Hard Check Holiday (North Oak: Book 8.5) by Ann Hunter

Publisher: Rebel House Ink

Date of publication: December 1st, 2023

Genre: Christmas, Horses, Young Adult, Romance

Series: North Oak

Born to Run—Book 1 (review here)

Yearling—Book 2 (review here)

Morning Glory—Book 3 (review here)

To Bottle Lightening—Book 4 (review here)

Far Turn—Book 5 (review here)

Dark Horse—Book 6 (review here)

Against the Odds—Book 7 (review here)

Ride for Glory—Book 8 (review here)

Hard Check Holiday—Book 8.5

Hard Boot—Book 9

Inquiry—Book 10

Purchase Links: Kindle | B&N | Kobo

Goodreads Synopsis:

Taking place between the events of Ride for Glory and Hard Boot, this Christmas special visits North Oak over the holidays. A happy one- finally!
At least that’s how it seems on the outside.

Inside, 17-year-old Alexandra Anderson is struggling with her heart, both physically and emotionally. She is ready to commit to a relationship with Dejado Augustun, until a minor accident with best friend Carol changes everything.

Forced to do a hard check on her life, Alex realizes chances only come once. Can she pull herself together in time to start the racing season?
Or will heartache and heart trauma hold her back?

The Triple Crown & Tiara are on the line.

HARD CHECK– definition (verb), when a jockey is forced to restrain his mount at speed to avoid catastrophe.

First Line:

Laura came home for Christmas. But no one told seventeen year old Alex.

Hard Check Holiday by Ann Hunter

Important things you need to know about the book:

Pace: The pacing of Hard Check Holiday was medium-paced, with the book amping up to a fast pace in certain spots. There was some lag towards the end when Alex chose between Dejado and Carol. But it was nothing that disrupted the flow of the book or my enjoyment of it.

POV: Hard Check Holiday is told from Alex’s 3rd person point of view.

Series: Hard Check Holiday is a holiday book in the North Oak series. It is 8.5 and comes after Ride for Glory but before Hard Boot. You can read this as a standalone. But, I recommend reading books 1-8 to understand Alex and other characters’ relationships and backgrounds.

Trigger/Content Warning: Hard Check Christmas has trigger and content warnings. If any of these triggers you, I suggest not reading the book. They are:

  • Rape (minor, off page)
  • Abandonment of a child (minor, off page)
  • Anxiety & Anxiety Attacks (moderate, on page)
  • Miscarriage (minor, off page)
  • Death of parent (minor, off page)
  • Transphobia (minor, on page)

Sexual Content: There is no sexual content in Hard Check Holiday. Alex and Dejado kiss a couple of times, but it stops there.

Language: There is mild swearing in Hard Check Holiday. There is some mildly offensive language used to describe a trans girl getting kicked off the basketball team when she told her coach she was transitioning.

Setting: Hard Check Holiday is set entirely on the grounds of North Oak (a racing barn) in Kentucky.

Tropes: Afraid to Commit, Emotional Scars, Orphan, Friends to Lovers, Found Family

Age Range: I recommend Hard Check Holiday to anyone over 16

Plot Synopsis (as spoiler-free as I can get):

It is Christmas, and Alex is praying that this Christmas will be the first non-drama-free one in the four years she has lived at North Oaks. And, for the most part, it is. Alex is forming a relationship with her sister, Gina, and her relationship with her adoptive parents and sister is stronger than ever. She also has two essential races to look forward to in the New Year.

But, some things are preventing Alex from thoroughly enjoying her holiday. The main issue is that she has feelings for Dejado and Carol. Alex is ready to start a relationship with Dejado, but her feelings for Carol keep getting in the way. Alex needs to make a choice and ensure it is correct. Because the more she waits, the more she risks losing Dejado and Carol. Who will Alex choose, and will that choice be the right one?

Main Characters

Alexandra Anderson: I liked seeing this noncompetitive, vulnerable Alex. In the other books, she is always on the go and involved in various things around the barn. But seeing her slow down a little in this book was nice. Her eye was still on the upcoming races, but Alex was able to unwind a bit and enjoy Christmas. The only issue I had with her was her treatment of Gina. But, considering that Gina was sprung on her, I didn’t blame Alex for how she acted. And she had every right to be angry with Gina after what Gina said to her in the barn.

My review:

I went into Hard Check Holiday thinking this would be another racing book set over Christmas and New Year’s. I was wrong. I didn’t expect the author to leave out the actual racing (there were mentions of the upcoming races, and the horses had cameos). So, it was different from her other books, and you know what, I liked it!

Hard Check Holiday’s main storyline follows Alex as she celebrates Christmas with her family and friends. It also followed her as she came to terms with her feelings and then chose who she wanted to be in a relationship with. It was well written, and it got emotional during parts of the book. But overall, Alex made the choice that she felt was right. My question now is, how will her friendship with the other person be affected?

As I stated above, I liked seeing Alex being more relaxed. It made her seem like a normal seventeen-year-old. However, she did have her issues, and the author addressed several of them in the book. As someone who suffers from severe anxiety, I felt for her during her panic attack scenes (the one Gina caused was awful).

Alex’s sexuality has been a big topic during the last few books. I liked how the author approached and portrayed her feelings for Carol and Dejado. I did get somewhat angry during this angle, and it was because of what Gina said. I have a very mouthy ten-year-old, and that little girl pushed the limits there. But, in a way, it pushed Alex to open up to Laura about her feelings and paved the way for Alex to make her own decision.

