Monday, May 28, 2012

Horse Haven: For Every Little Kid Who Never Got A Horse

When I was a little girl, every shooting star and birthday candle and wishlist to Santa contained the same request: a horse. Despite living in town, I still wanted a horse of my very own to ride and brush and love. It's probably no surprise that I never got that horse, and it's probably a good thing I didn't. I don't have the money or time for a horse, and while I still enjoy riding, I'd rather visit a public stables and pay for a ride rather than be responsible for my own horse.

Recently, I was introduced to the Facebook game Horse Haven, where you can keep and care for your own virtual horses. Horse Haven is a game where you are the sole inheritor of your uncle's run-down ranch. You start with a single foal and a lot of weeds and broken buildings, and quickly begin turning the mess into a successful ranch by feeding and caring for your horse, growing treats for your horse, and training your horse to enter competitions.

You can also buy more horses and develop a full working ranch, complete with breeding stables to produce more foals, training pens, and a stable full of horses of all colors and types. Once your horses are trained, they can visit other towns to compete for trophies and awards.

As you level up and get more awards, you can visit new places.

One unique feature of this game is that by playing with your digital horses you can help Angel Acres Horse Haven Rescue, a real-life non-profit horse rescue center in Pennsylvania. Certain items you can buy for your farm provide direct donations to the charity, ensuring that you're giving back while indulging in your imaginary ranch.

So what do I think of it? Horse Haven is a fun resource management game. You have to balance training your horses with building up your farm and clearing away debris. There is a limited amount of energy to do each task, and you can quickly run out of energy, leaving you to either buy more energy or wait until you can build up more energy again.

This is my ranch and two horses. It's a work in progress. 

Raising and caring for the horses is a lot of fun. My daughters saw me playing and suddenly it was a group game - they like helping me pick out what to add next to the ranch and never fail to tell me when I have energy again to attend to my horses. If you have friends who play the game as well, you can visit their ranches and help them out with chores to gain rewards for yourself. You can also send game gifts to your friends and put out requests for items you need.

The downsides to the game are that it can take a long time to get up enough energy and horse bucks to get very far in the game. If you're willing to spend real money, you can get there faster, but without spending real money you have to be dedicated to advance quickly. Also, you get a lot further in the game if you have friends playing as well. There is a computer generated character who serves as your friend if you don't have any Facebook friends playing with you, but real friends are almost needed to get you all of the items you need.

The game's theme is cute and perfect for anyone who ever wanted a horse as a kid. The graphics are bright and kid-friendly and the mini-quests are interesting and help in building your ranch. I also like that some in-game purchases will also result in donations to the Angel Acres horse rescue center.

So if you like Facebook games and still remember closing your eyes tight and wishing for a horse on the first star every evening, give Horse Haven a try. Even if you can't have your own horse, these horses won't complain if you ignore them for a day and you're still helping other horses through the game.

Full disclosure: Thank you to Ubisoft for sponsoring this blog post. Please click here to learn more about Ubisoft. I was selected for this sponsorship by the Clever Girls Collective. All opinions are my own. #UbiChamps

Monday, May 14, 2012

Cosmo Gives Seal of Approval to Cesar Treats For Dogs

No, no, not the magazine. The Cosmo I'm referring to is my dog.

It's hard to believe that it's been less than five months since we adopted our first dog, Cosmo. We adopted him at nearly five months old as a medium-sized, skinny puppy who narrowly escaped death row by only a few hours. We thought he would remain medium-sized. And since that time, our wonder pup has doubled in weight - now an 80lb, 10-month-old puppy!

Hey there, I'm Cosmo.

And yet even though it's been five months, it feels like we've had him forever. He quickly found a place in our family, blending in as if he's always been here with us. I can't imagine a day without him now. Even though I planned for him to never be on our furniture, I've relented and enjoy having my pup laying next to me with his head on my lap. He's a good companion and a lot of fun to have around.

Working from home, he's with me throughout the day, serving as my assistant and occasionally urging me to put down the computer for a short meeting concerning the state of belly rubs in this home office.

