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Reading is, for me, the ultimate relaxation; a way to experience extraordinary events and places without leaving the room, and to get to know people I wouldn't meet in the real world. Interesting, mind-expanding and thought-provoking, reading is the one skill I would never want to lose. Vistas and whole new worlds open before me when I open a book, and I frequently bore my husband stupid by browsing through the entirety of our local library picking up books from all kinds of sections and taking ages (so he says) to select those to take home with me. I read quickly so it would just not be feasible to buy the amount of books I get through in one year - let alone, the amount I'll read in my lifetime; I'd be a pauper. Libraries allow people of all ages, and all wallets, to expand their horizons and increase their knowledge without spending a penny. Yep, the best things about our county libraries in the UK is they're FREE!!
I can remember visiting the library, it feels, forever, and I'm really grateful to my parents for removing the library fear that some people seem to have - for us, it was a normal place to visit on a Saturday before or after shopping in town, and to pick up the next exciting adventure or fantasy world to escape into. Now all grown-up (allegedly), I'm a complete bookworm and I don't know what I'd do without our local library (well, libraries in fact because I regularly visit two).
My local library, in Oxfordshire, has to be my favourite yet. For some (marvellous) reason, Oxfordshire county council have decided to let all county members take out up to 20 books each at a time - fantastic! Even I can't read that many in three weeks. Our local library stocks a good range of different subjects, from fiction to autobiographies, crime to travel, how to's to health, history to science - you can even check their stock in advance online to ensure the precise book you want is in stock, and when you join your local library you can, in fact, use any library in your county. The stock across the county is vast, and you can request books held in other branches be sent to your local branch for you if you're not able to/don't want to travel (some libraries charge a small amount for this service).
Nowadays, however, libraries don't stop at merely stocking standard books. There's much, much more on offer in these Aladdin's caves. Our local branch, for instance, has computers where you can use the internet for free, a photocopier, audio and large print books for the visually impaired, 'quick reads' (abridged versions of standard books for those short on time or concentration), DVDs and CDs for hire, language courses and foreign language books, magazines and newspapers, and events such as coffee mornings and storytimes.
Libraries nowadays are easy to use, with extended hours (usually on particular days of the week) and Saturday opening hours. You can renew your books (to keep them longer once your initial three weeks are up) both online and over the phone in addition to in-branch, enabling you to avoid late-book charges without having to physically visit the branch, which is really useful. You can also return items to any branch in the county - not just the one you borrowed it from (very handy for me as I use one branch by my work and one near home). If you can't find something you want, the staff (who always seem to be friendly) are on hand to help you out.
Joining your local library is free and easy - just head on in, and take some proof of your identity (such as a driving licence) and your address (any bill will usually do). And, although calm and relaxing, they're no longer frequented by scary women muttering 'shhhh' incessantly; children are always welcome and don't need to be silent, and there are lots of books for all ages and reading abilities in the children's sections! So what are you waiting for? There's bound to be a local branch near you (there are a mere 43 in Oxfordshire alone), so join up and open yourself to a million new experiences through the written (or audio) word.
I'm rather partial to vodka, lime and lemonade so it was with delight that I spotted lime squash (or cordial) on special offer in Sainsbury's this week. Sainsbury's recently(ish) introduced 'double strength' squashes, claiming that this means less packaging, fewer lorries on the road and better value for money - but does it?
The lime juice comes in a typical rectangular plastic bottle with fairly plain green packaging and the slightly tinted green squash visible inside. It has to be said that, on adding water to my dash of lime squash (for my non-alcoholic beverage version) this lime squash tastes like most lime squashes - vaguely of lime but a quite synthetic version of lime really. I'd also say that this lime squash is considerably sweeter than that, say, of Rose's lime cordial, which is a negative for me as I like the more usual tart flavour of other lime squashes - Sainsbury's claim their lime squash is sugar free, so it must have quite a lot of sweetener added. On the plus side, they claim the squash is made using only 'natural colours and flavours', 20% real fruit and doesn't contain any benzoate preservatives.
For my alcoholic drink, I add a large dash of the lime cordial to a generous splash of vodka, and then top up the glass with lemonade. This version I do like to taste sweet so this lime squash works perfectly with the other components for an excellent long, thirst-quenching, weekend drink, perfect for a night in with friends.
I personally do not think that this juice is 'double strength', although it is definitely stronger than normal lime squash - I'd say I use about three-quarters of a normal dash to make the right strength squash with this Sainsbury's version, so it is probably saving some plastic and transport-pollution, but not as much as they're stating. The bottle is also made of 25% recycled plastic, and is 100% recyclable after you're finished with it, which is great.
In summary, although this lime squash is sweeter than I would prefer when mixed as a squash, it's still passable and it tastes great with vodka and lemonade. On offer at two 1.5l bottles for £2.50 I would recommend it for use as a mixer and to those who prefer their lime juice a little sweeter than average.
The Chinese apparently have an old saying 'Better to be deprived of food for three days, than tea for one' and, being typically British in my love of a good cup of tea, I couldn't agree more (although I'd rather not go without either if I'm totally honest).
To me there is nothing better on a cold, disgusting winter day (today for example - gale force winds plus driving rain making for really pleasant conditions) than coming home, putting on the kettle and then sitting down to a lovely, hot, comforting mug of tea. I like my tea strong with just a splash of milk, and have always been a PG Tips girl, but I decided to branch out to trying green tea after hearing about its health benefits.
