The Merciless II: The Exorcism of Sofia Flores by Danielle Vega

Title: The Merciless II: The Exorcism of Sofia Flores
Author: Danielle Vega
Series: The Merciless, #2
Pages: 320
Publisher: Razorbill
Release Date: July 5th 2016

      “Sofia is still processing the horrific truth of what happened when she and three friends performed an exorcism that spiraled horribly out of control. Ever since that night, Sofia has been haunted by bloody and demonic visions. Her therapist says they’re all in her head, but to Sofia they feel chillingly real. She just wants to get out of town, start fresh someplace else . . . until her mother dies suddenly, and Sofia gets her wish.
      Sofia is sent to St. Mary’s, a creepy Catholic boarding school in Mississippi. There, seemingly everyone is doing penance for something, most of all the mysterious Jude, for whom Sofia can’t help feeling an unshakeable attraction. But when Sofia and Jude confide in each other about their pasts, something flips in him. He becomes convinced that Sofia is possessed by the devil. . . . Is an exorcism the only way to save her eternal soul?
      Readers won’t be able to look away from this terrifying read full of twists and turns that will leave them wondering, Is there evil in all of us?”

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“The wind blows, spreading red petals over the dead grass. I shiver and wrap my arms around my chest, watching the petals dance across the crumbling stone angels and moss-covered tombstones. Almost like droplets of blood.”

Danielle Vega’s sequel The Merciless II: The Exorcism of Sofia Flores takes all the horror elements from the first book in the series and kicks it up a notch. After being pulled into an exorcism by her new friends, Sofia found herself witnessing their murder by the girl they meant to save. Sofia can’t shake Brooklyn’s final words to her before she disappeared. We don’t kill our own. Convincing herself that she can’t possibly be possessed by a demon is harder said than done, but in order to move on, this is exactly what Sofia needs to do. But when tragedy strikes, Sofia ends up enrolling at St. Mary’s Prep School where it gets harder and harder for her to deny the growing darkness inside her.

The Merciless II has its flaws, but in terms of horror, there were several frightening scenes that kept me turning the pages. Vega’s sequel does improve on her previous book both in characterization and build-up. Sofia is fighting an internal battle with herself. Every ugly thought she has reminds her of Brooklyn’s words. Her new roommates have her hoping that she can start anew at this new school, but things grow complicated very quickly. Feeling jealous of one of her new friends isn’t exactly alarming and her less than charitable thoughts are fleetingly enough that even readers begin to convince themselves there is nothing wrong with Sofia. However, the tension in the novel begins when this friend begins to experience a bout of bad luck. Sofia grows increasingly concerned that she may be causing these bad accidents, but she doesn’t have anyone to turn to. Wrecked with guilt, Sofia reaches out to the one person she’s vowed to stay away from. Jude is one of the only bright spots in her life, though she’s promised herself not to pursue a relationship because of a new friend’s crush on him. Jude has some very zealous religious views, which raised a ton of alarm bells, but as a reader, you’re forced to watch Sofia open up to him and know that eventually Jude will start to believe himself that Sofia is possessed.

I sympathized with Sofia when it seemed that nothing in her life could go right. She tried so hard to fight her envious thoughts, but these thoughts seemed to have a life of their own. Though it’s clear from the synopsis that Sofia’s story is going to take an even darker turn, it did not prepare me for the horror she endures. It’s important to note that this book can be extremely triggering. I won’t go into the details, but there are several brutal scenes in this novel in which characters are subjected to physical abuse. That being said, The Merciless II: The Exorcism of Sofia Flores is an engrossing horror novel that will leave you aghast and begging to find out what happens next.

4/5

★★★★

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Mini Reviews: The Hearts We Sold + The Women in the Walls

MiniI didn’t plan on putting together more than one set of mini-reviews for this month, but ended up with these ones. The Hearts We Sold is a mini-review from last month and The Women in the Walls is one of my final reads of October. They both have a horror feel to them, so they’re perfect for my final reviews of the month. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: The Hearts We Sold
Author: Emily Lloyd-Jones
Series: N/A
Pages: 381
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: August 8th 2017 

      “When Dee Moreno makes a deal with a demon—her heart in exchange for an escape from a disastrous home life—she finds the trade may have been more than she bargained for. And becoming “heartless” is only the beginning. What lies ahead is a nightmare far bigger, far more monstrous than anything she could have ever imagined.
      With reality turned on its head, Dee has only a group of other deal-making teens to keep her grounded, including the charming but secretive James Lancer. And as something grows between them amid an otherworldy ordeal, Dee begins to wonder: Can she give someone her heart when it’s no longer hers to give?

