Wednesday, 21 September 2022

A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin


Chez Maximka, YA fantasy, tea ceremony

"I used to look at my hands with pride.

Now, all I can think is, These are the hands that buried my mother".

"I understand now. The magic is not in the ceremony of pouring the tea or the sharing of the cup. It is in the connection, the brief joining of souls. The tea leaves are a channel, the ingredients the signposts".

A Magic Steeped in Poison is a YA fantasy debut by #1 New York Times bestselling author Judy I. Lin (released 6 September 2022). The thrilling combination of fantasy and romance is based on the Chinese mythology as well as the cultural traditions of tea.

Ning lives with her family in a small village in the Sù province. Her beloved mother has died recently, having injested a poisoned tea, brewed by Ning. Her sister Shu is slowly dying from the same poison.

Ning is racked with guilt, since it was she who served the deadly brew to her mother and sister, not realising it's being poisoned. Her late mother was one of the shénnóng-shī , and Ning has learnt many skills of the tea art from her. 

"People who don't know any better often reduce the shénnóng-shī to the role of the skilled entertainer, able to artfully pour and present the common drink. Trained shénnóng-shī are proficient at the basic, of course - the flavours appropriate for different occasions, the correct shape and make of the cup to match the tea being served. But the true wielders of shénnóng magic have their unique specialties. Some brew teas for emotions - compassion, hope, love. Others are able to imbue the body with energy or encourage the drinker to remember something long thought lost. They move past the walls of the body and into the sould itself".

Ning has always felt different, like she doesn't belong in the village. "Even when Mother was alive, even when I was happy in the garden with my family, I always felt like I was orbiting them, occupying a similar space but charting my own invisible course, with no idea where it would take me."

When an invitation arrives from the Imperial court for all the shénnóng-shī to attend a tea competition, Ning leaves her home, hoping to win the competition and the royal favour which might or might not save the life of her sister.

The imperial city of Jia is a nest of vipers. There is a threat of a rising rebellion led by the banished prince. The current emperor is sick, and nobody has seen him for ages. His young daughter, Princess Li Ying-Zhen, tries to navigate the political intrigues with a ruthless abandon.

Against this venomous background, the tea brewing competition reveals its dark side. The competitors would go to any lengths to discredit their opponents and win the main prize - the favour from the princess and the position at court. 

While visiting the town to get ingredients for the first round of the tournament, Ning meets a mysterious young man who sets her heart aflutter. He appears to be charming and courteous, but there is a barely concealed sadness about him too. Just what is he hiding?

As the competition progresses, there is a lot at stake. Ning finds herself in danger, getting inadvertently involved in the bloody court politics, and torn between her loyalties and sense of justice.

Who will win the much coveted prize? 

A Magic Steeped in Poison is a spectacular tale of magic, ancient Chinese mythology and tea culture. It will make an epic series for Netflix or Disney +, someone give them a nudge! I can easily imagine the tea ceremony rituals in slow motion. The scenes of the contest are written so expressively, they are a visual feast of colours, scents and tastes. 

Some of the fighting scenes made me think of one of my favourite films, The House of Flying Daggers with its visually distinct aesthetics. There are similar themes of the corrupt government, evil officials and ruthless rebels.

The contest tasks are a combination of craftsmanship, elegance, beauty and extreme cruelty.

As a self-confessed tea addict with over a hundred of different kinds of tea in my kitchen, I found the theme of a tea brewing competition a great selling point. All the magic revolves around tea: it gives strength, helps look inside someone's inner thoughts and desires, it also has dangerous qualities which could leave one incapacitated or dead. The tea is the absolute element, which could cure or kill. The juxtaposition of life and death through the power of tea is at the heart of the concept of this story.

I loved the descriptions of the tea properties, food from different regions and the kitchen insights. The first test of the competition is to brew a tea that is a perfect accompaniment to the dish from the competitiors' home provinces. 

The descriptions of different teas are a joy to read. "Silver Needle is a tribute tea, each leaf plucked individually from the tree by hand. The weight is so featherlight, even the slightest movement of the water sends each strand swirling in a vortex, down to a point. That is where it is said to be able to pierce the veil, to draw out the fine thread of truth from the mind".

This book is part 1 of a duology, and ends on a cliffhanger. The second book will be published in January 2023.

A Magic Steeped in Poison will sweep you away. Bold, romantic, fast-paced, and infused with magic.

I should also mention the most exquisite book cover illustration by Sija Hong (book cover design by Rich Deas and Kathleen Breitenfeld).

Chez Maximka, books based on Chinese myths

Sunday, 11 September 2022

The Lost Notebook by Louise Douglas

Chez Maximka, books set in Brittany


"She could have done any of a thousand small things that would have changed the course of events and prevented things unfolding as they had. But that was hindsight: no use for anything except exacerbating regret".

The Lost Notebook by Louise Douglas is a tense, suspensful and engrossing mystery, set in the seaside town of Morannez in Brittany.

Mila Shepherd has temporarily moved to France to look after her orphaned niece Ani. Ani's parents, Mila's stepsister Sophie and her husband, were lost at sea. Mila moves into their family home, on the outskirts of Morannez. She is also working in the successful family business, Toussaint's Agency, which specialises in tracking down family members with whom their clients have lost contact over the years, having taken over Sophie's position. This is an interim position, until the new recruit, Carter Jackson, starts the job.

Carter is a blast from the past. Years ago, Sophie and Carter have been lovers, and Mila was holding a torch for her step-sister's love interest. What brings him back to Morannez?

Mila is writing a novel, but has to suspend her creative activities until the agency position is taken over by Carter. 

Mila doesn't have children of her own, and finds it hard to look after her teenager niece. "She was frustrated that after all these months, she still couldn't seem to balance her responsibilities towards Ani with the rest of her life. She was no good at being in loco parentis. She was a crap carer". 

