Tuesday 27 April 2010

Creatures Toddlers' Hand Wash

Ever since the mass panic created by bird and then swine flu, as soon as you mention the words "hygiene" and "hands", everybody automatically thinks hand sanitizer. But what happened to good old soap and water ? Killing off germs is great and being able to clean your hands when you're out and about and can't necessarily get to a bathroom is handy, but for general day-to-day cleanliness, you still need to get your kids into a good handwashing routine. Just the other day, Juliette came in for a snack with filthy hands after playing in the park and told me she'd cleaned her hands with a squirt of sanitizer over the ingrained dirt - hmmm. Time for a rethink !

Well, the amazingly cute picture of a baby zebra on the bottle of Creatures Toddlers' Hand Wash is absolutely perfect for encouraging young children to give up the hand sanitizer and head for the soap and water ! Juliette loves the "zebra soap", as she's dubbed it, because it comes out as a foam and is lovely and soft on her hands. She also likes the smell it leaves on her skin and often comes to make me smell her hands after she's washed them !

I love the fact that it's made from natural ingredients, including organic Rooibos and natural Aloe Vera. I'd heard about Rooibos tea but didn't actually know it could be used in other products. It turns out that it has been used for hundreds of years by the African “bush people” who use its powerful healing properties in natural remedies. The whole range of Creatures products was dreamt up by a South African-born lady, who was pregnant with her first child and who was obviously well aware of the tradition of using rooibos to treat all manner of ills in her homeland. "A South-African mother stumbled on the natural healing powers of Rooibos when she added Rooibos tea to her baby's bottle, and found it to be instantly calming and soothing. Ever since, thousands of mothers in South Africa have experienced success with colic, food allergies, eczema, insomnia and hyperactivity in their babies and children." Well, washing your hands with Creatures Toddlers' Hand Wash may not do all that but it will certainly get you lovely clean hands !

The manufacturer also explains that it uses "100% natural fragrances and colours, and contains no parabens, petro-chemicals or sulphates, making it particularly good for children with sensitive skin, eczema or other skin conditions. All Creatures products are made in the UK to reduce carbon footprint, the packaging is recyclable, none of the products are tested on animals and the company is involved with a children’s charity in South Africa to help those in needs. " Maybe that's why the zebra on the bottle looks so happy !

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £9.50 for 420ml

for more information and to buy online : http://www.theworldofcreatures.com/toddlers.html

Monday 26 April 2010

Organix Baby Food and Children's Snacks

If you want to feed your children healthy, organic food right from the outset, the name Organix says it all. As they say on their website, "All children deserve the best start in life and choosing to feed them organic food is an important part of this. This means safe foods - free from artificial chemical pesticides. Our ingredients are grown and reared the natural way, with respect for the environment."

As a parent, that's reassuring but equally important is the taste test. If the kids don't like the taste and refuse to eat it or spit it out, it doesn't matter how healthy it is, it still won't do them any good ! So I was intrigued to see what Pierre would make of Organix baby food, especially as at the time I first tried the Organix products, he was literally just starting weaning - always a stressful time for parents !

Well, the picture says it all ! The Organic Apple & Mango with Oaty Yoghurt went down a treat, as did the other stage 2 jars I tried him on. It all looked reassuringly homemade, which is great if you feel slightly guilty about giving baby shop-bought food instead of making it all yourself. Organix promise to "only make pure, natural and tasty organic foods that give good nutrition for our children" and the tastes and textures are obviously perfectly suited to young palates because Pierre polished off the lot !

But Organix don't just produce baby food. They also make a range of fruit purees in squishy pouches called 'Squeezys' which come in three flavours : Strawberry, Banana & Pear, Kiwi, Pear & Banana and Mango, Pear & Orange. Again, as you can see from the pictures, these got a huge thumbs up from both 8-year-old Sophie and 5-year-old Juliette. They're designed for children aged 12 months and over but are absolutely perfect for popping in lunchboxes or keeping in your handbag/the glovebox of the car, where they quite successfully stave off whines of both "I'm hungry" AND "I'm thirsty" while you're out and about - bonus ! They also offer the same "No junk" promise as all the other Organix products and count towards your five-a-day fruit and vegetable portions. Taste-wise, they're lovely - they taste naturally fruity (which is because they really are fruity, not just fruit-flavoured !) and have just the right balance of sweetness and tartness. The girls loved the squeezy pouches and the little resealable lids are great for kids who have small appetites as they can close them and come back to them whenever they wish (if someone else hasn't nipped in the fridge and polished them off while they weren't looking, which is a distinct possibility because they're so yummy !).

But that's still not all ! Organix also have a wide range of finger foods, biscuits and snacks, which I didn't know about, always thinking that their "no junk" promise would make it impossible to come up with this sort of "naughty" treat. Juliette tested the Alphabet biscuits and declared them delicious (that was actually all she said before running off to hide so that big sister Sophie didn't see them and pinch them !). The wholegrain biscuits are made from a combination of fruit, oats and seeds and again are perfect for lunchboxes because they come in handy individual bags. Juliette loved naming the letters on each biscuit and seeing which words she could make before eating them all ! I also love the fact that they're sweetened with grape juice instead of sugar. When they say No Junk, they really do mean No Junk !

I was really impressed with all the products we tested, both for babies and older children. I presumed it would be more expensive than the non-organic competitors but there are actually some really good deals, for example at Poundland. Huge thumbs up from both Mum and the kids !
star rating : 5/5
for more information : http://www.organix.com/

Sunday 25 April 2010

Simply Roses - Roses de Jardin Interior Fragrance

"A bed of roses", "come out smelling like a rose", "Everything's coming up roses", "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet", "look at life through rose-tinted spectacles" ... whichever expression you pick, roses always seem to be synonymous with pleasant, beautiful, positive things.

That's great news for this collection of rose-based home and beauty products, named quite simply "Simply Roses". If you like the colour pink and the delicate, feminine scent of roses, you'll be in your element.

I was sent the Roses de Jardin (which sounds so much more romantic than Garden Roses !) Interior Fragrance to try out. I was slightly apprehensive because when it's done badly (and presumably cheaply), rose-scented products can sometimes smell cloying and sickly. This was certainly not the case here though - it smells of actual roses, like a walk around a quintessentially English garden after a summer rainshower, rather than a cheap pack of rose-scented toiletries that your great aunt probably picked up in the pound shop !

The website says, "A spritz here and there of our Roses de Jardin Interior Fragrance will perfume your home with the deliciously lingering scent of vintage garden roses. Bring the outside in and convince yourself it's summer every day of the year! " Well, they took the words right out of my mouth. Even if you just spray it into the air, as opposed to on to bedding or cushions, the scent does linger for an impressively long time. The smell is feminine and delicate, but not overly so - my husband thought it smelt nice and natural too - and it's not overpowering or headachey, as some room fragrances are.

Carolyn Dunster, who set up the company, is a professional florist so she knows her stuff. She explains, "Simply Roses was born out of my personal passion for the world's favourite flower. Our range of rose-inspired body, bath and home fragrance products is a luxurious hand-picked collection created to reflect the natural beauty of a Simply Roses bouquet. Enjoy ! "

My only very slight criticism would be that the bottle looks a bit cheap and homemade - the glass bottle allows us to see the purity and the prettiness of the pink liquid inside, but the bottle itself and the plain pink stick-on label don't reflect the high quality of the product inside. It doesn't really matter because once you've spritzed the spray, you will most probably keep it out of sight in a cupboard, but if you are giving it as a special gift, it does slightly cheapen the image of the product which is a real shame.

