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theda
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Member since: 07.02.2010

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    • BabyDan Cord Winder / Child Safety / 75 Readings / 67 Ratings
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      16.09.2010 12:25
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      Invaluable, if they are suitable for your blinds

      In common with many people, we have blinds in our house. These came with ridiculously long cords; having small children and being mindful of cord safety, I have always looped these up out of reach. This was never going to be a long-term solution - children grow, after all - and I knew it wouldn't be long before I would have to find a better way of dealing with the problem. I was finally spurred into action by reading about a mother who had put her daughter down for a nap believing that the blind cord above her cot was securely out of reach, only to find when she went to check on her only a few minutes later that she had managed to get hold of it and wrap it several times around her neck. Luckily it was still loose so she was fine, but it was a timely warning that no matter how well you think you're protecting your children from everyday household disasters-waiting-to-happen, they're always at least one step ahead.

      I was vaguely aware of cord winders in that 'must get some of those at some point' kind of way, so I searched on Amazon and came up with two options, one made by BabyDan and the other by Clippasafe. The only difference seems to be that one is square and the other is round, since both had low overall product ratings - which was not encouraging - but I was swayed in favour of the BabyDan by its one five-star rating, and by the sole review of the Clippasafe which suggested that the BabyDan was much better. The main complaint about the BabyDan version seemed to be regarding the woefully inadequate instructions. Well, I thought, I have a degree. I've seen The Krypton Factor. How hard could it be?

      Well, as it turned out, it was simultaneously really easy and quite hard. The instructions are a series of five pictures printed on the back of the packet with no accompanying text at all. They are quite confusing at first; I puzzled over them for a good couple of minutes with the winder in one hand, the packet in the other, and what I'm sure was a comedy 'Uh?' look on my face. Once you've deciphered them, they are actually rather simple - looking at them now, I can't believe I had any trouble at all - but on first glance, I was stymied. So, in the spirit of being useful, I thought I would supply the missing text. Aren't I good to you?

      1. With the blind fully lowered, trim the cord to approximately 45cm in length. This is important because if there is too much cord inside the unit, it will not wind properly. If you're not sure of the length, remember that longer is better - you can trim it further, but you can't stick it back on. Tie a knot in the end; if there is more than one cord, tie them together in an overhand knot (i.e., with the cords side-by-side, not as if you were tying shoelaces).

      2. Hold the unit with the side lever facing towards you. The plastic tab sticking out of the top should have the appearance of a lower-case d. Pass the knot through the back of the round part of the d and pull it up into the upright part. Make absolutely sure that it cannot be pulled back through; if the knot is not large enough or not pulled up far enough, when you engage the mechanism it will come out and the tab will retract into the unit without the cord, rendering it completely useless.

      3. Once you are confident that the knot isn't going anywhere, you can remove the pin which prevents the tab from retracting. You'll first need to remove the sticky label which holds the pin in place. Make sure you take a moment to laugh in a hollow fashion at the printing on the label telling you to read the instructions before removing it.

      4. Remove the pin.

      5. Push the small lever on the side upwards to activate the mechanism. The cord should wind into the unit, although you may need to give the knot a little help.

      6. Stand back and admire the hideous orange warning sticker which will always be visible despite only being on one side of the unit, and which you will never be able to remove because - well, it's a warning sticker. If you remove it, disaster will surely follow.


      Okay, so you've installed your cord winder and you're ready to use it. This will take some getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, it's a doddle. The mechanism has two settings - active and locked. To activate it, push the lever upwards and either pull on the unit to lengthen the cord or slide it upwards to shorten - as you slide, the cord should retract into the unit. If this doesn't happen, the cord might be too long. You can pull the tab back out of the unit to trim the cord further, but don't forget to pin the tab to prevent it retracting as soon as you remove the knot. I found that toothpicks are ideal for this.

      To raise the blind: pull on the cord with the winder in the locked position. Once the blind is raised and secured, activate the mechanism and retract the cord to its maximum extent.

      To lower the blind: activate the mechanism and pull down on the unit to release an adequate length of cord. Then lock the mechanism and lower the blind. It doesn't take long to get the hang of how much cord to release, but the first few times you will probably find that you don't have enough and need to let a little more out.

      Whether the blind is raised or lowered, the unit should always be as close to the top of the blind as possible. Children could easily pull the unit down if it within reach, and since this will raise the blind, there will be a good length of cord for them to get tangled up in.

      So we've installed it and got the hang of it, but is it any good? I'll do the negatives first, because there are a few. Firstly, they're never going to win any design awards. In fact, if I'm being brutally honest, they're quite ugly. They're also not particularly robust; my son managed to get hold of one of them while I was raising the blind and in the ensuing tussle the lever snapped, so now it can't be locked in position. This doesn't stop it from working, but it does mean that when I let go of it, it zooms up to the top of the blind and I have to stand on a chair to reach it. They also can't be used for bobbly-corded roller blinds and they might not work on old-fashioned multi-corded roman blinds since they don't have the capacity to hold very much cord. I use them on Venetian blinds with two cords, and they sometimes struggle to retract properly, so anything more than that and they might get stuck. Although, in fairness, the windows are 170cm tall, so they might be OK if your windows are not so high. This would, though, bring up another potential problem - with two cords tied together, the knot just about fits into the unit, but the roman blinds I have upstairs have five cords, and I can't see any way that the knot resulting from tying that many cords together would fit.

      On the positive side, though, they look neater than having loops of cord hanging around all over the place, and - this is the real biggie - they work. This last point does make them worth getting in spite of all the bad things I can think of to say about them, because the point is to stop your children strangling themselves and it seems churlish to criticise them for being unattractive and flimsy when neither of these prevents them from doing that. Besides, you don't really notice the ugly after a while.

      I got mine from Amazon for £4.50 per a pack of two, with free delivery, which is not bad at all. I really wanted to be able to give them a rave review and five stars, because they are doing sterling work of preventing my children from coming to a tangled end, but there is so much room for improvement - better instructions, better quality, better capacity, better applications - that I can't in all conscience give more than three stars. Yes, they are a good idea, but if they can't be used on the blinds that you have, they might as well not exist at all.

      (And I was lying about the ugly.)

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      • Homebase Paint / Household Product / 61 Readings / 59 Ratings
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        23.06.2010 11:41
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        A good, hardwearing finish (once the fumes wear off).

        It's early summer, so it must be time to dig out the colour charts and have a look to see if any of last year's paintbrushes are salvageable (not likely). Being a painfully middle-class kind of girl - I am. There's no point being coy about these things - when it comes to paint I usually worship at the altar of Farrow & Ball, but there comes a point where you have to admit that a paint has its faults, and Farrow & Ball has two: the complete lack of a decent strong pink and the fact that the walls will mark if you so much as look at them in the wrong way.

        The pink wasn't an issue, given that I was painting a boys' bedroom, but the durability was a cause for concern. I would prefer not to be doing the whole thing again in six months' time, so I decided to use a hardwearing paint and plumped for Homebase's own version, which is called Duracoat. Sounds like a mackintosh to me, but then what do I know? My favoured brand of paint has colour names like Mouse's Back and Clunch. I'm hardly in a position to judge.

        The paint tub promises that two coats with four hours' drying time in between will suffice, and that a 2.5 litre tub will cover 30 square metres. Technically, this was pretty much what it did, although it might be more accurate to say that it covered 15 square metres twice (but more on this later). The tub also promises a high acrylic content, which will make the paint tougher than a rhinoceros in a tank. I used Brilliant White, which costs £12.99 for 2.5 litres, although colours are slightly dearer at £14.99. This compares very favourably with Dulux Endurance, which is £20.99 for 2.5 litres in Brilliant White and £21.96 for colours. Occasionally, Homebase do a 'two for £16' offer on these as well, making it an even better deal.

        So I open the lid and once I've recovered from the fumes I attempt to give the paint a good stir (plastic chopsticks are excellent for this, by the way). No dice. It's like trying to stir jelly. I decide that if it's set this much then it's not going to have separated a whole lot, so I give up and pour some into the paint tray. This is rather reminiscent of trying to get ketchup out of a glass bottle; it takes a while to get going, but once it does, the whole lot tries to come out in one go.

        After I tip the excess back into the tub, up the stairs I go to start painting. I would normally take a deep breath before embarking on this kind of exercise, but given the overwhelming chemical fumes this doesn't seem advisable. I dip a brush into the paint and watch with amusement as it leaves a cartoon-esque brush-shaped dent when removed. This paint is very, very thick. In fact, if I'd been holding my nose, I wouldn't have been surprised to find a 99 Flake in it. This means that it's quick to load the brush or roller, but easy to overload it, and it takes about half a room to get the hang of it. It spreads nicely, although the tub does warn against overspreading, for a very good reason: because this paint has such a high acrylic content, it doesn't adhere to the surface very well - if you've ever painted around a uPVC window and gone over the frame by mistake, you'll know what to expect. The first coat will give a kind of mottled effect if you overspread, and this will result in more coats being required. I'm not sure, to be honest, that this is entirely avoidable; I needed four coats to cover the walls, but only one for the ceiling (thank goodness. I could hardly move the next day. Who knew painting ceilings was such good exercise?). You might get away with two if you're painting over a light, neutral colour, but otherwise you should plan to need at least three.

