Monday, 16 July 2018

GraviTrax Starter Set from Ravensburger

best construction set

It is almost a miracle these days when a child leaves all his techie gadgets to play with a new construction set for hours and hours. That's exactly what's happened with our latest track set
- GraviTrax Starter Set, a new STEM track system from Ravensburger (RRP £49.99).

This is a truly splendiferous set which is both fun and educational. You will get hooked, whether you're a child or a parent.
Experience the power of gravity and use your imagination to build dazzling engineering constructions.
The STEM system - Science, Technology Engineering and Maths - is a super tool to teach children about gravity, magnetism, kinetic energy and fun.

Today we're showcasing just a GraviTrax Starter Set, but this set could be extended with extra track packs and add-ons (watch out this space for another review in August).
It is suitable for ages 8+, but a younger child will enjoy it as well, with an adult supervision (but not the preschoolers due to small parts).

construction set

This fantastic set comes with 18 different construction elements (120 pieces overall): a base plate in four big pieces with holes which hold the hexagonal tiles in place, three different lengths of track, small and large hexagonal tiles used for construction pillars and metal balls - these elements are called essentials.

construction set

Then come the Basics: a launch pad, curve pieces, basic tiles, landing and finish line.

construction set

Specials include junction tiles which allow balls to cross paths, 3-in-1 pieces which combine up to 3 tracks into 1, 2-in-1 pieces, switch which diverts the balls into different directions and magnetic cannons.

Level 2 includes a Vortex which funnels the ball from one level to the next. It is caught by the Catcher or the Splash, Freefall which drops the ball to the next level, Catcher which catches the ball after it drops through the Vortex of Freeball, Splash and Level for creating multiple elevations.

A construction plan booklet is enclosed, with 9 track system examples in 3 levels of difficulty.
The booklet helps understand the basics of construction.

We started with the easiest track A.

construction set

Here it is, shown in slow motion.

Moving onto the track B.

construction set

And track C which uses three balls:

construction set

Track D: as you can see the level of difficulty is increasing.

After trying the first four plans, Eddie asked me if he could try building his own track, without the booklet.
It was not the easiest task, as the balls wouldn't roll all the way, so he had to figure out how to place the correct heights to enable the ball to continue rolling. I loved how concentrated on the task he was, and how determined to solve the engineering problem.

construction set

Eddie was very proud of his freestyle track, and I agree, it is pretty cool.

That's another of his freestyle creations. He was much taken with this clever set.

I'm not going to show every single track from the booklet, but here is the most complicated level - track H. You have a step-by-step instructions booklet, but even with it, it's not that easy to align  all the tiles correctly. But it's totally worth it.

best construction sets

As you can see, the possibilities are endless, and with the extra track packs and add-ons the Gravitrax system could be extended indefinitely

The hot weather won't hold forever. If you're looking for a creative, imaginative play set for summer holidays and beyond, I can't recommend GraviTrax highly enough.

Disclosure: We received the construction set for the purposes of testing and reviewing. All opinions are our own.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Photo diary: week 28, project 365

We had a carnival today in town. After spending half a day in the sun, I'm feeling totally shattered, so here is a very quick glimpse at our week.

Sunday: phloxes in our garden

Monday: I opened a carton of Swedish bilberry soup, which I discovered in Ocado online. It's a lovely berry soup/drink.

I am trying to find the "right" cake for Eddie's birthday later this month, and took a few pictures of different cakes for him to choose. He did like the T-Rex cake, but after long deliberations opted for the Pokemon design.

I love watching bees in the garden, they are always gathering nectar on the lavender.

We were reading at bedtime as usual, and I snapped my tired boy, as he snuggled next to me.

The clouds were fluffy on Friday, and this one looked like a dragon poking its head out of the white.
Or a seahorse.

After the carnival procession we looked at all the stalls and attractions on The Leys, and Eddie loved jumping on the Flight simulator. He had a go on it last year, and kept asking me to do it again.

Murmuration by Robert Lock #blogtour

Murmuration by Robert Lock (Legend Press, published on 12 July 2018) is a historical novel set on the Blackpool Pier.
This beautiful book will take you on a journey through history. It is a completely absorbing and thoroughly intelligent read.

It begins with a description of the starlings gathering on the pier roof only to take off in the air and settle into a shifting cloud: the murmuration. The birds dance above the pier for one hundred and fifty years, and many stories have passed beneath them.
"Men and women, their children, their children's children; lives so brief and fragile when compared to the enduring strength of the pier, but possessing a depth of feeling that iron and timber would exchange theie immutability for in an instant. Only the ephemeral can truly appreciate the infinite".

