Nov 252014

A happy little boy holding his new book.

Dylan and Xander both love books and are well into letters – especially those in their own names – so are very good at spotting them, which makes these personalised books from Wonderous Ink the perfect gifts. Designed to show little ones why they’re unique in the world, the stories are based on the adventures of a child who, without wanting to sound too much like a film trailer, goes on a journey of discovery.

A colourful children's book.

On their way, the child encounters plenty of colourful characters and literally uses the letters from their own name to help their new friends solve problems. I really like how inventive the stories are as well as the alliterative nature of the characters and personal qualities they tell the child they possess. By the time they reach the end of the book, the child has collected all of the letters from their name and can see what makes them different and special.

A close-up of a little boy reading his book.

I was very impressed with how quickly the previews of the books were generated on the website too – it took seconds to create and I was able to look at every page. Another impressive technological feature is the opportunity for children to continue the adventure online. At the end of the story, they’re presented with a unique code that unlocks a bonus story and quiz.

Dylan and Xander were both gripped by their stories and keep asking to have them read at bedtime, which is always a mark of a good book – most things we get from the library get read once or twice, so we’re onto a winner with these. We heartily recommend them.

Wonderous World books are aimed at children up to the age of eight and retail at £19.99 including P&P. You can instantly preview your child’s story on the Wonderous Ink site.

Nov 172014

A collage of my ideal kitchen. It includes a forcefield, a pizza oven and a fridge bigger than most sheds.

What would be in your dream family kitchen? As we’d like to move house next year, it’s something that Kate and I often talk about. Beko got in touch with me recently to ask if I’d be interested in creating a mood board on Pinterest showing what would go in mine. Happy to oblige!

The explanations for what I’ve chosen go anti clockwise from the main image:

I’ve always wanted a kitchen with an island in it and I really liked this design – especially as it has a secret stairway down to a wine cellar/panic room for if there’s a zombie apocalypse. I know the latter is more likely than me ever being able to afford a kitchen like this, but this is a dream kitchen after all…

If there is a zombie apocalypse, we’ll have to lie low for a while so my wine cellar would have to be very well stocked. One of those ladders on wheels that they have in libraries would be essential.

Back in the kitchen, I’d have an arrogantly large fridge that can accommodate a ridiculous amount of beer and, I suppose, food too.

My dream kitchen would also be big enough to house a table for family meals away from the television and this one is ideal – it doubles as a pool table!

Every parent knows that coffee is essential so it’s important to take it seriously and this does the job perfectly – a built-in coffee station. Now I know that these exist, it would be rude not to have one in my dream kitchen.

I’m conscious of the fact that I haven’t really covered food yet, so this should redress the balance. The next thing on the wishlist would be a wood-burning pizza oven. We’d quite happily live on the stuff and it would go very nicely with the wine and beer!

That would, of course, create plenty of washing up and I’d be loathe to do that myself. This dishwasher from the Beko built-in range would be perfect. It has a large capacity, is energy efficient and has the cutlery tray at the top which would save my poor old back.

The final thing on my list would be a forcefield to keep the kids and kitten out of the kitchen. If there’s one thing that really annoys me, it’s them getting under my feet when I’m making their breakfast, so this would do nicely. I’d let them in at mealtimes and in the event of the aforementioned zombie apocalypse, of course, but I wouldn’t want them getting near all my nice stuff putting themselves in danger.

So there you go – my dream kitchen. It’s capacious, packed with built-in appliances to make my life easier and completely inaccessible to anyone I don’t want joining me in there. If only I could afford it…

I created this mood board in association with Beko who are kindly giving me a shopping voucher in return for putting this post together.

Nov 122014
The bottom half of a swan emerging from the water.

A visual metaphor gone wrong: yesterday

I really enjoyed Blogfest at the weekend. It was a great opportunity to meet up with friends new and old and to listen to some great keynotes by some inspirational people. One of the topics that kept cropping up was about voice and there were some really interesting points raised both by the panellists on stage and the attendees via the massive screen behind them. What I’m going to write about here probably removes the illusory fourth wall and gives away some behind-the-scenes stuff, but, well… sod it.

I was especially interested in the concept of how much of ourselves we share on our blogs and social media and also how we go about it. One question I found particularly fascinating concerns whether we blog truly as ourselves. There are those that the cliché ‘what you see is what you get’ firmly applies to, but I have a feeling that most bloggers write as slightly different versions of themselves. I know I do!

