Sunday 31 December 2017

Goodbye 2017

Goodbye 2017 and do you know what, you weren't too hard on us. When I started this blog (5 years and 1 day ago - Happy Birthday The Brick Castle) I had no idea that it would record the hardest, most stressful and saddest years of my life. The time when I really grew up. We are still here and fighting fit, and I hope your Christmas was as good as ours.

Five years ago we had a bunch of teenagers and 2 little kids. Now we have 4 adult children (3 of whom have moved out), a 7 year old and a 9 year old almost as tall as I am. Our family has evolved rapidly, as we always knew it would, and the blog has gone from Orchard Toys and picture books to drones and chapter books - but the LEGO remains.

Losing Elspeth will always be one of the biggest influences in our children's lives. They will always have a sister who isn't there, experiences they'll never have, jokes they should have been able to share. They'll always see that empty chair, but they are all learning to live with that.

Our children's lives are spread out ahead of them and they can all see a way forward. There is more value in that than I could ever express in words. They are all reaching out for the possibilities ahead and my heart bursts with pride at how strong they've become. It is always worth carrying on, you have the potential to be a great person.

Wednesday 27 December 2017

Christmas With The Big Kids...

With little kids Christmas is all about Santa and presents and tinsel and lights. When you have grown up kids it seems it's mainly about logistics.

This year we have been truly blessed by being able to spend time with all of our big kids, we even managed to eat a Boxing Day Christmas dinner together. It took the arrangement skills of Norbert Dentressangle, but we did it.

We always knew this would come, but with both of our current 18 year olds working part time in the service industry, a 23 year old in full time work and Christmas week party mode, plus a 20 year old uni student, then add on two other sets of parents needing a share of the young people's time, this year was the year it got tricky.

We had to arrange, re-arrange and then with half an hour to spare and the meat already resting, we were still 2 missing and starting to think it might not happen. But they made it.

Tuesday 19 December 2017

Crater Craft Farming And Building Game App. Review

Crater Craft is a new free game app from 55pixels and it's set in an imaginary world where teams of robot creatures, or crafters, use resources to create useful or decorative objects, furniture and even buildings. Regular readers will know I'm a big fan of games, but I can rarely justify the time, so I was more than happy to take this job. As it turns out, you can dip into Crater Craft for 5 minutes if that's all you have spare, you never have to commit any period of time, which for me is ideal.

In Crater Craft you manage a crater, running the farm and building a little community with your team of crafters and various visitors who call by to stay. Together you work to create buildings and furniture to make the crater and guest houses nice. You have to provide the crafting equipment and resources by farming, digging and trading.

3 Wise Family Travel Tips During Christmas Season

This post is written by Joyce Perona.

It is almost Christmas and every family out there is planning something for their holiday vacation. Going on a trip this season can be stressful yet exciting. A lot of people are preoccupied with organizing their trips and busy traveling anywhere at this time.

Christmas season is one of the best times to travel with your whole family. It is when you create happy memories together and make your bond stronger. Be sure to maximize your time and make the most out of it, for it is not all the time you get to experience such a break and a time to be with your loved ones.

Monday 18 December 2017

Act Normal And Don't Tell Anyone About The Present Machine Book Review (7+)

Act Normal And Don't Tell Anyone About The Present Machine by Christian Darkin is the eighth book in the best-selling ‘Act Normal' children's book series. A chapter book for young independent readers aged around 7-11, challenging gender stereotypes and showing that blue is not always for a boy and pink and glittery isn't always for a girl, and that's okay. In fact it couldn't be more normal.

Act Normal's main character is a girl named Jenny, who thinks she is weird. When she's 46 like me she might realise we're all weird, but for now she thinks it's mainly just her and her family.

Friday 15 December 2017

December #TBCSmiles 40 Months.

It's December! And Christmas is almost here. And if you are like us, you will have done very little preparation. Christmas can be very hard and there is more on that in the second half of this post. I am going to be taking some time off the blog though, starting with my first weekend off in 3 months - so hopefully we'll have a tree up by Sunday.

This month we had lots of suitably festive smiles shared on the #TBCSmiles hashtag. Visits with Santa, Christmas trees, festive baking, Christmas jumpers and so many youngsters with their first real taste of snow. We also had a few princesses and even a King. You can find all of the photos by searching the hashtag on Instagram, but here are a few of those that really made us grin this month.