The author also handled Alex’s reactions to any sexual touch in a way that was appropriate for a rape victim. Dejado was gentle and respected her boundaries. He never pushed her past what she was comfortable with and ensured she was OK with anything he did, mostly kissing.

I was surprised by the end of the book. Alex’s choice was surprising because she kept going about the other person. I wonder if her decision will affect her friendship with that person (and I stated that above). I guess I’ll have to read the next book to find out.

Many thanks to Ann Hunter for allowing me to read and review Hard Check Holiday. All opinions stated in this review are mine.

Other books by Ann Hunter:

Bright Lights, Big Christmas by Mary Kay Andrews

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Date of publication: September 26th, 2023

Genre: Christmas, Romance, Holiday, Fiction, Contemporary, Chick Lit, Women’s Fiction, Adult, Contemporary Romance

Purchase Links: Kindle | Audible | B&N | AbeBooks | WorldCat

Goodreads Synopsis:

From Mary Kay Andrews, New York Times bestselling author of The Homewreckers and The Santa Suit, comes a novella celebrating love and the warm, glittering charm of the holiday season.

When fall rolls around, it’s time for Kerry Tolliver to leave her family’s Christmas tree farm in the mountains of North Carolina for the wilds of New York City to help her gruff older brother & his dog, Queenie, sell the trees at the family stand on a corner in Greenwich Village. Sharing a tiny vintage camper and experiencing Manhattan for the first time, Kerry’s ready to try to carve out a new corner for herself.

In the weeks leading into Christmas, Kerry quickly becomes close with the charming neighbors who live near their stand. When an elderly neighbor goes missing, Kerry will need to combine her country know-how with her newly acquired New York knowledge to protect the new friends she’s come to think of as family,

And complicating everything is Patrick, a single dad raising his adorable, dragon-loving son Austin on this quirky block. Kerry and Patrick’s chemistry is undeniable, but what chance does this holiday romance really have?

Filled with family ties, both rekindled and new, and sparkling with Christmas magic, Bright Lights, Big Christmas delivers everything Mary Kay Andrews fans adore, all tied up in a hilarious, romantic gem of a novel.

First Line:

Kerry Clare Tolliver couldn’t remember a time when the smell of a Fraser fir tree didn’t make her smile.

Bright Lights, Big Christmas by Mary Kay Andrews

Important things you need to know about the book:

Bright Lights, Big City was a fast-paced book. It took me over two days to finish reading. The author could have slowed the book’s pacing down a little, but considering that it takes place from Thanksgiving to Christmas, the pacing suited it. There was some lag toward the book’s latter half (during the search for Heinz), but it didn’t affect my enjoyment.

There are trigger warnings in Bright Lights, Big Christmas. If any of these trigger you, I suggest not reading the book. They are:

  • Bullying (on page: Kerry and Murphy experience bullying from their competition)
  • Cheating (off-page: Kerry reveals her parents divorced because of her father’s cheating)
  • Death (off-page: Heinz’s boyfriend died three years into their relationship from a brain aneurysm)
  • Depression (off and somewhat on page: Heniz suffered from a deep depression for years over George’s(his boyfriend) death)
  • Divorce (off-page: Kerry’s parents are divorced)
  • Homophobia (off-page: Heinz reveals that his parents disowned him because he is gay)
  • Theft (on page: The competing tree stand steals Murphy’s cart that he uses to deliver Christmas trees)
  • Illness (on page: Heinz is severely ill with the flu)
  • Violence: (off-page: Murphy settles a dispute with the competition that results in bloody knuckles)

Sexual Content: There is no explicit sexual content in Bright Lights, Big Christmas. There are a couple of kissing scenes and one scene where I think Kerry and Patrick hooked up (not sure).

Language: There is some mild language in Bright Lights, Big Christmas.

Setting: Bright Lights, Big Christmas is set mainly in Greenwich Village, New York City. There is a chapter where the book is set in Tarburton, North Carolina.

Plot Synopsis (as spoiler-free as I can get):

When Kerry Tolliver’s larger-than-life father, Jock, suffers a heart attack and has surgery afterward, she volunteers to go to New York City to sell Christmas trees in his place. Since losing her job, Kerry has been floating along, and she figures that New York City is perfect to reinvent herself. At first, New York City is everything that Kerry thought it would be. But, with competition set up a block away and the stand losing business, Kerry needs to focus on how to get those trees to sell. What Kerry wasn’t expecting was her attraction to Patrick, a single dad living in the brownstone the stand is in front of, and her growing affection for the residents of the street. Is Kerry and Patrick’s romance just a holiday romance? Or will they be able to make it work? What about the elderly neighbor? Will they be able to find him?

Main Characters

Kerry Tolliver: I had mixed feelings about her character. She both annoyed me and made me laugh. I know it’s a weird combination, but that’s how I feel. Kerry wasn’t the best employee (she left the stand with people she didn’t know a few times) and was kind of rude to people. But, she had a great heart. She cared about the people she met, even after knowing them for weeks. Her attraction to Patrick was a given from the first moment they met. I was looking forward to them having an enemy-to-lover type relationship, but it flipped soon after.

