Monday, 24 January 2022

A Plethora of Phantoms by Penny Hampson #BlogTour


Chez Maximka, ghost story

"THUD, thud, THUD, thud...
The uneven footsteps he'd heard the night before. A sense of sadness and desolation seemed to fill the room. With the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end, Freddie slid into a sitting position and fumbled for the bedside light. The footsteps stopped and the feeling of dreadful misery departed.
"Who's there?" Freddie whispered into the darkness, He held his breath and waited.

"I must say, I've found this whole thing fascinating. You certainly seem to have a plethora of phantoms here at Lanyon Park".

A Plethora of Phantoms by Penny Hampson is a haunting tale about the everlasting power of love. It is an engaging mystery with ghostly shenanigans, and a huge dose of romance.

After several years working in the City, Freddie Lanyon, son of an earl, returns to his family home "to learn the ropes of running the estate" and help his father. On the outside, he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and has it all: a grand stately home of his parents, a privileged upbringing, a loving family, and don't forget his good looks too. However, he is deeply unhappy, being in denial about his sexuality.

"The truth was that, out of fear of the consequences, he'd avoided being honest with everyone, and importantly, himself for years. Why couldn't he be brave?"

He's lacking confidence and believes his parents might not be understanging. As a child, Freddie had a horrible time at school, being bullied by the nasty kids, and has learnt to hide his true feelings from everyone including himself.

Freddie has always being able to see the spirits. Living in the old manor house, he can see and sense the ghosts from the past of Lanyon Park. That's another side of his personality that he hides from his parents. When jokingly mentioning the ghosts in the house, he's met with a dismissive remark from Charles, his father, "Ghosts? What nonsense, no such thing."

Practical Charles even comments, "If there is a ghost, perhaps we can use the fact in our marketing for the open weeks. I don't believe in all that nonsense myself, but there's nothing like a bit of the supernartural to draw the punters in, and we could certainly do with the income".

An antique gentleman's dressing case is Freddie's new prized possession. What Freddie doesn't know is that the dressing case brings along an unhappy spirit attached to it. His latest acquisition triggers a disturbing poltergeist activity. Every night he's awakened by an anguished spirit.

It appears nobody else in the family is bothered by the fretful spirit of the dressing case or the in-house ghosts. It's either that, or they don't want to confess to seeing things.

Meeting an antique dealer Marcus Spender is a momentous event in Freddie's life. Finally there's someone who understands him and who has the same psychic abilities. There is an immediate spark between Freddie and Marcus. 

They decide to investigate the origins of the dressing case, and find out as much as possible about its previous owners. Their search brings them to Cornwall. The manor house where they read the old housekeeping accounts, unsettles Freddie, he finds it really oppressive. He is compelled to uncover the secret of the desolate phantom and the cause of its grief.

Marcus is a bit more sceptical about the whole mystery. He is also trying to persuade Freddie that he needs to be open with his family about his sexuality. 

The quest to find answers about the dressing case turns into a test of their growing relationship.

Will the restless spirit be laid to rest for good? And will Freddie finally come out to his family and friends, and be true to himself?

A Plethora of Phantoms is a charming and enjoyable mystery/ghost story, with a lovely main character, and a gripping and skilfully tangled plotline. There's more than one mystery to solve, and the characters that you really care about.

The story is pacy and engaging, with a supernatural chill. It has a little bit of everything - a modern romance, a doomed past love, dramatic history, unhappy ghosts, and a wonderful setting. There is plenty of tension and suspence as Freddie and Marcus follow the leads to try to untangle the mystery of the grieving phantom.

A couple of years ago I reviewed The Unquiet Spirit, and was pleased to meet some of the characters from that ghost story making their appearance in A Plethora of Phantoms.

Purchase Link  -

This post is part of the blog tour for A Plethora of Phantoms.

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

Chez Maximka, modern ghost story

Author Bio – Some time ago Penny Hampson decided to follow her passion for history by studying with the Open University. She graduated with honours and went on to complete a post-graduate degree.

Penny then landed her dream role, working in an environment where she was surrounded by rare books and historical manuscripts. Flash forward nineteen years, and the opportunity came along to indulge her other main passion – writing. Penny joined the New Writers’ Scheme of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and  three years later published her debut novel, A Gentleman’s Promise, a  historical mystery/romance. Other books in the same genre soon followed.

But never happy in a rut, Penny also writes contemporary suspense with paranormal and romantic elements. Her first book in this genre is The Unquiet Spirit, published by Darkstroke.

Penny lives with her family in Oxfordshire, and when she is not writing, she enjoys reading, walking, swimming, and the odd gin and tonic (not all at the same time).

modern ghost story

For more on Penny’s writing, visit her blog:

Twitter: @penny_hampson


Chez Maximka, modern ghost story

Friday, 21 January 2022

At Death's Door (The Shires Mysteries 2) by Anna Legat #BlogTour

Chez Maximka, cosy mystery set in England


"In all honesty, I don't like martinis except for the olive on the toothpick. I probably chose it because it made me feel like James Bond on a secret assignment".

"Not another death in Bishops Well! Our little community was turning into an abattoir."

At Death's Door by Anna Legat is an entertaining and amusing cosy mystery set in the sleepy English village of Bishops Wells. This is the 2nd book in The Shires Mysteries, which reads as a standalone.

As most cosy crime stories, it's packed with amateur detectives, family secrets and skeletons in the closet, the quaint locale, and plenty of eccentric characters.

