Monday, 30 December 2019

My top 10 reads of 2019

It could have easily been 11 or 12, but 10 is a good round number. I have read well over 75 books this year, with a few -  which I started and never finished - not added to the final total.
Many of the books on my Reading challenge 2019 at Good Reads (if you're curious, click on the link to see what is on my list) are stories for children and YA fiction. This is mainly because I read to my younger son every evening, but there were a couple of YA books which I've read on my own, for pure pleasure.

Hence my top 10 are a mix of adult and YA fiction. Some of them are reviewed on my blog, some are still waiting to be reviewed, but each and every one of them is splendid in its own way, and each one made me marvel at the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the human nature.

For keeping me sane in the hours when I feel despondent or stressed, I thank all the authors. I know that an escapism is a "bad" word, when related to books, but for me it's a positive experience. Escaping the mundane (how about reading The Wonky Donkey or Georgina the Giraffe aloud every single evening for half a year, or the drudgery of daily washing & ironing?!), the anxiety and stress of parenting, family disagreements, health issues etc - by moving into the parallel world of books - should be prescribed as a medical solution to many a problem.

I salute you, readers and authors!

And here are my favourite reads of 2019 in no particular order...

best books of 2019, Chez Maximka

The Secret by Katharine Johnson (Crooked Cat) was my first book of the year (<--- you can read a full review which was part of the blog tour). It is an absorbing novel which has managed to capture the particular time and place with a great authority and genuineness.
This is a story of two friends, whose lives were damaged by secrets and lies. This is also a story of the country, complicated and intense.
Martina and Elena grow up in Mussolini's Italy.
Martina is a beautiful spirited girl, who marries into a wealthy family. Her in-laws look at their only surviving son's union as a mesalliance.
Irena is plain but smart, she values books and education, and wants to become a teacher.
Their friendship is tested by the political events and personal circumstances.

This novel made me think of my parents-in-law's wartime childhood in Italy, and also of my own family. My great grandma and grandma lived under the Nazi occupation in the South of Russia. Those were the scary times, when loyalties were tested, families divided, and the survival depended on many factors. Just like in Katharine Johnson's book.

A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison (Simon & Schuster) is a bewitching magic story with not one but three spirited heroines.
The Widdershin sisters - Betty, Fliss and Charlie - grow up on the isle of Crowstone. The village inn, The Poacher's Pocket is the only home they knew.
On her birthday, Betty learns about the family curse. And about the gifts bestowed on each Widdershin girl. There are three items, three gifts, each of them an everyday object, and each of them holds a different kind of power. A pinch of magic, as described by their grandma.
The sisters must work as a team, if they ever hope to break the family curse which has been killing off the womenfolk in their family for many generations. Their magic adventures border on suicide, and they must be brave, bold and trusting each other while going on their journey of discovery and self-discovery.

Book 2 in the series (A Sprinkle of Sorcery) will be out in 2020, and I'm super impatient to learn of the latest Widdershins' adventure.

best book of 2019, Chez Maximka, Russian dolls

The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson (Usborne) is a magical tale of self-discovery, self-identity, our uniqueness and differentness, of what family and friendship, and true love mean to us. It's a beautiful story, and a future classic.

Yanka the Bear is big and strong, she is so different from the other children in the village.
She lives with Mamochka, a lady who found her in the deep forest outside the bear cave. Yanka keeps wondering about her parents, and the bear who looked after her when she was a baby.
One day after an accident in the snow fortress, Yanka wakes up to find that her feet have turned into the bear legs. She flees her home, looking for the answers in the forest.

It is a delightful story, with lots of elements of reinvented and retold Russian folk tales.
Wonderful cover design by Kathrin Honesta deserves a special mention too.

I wish this book was written when I was a child. I know that I would have loved it.
(And I also wish I wrote this book, as I love it so much).