As a sufferer of hayfever, I absolutely love the fact that I can take advantage of the wonderful scent of roses without spending the next couple of hours sniffling and rubbing my eyes !

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £14.95 for 100ml

Saturday 24 April 2010

Apple Flavoured 5Alive

The expression may be "dead as a dodo" but if you've seen the singing and dancing dodo on the 5Alive adverts, the words that spring to mind are more likely to be lively, energy and fun. Well, I was dancing around the room when I first saw the name 5Alive because it's yet another one of those products I remember from my childhood that get me feeling all nostalgic ! The retro Easter eggs from Nestlé got me stupidly excited and 5Alive is another one that takes me back to my youth as a child of the 80s. If this carries on, I really will have to find myself some batwing jumpers, skipants, legwarmers and pink pixie boots ! (Oh those were the days !)
I'm always a bit worried that things won't be as good as I remember them, especially as your tastes change as you get older and you tend to look back at the past through rose-coloured spectacles. But I was pleasantly surprised by the fresh taste of 5Alive. It was as good as I remember.

Advertised as a"fun and fruit-packed breakfast juice drink", I remember that I always saw it as a healthier option to orange squash or fizzy drinks but not quite as healthy as pure orange juice. Well, the website tells us that each 5Alive juice drink is fortified with vitamins and minerals and contains no artificial flavours, colours or preservatives. As you would expect from the label "juice drink", this is not a pure fruit juice and it does contain a relatively high level of sugar - 15.3g in one 250ml serving. But you'll need some energy to start the day and as long as you don't guzzle it all day long, it makes a refreshing and thirst-quenching change from the usual juices on offer.

It may be called apple flavour but as the name suggests, there are actually five fruits packed in each carton (but no, that doesn't mean you can drink one glass to cover your 5-a-day recommended fruit portions !) : it's 30% apple blended with grapes, pears, kiwi fruits and lemon. You definitely get an apple taste but then your tastebuds do a little bit of jiggling around (like the dodo !) and try to work out what other fruity tangs they can detect.

The new apple blend joins three other 5Alive flavours, called Citrus, Berry and Tropical. As they contain up to 42% real juice content and are fortified with vitamins and minerals, I'm quite happy for my kids to drink a glass every day, for breakfast or as a healthier alternative to the all too frequently additive-packed squashes and fizzy drinks.

Hmmm I wonder what the next product from my childhood will be that makes its way on to the supermarket shelves - I can't wait ! (And I also can't stop singing the Um Bongo advert now - who remembers that ?! All together now ... Way down deep in the middle of the Congo, a python picked a passion fruit a guava and a mango, He stuck it with the others and he danced a dainty tango, The rhino said "I know ! We'll call it Um Bongo" Um bongo um bongo they drink it in the Congo ... I wonder if our kids will still remember the 5Alive dodo in 30 years' time !)

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : 99p for 1 litre

The Boy Who Climbed Into The Moon - David Almond

The boy who climbed into the moon is called Paul, he lives in the basement of a very very tall tower block and his head is full of strange and fanciful ideas, including the one that says that the moon is in fact a big hole in the sky. Luckily, he fits right in because his block of flats is full of enchantingly eccentric characters, who all club together to help him find out if his strange idea is true and climb up to - and into - the moon.

The Walker Books website suggests that the book is suited to readers aged 7 and upwards, but it appealed to both Sophie, aged 8 (oops, sorry, she's just informed me she's closer to 9 than 8 now !!) and 5-year-old Juliette. It's quite long for a kids' book - over 120 pages - but the vocabulary is simple to read and understand, which is a real confidence boost for learner readers, and the gorgeous, brightly coloured and fascinatingly detailed illustrations split up the story into easily digestable sections.

We took it in turns, with both me and Sophie reading pages, and she also loved it when I read the narration and she read the different characters' speech parts. The characters are all weird and wonderful but believably human and Paul is just an ordinary little boy, with a highly-active imagination and a pair of worried parents, that all little readers can identify with.

If you, as a parent, want to take some of the issues further, you could use this book to explain the notions of community spirit, keeping people alive by remembering them, tolerating other people who are different, believing in yourself and your ideas, working towards your dreams, even the concept of war ! But taking it at face value, it is a beautifully-presented, endearing modern fairy-tale that you can read together as a family for at least a couple of weeks' worth of quality time at bedtime.

The author, David Almond, and the illustrator, Polly Dunbar, already worked together for the highly acclaimed My Dad’s a Birdman, which I am definitely going to look out for now.

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £9.99

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 9781406314571
Published: 05 Apr 2010
Size: 229 x 152 mm
Pages: 128

Book review : My Family and Other Strangers: Adventures in Family History - Jeremy Hardy

The blurb on the back of the book explains, "When Jeremy Hardy decided to explore his ancestry it was, in part, to get to the bottom of his grandmother Rebecca's dubious claims that the family descended from a certain 17th-century architect and that, more recently, Jeremy's great-grandfather was a Royal bodyguard. Other legends ranged from the great aunt who ran illegal hooch during Prohibition to the wronged Victorian servant girl who bore an illegitimate Hardy, not forgetting the family's rightful claim to a large country estate."

Having researched my own family history pretty much as thoroughly as you can online, I can relate to the strange family rumours and even stranger truths that are lurking in the ancestral closets along with the generations of skeletons. I was also intrigued to see how he would get on doing it "for real", actually going to the records offices and hunting for gravestones in churchyards. I always feel like I've missed out on all that side of things by no longer being in the country of my birth and TV programmes like Who do you think you are? make it all look so easy and fascinating.

Well, to begin with, Jeremy is like a kid with a new toy, excitedly telling us about his ancestors and the way he's researching things, and his enthusiasm is infectious. But unfortunately it's also shortlived, fizzling out about halfway through the book. On some trips to the record office, he gets bored and hopes that it's soon closing time and he can't be bothered to follow up certain leads. He curtails his description of one ancestor's life with a dismissive "blablabla". That's fair enough, but if he can't get enthusiastic about his subject matter, how can he expect us to get enthusiastic about reading it ? At one point, he says he doesn't care if we like his writing, as long as his former English teacher thinks it's good - well, that's a great way of connecting with your readers !

I found that the book sometimes lacked direction. Bearing in mind that the average family history buff is a silver-haired, tea-drinking pensioner (even if I don't fit that description !), I found the large number of F-words irritating, especially as they were totally unnecessary. Similarly, the author's political ramblings and frequent no-holds-barred criticisms of the police force seemed out of place. And it got to the point where I rolled my eyes every time I read the recurring phrase "I did a comedy night here once" or the non-stop discussions of the relative merits of taking the train over the car. Do we really care ?!

The book cover describes the author as "one of the sharpest comedians in the country" but, living in France, I'd never heard of him. Fans of his would surely be happy to read this for autobiographical value alone and would be more accepting of his sometimes controversial stances. I enjoyed it and happily read the whole book, because I am in the target audience (according to the blurb on the back of the book) of "anyone who has ever tried to decipher the 1901 census record or who has simply wished that they too had asked their grandparents more about their lives". But I do wonder if, without an interest in family history or Jeremy Hardy himself, some readers will find it slightly tedious.

star rating : 3/5

RRP : £11.99

Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Ebury Press (4 Mar 2010)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0091927501
ISBN-13: 978-00919275091

Thursday 22 April 2010

Charity e-book released today - Dorothy Koomson - No Man & Other Stories To Help Haiti

Today's the day not that the teddy bears have their picnic but that a fabulous new anthology of stories from best-selling authors goes on sale, to help raise money for UNICEF to support the children of Haiti. The date is very significant because it was exactly 100 days ago that the earthquake caused such destruction. I fleetingly wondered why they put the focus on just the children of Haiti but was shocked to learn that Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere and nearly 40 percent of its population is under the age of 14. An estimated 3 million people were affected when the earthquake hit Haiti on 12 January and close to 1.5 million children were directly affected.