        A quick word on surfaces: the paint claims to be suitable for walls, radiators and woodwork, but I wouldn't recommend using it on woodwork as anything but a primer over already-painted surfaces (it can be used watered-down on unfinished wood). There are two reasons for this: from a practical point of view, it gives a rather nasty chalky finish; and from an aesthetic point of view, the paint is so matt that it will give the room a very 'flat' look if you use it on the walls as well, since none of the painted surfaces will be in the slightest bit reflective. I used Farrow & Ball Estate Eggshell in All White for the woodwork, which is a good colour match (not all white paints are created equal, after all) and just sheeny enough to lend the room a bit of interest.

        Points in its favour: it washes out of clothes better than any other paint I've ever used, and it is nicely forgiving to paint with. This makes it ideal from my point of view since I'm a lazy decorator. I can't be faffed with proper preparation; all this 'light sanding, wipe down with sugar soap and rinse well' is far too much like hard work, especially as you then have to paint afterwards. My preparation tends to consist of a quick once-over with a fluffy duster, and that's only if I'm feeling energetic. The finish is pretty good though - I used a short-pile roller and it's nice and smooth until you get really close-up. There also isn't that obvious distinction between the rollered and brushed areas which can sometimes happen. A word of warning: the coverage with a brush is much better than with a roller, to the extent that each wall now has a 'frame' where it is whiter around the edges and in the corners. If I'd had enough paint (and energy) left, I would have given it a quick last coat just with the roller to stop this from happening.

        On the negative side: it reeks. I did four coats in two days and was nearly cross-eyed from the fumes by the end of it. It's classed as a low-VOC content paint, with 20g per litre (the EU maximum for matt paint is 30g per litre), but you'd never guess it from the stench. It was well over a week - with warm weather and the window open around the clock - before it had subsided to the point where I would consider putting my children to sleep in the room. It does also have a tendency to drip and splatter if you're not careful with it. I managed, by freak accident, to splash some in my eye which started to burn rather horribly straight away. It was easy to wash out, but I was left walking around looking like a 'before and after' hayfever remedy advert for the rest of the day. NOT recommended.

        So, enough about the application; does it live up to the claims? Well, it survived various pieces of furniture being shifted out of the room, a carpet being laid, and then various other pieces of furniture being shifted back in again (and re-arranged several times) without so much as a scuff. Really, I should wait about a year to see how it does, but I'll have forgotten about reviewing it by then, so I decided to road test it instead. It's had three weeks to fully dry and harden, so it should be about as tough as it's going to get by now.

        Thumbnail test.
        Slight dent, but only when I pressed REALLY hard.

        Crayon test.
        It would be a pretty poor showing if it couldn't cope with a bit of crayon, and indeed a quick swipe with a wipe and it was good as new.

        Toy car thrown at wall test.
        Bit of an odd one, this. It didn't leave much of a dent (partly because I didn't throw it that hard) but it did leave some red paint behind which will not come off.

        Wedding ring test.
        I didn't actually mean to do this one, I accidentally whacked my hand against the wall while opening the wardrobe door (and yes it did hurt. Quite a lot. Thank you for asking). No dent, but it left a fairly substantial mark which took some elbow grease to remove.

        So there you have it. Not the easiest (or kindest on the nose) of paints to apply, but impervious to crayon and tougher than platinum. Just keep the toy cars away from it and you'll be fine.

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          01.06.2010 13:13
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          Prawn cracker anyone?

          I've always liked hoi sin (yellow bean) sauces and I use five spice in cooking a fair bit, so when I saw this sauce I had to give it a try. It's a cook-in sauce rather than a stir-fry sauce, which as far as I can make out means that it comes in a bigger jar; it's supposed to be less of a glaze, I suppose, so it has more liquid in it. Other than yellow bean sauce and five spice, the main ingredients are ginger, garlic, red chilli, sesame oil and soy sauce, with allergy advice for soya, wheat, barley, gluten and sesame.

          When I first added the sauce to the pan, the first thing I noticed was a rather sickly smell and I was afraid that it was going to be too sweet, as hoi sin can sometimes be. After a minute or two though, the cloying aroma was gone and the overriding flavour coming through was that of the star anise. I like aniseed, so I thought it smelled rather nice, but anyone who is not so keen might be a little put off by this as it didn't really subside much. The other spices were not detectable at all, even ginger which is also included as a separate ingredient. The sauce did taste sweet, but it was mild rather than sickly. There was still a hint of aniseed in the aroma - which I'd say would be strong enough to put you off if you weren't a fan - but it didn't particularly taste of any one spice. Incidentally, if you're not fond of spicy food, don't let the red chilli discourage you as this has no heat to it at all.

          I've made this twice now, once with tofu, green beans, asparagus and tenderstem broccoli, and once with Quorn steak strips, courgette, onion and cherry tomatoes (not the most obvious combination, I know, but the steak strips are new and I wanted to try them out, plus I've just started to get an organic box delivered and you have to work with what you get).

          I was pleased with the tofu combination; tofu has a sharp, beany taste which complemented the sweetness of the sauce very nicely. There are small pieces of very crunchy water chestnut in the sauce which I wasn't expecting, so there was a good range of textures as well since I managed not to overcook the vegetables and they still had some 'bite'.

          The Quorn steak strips version was not so successful; I thought that the strips might work well since the jar recipe suggests using duck - I can't entirely remember what duck tastes like, but it seemed a likely substitute - but the flavours just didn't work together at all and, perversely since the Quorn strips have quite a strong savoury taste, the strips made the sauce taste more sickly. The courgette was competely overwhelmed by the sauce and tasted of nothing at all, and the cherry tomatoes were like lava (you'd think I'd have learned not to put these in sauces by now, but you'd be wrong). Belatedly I remembered that I had some fresh red chillies which would have livened things up considerably.

          Nutritionally, this isn't too bad. It seems that Sharwood's think one-third of a jar is about right per person, since the jar is 425g and the 'per serving' figures are for 140g (this amused me slightly - what happened to the remaining 5g? Perhaps they've allocated that as the little bit of sauce left that you can't be bothered to scrape out of the wok once you've dished up). That one-third of a jar gives you 158 calories - this mostly appears to be sugar, which is second on the list of ingredients after water - and 2.4g of fat, of which 0.3g is saturated. On the other hand, it does also provide an eyebrow-raising 1.4g of salt, nearly a quarter of an adult's daily maximum. This is a little disappointing, as a sauce which contains spices shouldn't need to rely so heavily on salt for flavour. Still, there's no MSG so it could have been worse, I suppose.

          A jar costs around £1.40, which is about standard for this type of product; we used one jar for two of us and there was waaaay too much sauce, so I should imagine this would serve four at a push. I will be using this again as I was pleased with it on the whole, although it will be more for a change than as a regular addition to the shopping list on account of the high salt content. For this reason and since 'Hoi Sin and Star Anise' would have been an equally accurate product name, I can only give it three stars, but it was tasty so I would recommend it all the same.

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            11.05.2010 12:26
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            Can you put a value on your conscience?

            Most people clean their loos with bleach or a specialised cleaning product. Bleach is nasty and dangerous stuff; it irritates and can even burn skin, it is potentially fatal if ingested (as anyone who was subjected to J.B. Priestley's play An Inspector Calls at school will know well) and it is horribly toxic to aquatic life. Specialised cleaning products - particularly those which are formulated to remove limescale - are not any better as these tend to contain hydrochloric acid as their active ingredient, which is equally dangerous both to humans and to the environment. Both bleach and hydrochloric acid contain chlorine, which alters the pH balance of water; this is the reason chlorine is used to prevent bacterial and algal growth in swimming pools. The effect on natural water systems is no less devastating, but much less desirable.

            One other important factor to consider is that when bleach is mixed with acids - such as ammonia (which is present in urine so pretty much guaranteed to be around when you are cleaning the loo), or even good old vinegar, a traditional cleaning agent which many people still use today - the reaction produces chlorine gas, which is harmful enough to have been used as a weapon in World War I.

            So, not the kind of stuff you might want hanging around in your bathroom. There have been eco-alternatives around for a while, and although they clean well, I have never found them to very effective against limescale, which is a problem as we live in a hard water area. Then I tried method's Bowl Patrol and was instantly converted.

            The active ingredient in Bowl Patrol is lactic acid and most of the ingredients are derived from corn sugars or coconut oil, with the exception of xanthan gum which is a thickener more usually encountered in food products. The only synthetic ingredients are in the form of perfume, colour and preservatives, but even these are non-toxic and biodegradable. One of the biggest selling points for method's products is the fact that none of the ingredients is toxic, to the extent that the Bowl Patrol bottle does not even have a safety cap. It does have a warning on the back to seek medical advice if swallowed, but this is required by law; I called method to ask how safe the product is and was told that it wouldn't do you any harm at all if you drank it, although they don't recommend it! Still, this is useful to know if you have children who might get their hands on it or dogs who like to drink out of the bowl (not a problem for us as I've yet to find the cat having a sneaky sip. Just as well, really, as I wouldn't be thrilled about having to fish her out and I doubt she'd be too impressed either).

