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Monday 28 November 2011

Recommended Children's Books for Christmas

Not too long until Christmas is upon us and if you are anything like me then some of your Christmas shopping will be done in bookshops.  I just love to browse through books, each year I take it upon myself to help the children I buy presents for improve their love for books.  I bought one of my nephews a book recently and he commented this would be his fourth book.  How sad is that?  My kids have dozens and dozens of books each and we visit charity shops and the library frequently so we can keep rotating and keep our reading fresh. I suppose my love of reading has translated into a love for them too - result!

I was recently sent 3 books to review and share with you.  Here is what we thought!

Magic Beans: A Handful of Fairytales from the Storybag. RRP £9.99 in hardback
This one suited my girls age group (they are 4) with me reading to them but equally JJ could easily have read it to himself at age 8. It is a wonderful book to read at bedtime and I was able to read to all 3 children with them  all equally being interested and engaged. The book contains fourteen wondrous stories and each one is described as a magic bean: written to capture a child's imagination. The collection of classic stories are retold in a modern manner by some of today's best children's story tellers including Jacqueline Wilson, Phillip Pullman, Michael Morpurgo, Anne Fine, and many more.

My girls particularly liked the tale of Rapunzel told by Jacqueline Wilson and I was super pleased to see Aesop's Fables included.  I have such fond memories of being read these simple but brilliant tales by my Mum when I was young. I would happily recommend this book for both boys and girls.

History Keepers: The Storm Begins by Damien Dibben. RRP £12.99 in hardback
JJ who is 8 read this but let me tell you a secret....  so did I and I am considerably older than 8! lol I am assuming this book is aimed at pre-teens/ teenagers but at a mature 8 JJ was fine reading it and really got into the fast-moving story.  In this book (the first of many I hope) young hero Jake Djones travels through time to save his parents – and history itself.  The way that true life historical events are woven into the story is extremely clever. I felt like I was being taken on a  rollercoaster ride through this book and it kept me turning the pages avidly. I believe this book will appeal to both boys and girls and should feature on every older child's Christmas list.  It is superb and I can't wait for the next book in the series...

Sapphire Battersea by Jacqueline Wilson.  RRP £12.99 in hardback
This is the second book in a trilogy, with the acclaimed Hetty Feather being the first. As JJ is a real boys boy I passed this book to my friends 10 year old daughter, H and asked for her comments. 'I loved it' was the first thing she said to me when I saw her the other day.  She told me that she read it in 2 days over a weekend as it was fantastic.  She had not read Hetty Feather prior to this book but she said it did not matter as she was able to understand everything in the book and she would, be using her pocket money next week to buy Hatty Feather. 

Her mum tells me that Sapphire Battersea is well written and very pre-teen/ early teenage years friendly. There is a sad part when a key character dies (I won't spoil it and say who) so you need to be aware that it is not really aimed at younger children. Also your child needs to be aware that there will be a third book out in a year or so which will reveal the ending to the story.....  so they need to be patient and wait for it!

Another recommendation, I am now reliably informed that JJ would have loved it too and whilst my assumption was that it is a girls book, apparently that is not so.

All three books are available at good booksellers such as Waterstones and WH Smiths and can also be purchased online from Random House.

Disclosure:  I received these books free of charge to review.  I was not instructed what to write and I remain honest.

Sunday 27 November 2011

Review: Marley and Me, The Puppy Years

This afternoon I spent a couple of hours ironing, something which is OK but not the most interesting thing I can think of doing.  To make it more bearable I normally watch something good on TV, so when my kids asked if we could put Marley and Me, The Puppy Years DVD on I happily said yes.  A nice family, easy viewing movie was just what I needed.

The film did not dissapoint.  I had enjoyed the original Marley and Me movie and whilst this film did not actually fit in with the story line from the original film it was in the same vein and had the same beautiful labradors. We are a family with a penchant for Labs and I think this certainly helped us to enjoy this film. it is what it is, very easy viewing, a lot of fun and nothing too taxing. Marley talks this time and you get an insight into what the animals are thinking, just a bit of fun.

