Into the Dreaming Imaginative Fiction from Author, Editor, and Writing Coach Christine Amsden

Tag Archives: Review

Series Review: Haven

I have just finished watching all five seasons of Haven (2011-2015) on Netflix and I recommend it to those who enjoy a paranormal mystery — with a few caveats.

First and foremost: Season 1 was uninspiring. I don’t think I would have finished it except that my 11-year-old son was watching with me, and he was into it. The episodes were episodic, the “troubles” made little sense, and in some cases were truly absurd, and it was hard to believe that the writers had a serious plan for the show.

Then things got rolling!

Seasons 2, 3, and 4 were the true highlights of this series, IMO. Though the shows continued with their episodic nature clear up until the last season, when there was no longer any hope for it, the series arc became clearer, the stakes became higher, more interesting characters and relationships developed, and we began to see that the writers did, in fact, have a plan.

There were even some twists and turns I definitely did not see coming, and that’s high praise indeed, coming from me!

Season 5 brought the show to a complete and satisfying conclusion, although I did begin to feel the drag and thought things might have gone on just a tad longer than they needed to.

It was nice that this show was watchable with my 11-year-old son. There is some kissing and romance (he hid under the blankets during these moments) but it was reasonably tame and it was plot relevant.

All in all, this is good. It’s not going to be on my favorites list, but not everything can be. If you’re looking for something paranormal to watch and you have Netflix, check this out — all 5 seasons are available to watch.

Gourmet Meals in a Box? Home Chef Review

A few years ago I had never heard of them, but now they’re everywhere: Companies willing to deliver everything you need to prepare your own culinary masterpiece.

These companies cater largely to working singles and couples who want to play in the kitchen on the weekend. (Their deliver schedules universally favor weekend chefs.) That is not me. I’m a work-at-home mom with two kids (9 and 12). Sometimes I think I live in the kitchen. I certainly know how to cook, at least to a point. So why did I decide to give this a try?

Put simply, I’m in a rut. I cook the same basic meals on a rotation, and I usually opt for cheap and fast. When I do work up the motivation to try new dishes, especially fancy new dishes, something usually goes wrong: bad recipes abound on the Internet, and high-quality ingredients, when readily available, often sit right next to temptingly cheaper options. Sometimes, they are hard to find at all.

Many of these services advertise a monetary savings compared to the grocery store, but I don’t believe it. Even if you choose the best quality, freshest, organic ingredients, and even if you take into account the ability to scale quantities, I don’t believe there’s a real monetary incentive.

But money is not the only value. Time is of value. Excellent recipes are of value. Confidence in the kitchen is of value. And pushing me out of my comfort zone is of value.

One last note: I am currently trying to lose weight using an intuitive, mindful eating approach. I observe that I am more satisfied when I truly enjoy what I’m eating, so that is an additional value I seek.

With all that in mind, let’s get started!

Home Chef (10-25-17)

My first foray into gourmet meal delivery services was Home Chef, which offered a $30 discount on the first order. Thanks! That did, in fact, help me click “buy.”

Selecting meals was easy. You simply log into their website, choose from a wide selection of choices, and make sure you have your order in place by the Friday before your scheduled delivery date. They had a lot of yummy looking choices, but in the end, I went with their recommendations.

Salmon with Green Goddess sauce was a fantastic dish that the whole family enjoyed. I make salmon at home all the time, and I don’t do half bad at it when I get a good fillet. (This is one of those cases where the quality of the product will make or break the dish.) The zucchini, on the other hand, is something I tend to do boring things with and am usually disappointed by the result. This zucchini was well flavored via white wine and fresh paprika. Roasted potatoes are a staple in this house, but the recipe made these even more convenient to prepare by cleverly starting them in a skillet, then baking them in the oven in a way that had both the salmon and potatoes coming out at the same time. The green goddess sauce was wonderful too, and an easy throw together.

