Monday, 26 November 2012

Feeling like Scrooge, plus the VELCRO® Challenge

The VELCRO® challenge is on....

We've had a couple of rotten weeks with coughs and sneezes - November is not a good month for us. However, this year I haven't been able to muster a lot of advance festive cheer  - we have seen the Xmas switch on (coughing away!), have bought a few presents but we feel Xmassed out already. The big commercial pressure exerted by retailers is putting us off. We have not made plans, unlike last year, when we were booking flights to Italy to spend Xmas with my family early in autumn. We had a family reunion up north (my partner's side) during the half term, so I don't know what this Xmas will bring. We are not the only ones, we know of others who are feeling more like Scrooge than Rudolph this year. Some might feel the pinch, while others are frankly fed up with all the material messages. If you have children you are already living on top of a mountain of toys and things - you probably have everything you need and you might feel like decluttering rather than acquiring more stuff. 

So getting a parcel in the post was delightful, even if I was expecting it. Nestled in the red tissue paper were samples of VELCRO® products to try out and an unexpected bonus package at the bottom. I waited for the weekend - my daughter goes to an afterschool club and is tired during the week - to have a good rout and predictably, the first thing that got opened was this...
Velcro Princess masks
Every little girl wants to be a Princess, but which of these masks to go for? Michela decided to make them both and try them on before deciding on a favourite.

The strawberry blonde princess mask was tried out first, I think the purple tiara really stood out. Obviously, it didn't match Michela's hair at all but when she looked in the mirror she found it quite funny. I was amused and pleased she was having fun with it - Michela had a terror of masks until she started preschool, fleeing in tears from various mask-making workshops held at children's centres. 

As expected the brown-haired mask looked better as it matched her hair and complexion, although it's a bit crooked in the photo, due to Michela having a session with it in front of the mirror. 

I expect the next VELCRO® session will be in early December, when we will put up our Xmas decorations. The house is in a bit of a mess at the moment - I am taking advantage of my partner being around to sort out some unglamorous DIY, while getting on with my freelance work. My inhouse publishing project has finished and I'm back working from home.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Xmas shopping: HO HO or Oh No? Plus 2 Moshi Monsters Books to win

Xmas shopping: pleasure or pain?
Now Halloween is over, it’s time to think of Xmas. I usually squirrel presents all year round in a box – handy for birthday gifts too – and only do bespoke shopping (some relatives ask for specific things to avoid jumper/sock/hanky fiascos) in the last weeks. So whether you are on the lookout all year round or have a last-minute panic, here is my festive blog with two brilliant, unisex gift ideas for under a tenner and a fab competition to win a Moshi Monsters book.

To be honest I don’t like thinking of Xmas too early – when Michela (aged 5 and a half or nearly 6 as she puts it) asked me to get the Xmas tree out of the garage in August I put my foot down. I do dislike the early frenzy in shops too, cards in September anyone? I mean they come out even before the Halloween stuff!

When I was working for women’s magazines we did the Xmas issue in August. I remember testing mince pies, puddings, cakes and stuffing (made with water from the office kettle, double yuck!) in summer time. It was kind of surreal but then all the press shows are in July and August – after all monthly magazines are compiled well in advance. But there is no excuse for the early appearance of Xmas goodies in the shops alongside suntan lotions. Let’s get our celebrations in order: Halloween, November fireworks and then Xmas, not the other way round. So now the fireworks are fizzing away, I am prepared to start thinking about Xmas and check in the garage if more baubles or decorations are needed for our artificial tree. 

I was sent all sort of press releases for Xmas presents and I have cherry-picked two that are affordable, unisex and can guarantee hours of fun (tried and tested by myself, my five year old and my mother in law).

Two Xmas gift idea under £10 for boys & girls!

Party Time - truly top of the pops!
Pop Party 10, available from Amazon at £8.99, is a combo of CD with 22 chart toppers suitable for children (ie no naughty lyrics) and a DVD of music videos. A foldable lyric sheet is also included, which made me feel a bit nostalgic as they seem to have gone out of fashion now you can get lyrics online. We tested Pop Party 10 in our car during a rainy journey to the inlaws during half term and it lasted for a long stretch of time, with plenty of cheerful tunes – including 12 Number 1s. This CD is a cracker, with uplifting dance beats like Gangnam Style, Dance with Me Tonight by Olly Murs and the soulful Let me Love You by NE-YO. Other international artists featured include teen faves JLS, Katy Perry, Jessie J, Justin Bieber and One Direction. Michela’s favourite was Gangnam Style - she also loved watching the video on the bonus DVD (yes, we caved in and got a portable DVD for car journeys). We did listen to Gangnam Style an awful lot since then!  This CD/DVD combo is linked to a fun website, with videos, competitions and games. You can join the pop party at

WIN! One of two copies of Moshi Monsters Musical Mystery Tour!
Enter the competition or buy it here
Michela found out about Moshi Monsters when we bought some branded yogurts. She was delighted with Moshi Monsters Musical Mystery Tour – and so was her grandma, a retired teacher, who told me the book was fantastic with its fun word games, quizzes, challenges and colourful mayhem of characters. 