Maggie Kaye enlists Sam Dee into joining the archaeological dig at the Bishops Well. The dig is in the swamp, and they hope to find the traces of the Bronze Age settlement.

"Maggie was bristling with enthusiasm for the project. She was the driving force behind the draining of the swamp to excavate what was believed to be ancient Celtic village".

When the body is found in the swamp, at first there is a great excitement. But the enthusiasm is soon dampened. "That corpse hasn't been buried here since the Bronze Age, no way. This grave dates back to the mid-twentieth century at the most. It can't have been here much longer than fifty years." The dig becomes a crime scene.

Maggie, with her psychic abilities and flair for drama, embarks on a spot of sleuthing.

Maggie runs to her parents for any possible information, as her Dad is an ex-bobby. "Dad was a walking Filofax of all noteworthy events that had occurred in the town and surrounding villages" prior to his retirement.

She's intent on digging out the secrets of the Bishops residents, confident that some of them must know things about the body discovered in the swamp.

Maggie's sidekick Sam is a relatively recent addition to the village. He moved here after the death of his wife Alice. "He had found new passions here, new pursuits, new friends and neighbours - one of whom admittedly was slightly eccentric, though he wouldn't swap her for anyone else in the world".

As Maggie and her sidekick begin to unravel the mystery of the body in the swamp, there is a new shock in store for our quirky sleuth. A face from the past appears in the village, and it opens a Pandora's box of dramatic events.

The danger is literally at Maggie's door. Can she discover the truth before it's too late?

 At Death's Door is a cosy mystery with diverting characters and an enjoyable storyline, just right for curling up with, wrapped in a duvet, with a cup of tea on the side table.

The characters are delightfully outlandish. I'm not sure if Maggie is supposed to be endearingly eccentric, but she's awfully annoying. Imagine a person who talks non-stop, keeps interrupting you, always has to have the last word, meddles into everyone's affairs thinking it's their birth right, and on top of that, has a serious drinking problem. In real life you'd try to avoid anyone like that. 

In her 50s, she behaves like a teen drama queen. Both Maggie and the other person (who I won't name so as not to reveal the spoilers) thrive on drama and are "incorrigibly reckless" and unhinged. 

She ponders, "What sort of life did I have?... I lived in the depths of the Shires, communing with ghosts, digging up old pots, deadheading roses, eating cake and drinking copious amounts of tea, plus an occasional alcoholic beverage... On that note, I knocked down a double brandy and took myself to bed".

Sam, who appears to be a sensible soul, walks around Maggie like a sad puppy. It's not quite clear why he is besotted with the crazy neighbour. He seems to be the type who goes through life, being dominated by the others, his mother, wife (whose spirit still watches him), the neighbour.

And why is it so difficult for several characters in the book to understand what witness protection is supposed to be. You don't just blabber to the first met person what you know. That's not simply idiotic, but plain dangerous, compromising personal safety. 

I enjoyed the gentle humour of the book, it might not be a laugh-out-loud type of hilarity, but a good chuckle nevertheless. The scene of the birdwatching , for example, made me smile, even my younger son asked me why I was smiling. Poor Sam's been persuaded to go birdwatching, when it's not his cup of tea at all.

"As hard as he tried, Samuel Dee would never become a country squire. It wasn't in his genetic makeup to revel in mud, rain and draughty barns. As he squatted, squashed like a sardine next to James, he escaped fondly into the memories of his favourite pastimes: West End theatre, Covent Garden restaurants, and infrequent recreational walks in St James's Park... He [James] was talking about the great bustard. Sam prayed to God that the bastard bustard would hurry up. "Patience is the name of this game," James added. Sam smiled faintly. He didn't want to play this game". I could so relate to that.

At Death's Door is a good old-fashioned British mystery, which will appeal to the fans of M C Beaton's Agatha Raisin series, Carola Dunn's Cornish mysteries or Cornwall Mysteries series by Janie Bolitho.

This post is part of the blog tour for At Death's Door.

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

Chez Maximka, Englishcosy mystery

Purchase Links

At Death's Door: The Shires Mysteries 2: A twisty and gripping cosy mystery eBook : Legat, Anna: Kindle Store

At Death's Door: The Shires Mysteries 2 by Anna Legat | Waterstones

At Death's Door: The Shires Mysteries 2 eBook by Anna Legat - 9781786159915 | Rakuten Kobo United Kingdom

At Death's Door: The Shires Mysteries 2 : A twisty and gripping cosy mystery: Anna Legat: 9781786159946:

cosy mystery set in England

Author Bio –

Anna Legat is a Wiltshire-based author, best known for her DI Gillian Marsh murder mystery series. Murder isn't the only thing on her mind. She dabbles in a wide variety of genres, ranging from dark humorous comedy, through magic realism to dystopian. A globe-trotter and Jack-of-all-trades, Anna has been an attorney, legal adviser, a silver-service waitress, a school teacher and a librarian. She has lived in far-flung places all over the world where she delighted in people-watching and collecting precious life experiences for her stories. Anna writes, reads, lives and breathes books and can no longer tell the difference between fact and fiction.

Subscribe to Anna's News, Rumours and Scandalous Revelations at

cosy mystery set in England

Social Media Links –

To find out more:

Follow Anna on Twitter:

Join Anna on Facebook:

Chez Maximka, cosy mystery set in England

Thursday, 20 January 2022

Hope in the Valleys by Francesca Capaldi #BlogTour

Chez Maximka, novel set during WWI in Wales

"I wouldn't be so sure, Mama. I think the war might be the catalyst by which things change forever for women. From next year, some of us will be able to vote". 