The relationship between Ani and Mila is strained and awkward. Ani resents Mila's plans to send her to a boarding school in Switzerland. Each time her aunt tries to talk to Ani about her going away to school, she walks away or shuts the conversation down. Both bury their heads in sand, like proverbial ostriches. They are equally difficult, and not easy to like.

One evening, when Ani has a bike accident, Mila meets an elderly woman in a horsebox van, stationed out by the woods. "Depending on your point of view, the old woman was either a charming eccentric, an object of pity or someone feral who would deter the tourists and ought to be chased out of town". 

Gosia is keeping a notebook, where she writes down her secrets. "Beside her chair was an enormous book, like a ledger, too full of pictures and pieces of paper to close, with a pen lying in the gulley of its spine. One side of the open book was covered in lines of small, neat, handwriting..."

When Gosia is found dead in suspicious circumstances, Mila is reluctant to accept the official line of police inquiry. Ani immediately jumps to conclusions that Gosia's death is related to the prehistoric curse which has been triggered when the archeological dig outside Morannez started.

It's the height of summer, and the seaside town is flooded with holidaymakers. The historical town by the sea appears to be a perfect setting for the summer vacations. 

The idyll is an illusion though. There is a sinister side to the pretty façade. Another untimely death happens at Morannez, when someone at the dig is being subjected to a hate campaign. And again, the police seem to be if not indifferent, then totally clueless.

Observant Mila begins to ask uncomfortable questions. "If Mila was right then someone was acting the role of choreographer, someone connected to the two dead people, someone with a reason to kill".

It seems only she and Carter care enough to dig deeper, trying to uncover the truth about what's really happening. And someone would go to any length to protect the awful truth going back to the tragic past.

Will Mila and Carter uncover what really happened?

Themes of love and loss, bereavement and grief, family relationships and bonds runs through the story, just like in two other books by Louise Douglas that I have read - The Room in the Attic and The Scarlett Dress.

Mila and Ani are coping with grief in their own way. Mila "hears" her dead sister and has conversations with her. Sophie appears as a carefree, ego-centric and irresponsible person. She is a kind of woman you would find rather annoying in real life, and as a manifestation of inner torment she is totally insufferable.

You feel sorry for Mila, who feels compelled to leave her country, boyfriend and suspend her job, to move to France to look after her niece.

The setting is, as always, spot on. It creates an evocative, plaintive background for the sequence of unfolding dramatic events.

Without giving many spoilers, what Gosia tries to unravel, writing her findings in the big notebook, is portrayed in an unflinching, poignant way.

The Lost Notebook is an absorbing, suspensful and riveting story, a tale that is both sinister and incredibly sad. Entirely compelling and full of realistic heart-rending, emotional twists.

This review is part of the blog tour.

Many thanks to Louise Douglas and Rachel's Random Resources for my e-copy of the book!

Chez Maximka, psychological thriller

Purchase Link -


Author Bio –

Louise Douglas is the bestselling and brilliantly reviewed author and an RNA award winner. The Secrets Between Us was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick. She lives in the West Country.

psychological thriller

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Chez Maximka, psychological thriller

Friday, 9 September 2022

Back to School & Relaxing Evenings Degustabox

 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 the Back to School & Relaxing Evenings Degustabox box?

Chez Maximka, food box

SXOLLIE Packham's Triumph Perry (£2.20) is more like a wine than a cider. This medium dry perry has notes of  honey, caramel and a subtle hint of elderflower. Contains no added sugar, flavourings or concentrate, it is 100% natural, gluten free, 100% vegan, lower in calories, 4.5% ABV and B Corp Certified. Product of South Africa. 

Pair with cheese and preserves. If you prefer to use it in cooking, how about a cider cake with almonds, or a chicken in perry and cream sauce?

Price can vary between £1.80-2.20.

Available at Waitrose and on Amazon Prime.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Good Earth Pomegranate & Blueberry Kombucha (£1.60) is a refreshing organic drink made with natural ingredients and live cultures. It is low in sugar and calorie intake (4g of sugar and 28kcal per 250ml).

Kombucha is an acquired taste, it's a bit like Marmite. Its bold, fizzy, slightly sour taste might not appeal to everyone. It has soared in popularity in the few last years due to its health properties.

Available on Ocado, WHSmith and

Nesquick All Natural Ready To Drink Strawberry/Chocolate (£1.80) is a flavoured milk drink. Made from 100% natural ingredients (93% milk, sugar and flavourings). It provides a source of calcium and protein. Great on the go or in packed lunches.

Nutritional information: 13.1g of sugar and 90kcal per carton.

You should receive 1 of 2 items in your box.

Available at Sainsbury's and on Ocado.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Horlicks Vegan Malt Drink (£3.49) will allow you to enjoy the classuc malty taste of Horlicks, enriched with vitamins and minerals, minus dairy. Just add vegan milk of choice.

Free from artificial colours and flavours, sweeteners and preservatives.

Horlicks is a national institution, going back to the late 1800s when it was first developed by the Horlicks brothers.

Nutritional values: 9.4g of sugar and 84kcal per 25g serve.

You can also use it as an ingredient in baking for the malty twists in cakes, muffins or cupcakes.

Available at ASDA, Tesco, Morrisons, Amazon or

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box, vegan products

Dr Will's Classic Mayo/Chilli Mayo (£3).
Dr Will's mayo recipes are sugar free, and are packed full of quality ingredients (like free range egg yolk, Dijon mustard etc).  Use as a spread in sandwiches, or make a salad dressing. To jazz up a plain mayo, add some ketchup, mustard or pesto.

Nutritional values: 107kcal and 0% sugar per 14g).

You should receive one of two items in your box.

Available at Tesco and on Ocado.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Heinz Veg Hoops 400g (£1.25) is a vegan tinned pasta with a vegetable sauce made with carrot and cauliflower. Contains 30% more veg, it's a source of fibre. 1 of your 5 a day in 1/2 can when eaten as part of a balanced diet.