Chez Maximka, best books for children, best books of 2019

Malamander by Thomas Taylor (Walker Books) is another book for children, which has won my son's and my hearts. It is a fabulous seaside mystery for anyone who enjoys a mix of folklore, Gothic horror and magic.
Herbie Lemon is the Lost-and-Founder at the Grand Nautilus Hotel in Eerie-on-Sea. He looks after the lost property, and lives in the hotel cubbyhole. He was found on the beach in a crate of lemons, with his memory wiped out.
One day a girl scrambles into his room through the window, she is trying to escape a scary Boathook Man. Violet is an orphan who tries to find the truth about her parents. Since Herbie is a Lost-and-Founder, Violet reckons he could help her in her search.
Thus a detective duo is born, and their adventures begin, amidst the stormy wintery atmosphere.

Malamander is the legendary sea monster, who roams the cold beach of Eerie-on-Sea in the dead of night. Meet him at your peril. It might destroy you or it might grant your wish, if you are lucky to get hold of its magical egg.

It's a wonderful story. A pure joy to read.

The 2nd book in the series should be out some time in 2020, and we cannot wait to read it.

best children's books of 2019, Chez Maximka

Sleep by C.L.Taylor (Avon) comes with the most enticing cover blurb:
Seven Guests. Seven Secrets. One Killer. Do you dare to... Sleep

Anna, an acting manager at Bay View Hotel on the remote Scottish island of Rum, is not able to sleep. Insomnia and night terrors, driven by a feeling of guilt, keep her awake.
Seven guests arrive to the small hotel, each hiding their own secrets, and all act suspiciously.
One of them is playing sadistic cruel mind games. When the first death in the hotel occurs, Anna is panic-stricken.
Cut off by the bad weather from the rest of the island, Anna and the guests have to endure each other's company, socialise and ultimately survive.
The cut-off hotel, with its remote location, and no way of getting in touch with anyone on the isle or beyond, works perfectly as a mystery vehicle to intensify the claustrophobic tension and drama.
The twist at the end will chill your bones.

best psyhoclogical thriller sof 2019, Chez Maximka

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry (Canongate) is a historical mystery with a medical twist. It is pretty gruesome (some of the scenes of childbirth are so harrowing, they stay with you for a long time), so if you're squeamish when it comes to gore in books, perhaps it is not a right book for you.
Will Raven, the main protagonist of the novel, is a medical student apprenticed to the renowned Dr Simpson.
Sarah Fisher is a housemaid in the same household. She is intelligent and shrewd, but being a female at those times, she is not expected to give her opinions on any things that truly matter.
The 19th C Edinburgh is brought to life and provides an atmospheric background to the series of spine-chilling murders. As the bodies' count grows, Will and Sarah begin to work together to find out the culprit.
Their relationship starts on a negative note, but slowly they begin to respect each other.
The medical scene of Edinburgh of 1847 is fascinating. The experiments with ether and chloroform (when women are used as guinea pigs by the medical men) are denounced by the church. Medical research takes a prime position in this historical crime.

It's a historical whodunnit at its finest.

The second book in the series, The Art of Dying, was published earlier in 2019.

historical crime fiction, best books of 2019, Chez Maximka

Storytellers by Bjørn Larssen (JosephTaylor) is set in Iceland, with its harsh unforgiving, yet breathtakingly beautiful and poetic landscape.
Gunnar is a reclusive blacksmith with a drinking problem. He lives with his dog and horse, and doesn't want to socialise. He's a loner, and likes it that way. Visitors make him panic. He wants peace of the nature around him and the company of his animals. And a steady supply of his "medication".

However, the fate brings a visitor on his doorstep.
Sigurd, a man with a broken ankle, has some mysterious plans of his own. He imposes himself on Gunnar, and pays for his silence. No-one should know about his whereabouts or even his existence.
To stop Gunnar from asking too many questions, Sigurd offers to tell him a story. A story which will include love and death, and plenty of everything.

The story unravels, as we travel back in time, and meet a young, fearless Icelander named Arnar who goes to America to seek fortune. There he meets the love of his life, a beautiful Juana. They elope and go back to Iceland.
Gunnar and Arnar's stories are interconnected. They are both stories of the human loneliness, depression and feeling entrapped.
This is a multi-layered tale, where the lives of farmers in the small closed community are elevated to the level of the sagas.

