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We just spent a week's holiday staying in a pretty country cottage in Wales, in a village eight miles from Betws-y-Coed. While we were there, we went out every day doing sightseeing and visiting some of the attractions of the area. Both my fiancé and I love castles, so we were keen to visit a couple of Welsh ones during the week and one of those we visited was Harlech Castle, which was about 35 miles from where we were staying.
I hadn't been there before and Harlech was a good place to visit too, a very picturesque area. The Castle is obviously the main attraction. It was built by Edward I in the late 13th Century. There is a small exhibition in part of the castle, which explains its history. It cost us £3.80 each to go in and our baby was free. Current prices, opening times and special events can be found on the website http://www.harlech.com/ There is limited parking right near the castle, which was full when we went, but we found another car park (and with toilets) only a few minutes' walk away.
Some castles are accessible by wheelchair and pushchairs (Conwy Castle is one), but Harlech Castle is only really suitable for the able-bodied and quite fit, as there are a lot of steps and stairs to negotiate. I wouldn't recommend it for toddlers either, as some of it seemed rather dangerous to me and I wouldn't be happy with little ones running around. My fiancé had our six-month-old son strapped to him in the baby sling and this was ideal, as he was safe and secure and it meant we could go wherever we wanted, without trying to get a pushchair there.
It is a beautiful castle and there is a lot to see, especially if you are happy to go exploring. I went up to the top level twice at two different points. However I am scared of heights so once I'd reached the top, I couldn't do much except stand rooted to the spot and take a couple of photos! My fiancé is much more adventurous than I am and he wanted to walk across the walkways, but I felt they were too high up and did not have enough wall either side for me to feel safe.
There are a lot of windy stairs to climb up if you want to fully explore the castle and these were manageable, especially as they helpfully had hand rails or rope to help you. It was quite hard work though and the next day, my knees were aching a lot, so if you have any health issues, you may wish to take this into consideration. To get into the castle from where you pay, you have to walk up quite a few steps and it only gets worse!
The shop is situated in the part where you go in and pay, and this is also the way you exit. It is quite small, but has the usual souvenirs you would expect - postcards, T-shirts, guide books, etc. It wasn't too over-priced and I bought some postcards there. There are toilets situated near the shop - unsurprisingly, down more stairs!
The views from all over the castle are amazing and there are some great photographic opportunities. It was quite a wet day when we went, but you could still see for miles and I took lots of photos. It is certainly a beautiful castle and well worth seeing if you are in the area and feel you can manage it. If you want something a bit more accessible, I'd recommend Conwy Castle instead as we went there another day, took our son in the pushchair and although we had to carry it up and down a few steps, it was much gentler on my knees than Harlech Castle!
A couple of months before our baby was born, we went shopping for a buggy. We wanted one which wasn't too expensive, it had to fit into the boot of a fairly small car and one which would be suitable from birth and could be used as the baby got older too. We shopped around and ended up buying a Tippitoes Eze Pushchair and Footmuff in red for around £80 from a local nursery shop.
It is a stylish looking pushchair and also available in black, but I was very pleased to get a bright red one as I like bright colours for babies and red is fine for either a boy or a girl. All pushchairs tend to be quite big and bulky and this one is no different, but it doesn't feel too big and it isn't too heavy either. I find it easy enough to steer, to get up the kerbs and to fold away, although you will probably need a few practices before you can fold it quickly. Like anything, there is a knack to doing it, but once you have got it worked out, it is a fairly quick procedure.
We first used this pushchair when my son was a couple of weeks old and although he looked very tiny in it, it supported him well and he seemed comfortable in it. It has a multi-position back rest, so you can have it flat for sleeping or have it positioned so the baby is sitting up, as we do now he is six months old. The five-point harness supports the baby well, it feels secure and is easy to adjust and to clip in and out. My son has not managed to wriggle out of the straps yet.
My son was born in February and this pushchair was ideal for the colder weather, as it is lovely and fleecy inside, soft and warm and he never seemed to be cold or uncomfortable. In the warmer weather, we have removed the footmuff and it is cooler for him, so it is useful having this option depending on the weather. The rain cover which comes with it is also good, easy enough to put on and take off and it has kept him dry and snugly even in pouring rain. The footmuff is detachable and machine washable, though we haven't needed to do this. So far, just using a wet sponge has been adequate to clean the pushchair.
The handle height is 106cm which is fine for both me (5' 4") and my partner (just under 6ft) to push. It weighs 7.5kg, which is a little heavy for me, but not too bad. It does take up a lot of boot space in our small car, so we usually have one of the back seats reclined so the pushchair fits there, which gives us space to put our bags of shopping or suitcases if we are going away.
We often go on walks in the countryside and this pushchair is fine for walking across grass, fields and hills. It only has standard front lockable swivel wheels, but we have taken it all over the place, up steep hillsides and down rocky paths and it hasn't been a problem, it has never got stuck or fallen over or anything.
We also go to markets and car boot sales and we put the bags on the handles of the pushchair, which works well and has never unbalanced the pushchair. The only major disadvantage with this pushchair is space orientated though and that is how narrow the basket underneath it is. You could fit a few magazines under there, but it is far too small for anything else really and it is fiddly to get anything in and out. Otherwise, I am happy with the pushchair.
Another feature I like is that there is a little see-through window on top of the hood of the pushchair, so you can check your baby while pushing him. The pushchair isn't reversible, so your baby always has to be facing outwards, but at least this window means you don't have to keep popping round to the front of the buggy to check him!
The pushchair is suitable for babies from birth to 15kg. My son is six months old and around 9kg, so this will be fine for quite a while yet, which is good, as I didn't want to have to buy a different pushchair too soon, if at all. Hopefully this one will be fine until he is walking well.