As we ate, we considered the cost of this meal at the grocery store. With the first-week discount, it was clearly cheaper than anything we could have bought. But actually, given the high quality of the ingredients, it would probably be pretty close at full price – in this case. (I do not believe this is true of most of their meals.) Then consider the fact that it came to my door, packed in ice, neatly divided into little pouches, and complete with easy-to-follow instructions … yeah, there’s a value here. It’s definitely a yuppy value, but I grudgingly confess that I qualify.

Acapulco Steak Tacos were good too, although not as good as the salmon. The pico di gallo was the highlight of the dish, a combination of fresh tomatoes, shallots, jalapenos, cilantro, and lime juice that marinated while the steak cooked to let the flavors develop and that created a sort of garden fresh accompaniment to the steak. I did mess up by dobbing sour cream on my first taco, because in my experience, sour cream always goes on tacos. It does not go on these tacos. It obscures the flavors, weakening them.

As a value comparison, it’s a bit harder to justify these tacos. Even fresh and organic, I could purchase these ingredients at about half the cost. The only caveat is that I don’t know what was in the beef marinade. (It came already marinating in something.)

Again, this came with clear, easy-to-follow instructions. I will say that I have tried to make tacos similar to this before and failed. Most recipes say to cut the meat before you cook it and this creates strips of thin, tough meat. This recipe had me cook the steaks then cut it into strips, which worked out much better.

I would probably not order this particular meal again, but I can understand why it is a successful customer favorite and I’m glad I gave it a try.

Environmental Impact

I was a little concerned by the environmental impact of the shipping methods. I’m not sure if anyone does it better, but this si something I plan to look out for. They claimed the ice packs were “recyclable by reusing” but we didn’t need them for anything. There was also a great deal of insulating material that needed to be thrown away, although some of this did go toward our daughter’s egg drop project.

Customization

Number of servings: While you can choose dinners for two, for, or six people, it is worth mentioning that Home Chef packages their meals for two people at a time. They will send you two packages for the four-person plan, and three for the six-person plan.

*The recipes are written for the two-person package.* I had to double the recipe for my four-person family as the enclosed instructions were written for the two-person package, including amounts. If I have one complaint to make about this company, it’s this. For the cost, they should have sent a set of instructions that didn’t require me to do math in my head, detracting from the ease I mentioned above.

Delivery frequency: Shipments must have a $50 value. I had no problem with this requirement, because it would be hard to justify their shipping costs for cheaper deliveries.

They will, however, ship you food less frequently than once a week, if you like the services but maybe can’t afford quite so much every month. They’ll ship them every two weeks, or three, or four, or let you put a pause on your account indefinitely, welcoming you and your money back whenever you’re ready. 🙂

Sustainability: Each dish has a use by date, specified on the web site so you can plan accordingly. The salmon, for instance, needed to be used within three days. The steak tacos within five. You can choose to have your meals delivered on Wednesday, Friday, or Saturday depending upon your needs.

Overall Impressions

I was surprised by how much I liked this program. I’m still having trouble justifying the expense, especially since I’m not exactly the target market for this service. But as much as I try to cook excellent foods, I’m a cook, not a chef. You want meatloaf and mashed potatoes? I got your meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Cookies? I’m awesome at cookies. And nice hearty soups are no problem either.

These meals were things I wouldn’t be upset to be served at a sit-down restaurant. Yes, I still had to cook them, but they were easy and convenient, and created few dishes.

I felt pampered, just a little bit, using this service.

So yeah, I think I could try this again. But I plan to try a different service first, because I’m the kind of girl who likes to shop around. When I finish, there will be a side-by-side comparison.

Next up – Plated!

Dear Netflix

Dear Netflix:

I thought you were different.

I’ve been an ardent supporter of the Netflix brand almost from the start. Well before on-line viewing became more the norm than the exception. Well before your original content made you a serious threat to cable TV. You created binge watching, everyone’s new favorite way to watch TV. And you gave us shows we couldn’t find anywhere else.

Sense8 was one of those shows.