This is a beautiful narrative, with a vivid sense of place and time. A terrific read.

I believe Bjørn Larssen is working on a new book, and I'm looking forward to reading it (the hints on Twitter feed are very exciting).

best books of 2019, Chez Maximka

Tilly and the Bookwanderers (Pages & Co, book 1) by Anna James is a magical adventure for true bookworms.
Tilly lives with her grandparents above their bookshop ever since her mother has disappeared without a trace. All her family are bookish. They live and breathe books, escaping into the pages of their favourite novels.
One day Tilly meets children who turn up to be just like her favourite book characters - Anne of Green Gables and Alice in Wonderland. Only they're not LIKE the characters, they ARE the characters. How is that even possible?!
Tilly discovers that she has a gift of bookwandering, i.e. crossing the borders between the real world and the world of books. She can step into books and watch the events as they would unravel in stories.
With the help of her friend Oscar, Tilly wants to explore her newly-found gift, trying to find out what has happened to her mother. Will she be able to solve the mystery?

This is a great story for anyone who believes in the power of books. The concept of bookwandering is close to my heart. I'd love to go on an adventure with Tilly.

Tilly and the lost fairytales (Pages & Co book 2) was published earlier this year. We're half way through reading it.

best children's books of 2019, Chez Maximka

The Iron Chariot by Stein Riverton (Lightning Books; translation by Lucy Moffatt) was published in 1909. It has been voted the best Norwegian crime novel of all time in 2017.
On a hot summer day, a nameless narrator and his companions from a boarding house on an island are shocked to discover that one of their fellow guests has been found murdered.
The narrator was the last person to see the victim alive. On his walk on the eve before the gruesome discovery he meets a fisherman, and while talking, they both hear the sound of the rattling chains.
This is the sound of the iron chariot, a harbinger of an imminent death, according to the locals.

Detective Asbjorn Krag arrives from the capital to investigate.
Another death occurs in the neighbourhood, and again, the iron chariot is heard but not seen. The mystery intensifies, when it is revealed that the second victim was supposed to be dead for several years.
The narrator is drawn into the investigation by Detective Krag, who appears to be jolly, insensitive and rather devious.
The setting of the novel is reminiscent of the other famous sinister location in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Riverton's Gothic descriptions of nature provide an eerie background to the unravelling mystery.

Lucy Moffatt did a fantastic job, translating this novel for the English-speaking readers. My special thanks to her.

The Iron Chariot is a superb psychological mystery, which will appeal to the Scandi Noir fans.

best books published in 2019, Chez Maximka

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver (Head of Zeus) is a striking Gothic thriller. I only just finished reading it a few days ago, but after finishing it, I knew I had to rethink my original top 10 reads.
It has all the elements which appeal to me in a mystery - a secluded setting, a mix of suspense and supernatural, a strong female protagonist, a beautiful style of writing.
The novel is set in a remote manor house of Wake's End, surrounded by the fens of Suffolk at the beginning of the 20th C. The master of the house, a local landowner and historian Edmund Stearne is a scholar of the Middle Ages.
The story is mainly told by his daughter Maud, who we meet as a 69-year-old woman, and then travel with her back in time, when her father commits an atrocious murder and is confined to an asylum.
We also see the insights into the mind of a maniac from his diary entries.
Life in the fens is cruel and unforgiving. No wonder, the superstitions and local lore are abundant. Young Maud is caught between the pull of the fens and glimpses of freedom, and the expectations of what a young lady of her class and status should do. And oh my, how stifling that life is.
It seems a woman's lot is dreadful, wherever you look, from young Ivy who trades sex for the scraps of "better life" to Maud's mother whose married life is a drudgery of the "debt of matrimony", endless pregnancies and still births.
Wakenhyrst is dark, menacing and chilling.

Gothic thriller, best reads of 2019, Chez Maximka

And that's my top 10 reads of 2019. I wonder what new treasures 2020 will bring.

What were you favourite books of the year?