Your assistant would please like a few minutes of your time?

Beyond ear scratches and belly rubs, though, he loves his treats. He was found starving as a puppy, so naturally he's very food motivated. Being a spoiled pup, of course we want the best dog treats for him, since not only should they be tasty, but also small enough to be good motivators to use for training.

Due to his unexpected size, though, we have to be careful with his treats. The vet has determined that he may have hip issues due to bad genetics, and she's cautioned us to keep his weight down as much as possible to reduce the strain on his joints. Which means our large puppy needs to be fed like the medium-sized dog we thought he was going to be.

I recently was sent a sample of the new Cesar Cookie Crunchies treats for dogs for Cosmo to review. We received two flavors: Rotisserie Chicken and Filet Mignon. These dog biscuits are small and crunchy with a strong meaty smell that Cosmo really enjoys.

The treats are great because they're large enough that even my bigger puppy considers them a significant treat to crunch up, yet each cookie is only 10 calories so I don't feel bad giving him several. We use them as rewards for good behavior and as training rewards when teaching him commands. He's always willing to focus and listen when we hold up the treat.

 Look at that focus as he waits for the command to eat his treat.

The Cesar Cookie Crunchies have three cute shapes and have the consistency of a typical dog biscuit. If your dog is a messy eater, this could result in crumbs on the floor from crunching up the cookie, but if your dog is like Cosmo (with the motto of "no crumb of food shall go uneaten") then you have nothing to worry about and any stray crumbs will be quickly suctioned up.

My only complaint is that, as I said before, the treats have a strong odor. While Cosmo would tell you (if he could talk) that the smell is simply perfect, it's a little strong for my non-canine nose that isn't always seeking out the smell of meat. It's a minor complaint, though, and considering how fast Cosmo will snap to attention when he catches a whiff of these treats, it's easy for me to look past.

The features I love the most are the small size, making them the perfect treats for small dogs to big dogs, and that they're only 10 calories each. For a dog who needs calorie counting to keep a slim physique, it's nice to be able to give him several smaller treats instead of one big one. And anyone who has been on a diet knows that several smaller treats (even when they add up to the same as a big treat) feels like we're getting more.

Whether your dog is big or small, he'll probably love Cesar Cookie Crunchies treats for dogs. Cosmo gives them two paws up for flavor and crunch.

Full disclosure: I wrote this review while participating in a blog tour by Mom Central Consulting on behalf of Cesar and received a product sample to facilitate my review and a promotional item to thank me for taking the time to participate.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Springtime Comfort & Style With Lee Jeans! (Giveaway!)

I've said it many times, and I'll say it again: I live in my jeans. I know many moms love their yoga pants, but this mom needs a little more structure to her bottom half, without the need to dress up the top half to match. Jeans are the perfect middle-ground - dress them up or down, they're always ready to go.

But now that spring is here - and the temperatures have finally caught up to the season - my full length jeans are being stored away as I break out the capris and shorts.

If you're read my blog for any length of time, then you know there is only one brand of jeans I rely on for comfort any time of the year: Lee Jeans. You've probably experienced my story: you try on a pair of jeans, and if they fit at the waist, they're too tight in the hips. If they fit well in the hips and seat, you've got the dreaded waist gap in the back.

So when I tried on my first Lee jeans a few years ago, I expected them to be just like the others. Wrong! They have room for women with hips, the waist neatly nips in with little to no gap, and there's just enough stretch to give you room to move without the jeans then losing their shape.

These are simply the best fitting jeans I've ever tried, and they're the only jeans I know that take into consideration that women have curves. (I've been told that there are some expensive jeans that also fit a curvy body, but who wants to spend $150 on a pair of jeans when I can get just as good of a fit for under $50?)

What I love most, though, are the styles. These aren't "mom jeans" - they're on-trend with the current fashions and look great on any age.

(And OMG could we get rid of the "mom jeans" = ugly assumption in pop culture. I'm a mom, I wear awesome jeans, therefore my mom jeans are awesome!)

