Friday 1 March 2024

Hazard Night by Laura Vaughan (guest post)


thriller set in a boarding school

Hazard Night

Cleeve College is not for everyone...

When Eve's husband is appointed housemaster at his old boarding school, Cleeve College, she gives up her life in London to join him. But the isolation and loss of autonomy threaten both her happiness and her marriage.

The arrival of Fen, an enigmatic artist and wife of the new Classics teacher, is a welcome distraction. Fen doesn't play by the rules, and she and Eve enter into a game of escalating dares, disrupting the delicate balance of school life.

Then, the morning after Hazard Night, a tradition that allows the students to run wild and play pranks for one day, a body is found. Someone has been murdered. And it seems everyone has something to hide...

Purchase Link -

Author Bio – Laura Vaughan grew up in rural Wales. She got her first book deal aged twenty-two and spent several years working in publishing, followed by a behind-the-scenes role at English National Ballet. She lives in South London with her husband and two children. Hazard Night is her third novel for adults.

Social Media Links –

Please welcome Laura Vaughan who talks about HAZARD NIGHT & Dark Academia.


Dark Academia centres on the rot at the heart of elite educational institutions. The most famous example is Donna Tartt’s THE SECRET HISTORY, but you can find elements of the genre in classics such as BRIDESHEAD REVISITED or GAUDY NIGHT. For film-lovers, SALTBURN uses several of the tropes, as does THE RIOT CLUB (an adaptation of Laura Wade’s play POSH). It’s the kind of morality tale that’s concerned with the seduction, then corruption, of wealth and privilege. There’s a heady dose of youthful arrogance and twisted desires. What more could a crime writer want?

 My first adult novel, THE FAVOUR, was about a decadent group of art history students in Italy, who end up having to hide nasty secret. With HAZARD NIGHT, I set the action even more squarely in Dark Academia-land: an elite boarding school.

It’s transgressive fun to take a peek at privileged people behaving badly. The pay-off is when they get their come-uppance. In gilded-youth noir, the reader generally sees events through the eyes of an outsider who, knowingly or unknowingly, brings about everyone’s downfall. There are a number of outsiders in HAZARD NIGHT – and all are potential agents of destruction.

One is Eve, the lonely and frustrated wife of a housemaster; the other is Alice, is the neglected teenage daughter of the school chaplain. Both Eve and Alice fall under the spell of glamorous newcomers. Fenn, the bohemian wife of the new Classics master, befriends Eve and draws her into an escalating game of dares. Alice is taken under the wing of the Bette, queen bee of the new female sixth-formers, and finds herself caught in a love-triangle of far-reaching consequences. Observing all of them from the shadows is Lindsey, the townie girl who works in the school laundries, and seems to know more of Cleeve’s secrets than the faculty do.

It’s no coincidence that this group of outsiders and disruptors is female. Cleeve College is a bastion of male entitlement: a place “where female rage has little currency”.  The story is set in the nineties, a more innocent time in some ways, when teenagers grew up free from the baleful influence of social media. Yet it was also a time when casual racism, sexism and homophobia were often imbedded in classroom life. The whole concept of Dark Academia is, in any case, rooted in privilege. I wanted to explore the viewpoint of the boys who rule the roost at Cleeve, but in a way which allowed for another outside perspective.

Henry Zhang is one of a number of recent arrivals from Hong Kong, whose parents, worried about the upcoming handover of the territory to the Chinese, have dispatched their children to the safety of a British boarding school. He’s handsome and popular, the captain of the cricket team, but also painfully aware his success is contingent on never rocking the boat, never being overheard talking Cantonese with the other Asian kids … and smiling along when he’s called the Yellow Peril. But for all his carefulness, Henry, like the other outsiders at Cleeve, doesn’t realise how quite how precarious his position is.

A boarding school campus is its own self-contained world, which can seem impregnable as well as impenetrable to those who don’t belong. But it’s a very delicate ecosystem, nonetheless. “Hundreds of disparate people, the majority of whom are in a hormonal maelstrom of one sort or the other, cooped up together in a wholly artificial environment and governed by a mixture of ritual and convention alone! You disrupt something like this at your peril,” as one character observes.

            And peril is certainly coming, for the discovery of a dead body in the school grounds is only the beginning…

Chez Maximka, psychological thriller

Thursday 29 February 2024

Degustabox February Box


Degustabox is a monthly food and drink subscription box. It's an excellent way of discovering new products which have only just appeared in the shops, or those which have been around for a while, but you haven't had a chance to try them yet.

Thanks to Degustabox, I have found new favourites to add to our shopping list, including some products which I otherwise wouldn't have tried.

Each time a monthly box arrives, its contents are a total surprise. You get a good selection of foods and drinks.

If you haven't tried Degustabox subscription box yet, and would like to have a go, I have a £3off discount from your first box (and you can unsubscribe any time), just use code DKRLN when placing an order. 

