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Inspired by other reviewers, I have begun to revisit some of my favourite classic reads from my own childhood just for the chance to reminisce and for some easy escapism. The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage is the first book in a series written by Enid Blyton featuring the Five Find-Outers & Dog - a series running along very similar lines to the ?Famous Five? series, also written by Enid Blyton. I would say the Five Find-Outers are less well-known and aimed at a slightly younger audience, with the characters being younger and the adventures generally taking place closer to home. The Five Find-Outers are two sets of siblings (Larry and Daisy and Pip and Bets) as well as Frederick (known throughout the series as Fatty.) This book describes the children forming an unofficial ?find-outing? group after they discover that a fire that burnt down a local outbuilding was started deliberately. Having little faith in the detective abilities of the local policeman, Mr Goon, the five children set out to solve the mystery and to identify the culprit before he can. Reading this back as an adult, I found this to be a really enjoyable read. The potential suspects are clearly laid out for the reader and the children lay out their plans and tactics quite clearly so it is very simple for the reader to follow and to create their own hypothesis of the likely arsonist. There are a few dangers to overcome along the way as the children take their detecting perhaps a little too far. (I would hope that no children reading this are encouraged to consider breaking and entering as a means of solving local crimes!) The misdemeanours and the danger are all fairly light-hearted however and there is nothing here that would prove upsetting or scary to a younger reader, enjoying this independently. I did actually work out the real culprit towards the end of the story - before the children did- although I?m not sure if that is due to my superior detective skills or down to a feat of memory, having read this originally almost thirty years ago. As an adult reader, the only thing that really struck me was the relationships between the children and Fatty, who was a newcomer to their circle of friends. The other children are actually quite unfriendly towards Fatty, who they perceive as ?having too high an opinion of himself.? In modern day life, their behaviour would be classed as bullying, particularly with the others choosing to label Frederick as Fatty, partly due to his initials (Frederick Algernon Trotter) but also because he is repeatedly described as being a fat child throughout the story. I would recommend this to young readers from the age of six upwards (if having the story read to them, due to some of the unfamiliar vocabulary) or independent readers from around eight. Otherwise, this should be equally appealing to adults wanting to rediscover much-loved stories from their own childhood.
Forget Me Never is the second book by Gina Blaxill and is aimed at the teenage/Young Adult side of the market. I?m a long way off being a young adult, sadly, but picked this up as an audiobook read from my local library to help make my commute to work a little more interesting. This story centres around Sophie a 16 year old girl in foster care who is struggling to come to terms with the apparent suicide of her older cousin, Danielle. Sophie is pretty isolated and finds Danielle?s sudden death difficult to accept. Sophie does have support from her ?just good friend? Reece which seems to be a familiar theme in young adult literature but far less common in real life for a teenage girl to have a teenage boy as her ?best friend.? Both characters are fairly likeable however and the potential teen romance theme didn?t detract from what turned out to be quite a gripping mystery story. I found the first couple of chapters a little slow to get into but found myself becoming more interested when Sophie discovered a memory stick belonging to her cousin which she takes to the police. As an adult reader, I was a little surprised that the police took Sophie?s evidence as seriously as they did, as the coroner had already returned a verdict of suicide due to depression, but Sophie feels disappointed by their response and is intent on discovering the truth behind Danielle?s death and the activities and people that she was involved with. The plot thickens as Sophie and Reece discover other snippets of information that lead them on to a trail of crime, espionage and, potentially, murder. What starts off as fairly low level ?famous five? kind of crime solving soon leads to the two teenagers placing themselves and members of their family in great danger as they seriously underestimate the criminal activity they uncover and the lengths that the people involved are prepared to go to. Overall, I think this is an engaging read, particularly for the target audience of young adults. There is a romantic ?will they, won?t they? storyline running alongside the mystery elements but there is no inappropriate or explicit sexual content so there is certainly nothing here that I would feel uncomfortable about a teenager reading. The language flows naturally, the vocabulary is straightforward and the behaviour of the characters seems pretty age appropriate (although there are a few unlikely co-incidences and twists to the plot line.)
With three children in my household, I have a well stocked medicine cupboard loaded with all of the essentials in case of illness. Amongst my stash of medicinal supplies is always a packet of Dioralyte rehydration sachets. These are available in a range of different flavours but I tend to buy the blackcurrant variety most frequently. Dioralyte is a powder that is mixed with water to make a solution designed to replace both lost fluids and essential body salts during a period of illness such as sickness and/or diarrhoea. This is suitable for both adults and children although, with very young children, it is always wise to speak to a GP as they can deteriorate pretty rapidly. The sachets come with a pre-measured amount of powder so it is a very simple process to mix with 200ml water as indicated on the packaging. I find that the powder mixes well with cold tap water and dissolves quickly and easily and the resulting 'drink' can then be taken as required. For diarrhoea, the recommended dosage is to take one of the mixed solutions after every 'loose motion.' I generally use these to treat my children and, more often than not, the stomach bugs they experience tend to include sickness as well as diarrhoea. In those instances, I follow the advice given to me by my GP which is to offer just a very small sip of the mixed Dioralyte as drinking too much liquid in any one go is likely to trigger further vomiting which would obviously be counterproductive. The only issue that I've found with this solution is persuading my poorly children to take it. It's easier with my older children (now aged 11 and 6) as they realise the importance of keeping themselves hydrated and realise that the Dioralyte is going to help them get better. My most recent experience of using these sachets was for my youngest, three year old, son who was unfortunately much less co-operative. Obviously, he was already feeling pretty rough during a prolonged period of sickness and diarrhoea so was even less inclined to be reasonable and co-operative than usual. Trying to get him to swallow the mixed solution once he had a (small) taste of the liquid proved to be impossible as he did not find the supposed blackcurrant flavouring at all to his liking. In the end, I had to abandon the Dioralyte and stick to plain water as drinking some fluid was the priority to avoid dehydration as that is far more of a concern for young children than the loss of the body's salts. Personally, I find the flavour acceptable although it is not something that I would choose to drink when well. The blackcurrant flavouring does help to mask anything more medicinal tasting but there is a distinct saltiness within the taste and the artificial saccharine sweetness is also detectable but bearable, certainly for an adult. As a well known branded product, these are widely available from most supermarkets and chemists and can be purchased without prescription and without any advice from a pharmacist. I tend to pay around the £3 mark for a packet containing six sachets. This is usually enough for at least two bouts of sickness or diarrhoea and I tend to replenish my supplies once one of the children has been unwell as it is pretty much a given that one of their siblings will succumb shortly afterwards! The shelf life on these sachets is usually pretty generous with my current packet stating a best before date over 12 months away, so these can be kept in stock without too much worry about loss of effectiveness. As a parent, I find Dioralyte an essential part of my medicine cupboard and would recommend these to other parents as a valuable standby item. The only difficulty may be convincing your poorly child to give these a try, given the slightly unusual taste.