Features of this pushchair are -
* Suitable from Birth to 15kg
* Reclineable seat
* Adjustable leg rest
* 5 point safety harness
* Luxury fleece lined footmuff
* Rain cover
* Removable hood
* Ergonomic foam covered handles
* Front lockable swivel wheels
* Linked rear brakes
* Umberella fold
* Carry Handle
* Removable bumper bar
A baby bouncer is one of those pieces of equipment which is an essential, in my opinion. Every parent needs a safe place to leave their baby in for a few minutes, while they get a cup of tea or answer the phone and bouncy chairs are ideal, as they are comfortable and secure. We spent several hours browsing the bouncy chairs on offer in Mothercare, Toys R Us and our local nursery shop before purchasing one from Argos - the Bright Starts Elephant March Baby Bouncer, which they sell for £23.49. We had a few requirements - not too expensive, suitable for a boy (so nothing predominantly pink!), suitable for the age and weight of our baby, light enough for me to carry and lift, a bright and cheerful design and a bar across it with a couple of toys. This particular model ticked all those boxes, my partner and I were both happy, so we bought it and took it home.
We have now been using this for around five months, so I feel I can review it fairly. The Bright Starts Elephant March Baby Bouncer is suitable for babies from birth and up to 9kg in weight. Our son weighed just over 15 pounds at four months, which is less than 7kg, so he was fine. At six months, he is at around the maximum weight, so we feel he will soon have outgrown this. At the moment though, we use this every day and our son happily has his daytime naps in it, as it is well padded and supports his head and body effectively.
The design is mainly a blue and green base with zebras, elephants and swirls on the material. The removable bar is very easy to clip in and out and doesn't need any strength to move it, you just push it back and click it out. It is brightly coloured in stripes and reminds me of a circus tent. This bar comes with three toys - a cuddly zebra and an elephant with a red and yellow rattling toy in the middle. The zebra and elephant are not removable, but the middle toy is. There is a Velcro strap in the middle, which means you can put other toys there if you wish to vary them. (I've even hung a dummy there, so we don't lose it, if he has spat it out!) The cuddly toys have plastic hoops on, so the baby can hold them.
When my son was younger, he was happy to just look at the toys, then progressed to batting them in a haphazard fashion. Now he can grab and hold the toys and even pull down the middle one, so he is enjoying them in a different way.
The baby bouncer has too buttons on the front which are the controls to the vibration and music settings. (These need batteries.) I rarely use these, as I prefer to use my foot to rock the bouncer as necessary and I find the music very irritating, but my partner uses the vibration setting and it does seem to soothe our baby at times. The music has five different tunes, but all of them are equally annoying!
The base of the baby bouncer is sturdy with some give, which is handy for the afore-mentioned foot rocking! It is light enough to pick up and carry into different rooms and the straps seem to hold the baby in well, even when they try to turn over or move forward as my son does now! There doesn't seem to be a lot of range in the straps though and I wonder if they will become a bit tight as he gets bigger, but for now, they are fine. You also have to watch that the baby has their hands out of the way when you clip the straps in, so you don't pinch their skin. (I either hold my son's arm out of the way or place my hands round the clip to protect him from it.)
It is fairly easy to clean as a damp sponge is usually enough, but if it needs a better clean, you can remove the whole cover, which is machine washable. It is usually enough for us to sponge clean it, but we have machine washed it twice and it has come up really well. It also dries quickly too, which is great.
Overall, I am very pleased with the Bright Starts Elephant March Baby Bouncer and feel we have already had our money's worth with it. It is bright and colourful with an interesting design; it is sturdy and comfortable, as well as coming with the toy bar which my son loves too. As long as you follow the safety instructions (which are mainly common sense, such as not leaving the bouncer on a high surface!), it seems ideal and well worth the money.
We were in Toys R Us a couple of months ago and I was looking to buy my baby son a toy. I was looking for a soft-bodied baby doll for a boy, but could only find pink girlie ones that were not what I wanted. But while I was browsing the selection of baby toys they had in the shop, I came across the Garden Friends range which is apparently exclusive to Babies R Us and has lots of brightly coloured toys in a variety of bugs and animals - frogs, worms, snakes, caterpillars, newts, ladybirds and the like. Amongst this section, I found Franklin and the Comfort Blanket, which we bought for £10.
Garden Friends Franklin Comfort Blanket is a two-part toy, as Franklin is a bright neon green soft cuddly frog and the comfort blanket is, well, a comfort blanket. I had been planning to buy my son one of the Taggies range comfort blankets, but these are rather expensive and I was impressed at the Garden Friends version, especially only having to pay £10 for both the blanket and the frog!
The comfort blanket is beautifully made - soft, bright and snugly. One side is light blue velour with a darker blue silky edging and it has 'my first comfort blanket' embroidered on it in yellow stitching. The two textures of the material feel really nice and you can definitely imagine this becoming a favourite at bedtime. The reverse side has the same colour scheme and material, but on here there are four big shapes - an orange heart in cord material, a yellow swirly star, a soft neon green circle and a stripy blue and purple triangle. Each shape has a little Taggie coming from it, giving babies plenty of opportunity to feel different textures.
The comfort blanket is quite big and easy to wash, as you just put it in the washing machine at 30 or 40 degrees. My son is almost six months old now and he does cuddle the blanket sometimes and feels different areas of it or puts bits of it in his mouth when he is teething. I have also found it is the perfect size for putting over him if he is napping in his bouncy chair or the car seat, as it just covers him nicely over his legs. I would happily pay £10 for the comfort blanket alone, so as far as I'm concerned, Franklin the cuddly frog came as a freebie, ha!
Franklin is again brightly coloured, mostly neon green but he has three different textured sections across his chest and tummy - a patch of the stripy blue and purple material (like the triangle on the blanket), a patch of the orange cord (like the heart) and a black and white checked pattern in the middle. He has a big smiley face, his name embroidered on his back and both his hands have Velcro patches on, so you can stick them together or attach them to something. He is sponge clean only.
Franklin is pretty, soft and well-made, but not as appealing as the comfort blanket - either to me or my son. I wouldn't have bought this if it hadn't come with the comfort blanket. My baby occasionally plays with it, but it isn't a big favourite and usually lingers near the bottom of the toy box.
Overall, I am happy with this purchase and will look at the Garden Friends range again, the next time I am in Toys R Us.
A couple of months ago, we had a long car journey and with a young baby to entertain, I decided we needed to get him a new toy. We wanted something that was interesting, not too expensive and different from his other toys, as well as something that would be good for the journey. We ended up buying him the Vtech Little Singing Alfie from Tesco, which I think we paid around £8 for, as it was reduced. It is usually around the £10 mark.