The Tom I project on here is definitely still me, albeit an edited one. He’s a lot more confident and capable at the whole parenting lark than I am and is a bit wittier given the extra time he gets to ponder his thoughts before blurting them out. In truth, I keep a lot to myself for fear of presenting any shrinks who land on my blog with a field day. Sure, I openly admit to winging it and sometimes even write about my feelings, but you should see the stuff that goes through my head and doesn’t make the cut! Think about the bit of the swan you don’t see as it seems to effortlessly glide across water and you get the idea.

Another thing that resonated with me was the idea of piloting content before writing it. I was glad to hear that others do this as it’s something I do all the time! You can almost guarantee that, if I tweet about something funny that Dylan or Xander have said or done and it gets a good reaction, it’ll show up again a week or so later in a blog post. Again, not the truest reflection of myself as it’s based on research of sorts.

Finally, I was interested to hear how others approach publishing a new post. A fair few seemed uncomfortable with the idea of writing something and publishing it in one go. I’m not quite sure what I think of this one as I rarely get the chance – I write most of my posts on my phone on the way to work – but would probably prefer to leave a post overnight before publishing it. Yet again, allowing time before sharing a bit of myself online.

Just to well and truly eliminate any strange notions of swan-like style and grace in the creation of this post, I wrote most of it while stood on a crowded train with a stranger who reeked of cigarettes in my personal space. So there!

Other bloggers: how do you approach your posts?

Nov 062014
A very small desert island surrounded by a calm sea.

An island: yesterday

“No man is an island” wrote the metaphysical poet John Donne once upon a time, but the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that I’ll feel like one on Saturday where I’ll be one of a select few men in a relative sea of women. Being a male parent blogger, I’m used to being outnumbered both online and in real life at conferences. It’s just as well then, as I’m off to Mumsnet’s Blogfest and only know of two other dads who are going!

I’m nervous about it, but only because it’s an event I haven’t been to before. Even so, I’m very much looking forward to seeing friends I’ve made at other conferences and also to the keynotes and roundtables, so it promises to be a great day. I know I’m going to be asked the following question at least half a dozen times though, so thought I’d answer it now: what’s it like being a man in a community dominated by women?

It’s certainly strange on the face of it, but I wonder whether that’s because I’m inadvertently reminded of the fact that I’m a little different so often. Having been to BritMums Live three times and on the radio on a handful of occasions too – I have a face for it, you see – it’s something I’ve come to expect to crop up in conversation. Of course it’s unusual being in the minority, but it’s not a bad thing and I certainly don’t feel out of place or unwelcome. I was the only boy in the ward when I was born and one of just three in my class at primary school, so I think that set out the stall – I’ve never really been one of the lads and my stag do was one of the tamest nights out I’ve ever been on!

So I’m happy with things in the parent blogging community – it’s friendly and I’m treated as an equal – but what about outside it? As I can’t help but look at parenting from a male point of view, one of my pet peeves is the way that dads aren’t treated as such elsewhere. Shortly after I became a dad for the first time, for example, I was asked to leave the hospital as it was outside visiting hours. Apparently, my desire to support my wife after a long and painful birth and to bond with my son didn’t count for anything. I was just a ‘visitor’.

Then there are the numerous marketing campaigns from brands that seem to think that dads are either second-class parents or don’t have an interest in taking care of their children at all. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen baby and toddler products aimed solely at mums – which, of course, doesn’t do either gender any favour – and the few men you do see on such adverts are feckless figures of fun who are capable of little more than being outwitted by the most basic of tasks. And don’t even get me started on Daddy Pig…

At least it’s nothing like that in this community of like-minded people who both have children and write blogs. I’ve found a place I’m happy in, so that’ll do me. Going back to the original metaphor, I stick by the suggestion that no man is an island. There’s no doubt that there are some unpredictable waters out there, but I’d contest that the parent blogging community is an enlightened island which defiantly rises above them.

Oct 312014

Two young children pretending to be scared by an app on a laptop.

I’ve never really been fussed about Halloween but, as Dylan and Xander are getting older and have been told all about it at school and pre school respectively, I’ve taken more of an interest this year – especially as HP have given me a brand spanking new Pavilion x360 laptop and ENVY 5640 wireless printer to prepare!

Close-up of a child drawing a face on a tablet.

The laptop is very versatile indeed – you can use it as you would any other make and model, or fold it partly back on itself to view the screen in presentation or tent mode and, even better, fold it completely and take full advantage of the touchscreen to use as a tablet. HP set us a few tasks to both get ready for a memorable 31 October and show off the capabilities of their impressive kit.

A Halloween pumpkin lantern.

The first task we tried was to create a pumpkin lantern. We folded the laptop into tablet mode and loaded up Fresh Paint – a drawing app – and drew some faces. Once we had one that we were happy with, we printed out our design, taped it to the pumpkin and used it as a stencil. I was quite pleased with the final effort – not too bad for my first ever attempt.

