Staying Connected With the Family Gift Guide

girl who saved christmasThe Girl Who Saved Christmas (by William Thomas Thach, illustrated by Richard Bernal)
Imagine what Santa would do if all the world’s children were bad—except one? Santa decides to deliver lumps of coal to all the bad kids, and offers to shower Molly, the lone—and lonely—nice kid, with anything she could possibly want. But Molly reminds Santa of the importance of forgiveness. A sweet story that captures the essence of the Christmas Spirit. $24 at amazon.com or mollychristmas.com

gracie's nightGracie’s Night: A Hanukkah Story (by Lynn Taylor Gordon, illustrated by Laura Brown)
Gracie and her dad don’t have much money, but on her way home with sweaters, snow boots, mittens, and warm socks for pops, she sees a homeless man with holes in his shoes, wearing a threadbare coat, huddling in a cardboard box. Gracie knows exactly what to do, and comes home with empty hands and a full heart. A charming story about a different type of Hanukkah miracle. $8.50 at amazon.com



sing and swing olaf


Disney Frozen Sing and Swing Olaf
Your young one’s heart will melt when Olaf starts belting out his famous song, “In Summer,” from the hit movie, Frozen. Wearing his trademark hat and cane, Olaf also dances to the beat. Requires 3 AAA batteries (included). About $36.50 at Toys R Us, Walmart, and others.

frozen karaoke disneyDisney Frozen Flashing Lights Karaoke Machine
An easy-to-set-up, easier-to-use karaoke machine that lets you sing along with the hits from Frozen, complete with flashing lights. You can also connect your own device or use the built-in CD player to perform all of your other favorites—even some that, gasp, aren’t from Disney movies. Comes with one hand-held mic and two inputs so duets are a definite possibility. $50-80 at retailers everywhere.

renny home hubRenny HOME Smartphone Hub and Loud Wireless Ringer for Cell Phone (Olens Technology)
Never miss a phone call at home again, even if your phone is on silent, vibrate, upstairs, or in the car in your garage.  It has audible caller ID and allows you to either answer or ignore calls hands-free. Streams music from your smartphone too. $139.99 at many retailers. www.olenstechnology.com



justin power pack


Justin Power Bank (Innovative Technology)
We all know how incredibly frustrating it is when your phone or tablet dies and there’s no place to recharge it. With Justin’s power banks and power sticks, those frustrations will be a thing of the past. The one we tested had 10,000mAh, which means it’s got enough juice to completely charge a smart phone five times. It also has two outgoing ports which allow it to charge two devices at the same time, all using standard- and micro USB. Great for the family on the go. Prices vary depending on capacity.

d-link range extenderD-Link DAP-1320 Wireless Range Extender (D-Link)
Plug this sleek device into a regular outlet within range of your router, and with one click, you’ve just extend the range of your home network—even to those hard-to-reach areas like basements, upstairs bedrooms, or outdoor areas. This way, you’ll be able to web-surf, play games, watch movies, or text the kids who are all the way on the other side of the house (or room).  About $25 at retailers everywhere. us.dlink.com/

cell phone jailCell Phone Jail
This is more of a metaphor than an actual product. We urge you to join with Foresters (a financial services company) to take the Tech Timeout challenge and give your family a daily one-hour break from all things electronic. After all, what better gift could you give to your family (and yourself) than some undivided attention. Download the pledge form at techtimeout.com/#anchor_pledgewall

2015 Lexus RX 450h: Comfort, Luxury, and Excellent Mileage

lexus rx450h backseat

lexus rx450h exteriorDisclosures: I had the use of a 2015 Lexus RX 450h for a week to facilitate my review. Opinions are purely my own (and, occasionally those of my daughter, who needs no financial incentive to speak her mind).

The Lexus RX 450h is a luxury crossover, with the emphasis on luxury. It’s plush, spacious, incredibly well-built, is packed with features, has good power and a smooth ride, and being a hybrid, gets great gas mileage. It is not, however, sexy—and it’s not supposed to be, either.
[Read more…]

Gentlemen—and Ladies—Start Your Consoles…

For many kids (and tweens, and teens, and—let’s face it—adults, too), gaming is a part of life. It can be a great way to unwind by yourself or (better yet) to log some major parent-child bonding time. As you put the finishing touches on this year’s Holiday lists, you may want to include a few of the following for your favorite gamers (or gamer wannabes).

wii deluxe bundleWii U Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Set Bundle (Nintendo)
Do you own a Wii U yet? If not, you won’t find a better way to start than with the Wii U Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Set Bundle, which includes the Mario Kart 8 and Nintendo Land games, an MK8 steering wheel, and, of course, the deluxe 32GB Wii U console, complete with a Mario-themed red Wii remote (or Wii-mote).
The Wii U is Nintendo’s sleek, new console, which has next-generation graphics that are comparable to the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. Images and textures are sharp, the sound is clear, and the characters look like they’re about ready to hop right off the screen to join you on the couch.