It is suitable for children between three months and eighteen months old and our son was at the minimum age when we bought it, but now he's almost six months, he gets more out of this toy. It is quite heavy, so younger babies find it hard to hold and manipulate the toy, but now my son is older, he can push the buttons and finds it much more rewarding.
Little Singing Alfie is a cute looking, smiling, brown bear, however don't purchase this if you are looking for a cuddly toy, as its hard tummy area doesn't lend itself to bedtime snuggling. The stomach is where all the action is, as it contains the buttons and electronic wizardry that make the noises, lights and music. It is mainly red here with a yellow heart and three sections to press underneath in blue, green and yellow. Each section gives us different responses teaching babies music, numbers and emotions.
The packaging definitely emphasises the educational value of this toy, declaring it helps develop motor skills (where the child learns that pressing the buttons causes flashing lights and various sounds in response), language development (spoken phrases, words and songs) and sensory development (different textures, flashing lights and the sounds). As a parent, I do like trying to find toys that are both fun and educational, so this ticks the right boxes for me.
I also liked the 'Parent-Friendly Features' mentioned on the box - that the battery will automatically power down if it is not being used and that the toy is durable. The bear has certainly been dropped a lot of times and has suffered no damage, so it seems to pass the durability test. The toy comes with 2 AAA batteries which have lasted so far and haven't needed to be replaced yet.
One of the reasons we chose this toy was that it has a Velcro strap so could be attached to the car seat for the journey. We also attach it to the bar of his bouncy chair, although now he can pull this off anyway! Initially, we had to do most of the work and show our son what happens when you press the buttons, but these days, it does it himself and enjoys watching the flashing lights.
As with all electronic toys, they can easily become annoying. At least this one has an English speaking voice instead of a computerised American accent, which annoys me greatly in toys sold in the UK. Of course, the songs are repetitive and do become irritating, but at least you get six different songs, all of which are ones most people know - Rock-a-Bye Baby, Brahms' Lullaby, Skip To My Lou, Pop! Goes The Weasel, Pease Porridge Hot and London Bridge. There is also a song to the tune of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush and the instruction booklet that comes with the toy helpfully includes the new lyrics to this song, just in case you want to sing along!
The Vtech Little Singing Alfie certainly has some cute phrases. It says "I love you!" and giggles and when you turn it off, it makes a kissing noise before saying "Bye bye!"
There are many good things about this toy - it is fun, educational, interesting and well designed in many respects. However, my son isn't particularly keen on it. He will play with it for a few minutes, but it hasn't become a favourite and is often found lounging at the bottom of the toy box. I think one of its downfalls is that it isn't very cuddly with its hard red tummy and it is a bit heavy for babies to hold and carry. It is worth the money overall, I think, but although I'd give it 4 stars, my son would probably only give it 3 stars.
A couple of months ago, I wanted to buy my son a toy which was different to his other toys. We were in Tesco and I saw something called a Nuby Flip Flop Teether Book for £5, so we bought that. It is in the shape of a horse but its body is actually a book with pages you lift up. This gives it a multi-function as you can read it as a book, cuddle it as a soft toy or your baby can chew it to help with teething.
It is quite light to hold too, which is especially good for young babies. It also has a Velcro strap which you can attach to a car seat, stroller or baby bouncer. It is a clever, well-made and sturdy toy which is bright and colourful too. The horse has a lovely smiling face in bright colours and its ears are crinkly, which babies love as they make a noise when you touch them. The tail and mane are a dark purple cord fabric, which also provides different colours and textures to stimulate and interest the baby.
The toy is suitable from birth (though the tag reminds parents not to leave a child under three unattended with this toy) and is BPA free. It has the CE safety mark on and it suggests cleaning by using a damp cloth.
The toy has a hard yellow circle to chew on, plus two of the horse's feet are made of that hard plastic stuff that babies like to put in their mouths whilst teething. The other two hooves are soft and crinkly.
The book itself is just six pages long and this aspect is probably the least satisfying of the product. It rhymes, but not brilliantly, the language used is rather American ('Katy likes to jump her rope' instead of 'skip') and they have abbreviated 'through' to 'thru' which is not ideal for when your child is older and learning to read and spell! The pages of the book are soft and have lots of bright colours and patterns on, along with cute cartoon pictures of animals with alliterative names - Katy the kangaroo, Monty the monkey, Dicky the duck, Barry the bear, Terrence the tortoise and Okie the octopus.
I think it is good value for the money, but shop around if you wish to buy it, as the price does vary. (Tesco Direct seems to be the cheapest place to buy it from at the moment for £4.94.) It certainly isn't the best toy I have bought and there are many better books available, but it has its use and my son enjoys teething on it and feeling the crinkly bits. Its strength is in combining its three aspects - a cute cuddly horse toy, its use for babies who are teething and the book - and for around £5, it is good value for money.
When my baby son started teething a couple of months ago, we bought him the Tommee Tippee Icy Bite Keys from Tesco for around £5. He was about three months old then, so didn't get full use of this, as it is quite heavy and you need a degree of accuracy in being able to put it in your mouth, but now he is five months old and his hand-to-eye coordination has much improved, he is using the keys every day.
They look bright and pretty and are designed to resemble adult keys on a keyring, so your child has a mini version of something their parents own too. The keyring here is bright blue with white spots on and it is hard, so chewing on the ring can bring comfort to teething babies too. The three keys have slightly differently shaped tops with the familiar key bit in yellow, blue and green with the top sections in orange, red and purple, so you can also use these to introduce the colours to your baby. The keys are filled with a soft squidgy gel which gets cool when left in the fridge. The top bits of the keys are hard with textured bits, so there are plenty of different things for the baby to explore and put in its mouth.
The ring has Nuby on it, but it is a Tommee Tippee product. Both brands have a good reputation, so I was happy to buy this after reading the packaging for its safety specifications. It has all the required safety marks and does not contain any PVC or BPA. It is important to note that this cannot be put in the freezer though, only the fridge. It is suitable for babies from three months onwards. It is currently priced at £5.25 on Amazon UK but the cheapest place to buy it seems to be from the Pharmacy First website who are selling it for only £2.69.
