Sunday Funday Christmas: 2017 Advent Calendar | Stocking Stuffers - Week 3

How's your yuletide coming along? Been wrapping your white elephant presents in good cheer, caroling in a sleigh and jingling your bells? Or are you gathering kindling to start the mother of all fires with the sole purpose of committing Santacide while swilling hot buttered rum? Either way we've got you covered! So let's get our jingle on this last week before the jolly fat man breaks into your house and eats your food.

ICYMI: Week 1 | Week 2

Poison Marked by T.J. Nichols

Kill his lover or disobey his king and instigate civil war?

As the feared court poison master, Nikko is sworn to do as his king bids. As the lover of the king’s nephew, Lord Rodas, Nikko must hide his affection or risk being labeled a traitor and punished. A former thief who clawed his way into the palace from the filthy streets, Nikko longs to be deserving of Rodas’s love.

A respected war hero, Rodas is in a delicate political situation. He is not the kingdom’s natural heir, though many support his claim over the wastrel, Prince Fortin. The last thing Rodas wants is war. His highest ambition is for Nikko to openly wear the jewels he’s bestowed on him as a public declaration of their love.

Neither man is prepared for the king to order Nikko to poison Rodas during the solstice feast or for the deadly intrigue they’re plunged into, which exposes their affair and rocks the foundations of the kingdom.

R *A Reader Obsessed* - 4 Hearts

A historical setting is typically not my usual jam these days, but this had just enough nostalgia and certain plot details in the blurb to catch my attention.

Nikko is the Poison Master, there solely to protect the king and carry out his orders. He’s caught between a rock and a hard place since he’s also the secret lover of the people's favorite - Rodas, the king’s nephew - who often shines brightly next to the smarmy prince who’s next in line to inherit the throne. Not only do Nikko and Rodas have a sharp difference in social rank separating them, their relationship can definitely be interpreted as a conflict of interest - or worse, treason - should their affair ever be discovered.

Jealousy, paranoia, honor, and loyalty are strong themes that run throughout this short story that never felt rushed. Poor Nikko must weigh his duty to the king and his love for Rodas. As multiple agendas converge, Nikko only hopes his vast knowledge can prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

This isn’t overtly smexy unfortunately, but the political intrigue and suspense, along with the deep romantic feels, made me one very satisfied reader, especially as these two men get their well deserved happy ending! Yay!

Ann - 4.5 Hearts

Damn, that was good!

I loved the world the author built and would read a full length version of this story in a heartbeat. This tale is set around the celebration of the Winter Solstice and I liked reading a different take on the holiday season through this fantastical historical.

Rados is chivalry personified and his devotion to Nikko is obvious in everything he does and every thought Nikko has. They never actually talk about future and feelings, it’s not an option for them and their stations in life and putting words to the impossible, out loud, is too much for Nikko to bear. The story is told from his perspective so we don’t get as much insight into Rados’s thoughts, but the author is so good at showing rather than telling I just knew Rados cherished Nikko through Nikko’s thoughts, memories and the little moments the two had. And the bit of mystery that stayed around Rados added to the magic of the environment the author built.

Nikko’s profession was fascinating. He was an outcast, he was revered, he was feared and he was respected (mostly from the fear). He was incredibly loyal, much like Rados, and their devotion to the crown drove the story making it believable and heartbreaking at the same time.

There’s political machinations afoot and no one can be trusted on the night of the solstice. Nikko is put into an impossible situation and the thought of harming Rados is unimaginable to him. The action was stressful, in a great way, I liked reading about Nikko in his environment and his take charge moment showed his strength and why he and Rados are such a perfect fit.

Poison Marked is a quick read, too quick, because I didn’t want it to be over. I’ll be rereading it and I really hope the author gives some thought to expanding on Rados and Nikko’s story, because this is one Peach that would LOVE for that to be a thing.

Chelsea - 4.5 Hearts

This was incredible! The type of story I compare all novellas too, there was amazing world building, in depth characters and a relationship that I cared about. I didn't want to put this book down.

This book is set in a historical time of kings, knight's and poison makers. Nikko is a kid from the slums who stumbled across the opportunity to be trained as a poison maker and now finds himself in the king's service. He also happens to be having a secret affair with the king's war-hero nephew, Rodas.