A laptop displaying a recipe with a tray of cakes in front of it.

This meant, of course, that we had a load of pumpkin to do something with so we thought we’d try making some cake with the stuff in as a stealthy means of getting Dylan to eat vegetables. We flipped the laptop into tent mode, found a recipe and placed it on the kitchen surface. Alas, we didn’t have all the ingredients. Not to worry, we found another Halloween cake recipe that we did have everything for and got cracking. I’d never considered taking a laptop into the kitchen before so this made things much easier.

A printer printing out some Halloween decorations.

With the pumpkin and cakes sorted, we next needed to make some decorations and the laptop and printer again came to the fore. HP’s Snapfish service has several printables including window and hanging decorations as well as some cases for our cupcakes. We went for a skeleton, a bat, some lanterns, pumpkins and a witch for good measure. Again, printing out the designs – which come in PDF format – was a doddle. The fact that the printer is wireless has been particularly useful as we’ve been able to set it up in a permanent home rather than getting it out and hooked up every time we need it.

Dylan and Xander have really enjoyed playing with our new toy, so it gets two thumbs up from me. They’re going to have a memorable first Halloween – especially as HP sent a bucketload of sweets as well! – and we’ve got some fantastic new kit. Not to be left out, I’ll be using the Pavilion x360 to watch some classic George A Romero zombie carnage while picking off any of the survivors – cakes and sweets, that is – when everyone else has gone to sleep.

Now we just need to work out what to do with the leftover pumpkin…

Oct 272014

A portable cylindrical phone charger and cable.

If there’s one gripe I have with smartphones, it’s their short battery life, coupled with their infuriating propensity to run out just as you’ve thought of something downright hilarious to say on Twitter. Mine seems to take forever to charge via a socket these days too – I spent most of BritMums Live stood at the back of the main hall looking like a right Billy No Mates next to the charger table. Something had to be done and here’s the answer… the RavPower Luster Mini 3000mAh portable charger.

The pocket-sized charger – which, I’m reliably informed, is roughly the size of a lipstick – comes with a micro USB cable and user guide. Using it is dead simple; just plug the standard USB end of the wire into your laptop, the micro USB in the charger and press the on button to charge it. An LED light indicates the battery level – Green indicates 80-100%, blue 50-79% and red 20-49%. When the charge drops below 20%, the red LED blinks.

When your phone runs out of juice, reverse the cable, press the same button and hey presto. It charged my Samsung Galaxy S3 from almost dead to full charge in two hours – this is much faster than my standard charger manages – and worked a treat on Kate’s HTC Desire too. The charger is compatible with several Android and Apple devices – you can find a full list via the link at the bottom of the page.

It’s all very intuitive and I only needed to read the instructions to check a couple of facts for this review. It definitely ticks the ‘portable’ box too – weighing in at under 3oz and in a handy shape for any bag or coat pocket, I can’t see anyone having a problem taking it with them even if they’re travelling light. For the style conscious out there, it’s available in a number of colours. As you can see, I opted for black as it goes with everything. I know, I’m something of a fashion expert… anyway, I’m very happy to recommend it and will be taking it everywhere from now on.

The RavPower Luster Mini 3000mAh portable charger has an RRP of £34.99 but is currently available for a knockdown price of £6.99 on Amazon.

Oct 222014
Close-up image of a dart board with a dart in the bullseye

Yet another visual metaphor: yesterday

I had to come up with some objectives for the next quarter of the year at work recently. They’re a bit of a faff and always sound a little too strategic and impersonal for my liking, but I do see the point hidden behind all the business jargon and am well versed in outlining the achievements required of me and the KPIs – Key Performance Indicators, just in case you haven’t had the pleasure – that prove I’ve more or less done what I said I would.

It struck me that they’re a bit like the reward charts that all parents use with varying degrees of success, so decided to write some KPIs for kids. Why should us adults have all the fun, eh? My two have until the end of the year to nail this lot – otherwise the fat, jolly beardy chap will be getting a call!

Objective: Diversify strategy relating to sustenance at all key points in the working day.
KPI: Eat something other than fish fingers and tinned spaghetti.

Objective: Hone problem solving skills, avoiding the need for conflict resolution measures.
KPI: Stop fighting with your brother.

Objective: Demonstrate improved ability to work on your own initiative, particularly during antisocial hours.
KPI: Stay asleep in your own bed. Please!

Objective: Regularly liaise with key stakeholders and develop strong working relationships.
KPI: Play nicely with the other children at pre school.