            The full list of ingredients can be found here, along with information about method's company ethics:

            http://www.methodproducts.co.uk/ingredients/bowlpatrol-ingredients.aspx

            Of course, this would all be pointless if it didn't actually work, but it is at least as effective as chemical cleaners, if not more so. The liquid is very thick, although not quite as thick as a gel, and although it says to leave it to work for ten minutes I usually leave it for longer than this to allow it to coat the bowl properly. The scent is apparently 'eucalyptus mint' although I'm afraid the phrase which springs to mind is more along the lines of 'pine fresh'. Because it doesn't contain synthetic surfactants it doesn't foam up for very long, but it does show how unnecessary and cosmetic the detergent content of some products can be (this is especially true of shampoos) as this has no bearing on its effectiveness. I'm struggling to describe the results without resorting to the words 'sparkling clean', 'fresh' or 'effective against limescale' as I don't want to sound like an advert, but really, this is what you can expect.

            The trade-off - and the only reason I'm not giving it five stars - is the price. A 709ml bottle costs £3, which does not compare well with a thick bleach (usually around 75p), a product such as Domestos Zero Limescale (£1.95), or even Ecover Toilet Cleaner (£1.63 - all 750ml). Whether or not you are willing to pay the extra depends on how important it is to you that your household cleaning products are not only eco-friendly but non-toxic to your family, and whether you can live with a little limescale build-up. Bowl Patrol is available from Sainsbury's, Waitrose, John Lewis and (rather randomly) Homebase, and it is also available online.

            I will certainly continue to use Bowl Patrol as I am happy to pay a little more for the peace of mind, but this is a very personal choice. If you are looking for a non-toxic, eco-friendly loo cleaner, though, this one is highly recommended.

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            • Quorn Steak Strips / Ready Meals / 81 Readings / 81 Ratings
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              06.05.2010 12:51
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              A welcome addition to the Quorn range.

              Being vegetarian, and needing to get protein from somewhere, I eat quite a lot of Quorn. Vegetarian ranges tend to be rather same-y in the types of products available, so when a new product appears I usually give it a try if only for a little variety. Quorn have been producing beef-style mince and chicken-style pieces, fillets and roasts for years - and these have improved a lot in that time; to begin with any product which included Quorn always tasted more of Quorn than it did of anything else, and if you overcooked the roast even slightly, you could have played tennis with the results - and they have now added frozen steak strips to the range. According to the blurb, these are ideal for stroganoff, Thai dishes and stir-fries.

              I was underwhelmed when I first took them out of the packet. They are pretty uniform in size and shape (about two inches long and roughly the thickness of a pen) and just look a little unrealistic. In fact, my first thought was 'well, this is a con. They've just sliced up a burger and charged me double for it'. As Quorn - unlike meat - keeps its shape when it is cooked, some variation in appearance would go a long way to maintaining the illusion that these are in any way similar to steak.

              The instructions for cooking on the hob are to cover the strips with sauce and cook for 15 minutes, but I usually brown Quorn products first even though this isn't necessary. Perhaps it's a psychological hangover from those far-off days when I cooked meat, but it just seems like missing a step not to do this and as these are cooked straight from the freezer, it's good to help the cooking process along a little. They browned nicely, and I added the sauce and cooked them as directed.

              Well, it turns out that the whole burger thing was doing them a bit of a disservice, as these actually tasted quite authentic. I say 'quite' because the kind of steak these brought to mind was 'stewing'. I suppose technically that is still steak, but if you asked most people in a word-association kind of way, the first thing that came to mind would probably be something more along the lines of 'sirloin', and there is no resemblance to the more premium end of the steak scale here. The taste reminded me more than anything of my mum's beef casserole, which isn't really a bad thing and does at least suggest how these strips might best be used. Obviously, I'm only going on memory here, and a more recent steak-eater might have a different opinion; I would have asked my husband, but we were not on speaking terms at the time (this has to do with a rowing machine that was gathering dust under the spare bed, it's a long and not particularly interesting story).

              You can also cook these in the oven, which takes 35 minutes, or in the microwave, which takes 8 minutes. I can't say I've ever cooked Quorn in the microwave, but I shouldn't imagine that this is going to be your 'for best results' option.

              As these are a Quorn product, they are good for you. I used half a packet for two of us which works out roughly per person to be:

              Energy 70 kcal
              Protein 10g
              Saturated Fat 0.75g
              Fibre 4.5g
              Salt 1g

              So, quite high in salt (the maximum daily amount for adults is 6g) but otherwise pretty good. The ingredients list is short, comprising mycoprotein, rehydrated free range egg white, roasted barley malt extract and an unspecified 'flavouring'. As are all Quorn products, this is Vegetarian Society approved.

              I bought these from Asda for £1.98 (disappointingly, not on an introductory offer), although the Quorn website says they are available from Sainsbury's. They only seem to be available in the 300g frozen bag rather than the 350g chilled packet (the mince and chicken-style pieces are available in both), although they do a similar chilled product so possibly this one will only be available from the freezer section.

              I was quite pleased with this product, although I'm not sure it's going to be as versatile as the packet suggests. I can't imagine using it in Thai dishes or stir-fries, but I will try it in a stroganoff and possibly a casserole as well, although this might need some creative recipe tweaking. I doubt I'll be using this every week as I do the mince and chicken-style pieces, but I expect that it will establish a regular spot on my shopping list.

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                05.05.2010 16:43
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                Just say 'neigh'

                I'm not normally a fan of cereal bars unless they come in a box with the words 'chocolate', 'chip' and 'Tracker' on it, but I do like Alpen, not to mention chocolate, so I thought I would give these a go.

                The bars are quite a good size - about the size of a small bar of chocolate - and they look appealing, although if you're going by the picture on the box, the amount of chocolate on the bar is going to be a bit of a let down. They are very light though; some cereal bars are quite dense, but these are - appropriately enough, I suppose - of the 'more holes than Swiss cheese' variety, and given that the main ingredient appears to be rice crispies, I'd estimate that they manage to be about 30% air. This does not suggest that they might be the kind of snack that will stop you reaching for the biscuit tin by 4pm. But still, let's give them a chance, they might be a taste sensation.

                Actually, I'm not going to sugar-coat it (ha!), these bars are pretty bland. They are nice and gooey, but all they really taste of is 'sweet' which is possibly not surprising given that glucose syrup AND sugar feature as ingredients. Raisins apparently make up 12.6% (really? I only counted five) and nuts 3.4%, but these didn't really make a big impression taste-wise. They don't taste of Alpen at all, although they do smell like Jordans Country Crisp, which is perhaps not the result Weetabix were aiming for.

                In a blind tasting, you'd be hard pushed to realise that these are dipped in chocolate, but there is a reason for this: I broke off a piece of the chocolate to try it on its own (purely for reviewing purposes, you understand) and it reminded me exactly of the cheap, synthetic-tasting Easter eggs that were around when I was a child. I'm at a loss to understand how they've managed this as decent chocolate is not exactly thin on the ground these days.

                After the sugar hit passed, there was a hint of something oaty, or perhaps wheaty, but this passed pretty quickly to leave a bitter gluten aftertaste and that odd feeling you get in your mouth after too much sticky sugar. Each bar is about two-thirds carbohydrate, of which half is sugars, so one of these isn't likely to keep you going until dinner time. Rather, they have that odd ability to make you feel queasy and still hungry at the same time; I have a banana on standby for the anticipated blood sugar crash.

                The rest of the nutrition information isn't terribly impressive, although this is a cereal bar dipped in chocolate, so let's not expect miracles. One 29g bar will give you 125 calories, which isn't bad and 3.9g of fat, of which 1.7g is saturated. This is on the high side; the Food Standards Agency definition of a high saturated fat content is over 5g per 100g, and this comes in at 5.8g per 100g. But still, the recommended maximum (note: maximum, not target) daily intake is 30g for a man and 20g for a woman, so one of these isn't going to break the bank.

                Still on the subject of saturated fat, the last item on the ingredients listing is 'antioxidant: tocopherols'. I've noticed this term appearing more and more recently, which is indicative of our new obsession with cholesterol-busting antioxidants. This used to be called E307 or plain old Vitamin E, but it's mildly amusing that it's been specified as an antioxidant here, as if the tidal wave of cholesterol that too much saturated fat will unleash in your arteries could somehow be offset by the presence of this one magic ingredient. A cholesterol-neutral product, if you will (you know, it's only a matter of time).

                These are usually around £1.60 for five bars (although they are currently on a '2 for £2.50' offer at Sainsbury's), which seems to be about average for this kind of product.

                To sum up, then: tasteless, unhealthy and not very filling. Frankly, you'd be as well off with a handful of oats and a sugar cube.

                (No, that's horses, isn't it? A bowl of Alpen and a couple of chocolate buttons then, and that's my final offer.)

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                • Avatar (DVD) / DVD / 120 Readings / 115 Ratings
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                  27.04.2010 16:40
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                  A decent translation to the small screen

                  I saw Avatar in 3D twice at the cinema, so I was interested to see how the 2D small-screen version would stack up. This review is not going to be an analysis of the film, but of the comparison between the cinema and home experiences.

                  I pre-ordered the Blu-ray version and was pleased to see that it included a copy of the DVD, which I hadn't noticed when I placed the order. We watched this in Blu-ray, which initially brought up a message that some Blu-ray players may need a software upgrade, but we were watching on an original PS3 and had no problems.