The anthology entitled No Man and Other Stories to Help Haiti has been edited by Dorothy Koomson, who provides her own story, and includes entries from Alexander McCall Smith, Nina Bell, William Peter Blatty, Nick Brownlee, Louise Candlish, Stella Duffy, Kate Furnivall, Alex Gray, Clare Jay, Shari Low, Martina Reilly and Bernadette Strachan. That's a pretty impressive line-up, especially as they all donated their stories and stand to make no money at all from this. In fact, everyone involved, including Waterstone's and the typesetter Jouve/TexTech, has donated 100% of their profits and given their time for free to support this worthwhile cause.
These are joyful, uplifting stories, written to raise funds to help Haitian children affected by the earthquake, but just as importantly, to raise the spirits – they are stories of hope.

The anthology will be available to purchase exclusively from Waterstones.com, priced at £5.00. All proceeds will be going directly to Unicef’s relief efforts in Haiti.
Click through to buy it now and walk around all day with a smile knowing you've done your bit to help !

The contributors:
Dorothy Koomson is the author of six best-selling novels: The Cupid Effect, The Chocolate Run, My Best Friend’s Girl (selected for Richard & Judy’s 2006 ‘Summer Reads’ Book Club), Marshmallows for Breakfast, Goodnight, Beautiful and The Ice Cream Girls (which I reviewed here). Her books have been translated into 28 languages across the world. Dorothy is also a trained journalist and has written for numerous publications, including The Guardian, Red, New Woman and Cosmopolitan.

Alexander McCall Smith is one of the world’s most prolific and most popular authors. His various series of books, including The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the Scotland Street novels, first published as a serial novel in The Scotsman, the Isabel Dalhousie novels and the Von Igelfeld series, have become bestsellers throughout the world. Alexander has received numerous awards for his writing and holds honorary doctorates from nine universities.

Nina Bell has worked on She, Harpers & Queen and Good Housekeeping, and has written for The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, Ideal Home, Woman & Home, Country Living, The FT Magazine How To Spend It, and a wide range of other national magazines and newspapers. She is also the author of six radio plays, broadcast by Radio 4, and The Inheritance and Sisters in Law, novels published by Sphere. Her new book Lovers and Liars will be published in the autumn.

William Peter Blatty has thrilled generations of readers with his iconic international bestselling novel and screenplay The Exorcist. The Redemption, his first novel in over 25 years, will be published by Piatkus in 2011 and is a riveting story of murder, revenge and suspense. Blatty lives with his wife and a son in Maryland.

Nick Brownlee is a former Fleet Street journalist who now runs his own freelance news agency. He is also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels, Bait and Burn, published by Piatkus. Machete, the third book in his Kenyan Crime series is published in July. Nick lives in Cumbria with his wife and daughter.

Louise Candlish worked as an editor and a copywriter before she handed her notice in, booked a flight to Sicily, and started writing her first novel. She is the author of six previous novels. Before We Say Goodbye, Since I Don’t Have You, The Second Husband and The Double Life of Anna Day are published by Sphere. Her new novel, Other People’s Secrets is publishing this July.

Stella Duffy is the author of seven novels and the Saz Martin crime series. She has published over thirty short stories, many feature articles, and also writes for radio and theatre. She was born in the UK, grew up in New Zealand and now lives in London. In addition to her writing work she is an actor and improviser. Her new novel, Theodora, is publishing this June.

Kate Furnivall was born in Wales and now lives in Devon. Her debut novel, The Russian Concubine, became an international bestseller in 2007 and was inspired by the childhood experiences of her mother and grandmother, who fled from Russia to China following the communist revolution in 1917. She is also the author of Under a Blood Red Sky and The Concubine’s Secret and The Jewel of St Petersburg the much anticipated prequel to The Russian Concubine.

Alex Gray has been awarded the Scottish Association of Writers' Constable and Pitlochry trophies for her crime writing and has a rapidly growing fan-base of readers. Her previous novels, Pitch Black, The Riverman, Glasgow Kiss and the forthcoming Five Ways to Kill a Man are all published by Sphere.

Clare Jay’s short stories and poetry have won prizes and appeared in anthologies. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and tutors the subject at university level. Her debut novel, Breathing in Colour, garnered wonderful reviews and her new novel, Dreamrunner, will be published in the autumn. She grew up in Devon and now lives in Portugal.

Shari Low has worked as a nightclub manager, a sales rep, run health clubs and lived in Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Shanghai, London and Los Angeles. She now lives with her husband and two children near Glasgow and writes a weekly opinion column for the Daily Record. She is the author of seven books including My Best Friend’s Life, A Brand New Me and the forthcoming Temptation Street.

Martina Reilly, formerly writing as Tina Reilly, is the author of a number of bestselling novels, including the Impac-long-listed Something Borrowed. Martina has worked as a columnist for the Irish Evening Herald, but gave it up to write full time. Her novels Wish Upon a Star, Wedded Blitz, Something Borrowed, Summer of Secrets, Second Chances, The Wish List and the forthcoming A Moment Like Forever are all published by Sphere.

Bernadette Strachan worked as a radio commercial producer and a voice-over agent before becoming an author. She has written six novels including The Reluctant Landlady, Handbags and Halos, Diamonds and Daisies, Little White Lies, How to Lose a Husband and Gain a Life. Her new novel Why Do We Have To Live With Men? will be published this autumn and she is currently working on a second stage musical with her husband.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Book review : Hand of Fate - Lis Wiehl

When Jim Fate, controversial radio talk-show host, receives a package in the mail containing a canister of deadly gas, the whole of downtown Portland is evacuated as everyone assumes it's another terrorist attack using sarin gas. The scenes of mass panic in the opening pages of this novel are chilling. Children are separated from their parents, people are trampled to death, hospitals are soon overflowing with patients succombing to their psychosomatic symptoms. But there are also a few everyday heroes, looking out for those too weak to get out by themselves, which is a heartwarming echo of the acts of human kindness of tragedies like 9/11.

But once the mass hysteria dies down, it's time to get down to the real problem of finding the killer. That's easier said that done because Jim has a lot of enemies, ranging from co-workers to people who didn't share his views to listeners he openly ridiculed on air. Although it was interesting enough to follow the investigation, I found that the high drama and emotion of the opening scenes quickly fizzled out.

The "Triple Threat" trio of friends - Federal Prosecutor Allison Pierce, FBI Special Agent Nicole Hedges and crime reporter Cassidy Shaw - who come together to unravel the case, will appeal to lovers of chick lit. They all have their own personal dramas to deal with - date rape, miscarriage, prescription drug addiction - which helps readers to bond with them, but I felt that these issues, along with some others like the questioning of faith at the end, were glossed over. They could have been developed to a much greater level and really added some depth to the characters but it almost seemed as if they had been thrown in as an afterthought or possibly almost entirely edited out. I found myself wondering if this was a chick-lit novel pretending to be a crime novel or a crime novel blatantly trying to appeal to the female market.

