Wednesday 28 February 2018

Mine It Diamond and Gold review

Mine It from Character Options is a fabulous new concept that takes "blind bag" collectibles to an exciting new level. It also happens to combine two of the Madhouse kids' favourite things : collecting fossils, precious and semi-precious stones and the "archaeological dig" type toys that usually involve scraping replica fossils or skeletons out of a block of plaster of Paris.

The impressive black and silver "diamond" and shiny "gold" packaging in the form of an ingot gives a hint of the extra-special contents that may be hiding inside - you have a one-in-24 chance of finding real gold or a real diamond inside your block. Cue squeals of excitement !

If you're not lucky enough to find the gold and diamonds, you'll discover one of the other six stones hiding inside : Black Line Jasper, Picture Jasper, Rose Crystal, Volcano Rock, Red Onyx or Tiger Eye.

Without further ado, we opened up the boxes. The Diamond pack includes a little plastic hammer, chisel, magnifying glass and plastic-wrapped, diamond-shaped block.

The Gold pack contains the same trio of tools and a yellow ingot-shaped block with Gold engraved on the top.

To keep mess to a minimum, we placed the blocks inside an old ice cream tub to collect the debris. They are much cleaner than the plaster of Paris ones that we've tried in the past though, as the dust from those flies up in the air and sticks to your fingers. With these blocks, it falls straight into the tub and can be easily wiped off fingers.

After lots of careful tapping and scraping, we managed to uncover our treasure. What would it be? Definitely not gold, but which precious stone was it? After looking at the back of the box to compare colours, we decided that this is Rose Crystal.

Time to try the diamond one. This one seemed harder to break than the Gold bar, which crumbled easily, but after a few minutes of scraping, bashing and digging, we managed to get inside.

Well, we're not entirely sure but we think we might have found a diamond, because it doesn't look like any of the others, except for the rose quartz, and it doesn't have any pinky colour at all. We've never seen a rough diamond that hasn't been polished up until it sparkles though, so it's hard to tell. (It would be great to have a picture of raw gold and diamond on the box, as well as some information about the different stones - where they can be found, how they are formed, what properties they are supposed to have. Just a simple sheet of paper in the box shouldn't add much to production costs.) Whether or not it really was, the Madhouse kids are convinced that they found a diamond, they're extremely excited about it and that's all that matters !

It's a great activity for kids to get involved in, with all the excitement of buying a blind bag collectible plus the extra suspense of having to chip away to reach your surprise treasure. It's not as messy as I feared (and much less so than other similar kits using plaster of Paris) and it breaks down quite easily, so even young children can get involved, with supervision - the recommended age on the box is 5+.

If you want to see a live-action vlog of Mine It, I highly recommend heading over to see the talented newbie reviewer Eddie (aka Maximka from Galina's wonderful Chez Maximka blog - make sure you check out her foodie posts too !) at Edgar's Toys & Reviews. This is his first ever review on his new Youtube channel and he's a total natural !

Mine It has an RRP of £4.99 and is available to buy from all leading retailers, as well as at .

Disclosure : We received the product in order to write an honest review.

Book review : Soviet Milk - Nora Ikstena

Peirene specialise in translating little known (in the UK, at least) texts that frequently open a window onto a specific time or place in history, giving a voice to fictional underdogs and literary antiheroes that may well have otherwise gone unheard. Pereine No. 25, available in bookshops next month, is Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena, which is part of the 'Home in Exile' series.

The novel, focusing on three generations of women, tells the story of Latvia - more a "herstory" than a history, so to speak. Under Soviet rule, they have very little freedom of choice, as individuals and as a nation, and the oppressive political regime governs every aspect of their lives and even identities. The eldest woman, and the one whose voice is least present, recounts her own traumatic first steps into motherhood, in the midst of a deadly epidemic, and the murder of her husband by Russian troops. Her daughter, the most damaged and vulnerable of the three, starts off with big dreams of becoming a doctor, but her clandestine forays into the illicit realms of abortion and artificial insemination lead to her being banished from her home and career. Unwilling to uproot her own daughter, and unable to provide the maternal love and stability that she needs, she is also banished from her role as a mother. Even if her daughter continues to visit her in her remote backwater, the close bond is lost and she descends into a spiral of self-destruction. The daughter also has burgeoning ambitions and a desire to follow her studies and broaden her mind, but she is again stifled by the "cage" that they live in, as it is described in the narrative.