~Green Tea - Background~
Green and 'normal' black tea both come from the same plant (Camellia sinensis); it's what happens next that makes the difference in both taste and health benefits. For black tea, the leaves are fermented, whereas for green tea the exact same leaves are steamed instead. Who'd have thought this would make such an earth-shattering difference, but it does as the fermenting process results in a large reduction of the leaves' antioxidants in black tea (although there are still some), but these are kept firmly in your cup of green tea as the steaming process doesn't affect their levels. The end result is that green tea is rich in antioxidants, particularly of the catechin polyphenol family, and drinking green tea has consequently been linked (not always scientifically!) to reduced risk of cancer (by both inhibiting cancer cell growth and killing cancer cells without harming normal cells), lower cholesterol levels, inhibition of the formation of blood clots (which can lead to heart attacks and stroke), and alleviation/prevention of rheumatoid arthritis. Green tea's anti-bacterial properties apparently can reduce tooth decay and decrease food poisoning, and some say it can even help with dieting by making the body burn more calories without concurrently increasing your heart rate. All in all, it's a good switch to make, although I'm not quite sure whether my belief limits will stretch to one website's assertion that by drinking green tea 'You will feel relaxed, full of energy, and even develop a good outlook in life once you drink a good cup of green tea' - perhaps green tea as the cure for *all* of life's ills is taking it a little far (but there's no harm in giving it a go... I must put the kettle on again).
One thing I didn't realise until recently is that green tea does still contain caffeine, although at much lower levels than black tea.
~Twinings Green Tea Blend~
So having always drunk 'normal' black tea I made the switch to green, and I have to say I initially struggled with the brands I tried. No matter how hard I wanted to like the stuff, I didn't. Until I hit upon Twinings Green Tea Blend.
Twinings is a UK company, set up in London in 1706 by Mr Thomas Twining himself. Frankly, the number of teas they now produce beggars belief and I'd never heard of half of them before (a mere 86 varieties are listed on their website http://www.twinings.co.uk/our-teas/). Their Green Tea Blend contains 70% green tea and 30% black tea and, for me, this makes all the difference to the taste - in fact, I can add a dash of milk, like with my old PG Tips, and my Twinings tea tastes exactly the same as a cup of PG. Fantastic. I'll take 70% of the benefits for a passed taste test.
The Twinings tea bags are the original square style bags (two joined together with a perforated seam; they seem pretty sturdy as none have split on me yet) so they do need to brew a bit longer than the triangular bags of PG Tips. They come in a fairly smart box (mine's 250g - 80 tea bags) which is green with some green leaves pictured (huge imaginative leap there) and the usual Twinings gold banner branding. The box has a sensible design that means it's easy to open, and then keeps the tea bags fresh by closing properly between uses. It's recyclable and made from recycled products in the first place, which is always good.
I have to say that I am really quite taken with these tea bags. I can fool my taste buds into thinking it's normal tea, but I gain the health benefits of green tea. However, green tea does seem to be more expensive than black tea (perhaps cashing in on its perceived health benefits as I can't believe steaming can be more expensive than fermenting?), although you can often find Twinings on offer. Personally, I'm happy to pay the difference.
Overall I would recommend Twinings Green Tea Blend for cold winter mornings, bright spring mornings, chilly autumnal days, washed-out British summers, afternoon tea, post-work tea, pre-dinner tea....
Neverwhere is a slightly strange, but ultimately interesting novel set in London. Here, however, there are two London's - our 'normal' London, where the main character, Richard Mayhew, begins as a typical run-of-the-mill Londoner with an office job in the city, and 'London Below', the connected but hidden underworld peopled by weird and wonderful characters such as The Angel 'Islington', Velvets, and the Rat-speakers. Usually the two worlds are separate, but by helping a girl called Door, Richard falls into London Below and starts his hero's quest, joining Door to discover who killed her father and how he can return to London Above - all the time while trying to avoid a couple of rather nasty assassins tracking them.
Richard Mayhew is the reluctant hero, dragged into a bewildering world that seems like his normal London, but isn't - and he can't quite help himself from trying to base everything on what he knows from his 'real' London. Unfortunately for him, what is reality Above is not necessarily true of London Below, and the rest of the motley travellers he journeys with through the book tend, therefore, to regard him as rather foolish (which many of his comments are), but, of course, he proves vital to the quest and grows as a person through his trials.
Door, the other main character, is a youngish girl who has inherited the ability to open any kind of lock or door; a very handy skill as the group travel through London Below and try to avoid the evil that follows them. She remains calm and collected throughout and is likeable, although I did feel we didn't get to know her that well. It has to be said that this book is certainly not a character-study and the characters probably could have been better rounded, but we know enough about them and their motives for the story to flow and for us to be wholly rooting for their cause.
I personally loved this book. It was fairly easy reading, and its 387 pages gave enough room for a good storyline to develop. As I said, the characters could have been better developed, but perhaps this would have detracted from the flow of the story. The locations and events were colourfully and imaginatively described and, having lived in London, I particularly enjoyed all the alternative reasons the author had dreamt up for things in London - such as the Underground announcement of 'Mind the Gap' warning you about the smoky shadows living on the Underground platforms in London Below that will grab unwary travellers who step too close. The locations all tied in cleverly and often amusingly (I like the idea of actual Friars still living in Blackfriars) and the writing style was witty and light-hearted throughout. The storyline moved on at a good pace, and the question of who Richard and Door could trust and the identities of the ultimate bad guys (and their motives) kept me guessing pretty much up to the end, which I liked.
Being essentially a fantasy novel, Neverwhere is unlikely to appeal to those who favour realistic books, but for those who like the wryly witty style of 'Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy' this book will no doubt appeal. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
My hubby and I are slightly mad about home design and can't wait to build our own house. Unfortunately, we have the minor issue of paying off our debts first, so we spend a good deal of time living vicariously through others' experiences whether it's 'Location, Location, Location' or 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition'. Bearing in mind we want to eventually build our own castle, it's probably unsurprising to find that one of our favourite programmes is 'Grand Designs', the TV show where self-builders dream big and build the house of their dreams - including a couple of castles!