That said, it's an enjoyable enough read that will keep you guessing right up until the final pages - and even then, you'll probably still be wrong !

star rating : 3.5/5

RRP: £16.99

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (1 Mar 2010)
ISBN-10: 1595547061
ISBN-13: 978-1595547064

Pom-Bear’s campaign to encourage kids to take part in team sports

I thought this press release might appeal to any mums of soccer-mad little boys (or girls !) :

Football is the number one sport in schools but nearly a quarter of children do not take part in any organised sport at all. With World Cup fever set to grip the nation this summer with South Africa 2010, what better time to get your children interested in the nation’s favourite game ? Football is a perfect, low-cost, fun game that the whole family can play together.


Pom-Bear is encouraging parents to get their children into football and has teamed up with Football Aid to offer 50 places each at two Pom-Bear Football Academies, both of which will take place in September/October 2010. One will be held at Chelsea FC’s training ground and the other at Blackburn Rover FC’s training ground. On arrival, children will be greeted by Pom-Bear and receive their very own Pom-Bear footie kit containing limited edition shirt, shorts and socks in a drawstring bag. The day will then be kick-started by Football Aid patron and premiership football great Graeme Le Saux, who will give training sessions with official football coaches and Pom-Bear! Training will be followed by a once in a lifetime tour of either Stamford Bridge or Ewood Park and a five-a-side tournament and score against Pom-Bear. All winners will also leave with a certificate confirming they took part in the Pom-Bear Football Academy and were trained by Graeme Le Saux. See promotional packs available from mid May 2010 for full details on how to enter.
There’s also one limited edition Pom-Bear football to be won every 90 minutes between 8am and 8pm, from May 15th - August 31st 2010. Simply text to win, and for every text entry received, Pom-Bear will donate 5p to Football Aid. See promotional packs for details or visit http://www.pom-bear.co.uk/ for more information about Pom-Bear Football Academies in association with Football Aid, ‘extra-time’ chances to win Pom-Bear Let’s Play Footie goodies. Plus, your children can join the Pom-Bear club and play the online footie game.

To find out more about Pom-Bear snacks, including the healthier Bakes, you can see my recent review here.

Giveaway #8 - Heartland Box set, valued at £29.99 - closed - winner PAIGE

And the winner is ... Paige. Well done, it was all those bonus entries for the comments that won it for you I think ! Congratulations and let me know when the prize arrives ! :-)


The multi-award winning series has recently transferred over to British screens following a successful American and Canadian run. Now on E4 the programme has found a new audience for Lauren Brooke fans- the author of the multi million selling Heartland series from which the TV show takes its inspiration.

The series follows the Fleming family - Grandpa Jack, (Shaun Johnston), 15-year-old Amy (Amber Marshall) and 20-something older sister Lou (Michelle Morgan) - as they deal with the ups and downs of running a ranch that’s been in the family for generations but is now so deep in debt they’re one bank payment away from losing it all. After the sudden death of their mother, the girls’ lives change forever.

This popular series has gathered a large and loyal fan base of easy going TV lovers and riding fans; many of whom engage with the modern family centric drama as a cult watch (particularly students) and wholesome entertainment for a family night in.

The boxset is released on the 26th April but you can win a copy right here ! Just leave me a comment in the comments box and most importantly of all, a way of contacting you (preferably twitter name or email) - if I can't contact you, I'll have to pick a different winner ! UK only. Closing date : 29/4/2010

If you're feeling really motivated, you can have up to five extra entries for leaving comments on my reviews ! (one per comment and one word answers won't count !!)

Wacom - Bamboo Fun Pen & Touch

When I was asked to test and review a new game for Nintendo DS (Squeeballs Party), I said yes without a second's hesitation (and you can read the review here). When this same very nice man asked me if I'd also be interested in testing Wacom's new Pen & Touch tablet, I said ummmm .... what's that when it's at home?! After some hasty googling and a quick chat with a less "technologically handicapped" friend, I understood (I think !) the basic function of this impressive sounding gadget. You can use it instead of a mouse and it's great for creating graphic art or customising photos. Well, OK, let's give it a whirl then !

The tablet arrived ten days ago and I took it out of its box to admire it (it's really sleek and stylish) but then I put it away next to the computer "to come back to" because, to be quite honest, I was a bit nervous ! But yesterday, I finally plucked up the courage to try it out ...

The first thing I noticed was how very easy it is to install. You plug it into a USB port, the computer detects it's there and asks you to insert the Cdrom in the drive, you wait for a few minutes and that's it, you're ready to go ! I placed it near the keyboard, I wiggled my fingers on the touch-sensitive pad and abracadabra, the cursor started moving around the screen as if my fingers had just become an integral part of the computer. Sophie and Juliette (aged 8 and 5) were really impressed by this "magic" - my husband was slightly less overwhelmed because, as he said, it's just like on a laptop. OK, OK, little things please little minds ! Without consulting the instruction manual, I worked out how to move the cursor and do a left and right click, with my fingers but also using the buttons next to the touch-pad, so it's really obvious and easy to pick up. Phew !

I decided to watch the tutorial on the CDrom, which showsyou what the tablet can do and how to use it. It's very detailed - possibly slightly too detailed because it's very long - but Sophie loved watching the demonstrations and copying the actions when the reassuringly calm voice says, "Now it's your turn". She loved the little smiley face and the voice that said "excellent" every time she got it right !

I was really impressed to see that you can totally do without the mouse. Just by putting one or two fingers on the touch-pad, you can move the cursor, drag and drop files on the desktop, do a left, right or double-click, zoom in or out ...

As well as using your fingers, you can use the special digital pen that comes with the tablet (hence the name Pen & Touch), which reminded me a bit of the stylus you use on a DS Lite. This pen allows you to write or draw on the touch-pad and see your work directly on the computer screen. The harder you press (within reason !) on the pen, you thicker the line you draw and you can also change "ink" colour to your heart's content. The girls loved it and gaily covered the screen in handwritten messages. I immediately realised that the artistic opportunies are practically unlimited, especially for customising and playing around with photos, but also for creating a handwritten signature for your emails, producing fantastic personalised greetings cards, keeping an online bank of your children's drawings, ... For people who like digital scrapbooking, it is a fantastic tool for adding effects to photos, rotating them, putting on little handwritten messages or drawings - whatever you can think of really, so just let your imagination run wild !

We were testing the medium-sized tablet, but there is also a smaller one available - the dimensions are 33.7 cm x 22.3 cm x 0.85 cm (or for the smaller one, 24.8 cm x 17.6 cm x 8.5 cm). That means that you need quite a lot of space on your desk next to the keyboard (I had to tidy away the big pile of paperwork lying there !) but it gives you a large area to work with on the touch-pad.

It's a very sleek machine, all metallic silver with a white light when it's plugged in. There's a little ribbon loop on the side for you to keep your digital pen in, and it's the little touches like these that show they've thought of everything - the first thing I thought was that the pen would get lost. They also give you three spare nibs for the pen. For optimal comfort, left-handed people can turn the tablet around and select the left-handed option during the set-up process.

Now that I've tested it, I can vouch for the fact that it's really simple to use and my apprehension was totally unfounded. It takes just a few minutes to pick up the basic functions and do everything you could do with a mouse. It's a more comfortable alternative (especially for anyone with wrist problems) and looks so much more impressive on your computer desk. The artistic possibilities are only restricted by your imagination. It's a whole lot of fun for the whole family.