Thursday 14 December 2017

The Siege Of Christmas at Contact, Manchester Interactive Theatre Review

If you are looking for family Christmas theatre that is completely different then The Siege Of Christmas at Contact in Manchester might just be the thing. You have to be quick though - it's only on until 20th December!

We've not been to Contact before and we walked past at first and had to turn round - ridiculous when you see that giant castle shaped building with amazing windows. We'd been invited to review The Siege Of Christmas, an interactive performance that takes you around the building, rather than a traditional 'sit-down' play.

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Winter Wonderland 2017, Event City, Manchester Review

Winter Wonderland is back in Manchester until 1st January and it's gorgeous. We were invited over to review on Monday. The Wintery weather had us all in the mood already and when we went through the entrance there was snow indoors! And it was substantially warmer...and so Christmassy!!

There are shows and a circus, so it's worth checking out the times at the start of your 4 hour visit, otherwise you could miss your favourites. We caught Rainbow on the Main Stage. Winter Wonderland has a few seating areas, mainly towards the centre of the hall. You can always get a chair, even if you just want to rest your legs.

Sunday 10 December 2017

12 Great Books for Children 0-11 this Christmas plus Giveaway!

Harper Collins have sent us 12 of their favourite books for children aged 0-11 this Christmas and asked my boys to take a look and see what they think of the selection. You shouldn't try to judge a book by it's cover, so I encouraged them to at least read the blurb and the first page too!

The 12 books we've been sent are all in the Harper Collins Gift Guide, and are a mix of fiction written by some of the most popular children's authors of recent times and with pictures from a host of excellent illustrators. Here's what my 7 and 9 year old boys thought...

Raymond Briggs and Lord Tennyson

On the face of it Raymond Briggs, cartoonist and children's writer, might have little in common with Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the Victorian poet, but they both left us with the same over-riding message - it's just that Alfred did it in words.

Briggs lost his wife to Leukaemia in 1973, they never had children. He wrote The Snowman in 1978, when the wind blows in 1982 and The Bear in 1994. His works are full of loss, and it is shown in such simple terms that even the youngest of children can understand.

Characters enter your life and then they leave, and at some point you will leave too. Briggs teaches us that well, but he also teaches that it is better for the story to have happened. The story ends, but we are glad we were able to share it while it lasted.

Saturday 9 December 2017

The Home-Made STEM Toys Of Christmas with Konnie Huq &the IET

If you watched Blue Peter any time between 1998 and 2007 you'll be familiar with longest-serving female presenter Konnie Huq. Konnie hasn't given up crafts and this Christmas has teamed up with the Institution of Engineering and Technology to bring us a series of easy and fun STEM toys that you and your child can make at home very inexpensively.

Head of Education from the IET, David Lakin has highlighted a significant shortage of engineers in the UK, which is posing a threat to the economy. The STEM toys of Christmas is designed to inspire children’s natural curiosity about how things work and why – a key principle in engineering. We were asked if we wanted to have a go at one of the projects and as soon as I saw the list, I knew which one I was choosing.

Friday 8 December 2017

The Bear - Waterside, Sale, Manchester Theatre Review

Waterside Arts Centre might have rebranded as Waterside, but that was the only thing that had changed since our last visit. It was lovely to be back in the warm friendly atmosphere that this smaller theatre offers. We were there as guests to review The Bear, presented by Pins And Needles and based on the work of one of my favourite children's authors and initiator of my love of books, Raymond Briggs.

Before you even go into the auditorium itself, the whole building is decorated in blues and white and you walk on paw prints in snow towards the seating. It sets the scene in a brilliant way and my boys were bursting with excitement as they sat down. Pure magic. 

Wednesday 6 December 2017

Drones - which is the best for your big kid?

Drones are likely to be a big seller this Christmas. We've reviewed a handful and the technology has moved on so far in the last year that they are almost unrecognisable - and the prices have come right down. Gyro stabilisation keeps them upright, ultrasound and other sensors help prevent crashes and bluetooth or other control systems have become so finely tuned that they can power your drone far beyond your own back garden.

Drones can be a real education for your child. Even the simplest drones teach hand-eye coordination, about electricity and direction commands. Drones teach about wind speed, friction, design and engineering - and how to get objects down from high trees. Programmable and VR drones with an array of sensors expand anyone's understanding of their world.

In case you are considering one and are still confused by the choice, here is a comparison of those we've reviewed this year. These are not cargo drones or professional photography drones, these are for big kids of all ages. Amazon links are affiliate links, but don't cost you anything, they just earn me a few pence. Please excuse the earlier videos - drones take a while to master, but once you've got the hang of it...