Hope in the Valleys by Francesca Capaldi is a romantic saga set during the WWI.

This is the third book in the series. It does read as a standalone, however, you might have an advantage if you've followed the story from the first book. It took me a while to understand who is who, and what their relationship to each other is. There is a lot of characters, and it was a bit confusing to start with.

The story is set in a mining village of Dorcalon in the Rhymney Valley. It begins in August 1917, when WWI is taking its heavy toll. Every day brings more tragic news of sons and fathers killed on the battlefields on the continent. 

Elizabeth Meredith, daughter of mine manager Herbert, lives with her parents, and enjoys a privileged status in the village. Yet her life is not as free as she would like to. There are certain social standards and expectations she feels obliged to adhere to, there is a pressure from both the society and her parents, that she has to marry.

Elizabeth is 27, and her mother Margaret is desperate to see her married. She blames her daughter, and insists that she should make herself more attractive and interesting to catch a husband. "Don't raise your eyes like that, madam! Twenty-seven you are now. Soon no man will look twice at you."

To help with the war effort, Elizabeth is working on the village allotments, growing produce for the locals. Working outdoors gives her a chance to escape the tense atmosphere at home. Things have not been going well between her parents, and with her brother Tom at the front, her mother is constantly worried.

Margaret is not thrilled that Elizabeth is involved in the allotments' business. For her this job is below their social status. She has adopted a pseudo-English accent, enjoys being the lady of the big house and taking part in the activities of the Dorcalon Social Committee. She has dedicated her life to going up in the world and creating a perfect family.

Snobbish Margaret resents the fact that her daughter is mingling with those who she thinks are lower her in status.

Gwilym Owen is a miner, and a fellow organiser of the allotments. Growing vegetables at the cooperative for a year and a half has brought them together. Gwyilym is well-read, speaks clearly and puts his points over well, so it doesn't come  as a surpise when he's chosen to be the union rep.

The constraints of the class system are such, that he doesn't feel comfortable to be near the manager's daughter. He is not sure whether Elizabeth is a spy for her father, or whether she is one of those middle-class socialists.

There is a certain chemistry between the two, but both are afraid of breaking the norm. As Gwilym tells Elizabeth when she suggests they go to the movies together, "It's a bit of an awkward situation, me being the union representative and you the manager's daughter".

Elizabeth is not looking for romance, but she can't help falling in love with Gwilym. Their relationship is a secret from both families, yet it brings her so much joy. If only there were future for them...

When their romance is discovered, Elizabeth is forced to choose between the man she loves and her family who find this relationship unacceptable. To escape the pressure, she signs up as a VAD nurse and is soon sent to the frontline in France to help the troops. She is heartbroken, but sees no other way out. In a letter to Gwilym she confesses that the stress of leading a double life was tearing her apart. "We would both have ended up without the support of our families, and maybe you would have grown to resent me".

Elizabeth is a warm-hearted and compassionate young woman. Both her brother Tom and she are stuck between two worlds.

Separated by the perils of the Great War and the constraints of the society, is there a chance for Elizabeth and Gwilym to be reunited?

Hope in the Valleys offers a multi-layered storyline, with several minor sub-plots organically woven into the main romance plot. You are immersed into the rigid society, where the social circles do not merge, and there's social snobbery and distrust on both sides.

The mining community is re-awakening, and you get the sense of the changes the war has caused.

The war has brought many changes in the social strata of the society. While men are fighting abroad, women take on their jobs. In the village we see women going off to work at the munitions factory. 

 Parallel to Elizabeth's tale, there is Gwen's storyline. Working in the munitions factory, she gets good wages, but the work is dangerous, and her health deteriorates. The TNT turns her skin yellow, she becomes one of the so called Canary Girls. The side effects are more than purely cosmetic, but life-threatening. Yet there is a pride in what Gwen is doing, contributing to the war effort and also bringing home good wages. She is aware that the situation is likely to come to an end, once the war is over.

The inclusion of Welsh words in the text gives a cultural flavour but also presents a mild problem for readers who are not acquainted with the language. I had an e-copy, and don't know if the paperback edition is published differently, but I would have liked footnotes with the translation of the Welsh words when they first appear in the story. 

Hope in the Valleys is an engaging, moving and heart-warming story. This uplifting saga, set against an emotionally charged backdrop, is brimming over with the in-depth period detail. There is a dramatic historic background, warm main characters, and a compelling plot.

Chez Maximka, novel set during WWI in Wales

Purchase Links




This post is part of the blog tour for Hope in the Valleys.

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

Chez Maximka, book set in Wales during WWI

Author Bio – Francesca has enjoyed writing since she was a child, largely influenced by a Welsh mother who was good at improvised story telling. A history graduate and qualified teacher, she decided to turn her writing hobby into a career in 2006. She is a member of the Romantic Novelists' Association and the Society of Women Writers and Journalists. Each month she writes a competition post for the Romantic Novelists' Association blog.

book set during WWI

Monday, 17 January 2022

Photo diary: week 2, project 365

 I don't know about the Blue Monday, it was a whole Blue week. Sasha's tutor called me last Monday to inform that as they have staff shortages, his college day on Wednesday was to be cancelled, which totally messed up all our plans. 

Sash's not good at adapting to any changes in his routine. Holidays are not easy but at least we can prepare in advance, telling him that they are coming, how long they would last, when he is going back to school/college etc. When things happen so abruptly and he has had no time to absorb the information and adjust accordingly, he gets anxious.