Objective: Successfully deliver change management projects.
KPI: Get through the first term of school without a meltdown.

Objective: Become a brand champion and ensure that house style is adhered to.
KPI: Do what your mother and I tell you!

Objective: Observe the open-door policy in operation in the workplace.
KPI: Stop slamming the bloody doors!

Objective: Take a share of the responsibility for ensuring the workplace meets health and safety standards.
KPI: Tidy away your toys without needing to be asked 47 times and stop leaving them on the stairs!

Objective: Attend all team meetings and maintain punctuality.
KPI: Join the rest of the family at the dinner table – NOW!

Objective: Respect workplace dress code, ensuring you are appropriately attired at all times.
KPI: Stop undressing by the window.

What would your KPIs for your kids be?

Oct 142014

A game comprising a box, two decks of cards, a die and a timer.

I’ve always had a bit of a fascination for accents and, having a bit of a boring flat southern one myself, enjoy attempting to speak with a regional twang. My family are the same – as my dad is a linguist, we often find ourselves having conversations in different dialects. It passes the time now and then. If ever there were a game made for us, then, this is it. Accentuate is a simple after-dinner style offering that can easily be played around the table without need to tidy away the wine and cheese – bonus!

Thought up by Scousers, designed by Mancs, Made by the Cornish and promoted by Cockneys, Accentuate is a celebration of accents that should soon have everyone laughing. Inside the box are two sets of cards – one deck of quotations and another of the accents that players have to read them out in – as well as a die and timer.

One card with a quote and another displaying an accent.

Players need to start by rolling the die to discover their play options – swap, pass, play or all – before reading out a quotation in their own normal voice. They then have 30 seconds in which to repeat it as many times as they want in the given accent before their team – or everyone if ‘all’ has been rolled – guesses. You can play as many rounds as you like and the team with the most points at the end is the winner.

There are 30 regional and international accents – including Geordie, Cornish, Japanese and French – so there’s at least a few that everyone could make a passable effort at. Or end up feeling awkward and embarrassed. I’m acutely aware that I won’t get away with doing this review without making a video, so I’ll let you decide how I fared…

Accentuate has an RRP of £19.99 and you can order yours on the Accentuate website.

Oct 062014
A cat attacking a television as a football video game is being played.

One nil to the kitten…

It struck me the other day that I’ve posted a couple of pictures of the newest addition to our family on here but haven’t written about her yet. Very remiss of me, especially as I think she’s going to  inspire a number of posts with the shenanigans she gets up to – meet our new kitten, She-Ra!

She’s been with us for about a month now and life hasn’t been quite the same since. The things that Xander can’t reach to damage are now all in danger – the upper parts of the curtains in particular – it’s unwise to walk around barefoot and there is now a tray of poo in the corner.

Kate and I both grew up with cats and met while we were working for Cats Protection, so were always likely to get one at some point. We weren’t planning on adding a four-legged friend to the family quite yet though – that’s plans for you! Our neighbour’s cat had a litter of kittens and you can guess the rest. She’s named after the 1980s cartoon character – Kate and I thought it was funny while under the influence and it kind of stuck.

She’s settled in very well and is very tolerant of Dylan and Xander who are still very excited to have her living with us. It’s bringing out their caring sides – now and then – and that’s great to see. Kate is her favourite – well, she’s the one who feeds her most – and despite the fact that she’s showing some alarmingly early signs of becoming a crazy cat lady by insisting we’re her ‘Mummy and Daddy’, all is well. Well almost.

You see, She-Ra seems to have been sent to punish me. I’m not sure what for as I’m a kind and nurturing owner – note: owner, not father – and, having written so much about the subject at said charity, know loads about how to make cats feel welcome in new surroundings. I let her do her own thing when she wants to be left alone, I make a fuss of her when she’s seeking my attention and carefully stop her doing stupid things that would compromise some of the fabled nine lives. But she doesn’t let me enjoy my hobbies…

If I try to write blog posts, she walks all over the keyboard and attacks the mouse – I suppose I can’t blame her for the latter though. If I have the temerity to watch the football, she gets up in front of the telly and attacks any parts of the screen in which there’s movement. Then there’s the ultimate insult… my sacred Xbox time. I just got myself FIFA15 and was really looking forward to playing it. Thinking she’d go for it like the real football on the idiot box, I spent ages messing about with my line-up, tactics and transfers. She nodded off. Marvellous. I turned the volume right down and started my first match. Within 30 seconds, she was in her usual place, bopping the screen and causing me to fall to an embarrassing debut defeat to weaker opposition.

Let the battle of man Vs kitten commence!