What did we get in February Box Degustabox?

Chez Maximka, food box

Kellogg's KRAVE Choco Brownie Flavour (£3.29) is the latest addition to the Kellogg's range. If you love chocolate-flavoured cereals, you will enjoy these cocoa flavoured mixed cereal pillows, with the gooey-melty chocolate filling inside.

This cereal is made of natural grains, and contains B vitamins, no artificial colours or flavours. Suitable for vegetarians, RSPO certified, and Rainforest Alliance certified (cocoa).

Nutritional information: 131kcal and 7.5g of sugar per 30g serving.

Available exclusively at ASDA.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Snatt's Bocaditos Tomato and Oregano (£2.20) are Mediterranean snacks. These oven-baked bread pieces are flavoured with tomato and oregano.

Nutritional information: 8g of protein, 8g of fibre, 2g of salt, 503kcal per 100g. No palm oil, no added MSG. 

Great with tapas, or toppings for creating authentic pintxos. Or serve with creamy dips, or a bowl of soup.

Available in all major supermarket chains.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Tweek Sweets Fizzy Fusion 80g/or Smoothie Chews 70g or Foam Fever 70g (£1.99) is a traditional candy with a twist. Their brand name is inspired by the word "tweak" meaning to fix, fine tune and improve. Try the new tweaked recipes and be the judge whether the new versions come up trumps.

These sweets have natural colours and flavourings, they are high-fibre, have no added sugar and 50% fewer calories. Also gluten free and halal certified.

Available online at, on Amazon, Protein Package, TK Maxx, Margiotta, Skinny Food Co and Muscle Food.

You should receive 1 item in your box.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Maggi Recipe Mix Piri-piri and Fajita (£0.99 each) are blends of herbs and spices.

I might be one of a very few people who didn't get an air fryer when it became trendy, and if you don't have one either, don't worry. These blends could be used for cooking in the oven, pan or grill too. Check out for more information.

You should receive two items in your box. 

Maggi Piri Piri is recommended to be used with chicken fillets, but it will give a lovely kick to a vegetarian dish as well, you could add it to veggie burgers or dips.

Nutritional values: 249kcal and 1.4g of sugar per serving. A packet makes 4 servings, when prepared.

Maggi Fajita is perfect with chicken, peppers and onions, but again could be used in vegetarian recipes.

Available at Sainsbury's, Iceland, B&M stores.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Maggi Chow Mein Flavour Instant Noodles (£2) are instant noodles, that could be eaten as a main or side dish. Add these noodles to your stir fry, or  a bowl of soup, with a little bit of garlic, ginger and black pepper for a satisfying meal.

This is a multipack of 4.

Nutritional values: 273kcal and 1.10g of salt per each pack. Low in saturated fat and suitable for vegetarians. Just add boiling water, wait for 3 minutes and enjoy.

Available at Poundland and Iceland.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Boundless Sweet Chilli Nuts & Seeds (£2.50) are gluten free vegan snacks. The motto on the package is We deliver Gut happy snacking.

Full of fibre and packed with nutrients (magnesium, potassium, zinc and iron) in every crunch to leave you feeling good.

Nutritional values: 172kcal and 0.26g of salt per 30g serving (3 servings in a packet).

Add these nuts and seeds to porridge, salad, soup or yogurt, or snack on their own.

Available at ASDA, Ocado and at and on Amazon.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Heinz Chicken Broth (£1.70) is a comforting soup made with pearl barley, carrots, parsnips, swede, chicken, leeks and other ingredients. Heat it gently in a pan before serving. A handy standby in the kitchen pantry, for a quick and easy meal, when you have no time or desire to cook. 

Contains no artificial colours or preservatives.

Typical values: 68kcal and 1.8g of sugar per 1/2 can.

Available at Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrisons, ASDA and Ocado.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Just Spices Mexican Allrounder/ Pancake Spice Mix/ Chips Seasoning, or Avocado Topping (£1.90 for two sachets) are funky seasoning blends.

I discovered this brand a few months ago, and bought quite a few little jars to try. Our favourite is Egg Topping, it really lifts up boring fried or scrambled eggs. A real winner. There was also an Advent Calendar from Just Spices, which looked fabulous.

We received two sachets of Avocado Topping and Chips Seasoning. These seasoning blends are made without additives.

Available at only in the Taster Box at £9.99. You can buy bigger pots at Waitrose. 

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Sparklean Tropical Vegan Protein Drink (£2.50) is a fizzy soft drink which promises health perks of a nutritional supplement, as it contains 15g of vegan protein in each 330ml can.

Ingredients include: water, pea protein, white grape juice, natural flavours etc.

It's available in tropical, strawberry & lime, as well as orange flavours.

Nutritional values: 80kcal, 1g carbs, 1g sugar.