With my husband being away that week, Sash staying at home full-time, it was as stressful as you get. I baked and did some sketches to keep me sane. 

Taking part in the #penandinkchallenges has given me another opportunity to open my numerous art books. The last week was all about great artists, where you had to pick a favourite quote by the artist and do some doodle or sketch with it.

I love Matisse's nudes, and have a beautiful edition of Leonard Cohen's Dance me to the end of love, with illustrations from Matisse's artwork. This is one of my favourite songs. I always tell my guys that I want it to be played at my funeral. It brings back all the memories of when we were young and in love.

Chez Maximka, Galina Varese art

Another of the sketches with a quote - this time from Picasso. I have opted for a neutral quote. Some of the things he said were awfully misogynistic. For example, he said, There are only two types of women: goddesses and doormats. That's just wrong on so many levels.
He was also known for treating his women appallingly.

Olga Khokhlova was the Russian ballet dancer and the first wife of Picasso. She was his early muse, and there are many beautiful drawings of Olga by Picasso. He betrayed her, living a double life, and she was later portrayed as a neurotic, depressive and jealous wife who was dragging on the great artist.
But she was a major influence, being his main model and muse through his classical period.

Chez Maximka, Galina Varese art

The Midnight Man by Caroline Mitchell is one of the few books I read this year. I started reading it on the new year's eve. It is a tense and unsettling murder mystery, with Gothic undertones, and supernatural elements.

Chez Maximka

Erm, that's the stash of books I bought recently. I had to take a photo to remind myself that my book-buying habits are getting out of hand. And that's only the paperbacks. I don't even dare mentioning how many Kindle books I got recently.

Chez Maximka

A very stressful day. Sash was unsettled. I decided to bake some biscuits, as he likes to watch me cooking. Rather than make something sweet, I baked savoury snacks - chunky cheese straws. They were very tasty.

I was reading Bjorn Larssen's Creation, it's a retelling of the Norse myths. Bjorn has a wicked sense of humour. We follow each other on Twitter, and I love his style, so witty and imaginative. I am also a big fan of his books.

Chez Maximka, Bjorn Larssen

A quick stroll through the garden. One of the flower pots has overgrown with moss. I really need to get rid of it, but it looks so pretty, especially with the rain drops, like an alien landscape.

Chez Maximka

The water in the bucket has frozen over, forming a round lid. When I picked it up, it broke in two. I walked around the garden, looking through my "magic glass".

Chez Maximka, nature photography

My first book subscription box from LoveMyRead has arrived. Unlike many book subscription services offers, you don't get a mystery book - which would not work for me, as I buy lots of books, and the chances are they would send me something I already have. At LoveMyRead you select a book for yourself. You also get some treats.

I'll give it a go for another month, and then decide whether to continue. To be fair, their choices for the next month are very good, it was hard to pick one book. There were at least three I would love to read.

Chez Maximka

I had five deliveries last Friday, some for reviewing, some treats that I have ordered. We love the cream tea, especially Cornish, but this time I wanted to try a cream tea from Devon Hampers Ltd. I had a discount code, and we needed a treat, it being such a tense and taxing week.

The scones are huge and rather crumbly, not easy to spread the clotted cream onto them. Strawberry jam tastes lovely, but is a bit too dense, almost like a jelly. I prefer softer jams. I have squirrelled the fudge and shortbread for laters, or my horde would demolish them in one go.

Have you tried a cream tea delivery? What would you recommend?

This Saturday we said Good bye to our Christmas tree. I kept it until the Russian old new year's eve (something to do with the difference in the Julian and Gregorian calendars). According to the old calendar, the new year starts on the 14th, and many Russians still celebrate it. 

It was a bit sad, but as Eddie said, it's now less than a year to put it up again.

How was your week?

Chez Maximka

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Tuesday, 11 January 2022

The Midnight Man by Caroline Mitchell

Chez Maximka, horror manor, crime mystery


"I didn't know what dread was until we moved into Blackhall Manor... the tall brick building looming ahead. It came with a history fit for any ghost story. None of my friends visited. Neither would I, given a choice. In Blackhall Manor, it was Halloween all year long".

"This had to be a nightmare. It couldn't be real. But this wasn't a nightmare I woke up from. It was a nightmare I woke up to".

"They had only just arrived but already, she felt a creeping sense of being watched. She looked beyond the cobwebs and the creaking floorboards. Shadows from the past were coming to life".

The Midnight Man by Caroline Mitchell is a tense and deeply unsettling murder mystery, with some horror, and supernatural/paranormal elements.

This was one of my Amazon Prime Reading downloads. I finished reading my last book of the year on the 31st, and fancied reading something hair-raising to while away the last hours before midnight. What better than a gripping thriller?! 

The story starts with a bang (or a series of bangs), as the mysterious killer murders the whole family in a creepy old manor house on the outskirts of a small town of Slayton. He moves from room to room, dispatching one member of the family after another. The fourteen year old daughter of the family is hidden in the wardrobe, and we're waiting with trepidation whether the killer will find her. 

Then the story jumps to the present, twenty five years later. The abandoned manor house is still standing, uninhabited and hiding its gruseome secrets.

On Halloween night five teenagers decide to play a dangerous game called The Midnight Man. They sneak out of their homes into the night and enter the darkness of the Blackhall manor. They follow the rules of the game, by inviting the dangerous Midnight Man in.

"If you open your door to the Midnight Man, hide with a candle wherever you can. Try not to scream as he draws near, because one of you won't be leaving here".