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“Magic was just another fantasy. It was something she created to comfort herself. There were no fairy tales, no knights in shining armor. Just herself and her own wits.”

The first thing about Emily Lloyd-Jones’s The Hearts We Sold that caught my attention was the premise. The idea that demons have not only made themselves known to the world, but that they grant wishes in exchange for part of a person is potentially horrifying. Despite the unique premise, the world-building still left something to be desired. The ending really threw me for a loop. The “twist” could have been established earlier on and its consequences explored which would have help with the world-building. I really appreciated reading about Dee. I’d like to see more protagonists who have to deal with their parents’ addictions. As the child of alcoholics, Dee feels incredibly isolated. She internalizes a lot of negative thoughts about herself and others. This is a theme that runs throughout the entire novel and affects all of her relationships. At first, it’s easy to scoff at the idea of giving up your heart to a demon for anything, but Dee’s desperation really comes through and it’s hard not to in some ways support with her decision. The side characters in this one were enjoyable, but never felt fully realized. Aside from Dee, James was the one character that stood out. It’s always nice to get a love interest that isn’t a clichéd brooding male. He’s so full of life and lent a dose of levity to the Dee’s world. The Hearts We Sold is good novel for those looking for a darker fantasy with an unusual premise, but probably won’t blow you away in the end.

Rating: 3/5

★★★


Title: The Women in the Walls
Author: Amy Lukavics
Series: N/A
Pages: 278
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Release Date: September 27th 2016

      “Lucy Acosta’s mother died when she was three. Growing up in a Victorian mansion in the middle of the woods with her cold, distant father, she explored the dark hallways of the estate with her cousin, Margaret. They’re inseparable—a family.
      When her aunt Penelope, the only mother she’s ever known, tragically disappears while walking in the woods surrounding their estate, Lucy finds herself devastated and alone. Margaret has been spending a lot of time in the attic. She claims she can hear her dead mother’s voice whispering from the walls. Emotionally shut out by her father, Lucy watches helplessly as her cousin’s sanity slowly unravels. But when she begins hearing voices herself, Lucy finds herself confronting an ancient and deadly legacy that has marked the women in her family for generations.

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“Lucy,” I suddenly hear, a pleading, muffled voice coming from the wall. “You won’t believe how much it hurts to be dead.”

Amy Lukavics’s The Women in the Walls is one of the creepiest books I picked up this October. I went into this not expecting too many thrills as the reviews for this one have been on the negative side. I’m a big fan of build-up and think tension is essential for any horror story, so I was put off at first when we are thrust head first into this story. There is also a lot of telling rather than showing and while I do think the book improved as it went on, this was one of its shortcomings. I do want to mention that this novel does deal with suicide and self-harm, both of which I was not expecting. The protagonist is already buckling under familial expectations when the people around her begin acting strange. Lucy’s aunt disappears into the woods surrounding their estate and her cousin Margaret’s behavior becomes erratic. With her aunt gone, her cousin Margaret pulling away, and an emotionally absent father, Lucy begins to come apart. The pacing really picked up once I was halfway through. Once Lucy starts to hear voices from the walls herself, I had to continue reading. If you do decide to pick this one up, there are plenty of spine-tingling scenes that will both terrified and delight the horror fan.