Monday 4 December 2017

Toletis by Rafa Ruiz Book Review (age 7-107)

Toletis is a new book release from Neem Tree Press, themselves a new publishing house producing books that change and broaden perspectives.

Written by Rafa Ruiz, excellently translated from the original Spanish by Ben Dawlatty and beautifully illustrated by Elena Hormiga, Toletis is recommended for anyone age 7-107, and I think that's probably about right.

Nerf Zombie Strike Dreadbolt Crossbow Review (age 8+) for Very

We are huge Nerf fans, so I was more than happy to accept another for review from Very, the home shopping site. This is my first try of the Nerf arrows, with the huge and impressive, yet ridiculously light, Nerf Zombie Strike Dreadbolt crossbow.

Firstly, this was the most minimal packaging I've ever had on anything sent for review. I can't fault the Nerf crossbow because it survived the UK postal system, despite only being protected by a magic address label. Lightweight yet robust certainly!

Saturday 2 December 2017

Gift Guide For Teenagers and Young Adults Christmas 2017

It can be ridiculously hard to buy for teenagers and young people, especially once they're earning their own money. It's made even harder if you don't live with them and aren't up to date with what bands or TV Shows they are into this month. My lot have helped me come up with a few ideas that hopefully won't spend the next year in the back of a drawer...

Thursday 30 November 2017

Paladone Harry Potter Quiz Night at Dive NQ, Manchester

A couple of weeks ago I got the most amazing invitation my boys have ever seen, my 9 year old was especially jealous. It was an invitation as a guest of Paladone to a very special Harry Potter Games Night at Dive NQ in Manchester. On offer were thousands of pounds of prizes and a fantastic evening playing every Harry Potter game you could ever think of....

I arrived early and was second person to be sorted into a house team - Team Ron, I may have coerced the Sorting Hat a bit - I always like to support #teamginger Apologies for the quality of the photos, we were in a bar. Imagine it's the 1920's and world of sepia.

Jet2holidays Advent Calendar - Win A Holiday Every Day Until Christmas!

When a company offers you a hamper and you've been blogging a while, you've already learned that all 'hampers' are not equal. When they promise it won't be anything like the bag of sweets and a card in a jiffy bag that someone sent once. Well... go on then...

It's the best hamper ever....

Jet2Holidays sent me this very fine and oh my crikey, lovely hamper in exchange for telling you all about their Advent Competition. Every day someone WILL WIN A HOLIDAY and there are other prizes including discount vouchers off your next Jet 2 holiday. But look...I'm so spoiled! It arrived a couple of days after my birthday too. Happy Birthday to me.

Wednesday 29 November 2017

December Events And Activities For Families In The Northwest UK

Here is my round up of loads of family-friendly activities in the Northwest UK this December and Christmas period. There is absolutely masses happening, so I'll keep adding to this post as I receive more - if you know of anything you think I should add, please send me the details and I'll add it in if appropriate!

I'm trying a different format this time and adding everything in start date order. I don't know whether this works better, apologies if not! The areas covered include:

Manchester / Bolton / Liverpool / Halifax / St Helens / Chester / Blackpool / Lancashire

A Christmas Carol

Bolton Octagon

Until 13th January.
Suitable for children aged 5+, but not too scary.  Find out more and book tickets (£12-£26) on The Octagon Theatre Bolton website or by calling in or ringing the Box Office 01204 520661.
We have already seen this and you can find my Bolton Octagon A Christmas Carol review here... 

Night Lights Festive Show and Meet Santa

Eureka, Halifax

25th November - 23rd December.
Father Christmas and a few of his Elven friends are coming to Eureka! The National Children’s Museum to get into the festive spirit by chatting to children and giving out a few early gifts in the snuggliest grotto in town - named one of the UK’s best by popular parenting site in 2016. Grotto days will include autism friendly sessions. Visitors to the children’s museum will be able to watch ‘Night Lights’, an original festive show. Visits to the grotto cost £3 plus standard admission, entry to Night Lights is free – book both on arrival. Standard admission £12.95, upgrade to Annual Membership during your visit for free. Visit the Eureka website to find out more.

Tuesday 28 November 2017

Dorling Kindersley Technology Fact Books Review (age 7+) for Boolino

Dorling Kindersley have a long-standing and well-earned reputation for making gorgeous children's books. We have many on our shelves that all 7 of our children have sat and poured over, and hopefully our grandchildren will do so too. Boolino Books have sent us 2 of Dorling Kindersley's science books to review - All About Virtual Reality and 3D Printing Projects.