Look, I’m a businesswoman. I get it. I knew Sense8 was unlikely to get the full 5-season arc the creators seemed to want. It’s an expensive show to make — hugely expensive. And it’s super edgy, although well loved for all that.

But while you can’t fully make business decisions based on emotions, you can’t ignore them either. Businesses who can only see numbers and fail to take into account the human element lose big in the long run. I know you know this, Netflix. All I have to do to understand how well you know this is look at your forward-thinking policies on parental leave. It’s a visionary way to support your employees and help them become happier and more productive.

Customers, too, need to feel supported.

Networks have poisoned their viewership through decades of releasing and retracting shows, often with no warning or closure. It has made the consumer wary of investing in new shows, and it has fueled their decision to head to services like Netflix where they can binge watch a guaranteed number of episodes at a time and where, up until now, even the shows with less popularity regularly got renewed.

Look, I’m not saying that you should renew a show costing $9 million per episode for 3 more years. All I’m saying is this: Give us closure.

Closure could be achieved in a two-hour movie. Or one last season. Or something in between.

Closure will give you something more, too. More than fan satisfaction. It will build trust with your audience.

Trust. Something NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, and all the other networks lost long ago. It’s the reason I won’t start watching a show on those networks before it’s been out for at least 2, preferably 3 seasons.

Trust isn’t something you can put a price tag on. If you can become the network that will finish things, if at all possible, even if it’s not in the best, most idealistic way, then your audience will expand by leaps and bounds as more and more viewers decide, “What the heck? I’ll give it a try” to every new show that comes along.

I hope you will seriously consider lending closure to the most fantastic TV show ever produced and in so doing, send a message to your viewers that you know TV watching is more than a business to them. It’s an emotional investment.

Sincerely,

A concerned viewer

Travelers Season 1

Canada is once more proving that they’ve got game when it comes to science fiction television shows. This joint Canadian/Netflix venture was an easy binge watch with an instantly hooky premise and a great cast.

So sometime in the future, things are bad. “Travelers” jump back to modern time by rewriting the brain of some poor schmuck who’s about to die anyway … in an accident or some other preventable way. The future depends upon the age of computers to accurately record the places, times, and mechanisms of these deaths. (The answer to the question: “Why don’t you kill Hitler?” which did come up.) Not all travelers land safely. The journey comes with risks, and there is a real chance of dying.

Of course, our five heroes have no problems … at least, no problems arriving. One ends up dealing with his host’s heroine addiction while another learns that her host had a serious mental disability which essentially means she’s going to die (host brain can’t handle it).

They’re on a mission to save the future, and they’re not the only ones here. That’s one of the things I enjoy most about this story: You get a sense of a much bigger pictures and of a carefully orchestrated scheme. We’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

I have 1 complaint about this show. It’s something I didn’t fully know how to put into words until the very end of the season, although I sensed something a little off nearly from the start.

We know almost nothing about these characters’ lives before they jumped to the present (their past).

There’s a great deal of story and character development in the here and now, but the fact that we don’t have a solid backstory, or any backstory at all, makes it hard to understand the true stakes of the situation. I know they’re intentionally trying to keep the future murky, but this strategy backfires on someone like me who thrives on character motivation. Why did they risk everything to come back? What did they leave behind? Was any of it good? Who they are is more than who they have become; it began in their past (in the future).

I hope season 2 will address this gaping hole. I definitely plan to watch and find out!

I’d give this a solid 4/5 starts and recommend it to scifi fans.

Sense 8 Season 2

It’s been almost two years since I reviewed “My New Favorite Scifi Series: Sense8” I made no bones about it, I love, love loved this show! I rewatched it 3 times in the summer of 2015, checked daily for news of its renewal, and felt the greatest relief of my life when they announced it had gotten a second season.

Then I waited. And waited some more.