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

Nutritional information: 117kcal and 8.5g of sugar per can.

Nissin Cup Noodles 5 Spices Beef/Katsu Curry (£1.75) is a flavourful Japanese curry.

You will receive one of two flavours. The Cup Noodles Katsu Curry with a chicken flavour and fine vegetables is no.1 in Japan. Easy to prepare, just open the lid, pour boiling water, wait 3 minutes, stir well and enjoy.

Typical nutritional values per 100g prepared product: 81kal and 1.4g of sugar.

Invented in Japan in 1971, CUP Noodles were the world's first instant noodles in a pot.

My younger son loves pot noodles, and curry is one of his favourite flavours.

Available in all major supermarket chains.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

I enjoy trying authentic products, and was pleased to find a bottle of Ocean's Halo Organic Spicy Korean BBQ Soy-free sauce (£4). This organic kelp based sauce gets its flavour from red Jalapeños and sesame tahini. Great for BBQ, dipping or marinades. 

Certified vegan and organic. Nutrition: 35kcal and 4g of sugar per 15ml.

This BBQ sauce definitely has a bite, so use it sparingly if you enjoy your food not too spicy. It will last us a while, and thankfully, you can keep it in the fridge for up to 8 weeks after opening.

Available in ASDA and independent retailers.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Palmini Pasta - Linguine/Angel Hair/Lasagna/Rice/Mashed (£4.49 for the pasta or £4.99 for the mash) is made out of hearts of palm, harvested in an environmentally sustainable way. You will receive one item in your box.

We got a pack of Palmini lasagna sheets. Haven't tried it yet, as I don't often make lasagna.

Nutritional values: 20kcal and 4g of carbs per serving. Gluten free, sugar free, vegan, GMO-free.

Palmini products are available on Amazon and Planet Organic.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Urban Fruit Wellness Glow (£3) is a pack of blended fruit bites: mango, pineapple, acerola cherry and turmeric. A good source of vitamin C, it is also high in fibre. 1 of your 5 a day, vegan friendly, gluten free. These tasty fruit bites are full of flavour.

Nutritional values: 334kcal and 61g of sugar (naturally occuring) per 100g.

Available in Tesco and online at Amazon and Ocado.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Product of the month:

McVitie's Mini BN Strawberry Biscuits (£1) - we're not surprised that these delicious biscuits were chosen a product of the month, they are absolutely moreish. Light, gloden-baked biscuits are sandwiched together with a delicious strawberry flavour filling. There are 5 mini packs of 5 biscuits each, lovely for lunch boxes or as an after-school treat. 

Only natural flavours and colours, they are 32kcal per biscuit (though it's not easy to stop at one).

Available in most major supermarkets.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

McVitie's BN Chocolate Biscuits (£1) are light, golden-baked biscuits, sandwiched with a chocolate flavour filling. Lovely with a cup of coffee or tea.

Contains only natural flavours.

Nutritional values: 84kcal and 5.4g of sugar per biscuit.

Available in most major supermarkets.

What was your favourite product in the last Degustabox?

Friday, 19 August 2022

Beneath Cornish Skies by Kate Ryder


Chez Maximka, books set in Cornwall

"What is important is being true to yourself and not living life on someone else's terms. We're stronger than we know... Be the wild spirit you've always wanted to be".

Show me the words Cornwall or Cornish in the title, and you can bet, I will read the book. 

Beneath the Cornish Skies by Kate Ryder has been hailed as an international bestseller. It's a modern romance story, with a supernatural twist.

I had it on my TBR list for a while, and it recently appeared on the Prime Reading for free.

The main character, Cassandra, who goes under names Cass, Sandra, Sands, Cassie etc, is one of those trophy WAGs who passively allow their man dominate their existence, from choosing furniture for their house to petty things like not letting them leave a wet cup on the dryboard. David is a high-flying, high-profile businessman who thinks the world of himself. He is so obnoxious, it's hard to see what his redeeming qualities are, that is, apart from the money, money, money. 

Cass is so submissive, it hurts. She glides through the life, entertaining David's guests at their dinner parties, keeping herself fit for David's pleasure and riding horses.

Cass's parents died in a car accident, and she was seriously injured. David was the first on the scene to call the ambulance and visited her in the hopsital daily. On leaving the hospital, 18-year-old Cass moves straight into his house. "...halfway into my eighteenth year, I entered David Ashcroft's world. And that's where I stayed for the next ten". It's all very sus, as my son would say. Orphaned at such a young age, and basically abandoned by her indifferent older brother, it's no wonder she finds comfort in the arms of the first person who pays attention to her.

"I couldn't believe this gorgeous man with the movie-star looks, who had so unexpectedly come into my life under such tragic circumstances, was offering me a shiny new life to replace my smashed and destroyed, previously grey existence".

It's only later she comes to realise that David has installed her in his life as his most recent acquisition.

Cass has never had a chance to grow up, as she never lived independently, never went to college or found a job. Her life is all about pleasing her rich boyfriend and looking good. David is a controlling narcissist who forbids his girlfried from having children, as they would mess up their perfect farm house and supposedly ruin Cass's figure.

Having discovered that David has been sleeping with their cleaner, Cass decides to leave her dreadful boyfriend and finds a job as a housekeeper for a well-off family in Cornwall. 

The Kinsmans immediately dump all the house tasks on Cass and work her pretty hard, expecting her to get up early and sort out all their housekeeping, from the stables to looking after children and dealing with the business of running the farm. And like a Mary Poppins, Cass apparently can do anything.

She looks after and exercises five horses and ponies, helps out with the school runs, clubs and appointments, helps Ginny run the holiday let and provides admin assistance for Gyles, among other duties. 

Cass has an affinity with horses. She is an accomplished horsewoman. Her horse Caspian is her true friend. She says about him, "my conspirator, my soulmate, and the one with whom I share my deepest desires and concerns".