Available at Boots, Amazon and Direct.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Whatever Brands Jelly Belly Fruit Drinks (£1.29 for 550ml) is a range of soft drinks with iconic flavours such as Very Cherry, Berry Blue and Tutti-Frutti.

These drinks contain 20% fruit juice, less than 5g sugar per 100ml, no artificial flavours and are fortified with vitamins A, C and E. They are also HFSS compliant and suitable for vegans.

You should receive 1 item of three in your box.

We received a blue bottle, Berry Blue. I had one sip, and found it way too sweet to my taste, but my son enjoyed it.

Available at local delis, groceries, Home Bargains and Poundland.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

And finally, the Product of the Month - Tilda Tasty Sides Indian Black Dahl or Chinese Black Bean (£1.99)

I saw Tilda's launch of the new products last year, and since Tilda is our favourite brand of pre-cooked rice, I really fancied trying new products. These vegetarian meals are both great with rice.

You should receive 1 item in your box. We got Tilda Indian Black Dahl. Its ingredients include cooked Urid lentils, vegetables (spinach, carrots), single cream, cooked Mung Dhal, tomatoes, caramelised onions, spices and oils. Serve with rice, and a naan bread for a tasty meal.

Nutritional values: 94kcal and 1.3g of sugar per 100g. No artificial colours, flavours or preservatives. High in fibre. Vegetarian, but not vegan. 

Available at Tesco, Ocado and Amazon Fresh.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

What was your favourite product in the latest Degustabox?

Monday 12 February 2024

Murder at the Leaning Tower by T.A. Williams


"There was no question that he was a brilliant - and ruthless - businessman with a nose for a lucrative deal, and not too many scruples about how he made his money. According to what I'd read, in his private life he was also far from mundane".

"Murder's never pretty, but in a city of such overwhelming beauty, it appeared even more squalid".

Murder at the by T.A. Williams  is a marvellous and highly entertaining murder mystery set in Italy.

This is the 6th book in the Armstrong and Oscar Cozy Mysteries series. It reads perfectly as a standalone, but it might help understand the dynamics between the main characters, as well as their back story, if you've read some or all of the previous books in the series.


A cozy crime series set in gorgeous Tuscany... It's murder in paradise!

A secluded villa...

When Dan Armstrong is asked to provide security at a private villa on the outskirts of Pisa, he's pretty sure it will be an easy job. Villa Gregory is remote; the gathered guests are rich - what could possibly go wrong?

A glittering gathering...

Inside the high walls of the palatial villa, Dan discovers the gathered guests are some of the most powerful tycoons in the media world, with plans for world domination. With so much at stake, Dan redoubles his efforts to keep everyone safe.

A detective under pressure?

But when one of the group is found murdered, Dan's heart sinks - especially considering Anna's own daughter is in the frame! When the police arrive, Dan meets formidable Inspector Adolfo Vinci, a man whose main talent seems to be for getting things wrong. It all goes from bad to worse for Dan as the man from the Leaning Tower starts leaning on him.

It's another case for Dan and Oscar to sovle and this one won't be easy!

Dan Armstrong is pretty content with his life in Italy. He has a decent job, a comfortable place to live, a loving girlfriend, and a loyal companion, his dog Oscar. "Now that I had resigned from the Met, moved to Tuscany, and set up my own business as Dan Armstrong, Private Investigator, I once again found myself doing my own legwork, and it wasn't always a bundle of fun."

One day he is approached by a Business Development Executive with a request, "My boss is hosting an important meeting there in two weeks' time and he'd very much appreciate it if you could be responsible for security while the meeting's taking place".

Thus Dan agrees to provide security for the top secret meeting of media and finance moguls. "The people taking part are all major players in the field, some household names, and if news of what's being discussed at the meeting were to get out, there would be hell to pay".

The meeting takes place in a remote Villa Gregory, known for its quirky previous owner and the replica of the Leaning Tower in the grounds.

When one of  the guests is found dead in their room, the local police make one blundering mistake after another. The local Inspector called Vinci "fancies himself as a tough guy, like one of those bad Hollywood cops... He likes to think he's a character from a movie - although he doesn't have Clint Eastwood's looks".

The murder victim wasn't universally popular, and though the pool of suspects is limited, it appears quite a few of them would have wanted to see this person dead. Jealousy, and financial misdoings are possible murder motives. Money and sex could be the prime motivators.

Vinci who thinks he's "God's gift to policing" coming with the ludicrous assumptions, one of which is accusing the daughter of Dan's girlfriend.

In a way, this is an Agatha Christie-esque type of plotline, with all the suspects being confined to a secluded villa. Dan has to read the clues and eliminate suspects one by one, if he wants to find the murderer(s) before the time runs out.

There are so many elements that make this series great fun - a gentle humour, a wonderful relationship between man and dog, spectacular settings (a new location in each book), descriptions of social mores and food, vivid characterisation.

