Saturday, 30 April 2011

Hot in Cleveland - The Complete Season One DVD Boxset review

**** Don't miss my giveaway to win the Season 1 boxset right here ! ****

When I read the plot summary for the pilot episode of Hot In Cleveland, I wasn't entirely sure it would be my cup of tea because it sounded just too American. "This hilarious comedy centres on three fabulous best friends from LA who find their lives changed forever when their plane - headed for Paris - makes an emergency landing in Cleveland. When they discover that they are HOT in Cleveland, they decide to stay ! Starting over, they rent a house that happens to come with one very feisty octagenarian caretaker."

As I put the DVD on, the opening statement of "Hot In Cleveland has been recorded in front of a live studio audience" instantly had me squirming in my seat as that is often a warning that painfully-over-used canned laughter will be omnipresent, but I was actually pleasantly surprised. I've been watching back-to-back episodes for the last two hours and it's growing on me more and more.

It's not hugely original and reminds me of a lot of US soaps I used to watch back in the eighties, such as Rosanne or Friends. That's hardly surprisingly when you look at the people producing and starring in it. The big star is comedy legend Betty White, famous for her role in Golden Girls, who plays the straight-talking OAP caretaker and who reminds me of a ballsier American version of June Whitfield in Absolutely Fabulous ! The trio of man-hunting cougar-friends are also played by sitcom veterans - Valerie Bertinelli (Boston Legal), Jane Leeves (Frasier) and Wendie Malick (Seinfeld) - and it's created by Suzanne Martin who also worked on Frasier and Ellen. With a cast-list like that, it's inevitable that it ends up as a bit of a throwback to numerous other vintage US sitcoms but at least you know what to expect.

There are elements that annoy me - the one-sided characters, unrealistic sets and, above all, extremely irritating ba-ba-ba-ba theme tune - but if you fancy a bit of low-brow, easy viewing with slightly risqué humour and witty comebacks, it's perfect. I never used to watch The Golden Girls but apparently, it's similar so if you're nostalgic for the classic 80's sitcoms with a modern twist, it's well worth a watch.

The great news is, you can win the Season 1 boxset right here on my blog so don't miss your chance !

star rating : 4/5

RRP : £14.99

Studio: Endemol
DVD Release Date: 25 April 2011

Other reviews you may be interested in :

Choccy Munchy Seeds review

As Mary Poppins famously sang, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down but, if these new Choccy Munchy Seeds that we were sent to review are anything to go by, lashings of Belgian chocolate would have worked even better !

As you can see, the girls were instantly enthusiastic, as much for the funky silver packs (that look like spaceman food, according to Juliette !) and the cute parrot on the wrapper as for the contents. A quick rip (for once, the easy-to-open pack really was) and we got down to the serious business of taste-testing.

The girls absolutely loved them and said they tasted like sweets. I tried a handful and thought the deep, rich chocolate flavour was lovely but I was a bit disappointed that it totally overpowers the taste of the seeds. Juliette did exclaim at one point, "ooh I've just eaten a chocolate raisin" so she did detect the fruity taste of the apricot pieces, even if she wasn't totally right !

Ah yes, the ingredients. Each little packet contains sunflower and pumpkin seeds with pieces of dried apricot coated in luxury Belgian milk & dark chocolate. The company explain : "Choccy Munchy Seeds are a new type of snack. Developed through our passion for mindful munching, we have taken the nutritional benefit of the seed and coated it with luxurious Belgian chocolate to give you a nutritious nibble with a choccy fix! " They have a whole section on why Munchy Seeds are good for you but give you a quick summary too, saying they are "packed with Vitamin E to help strengthen your body's defences, Zinc for strong bones, Iron for energy and Fibre for a healthy happy heart!"

They are high in calories - 100g contains 537 calories - but at least they are not the empty calories you get from the usual sugar-packed sweet snacks. They are free from cholesterol, gluten, artificial colourings and flavourings and even if they taste like a normal chocolate snack, you know you are getting all the goodness from the seeds so you don't need to feel guilty. They are quite expensive but I would buy them as an occasional healthy treat to share with the girls.

star rating : 4/5

RRP : £1.50 for a 50g pack, £4 for a 400g tub

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Giveaway #77 - Club Penguin prize pack up for grabs - closed - winner gidders1

As I just told you in my review (that you can read here), 9-year-old Sophie is a huge Club Penguin fan so she is sooooo jealous of whoever wins this prize pack ! It includes includes a funky plush penguin toy and a six-month membership card. How cool is that ?!