Cass is also prone to pompous speeches. "I enjoy helping horses to change physically, mentally and emotionally over time".

Among these numerous  tasks, she finds enough time to conduct an affair with a married man. And that's where I have issues with the plot. As the wronged woman, who was hurt by her boyfriend's affairs, Cass does exactly the same, plunging into the affair with the married man, not caring who she might hurt. I suppose, neither of them cares. A cheating husband and the other woman don't appeal to me as a romantic couple.

It is quite possible that Cass is one of those women who feel unfulfilled on their own. What Cass needs really is the time to accept that she wasted ten years of her life on a jerk, move on and gain independence before jumping in bed with another man. It is not so much a journey of self-discovery as a transit between one man to another.

Luke is a writer who knows a lot about the local nature, and oh boy, does he not share his knowledge too generously? He's one walking lecture on the local habitat. And Cass "drinks in" his words, and welcomes a never-ending lecture. "Talk about an overload of information.. but I welcome it. I feel like a student who, starved of education all her life, is suddenly offered a place at Oxford or Cambridge".

Luke's wife is portrayed as a shrew, a caricature of a businesswoman. Amanda is a hedge fund manager in the city, who prefers London to Cornwall. She and Luke seem to be the opposites in personalities. Still it's not an excuse for Luke to start flirting with a new neighbour next door, or write corny inscriptions in her book. 

He is quite disrespectful talking about his wife's "histrionics", as apparently she finds it hard to resist a drama. That might be it, but you have chosen to marry this woman, nobody forced you. Sort out your divorce, then pursue the easily impressed females. Amanda is not likeable, and she has been unfaithful to Luke too, so in a way they totally deserve each other.

Will Cass find her inner strength and pull out of the grasp of her ex-boyfriend? Will Luke do the right thing by his wife and tell her the truth? Is Cass and Luke's affair a rebound, and do they have a future together?

Some ghostly shenanigans are going on at the manor house, and around it, these are not the evil spirits, rather more melancholic and stuck in limbo of their own wretched past. They don't take part in the main action, but enhance the atmosphere and the mood of the main protagonists. 

The author mentions in the Acknowledgements that Foxcomve Manor is loosely based on Tonacombe Manor, and that its ghostly sightings are well-documented. This made me want to discover more about the place, and hopefully one day I might be able to visit the location. The descriptions of the manor house and the surrounding area are spellbinding. Loved the historical facts about the eccentric Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker, and his legacy on the local landscape. The tour Luke gives Cass, telling her about Pastor Hawker, will delight any history buff.

I didn't warm up to any of the characters, sorry, and didn't care much about the romance unfolding. 

It was the Cornish landscapes that kept my interest throughout the tale.

The scenery plays the major part in the story. There are some gems of descriptions of the Cornish nature, that I found beautiful. "I start to notice my surroundings and am surprised to find the lichen-covered trees have a beauty of their own. I'd considered them grotesque, but their gnarled and twisted shaped are beautiful today, like a work of art adorning the hilldise in intricate patterns". 

Chez Maximka

The pages about seaweed foraging made me feel quite nostalgic about our trips to Cornwall.

Chez Maximka, foraging for seaweed


Beneath Cornish Skies is an engaging book, which will appeal to different readers, for a variety of things. Horse-riding people would enjoy that a big chunk of the narrative revolves around horses. (There are also dogs and cats, and even sheep).

I relished the descriptions of the Cornish landscapes. There are some elements of the supernatural (benevolent ghosts etc), which will attract fans of the ghost stories. You will also learn a lot about the Cornish marine life and local flora and fauna.

A captivating tale of hopes and regrets, and second chances.

Beneath Cornish Skies is available for free on Amazon for Prime subscribers.

Chez Maximka, books set in Cornwall

Wednesday, 17 August 2022

Christmas with the Surplus Girls by Polly Heron

Chez Maximka, Surplus Girls saga


"So you're good at shop work and good with people." Miss Patience looked at her sister. "That's not a bad start, and she's the right sort of age."

"The right age to train for office work?" Nancy asked.

"The right age for a surplus girl," said Miss Patience.

Nancy frowned. "Surplus girl?"

"The term refers to all the girls who now won't find husbands because so many men were killed in the war."

Christmas with Surplus Girls by Polly Heron is book 3 in the Surplus Girls saga. It reads as a standalone, but it makes sense to start with the first book, to appreciate the background and dynamics of relationships between the main characters.

Surplus Girls was the name given to the young women who were left single, or widowed, with a little chance of getting married as so many men perished during the WWI. To prepare them for the future of living as a single woman without a husband who would support them, they were trained for jobs.

Manchester, 1922.

Nancy Pike is a sweet girl, living with her parents and younger siblings above the tobacconist's shop. Her mother is ill, and her father doesn't earn much. Life is a constant struggle.

Nancy enjoys working in the pie shop and doesn't want to leave her job. On her father's insistence, she agrees to better herself by attending the local business school run by the Hesketh sisters. Everyone is pleased for Nancy, "You're going to mek summat of yourself, lass. You'll be a big help to your mam." She latched onto the thought, hugging it close. If she could help her family, in particular if she could make Mam's life easier, then it would be worthwhile". 

Miss Hesketh and Miss Patience run their business school for surplus girls. They want to help girls from different backgrounds, not just middle-class girls or the ones who did better at school.

"We believe," said Miss Hesketh, "that it is the responsibility of every surplus girl to make the best of herself. Our pupils tend to be girls who became office juniors when they left school. They come to us to broaden their range of skills."

Nancy is terrified of going to the business school. "She had never shone at school and the thought of returning to the classroom made her heart tie itself in a knot, but Pa was determined". She is worried that the office job would be way above her station.

Her initial lessons are not auspicious for her future as the office employee. Nancy is shy and awkward, and very self-conscious. She also makes a mistake after mistake, some pretty serious. Her first placement doesn't go smoothly. Zachary Milner has started his own business, selling the fire extinguishers. He is determined to succeed, in memory of his late brother who perished in the war.

