Monday, 20 February 2017

Book review : Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn

I remember shortly after its release, Gone Girl became the novel that everyone was talking about. This usually puts me off reading a book though, because I'm always worried that it won't live up to the hype. Nevertheless, when I saw a copy on the book swaps shelf at our holiday hotel in Lanzarote this summer, I couldn't resist picking it up. I've only just got around to reading it though, and I have mixed feelings about it.

It is undoubtedly a very cleverly written book. Gillian Flynn knows how to nudge the reader along in whichever direction she chooses, totally manipulating their view of the characters. The plot revolves around a couple, Nick and Amy Dunne, who should be celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary. Instead, Nick arrives home to signs of a struggle and his wife is missing. He soon becomes the police's main (and in fact only) suspect.

The book is narrated in alternate chapters by Nick and Amy. Amy's voice comes through in a series of diary entries, written before her disappearance, and we immediately sense that, despite her best efforts, there were serious cracks in their marriage. Having given up her job and her roots in Manhattan, moving back to her husband's Missouri hometown to look after his ailing parents, we nevertheless get the impression that she is a pretty unreasonable, bitter and needy person. Nick has an awful lot of faults too though, and his reactions often seem strange and out of synch. As the book progresses, it soon becomes clear that they can't both be telling the truth and the reader has to try to pick through their separate, subjective narratives to unravel the truth of the situation. I was half right but there were still some big surprises in store towards the end.

It's a highly original and well-mastered plot. I did find that the first half of the book dragged but I was also aware that all of this background work (for the author AND the reader) was necessary for the rest of the novel to work. Another aspect that slightly irked me was that I didn't actually like or empathise with either of the characters - Amy and Nick both have their good and bad sides, but ultimately they both came across as selfish, insensitive children, capable of throwing their toys out of the pram when they didn't get their own way. Amy thinks she's a princess and Nick has anger issues. If they're both as bad as each other, maybe they both deserve whatever they get ... but I can't tell you what that is without spoiling the drama !

star rating : 4/5

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: W&N (25 Sept. 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1780228228
  • ISBN-13: 978-1780228228
  • Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 3.2 x 13.6 cm

Madhouse recipe : Crispy chocolate sandwich cake

As it was in honour of her 12th birthday, I asked Juliette what kind of cake she'd like me to bake last week. Without a second's hesitation, her answer was "chocolate !" I'd made some rich gooey brownies a few days before so I fancied trying something new. I flicked through a recipe book that I received last year and haven't had a chance to use yet - Paul Hollywood's How To Bake - and his recipe for Triple Layer Chocolate Cake With Walnuts caught my eye. I took an awful lot of liberties, removing the walnuts, making a simple star-shaped sandwich rather than a triple layer loaf and replacing his sultana and brandy-infused filling with a jar of chocolate spread, but it was still very tasty ! The bit that appealed to me - adding crushed digestive biscuits to the cake mix - did give it a nice slightly crunchy texture vaguely reminiscent of cheesecake base.

Crispy chocolate sandwich cake

ingredients :

175g butter
175g sugar
3 eggs
1tsp vanilla essence
100g self-raising flour
5tsp cocoa powder
1/2tsp baking powder
40g digestive biscuits, crushed
1/2 jar chocolate spread

Preheat the oven to 180°. Cream together the butter and sugar.

Mix in the eggs one at a time, adding a spoonful of the flour in between each addition, to avoid curdling. Stir in the vanilla essence.

Mix in the flour, baking powder, cocoa and biscuit crumbs.

Pour into a silicon mould.

Bake for 40 minutes until firm and springy to the touch. Leave to cool before removing from the mould then carefully slice in half.

Spread the bottom half with chocolate spread (or chocolate and hazelnut spread or marshmallow fluff or whatever your kids like the best).