This is cosy crime at its best. As enjoyable and delectable as an Italian gelato on a hot summer day, or a glass of zesty Aperol spritz by the seaside. 

You may find many dog characters in cosy crime fiction, who accompany the main protagonist and bring humour into the narrative, but Oscar is by far my favourite.

Murder at the Leaning Tower is a hugely enjoyable mystery, clever and well-plotted, with pleasingly ironic notes.

This post is part of the blog tour for Murder at the Leaning Tower.

Many thanks to T.A. Williams, Boldwood and Rachel's Random Resources for my e-copy of the book!

Chez Maximka, cosy fiction set in Italy

Chez Maximka, cosy mystery set in Italy

Purchase Link -

Author Bio –

T A Williams is the author of over twenty bestselling romances for HQ and Canelo and is now turning his hand to cosy crime, set in his beloved Italy, for Boldwood. The series will introduce us to retired DCI Armstrong and his labrador Oscar and the first book, entitled Murder in Tuscany, will be published in October 2022. Trevor lives in Devon with his Italian wife.

Social Media Links –  



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Cosy crime set in Italy

Chez Maximka

Wednesday 31 January 2024

January Box Degustabox

While we're saying Good bye to January, let's ponder on the very first Degustabox of the year.

Degustabox is a monthly food and drink subscription box. It's an excellent way of discovering new products which have only just appeared in the shops, or those which have been around for a while, but you haven't had a chance to try them yet.

Thanks to Degustabox, I have found new favourites to add to our shopping list, including some products which I otherwise wouldn't have tried.

Each time a monthly box arrives, its contents are a total surprise. You get a good selection of foods and drinks.

If you haven't tried Degustabox subscription box yet, and would like to have a go, I have a £3off discount from your first box (and you can unsubscribe any time), just use code DKRLN when placing an order. 

What did we get in January Box Degustabox?

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Product of the Month:

Mutti Vegan Bolognese (£3.50) is a tomato pasta sauce with vegetables and vegetable protein. As January is often associated with a vegan choice of life (Veganuary), the product of the month reflects this trend.

Ingredients include tomato puree, rehydrated yellow pea protein, olive oil, onion, carrot, shallot, etc.

We're big fans of Mutti products, and I've just had a multi-pack of Mutti Polpa delivered with my latest grocery order. I use Mutti in vegetarian stews, vegetable ragu with okra, sweet peppers and butter beans, currys and, of course, pasta dishes. It's a matter of personal taste but I prefer classic tomato Mutti products (and I don't think psillium, bamboo and linseed belong in a Bolognese ragu, sorry).

Available in Sainsbury's.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Swizzels Curious Chews (£1.25) is a pack of 18 mouth-watering chews, all individually wrapped.

Flavours included are Fudg-ee, Sour Refreshers, Puds, Refreshers and Drumstick.

My sons were very happy with the selection, as they are fans of Swizzels confectionery.

Vegan, free from artificial colours.

Typical values: 82kcal and 13g of sugar per serving.

Available in all major supermarket chains.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Hip Pop Tropical Peach - Living Soda (£1.70) is a lightly sparkling prebiotic soda with a fruity taste. It is low both in sugar and calories. 

Each can contains 100% natural ingredients, a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and live cultures to help support gut health. Each can contains 8g fibre.

Free from sweeteners, high in plant fibre, this craft drink is made in small batches.

Typical values: 18kcal and 1.6g of sugar per 100ml.

Available in selected M&S stores, Booths and online at

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Bio & Me Nice & Nutty Gluten Free Porridge/or Spiced Apple Gluten Free Porridge (£1.50) is a gut-loving gluten free and dairy free breakfast.

It is prebiotic, 100% plant-based, with no added sugar.

11 plant-based foods and prebiotics: almonds and hazelnuts, carrot, chicory root, coconut, dates, gluten free wholegrain oats, linseeds, pumpkin seeds, quinoa and sunflower seeds.

Typical values: 237kcal and 7.4g of sugar per pot.

Available in Tesco, Sainsbury's and the Bio&Me website.

You should receive one item in your box.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Knorr Beef Stock Pot (£1.90) will add an extra boost of beef flavour to your dishes. Knorr stock pots are handy to have in the kitchen pantry.

Soup, pasta dishes, one-pot meals, roasts, the choice is endless. You can either dissolve the pot in the hot water or add the pot directly to the dish.

Nutritional values: 6kcal and 1.1.g of salt per pot.

Beef stock pots are slowly simmered with carrots and parsley. They are gluten free.

Available in all major supermarket chains.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Cirio Baked Beans in Rich Tomato Sauce (£1.40) is a classic recipe made with only premium Italian tomatoes. If you enjoy baked beans on toast or as part of the Full English Breakfast, you'll find that Cirio baked beans are full of flavour.