Each of the women is complex and unique but they also have common themes linking them - the ability to give (or receive) their mother's milk, their desire and battle for freedom in the totalitarian regime, ... Minor events and characters seem to have huge symbolic importance - for example, the pet hamster who eats his babies rather than see them grow up in a cage, which undoubtedly echoes the inner turmoil of the mother. The fact that each of the women remains nameless also gives them a wider, more universal importance than their own individual stories.

Despite the desperation and bleakness that are inherent in the narratives, the story ends with a note of optimism, as the breaking down of the Berlin Wall suggests that times are finally changing. As with many of Pereine's offerings, Soviet Milk manages to pack a real emotional punch in a short text under 200 pages, and its poignant characters will remain with you long after you have finished reading.

star rating : 4/5

RRP : £12

  • Paperback: 196 pages
  • Publisher: Peirene Press Ltd (1 Mar. 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1908670428
  • ISBN-13: 978-1908670427
  • Product Dimensions: 19.7 x 1.6 x 12.8 cm

Disclosure : I received a review copy of the book.

Tuesday 27 February 2018

Giveaway #671 : Win 3 assorted Squeeze Poppers - closed - winner Jessica Quinn

This morning, you may have seen our review of Cheatwell Squeeze Poppers.

Select your sphere launcher from a huge variety of characters, ranging from all manner of animals to a garden gnome, two styles of unicorn and members of the Monster poppers range (or even a brand new poop popper !) – there’s a squeeze popper for everyone !

Just pop a ball in their mouths and, with a squeeze of the belly, you’re able to launch the soft foam projectile an impressive distance. The harder your squeeze, the further you’ll fire.

They’re ideal for both indoor and outdoor play, with each pack supplied with six balls and a net bag.

Squeeze poppers are an action packed stress ball, easy to use, fun for all with plenty of characters to collect.

Foam ball flying fun.
Ages: 4+
RRP: £8.99
Stockists: Amazon, Wicked Uncle

Cheatwell have kindly offered to send a trio of Squeeze Poppers to one lucky Madhouse Family Reviews reader (random selection) - fill in your details via the Rafflecopter widget below.

UK only. Closing date : 14/3/18

T & C's : Entries close at midnight on the closing date. Winners will be selected with a random number generator and announced on facebook and in the giveaway post subject line. Please note, you will be contacted by email and/or twitter and if I haven't heard from you after 28 days, I'll have to pick another winner. Prizes will be sent out by the companies or their PR directly to winners. Madhouse Family Reviews cannot be held responsible for any prizes that go astray ! Any personal data given as part of the competition entry is used for this purpose only and will not be shared with third parties, with the exception of the winners’ information. The winners' personal contact information will be passed on to the PR / Brand responsible and used only for delivery of their prize. 

You may also like to enter my other giveaways :

Giveaway #670 : Win The Story of Titanic For Children - closing date 10/3

Cheatwell Squeeze Poppers review

Cheatwell Squeeze Poppers are bound to be a huge hit with teens and tweens because they take a well-known and well-loved concept - a ball shooter - and give it the added appeal of cute on-trend characters, including unicorns and the poo emoji.

Unsurprisingly, these were the ones that the Madhouse kids chose to review from the range - we received both a pink and a white unicorn, as well as a duo of poos (a poo-o?!).

Each Squeeze Popper comes with several balls (six for the unicorns and four for the poos - I think all the other animal ones come with six, but you might want to check) and they are very simple to load - you just push one into your creature's mouth (or the top of the poo) and you're ready to go.

As the name suggests, you just need to squeeze its squishy belly and the air propels the ball out, up to six metres with a bit of practice. It's such a simple concept but both Pierre and Juliette have been having great fun with them.