The gel in the keys is supposed to stay cooler for longer than using water filled teethers, but personally, I haven't found this particularly true. You still need to put it back in the fridge every couple of hours if you want it cool. My son has found the keys useful for his teething, especially now he can hold these himself and work out how to put the keys in his mouth and chew on all the various bits and textures. He can often be found chewing on the keys and dribbling everywhere, so he seems to know what to do and presumably it helps the pain he suffers from teething (along with applications of Bonjela!).
Toys that are designed for teething often only have a limited use, but the Tommee Tippee Icy Bite Keys have more about them, as they are brightly coloured and well designed. I am sure they can be used as a toy long after the teething has eased. After all, which child doesn't want to emulate their parents, so I am sure they will be happy to have their own set of mini keys? So while these aren't perfect, they are well worth the money and a good product to buy for your little one while they are teething.
Back in 1987, I discovered Marilyn Monroe. It was the 25th anniversary of her death and the television showed a documentary on her narrated by Catherine Deneuve, followed by a showing of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I was enthralled! What a beautiful woman Marilyn was and how talented an actress. I began buying books about her and trying to watch all her films...
In 2011, the film My Week With Marilyn was released in UK cinemas. I was too pregnant to sit comfortably in the cinema, so had to miss it, but I pre-ordered the DVD and watched it as soon as I had the time. The film is based on the book of the same name by Colin Clark, who worked on the 1956 film The Prince and The Showgirl in England with Marilyn. I have read this book and do question the truth of some of it, so I was slightly worried the film would become rather sleazy and portray Marilyn as some kind of sex-mad loose woman. Thankfully I was pleased with how it was handled.
Colin Clark is 23 years old and working on his first film. As the third director's assistant, he basically gets to be a gopher, at the beck and call of Laurence Olivier, who is directing the film as well as co-starring in it. There is tension between Olivier and Marilyn, as he doesn't agree with the Method style of acting that Marilyn favours and he finds the presence of her coach Paula Strasberg on set as highly irritating. As he becomes more impatient and annoyed, his disapproval and criticism makes Marilyn more nervous and soon she is fluffing her lines, turning up late or refusing to come on set at all. Her new husband Arthur Miller returns home to the USA and as her mental health declines, Colin strikes up a friendship with the film star - but will it help her finish the film?
As a big Marilyn fan and someone who knows lots of details about her life and career, I was expecting to find lots of errors in the film and to be quite critical of it. However, although there were a few parts that were dubious (the opening and closing song-and-dance numbers, for example), they did not detract from my enjoyment and overall, I found the film very accurate, especially in how Marilyn was portrayed. They didn't play up the stereotypical "dumb blonde" image, instead concentrating on a realistic view of her, including using some direct quotes from her and having the book she was actually reading at the time placed on her bedside table (James Joyce's Ulysses). This was refreshing to see and helped my enjoyment of the film.
The way she behaved during the filming of The Prince and The Showgirl was also dealt with sympathetically. You can see how eager she is to be liked and how important it is for her to be seen as a talented actress, rather than just sexy. She is trying to be a good and devoted wife to Arthur and feels distraught at how she feels he betrays her. The scenes where Marilyn is on her bed and emotional are beautifully filmed and very moving.
Michelle Williams plays Marilyn in the film and does a superb job, the vulnerability pouring out of her characterisation so no-one could fail to be sympathetic towards her. The wardrobe, hair and make-up have all done an excellent job too, so Michelle looks enough like Marilyn to believe in her. The clothes are perfect throughout and I was also impressed with the scenes that were shot on the set of The Prince and The Showgirl, as I have seen the film several times and the recreation of the scenes were very accurate.
Kenneth Branagh is excellent as Sir Laurence Olivier too, especially reproducing the awful Germanic accent in his role in The Prince and The Showgirl (which is the worst aspect of the 1956 movie!). Olivier was quite brutal towards Marilyn and Branagh portrays this accurately, swearing at her and losing patience quite rapidly. Julia Ormond (who I loved in the film Captives some years ago with Tim Roth) played his wife Vivien Leigh and again recreated it well. I have seen plenty of photos of the press conference that was given by Olivier, Leigh, Monroe and Miller and these scenes were accurate visually and including many of the actual things that were said at the time.
While Eddie Redmayne ostensibly has the starring part as Colin Clark, he is more forgettable in some ways, being not as well-known a character and also being rather a 'grey man'. Colin is young, naive and walks around in a kind of wide-eyed innocence, as you might expect from a 23 year old who gets to hang out with international film stars! He is sweet and nice, but not particularly interesting. Although it is his story, I felt it was much more about Marilyn - and rightly so.
The cast features many names and faces that British audiences will be familiar with, including Zoe Wanamaker who is a wonderful Paula Strasberg and Emma Watson who plays a wardrobe mistress in an uncharacteristically small role for her. Sir Derek Jacobi has what can be described as a cameo, but Dame Judi Dench is brilliant as Dame Sybil Thorndike - what inspired casting! As Laurence Olivier's treatment of Marilyn becomes worse, Sybil steps in to appease the situation, saying just the right thing and calming the cast and crew.
The film is beautifully shot and a pleasure to watch. I was surprised it is rated a 15 as I felt it was more like a 12, but there is some nudity (viewed from the back) and a few 'f' words which is probably the reason. It lasts 95 minutes and the DVD includes an audio commentary with the director Simon Curtis and a documentary called The Untold Story of An American Icon. It is currently available from Amazon UK for £7.99 and you can also buy the book by Colin Clark (who died in 2002) for £5.95.
I have always been sceptical about the validity of Colin Clark's story. It is a fact he did work on the film with Marilyn, but whether they became friends or had any kind of liaison is up for debate. In the two books he wrote about this, there is just one photo of him with Marilyn and it is a group shot of the cast and crew. There are no photos of the two of them together otherwise, no-one has publically corroborated his story and I have never seen an interview with him explaining himself in more detail. This is interesting to note, but it doesn't detract from the film version. My Week With Marilyn is a wonderful film, whether you are a Marilyn fan or not.