This storyline sees Marley as a young puppy in Vancover, looked after by his dogsitter Bodi Grogan, played by Travis Turner (Supernatural, Fairly Legal), who is staying with his grandfather Fred.   Bodi has always wanted a dog of his own and during the summer, to prove to his mum that he is ready for the responsibility, he enters Marley in the "Ultimate Puppy Championship," along with the neighbour’s Labrador puppies Fuchsia and Moose.  
After weeks of mayhem, training and hard work, Marley and his team the “Ragga Rascals” are ready for the competition. They come up against strong competitors when they face the other puppy teams; a group of pugs, a gang of Australian cattle dogs and the intimidating trio of miniature Doberman pinschers. I'll let you watch the movie to find out the ending but needless to say as a family certificate U it is  good one! Here is a quick clip to give you a taster.

Marley and Me, the Puppy Years was relaeased on 14th November 2011 and I believe it will make a great Christmas gift. The RRP for the DVD is £14.99 but it is available on Amazon right now from £9.00. It is also available as a Blu-ray for RRP £19.99. Both DVD an Blu-ray have additional features.

Disclosure:  I was provided with this DVD for the purposes of this review.  I have not been instructed what to write and I remain honest.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Review: Bonusprint Personalised Photo Gifts

You may know by now that I adore photos and whilst it is fine to look at them on the PC, there is nothing quite like having photos in an album which can be happily flicked through at any time and with minimum fuss. As well as albums I am an avid fan of framed photos in my home and more recently I have started to enjoy some photo gifts too.

I find that photo gifts are something you can make for minimal cost but they are super little thank-yous or token gifts for God-parents. Perfect with Christmas just around the corner.

When Bonusprint asked me if I would like to review some of their photo gifts, 'why not' said I! Bonusprint is a company I used to use back in the old days when the only way to see your photos was to send your film off and get it processed, so I knew the name and I used to be happy with their product so I thought I would give them a whirl again. 

First things first, take a look around their site and see what I might like to create.  I spent a happy couple of hours browsing, uploading my photos and making my gifts online. I found the site easy to use and the instructions were clear.  Uploading the photos was easy and quick, unlike some sites I have tried to use before.  I had the option to crop or leave my images so they would look right on the gifts I chose. Once I had made up one gift it was then very easy to use the same image on another different gift. Checkout was easy and secure and I was able to pay by any of the widely recognised debit/ credit cards and also use paypal if I wished.

I ordered 4 different types of gifts as well as a couple of photos which I'll be framing as gifts. Delivery times are clearly stated on the site but I was surprised that my order came out in parts.  The photos arrived just 24 hours after ordering and then I received 3 more parcels, all arrived within 7 days of placing my order.  I was extremely happy with the time frame and the way the items were packaged but to be honest I would have preferred just one box with the full order as numerous trips to the post office to collect as the packs were too big for my letterbox was a bit of a pain. I did like getting email notifications though, keeping me up to date of the status of my order and letting me know when things had been dispatched.

Let me share with you what I made, these are just a small selection of the photo gifts that are available -

Torch Keyring - £4.99

When I saw this online I mistakenly thought it was a metal keyring but actually just the loop is metal the case is silver coloured plastic.  It does feel fairly sturdy but is still just plastic. The torch operates by the black button on the back, it is easy to depress and operate and provides a good light for seeing your lock in the dark. The photos look very good under the plastic cover and I'll be happy to give these out as small Christmas gifts.

Durable Glass Chopping Board - £18.99

Bit of a different one this but I am super pleased with it. My Mum has had glass chopping boards for years but they always have old fashioned and garish pictures on them.  Now my little ladies can make me smile as I prepare our dinner! The size is 30cm x 40cm.  Very tough glass, it has even been dropped so far and is surviving!

Kids T-Shirts - From £5.99

I am pretty sure my kids will be thrilled to find these in their Christmas stockings.  I have such a vain bunch that the idea of walking around with a picture of themselves on their front will be right up their street!  I love the idea, the size of the t-shirts are good, as are the printed images but I was a bit let down to find that one of the t-shirts is 100% polyester and the smaller two have a high polyester content too. I would not normally buy polyester tops for my kids. I should have read the description better, it is not as if they hid the fact. However, a good point about it being polyester is that they guarantee the image quality for a year.

Personalised Note Cards - From £2.50 per pack of 8

Getting ahead this year I ordered 3 packs of personalised note cards.  There are loads of standard designs you can choose from or you can tailor them to your need. I created Christmas thank you cards and was able to print a message inside every card to ensure that the after Christmas send out will be super easy this year.  I will most definitely buy these again.  They are pretty small at A7 size but they do the job very nicely indeed.