To be in with a chance of winning this fabulous prize, just do the following three things:

(1) follow my blog with Google Friends Connect (over on the side bar on the right)

(2) leave me a comment in the comments box with a way of contacting you (twitter name or email). If I don't hear back from you within a week, I'll have to pick another winner.

(3) comment on any of my other blogposts and tell me where you commented (other giveaways don't count and each comment only counts for one giveaway !)

Bonus entries :

You can do any or all of the following for bonus entries - just make sure you leave me one comment per entry so that they're all counted !

(1) Tweet about my comp - this is now dead easy if you click on the tweet button on the right-hand side bar. Or you can make up your own tweet. Make sure you copy in @cherylp59 so I can track this.

(2) I love reading your comments so leave me some extra comments (maximum 5) and I'll give you a bonus entry for each one ! Just remember to leave me a comment here each time to tell me you've done so.

(3) I've created a facebook page for Madhouse Family Reviews so I'd love for you to become a follower on there too -

(4) Subscribe to my blog by email (near the top of the right-hand sidebar) so that all the new posts pop into your inbox in a handy digest every morning

UK only. Closing date : 14/5/11. Good luck.

Other current giveaways you may be interested in :

Club Penguin review and Earth Day campaign

****** Don't miss my fab Club Penguin giveaway right here on this blog ! ******

9-year-old Sophie is a huge Club Penguin fan. She's discovered numerous other online games since I've been blogging but it's the one she always comes back to. One of the main reasons is that it's international and multilingual so she can swap notes with her French friends but also chat online with her buddies in English. There are very few games that work on such an international scale.

On a technical level, I love the fact that Club Penguin is instantly playable. One of the huge downfalls of other games that we've tried is that, even if they're online games, you have to download a game programme on to your computer to be able to play and it takes absolutely ages. With Club Penguin, you just log on, click on a server in the list and you're ready to play within seconds.

The game play is constantly changing as new missions are created or seasonal events and items are added to the icy world. It's extremely rare for Sophie to log on without going "oooooh there's a new badge to collect" or "look, they've put Christmas trees everywhere" or "Rockhopper's hiding somewhere right now, I've got to try to find him" ! She's so busy playing all the mini games and missions and hunting out badges and exploring that she's never even used the chat function but that would open up a whole new aspect to explore too. And, as Club Penguin was created by two dads, it's all totally safe for youngsters to be let loose on.

For the best part of a year, she has been playing on a totally free account and, despite her frequent pleading, I've never given in and paid for her to upgrade to a full membership because, to be perfectly honest, I couldn't see the point. There was plenty for her to do on a free account - what would she actually gain from being a paid-up member ?

Well, if you ask Sophie, the answer is a lot ! She was overjoyed at the start of the week to be offered a complimentary membership so that we could check out the advantages. She instantly told me about all the new Puffles and clothes and surfboards and other fabulous accessories that she could buy and the areas she can now access that she could only gaze longingly at before and the extra levels she could play on the games and .... she went on and on for so long that I admit, I zoned out after a while and stopped listening ! But she has been really enthusiastic about playing ever since and is constantly showing me new things she's acquired in the game.

There is another aspect of Club Penguin that I really appreciate too - the fact that they make kids think about the real world and things they can do to help. A little while ago, I blogged (here) about their annual Coins For Change campaign which provided charities in the real world with a cool $1 million donation last year. Well, they have just had a new campaign for Earth Day, allowing children to help protect the planet through their actions in the virtual Penguin Land and learn more about the natural world around them at the same time.

Last week, from April 20th-26th, players were able to visit areas of the virtual world that had been redesigned to look like the natural habitat of some endangered species, and learn more about those species and what threatens their survival. Generous as ever, Disney Online Studios, which produces Club Penguin, is donating an additional $100,000 of its annual multi-million dollar giving-budget to conserve wetlands and protect endangered species. Players could use their virtual currency to buy Earth Day-themed costumes for their avatars. 

Club Penguin explain : "In recent years, the kids who play Club Penguin have helped more than two million people get medical care, enabled 200,000 children to go to school and helped protect more than a dozen endangered species and their habitats. In addition, last autumn, players submitted their drawings for the opportunity to have their art featured in a mural on the wall of a school in Haiti that donations from Disney Online Studios and Club Penguin helped rebuild. From dressing up and role playing during the Earth Day party to sharing their ideas on how to help those affected by the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, our players never cease to amaze us with their passion for changing the world, and we really want to nurture that passion”.