Sunday 26 November 2017

The Grand Pile 'o' Stockingfillers Christmas Present Giveaway 2017

Over the year I end up with quite a collection of random goodies. I've given some away to local charities and school, and the rest I am putting into a big box to send to one of my readers. I've called it the Grand Pile 'o' Stockingfillers because it makes it sound fantastic, but with a little humility. No-one ever reads this bit above the photo... I can say anything...

This year the Grand Pile Of Stockingfillers includes:

2 pots of Nick Jr Ready Steady Dough (sorry about the carpet) / Bic Kids Plastidecor crayons (there's a note about these at the bottom) / The Lost Smile by Joseph Coelho - a lovely children's book. 

Science and Tech Toys Gift Guide (toys supporting STEM skills).

With Cyber Monday approaching it seems apt to do a round up of some of the most impressive tech and STEM toys out there this year. Science and technology for children has come a great distance in the last 5 years and it does reflect in the average price, with many more complex toys costing over £100, although there are still plenty of less expensive options out there.

I've included my favourite science, technology. engineering and mathematics toys that I've seen in the past year.

Saturday 25 November 2017

Bio-Oil Moisturiser Christmas Present Giveaway with 5 Winners

Bio-Oil is the Uk's No.1 multi-use skincare oil. It is a really popular skin moisturiser which reduces the appearance of scars, stretch marks and other skin blemishes. What everyone really needs for Christmas this year is to feel special, and that can start with pampering yourself.

I've used Bio-Oil for many years on stretch marks and scars and to moisturise my skin.  Bio-Oil have recently redesigned their boxes and bottles and it will look good on any bathroom potion shelf or dressing table top...

Aside from reducing redness, scarring and stretch marks, Bio-Oil is a brilliant skin moisturiser for anyone. It has a unique smell that isn't masculine nor feminine, floral or spicy, just very slightly sweet and warm. The oil is very light and soaks instantly into your skin, so you don't feel at all greasy or have to wait to get dressed.

18 Stockingfillers under £5 for age 4-11 - 2017 Christmas Gift Guide

Over the course of the last year we've looked at some great stockingfillers, here are a few that have been popular here, or that Santa is likely to put in my 7 and 9 year old's stockings this Christmas. Everything starts under £5 - or you can find it for £5 although that may not be the rrp....

Star Wars stationery from Bic. I love this and prices start at £2. Great for encouraging youngsters to write - and they can even start with thank you letters. Bic also have stationery that doesn't feature Star Wars. I've a huge bundle giveaway running until 10th December.

Gooey Stuff. Gooey sticky yucky stuff is the height of fashion at the moment and kids adore it. If you haven't experienced Liquid Lava Putty (£5 The Entertainer) you are missing out - it is amazing to watch and play with. If you are less brave, stick to dough. Nick Jr Ready Steady Dough is only £2 for 4 pots at The Entertainer.

Friday 24 November 2017

Big Bic Stationery Christmas Giveaway with added Star Wars!

Stationery is always popular at Christmas. Every stocking should contain a special pen or pencil from Father Christmas, for you to write a thank you. Bic have recently released an awesome range of Star Wars stationery and this Christmas they're giving one of my readers a big bundle. Not only that, but the giveaway winner will also receive a tin of their excellent Conte Drawing Pencils and a pack of 20 Intensity Fineliners.

The Star Wars range includes Bic Ball Pen, Bic 4 Colours Ball Pen (and Bic 4 Colours Shine Ball Pen), Bic Evolution Graphite Pencil, Bic Glue Stick and Tipp-Ex Mini Pocket Mouse Correction Tape. Each has great easy to spot Darth Vader packaging and the products inside are printed with characters from Star Wars.

Thursday 23 November 2017

Transformers: The Last Knight Mega 1-Step Changer Dragonstorm Review

The Transformers 1-Step Changers are designed to be the most easily transformed ever, with one smooth action taking you swiftly from robot to vehicle or creature. The Last Night Mega 1-Step Dragonstorm is one of the biggest models and he's definitely an impressive beast.

Transformers: The Last Knight Mega 1-Step Changer Dragonstorm Review

Packaging is mainly card and as long as you have scissors, opening is very swift. Demonstration batteries are included, so they may not be fully charged, but usually last very well. Christmas morning friendly. Replacement batteries are 2 x AAA

Your Dragonstorm arrives in 4 parts, but needs no actual assembly. The main body of the figure has 2 detachable wings and the dragon tail, which also serves as weapon for the robot.