Quality of gifts 4.5/ 5
Delivery time and packaging 5/5
Ease of use of website 4/5
Value for money 4/5

All in all I have been very happy with my Bonusprint experience and I will happily use this company again. Especially when I see special offers, such as that I spotted earlier.  Spend £30, save 10%, spend £45, save 20% and finally spend £60 and save 25%. 

Disclosure:  I received the items free of charge for the purposes of this review. I have not been instructed what to write and I remain honest.

Friday 18 November 2011

Review: Perform Parties & Stage School

'The best party ever!' was the statement made by Miss E after attending a mock up party held by the company Perform.

A couple of Sunday's ago the kids and I travelled up to London with Daddy, he was off to work and we were heading to a blogger event which had been put on by Perform.  I have to say we were all looking forward to this as we were promised a high-energy, fun and infectious party that would combine a mix of drama, dance and singing specially formulated with a focus on child development to bring out every child's true potential. Sounds like a pretty impressive promise doesn't it?

I have to say, none of us where disappointed. My children all joined in with the Perform kids party and a mix of children from 4 years old to about 10 years came together and had fun for nearly an hour.  Any party host that can entertain and engage (and boy she really did engage) a group that varied in age has a real talent. Of course if you were booking a party for your child it is unlikely that the age range would be that varied and the material could then be tailored to the age of the children attending.

So what sort of things did I see them getting up to?  This party was sold as a Pirate and Mermaids party and the host was fully dressed in her pirate gear and even put on the accent.  She had boundless energy and a real warmth that made the kids feel at ease. It was superb to watch one little girl of about 5 years be really shy at the beginning and sit with her Mum and then warm up as the event went on and by the end she was joining in independently and having as much fun as the other kids.

The children all searched for the missing pineapple, played musical statues hiding from the evil Pirate, did some mime, played hide and seek and enjoyed many more games. They were sitting one minute, playing with their partner the next, marching alone a while later and then back into the circle for more team games.  High energy it definitely was, one hour at this party would be enough for any child of have had their fill of fun.

The game I really enjoyed watching was 'banana'.  A really simple game with the kids and the host sitting together in a circle. One child comes to the middle and can only answer banana to any question asked,  the host talked animatedly about how she liked to wash her hair in the shower in the morning and then asked the child what they used to wash their hair.  Of course they answered banana and had the whole group roaring with laughter with them.  The aim of this game is to take the child who is too shy to speak when the centre of attention and to make it so easy for them that they too can just say banana even if it is in the quietest voice ever but then the sense of satisfaction they get by knowing that they did it causes a roll-on effect.

How fabulous, parties that also develop and engage all children.  Perform focuses on the 4 C's and every activity that is undertaken will focus on one of the 4:
  • Confidence
  • Concentration
  • Coordination
  • Communication
Perform run parties in 3 different age ranges, Mini P's for 0 - 3 year olds, Perform for 4 - 8 year olds and Perform Plus for 8 - 12 year olds. If you live within the M25 the cost of a 1 hour Perform Party host is £158 and that rises to £168 if you live outside the M25.  I have to be honest and say I have no idea how this price compares to other children's entertainers or such that you may book.  I tried to google and see but they are all evasive and do not give a price. For me this would be more than my budget can stretch to as I tend to do thrifty parties but if I did have money I most definitely would go down this route as all my children loved the day and I feel the parties are suited to both boys and girls. There are tons of different themes you can choose from too.

Watch a small part of the party in action -

As well as parties, Perform also run drama classes in absolutely loads of locations, mostly London and the Home Counties it appears.  Perform do say they are always looking for new venues though and encourage people to contact them with suggestions. I have friends whose children have attended the Perform stage schools before, not because they want them to attend serious stage school when older and become professional actors but because they want the children to grow in confidence. I know my God-daughter attended for a couple of years and this certainly helped this shy little girl blossom and feel more comfortable around strangers and in a large group.  You can book a free taster class for your child before you go ahead and decide if Perform is right for your child too, which is good for peace of mind. All children wear a red Perform t-shirt at the classes for the same reason that your child will wear school uniform, so they are comfortable, in clothes can they can  be free to romp around in and so there is no hierarchy. The cost of a t-shirt is £7.50 and they are really good quality cotton.