                  I should imagine that most people are familiar with the story, but here's a (very) quick re-cap just in case. Nasty, US-metaphor human beings are mining the alien moon Pandora for Unobtanium, a rare and expensive mineral. Understandably, the lovely, [insert: name of indigenous race with vastly inferior technical capabilities but extensive, almost mystical connection to the natural world]-metaphor natives, the Na'vi, are none too impressed. The Avatar program is an attempt by the US-metaphors to negotiate with the Na'vi to find a way to make them leave their home, which inconsiderately sits atop the largest mineral deposit around. The Avatars are genetically-engineered human/Na'vi hybrids with which the human whose DNA they share can mentally link. Jake Sully, a paraplegic former Marine whose identical twin brother was an Avatar participant, is sent to Pandora in his brother's place and becomes immersed in the Na'vi community after a chance run-in with the beautiful Na'vi Neytiri. Inevitably, the line between human and alien becomes blurred, and he finds that he is becoming more and more sympathetic to the Na'vi cause and way of life, and far less willing to help the US-metaphors destroy their home.

                  Believe me, that was the condensed version. The story is clearly more complicated than I gave it credit for. I'm not going to go into the characters and actors here, except to say that it is sickening that Sigourney Weaver can be ten feet tall with blue skin and a tail and still be one of the most beautiful women in the world. Damn her.

                  Obviously, the film loses something in the switch to 2D. As is to be expected, the sense of immersion in the scene does not happen, however fantastical the scenery may be. This may not be a bad thing in some ways; there were reports of Avatar-related depression in some of those who saw the film in 3D, because it seemed so real and desirable and yet was a place that they would never be able to visit. In 2D, the film lacks that extra (I'm struggling to avoid saying 'dimension' here) edge which made it such a sensation in 3D.

                  The special effects also suffer slightly. On the whole, these are still impressive, but there are some jarring notes: the larger machines - such as the huge ground vehicle bristling with arrows at the very beginning of the film - just didn't look realistic at all and some of the Pandora creatures were equally unconvincing. The pterosaur-like ikran reminded me of children's kites and even the Na'vi themselves were inconsistently portrayed, their skin at times appearing leathery and at others, plastic. The Tree of Souls in 2D was rather unfortunately reminiscent of the legendary 'spaghetti harvest' April Fool of 1957, although I doubt James Cameron is remotely aware of it. I'm certainly not going to be the one to tell him.

                  The colours were also different from my impression of the 3D version. While the colours in the human settings - such as the holographic map of Pandora - were oversaturated and sickly, those of the forest appeared oddly muted. Without the 3D effect, the colours didn't 'pop', which made the landscape - which was such a stunning feature in 3D - seem unremarkable. Yes, there were still exotic-looking plants, but there was none of the suggestion that this was an alien environment; until a four-armed lemur or six-legged horse wandered into view, you could almost imagine yourself watching a documentary about Kew Gardens, or perhaps the Eden Project. The exception to this is the illuminated night scenes, where the colours were garish, almost neon, at times, most notably one purple which was the exact colour of an ultraviolet strip light.

                  Having said that, the loss of 3D is not all bad. I found both times at the cinema that the 3D format was putting a strain on my eyes - rather like staring at a Magic Eye picture for too long - so it was, literally speaking, easier on the eye in 2D. It also made the little touches in the film more noticeable; there were many small details which I didn't notice while my eyes were trying to make sense of it in 3D, such as the feathered tips of the spiral trumpet plant early on in the film, or the heat haze when the dropship ramp opens. I also missed some of the dialogue at the cinema, although this may have been a blessing since a lot of it was not especially memorable. I think it does help to have seen the film in 3D first since the story and the dialogue certainly took second place to the visual spectacle, and I suspect that seeing this for the first time in 2D on a small screen would leave you wondering what all the fuss had been about.

                  I had a quick browse through the DVD and - well. Perhaps I was doing something wrong, because on a 32" HD TV, the DVD was dreadful. Unwatchable, even. The scenes with only actors and real-life sets were fine, but the DVD format couldn't cope with the special effects, leaving jagged edges on everything in scenes where they were present, even non-CGI elements. There was also a jerky, jumpy feel to these scenes, as if frames were missing, making it difficult for the eye to follow the action. I am in no way technically competent enough to be able to tell you why this is, so I am not sure if there is any way around it; would it be better on a non-HD (or smaller) TV, or could it be improved by watching it in non-HD format (presumably this could be accomplished by swapping the HDMI cable for a scart lead)? Should it be watched on a DVD player rather than a PS3? All suggestions welcome!

                  The film is rated 12, which seems appropriate. There's a fair bit of swearing and quite a lot of explosions, and the Na'vi dialogue is subtitled, which might make it hard to follow for children much below this age. I bought the Blu-ray with free DVD for £14.99 from play.com, and the DVD on its own is £9.99, but it is of course widely available at varying prices.

                  The special features are only available online by registering with a code which is printed on an insert. I can't comment on these, because frankly I'm not interested enough to go to the trouble.

                  Obviously, even the Blu-ray is never going to match up to the 3-D experience of the cinema, but it doesn't do badly. Hopefully someone will wander in who can tell me what on earth I did to the DVD, because if it's not something I did, I wouldn't suggest parting with money for it. If you're keen to see the film before the price of 3D technology comes down, then I would certainly recommend the Blu-ray version; it's never going to be as good as the 3D, but if you manage your expectations, it will still be an enjoyable evening's entertainment.

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                  • More +
                    26.04.2010 12:48
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                    A great product which you can find cheaper elsewhere

                    Added salt is a big no-no for babies' food. Obviously, their diet must contain some salt as it is needed to maintain the electrolyte balance in the body, but too much can be extremely harmful. It is rare, but sadly not unheard of for babies to die from an overdose of salt as a result of being given foods which are not age-appropriate, such as gravy, breakfast cereals and adult meals which have had salt added during cooking.

                    The recommended maximum salt intake for a baby under one year is less than 1g, which is the amount contained in two slices of bread. As both breastmilk and formula milk - being complete foods for this age group - contain the correct amount of salt, there is no need for any solid food to contain additional salt. If you would like to know more about salt in your or your children's diets, more information can be found here:

                    http://www.eatwell.gov.uk/healthydiet/fss/salt/

                    There are several product ranges available which are specifically formulated for babies and have controlled levels of salt. Boots Baby Organic is one such range, and along with the jars and finger foods it includes organic stock cubes in vegetable, chicken and beef flavours, which are suitable for babies of four months and up. As they are organic, they contain no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives. I am vegetarian, so I have only used the vegetable flavour, which is suitable for both vegetarians and vegans.

                    The box contains six individually-wrapped cubes (these aren't actually cubes. They're rectangular cuboids. If, like me, you are pedantic about that kind of thing, this will irritate you). These have a high vegetable fat content - it comes first on the ingredients list - which means that they don't crumble in the way that, say, an Oxo cube does. This doesn't prevent them dissolving quickly and easily in water, though, which is good because I find chasing that one piece of undissolved cube around the measuring jug very annoying.

                    Each cube makes 500ml of stock, although you can cut the cube up if you don't need this much and use the rest of it another time, so long as you wrap it up properly. It makes an appetising-smelling stock which rather reminds me of a time when it was considered that a stock cube and hot water make a perfectly acceptable soup. The blend of vegetables and herbs - comprising onion, carrot, leek, celery, lovage, parsley, oregano, rosemary and thyme (I defy anyone to resist a 'Scarborough Fair' earworm after reading that) - is well-balanced, since none of the ingredients is particularly identifiable; it tastes like nice vegetable stock, to be honest.

                    I made leek and potato soup with this yesterday and it came out rather well, if I do say so myself. You can use it for any recipe which requires normal stock, and if you like the taste of salt you can easily add it to your own meal after cooking. Obviously, as well as being suitable for babies, this is also ideal for anyone who is on a low-salt diet for medical reasons.

                    The nutrition information on the packet has the sodium content as 0.03 gram per 100ml, but it offers no salt equivalent figure. I wish manufacturers wouldn't do this; sodium content means nothing to me and it's a pain trying to work out the salt equivalent, as this is done by multiplying the sodium content by 2.5. In any case, the salt content of 500ml of stock is 0.375 gram, which is very low considering how little of that a baby is actually going to consume.

                    I do have one further comment to make about this product. I just happen to have a packet of Kallo Organic Very Low Salt Vegetable stock cubes and I thought it might be interesting to compare them. Interesting is certainly the word, since I found that:

                    They have an identical ingredients list
                    They have identical nutritional information
                    They have identical foil wrapping
                    The cubes are pretty indistinguishable in colour, texture and smell
                    They both contain six cubes and have a product weight of 66g
                    The boxes are exactly the same size
                    They are both made in Germany

                    You can draw your own conclusions here, but the only difference I can find is that the Kallo version costs around 95p and is available in most supermarkets, whereas the Baby Organic version costs £1.49 and is only available from Boots. A 50% 'parent paranoia' mark-up on a comparable product simply for adding the word 'Baby' to the packaging is pretty shabby behaviour, particularly from such a large company as Boots, whose overhead costs surely cannot justify such an inflated price.

                    I hesitate to give fewer than five stars because it is a very good product in its own right, but the fact remains that it is overpriced compared to other brands. Still, it is good that such products are available to avoid the need to use an alternative which may contain more salt than is healthy for a young baby.

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                    • More +
                      23.04.2010 11:59
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                      The only changing bag you'll ever need

                      When you have a baby, the amount of stuff you have to cart around with you pretty much quadruples overnight. You can simply buy a larger handbag, but this means that the one item you are looking for will always end up buried under everything else. What you need is pockets capable of holding something larger than a mobile phone. Enter, stage left: the changing bag.