Saturday, 28 December 2019

Photo diary: weeks 51 & 52, project 365

Welcome to the last photo diary post of the year! I can't quite believe where the year has gone. It was a tough year, with lots of ups and downs. I am quite deflated by the end of the year, and hoping the next year will be better (optimistic much?!).
I didn't have a chance to post a weekly post last weekend, as my guys were going to Italy, and I had a lot of things to finish before they left, so here is a combined lot of photos for two weeks.

On Sunday the 15th we felt like the characters of Frozen. Our boiler got broken the day before, and the house was very cold. This is Eddie's selfie on my iphone.

Chez Maximka

After the school run in the morning I walked towards the flood fields to check out the levels of the Windrush river. It wasn't an extensive flood, but I still couldn't get through, and had to make a detour to get back home.

floods in Oxfordshire, Chez Maximka

Waiting outside Eddie's school for the gates to open, I spotted this pale pansy. Really not the right season for these flowers at all.

winter flowers, Chez Maximka

A quick coffee in the morning at the Blue Boar before rushing into the shops to find the last minute gifts for my family.

pubs of Oxfordshire, Chez Maximka

It was the last day of school for Eddie, and he had a Nativity service at the church with his school. He was a donkey. He didn't have any words, and wasn't even allowed to say Hee Haw. I thought he looked very cute in his donkey costume. I told him that the donkey was very important, as without him Mary and Joseph wouldn't have reached Bethlehem, and Jesus would have been born on the road. The story might have been completely different...

Chez Maximka

The next day Eddie went to Oxford to see a dentist, and then they stopped at my husband's college. Here is Eddie doing an "installation piece" under the table (photo courtesy of my husband).

Chez Maximka

I finally put the Christmas wreath on the door. I bought it at the local market.

Chez Maximka

On Sunday lucky Eddie had a chance to jump on the flight simulator outside the cinema, which for the festive weekend was free. He was ecstatic. It must be such a wonderful feeling to soar up.

Chez Maximka

Early on Monday morning I hugged my boy and cried, as they were leaving for the airport. I was anxious about their trip and about how I would cope with Sasha for five days on my own.
It's the first time in Eddie's life that we spent so many days apart.
I knew it would be hard, but didn't expect it to be so hard. I'm not fond of drama, but I was truly in a bad place.
It didn't help that Sash's behaviour was extremely challenging.
Since Eddie was leaving before Christmas, he opened his gifts from me earlier. He loves Funko Pop toys, and I got him two new ones to add to his collection - Captain America and Spidey from Endgame. They are now watching us from the bookshelf.

Endgame Funko Pop, shelfie, Chez Maximka

The next day I talked to Eddie on Whatssap, and told him that I was watching Kung Fu Panda 3. He said he wished he watched it with me, so I snapped a shot from the film and sent it to him.
It reminded us how we saw it in the cinema for the first time. Eddie's friend who's a year younger, found it too scary and his Mum had to take him home half-way through the film.
I love the Kung Fu Panda series. The music by Zimmerman is excellent.

Chez Maximka

Eddie had a good time though. His grandparents loved having him there, and he was spoilt rotten. That was my consolation, knowing that he enjoyed his break. They sent me daily photos of their activities, including zorbing.

Chez Maximka

I have been thinking of which books to choose as my top 10 reads of the year. It's a mix of adult and YA/children's fiction. Hoping to finish the blog post by the end of the year.

Chez Maximka

I finished reading Wakenhurst by Michelle Paver only this week, and had to re-think my top ten list, as I felt I really had to include it. It has all the elements which I enjoy in books: a suspense, a secluded manor house, a thrill of supernatural, a strong female protagonist. It also shows how bleak a woman's lot is in the patriarchal society. Superb storytelling.

best books of 2019, Chez Maximka, gothic thriller

My guys came back home at almost midnight, pretty exhausted after a late evening flight. We went straight to bed.
This morning I looked at the gifts they brought home, including this black cardigan, a gift from my mother-in-law. I asked Eddie to take a photo of me, when we were in the café.
He took several pictures, and in all of them I look so tired. There's a Russian expression krashe v grob kladut, which means someone would look prettier in the coffin.
This Christmas holiday was very tough. I didn't sleep much, and the days were long and stressful. On the plus side, I read several books and watched some old Poirot films.
From the new TV, I only managed to see Call the Midwife, but had to miss The Small Hand with Douglas Henshall.