So it was with great delight that I received a year's subscription to Grand Designs magazine as one of my Christmas presents last year. The magazine is connected to the show in that one or more of the TV show's houses are featured in further detail, and the show's presenter, Kevin McCloud, usually has an article about his opinion on (for example) saving energy in your home, but the magazine also has stacks of other useful and interesting information about building houses and extensions, refurbishing houses or rooms, styles and fashions in the home, cool gadgets, garden design and much more.
The magazine has a good blend of informative text and gorgeous photographs (that mostly make me drool). Personally, the interviews with particular interior designers sometimes go a bit over my head, but, being a nosy sort of person, I particularly love the insights into other people's houses and the ideas it gives me for my future build. The breakdowns of costs for each self-build that the magazine features is extremely useful for anyone thinking of taking this route - whether you've got a castle, tree-house, contemporary box, barn conversion or eco-home in mind. The magazine is jam-packed with ideas and also contains details of books and companies where you can find further info if you're interested in something particular.
The Grand Designs magazine has been invaluable for me as I plan my dream, with detailed articles on foundations and drainage (who'd have thought there were so many varieties?!) all the way up to the pros and cons of different roof materials (clay tiles, concrete tiles, steel tiles, slate, wood shingles...), as well as important subjects such as budgeting throughout your build, and project managing. At £3.50 for 200 or so pages, it's good value for money in my opinion, and even better when you subscribe for a year (£24.50 currently, making it £2.04 each for the 12 editions).
I'd definitely recommend this magazine to anyone interested in this subject area, and certainly to anyone contemplating building their own house.
McVitie's dark chocolate digestives are surely standard fare in almost any household, so without further ado, let's crack on and discuss these yummy biscuits.
The biscuits come in a distinctive cylindrical blue, yellow and brown pack with the McVitie's logo and a tempting picture of the biscuit itself. The pack also explains that you need to eat healthily (there's a handy URL for a website about exercise and a balanced diet), and the ingredients list, which tells us the biscuits are wheatmeal and covered in plain chocolate. These biscuits are suitable for vegetarians, but I wouldn't recommend them for dieters - each biscuit is 4.2% of your recommended daily calorie intake! Whoops.
The biscuits themselves are circular discs of wholemeal biscuit, imprinted with 'McVitie's original' and a wheat sheaf picture on one side. The other side of the biscuit is coated in dark chocolate. Yum.
~The Taste Test~
So, no point wasting any time; I set to eating. I have to confess to two methods of eating chocolate digestives. First is the slightly more normal grown-up method of taking a big bite and enjoying the delicious combination of crunchy yet crumbly biscuit and solid chocolate. Unfortunately, with this method I somehow seem to end up getting through a large number of biscuits in next to no time, without even noticing. The second, rather more childish method, therefore, is to lick off all the chocolate and only then eat the now-bare biscuit; this technique elites looks of bemusement from my husband as I am actually 30, not 5, but at least means the pack lasts longer than 10 minutes - and you end up delightfully messy, with chocolate all over your hands and face, which is much more fun. Either way the biscuit has a tasty non-squishy texture that crunches as you bite, and the chocolate is top-quality and thoroughly delicious. The biscuits are satisfyingly filling, but moreish enough for you to want to finish the whole pack off in one sitting - always a danger for the more calorie-conscious among us.
One thing I want to mention: do not, under any circumstances, leave your digestives in any heat. The chocolate melts and the whole pack turns into one giant solid biscuit, which sounds great but somehow isn't. Sadly, therefore, they're not much good for picnics.
McVitie's Digestives are my favourite biscuit. Nothing comes near them on taste and satisfaction, and, for me (strangely as I only eat milk chocolate chocolate-bars), digestives have to be the dark chocolate variety. Although some of the supermarket own-brands are good, unfortunately, in my opinion, they don't stand up to the McVitie's class and I'm happy to pay the premium to get my trusted brand. McVitie's dark chocolate digestives are a must-have for my week - perfect after a hard day's work, accompanied by an equally satisfying cup of tea. Thoroughly recommended.
Jeffery Deaver is renowned for his crime thriller novels where clever criminals (usually serial killers) are being hunted down by equally clever cops and/or FBI agents using pain-staking and ingenious forensic, interviewing, detective and 'piecing it all together' skills. I've enjoyed many of his books, and particularly like the unpredictability of his plot and character twists and the inspired yet realistic insights made by the main characters to solve the crimes. You may have heard of one of his books, 'The Bone Collector', as it was made into a movie starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie (although the book is better).
The Twelfth Card is part of Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme series in which we follow the ex-FBI agent of this name. Lincoln is a forensic expert who broke his neck at a crime scene and now can only move his head and one baby finger, leaving him rather caustic and grumpy (understandably) into the bargain. Even so capacitated, however, his mind is super-sharp, his memory long and full of exceptionally detailed information, and he's helped out by his girlfriend, Amelia Sachs, another FBI agent who acts rather as his 'legs', processing crime scenes for him and bringing the evidence back to his house where his personal laboratory is set up ready. Both characters are well thought-out and their motivations and individualities are well portrayed so that we really feel we get to know them as the storyline progresses.
In The Twelfth Card, Lincoln, Amelia and their colleagues are trying to work out who attempted to rape and kill a 16-year-old girl from Harlem called Geneva Settle. Geneva is a clever and feisty girl who I really admired as the book went on as she stuck up for herself and refused to bow to peer pressure or the fear of the killer trying to get her, yet managed to remain believable as a teenager. I ended up rooting for her and her guardians as evil continually tried to get through to finish her off.