Lee recently sent me two of their new Spring styles to try out, and I'm in love all over again. First up is the Stevie Slender Secret Capri:

What I love most about these is the contrast stitching against the dark wash. It looks fantastic dressed up or down, and really stands out in the evening. These are also part of the Slender Secret line, meaning there's extra shaping built-in so you look even slimmer!

Then there were the Comfort Fit Dean Walk Shorts:

I've never been one for denim outside of the normal blue, but this red is hot! They fit like a dream and the inseam is long enough to prevent any fabric creeping while walking. I've already received so many compliments on these shorts.

To sum up: Lee provides affordable denim that is fashionable, fits real women, and holds up so well through my daily life. The new Spring offerings have only renewed my love with Lee!


If you're not already a fan of Lee jeans, I'm confident that there's a good chance you will be. And to help with that, I'm giving one reader a pair of capris or shorts (your choice of style and color) so you can start the warm weather season off in style!

To enter, use the Rafflecopter widget below, which will give you all of the options for this giveaway! Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Full disclosure: I received the capris and shorts mentioned above from Lee to facilitate my review. All opinions stated here are my own, and as no two bodies are the same, your mileage may vary. But really, if you have any hips at all, you'll love these jeans.

Friday, May 04, 2012

The Avengers: Making Everyone Love Superheroes

Note: Please welcome my husband, Aaron, as he shares his review of The Avengers. We were given preview passes earlier this week, and he's been counting down the minutes until he could tell the world about this film! I agree with nearly everything he says here - this is a must-see.

The road to The Avengers begins back in 2008, when Marvel Entertainment announced the creation of their film division. No longer would we see Marvel's comic-book heroes brought to life on screen by third parties – instead the publisher would produce their own films in-house. First up was Iron Man, and frankly, it was a gamble. Let's take a mostly unknown superhero, gather high-profile actors to play the supporting cast, and stick Robert Downey Jr. in the lead.

It was incredibly risky. There were any number of reasons it could have failed. But it didn't. Instead, it launched Marvel Studios as a powerful entity in its own right, and soon after, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and finally, Captain America: The First Avenger followed.

And all of it leads up to this. As the four title heroes, joined by the Black Widow and Hawkeye, and assembled by Nick Fury, Chief of S.H.I.E.L.D., band together to stop Loki and a horde of invaders in Marvel's The Avengers.

The Film
The film picks up where we left off at the end of the previous films, with Thor returned to Asgard, Loki banished, Captain America newly re-awakened in the modern world, Doctor Banner in hiding, and Tony Stark doing whatever he darn well pleases. S.H.I.E.L.D. has been studying the Tesseract, last seen in the hands of the Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger, and then being studied by Dr. Selvig at the end of Thor. Loki returns, steals the Tesseract, and begins a reign of terror. At which point Fury realizes that he needs the team of heroes, and one by one, brings them into the fold.

There are subplots a-plenty, as each hero has at least one bit of baggage to unload. The Tesseract itself changes hands several times, the heroes suffer several major setbacks along the way, but when all is said and done, the Avengers assemble to fight off Loki and his army. And what we get along the way is one of the greatest superhero team stories ever told on film.

There was reason to doubt. Joss Whedon, despite being a geek god, has only one feature film director's credit to his name. Could a film balance four superheroes who had each carried their own film, in addition to adding in two more? Would the threat feel like it was big enough, especially when it used a villain who had been defeated by a single hero in a previous film? Would characters be shoved off to the side? Fortunately, Whedon and company rose to the challenge in answering each of these questions, and the film comes together beautifully.

In the end, we're left with a film that feels far shorter than its' 2 hour and 24 minute run time – not because anything feels rushed, but because it grabs you by the collar and never lets go as it races towards the climax.

The Good
There are so many excellent moments in the film, it is hard to narrow this down. “The Good” could easily cover most of the entire film. Let's start with the cast.