I have naturally curly, long and thick hair and the one hair care item that I rely on to try and tame the inevitable frizz that comes with it is a decent quality serum. I have been using John Frieda's original formula 'Frizz-Ease' serum for several years and, despite dalliances with other brands and products, it is the one I always end up coming back to. Like most serums, Frizz Ease is presented in a practical and simple pump action bottle made from transparent plastic which makes it easy to keep abreast of the contents. This dispenses the serum easily and evenly, making it easy to release the desired amount without any excess. A little does go a long way but because my hair is both long and coarse I do need to use a lot more than the single pump suggested on the bottle to achieve any noticeable results. I tend to apply the Frizz Ease a pump at a time, making it easier to disperse this through my hair from about the mid-lengths down to the ends of my hair which do tend to be dry and prone to split ends. In all, I would estimate I use about 3-4 pumps in total when applying to wet hair after shampooing and conditioning. The bottle does indicate that this should be used on soaking wet hair but I must admit that I have always removed some of the excess water before applying the serum as I find it difficult to apply when my hair is literally soaking wet due to its length. It also seems a little counter-intuitive to use on soaking wet hair as I would imagine quite a lot is simply lost as the water drips away. I also use a single pump in the mornings on my hair whilst dry to help to tame the frizz, especially when tying my hair up as I just find it necessary to smooth the front of my hair back with a little additional serum. The texture of the serum is very pleasant, feeling silky rather than greasy to the touch, although adding too much can quickly cause an unattractive greasy effect. I warm the serum gently in my hands before smoothing through and find that it spreads evenly and easily throughout my hair and invisibly coats my hair without leaving behind behind any stickiness or sense of greasiness (providing I haven't gone overboard on application.) I won't claim that this works miracles or eradicates frizz, certainly not on my hair. To achieve a totally smooth and frizz-free look, I really need to blow dry and straighten my hair which is something that I only do rarely for special occasions. Simply using the Frizz Ease alone doesn't result in straight and sleek frizz-free hair but it does make a noticeable difference and I also find that my hair is much easier to brush through and to deal with. If I have only used conditioner and no serum, I really struggle even to get a brush through my thick hair and it feels much coarser to the touch as well, so this is worth using even if only for the difference it makes to basic hair styling on a daily basis. This serum only has a very faint aroma - a typical 'hair care' kind of scent that is unlikely to cause offence to anybody. I don't tend to notice the scent much even on application and it doesn't generally overpower a fragranced shampoo. The scent, if anything, is vaguely reminiscent of clean, freshly washed hair so is certainly bearable and could even afford to be a little stronger. Frizz-Ease can be purchased in a smaller pump action 25ml bottle but, given the length and texture of my hair and the amount I need to use, I find it much better value to buy the larger 50ml bottles. I also frequently keep my eyes out for promotional offers on this larger size, frequently buying it as part of a 'three for two' offer at Boots or for a discounted price from Morrisons. At full price, this costs over the £6 mark so it is well worth looking out for offers, although I do find that the bottles last for a couple of months even with daily application.
I'm not a girly girl and my beauty and cosmetics routine is pretty minimal. I do experience dry skin and have episodes of eczema which can sometimes be irritated by heavily perfumed products and cosmetics. I also find that the skin on my face can start to feel dry, particularly during Winter months when I am exposed to the elements outside and then the drying effects of central heating indoors. One of the best products I've found to instantly soothe and reduce any patches of dry skin and soreness has to be this simple and rather uninspiring looking cream from Nivea. I constantly have a tube of 'Nivea Soft' cream in my work bag and on the mantelpiece at home ready for instant application. Nivea is quite a traditional cream and is a brand that has been used for generations but this is much better than the original, quite thick and heavy cream that I can remember my own mother using. The only thing that lets this down slightly is the packaging which is quite bland and doesn't make the product particularly easy to spot on the supermarket shelf. The claims on the product are quite modest. This is described as being dermatologically approved which offers reassurance to anybody like me whose skin can be sensitive and prone to irritation. It also claims to be 'refreshingly soft' which might seem to be an unusual description for a cream but I do think it describes the texture (and the effects) very accurately. I'm also pleased to discover that the cream contains Vitamin E and Jojoba Oil, although the fairly lengthy list of ingredients does sound quite clinical. I purchase this in really handy 75ml sized tubes which lasts for a surprisingly long time, even with applications several times each day, but is also really conveniently sized to remain at hand whenever I might need it. This is also available in a larger (200ml) tub format but I have always preferred to use the tubes. I also find the tubes a more hygienic method of application, as I'm not constantly dipping potentially grubby fingers into a tub of cream. (I regularly use this on the go, so am not always able to wash my hands prior to application.) This is a multi-purpose cream, with the tube clearly indicating that it is suitable for face, hands and body. This is the ideal cream for somebody like me, who really does need to use a moisturiser but doesn't want the inconvenience or expense of needing to use several different products. I use this predominantly on my face but also apply on my hands regularly and, less frequently, on my legs after shaving. I apply this morning and night to my face and also frequently reapply during the day, whenever I am conscious of my skin beginning to feel dry or simply want to rehydrate my skin. I find the texture of this cream to be perfect for my needs as it is dispensed easily and evenly from the flexible tube, with no waste or spillages. The cream is a perfect white colour with a pleasant but not overly strong scent. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact aroma of the cream but I would definitely say that this is an attractive feminine, floral smell. It is relatively subtle, though, and I've used it on my sons' face and body when needed without any objection from them (and, more importantly, no signs of any irritation or reaction.) My six year old does tend to develop a dry patch under and around his nose, particularly during and after a heavy cold. I have tried various other creams and salves but he often ends up crying as they tend to sting when applied to broken and sore skin. Nivea Soft is one of the few creams that I can use that doesn't cause him discomfort when applied, so I tend to use this when necessary as I know we won't end up with tears. The scent does not linger once the cream has been rubbed in and the cream is almost instantly absorbed once applied, which is one of the things that I love about this particular version of Nivea. I really dislike the thicker moisturisers that sit on the surface of the skin and leave a sticky noticeable residue behind, especially on my face. Nivea Soft is absorbed straightaway, simply treating any visible or perceived dryness without leaving any shine or greasiness behind. I can feel a difference to the condition of my skin instantly and my skin feels softer and more comfortable for several hours between applications which I love. Nivea Soft is widely available. I tend to pick this up with my weekly shopping at Morrisons but have also purchased it from Wilkinsons on occasions. I generally pay around £2 for a 75ml tube which I feel is excellent value as a little goes a long way and provides instant and relatively long-lasting results. This is an all-round cream that I'm happy to recommend as a practical option for anybody who experiences dry skin, whether that is on hands, face or body. It is a really versatile, pleasantly scented and effective option that is easy to apply, instantly absorbed and does not cause any irritation to even the most sensitive of skins.