There aren't a lot of online kids' games out there that can say that. And, Sophie said to remind you, the most important thing is that it's brilliant fun !

star rating : 5/5

RRP : free with paid subscription options available

for mor more information :

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Friday, 29 April 2011

Very Lazy Creamy Chicken Concentrate review

Having spent pretty much all day in front of the box watching the Royal Wedding, I had no idea what I was cooking for dinner tonight ! I needed to use the chicken that I'd defrosted and planned on using for lunch then couldn't drag myself away from the screen in time but apart from that, I had no idea.

A quick look through the fridge told me it was time to use up the veggies too. We've just signed up for a veg box scheme and although I love getting totally organic veggies (as well as a warm feeling from knowing I'm doing good because it's a scheme that employs only people with Downs Syndrome, to help them find a job and some financial independence), the vegetables do go mouldy more quickly - as you can see if you look closely at the carrots !

After some peeling and chopping, I had a couple of leeks, some carrots, onions, mushrooms and chicken breast sizzling away in the pan but wasn't sure what to do with them. A quick look in the cupboard uncovered a jar of Very Lazy Creamy Chicken Concentrate that we'd been sent to review. Perfect !

I opened the lid and thought it smelt a bit unpleasantly vinegary but, having used Very Lazy Garlic in the past (which is in vinegar but the taste totally disappears during the cooking process), I didn't let that put me off and emptied the whole jar into the pan. A few spoonfuls of crème fraîche and it looked and smelt delicious.

Time for the taste-test and it got a huge thumbs-up, from the grown-ups and kids alike. I looked at the label to see what's in it and was amazed to see that it's all totally natural ingedients : Onion, Chardonnay White Wine, Lemon Juice From Concentrate, Carrot, Garlic Puree, Sugar, White Wine Vinegar, Single Cream (from milk), Vegetable Stock (Carrot, Onion, Celery, Leek, Salt, Spices), Parsley, Chives, Salt, Tarragon, Black Pepper, Celery Seed, Bay Leaf. Not an artificial additive in sight.

It added delicious depth to my creamy chicken meal without the usual faffing about trying to find the right balance of herbs and spices. It's a great time and stress saver and would be brilliant for cooks lacking in confidence (or ingredients, if you're having an Old Mother Hubbard moment !).

I'm really keen to try out the other flavours now because they also do Very Lazy Posh Sausage Casserole, Very Lazy Caribbean Chicken and Very Lazy Beef Stroganoff which also sound delicious. Even if I'd rather call them Very Busy Mum than Very Lazy !

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £1.92

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Barry M Instant Nail Effects & Glitter Nail Paint review

As a busy working mum-of-three, I never get a great deal of time for hunting out and experimenting with new make up or nail products. I just usually grab whatever is in the drawer and use the same old colours - browns, beiges and pale pinks usually, which are great for a natural look that works well at work but a bit boring if I'm planning a rare night out. I was therefore really pleased when Barry M, who have made a name for themselves as the most colourful name in cosmetics, picked me to review some of their beauty products.

I immediately went to check out their nail products because just five minutes me-time can give me a look that can last several days. I was instantly wowed by the instant nail effects polish because I've never seen anything like it. It looks deceptively simple so I was interested to see if it really was that easy to use.

There is a video tutorial on their website (here) which explains how it all works but basically, you paint your nails in a funky vibrant colour as a basecoat then paint one layer of Instant Nail Effects polish over the top. It goes on like black nail varnish but within seconds it separates into a funky crazy-paving crackled effect that looks stunning, even if - like me - you're a bit cack-handed with a nail varnish brush !

It needs smartening up with a cotton bud dipped in nail varnish remover and it's really hard to get a decent photo that really shows the funky effect but let me tell you, it's really cool ! If you love the idea but not the cost of getting your nails done in a nail bar, this is a great DIY alternative at a fraction of the price. It's perfect for girlie nights in or pyjama parties because 9-year-old Sophie and 6-year-old Juliette love it as much as me so as a special treat in the holidays, it's ideal.

The other nail polish that I received was their red glitter nail paint. Now the girls LOVE anything sparkly and glittery so they have numerous glittery nail polishes already. The problem is, most of them are clear varnish with a handful of glitter added so when you actually apply it, the result is pretty disappointing.

Just one look at the Barry M red glitter paint showed that this was totally different. In the bottle, it's much more sparkly. As they say on the website, it's bursting with minute glitter particles. As soon as I put on one coat, I could see that this was a much more impressive, glittery effect but two coats gives a lovely intense, sparkly look. The girls were over the moon !