We move back in time to the beginning of the pier, to 1865, when it's starting to take shape above the sea. We meet Georgie Parr, a music hall comic, looking at the pier with his wife.
Georgie builds his career on lewd jokes and smutty innuendos which delight the working class public and enrage the middle class' conventionality and conformity. He revels in his scandalous reputation.
His personal life is full of loss and sadness. His wife dies in childbirth, and his only beloved child follows her nine years later, dying of scarlet fever. He drowns his sorrows in drink and frequents the prostitutes for snatched moments of relief and intimacy.
One such encounter, with a prostitute, young enough to be his daughter, ends in a horrid tragedy.

In 1941 a local boy, Mickey Braithwaite, watches the starlings from the roof of the theatre on the pier. He is a proud member of the Observer Corps. Nowadays he would be called as having special needs. Having watched the starlings, Mickey is convinced they have given him a message to save his Mum, and he runs through the dark town to the Salvation Army building to rescue her. His Mum is saved, but almost everyone else who stayed in the building, is buried under the bombed ruins.

In 1965 the fortune-teller Bella Kaminska is cynically telling fibs to the punters who visit her booth. She is good at reading people and has no scruples in deceiving them, "dispensing her bogus prognostications", that is until she has an unpleasant encounter with a threatening young man.

Then we are in 1989, with the local pier archivist Colin Draper. He's a loner, who lives with his disabled mother. He comes across Georgie's scandalous story and tries to discover what has really happened a hundred years before. As his mother's only carer, he relishes and resents the part in equal measure.

And then there is Sammy Samuels. Another comedian who builds his career on lecherous dirty jokes.
His repertoire is dated and he's relying on the former glories. He lives alone, in a drab flat, and treats everyone with scorn and derision. Women are objects for him. Just like in Georgie's case a young prostitute would be his undoing.
Will the history repeat itself and end up in a tragedy and complete ruination?

Times change, characters come and disappear into oblivion, deficient and wanting.
But it's the deckchair attendant Mickey who's most fulfilled in his life.
"Mickey appeared to inhabit a different world, a place of wonder and infinite possibility, hidden from most people's view behind the theatre scenery of the tangible..."

Humans and starlings aside, this is also a book about the sea resort, and its pier.
"Where once restraint and optimism had proclaimed the town's vigour, now there was only garishness and despondency. The resort, like every other in the country, had been abandoned by all those thousands that once thronged its beach in favour of sun and sangria..."

Murmuration is like a Bayeux Tapestry, with one story embroidered on a cloth after another, scenes changing from the past to the present and lined smoothly at the joins. The pier and eternal starlings provide the connecting thread and background.

"It was then that the archivist realised the pier was the perfect metaphor for civilisation and everything it represented, lifting humanity above the chaos which boiled and churned not so far beneath. And the pier was also a bridge, linking solid ground, the prosaic and understandable, to an entirely different realm, one of delicacy and magic..."

This review is one of the steps of the blog tour. If you fancy reading what the other bloggers thought about this novel, check out the following route:

Disclosure: I received a proof copy of the book for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are my own.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Degustabox BBQ Box (June 2018)

The heatwave is upon us, and the forecast is for another month of misery sunny weather. I'm not a big fan of the hot weather, and feel rather grouchy. While the sun is out, many of our neighbours have already enjoyed their BBQs. The smell of the burnt meat is not very appetising, but there's no avoiding it. The supermarkets are offering all kinds of BBQ products.

BBQ is an inspiration for this month's food selection from Degustabox.
This food box arrives every month and is full of foodie surprises. This monthly food and drink subscription box is an excellent way to discover products which have only just appeared in the shops or those which might have been around for while, but you haven't had a chance to try them yet.
Thanks to Degustabox, I have found new favourites to add to our shopping list, including some products which I probably wouldn't have tried otherwise.

Each time the box arrives, it's a total surprise. You get a good selection of foods and drinks.
If you haven't tried Degustabox subscription box yet and would like to have a go, I have a whopping £7 off discount from your first box (and you can unsubscribe any time) - just use a code 8EVI8 when you place an order.
What did we receive in the June Degustabox? Let's have a look.

food box

Fyre Fruit Drinks are an exciting combination of fruit and spice. There are two inspiring flavours -
Fruit & Spice All Natural sparkling drink in lemon & ginger and Blueberry, Blackcurrant, Peppers and Chilli.
Lemon & Ginger flavour was ultra-gingery.
0 fat, 4.8g sugar and 19.2kcal per 100ml
Lemon and ginger are a lovely combination of refreshing zingy flavours and a robust heat.  I like ginger in drinks, but that was the dominant flavour.