PANASONIC LUMIX DMC-FS35
I am a big fan of digital cameras and have owned several over the last few years. I usually try to upgrade every year, but I have been loyal to the Panasonic Lumix brand for the past three years or so. When my baby son was due, I felt it was an excellent time for an upgrade, so I did an online search to see which would be the best model to buy.
I didn't want to spend more than £150, I wanted more pixels and a bigger zoom than my other models and - being a girl! - I wanted a pretty colour too! The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS35 ticked all these boxes. It has 16 mega pixels, an 8x optical zoom and I bought a red one. A quick search on Kelkoo suggests it is currently available from £94 to £166, so it is well worth shopping around to get the best deal. Amazon UK is selling a violet one for just under £100.
You can search all the technical specifications online, as I don't intend to list them here. My requirements were that it could take really good quality photos that I could print out as 10x8s, if I wanted to. I use my camera for photographing nature a lot, landscapes, scenery and historic buildings, as we go away a lot for weekend breaks and longer holidays within the U.K. and part of the whole travel experience for me is getting artistic photos of important buildings and historic places. A recent family holiday in Whitby meant that I wanted to take atmospheric black and white shots of the famous Whitby Abbey, followed by cute shots in natural colours of my two sons. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS35 allowed me to do this beautifully.
An important aspect of digital cameras for me is the ability to change the colour settings and tones for photos, if I am looking for a specific effect. The basic colour settings are Standard, Natural, Vivid, Black and White, Sepia, Cool and Warm. I have used all of these, but my favourites are Standard, Natural and B/W.
There are really too many features of this camera to explain here, but the best thing to do if you buy this camera is to go through each function and experiment. By doing this, I found a feature which puts a photo frame around your pictures where you can choose the Photo Frame option theme in Scene and this enables you to frame your photos with a standard look, a sparkly hearts one or one saying 'Happy Birthday'. I took a photo of our baby son smiling, while using the Happy Birthday setting and printed it out (10" x 8" size) for my partner's birthday and it looked great.
There are plenty of other Scenes you can choose such as fireworks or snow (both often hard to photograph well) and two settings for photographing babies (called Baby 1 and Baby 2), which are all worth trying. It can be quite hard to remember how to get to a certain option though, especially if you see something to photograph and need to get to the right setting before the moment passes. Using the camera, playing with the options and familiarising yourself with how everything works is the best thing to do, but it does take some time. I have had this camera since January, yet still sometimes forget how to reach a particular setting.
One of the most important settings for me is the picture size, which can easily be changed. This option also explains the use of each size, which I find very helpful. For example, if you use the 4:3 16M setting, this is suitable for printing up to A2 (16" x 20") size, while the smallest 4:3 0.3M setting is suggested for sending as email attachments as it isn't really good enough to print out. I tend to use the 4:3 5M setting, which is fine for 10" x 8" prints. Of course, the size you use determines how many photos you can fit on your SD card and my camera informs me I have the space left for 164 photos at this 5M setting, whereas I would only have space for 75 photos at the 16M size.
A feature I also use regularly is the video camera. Having a new baby provides plenty of scope for filming and I have recorded my son's early babbling and his recent achievement of rolling over by himself. The video is good quality and means you can keep treasured memories forever, without the old hassle of setting up a separate camcorder. As I have family who live away from us, I find it really useful to film my son's milestones and put them up on Facebook, so family and friends can actually see him move and hear his cute baby noises - something which still photographs cannot provide.
The camera itself is the ideal size and weight for me and is sturdy too, as I have dropped it without incurring any damage. I would recommend buying a camera case though, which you can get cheaply (I got mine from Tesco!), to protect your camera from scratches and other damage it may get from being in your bag.
The screen is a good size for viewing your photos and showing others, which is something I also do regularly, as not all the photos get printed, so it is like having a portable photo album on your camera! I do get some printed though and we spent £40 on a photo book from Lulu, which featured photos of our son from birth to six weeks old. I was thrilled with the result! All the photos were ones I had taken on my Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS35 and they came out beautifully.
To sum up, this camera is perfect for my requirements and has enabled me to take some beautiful photos and videos in the five months I have had it. I feel it is very good value for money and it certainly has plenty of features and options which help you make the best of your photographic skills and artistic talents. The only disadvantage I have found is that it is quite complex to access all the options, as you have to remember which buttons to press in which order, but this does get easier the more you use it. It may put off some people from trying all the features though. Apart from this, it is an excellent camera and I thoroughly recommend it.
My son is four months old, but already has a favourite book - That's Not My Hamster. Whenever we read it to him, he smiles and laughs at the same bits, his whole face lighting up. So I decided to buy him another in the series and after doing a search online, I chose That's Not My Dragon - mainly because I love dragons and the illustrations looked very cute!
This is one of the Usborne touchy-feely books by Fiona Watt, illustrated by Rachel Wells. There are lots of different animals available in the series (tiger, bear, puppy, kitten, monkey, etc.) as well as things like princesses, cars, trains and monsters. That's Not My Dragon has a cover price of £5.99 but we bought it from Amazon for only £3.74.
It is a board book so suitable for any age. While my son is too young to understand the actual words, he seems to love the repetition and the rhythm of the words. Each double page begins with the "That's not my dragon" and then goes on to explain why not, with the final pages revealing that this one IS his dragon and again explaining why.
The books are beautiful with brightly coloured cartoon style drawings. That's Not My Dragon has purple, lilac, blue, orange, yellow and green dragons, which means that as your child gets older, you can talk about the different colours as well as the spots, wings, horns and other features of each dragon. There is a little white mouse that appears in each scene too, so you can point that out to your child or ask them to find it.
The best part of these books is the touchy-feely aspect of it, as each dragon comes with its own textured bit for the child to discover. One dragon has soft furry ears, another has squishy sparkly spots, one has yellow claws which feel a bit bumpy, one has a spiky red tail part, another dragon has a pink tongue made from a carpet kind of texture and the final dragon has gorgeous green scaly wings. Again, plenty to touch and talk about.
These books are ideal for babies and young children. They are sturdy and well made, not too heavy to hold and each page holds delights. The illustrations are gorgeous and there is so much to find and talk about, as your child gets older and more talkative. The story begins on the front page, so draws the child in straight away and as it is a short story, parents won't get bored of reading it over and over. There are plenty of other books in the set if your child enjoys them and at £3-£6 a book, it is easy enough to buy one without worrying about a huge expense.