As usual with Deaver, the book's plot takes many turns as evidence surfaces and events come to light, so I can't say much more without giving some of it away. Suffice to say I worked out some of the twists and didn't even get near guessing the rest. I found the plot kept my interest and was easy to follow, and I wanted to read quickly to find out who the killer was and why they were after Geneva. Compared to some of Deaver's books, which can often contain really gruesome murder descriptions that are tough to read, this one was *relatively* gore-free so slightly more pleasant reading! It still managed to be gripping, however, and readers expecting his usual style will not be disappointed.
All in all I thought this was a good, solid crime thriller and a great read; Deaver hit all the buttons once again.
I saw that there was no review of The Cape Grace hotel in Cape Town, South Africa, so although I visited around a year ago, I thought I would add my thoughts on this hotel in case anyone is planning a visit.
~The Hotel - General Info~
The Cape Grace is generally considered to be one of the top hotels in Cape Town. It is ideally located on its own quay in Cape Town's Victoria & Alfred (V&A) Waterfront, easy walking distance to many of the city's restaurants, bars, shops and attractions. The hotel itself is a large, rectangular pink building, with the backdrop of the beautiful Table Mountain and surrounded by the peaceful marina, with smart boats and even seals if you're lucky.
There are 121 rooms, many of which have been newly refurbished since my visit last year I believe. These range from luxury rooms to full-blown penthouse suites - I had a rooftop terrace room, which has a beautiful private terrace. The rooms are tastefully decorated, spacious and have all the mod-cons you could ever need, such as flat-screen TV, telephone, safe, mini-bar, hairdryer, toiletries, iron etc. I particularly liked that they had international plug sockets so I didn't need an adapter to charge my camera.
The Cape Grace has all the facilities you could ever want in a hotel. There are two restaurants, one is the smart, formal 'Signal' restaurant (this has changed since I was there so I can't comment on it) and the second is the more relaxed, pub style, 'Bascule' bar. I have to say that I had the best fish and chips of my life here for lunch - absolutely delicious. For whisky lovers they have the most ridiculous amount of different whiskies, claiming to have the largest selection in the southern hemisphere. The hotel also has a beautiful spa - at the time of my visit guests were allowed to use this for free before 3pm (treatments had to be paid for though); sadly I didn't get to try out the spa, but I did poke my head in to have a quick look. It was fairly small but adequate, with a jaw-dropping view of Table Mountain from the loungers. Other facilities on offer include a library, tour desk, foreign exchange, library, gift shop, medium-sized pool (more for posing than real swimming I think) and free computer usage in their 'communication' room in case you need to check your emails and let everyone back home know how much fun you're having.
The Cape Grace really impressed me. Yes the facilities are 5* and the rooms luxurious, but what actually impressed me most was the service and the staff. Friendly, efficient - for once, 'nothing was too much trouble' rang true. And yet, for all the luxurious facilities, I found I could still relax - this is a hotel with all the luxury but none of the pretention that, in my eyes, can so detract from your stay. The location is excellent as well as it's easy (and safe) just to stroll along the quay to the many restaurants and bars of the Waterfront, and an easy walk/drive/taxi ride to many of the main attractions of Cape Town, such as Table Mountain, the Robben Island departure point and the Botannical Gardens.
Unfortunately, of course, all this sumptuousness comes with a large price tag, but if you want a luxurious stop during your visit to Cape Town you can't go wrong with a stay at The Cape Grace. You get what you pay for in this case, and it's well worth it. Personally, I loved it.
SingStar is a PS2/PS3 karaoke-style game with marks out of 10,000 at the end of each song for your performance. There are over 20 different discs, such as ABBA, 80s, 90s, girlbands vs boybands, and Rock Ballads. There's even a Bollywood version, High School Musical discs and an RnB edition, so there really is a disc to suit everyone!! This review is of the 'Singalong with Disney' disc, which is only out as a PS2 game, although I've used it on our PS2 and PS3 and it works fine on both (you need to have at least one PS3 Singstar game to enable your PS2 games to be uploaded though).
*There is some overlap of this review and my review of the ABBA Singstar disc as they, obviously, involve the same gameplay*
~The basics of SingStar~
To start playing SingStar you need to buy the microphone additions that plug into your PS2/PS3; these can be bought either separately or in combination with a game and are good value as they are hardy - ours have lasted 4 years, including numerous parties (although we don't have any children). On inserting your game disc you have a short intro of Disney music and then the welcome screen pops up. After entering the players' names, you get to pick your style of karaoke: you can sing one-by-one, sing simultaneously against another player ('battle'), or play a range of variations on the theme in team 'pass-the-mike' style contests. We nearly always play battles, as it's less embarrassing than singing by yourself and we like competitions.
The song selection screen helpfully plays snippets of each song as you scroll through and, if you're like me, you'll probably recognise more songs than you realised from their titles. Once you've picked your song, it's time for the combatants to take to their mikes and prepare to sing.
The songs play with the music video on the screen (so for this game you get a lovely Disney movie clip). The lyrics are at the top and/or bottom of the screen for you to follow, and there are grey bars overlaying the music video in the middle of the screen. These grey bars are the notes you are supposed to be singing! They highlight in red or blue (depending on your mike colour) as you sing - the nearer your red/blue line is to the grey line the better you're singing and the more points you'll be awarded. At the end of each phrase the computer will give you a mini-grade from 'cool' to 'awful' to give you an idea of how you're doing! Each player has a score at the top of the screen, which gradually clocks up as you progress so you can see who's winning so far.
