The Tassimo: Hate That I Love You

Have you seen the commercial for the Tassimo Brewbot? In it this sleek little coffee machine goes all Terminator on you. Except that this Terminator is at your service. He wants to get you coffees or cappuccinos or lattes until you fall over from coffee intoxication -- quite literally flooded by coffee. It's a measure of how addicted I am to coffee that this scenario sort of appeals to me. Better to die by coffee's hand than, say, by your spouse's hand. But I digress.

Last week the Tassimo people sent a Tassimo T20 (which retails for $100-$130) for me to review. They also threw in some Gevalia coffee and Starbucks Cappuccino Primo "T-discs" (more later on T-discs). I saw the box at my front door, and I may have shrieked with glee. Only my nine-year-old son knows for sure.

So let's be clear: I was prepared to like the Tassimo T20. That's important.

The Tassimo is the latest single-cup coffee brewer to hit the market. It is a competitor of the Keurig. And it's made by Bosch, which is a plus, the Bosch name signifying (to me, at least) appliances that are well made, elegantly designed, and quiet. Having used the Tassimo for a week now, I'm prepared to acknowledge the first two attributes, but not the last. This small machine makes an unholy racket. Which doesn't bother me, as I don't have really young children anymore, but if I still had an infant or baby in the house, one who needed to nap now and then? I might be troubled by the noise.

Its operation is simple: there's a water reservoir in the back, a stand for your mug, and a compartment on top in which you insert a T-disc (a little plastic cup) that contains pre-measured ground coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or what must be super-pasteurized milk (no refrigeration required) for making cappuccinos or lattes. There's a bar code on the T-disc that's read by the machine, so it "knows" what it's brewing and dispenses water accordingly. There is also a "Service" T-disc, which you use when you want to clean the machine (it allows water to run through the machine and into a cup). This all sounds complicated, but it's not. I was able to set up the machine and make my first cup of coffee within ten minutes of opening the packaging. My engineer husband didn't even have to help me.

And the coffee (Gevalia, though I've ordered some Starbucks Breakfast Blend, which I prefer) took less than a minute to make. It tasted fine, was piping hot... So far, so good. But hmm -- what was this? There were only eight ounces of coffee in my cup! I drink more like twelve *cough* sixteen *cough* ounces at a time. So I'd need to use TWO T-discs to support my caffeine habit. Which is not only an expensive way to drink coffee (because T-discs are more expensive, ounce for ounce, than bags of coffee, of course they are -- you're paying for the convenience of having drinks made quickly and easily when you own a single-cup brewer), but is also ecologically unfriendly (all those non-biodegradable little plastic discs!). On the other hand, some argue, when you use a single-cup brewer, you don't have a coffee pot to wash and a filter filled with grounds to throw away. Sorry, but no. More waste with single-cup brewers, and that's a negative. More expensive coffee, and that's a negative.

But, but, but... On Friday my husband asked me to make him a cup of coffee as he was running out the door to work. I handed it to him in seconds, not minutes. Which is fantastic, really. And if I were to host a houseful of guests, I could offer them their drinks of choice and have these drinks ready in no time at all. Latte? Sure! Tea? OK. Coffee, fine. Cappuccino? Yes!

The fact that the Tassimo T20 makes lattes and cappuccinos may well be its saving grace. This morning I made a latte for myself and a cappuccino for my husband -- in under three minutes. Clean-up after making milky drinks is a minor affair -- take off the nozzle assembly and hand-wash it, and run the Service T-disc through the machine to get rid of any milk residue.

Here I am actually SAVING money. Because I regularly buy tall lattes at Starbucks at a cost of around $3 each. One can buy a box of 16 Starbucks Cappuccino Primo or Latte Primo T-discs (each drink requires 2 T-discs, one for the milk, and the second for the coffee; thus the box actually contains the raw materials for only 8 drinks) for $10.99 at Target and elsewhere. So the lattes I make at home, with the Tassimo, cost me only $1.38.

But, you may ask (I hope you do), how do Tassimo/Starbucks lattes taste? And I answer, Pretty damn good. The super-pasteurized milk (versus fresh milk) makes a difference, yes, so it's not quite the same as a Starbucks latte, but for me it's close enough. And I don't even have to leave the house in order to enjoy one.

I am a Starbucks fan (if you weren't already able to tell), so the fact that Starbucks makes T-discs for the Tassimo pleases me. But not all, not nearly all, brands of coffee are available in this format, and that will put off some coffee drinkers. Yet Tassimo reports that many more brands of coffee are soon to be available for its coffee machines, and I don't doubt it.