I was a bit worried about trying the Blueberry, blackcurrant, peppers and chilli, expecting the punch of heat, but was pleasantly surprised. Here the flavours are balanced nicely, and the chilli is not the most supreme note.

summer drinks

Rosie's Pig Raspberry Roller (4% alc) (£2) is a sparkling cloudy cider with raspberry juice and cucumber
Made with fresh pressed Herefordshire apples, this sweet and well balanced cider is slowly matured and left unfiltered to create an uncompromising flavour.
It looks pretty, and has a unique taste of apples and raspberries, with a mild aftertaste of cucumber.

Orangina (original and light) (£1.20) makes a lovely summer refresher. With its unmistakable orange flavour, sparkle and real citrus pulp, they come in amusing-shaped bottles.
Drink them on their own, straight from the fridge, with ice or without, or use as a base for cocktails and mocktails.

No & More Raspberry & Blueberry (£1.29) is a spring water with a hint of raspberry and blueberry. It contains no sugar, no sweeteners, preservatives, artificial ingredients, and is pH neutral.
You can find it in Boots and Waitrose.

I was most excited about Frylight Avocado Oil Cooking Spray (£2.99).  I find the Frylight range of oil very useful for baking, as you can coat the inside of any cake tin evenly. They are particularly great for fancy bundt cake tins.
It is also useful for shallow frying, roasting and baking. The avocado oil can be used at higher temperatures than most cooking sprays due to the more resilient nature of the oil.

I baked a Curd cheese cake with vanilla chips, using the avocado oil spray.

Idahoan Gratin Bake (£2.30) is an ingredient for a super easy potato bake. Prep time takes just 3 minutes, mix the contents of the bag with hot water, milk and butter, add to the casserole dish and cook for half an hour for a creamy potato dish.
I haven't tried it yet. It's being too hot for any proper casserole.

Capsicana Cook Sauces (£1.99) have already appeared in Degustabox food boxes in the past.
We have tried Brazilian Chilli & Coconut sauce before and found it pretty hot. I'm passing it on one of our fire-eating friends who enjoy hot meals.
It is made with tomato paste, coconut milk, white wine vinegar, ginger puree, onion puree, red bell pepper, green bell pepper, spices - more pepper like black pepper and frutescens chilli etc. It says "hot", and it doesn't disappoint if you're after the heat kick.

Capsicana Cuban Chilli & Lime Cook Sauce is featuring Habanero chillies. This sauce is based on Cuba's famous Mojo sauce. Ingredients include orange juice concentrate, honey, garlic puree, white wine vinegar, olive oil, corn flour, lime juice, salt, spices - cumin, habanero chilli, black pepper - and parsley.

I used this sauce to cook a roast chicken. No photos of the chicken but I used the leftovers to make a salad next day, with assorted beans, cucumber, olives and cheese.

I also used a little bit to make a brioche sandwich.

Brioche Pasquier Pains au Lait (£1.75) make a tasty base for little sandwiches, with whatever filling you fancy. Above you see a brioche with cold salmon, cucumber and a bit of butter, as well as cream cheese with leftover chicken and parsley.
Pains au lait are free from preservatives, artificial flavours and hydrogenated fats. They are soft and have a mild sweet note.

Peckish BBQ Rice Crackers Multi-pack (£1.79) are a thin, light and crispy snack made of rice. Baked not fried, they are gluten free and are under 100kcal per portion. Nice munchies, while you're waiting for those sausages on the BBQ.

The Jelly Belly Bean Factory Faitrade Box (£1.25) are filled with 36 fruity flavours and made with Fairtrade sugar. My guys love jelly beans, but I have to ration them, or the box will be empty in one go.
They look pretty and make great and easy decorations for any bakes.

Mighty Fine Salted Caramel Honeycomb Bar (£1) is the finest handcrafted honeycomb made with the best natural ingredients. This light, crisp honeycomb is covered in a creamy Belgian milk chocolate.

Great British Biscotti Co (£1.30) are a tasty combination of Belgian white chocolate, zingy cranberries and crunchy pistachios inside the buttery crumbly biscotti. There are 20 flavours altogether (very impressive). These delicious biscotti are made in Dorset, and will soon be available in Ocado and Amazon.