The balls are made of soft foam but the "play safe" instructions on the back of the pack advise you not to aim at people's heads or at animals. The harder you squeeze, the faster they come out, so young children (or older ones, if they are careful) shouldn't be able to do too much damage. They can be used inside or outside, as long as it's not windy.

Ages: 4+
RRP: £8.99
Stockists: Amazon, Wicked Uncle

Disclosure : We received the products in order to write an honest review.

Monday 26 February 2018

Book review : Court of Lions - Jane Johnson

I am a very eclectic reader and will happily jump from genre to genre, be it grisly crime fiction, frivolous chick lit or fantastical teen reads. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with historical fiction though. While it can be very well done, immersing you in a specific location or time period that you may know very little about, I do sometimes find that the well-known historical characters can be a bit wooden and one dimensional. Jane Johnson is an absolute master (mistress?) of the genre though, spinning a web of enchanting tales that feature a cast of wholly believable, complex characters and their public and private dramas, entwining plotlines in both the modern day and 15th century Granada.

The list of characters in the Dramatis Personae at the beginning helps keep track of who is who, particularly in the historical storyline, as I must admit, apart from vague inklings of what the Spanish Inquisition was about, I had absolutely no knowledge of this time period. The action starts in the modern day, with an Englishwoman, Kate Fordham, who lives in Granada, discovering an intriguing scrap of paper tucked away in a wall at the World Heritage site of the Alhambra, whose palaces and gardens were constructed by the medieval Moorish kings of Granada. This tumultuous period of history saw the last Muslim sultans battling against each other and the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, before Mohammed XII of Granada, known as Momo to his friends and Boabdil to his enemies, finally surrendered the keys to the Alhambra palace and was exiled. Frequently represented throughout history as a weak failure of a man, the novel gives a more balanced view, showing him as someone who had his people's best interests at heart, wanting peace and an end to suffering rather than power and a sense of his own self-importance. After the Fall of Granada, all Jews and Muslims were eventually banished from Spain, apart from those who converted to Christianity - although many of those were accused of continuing their previous religious practices in secret, imprisoned, tortured and ultimately murdered during the Spanish Inquisition.

It's an interesting and poignant period of history, but what gives the novel its force and emotional impact is the equally heart-rending and despicable tale in modern day Granada, where Kate is confronted with past demons that she thought she had left behind. Many elements are common to both stories - complicated mother-son dynamics, ruthless fathers, the negative implications of over-zealous fanatics, whatever their religion - so the constant to-ing and fro-ing between the two time periods seems perfectly balanced.

Arguably the most important character is Blessings, who is a passionate if not objective narrator of history in the making. By nature and nurture, he is at the heart of, but also distanced from, the events going on around him - a slave sold into the sultan's family as a playmate for Momo, he shares the opulent surroundings and the respect of the future emir but has none of his power; coming from a desert tribe, he is neither Catholic nor Muslim; a hermaphrodite, his external appearance is not always in line with his inner feelings. He often makes bad choices but his heart is always in the right place, so it is easy to empathise with him. The same is true of Momo/Boabdil and, in the modern story, Kate.

It's a fascinating read - a mixture of historical fiction, love story and gripping thriller that will appeal to readers of all genres.

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £7.99

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Head of Zeus (11 Jan. 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1786694352
  • ISBN-13: 978-1786694355
  • Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 3.1 x 13.1 cm

Disclosure : I received a review copy of the book.

Sunday 25 February 2018

Giveaway #670 : Win The Story of Titanic For Children - closed - winner Claire Thomson Little

It was all the way back in 1912 that the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage and sank into the icy depths off Newfoundland, with over 2,000 people on board. Even the mega-successful James Cameron film dates back to 1997, so I'm amazed to see how fascinated the Madhouse kids - born in 2001, 2005 and 2008 - have always been by the Titanic. I instantly knew that Carlton Kids' gorgeous hardback book, The Story of Titanic For Children, would be met with enthusiasm (and I wasn't wrong !).