Hope you had a lovely Christmas.

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Friday, 27 December 2019

Gourmet & Fiesta (December 2019) Degustabox

Christmas is over, and in a few days' time we'll be greeting a new year and a new decade. Looking back over the last few years, you notice that food boxes begin to cater more to people with different diets and food allergies. There are more vegetarian and vegan products, as well as products which could be easily adapted for different diets.
The last Degustabox of the year is bursting with festive treats.

This monthly food and drink subscription box is an excellent way to discover new products which have only just appeared in the shops, or those which might 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 probably wouldn't have tried otherwise.

Each time the monthly box arrives, it's 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 whopping £7 off discount from your 1st box (and you can unsubscribe any time), just use a code 8EVI8 when you place an order.

What did we receive in a Gourmet & Fiesta box? (Please bear in mind that the photo below includes items from both alcohol and non-alcohol boxes)

food box, subscription food box, Chez Maximka

Ardens Gruyere & Spinach Twists (£1.75) are light, flaky all-butter puff pastry twists, entwined with mellow Gruyere cheese and vibrant spinach. It's a perfect pairing of flavours.
Nutritional info: 32kcal per twist, or 488kcal per 100g box.
We scoffed them in one go, straight from the box. Very moreish.
Available from Waitrose.

snacks for party

UFIT Crunchers Sea Salt & Vinegar (gift, see above) is a high protein and healthy on-the-go snack. These delicious high protein popped soy chips come at 158kcal per bag. UFIT Crunchers come in 3 flavours - Smokehouse BBQ, Sea Salt & Vinegar and Thai Sweet Chilli flavour.
That's another snack which disappeared in 60 seconds.

Indie Bay Chocolate Pretzels (Dark and Milk) (£1.25 each) are oven baked spelt, wheat and sunflower bites, covered in chocolate. You will receive 2 items in your box.
Nutritional information: 149kcal and 5.6g of sugar per 31g bag.
Delicious combination of flavours and textures, these little bites will be a big hit with anyone who enjoys a sweet and savoury fusion of tastes.
They are made with ancient grains, and are a source of fibre.
Available on, Amazon, at Whole Foods Market and Planet Organic.

chocolate snacks with fibre, healthier chocolate snacks

chocolate snacks with fibre

I have already discovered Gloriously Grown snacks in Sainsbury's, and was glad to see a bag of Gloriously Grown Vietnamese Jumbo Wrapped Cashews (£3) in the box.
These delicious salted cashews are a perfect snack for a party.
Available at Sainsbury's (look out for the other tasty flavours of fruit and nut mixes).

savoury cashews, healthy snacks, source of fibre

source of fibre, healthy snacks

MadeGood Granola Bars (£2.90) are allergy friendly and school safe snack, made from gluten free oats.
Since many children have food allergies and sensitivities, schools are restricting foods brought into the classroom. MadeGood snacks are free from common allergens so children can enjoy them at school or at home. These granola bars are chewy and contain the nutrients of one full serving of vegetables.
All MadeGood ingredients are ethically sourced.
They come in 3 tasty flavours - Chocolate chip, Mixed Berry and Chocolate Banana. Each box includes 6 individually wrapped bars.
Subscribers will receive 1 of 3 flavours (bloggers get to try all 3).
Available at ASDA.

allergy friendly and school safe snacks

Candy Kittens Tropical Mango (£2) is the delicious new addition to the range of gourmet sweets. Tropical Mango is joining Candy Kittens' vegan range, which is also gluten free and dairy free, uses natural colours and flavourings and contains real fruit juice.
This flavour is available from Morrisons and

gluten free, vegan sweets

Smith & Sinclair Alcoholic Cocktail Gummies (£15 for a selection of 8) is a grown-up treat.
London-based, cocktail confectionery specialists Smith & Sinclair proudly bring you their alcoholic cocktail gummies.
Blended like a real cocktail with premium spirits, fresh fruit and syrups, each gummy contains half a shot and is vegan. Cin cin!
You should receive 1 gummy in your box. Shop the full range at and use code DEGUSTA for 15% off.

festive sweet snacks

King Monty Chocolate Snacks (Pop Rice & Sunny Orange) will be delivered to subscribers who opted for non-alcohol box. These are small-sized dairy and gluten free, plant-based chocolate bars.
They are made with authentic Belgian chocolate.
At 169kcal per bar, this makes it an attractive treat for elevenses or with an afternoon tea.