I had half a tub of Betty Crocker vanilla icing in the fridge so I used that but you could whip up a simple butter icing or a drizzle with icing sugar and a few drops of water or lemon juice. Top with sprinkles - I laughed afterwards because it looks more like she is 72, not 12 !

She didn't mind though !

Happy birthday Juliette !

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Madhouse diaries : Geocaching around the docks

This week we've been so busy running around hiding new caches for other people to find that we haven't been out hunting any ourselves. A lovely sunny afternoon was too good a chance to miss though, so I grabbed the gps and headed off with Juliette to see if we could find some of the few remaining caches in our neighbourhood. The first one is one that we had already failed to find.

 This time, we came armed with spoilers - photos showing you exactly where to look - and even though we found the exact stone in the picture and lifted it out of its hole, we failed to find the cache.

Not to be disheartened, we continued on our way, taking a long detour round through the town centre to get to the other side of the docks, and Juliette talked me into buying her a milkshake as we walked past McDonald's. It's the little unexpected treats, like a doughnut or a play in a park, that keep smiles in place despite fruitless searches and long walks. (I walked 20,000 steps/13.6km today according to my fitbit, although that wasn't all geocaching !)

On arrival in the port, I was just explaining to Juliette that we'd be walking over a swing bridge when the sirens sounded and the barriers came down. Great timing - we got to see it in action !

It slowly swung round, opening up the channel for a small boat to pass through.

I didn't realise just how close we were to the lighthouse (as the crow flies - not by foot because you have to go the long way round to get to the other quay).

 Once the boat had passed through, the bridge slowly started swinging back into place.

It's an ingenious device, turning the road a full 90° and it is fully automatic, so we had a nervous giggle as we walked over, saying that we'd have to hang on to the railing if it started swinging round again before we got off !

The seagulls seemed totally unconcerned though !

Once on the other side, the geocache was easy to find.

As we filled in the logbook, we spotted the lift bridge over by the lighthouse opening up too - possibly for the same boat to go through.

We laughed at the masses of overlapping seagull claw prints on the ground - they looked like they must have been having a wild party !

This is the dock where several big seismic survey vessels have been berthed for many months.

We'd seen them from a distance but didn't realise just how big they are until we got up close.

I had never seen the town from this angle before, looking like it is on a waterfront.

 The sun was starting to set but there was one more geocache to grab on the way home, just a few hundred metres away.

The birds were starting their aerial acrobatics in the dusky sky.

Oh, where's she gone?

Ahhh there she is ... with the geocache in her hand !  

The photo doesn't do it justice but the sun was an amazing, huge red ball in the sky. We could feel the temperature starting to drop as we walked back home, with Juliette discussing what comfort food she fancied to warm us up (mac and cheese with bacon and mushrooms ... I could have guessed !)

Introducing Zomlings Series 5 (review)

Back in 2014, we reviewed the first series of Zomlings collectibles. (Click through to see that review.) Series 5 has just hit the shops and we received a selection of goodies, featuring the strange ugly-cute critters !

Zomlings series 5 introduces a whole new range of characters - there are now hundreds of them to collect !

As with all good collectibles, there are some rare gold and silver ones to look out for, and the Madhouse kids were delighted to find one of each in their packs.

What Zomlings do so much better than most of the other collectible ranges is adding loads of playabilty. They don't just look pretty on a shelf. You can really interact with them and make up stories about their antics in Big Town.

They have a number of vehicles (Zom-Mobiles) including an ice cream van, police car and, our favourite, a shiny red fire engine, that they can actually ride in.

There are also lots of different buildings that can be stuck together to make a Zomlings town for playing in and also storing your Zomlings so that they don't get lost.

The Madhouse kids love the slightly gory signs on some of the buildings, such as the dentist and hairdresser's - they are little zombies after all !

They're appealing to tweens and teens of both sexes and they even get bonus points from the parents because of their pocket money prices - they start at just 50p, making them great value.