Nutritious, high in fibre and a good source of protein, these beans are also low in fat.

Typical values: 84kcal and 5.7g of sugar per 100g.

Available in all major supermarket chains.

Galaxy Smooth Mint (£1.25) is an indulgent twist on the classic Galaxy chocolate bar. It's creamy, smooth, with a refreshing minty flavour. What a lovely treat!

Galaxy chocolate has a 100% Responsibly Sourced Cocoa badge, and are Rainforest Alliance certified.

Typical values:

120kcal and 12g of sugar per 22g (about 6 mini rectangles).

Available in Ocado.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Rubies in the Rubble Vegan Classic Mayo/or Vegan Garlic Mayo (£3) has been awarded Great Taste award in 2021. 

This creamy vegan mayo is made with surplus aquafaba, a plant-base alternative to eggs. Use as you would use a dairy-based mayo - in salads, coleslaw, sandwiches, quiche, savoury or sweet bakes.

Carbon neutral, 100% recycled and recyclable bottle, gluten free.

Vegan Classic mayo is available at Ocado, Vegan Garlic mayo is available at Ocado, Waitrose and co-Op.

You should receive 1 item in your box.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Caffe Borbone Ground Coffee Crema Classica (£6.50) or Espresso Intenso Blend (£5.80) is a full-bodied and balanced coffee, ideal for Americano, latte, or traditional Neapolitan espresso.

You should recieve 1 item of two. 

Crema Classica comes with a rating of 8/10 on intensity. It's a blend of premium Arabica and robusta coffee. This is an Italian product, famous for its superior quality and traditional taste. Very happy to find this coffee in the food box.

You can find a full range of coffee blens at

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Feedback and gentle suggestions: to give Knorr stock pots a break for a while, and perhaps introduce separate vegan boxes. 

I don't know if that's economically viable, but while trying vegan foods could be fun, the vegans themselves wouldn't want a mixed box, and those who don't adhere to a vegan way of life, might not welcome plant-based products in every box. 

I would like to see a wider variety of teas rather than the same brand that keeps appearing regularly in Degustabox deliveries. 

My favourite part is discovering new brands, that might be available only in ethnic shops or online. Maybe doing limited edition boxes - an international box quarterly or twice a year, like all Italian brands, or French, etc. And an Easter edition, similar to the Degustabox advent calendar, which will be priced accordingly, but also include a more festive selection (you can read about the contents of Degustabox advent calendar among my December posts).

We enjoy our Degustabox deliveries, and look forward to opening each one, and I appreciate how hard it is to choose a new theme and a selection that is different from the previous boxes.

What would you like to see in your Degustabox?

Disclosure: We receive a monthly Degustabox box for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are our own.

Sunday 21 January 2024

The Bookshop by the Loch by Julie Shackman

Chez Maximka, romance set in Scotland

"As I sat there and reflected, I realised that I woke up every morning and looked forward to heading into Book Ends. Whether that had something to do with a tall, dark and brooding portrait painter was another thing".

"Families. Parents. What a painful, emotional mess they could make of things, when they put their minds to it"


Lexie Dunbar is a book lover. And her favourite place in the world is her local bookstore, Book Ends. So when she hears that it's going to be sold, Lexie decides she needs to do something to help. 

Lexie's plan to save the ailing shop is fully underway until gorgeous-but-grouchy artist Tobias Black arrives on the scene determined to turn the bookstore into an art gallery. Lexie is horrified, the last thing the quaint town of Bracken Way needs is a pretentious artist, even if he does seem to charm everyone but her. 

Tensions continue to rise until Tobias discovers a shocking secret that shows they might have more in common than they realise. 

As sparks fly, can Lexie and Tobias work together, or will opposing ideas get in the way of them finding their very own happy ever after.

The Bookshop by the Loch by Julie Shackman (One More Chapter, published on 31 January 2024) is a cosy escapist romance set in Scotland. This is the 6th book in the Scottish Escapes series. The book reads as a standalone, and is not connected to the previous instalments, except by the general theme (romance set against the Scottish background).

Lexie is an ambitious young woman who works as a junior editor at Literati Publishing and loves her job. When she is looked over for an anticipated job promotion in favour of someone with a more impressive name, Lexie decides to take a leave of absence for three months and return to the place of her childhood, Bracken Way, to rethink what she actually wants to do with her life.

She stays with her Mum and grandfather, both of whom welcome her with open arms. 

While staying at home, Lexie discovers that her favourite bookshop, Book Ends, is going to be closed down. The owner of the shop, Trevor, plans to retire. He believes that he cannot compete with online shopping. After a pep talk by Lexie on what she would do to save business, Trevor comes up with an idea of "giving his store a new lease of life and purpose, dragging it kicking and screaming into the modern day". Lexie is startled when Trevor offers her to manage the book shop for him. "Come and turn Book Ends around".