Rating: 3/5

★★★

Mini Reviews: Hunting Prince Dracula + And the Trees Crept In

MiniHello, friends fiends (see what I did there?). It’s been a while since I posted a set of mini-reviews. I’ve been busy reading creepy books this month (I’m excited for Halloween, can you tell I’m excited for Halloween?) and so it’s only appropriate to pair these two together for mini-reviews. Hope you enjoy. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: Hunting Prince Dracula
Author: Kerri Maniscalco
Series: Stalking Jack the Ripper, #2
Pages: 434
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Release Date: September 19th 2017 

      “In this New York Times bestselling sequel to Kerri Maniscalco’s haunting #1 debut Stalking Jack the Ripper, bizarre murders are discovered in the castle of Prince Vlad the Impaler, otherwise known as Dracula. Could it be a copycat killer…or has the depraved prince been brought back to life?
      Following the grief and horror of her discovery of Jack the Ripper’s true identity, Audrey Rose Wadsworth has no choice but to flee London and its memories. Together with the arrogant yet charming Thomas Cresswell, she journeys to the dark heart of Romania, home to one of Europe’s best schools of forensic medicine…and to another notorious killer, Vlad the Impaler, whose thirst for blood became legend.

      But her life’s dream is soon tainted by blood-soaked discoveries in the halls of the school’s forbidding castle, and Audrey Rose is compelled to investigate the strangely familiar murders. What she finds brings all her terrifying fears to life once again.

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“Chills invaded the cracks of my emotional armor, sliding their icy fingers along my skin. I gave in to their prodding and shivered in the waning morning light.”

Kerri Maniscalco’s Hunting Prince Dracula is an action-packed historical thriller that had me guessing at every turn. Audrey Rose Wadsworth and Thomas Cresswell are quickly becoming one of my favorite literary pairs. Their relationship continues to evolve in this one and I really liked how the author balances this with both characters learning important lessons about themselves as well. Audrey Rose is still haunted by the events from the first book and isn’t sure she still has what it takes to pursue a career in forensic studies. Thomas is concerned for her well-being and often oversteps, but I love how assertive Audrey Rose is with both him and her new classmates at the Academy of Forensic Medicine and Science. Thomas was a bit of an enigma in the first book, so I was happy to see him get backstory as well as becoming acquainted with his sister in this one. The majority of the novel takes place at Bran Castle and I loved the dark and dreary descriptions. The eerie atmosphere and murderous mystery is reminiscent of Gothic literature and made a perfect read for October.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★


Title: And the Trees Crept In
Author: Dawn Kurtagich
Series: N/A
Pages: 352
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: September 6th 2017

      “Stay away from the woods…
      When Silla and Nori arrive at their aunt’s home, it’s immediately clear that the manor is cursed. The endless creaking of the house at night and the eerie stillness of the woods surrounding them would be enough of a sign, but there are secrets too—questions that Silla can’t ignore: Why does it seem that, ever since they arrived, the trees have been creeping closer? Who is the beautiful boy who’s appeared from the woods? And who is the tall man with no eyes who Nori plays with in the basement at night… a man no one else can see?

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“The terror is like a foghorn in the darkness. Like a spotlight pointed at me, notifying the monsters of the world exactly where I am: exposed, armorless. ”

Dawn Kurtagich’s And the Trees Crept In is a novel I’ve really been looking forward to this October. Like Kurtagich’s previous novel, The Dead House, Kurtagich’s uses various methods to tell her story. There’s first person narration, diary entries, and flash backs. All these work together to bring the reader into the story and the mystery of La Baume, the home of Silla and Nori’s aunt. The story opens with Silla and Nori arriving at their aunt’s doorstep in search of refuge. We quickly learn that both these girls have been on the receiving end of their father’s violent outbursts and while little Nori’s wounds are very visible, Silla’s injuries are more emotional and psychological. As their aunt’s behavior grows more and more erratic, Silla begins to suspect that there is more to La Baume and the surrounding woods. Her aunt speaks of the Creeper Man, lying in wait for any who may enter Python Wood. I really liked the growing tension in this book and in many ways it’s more of a psychological thriller than a horror novel. Silla is tormented by the isolation of the house, the lack of food for her and her sister, and unexplained behavior of her aunt. And the Trees Crept In isn’t a perfect horror novel. I liked the beginning more than the latter part of the story. At times it felt a little too long and the ending is cliché, but if you’re looking for a novel that might make you think twice before walking down the hall in the dark, then this is one you’ll want to check out.