At the end of your song, the scores are counted and you get a final score screen telling you your mark out of 10,000, as well as who the winner and loser are - you each also get a SingStar grading from 'totally SingStar' via 'wannabe' to 'tone deaf'. As you can change the marking setting between easy, medium and hard, and you can clearly hear the original singer singing the song while you're singing, SingStar is actually a lot easier and, therefore, more fun than real karaoke. Finally, there are options to re-listen to your singing (it's recorded) and mess around with the recording, giving yourself alien voice effects etc. Then it's time to pick your next song...
Be warned that this game is surprisingly addictive as you keep thinking 'I can score better than that' so you try again... and again... My husband first bought me a Singstar game to cheer me up when I was feeling down. I'd never done karaoke and didn't even want to sing in front of him but once he'd convinced me to try it, I didn't stop for SIX HOURS and that was only because I was losing my voice! I've seen this effect over the years on many of my similarly competitive friends, most of whom you can't get off the mike at parties once they've got the first song under their belts.
So, the all important question (it's much easier and, therefore, wiser, to sing a song you know well) - what tracks are on the disc?
Cruella De Vil - from 101 Dalmatians
A Whole New World - from Aladdin
Beauty and the Beast - from Beauty And The Beast
Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo - from Cinderella
The Work Song - from Cinderella
He's A Tramp - from Lady and the Tramp
Following The Leader - from Peter Pan
You Can Fly! - from Peter Pan
I Wonder - from Sleeping Beauty
Once Upon a Dream - from Sleeping Beauty
Son Of Man - from Tarzan
Ev'rybody Wants To Be A Cat - from The Aristocats
The Bare Necessities - from The Jungle Book
I Wan'na Be Like You - from The Jungle Book
Under the Sea - from The Little Mermaid
Kiss the Girl - from The Little Mermaid
I Just Can't Wait To Be King - from The Lion King
Circle of Life - from The Lion King
You've Got A Friend In Me - from Toy Story
Winnie the Pooh - from Winnie the Pooh
This is quite a good, wide selection from the best known Disney movies, although there are a couple of songs that I suspect only die-hard Disney fans will be familiar with.
~Overview of the 'Singalong with Disney' disc~
I would say that this is the hardest Singstar disc out of the 10 we have, which was a bit of a surprise! Although I vaguely recognised all the songs, and knew quite a few scarily well given I'm 30, singing them was a completely different matter as many of the songs are actually very difficult to sing. A few songs are impossibly high (even for someone who sang soprano at school), such as 'I Wonder' and 'The Work Song', the latter of which is the mice singing on a level of communication with bats. Similarly trying to sing the backing African chants to 'Circle of Life' produces endless amusement for anyone watching your efforts. This is not the disc to choose if you like high scores! Others, on the other hand, such as 'Following the Leader' and 'Winnie the Pooh,' are very repetitive, which quickly bored us.
I'm a massive Disney fan so I had really high hopes for this disc when we got it, but I would say, although this CD is still good fun (and there are a couple of songs I absolutely love singing), the novelty quickly wears off and people are usually put off by scoring a good 2,000-3,000 points less than they score on other Singstar discs, so switch discs pretty quickly after a couple of songs. I think that there are much better Singstar discs out there that you are more likely to keep going back to above this one.
Currently down from £19.99 to £14.66 on Amazon, this is quite a bargain so if you fancy a novel addition to your Singstar collection, or perhaps have young children who love the Disney movies and don't care too much about scores, then you may want to buy this disc. Otherwise, I'd recommend the 80s, Rocks, Rock Ballads or ABBA games as better options for long-term enjoyment.
Thanks for reading!
OK, I'll admit it. I'm only 30 but I have grey hairs - and quite a lot of them (thanks Mum, great genes). This was fine when I could afford my regular visits to the hairdresser every 6-8 weeks for highlights, but since my budget drive started this year, these visits are off the cards and when the blonde highlights began to grow out, exposing my natural dark brown colour - and lots of grey interlopers - something had to be done, and urgently. It was time to turn to the bottle, and after some umming and ahhing over the different varieties in my local Sainsbury's (who knew there were so many different hair dyes?), I finally plumped for L'Oreal Couleur Experte.
A little bit of a search on L'Oreal showed that they cover a far wider range of well-known brands than I realised. Not content with the obvious 'L'Oreal: because I'm worth it' brand of cosmetics and hair products, they also house Maybelline, Ralph Lauren, Vichy, Lancôme, Garnier and Giorgio Armani. Clearly their marketing has worked somewhere as one of the reasons I chose this particular dye was because I felt I could trust L'Oreal.
As demonstrated in the photo above, the hair-dye comes in a red box. I wanted a subtle colour so chose 'natural golden brown' as the closest match to my natural colour, so my box has a different photo to the one above. As with make-up, it can be difficult choosing the correct tone to match your natural attributes, and I was pleasantly surprised that this box turned out fairly accurate to the end result. The back of the box tells you the basics of dyeing your hair as well as some safety information (oddly, if you've ever had a black henna tattoo you may be allergic to this hair dye).
Inside the box you have the red bottles for step 1 (the main brown dying) and the white ones for step 2 (the highlighting step) with brush, a small white bottle of conditioner, 2 pairs of plastic gloves, and the detailed instructions for dyeing your hair.
After putting on the safety gloves and mixing the base colour crème-gel with its developing crème (which activates it) I applied this from the bottle to my dry hair. This was a simple process and the nozzle was easy to use. After ensuring I had even coverage I sat around for 25 minutes while the dye did its thing. I then washed my hair till the water ran clear (a few minutes) and was ready for Step 2.
Step 2 was one of the main reasons I had chosen this particular hair dye. I hate it when people dye their hair in a block colour that just looks totally... well, dyed. So this is not at all the look I was aiming for. This hair-dye puts the base colour (in my case brown) on, and then you can add highlights to break up the colour and, in my opinion, give a more natural (small amount of highlights) or fashionable (obvious stripy highlights) look.