"Zachary Milner in business. He had dreamed of this for a long time and had worked hard for it, weighing every decision as he went along". 

There is a personal connection between Zachary and Nancy, but when one of her costly mistakes puts his livelihood in jeopardy, she has to go.

Her second placement seems to go the same way too, when Nancy's given a chance to work in the local orphanage. She has to compete with another girl, Ginny, for the job, and she finds the office tasks challenging. "Ginny and Miss Pike would each have the chance to learn the clerical routines and prove themselves. Then, come Christmas, one of them would be awarded the permanent position and the other would have some valuable experience under her belt".

What Nancy loves the best, it's working with children, who love her in return. She realises that most likely she won't get the office job but she is determined to make Christmas as memorable as possible for the orphans.

Will Nancy be able to make the Christmas time extra special for the children in the orphanage? And will she find love along the way?

Nancy is naive and awkward to begin with. She is also kind, loyal and inquisitive, she just needs the right setting to blossom into a more confident person.

I am particularly fond of the Hesketh sisters, Patience and Prudence. I've watched their characters developing through the series. They have become old friends, whose company I enjoy. It was lovely to catch up with the lives of some of the other characters who took the central stage in the previous books.

The novel deals with several issues, among them the topic of the unmarried mothers, the disgrace of the position they found themselves in, and the emotional impact of giving up their child.

This is a fantastic series for fans of wartime sagas and historical fiction in general.

Polly Heron's female characters are strong, determined women who find their way in the patriarchal society.

Christmas with the Surplus Girls is a beautiful thought-provoking read, emotional and heart-warming. This is a captivating story of a young woman's struggle to overcome the prejudices of the society, her background, finding inner strength and discovering hidden talents. Full of drama and romance.

You can catch up with the reviews of the previous books in the series:

The Surplus Girls


The Surplus Girls' Orphans

Chez Maximka, books set in Manchester, wartime saga

Sunday, 14 August 2022

The Thief Who Sang Storms by Sophie Anderson

Chez Maximka, books based on Russian folklore


"It's been three years since my tenth birthday - when my magic should have arrived and yet didn't. But I know when it does come, I will sing a storm that will change the landscape of our lives once more".

The Thief Who Sang Storms by Sophie Anderson is an engrossing, deeply atmospheric middle grade/YA story, which will appeal to readers of all ages.

"The Island of Morovia is shaped like a broken heart. The humans live on the calmer side of the island, and the alkonosts - the bird-people - live on the stormier side. But it wasn't always this way".

Thirteen-year-old Linnet and her father Nightingale have been living in the Mournful Swamp for the last three years. They are alkonosts, and like all alkonosts, they are banished from their home. Three years earlier a tragedy shook the island. It was the Day of Union when Joy, the ship which carried two queens of Morovia, the human and the alkonost, with their courtiers and VIPs, sank during a tidal wave of epic proportions. 

Rather than being united in grief and comfort each other, the humans under the leadership of Captain Ilya, accuse the alkonosts of misuing their singing magic and bringing death to the island.

Linnet is missing her old home, friends and living next to the humans. She is hoping that one day when her magic comes, she would be able to bring two hostile sides together.

The alkonosts are living in the swamps, and those who dare to rebel, are taken to The Keep, the equivalent of GULAG on Morovia, with intolerable working and living conditions.

"There is a Unity Movement that fights for change. I know that one day soon I will help it succeed, because my name, Linnet, is a kind of prophecy, given to me through an ancient tradition of using singing magic to glimpse a child's future".

Nightingale is involved in the rebel movement, stealing from the travellers to contribute to the cause.

"The treasures I steal also fund secret missions... they aim to remove Captain Ilya from power and build unity between alkonosts and humans, so that we can work towards living happier lives together".

When Nightingale is caught by bogatyrs and taken to The Keep, Linnet follows him, hoping to set him free. "I can't let the bogatyrs take Nightingale away. I'd be lost without him, and he'd be lost without me. We need each other."

Will Linnet's mission to free her father, remove Captain Ilya from power, free everyone in The Keep and the quarry and unite all of Morovia succeed? 

The main plotline is interspersed with the memory chapters, which give glimpses into the past events and explain the current predicament of the islanders.

Linnet doesn't fight for freedom alone. Her human and alkonost friends will help her along the way. Linnet's animal friends, the swamp-rat Whiskers and toad Lumpy, are as important to her as her family. 

I predict that one day someone will be writing a thesis on the importance of animal friends in Sophie Anderson's books. All her characters have animal/bird companions, fiercely loyal, loving and affectionate. As Linnet says about Lumpy, "He's not a pet. We're friends".

It was lovely to meet Baba and baby Marinka from The House with Chicken Legs again. As Marinka is still a baby here, this makes The Thief the prequel to The House time-wise. I love it when the House moves from one book to another, and we meet Marinka at different stages of life.

It's fascinating to see how Sophie reverses some of the perceptions of the Slavic folk tales and its heroes and villains. Solovei the Robber, the infamous monster, who is part-human, part-bird, whose whistle would slay the unsuspecting travellers, is the Nightingale of the story, a melancholic and even tragic character, who grieves the loss of his wife and takes care of his only child.

As Sophie says in the Author's notes, "He was cast as a villain in the poem, but of course we know the villain of one tale might be the hero of another".

The image of Nightingale is an important vessel of the theme of grief, and how we cope or not cope with it.

Ilya Muromets is one of the epic knights (bogatyrs) of the Kievan Rus, who serves Prince Vladimir the Fair Sun and defends his people from numerous attacks. In the legends (byliny) he is portrayed as a leader of spiritual strength and integrity. Sophie re-imagines Ilya as a deceitful haughty man who abuses his power.