I enjoyed talking to Lucy Quick at the event, she is the Principal and founder of Perform, having created the company 12 years ago. Lucy told me that over 4000 children attend their classes every year now and that they have a fund whereby they offer scholarship to about 150 children a year to attend their classes for free.  I was so pleased to hear that the children that get the free spaces are those shy children who would really benefit from a confidence boast but whose parents could not afford the fees.  The nominations for scholarships are received from school teachers and such.  I am very much the kind of person who likes to support a business if I like their ethos and way of working and Lucy certainly seems to be someone with a good heart and a great vision for empowering children.  I'll leave you with a link to Lucy's blog, this is a bit of a gem I found when investigating the Perform website.

Disclosure: The children and myself were invited to this event and given a goodie bag with t-shirt and CD.  I have not been instructed what to write and I remain honest.

Friday 11 November 2011

Review: Ben and Holly's Little Kingdom Lotto Game

What does £7.99 buy you nowadays?  Not a lot really, it hardly buys one entry to the cinema. So when I was offered a game to review which could last for loads of plays and engage both of my 4 year old twin girls I could hardly say no. Especially when I saw it was a Ben and Holly's Little Kingdom game.  My girls are crazy abut the TV show and I have to be honest Nanny Plum has me chuckling too!

Ben and Holly's Little Kingdom lotto game is a fun memory game featuring Ben and Holly plus other favorite characters from the TV Show.  Holly has accidentally mixed up all the things in the Little Kingdom whilst practising her magic spells. The task set is 'can you help her put them all back where they belong?' I have to be honest and say we have had a few lotto games in our house in my time.  All the kids are big board game fans and I was a little fearful that this game may be a bit young for the girls but actually it is slightly different in that there is a picture scene and the child has to spot if the card they have picked up features something from the scene on their collector card rather than just matching a picture card to the exact same picture.

My girls loved this and they have even suggested that we buy the game for their cousin for Christmas too. We have enjoyed many good games so far.  There can be 2 - 4 players and the game is aged at children aged 3 upwards with the object being to fill up your 6 slots on your collector card first. Miss E has shown herself to be a bit of  a star at this game, which is perfect as there are many things that Miss M tends to beat her on.

I am happy to recommend this game, it is good quality with both the box and cards being a good durable thick cardboard. I think the play value is great and the game will last a long time and children will come back to it again and again. The RRP of £7.99 is great value and you can buy this game from all good retailers, such as ELC.

If you have little Ben & Holly fans like I do then you might find the official Facebook page of interest, go and take a peek.

Disclosure:  Thanks to Entertain One for providing the game to me free of charge for the purposes of an honest and independent review.

Monday 7 November 2011

Review: Morphy Richards Premium Plus Bread Maker

What is better to wake up to in the morning than your house smelling of fresh bread?  Not a lot right?

I have been experiencing this delight over the last few weeks and it has been wonderful. The kids have been super happy too.  A classic white loaf is their favourite whereas I like to have a malted seedy loaf and the beauty of the Morphy Richards Premium Plus Bread Maker is that it can produce any kind of bread product that I fancy and much more besides - pizza dough, pasta, bread rolls, cakes and even jam.  Yes jam, seems a bit strange doesn't it and I have to say I have not yet tried that function out.

Just call it Morphy Richards Corner!

Upon seeing the breadmaker JJ did a happy dance and announced to me that it was great, we would never need to pay for bread again.  If only babe! However a white loaf is definitely cheaper when homemade and of course another benefit is that I know what goes into the bread rather than lots of preservatives that I have no understanding of. A basic 2lb white loaf costs us well under 50p all in.  You can't knock that!  The loaf also lasts well, I chose to keep mine in a canvas bag to keep it fresh.

As a first time user of a breadmaker I have been pleased with this product and the great results it gives, here are my first couple of attempts at using it to make bread-

Malted wholemeal loaf with mixed seeds

Classic white loaf

My hubbie found the machine easy to use whereas I felt a bit overwhelmed by the amount of information that was in the instruction manual.  Everything I needed to know was in there but for me the layout is not as intuitive as it should be. Sadly our manual is already starting to get very dog-eared so I will be printing out another from the Morphy Richards site and laminating it, a bit sad but necessary if I want to try out all 50 odd recipes that the manual contains.  I think my next attempt will be raisin bread, the kids will love that in the morning for breakfast.