The names are very clever – think talent judge Simon Growl, delicious treat (not!) Eyescream Sunday, Bubba the Bouncer and Dr Strangeglove. To give you a flavour of the text, here is a snippet: “Shuffling along Sludge Street, you stoop outside Horrods”. Do you dare to step into this shop or would you make a beeline for the underground disco? 

Four animation trigger cards and a QR code bring this book into the digital world. By downloading a piece of software you can find out how you'd look as a Moshi character, or watch Zac Binspin performing an exclusive show on the palm of your hand. 

Moshi Monsters Musical Mystery Tour is published by Carlton Kids, has an RRP of £9.99 and available at, Amazon and all good bookstores. 

We have two copies of Moshi Monsters Musical Mystery Tour to give away. All you need to do is a leave a comment below with the name of your favourite monster! Visit for some inspiration.... Competition is open to UK residents only and closes on Sunday 18 November. Good luck!

Wednesday, 31 October 2012


Songs and stories from Tinga Tinga Land

A colourful scene from How Lion Became the King of Tinga Tinga Land
at Cambridge's Corn Exchange - more dates till 19 November
Jambo! I got four review tickets for HOW LION BECAME KING OF TINGA TINGA LAND at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge and took a friend and her little daughter along. Our little group consisted of two mums and two little girls, aged four and five - both at primary school.

HOW LION BECAME KING OF TINGA TINGA LAND is an interactive, high-energy, musical adventure for children aged three till 11.  The story revolves around a competition set in the Africa Plain of Tinga Tinga Land to decide which animal will be King. The audience is given a warm, African welcome with a beautiful song and are then involved during the show in the competition among the animals. Cheeky Monkey, Kindly Hippo, Wise Bird, Groovy Zebra, and Proud Lion compete in singing, dancing and storytelling, to prove they are worthy to become the King or Queen. Two drummers at the side of the stage add drama and an atmospheric beat to the proceedings. Although inspired by the Cbeebies/Tiger Aspect TV show Tinga Tinga Tales, this is an original performance show.

Five performers in costumes - one holding a toucan puppet - a visitor from a far-away Rainforest, tell their story while involving the audience with well-known nursery rhymes such as The Grand Old Duke of York, Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed and other favourite tunes that reminded me of the children's TV Show Fun Song Factory. An ecological message is woven into the story and it does make you root for the animals!

Looking around the audience, I saw adults getting into the spirit by singing along, a few dancing toddlers and children doing the action moves while singing at the top of their voices. A few younger children - siblings accompanying older children - were scared by the lion's roar. My friend's daughter was transfixed by the music, colourful costumes and dancing while my daughter Michela, a bit jaded for her five years, complained it was a bit too long during the break. She did join in in the singing and did all the action moves standing up and then sneaking on the steps by our tiered seats for some energetic jumping - she did have a fun time after all.

Michela particularly liked the rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with the dappled light effect and the variation on the Head, Shoulder, Knees and Toes rhyme - the added words bum and tum made her day.

So if your children like action nursery rhymes and wild animals, this is a good half-term activity to pencil in your diary - or an exotic alternative to a Xmas pantomime as the tour still runs in November.

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, 21 October 2012

October is... cancer awareness month

Now and then it's time to feel grateful for small mercies and lend a hand to support a good cause - no matter how hectic our life is. I'm at bursting point right now with a full-time job, freelance work on top, PTA duties (always a pleasure, never a chore!) and training for breastfeeding support. The house really needs a good clean and my daughter is asking for attention too - she has learned to read and write but needs a bit of help with her homework. I also really enjoy spending time with her, especially now that she is going to the afterschool club five days a week - I don't want any guilty trips to up my stress levels!

But back to good causes, I've been sent a lot of emails lately, but I always reserve a blog spot for Breast Cancer UK with its worthy Tickled Pink campaign. I'm too late to talk about the Stand UP To Cancer campaign, a joint Channel 4 and Cancer Research UK project that culminated in a fundraising extravaganza hosted by Davina McCall, Alan Carr and Dr Christian on Friday. If, like me you missed it, there is still time to donate - click here for more information.

So what has turned pink this month? 
Facebook aside, it's Fox's biscuits, specifically: 
Velvety Caramel & Honeycomb Cream, £1.59
Extremely Chocolatey Chunkie Cookies, £1.69
Melts Chocolate Viennese, £1.49
Party Rings Limited Edition all pink pack, £1.09 
2.5p from each pack will be donated to Cancer Research UK. Packs will be available until 31 October, so there is still time to stock up and support this good cause. 

There is also fab merchandise - in yellow, orange, white and black - available at TK Maxx, Tesco stores and online at - early Xmas present shopping anyone?

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Testing, testing... Fill in the Blank

 Fill in the Blank: look before you buy

Fill in The Blank comes out this month in the UK! A press release appeared in my inbox early this month and since my daughter Michela, five, is a dedicated doodler and wannabe artist - and ballerina and cook when she is too old to paint and dance - I couldn't resist trying it out. 

I had to discourage Michela from drawing into books, tricky if they are annuals, which encourage children to scribble away on dedicated pages but end up being totally defaced. Still, better than scribbling away on my books or family encyclopedias. 