Patrick McCaleb: I liked him, but I did wonder if he had some complex when it came to women. His ex was difficult (and that is saying it mildly), and Kerry was a little immature for him. But he was a great guy and a great father to Austin. He also supported Kerry regarding her choices (at the end of the book).

Secondary characters: The secondary characters made this book. They added extra flavor and depth to the plotline. My favorite secondary characters were Heinz, Austin, Murphy, and Claudia.

My review:

Bright Lights, Big Christmas was a good, sweet read. The plotline was simple, and I didn’t need a diagram to understand what was happening. I didn’t need to reread chapters or pay much attention to the characters’ backstories. It was a good, clean read that made me happy and sad.

The main storyline centers around Kerry and her time in New York City. I liked the author’s version of New York City (no rude people, kind neighbors, or police that understood agreements) but found it slightly unrealistic. But that unrealistic part made this book so good to read. I liked seeing Kerry interacting with the brownstone tenants and her brother. I also loved reading about her blooming relationship with Patrick (and Austin by default). My only quibble is that their romance was Instalove and what I said above about New York City.

The other storyline centers around Kerry, Patrick, Austin, and Heinz. This storyline was a sweet storyline that made me tear up a little bit. I also got very aggravated with Austin’s mother for her assumptions, but no harm was done at the end of the day. Heinz’s backstory, almost at the end of the book, was heartbreaking. I also loved what he offered Kerry.

As much as I dislike Instalove, I did like Kerry and Patrick’s romance. It was cute, and I liked how the author did try to let it grow organically at first. The romance felt forced by the end of the book, but I chalked that up to what was going on and Kerry’s decision.

I saw the end of Bright Lights, Big Christmas coming since the middle of the book. I liked that the author wrapped everything up the way she did. But I did have questions about Murphy and Claudia. I hope the author writes their story next.

Many thanks to St. Martin’s Press, NetGalley, and Mary Kay Andrews for allowing me to read and review this ARC of Bright Lights, Big Christmas. All opinions stated in this review are mine.

If you enjoy reading books similar to Bright Lights, Big Christmas, then you will enjoy these books:

Other books by Mary Kay Andrews

Stalking Around the Christmas Tree (Christmas Tree Farm Mystery: Book 4) by Jacqueline Frost

Publisher: Crooked Lane Books

Date of publication: October 17th, 2023

Genre: Christmas, Cozy Mystery, Mystery, Fiction

Series: Christmas Tree Farm Mystery

Twelve Slays of Christmas—Book 1

‘Twas the Knife Before Christmas—Book 2

Slashing Through the Snow—Book 3

Stalking Around the Christmas Tree—Book 4

Purchase Links: Kindle | B&N

Goodreads Synopsis:

Tis the season to solve a murder—and innkeeper Holly White knows she’ll have to make her list and check it twice if she wants to catch the killer in the fourth Christmas Tree Farm mystery from bestselling author Jacqueline Frost.

For inn keeper Holly White, Christmas time in Mistletoe, Maine, is the ultimate holiday gift. Business at the Reindeer Games Inn is booming, her wedding to Sheriff Evan Gray is nearly here, and the annual parade is about to begin. The town is lucky to have another gift this year with the state’s ballet company staying for several performances of The Nutcracker. But disaster strikes when Tiffany, the lead ballerina, shows up dead on a float during the parade, the Rat King’s mask nearby. Holly will have to spruce up her sleuthing skills if she wants to catch the killer before Christmas—and her wedding day.

Immediately, Holly discovers that Tiffany had more than a few secrets. She finds out that the star of the show had a super fan that no one knows anything about. And the show’s understudy slips some other intriguing information Holly’s way: not only was Tiffany secretly seeing someone romantically, but there seems to be more than one rat in this company. When Holly discovers a secret passage leading to Tiffany’s dressing room, with footprints leading out; she wonders if this is evidence of a secret lover—or a stalking killer.

With an impending snowstorm and the ballet company on the way out of town, Holly must act quickly if she wants to find the person responsible for this terrible murder. Will she be able to save Christmas—or will her investigation turn cold like the weather?

First Line:

“Hold that pose, Mrs. White,” my best friend, Caroline, called.

Stalking Around the Christmas Tree by Jacqueline Frost

Christmas in Mistletoe, Maine, is always special; this year is no exception. With an upcoming wedding to plan, charities to donate to, and a booming business to run, Holly doesn’t have a minute to breathe. Things get even more hectic when the prima ballerina, Tiffany, collapses during the town’s annual Christmas parade and is later pronounced dead from arsenic poisoning. Holly immediately starts investigating and finds several clues pointing to a superfan, the choreographer, the Rat King, and the understudy. Will Holly uncover who killed Tiffany?

Stalking Around the Christmas Tree is the 4th book in the Christmas Tree Farm series. You can read this as a standalone book. But, and I always say this, I do recommend reading books 1-3 first. That way, you better understand the characters and their backstories.

Stalking Around the Christmas Tree was a fun read for me. I wasn’t expecting it to be, if I am going to be honest. I am not a fan of picking up books mid-series. In my experience, I usually end up missing something when I do that. But this is a rare case of that not happening. The plot was fast-paced, the characters were well-fleshed out, and the mystery was twisty.

Stalking Around the Christmas Tree’s main storyline centers around Holly and her investigation into Tiffany’s death. The author didn’t veer from this storyline too much and kept it focused on its objective: To find Tiffany’s killer and the motive. The storyline was well-written, and it kept me glued to the book.