Last year, my husband decided that he wanted to watch more films and requested a blu-ray player for his birthday. This was the first blu-ray player we had ever owned and I chose this Panasonic (DMP BD75) based on previous positive experiences with the Panasonic brand. Despite being completely inexperienced with blu-ray technology, the initial set up process was fairly self explanatory and straightforward, with the player being pretty much ready to use as soon as it was connected to the tv. The player does not come supplied with an HDMI cable which is a little disappointing as it is not possible to use the appliance without one. A basic cable is pretty inexpensive, however, and I managed to purchase one as part of a deal at Argos at the point of purchase. An ethernet cable is not supplied either but the player will function perfectly without one (certainly for the purposes of playing either blu-rays or DVD's.) We were a little confused initially as to what the benefits of having this player connected up to the internet actually were and did not find much clarity from either the instruction manual or the on screen menu system. From ongoing experience, the ethernet connection only seems to enable the player to perform a firmware update as and when it deems necessary. Fortunately, this is not a frequent occurrence and has only happened twice since we purchased this player. Aesthetically, this is a really attractive looking device. I like the sleek black appearance and was surprised by how slimline it actually is. When connected to our previous tv, this player slotted easily on top of our Sky box to maximise the space available. It is currently connected to a Panasonic LCD screen and both appliances complement the other perfectly, although I think the simple black clutter-free design is neutral enough and slender enough to fit into most living rooms. The basic controls can be accessed on the player itself, so it is possible to view blu rays and DVD's even if the remote control has gone astray! All of the menu features can be utilised on the slim black remote control. The keys are all clearly and logically labelled and of a decent size, making it very straightforward to use without becoming overly cluttered with function keys. The volume can also be adjusted via the blu ray remote control, without having to use the tv remote, as can the eject and off functions. The two AA batteries required have yet to need replacing. Our film collection predominantly consists of DVDs rather than blu rays, mainly because of the higher costs of purchasing blu rays. We're also not generally interested in the special bonus features and extended elements included with many blu rays so can't justify the extra cost. It may seem a bit pointless purchasing a blu ray player with the intention of watching mainly DVDs, when a much cheaper appliance would have done the same job. The benefit here is that the clever machine 'upscales' the picture quality of DVDs, effectively converting a standard DVD image into a much sharper high definition image. The reported '1080p up-conversion function' doesn't mean a great deal to me as a layperson but the difference in reality is that the DVDs watched via this blu ray player are much clearer, brighter and sharper than when viewed on a basic DVD player. The sound quality is, to some extent, dictated by the tv that this is connected to. We have used this with both our current Panasonic television as well as a Philips model and, in both cases, the sound quality of both DVDs and blu ray discs was excellent. We occasionally use this device to play CDs and audiobooks (when my youngest son wants to finish listening to a story after a car journey) and have had no issues with playback or sound quality. I particularly like how responsive this machine is and how quick it is to start up and play a film. The disc tray opens and closes smoothly without fail and the player is exceptionally quiet during operation with a barely audible level of noise as it reads the disc and when skipping through functions. It has performed consistently over the last 18 months without any issues on either the playing performance or the durability of the actual device, despite my kids eagerly swapping discs over and randomly jabbing at keys. I paid £74.99 for this player, back in July 2012. It is no longer for sale in Argos but is still available from play.com for £79.98 which seems a reasonable price for a reliable blu-ray player from an established brand, making this a purchase I am happy to recommend.