So, for Step 2 you towel off your hair after Step 1, put on the second pair of gloves, mix the developing crème and lightening power and then use the mascara-like brush to apply your highlights. The instructions give you some 'expert advice' on what pattern of highlights to use to best suit your hairstyle, which was fairly useful as a starting point. I would say that at this stage you are going to need a second pair of hands to put the highlights in on the back of your head - luckily my husband was up for the challenge so did mine for me. The highlights were a bit fiddly to apply as the 'brush' did not always distribute the crème evenly. The crème is blue-white though, so you can easily see where you need to add more crème, as well as where you've drawn your highlights and where you need to add a couple more. I went fairly easy on mine as I wasn't too sure what to expect (and I would recommend, after my mistake, not putting any highlights right at the front of your hair - it just looks wrong!). You then wait 20 minutes for the colour to develop, wash it all off, and use their conditioner as per normal, making sure you rinse afterwards until the water runs clear. You only use half the conditioner, leaving the other half to use in 2 week's time to deep condition your hair.
I've used this dye twice now over the last 6 months, so have also used the slightly different directions for touching up your roots. I've found it easy to use, and the results were really good. The colour looks really natural and completely covers my greys - and there's no 'blocky' look. Not many people even noticed I'd dyed it and those that did (usually asking very tentatively) thought it looked great, which is fab. I found, because I had matched my natural colour pretty closely, it was 11 weeks before my hair started looking grown out and that was more due to the greys showing than any obvious roots (the highlights just looked like natural highlights from the sun growing out slightly). My hair is naturally dry, and I use hair straighteners most days but I did not find that this hair-dye dried out my hair at all. I was also covering up years of different colours of hairdresser-done highlights and was very concerned everything might react and I'd end up with funny colour hair; no need to have worried, I had complete coverage and no funny reactions (phew). In addition, the dye costs £9.99, and I use it every 11 weeks, compared to the £50+ every 6-8 weeks at the hairdressers, so this is a massive saving over a year.
The only downside for me with this hair-dye is the amount of time you have to spend sitting around waiting for it to develop, although, it's probably comparable to that spent in a hairdresser when getting highlights.
Overall, however, this hair-dye has really done the job for me and I'm thoroughly pleased with the results - hence me using it again - and I will continue to use it in the future. Recommended.
Pasta is the staple food of our household. We eat it almost every night, so I felt I had sampled enough by now to have a decent opinion on whether the Sainsbury's basic spaghetti is worth downgrading to during the current economic climate. It seems that most of us are now on a mission to cut back on our household outgoings, and cutting our food budgets is an easy and productive step in the money-savers arsenal.
The 500g pack of Sainsbury's basic spaghetti is made from transparent plastic, with the typical 'basic' orange and white Sainsbury's branding and the long spaghetti clearly visible through the pack. On the back of the pack, as with most pasta, we're told how to cook the stuff (9-10 mins of boiling) and that pasta contains wheat and gluten so is not suitable for those with intolerances. I have to be honest and admit to being shocked that apparently 90g is a normal size serving - my husband and I usually have most of one pack between us each night (and no, we're not fat; just hungry)! As a complete aside, I find the serving size suggestions on most foods completely unrealistic, leading me to really wonder who was at the sitting where the scientists worked out average portions? Certainly not me, or anyone else who needs to eat like a horse to avoid fainting, anyway (I joke not; last time I fasted (for a paid experiment) I ended up in A&E!! But that's a whole other story).
Moving back to the review... After cooking up the pasta as directed (and it does cook in the allotted 9-10 mins) to the correct al dente consistency, I add some sauce (tonight it's white sauce with bacon and veggies), chuck on the obligatory grated cheese and get to work doing what I do best - eating - and it has be said that the Sainsbury's spaghetti does 'exactly what it says on the tin'. It's not the best pasta I've ever tasted, but it's certainly passable for evening meals at home with my husband and tastes fine.
A point to note, if you do decide to go for this pasta, is that I do find that it can tend to clump while cooking, so just remember to stir a fair few times while you wait to make sure you don't get those horrible uncooked lumps of glued-together pasta strands.
The best thing about this pasta, however, is the price. At 39p per 500g pack this is a significant saving over the 4-6 packs we get through each week (I admit it, we're pasta addicts). There are some things you just can't go 'basic' on without seriously sacrificing taste, but this is one 'basic' I'm happy to downgrade to while I'm trying to save money on my food shop. Highly recommended, particularly with basil and olive oil, or carbonara sauce, or spicy tomato sauce and sausages, or....
I've always rather avoided gardening, finding it particularly tedious when forced to spend endless days at garden centres by my parents. For some reason, however, over the last couple of years this interest has rather snuck up on me and I am now the rather over-excited owner of a full blown garden with veggie patch. Some of the first few plants I started to grow were herbs. Herbs have many advantages for the novice gardener, so here are my thoughts on growing them.
For those who like to start projects and then quickly get bored of them, or those with shallow pockets due to the credit crunch, herbs are marvellously inexpensive to buy. Our local garden centre (which is much cheaper than the large, branded versions) is currently selling them for £1 each - a complete bargain. For a small outlay (particularly compared to some other plants), a decent range of herbs could be purchased, with no worries that you've wasted lots of money if you decide that gardening isn't for you after all.
Herbs, in general, start off pretty small so they can be grown easily in containers or window boxes, ideal for those who want some greenery but don't have the space for a full blown garden. A good range can be fitted into one window box, providing variety and interest.
Herbs are evergreen, providing colour for your garden throughout winter when a lot of other plants have died back.
