with me, in the comments box !).
As an incentive to join up and get reading, all participants will get a free book (either Random by Craig Robertson or Venom by Joan Brady) courtesy of Simon & Schuster UK - and the best bit is, anyone is eligible to join in worldwide. Hopefully see you there ! Happy reading !

Friday 12 February 2010

Simple Radiant Skin Product Pack

I openly admit that this could just be down to clever marketing, but I always feel like my beauty products work best when I use complementary products from the same range. For example, when it comes to haircare, I'm forever changing brands, but I do tend to use the shampoo and conditioner from the same range as far as possible. The main reason is that you get the same fragrance instead of layering on different perfumes that sometimes fight against each other, but I've also noticed that with face products, you feel more like you've had a professional facial when you use various creams from the same range (says the girl who's had TWO professional facials in her whole life !!).

It was in this frame of mind that I decided to simultaneously test three products from the Simple Radiance range : the Radiance Brightening Cleansing Wipes, the Radiance Brightening Moisturiser and the Daily Radiance Eye Cream. You can buy all of these products separately in your local stockists or get the three in one handy package directly from the Simple website.

I started off with the Radiance Brightening Cleansing Wipes. As you'll know if you've read some of my other reviews, I love using eco-friendly options as far as possible. Well, whether it be for cleaning the house, baby's bum or my face, I have to admit that using wipes is my big bad decidedly ungreen secret. I know they clog up landfills and are less environmentally friendly than other options, like washable wipes or reuseable floorcloths - but they are just so handy and quick to use. Sometimes, if the kids have been playing up or it's been a really long day at work or I've had a broken night's sleep, I can't be bothered to faff about finding cotton wool pads and selecting the right lotions and potions to remove make-up, cleanse, tone and moisturise. If I can just grab a quick wipe out of a packet and have my head hitting the pillow 30 seconds later, I will sometimes sacrifice my green principles for the sake of simplicity. Mea culpa !

I often pinch one of Pierre's baby wipes to freshen up and clean my face at the end of the day, so I was interested to see if these grown-up wipes, specially designed to cleanse your skin, would feel any different. Well, the answer is yes they do. When you wipe them over your face, they feel soft and refreshing, cool and moist but not as damp as baby wipes, which sometimes leave your face feeling wet. If you look at the texture of the wipes, they don't look the same as baby wipes either - if you pull them, they're really stretchy and they're full of tiny little holes. With one wipe, you can thoroughly cleanse your whole face and neck, even removing make-up, and - to make myself feel slightly greener ! - I finish off by using the wipe to have a quick swish around the bathroom sink too ! By the time you've cleaned the sink and binned the wipe, your face will be totally dry and feel clean and refreshed. This seems to back up the manufacturer's claim that these wipes contain the "perfect blend of active ingredients and mango goodness to cleanse, exfoliate and remove impurities".

My skin felt totally clean but in need of some TLC so I broke out the Radiance Brightening Moisturiser, which claims to "visibly brighten" skin. It may come in a relatively small 50ml tube but it packs in a whole lot of goodness, according to the label : "3 Skin Loving Nutrients (Mango Extract hydrates and refines skin tone; Bisabolol soothes and calms; Glycerin hydrates and nourishes), 3 Vital Vitamins (Pro-Vitamin B5 actively restores, softens and smoothes; Vitamin E moisturises to improve skin condition; Vitamin C is an antioxidant to keep skin supple) but No Perfume, No Colour and No Unnecessary or Harsh Chemicals". The cream is quite thick so a little squeeze goes a long way. It is quickly absorbed by the skin, leaving no greasiness or dampness - just a pleasant feeling of moisturised skin. The fact that this cream contains SPF 10 and light-reflecting particles make it ideal as a day cream, but I also use it - along with the other two products in the set - at bedtime too. You get the sensation that your skin has a thin protective layer of cream on it that, in the daytime, will protect it from the cold, wind, rain, snow, pollution and whatever else will be thrown at it outside your front door, and at night-time, will keep the nutrients working on your skin overnight.

The final product is the Daily Radiance Eye Cream. My biggest gripe is the excess packaging. The box is almost as big as the moisturiser box but that contains a 50ml tube, whereas the eye cream is in a little 15ml pot, packaged in lots of unnecessary plastic within the cardboard box. The cream itself promises to "diminish the appearance of dark circles" and "transform skin dullness by brightening skin tone and refining texture". Well, I've tried numerous eye creams that friends have oohed and aahed over and have never really been that impressed, so maybe that's just me ! I'm not sure the bags under my eyes disappeared (but I have got a 6-month-old who keeps waking up in the night so it's asking a lot !) but the cream did feel lovely and soothing and refreshing on the skin around my eyes.

I was slightly disappointed by the smell of the products. Having read that they all contain mango extract, I was expecting them to smell of mango or at least vaguely fruity. They don't. They don't smell unpleasant but they don't smell of anything much. That is logical though, as Simple products all contain no perfume.

star rating : 4/5

RRP : for the 3 products £16.99 (+ £3 P&P) - or can be bought separately in local stockists

for more info and to buy online :

Window Alerts - Stop birds crashing into your windows

If it's never happened to you, it probably sounds vaguely amusing to have a bird fly smack into your window. You can imagine it as it would happen on a Tom & Jerry cartoon, with a little ring of stars appearing above the bird's head as it slowly slides down to the floor, ready to fly off again for a whole host of new adventures. The reality is sadly a lot more gruesome - most of the time, they fly into the glass with such force that they break their necks and die instantly.

I couldn't find any data relating to the number of birds that die in this way in the UK but, according to the eartheasy website, "Experts believe that over 100 million birds die each year in collisions with buildings and skyscrapers in the United States and Canada alone." That's a lot of birds. With figures that high, it seems amazing that you don't notice dead birds all over the place but apparently, predators snap them up almost before they hit the ground.