The Gothic atmosphere of the creepy house will give you shivers. You just know the game is not going to end well, and you want to scream at the silly girls, Get out of here, NOW! 

One of the girls goes missing, the remaining four are terrified out of their wits. They are scared the Mignight Man will come after them, if they confess to parents where they spent the night.

Detective Sarah Nolan, the main protagonist, has her own ties to the house. She's just back at the police department after taking a leave of absence for mental health issues. Her return to the job is not a happy one. The colleagues either openly snigger and gossip about her, or blame her for staying away and leaving them short-staffed. Her new duties are very restricted. "She was lucky to have her job. But was it a job she was strong enough to return to?"

Sarah doesn't seem to be able to stand up to the bullying. She is trying hard to get her life back on track, but she is still not entirely recovered from her nervous breakdown, and finds the pressure from her colleagues unrelenting.

While helping with the investigation, she meets her old friend Maggie and her seven-year-old son Elliott.

Young Elliott has psychic abilities, he is frequently tormented by nightmares which predict the future or describe the present. "He wished he could talk to someone about his nightmares. He wasn't just a watcher. The smells, sounds, and feelings swallowed him up and followed into his days".

Elliott is a sensitive child, who deeply cares about his mother and doesn't want to burden her, disclosing the full extent of his dreadful visions. He tries to stay awake so as not see the Midnight Man in his nightmares, but it never works.

Sarah and Maggie have grown apart, but the recent tragic events bring them together. She takes the young child's visions seriously. "Elliott, with those eyes so dark and deep they spoke more than words could ever convey".

During one of her job tasks Sarah visits a disabled lady who lives with her son. Elsie is morbidly obese and can hardly get out of bed. Her son is her carer. Elsie is another blast from the past in Sarah's life. Her old friends... "they had all grown up here and all suffered in one way or another. What was it about Slayton that drew them all together, battle-scarred misfits of life?"

Thread by thread, the past binds the old friends tighter. Sarah has to dig deeper into her own childhood and darkest memories to find the killer. The past seems to cling on, never letting you go.

Is Sarah ready to meet the Midnight Man?

The Midnight Man is a tense, fast-paced thriller, a mix of police procedural and character examination. It hooks you in the first chapter, and draws you into the intertwined lives of the characters.

The plotline has lots of twists and turns, throwing the red herrings your way.

The ending left me rather underwhelmed, as there were no prior clues of the real identity of the killer, and their motivation was hard to believe. 

The setting felt strangely American, with the gated community and references to the sheriff, yet there was a Tesco and fish and chips. I had to double-check whether the author is American or British. 

The police procedural element also left me asking how realistic the expectations of Sarah's colleagues were. Wouldn's Sarah's position being filled on a temporary basis? And would you really blame your colleague who has mental health problems for taking a leave? 

The Midnight Man is actually two mysteries in one, both creepy and spine-chilling. If you enjoy crime stories with a supernatural element, don't miss it (If you are on Amazon Prime, you can download this book for free on PrimeReading).

This is the first book in the series, and I cannot wait for the next instalment of the Slayton horrors. 

Chez Maximka, psychological thriller

Monday, 10 January 2022

Photo diary: week 1, project 365

Chez Maximka, Witney

 It's chilly out there, not the dry crisp cold of the Russian winters, but the wet and humid weather which makes your bones achy and stiff. And the incessant drizzle. Rain on Christmas, rain on the new year's eve, drizzle almost every day during the first week of the year. 

Return to school was rather painful. It was hard to get up after two weeks of leisurely mornings. Eddie wasn't overly enthusiastic to go back to school. Only Sasha looked very happy to go to college. 

What have we been doing? Reading, sketching, baking, watching all Spiderman movies. Since Eddie and his father went to the cinema to watch Spiderman No Way Home, we decided to have a Spidey marathon and watched all the films, with Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and, of course, Tom Holland.

The first week of #penandinkchocolate was all about great writers. You had to choose a favourite quote from each author. Do you agree with Oscar Wilde? Or is it slightly exaggerated, as per his lively style?

Chez Maximka, Galina Varese art

I finally managed to get the top nine snap on Instagram. I know you could find your own stats and do a collage, but I'm too lazy. The app didn't work for me for several days, as millions of people apparently wanted to do the same.

Funnily enough, five of my top liked images were from November and December ink challenges.

Chez Maximka, Galina Varese art

I was looking at my collection of Alexandre Dumas' novels. In my teens and early twenties I used to read a lot of Dumas. I was of a very romantic disposition. 
All the antique editions were a gift from my lovely friend. I also have a copy of Three Musketeers in Russian, which I bought at one of the yard sales in New Haven, CT, over twenty years ago, when we lived there. It was like meeting an old friend.

I was thinking Eddie and I should have a readalong, and read Three Musketeers. 

Chez Maximka

Did you notice that the days have started slowly to gain a bit of light, pushing the darkness that little bit further into the evening. I call my Mum every day around the same time, and noticed the change.

Chez Maximka, Witney

I accompanied Sash and his father to the cafe before running off on shopping errands. It was getting dark outside, and I snapped my boy as he was sitting by the window, looking out at the Christmas lights. It was the last day of the twelve days of Christmas, and the next day they would have been taken down.

Chez Maximka

I've finally opened the box of posh milk and dark chocolate caramels from Fortnum & Mason hamper which I won before Christmas. Have to ration the chocolates. Told my guys, it's not a tin of Roses, so don't expect to eat the whole lot.