Rating: 3/5

★★★

Mini-Reviews: How to Hang a Witch

MiniI love the month of October. I love when the colors of the leaves change and the promise of cooler weather (the promise of, where I live it doesn’t start to cool down until November), but above all I enjoy October because of Halloween. I usually like to include two mini reviews in the same post but after I started writing one of my mini reviews it turned into a full one, so I’ve only got one for you this time around. If you’re still looking for a Halloween read, this might be the one for you. Cover below is linked to Goodreads.

Title: How to Hang a Witch
Author: Adriana Mather
Series:
How to Hang a Witch, #1
Pages:
368
Publisher: 
Knopf Books for Young Readers
Release Date: 
July 26th 2016

      “Salem, Massachusetts is the site of the infamous Witch Trials and the new home of Samantha Mather. Recently transplanted from New York City, Sam is not exactly welcomed with open arms. She is a descendant of Cotton Mather, one of the men responsible for those Trials—and almost immediately, she becomes the enemy of a group of girls who call themselves The Descendants. And guess who their ancestors were?
      If dealing with that wasn’t enough, Sam finds herself face to face with a real, live (well, technically dead) ghost. A handsome, angry ghost who wants Sam to stop touching his stuff.
      Soon Sam discovers she is at the center of a centuries-old curse affecting everyone with ties to the Trials. Sam must come to terms with the ghost and work with The Descendants to stop a deadly cycle that has been going on since the first alleged witch was hanged. If any town should have learned its lesson, it’s Salem. But history may be about to repeat itself.

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“There’s a light creaking of old wood as I approach the burgundy bedroom. I peek inside and flip on the light. The rocking chair moves back and forth. I grab the arm and it stops. I scan the room, but everything’s still.

Adrian Mather’s debut novel How to Hang a Witch has a rich setting that works really well at bringing the story to life, but at times the novel felt like it dragged. After an accident that leaves her father in a coma, Sam and her stepmother move back to his childhood home of Salem, Massachusetts. It’s hard enough to adjust to this new life without her father, but Sam soon discovers that her family’s history makes her an outcast in this town. Then she discovers that her family may be caught up in a deadly curse and she must find a way to break it before it takes the life of her father. How to Hang a Witch draws a lot of parallels between Sam’s situation and the Salem Witch Trials in the 17th century, sometimes this works to enhance the novel and sometimes the comparison falls flat. Sam herself was a character that I sometimes found frustrating, her bad attitude grated on my nervous. I really liked some of the minor characters, but we only get tiny glimpses of who they are. There is a love triangle of sorts in this novel and one side really didn’t resonate with me, but hopefully this is cleaned up in the next novel.

Rating: 3/5

★★★


The Merciless by Danielle Vega

the-merciless-by-danielle-vega

Title: The Merciless
Author: Danielle Vega
Series: The Merciless, #1
Pages: 279
Publisher: Razorbill
Release Date: June 12th 2014 

      “Brooklyn Stevens sits in a pool of her own blood, tied up and gagged. No one outside of these dank basement walls knows she’s here. No one can hear her scream.
      Sofia Flores knows she shouldn’t have gotten involved. When she befriended Riley, Grace, and Alexis on her first day at school, she admired them, with their perfect hair and their good-girl ways. They said they wanted to save Brooklyn. They wanted to help her. Sofia didn’t realize they believed Brooklyn was possessed.
      Now, Riley and the girls are performing an exorcism on Brooklyn—but their idea of an exorcism is closer to torture than salvation. All Sofia wants is to get out of this house. But there is no way out. Sofia can’t go against the other girls . . . unless she wants to be next. . .

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“The water hits my face like a slap. My eyes fly open, and on instinct I inhale, immediately flooding my lungs. I choke, releasing deep, hacking coughs that fill the water with bubbles and cloud my vision.”

Danielle Vega’s The Merciless doesn’t excel when it comes to characterization, but its plot kept me glued to the pages. Sofia Flores is used to being the new kid and after a particularly difficult time fitting in at her last school, she’s surprised to find the popular girls at her new school interested in her. There isn’t much build up when it came to this new friendship. We learn that Riley, Alexis and Grace are the pretty, popular girls everyone wants to be or befriend. Unfortunately, I never understood why this was the case with these three. The author dives head first into the story with very little development of her characters. We do get a glimpse of who these three are as the story moves along, and while Vega introduces certain revelations about them that are meant to be shocking, it was hard to feel surprised when I had very little knowledge of who they are in the beginning.