The photo may be a bit blurry but you can see how glittery it is. To paraphrase the famous nursey rhyme :

With Barry M on her fingers and Barry M on her toes,
She shall have sparkles wherever she goes !

star rating : 5/5

RRP : glitter paint £2.99, instant nail effects £3.99

for more information :

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Wrigley's 5 Flood chewing gum review

Remember the old jokes about going to the chemist to buy condoms and coming back with chewing gum because you were too embarrassed to ask for them? Well, that was what instantly sprang to mind when I saw the packaging for Wrigleys new 5 chewing gum because it looks like a packet of condoms to me ! Luckily, looking around at the other reviews, I'm not the only one to think so so I'm not totally warped !

The new flavour named Flood is described as "mouthwatering berry" and as I pulled it out of the cellophane wrapper, I was worried it smelt a bit artificial. Taste-wise, it's really nice though. Very refreshing and sweet but I checked the label and it's sugar-free. I'm not sure how the male half of the population would feel about pink chewing gum in pink wrappers but the girls loved it !

The gum comes in indvidually-wrapped sticks which seemed a bit old-fashioned to me as I'm so used to eating little gum pellets like Extra these days. It's probably more hygienic to have them individually wrapped though and the sticks were soft and instantly chewy, unlike some other stick brands which are quite hard and crumbly at first.

The initial flavour is really strong but pleasantly so. After the initial burst, the more mellow flavour does last for quite some time. I had to tell the girls to throw theirs away after about 45 minutes to eat dinner but it still had flavour left, apparently.

Sophie likes all chewing gum but Juliette, who isn't keen on mint, said this was her favourite chewing gum ever ! For mint-lovers, 5 also comes in peppermint Cobalt flavour, and there's also tropical Pulse so there's a flavour to suit everyone.

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £1.02 for 12 sticks

Other reviews you may be interested in :

Jaxx 'Mouthy Chocolate' chocolate crunches review

Well, it may be Easter but here at The Madhouse, our motto is you can never have too much chocolate so we jumped at the chance to receive some Jaxx chocolate crunches to review.

This new chocolate product is specifically targetting the teen-tween market, namely 10-18 year olds. The manufacturers explain : "“The market told us they wanted chocolate with attitude, something that was new and that really connected with this ‘early teen’ target audience. So we’ve developed Jaxx from the ground up. An incredibly moreish chocolate confectionery product that talks a different brand language from the competition. The impact has been immediate and quite astonishing with thousands of supporters embracing our social media platforms and directly engaging with and becoming ambassadors for the brand.”

I have to say, I do like the branding. The idea of "Mouthy chocolate" with a cheeky cartoony figure that reminds me of the Pepperami sausage is appealing. I also like the bright colours and the pouch-style bags which are sturdier than the usual chocolate bags and less likely to spill their contents all over the floor. The online presence is good too. Jaxx say : "A groundswell of support has been generated by the audience, with Facebook being the location of choice for discussion and debate. Alongside this a website,, has been custom-built and is working well to engage and interact via competitions, games and ‘webisodes’ (fun and relevant videos and mini documentaries uploaded by the audience). To date, the Facebook page has received 10,500 Likes – a remarkable feat in just three months." Competitions and giveaways are always good !

But I have to say, the chocolate itself was a slight disappointment. It's tasty but lacked the wow-factor that I was expecting self-styled "mouthy chocolate" to have. There are three flavours : milk chocolate, which remind me of Maltesers but the biscuity centre is not quite so sweet and fluffy; coco crunches, which are the same with a chocolate-flavoured biscuit centre; and our faves, the orange flavour ones, which are a bit like Poppets. Nice but nothing ground-breaking. I thought they'd have something totally innovative like popping candy or eye-watering sour flavours that kids seem to love or colouring to turn your tongue blue !

As Sophie, aged 9 , is the closest to the target audience, I asked her what she thought and she said they were yummy so I'm sure they'll be very popular all the same.

star rating : 4/5

RRP : 69p for 50g

for more information :

Other reviews you may be interested in :

Free online game Wizard101 review

With totally perfect timing for the school holidays, I was asked if I'd like to try out an online game for kids (ahem ... and their parents !) called Wizard101. In this game, a bit reminiscent of Harry Potter, you take on the role of an apprentice wizard and set out to help headmaster wizard Merle Ambrose save Wizard City from the evil Malistaire Drake.

To start off with, you have to choose and customise the wizard you will incarnate - physical attributes, clothes and also a name by combining three elements. I wanted to choose the name Cheryl Bigpants but Sophie wouldn't let me and went for the much more lyrical Sophia Pearlblossom !