Chez Maximka, posh chocolates

One more drawing, this one from Week 2, which is all about great artists. I liked the quote from Matisse, Don't wait for inspiration. It comes while one is working.

It's so true. The nude is a (inferior) copy of Matisse. I have a fabulous edition of Leonard Cohen's poem/song Dance me to the end of love, illustrated by Matisse's works, and this nude was just there, waiting for me to copy her.

How was your week?

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Sunday, 9 January 2022

Winter Warmers & New Year Degustabox

 Every year many people welcome January with an expectation of new resolutions, and a sincere promise to reach new goals. Knowing full well that I am useless at making resolutions work, I don't undertake any. Veganuary and Dry January pass me by. January is the month of the Russian Christmas. Though I don't tend to celebrate it on a grand scale, I want a cake, with dairy butter and cream. And a cheeseboard with dairy cheese.

I believe since I cook a vegan dinner every week, and eat enough of salads and vegetable meals, the sum total of them all extends well beyond one month. So, I spread my Veganuary evenly through the year.

Winter Warmers & New Year is the theme of the latest Degustabox. And it offers a good amount of vegan foods to help those who join in Veganuary.

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.

Let's have a look at what we got in the Winter Warmers & New Year Degustabox.

Chez Maximka, food subscription box

Cup Noodles Soba Japanese Curry (£1.49) is a product of the month. Nissin Cup Noodles Soba Japanese Curry offers an authentic Japanese curry experience. It comes with a draining cap, and is very easy and quick to prepare. 

This vegetarian meal is a spicy combination of noodles with a curry seasoning. If you like cup noodles, give them a go.

Typical values: 208kcal and 1.4g of salt. 

If you're sensitive to flavour enhancers, there is quite a few of E-numbers.

Available at classic retailers.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Amy's Kitchen Organic Quinoa Kale and Red Lentil Soup (£2.15) is packed with plant power from organic red lentils, kale, quinoa, and vegetables - onions, tomato puree, garlic, jalapeno peppers as well as spices and herbs.

It is gluten free, low fat and vegan. It's so hearty and robust, that it is more of a stew in consistency. A good pantry staple, for the days when you want a quick and easy meal.

Nutritional information: 237kcal and 6.3g of sugar per serving (tin).

Available in all major supermarkets.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Bertolli Extra Virgin Olive Oil Originale/Olive Oil Classico (£5) is a splendid oil from a well-known Italian brand. I go through litres and litres of olive oil, adding it to a variety of meals and recipes, from making a soffrito base for soups and stews, to baking a carrot or polenta cake, from salads to pasta and risotto. Its fruity olive taste is great for grilled, fried and baked foods.

You should receive 1 item in your box.
Available on Ocado and Amazon.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Pipers Crisps Pitta Chips Cawdor Garlic & Herbs/Pitta Chips Biggleswade/Sweet Chilli & Sour Cream (£1.10) are double baked savoury snacks. We all loved them.

These crunchy pitta chips are made with delicious local ingredients, with a bespoke baking process. For example, the sweet chilli is grown by the Genovese family of Bedfordshire, while garlic is grown by the Allingham family farm in Scotland. I love the fact that you can trace the ingredients to the growers.

Nutritional values: 486-494kcal and 4.7-5.5g of sugar per 100g.

Available at local farm shops/pubs and in sharing bags at Ocado, Sainsbury's and Waitrose.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Rhythm 108 Hazelnut Praline Soft-Baked Cookie (£1.49) is a soft blonde Swiss chocolate chip cookie, filled with a creamy hazelnut chocolate praline and topped with a sprinkle of hazelnuts and chocolate chips. Vegan, organic and gluten-free. Made in Switzerland, in a little bakery in the foothills of the Alps.

It comes wrapped up in a home compostable packaging. And it is made without palm oil.

Nutritional information: 235kcal and 13g of sugar.

Available at Morrisons, Booths, Planet Organic, on Amazon, Ocado and Rhythm108.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Cheesies Cheddar Gouda (£1.19) is a crunchy snack made from 100% cheese and literally nothing else. It is baked til crunchy. High in protein, it contains no carbs or sugar and counts as 122kcal. These moreish bits of cheese have a sharp and punchy taste.

Nibble them on their own, with a drink, or sprinkle over soup as croutons (we didn't get to that stage, as they disappeared pretty fast).

You should receive 1 item in your box.

Available on Amazon, Ocado, Holland & Barrett, Whole Foods, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and (get 15% with a code CHEESEPLEASE at, or use code DEGUSTA2021 for 20% off until the 31 January 2022 at and

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Curiously Cinnamon Breakfast Cereal (£2.80) is a crunchy whole grain cereal with a warm taste of cinnamon. A winter favourite, it includes 33% whole grain, seven vitamins and iron. It is also a source of calcium.
Serve it with milk of your choice or eat without milk as a morning snack with a cup of tea.

Nutritional information: 126kcal and 7.5g of sugar per 30g serving. Each box contains 12 servings.

Available in all major supermarkets.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Swizzels Drumstick Chocolate (£1) is a novelty chocolate bar. You get the taste of the Swizzels Drumstick lolly in a chocolate bar. It was too sweet for my taste, and my younger son also commented on how sweet it is. Yet the next day he did ask if any of that chocolate bar was left.

There is a soft raspberry and milk fondant centre with added pieces of raspberry, coated in milk chocolate.

Available at Morrisons, Boots, Booths, Planet Organic, on Amazon, Ocado and Rhythm108.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Chez Maximka

NICK'S Crunchy Caramel (£1.50) is a chocolate bar with a crunchy caramel and almond core. No added sugar, no palm oil, no gluten.