Wednesday 22 November 2017

The Stink Before Christmas Book Review (age 3-6+) for Scholastic

The Stink Before Christmas is an especially festive book release from Scholastic. Written by Children's TV presenters Sam And Mark (Sam Nixon and Mark Rhodes) and illustrated by Tom Knight, it is of course a retelling of Twas The Night Before Christmas - with just a little tweaking of the storyline. In Sam and Mark style...

We were sent a bonus item - a whoopee cushion. I never thought I'd pretend 'I don't know what I'm about to sit on' so many times in my life. This is child no.7, I can spot a whoopee cushion from the next room.

HP Sprocket Photo Printer Limited Edition Gift Box Review

Photo printing has changed beyond recognition in my lifetime and one of the latest developments for the home market is portable photo printers. This Christmas the printing experts HP have released a special gift box edition of their gorgeous and almost pocket-sized Sprocket Photo Printer and they've sent me one to review.

There will also be a Twitter Frenzy from 6pm until 7pm Thursday 23rd November and HP will be giving away some incredible prizes - Shopping Vouchers and HP Printing products including 2 Sprocket Gift Boxes! Follow the hashtag #reinventmemories

Inside the box is the gift bundle.  The HP Sprocket itself in white with rose gold trim, Zipped Case/Wallet with wrist strap, HP Sprocket Photo Album and voucher for a free personalised skin from Wrappz.

Tuesday 21 November 2017

ROXI Music Streaming Hub from Electric Jukebox Review

The ROXI from Electric Jukebox is a small music streaming hub unit which connects to your TV and can be used for 5 different functions, including streaming music from Electric Jukebox. One year's premium pass is included, as is a remote control which doubles as a microphone and can be used for Smart Voice Search and karaoke.

Our house has always been full of music and my older kids have introduced us to a variety of apps and gadgets over the years, they all have subscriptions to various music streaming services too, so reviewing the ROXI is a very natural step for us.

In the box you have the ROXI hub, ROXI controller, USB charge lead, Power adapter, HDMI cable and 12 month Premium Music Pass. It's nicely presented and looks really neat. The hub itself is very small, wall mountable and in a choice of 3 colours - classic charcoal grey, bright blue or coral red.

The controller is USB rechargeable.  A charge takes around 2 hours and lasts 24 hours of constant use, so it'll not need recharging often. It really isn't too big or unwieldy. It's surprisingly light and comfortable in any size of hand and your children shouldn't drop it every 5 minutes.

Set up was ridiculously simple and took about 2 minutes. You don't have to register, add your card details or make an account, you just plug in the HDMI and the power, log into your wifi and use the controller to control the onscreen cursor to say 'yes' to starting your first Annual Premium Pass - which is included.

A Christmas Carol Theatre Review at Bolton Octagon

I love A Christmas Carol. It is easily in my top 5 favourite books and I've read it many times. I also love Bolton Octagon Theatre, so I had high hopes for last night's performance and I really wasn't disappointed.

Bolton Octagon is theatre in the round and this was a fairly traditional performance, with Charles Dickens' lines making me smile each time I knew they were coming and then heard them spoken aloud. The performance is family-friendly and nothing is too scary. My 7 and 9 year old boys were quite disappointed actually when Jacob Marley did not drop his jaw. The humour in the book is expanded and Scrooge especially was hilarious, making the whole audience laugh and giggle many times.

A Christmas Carol is of course the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge, originally written by Charles Dickens in 1843 and portrayed and retold in their own style thousands (if not millions) of times since by everyone from The Muppets and Bill Murray to.... in fact, just everyone.

Monday 20 November 2017

Paddington 2 Book Bundle Christmas Present Giveaway (2 Winners).

The new Paddington Bear movie, Paddington 2, was released on 10th November and to accompany the film Harper Collins have released a whole range of fabulous books. We love books and I'm delighted to have an awesome bundle of 5 to give away to two of my readers in my Christmas Present Giveaways...

Paddington Bear has been around for almost 60 years now. As a child I watched him on TV and read the books, I even had a well-used jigsaw puzzle. The lovable little lost bear from Peru has stood the test of time and I think most children have at some point wished they could be like the Brown family and bring their own bear home.

The bundle contains 5 different products from the Harper Collins Paddington Range, suitable for children from tiny tots to around 11.