Coffee Break: Starbucks VIA and the Origins of My Coffee Problem

Once upon a time, I was a tea drinker. The level of tea consumption in our house is and always has been off the charts; I still drink a lot of tea today, especially in the evening when my occasional insomnia doesn’t need any help from a mug of caffeine. It was tea I was drinking when I first spent a summer season working in Holland, but not for long: hot tea was on tap all day long but it tasted like muddy rainwater. Right next to it was a giant vat of slightly better tasting coffee, so I switched to that, and the rest is highly caffeinated history.

When I got home, I started drinking instant coffee and I stayed drinking it until I moved to Florida and got a coffee machine. Now, I only drink instant in case of emergency and even then I try to hold out, or opt instead for tea. The problem is not that all instant coffee is bad, but that the kinds people to tend to have in their homes are the popular and bland big brand blends.

(Try saying that ten times fast.)

Starbucks VIA Ready Brew Coffee

Enter Starbucks VIA, a new kind of instant coffee mixed with the regular kind of instant coffee that comes in fancy sachets from the world’s biggest coffee brand. The idea: coffee as good as your local Starbucks brews and serves but for only a fraction of the price and in the comfort of your own home.

VIA was released in the US last year but I only found it in my local Tescos (here in Cork, Ireland) last week. There was much squealing: I’d wanted to try VIA so bad that I sent Starbucks a letter I hoped would mildly amuse them enough to send me some samples. (It did.) I snapped up a box of each of the caffeinated flavors, Columbia and Italian Roast, bristling at the price: just over €4 for seven sachets, or about €0.60 per cup. If we say the average teaspoon of coffee weighs about 1.7 grammes, then you’d get at least 58 cups of coffee out of a jar of Kenco, which costs less and is, not coincidentally, the only instant I drink of my own free will.

You will ALWAYS be prepared for a coffee emergency with this snazzy travel cup/VIA storage container. Me wants.

I really like VIA’s Columbia blend, and the Italian Roast is nice too although strong enough to wake the dead. But I drink 2-4 cups of coffee a day and at that price my habit could get expensive, so I can’t see myself drinking VIA on a regular basis.

What it is good for – and what I plan on doing with it – is saving me from the bad cups of coffee traveling invariably brings my way. Although I resent the excessive packaging and the fact that Starbucks seemingly can’t trust me to measure out a teaspoon of coffee, the sachets are very handy for sticking in your handbag. Ask the air stewardess or waiter or guy-operating-that-cart-that-goes-up-and-the-train for a cup of boiling water or swap them out for the crappy sticks in your hotel room and enjoy a cup of coffee that’s actually met a coffee bean.

Click here to find out more about Starbucks VIA products.

The Frugal Book Promoter by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Previously on my Self-Printing Bookclub which isn’t actually a bookclub, I hated Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual for its double duty as self-publishing evangelist propaganda, but really liked Aaron Shepard’s more ethical, sensible and modest approach which he detailed in his book, Aiming at Amazon.

Today I’m going to tell you about my latest ‘how to’ read, The Frugal Book Promoter: How to Do What Your Publisher Won’t by Carolyn Howard-Johnson.

I’ll start with the bad stuff.

First, the book is way out of date. It was published in 2004 and of course since then we’ve had a social media revolution which presents a whole new way – and possibly the best way – for authors to get free publicity and promote their books. Secondly, it constantly refers to websites, blogs, online articles, mailing lists and email addresses. Since it was written six years ago I think it’s safe to assume at least some of these are now defunct and moreover, I bought the book. I want the information promised to me by the title to be in the book. I don’t want to go to the trouble of ordering it, buying it and reading it only to find out that most of its content is in fact available online and for free. Thirdly, it made my eyes bleed. Continue reading

Happy Birthday Sheelagh, OR, How I Accidentally Wrote a Whole Book

My best friend, Sheelagh, lives in New Zealand. She moved there in January 2009 and therefore hasn’t been around for my transformation from miserable, much-abused receptionist who only talks about writing to slightly less miserable full-time writer who blogs, has self-published one book and written a novel. To make matters worse, Sheelagh doesn’t have the internet at home and has an aversion to internet cafes, and so she can’t comfortably catch up on all my caffeinated blog musings.

Sheelagh and I in Honduras, April 2008. I'm the one with the crazy banshee hair.

Today she turns 28 and as part of her birthday present I’ve sent her a blog book. Making it was a pain in the ass – an excruciating eight hour marathon of copying and pasting, formatting and reminding myself that she is, after all, my friend – but I’m really happy with how it turned out, and I ordered two copies so I have one to keep. I liked it so much actually that I’ve decided this is just volume 1, and I’ll continue to crank them out every six months or so, keeping Sheelagh up to date with my  writing life while also preserving my posts to serve as a memento (of what? That remains to be seen!) for me in years to come.

To make the blog book, I used CreateSpace – the same Print on Demand service I used for Mousetrapped. (For details on exactly how, see below.) The first step was copying and pasting all my blog posts into a Word document, so I could format them to look readable before converting it into a PDF.

After the laborious task of transferring all my posts to Word, my eyes flicked to the word count at the bottom of the page.

I squinted, looked again.

Did that really say…? Was that right…?

Had I really written 79,654 words worth of blog posts in only 5 months? Continue reading

Putting the Caffeine in Catherine, Caffeinated

I have a very small announcement to make: I’m going to start blogging about coffee.

Yes: six months later, I’m actually going to put some caffeine in Catherine, Caffeinated.

These posts will be short and only about once a fortnight, and will mainly consist of me telling you about the coffee I drink, the way I make it, the places I tend to drink it and the wide variety of mugs I drink it in.