Some say, it's similar to Dime bar. I am not overly enthusiastic about it, the caramel was hard and brittle.

Nutritional values: 88kcal and 1.6g of sugar.

Available at WHSmith, selected Sainsbury's stores and on Amazon.

McVitie's Mince Pie Milk Chocolate Digestives (£1.59) is a festive flavour from McVitie's. Recently they have introduced several new flavours. Which one is your favourite? Mine would be Chocolate Cherry, but Mince Pie is not bad at all.

These digestive biscuits are dipped in milk chocolate and filled with the flavour of mince pies. A lovely treat for Christmas or any other time of the year.

Nutritional values: 80kcal and 4.5g of sugar per biscuit.

Available at all major supermarkets.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Biscuits and tea go so well together. 

VADHAM India Maharaja English Breakfast Black Tea (£1) is a strong black tea, robust and full-bodied. This flavourful Assam black tea is packed in a convenient pyramid tea bag.

Serve hot with a dash of milk of your choice, or with a slice of lemon and a spoonful of sugar. 
You should receive a couple of sachets in your box.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

Aspall Draught Cyder 500ml (£2.20) is a crisp, medium dry cyder, with a delicate aroma and fruity taste of fresh pressed apples. Crafted at the original Cyder House, Suffolk.

It is pale straw in colour, and wonderfully floral and fruity on the palate. Top marks!

Available at the major supermarket chains and premium retailers.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

And finally, Vita Coco Choc-o-lot (£3.75) is a sweet, chocolatey coconut drink, full of flavour. It is dairy-free and packed with Vitamin C. It's a lovely combination of chocolate and coconut flavours.

Nutritional values: only 25kcal and 4g of sugar per 100ml.

Available at Sainsbury's, Co-Op, Holland & Barrett and Waitrose.

Chez Maximka, Degustabox food box

What is your favourite product from the latest box?

Monday, 3 January 2022

Photo diary: three weeks of December and a new year, Project 365

 I admire those people who start a new year with a swim outdoors, all the kudos to them! I'm in the lazy camp, when it comes to 1 January, getting up late (if possible), having a leisurely breakfast going on brunch, and then deciding whether to have a little walk outside. 

I was reminiscing on the phone with my Mum the other day, when she and I had a walk on a mild morning of the millennium. My husband was away in Italy, so it was just two of us. We walked around almost empty Oxford streets, and the helicopter was buzzing overheard like a giant angry bumblebee. It was the night when there was a heist at the Ashmolean Museum, and the Cezanne has been stolen. Mum says she remembers how she was astonished to see some roses still in bloom and pansies in baskets. 

It was also the last new year's day when my dearest Dad was still alive. Later that year he died of a heart attack.

Where did we have all the energy to party all night long, when we were young? This new year's eve I could hardly stay awake until midnight, and was moaning for the last hour of 2021 that I was so ready for bed. 

One of the craziest new year's eve parties was in Rome, ages ago, i.e. before we had children. A group of my husband's friends were visiting Rome from Ferrara, and of course, I tagged along, even if I hardly knew anyone. We went from one unhinged party to another, and at midnight the whole lot were climbing on the roof of the house to look at the fireworks. Goodness, how worried I was about my foolhardy husband who, of course, had to go up on the roof as well. I honestly thought he would fall off. He didn't, but I still haven't forgotten his foolishness.

December passed in a blur of frentic shopping, trying to find the right presents and have all the food bought for the Christmas party, as we had friends coming over. I had to cook for a party of meat eaters, vegetarians and a coeliac. Trying to take everything into account, I had to write down the plan of what to cook at what time and in which quantities.

Amidst December my lime tree, which in summer lives in the greenhouse, and indoors during the cold months, decided to start blooming. I love the scent, and the flowers are very pretty, but of course, there won't be any lime, as who's going to pollinate it?!

Chez Maximka,

The town looked festive, with sparkling garlands of lights and Christmas window displays.

Chez Maximka

We set up our Christmas tree quite late, it was the 17th of December but we will keep it longer. The Russian Christmas is not until the 7th of January.

Chez Maximka

Our tree is eight years old, and though I love the smell of the freshly cut trees, the artificial is less messy.  We later added a garland of lights. As you can see, we don't keep up a colour scheme. I buy a few Christmas ornaments every year. I also have several Soviet toys from my childhood, so they are now totally vintage.

And yes, that's the photo of Spidey in the corner. 

Chez Maximka

Eddie's friend came over for a gaming session, and I opened a box of cake for them. It was a festive Percy Pig Igloo cake from M&S. My kid said it was very sweet, even for him, who has a sweet tooth.

Chez Maximka

This little glass squirrel is one of a few Christmas tree decorations from my childhood. My Mum brought several glass ornaments to me a few years ago, to remind me of the days long gone, when I believed in Grandfather Frost (that's how we call him in Russia).
I also have a legless bird, a little colourful drum and a red chilli pepper.

Chez Maximka, Soviet vintage Christmas decorations

I enjoy entering advent competitions on social media. This year most of the comps I entered were on Instagram. There were hundreds every day. It was fun, but I didn't win a single one of them.

But... about mid-December I received an email, saying that I won a Fortnum & Mason hamper in a giveaway promotion of Carole Matthews' book. You had to pre-order her latest book to be entered in the draw. The hamper arrived before Christmas, and it was a delight to open a big basket and discover all the goodies, among the heaps of straw. 