The game is based on a series of mini missions, each of which give you gold pieces, experience points and magical items when you succeed. You need to defeat a whole host of weird and wonderful creatures - including ghosts, skeletons and evil fairies - using card duels. It sounds complicated but is actually really simple and Sophie loves deciding which magical spell to unleash on her opponents. You have to choose between attack spells, magical shield spells and healing spells so it's more than just a shoot-'em-up style game, you actually have to think too.

Some of these online games are really complicated and younger children end up going aimlessly round in circles then give up when they get nowhere. Wizard 101 helps them out by indicating not only the direction but the number of steps they need to take to find their next challenge, which is a total time and frustration-saver. You can be killed during the duels, but you just get magically teleported back to a safe place and pick up play again. Red and blue orbs allow you to replenish your life and magical energies too so it's very kid-friendly.

Wizard 101 can be played for free but there are some areas you won't be able to access without being a paid-up member. I initially had a press account set up for me to allow total access to the game but after a few teething problems, I gave up on this account and set up a free account myself. We've been playing all week and are nowhere near completing all of the tasks or discovering the game, even in just the free area. It's an online game but you have to download a prgramme on to your computer and then access the game from that. As you play, it downloads new areas of the game that you will need, so - if you go too quickly - you may get the message "this area isn't ready for you yet". I thought it was a bug in the game but have now understood that you just need to go and explore a different area then come back a few minutes later when it will have donwloaded (you can watch the progression in a little circle on the left of the screen).

As with many online games, there is a chat option but we haven't tested this. Sophie has accepted a few friend requests but has been having so much fun running around casting spells and completing missions that she hasn't been interested in this side of things so far.

This weekend is actually a great time to discover the game because, in honour of the royal wedding, access to all areas is free until Monday. They explain :

"All Wizard101 members are invited to celebrate the upcoming nuptials. Her Royal Highness the Queen of Marleybone is issuing a special Royal Pass, which will grant all young Wizards studying at the Ravenwood School of Magical Arts the ability to access to all of the Worlds in the Spiral for free! Wizards new and old will have the right to roam the realms for the whole weekend! You’ve only got this opportunity for a limited time though – come Monday, the Royal Pass will be void and admittance to those worlds will only be available to eligible Wizards.

As part of the wedding celebrations, Queen of Marleybone is also giving young Wizards the chance to win the Island Getaway House – the honeymoon destination of the Royal couple. All you have to do to enter is take a screenshot of the Royal couple (who will be present in the game between 4pm and 6pm) and submit it before midnight on Friday 29th April 2011. The entry picked at random will win a magical bundle of prizes! There’s lots of wiz-ical things going on at Wizard101 this weekend, so check it out!"

Have fun ! And I bet you'll be playing it after the kids have gone to bed (or maybe that's just me !)

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : free for the main game with various paid options to access other areas

for more information :

Other reviews you may be interested in :

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Robinsons Double Concentrate ‘Squash Monsters’ competition

I just shared (here) Neil Buchanan's top tips for getting your kids involved in arts and crafts and, more specifically, the Robinsons Double Concentrate ‘Squash Monsters’ competition so - as promised - here are our entries !

Whenever the kids want to do messy play, first of all, we totally cover the dining room table in everything you can think of, especially if it's shiny, sparkly, fluffy or funny-shaped. Best to do this bit when Madhouse Daddy Mike isn't around !!

Then I just basically let them get on with it and tell them to experiment with colours and textures. They love having a good rummage in our "interesting odds and ends" bag and inevitably find something that inspires them !

Whatever the end result, the important thing is having fun !

Juliette's efforts - the one on the left is a submarine apparently !

The vampire bat's head and hat is made out of a chopped up washing-up sponge, if you were wondering !

*To find out how you can win some fantastic imaginative prizes, or even a monster holiday to Florida for the whole family, visit

Other blogposts you may be interested in :

Tips on how to encourage your child to be creative from Neil Buchanan

We absolutely love arts and crafts, or messy play as the kids call it, here at The Madhouse so we were over the moon when Robinsons told us all about their fun Squash Monsters competition and sent us an art set to take part. I'll show you our creations in a separate post but here are some helpful hints from the great Neil Buchanan, who's up there with Mister Maker in our arts & crafts greatest heroes list ! Don't forget to share your creations with us if you join in ! ...