Last year, I decided to replace the microwave that I'd owned for about a decade as the interior coating was coming away. I use a microwave on a daily basis, just for very simple tasks such as heating the mug of warm milk I have every night and warming my youngest son's weetabix in the morning. I didn't particularly need any special features from my new microwave but I did want a digital rather than a dial-based model, as I find them to be more accurate. I also wanted my new microwave to work in ten second increments, again for accuracy and to be at least 800 watts for speed. I didn't think I was asking for a great deal but I actually really struggle to find a simple digital model that offered a ten second button. Eventually I found this Samsung microwave (ME89F1S) that seemed to offer the features and power I required. I reserved this microwave online from my local Argos store so hadn't seen it in the flesh before purchasing. As soon as we unpacked this from the box, I knew that it had been a mistake. I did mutter something about returning it but my other half was reluctant to go to the hassle of returning it. One of the reasons why I disliked this microwave from the outset is because it is so big. Most electrical appliances (particularly microwaves) tend to get slightly smaller as time progresses. I can certainly remember our first family microwave from the 1980s being a huge beast of a thing! I had expected this new microwave to be smaller than its predecessor but, if anything, it is slightly bigger. The capacity is a fairly standard 23 litres, so large enough to cope with your everyday cooking needs (including fitting in an Avent microwave steriliser) but certainly no larger than average. The exterior is considerably larger than the interior, as this has an extremely large keypad panel making the microwave look like a massive black boxy contraption. My worktop space is limited in the kitchen and I would have preferred this to be a smaller model, without sacrificing internal capacity. There just seems to be a huge amount of wasted space with this microwave and I wonder if it could have been downsized if the number of (mostly totally unnecessary) additional features had been reduced. My main gripe with this appliance is its ease of use. I can generally work my way around most kitchen appliances without too many problems but this machine makes the most simple of tasks frustratingly difficult. There are far too many 'function' buttons for one thing and the labelling used is totally illogical. I defy anybody to get this microwave to work on the first attempt without having to be on intimate terms with the user manual first. There are so many different buttons to select from, with none of them being clearly marked. Instead, they have random symbols with varying designs of wavy lines and just bizarre hieroglyphic style images. One of the few buttons that is marked with an identifiable symbol is the 'child lock' button, marked with a padlock. This is another thing that irritates me; the large number of totally unnecessary features. Yes, I am a mother of three children and, yes, I am conscious of child safety, especially in the kitchen, but that does not mean that I appreciate totally meaningless safety features. In all honesty, of all of the potential hazards in the average kitchen, a microwave is one of the least likely to be within the reach of a toddler. Our microwave, like most, is situated high up on a kitchen worktop and if my kids were running riot around the worktops I think I'd need more than a child lock to keep them safe. That aside, the child lock doesn't even do what you might want it to do to avoid hazards - it doesn't actually lock the microwave door to prevent a child from removing a potentially boiling hot item from inside. The lock simply prevents the key pad from being used. So whilst it might stop your toddler from microwaving the pet hamster, it won't prevent them from tipping out the contents of the appliance on themselves. (Both are entirely moot points given the likelihood of the machine being out of said child's reach anyway.) More space is wasted to incorporate dedicated buttons for 'auto functions' such as being able to cook ready meals for the required length of time, according to the type and weight of the meal. All this might sound very clever but, in all honesty, I am totally perplexed by the need for this kind of feature. Surely, anybody cooking a ready meal would find it quicker to follow the instructions on the back of the packet rather than mess about weighing the item and then consulting the manual to work out just how to key in all the vital details? Even if reheating a home cooked meal, I would just stick it on high for a couple of minutes and keep stirring and checking. I really don't see the need to over-complicate a pretty basic microwave function. A further 'useful' feature is the inclusion of a free steamer 'power bowl' which can be used within the microwave. I did have visions of steaming everything to perfection using this little device but, again, it's far too much of a faff to use this (suspiciously basic looking plastic) steamer power bowl as it involves weighing out the ingredients used and then calculating the cooking time. Generally speaking, if I'm using a microwave then I want something to be quick and easy - I really don't want to be messing about in that way. Needless to say, that device is sitting gathering dust whilst I just stick my veg in a pan. I chose this digital model precisely because I preferred the precision involved. Again, I was sadly mistaken. Yes, this offers increments of 10 seconds but, bizarrely, there isn't a one minute button. There are numerous buttons sat there for all sorts of meaningless and unnecessary functions but nobody thought to include a button that increases the timer in increments of one minute? Bizarre! Instead, setting the required amount of time involves pressing two buttons beforehand, to set the correct power - even though 99.9999% of the time something will be heated on 'high' - and then going up in increments of 10 seconds to select the correct cooking time. I'm not sure if the people that designed this microwave have ever had personal experience of using one but I suspect not. The (quicker) alternative is to bypass this long winded process and use the 30 second 'quick start' button. This method is flawed as the microwave will automatically start and begin counting down on the first press of the button so you do need to be quick and press the correct number of times before losing track. This also loses the element of precision - I didn't want a microwave that goes up in 30 second increments but this is what I end up with by default as it is much quicker to use this option. The only good thing I can say about this microwave is that it does actually perform reliably, once the poorly thought out operating process has been completed. Food heats evenly and consistently and the interior is coated with a mess resistant anti-bacterial liner that really does seem to repel any splashes and marks, making it incredibly easy to wipe down after use. There is even a button that can be pressed after use to remove any lingering smells left behind but, like much about this machine, it is a pretty unnecessary addition and so badly labelled that I'm not 100% which of the many buttons actually offers this function. I paid £84.99 for this microwave back in July 2012. It is currently available from Argos for £89.99, which I feel is vastly overpriced. I truly regret buying this microwave and have only kept it as I can't justify replacing an expensive appliance so soon after purchase. I live in hope that this will prove to be faulty and give up the ghost but, alas, thus far it has proven to be pretty reliable and robust. That is where the positives end and I can't recommend this microwave to anybody else, unless they are looking for a steamer in which case I'd recommend that they actually invest in a steamer instead. Whilst this model will heat food quickly and efficiently, it is so poorly designed and unnecessarily complex that I find it a real pain to use. It works but I really wish it didn't.
My husband is despairing this year as he has no idea what to get me for Christmas and I'm sure he's not the only man currently scratching his head, thinking of what the best Christmas purchase might be for the woman in his life. I don't particularly 'need' anything and there isn't much that I 'want' - certainly not stuff that I'd be likely to get for Christmas; a bigger house and more time are the top of my ultimate wish list! From the kids, I'd love a guarantee that none of them are going to wake up the wrong side of 7am and for them to all eat the same meal at the same time but I'm not sure that I'll get that wrapped up this Christmas... I'm not a big lover of the traditional female gifts such as perfume, cosmetics and flowers. I do, however, enjoy chocolates, foody items and the old classics such as a luxurious fluffy dressing gown and soft slippers. I don't drink much but I am partial to a glass of Baileys and enjoy trying some of the more unusual varieties that they bring out. I like the Chocolate Orange they introduced last year and would like to try the newest Chocolate variety. Previous successful purchases have been a lovely Radley purse, which is still in use several years later. For my latest birthday, my other half chose a nice leather bag for work. I do like practical presents that I'm actually going to get considerable use out of rather than something that will just end up as clutter. This year, I've suggested my other half buy me a new pair of shoes. Unlike many women, I loathe shoe shopping and see it as a real chore. My husband has good taste, knows my shoe size so I'm hoping he will choose well. A carefully selected gift voucher might be a safer option for anybody less confident about another person's tastes! I do enjoy reading and am happy to recommend some of my most recent reads, for any other book lovers this Christmas. I have finally got round to reading 'Before I go to sleep' which I really enjoyed. I've discovered Louise Millar this year, enjoying her second novel 'Accidents Happen' as well as a few Linwood Barclay novels. My easy reading pleasure is Agatha Christie and I have been tempted by a bargain selection of Poirot novels from the Book People - some of which I've yet to read. The whole set was just £15 for 12 books and there are often discount codes and offers on the site. I would love any of the collections on there, in all honesty, as I really enjoy discovering new authors as well as my old favourites. I think the key to buying a present for any woman is knowing their likes and dislikes well enough to be able to buy something beyond the generic toiletry gift sets and the like. If you're not confident that you do, the safest option will always be a gift voucher. This tends to be my default position for any adult women (aside from my mum) that I need to buy for.