A really quick and simple way to avoid this problem is to stick something on the window so that the birds won't confuse the reflection of the sky with the real thing. You can buy specially-designed bird-scaring transfers in all sorts of shapes, including predatory birds, but for these Window Alert ones, they come in pretty butterfly shapes. As far as humans are concerned, it wouldn't really matter what shape they were because they're totally transparent so you can't see them at all when you stick them on the windows (which the girls were actually a bit disappointed about because they thought they were pretty and fancied the idea of having butterfly transfers stuck on their windows !).

Even if the human eye can't see them, the manufacturers assure us that the birds can. "WindowAlert is a static-cling decal that's easily applied to windows at home, at the office, on greenhouses, conservatories or anywhere that glass may create an invisible (and fatal) obstacle. The decals contain a component which reflects ultraviolet sunlight - undetectable to humans, it glows brightly for birds to spell out danger ahead !"

Well, it certainly can't hurt and they're so unobtrusive that it's certainly no hardship to have them on your windows.

star rating : 4/5

RRP : £6.99 for 4 bird-friendly decals

Flowerpot Man Garden Ornament

I know the snow's back and temperatures have dropped again but spring is on its way, honestly ! Last weekend, Mike planted out some bulbs in pots that had been sitting in the garage over winter and had started growing long leaves. Not sure how they'll get on with the frost though !

Anyway, if you like cheeky, cheerful flowerpot holders, you'll love this flowerpot man from Gardening Direct. Standing 21cm (8") high, he's big enough to accommodate a medium-sized flowerpot and he adds a splash of colour and interest to our patio which is looking decidedly bare and (dare I say it ?) dead at the moment. He should look even prettier when the flowers start (hopefully) blooming.

Even if you haven't got a garden/patio/windowbox, you could put him inside the house with an indoor plant. Or, if you want a romantic atmosphere just right for Valentine's day, you could put a little tealight candle inside and watch the terracotta glow around his heart-shaped opening.

But if you want to avoid an argument about whether to call him Bill or Ben, you might want to get two !

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £9.99

Thursday 11 February 2010

Simple Baby

The whole idea of the Simple Baby product range is that it's simple - it's basic, pure, unremarkable, it does what it's supposed to do, with no fuss and nonsense, end of story. The problem from a reviewer's point of view is therefore that, although I've got nothing bad to say about it, I haven't got anything particularly good to say about it either ! Many other babycare ranges have their unique selling point - it's organic, or luxurious, or highly scientific, or 100% natural, or it comes from some exotic country, or it smells incredibly delicious. Well, Simple babycare is just that - it's simple, unobtrusive and unexceptional. It's neither a ludicrously expensive luxury range nor a dirt-cheap value range. It's just in the middle, a perfectly ordinary but effective baby range.

All of the products do exactly what they say on the label, no more no less. The Moisturising All-In-One Wash "gently cleanses your baby's delicate skin and hair with no tears" and the
Baby Shampoo "leaves baby's hair soft and shiny and cleanses with no tears". As Pierre hasn't got much hair, they're pretty much interchangeable for us at the moment. I even tried them out for myself and they're quite acceptable as shower gel and shampoo for adults too. I usually use a 2-in-1 shampoo/conditioner so I felt the need to use a conditioner afterwards but apart from that, the baby shampoo left me with soft, clean hair. Pierre's skin and hair did feel lovely and soft and moisturised, although not as nicely scented as with some other baby products. That's logical, as they are 100% perfume and colour-free, which is great if your baby has particularly sensitive skin.

After his bath, I used the talc ("gently dries and smoothes") and the Zinc and Castor Oil Barrier Cream ("gently protects and soothes"), which are just as mild and gentle as the bath products. The talc is just like any other talc I've ever tried. The barrier cream was not quite what I was expecting - for me, barrier cream means that it stays on the surface of the skin as a fairly greasy, stodgy layer. This cream can be rubbed into the skin until it's completely absorbed, leaving wonderfully soft skin and just a slightly greasy feel which presumably acts as the protective barrier. When you open the tub, it's almost solid but is very easy to rub into the skin and doesn't feel at all lumpy or gritty like some other barrier creams I've used in the past. The website says that this "baby moisturiser" will "keep skin happy and protected day and night". I initially used it on Pierre's nappy area but quickly started using it on his face too. His cheeks are often slightly red and sore with the cold weather and his chin is sometimes dribbly and red too, and this cream is a vast improvement on the other protective barrier creams I've been using that do help but leave an unsightly white residue all over his baby face. This cream soothes and protects but is invisible.

The packaging designers really went to town on the baby wipes, giving them a nice green and pink wrapper that moves away from the plain, pure white packaging of the other products in the range ! Like the other products, they are very mild, with no perfume or colours, so are ideal for sensitive skin, particularly as they have added moisturisers and pro-vitamin B5. Most baby wipes in our house are used for cleaning up particularly pooey bottoms, but as these are "Moisturise and Care Wipes", designed to nourish and protect skin as well as cleaning it, they are also ideal for use on baby's face and hands. Great for cleaning up pureed carrots when Pierre gets as much around his mouth as in it ! They also work well for Mum removing make up at the end of the day, leaving skin feeling clean and also moisturised, so they're a real time saver. They're moist enough to do the job but not overly wet, like some other wipes.

The whole range is ideal for caring for baby's delicate and often sensitive skin. The website explains that they are all paediatrician approved, dermatologically approved and hypoallergenic, 100% perfume and colour free with no unnecessary additives. They're not the most amazingly exciting products, but they are reassuringly pure and simple, which is basically all that baby needs.

star rating : 4.5/5
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