Research from Robinson Double Concentrate found that 78% of UK’s parents are worried about the tradition of arts and crafts disappearing for their children in today’s indoor culture of modern technology. So Robinsons has teamed up with kids TV presenter, Laura Hamilton, and Art Attack presenter, Neil Buchanan, to launch ‘Squash Monsters’ – a national competition that helps parents encourage kids to get creative at home and learn how to make an imaginative squash monster out of the Robinsons Double Concentrate bottle.


Encouraging kids to be creative will always be a cause close to Neil’s heart, which is why he has provided a series of hints & tips for both parents & kids who want to enter the Robinsons Double Concentrate ‘Squash Monsters’ competition. In putting together the hints & tips that follow, Neil has drawn ideas from his long career of creating, to help kids bring their imagination to life and make their squash monster creation really stand out.

1. Use technology in the right way – show them how to search online for different art tips and for inspiration from around the world, or suggest they use their favourite TV show or computer game as inspiration.

2. Create the space for them - not everyone can dedicate a whole room to arts and crafts in the house, but they can be more accepting of the space needed to get creative. If you don’t want the kids to make things on the dining room table is there a space in the kitchen, garage or spare room they can utilise?

3. Art starts in the kitchen – once you’ve finished with a household item, can it be used for the kids? Robinsons Double Concentrate’s ‘Squash Monsters’ competition is all about using the empty bottle but what other things can they use - empty yoghurt pots, egg cartons, cans and bottle tops can all be good. Keeping these items is not only recycling, but you’ll see their art kits soon fill up!

4. Fashion can be creative – as parents we know how quickly clothes can go ‘out of fashion’, get ruined, or simply become too small for the growing kids! Make sure you keep these items for your child’s art kits, as they can customise items or use the fabric in their other arty creations.

5. Old news? – Newspaper is one of my absolute favourite tools for creating things, kids can make so much from it, so ensure sure you’re keeping those commuter papers or telling grandparents not to throw away their weekend papers, as the kids can get hours of fun from just one paper or magazine.

For Kids – What every kid should have in their art kit from Neil Buchanan

· A Pencil
 Planning your Squash Monster is one of the most important steps! Take the time to map out on paper what you like, what you want to achieve and how you might go about making the real thing.

· Acrylic paint
It’s a staple in my art kit – it sticks to everything, is really cheap and versatile and comes in a variety of cool colours.

· Paper, newspaper and card
My favourite art material ! Paper can be sculpted, taped, ripped, and scrunched ! It’s an essential and you can make so much with it when it comes to thinking about additions and features for your squash monster.

· Sticky tape
The glue that binds everything together ! Whether you’re using it to hold things in place or see what might look good where, sticky tape is another must-have in your art kit.

· Papier Mache
o One of the most traditional ways of creating something – you can add a little and build up gradually to get the effect you want.

· Empty household packaging items – (cardboard boxes, empty tubs, squash bottles)
Make sure your mum saves everything she can ! You can make so much out of empty household items, if you can make the most amazing squash monster from your Robinsons Double Concentrate bottle, the possibilities are endless from what you can make from your kitchen cupboards !

For Kids – Five top arty tips from Neil Buchanan

Top Tip: Everything can be recycled. For example yoghurt pots – they can be twisted to create all sorts of shapes – you can put things in it, or can it be a hat, then it’s a dalek, or event plant-pot. You can make something out of all used household junk; clothes, loo rolls, kitchen rolls, cans, bottle tops. Don’t throw anything away!

Top tip: Paper is one of my absolute favourite art materials because we can sculpt and mould it so easily! A little bit of tape and the shapes you can make are limitless.

Top tip: If you can’t get hold of acrylic paint, PVA glue mixed with some water and a little powder paint will do exactly the same thing – you can even make your own colour shades up!

Top tip: Use PVA glue to cover your creations – it protects them from damage and adds a cool shiny, varnish effect.

Top Tip: Find it difficult to draw hands? Draw around your own as an outline and if you need a smaller one, use that as an outline and draw a smaller one inside.

For Kids – Five Squash Monster ideas from Neil Buchanan

Top Tip: A Reverse Squash Monster! Design one on the front and one on the back. Hold the bottle and turn it around, so it smiles and frowns. Simply paint on it and if you don’t have paint – do the face on paper, roll it up and pop it inside the bottle and when it opens out you’ll see it! That way you can make lots of different faces and put them inside!

Top Tip: To make your monster really hair-raising pop wool or cut up material under the cap and screw it back on! Take wool from Granny’s knitting basket and that will create a hairy effect that provides a scary base for your Squash Monster creation.