Disclosure: We receive a monthly food box for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are our own.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Photo diary: week 27, project 365

We're over a half-a-year mark with week 27. It's been another mercilessly hot week, and I can't wait for a true English summer, with rain and milder weather. I'm so not made for the heat.

We're so lucky to live next to the fields by the river. Whenever possible, we walk into the town centre through the fields and over the bridge. It's such a tranquil piece of green land. As it is technically the flood fields, I'm hoping they will never build here, though of course the greed of the construction firms has no limits, they keep trying to get permission to build housing all over the green lungs of the town. 
Eddie likes to climb over the metal fence next to the bridge, and here he is, showing off his acrobatic skills.

The fields are a perfect soil for meadowsweet, and at this time of the year, the white flowers scent the area with a sweet perfume. On Monday I walked back from school through the fields and picked up a big bunch of meadowsweet to dry. My Mum drinks it as a tea, it is a herbal remedy for stomach problems.

flood fields in Witney

This is my mini potted garden next to the back door and kitchen. The phloxes are in full bloom right now, and they have a wonderful scent. The lavender attracts a lot of bees, so I'm doing my bit for the wildlife too.

summer garden

On Wednesday we went to visit Sasha's new school. It is out of town, and takes about 40 minutes by car (without traffic) one way. He seemed to enjoy the visit, but it was brief, and I'm not sure he understands that this will be a permanent fixture for the next couple of years. I'm worried he would miss his old school and teachers, but there is nothing to be done about it. We were lucky to get a place in this school, all the other schools for his needs are even further to travel.

I don't often post his photos on my blog any longer, but just wanted to share this image of a happy boy on a trampoline in his new school.

On Thursday Sash had a respite day, so Eddie and I didn't have to hurry home after school. It was very hot, and we popped into The Shake Shop for a strawberry milkshake and some vintage music on the jukebox.

I enjoy looking at the interior design photos on Instagram, and decided to join in. And now I'll tell you about how staged and fake the world of Insta could be.

This painting of a lady in a hat is my Mum's artwork. She knows how obsessed I am about hats, and she painted this copy of The Parisian by the Russian artist Deineka as a gift for me. The artwork is enamel on a metal frame, and I love it. It usually hangs on the wall in the sitting room. The old novels by Dumas are on the shelves in one of our bedrooms upstairs. The mug's place is in the kitchen cupboard. For the photo, I put them all together, first clearing out the space on a piece of old furniture in the entrance hall/room, where we tend to put our hats, mail, keys and whatever random things happen to be there.
And hey presto, there is the arrangement done just for the photo.

After I posted the photo on Insta, one of the interior design pages commented on it, saying to DM them, if I wanted to be featured. I had to laugh. Our house is a tip: there are books and toys everywhere, there is no way I'd be able to appear in anything, unless it's for How NOT to do interior design features.

The Parisian by Deineka

I bought this poppy seed cake in the Polish shop yesterday. I love their bakes, and poppy seed cake reminds me of my childhood.

Polish deli

Thursday, 5 July 2018

A Necessary Murder by M.J. Tjia (second Heloise Chancey novel) #blogtour

Summer vacations and new paperbacks are inseparable. If you prefer historic mysteries, look no further.
A Necessary Murder by M.J. Tjia (Legend Press; out on 2 July 2018) is set in the Victorian London. This is the second novel featuring the one and only Heloise Chancey, the courtesan and private detective. It would help if you've read the first book in the series, but this sequel reads as a standalone quite well.

The beginning of the book is very grim. A young child is found murdered in the outhouse (or necessary, which is another old-fashioned word for it). (The first novel in the series also starts with a graphic, disturbing scene).
A few days later a man is killed in a similar manner on Heloise's doorstep.
Heloise must use her wits (as well as sexual charms) to find out the killer. Her devoted maid and confidante Amah Li Leen has to face the demons of her own, and find out how the past is entwined with the present.

Heloise is a complicated character. I didn't like her much in the first novel, as I think she is totally wasting her talents on being a courtesan, which is basically a glamorised prostitute. She sells her body for money and comfort, while she doesn't really need it any longer. She is quite superficial, and her lack of scruples is pretty obvious.

Her current lover (or one of them) is going to be a father, and Heloise feels mightily annoyed when he goes to his country home to be there for the birth of his child. How dare he indeed?!

She is wilful, selfish, ego-centered and vain to the point of obsession. She is preoccupied with her looks and outfits, understandably in the profession she has chosen. If she were living nowadays, I imagine there would be a stream of edited pouting selfies on Instagram with beauty-related hashtags.