So there you have it. I am discouraged by the eco-unfriendliness of the single-cup coffee brewer, and I am taken aback by how expensive it is to make a cup of coffee in one of these machines as opposed to making it in a good ole Mr. Coffee coffeemaker.

And yet I'm drawn to the Tassimo, against all my ethical instincts. I like it. I cannot lie. I'm using it. And I don't plan to stop using it anytime soon.

Do you covet a Tassimo Brewbot? Leave a comment (with your e-mail address, please) on this post by midnight EST on Friday, December 24th, 2010, and you'll automatically be entered to win a Tassimo T20 like the one pictured above. Sorry, but only commenters who live in the United States are eligible to participate in this giveaway. The winner will be chosen randomly and announced on Christmas Day! It'll be a Christmas gift! Now go forth and comment.

Disclosure: Tassimo sent a T20 single-cup coffee brewer for me to review, as well as one box of 16 Gevalia Signature Blend Coffee T-discs and one box of 16 Starbucks Cappuccino Primo T-discs (enough for 8 cappuccinos) for me to brew.


Little Face Packs a Big Punch

When I first heard about Sophie Hannah's Little Face, I started itching to get my hands on it. Every now and then, a book comes along that I MUST HAVE. NOW. I don't care whether it's in paperback or hardcover, so strong is my desire to read it. These kinds of books are usually the ones that I end up reading in a day (and night), ignoring every nonessential distraction until I've finished. It's lucky that such books are few and far between, because my kids are more or less motherless during the time it takes for me to read them. (I suppose it's also lucky for them that I'm a fast reader.)

Why was Little Face so compelling to me? Because it's a psychological thriller. I am helpless in the face of this genre. But there's more: the protagonist is a new mother, and she's experiencing the jarring shift in identity that accompanies the birth of one's first child. Parenting and psychology... Is this not what I consider nearly daily at Slouching Past 40? (If you're not nodding your head right about now, then you must not read my blog.) And if that weren't enough, Sophie Hannah, the book's author, is a published poet, who recently received first prize in the Daphne Du Maurier Festival Short Story Competition. I do like me some good writing. Even the most cleverly plotted thriller is bound to lose me if its author cannot write with grace and ease.

Just when I'd decided that I couldn't go another day without purchasing Little Face, a publicist at Penguin Books contacted me to ask whether I might be interested in reviewing the book. What did I have to say to that? Hell, yeah. Oh, and smart publicist.

Because I did read Little Face within a 24-hour period. And it didn't disappoint.

Alice Fancourt, the novel's protagonist, has a brand-new baby named Florence. She and her husband David are living at their mother-in-law's estate. (Problem #1, if you ask me.) Alice is persuaded to leave her newborn daughter for an hour or so in order to take a tour of her MIL's health club, which she's considering joining. When she returns to the mansion, her husband is asleep. She tiptoes into her daughter's nursery to find a baby.

But not her baby.

If not hers, then whose? And why?

How David's and Alice's relationship falls apart under the stress of the apparent kidnapping is fascinating and terrifying both, as is how Alice reacts to and cares for this other child as the police investigate Florence's abduction. Alice's task -- and it's a difficult one indeed -- is to persuade her husband, MIL, and the police that the baby currently in residence at the Fancourt estate is not in fact her own baby. The infant looks quite like Florence, and only Alice feels certain that the baby is not her own. How does a mother convey the awesome power of the maternal instinct to others who don't feel it, who are beginning to call her mental health into question?

In time Alice realizes that she has at least one ally: Detective Simon Waterhouse is inclined to believe her. The fact that David's first wife was murdered strikes Waterhouse as more than just a bizarre and macabre coincidence. Yet his superior, Charlie Zailer, disagrees. Charlie's a bit disgruntled, having been long been in unrequited love with Simon. She watches as Simon begins to fall for the lovely Alice, and she is not happy. Not happy at all.

And then, one week into the investigation, things get even more complicated when Alice and the baby (not-Florence, whom Alice has dubbed Little Face) disappear...

Hannah's characters are wonderfully, intricately developed. Alice's MIL, Vivienne, is an elegant woman with impeccable manners. She is used to getting exactly what she wants, and she brooks no dissent. Alice herself is painted with vivid colors: her fatigue and depression leap up and off of the book's pages. Her growing desperation and fear for her own sanity -- and eventually for her life -- is startling and yet completely believable under the circumstances. David's refusal to consider that the child whom he has has been nurturing (and whom he continues to nurture) is not his own is expressed ever so chillingly as anger at his wife for needlessly "doing this" to him and Florence.