"He was asking me to take over the revamp of Book Ends? Manage the shop? A place that had been part of Bracken Way for thirty years? This was crazy".

Crazy or not, Lexie agrees to manage the full overhaul of the shop. They agree to give this arrangement a year, and if things won't work out as planned, then so be it. Lexie is free to move on, and the shop will be closed down for good.

Lexie is full of ideas, and decides to make a real go of this. However, she is stumped, when a newcomer challenges her plans. Trevor's nephew Tobias Black, a temperamental artist, arrives to the store with a vision of turning it into an art gallery. And Trevor cannot say No to his family.

Bookshops and art galleries have been known to share premises, but it would need a careful planning, and an amicable agreement between the managers, and they seem to be at loggerheads.

On top of the struggles of overturning the fortunes of the ailing book shop and establishing a successful business, Lexie has to deal with a strange request from a random visitor to the book shop. 

Maeve Marshall comes to Book Ends with a story about her elderly mother Celeste, who has a bucket list of things to be done before she dies. Lexie and Tobias get involved and dedicate a huge amount of time on helping someone they don't know.

Lexie's life is further troubled by someone from her past coming back with a shocking revelation. Tobias has devastating news of his own to deal with. Confiding in each other, they find comfort and mutual support. And their initial hostility is disappearing to give way to new feelings.

This is the third book in the series that I've read, and there is clearly a recurring theme, and the enemies-to-lovers trope. There is a determined female protagonist at her career and personal life crossroads who starts a new venue/business, and meets a tall, dark and brooding man, usually with a creative profession. At first he appears as a totally self-absorbed egoist, but gradually he reveals his vulnerable side and is actually a real softie and darling.

There was a lot drama going on in everyone's lives. On top of the developing business and budding romance plotline, there are family dramas in the main protagonists' lives, plus we get an elderly lady with a life-limiting illness, who has a tragic secret of her own. 

I thought the book that Lexie was helping to edit and publish was rather Mills and Boon, and the ending was truly cheesy.

The Bookshop by the Loch will appeal to readers of sweet/clean romance, where a happy ending is assured, and to those who love books about books. This is an entertaining and charming tale of family bonds, love and forgiveness.

For me, the more enjoyable parts were related to the book store, and how Lexie helped to spruce it up. The scenic Scottish location creates a lovely setting for the story.

Thank you to Julie Shackman and NetGalley for my e-copy of the book!

Chez Maximka, romance books set in Scotland

Friday 19 January 2024

Shadows in the Ashes by Christina Courtenay (guest post)

Chez Maximka, historical fiction set in Pompeii


I'm absolutely thrilled to invite Christina Courtenay to my blog today to talk about the inspiration for her latest book, Shadows in the Ashes. 

Like Christina, I was also fascinated by the story of this ancient tragedy, looking at the reproductions of Karl Bryullov's painting The last day of Pompeii.


I first heard about Pompeii when I was a child, and I was fascinated by the story of the fateful eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. It was such a terrible tragedy, and I could imagine the horror and disbelief of the inhabitants when the mountain suddenly exploded. Photos of the plaster casts of people who had died tugged at my heartstrings, their faces and poses showing their fear and sadness. It was the perfect background to a dual time story and I just had to write it – SHADOWS IN THE ASHES is the result.

Last year, I was lucky enough to visit Pompeii and the area around the Bay of Naples. It was one of the most interesting research trips I’ve ever made. I spent a day and a half walking around the ruins, and another half day in nearby Herculaneum, which was also buried by ash from the volcano. Walking in what is left of the two cities, it is easy to imagine yourself back in time. The streets are still there, paved with smooth lava stones, and some of the houses are partly intact. I soaked up the atmosphere and tried to take note of every detail.

Since my hero is a gladiator, I spent some time in the impressive amphitheatre. It must have been terrifying to walk into the sandy arena, not knowing whether you would come out of there alive. I felt a chill as I passed through the dark passage and out into the sunlight. The crowd would have cheered for their favourites, and the noise must have been deafening. A real spectacle, but so cruel and deadly!

Naturally, I also had to take a trip up the mountain itself. Standing by its crater looking down was as breath-taking as the views across the bay, although a lot scarier. These days Vesuvius is monitored 24/7 so that everyone who lives in the area can be warned if there is going to be an eruption. The people of Pompeii back in 79 AD were not as fortunate. Scientists believe the volcano had been dormant for about 700 years before the eruption, so the inhabitants would not have thought it might happen. Some of them must have suspected that something bad was going on, though, as there were increasingly frequent earthquakes leading up to the event. There were other signs too – a drought despite normal rainfall, dead fish floating in the nearby river, failed crops, smoke coming out of the mountainside, and loud noises seemingly emanating from inside the earth. They didn’t realise what these portents signified.