Shopping for Christmas presents for kids can stretch most budgets, especially if the kids have produced a lengthy wish list of all the latest 'must have' toys and gadgets. With three sons and a young niece to buy for, I have learned various tips and tricks to spread the Christmas joy. Apparently, the 'in' toys for Christmas 2013 are the latest Furbys (interactive toys), Hare & Bear cuddly toys (thanks to the lovely John Lewis adverts) and Lucy the Dog. Luckily, none of my children have expressed an interest in any of these as they are all - being so close to Christmas- in very short supply and the only option for many desperate parents may well be to pay over the odds to those profiteering on sites such as ebay. In all honesty, I wouldn't go to such lengths for soft toys. (They are really one of my pet hates - they don't really 'do' anything, beyond cluttering up bedrooms and attracting dust!) Young children do become attached to their cuddly toys, however, and even my oldest son, at 11, still takes a huge soft monkey toy to bed each night! Rather than pay extortionate prices for specific soft toys, perhaps consider a voucher for a 'Build a Bear' trip to take place after Christmas. Yes, these are also over-priced but at least it becomes more of an experience and an event, with the child selecting each individual element and the accessories and then helping to construct their own bear, as well as having a cuddly keepsake to treasure afterwards. For anybody desperate for a Lucy the Dog, they are currently in stock at Smyths toys online for the original RRP of £29.99 rather than the inflated prices elsewhere. Furby fans may have to compromise on colours but they are still available for around £50-£70, unless you're able to get away with one of the much cheaper soft toy versions which have popped up in bargain stores such as B&M's and Home Bargains. This year, for my boys, I have focused on toys that I know from experience they will continue to play with and enjoy all year old. My two oldest sons will both have new scooters to replace (and improve on) their previous versions. My 11 year old has reliably informed me that a Madd MGP scooter is the brand to be seen with, whilst I've been able to get a much cheaper Ozzbozz Lightning Strike scooter for my 6 year old. The other theme that shows absolutely no sign of going away is Minecraft. My older son is absolutely addicted to the PC version and has to be surgically removed from his computer in order to interact with humanity away from a computer screen. My middle son will happily construct his own worlds on the Android tablet version so I have purchased some items of branded clothing for them both. (BHS and M&Co have both had a range of reasonably priced Minecraft branded clothing in stock.) I have also purchased the Beginner's Handbook (£4 from Sainsburys) for my middle son and ordered the more advanced Redstone Handbook for my oldest son along with copies of the annual (which isn't that good, to my adult eyes, but am sure will be greeted warmly on Christmas day.) As usual, I've gone overboard on books for my youngest son - they really are something that offers ongoing play value and can be purchased so cheaply from sites such as the Book People and Amazon. Our book shelves are heaving, though, but I haven't let that stop me and have ordered a series of bargainous audiobooks from the Book People. (£9.99 for 10 Julia Donaldson books on CD.) We like to listen to stories in the car so this was too difficult to resist. I also like to buy a decent bath toy, to keep bath times interesting, and this year I've bought one from the Wow toys range having found their friction toy range to be excellent quality and good value for money. I'm hoping that 'Danny's Diving Adventure' will prove to be equally good. My youngest son's main present will be the latest version of the Kidizoom Twist Plus camera. My middle son has an older Kidizoom and has loved this so much that he has been resistant to any attempts to pass this down to his younger brother. My three year old loves taking pictures and playing on the games on the older version so I'm sure that this will prove to be a big hit. I've also topped up the present pile with extras such as DVD's (always handy when Christmas tv proves to be a disappointment), Brio accessories to add to my youngest son's train set and a Hot Wires kit for my six year old (which dropped in price considerably earlier this year.) Last year's successes that are still going strong include a Play Doh Candy Cyclone set - the best Play Doh set that I've ever known- and my oldest son's watch which is still worn every day. (A practical sporty Adidas ADM2058- currently just £13 including delivery from the watchshop.com.) I hope that this list has given you some ideas and inspiration and wish you and your children a Happy Christmas 2013!
It can be difficult to find the perfect Christmas gift for the men in your life. Here are my recommendations for Christmas 2013, based on the gifts I've already chosen. My husband does make my life slightly easier by choosing his own gift. It might not seem a very romantic method of doing things but it does mean that he is guaranteed not to be disappointed and avoids wasting money on stuff that isn't going to get used or worn. This year, the present of choice has been a Paul Smith wallet. (He has chosen a multistripe version that was slightly reduced at the House of Fraser.) Paul Smith wallets (and products in general) are quite expensive but the quality reflects this higher price and is nice to have something special, yet practical that can be used throughout the year. This will be the third Paul Smith wallet that my husband has owned but all of them have seen years of use. I also purchase an additional little gift for my other half on behalf of the children. Sometimes the kids take an active role in choosing the presents and this year my oldest son has decided to buy the updated version of the Pointless board game. We love this programme and, as it is shown early evening, actually Sky Plus the entire series so we can sit down and watch it with our tea. The board game itself has had mixed reviews but it wasn't badly priced (currently £14.99 on Amazon) so I'm hoping it will be a fun and inexpensive game, ideal for men who enjoy a spot of trivia. I do find it harder to buy for my own Dad, as he doesn't ask for his own presents! He is fond of a drink though so I usually play it safe and stick to a bottle of something. I do try to vary the offerings, however, and buy more unusual varieties. One year, for example, I bought him a bottle of Gordon's Sloe Gin because I could remember him making his own sloe gin when I was a child. The Gordon's version was so nice that we ended up buying a bottle for ourselves as well. This year, I have discovered an inexpensive way of personalising the usual bottled offering. The 'Famous Grouse' are offering a free personalised printed label to cover a bottle of their whisky, making a lovely gift for my Dad. This only applies to the smaller (70cl) bottles which is a bit of a shame as the larger 1 litre bottles are on offer and would have only been about a pound extra. I thought it was worth getting the smaller bottle (currently £14.49 from Morrisons) to add the personalised label, making this year's Christmas offering seem a little more special. You need to be quick to take advantage of this offer, however, as the labels are printed and sent through the post and tomorrow is the last date for guaranteed delivery before Christmas. (Full terms and conditions can be seen at www.makesomeonefamous.com) I hope these give you some usual ideas and inspiration for Christmas 2013 and the men in your life. Merry Christmas!