~Easy to grow~
I'm a bit 'black fingered' in that I've always tended to somehow kill plants, rather than nurture them, but even I've managed to grow a decent selection of herbs - and they've survived! Mine have all been fine growing outside in the UK; they seem fairly hardy and don't need too much maintenance in the way of fertiliser or extensive weeding. Personally I just give them a bit of fertiliser at the start of the growing season, and pull up nearby weeds when they get large (I'm not really a high tech or perfectionist gardener!). I don't have children but I would think that herbs would be a suitable 'mini-garden' for them to cultivate in- or outdoors if they are interested in this kind of thing.
If you choose your species carefully, the herbs you grow not only look and smell nice, but you can use them in your cooking too. I personally always prefer fresh herbs to the dry versions, but buying fresh herbs for each meal I'm planning (which inevitably each need a small amount of a different herb) is far too expensive, and usually a lot of the herb will go off before I've used the whole pack. Now, however, if I need herbs for a recipe I just go into my garden and pick the quantity I need - no cost and no waste. Fantastic.
Here's a list of the herbs I'm currently growing for anyone interested:
Rosemary - I bought this as a small plant from a garden centre; it's now the size of a small tree. Lesson learnt: use lots of it so it stays small! Rosemary smells absolutely lovely every time you brush past it, and is useful for roasts and casseroles.
Sage - I've got a funny purple sage (sorry, I don't know its proper name) that again started small but is now a miniature triffid. It adds a nice bit of colour to the garden though. Sage doesn't smell too strong unless you rub it, but it is useful for some pasta dishes and a roasted vegetable dish I have.
Curly parsley - you get different versions of parsley and mine is the curly, rather than flat-leaved, variety although most of my recipes don't seem to specify which to use (and the food has tasted fine using this one!). Parsley doesn't really smell but looks quite greenly pretty. It's probably my most extensively used herb as I use it in pasta and fish dishes and things like goulash and casseroles.
Marjoram - I got this recently as a cutting from a colleague; it's got pretty shaped leaves and smells quite strongly when you rub the leaves. I haven't found a recipe requiring it yet, but as I got it for free I'm quite happy! [correction: on looking through one of my recipe books, it seems if I ever fancy making cannellini bean soup I will finally require use of my marjoram plant]
Mint - mint, like bamboo, is one of those plants on a mission to take over the world so I've always been advised to grow it in a pot even when planting it out in the garden, otherwise it pops up everywhere and you never get rid of it. This was another cutting from my colleague - I would highly recommend asking green-fingered friends and family if they've got any spares as I've got an astounding number of plants/seeds/cuttings for free; people are amazingly generous :) Mint is useful for moussaka, minty vegetable soups and adding to Pimms (yummy).
Bay - this is not a small herb as bay comes in tree form! I got cuttings from my mum's giant bay tree and it seems fairly hardy as mine was abandoned in a pot the entire of last year when I forgot about it and never watered it! I only use bay very occasionally for cooking.
Basil - I am proud to say that this is my first herb that I grew from seeds - and it was dead easy. They germinated pretty quickly in a biscuit tin on my kitchen windowsill (high tech as ever), I then put them out in my cloche (an old kitchen cupboard with plastic roof in the garden) to acclimatise and then have planted them in a grow bag (I've run out of garden) where they seem to be doing really well - too well, and I've had to start giving some of them away! I use basil in tonnes of recipes, but particularly to make my own pesto for when I need a dead cheap meal just before payday! Word of warning: the slugs/snails seem to really like basil as it's the only plant in my garden they attack.
When I've got a bit of money I'd like to get some chives, thyme, coriander and oregano next as I use all of these in quite a few recipes (oregano is used extensively in pasta dishes, my staple food!).
So if you're thinking of adding a bit of greenery to your home by getting some pot plants, or planning to start making your garden work for you I'd highly recommend growing some herbs as an inexpensive yet useful addition to your home and garden. It's easy, fun and, in the long run, even saves you money - and you can't go wrong with that.
Radox is a well-known shower and bath cream/gel manufacturer and is part of H&BC UK Ltd (based in Slough). Radox have, apparently, been making shower and bath creams for over 100 years, so you'd hope they'd got it right by now!
After an in-shop sniff test, I plumped for the 'Nourish' variety, which claims to 'be nice to your skin, with Shea butter and ginger'. Shea butter is found in many luxury body creams so I figured this might actually live up to its claims; apparently the ginger is added to provide 'some extra spice'. At £1.65 (and we got it buy-one-get-one-free) it is well priced in the low-mid range for a shower cream.
The 250ml bottle is shaped typically of shower gels these days, with an elliptical hand-fitting bottle, complete with hook at one end to hang it in your shower room, and flip-top lid dispenser at the other end for ease of squirting the shower cream out while the bottle's hung. This also means that all the gel sits nicely at the bottom of the bottle, so there's no need for frantic shaking to get the dregs out. The bottle itself is white, semi-transparent plastic with the Radox logo and a picture of some orange/brown wheat on the front, and the pale yellow/cream coloured shower cream can be seen inside. On the back, the printed green label tells us the bottle is recyclable, that the shower gel is pH balanced, and gives us the long list of weird and wonderful ingredients that sound highly synthetic and that you've never previously heard of that you always find on the back of bath and shower gels.
Once in the shower, I put a decent blob on my sponge and got to scrubbing. The shower cream lathered nicely and smelled delicious - slightly sweet, but not sickly, although I would guess it would be more to a woman's taste than a man's. The shower cream left me feeling lovely and clean, slightly scented (not overpowering at all, which I prefer), and my skin did feel soft and moisturised, which I was impressed by. I, therefore, would certainly recommend this shower cream to girls who like a feminine shower cream but nothing too overwhelmingly girly.