There is a fair amount to tell you about this beast of a machine, so I'll do a quick pros and cons list:

The Pros:
  • Chuck all the ingredients into the machine, set the program and off it goes.  It mixes, kneeds, proofs and then cooks all with no effort from me - perfect!
  • 19 different programmes to suit all types of bread and baked products.
  • Variable loaf sizes and variable crust settings - so you can get just the loaf you like.
  • 12 hour delay, so that you can have freshly baked bread upon waking.
  • The baking tin is very easy to remove and clean.  The loaf also slips out easily once cooked.
  • Fruit and nut dispenser to ensure that your baked product has a well spread mix of contents.
  • Easy view window on the top, so you can watch what the machine is doing.  The kids love this - it is nearly as entertaining as the TV!
  • Over 50 recipes in the instruction manual.
  • Well priced bread for a premium product.
  • No dashing to the shops as you are out of bread!
  • Easy wipe clean, no smear stainless steel exterior, looks stylish.
  • Cool touch exterior, making it safe to leave cooking around my children whilst I am out of the room.
and the Cons:
  • A very large piece of kitchen equipment, also fairly heavy but as are most things that cook!
  • The instruction manual takes a lot of working through.  You need to have a good read through it and then trial and error will help you to find the best recipes for you.
  • The electronic programmer has a dull display which can be really hard to see, especially when the sun is shining in. It is also not that obvious as to which part of the program you are setting.  I have to follow the manual each time, I am sure with more use I would get to know it better.
  • Not sure this is really a con but something I did not expect.  The mixing paddle stays in the loaf while it bakes and then you have to cut it out once removed from the baking tin. Thus leaving a hole in the bottom of the loaf - see the paddle still in there:
Mixing paddle baked into the bread!
You can buy the Morphy Richards Premium Plus Bread Maker HERE, it retails for £139.99 and has a 2 year guarantee.

Disclaimer:  I was provided with the breadmaker free of charge as part of the Innovators program.  I have not been instructed what to write and I remain honest.

Friday 4 November 2011

Making your House a Home - Canvas Dezign Review

I love my home, it is somewhere that I feel safe and happy.  Anywhere can be a house, somewhere to lay your head at night and to cook a meal but for me a home is all about that warm feeling.  You know, when you walk in and think 'ahh I'm home'.  I just want to kick off my shoes, get in my PJ's and get cosy.

One of the biggest things for me that makes my house a home is personalising it with photos.  I adore being surrounded by happy memories and pictures of the ones I love. When you watch all the house shows they tell you not to over personalise your home and to keep photos to a minimum but I totally disregard that information. Take a look at the slide show and see all the photos around my home, I think they add to my decor and make my house look nice as well as being personal to me and my family.

This week I received a beautiful new photo canvas from Canvas Dezign and I am just waiting for my hubbie to hang the hook in the lounge so it can adorn my one bare wall.  For now it is sat in the dining room and making me cheerful as I sit at the table and use my laptop.

and here it is in it's full glory!

I love this canvas, it is probably the best one I have ever received.  Just look at those vivid colours and the actual quality of the canvas is good, very thick.  The wooden frame which it is stretched over looks well made and has extra supports at the corners which was good to see.  The canvas came with a wall hanging kit to help us put it up easily.

The canvas I choose was 16" x 12" and was just £22, I think that is great value. Even add to it the £9 delivery charge and the total cost of £31 is definitely something I would pay for such a lovely photo. Talking of delivery, I received my canvas from the courier within a week and it was extremely well packaged to protect it.

I love the modern clean lines of a canvas print, I choose to have my photo wrapped around the frame and this really makes it stand out and look stunning. The detail is excellent and nothing has been lost from this photo by having it made into a canvas.  Now if only I was smiling!

Why don't you take at look at Canvas Dezign's site and check out the different sizes available ( from 6" x 6" to 40" x 40") and see how easy it is to upload your print and order someone a very beautiful Christmas present.  I would happily recommend their service.

Disclosure:  This is a review post.  I received my canvas free of charge for the purposes of this review. I have not been instructed what to write and I remain honest.