Last Christmas, I was lacking in inspiration for ideas for my youngest son's Christmas presents. He has two older brothers and has inherited many of their hand-me-down toys but Santa still wanted to make a visit to a special little boy. Eventually I decided that an inexpensive farm set would be a good choice and purchased this Massey Ferguson branded set from Amazon. At the time of my purchase, I bought this directly from Amazon and paid just £14.66 for the set. I felt this was pretty good value for money at the time as this is a fairly comprehensive farm set and comes packaged in a really large box, with a cellophane viewing window, making this suitable for a young child's 'main present.' Once opened, however, and all of the pieces have been separated from the packaging, the box isn't sturdy enough to be used as permanent storage for the set so another home will be needed to keep all of the pieces safely together. This is a plastic set, however, so lacks some of the charm and detail of more expensive wooden sets. There are several components to this set although it does lack a base which would be a useful addition to maximise play value. What is provided is a good basis for a play farm, including a generously sized farmhouse and several farm buildings of various sizes and forms. There is also a replica Massey Ferguson tractor complete with a detachable trailer with a working tailgate section so animals can be unloaded and unloaded easily and safely. As you'd expect this set also includes a large number of animal figures with all of the usual farm animals featured, including horses, sheep, cows and chickens. The animals are good quality plastic figurines being instantly recognisable with the features clearly painted on. The only disappointment with the figures are that the sizing is pretty inconsistent with the adult cow and horse figures being huge in comparison with the sheep figures. The larger figures are pleasingly chunky and a good size for toddlers to move around and hold but some of the smaller animals are a little too fiddly. In terms of age recommendation, I feel that a child from two years upwards can appreciate this set under supervision and began to engage in imaginative play. The formal age recommendation is from three years upwards which will be due to the inclusion of a number of very small play pieces which would present a choking hazard. I would advise caution if being played by or near a very young child not yet past the stage of putting things in their mouths (or noses) as the small items such as hay bales and milk churns could be very tempting and potentially dangerous. The farm buildings aren't fully enclosed as they all have a completely open back. This does mean that the structures aren't quite as stable as a complete box would be and they can easily be knocked over by a clumsy toddler but this design is far better suited to imaginative play. My son is able to trot the animal figures through the door and can then manoeuvre them around easily through the open back, re-enacting various little scenes and activities with the animals. My son particularly likes the different doors and openings to the buildings, especially on a long shed like building where the entire roof lifts up, offering another option for posting various animals and items through or just lifting up to peep at the treasures beneath. The main issue with this set is that the plastic used isn't particularly good quality. The actual buildings themselves are pretty robust but there are many other instances where cheap materials lead to disappointment. The clip that connects the tractor to the trailer snapped off within a couple of months of ownership which was a real shame as this was the feature that appealed to my son the most. The tractor itself is an impressive Massey Ferguson likeness and pushes along easily but it does lose considerable amount of play value when the trailer can't be attached. There are other flaws such as the base of the flimsy fence pieces supplied snapping off, making the fences unusable as they cannot stand up stably. My little boy enjoyed making little fenced off areas to separate the animals but can no longer do this. The other feature that he absolutely adored was a wind up little pulley that attached to one of the sheds. Unfortunately, this also broke and was beyond repair. I do like this set and my son stills plays with it on a regular basis, at the age of three. With the benefit of hindsight, I do wish that I'd invested in a more expensive and better quality set, knowing how happily he plays with the farm set. At the price I paid, I can accept the lower quality pieces and materials but I would not recommend paying the current Amazon selling price (£39.99 plus postage via a third party seller.) This is certainly not a set worthy of such a high price and I would be seriously disappointed had I paid anywhere near that amount.
Earlier this year, we had a bit of a DIY disaster. What started off as a small leak in the downstairs toilet, resulted in having to replace the entire toilet (thanks to my other half smashing the cistern lid whilst 'investigating the problem'!) Fortunately, we got the new toilet installed promptly but it is slightly smaller than its predecessor and leaves a nasty gap around the base of the toilet where the flooring doesn't quite reach. We have grand plans to redecorate the whole house, eventually, but as a short term solution we needed something to disguise the unsightly gap. My other half returned from Wilkinson's with this set of cream reversible cotton bath mats from their own range. This product is really a throwback to the 1970's, featuring a fluffy bath mat and a shaped pedestal mat, with a curved cut out section to allow it to fit comfortably. I've always disliked these kind of products and think they make a bathroom look really dated and unhygienic. This set hasn't particularly changed my mind although it was purchased out of necessity rather than a desire to achieve a particular 'look.' In its defence, the set is fairly inexpensive, costing just £6 for both pieces. It is also quite thick, so somebody needing something soft underfoot to protect from a cold bathroom floor might be pleased with this although I think it is worth paying more for something more aesthetically pleasing and better quality. The pedestal mat has been used to cover the base of our new toilet and does disguise the gap between the flooring and toilet. It doesn't look 'good', by any stretch of the imagination, but perhaps visitors might assume we are going for a retro kind of look! My main concern is hygiene as I have three sons, including a three year old who is starting to use the toilet independently. I'm conscious of the likelihood of spills as well as the mess created by over-enthusiastic hand washing afterwards. Fortunately, both the mats are 100% cotton and can be machine washed at 40 degrees. I put them through a slightly higher 60 degree wash just so I can be confident that any nasty bacteria has been dealt with. We did use the bath mat briefly in our upstairs bathroom. The cream colour scheme and plain look was inoffensive enough to blend in with our bathroom but I was still not too keen on its overall appearance. I also found the mat too large and thick and very absorbent. This meant that when the kids were a bit messy at bathtime the mat became totally soaked. This then took ages to dry and, again, I was conscious of bacteria lurking within a constantly damp bath mat. Needless to say, this mat didn't remain in place for too long. I much prefer to use a thick towel as a floor covering and then put it straight into the wash each time. Whilst this set is inexpensive and relatively neutral it isn't something that I feel looks or performs well in a modern bathroom. I can't fault the quality of the material used but do feel that the thick bath mat is difficult to dry thoroughly and the overall look is pretty cheap and dated. This isn't something that I would personally recommend and have subsequently replaced the pedestal surround with a much thicker, plusher version from BHS.