From snacks to easy meal kits and ideas:
Blue Dragon Teriyaki Street Food Skewers (£2.70) includes everything you will need to prepare an authentic Japanese meal. It includes a Teriyaki sauce sachet, a Teriaki marinade, sesame seeds and skewers. It takes 20 minutes to cook an easy and tasty meal.
This kit is suitable for vegetarians and vegans (and obviously meat-eaters too).
Use chicken, beef or tofu.
Available at ASDA, Morrisons, Tesco, Waitrose and Ocado.

easy meals kits

Blue Dragon Thai Holy Basil Stir Fry Kit (£1.50) contains three key ingredients - a base, sauce and topping. It's a kit which includes a Holy Basil sauce, Garlic and ginger paste and dried holy basil.
Take your stir fry to the next level and create an authentic Thai dish in your own kitchen.
Available in Tesco, Sainsbury's, Waitrose and Ocado.

Very Lazy Chopped Garlic (£1.50) saves you time (and all the washing) in the kitchen, when you need to add flavour to any savoury dish. (Of course, it's not difficult to peel and press a clove through a garlic press, but I hate cleaning the press)
Check out for recipe ideas.
Available in all major supermarkets.

fresh ingredients

And finally, the drinks:
Lagunitas DayTime Session IPA (£1.80) is" a light beer boldly dosed with a glorious fortune of hops". At 98kcal per bottle and 4% ABV, DayTime is light, crisp and tasty.
Available at ASDA, Morrisons, and pubs and bars across the country.

drinks for parties

Pedrino Vermouth & Tonic Spritz (£1.95) is a refreshing, floral blend. The light 5.5% spritzer offers subtle notes of melon, floral botanicals and grapefruit. Serve chilled over ice or use as an effortlessly elegant way to spritz up your classic cocktails.

Aavailable in Ocado, at waitrose and on Amazon.

Oteas Green Tea, Cranberry, Cherry & Strawberry (£3.39) is a refreshing mid-afternoon tea.
It's not the first time Oteas appears in Degustabox's selection.
Classic green tea is enhanced by sour cherry, zesty cranberries and fragrant lemongrass and bamboo leaves, and complemented by sweet apples, strawberries and a touch of cornflour blossoms.
It's a delightful combination of sweet and sour.
Available on, Amazon and Ocado.

flavoured green tea

As you can see, the last Degustabox of the year was a wonderful box of treats.

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

Wednesday, 25 December 2019

A Tale of Twelve Christmas Tree Decorations

Chez Maximka, Christmas traditions

"There are angels on the tree?"
"Ah, because we all pray there are really angels watching over us, don't we?"
(Heather Graham, Home in Time for Christmas)

The last time I counted we had eight angels on our Christmas tree, all different and varying in style.
You see, our Christmas tree is an amalgam of many a gift we received through years, family heirlooms and ornaments made by our boys in the nursery and at school.
While I admire other people's themed Christmas trees - fit for a House Beautiful magazine - I would feel robbed if I had to adhere to just one style or colour scheme.

And while many families are tucking into their Christmas meals, just as many are avoiding all the hullaballoo for one reason or another. My younger son is in Italy with his father, they've just sent me photos of their Christmas lunch with the Nonni on Whatsapp.

This is the little Christmas tree at my in-laws'. Eddie brought them two of the ornaments - letters E and S, for himself and Sasha.