There is a huge world of collecting and playing to discover with Zomlings. For further information, check out or follow @MagicBoxToysUK on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Disclosure : We received the products in order to write an honest review.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

New Year Resolutions Review week #7 : Cruising through the holidays

This week, it's been half term for me and the Madhouse kids so I've had plenty of time for cracking on with my New Year resolutions and challenges. I feel vindicated now because I always say it's lack of time rather than lack of motivation that holds me back when I'm at work !

1. Get Fit(bitting) !
Every morning this week has been chill-out time - sitting in bed with my laptop while the kids have breakfast in bed and watch cartoons or read comics - so I haven't racked up more than 1000 steps by lunchtime any day this week. Going out hiding geocaches (more about that in a moment) has had us (and particularly me) gadding about all over the neighbourhood in the afternoons though, so I have had a great week in terms of steps - last Saturday I needed a lazy day and had a long nap in the afternoon (2 hours !!) so I only hit 7k steps, but every other day was good: Sunday 10k, Monday 14.1k, Tuesday 15.6k, Wednesday 13.4k, Thursday 11.3k, Friday 12.8k. That's over 50km covered in a week, which sounds pretty good to me !

2. Get cooking bookmarked recipes ! 
This week was more about using up odds and ends from the cupboard for a #KitchenClearout than working through bookmarked recipes, but I did make Fish with bè rouj (red butter) and Crispy Vietnamese pancakes.

3. Get geocaching !
The travelbugs from the lovely Elaine at Fun As A Gran arrived on Monday so all week, we've been making cache containers, filling them up with swaps and going off to hide them. You can follow our geocache hiding adventures here and here - it's been a real learning curve, from how to make the caches to working out the coordinates, adding a new cache to the geocaching site and having to respect a minimum distance between caches. (I had to move one of mine to a different location because it was too close to another one.) I have five caches out there now and I'm loving seeing people log them, especially as many of them are saying that they are discovering new, beautiful or interesting locations that they were unaware of. The two travelbugs were picked up and they're on their way, and I got to chat to a geocacher who was logging one of her finds next to my geocache as I walked past. A very successful and exciting week !

4. Get comping !
No wins this week, even if I've been entering more than usual as I'm holiday. I'm still on track for one win a month though. My book win from Costa arrived.
(January : 4 wins - £20 shopping voucher, Mr Lee's noodles, Ambrosia trifle glasses, set of 5 books; February : 1 win - prize for Galina, )

5. Get reading !
 I'm still reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. This is book number 6 for 2016 so I'm still on track for my book a week reading challenge.

6. Get FLYing !
I had big plans for dejunking and tidying up the kids' bedrooms this week but went geocaching instead !

8. Get bloggy housekeeping !
I think this week may be a turning point. My visitor stats are usually pretty stable - about 5-600 unique visits and 7-800 pageviews per day (which is way down on what I had before the google penalty). Yesterday I had over 20,000 pageviews and unique visits by lunchtime. I'm no fool, I knew there was something fishy going on and after looking through my visitor information, I noticed that I had a googlebot crawling through my whole blog yesterday for several hours. Hopefully this means that, now that the google penalty has been revoked, it's re-adding all my content to google, which should mean more visitors. I also took part in a twitter party this week, which meant I was more active on social media, but Klout still doesn't like me and my Klout score is at an all-time low : 53.37 (my 90 day high is 56.73 - still not sure why there's been such a drop.) My statcounter rankings have changed a fair bit this week (even before the googlebot put in an appearance), going from B-/B+/C/C+ (overall B-) to A+/C/C/C+ (overall B-), so that's an improvement in traffic but a markdown in social. OK, OK, I get it, I need to be more chatty on social media !

9. Get French !
I finally managed to buy my timbre fiscal. Almost ready to send - I just need to fill in a form with all the info on both my parents and in-laws births.

What about you? Have you set yourself any targets, challenges or new year's resolutions this year?

Fab freebies of the week 18/2

I hope you all have a lovely weekend planned. Here's this week's roundup of the best freebies, to help get your weekend off to a good start !