Last Christmas I purchased portable DVD players for my oldest sons and needed headphones to go with them. For my younger son (aged five at the time) I chose these fun 'DJ style' headphones under the Groov-e brand name as his first pair of headphones. I paid just over £9 for the set last year from Amazon and they are currently available for around the same price. These headphones come in a range of colours to suit both boys and girls and individual tastes with this particular model (GV590PBB) being a bright and attractive shade of blue. These lightweight headphones are designed to be used by children aged three and over. At five, my smaller than average son was able to wear these on the very lowest setting but there is plenty of room to expand to accommodate much older children. At a push, these will stretch to fit an adult sized head but the clumpy pads (complete with a printed silver DJ logo) and the bold colouring will probably appeal more to young child than adult tastes. Expanding the headphones is very straightforward and requires little physical effort to adjust them to an appropriate secure and comfortable fitting. The band section is particularly thin; considerably thinner than the JVC branded kids' headphones that we have subsequently replaced these with. Despite its thin size, the band is made from strong plastic and feels pretty strong and flexible. The main structure of the headphones are sturdy enough to withstand rough handling from the target age group and are flexible enough to be pulled on and off regularly without visible damage to the main frame. The padded ear sections appear quite large in comparison to the thin frame but are certainly well padded and securely attached. The black and blue colour scheme used on the pads and frame contrasts nicely and gives this a stylish appearance. The soft pads remain securely in place without slipping or causing any discomfort for my son. There are actually two different cord lengths recorded on the Amazon listing for this product. Despite the confusion, this set has a cord of 1.2 metres in length, rather than the 2 metres also mentioned in the description. I find this length adequate for most of my son's needs and was certainly long enough to allow him to connect this to an in-car DVD player and sit back comfortably in his car seat. There is only a single lead, connecting to just one of the sides which does help to reduce any twisting and tangling of leads during or after use. The jack fitting is a standard 3.5mm size which fits most devices. The sound and tone quality of these headphones was perfectly adequate when listening to films, games or music although there is no means of adjusting the volume other than via the device being used. As a parent, I was appreciative that these contact the sound well and there is no annoying sound 'leakage' to annoy other parties. Despite these positive attributes, we have unfortunately had to replace this set of headphones after sporadic use for around six or seven months. My son started to complain that he could not get the headphones to work when connected and it soon became clear that there was an issue with the connection. There are no visible signs of damage to the wiring or the jack but there must be some internal damage. With some jiggling and careful repositioning, it is still possible to get these headphones to work and release sound but due to a loose connection, the sound will cut out and stop working altogether if the headphones or wire are moved slightly. Clearly, this makes the set pretty unusable and we have had to replace them with another brand. These were not an expensive brand, at under £10, but I had hoped that they would last longer than they actually have done, especially as my son's usage petered off during the year. I do think they look good and fit comfortably but I am reluctant to recommend them as the internal wiring does not appear strong enough to withstand a typical child's treatment.
I found it really difficult to keep my kitchen floor clean with three young children in the house, especially when my youngster was at the toddler stage. Using a mop and bucket meant allowing the floor time to dry which wasn't always achievable with the kids racing about and cleaning the kitchen floor was the last thing I want to do during the evening. A steam cleaner sounded like the answer to my prayers, particularly when I discovered this highly-rated Vax 'S2 Hard Floor Master' available at at a reasonably priced £44.99. I purchased the Vax S2 back in January of this year. The cleaner does require an element of assembly before the initial use but it was fairly minimal and simply a matter of attaching the handle to the main body and then connecting and screwing in the triangular base section. Once assembled, it is clear just how slim and compact this gadget actually is. I was envisioning something much bigger and bulkier but this is actually quite easy to store and to push, due to its slim proportions and lightweight sizing. The S2 does come with a very short and simple user manual but operating this is very straightforward and I only needed to refer to the manual for the initial use. The water tank is surprisingly small but this is quite misleading as the amount of water contained is more than enough to cover quite a large area. I find it easy to fill and empty the water tank before and after each use but can imagine this being a problem for people with poor grips or any joint issues as the tank has a series of indents at each size which need to be held firmly whilst sliding the tank upwards. The hole to top up with water is quite small but I find it large enough to hold under a tap without making too much mess. I use cold water to fill the tank and it is then heated by the cleaner itself, with a simple light system indicating when the correct temperature has been reached and the machine is ready to be used. The LED light is sensibly positioned so it easy to keep an eye on even whilst cleaning, which is especially useful as the temperature can fluctuate and the light will sometimes flick back to orange whilst the water is being re-heated sufficiently to generate enough steam. In use, some of the basics have been well thought out. I do appreciate the length of the cord which allows me to cover the length of my kitchen and also allows for the additional length needed to plug this in the landing and clean the bathroom floor thoroughly too. I also like the design of the triangular base as this is really well thought out to get right up to the edges of skirting boards and walls. The machine can also be utilised to 'freshen' carpets with the addition of a plastic cover which slots over the cloth. I haven't used this feature as, in all honesty, I fail to see what 'freshening' the carpet really means. It is certainly not claiming to 'clean' them and I would rather spend the same amount of time actually cleaning them with a proper carpet cleaner. If I didn't already own a carpet cleaner, I dare say I would give this feature a try but it isn't something that I can see many people benefiting from. Where this machine really falls down is on the design of the microfibre covers which attach to the base and do most of the cleaning work. I was disappointed that Vax only see fit to supply two covers, particularly given the full RRP of around £80. I can't imagine that the fairly thin fabric covers cost a great deal to produce so it seems more than a little mean just to provide two cloths although, of course, additional covers are available to buy at additional costs. My second (and primary) complaint is around the method used to hold the cloths in position. The microfibre cover has a tog system of tightening and should, in theory, sit securely over the triangular base. I find it relatively easy to attach the cloths using the pull string and plastic toggle but I find it much harder to keep them in position. In order to push the cleaner and to clean the floor effectively, I need to push down and the motion simply loosens the cover completely. Reattaching the soaking wet, but boiling hot, cover then becomes a major issue and I need to wait