Fill in The Blank takes the semi-anarchic view of kids' annuals and goes a step further as it allows full creative reign on each page. It's a clever concept and no doubt it will appeal to adults too. 

Michela was delighted with it. Drawing inside any book is not allowed since she defaced a number of annuals by scribbling everywhere, so  Fill in The Blank  was, for her, a breath of fresh air! The adult doodler will find plenty of scope too - this can truly be a cross-generational book for the whole family to enjoy.

Each spread prods your creative bones by suggesting a scenario - Michela loved the "cookery" challenges, especially the birthday cake spread as she loves decorating cakes and biscuits. I liked the branding exercises, where you are asked to come up with logos and images for a variety of products: from a footie team to soft drinks. 

My partner Michael loved the "You are a business person" challenge, where you can devise all sort of business cards for fantasy businesses. I had a go too and a Monty Python sketch came into my head. Parrot peddler, anyone? My partner, cheekily, turned the page to "You are a control freak" and plonked the book on my lap. 

I showed this book to a friend who is a photographer and she found it highly creative and stimulating. I agreed with her that the design is very modern but with a touch of nostalgia in the use of black and white photos. 

Fill in The Blank, which has an RRP price of £13.99 in paperback format, offers 100 different spreads and carries on the bestselling tradition of Wall’s Notebook from Quirk. Part doodle pad, design and drawing board, or inspiration workbook, it is guaranteed to stimulate creativity in both adults and children. It's a great gift for all ages and a potential lifesaver for half-term holidays and rainy weekends.

Toyota travelogue: from Cambridge UK to Castagnole, Italy

It was our third time, travelling from England to Italy through France (read about previous journeys here and here). Could our nine-year-old Toyota Yaris do it again? If you are thinking of doing the same, do read about all the trips - the itineraries are all different (we only visited the same city twice as it was handy logistically).

This time I'd rather do a photographic record rather than article and give you some useful links. First of all, you must find out what you need to drive abroad: a top-up for your car insurance, breathalysers, yellow jackets if you break down and sticky pads to put on your lights if your car is old and doesn't match foreign legislation in terms of lights. You will find plenty of information online. If you don't have a numberplate with GB on it, you'll need a sticker too. Do your research before you set off. If you google for French Aires, you will find lists and information about the stops alongside most motorways - handy if you have kids. Some airs, like the Air de Jugy (pictured below) have free games and playgrounds. Motorways are expensive but they save time and are not as busy as UK motorways, handy if you are struggling with driving on the right. If you are driving a British car, your passenger will have to deal with tickets and payments - toll stations are built with European cars in mind. If you are alone, you will have to get off and go round to the other side. 

We used the Eurostar again, booking an early slot saved as money, plus we could board an earlier train if arriving at the terminal well in advance - we always do. Photos are not in a particular order. 

Our 2012 itineraries: Cambridge (out), Langres, Chambery, Castagnole; Castagnole (return), Lyon, Salon en Champagne (missing from Rough Guide, sort it out!) and de Panne (Belgium), just after Dunkerque.

I will make a few comments here and there... for instance why we didn't go via the Frejus tunnel this time round.

Aire de Jugy: free mushroom-themed playground

Aire de Jugy: poisonous (deadly) mushrooms 

Aire de Jugy: edible mushrooms

Aire de Jugy: mushroom walk for young children

A mountain platter - cold cooked meat and cheese on top of Mont Cenis
Why Mont Cenis? Because we did the Frejus twice and it now costs 40 euros each way. This mountain road is OK for cars and even caravans - I even spotted cyclists. There are restaurants, shops and a museum on top. When you descend you are in Italy or France (depending which side you start with). It is closed at certain times of the year, I guess because of snow and ice problems.

Northern France 




Chalons-en-Champagne: river sports



Chambery: Savoyard restaurant

Chambery: fishmonger

Chambery: Savoy castle

Aire with giant chess game

Castagnole delle Lanze

Castagnole delle Lanze: old town

Racy tee (I think they have no idea what it means in English as
it's for young girls - it reads cock, happy girl)

De Panne

De Panne

De Panne

De Panne: Belgian cartoon characters

De Panne

De Panne

De Panne

Castagnole delle Lanze: dodgems!
Castagnole delle Lanze: fairground

Boarding Eurostar (photo taken with no flash)

Castagnole delle Lanze: graffiti competition
Castagnole delle Lanze: graffiti competition
Castagnole delle Lanze: playground's bench

Air d'Urvillers - worth a stop. Gym equipment outside!



Le Belvedere - our wonderful hotel in Langres

Le Belvedere: wonderful hotel in Langres

Le Belvedere: wonderful hotel in Langres   







Lyon: playground

French macaroons

I bricchi, Isola d'Asti

On the road towards Mont Cenis

On the road towards Mont Cenis

On Mont Cenis: that's our Toyota

On the road towards Mont Cenis

On the road towards Mont Cenis

An extremely good sushi/sashimi meal at Chalon.
We always ate local food but couldn't resist Hoki Sushi, 
near the commercial centre, La Galerie

Castagnole delle Lanze: graffiti competition winner