Top Tip: You can stick on facial features from magazines – why not take an eye from David Beckham and one from Lady Gaga to make something truly unique, freaky-deaky and hilarious. You can even dress bottle with clothes from magazines.

Top Tip: You can make whatever you want and however you want – arms don’t have to be at the side, they can grow out of your monsters head. Similarly your monster doesn’t have to have eyes, a nose and a mouth and if they do, it doesn’t have to be where they normally would be on a face.

Top Tip: What about a monster ghost - that would be really cool. You could cover the Robinsons Double Concentrate bottle with material or even with paper to give it a floaty, ghostly effect. Then you can make some mechanics inside so that the material moves and floats like a ghost!

For Kids - Three quick steps to getting creative from Neil Buchanan

1. Take an idea that’s based on something you like (animals, dancing, music, and sport) – what’s your hobby and what appeals to you? Use this as your inspiration and this will guide you and help you create something that’s exciting and all your own.

2. Plan it out. Anything I do, I plan it out first and that doesn’t mean detailed sketches or plans. Even a rough sketch on some scrap paper will help you have a firm idea of what you want to make and where you want to go on your creative journey.

3. Enjoy yourself! It’s your idea, it’s your creativity - make sure your art says ‘this is me!’ Don’t listen if people criticise or think it’s strange or not what they would do; originality is where it’s at!

*To find out how you can win some fantastic imaginative prizes, or even a monster holiday to Florida for the whole family, visit

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Intriguing teasers - upcoming book about the environment

Lots of bloggers do Silent Sundays or Wordless Wednesdays. Well, here's my Thoughtful Thursday ... should make for interesting reading when it comes out.

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Penn State Snacks review

We were really pleased here at The Madhouse when we were approached to review the range of exotic nibbles from Penn State Snacks, because it was a brand we'd never tried before. They have some really different snacks that sound like they have come from the far-flung corners of the earth so my tastebuds were zinging in anticipation before I'd even opened the bags !

 A quick bit of research online revealed that Penn State is the UK's leading brand of pretzels. First up on the taste-test hotseat was therefore a bag of their Sour Cream Chive Pretzels (although they also come in Original Sea Salted and Sweet & Spicy Salsa varieties). We don't eat a lot of pretzels because, to be honest, the ones I've tasted in the past don't taste of much. That could be about to change though.

I poured some into a bowl and the girls instantly squealed. Juliette loved the heart shaped pretzels and Sophie loved the fact that she was going to be eating "those things that George Bush nearly choked on" ! Madhouse Daddy Mike dipped his hand in, then again, then again so I thought I'd better get in quick before they all disappeared. Yummm ! I was surprised to find that they are crunchy but almost buttery in flavour - nothing like the dry, bland pretzels I've tasted in the past - and the sour cream chive flavouring is delicious, like a more refined version of cheese and onion crisps. Totally moreish.

Next up was the Sizzling Teriyaki Baked Deli Chips, which are labelled as cassava and vegetable snacks seasoned with Sizzling Teriyaki flavour. They look a bit like a cross between tiny rice cakes and prawn crackers and they do have the same crisp but slightly frothy texture. Every now and again, you get a really fiery bit so the girls weren't too keen and went back to munching the pretzels ! Thumbs up again from the grown-ups.

And finally, we tried the Spicy Jalfrezi Baked Deli Chips, potato and chickpea snacks seasoned with Spicy Jalfrezi flavour. They are little square crispy snacks that remind me of the texture of crisps. Flavour-wise, what is really weird (in a good way) is that you get the impression you've got a mouthful of genuine curry, not just a crisp sprinkled with curry-flavoured seasoning. They give you a warm tingle on your tongue but are not overly hot - but the girls still preferred the pretzels. Speaking of which, time for a top up, they seem to have all disappeared.

On their website, Penn State say that their snacks are "oven baked, not fried, so are a healthy alternative to other more calorific treats, without the compromise on taste". Well, I agree 100% for the taste - they are absolutely delicious as well as lovely and crisp. However, they are still quite big on calories - the pretzels contains 410 calories for 100g, which is one calorie less than the Teiyaki Chips, and the Jalfrezi ones aren't far behind at 391 calories for 100g. Admittedly, this makes a reasonable 98 or 82 calorie snack if you stick to the 20 or 25g recommended serving on the pack, but they are so delicious and moreish that there is no way you'll stop at that ! That is one downfall of the big family-sized packs which individual-sized packs would avoid (but I guess it's your own fault if you've got no willpower !).(Further research online shows that they do invidual portion-sized bags too - yippee !)