several minutes for both the base and the cloth to become cool enough to safely handle and reattach. The frustration then starts as the whole process begins again. I do try and be quite gentle when pushing but find that the cover inevitably pops off just with the pressure needed to clean properly. My husband has no patience whatsoever with this system and has reverted back to the old-fashioned mop and bucket. I do find that the cleaner is easier to use in the bathroom, where it is pushed along a shinier (linoleum style) floor covering. I find that it is easier to push and as less pressure is needed I don't experience the cover becoming loose with the same frequency (although it will still happen.) My kitchen floor is covered with very hard, old fashioned floor tiles (rather than shiny modern ceramic tiles.) It is also a pale colour so I find that dirt and stains are really visible. This Vax does make a marked difference to the appearance of the floor and the covers are absolutely filthy after use, even when used on what appears to be a relatively 'clean' floor. The finished results are not, however, as amazing as I'd hoped, certainly based on reading about other people's experiences with this particular model. Some people had claimed that this steam cleaner had been able to remove stains and marks that had been years old but I don't find that this tackles anything ingrained. The floor is certainly cleaned but I don't particularly feel that it cleans any better than a traditional mop and bucket. The advantage of this system, however, is that the cleaning power of steam rather than water is much quicker. The machine heats the water up within a couple of minutes, if that, and it is good to go. I find that the tank is enough for a whole room so I don't need to mess about refilling part way through cleaning. The main advantage is that the floor is not actually wet after use. The steam evaporates practically instantly so the kitchen is pretty much free to use straight after cleaning which is great for busy families. I can even use this in the bathroom whilst the boys are in the bath. It is incredibly quick to use and I just zip up and down whilst they play and I can be confident that the floor will be completely safe and dry by the time they are ready to get out. This is also very inexpensive to run. Aside from the small cost of the electricity involved, this cleans without the need for any additional chemicals or other cleaning aids. In fact, Vax specifically advise not using any cleaning products in conjunction with this model. This is a real consideration in terms of money saving and from an environmentally friendly perspective too. The high temperatures involve will kill germs and bacteria so I can be confident that the floor is left hygienically clean without having to resort to bleach or anti-bacterial products at extra cost. I love any gadget that can help me to use my time more efficiently and this certainly does that, aside from the main frustration with the microfibre covers and their poor fastening system. The S2 is currently available from Amazon for £49.99. It's not a bad price for this kind of appliance but I don't think it is the best of the models available so it may well be worth paying more to get a better appliance. Having said that, I much prefer the convenience and cost effectiveness of using this steam cleaner when compared to a mop and bucket. I am happy to recommend the S2 on that basis, although I do think there is considerable room for improvement with the microfibre cloth system.
Over the years I seem to have acquired the responsibility for keeping our garden looking tidy. Fortunately, the majority of our back garden is lawned so it is mainly a matter of mowing regularly, weather permitting. Our lawns are quite sizable, however, and our garden is split level meaning there are effectively two separate lawns to tackle. I use an electric lawn mower, this Qualcast Easy Trak 320, which we have owned for several years and was originally purchased from a former Focus store. The Easy Trak is quite a large model but doesn't feel unduly cumbersome or heavy to either push or lift. Due to the split level nature of our garden, I do need to lift this up and down when I'm mowing so the weight is a major consideration for me but this is certainly manageable. Storage is also straightforward, with the grass collecting basket removing easily which helps to reduce its overall footprint although it would be useful if the handle could be folded or removed for easier storage. The cord length is fairly long but nowhere near long enough to meet our needs so I do need to use this in conjunction with an extension lead. I suspect that a longer lead would seem excessive for many smaller gardens, however, and could easily prove a safety risk. I would appreciate some kind of hook incorporated on the handle to store the lead tidily after use. I do try and wind the lead around the top lever and then over the knob that sticks out further down but this isn't entirely successful and I usually end up with some of the cord escaping and the plug dangling around, which isn't ideal. In use, the Easy Trak functions well. The mower is operated by both a button and a lever which need to be pressed down at the same time, with the lever being held down continuously during mowing. This is a useful safety feature as it prevents the mower from being switched on accidentally. There is also an automatic cut off feature that will switch the mower off if it becomes overheated. As the name indicates, this is really smooth and easy to push and manoeuvre around the lawn, particularly if the grass is kept at a manageable level. I do find that the soil on our top level tends to hold water so the grass can feel quite damp, even after a lengthy dry spell, especially if it is quite long. The Easy Trak will still tackle this slightly damp grass but I do find that the collection basket can clog up quite quickly, even when this is still plenty of space inside. It is possible to adjust the cutting height of the mower, if needed, but I find this quite fiddly to do and don't like messing about underneath the mower. My husband will occasionally adjust the height but I tend to keep it at the same level and simply try to mow on a regular basis. Removing and re-attaching the plastic grass box is very easy as it simply clips into place. I find the capacity to be adequate - holding a decent amount of grass without needing to be emptied too frequently. If the box was much larger, this would hamper the manoeuvrability and also make the mower slightly heavier too. Despite being made from plastic, the box is very sturdy and robust and has not become damaged or weakened at all. The overall results are always fairly neat and tidy, although I do find that the mower isn't able to reach the outer edges of our lawn adequately, which does lead to unsightly areas of long grass. I have to tackle this separately with manual shears or a cordless trimmer. Despite several years of regular (seasonal) use, the cutting mechanism still works efficiently with no sign of any deterioration. The only obvious indication of this mower's age is that it has recently started to make more noise and there is a very slight rattle at times, which suggests that the mower has seen better days. It's not the noisiest of mowers, by any means. I suspect that there may have been some minor damage to the blades by going over small stones and other debris hidden in the glass, usually left by my kids and unseen until I hear a tell-tale 'crunch' of the mower blades! This certainly appears robust enough to withstand such treatment. We've owned our lawnmower, this Qualcast Easy Trak 320 for several years and, thus far, it has coped admirably with tackling our lawn without issue. As this is an older model, it is no longer widely available but a quick search online reveals a stockist currently selling this for £70. This is a reasonable price for a reliable and efficient mower with no major flaws although, in all honesty, when the time comes to replace this I will probably invest in a more modern version for a similar price.