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £169.99

Monday 19 April 2010

Wikio Shopping - price comparison, customer reviews, cashback and discount codes all in one place

wikio shopping

Wikio, the European search engine for news and blogs, has recently launched Wikio Shopping. It is said to be "an innovative shopping service that goes well beyond simply comparing prices by providing users with the ability to research all the details of a product before buying it". What that means is that users can consult reviews, user opinions, forums, photos and videos, along with being able to exchange their own opinions, reviews and photos with other users. That already sounds quite impressive to me, as I always like to research product details, reviews and prices before I buy anything, but what really sold it is that Wikio Shopping also gives you "promotional codes and offers on more than 3500 vendors. Along with these codes, Wikio also offers a cashback service to its users, called Wikio Deals." Now, I love a bargain so if I can save a few pennies (or even better pounds !) while researching what I need to buy, that's fabulous.

The figures look impressive. Wikio Shopping currently offers :

- more than 235,000 products, sorted into more than 220 categories.

- almost one million product tests/reviews/subject forums concerning products

- more than 600,000 photos, and 475,000 videos

- hundreds of thousands of offers within 9 main categories/themes

- all cultural (art, music etc.)  products via Amazon, and hotels in 6000 cities all over the world via Sprice

- about 400 new products are added per day

- more than 1000 new reviews, product tests and forums added per day

"Wikio provides users with a dashboard view of the product they are researching. All information about the product is gathered from the web, and put in one centralized location. Wikio Shopping provides users with a convenient alternative to current methods of researching a product." It basically sounds to me like all the different browsers I open simultaneously when deciding what to buy but all in one handy location. I'm sure my computer will be much happier to have just one window open, rather than about ten !

I decided to give it a whirl to see if it really is as good as it sounds and headed off to check out pushchairs, as Pierre needs a new one. Well, the first thing that impressed me is that it actually has a "baby & nursery" category on the index page - all too often, the price comparison sites focus on hi-tech stuff or video games and DVDs. Clicking through to the "pushchairs and strollers" page brought up a long list of different models and sellers, including some reassuringly well-known names like Amazon,  Marshall Ward, Toys R Us, Tesco and ebay as well as a whole host of smaller stores that I'd never heard of. That's where the user reviews part comes in because it's always a bit worrying buying from an internet seller when you know nothing about them. Are they reliable ? Is it a scam ? What do other people think ? Well, now you can find out with one easy click.

Well, we only want a cheap lightweight pushchair so I clicked on the "£0 - £50" category, that has 1003 products to choose from. Being a cheapskate, I was immediately attracted by the information that there are 60 results in the £0-£10 category so off I went to have a look. Hmmm unfortunately, that only brought up a list of pushchair accessories and spare parts (well what do you expect for under a tenner, let's be honest !) - this is a computer after all, not a human being, so it can only deal with the words that come up in the search terms. OK, let's try a different way - by going through "type -pushchairs", the first one on the list caught my eye. Hauck Run 6 Buggy Blue - price £31.97 from Little Amigos.

Hauck buggy

What I love is that just a quick glance directly on the search results page tells me that shipping will cost £6.99. I've lost count of the hours I've spent online trying to find delivery costs while researching products to buy. Also, although for this product I need to check availability on the store site, lots of the bigger brands tell me immediately on the search page whether or not the product is in stock. That's a real timesaver. Clicking through to the website, I couldn't understand why the price on the website was cheaper than the price Wikio Shopping came up with, then I realised that they add the shipping charge into the price displayed (£24.98 + £6.99) - yet another stroke of genius and a real timesaver for busy mums. Clicking through to the "more info" page shows me that there aren't any customer reviews for this product or seller yet, but this is a new site so it will hopefully start filling up very soon. What is very handy though is that one simple click will allow me to share the product information on twitter and facebook and ask for people's advice on there.

It's only in the early days but this looks like a really handy tool for quickly and easily finding the best deals online. If you want to try it out for yourselves, go to http://www.wikio.co.uk/shopping .

Sponsored Article

Friday 16 April 2010

Vicks Sinex Soother and First Defence Nasal Sprays

Do you remember that really old advert for Tunes when the guy used to go to the train station and ask for "a decond class redurn to Dottingham please" and nobody could understand him until he unclogged his nose ? Well, I feel like him at the moment ! I'm fed up with not being able to smell anything and more to the point, taste anything - where's the fun in eating chocolate when you can't even taste it ! Luckily, I had a couple of Vicks nasal sprays lingering in the bottom of my "to be reviewed" box so now seemed like the perfect time to try them out.

There are two different nasal sprays available, Sinex Soother "for fast & soothing relief from a blocked nose", and First Defence, which "fights cold germs before they can take hold". Well, this time round, it's too late for me to try First Defence so I decided to test out a quick squirt of Sinex Soother.

I suffer from hayfever so I'm already well-versed in the art of using nasal sprays. In general, it's disgusting because it burns your nose and makes your eyes water then tastes vile as it trickles down the back of your throat. That's what I was expecting as I mentally prepared myself to do battle with Sinex Soother, but I was pleasantly surprised. It seems to be a much finer mist and certainly didn't burn my nose or taste particularly disgusting.

Having read the instructions, I'd noticed that the recommended dosage is 1-2 sprays per nostril for adults and children over 10 years or 1 spray per nostril for children aged 6-10. Children under 6 years mustn't use it and nobody, whatever their age, should use it more than 2-3 times daily. Pregnant women should also avoid it, and breastfeeding mums should use with caution. People with high blood pressure, heart disease, thyroid problems and diabetes should also take special care, as well as those using any other medication.

I was expecting instant but extremely short-lived relief, such as you get when sucking mentholated sweets - they unblock your nose but only for as long as you've got one in your mouth ! Well, I had a quick squirt well over an hour ago and I could still order a train ticket to Nottingham with no problem ! The downside is, I could actually smell when Pierre needed a nappy change instead of going by guesswork, as I have been all week !

Sinex Soother contains Sorbitol and Aloe Vera and the active ingredient oxymetazoline hydrochloride, which is obviously a pretty powerful decongestent because if you take too much, you are advised to go to your doctor or hospital immediately. But as long as you use it sensibly and keep it out of the reach of children, it's a fantastic product to keep in your medicine cabinet for when you've got a stuffy nose.

But prevention is better than cure so if you can get there quick enough, it's got to be worth trying out First Defence. It's another nasal spray but unlike Sinex Soother, it works by trapping cold-causing germs and helping your body to remove them naturally.It's not suitable for children aged under 12 and the box does warn you that when using First Defence, it is normal to experience increased nasal discharge and a temporary stinging or smarting sensation.

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £6.99

Ebuzzing UK launch - bringing bloggers and brands together


an example of an ebuzzing-sponsored blogpost

As a reviewer, I get sent a lot of stuff to test - some of it is good, some of it quite frankly isn't. Most of it has positives AND negatives, which is why I always try to present a balanced view of whatever I've been testing. But however I've got my hands on the products for review, you'll always get my honest, uncensored, independent review. I'm not going to say nice things about something just because I didn't have to pay for it ! Strangely enough, most people I've worked with actually appreciate and applaud the fact that I am 100% honest because it makes my reviews more credible and valuable.