                      OiOi are an Australian company who make quality changing bags which combine the look of a handbag with the practical features that you'll need once you're carrying around half your own bodyweight in baby kit. They do a range of different styles in canvas, laminated canvas, quilted fabric, leather and faux leather, and many different prints including animal, floral and geometric. There are so many options to choose from that you are almost guaranteed to find something you like.

                      The Hobo is a simple shoulder bag with one zip at the top and one adjustable strap. I am 5'4", and at its longest setting, the zip is at hip-level and at its shortest, at waist-level. I notice from the website that they have now introduced buggy clips to hold the bag up and stop it hanging from the main strap. This isn't to prevent damage to the bag - mine was bought before this feature was added and the strap is still very firmly attached - but it does prevent the bag resting on the brake of the pushchair and engaging it without you noticing (which is good for the upper arms but possibly not so good for the wheels).

                      The bag comes with accessories: a padded changing mat, a plastic wipes case, a plastic zip-top bag (similar to the make-up bags that you get free with magazines) and an insulated bottle holder which will keep liquids warm for over two hours, according to the website. I've only tended to use the changing mat and the zip-top bag, which is handy for used wipes, tissues, apple cores and suchlike. You can get replacements if you lose any of them for around £5 plus p&p.

                      Inside there are three pockets - one large one (I use this for purse, phone and so on) and two small ones (nappies, mostly) - and a clip which attaches to the insulated bottle holder, which I use to prevent my keys from disappearing into the depths of the bag.

                      You can see the inside of the bag here:

                      http://www.cheekyrascals.co.uk/?menuId=1407&pageId=2602

                      This is the website of the UK and European distributors, so you can find a lot of information here, including the full ranges and stockists.

                      There are also two pockets on the outside, one at each end. Be wary of these - they hold a lot more stuff than you'd think and it's easy to shove something in there and forget about it. I just cleared them out, which yielded:

                      A doctor's appointment card from January 2009
                      Five disposable nursing pads
                      A used Debenhams gift card
                      A small toy car
                      Two hospital wristbands
                      Half a Malteser bunny
                      The suckers from a car window blind which I threw away a year ago

                      Hm. I should probably do that more often.

                      The rest of the bag is equally Tardis-like in its capacity. If I want to be able to do the zip up easily, I can fit in the following:

                      Six nappies
                      Nappy bags
                      Any pots and tubes, such as nappy cream, teething gel, SPF cream
                      Packet of wipes
                      Small first aid kit
                      Spare clothes for a toddler and a baby
                      Assortment of cars, rattles and (thin) books
                      Two muslins
                      Purse/phone/lipsalve/small folding umbrella
                      Two small beakers
                      Small Klip-it box containing snacks

                      When I only had one child, I could easily get the changing mat in as well, but with the extra nappies and clothes it just won't fit anymore. I haven't actually found this to be a problem though; we don't tend to go to places without baby changing facilities, and I can always leave the bag unzipped if I really want to take it along.

                      As well as being capacious, the bag is also very hard-wearing. I've used it every day for two years and it is fraying a tiny bit at the corners where it gets bashed into things, but otherwise it's showing no signs of wear at all. There is no fraying around the seams and the stitching is completely intact. It's made of a tough, water-resistant canvas, with metal studs on the bottom to protect the base. To clean it, you can wipe it with a soft, damp cloth; I have never done this as the bag just doesn't look grubby even after two years, which I assume is thanks to the water-resistant fabric.

                      The only thing that might make you think twice about buying this bag is the price. I got a bit of a shock when I looked this up to find that it is in the region of £55-£65, depending on where you buy it from. I truly did not remember spending that much on a changing bag, but I suspect I was in that 'must have the best of everything' stage. With hindsight, though, I would still have bought it; it is probably going to outlast my need for it by some way, and given that I will have used it for five years by the time I hang it up for good, this works out at about a pound per month, which makes the price seem rather reasonable, actually.

                      I really can't recommend the Hobo highly enough - I can't even knock one star off for the price, since it is entirely justified by the quality. If you're looking for a stylish, hard-wearing changing bag which you will never need to replace, this could be the one for you.

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                        16.04.2010 12:28
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                        Highly recommended for a casual meal out

                        Zippers is a fairly new brand by Richoux, owners of a vaguely anonymous upmarket French café/restaurant chain in the smarter parts of London. Quite why they felt the way forward was to branch out into mid-range Italian fare on an oasis of regeneration surrounded by a not-particularly-nice area of Kent is anyone's guess, but here it is in Chatham Maritime all the same.

                        First impressions are perplexing. The logo is oddly Seventies-retro and more suggestive of a bar than a restaurant. This is also true of the name. I've been trying - and failing - to puzzle out the thought process that led to an Italian restaurant being called 'Zippers'. Maybe the person responsible was just a big fan of 'Airplane!'. Who can say?

                        Inside, it doesn't get much less peculiar. This is truly a décor of two halves. On the one side is a bar-slash-open kitchen running the full length of the room. The bar is rather dramatic, with stepped mirrored display shelving, the largest coffee machine I have ever seen and plenty of polished granite. In front of the bar, though, is a bizarre row of floor-to-ceiling slanted glass panels which seem to serve no purpose other than to keep the great unwashed away from the bar and annoy the serving staff as there is only one narrow gap in the panels for them to get through. It does look stunning though, and certainly is a talking point.

                        On the other side of the room is the seating area, which is rather less stunning. Veneered tables, giant plants, wide floor-to-ceiling office-style Venetian blinds (shudder), oddly incongruous Indonesian teak-style staff stations, single gerberas in vases, generic art on the walls... you can almost hear the designer saying "no, sorry, I used up all my imagination on the greenhouse in the bar. Just go to Argos and pick out the least hideous stuff you can find". This is a shame, as the first impression is rather let down by the second.

                        This continues in the toilets. At first glance, these are rather nicely done, with space-age hand dryers (I liked these very much), fashionably large wall tiles and Corian basin shelves. Until, that is, you notice that everything is made of plastic - even the tiles, which have the appearance of cheap ceramic, so cheap ceramic would have done just as well. Corian costs around £400 per square metre; there are only three toilets (one of which is for disabled customers) with barely two square metres in each, so why not stump up the extra for the real thing? One can only hope that the idea was to have something hard-wearing - Corian does chip easily - and easy-clean, and they've certainly achieved that since it was spotless, and this was at 9.30 on a Friday evening.

                        On to the menu. There's nothing particularly unusual here, apart from some peculiar additions such as shepherd's pie and fish and chips. There are sections for starters, risotto, pasta, pizza, house specials - including peri-peri chicken (that well-known Italian dish) and steak - burgers and fish; with one or two exceptions, there won't be anything here that you haven't seen before. This isn't a bad thing, though - I'm not sure a place like Carluccio's would fit in well here, and even for those more adventurous souls it can sometimes be nice to know to expect on your plate.

                        There is a good selection for vegetarians, with two risotto dishes, five pastas, five pizzas and two salads to choose from. There are a couple of dishes which are vegetarian apart from the parmesan, but they are happy to make them without where possible. I did like the sound of the Arancini risotto (fried rice balls), a dish which I have never seen in a restaurant before, but was rather less than impressed by the veggie burger, which is a Portobello mushroom. This annoys me on two levels: firstly, a mushroom is not a burger; if you put it in a bun, it becomes a mushroom in a bun, but still not a burger. Secondly, I am always disappointed when restaurants fall into the trap of thinking "You are vegetarian. Therefore you must eat mushrooms". I loathe mushrooms - not to mention aubergines and goats' cheese - and always have, so my heart always sinks a little when I glance at a menu which is unimaginatively heavy on these ingredients. Mind you, things have improved a lot. When I stopped eating meat thirteen years ago, you got a veggie lasagne if you were lucky - I remember many meals out which consisted of a side salad and a bowl of chips.

                        There is a dessert menu with the usual chocolate fudge cake, apple pie, ice cream, cheesecake and token tiramisu. The drinks menu is also fairly standard, with a decent selection of wine, soft drinks, juices, liqueurs - including limoncello, which is to be avoided at all costs as it is evil, evil stuff - coffees and teas. If you want a beer, you're stuck with Nastro Azzurro and I was a little disappointed that there were no cocktails as I thought the styling of the bar would lend itself rather well to a Cosmopolitan or two, if only you could get anywhere near it.

                        Menus can be found here:

                        http://www.zippersrestaurant.co.uk/menu.php


                        The menu may be unexceptional, but the food was excellent, which is so much better than the other way around. Highlights were:

                        Calamari - I don't even like seafood, but this still smelled appetising to me. Apparently it tasted just as good. It was served in an amusing china bowl shaped to look like a newspaper cone (I'm easily entertained).

                        Chicken risotto - risotto is so easy to get wrong, but this was just right. The chicken pieces were just on that cusp between moist and flaky, giving a nice contrast to the creamy rice.

                        Fusilli with courgette - this was mine, so I can elaborate a little further. The courgette was cut into small strips and seared, so that it was slightly softened but still had some bite to it, and then cooked further in a garlic, chilli and cream sauce. The garlic was just hinted at and the chilli was tingly rather than hot (probably the best you can hope for with a cream sauce since capsaicin is fat-soluble, and I'm trying not to think about how much fat this dish contained). The dish is supposed to have parmesan in it, but they kindly made it without so that it would be vegetarian and I don't feel that it suffered for it; in fact, parmesan may have been rather overpowering, since none of the other ingredients came through particularly strongly. This leads to the rather pleasing conclusion that the chef may have adapted the dish to compensate for the missing ingredient rather than taking the easy route of simply excluding it. Either way, the flavours were perfectly balanced. The pasta was actually rotini, which has much tighter spirals than fusilli, so it held the thick, creamy sauce much better. I will be attempting to re-create this one at home!