Through the brightly coloured, attractively laid out pages, you can explore the beautiful sundecks, marvel at the luxurious design and relive the tragic sinking of the world's most famous ship. Over one hundred years on, the captivating story has lost none of its appeal and this stunning book explores real-life stories and little known facts that will absorb young readers.

 Beautiful images and bite-sized information bring the Titanic to life, from its construction to the victims and survivors after its tragic sinking. Filled with amazing facts and details giving insights into the "unsinkable" ship, The Story of Titanic for Children will satisfy even the most curious minds.

The Story of Titanic for Children |
Hardback | £8.99 | Published: February |
Age: 7+

Carlton Kids have kindly offered to send a copy of the book to one lucky Madhouse Family Reviews reader - fill in your details via the Rafflecopter widget below.

UK only. Closing date : 10/3/18

T & C's : Entries close at midnight on the closing date. Winners will be selected with a random number generator and announced on facebook and in the giveaway post subject line. Please note, you will be contacted by email and/or twitter and if I haven't heard from you after 28 days, I'll have to pick another winner. Prizes will be sent out by the companies or their PR directly to winners. Madhouse Family Reviews cannot be held responsible for any prizes that go astray ! Any personal data given as part of the competition entry is used for this purpose only and will not be shared with third parties, with the exception of the winners’ information. The winners' personal contact information will be passed on to the PR / Brand responsible and used only for delivery of their prize. 

#MySundayphoto #SundaySnap 25/2/18

Another moody photo from my trip to Stavanger, Norway

OneDad3GirlsSunday Snap

Saturday 24 February 2018

Picture book review : A Spooky Tale : A Walk With Our Teacher - Sue Wickstead

A Spooky Tale : A Walk With Our Teacher is a fun picture book, based on a real-life walk about town with a group of children, the "class of 95 who helped write the story" mentioned in the author's acknowledgements.

Before you start reading, you can trace the route that the children will take, spotting all the places and creatures that they will see on the way. If you want to keep an element of surprise while reading the book, you may want to keep this part until the end, but for beginner readers, it's a great way of sounding out the words before getting into the story to help overcome any difficult words. This is a great way of building up the confidence of beginner readers who will stumble over fewer words if they are already familiar with them.

The story and structure reminded me very much of the well-loved classic We're Going On A Bear Hunt. On each page, the short text ends with the repeated line "That's why we didn't feel well", so even young children who can't read yet will be able to join in after a few pages.

The children really don't want to go out on a class walk and list all their reasons, from a haunted house and a dinosaur to a snappy crocodile and an alien attack ! They survive it all though, and all feel a lot better when they get back to the safety of school ... apart from their teacher who really doesn't feel well now and ends up in bed, presumably after all the stress of the eventful class trip !

The detailed illustrations really bring the simple texts to life and Pierre enjoyed pointing out all the details he spotted in the pictures as we turned the pages.

There's even a bus, which is surely a nod to author Sue Wickstead's other books, featuring a play bus. (You may remember my reviews for Jay-Jay The Supersonic Bus and Jay-Jay and his Island Adventure.)

  • Paperback: 40 pages
  • Age Range: 3 - 8 years
  • Publisher: Sue Wickstead; 1 edition (31 Dec. 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0993073743
  • ISBN-13: 978-0993073748
  • Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 0.3 x 21.6 cm

Disclosure : We received a review copy of the book.

Friday 23 February 2018

What's Cooking at The Madhouse? menu plan 2018 week #9

This last week at work has been brutal, so it's been torture seeing everyone talking about the half term  holidays and having long lie-ins and fun days out. It's our turn now though, and we get two weeks off, which are much needed. I ended up agreeing to take on leading an intensive language course for the first week in a local upper high school (15-18 year olds) - 3 hours from 9-12 Mon-Fri for the first week. We don't usually do much in the mornings anyway and the money's good, but it'll make lunchtimes a bit tricky. Either I'll have to plan ahead with leftovers, or the kids/Madhouse Daddy will have to sort themselves out because I won't get back in time. Ahhh it's so lovely writing this thinking of long lazy days ahead !