Chez Maximka, Italian Christmas

I didn't bother with cooking anything remotedly festive today. Sasha wouldn't eat any roast with trimmings anyway, all he wants is his usual sandwiches and snacks. We did open a box of Roses, and have a chocolate Yule log from Waitrose, and that's basically it.
I've been having one cup of tea after another, and snacking on nuts and cheese on crispbreads.

It's quiet at the moment, Sasha is watching Moana on TV, and I'm reading Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith. It's a Christmas crime story from British library crime classics series. It was first published in 1933.

But back to our tree...
I wanted to show you some of my favourite Christmas tree decorations, beginning with a few glass toys left from my own Soviet childhood.
My Mum brought four of the ornaments with her several years ago, and I treasure them. Some of them are as old as I am, i.e. pretty vintage.
This squirrel (and the birdie in the background) winked at me, when I was a child, and my parents decorated our Christmas tree. Only we didn't celebrate Christmas, it was the new year's eve, when people had a big festive bash with family and friends.

As I grew up in the North East of Russia, we used to have very long and cold winters. I remember once the temperature plunging down to minus 53. I think it was only once that cold in my lifetime.
We did go out anyway, all wrapped, with scarves covering most of the face, with only eyes open. We walked across the town to our friends' place to celebrate the new year's eve with them.
When we arrived, our eyelashes had turned white with frost. We were actually OK, and had a fabulous party.

vintage Christmas tree decorations, Chez Maximka

And another decoration from the same period of my life - a festive chili pepper. Why a chili, I don't quite know.

vintage Soviet decorations, Chez Maximka

From one babyhood to another: Sasha was born in the States, and we lived in Williamstown, MA, in 2002. It was Sasha's first Christmas, and I remember it fondly. We had most wonderful neighbours, a family with three children.
That year Sasha got two beautiful Christmas tree decorations, including this jolly snowman. The other is the most beautiful hand-painted angel. I've tried to take a photo of it, but due to its shape, couldn't get a clear picture without my own reflection in it.

Chez Maximka

This pretty angel (and her sister) came to stay with us, when Sasha was a little boy and we lived in Woodstock. Our small apartment was just next door to the newsagent's, owned by a very friendly family. They were warm and welcoming, and Sasha loved checking out the sweets and magazines in their little shop.

Chez Maximka

Another angel, for another little boy - this angel bell joined us, when Eddie was a tot. It makes a lovely sound.

Christmas tree decorations, Chez Maximka

This angel was made by Eddie in primary school (Reception or year 1?).

Chez Maximka, Christmas tree decorations

Another of his school projects - a Christmas tree, very colourful and jolly.

Christmas tree decorations, Chez Maximka

More hand-made decorations coming … this name tag was made by our friend Jen (one for each boy). We love them.

Chez Maximka

My late friend Trudy was more than a friend. Her husband David and she were my family, they sort of adopted me, when I was a young student, with my own family left thousands of miles behind. I miss them both so much.
Trudy had some rather romantic notions about me, comparing me to the young Audrey Hepburn (the only similarity I could find is that I was also very slim then, though never as pretty or glamorous). She also used to send me the newspaper and magazine cuttings on the Romanovs, and years later bought me a set of Faberge-style Christmas tree ornaments as a gift. There are six of these baubles in the box, all different in colour and design. They are the Christmas greetings from a dear friend who's been a big part of my life.

Christmas tree decorations, Chez Maximka

We're fans of Frozen. We watched the DVD of Frozen for the first time, when we spent one of Christmases in Italy. It was a difficult time, as Sasha's anxieties started to manifest themselves quite abruptly, and it was a very stressful holiday for us all. Frozen kept me sane in those days.
This Elsa ornament is a reminder that sometimes you feel like running away from it all. Let it go...

Christmas tree decoration, Chez Maximka

I bought this Gisela Graham toy last year, when my Mum and I were browsing the Christmas aisles at Burford garden centre. It was my Mum's choice.

I got this winter figurine several years ago as it reminded me of Russia. Even her clothes look Russian. She could be a character from one of Russian fairy tales, for example, Morozko (Father Frost), which used to be one of my favourite childhood stories and films.

I'm wishing you all a Merry Christmas!