Recently, I came across a new website called ebuzzing that helps put bloggers in touch with companies to work on content together. Their website says, "ebuzzing is a platform for bringing bloggers and advertisers together. It is based on a simple principle: Like. Recommend. Earn. It allows bloggers to monetise their blog, earning money by creating posts about things they genuinely like and want to recommend, whilst advertisers can create buzz for themselves in the communities that are most likely to be interested in them." Eeeek that dirty word "money" has been spoken. Even as a blogger/reviewer myself, I'm always dubious about "sponsored posts" and people that pay you to feature their products - they're not going to pay you to criticise them, right ? Surely you lose your integrity as a blogger if you're just doing it to make money and churn out whatever the person paying you wants you to say ?

Well actually, no. On their website, they explain : "Some may be against sponsored posts and videos claiming that they endanger legitimate word of mouth and can ruin what bloggers stand for. At ebuzzing though, we strive to only add value to blogging, and not to detract from it. As long as a blogger keeps blogging about what they normally blog about, the fact that they get paid for occasional posts shouldn’t detract from the value of what they write. It only strengthens it. Bloggers still have the right to express their own opinions and with the help of ebuzzing they get more facts to present their readers with !"

I decided to have a look around and see exactly what they want bloggers to do. Well, the way that bloggers can get involved is by signing up for different campaigns :

  • Video campaigns with a dedicated player

  • Video campaigns using “syndicated players” and banners

  • Articles written about brands and services that you want to recommend to your readers

As you can see from the screenshot above, you can insert horizontal or vertical banners or a video player or write an article to present a product or company. Transparency is one of the key issues - "Ebuzzing requires the presence of the disclaimer “sponsored post” for all articles, and for the videos the name of the advertiser must be placed so that it is visible to all viewers." This is definitely a good thing - as you'll see at the bottom of this blogpost, this article is a sponsored post itself because ebuzzing want bloggers to talk about them and get them known. But if I hadn't told you, you probably wouldn't have noticed any difference because I'm still being me !

What convinced me to get involved is the huge number of big name brands that ebuzzing are involved with. "More than 800 advertisers have proposed campaigns to bloggers with the help of ebuzzing such as Coca-Cola, Intel, MTV, LʼOréal, MasterCard, Toyota, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, eBay, Canon, Diesel, Warner Bros, Philips, StudioCanal…" That's an impressive list and I have to admit, I've been won over. Especially as, if you look at their article "Why should you join ebuzzing ?", you'll see that some of the past campaigns were for Axe deodorant, Alsa cake mix and Chupa Chup lollipops. I'm a mum of three so I'll admit it, it was the lure of free lollies rather than lolly (cash) that got me !

If you want to get involved too, head over to www.ebuzzing.com and see which campaigns your blog is eligible for.

Sponsored Article

EcoKid Organics for Kids - Daily Tonic Leave-in Conditioner

I've said it before but the best thing about having a reviews blog is the opportunity for testing and finding out about new brands that would otherwise stay off the radar and go unnoticed. I've just been sent a Daily Tonic Leave-in Conditioner from a great new hair care range for children which has just launched in the UK and that I admit I'd never heard of. Eco.kid is a new line of eco-friendly, organic hair care products from Australia , specifically designed for children. Love it already !

I loved it even more when I checked out their website and their ethics. "Eco.kid is ecologically responsible and kid friendly. It is an everyday range (for healthy living) specifically designed for helping to prevent and treat the hair, scalp and skin issues that affect kids. Eco.kid uses certified natural and organic, paraben free, sulphate free, synthetic free, readily biodegradable ingredients. No artificial preservative, fragrance or colouring."

The organic, natural haircare range, which includes shampoo, conditioner and the leave-in conditioner spray that I tested, is specifically designed to help prevent kiddie hair and scalp problems, including cradle cap, dry scalp, split ends and tangles, and even head lice. They explain, "A child’s skin and scalp produces almost six times less oil on a daily basis than an adult’s and can be sensitive to synthetic perfumes, colours, preservatives, heavy film-forming conditioners and aggressive surfactants. Eco.kid is an organic, healthier, biologically friendlier and more effective product range formulated exclusively for the hair, scalp and skin of children aged 3 to 12 years old and so is able to help prevent common problems faced by this age group. Eco.kid... prevention is better than cure.™"

I love the exotic-sounding and "distinctly Australian" (as they say) ingredients that echo some of the grown-up Australian skin and hair care products I've tried and loved myself. Key ingredients include pure Australian essential oils and plant and flower derived ingredients, Tea Tree oil, Aniseed oil, Sandalwood oil and Citrus peel extract. I'd never thought about why the Aussies are so good at creating natural but effective beauty products, but the eco.kid website explains, "The harsh beauty of the Australian climate has evolved our flora into a powerhouse of phyto-resources. Eco.kid key flower and plant ingredients include wild harvested Kakadu Plum, the world’s richest natural fruit source of vitamin C and essential oils of Australian Eucalyptus, Australian Nerolina, Australian Lemon-scented Myrtle, Australian Lemon-scented Tea Tree, Australian Aniseed Myrtle, Australian Blue Cypress and Australian Sandalwood—all of which have well known benefits and possess varying anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties."

OK, I'm totally convinced by the theory but what is it actually like ? First of all, the bottle is ingenious. It comes in a handy spray-pump bottle. The first thing I tried to do was pull off the little white plastic clip that blocks the trigger ... in vain ! Unlike any other pump dispenser I've tried, the little trigger-block doesn't come off - you just twist it round, then twist it back when you've finished. That means that little fingers can't "accidentally" spray it all over the bathroom or in the dog's eyes when you're not looking. Genius !

The product itself is really light and smells fresh and citrussy. It's not at all greasy or sticky and reminded me of the detangling spray that I often use on the Sophie and Juliette's hair. I didn't actually realise until I read the bottle that it had anti-headlice properties, so that's proof that it doesn't smell at all unpleasant or astringent, like the eye-watering chemical versions. It's a real three-in-one product : detangler, conditioner and headlice repellent - so it's actually great value for money (and saves the bathroom clutter you'd have with three separate bottles, not to mention reducing your household waste).

I recommend the product, I recommend the ethics ... and I also recommend you read the label because it had me grinning inanely ! "Fish are cool. We love fish, in fact we love all little critters except for ... you guessed it ... nasty little lice ! [..] With pure Australian essential oils this product creates an invisible force field around every hairshaft to seal in moisture and hold down the fluffies, making it tuff for little critters looking for a new home." The list of 'non-ingredients' (no synthetics, no artificial fragrances, ...) ends with "No anchovies" !

I absolutely love it - a huge thumbs up on all counts !

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £12.99 for 500ml.

The Aquitaine region of France - "You will do anything to stay once you are there" !

If I say to you the name of the French "département" Aquitaine (that's a region, if you're hopeless at French!), you'll probably say you've never heard of it. But if I say Bordeaux, you'll go "ahhh the wine !" Well, yep, that's one of the things Aquitaine is famous for. It also offers great scenery, as it's in the South-Western corner of France, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Pyrenees mountain range on the border with Spain.

"Tourisme d'Aquitaine" is trying to lure Brits over for a visit with a new campaign ... "Aquitaine - where there are seaside-to-vine-golf courses; it's a golfer's paradise! The ocean coast and the interior are home to some of the loveliest golf courses in France and Europe! Find a course in Aquitaine today and book your trip! You will do anything to stay once you are there… !"

Have a look at their video - it may explain why I'm still here after all these years !