                        Chocolate fudge cake - well, we couldn't resist this despite being absolutely stuffed. Actually, it was a very good choice, as the cake was very light and the chocolate flavour not too sickly.

                        Raspberry cheesecake - I didn't try any of this, but it disappeared pretty quickly.

                        The service was perfectly adequate without being overbearing, and we had no complaints in this area. Any queries - these mostly had to do with me and my inconvenient vegetarianism - were handled quickly and efficiently, and the staff didn't seem to mind having to come back to our table three times before we were ready to order (it's been a while since we all got together!).

                        For two-and-a-half courses (we shared two desserts between four of us) with a bottle of wine and a couple of rounds of soft drinks (but no coffees), the cost was £23 per head, not including service. For the amount and quality of the food, I think this is impressive. I've only been here once, but I am reliably informed that the quality is consistently good. It is also family-friendly, with a very reasonably-priced children's menu of main course, ice-cream and soft drink for £2.95 and the usual crayons and colouring books provided. There are no stairs anywhere, so it would be easily accessible with a pushchair or a wheelchair.

                        We booked as it was a Friday night, but I would imagine that during the week this wouldn't be a problem. During the summer, I expect that it will be very busy at lunchtime; there is seating outside with views over the quay, so I can see it being popular when the weather is good. It's not a large place - perhaps fifteen tables - so it will fill up quickly at busy times.

                        If I were rating it solely on the quality of the food and the service it would get five stars without question, but with the décor and the mushrooms being what they are, I'll give it four. I can see this restaurant becoming something of a regular haunt; I wouldn't necessarily go there for a special occasion, but for a casual family lunch or dinner with friends it is perfect.

                        If you'd like to know more about the area and visitor attractions - including Dickens World and the Historic Dockyard - information can be found here:

                        www.chatham-maritime.co.uk

                        And here:

                        www.chdt.org.uk

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                        • 2012 (Blu-ray) / Blu-Ray Movie / 108 Readings / 104 Ratings
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                          11.04.2010 19:11
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                          If this is the end of the world, you can have it.

                          ...but with a lot of bangs and an audience saying 'oh, come on!' every ten minutes. I'm going to come right out with it and say that my biggest problem with this film is that it is not possible to suspend your disbelief high enough to be able to take it even remotely seriously. This was rather a disappointment, as director Roland Emmerich's previous apocalyptic offering The Day After Tomorrow didn't fall into this trap; it was proper switch-your-brain-off entertainment which had some vaguely plausible science-y bits and a few impressive special effects. About an hour into this film, however, my brain started trying to switch itself back on again like a mental smoke detector warning of impending brain cell loss. I'm all for an evening of mindless hokum, but really, there have to be limits.


                          The Story (such as it is).

                          I'll try and keep this as concise as possible, which shouldn't be hard as there's not much to go on. In 2009, scientists at a copper mine in India find that the underground temperature is rising to levels which are causing the water in their cooling tanks to boil. They determine that the cause of this is solar flares - caused by an impending planetary alignment - heating up the Earth's core, which will inevitably destabilise the Earth's crust resulting in earthquakes, volcanic activity and tsumani on such a scale that the world as we know it will no longer exist. Three years later, it becomes apparent that this process is happening more quickly than predicted, leading to a race against time to reach the arks - the contingency plan of the world's governments and the global super-rich. Into this scenario wanders Jackson Curtis, his ex-wife, their two children and his wife's new boyfriend; not being super-rich, they will have to rely on their wits and trust to luck if they are to dodge the earthquakes, volcanoes and tidal waves and find a place on one of the arks.


                          The Cast and Characters.

                          Not that much to go on here either, it must be said. John Cusack - one of my all-time favourite actors ever since Grosse Pointe Blank - does well with the material he is given for Jackson Curtis, and it does make a nice change to have the anti-Tom Cruise in a role like this. He has a few amusing lines which are well suited to his acting style and are rather reminiscent of Grosse Pointe Blank. The children, Noah and Lily, are played by Liam James and Morgan Lily, who are unexceptional but equally inoffensive. Rather irritatingly, the writers have given Lily a quirk - she likes hats - rather than a personality, which is sheer laziness; at least in Signs the girl's fascination with water had a point to it.

                          Woody Harrelson's turn as Charlie Foster, a conspiracy theorist living in an RV in Yellowstone National Park is quite entertaining, once you realise that it actually is him under all the facial hair. I rather liked this character, who is so monomaniacal that he only seems vaguely aware that the event he is so fixated on will cause the end of the world. In fact, he seems refreshingly cheerful about it.

                          On the White House side, the main characters are geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt); these two seem to be in agreement about the handling of the crisis in the beginning, but their standpoints drift further apart as the film progresses. I found Helmsley to be too ideological in his determination that the ordinary people who had no hope of being saved should be informed well in advance of the impending apocalypse (given the anarchy that would no doubt result); correspondingly, Anheuser is too far at the other end of the scale, wanting to ensure that only the selected few - including, of course, himself - are given their rightful places. Ultimately, both have elements of caricature.

                          Danny Glover plays President Thomas Wilson and he does at least manage to bring some gravitas to the scenes he appears in. Thandie Newton plays his daughter Laura, a non-character who seems to be present solely to give Wilson and Helmsley an emotional peg for the writers to hang their reactions on to.

                          Characterisation is clearly not something that was a priority; these characters are so weak and forgettable that I actually had to look up most of their names. This is a shame but not really a surprise. There are also too many characters in the film - such as Helmsley's father - who are obviously thrown in as an attempt at bringing colour to the main characters without actually having to do a proper character analysis, but who bring nothing to the film as a whole.


                          The Day After Tomorrow - Part 2?

                          Yes and no. I'm rather embarrassingly familiar with that film and there are obviously parallels to be drawn, but there are also a lot of elements which are not reproduced. There is no maverick expert whose warnings are not taken seriously and no government sceptics who would prefer to believe that it is not happening. This is also not a manmade disaster but a result of external forces beyond mankind's control. That said, it does feel at times as if some of these elements were left out or changed precisely to prevent this being a carbon copy of The Day After Tomorrow; at the beginning of the film, when Helmsley gatecrashes a White House fundraiser to pass on the findings from India to Anheuser - which in itself is a little odd; at this point, they think they have more than three years until the apocalypse, could it really not have waited until the morning? - he is believed immediately without a single dissenting voice, which made me think 'Huh. That was easy'. This gave the impression that the filmmakers were so keen to get to the action that they couldn't be bothered to properly set the scene, which is not a good start to any film.


                          More Bang for Your Buck.

                          An awful lot of things get blown up, submerged, swallowed by the earth and buried under tons of volcanic rock in this film. The special effects are mostly impressive and the spectacle would be jaw-dropping, except that a) after a while it began to give me a headache and b) after a shorter while, it actually became rather boring. Disaster movies work most successfully - for me at least - when there is one event and the majority of the film is spent either preparing for it or dealing with the aftermath. In this film, the disaster is pretty much an ongoing event, meaning that eventually you are so desensitised that your reactions are reduced to 'oh look, another tidal wave' or 'meh. More lava flows. Can we move on?'. Jackson and his family have to avoid so many cataclysms that eventually you stop wondering - or caring - how they'll manage to survive this time. There are also far too many skin-of-teeth escapes and several sequences are repeated, which seems lazy and unimaginative. Additionally, much of this is so unrealistic and unlikely that it is actually quite funny, which I am sure was not the intention.


                          A Message?

                          Contrary to all expectations, there is one, but you'll have to squint. Jackson is the author of a novel called Farewell Atlantis (rather nauseatingly, this has its own website where you can read the first chapter. Don't believe me? Have a look at farewellatlantis.com) which is referred to in passing more than once. Very little information is given about the novel's storyline, but at one point Jackson is asked whether he really believes that people would truly be so altruistic when facing their own destruction. This is a thread which runs weakly through the film and which I would have liked to have seen developed further. The Darwinian implications of the situation in the film - where all but relatively few will perish - bear closer examination. Who would you save if you had the opportunity? Your children, who carry your genes? Your close family, who share your genes? Are any of us truly selfless enough to help a stranger to survive, when it may put our own survival at risk? These are all questions which are posed but not really answered. Perhaps the makers felt that developing this angle would detract from the mindless entertainment approach, but it is still a shame; this film is so empty of pathos as a result of the complete lack of character development that a moral aspect would have been welcome.


                          The Science Bit (and the Mayan prophecy bit).

                          Now, I'm not a scientist, but even I though this was drivel. But because I'm not a scientist, I'm not going to tie myself up in knots trying to explain it. If you want to know the extent to which it is drivel, check out NASA's Q&A section here: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/2012.html

                          The Mayan prophecy - well, OK this is fairly widely held to be rubbish because December 2012 is the end of a Mayan calendar cycle, not a prediction of the end of all need for calendars full stop. Hollywood likes a juicy apocalyptic prophecy, and they've never let a small thing like factual accuracy get in the way before. My beef here is that this is not a film about a Mayan prophecy. It's mentioned in passing maybe twice, and that's it, which seems a bit of a cop-out; if you're going to make a film about the end of the world with the tagline 'We Were Warned', at least have the balls to go into a bit of detail about the warning.