There is so much I could say about this book, but I need to keep this review relatively short. It captivated me from the beginning and kept me glued until the end. The world building was spectacular, even some novels aren't as in depth as this story. I loved the tension and all the forbidden love involved in this secret affair! So yummy!

There's not much ‘Christmas’ here, but when I love the story as much as this, I can let the lack of Jizzmas slide. I'd say this ended on a HFN, but a really good one... like a mix of HEA and HFN. Definitely read this one, even if it's not Christmas!

NeRdyWYRM - 4 Hearts

Star-Crossed Intrigues

I usually measure a short story by whether or not it could translate well to a full-length novel. In other words, did the author manage to flesh out the characters and the world enough that it makes me want more.

In this case, the answer is an emphatic, "Yes!"

I liked the characters even if I vehemently disliked the world they lived in and the pressures it put on their hearts. I believed they had a connection, that they loved each other, and that, given a chance, they'd be together forever. Poor saps.

I had a couple of niggles about the pacing. There was a lot of angst-xiety in the middle of this one that I wouldn't say was unnecessary per se, but given the length, it may have rushed the resolution and the ending a bit.

Stinking short stories. When they're good, I wish there was more. When they're bad, I wanna launch something flammable through a window ... like a Molotov cocktail. Shhh! I get passionate about bad books.

Thankfully, this one didn't turn me into a maniacal pyro-vandal. I really liked it. I was surprised that I liked it—I have a well-documented dislike for short stories—but occasionally one comes along that floats my boat. I enjoyed this one; I really, really did.

Short and sweet, dark and twisted star-crossed intrigue. It was a good read for a cold day. Give it a shot.

Sara - 5 Hearts

Holy mother effing swoon! This was so so SO GOOD. Nichols had one of my favorite stories last year and the trend continues with this.

They’d been sneaking around for three years. For a time it was exciting. Now it rasped over Nikko’s skin like a rough blade. He wanted more.He couldn’t have more.Especially not with a man of royal blood

Told from the POV of Nikko, the Kings Poison Maker, opens the story as he watches his lover and the king's nephew Rodas engage in a planned fight with his cousin. As the fight goes on and Rodas lets his cousin win, we get how Nikko sees Rodas. We know Nikko and Rodas have been together for three years and done whatever they can do keep their relationship secret while staying together. Nikko is an orphan turned Poison Maker and Rodas is of noble blood so them together, ain’t going to happen.

I LOVED these two. I love that we got moments between them of chivalry, pure intimacy and ultimate swoonage. The way Rodas and Nikko feel about one another is evident even with the absence of three words being exchanged. The theme between them of Winter Solstice adds a fresh feeling to the normal holiday story and I love that this pivotal moment in their lives and love comes along with the holiday.

This book had me on edge as Nikko decides to not disobey the king but not poison his lover and the man he loves. It has me holding my breath as Rodas declares his fate and it had me wanting to throttle the king as well as his slimy son. It has me sighing as Nikko tries every which way to bend every situation to carry out the king’s order but to keep Rodas alive. I was filled with angst toward the last pages but the author gave me the most wonderful ending that all I could do was sigh.

This book has stellar world building and character depth in such few pages it has me so hooked on these two, I’m wondering if there will be more planned. You know, like a series? *grins*

The Probability of Mistletoe by E.J. Russell

When software engineer Keith Trainor decides to start his own company, he knows exactly who he wants as his partner: Parker Mulvaney, his best friend from high school. But in the ten years since graduation, their contact has dwindled to nothing, and it’s all Keith’s fault. If he hadn’t tried to kiss Parker under the mistletoe at the winter formal their senior year, Parker wouldn’t have bolted. At their ten-year reunion, Keith intends to do everything in his geeky power to make amends.

Parker should have known that scheduling the reunion the day before Christmas Eve was a recipe for a headache of monster proportions. But when Keith sends a text that he’ll be attending, the evening doesn’t look so bleak. Can an unnecessary makeover, a nostalgic breakfast, an abortive shopping trip, and a whole lot of mistletoe culminate in a long-overdue first kiss?