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re thinking, this is going to be riveting.

For starters, I want to tell you about Robert Roberts Coffee, who make an American Blend I pretty much live on. They’re on Facebook. If you like coffee and you live in Ireland, go there right now and ‘Like’ their page. Then keep an eye on their updates. They’re always looking for tasters, samplers and survey takers and some of it involves getting free coffee. They sent me a bag of their Decaf Java blend just for sending an email and – very excitingly! – I was on a taster panel for their new Italian espresso style blend. (Is there anything more exciting than getting an unmarked bag of coffee in the mail? I doubt it.) We were even asked to comment on the potential design of the bag. And knowing I was, um… instrumental (!) in its conception, I’ll definitely be picking up a bag or five of it when it hits the shelves in the next few months. That and the fact that it’s yummy.

My U2 Anniversary

This time last year I was in Dublin, getting ready to go see U2 play Croke Park.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

I was also dying from stomach flu and only made it to Dublin by taking the day before off work, overdosing on Lucozade and Imodium and spending the four hours between arriving at our hotel and heading to the stadium wrapped up in bed. I never really listened to U2 much before that night – I was accompanying my brother, the uber-fan – but their live show converted me.

The concert is a good memory not just because it was amazing, we had a good time and at some point during the support act I recovered from my stomach flu, but because I only had one week left in work. (By ‘work’, I mean the hellish deceptionist job I had where I deflected flaming balls of sh-t other people had thrown for eight hours a day.) I was about to quit to write my novel, which is exactly what I did.

Woo-hoo!

Can I do the same this autumn? Let’s bloody well hope so!

(The writing a novel bit. Not the quitting, obviously.)

What I Thought Of… If I Stay by Gayle Forman

If I Stay by Gayle Forman is the first book I’ve received, read and promised to review as part of Transworld’s Summer Reading “Challenge” (quotation marks my own; four books in four months is hardly a challenge, unless we’re talking War and Peace-type tomes) and, as I’ve previously explained, this will be an interesting experience as I usually only read books I, well, want to read – books I’ve chosen myself.

Let’s see how it goes.

If I Stay is the story of Mia, a seventeen-year-old girl who finds herself fighting for her life after a horrific car accident. Unable to communicate with anyone around her, Mia watches from outside her body as doctors try to keep her alive, friends and relatives struggle to come to terms with what’s happened and her boyfriend does his best to break into the family-only ICU. Mia is a cellist, her parents are former punk rockers and her boyfriend is part of an emo band (if you don’t know what emo is, think the soundtrack to Twilight) and so the narrative is infused with music, so much so that it’s like a character unto itself.

Forman writes simply and her matter-of-fact narration serves to strengthen the story’s tragic blows. I wasn’t at all surprised when I read in the Acknowledgements that Forman had listened to ‘Falling Slowly’ by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (Oscar-winning song from the movie Once) “more than 200 times” while writing, as reading If I Stay feels exactly like listening to that song. The beauty of the book is that it’s never obvious which way Mia’s decision will go and there are many truly moving scenes that made the pages blur before my eyes.

That said, I couldn’t relate to Mia, mainly because her life (prior to the accident, of course) was pretty perfect. She was pursing her dream of playing the cello as a professional musician, and had got into Juillard seemingly without much effort. Her parents are so cool they let her boyfriend stay over, never once suggest she go and do something more secure (like study Finance) and along with her younger brother and equally supportive grandparents, it’s all Brady Bunch at the breakfast table. Her boyfriend Adam even gets to live out his dreams, too – right out of high school, his band gets a record deal – and despite his ice-cold coolness, he falls for the nerdy, plain girl who loves classical music and she, in turn, manages to fall right in with his friends.

This isn’t what being an average seventeen-year-old girl is like – it’s what we’d like it to be like. It’s Edward and Bella all over again, just without the vampirism. Whether or not we’d like to admit it, in reality Mia would be scrawling Adam’s name in love hearts all over her diary and he’d be blissfully unaware that she even exists.

Comparisons to The Lovely Bones wouldn’t stand up in court; to me, this is more reminiscent of Jodi Piccoult’s The Pact, another tragic love story involving too-perfect teens struggling with their perfection. All in all, I think If I Stay is a moving parable suitable for teenagers on the cusp of entering the Real World, but its narrator’s life is a little too perfect for this cynical grown up.

Click here to purchase If I Stay from Amazon.co.uk.

Bye-Bye Bookshops: Aiming at Amazon by Aaron Shepard

Last time on my Self-Printing Bookclub – which, I should point out, isn’t really a bookclub; it just sounds nice – I didn’t glean anything but frustration from Dan Poytner’s Self-Publishing Manual. This week we’re at the other end of the moral scale with the very ethical Aaron Shepard and his popular self-publishing book, Aiming at Amazon: How to Publish Your Books with Print on Demand and Online Book Marketing on Amazon.com, and hoping for something a little more useful than a rant about agents, publishers and bookstores.

Things are off to a good start with the author’s CV. Shepard is an award-winning children’s author who has written several books about this ‘new business’ of self-publishing, he created that god-awful obsession for published authors, Sales Rank Express, and most importantly, he makes a living from selling his self-published books, many of which are about self-publishing. He’s even been in The New York Times. Shepard’s ideal student is about to produce their non-fiction book using a Print on Demand service like Lulu or CreateSpace, is computer literate and willing to focus solely on online sales. Shepard has nothing against bookshops, per se – he simply points out that it’s far, far easier to shift copies of your book from a free listing on Amazon.com. Continue reading