                          Random Irritations.

                          Product placements. A measure of this is to be expected, but there was one point near the beginning of the film when I did rather feel as if I had been repeatedly beaten round the head with a Sony Vaio. I don't mind product placements as long as they don't drag your attention away from the action, but there were a couple of instances here where they were a little overdone.

                          The length, versus the content. This film is two hours and forty minutes long, and it really doesn't need to be. If the makers wanted to make an epic, they could have put more effort into the morality play and the characterisations; as it is, the action sequences become more filler than anything else. This makes the film seem far too long because it has no balance and precious few quiet moments to rest your poor overloaded brain.

                          Oliver Platt. I've never noticed this before but he really is beginning to look like the lovechild of Gordon Brown and Norman Lamont. Coupled with the character he plays, this unfortunately, but inevitably, made it impossible for me to take him seriously at all.

                          Actually, this is rather true of the film as a whole. There is so much here that has been seen elsewhere that it is rather like watching a film where every actor is vaguely familiar but you can't put your finger on why. Charlie Frost is Max the alien abductee from The X-Files, right down to the RV. The arks are straight out of Ben Elton's novel Stark (although those were spaceships, the idea of the powerful and super-rich buying their way out of the apocalypse is the same). The underwater scene has been lifted from The Poseidon Adventure and the 'estranged father finding strength he didn't know he had in order to save his children who think he's a bit of a loser, actually' has been done very recently in The War of the Worlds. Of course, none of this would matter if the film was any good, but it manages to be so much less than the sum of its borrowed parts.


                          Conclusions.

                          I tried so hard to like this film and to accept it for what it was, but ultimately I couldn't. In my opinion, the first third was good, the middle third dragged and the final third was irritating and predictable in equal measure. I took particular issue with a completely unnecessary event towards the end of the film, which naturally I can't go into in any detail, but which seemed as if it had been thrown in at the eleventh hour to force a conclusion to a plotline which was non-existent up until that point. I felt cheated out of all proportion by this, as it really highlighted how little thought (and budget) had gone into anything but the special effects.

                          I really wouldn't recommend this film even as mindless entertainment. It doesn't compare well to The Day After Tomorrow, and even if you particularly liked that film - which I did - you'll find that Emmerich hasn't pulled off the same trick here. If you didn't like that film, you will find this one unbearable.



                          Special features.

                          I'm not a fan of these, but according to play.com they are:

                          movieIQ (logo) and BD-Live connect you to real-time information on the cast, music, trivia and more while watching the movie!
                          Interactive Mayan Calendar -Enter a date to reveal your horoscope and personality profile! Delve even further into the secrets by watching Mysteries of the Mayan Calendar.
                          Picture-In-Picture: Roland's Vision-Includes Pre-Visualization, storyboards and behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with filmmakers, cast and crew
                          Commentary with Writer/Director Roland Emmerich and Co-Writer Harald Kloser
                          Deleted Scenes
                          Alternate Ending
                          Designing The End Of The World
                          Roland Emmerich: The Master of the Modern Epic
                          Science Behind The Destruction
                          The End Of The World: The Actor's Perspective

                          Running time 158 minutes
                          Certificate 12

                          Currently available from Amazon for £9.85 on DVD and £14.71 on Blu-ray, both with free postage.

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                            08.04.2010 13:49
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                            An insider's look at the spending habits and behaviour of Britain's shoppers

                            Have you ever wondered about what life is like on the other side of the supermarket checkout? Why no-one likes being on the customer service desk and everyone avoids being on the basket tills like the plague? How the checkout girls may smile and chat, but live in permanent fear of the dreaded mystery shopper?

                            Er - well no, me neither as it happens, but the book was on the library's 'featured reads of the week' display and I was in a hurry, so here we are. Tazeen Ahmad, the author, is a journalist who worked as a checkout girl (also known as a Cog - Checkout Girls or Guys) in Sainsbury's for six months from November 2008 to find out the story behind the cheerful public face of the supermarket and to record for posterity the change in shopping habits brought about by the global financial crisis.

                            The focus on the effect of the recession on our spending is a large part of the book's appeal. Being British, I am endlessly curious about what people spend their money on (which is part of the reason I'm so fond of DooYoo - how else am I going to find out if Tesco Value tinned tomatoes are any good without buying them?), but much too reserved to actually ask anyone I know. Ahmad steps into this knowledge vacuum with details of how customers are attempting to tighten their belts by buying from the Basics range and cooking from scratch, but how many of them end up overspending all the same. She chats to customers about their jobs; some have been made redundant, some are living in fear of losing their jobs, and a few seem to be in complete denial about the whole thing. There are also indications that for a few lucky souls, the recession was something that happened to other people, such as the woman who buys all her shopping from the Organics range (I can almost feel my debit card cringing from here). Ahmad also includes little updates on the economic situation which, looking back, make for interesting reading. In January and February 2009, reports were forecasting at best a ten-year recession, and at worst a depression, which just goes to show that no-one at the time had any clue what was going to happen (although I probably shouldn't say that - we're not out of the woods yet).

                            Customer behaviour - mostly of the 'bad' variety - also features heavily. Some customers seem to be on a short fuse - particularly where vouchers and Nectar points are concerned - whereas others are just downright unpleasant. There are also mild irritations; customers who pick up an item and then put it down two aisles further over, customers who are forever forgetting their bags or starting conversations which stray into the realm of Too Much Information. This can make for slightly uncomfortable reading if you are guilty of any of these misdemeanours; I know I can get a little short-tempered if I'm kept waiting for long, and I am guilty as charged of not putting things back in their proper place if I decide I don't want them, but at least I don't shout at the Cogs or criticise my husband (or not until we get into the car, anyway). Perhaps the most depressing thing is that none of it is that surprising; most of us know from experience that supermarkets seem to bring out the least appealing character traits in some people.

                            Unfortunately, although the book has some appeal, overall it does struggle to hold the reader's attention. The main problem is that there are no real 'characters'. There are a few regular customers, but the fact that Ahmad spends so little time with any of them means that she can't really do more than sketch them out. The non-regulars are mentioned in passing, but there is no narrative thread to pull them together so they are forgotten as soon as she moves on to the next customer. Likewise, the other staff members are brought in but not really fleshed out to any great degree; there is the highly-regarded manager, the slightly sniffy supervisor, the paranoid new employee, the Best Work Friend, but these are never really explored.

                            It is a mildly entertaining read, but it is not in the same league as the Babylon series. I suspect that this is largely because life as a Cog is (whisper) just not that interesting. The occupations featured in the Babylon series are perceived to be glamorous (even if the reality is somewhat different from the fantasy) - posh hotels, wedding planning, fashion designers and so on, and life as a Cog will inevitably struggle to compete. Another strength of Imogen Edwards-Jones's books is that the author takes the experiences of her source and creates a narrative, such as the twenty-four-hour shift from hell in Hotel Babylon; all the events in that book did not actually happen during the space of one day, but they are pulled together into a semi-fictionalised account to create a story that keeps the pages turning. This book, by contrast, really is a more or less day by day account of life on a supermarket checkout, but there is no pace to the narrative so it fails to grip. It's hard to be completely enthralled by a diary that is basically one entry after another saying "one customer spent too much, one customer bought their entire shop from the Basics range, one customer had a row with his wife, oh and the manager wants me to do overtime again but I still said no."

                            The Checkout Girl is in the same vein as Les Tribulations d'une Caissière by Anna Sam, a mystery blogger who adapted her accounts of her eight years as a 'beepeuse' in France into a book which became a bestseller. It was particularly praised for its warmth and humour, and reading an extract (of the translation that is - my schoolgirl French is a little rusty these days) does make Ahmad's book seem rather dry by comparison; Sam's account has a personality to it - all the more impressive when you take into account that she was blogging anonymously - which is not as apparent in Ahmad's account. Given the rather unexciting subject matter, without humour and personality the narrative falls a little flat, which is a shame as Ahmad's style is easy on the eye and with a little more colour this could have been a far more entertaining read.

                            Even so, this is still worth a look, if only because it's always good to get a wake-up call when you're slipping into bad shopping habits. It is a good read, but unfortunately it did rather fall short of my expectations. This may be because it doesn't compare particularly well with others' attempts at the genre, but even judged solely on its own merits, it can't really be described as a stand-out book.


                            It's currently priced at £7.44 with free delivery at Amazon, or used from £2.50 with £2.75 postage.

                            Length: 261 pages
                            Published by: The Friday Project Limited (Harper Collins)
                            ISBN: 978-0007327720

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                              25.03.2010 23:18
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                              Ideal for an occasional treat

                              I can't in all honesty say that I would have picked this up off the shelf, but it was free with a magazine and really, it couldn't have come at a better time. My hair is currently in dire need of rescuing as it is far too long and going a bit funny at the ends; what it actually needs is about a foot lopping off it, but I'm hoping this will sort it out until I can get to the hairdresser (easier said than done these days).

                              This range is a collaboration between Kate Moss and James Brown, celebrity hairdresser to the stars (no, me neither) and is an extensive collection of shampoos, conditioners, anti-frizz serums, heat protecting sprays... does anyone else remember when you had a bottle of Finesse and a can of V05 mousse and that was it?