There were several secondary storylines in Stalking Around the Christmas Tree. The two main secondary storylines were Holly’s wedding and Libby’s stalker. The author kept both secondary storylines separate from the main storyline and the author did something that surprised me. She kept the storylines separate throughout the book. Did they crisscross? Absolutely but in no way did either storyline join the main one, and I loved it.

The storyline with Tiffany’s murder and Holly’s investigation was twisty. The author did a great job of keeping how the killer was under wraps until the end of the book. I was surprised at who it was and why that person did it. Oh, and how they did it too.

The storyline with Holly’s wedding was sweet. Since this has been a storyline that continued from the last book, I am sure that readers of the series were thrilled with how it ended. I know I was!!

The storyline with Libby and her stalker was sad. Again, this was a storyline the author carried over from the previous book (maybe books?). Once Holly confronted Libby with what was happening, I figured out who the stalker was. It did break my heart a little bit to read the ending scenes (where the stalker is caught) because of why this person did it.

The end of Stalking Around the Christmas Tree was terrific. I loved how the storylines ended. I hope there is another book in the series.

I recommend Stalking Around the Christmas Tree to anyone over 16. There is mild violence, mild language, and fade to black sexual situations.

Many thanks to Crooked Lane Books, NetGalley, and Jacqueline Frost for allowing me to read and review Stalking Around the Christmas Tree. All opinions stated in this review are mine.

If you enjoyed reading this review of Stalking Around the Christmas Tree, then you will enjoy reading these books:

Other books by Jacqueline Frost:

Love in Winter Wonderland by Abiola Bello

Publisher: Soho Press, Soho Teen

Date of publication: October 3rd, 2023

Genre: Romance, Christmas, Holiday, Young Adult, Contemporary, Young Adult Romance, Contemporary Romance, Fiction, African American Romance

Purchase Links: Kindle | Audible | B&N | AbeBooks | WorldCat

Goodreads Synopsis:

‘The Sun Is Also a Star’ meets ‘You’ve Got Mail’ in this YA Christmas love story set in a London Black-owned bookshop.

Charming, handsome Trey Anderson balances the pressures of school popularity with a job at his family’s beloved local bookshop, Wonderland.

Quirky, creative Ariel Spencer needs tuition for the prestigious art program of her dreams, and an opening at Wonderland is the answer. When Trey and Ariel learn that Wonderland is on the brink of being shut down by a neighborhood gentrifier, they team up to stop the doors from closing before the Christmas Eve deadline—and embark on a hate-to-love journey that will change them forever.

Heartwarming and romantic, this read is the gift that keeps on giving, no matter the season.

First Line:

I’m about two seconds away from committing murder.

Love in Winter Wonderland by Abiola Bello

Important things you need to know about the book:

Love in Winter Wonderland is a medium to fast-paced book. The book starts fast, slows down around the middle of the book, speeds back up, and then slows down for the ending. I had no issues with the pacing of the book. It allowed me to digest some things that the author brought up and discussed. There was some lag in the middle (right around Trey’s shop party for Blair), but it didn’t affect how I liked the book.

There are trigger warnings in Love in Winter Wonderland. If any of these trigger you, I suggest not reading the book. They are:

  • Alcohol: Trey and Ariel underage drink throughout the book (in England, the legal drinking age is 18; both are shy of 18). Trey drinks until he is blackout drunk during Blair’s second birthday party.
  • Anxiety: Ariel suffers from anxiety due to bullying. Trey and his mother suffer from anxiety over the bookshop closing down.
  • Bullying: Ariel is bullied throughout the book by Blair and Bebe. She is bullied because of her weight, her painting (her hands are usually covered in paint), and her friendship with Trey. It is painful to read because, until almost the end of the book, Ariel doesn’t say anything back to them and internalizes everything.
  • Cancer: Ariel’s father passes from cancer before the book starts.
  • Cheating: I went back and forth on including this and eventually decided to include it. Trey emotionally cheats on Blair with Ariel. It never gets physical but emotional; he’s all in. Ariel discourages it at first but then gives in to it. Trey’s friends (including Blair’s sister) encourage his relationship with Ariel, which I found weird.
  • Death: Ariel’s father died from cancer earlier in the year.
  • Depression: Ariel’s mother suffered from a deep depression after Ariel’s father died. But she has come out of it by the time the book starts.
  • Eating Disorder: Ariel binge eats during the book. It is mentioned that she had an issue with binge eating and worked to keep her compulsion to do so under control.
  • Fat shaming: Blair and Bebe bully Ariel over her weight. Blair because she is insecure over Ariel’s relationship with Trey and Bebe because, well, Bebe is a colossal jerk.
  • Grief: Ariel is grieving the death of her father throughout the book.
  • Gentrification: Wonderland is a Black-owned business in an area that is in the process of being gentrified. Trey mentions that the area used to have multiple small businesses owned by different cultures that white developers were buying out. These white developers are looking to buy Wonderland, so Trey decides to save his family’s bookshop.

Sexual Content: There is sexual content in Love in Winter Wonderland. It mainly centers around Trey and Blair. There is a nongraphic sex scene, where Blair shows Trey her boobs (after he spends the night with her), scenes where they kiss, and one scene where Blair strips to her underwear and attempts to have sex with Trey. There are also a couple of near-miss kiss scenes between Ariel and Trey.