I've used Clean&Clear's exfoliating daily wash since my days of teenage-induced spot-mania - thankfully my skin has sorted itself out since those hellish years and now rarely has horrendous spot outbreaks, but this facewash performed somewhat of a miracle in the old days, and I still use it today even though I'm in my thirties.
Clean&Clear is a Johnson&Johnson brand (seems they like their '&'s), which specialises in personal cleaning products, particularly those of the baby oil/shampoo/wipes variety. A variety of face cleansers and washes fall under the Clean&Clear label, including their exfoliating daily wash.
The facewash comes in an inverted triangular soft-plastic bottle with blue shading on the front (not purple like the photo above), complete with both the Clean&Clear and Johnson&Johnson logos, and a flat, purple flip-lid at the bottom, which the bottle stands on. The bottle is 150ml and has the usual bumpf on the back in blue writing including how to use the product, what to do if it gets in your eyes (wash it out, obviously), and the list of ingredients - I always find these rather alarming (it surely can't be a good thing to be putting 'sodium laureth sulphate' or 'polyethylene' on my face) so tend just not to look at them. This list is no worse or better, however, than the rest of the products in my bathroom.
~The facewash itself~
The product itself is a translucent white gel with suspended fizzy white bits - these are the exfoliating particles that 'effectively remove dirt, oil and dead skin cells that can block pores and lead to spots and blackheads'. I squeeze a decent-sized blob approaching a 50p-piece onto my wet hands and then rub it onto my already water-rinsed face. The facewash lathers slightly, but not a lot, but I can easily see where I've washed and where I still need to, and I can feel the slightly coarse particles doing their thing and exfoliating my skin - lovely. I scrub gently for a few minutes, particularly concentrating on my forehead, chin and jawline where I'm most likely to get spots, and then rinse the facewash off with warm water. I then personally rinse again with cold water to close my pores - not sure if this is myth or reality though!
After washing I find my face feels really clean. The facewash seems to get rid of any oily patches, without drying out my skin, and any bumps I might have had developing normally feel a lot smoother and less inflamed now.
I find that this facewash really works for me, and for my skin. As a teenager, with spotty skin, I used this facewash daily (and on my shoulders as well, as these used to get spots) and it really did balance out my skin and reduced the number of major outbreaks I had substantially - obviously it's not a miracle-worker though I'm afraid. Nowadays, with more mature, stable skin, I tend to use it every other day (and use a cleanser on the non-facewash day), and also after particularly dirty occupations (sweaty workout; sorting out a dusty garage) or if I can feel spots lurking. This does the trick in keeping spots at bay 90% of the time and quite often stops these attempting to break through in their track, or at least mitigates the volcano.
This product is, however, fairly basic. I'm a tomboy so I much prefer this, but it's not going to suit those who like designer brands and/or packaging and floral scents. In addition, being an exfoliator, this facewash is probably not suitable for those with sensitive skin.
At around £3.50 from most retailers (which lasts forever), I would recommend this product to those of us who just want something unfussy that works.
I like to have a yoghurt daily as something to break up the tedium of a long morning at work, giving me a little break, a healthy snack, and squeezing in one of my 'five-a-day'. Currently on a strict spending-diet I usually have to go for cheap and cheerful varieties (which actually probably contain less of my five-a-day than a pack of crisps, but it's the thought that counts), so it was with great delight that I spotted some Muller yoghurts on sale at my local Sainsbury's, bringing them within my spending remit. I'm not normally a diet girl, but as it was Muller Light on sale, it was Muller Light I got. I could have sworn it said 8 for £2, but may have gone mad as since then they're now at 4 for £2, so let's say they're usually priced around 50-60p per pot but you might be lucky and find them for less.
I chose my 8 flavour varieties with care, and one of my selections was the 'smooth peach'. Muller Light come in 200g pots, which, I have to say, are a good-sized portion, certainly large enough for a snack and possibly even large enough to count as a dessert portion if your appetite's not too large. The white plastic pot is round with a flat bottom, with peach-coloured writing (surprisingly enough), and a foil lid with a picture of... you guessed it, a peach (in slices). The tub displays the usual nutritional information, and I was interested to see that it lists this per 100g, when the pot is 200g - perhaps just a standard thing, but my cynical mind is suspicious that Muller is trying to pull one over on skim-reading dieters, as displaying it per pot would be much more useful. I was also interested to note that each pot, despite being a 'Light' brand, while only containing 94 calories - and no fat - still has 12.6g of sugar. I have no idea whether this is high, but it certainly sounds it to this diet-novice. Actually, I've just noticed, although it claims to be 'fat free' in capital letters, it actually has 0.2g of fat per pot - so not exactly fat free then. Further good info is that the yoghurt is additive and preservative free (although, if they mean free like the fat content, then maybe not), and constitutes 31% of your recommended daily amount of calcium, which is great.
So, onto the taste. On peeling back the foil I was pleased to notice that the yoghurt was creamy and smooth - I've had a few problems with some of the other flavours separating out while stored, which is not an appetising look, but this one had no such problems. The yoghurt is light yellowy-orange in colour and I didn't spot any chunks or lumps in mine, so it did live up to its 'smooth' billing. The yoghurt smelled slightly peachy, and tasted like a normal peach yoghurt - slightly synthetically peach flavoured - and was light, creamy and very smooth. I wouldn't say the 'Light'-ness detracted from the taste at all. This yoghurt is quite sweet though; perhaps a bit too sweet for those who prefer a more tart flavouring (for those who like really tart - you'll find the rhubarb flavour fulfils this need!!).
All in all, this is a decent, above average, peach-flavoured yoghurt, although I'm a bit dubious about its diet credentials. For me, it filled me nicely for a while and was certainly preferable, in the healthy snacking stakes, to wolfing down a pack of biscuits instead.