Then came the Christmas Special, which I didn’t love. As I wrote in that review, this isn’t like Doctor Who — it’s not episodic. The characters can’t just go on a stand-alone adventure and in fact, they didn’t. They honestly spun their wheels and made excuses for not taking action for an entire year, even while Wil and Rylie were on the run and in hiding.

It made me nervous. After all this time, was the show not as good as I had first thought? Had I set it on a pedestal too high for it to reach?

I waited some more.

Finally, a week and a half ago, Snese8 season 2 arrived and … I loved it!!!!!

First, don’t think for a second that taking 11 days to watch this show means anything except that I have kids, this show is extremely inappropriate for kids, they go to bed at 9 and I go to bed at 10. That’s one episode per evening, minus game night. Honestly, I watched this show as quickly as it was possible for me to watch!

Unlike the first season, which had a serious warming up period, season 2 got things rolling right away. The clan is in danger from Whispers and from BPO. They’re working together to learn more and to try to free Wil from his heroin-induced stupor (the only thing keeping Whispers out of his head).

Meanwhile, every character has his/her own things going on — Sun is still in prison and her brother is trying to kill her; Lito is suffering the fallout of coming out of the closet; Van Damn has been noticed by reporters and become a symbol of hope for his people; Kala is unhappy with her husband and the things she’s learning about his company; Wolfgang is in the middle of some Berlin crime wars.

The thing that struck me most about season 2 is that the characters had truly become a cluster. 

There are so many things that are awesome about this that it’s hard to separate!

  1. The science fiction of the show is more real this season, more apparent in every scene and in every action, making even the mundane seem more extraordinary.
  2. The pacing is faster because the interconnectivity of the characters is the most interesting part of the show.
  3. The pacing is faster because even when you’re spending time with characters or plots you’re less interested in, you get visits from characters (along with their baggage) you’re more interested in.

Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about the way the show portrayed the worldwide cluster in this season. When a big event took place in any of the characters’ lives, the others were likely to be present, even if they were just watching or partying. Then they might take over at odd moments, bolstering one another and making each one more than they could be alone.

The cinematography was awesome too, of course, just like in season 1. Seamless transitions from Bankok to Seoul to Berlin to San Fransisco to Amsterdam to … they were all over the world! The amount of work that must have gone into making this show is mind-boggling. And it’s beautiful. It’s stunning. It’s worth it! 🙂

Having said all that … 

I do have a few odd complaints about this season. The biggest weakness in season 1 was the beginning, but the biggest weakness in season 2 was the end. Maybe because season 2 started on such a high note, there wasn’t anywhere else to go? But the last episode was my least favorite of the season, which is a huge problem. (Please note: I liked the episode, it was just my least favorite.) I was left feeling, not curious or anxious or excited, but frankly confused and bewildered. The final sequence of events made very little sense to me.

In fact, confusion was something I felt a little too often through this season. 

I watch this with my husband, and I can’t count the number of times I stopped to ask him, “What did s/he just say?” or “Did you follow that?” The BPO mystery was often revealed through a series of back-and-forth conversations, usually involving Nomi and at least one of the others, and I just don’t get it. Even now I don’t get it. I’m going to rewatch soon (from the start of season 1, actually) and maybe I’ll get it then, but it’s frustrating ot me that I didn’t get it the first time.

All of which means that while I still love this show, I’m not sure that I can say I love love love it anymore. It’s gotten knocked down to a 5-star rating from an off-the charts rating. Okay, maybe 5.5 stars! It’s good. You should watch this. 

Lemony Snicket Season 1

Image result for lemony snicket netflix

Finally, a Netflix original show that is not only great entertainment for me, but great to watch with the whole family! The Series of Unfortunate Events is based on the bestselling books, which I have not read. But I don’t feel like I missed anything by going straight to the cinematic adaptation. These shows were riveting.

First, I have to recognize the fantastic cast. Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf is simply meant to be, but he does not carry the show on his own. The child actors, Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes, were brilliant, and not even just for their ages. I hope to see these two in a lot more in the future. Patrick Warburton as the title character and narrator, Lemony Snicket himself, delivers a wonderful deadpan with hints of real emotion beneath. And on and on. Most of the acting here is overacting, but done to perfection.