There is an eye-witness account by Pliny the Younger (although it was written many years after the event so may not be completely reliable). He was watching from Misenum, a port at the far end of the bay, and saw the various stages of the eruption. His most famous comment is that the first ash cloud resembled an umbrella pine. I saw some of those during my visit and found his description spot on. That cloud eventually collapsed in on itself, and the surrounding towns were covered in ash and pumice. Later, pyroclastic surges followed, killing anyone who was still there instantly. Those who escaped – and fortunately they were many – must have been both thankful and also incredulous. The towns they left behind were obliterated, and anything they hadn’t brought with them was gone forever.

I’m grateful I live on an island without volcanos or earthquakes, although at least these days we know the science behind them and understand what is happening. The poor inhabitants of Pompeii probably blamed it on their gods – perhaps feeling that they were being punished for bad behaviour. And if they didn’t leave as soon as the eruption started, they didn’t stand a chance.

Will my hero and heroine make it out alive? You’ll have to read SHADOWS IN THE ASHES to find out!

historical fiction set in Pompeii

historical fiction set in Pompeii


Shadows In The Ashes

Brimming with romance, adventure and vivid historical detail, Christina Courtenay's gripping dual-time novel travels from the present day to the fires of ancient Pompeii.

The sunlight caught her gold bracelet, sending a flash that almost blinded her.

She closed her eyes, but jumped when the earth started shaking and there was an almighty boom behind her.

Present Day
Finally escaping an abusive marriage, Caterina Rossi takes her three-year-old daughter and flees to Italy. There she's drawn to research scientist Connor, who needs her translation help for his work on volcanology. Together they visit the ruins of Pompeii and, standing where Mount Vesuvius unleashed its fire on the city centuries before, Cat begins to see startling visions. Visions that appear to come from the antique bracelet handed down through her family's generations...

AD 79

Sold by his half-brother and enslaved as a gladiator in Roman Pompeii, Raedwald dreams only of surviving each fight, making the coin needed to return to his homeland and taking his revenge. That is, until he is hired to guard beautiful Aemilia. As their forbidden love grows, Raedwald's dreams shift like the ever more violent tremors of the earth beneath his feet.

The present starts eerily to mirror the past as Cat must fight to protect her safety, and to forge a new path from the ashes of her old life...

Purchase Links

Author Bio –

Christina Courtenay writes historical romance, time slip and time travel stories, and lives in Herefordshire (near the Welsh border) in the UK. Although born in England, she has a Swedish mother and was brought up in Sweden – hence her abiding interest in the Vikings. Christina is a former chairman of the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association, now a Vice President, and has won several awards, including the RoNA for Best Historical Romantic Novel twice with Highland Storms (2012) and The Gilded Fan (2014) and the RNA Fantasy Romantic Novel of the year 2021 with Echoes of the Runes.  SHADOWS IN THE ASHES (dual time/timeslip romance published by Headline Review 18th January 2024) is her latest novel. Christina is a keen amateur genealogist and loves history and archaeology (the armchair variety).

Social Media Links –

historical fiction set in Pompeii

historical fiction set in Pompeii

Friday 5 January 2024

December Box Degustabox

 It feels like it was only yesterday that we were anticipating Christmas, and now the New Year's eve is over, and January began in earnest. The school holidays are over, and nobody is looking forward to the early mornings.

Degustabox is a monthly food and drink subscription box. It's an excellent way of discovering new products which have only just appeared in the shops, or those which have been around for a while, but you haven't had a chance to try them yet.

Thanks to Degustabox, I have found new favourites to add to our shopping list, including some products which I otherwise wouldn't have tried.

Each time a monthly box arrives, its contents are a total surprise. You get a good selection of foods and drinks.

If you haven't tried Degustabox subscription box yet, and would like to have a go, I have a £3off discount from your first box (and you can unsubscribe any time), just use code DKRLN when placing an order. 

What did we get in December Box Degustabox?

Chez Maximka, food subscription box

Heinz Soup is the Product of the Month. You should receive two tins, French Onion Soup and Broccoli and Stilton/or Spicy Parsnip soup.

Heinz French Onion Soup (£1.70) is a classic soup, full of flavour. It has onion pieces and a splash of red wine to enrich the taste of this traditional dish. Serve it with a garlic cheese toast of cheese croutons on top. What a lovely winter meal!

If you're not overly keen on soups, and prefer stews, use a tin of soup as an ingredient for a comforting beef or pulses stew.

No artificial colours or preservatives, it is also low in fat and sugar. Vegetarian. 

Typical values: 46kcal and 4g of sugar per 1/2 can.

Available in Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrisons, ASDA and on Ocado.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Heinz Spicy Parsnip Soup (£1.70, see above) is a low sugar, low fat vegetarian soup. Sweet parsnips are gently cooked with carrots, onions, as well as warming spices, like chilli and red pepper.