lunch - The traditional Burger King visit

dinner - homemade soup of some shape or description - Mexican-style tomato and bean was nice last week, and I still have some red kidney beans in the cupboard, or split pea and bacon always goes down well too.


lunch - roast dinner - probably chicken this week

dinner - leftover soup from yesterday or chicken soup with the leftovers - or I may leave the leftovers for tomorrow's lunch actually and go for fridge grazing tonight


lunch - beefburgers, ratatouille and rice or leftovers from yesterday

dinner - cottage pie


lunch - leftover cottage pie

dinner - Feijoada with rice - or my take on it anyway ! A Brazilian-style stew of smoked sausages, onions, red and yellow peppers & red kidney beans


lunch - Leftovers or fricadelles (spicy sausages) with Actifry chips and beans

dinner - Chicken pot pie with cheddar & chive biscuits - an American recipe that I never got round to making last time it was on a menu plan because the leftover chicken got made into soup instead - with mash & veg


lunch - chicken cordon bleu (ready made) with  rice

dinner - sticky marinated duck with Chinese veg & German potato pancakes - mac & cheese for the kids


lunch - leftovers or kebabs, as a special holiday treat

 dinner - I have a recipe that sounds fun to try : homemade bagels, with ... smoked salmon maybe?

***Click on my Menu Plans tag to see all my other weekly menu plan blogposts.***

Join in with the weekly meal plan bloghop !

Thursday 22 February 2018

Book review : Fire On The Mountain - Jean McNeil

Fire on the Mountain is the latest book from Jean McNeil - you may remember that I also reviewed her previous novel, The Dhow House - and although the books are entirely unrelated, I immediately recognised the same literary style and several of the same themes. We are once again in an unnamed African country and the main character is once more an aid worker, whose inner turmoil and unease reflects the hostile political climate that he often finds himself in.

The main character in this book is Nick, a rather mysterious character, who turns up unexpectedly at the house of Pieter, a (locally) famous and politically controversial author, and his wife Sara, who are the parents of one of Nick's friends. They welcome him in with open arms and an equally open invitation to stay as long as he likes, while remaining slightly apprehensive, faced with his vague non-explanations of why he suddenly jumped ship, running away from his job and his duties.

Nick doesn't seem to really know himself why he ran away and he avoids opening his emails, for fear of finding reprimands and even legal threats. As the book progresses, we learn that he had a vague inkling that he was in danger, without understanding why. 

As soon as Pieter and Sara's son Riaan puts in an appearance, it became obvious to me how the book would pan out. While both happily heterosexual, they strike up a friendship that somehow transcends the usual boundaries of friendship or brotherhood. Their long walks with Riaan's dogs along the beach evolve into a cross-country road trip into hostile country, on a rescue mission to save an ostracised child accused of witchcraft. The different landscapes they drive through are described in great detail, with mentions of the flora and fauna, the climate and dangers, the inhabitants and their dwellings, ... - in fact, the reader gets to know Nick's external surroundings much more thoroughly than his inner turmoil and motivations. This makes it hard to see him develop and his voyage of self-discovery never really gets off the ground, which is slightly frustrating as a reader.

The final tragic scenes are only viewed second hand, in literary form, so the reader is distanced and feels remote and therefore somewhat unaffected. I love books where I can really get under the main character's skin and empathise with, or at least understand, him, so this left me wanting more. I could imagine the final chapter as a very poignant movie scene though - with Pieter's voice reading his novel, while the scenes played out, with shots of a pregnant girlfriend wistfully waiting by the window and a dusty jeep streaking across a sun-baked, burnt orange landscape.

It's a slow-paced book that gives you time to think and appreciate the lyrical quality of the writing and the unique landscapes that the gentle journey will take you on, rather than a high-octane, action-packed thriller that will leave you emotionally and mentally drained.

star rating : 4/5

  • Paperback: 250 pages
  • Publisher: Legend Press (15 Feb. 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1785078992
  • ISBN-13: 978-1785078996
  • Product Dimensions: 13.9 x 1.9 x 17.9 cm

Disclosure : I received a review copy of the book.