Now on to the story: I’ve never sat down to watch a show and been told right off the bat not to watch. Brilliant reverse psychology! The story is intentionally far-fetched and the general tone is, in fact, one of despair. Yet there are moments of levity and somehow the absurdity strikes just the right chord.

This series was just a bit intense for my 8-year-old, thought I suspect she’ll watch it again and enjoy it. My 11-year-old was a bit iffy for the first 2 episodes, but then demanded that we binge-watch the rest in a single weekend. My 8-year-old is prone to being a bit oversensitive and she tends to like shows better the second time she watches them, so my guess is that most 8-year-olds would be okay with this. Just know your kid. I wouldn’t recommend this for children much younger than 8.

True Memoirs of an International Assassin

Austin and I were in the mood for something light this weekend and as if it were planned for us, Netflix released its original movie “True Memoirs of an International Assassin” on Friday.

This movie tells the story of an aspiring novelist working on his first suspense-thriller. Fellow writers, you will particularly enjoy the setup as we catch glimpses of a writer at work. At one point, the characters sit around tapping their feet and checking their watches as the author tries to figure out how the scene will unfold. Loved it!

Then he gets a publishing contract. This part is not realistic, just in case you were wondering, but give it a pass because here’s the setup and it’s really pretty funny: The publisher swore she wouldn’t delete a word and she didn’t. She just added one: “NON” in front of “FICTION” So … this poor schmuck gets kidnapped and carted off to Venezuela where things just keep getting worse.

I really enjoyed this movie. We were even able to watch it while the kids were awake. Note: This movie is not for kids; however, unlike many shows that have unexpected nudity, meaning you have to make sure the kids are behind closed doors and snoring, this was fairly clean. It gave us the opportunity to “chill out” with the kids on chill night — them playing video games while we enjoyed the show.

The laughter wasn’t nonstop, but it was laugh-out-loud funny plenty often enough. I highly recommend.

The Quest for the Three Magic Words

Put simply, the quest for the three magic words is an irksome phenomenon I’ve witnessed in novels with a strong romantic component, characterized by the stubborn refusal to say the words, “I love you.”

In a broad sense, the goal of any HEA romance is for the characters to fall in love, and often the realization of this love is the climax of the story. The dramatic tension in such a story (or subplot) is the constant interplay between that which brings them together and that which keeps them apart. When these forces are in perfect balance, when we desperately want the couple to find true love and happiness but desperately believe in the obstacles preventing such a union, there can be a moment of true emotional pain.

On the other hand, when he loves her, she loves him, they are both acting on this love, showing one another this love, and the only thing holding the HEA at bay is that one or both is afraid of saying three little words, then you have the quest. What is keeping them apart? Maybe he is afraid of commitment or doesn’t believe in love. Maybe she’s been burned before or doesn’t believe in love. (I get a lot of the whole not believing in love thing, especially in the male’s perspective.) Whatever the reason, they would be blissfully happy together if only one or both would pry open those lips and say a few words. Nothing else really needs resolution – there’s no anger, mingled feelings of hatred or jealousy, or even guilt over betraying a deceased love with this new love. (Though I should say that in all of these situations, when the angst goes on for too long, I’m still liable to brand it a quest.) There’s just a refusal to say the words and possibly a fear of commitment (which becomes all the more ridiculous in regency romance novels in which the couple is already married).

As far as dramatic tension goes, this quest quite simply puts me to sleep. In fact, in a straight-up romance with no subplot, I’ll usually stop reading as soon as the story devolves to this quest. Why? Because I know how it’s going to end. Sooner or later, they’re going to say the words and live happily ever after. It’s just not that interesting to find out how he or she finally comes to realize what is already so incredibly obvious. She’s afraid to risk her heart? What? It’s already gone!