Soups are made for cold weather, and this parsnip soup will be a comforting meal after a long walk in the cold.

Nutritional values: 74kcal and 4.9g of sugar per 1/2 can.

Available at Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrisons, Iceland, ASDA and Ocado.

Maggi Chicken Flavour Instant Noodles (£2) makes a quick and easy meal, filling and flavourful. Make a bowl of noodles, by just adding boiling water and it's ready in 3 minutes. Add any garnishes, and a squeeze of lime juice, and enjoy. 

Chicken flavour noodles are low in saturated fat, and are suitable for vegetarians. There are no artificial colours, or preservatives added.

Typical values:272kcal and 1.47g of salt per serving.

Available in ASDA, Iceland, B&M, Poundland and Lidl.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

KnorrBeef Gravy Pot (£2.25) contains quality ingredients and real meat juices to enhance a meat-based family meal. Think a traditional Sunday roast, or beef Stroganoff. It will enrich a simple vegetable or mushroom soup, and you can also stir it into a risotto.

The gravy pot recreates the authentic flavour of rich homemade gravy in minutes.

Contains no added MSG and free from artificial colours and preservatives.

Typical values: 15kcal and 1g of salt per 70ml.

Available in the major supermarket chains such as Tesco, ASDA, Sainsbury's, and Ocado.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Dr Will's Tomato Ketchup (250g or 500g) or Bacon Ketchup or BBQ Sauce or Mango Sriracha Hot Sauce or Vegan Mayo (£3.50) - you will receive one of these condiments in the box.

We got Dr Will's Sweet Mango Sriracha sauce. It is all natural, gluten free, vegan friendly, keto friendly, sweetened naturally. The sauce itself is a combination of sweet and spicy, and is recommended to be used in tacos, sandwiches, wraps. You could also stir it in stews, rice dishes or roasted vegetables.

Nutritional values: 8kcal and 1g of sugar per 15g.

Available in Tesco, Waitrose, Ocado, Co-Op, Selfridges, Whole Foods Market and more.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Brand new Alpen Delight bars (£0.59p each) are made with creamy rolled oats, wholegrain wheat flakes and crispy rice, blended with delicious inclusions and coated with a smooth chocolate layer. You should receive 2 items in your box.

Alpen Delight Chocolate Caramel & Shortbread/Raspberry Rocky Road are lovely sweet treats. Whether you're feeling peckish while on the go, or just want a sweet treat with your tea or coffee, grab a bar and enjoy.

Nutritional values: 92kcal, and 5.3g of sugar per bar

Available in all major supermarket chains.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Tony's Chocolonely Littl' Bits Milk Chocolate Sea Salt Biscuit (£3) is a twist on their best-selling chocolate bar - it's a delectable blend of crunchy caramel in a layer of creamy milk chocolate, with an added bonus of buttery cookie pieces.

My boys appreciated the Littl' Bits. While I salute Tony's brand credentials and an admirable mission, I do find Tony's chocolate a tad too sweet for me. 

Available in all major supermarket chains.

Typical values: 157kcal and 15g of sugar per 30g serving.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Kellogg's Crunchy Nut Chocolate Mocha Flavour Granola (£3) is a new addition to the Kellogg's range. This unusual granola is infused with an aromatic coffee flavour, and will please the coffee lovers.
It's more of a grown up flavour (my sons don't like coffee or coffee-flavoured confectionery, so were not keen on trying the new granola).

This Barista edition granola is made with wholegrain, and contains no artificial colours or flavours. It's a mix of coffee flavoured oat clusters with almonds and milk chocolate curls.

Typical values: 225kcal and 9.5g of sugar per 45g serving.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Get More Vits Orange, Mango & Passionfruit Multivitamin Squash/ or Summer Fruits Multivitamin Squash (£2.50) is a brand new addition to Get More Vits range. 

Pour 1 part squash to 4 parts water or more to prepare this flavourful drink. 

Typical values: 3kcal and 0.4g of sugar per 100ml diluted squash.

Great for the whole family, the squash contains 20% fruit juice, no added sugar, and each serving contains 50% of your daily dose of vitamins, including vitamin D.

Available in Tesco and ASDA.
You should receive 1 item in your box.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

And finally, Eisberg Alcohol Free Wine Sparkling Rose (£4) is perfect for the Dry January, or any other occasion, when you want a festive drink without alcohol. 

Just before Christmas we had a bottle of Eisberg Mulled Wine, and it was just right, with all the fruity flavours.

Eisberg Alcohol Free starts as a regular wine, with the alcohol gently removed. Eisberg is available in an inspiring range of wine varieties. Vegan and low calorie too.

Available in Tesco, Morrisons, Co-Op, Ocado and Amazon.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

What was your favourite product in the Degustabox December Box?