Language: There is a lot of language in Love in Winter Wonderland. There is swearing. There is also language centered around bullying.

Setting: Love in Winter Wonderland is set entirely in Hackney, England. Hackney is a borough of London. The author does a great job of describing Hackney and its community. She made it to a place that I would love to visit. I would also love to visit Wonderland!!

Plot Synopsis (as spoiler-free as I can get):

Trey hates working in his family’s bookstore, Wonderland. He doesn’t want to run it. Instead, he wants to be a singer. But his thinking changes when two things happen. First, his mother tells him that Wonderland is on the verge of closing and is considering a developer’s offer to buy it out. The second, Trey’s father falls and breaks his leg. The shop becomes his responsibility and, soon, his passion. He would do anything to save Wonderland.

Ariel is a quirky, shy artist who has known Trey from afar for years. When she gets invited to apply to the same art program her father attended, Ariel knows she needs a part-time job to cover the tuition. So, when the job at Wonderland falls in her lap, Ariel accepts. She becomes deeply involved in Trey’s plans to save Wonderland. But, with a monetary amount that is staggering (50,000 pounds) and a two-week time limit, she needs to think fast. What Ariel doesn’t take into consideration is her developing feelings for Trey. As the Christmas Eve deadline looms and the developers become brazen in their attempt to buy Wonderland, Ariel wonders if they will make it. She also wonders if her heart will survive working so close with Trey. Can Trey and Ariel save Wonderland? Will Trey realize that Ariel is the girl for him? Or will he miss his opportunity?

Main Characters:

Trey Anderson: I didn’t like Trey when the book first started. But his character growth throughout the book was terrific. He went from being a slightly self-involved kid only interested in his needs to this fantastic young man who wanted to save his family’s legacy. My only quibble with him was that he strung Blair and Ariel along. It wasn’t intentional, but he did it. And his treatment of Ariel when she missed the interview was awful, considering who was behind her missing the interview and how it happened.

Ariel Spencer: I loved her. Her character growth over the book was similar to Trey’s. I liked that she finally told Bebe and Blair what she thought of them. Of course, not before being put through hell by them. I loved her strong and supportive friend base (Annika and Jolie were her true ride-and-die friends). My only quibble with her is that she kept letting Trey in, and he kept hurting her. I wondered how the future would be for both of them.

Secondary characters:

Each of the secondary characters was great. They were just as fleshed out as Trey and Ariel. Of course, some of them did get what was coming to them. Others were great as the supportive best friends or parents. The main secondary characters are:

Trey’s parents and younger brother (Clive, Mrs. Anderson, Roen), Trey’s best friend (Dre Denton aka Boogs), Boogs girlfriend (Santi Bailey), Santi’s identical twin sister and Trey’s girlfriend (Blair Bailey), Bebe Richards (Ariel’s bully, Blair’s frenemy, and Annika’s cousin), Noah Spencer (Ariel’s younger brother), Annika (Ariel’s best friend), and Jolie (Ariel’s other best friend).

My review:

Love in Winter Wonderland is a well-written book focused on Trey and Ariel’s budding relationship and Trey and Ariel trying to save Wonderland, Trey’s family bookstore. This book touches on numerous subjects, from bullying to gentrification. The author did it in a way that it didn’t feel forced down your throat, and you wanted Trey and Ariel to succeed.

The storyline centers around Trey, Ariel, and their rush to save Wonderland. I liked that it was written realistically. Trey tried raising the money without the internet before listening to Ariel and posting about the shop’s plight. And, it took traction. I liked that while I knew it was a foregone conclusion that Ariel and Trey would save the shop, the author didn’t cement that idea at the end of the book. I also liked that Trey’s father slowly realized that he needed to modernize how he sold books. If Trey’s father wanted his business to survive, his store had to compete with the boxcutter bookstore down the street. It was painful to read, but I am glad he finally saw the writing on the wall.

The storyline centered around Trey and Ariel, and their relationship was cute. I liked seeing how they went from frenemies to friends to something more. But I wasn’t a huge fan of Trey cheating on his girlfriend. I want to clarify that he was emotionally cheating (he checked out of their relationship emotionally right after Ariel started working at the shop, so 3-4 chapters into the book). That aside, I loved the back-and-forth and the banter that Trey and Ariel had. Of course, they ran into issues (that pesky girlfriend), but they overcame them by being open with each other.

The end of Love in Winter Wonderland was what I expected. I did like how the author wrapped everything up. I also liked how she left it as happy for right now instead of a happily ever after. And the author’s note broke my heart. Before I forget, the author also does include a playlist for the book. At the beginning of each chapter (be it Ariel or Trey), she had a Christmas song sung by Black artists. I wrote each one down so I could listen to them (and yes, Mariah is featured).

Many thanks to Soho Press, Soho Teen, NetGalley, and Abiola Bello for allowing me to read and review this ARC of Love in Winter Wonderland. All opinions stated in this review are mine.