"Captain Ilya has hundreds of bogatyrs enforcing his rules now, and there must be hundreds more humans who support him in other ways - by following his orders, or simply doing nothing and ignoring what is happening to alkonosts... While humans are allowing such cruelty to happen, how can unity between is be possible?"

Morovia is one of the Three Floating Islands, drifting across the oceans, moving towards and away from each other. While we get distant glimpses of Eldovia and Buyan, as readers, we do not travel to reach them. I would have liked to see these islands too (in The Thief no.2 perhaps?).

Sophie Anderson is a writer with a unique, distinctive voice.

Reading this book was a mixed bag of emotions. Sophie is an immensely talented, creative storyteller, who knows how to pull your heartstrings. But the comparisons with the current war are inevitable, and there will be no happy end to either side in real life. 

The utopian ending puts emphasis on forgiveness and tolerance, understanding the motivation of your enemies/opponents, humanity and compassion. 

The Thief Who Sang Storms is a beautiful, sensitive story of love and loss, grief and forgiveness, magic and power of hope.

Chez Maximka, books inspired by Russian folklore

Tuesday, 9 August 2022

The Manor House by Jane Holland


Chez Maximka, books set in Cornwall, historical fiction set in Cornwall

"Estuary House had a conflicting aura. It seemed to pulsate in some places with an almost raw, unadulterated evil. And yet in others, it glowed with warmth and understanding. Like two personalities in the same body".

"Were the dead able to inhabit the present so seamlessly they could appear a part of it? she wondered. Or perhaps those we lost never really went away after death, but remained in the stream, omnipresent, drifting silently through time along with the living, yet separate, too. Until one of them chose to make themselves see, that was..."

"I believe in... all this." He gestured to the wilderness about them, the estuary, the grey Cornish skies like granite glowering down at them. "Nature, the universe, whatever you want to call it".

Not that I ever need to get in the mood for the Cornish holidays (I'm always in the mood to visit my favoruite place), but the last couple of books I finished reading before our recent trip were set in Cornwall. 

The Manor House by Jane Holland is a dark psychological thriller, merged with a ghost story, set in dual timeline. The chapters alternate between 1963 and now.


Eleanor is a shy, gentle soul, living with her abusive father and brother. The father is the head of the religious cult, which treats women as inferior creatures. Poetry is her way of escaping the harsh, cruel reality and abuse. 

One evening, she goes to the poetry reading by the well-known published Cornish poet, Lyndon Chance. She finds courage to ask him a question, and later they spend the evening together. There is "a kind of smouldering restlessness and intensity about him" that Eleanour finds attractive. Lyndon invites her to visit him in Cornwall, promising to introduce her to the other local poets. 

Running away from an imminent threat from her father, Eleanor has nobody to turn to, except Lyndon. He offers her a way of escape, taking her to his ancestral home. Lyndon promises protection, as long as Eleanor pretends to be his wife.

Estuary House, a Tudor manor on the Camel Estuary in Cornwall, is situated in a secluded location, away from everyone. Once there, Eleanor realises that she might have escaped one prison to find herself in another. 

"The house seemed to be waiting for her.

It was a dreadful suspicion, and one that made Eleanor clutch the seat and wish she'd never come".

Lyndon's family is in shock to find out about the marriage. They are not exactly hostile, but not welcoming either. There is an ongoing feud between two brothers, Lyndon and his twin Oliver.

It soon becomes obvious that the old manor house conceals many dark secrets. Is Eleanor's life in danger?

"Ever since he'd first mentioned Estuary House to her, Eleanor had felt a lie in the air between them, its horrid, disjointed energy like a crackle of static under his words... But what could Lyndon Chance possibly have to lie about?"


Taylor comes to Cornwall to do research for her Master's thesis. She is a conservationist, with a deep interest in the life of the late Cornish poet, Lyndon Chance. 

"Lyndon Chance was the reason she'd come here this summer. The infamous, long-dead Cornish poet was why she'd chosen this lonely stretch of saltmarsh and intertidal mudflats as the focus for her conservation thesis, rather than a dozen alternative areas of special interest around the British Isles.

And she had no intention of leaving."

Taylor's story is interspersed with insights in her past, revealing the narrow alleys of her past trauma. She is haunted by her own tragic childhood: she witnessed the murder of her mother, and still blames herself for not helping enough.

Taylor meets Julius Chance, the grandson of the notorious poet, who lives in the now run down Estuary House with his elderly grandmother. He is quite hostile and determined to stop Taylor from digging into the Chance family's past. "Julius Chance had no idea how to behave in a reasonable, civilised way. But then, he'd been brought up in privilege..."

There is also a spark of physical attraction between them. They are drawn to each other, yet the old secrets and dark history of the Estuary House threaten to tear them apart. 

I enjoyed the atmospheric Cornish setting the most. The dramatic plotline with its tormented heroines made me think of some of Mary Stewart's romantic stories.

Without giving too many spoilers, I found the story dramatic to excess, there are just too many historical (and more recent) murders. As if the murder of the mother is not enough, our heroine is abused by her foster parents. Throw in several ghosts, a self-flagellating sinner, an abusive religious cult leader for a parent, and it becomes rather far-fetched.

The Manor House is a compelling and nuanced psychological thriller/domestic noir, tense, dark and menacing. 

Potential triggers: murders, death of a child, abuse, religious fanaticism.

Chez Maximka, books set in Cornwall

Monday, 8 August 2022

Summer & Get Outdoors Degustabox

 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 the Summer and Get Outdoors Degustabox box?

Chez Maximka, subscription food box

Herdez Mexico City classic taco seasoning/Yukatan seasoing/Oaxaca barbacoa seasoning (£1.19)

Herdez is the authentic Mexican flavour brand, with over 100 years of experience, creating quality regional flavours.

You should receive two items in your box. 

Yucatan Zingy Citrus, Garlic & Coriander seasoning for Mexican tacos & fajitas could be used in a Yukatan slow cooked pork recipe. Ingredients include spices (dried gralic, cumin, dried onion, coriander seed, chilli pepper, paprika, chipotle chilli pepper powder, black pepper), sea salt, herbs (coriander leaves, oregano), natural flavourings, orange powder etc.