Thursday 15 April 2010

Method Bowl Patrol Biodegradable Toilet Cleaner

Last month, I reviewed Method Flushable Bathroom & Toilet Wipes (a review you can see here), which got a huge thumbs up and a star rating of 4.5/5. I did however say that the label didn't mention them being anti-bacterial so I still felt I needed a quick squirt of my normal bleach-based toilet cleaner to be on the safe side and kill off any nasty germs lurking around. Quick as a flash, the lovely man from Method emailed me to say there is a matching biodegradable toilet cleaner and asking if I'd like to try it. Well, obviously, I said yes !

I have tried quite a few different products from Method now and there hasn't been a single one that I haven't liked. Sure enough, as soon as I set eyes on the bottle, I was amazed at how pretty it is - I've never had a toilet cleaner I'd class as pretty before ! But with its pale blue colour, little embossed flowers and the rounded curves of the bottle, you could even say it looks feminine. I guess they've accurately worked out who the target audience for toilet cleaners is !

And once again, as usual, their packaging got me smiling to myself - I love the name Bowl Patrol ! I also love the eco-friendly values clearly labelled on the bottle : "non-toxic clean - biodegradable toilet bowl cleaner - natural power of lactic acid". Lactic acid ? Isn't that what makes your muscles burn when you use them repeatedly ?! Well, whatever it is, the label tells us it's people-friendly ("It's like a breath of fresh air for you and your bathroom"), toilet-friendly ("dissolves grime, rust, calcium deposits and ring-around-the-rim"), future-friendly ("non-toxic, naturally-derived and biodegradable ingredients make for happy pipes and happy fish" !) and easy to use ("twist cap, squirt around toilet bowl and under rim, wait 10 minutes while it does its thing, brush, flush and breathe easy").

Speaking of breathe easy, it has that same relaxing, spa-inspired eucalyptus scent that goes with the flushable wipes. It's a much more calming, delicate scent than most of the really overpowering toilet cleaners on the market. OK, cleaning the toilet is never going to be glamorous but this product certainly makes it a bit less unpleasant !

I love the fact that it's non-toxic if ingested or comes into contact with skin. I like to clean the toilet seat with something that will kill germs but am always worried about the girls sitting on it straight after I've cleaned it. The Method scientists have worked hard to come up with a product that gets you a clean toilet without harming you or the planet. "A non-toxic toilet bowl cleaner that works as well as any method product took us a while to figure out, but it was worth the wait. Natural lactic acid and thickening gum give bowl patrol its non—toxic magic, and the renewable energy and DfE recognition just add to its eco-mojo."

Having already tried and loved numerous Method products, I think it's great that I can rely on them once again to replace my harsh bleach-based products with something that's much greener (not to mention pleasing on the eye and nose !).

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £3

for more information : http://www.methodproducts.co.uk/bowlpatrol.html

Give Up Clothes for Good - Until 25th April, donate your old clothes to TK Maxx and help fight leukemia

Cancer Research UK, the worlds leading charity dedicated to cancer research has partnered with fashion retailer TK Maxx for a fourth time to launch the UK’s longest running charity collection partnership to raise valuable funds to help beat childhood cancers.

Launched in 2004 and referred to previously as GiveGet, the 2010 campaign is called Give Up Clothes for Good and is calling upon the nation to strip their wardrobes bare, for the biggest clothing and homeware collection ever.

Supported by celebrities and shoppers across the country, the campaign has already raised a staggering £3.2 million worth of donations to help beat children’s cancer and aims to raise even more for Cancer Research UK's life-saving research by the end of 2010.

Just grab a clothes donation bag from TK Maxx (or bring your own), fill it up with quality unwanted clothes and homewares, then drop it off in your local TK Maxx store.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Boo Boo Baby Soft & Splashy Bubbles

"I love my Boo Boo bubbles
They're fluffy and they float
Mummy says they're extra kind
Because they're made with oats !"

This cute little ditty (which for some reason always makes me think of "I eat my peas with honey, I've done it all my life, It makes the peas taste funny But it keeps them on my knife !" which comes straight out of one of my childhood bedtime books !), combined with the cute pictures of elephants blowing bubbles on the label, go together to produce some of the most appealing baby product packaging that I've seen in a while.

Before I even opened the bottle, I was smiling to myself and feeling all fluffy and warm. When I pressed the handy flip-top lid and squirted a tiny amount under running water, I first marvelled at the amount of bubbles from such a tiny squirt then breathed in deeply to fully benefit from the gorgeous smell. It's such a relaxing, stress-busting, delicious scent that it is absolutely perfect for baby's bathtime to help him relax and get ready for bedtime. I am also definitely going to pinch some myself the next time I have a bath to relax and unwind after a long day.

Closer investigation of the label meant that things just kept getting better and better and my already very high opinion rocketed even further skywards. "We put only kind and soothing ingredients into your baby’s bubbles: Tahitian Monoi, from Tiare blossoms to hydrate and protect, marshmallow plant extract to moisturise and oats to gently cleanse. With added olive oil, coconut oil and chamomile it leaves baby’s skin soft and silky smooth. Suitable for the most sensitive little dumplings !" And if that doesn't convince you, they really hammer home the "no chemical nasties" message with the words, "HOORAY ! We've banned the baddies ! NO parabens, sulphates, TEA petrochemicals, synthetic colours or DEA".

It left Pierre's skin lovely and soft and smelling gorgeous. I don't know if it was a coincidence or a result of the lovely relaxing scent but he also drifted off to sleep calmly and peacefully for the first time this week, since he's had a cold and a very snuffly nose. A huge mum-thumbs up all round. It's bliss in a bottle !

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £6.99 for 250ml

Book review : Living La Vida Loca - Belinda Jones

I have to admit to smirking guiltily to myself at the title Living La Vida Loca and the sultry macho Latino sex-god dancing flirtatiously on the cover of the book with a woman in a dress split provocatively to the thigh, especially when there is a cheeky reference to Ricky Martin in the book itself - but that's just bad timing because I happened to start reading this in the week that the real Ricky Martin came out of the closet. Don't get me wrong, I applaud Ricky for coming clean and have no problem whatsoever with his sexual preferences, but it does seem farcical now to think of him singing "She bangs, she bangs" surrounded by hyperventilating female fans !

But Ricky-references aside, what we have here is a fine example of feel-good chicklit that will be absolutely perfect for reading by the pool this summer. It follows two girls, best friends Beth the professional dancer and Carmen with two left feet, who get whisked off into the world of reality TV dance shows.

As they visit three major dance capitals of the world, Argentina, Spain and Cuba, in order to learn the tango, paso doble and salsa, it becomes evident just how much effort author Belinda Jones put into researching the book - the book was three years in the making and she really did go to the countries and learn the dances herself, drawing on her own personal experiences in the novel. As well as explaining the cultural hotspots of the cities and the history of the dances, she gives us a real insight into the lifestyles and mentalities of the people in each country. The descriptions of poor people collecting cardboard boxes to recycle and earn a few pennies to get by and the brutal but breath-taking reality of the controversial art of bullfighting, for example, really bring the exotic locations to life and add extra depth to the basic storyline of life, love and dancefloors.

The central characters are deeply flawed which makes them very likeable. In particular, Carmen's story of her abusive relationship that unfolds throughout the book will have readers empathising with her and mentally cheering her on as she goes on this voyage of self-discovering. Despite some of the dark scenes described, the book is ultimately very uplifting and positive.

Whether or not you like dancing, as an activity or from the comfort of your sofa, you can't help but be drawn into the story. If you're a fan of chicklit, you'll absolutely love it and it's the perfect lightweight read to pack in your suitcase this summer.