The book is engaging throughout. And though I was able to predict one facet of its ending well in advance, I was still greatly surprised by a plot twist revealed only at the very end of the book.

Little Face
is a well-crafted, well-written thriller. I look forward to reading more from first-time novelist Sophie Hannah.


Cutest. Cards. Ever.

I love the stationery at tiny*prints so much that I'd almost have another baby just so I could order some tiny*prints birth announcements.

Well, not really.

Still, the company's designs for photo birth announcements and birthday invitations are contemporary and cute. Stylin', even.

Here are some of my favorites:

Adorable, aren't they? I told you so.

Check out tiny*prints. You won't be sorry.


Starbucks' Latest: The Vivanno

Something I hate about the majority of American foodstuffs is the abundance of sugar (or artificial sweetener) in the mix, whatever the product. Take salad dressing. A little oil, vinegar, mustard -- and I'm set. My husband, on the other hand, likes to bring home store-bought salad dressings. I cannot abide them. It's as if someone inadvertently topped my salad with caramel sauce. Caramel sauce is wonderful on ice cream, don't get me wrong. But on salad? Not so much.

Recently, a representative of Starbucks approached me about trying its new smoothie, the Vivanno. The Vivanno has nothing artificial in it. That grabbed my attention immediately. What's more, it's got nutritional value. There is an entire banana in each smoothie. An entire banana!

I ordered the banana chocolate Vivanno. (There's also an orange mango banana Vivanno.) Here is what was in the smoothie I received:

1 banana
whey protein and fiber powder
2% milk
bittersweet cocoa

That's it!

It's incredibly filling, a liquid meal, as it were. And no, it's not low in calories, but neither is it high in calories. (It contains 270 calories, 21 grams of protein, and 6 grams of fiber. By contrast, the orange mango banana smoothie contains 250 calories, 16 grams of protein, and 6 grams of fiber.)

The smoothie served as my lunch. I didn't get hungry again until dinnertime.

It's not overly sweet, so if you like things sweet, this may not be the best choice for you.

I, however, thought it was delicious, after I got over the shock of being able to taste, really taste, the banana and chocolate -- instead of just tasting sugar.

I see myself ordering a Vivanno on days when I'm rushing from place to place with no time to sit down for lunch. I've just described well over half of my days. Yours, too, I'm guessing.

Are you interested in trying the Vivanno at no charge? Just leave a comment (only one, please) on this review before Friday, August 1st, 2008 at 5pm EST. I'll randomly select two commenters to receive a coupon for a free Vivanno. Please be sure to leave me an e-mail address so that I can contact you if you should win. Good luck!


Mia Versus the Bugaboos

Mia's a sweet little mouse who lives in a Victorian house filled with nooks and crannies that your child can explore while trying to help Mia keep her family from getting evicted. Some rude and crude bugs (the Bugaboos) have taken up residence in the house, and if Mia doesn't do something soon, the human owners of the house will notice these unpleasant creatures and call the exterminators. Mia's afraid that she and her family will then be forced out of the only home they've ever known.

This is the story line motivating Mia Reading: The Bugaboo Bugs!, educational software meant to entertain and teach children ages five to nine. Players can choose one of two options, journeying with Mia on her adventure (and completing reading games in the process), or playing, as stand-alones, any one of twelve games designed to improve literacy.

J., who is six, tried the adventure first. The graphics are phenomenal. The interior of the Victorian is gorgeous, if a bit forbidding. (J. found the closet to be a little scary.) He soon became involved in the story, and more than once I heard him exclaim, "There's a Bugaboo! I've got to get him!" His interest stalled, however, in the middle of the adventure. He got stuck. He was supposed to find an object in order to "open" another room in the house (so that he could scout out more Bugaboos), but he couldn't find the object. Also, in playing one of the games (choosing words in the proper order in order to make a comprehensible sentence) embedded in the adventure, he found himself in an endless loop. He'd complete a set of five sentences only to be bounced back to the beginning of the game again, and again, and again.