                              The black, gold and hot pink colour scheme of the tube is a bit Eighties-naff for me, but it's possible that the target market doesn't include anyone who remembers that decade. Apart from Kate Moss, who presumably does. Well, the beginning of it anyway; anything after about 1987 is possibly a bit of a blur.

                              The blurb on the front is also a bit cringe-inducing: 'It's been a long week. And it shows. But nothing's going to ruin my night out. Fortunately I have my style saviour to hand. Within minutes, my hair feels super-smooth again and ready to party'. I know I'm not exactly looking as fresh as a daisy these days, but I'm going to start taking this personally in a minute. And if my hair is ready to party, it's either going out without me or it's in for a big disappointment.

                              The instructions say to apply after shampooing and leave on for 30 seconds to 'transform distressed locks into glossy perfection'. It should be used once or twice a week as a 'temporary quick-fix' and is 'not a replacement for your weekly repair treatment'. This is worrying. I don't have a weekly repair treatment (must have missed the memo). Still, my hair may be distressed but there's no need for me to be - I've had a look on Boots.com and there is an Intensive Mask product for weekly use in the same range. What are the odds?

                              The product itself is a very thick, pale yellow cream with a lovely sweet, perfumed scent but a rather greasy, tacky texture. On applying it, I was surprised that it didn't make my hair feel silky and easy to untangle; if anything, it made it feel sticky and oddly dry. It's rather hard to describe, but if this conditioner were a foundation, it would be in the 'dries to a powder finish' family. I left it on for the required time and then rinsed it out. It almost seems to repel water in a very peculiar way - and I have no idea which of the impenetrable list of ingredients is responsible for this - as my hair was nowhere near as damp as usual when I removed the towel. It was also easy to get a brush through it, even though it didn't have that slippy feel that my normal conditioner leaves behind. I blow-dried it - which took no time at all - and applied sunglasses before looking in the mirror to protect my eyes from the blindingly glossy results.

                              Okay, so that's a bit of an exaggeration. Actually, I wouldn't say that my hair is a great deal shinier than usual, but then it's in more than usually poor condition so perhaps that is a bit much to ask from one application. It is beautifully silky, though, and it smells delicious. My one complaint is that, even though the instructions say to apply from root to tip, the roots do feel rather greasy and I don't think I'll get away with my usual day off between washes; next time, I won't apply it so far up which should solve this problem.

                              I will certainly use this product until the tube I have runs out, but I'm not sure I'd buy it again. That's not because I don't think it's a good product, but because it costs £8 for 150ml (available from Boots stores and Boots.com), which is a little steep for me. I think I'll just get two-thirds of my hair cut off and then I won't need an intensive conditioner. In the long run, it'll probably be cheaper, after all.

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                                24.03.2010 22:05
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                                If only real buses were this much fun

                                Regular readers may have noticed that my reviews have recently taken on a slight bus bias (and just try saying that five times quickly after a snifter or two. Not that I'm speaking from experience, or anything...). This is entirely down to the 'obsessed with anything with wheels' phase that my two-year-old is currently working through, to the extent that sometimes I wonder if I am, in fact, living in a scaled-down version of the London Transport Museum. I'm not looking forward to the Serious Trains stage of this kicking in; we'll be knee-deep in turntables and signal-boxes before you can say 'Fat Controller'.

                                But we'll cross that bridge (groan) when we come to it. Today, we are looking at bendy buses. Love them or hate them - actually, scratch that, everyone hates them except Ken Livingstone - now that Boris Johnson is wielding the axe, they won't be around for long. Soon, they will be remembered only in the Penalty Fare Notice appeals of a thousand hacked off Oyster cardholders who thought they'd paid when they hadn't - and this.

                                Of course, this toy - being orange and white - isn't a London bus. Actually I don't know where it's from... somewhere with a North, a South and a Central apparently, which doesn't really narrow it down. In any case, the stickers on the side say '24/7' so if it is a real place, it's certainly not anywhere I know well. Clearly, this is also a Bus Of The Future, since it appears to have Wi-Fi* (I'm not kidding. The stickers also say 'City Express - Unlimited Internet Access'). How good is that?

                                It's a 40cm-long friction-powered toy with an eyebrow-raising range. A good energetic short push sent it three metres on a wooden floor, and I think it would have gone a little further if it hadn't been stopped by the skirting board**. It did this in six seconds, which works out at about one mile per hour. I've travelled on real buses that were slower than that. It does work on carpet, although not brilliantly, and it does go backwards as well as forwards although I suspect this may be more by accident than design as it doesn't go very far. It's also not very loud, so it scores highly in my book for that.

                                As well as being pretty speedy, it also has some nifty features. There are three doors - these are all on one side - which open and close by means of a winder (like a watch crown). They will open if they are pushed, which is advantageous, as this happens quite often and it stops them being broken off. There is also a winder to change the destination which is on a roller on the side; it has three settings - North, South and Central. The interior is fully kitted out with seating and a non-removable driver at the wheel. You can also move the windscreen wipers, although I'm not sure whether this is a feature or just the way they are attached.

                                This is a very popular toy in our house, and it is standing up well to the rigours of being taken out in the car, chewed on, slept on and generally bashed about. There is a crack in one of the windows but I think this may be from my toddler standing on it, which would actually be a point in its favour in terms of hardiness as he is no lightweight. It is missing one of its rabbit-ear wing mirrors (see 'chewed on'), but otherwise it's doing well. My first thought when I saw it was "that concertina's not going to last five minutes", but I have to admit that it's showing no signs of wear at all. This is partly because the bus does not bend very much - it will bend if you force it, but the back end doesn't move around when it is in motion, so the everyday stresses on the concertina are minimal. It isn't easy to keep clean though, as dust does accumulate in the folds, so an old toothbrush is a good thing to have handy.

                                I love this toy, despite not being a fan of the real-life version. It is a lot of fun, and in the three months that we've had it, it's been constantly out of the toy box. It costs around £10 from Amazon, so it's a good price for a simple but clever toy. It loses one star for the dust build-up problem and the lost wing mirror - as these are spindly little things which could have been better designed, and I'm quite surprised that it still has both windscreen wipers as well - but I would recommend it wholeheartedly all the same.




                                * spell-check suggestion: Wife. I'm good, but I'm not that good.

                                ** I don't have more than a three-metre clear run in the house, and I'm afraid my dedication does not extend to shifting furniture. Sorry.

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                                  18.03.2010 15:40
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                                  Customers who bought this item also bought: earplugs

                                  As my son approached his second birthday he became completely obsessed with buses, so I began to look around for a decent-sized toy bus to give to him as a present. At the time I thought I'd looked everywhere, without success - I could only find small model buses - but clearly I hadn't as my brother managed to come up trumps with this great little toy.

                                  It is for ages 12 months and up, but my two-year-old loves it. It is a great example of a toy that will provide a new stage of play as your child grows.

                                  The bus is yellow and is about 22cm long by 11cm high, so it's quite chunky. There are pictures of children on the side which are supposed to be passengers. On the top are three cut outs with coloured edging which are a red square, a green circle and a blue triangle, which correspond to six shape pieces - two of each - which are white with a coloured panel on each end. These shapes also appear on the wheels. The back of the bus flips down so that you can get the pieces out, and the windscreen flips up so that you can get the driver in and out. The front has eyes on it to make it look like a face. Six months on, we still have all the shaped pieces but the driver appears to have gone on strike; there's a Duplo figure in there now - I have no idea where he came from but he fits in OK, which is handy.

                                  For a one-year-old, the bus would be mainly used as a shape sorter. There is a button which releases the back of the bus so that the shapes can be retrieved, but the flap also has a lip on it so that less nimble fingers can just pull it open. It's quite a simple sorter as it only has three shapes, but it would make a good 'first shape sorter' toy for just this reason. My son did play with the shape sorter to begin with, but he got bored with it quite quickly, so I've put the shapes away so that they don't get lost before the baby is old enough to play with it.

                                  Once your child is a little older, the bus can be used as a vehicle toy. It is friction powered, so when you push it along, it winds up the mechanism and the bus will then move under its own power. Unusually (in my experience) for a friction powered toy, this one works backwards as well as forwards. The further you push it, the further it will go on its own: I just did a rough-and-ready road test, and it went 60cm after being pushed 50cm, but a whopping two metres after being pushed one metre. I think that's pretty impressive. There is nothing inside the bus, so my son also likes jamming it full of cars, which seems to amuse him at least. No so much the poor mug who has to unjam them all (that'll be me, then).

                                  There is only one downside to this toy: it is really loud. The sound is supposed to mimic an engine noise, but actually it just sounds like a very loud friction powered toy. The noise is best described as 'nnneeeeeeooooowwwww' (spell check: no suggestions) in the manner of Hugo Weaving in The Matrix (Mmissterrr Anndderrsssonn).

                                  Irritating sound effect aside, this has been a big hit and gets an outing every day. It is clearly very hard-wearing as it is showing hardly any signs of use at all; the windscreen is a little scratched and the picture stickers on one side are a bit scuffed, but otherwise there's not a mark on it.

                                  It is £10.99 from Amazon with free delivery, so it would make a perfect present. Given that it's very well made and has been played with a lot - and I'm in quite a generous mood - I'll only knock one star off for the noise problem. Four stars, then, well deserved.

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