Claim your free seed pack from the Woodland Trust. Your mixed pack of seeds will contain rowan, dog rose, alder buckthorn and holly.

Claim your FREE Phone Case. Fill out this quick form, and your case will be dispatched within two weeks

Win one of 1000 pillowcases featuring TV stars (looks like you might have to be NOW TV customers but worth a try)

From Budweiser : For the first time in recent history that two non-League sides have reached the Fifth Round of The Emirates FA Cup. We think that’s cause for celebration, so we’re giving a free beer to everyone in England and Wales (over the age of 18, obviously). Raise a Bud to the unlikely heroes, the fans and the players who dared to dream and came out on top. Join us in a nationwide cheers for the underdogs. To get yours, simply fill in your details below and we’ll send you an email with a digital voucher you can use at Sizzling Pubs, Sizzling Pub & Grills, O’Neill's and other selected pubs.

From The Fragrance Shop : Happy Random Acts of Kindness Day! To spray a little happiness we're giving away free samples of Paco Rabanne Olympéa Intense and Invictus Intense in stores nationwide. To claim your free sample, simply nominate a random friend to get a free sample too by tagging them in the comments and show this post at your local store. No purchase necessary. One sample per person. Subject to availability while stock last.

@The_GoodGuru We ❤ seeing your posts. Fancy getting your own free sample. Email and quote BERRYSAMPLE with your address. UK only

@jamberry_em Let #Jamberry help you #stopbiting and see the results for yourself! Message me for your FREE sample #manicure #nailart #beauty #nails #free

You can see previous weeks' freebie roundups by clicking here but be warned, many of the offers are only valid for a short time. Let me know if any have expired and I'll remove them from the roundup.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Our We're Going On A #BearHunt Twitter Party Fun

Did you catch the We're Going On A #BearHunt twitter party yesterday? Maybe you were even lucky enough to win a prize? If you didn't and you're wondering what you missed out on, it was all in honour of the release of the We're Going On A Bear Hunt animation, which is based on the well-loved picture book by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. Click through to read our review of the DVD.

You can't have a party without party food so our first job was finding some suitably bear-themed snacks. You can't get better than a teddy bear-shaped cake !

One of the activities in the party box was a biscuit-decorating kit. This is a great way of keeping the kids entertained during half term if you can't be bothered to bake your own biscuits !

 We only had two guests coming, girl and boy twins from Pierre's class, so we decided this would be plenty (and I always had the rest of the kit for reinforcements if necessary !). (Unfortunately the twins' mum didn't want pictures of them online so I've had to select the photos where they're out of shot.) I think the kids did a great job !

 Pierre even made a "we're going on a poo hunt" biscuit (it's in the DVD and it made him giggle !).

After the party food, the next most important thing was party games and, after a crazily excited treasure hunt, it was time to play Pin The Tail On The Bear !

Ummm not quite !

Oops !! This was such a popular game that we played and played until our glue dots wouldn't stick any more !

Time for a nice cutting and colouring activity to calm everyone down before watching the DVD - making bear ears !

Everyone had to try them on, including the dogs !

And even me !

 Time for the main event : watching the DVD. We had question sheets and popcorn to enhance the viewing experience !

 And bear accessories were more than welcome ! (I'd planned on using face paints to give them bear make up but they didn't want to, spoilsports !)

Everyone enjoyed the film and we read the story book too, to compare. By now, it was almost time for the party to come to an end, but we had a few minutes left for some colouring sheets.

Bear got very involved, both with the colouring and also munching the Bear snacks !

 We even had bear shaped sweeties ! Top marks to whoever put the party packs together, for finding all the bear-themed goodies.

And the bear-illiant party bags !

We had great fun at our party and it was lovely to hear so much squealing and giggling ! If you were also a party host, I'd love to see your post party blogposts so feel free to add a link in the comments box below :)