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £6.99

Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Hodder Paperbacks (10 Jun 2010)
ISBN-10: 0340994444
ISBN-13: 978-0340994443

video game : Squeeballs Party - Nintendo DS version

Let me warn you straight away - whether you're 5 or 55, you risk becoming totally addicted to the little Squeeball games on Squeeball Party ! Squee-whats, I hear you say ?! Well, let me explain - Squeeballs are cute little toys that are supposedly manufactured in a secret location somewhere on an island in the Pacific. The Squeeballs need to be tested to the point of destruction before they can be sent to store shelves. Your job is to take on the role of toy-tester and try by any means to destroy them to eliminate any that aren't tough enough to survive and make it to the toyshop.

The slightly sadistic humour of trying to destroy cute little toys with lovable personalities and faces adds an edge to this game and makes it stand out from the huge pile of other "party" mini-game compilations. I wasn't sure Sophie, 8, and Juliette, 5, would enjoy inflicting pain and suffering on a bunch of cute toys - but I was wrong ! They giggled away as they splatted them and battered them and covered them in paint and had no qualms whatsoever about the cruelty element. Oh well, they know it's just a game and it's not real !

Lots of the games reminded me of other games - the bowling is a bit like Wii Sport and the cooking one is a bit like Cooking Mama - but there are also some original ideas, like the catapult paintball game and the wire shocker one. The front of the box boasts 70+ mini games but most of these are just minor variations on the 6 central game types : 10 pin bowling, cooking, paint by Squeeballs, shock, crazy lanes and feeding frenzy.

As the instruction manual says, "Once you have unlocked a Game Type, you can play it for points in Single Game mode. Master the game and reap fame and glory with your name on the High Score Screen. The only thing better than making the High Score screen is beating your friends so hook up with your buddies for a competition in party mode - but don't buckle under the multi-player pressure !"

Each mini game is very simple to play - there are no complicated controls or instructions to understand so even 5-year-old Juliette could just jump in and play along with no questions asked. However, actually managing to complete each target is surprisingly hard and she soon got frustrated. Even I found it difficult to master, but instead of giving up in frustration, I found it hard to put down and kept coming back for more ! The stylus didn't always seem to control movements with enough precision so I wonder if the gameplay would be smoother and easier on the Wii version.

It's a fun little package that will keep the kids entertained (despite the 7+ rating, I think it's perfectly acceptable for younger children) and give you a quick 5-minute play on your coffee break. It's not the most taxing or original title I've come across but the humour and the Squeeballs cuteness in part makes up for this.

star rating : 3.5/5

RRP : £19.99

Monday 12 April 2010

North Face Girl's Resolve Jacket

As you can see from the big grin on her face, Juliette was over the moon when she was sent a funky pink jacket from North Face to test and immediately adopted it as her new school coat. It does the job perfectly as a school coat or a day-to-day coat but it is also more than that, being designed for harsh conditions for serious outdoorsy-types. We did also test it on a really windy day on the top of a cliff and it kept her nice and warm, as these photos show.

As well as the wind test, Juliette has also worn it to school on several rainy days and came home bone dry, unsurprisingly as North Face is renowned for its outdoor products and even sponsors professional athletes from the world of extreme sports. On their website, they explain "Combining technical performance with style, the Resolve Jacket will keep girls dry during the heaviest of downpours. Its advanced HyVent™ fabric leaves the shell reliably waterproof yet breathable, managing moisture both inside and out for maximum comfort. Mesh lined and with a brushed collar, it feels good against the body, and a full-length zip and elasticised cuffs ensure a snug, secure fit at all times. When the rain eases the hood can be detached and stored in the collar until the next shower, and the whole jacket rolls up small for stashing in a backpack or bag. Smartly designed and cut, it will keep the rain out on girls’ walks about town as well as out on the hills."

Well, I agree wholeheartedly with all of that except for the bit about the hood. Firstly, it's not detachable at all - it can be rolled up and stashed away in a velcro-sealed pouch in the collar but it remains attached to the coat, which is actually more practical than if it was detachable. Unfortunately, the hood seems much too big for the rest of the coat (which fits perfectly, in length and stature - I just needed to roll the sleeves up a little bit). This caused visibility issues (that could be dangerous if you were walking up a mountain, as many North Face buyers probably would be) and also meant that it didn't stay up in windy conditions.

That is my only criticism though. It's a great all round jacket, which means that it is great value because unlike more hardcore outdoor-wear jackets that only look cool in extreme conditions and aren't really suited to the school playground, this one will get worn lots before your child outgrows it. The little extras like the zippered pockets, the hood that can be packed away and the fact that it is so lightweight, plus the advanced technology of the Hyvent waterproof, breathable material, really make it stand out from its cheaper high-street rivals.

As Juliette is a real little tomboy who loves playing in the dirt and scrambling over rocks, the back of the coat soon got dirty but it's just been through the washing machine and came out in pristine condition. It can't be tumble-dried but drip-dried really quickly.

It will definitely see her through the whole of spring and come back out for autumn (or, dare I say it, summer, if the sun doesn't pay us much of a visit this year). The pink colour appealed to Juliette's girlie-girlie side but it does also come in a range of funky colours that should keep everyone happy. I love the fact that it is an all purpose outdoor jacket that looks and feels as good on a day out hiking in all weathers as it does being worn day-to-day as a school coat.

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £49.99

Firefly Tonics - Britannia

Last year, I reviewed the whole range of Firefly Tonics, "natural energy" drinks that blend fruit juices with some surprisingly different ingredients to give you some natural oomph while titillating your taste buds (a review that you can see here ).

Well, I was over the moon a couple of weeks ago when a bottle of their latest offering plopped on the doormat, especially when I ripped open the packaging and saw the Union Jack-emblazoned label for the new variety Britannia. It's so gorgeous, I've already decided I'm going to keep it on the shelf once it's empty !

A little bit of ferreting around online has actually revealed that Firefly can take no credit whatsoever for this little stroke of patriotic genius ! It was all designed by Holly Siddons who won the competition they posted on facebook to come up with a new concept, which was admittedlya stroke of genius in itself, especially as - they explain - "It's about time we created a new Firefly but we (ahem) "lost" our development team in a moment of credit crunch madness. So we're shamelessly leaping on the reality TV bandwagon and asking YOU to create our next drink. Yup, the name, the flavour, the colour, the photo : everything, really, except the herbs (herbalists' unions: don't mess)."

Well, she certainly came up with a cracker of a concept that really appeals to the Britishness within me. As they say on the back of the bottle, "Get your Britishness back with this traditional mix of Bramley apples, raspberries and blackcurrants, infused with revitalising guarana, yerba maté and ginger. You'll be singing Jerusalem before you know it ... No refined sugars, no taurine, no funny stuff at all actually. Just a great natural way to feel re-energised." Well, I think somebody at Firefly has been drinking one too many of their delicious tonics because although it says blackCURRANTS on the back of the bottle, it says blackBERRY on the front !

But whatever it contains, it tastes absolutely delicious. It's sweet but not at all sickly with a slight tartness that offsets the sweetness so it's really refreshing - an absolutely perfect drink for quenching your thirst on a hot summer's day. As with all the other varieties, it tastes natural and fresh (the lingering aftertaste reminds me of the freshly-made, cloudy apple juice you can buy from farmers' markets). Somehow, it's a taste reminiscent of childhood too - and it also has that little kick that makes you feel alert without sending you on a hyperactive jig around the room.

It's patriotic perfection in a bottle !

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £1.30 for 330ml

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