Ann - 4 Hearts

I do so love a second chance romance and the story of Parker and Keith getting the possibility of another shot at the one that got away was simply adorable. The author’s humor translated well to both characters and I chuckled when I read their inner thoughts. The boys were opposites in many ways when they met, but they had a shared love of enough things to have a strong connection and complement one another at the same time. The flashbacks to their teenage years were so sweet and I loved reading about their growing attraction as they both figured things out slowly but surely. Parker made a sacrifice his teenage brain thought was right and the two lost their connection over the next ten years. Keith comes back to town for the high school reunion and to make Parker an offer he hopes Parker can’t refuse. There was a little bit of manufactured drama that I didn’t need, but it didn’t have too much page time so that was good for me. They made perfect use of their second chance though and picked up where they left off and then some. Even though they were just starting out again, and in a big way, their history gave me all the confidence they’d get their HEA.

Sara - 4 Hearts

What do we have here? Opposites attract, the one that got away, second chance romance with best friends from high school? Seriously? What’s not to love about this story?

Ack. I can’t even get my fingers to type what I want to say because this was adorable. I loved friends to lovers stories and Keith and Parker were best friends all through high school. But Parker made a decision for both their lives while standing under mistletoe when Keith tried to get out of the friend zone and now ten years later, the boy are back and they aren’t making mistakes again.

I adored both men in this story and was thankful to get POV’s from both of them. I like that Parker lived with the regret of not kissing Keith that night but that he feels he did the right thing by his best friend even if it’s made them lose touch over the last ten years. I fell for Keith and his uber geek ways but how he wanted to do everything he could to get Parker as his business and life partner. It was so freaking cute to see them at breakfast, not shopping for Christmas gifts and the party at Parker’s family house.

That end was great. The kiss gave ME butterflies and I hope the probability of mistletoe is always one hundred percent with Keith and Parker.

A Timely Gift by Kris T. Bethke

Sometimes the right gift can be life-changing….

On the solstice, Rory’s grandfather gives him a pocket watch that he claims will have Rory’s life sorted and his problems solved by Christmas. Rory starts out skeptical, but when he reconnects with an ex he never thought he’d see again, he has to admit there might be some holiday magic working after all.

Deacon’s life is in shambles, and he’s returned to Syracuse for a fresh start. Running into Rory again feels like much more than a coincidence, and neither of them can deny the passion between them is still smoldering. With the watch behaving oddly at just the right moments, Rory and Deacon might receive the gift of a lifetime—if they’re willing to accept it.

R *A Reader Obsessed* - 3.5 Hearts

My second Bethke in a matter of weeks, and I was not disappointed.

Apparently Rory’s grandfather thinks it’s time he settle down, and what better way to ensure that but to give him a meddling pocket watch that helps him snag his long lost ex.

Though they parted on good terms 13 years ago, Rory and Deacon’s whirlwind romance way back when was a very heady time and looked upon with great fondness. Now that Deacon has returned to town, Christmas is the perfect excuse to show the holiday spirit since he has no one to spend it with.

These two reconnect - quickly and sexily. If they need a few nudges from a possessed watch, then so be it. This was very feel good and it went down the hatch with nary a niggle! Enjoy!

Ann - 4 Hearts

This was an absolute just right second chance romance.

Rory and Deacon are meant to be together and I appreciated how the author gave them a past without a plethora of drama. Sometimes life just happens and two young men who are absolutely connected are just not connected at the right time. And that’s OK. There doesn’t need to be some major wrong that needs to be righted, they just needed time. Opportunities were taken advantage of and life moved forward. But, since this is Christmas, a second chance romance and since Rory and Deacon are meant to be together, the reconnection happened. There is an air of supernatural faith to the story that gives it a magical holiday feel that’s subtle enough to chalk up to coincidence, but why would you want to?

NeRdyWYRM - 4 Hearts

Pleasantly Unfeigned

I won't say much about this one just because it should be allowed to speak for itself. This was a perfect holiday short. There's a little poignance, tantalizing chemistry, a little whimsy, a little mysticism, a dash of fate and a whole lotta love wrapped up into this short little nugget.

All the ephemeral things I enjoy about the holidays are present here. The emphasis is all on family, friends, and knowing when to get out of your own way to hold onto a good thing when it's smacking you in the face.

Even better, there's a hot tidbit lovingly squeezed into the middle of this story that makes it just that much more believable. Chemistry, feels, a little hot sex, and luuurrrve. What more do you need?

This story was very well-written. It felt smooth, natural and it flowed well. Pacing a short story must be hard to do with any finesse because many shorts fall short in that department. But not this one. Not today.