Wednesday 21 February 2018

#readcookeat recipe : Lebanese Kibbeh with Fattoush Salad (Fire On The Mountain)

Tomorrow, the Fire On The Mountain blog tour will be stopping off at Madhouse Family Reviews and I'll be sharing my review with you. In the meantime, I decided to use the book as inspiration for the #readcookeat challenge and went looking for foodie references. The story is set in an unnamed African country, which sounded promising, but there aren't that many references to food. I did find one though :

p196 We work hard. There is barely time to go to the street market and sample Lebanese kibbeh or organic Mexican burritos.

Hmmm kibbeh it is then ! After googling it and reading through numerous recipes, I learned that kibbeh is a Middle Eastern version of meatballs. An outer coating of minced meat mixed with bulghur is filled with a mixture of more meat, blended with various combinations of pine nuts, dried fruit and baharat spices. You may remember from my recipe for Duck Breast with Baharat and Pomegranate Molasses that I have a (past its best before date) tub of baharat on my spice rack -  it's a fragrant but not overly spicy blend of black pepper, hot paprika, cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, cloves and nutmeg.

 I went rummaging in the cupboards and decided to combine #readcookeat with #KitchenClearout, using up various odds and ends of bags and packets from the baking cupboard, and substituting bulgur for a bag of frik (green wheat, very similar to couscous, that I'd received in a Tunisian-themed Kitchen Trotter box). I also found a recipe for Fattoush Salad, which sounded like the perfect accompaniment, and also helped use up a bag of dried bread pieces, that I'd received in a Spanish-themed box for making gazpacho.

Lebanese Kibbeh with Fattoush Salad 

ingredients :

for the kibbeh :

700g minced meat (beef, lamb, even goat or camel if you want to be authentic !)
1 onion, grated
bulghur (or couscous or frik)
salt, pepper
baharat spice
good handful of pine nuts
good handful of dried apricots or dates
oil for frying

for the fattoush salad :

stale flatbread/pita
oil for frying
pomegranate molasses

First, boil the bulghur/couscous/frik in salted water until cooked, drain and reserve. 

Meanwhile, chop the dried fruit into small pieces and put it in a pan along with the pine nuts, 2 tsp baharat and a drizzle of oil. Cook briefly, so that the fruit starts to caramelise, the pine nuts take on some colour and the spices mingle with everything.

Add 150g (a good handful - yes, get your hands in there, you'll have to in a minute anyway !) of the minced meat and continue cooking until it's gone brown and quite dry. Turn off the heat.

Combine the remaining meat with the bulghur, salt, pepper and the grated onion and use your hands to make sure it's perfectly smooth and blended.

Use your hands to shape oval meatballs with the raw meat mixture. Press your thumb deep inside, stuff with a spoonful of the meat/dried fruit/spice mixture and reseal.

If you want to plan ahead, they can be made in advance and kept in the fridge or freezer until you're ready to use them.

Heat some oil in a frying pan and shallow fry on all sides until cooked through. (Some recipes bake them instead, and I saw a couple that deep fry them, which probably gives the a more uniform appearance.)

Rip up your stale flatbread into pieces (I had little squares of pre-cut dried bread for making gazpacho) and shallow fry it in a glug of olive oil. Sprinkle with sumac (it's a deep red spice which imparts a lovely tangy, zesty, citrus flavour - we brought some home from Turkey). You want the bread to go crispy but not burn.

Add the fried bread to the salad ingredients, toss and drizzle with pomegranate molasses and a bit more sumac. Serve with the kibbeh for a mini Lebanese feast .

Adding to this month's #KitchenClearout linky because it used up loads of odds and ends of packets that were cluttering up the cupboards.

Linking up with the #readcookeat challenge over at Chez Maximka.

*** Fancy some more exotic cuisine ? Don't miss my country-by-country globecooking recipe index ***

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