In conclusion, they are absolutely delicious snacks with highly original flavours that would be perfect for pre-dinner drinks if you're trying to impress your guests, but I would like to see a lower calorie-count.

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £1.29

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Book review : Long Reach - Peter Cocks

I'd never read anything by Peter Cocks before but judging by the fact that the book cover states that this is "an Eddie Savage thriller", presumably this is (or will be) part of a series. Eddie Savage is certainly an interesting enough central character to support this format.

The book instantly takes us straight into the heart of the seedy criminal underworld of South London. Eddie (as he comes to be known) discovers in one foul swoop that his big brother has been found dead and that he had a secret identity - infiltrating the IRA as a kind of secret government agent. Despite being only 17 years old, Eddie is recruited as his replacement, being whisked away to a new life, a new flat and a whole new identity, breaking into the ruthless world of big-time gangsters.

It's a gritty crime thriller with many scenes of ruthless violence and gangland murder. It's also a bit of a coming-of-age novel, with Eddie growing from a boy to a man, having a few moral dilemmas along the way and discovering his first love. Parts of it read a bit like a Boys Own adventure story with implausible car chases and indiscriminate planting of bugs.

And that's what actually poses me a bit of a problem. I read this as a pretty good grown-up crime novel with an improbably young central character and a few overly contrived and slightly childish elements to the plot. I couldn't help but picture a rather benign Archie Mitchell-type figure every time the ruthless Tommy Kelly was on the scene !

Then I flipped over the book and realised that this is aimed at teens, with a suggested age of 14+. Now, Sophie is only 9 so she's way too young to read this but I teach 11-14 year olds and there's no way I'd let them anywhere near this book. The graphic details used to describe a man hacked to death with a sword, complete with blood and entrails dripping everywhere, or the seemingly gratuitous disfiguring of a security guard, whose mouth is enlarged almost from ear to ear with a blade, with a few swift kicks to the head afterwards for good measure, left ME feeling squeamish and I'm a seasoned reader of adult crime novels. Even the tone is sometimes dubious for teens. I smirked as one of the Kelly thugs told a victim whose hand he'd just slammed into a safe door to watch out or he'll come back next time and do his winking hand (wrong vowel, but this is a family blog - I'm sure you'll work it out !), but it's not something I'd expect to find in a book for teens.

I think it's an interesting concept to create gritty crime novels for a younger market - most young adult fiction seems to be fantasty at the moment - but I would have preferred a more clearcut audience. Either ditch the really violent scenes so it's OK for teens, or go for a more grown-up lead character and target the grown-up crime fiction market. As it stands, I felt it couldn't really decide which way it wanted to lean.

star rating : 4/5

RRP : £6.99

Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Walker (3 Jan 2011)
Language English
ISBN-10: 1406324752
ISBN-13: 978-1406324754

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Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Children's Book review : Ping and Pong : Grow - Amy Trevaskus

Last week, I reviewed the first book in the Ping and Pong series called Splash and the girls loved it - not to mention Pierre, who tried to eat the book ! (You can read that review here.) They were over the moon when the lovely author, Amy Trevaskus, offered to send us their latest adventures in the new book Grow. Well, obviously we said yes !

I love it when the girls take storybook characters off the page and into the real world. It shows that the book has really captured their imagination and inspired their own creativity. Well, the girls loved Pong's naughty streak in Splash and giggled away at his silly antics. This weekend we went to visit the circus zoo (they still have animals in circuses here in France, which is very sad, and you can go to see the animals in their cages and enclosures) and the girls were overjoyed to be able to handfeed lettuce to the elephants. That was surreal - it's like feeding sweet wrappers up the hoover tube ! While they were waiting for their turn, they started giggling excitedly and saying that if Pong had been there, he'd have been swinging off the big top ropes. And standing up on the elephant's back and hanging off his tail. And jumping in his enormous pile of poo ! Lovely ! There's a reason why his mischievous streak appeals to the girls !

But anyway, back to the book. The girls came to Grow as if they were catching up with news of old friends. This time, the adventures take place in Lucy's grandparents' allotment and they all learn about the creatures that live in the garden as well as how to grow vegetables. The girls were wide-eyed at the fact that Lucy's grandparents could see Ping and Pong (they'd assumed they were invisible to grown-ups) and loved the bit where they go for a ride in a flowerpot carried by bees !

The illustrations yet again perfectly complement the story and are full of details that bring it all to life. We've already read the book several times and the girls have asked if we can buy the next one in the series when it comes out. I think that says it all really !

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £6.99

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