I believed what the characters were serving up. They were realistic in their recollections of their first go-round in the "relationship" department. No rose colored glasses or revisionist history. Just a sense of mutual, if distant, fondness that a 3 month fling would bring if two people were emotionally and sexually compatible but young and going their separate ways.

There wasn't any years-long pining or showy breakup, no angsty drama or family shenanigans that contributed to their paths diverging. It all came across as an entirely-possible-in-real-life scenario. The fact that there wasn't any of the usual nonsense made it that much easier to buy into the feels without attributing it all to nostalgia.

Now I'm rambling. So I'll wrap it up. I loved this short. In many ways it embodies all the good things about the holidays. It's got that "feel" to it. Add in all the other pluses I mentioned and this is a no brainer. Read it. And enjoy.

Sara - 4 Hearts

A second chance romance fueled by a fated pocket watch at Christmas? Shut up and take my money!

First I have to say that I loved Rory’s Grandda and chuckled when he called Rory a daft idiot when Rory questioned him. His Grandda loves Rory and only wants the best for him so on the night of the Winter Solstice, he gives Rory an old pocket watch that will help him sort out his life.

Rory isn’t one to believe in fate but the watch is gorgeous and a family heirloom so he accepts the gift and goes about working his shift at the Animal Clinic as a vet tech. When his shift ends he decides to grab a quick coffee and is met by his past in the form of his college boyfriend Deacon.

These two were so damn adorable from the get go I couldn't read this fast enough. I loved that they remembered so much about one another even after 13 years apart when Deacon left to fulfill his career dream of playing piano with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was a bittersweet goodbye but they’d only been together a few short months and Rory is a good guy and would never stand in Deacon’s way. But now, Deacon is back and Rory is single and the damn watch is loud enough to make both men pause to really see what’s in front of them.

This had everything a holiday romance should have in it including a comedic pet in the form of an African Grey who can mimic all sorts of sounds and um, moans, family that loves when Rory is happy and easily accepts Deacon into the fold. This story has the offering of two men who were parted by circumstance to have fate step in to bring them together in hopes for a future that time will stand still for, or at least a watch that will keep time as they grow old together.

Christmas Grace by C.L. Miles

Christmas has been a lonely time of year for Aaron since losing his family fifteen years ago. But now he’s seeing Craig, and though Aaron is sure they belong together, both have been hurt in the past, so they’re taking things slowly. So far, Craig has been supportive of Aaron’s struggles with anxiety—struggles that cost Aaron relationships in the past.

On Christmas Eve, Aaron is closing his bookshop when Craig surprises him with a specially planned evening. Will this be the night they take that final step and deepen their physical relationship? Aaron hopes so, but things aren’t that simple. Craig has been keeping a secret…. Can Aaron take his place as part of a family again and accept the love he’s missed for so long—or will he find that some deceptions are too big to be forgiven, even with the help of some Christmas grace?

Ann - 2 Hearts

Well, this one . . . happened.

Honestly, if the shenanigans would have happened even slightly differently, this would have been so much better. So Craig has been keeping a secret from his boyfriend Aaron. They’ve been dating for 9 months and Aaron has never been to Craig’s apartment. The secret was a secret that didn’t have to be, so the drama felt manufactured rather than sincere and in a short story that just doesn’t work. Without being tooooo spoilery . . . Craig could have told Aaron the truth and just not introduced the secret someone to him until they were more solid. That would be completely fair. Aaron also suffers from anxiety, so the secrecy was unintentionally cruel and Aaron’s reaction was extreme and then his recovery was FAST, too much emotional whiplash to be terribly believable. Once the resolution happened all the happy family was thrown together so quickly it made the secret seem even more pointless.

Sara - 2.5 Hearts

I really liked the idea of this story but it didn’t work for me.

I liked bookish bookstore owner Aaron, how the author portrayed his anxiety and how he dealt with it in the beginning. As someone who suffers from Anxiety, the lengths that Craig went to so he would be prepared IF Aaron had a panic attack was endearing. I really liked these two as a couple and while the blurb hinted at them moving forward in their sexual relationship, I was fine with where they were.