So he decided to turn to playing the individual games, which he liked quite a lot. At first, he found them a little too easy, so we bumped up the difficulty level a notch or two, and the new level was just right for him. J. and I both thought that Mr. Mole's Stamps was a wonderful, challenging game. Each "stamp" is one pane of a comic strip. Five stamps are presented, but not in any particular order. There are also five word "bubbles" to go with the comic strip panes. The child must first match the correct words to the correct image, using visual cues like the expression on the character's face. Then he or she must put the panes in sequential order. It's tough work. J.'s excitement at correctly completing a series was palpable, precisely because it had been so challenging for him.

We also enjoyed a game called Write and Spell, which requires the player to anagram a given word string, and J. thought the game Bat Cadet was great fun. Bat Cadet asks the player to read some instructions that involve coloring. Using colored "pencils," the child colors different parts of a picture, and/or shifts objects in the picture to different locations, as instructed.

J. liked every game. The only game that troubled him at all was the Letter Arcade. At first, he enjoyed finding the missing letters in a word within a pile of jelly beans (with different letter strings imprinted on each jelly bean), but he found the contraption he needed to use to extricate the jelly bean with the correct letter string to be cumbersome and slow.

One other issue J. and I both had was with Mia's voice. High and squeaky, it's probably very mouse-like; nevertheless, it was grating. As was Mia's saying, "OK!" after every single move she made.

On the whole, though, I'm happy to have found computer software for J. that both hones his literacy skills and also entertains him. I'm even happier that Mia Reading isn't tied to a TV or movie character. The twelve literacy skills games are by and large challenging and interesting. The adventure, however, could do with a more extensive help menu. Although its graphics are sophisticated and appealing, I fear that it's too easy for a player to get lost in the midst of a complicated and sometimes confusing setting -- as Victorian houses tend to be!

Are you interested in this product? That's terrific, because I'm giving away a copy to one of my commenters! Just leave a comment on this post by 5pm on Friday, May 23rd, 2008, and you'll be automatically entered to win. The winner will be randomly chosen -- by J.! Make sure you leave your e-mail address, so that I can notify you if you've won, and so that you can then shoot me your address. Good luck!

[Mia Reading retails for $24.99 at Toys 'R Us and Amazon, among other stores. The software is compatible both with PCs and Macs.]

ON UPDATE: We have a winner -- waiting amy will be receiving a copy of Mia Reading. Congratulations, Amy!

And thanks to everyone who participated in the giveaway.


K'NEX: A Good Thing

Ah, K'NEX. We are longtime fans of K'NEX. My kids have been enthusiasts of building toys since they were 2 or 3 years old. Building toys grow with children and allow them to be as creative as they want to be. When I was little, building toys were always open-ended. There was never a model to follow -- except the one in your head.

These days, building toys come with detailed instructions for making a few (or several) models. My boys love following the directions and making the models "as shown." What I like is that they can also build whatever they want once they've grown tired of assembling the recommended designs.

The K'NEX company sent us two of their newest sets, one for B. and one for J. J.'s is the "Cool Construction 10 Model Building Set" (retailing for US $9.99), designed to appeal to kids from 5 up through 7 years old. J., at 6, is right in the middle of this range. The set comes in a sturdy black case with a handle. The feature that's new to this latest series of K'NEX products is the inclusion of bricks. What's more, these bricks are compatible with the bricks of other building systems. (Can you say Lego, anyone?) B. and J. were extremely excited to learn that they could incorporate Legos (of which we have tons) into their K'NEX creations, and, as far as I'm concerned, the compatibility feature exponentially increases the possibilities for creative play.

J. found putting together his models neither too easy nor too hard -- just right, in fact. Not surprising, given his age. He enjoyed himself and later told me to tell you that what he liked best was that even when the models had been completed, there was still something to do, because they were really fun to play with.

B. enjoyed his K'NEX set as well. He received the "Dueling Racers" set (retailing for US $19.99), designed for children 7 years old and up. B. was thrilled to learn that, with the addition of some AA batteries, his creations would be motorized. Like J.'s set, B.'s set came with K'NEX bricks compatible with Lego bricks. B.'s set allows for the completion of 2 models at a time and 4 models in all. B. liked assembling each car, but I'm pretty sure he liked racing his creations even more. B.'s a building pro, and, at 10 years old, he found putting together the models quite easy.

K'NEX products have always appealed to me based on their sturdiness and quality. Pieces snap predictably and firmly into other pieces. This new line of products is of the same high quality I've come to expect from K'NEX. And, thanks to the clever addition of bricks that coordinate with those of other building systems, K'NEX's latest offerings will allow your child even more room to think outside the box. And, to my mind, that's always a good thing.