She is fond of her maid Amah, but at the same time does not care enough to look into her troubles closely.
Amah's story makes a compelling narrative, and you start to understand her better. A Necessary Murder tells us more about Amah, than Heloise.

The historical background of the Victorian London is believable, dark, menacing and gruesome.
You feel dropped amidst the Victorian England with its prejudices and morals (or lack of them), and explore the different strata of society.

This is not a cozy mystery, and if you are easily offended by sex scenes, this might be not the right series for you, though sex is downplayed in the 2nd book.

This review is one of the steps of the blog tour. If you fancy reading what the other bloggers thought about this novel, check out the following route:

Disclosure: I received an advance proof copy of the book for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are my own.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Hey Duggee: The Wedding Badge and 10 other stories DVD (review + giveaway E: 10 July 2018)

If you are a parent of a preschooler or primary school child, you are surely familiar with Hey Duggee. This charming cartoon has become something of a world-wide phenomenon and has acquired a huge following.
It's based on a simplistic repetitive formula including five animal kids who go to a pre-school playgroup named The Squirrel Club. It is run by an oversized dog called Duggee. There is always a big group hug at the end of each episode.

The animation is stylised, bright and imaginative. And it's genuinely funny, you'll find yourself giggling and laughing aloud.

If you happened to watch TV in the early hours on the day of the Royal Wedding, you might have watched a different kind of wedding - King Tiger met his perfect partner and was getting married on May the 19th in a brand new episode called Hey Duggee: The Wedding Badge.
This event was anticipated almost as much as the Royal Wedding, and the bride's identity was kept secret until then.
As it happens, the bride is nothing like Meghan, she is a more traditionally built lady, with a dirty laugh and a huge appetite.

The squirrels play at the clubhouse, when the wedding invitation arrives for Duggee and his wards.
As the ceremony begins, the bride is nowhere to be seen. What's happened? Did she have second thoughts and ran away?
The squirrels go on a mission to find the bride and save the day.

There are some rather grown-up jokes popping in, with double entendre, for example, King Tiger is saying to his bride: "My darling, you look so fruity!"

The Wedding Badge is available from 9 July on a DVD.

The other episodes in the latest DVD include: The Voice Badge, The Island Badge, The Sleeping Badge, The Brave Banana Badge, The Water Badge, The Traffic Badge, The Dressing Up Badge, The Getting On Badge, The Grandparents Badge and The Organising Badge.
The full running time of the DVD is 70 minutes.
That's 70 minutes of jolliness and happiness.

If you like the sound of Hey Duggee: The Wedding Badge and 10 other stories, here is your chance to win one of 3 copies of  the DVD. Lovely people from CBeebies have offered 3 copies of the DVD as a giveaway prize for my blog readers.

To be in with a chance of winning, please enter via Rafflecopter form.


The giveaway is open to the UK residents only.
Once the Rafflecopter picks the winners, I will contact them regarding address details, if they do not reply within 28 days, the prize will be allocated to another person.

It might be pretty obvious but under new GDPR regulations you must accept that if you win the giveaway, you agree to have your details shared with the brand PR who will dispatch the prize. No other data will be passed or shared. 

Please don't forget to leave a comment, as it is the only mandatory step, I will make sure the winners selected by Rafflecopter have complied with T&Cs.
The prize will be posted by BBC.
Giveaway ends on 10 July 2018 (midnight).

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Photo diary: week 26, project 365

It's hard to believe, but half a year has whooshed by already. We're on week 26 of Project 365.
The heatwave continues all this week, and even Eddie's school ceded to reason and allowed them not to wear ties in this heat. 
Last Sunday I baked a curd cheese cake with vanilla chips.

Monday went in a blur. I've not been sleeping well again, and living in a twilight zone, when the brain is half-functioning. I did manage to write a short book review for Coffin Road by Peter May.

The garden is parched, we do need a bit of rain.
The phlox I bought around Easter time, has opened its first buds.

summer flowers

Lavender is doing very well in a big pot in the garden, and the bees love it.

summer scents

Tayberries are starting to ripen, but now it's a battle with the birds who are ruthless predators and eat all my berries. Sob.

hybrid berries

In the last couple of days the sky is clear blue in the morning, with not a cloud in sight. Only the trails left by the planes.

Eddie begged me to go back to The Shake Shop. He was happy with his strawberry milkshake, and we listened to a couple of songs on the jukebox.