When we’re told Craig has been keeping a secret and Aaron hadn’t been to his place even once in the 9 months they had been dating, I already knew what the secret was. I don’t like how it was handled though. Without spoiling it, Craig could have been upfront about the secret but kept Aaron from it until he was secure in their relationship and its future.

That being said. The reveal, Aaron's reaction to it, his guilty AT his reaction and the way everything was swept under the rug then tied with a bright bow of resolution didn’t sit well with me. The sex, I could have done without it because it felt forced after the secret being told and not authentic to the story. I think had the not gone all the way and maybe enjoyed the holiday without it and their new status, it could have gone better. But. It didn’t.

An Unexpected Sanctuary by Cassie Decker

An aggressive super-flu pandemic wipes out a majority of the population over the course of one Christmas holiday—and brings Tobin and Kyle together. For almost a year, they’ve been trekking across the country from Colorado toward a sanctuary in upstate New York. Kyle’s survival skills have kept them alive, and Tobin wants to repay the man he loves with a very special gift of his own making. He sneaks off in search of the last few pieces… only to get himself and Kyle kidnapped by a desperate stranger. With their journey to New York on hold—possibly indefinitely—they’ll need to accept that home isn’t always defined by a place as much as the person you’re with.

R *A Reader Obsessed* - 3 Hearts

Who doesn’t like to see some well deserved happiness during the apocalypse?

Tobin and Kyle have understandably had a shit year on the move after a pandemic flu decimated most of the human population. They need a reprieve in the worst way and when they find a deserted town, they think this is a perfect place for to find some time to rest and recoup.

Their short lived luck runs out quickly when they’re captured by a stranger, or does it?

This really was too short, but the feels between Tobin and Kyle were of course sweet and tender. A nice romantic holiday quickie with a Walking Dead feel minus the zombies.

Ann - 4 Hearts

Who would have thought an apocalyptic- level disaster based story could be so damn sweet? I certainly didn’t and I was certainly wrong. Tobin and Kyle are one another’s method of survival and the author did a great job of showing their connection well in a minimal amount of time. The story was from Tobin’s POV, but I easily saw Kyle’s dedication in their interactions. Kyle had the most practical survival skills, but Tobin brought his own strengths to the relationship and Kyle loved him so much for it. Even though the setting is pretty bleak, I never felt a sense of hopelessness while reading, in fact, just the opposite and I would owe that all to the MC’s. Even at the point where “shit got real” I had faith in Kyle and Tobin. The detour the two took made for an even more hopeful ending than what their original goal was and the end felt all kinds of Christmassy. Kyle has a beautiful way with words too and when he shared his feelings with Tobin when they exchanged their homemade gifts I swooned pretty hard.

Sara - 5 Hearts

What is it about an apocalypse story at Christmas that screams ROMANCE at me? I don’t know but it worked here and this could possibly be my most favorite read of the 2017 Advent Calendar.

When a super-flu pandemic takes out the majority of the country, it takes our narrator and survivor Tobin Abernathy a week to venture out for supplies when he is rescued from a group of thugs by Kyle Morris. From that moment the two young men are inseparable for the next year with Kyle’s survival skills and their need to find a rumored sanctuary in New York fueling their cross country trek.

I really REALLY want to write a crap load about a book that is less than 50 pages but I won’t. I am going to say that this was amazing. With the pandemic taking place right before Christmas it leaves the world stuck in this tinseled and decorated land of holiday spirit with broken promises. Totally fitting for an apocalypse story right? It gives this eerie feeling as Kyle and Tobin make their journey walking 20+ miles a day until they reach New York.

A rest taken in an Ohio town in a fully decorated B&B gives the young men a chance to catch their breath, get a little intimacy and for Tobin to get the last piece he needs for Kyle’s Christmas present. But fate takes a turn when they are kidnapped by a burly man and taken to a barn type building that is more than what it seems.

This story has the right amount of tension and angst in the beginning with Tobin being a wonderful narrator letting us know the situation fully. He’s scared but in love and really wants to give something to Kyle who he feels has kept them alive this past year with Tobin just mildly bobbing along. But it’s what this unwanted opportunity in Ohio that will show them both that sanctuary is in the heart of those you love and who love you.

Their sanctuary is an unexpected gift, a Christmas miracle if you will, that provided a wonderfully romantic story and I would really love to see these boys every Christmas to know how they are doing.

ARCs were provided by the publisher in exchange for honest reviews.

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