If you enjoy reading books similar to Love in Winter Wonderland, then you will enjoy these books:

Other books by Abiola Bello:

Have Yourself a Deadly Little Christmas (A Year-Round Christmas Mystery: Book 6) by Vicki Delany

Publisher: Crooked Lane Books

Date of publication: September 19th, 2023

Genre: Mystery, Christmas, Cozy Mystery, Contemporary

Series: A Year-Round Christmas Mystery

Rest Ye Murdered Gentlemen—Book 1

We Wish You a Murderous Christmas—Book 2

Hark the Herald Angels Sing—Book 3

Silent Night, Deadly Night—Book 4

Dying in a Winter Wonderland—Book 5

Have Yourself a Deadly Little Christmas—Book 6

Purchase Links: Kindle | B&N | Kobo

Goodreads Synopsis:

It’s beginning to look a lot like murder in the sixth installment of this charming cozy mystery series, perfect for fans of Donna Andrews and Jacqueline Frost.

It’s the beginning of December in Rudolph, New York, America’s Christmas Town, and business is brisk at Mrs. Claus’s Treasures, a gift and décor shop owned by Merry Wilkinson. The local amateur dramatic society is intensely preparing a special musical production of A Christmas Carol. But it’s not a happy set, as rivalries between cast and crew threaten the production.

Tensions come to a head when a member of the group is found dead shortly after a shopping excursion to Mrs. Claus’s Treasures. Was someone looking to cut out the competition? Everyone in the cast and crew is a potential suspect, including Aline, Merry’s mother, and Merry’s shop assistant Jackie O’Reilly, who was desperate for a starring role.

It could be curtains for Christmas—and for Merry—unless the killer can be ferreted out of the wings.

First Line:

There are two types of people in the world: those who love picnics and those who hate them.

Have Yourself a Deadly Little Christmas by Vicki Delany

Christmas is taken very seriously in Rudolph, New York. It has been named America’s Christmas Town, and the month of December is when tourism is at its peak—knowing that, the local theater group decides to put on a musical version of A Christmas Carol. But tensions are rampant throughout the cast, with rivalries threatening the production. Things get even more perilous when the actress playing Mrs. Crachit is murdered in Merry’s shop. With a short time until the musical debuts and needing to get her shop reopened, Merry must find out who the killer is and why. Can Merry do it? Or will the musical and Christmas be ruined?

Have Yourself a Deadly Little Christmas is the sixth book in The Year-Round Christmas Mystery series. While it is book six, you can read this as a stand-alone. But I suggest reading the first five books before picking this one up. I wish I did because I needed clarification about different characters. On the plus side, the author does not refer to the previous books, which was enjoyable. I was just left to muddle out the characters.

I loved the premise of this book. A town where Christmas is celebrated year-round is adorable. Plus, I loved the name Rudolph. The author also explored what it was like to live in a small town in Have Yourself a Deadly Little Christmas. The gossip and information grapevine was terrific and mostly on point. I also liked that Merry was friendly with most other people in town (except for the grumpy bookstore lady).

The main storyline of Have Yourself a Deadly Little Christmas centers around Merry, the murder of Paula Monahan (Mrs. Crachit), and Merry’s amateur investigation into the murder. It took a while for the murder storyline to get going. The author did an extensive job of laying down Paula’s backstory (and how unlikable she was). While the storyline was well-written and well-fleshed, the author could have trimmed down some aspects, like the journey to the neighboring town or Merry finding out that Ian was cheating on his wife. Neither had any bearing on the storyline (except to distract from who the killer was). But I do wonder if they will be part of the next book.

I liked Merry, and I could see myself being friends with her. She was grounded and an average person. Her reaction to her mother’s theatrics was funny (did I say that out loud was said a lot). She truly cared about the townspeople, even if some of them (Jackie) drove her up the wall. I also liked the way that she looked into Paula’s murder. She didn’t do it as a super sleuth but as an average person trying to figure it out. I loved seeing her thought process and the moment she realized who it was.

The secondary characters made the book. They were each fleshed out and had distinct personalities and quirks. They made the book so much more interesting to read. I also suspect that Noel (Merry’s father) is Santa.

The storyline of the musical did make me laugh. It was a realistic look at what happens when a group of passionate people get together. It also showcases how egos can ruin a show and how people must take constructive criticism. Aline, Merry’s mother, was the only one who stayed out of the pettiness, and that was because she was a famous opera singer. She dealt with that type of stuff for years. I loved that she put the verbal smackdown on the group towards the end. Someone should have done it sooner.

The mystery angle was terrific. I wasn’t a fan of it getting off to a slow start, but the author showcased all the suspects and the motives. I had a plethora of people to pick a suspect from. But I couldn’t. The author did an excellent job of throwing out red herrings. I was blindsided by who the killer was. It was the last person I would have even suspected. And that person’s motive was ridiculous.

The end of Have Yourself a Deadly Little Christmas was great. The author wrapped up the murder storyline in a spectacular way. I also liked how the murderer confessed (twice). It was like that person could have cared less about being in jail.

I would recommend Have Yourself a Deadly Little Christmas to anyone over 16. There is mild language, violence, and no sexual situations.

Many thanks to Crooked Lane Books and Vicki Delany for allowing me to read and review this ARC of Have Yourself a Deadly Little Christmas. All opinions stated in this review are mine.