Five of the six heroes who make up the Avengers have played these characters before, although Scarlett Johannson's Black Widow and Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye only appeared as supporting cast members of earlier films. Wisely, the film gives us a lot of time getting inside their heads, and in many ways, this film could have been the basis for a Black Widow feature. Robert Downey Jr. gives us the same effortless charm that has made us love his Tony Stark since the beginning, Chris Evans' Captain America gives us both the somewhat na├»ve “Man out of Time” vibe, while still providing inspiration and leadership to the team, and Chris Hemsworth looks like a Greek (or Norse) god come to life. Samuel L. Jackson returns as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, supported by fan-favorite Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and newcomer Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders).

The real gamble in casting was Mark Ruffalo. As the third Bruce Banner to hit the big screen in the past decade, he could easily have been the weakest link. Instead, as both Banner and as the Hulk (who bears a greater resemblance to Ruffalo than any earlier Hulk did to its' respective actor), Ruffalo steals the screen whenever he appears. Not a small man, Ruffalo manages to make himself small and cowed by the world around him – and his fear of the beast inside. When the Hulk is unleashed, he commands attention, and ends up with two of the funniest moments in the movie.

Whedon's trademark elements as both a director and a screenwriter are on display in this film, in terms of the overall plot, and most importantly, his characteristic witty dialogue – not to mention the ample amount of screen time devoted to the Black Widow. What is a pleasant surprise is that, while his trademarks are there, they're not pushed front and center. This feels like “The Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon” instead of “Joss Whedon's The Avengers.”

Loki's plot is also suitably epic. His alliance to the alien invaders makes this feel big, and there is every reason to believe that if the team cannot stop the invaders within New York, the world will soon fall.

Visually, the film feels big. This is not a small, personal drama. This is about six superheroes saving the Earth. And that scope is conveyed both through dialogue, action, sight and sound.

The Bad
The Avengers is not perfect. While I was extremely pleased with the film, it never had a moment where it blew me away. There's nothing completely new here. We've seen these heroes before. We've seen a team of heroes before. We've seen comic characters brought to life in a way that doesn't apologize for being based on a comic.

The Avengers kicks it up a notch, and does so masterfully, but it doesn't bring anything entirely new to the table. This is not a mark of shame. There is nothing wrong with setting out to make a great action film that honors the source material, gives us a tight plot, good characters, and keeps us entertained for two and a half hours, and succeeding admirably. If it fails to do something “new”, that speaks to the strength of the superhero film over the past decade rather than a weakness in the film.

And yet... I somehow wanted more. More of what I don't know, but I wanted something more.

There is also a lack of female characters in the franchise – which is surprising considering the prominence of Black Widow, the addition of Maria Hill, and the return of Pepper Potts. All three of these women (and the amazing actresses who portray them) are excellent – but I'm fairly sure that they never exchange a line of dialogue with each other.

My other gripe is the use of the alien race chosen for the film. They are remarkably generic, and despite the stinger during the credits (because there is always a stinger in the Marvel films), they never feel unique or important. This is a shame, considering that the Marvel universe is ripe with interesting alien races, any of which could have served as Loki's army.

Finally, and this is entirely a personal preference, but for me, the 3D was an unpleasant addition to the film. 3D often makes a film get blurry during the action sequences, and that was on display in full force during the final battle between the Avengers and the alien forces.

Final Thoughts
The Avengers is an incredible film. It is tightly scripted, deftly plotted, smartly written, brilliantly directed, amazingly well cast, and just a lot of fun. This is everything we want a summer blockbuster “popcorn” film to be. It shows off the strengths of its cast, and of Joss Whedon as director, script-writer, and ensemble builder.

As alluded to above, stick around through the credits. There is not one, but two “stingers” during the credits. The first hits midway through the credits, and gives us our hint to the villain of the next The Avengers film (and there will be one, be assured of that – with Thor 2 and Iron Man 3 both on their way, we can expect Marvel to announce plans for the next Avengers before 2020). I won't ruin the reveal, but it won't come as a complete surprise to anyone who has read Marvel Comics, or has paid close enough attention to the previous films. The second stinger occurs at the very end, and may be the funniest moment yet in any of the Marvel features.

Is it my favorite superhero film of all time? I'm not sure. Not yet. But I am certain I loved it, and will be seeing it in the theaters again.