Once pork is cooked, serve in warm tortillas with salsa and a squeeze of lime.

Also great in a marinade for chicken or fish. Alternatively, rub directly into meat, fish or vegetables before grilling.

It was lovely in a fish stew, with sweet peppers, onion, carrots and potatoes, and some fresh herbs.

Barbacoa Smoky Chipotle, Black Pepper & Allspice Mexican seasoning for tacos & fajitas is a tasty mix of spices (smoked paprika, dried garlic, cumin, chilli pepper, chipotle chilli pepper powder, allspice, dried onion, black pepper, cloves), sea salt, natural flavouring, herbs (oregano, bay leaves), cocoa powder etc.

Use it in a slow cooked Barbacoa beef recipe, or rub over lamb shoulder.

Both seasoning mixes are suitable for vegans, contain no artificial colours or flavours, no added preservatives or MSG, and are free from hydrogenated fat.

Available in the majority of larger Tesco stores.

Chez Maximka, Mexican flavours

Mission Chargrilled Wraps (£1.50) is a perfect wrap for a summer BBQ. These wraps are soft, squishy and tasty, with a smoky flavour. Best served warm. Pop them on the BBQ or heat up in the hot dry pan for a few seconds on each side.

These wraps are suitable for home freezing to be enjoyed at a later date.
Suitable for vegans. Nutritional values: 191kcal and 1.3g of sugar per wrap.

Available in Sainsbury's, ASDA abd Morrisons.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

CLIF BAR White Chocolate Macadamia Nut (£1.75) is a plant-based energy bar. The combination of roasted macadamia and white chocolate is well-balanced.

It contains 9g of protein. Made with Rainforest Alliance certified cocoa, this energy bar is a source of vitamins and minerals. 

Nutritional information: 279kcal and 21g of sugar per bar.

Available at most supermarkets, sports retailers, and health stores.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box, protein bars

Rose Marketing UK Polaretti Fruits Freeze Pops (£1.50) - perfect for the heatwave we're having - these fruity lollies are made with real fruit juice. There are four flavours to choose from: strawberry, lemon, orange and sour cherry.
Shake well before freezing and enjoy the zingy fruity taste.

Made in Italy, these ice lollies to freeze contain no colourings or preservatives. 34kcal and 7.6g of sugar per serving.

Available in ASDA and Aldi.

ice lollies, Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Pravha Lighter Tasting Pilsner (£2 per 330ml bottle or £25.99 for the 24-pack). You get all the bold flavour of a high quality Prague Pilsner, perfectly balanced with a light and refreshing taste.

Great for BBQs, garden parties or just relaxing on a pizza and Netflix night. Serve chilled. 

Available on Amazon and
Only available for purchase as multipack.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Shaken Udder Chocolush (£1.75) is a creamy, velvety smooth milkshake made with real Belgian chocolate.

Packed of goodness including vitamin B12, calcium (51% RI calcium per 330ml serving) and protein, they are also gluten free and suitable for vegetarians. No artificial colours, flavours or preservatives, less than 5% added sugar.

Available in selected Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrisons, Boots stores and more.

Heinz Plant Proteinz Thai Red Curry Soup 400g (£1.50) is a tinned soup, based on a traditional Thai recipe. You get 15g of protein per can. 

Ingredients include vegetables (onions, carrots, red peppers, green peppers), haricot beans, modified cornflour, pea protein, chickpeas, red curry paste etc. 1 of your 5 a day, eat this soup as part of a healthy balanced diet.

Nutritional information: 204kcal and 5.2g of sugar per can. Cook on the hob or in a microwave.

You can always add a handful of your favourite herbs (spring onions, parsley or coriander) to jazz up the tinned soup.

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

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Mister Free'd Mango Chilli Tortilla Chips (£1.99) are crunchy chips with a sweet and spicy kick. When you open the pack, the smell is sweet and fruity. The first bite, and your mouth is on fire. These chips are better eaten with a sour cream/yogurt based dip.

Gluten free, non-GMO, vegan and made using natural ingredients, these chips will make a nice base for nachos, grilled with lots of grated cheese. If you enjoy spicy food, add some halapeños.

Available in Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Tesco, Planet Orgaic, Selfridges, Whole Foods Market, Ocado and independent stores across the UK.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

KP Salt & Vinegar Snack Pack 5pk (£3) - if salt & vinegar is one of your favourite flavours, you will enjoy these punchy peanuts.

Now available in convenient smaller packs, these are tasty little snacks. Each portion is under 185kcal each. A source of protein and fibre, these peanuts are an epic upgrade on the classic snack indeed.

Available at Sainsbury's and Morrisons.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Rubicon Spring Orange Mango/Black Cherry Raspberry (£1.29 for the single unit or £3.49 for the multipack) is a healthy refreshing sparkling water drink. This is a mix of spring water and fruit juice, with natural flavours and vitamins.

Low cal (only 9kcal per tin) and 1g of sugar, Rubicon is a lovely summer drink. Serve chilled, with ice or without.

You should receive 2 items in your box.

Available in multipacks in Morrisons and Tesco, but soon will appear in cafes and pubs.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

SKITTLES Squishy Cloudz Fruits/Squishy Cloudz Crazy Sours (£1) are the new addition to the Skittles' range. A unique twist on the original Skittles treat, these soft candies are like mini pillows of fruity sweetness.

Squishy Cloudz has no artificial colours.

We were divided in our appreciation of the new candies. Kids enjoyed them, I found them way too sweet, and the texture is not to my taste either.

Nutritional values: 100kcal and 17g of sugar per serving (31.3g).

You should receive two items in your box.

Available in all major supermarket chains (we also saw them in WHSmith).

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Hamadaya Naturally brewed soy sauce/Seasoning soy sauce (£2.99) - origintaed in 1818, Hamadaya's fine sauces are made from the same closely guarded, time tested, two century-old recipe.

Immense time and effort are spent to produce this gourmet soy sauce from the best koji.

I was very excited to try this soy sauce. I use the soy sauce on a daily basis, making stir fries with vegetables, chicken or tofu. This is a truly superior soy sauce.

You should recieve 1 of 2 items in your box.

Available on Amazon and Japan Centre.

Chez Maximka, best soy sauce

This was another corker of a selection from Degustabox, with several products which we haven't had before. 

Friday, 15 July 2022

The Hollows by Mark Edwards


Chez Maximka, horror story, thriller set at a camp

"Now that I was alone, what David had said about being able to feel the energy of what had happened here came back to me. I could sense it. An imprint in the air, the memory of an evil act stamped upon this place".

"All three of us turned our heads towards the woods, and a sensation of dread trickled down my spine. A shadow moved in the trees. Shifting light. Wind stirring branches. But it was easy to imagine something else at work. Something alive and ancient that had lived among these trees since they were saplings.

Everett's territory?

Or the territory of something he worshipped?"

The Hollows by Mark Edwards is a dark psychological thriller, with Gothic undertones.

Tom Anderson and his daughter Frankie arrive to a cabin resort amidst the woods during the grand opening week. Their cabin is on the far side of the resort. "Nestled in the trees, the cabin - like all the cabins here - was brand new. Its windows gleamed in the sunshine. This was our home for the next ten nights".

Frankie is upset because there is no Wi-Fi here. The father is adamant, "that was the whole point of coming here. To get away from everything. No social media. No YouTube. No news. A whole week and a half without staring at a screen. Just you and me". Of course, both of them get the Wi-Fi withdrawal symptoms almost immediately.

The father plans to spend "quaity time" with his daughter, doing archery, boating on the lake, horse riding and many other outdoorsy activities. 

Tom is a Brit, who's being married to an American. Now that they are divorced, he sees his daughter once a year when he visits the States. He lives frugally, saves all year to be able to afford these holidays with Frankie. Tom is a music journalist, with a dwindling career. "I was wounded. The slow death of my career. The breakdown of my marriage. The loss of my daughter".

Their next cabin neighbours, David and Connie are super excited about the opening of the resort. Their podcast on true crime and serial killers is gaining popularity, and this trip is meant to boost the numbers of their audience.

Apparently, the Hollows has being widely advertised on The Snugg Guide, a dark tourism website, for the 20th anniversray of the Hollows Horror.

"As Connie and David took it in turns to tell me the story of what had happened here almost exactly twenty years before, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, as of someone were standing behind me, blowing cool air on to me".

Long before the resort was established, this area was popular with schools and campers.

Twenty years earlier, in July 1999, two teachers were killed. They were left naked on the flat rock, with pagan symbols painted in blood around them. The theory was that the murder was some kind of an offering, a sacrifice. A local teenager, Everett Miller, a loner with interest in crazy-ass bands, was the main suspect. He has never been caught, having disappeared without any trace, most likely gone across the border to Canada.

Murder-obsessed, ghoulish tourists flock to the resort to mark the chilling anniversary.

Despite his misgivings about the dark topics, Tom is intrigued and even motivated. "I didn't want to get ahead of myself, but if a great story had just landed in my lap - or rather, I'd landed in its lap - maybe this was my chance to start again. I had often thought about relaunching myself as a different kind of journalist. Could this be my chance to do just that?"

The first step would be to dig more information about the case, read the old files, chat to some locals, and if the story proves worthy, pitch it to some editors. "I tried to keep my excitement in check, but it was hard. Because when you've been starved of hope for so long, it's hard not to snatch it when you see it dangled before you".

David and Connie stay at the Hollows with their teen son, Ryan. 

When Ryan and Frankie venture to the nearest small town, called Penance, to access the Wi-Fi, they are not impressed with the creepy junkyards, crumbling houses and broken windows, and the air of shabbiness about the place. The locals are hostile and threatening. Frustrated, Ryan does a selfie with a homeless man asleep in the shadows by the memorial, with an offensive message, "Come to the asshole of the world! Penance, ME..." The hashtags are as offensive: #shithole #vacationfromhell

This Instagram post will come back to bite them. It appears that some of the locals don't take kindly to the disrespectful, derogatory social media posts. Ryan and Frankie get trolled with vengeance.

The strange, disturbing things start to happen in the resort. 

Tom and Frankie's dream trip is rapidly turning into a horror story. Will the time run out before they are able to uncover the truth? 

The story alternates between Tom (in first person narrative) and Frankie (third person), with some other voices contributing to the plotline.

The atmosperic creepy setting is done skilfully to build up tension and suspence. The dark ancient woods, the sound of distant, unseen chimes, a sinister town of Penance. You get references to the classic horror films, as well as Edwards' previous books (in the Acknowledgments he mentions that he has left several Easter eggs for his readers).

There are the creepy twins that would make you think of The Shining. "They were behind her, walking at the same pace as her, side by side. She caught the girl's eye and the girl's lips curled into a smile. Except it wasn't a real smile. It was the kind of expression an alien who was trying to imitate human emotion might make. The boy did the same, and now Frankie was certain they were twins. They looked like two dolls who had rolled off the same production line".

It touches upon such a crucial issue as chidren and social media. "We give kids access to these new online tools, like Instagram, but they don't always have the emotional maturity to use them". It might not be a cautionary tale for our times as such, and not does it try to be one, but it does make you think of the dangers and pressure of social media.

If you enjoy thrillers and horror stories with the nightmare holiday camp settings, The Hollows is a proper page-turner. I read it in one day. Dark, creep-inducing, suspensful horror.

The Hollows is currently available for £1 on Amazon, or free for Prime Reading/Prime Amazon subscribers.

Chez Maximka, horror story set in a camp