Speaking of screens, the Wii U GamePad controller, with its 6.2-inch touchscreen, is the star of the show. The GamePad has dual analog sticks, the usual buttons (A, B, X, Y, Home, Select, and more), as well as left- and right trigger buttons. Use it to control action on the TV screen or to access additional features such as in-game maps. Oh, and you can even use it as a TV remote control. If you’re just getting started, this bundle is a very good deal at $299.99. You’ll find it at your local retailer or http://happyholidays.nintendo.com

super smash bros.Super Smash Bros (Nintendo)
If you’re not ready for the Wii U or you just prefer to play on the 3DS, Super Smash Bros. is the way to go. This fighting game has a host of Nintendo and non-Nintendo characters who face off in multi-person, last-man-standing battles. Each character has different weapons, different speeds, different heights and weights, and different ways of attacking. That should make it pretty easy to decide who your favorite is—and who your arch-enemy is too. What’s especially nice about Smash Bros. is that there are just a few buttons, which makes it easy for players—even complete novices—to master their character fairly quickly. Super Smash Bros. for 3DS is available now for $39.99 from all major retailers and the 3DS e-store.

pokemon art academyPokémon Art Academy (Nintendo)
For a somewhat less enervating gaming experience, take a look at Pokémon Art Academy, a Pokémon-themed version of Nintendo’s highly successful Art Academy. This one includes 40 lessons that will have anyone and everyone painting, sketching, and drawing the Pokémon characters you know and love. It starts with a stylus on the 3DS. But the Academy introduces kids (and their parents) to an incredible variety of media (including paint, pastel, pen, pencil, and a few others that don’t start with P), and teaches them skills and techniques that they’ll be able to use in real life and that go far beyond Pokémon. Pokémon Art Academy costs $30, and you can download it digitally or buy a hard copy at your favorite retailer or on the Art Academy website at http://artacademy.nintendo.com/pokemon/

Toyota Venza: Smart and Stylish

2014 toyota venza

2014 toyota venzaLet’s get the disclosure stuff out of the way up front. Toyota gave me the use of a 2014 Venza—how else am I supposed to do an honest review? No, they didn’t pay me, and yes, all the opinions are mine.

The Toyota Venza is a crossover, meaning that it’s smaller than an SUV but bigger than a station wagon. But on the inside, it still feels like an SUV—and I mean that in the nicest way possible. It’s roomy and comfortable, the roof is high enough to accommodate fairly tall people, and it has all sorts of cargo-schlepping space–30.7 cubic feet, to be exact; more than double that when you fold down both sides of the 60/40 split rear seat.
It has the high ride of an SUV, which allows for plenty of visibility, but the ride is smooth and it handles the tight turns in the Bay Area hills like a car.
[Read more…]

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Loveable Characters

Thanksgiving is right around the corner and chances are, you probably haven’t bought your turkey yet. But we’ll bet you’re already on the lookout for Holiday presents for everyone on your lists. Here are some fun options that will bring a smile to everyone’s face.

rilakkumaRilakkuma (Aliquantum)
We know, we know, it sounds like something from Pippi Longstocking (who lived in Villa Villekulla), but Rilakkuma is the latest in a long line of adorable, collectable characters from Japan to have finally made it to the U.S. If your kids (or you) are into anime, all things Japanese, or simply cute plush toys, this one should be on your list. Some people have called Rilakkuma a “mysterious brand,” which is odd, considering that he’s been quite popular in their homeland for more than a decade. Here’s the backstory: Rilakkuma (a bear) and his friends Korilakkuma (another bear) and Kiiroitori (a chick) appeared out of nowhere in the Tokyo apartment of a hard-working woman named Kaoru. The three friends—each with a different personality—go on adventures and make mischief while Kaoru is at the office. All three are soft and sweet for little kids to cuddle with, plus Rilakkuma has a secret zipper pocket in his back for hiding small treasures. But, anime and Japanese crossovers are popular with plenty of tweens and teens too. Available at FAO Schwarz and Hot Topic, from $8.99 to $199.99.

snoopySnoopy, Charlie Brown, and many, many more figures (Schleich)
Schleich makes a dizzying array of realistic figurines and toys, including animals (from chicks and frogs to whales), mythological creatures (including elves, dragons, unicorns, and Medusa), and your favorite cartoon characters. Some of the most popular items are the riding sets and Peanuts. The riding sets come with a harness, saddle, rider, and a horse, of course. The Peanuts characters—Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy, and the rest of the gang—come individually or in “scenery packs,” which include several characters and scenes from the comic strip featuring those characters. Definitely not your average plastic toys, Schleich figures are high quality, solid, and beautifully hand painted with amazing detail. Collectors will love Schleich, as will kids ages 3 and up. The figures come individually or in beautiful sets with buildings, vehicles, and other accessories. Prices vary widely, depending on the size of the figure and the size of the kit, so check the site. http://www.schleich-s.com/en/US/

rumble fistsRumble Fists and WWE John Cena Spar Bag (Tech 4 Kids)
Playing with gorgeous collectible toys is great, but after a few days cooped up in the house, the kids are going to be climbing the walls (and you won’t be far behind). Tech 4 Kids’ Rumble Fists and WWE Spar Bag are perfect for making playtime more active. Rumble Fists are giant WWE-themed “gloves” that fit over kids’ hands and make noise (a punching sound and adoring fans cheering) when they touch anything. Kids can choose from John Cena, Dolph Ziggler, or the Rock. Rumble Fists are squishy so they won’t do much damage, but you should have some safety rules in place.

spar bagRumble Fists go perfectly with the WWE John Cena Spar Bag. It’s about three feet (or a meter) high and has a full-figure image of John Cena in mid-punch. Inflate it, fill the bottom with water, and flail away. The heavy base makes it pop right back up after every smack. It’s a great way to work up a sweat, and it’ll give kids bigger kids an alternative to tormenting younger siblings. Rumble Fists are $24.99, the Spar Bag is $9.99. Available at your favorite retailer or http://www.tech4kids.com/