If you enjoy reading books similar to Have Yourself a Deadly Little Christmas, then you will enjoy these:

Other books by Vicki Delany

The Family Game by Catherine Steadman

Publisher: Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine, Ballantine Books

Date of publication: October 18th, 2022

Genre: Thriller, Mystery, Mystery Thriller, Fiction, Audiobook, Adult, Suspense, Contemporary, Holiday, Christmas, Psychological Thriller

Purchase Links: Kindle | Audible | B&N | AbeBooks | Alibris | Powells | IndieBound | Indigo | BetterWorldBooks

Goodreads Synopsis:

A rich, eccentric family. A time-honored tradition. Or a lethal game of survival? One woman finds out what it really takes to join the 1% in this riveting psychological thriller from the New York Times bestselling author of Something in the Water, Mr. Nobody, and The Disappearing Act.

Harry is a novelist on the brink of stardom; Edward, her husband-to-be, is seemingly perfect. In love and freshly engaged, their bliss is interrupted by the reemergence of the Holbecks, Edward’s eminent family and the embodiment of American old money. For years, they’ve dominated headlines and pulled society’s strings, and Edward left them all behind to forge his own path. But there are eyes and ears everywhere. It was only a matter of time before they were pulled back in . . .

After all, even though he’s long severed ties with his family, Edward is set to inherit it all. Harriet is drawn to the glamour and sophistication of the Holbecks, who seem to welcome her with open arms, but everything changes when she meets Robert, the inescapably magnetic head of the family. At their first meeting, Robert slips Harry a cassette tape, revealing a shocking confession which sets the inevitable game in motion.

What is it about Harry that made him give her that tape? A thing that has the power to destroy everything? As she ramps up her quest for the truth, she must endure the Holbecks’ savage Christmas traditions all the while knowing that losing this game could be deadly.

First Line:

I came to on the parquet floor of the entrance hall, my face pressed hard against its antique wood, with the clear knowledge that this is not how Christmases should go.

The Family Game by Catherine Steadman

I love to read thrillers. So, when I got the invite to review The Family Game from the publisher, I jumped on it. I was not disappointed.

The Family Game is a fast-paced book in New York City and an undisclosed estate in upstate New York. The book’s plotline centers around Harriet/Harry and her upcoming marriage to a billionaire heir, Edward. Edward has been trying to cut the strings to his family for years, but his forthcoming marriage to Harry has them back in his life. Harry, on the other hand, is thrilled. An orphan, she longs for a close family and loves that Edward’s family has taken such an interest in her. But things turn sinister when Edward’s father, the charismatic Robert, gives Harry an unedited book that he had been writing. The contents of that book shock and scare Harry, and she realizes that maybe Edward was right about his family. After a frightening Krampusnacht, Harry is very reluctant to attend a Christmas Eve celebration in upstate New York. But, following what she has heard, she needs to participate because Robert will reveal everything after the annual Christmas Eve scavenger hunt. One that Harry was told she MUST participate in. What is Robert going to show her? How is it connected to what she heard on the tape? And most importantly, will Harry survive the night?

The main and secondary characters were wonderfully written. They each added an extra depth to the plotline that helped with the storyline. Even the secondary characters, like Edward’s mother or Harry’s literary agent, had a depth that I enjoyed.

  • Harry—I enjoyed her character. After being orphaned at a young age, Harry only wanted a family. And she was thrilled to get one with Edward. But, as with all thrillers, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I mean, you can’t have happiness in these types of stories for very long. So, when the other shoe did drop (and it dropped about halfway through the book), I wasn’t surprised. But, what did surprise me, was Harry’s reaction to it. She decided to play the game outlined by Robert but played it her way. I also thought her reactions to certain revelations were muted. But, as she stated throughout the book, she had PTSD. So maybe that’s why??
  • Edward—I wasn’t his biggest fan during the book. He was hiding so many secrets. He did other small things (like not mentioning how frightening Krampusnacht was) that seemed odd. Take, for instance, Bobby’s death. Not only did he gloss it over, but he told Harry something different.
  • Robert—Again, like Edward, I didn’t like or trust him. The way he went about telling Harry certain things was odd. Like recording a book on a Dictaphone. And an old one to boot. But, once I read the book, I got why he set everything up the way he did.

The Family Game fits perfectly into the thriller/psychological thriller genre. The author did a perfect job of keeping me on my feet reading this book.

The storyline with Harry, Edward, his family, and their games were well written. The author introduced me to Krampusnacht. While I knew about Krampus, I didn’t understand what Krampusnacht was. And I thought the Holbeck’s version was disturbing. I was genuinely scared during those scenes.

The storyline with Harry, Robert, and what was revealed on the Dictaphone was frightening. I loved that I thought the same thing as Harry up to the end of the book. That twist surprised me, as what that person did once the author revealed their secret. Talk about taking me by surprise!!!

There are trigger warnings in The Family Game. They are murder, talk of suicide, talk of drug use, talk of forcing drug use (is that such a thing?), terrorization by a mythical creature, and a graphic scene of a car accident and what happens afterward. If any of these triggers you, I recommend not reading this book.

The end of The Family Game was a complete surprise. I was surprised to find out the scavenger hunt turned out the way it did. I also was surprised to find out what was revealed to be revealed. Saying that it took me by surprise was an understatement. But it also made sense. The scavenger hunt clue foreshadowed what was to come. It was a perfect but sad ending for this book. I also cannot wait to read the author’s next book.

I would recommend The Family Game to anyone over 21. There is violence and mild language. Also, see the trigger warnings I put above.

I want to thank Catherine Steadman, Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine, and Ballantine Books for allowing me to read and review this book. Any opinions stated in this review are mine.