I love these books and plan to buy more. I thoroughly recommend them and more importantly, so does my baby son. It is great to get your children into books from an early age and these are perfect.
My son Dexter is now three months old and has recently started to hold toys, to notice different shapes and to enjoy feeling different textures. So last week, when we were away on holiday, we visited a shop in Scarborough where I bought him a Very Hungry Caterpillar toy. I have loved the Eric Carle book since I was a child in the 1970s and am happy to have toys associated with such a fun, classic book.
It is a Rainbow Designs Very Hungry Caterpillar Developmental Toy and is available from Amazon for £14.99 though I think we paid £11 for it in the shop, so look around for the best price. It is a long toy, one that fits nicely across a baby's lap when they are in the car seat or in a bouncy chair. It has a large rubbery hook on the top, which is great for hooking onto a bouncy chair or a buggy and it is in the shape of a cute green caterpillar, keeping in with the theme.
The toy itself is really pretty. The caterpillar is a wonderful mix of colours and textures; it is bright, fun and interesting. The familiar face is red and crinkly to feel and it has a stitched in eyes and nose. There are purple sparkly antennae on top of the head. The caterpillar's body is in five segments and each one has its own look, texture and little thing it does. They are all crinkly to touch and the middle segment has a strawberry which squeaks when you press it. There are taggies on two segments - little silky bits of material with pictures on.
One segment has a ring round it with beads on, which are great for little fingers to explore and the last part of the caterpillar is ideal for teething on, as it is rubbery and has different textures on both sides. There are six little feet underneath which are brightly coloured and soft to touch.
This is definitely a toy I would recommend as there is so much to discover. It is great value for money, beautiful to look at and well worth the money. But of course, the most important thing in buying a toy is whether the child likes it. Well, Dexter loves it and especially enjoys grabbing it and seeing what happens, as well as chewing on the teething end. He smiles when he sees it and even falls asleep holding bits of it sometimes. I think of it as a wide awake toy though, rather than a sleeping one, as it is quite big and heavier than a cuddly toy. However, Dexter is really getting used to feeling and touching toys and loves discovering the new textures of this toy and finding out what noises each part of the caterpillar makes.
It can be washed in cold water, but I usually use a sponge to wipe any dribble off. So far, the colours and textures have remained just as bright as they were. Overall, it is a wonderful toy, suitable from birth and one I would recommend anyone to buy for a young child. As they grow, they will find more and more things to discover about it and any toy which combines fun with learning has to be a winner.
PLEASE NOTE - I requested a new product category for Cow & Gate First Infant Milk, but Dooyoo rejected it and said I should write in this category. However, this is for the PREMIUM version (green packaging) and my review is for the standard version (red packaging). Thanks.
After recently giving birth, I had problems which meant I could only breastfeed my son for the first five days, despite having intended to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months or so. Once I knew I had to switch to bottle feeding, my partner and I had to choose a brand of formula milk to use. We bought Cow & Gate First Infant Milk because it is made by an established brand, it is suitable from birth and is easily available. You can also buy it in ready made cartons which are great for taking on day trips, much more convenient than having to make up a bottle from scratch while out somewhere.
The 900g version costs around £8 from major supermarkets and is in a distinctive red packaging with a green '1' on to signify it is a 1st stage formula milk you can use for newborns. It is a white powder which comes with its own measuring scoop and even a little 'shelf' inside which you can use to level off the powder. (In the 1990s, the scoop was loose in the packet but now it has its own holder included and I used to level off the powder with a knife!) This means you can make up a bottle one-handed (useful when holding a crying baby!) and you don't have to touch the powder at all.
You follow the instructions on the side of the packet to see how to make up the formula. The amount of bottles and the size of each one are determined by the age of your baby, so a two-week old baby would be expected to have around six feeds of 4 fl. oz. (120ml) per day. Of course, this is only a guide and your health visitor can advise you. My son has been feeding more often but not finishing many bottles, so it all works out to the right kind of total.
Despite formula feeding being very common, it isn't a straight-forward trouble-free issue for most mums. As we all know by now, breast is best and all that, but sometimes it isn't possible for women to breastfeed their babies or they choose not to. It is an individual's decision, every mum decides what is best to do for her child and as someone once said to me - by the time they're at school, no-one can pick out which kids were breastfed and which were bottlefed. So stick by your decision and don't feel guilty.
While formula milk can never exactly replicate breastmilk, the formulas are very advanced now and Cow & Gate First Infant Milk claims to be a "nutritionally complete breastmilk substitute" which includes a whole host of vitamins and minerals. The nutritional information is printed in detail on the side of the packaging, so you can check to see exactly what it contains.
Being a vegetarian for over 25 years, I was also faced with another dilemma about formula milk. My other children were born in the 1990s and it was easier to find vegetarian formula then. These days, due to the popularity of fish-based Omega 3, almost all formulas contain this, which means it is not suitable for vegetarians. I intend to bring my son up vegetarian (as my older kids are), but the two soya versions of formula milk (Wysoy and Infasoy) are not recommended by health professionals to give to babies under six months. My plan had been to breastfeed exclusively for six months before moving onto one of these soya alternatives, but as this became impossible, I had to choose - either risk a soya-based milk which my health visitor and midwife could not recommend or to start him on a non-vegetarian formula. I chose the latter, as it is more important he is healthy. Once he is six months old, he will be exclusively vegetarian, but for now, this isn't an option.
My son has done well on formula with his weight. He was 7lbs 11oz at birth then lost a whole pound in the five days I was breastfeeding him (another reason to switch to formula). Once he was on Cow & Gate First Infant Milk, he began to gain weight really well and was up to 8lbs 1oz a week later. He's now almost six weeks old and weighs 10lbs 9oz. The health visitor is pleased at his progress and development and so are we. He likes the taste, feeds well and we had no problems switching him from breastmilk to this formula.
One disadvantage we have found with this formula milk though is that my son has some problems digesting it. He is rarely sick at all, but has been bad with wind and colic, so after taking advice from our health visitor, we have decided to put him onto the Cow & Gate Comfort formula milk instead, which aids babies with constipation or colic.
Of course every baby is different, but this is our experience with the Cow & Gate First Infant Milk. To sum up the advantages and disadvantages of this product as we have found them -
Easy to find, readily available
Available in ready-made cartons
Made by an established and trustworthy brand
Contains vitamins and minerals
Can be used from birth
Easy to mix and use
Good instructions on the packaging
Convenient scoop and leveller included inside
My baby likes the taste and put weight on
Expensive (but so are all formula milks)
Can cause colic or wind
Not vegetarian, contains fish
Despite only being in her mid-thirties, Kym Marsh has lived enough to write an autobiography which seems to have plenty to say. Her 345-page hardback book From The Heart is a really good read and one I finished in just a few days and thoroughly enjoyed.
I first saw Kym when she was on the reality talent show Popstars back in 2000. I thought she was lovely and had a great voice. Sure enough, she was in the winning five members who formed the group Hear'say and got a number one single with their debut song Pure and Simple. I took two of my daughters to see Hear'say in concert and they were really good. The highlight of the evening for me was when Kym sang a solo which was so beautiful, it moved me to tears.
But Hear'say didn't last and in 2002, Kym left the band. Reading From The Heart, I realised this was the first time I had heard much about the background behind the break-up and had a chance to hear Kym's side, so it was an interesting read and she comes across very well, happy to realise her own part in the problems they had and not being particularly bitchy about her band mates.
All the way through the book, it comes across that Kym is really lovely, but not some perfect goddess trying to show a facade. Whether the issues are personal or professional, she tries to put across a balanced view and to see how she could have acted differently to improve the situation.
Kym writes about her family and her childhood, dwelling for quite a while on the bullying she suffered at school and her eating disorder which ensued. She then became a teenage mum and describes how she was struggling to support her kids on benefits, before her lucky break in 2000. Although this meant her financial worries were eased for a time, she then had to cope with being apart from her son and daughter who were up north with her parents, while Kym was in London with the rest of Hear'say.
Around this time in her life, there are some issues surrounding her children, which she can't go into detail about due to legal restrictions. While this is understandable, it does make slightly annoying reading as if you keep finding a page with text censored. It also disrupted the flow of the text for me, as I was happily reading it then would find yet another sentence along the lines of "I'd like to tell you why, but can't, due to legal reasons." This is probably my only quibble with the book overall though.
Kym writes about her relationship with EastEnders actor Jack Ryder and her current partner, Hollyoaks actor Jamie Lomas. She also explains very movingly about her difficult pregnancies which resulted in her son Archie being born prematurely and dying at birth in 2009. She goes on to have a healthy daughter Polly in 2011, so the book ends on a positive and optimistic note, but any woman in early or mid-pregnancy may wish to avoid reading this book until late pregnancy or after birth. Kym really had to struggle throughout Polly's pregnancy too, as she nearly lost her several times and this is a scary reminder of the times when pregnancy can be anything but straight-forward and easy. You really have to admire her bravery as well as her honesty in sharing these experiences through her autobiography.
Since 2006, Kym has played Michelle Connor in Coronation Street. I remember when she first appeared in the role and how I was surprised how good she was and what a natural actress. Once she had left Hear'say and her solo career had seemed very brief, I hadn't seen much of her, unless she was in a magazine with Jack Ryder or something about her personal life. From The Heart fills in the gaps very well, as we learn about her acting career on stage and television, as the parts become bigger and she gets more recognition for her talent. She is now a well-loved and established Corrie character and has hopefully proved she can act as well as sing.
There are two sections of photos included in the book and these begin from her being a baby and a young girl through to her having her own children, Popstars and Hear'say, her acting work, award ceremonies and relationships. The last couple of photos are of Kym and Jamie with their daughter Polly.
Overall, I was very impressed with this book, as it looks great and was a really interesting read without much of the bitching or 'kiss and tell' type controversies of some other books in this genre. Despite her youth, Kym has done enough to warrant an autobiography and this didn't feel at all padded, which is a criticism often levelled at autobiographies written by those under fifty.
The hardback edition was published in June 2011 and has a cover price of £16.99, but I bought it from Amazon UK, where it is currently available for £9.33. You can buy a Kindle edition for £8.99 or wait for the paperback to come out in May 2012.
Being a fan of Marilyn Monroe since 1987, I have amassed quite a collection of books on her over the years. One of these is Marilyn Handbook by Mike Evans, which was published in 2004 with the cover price of £14.99. You can buy it for this price from Amazon UK at the moment, though they have cheaper second-hand copies available in the Marketplace.
It is a small sized hardback, but pretty heavy as it contains around 430 pages. It has a striking cover with a portrait photo of Marilyn on a hot pink background. The inside jacket promises "a fresh perspective" including "first-hand accounts" and "rarely seen photos" but Marilyn fans have heard all this before and been disappointed. Will Marilyn Handbook live up to these claims or is it just another re-hash to cash in on her fame and legendary status?
I own around fifty books on Marilyn and flicking through the photographs in Marilyn Handbook, there are all the old favourites there - the film stills, movie posters, the early swimsuit pics, singing at the President's birthday and her white dress flying up over the subway grating. There are a few lesser-seen photographs including some beautiful magazine covers from Glance, Scope, True Experiences, Laff and Life, as well as an advert for City Club that I don't think I've seen before. But if you are buying this to see rare pictures, I wouldn't bother. There are better books around for rarities.
If you are a casual fan, this book could be a good choice though. It contains a large array of photos from her childhood through to her final year, including those by such famous photographers as Bert Stern, Andre De Dienes, Richard Avedon, Sam Shaw and Bob Willoughby. The text also covers the major parts of her life - her childhood, her introduction to modelling, her marriages, her movies and her death - and is written chronologically, so it is easy to follow.
The extensive bibliography at the back does suggest to me though that a lot of this is regurgitated from other books already written about Marilyn. Although there are many quotations used throughout, the three pages of credits in the book show where these came from and none were obtained directly by the author. Despite Marilyn being dead for almost fifty years, it is possible for authors to find people who knew her and to interview them, as is well illustrated in the excellent biography Marilyn Monroe - Private and Undisclosed by Michelle Morgan, which was published in 2007 (and will be out in paperback next year, with new additions).
However, this is not to say Marilyn Handbook is a bad book. Mike Evans presents an image of Marilyn as a "fragile, complex woman" rather than lazily adopting the 'dumb blonde' tag of the gutter press. He shows her as the talented actress she was, who was willing to study her craft and learn new skills to improve her performance. He shows her intelligence and how her attraction to playwright Arthur Miller was an intellectual one as Marilyn hoped to better herself and gain knowledge.
The circumstances surrounding Marilyn's death in 1962 remain a topic for heated debate and Evans covers this, while refusing to state his own personal views on the subject. Again, if you are interested in this area, there are better books available, including several which concentrate almost exclusively on her death, such as The Assassination of Marilyn Monroe by Donald H. Wolfe and Victim - The Secret Tapes of Marilyn Monroe by Matthew Smith.
Marilyn Handbook does include a few interviews though, which are generally worth reading, including one with Roy Ward Baker (the director of Don't Bother to Knock) from 2004. I don't think I have read this before and there were some interesting bits in it, such as the first time he met Marilyn, she was carrying two big books on Stanislavsky and there are some good observations about Marilyn's relationship with her drama coach Natasha Lytess. However, some of it came from Baker's autobiography and again, it is unclear if the author actually met him.
The interview with photographer Bob Willoughby from 2004 covers two half pages and reveals very little new information, so feels hardly worth the fanfare. The transcript of Marilyn's appearance on The Jack Benny Show from 1953 is even more pointless, as it was only a kind of lame comedy sketch and is much better watched than read. (It's available on YouTube, amongst other places, and you get to see her sing Bye Bye Baby too.)
Ed Pfizenmaier is interviewed too, who was the assistant to the photographer Cecil Beaton. Again not a long interview, but a complimentary one, recalling Marilyn as being easy to work with and even doing her own make up.
Anyone who has seen the recent film My Week with Marilyn may be interested to read the chapter on Marilyn's relationship with Arthur Miller and their time spent in England filming The Prince and the Showgirl, as this is the subject for the new movie, based on Colin Clark's books. Clark himself is not mentioned in Mike Evans's book though.
The final sections of the book illustrate how the Marilyn image is so iconic with photos of Madonna and Kylie copying the look, pictures of some of the Marilyn memorabilia available and brief sections on Marilyn in Art and Bert Stern's final photo shoot with her - The Last Sitting. However, if you already own the books Marilyn in Art (compiled by Roger G. Taylor) and the incredibly beautiful The Last Sitting by Bert Stern (easily one of the best Marilyn books around), Mike Evans's watered-down versions are hardly worth a glance.
Overall, Marilyn Handbook isn't a terrible book. Its tone is respectful not scandalous and it tries to bring a few new things into Marilyn's story - but falls way short of the mark. A casual fan will enjoy this, but for a more serious fan, there are many other better books out there which tick all the boxes.
It was back in 2005 when I first read a novel by Minette Walters and she has remained one of my favourite authors since then. Now I am heavily pregnant and have very little energy, I decided I needed a good book to get into, perfect for reading while on the sofa or in bed trying to rest. I turned to my collection of her novels I haven't yet read and chose The Dark Room, which was first published back in 1995.
Minette Walters writes crime thrillers, but they are more than a basic 'whodunnit' kind of book. She interweaves so many different strands that it never becomes boring and there is always a great rush for the finish line, as you want to know what happened and why. Her books are peppered with accompanying news articles, crime reports and police memos which add to the case and keep you guessing right to the end. They are also quite meaty reads, The Dark Room being over 500 pages long, but I read the whole thing quite quickly.
The main character in this book is Jane 'Jinx' Kingsley, the daughter of a rich businessman who runs her own photographic studio. When we first meet her, she is in the Nightingale Clinic in Salisbury, a privately run clinic where Dr Alan Protheroe is treating her for post-traumatic amnesia following concussion. It seems fairly straight-forward at first. Her fiancé Leo Wallander jilted her for her best friend Meg Harris and following this news, Jinx apparently tried to kill herself by smashing her car into a concrete stanchion on a disused airfield, resulting in her injuries.
Of course, things are never this straight-forward or it would be a much shorter and less exciting novel! We meet a variety of characters throughout the chapters and over time, different scenarios come to the forefront and we are left wondering if perhaps this happened or that happened. Jinx's family is an unusual one with her father Adam being in the picture for a possible murder of her husband some years ago. Her stepmother Betty is an alcoholic of an unstable nature and Jinx's two younger brothers, Miles and Fergus, are disreputable characters who dabble in drugs and gambling. Could any of them be implicated in what becomes a double murder investigation?
Minette Walters is very good at describing characters and each one comes to life through her words. This means that although there are many different people in the story, the reader still finds it easy enough to remember who is who and to form an opinion on them. Similarly, the different plot strands are woven effortlessly through the main story and we can keep up with what is going on, knowing they will all come together in the end in a gripping finale.
Some of the content in Walters' writing is not pleasant and these books are not for those readers who enjoy nothing heavier than Mills and Boon or a gentle romance set in an idyllic English village. We have murder here, sexual abuse and child abuse, though it is much less graphic than a Martina Cole novel and the language is less offensive too. Nonetheless, Walters is definitely writing for an adult audience that can handle adult themes.
I really enjoyed reading The Dark Room as it was easy to get into, the characters are well-described and it is an intriguing story which keeps you thinking throughout. I didn't guess the murderer and enjoyed discovering who they were, what they had actually done and their motivations for their actions. There weren't really any flaws in the book, though if I had to pick something, I would say that Jinx isn't always as likeable as you might expect a heroine of a novel to be - but this was crucial to the plot, as there is always a question of how involved she was in the events and the novel wouldn't have worked as well if she was 100% perfect.
I would definitely recommend The Dark Room to any fans of this genre and Minette Walters will continue to be one of my favourite authors. In fact, I plan to read another of her novels now, probably The Ice House. Hopefully it will be just as good as The Dark Room, if not better.
There are thirteen novels published by Minette Walters and all are easily available. The Dark Room was her fourth published novel and is available from Amazon UK for £5.29 as a new paperback.