The protagonist Sofia has much more depth compared to the other characters. We learn that she moves around a lot, that she was bullied at a previous school, and that her grandmother is a really important part of her life. The problem I had with Sofia’s character is how quickly she becomes invested in Riley and her crew. It would be easy to chalk it up to her need to feel accepted, but I wondered about her lack of good judgment. Some of the behavior exhibited by Riley and her friends was so alarming, I could not believe that there was any part of Sofia that still wanted to be accepted by them.

The plot of the story is driven by the religious fanaticism exhibited by Riley and replicated by her friends. I don’t think enough time was spent on the mindset of this character. She was clearly a hypocrite, but I would have liked to have seen more of her thought process because her twisted logic plays a major role in creating conflict. She, along with her friends and particularly Alexis, displayed a lot of troubling behavior that I wish had been given more context. Sofia herself wasn’t particularly religious, but her relationship with her grandmother made her curious about Riley’s brand of religion. This is another element of the novel that I wanted to hear more about as Sofia gives us brief glimpses of her first exposure to exorcism through the stories of her grandmother.

If you pick up The Merciless, don’t expect to become emotionally invested in the characters, but its fast-paced plot will keep your attention and its often frightening scenes will compel you to finish.

Rating: 3/5

★★★

The Dead House by Dawn Kurtagich

The Dead House by Dawn Kurtagich

Title: The Dead House
Author: Dawn Kurtagich
Series: N/A
Pages: 400
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: September 15th 2015 

      “Two decades have passed since an inferno swept through Elmbridge High, claiming the lives of three teenagers and causing one student, Carly Johnson, to disappear. The main suspect: Kaitlyn, ‘the girl of nowhere.’
      Kaitlyn’s diary, discovered in the ruins of Elmbridge High, reveals the thoughts of a disturbed mind. Its charred pages tell a sinister version of events that took place that tragic night, and the girl of nowhere is caught in the center of it all. But many claim Kaitlyn doesn’t exist, and in a way, she doesn’t – because she is the alter ego of Carly Johnson.
      Carly gets the day. Kaitlyn has the night. It’s during the night that a mystery surrounding the Dead House unravels and a dark, twisted magic ruins the lives of each student that dares touch it.”

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“Some people say that night blooms. But night descends self-consciously. Night cuts slowly.”

Dawn Kurtagich uses unconventional methods to tell the peculiar story of Carly and Kaitlyn Johnson. Told in a variety of mediums from diary entries to transcripts of interviews, The Dead House is full of creepy scenes that will have you peering into dark corners wondering if anything is there. Carly and Kaitlyn’s situation is a paradox. Though officially diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (DID), Kaitlyn’s diary entries make it clear that this isn’t a case of multiple personalities, but two individuals who inexplicably share one body. After a tragic accident has them admitted into Claydon Mental Hospital, the girls get a second chance at Elmbridge High School. But something is amiss at the school and as both girls try to find how they fit into the world, something dark and sinister is creeping closer.

Through diary entries, the narrative focuses largely on the psyche of Kaitlyn. Through her we learn about the “rules” governing the two girls existence (Carly is awake during the day, Kaitlyn at night), how they communicate (through a Message Book and post-it notes), and the important fact that their parents knew about their strange condition. Even more important still is the reader’s growing understanding of Kaitlyn’s mental state. Growing up during the night made her feel very much alone. While the world around her slept, she was awake. One of the few links Kaitlyn has to the outside world is Carly. As a result, she feels very protective of her counterpart, but her affection is sometimes accompanied by irrational jealousy.

The author gives several possibilities for the strange visions, voices, and disappearances in the story — from a mental disorder to demon possession — but is ultimately a reminder that the mind itself can be a very dark place. The Dead House was really close to receiving four stars from me, but the ending left a lot of questions unanswered and while this is meant to add mystery to the story, it made the novel feel incomplete in the end.

Rating: 3/5

★★★