I’ll tolerate the quest if another parallel plot such as a mystery or suspense is holding my interest, but even then it often earns an eye roll. This is because of the other issue I have with the quest for the three magic words: In my mind, it is more important by far to actively love someone than it is to say you love someone. Call me quirky if you like, but I guess I’ve taken the old writing advice, “show, don’t tell,” to be more than a useful trick for bringing a story to life. It works in real life relationships – show me you’re my friend, don’t just tell me. Show me you’re an expert, don’t just tell me. Show me you love me, don’t just tell me. Yes, you can say the words too, but in the grand scheme of things it simply is not that important. And that is the key characteristic of the quest for the three magic words – they’ve already reached their HEA. I know it. I feel it. They’ve shown it. They just haven’t said so.

I suppose the point of the quest is to show a person coming to a turning point in his or her life in which they finally realize the truth about themselves, a truth previously blocked by a host of preconceived notions (eg the hero doesn’t believe in love). And since the quest for the three magic words is such a popular part of the romance genre, I imagine that it must work for a great many readers, perhaps readers who have had a different experience with life and love than I have, but for my part, you can feel free to imagine me rolling my eyes anytime you see these words in a review: I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a quest for the three magic words.

Helix Season 2: WTF?

Finished the second (and last) season of Helix and I have no idea what I just watched.

Don’t get me wrong, season 1 had quite a bit of WTF going for it as well. I mentioned as much in my review a couple of weeks ago. But it had a degree of intrigue that had me willing (if not precisely eager) to move onto season 2. And watch season 2 …

Well, you know how you can’t look away from certain things? Like Donald Trump? Helix Season 2 was like that.

I thought (naively) that there would be more development of characters, world, and themes in this season. That we would get some answers. What I got instead was … I have absolutely no idea.

Strangely, despite all that, I’m sad that there’s no third season!!! Not because I could possibly recommend this show to anyone, but because I still have this need to understand WTF is going on.

TV Series Review: Z Nation

 

Just finished watching seasons 1 & 2 (all that is currently available) on Netflix and …

I liked it!

I should probably preface this by saying that I’m not really into zombies. They make no sense. I mean, sure, a disease that turns humans into ravening monsters intent upon biting other humans could be interesting and frightening, but how those same humans stay alive for years without food or water? There are these things called the Laws of Thermodynamics. Just saying. Vampires and animal shape-shifters are much more logical. I’d say zombies are the least sensible fantasy/paranormal/scifi monster.

But if you can set that aside for a moment …

What the SyFy Network (still hate the name) presented us with here is a post-apocalyptic world and a group of survivors on a mission to save what’s left of humanity. I like apocalypses. (That didn’t sound right, did it?) I like heroes. This was an interesting group of characters.

The stakes couldn’t be higher, the action was great, the characters were believable, and survival was not guaranteed. I won’t give anything away, but let’s just say Z Nation took a leaf from George R. R. Martin – who appropriately made a guest appearance in season 2!

As with most series, some episodes were better than others. The pilot got things rolling, though, so if you want to tiptoe into this story, that’ll be a fair test of whether or not you’ll like the rest of the show.

I was worried that after pulling off a great first season, the second would go downhill, but it didn’t. There was a slightly different tone – they had a little more fun with the premise in season 2 and took themselves less seriously. That tone worked for me better at some times than others (as you would expect). What’s important is that the stakes continued to go up throughout season 2, we learned more about what was going on, and by the end I was thirsting for more.

Good news: Season 3 is scheduled for next fall.

Bad news: Season 3 isn’t until next fall!

My only real criticism of this show, aside from the fact that zombies aren’t my favorite trope, is that I think there are some internal inconsistencies. I say I think because there are still some lingering questions that the show’s makers could answer in a way that would make it all pull together. I’m just … well, again, I don’t want to write a review with spoilers. And this wasn’t such a big problem that it will keep me from watching; more a minor annoyance.

All in all, I do recommend this series, especially to those who love apocalypse stories. I’d give it a strong 4 out of 5 stars.