Did you win any of the advents?

Chez Maximka, posh food hamper

Eddie and his father braved going to the cinema to watch Spiderman No Way Home, and sent me a selfie from the cinema. I'll have to wait until it comes on a DVD. I don't feel confident enough to go and sit among the crowd for over two hours. 
They said it was thrilling, emotional but sad. I already know the spoilers as I've read the reviews online. 

Chez Maximka

I kept drawing sketches through the month, taking part in #penandinkchallenge on Instagram. It was fun taking part, and it gave me a chance to start sketching again.
These are three of the drawings based on the prompts - a bell, a cat in a hat and Christmas stockings.

Chez Maximka, ink drawings

One of the prompts was mistletoe. I chatted to my Mum on the phone and told her I did a drawing of a robin holding a mistletoe. She said it was not possible in real life. I replied that in the world of Santa and the flying reindeer, elves and gnomes, a robin carrying a mistletoe is a possibility.

Chez Maximka

It was ridiculous to see Easter chocolate eggs in Waitrose on the 24th, when many people were still frantically buying the last bits and bobs for Christmas.

Chez Maximka

I started cooking our Christmas meal two days in advance, as the homecured salmon takes about 36 + hours to get ready. The day before I prepped some of the veg, and cooked the ham in marmalade. And then the cooking marathon started in earnest on the morning of the 24th.

I made a few changes this year. I cooked roast potatoes with a polenta crust, as recommended by Nigella. They were tasty. I also followed Rachel Roddy's recipe for cooking carrots - though I had to substitute Marsala for sherry. I didn't want to buy a bottle of Marsala just for cooking, and sherry worked really well. 

As a starter we had gluten free potato blini, with salmon and soured cream. Everything was polished off. It was cured with the sea salt, sugar, spices and gin.

Chez Maximka

We had a turkey crown, with all the trimmings, as well as a vegetarian main and even vegetarian stuffing and "pigs in blankets", later followed by the traditional Christmas pudding. I wouldn't have bothered with it otherwise, but our friends brought their elderly Nana with them who's over 90, and I thought she might enjoy a traditional dessert. We also had a gluten free tiramisu, which was delicious.

The pudding was served, with a flame over rum, quite dramatic. It was actually pretty good, especially with a generous helping of the salted caramel and rum-flavoured cream (though my younger one said it was the vilest thing he has ever tasted). 

Chez Maximka, Christmas meal

Our evening progressed into a long session of boarding games. We played You've got crabs (goodness, who on Earth thought it is a suitable title for a children's game?!), Cluedo and Articulate. You can guess, that by eleven I was not much into Articulating anything. I just wanted to change into my PJs and get under the duvet.

But Eddie said the next day that it was one of the best Christmases, and who am I to contradict him? It was a good day, we enjoyed the company of our friends, and the food was tasty and plentiful.

Chez Maximka

The next day I told my family that I was not cooking anything. If they were hungry, there was a lot of leftovers, or they could cook themselves. 

During the advents I have entered a giveaway run by Berczy. Didn't win it, but made use of the discount code they sent to all entrants. Their Winter Cola is a limited edition drink. It's certainly not what I expected, not like any usual coca cola or its variations. This is a non-sweet mildly alcoholic drink, quite nice after the sweet excesses of all the Christmas offerings. I think it would be even better in a cocktail with some added flavours.

Taste by Stanley Tucci was one of my Christmas gifts. I asked my hisband how did he know I wanted this book. Apparently Eddie told him when they were in the book shop together. I trained him well. 

Eddie knows I'm a fan of Tucci (especially in The Hunger Games). I only started reading it, and it's very enjoyable.

Chez Maximka

Fireworks was one of the themes of the pen and ink challenge. I used a technique of sprinkling sea salt over the wet ink (works with watercolours too), and creating a pattern, then drew over with gold pens.

Chez Maximka, Diamine inks

The last day of the year was wet and windy.

We stayed up until midnight, but the evening was dragging for me. I wasn't sure I wanted to see the fireworks in London or just go to bed.

It doesn't help that the British TV is pretty rubbish on the new year's eve. We kept changing the channels, but everything was totally inane and so not funny. Why do we need to know that the woman who was being interviewed had no bra or knickers on? How does this add to the merriment? Yet the presenter (I think it was Graham Norton) laughed like it was the wittiest thing ever.

Earlier that evening I got in touch with my brother on Whatsapp. It's our little tradition, I call him, when it's midnight in Russia in their time zone, and he sets the phone to show me the TV at midnight. We toast each other with a glass of champagne. Typically my Mum would be with them, but for two years in a row she stayed at home. Last year it was against the rules, this year she was still not confident to go out to be in company. 

Chez Maximka

My brother visited my Mum earlier that day to wish her a happy new year in person. On the way, he snapped a few photos for me of my hometown in winter.

It was wonderful to see the festive decorations and all that snow, but also made me rather sad that I haven't visited Russia for about seventeen years. And who knows, if I'm ever able to travel there.

Chez Maximka

On the morning of the first of January I woke up to some lovely news. Taking part in the arty challenges won me one of the weekly prizes (a glamorous pen, and ink of my choice). I was thrilled to bits, and hope this is the positive symbol of things to come this year. Maybe, just maybe everything will be all right.

If you haven't fallen asleep reading my long ramblings, I salute you.

I wish you all a happy new year!

And if you haven't spotted it yet, I run my own book giveaway - you could win one of my top ten reads of 2021. 

Chez Maximka

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