If you enjoyed reading The Family Game, you will enjoy reading these books:

Dead and Gondola (Christie Bookshop: Book 1) by Ann Claire

Publisher: Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine, Bantam

Date of publication: November 1st, 2022

Genre: Mystery, Cozy Mystery, Fiction, Thriller, Mystery Thriller, Holiday, Christmas, Adult, Contemporary, Audiobook

Series: Christie Bookshop

Dead and Gondola—Book 1

Last Word to the Wise—Book 2

Purchase Links: Kindle | Audible | B&N | AbeBooks | Alibris | Powells | IndieBound | Indigo | BetterWorldBooks

Goodreads Synopsis:

When a mysterious bookshop visitor dies under murderous circumstances, the Christie sisters and their cat Agatha call on all they’ve learned about solving mysteries from their favorite novelist in this new series debut.

Ellie Christie is thrilled to begin a new chapter. She’s recently returned to her tiny Colorado hometown to run her family’s historic bookshop with her elder sister, Meg, and their friendly bookshop cat, Agatha. Perched in a Swiss-style hamlet accessible by ski gondola and a twisty mountain road, the Book Chalet is a famed bibliophile destination known for its maze of shelves and relaxing reading lounge with cozy fireside seats and panoramic views. At least, until trouble blows in with a wintery whiteout. A man is found dead on the gondola, and a rockslide throws the town into lockdown—no one in, no one out.

He was a mysterious stranger who visited the bookshop. At the time, his only blunders were disrupting a book club and leaving behind a first-edition Agatha Christie novel, written under a pseudonym. However, once revealed, the man’s identity shocks the town. Many residents knew of him. Quite a few had reason to want him dead. Others hide secrets. The police gather suspects, but when they narrow in on the sisters’ close friends, the Christies have to act.

Although the only Agatha in their family tree is their cat, Ellie and Meg know a lot about mysteries, and they’re not about to let the situation snowball out of control. The Christie sisters must summon their inner Miss Marples and trek through a blizzard of clues before the killer turns the page to their final chapter.

First Line:

I swung open the heavy oak door and blinked at the figure taking shape in the blizzard.

Dead and Gondola by Ann Claire

I love mysteries set in bookstores and/or small towns, and this book has both. It was a given that I would accept the invitation from the publisher. I am glad that I did because this was a great mystery.

Dead and Gondola is the first book in the Christie Bookshop series. So, my usual drivel about reading previous books does not apply here. You can safely read this book and not wonder about storylines or characters.

The plotline for Dead and Gondola was interesting and engaging. Ellie has returned to her hometown to help her older sister run their family’s acclaimed book shop, The Book Chalet. Ellie wasn’t expecting an older man to show up at the shop, looking for a woman named CeCe and carrying a rare book. She also wasn’t expecting to witness that same older man get murdered. And she certainly wasn’t expecting her long-time employee to disappear simultaneously. With the roads out of town closed, Ellie takes it upon herself to investigate. What she discovers shocks her to her core and throws suspicion at everyone in her village. Who killed the older man? Why did her employee disappear? What connects the two?

Dead and Gondola is a medium-paced book set in the fictional town of Last Word, Colorado. I loved the description of the town. It is a ski town, and the author did go into what it was like living in a town that relies on skiing for income. But she also showed what living in a small town was like.

The characters in Dead and Gondola weren’t as fleshed out as I would have liked them to be. But, seeing this is the first book in the series, I expect some character growth in the later books. Besides that, I loved seeing the assortment of people that made up Ellie’s world. They were as unique as the town was. I also liked the darkness in this town and the people.

  • Ellie—I liked her, but she annoyed me during parts of the book. There were points in the book where I couldn’t connect to her. She became almost obsessed with discovering who murdered the older man and why. I did feel bad for her when the murderer was revealed. Honestly, I was shocked and understood why she felt that way. Also, I did like her flashbacks to childhood and reading. I was the same way!!

The storyline with the older man, the mysterious CeCe, his murder, the book, and Ellie was well written. The author took me on a ride with this one. It had more twists and turns in the plotline than a mountain road. And the red herrings!!! There were a lot of them. I loved the twist the author put into this plotline. And who the murderer was!! I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t who I was expecting it to be.

The storyline with Mrs. Reed, her disappearance, the shop, Ellie, and Meg was also very well written. I was with Ellie for almost half the book. I thought something terrible had happened to her. But then she was found, and I couldn’t help but be slightly irritated by Ellie. I was like, “Leave the poor woman alone!!” Then the author had a twist in this plotline that had me shaking my head. And the author led me to believe one thing when the opposite happened.

Dead and Gondola fit perfectly into the cozy mystery genre. The author kept me guessing a few things (see above), and a big twist at the end of the book took me by surprise.

The end of Dead and Gondola was interesting. The author was able to wrap up the main storylines in this book in a way that I enjoyed. But she did leave enough wiggle room for book 2. I can’t wait to read book 2!!

I recommend Dead and Gondola to anyone over 16. It is a clean book (no kissing, no sex), but there is some mild language and violence.

I want to thank Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine, Bantam, NetGalley, and Ann Claire for allowing me to read and review Dead and Gondola. All opinions expressed in this review are mine.

If you enjoyed reading my review of Dead and Gondola, then you will enjoy reading these books: