The city of Ludlow is gripped by the hottest July on record. The asphalt is melting, the birds are dying, petty crime is on the rise, and someone in Hannah Wagnor’s peaceful suburban community is killing girls.
For Hannah, the summer is a complicated one. Her best friend Lillian died six months ago, and Hannah just wants her life to go back to normal. But how can things be normal when Lillian’s ghost is haunting her bedroom, pushing her to investigate the mysterious string of murders? Hannah’s just trying to understand why her friend self-destructed, and where she fits now that Lillian isn’t there to save her a place among the social elite. And she must stop thinking about Finny Boone, the big, enigmatic delinquent whose main hobbies seem to include petty larceny and surprising acts of kindness.
With the entire city in a panic, Hannah soon finds herself drawn into a world of ghost girls and horrifying secrets. She realizes that only by confronting the Valentine Killer will she be able move on with her life—and it’s up to her to put together the pieces before he strikes again.
Paper Valentine is a hauntingly poetic tale of love and death by the New York Times bestselling author of The Replacement and The Space Between.
Yovanoff Has Grown So Much Since Her Debut
When I went to ALA in 2010, one of the numerous ARCs I picked up and took home, in a haze of disbelief that people would want to give me free books just because I was in training to be a librarian, was Yovanoff's debut novel The Replacement. The Penguin publicist I spoke to hyped it big time, I think because it was part of their Breathless Reads collection. Something I've learned about myself since is that I don't tend to be a huge fan of the most-hyped books put into those collections, though they do tend to do very well, they just are not my thing. Such was the case with The Replacement, which showed promise in the gothic tone and writing, but mostly fell flat. When I was sent a review copy of Paper Valentine, I really did not get that excited, but I did resolve to give Yovanoff another try, and I am so glad that I did, because she has grown a lot as a writer since her debut novel.
Ever since Lillian's death from anorexia, Hannah has been haunted by her best friend. Not by the memory of Lillian, no, but by her ghost. Lillian follows her around, giving her advice or criticizing her behavior, or both at the same time. Only Hannah can see Lillian, and, after six months of this, Hannah's pretty resigned to it, even though it can be an inconvenience and having ghost Lillian around isn't the same as having the real Lillian there.
Paper Valentine follows a lot of different plot lines, weaving them together expertly into a powerful novel. The first arc deals with friendship, with peer pressure, and with self-acceptance. Hannah and Lillian were incredibly close, best friends forever. They were also the most popular girls in school, making their own style and setting the trends. With Lillian gone, stuck with the rest of their group, now dominated by Angelie, Hannah's coming to realize that, much as she loved her, Lillian wasn't a very nice person all the time and that she could be a bad influence on Hannah. Watching Hannah come into her own as a person, both accepting the parts of herself wholly unlike Hannah and incorporating a bit of Hannah's advice made me so glad for her. Hannah needed a bit of Lillian's gumption, enough that she could tell off Angelie for being horrible and rude, but also needed to be Hannah-enough to not get too hung up on being popular.
Family, though a more minor thread certainly, still plays a crucial role in Paper Valentine. The parents are mostly absent, though the mother does ground Hannah for sneaking out and insist on meeting a boy before Hannah can go out with him. The relationship being dissected here is that of the two sisters, Hannah and Ariel. Though Ariel annoys her, understandably so, the two clearly have so much love for one another. Hannah can see how much Ariel tries to protect her and gets what Hannah is going through more than their mother and step-father do. I found their relationship touching, and loved that there was much more focus upon it than usual.
The book gets much creepier than just Lillian's ghost, however. Girls are being murdered, left in the park, heads bashed in, surrounded by the trappings of childhood, toys and candy. Next to each body is a paper heart. Needless to say Hannah will become wrapped up in the murders. Yovanoff does suspense and eerie settings very well, and there were some scenes that straight up freaked me out. What made Paper Valentine special, though, was how Hannah reacts when she finds herself in danger: she uses her brain and does not just collapse into a weeping heap waiting to be rescued. Unlike some heroines, she doesn't spend her doom-filled moments thinking of how much she loves some boy, but of ways to escape and of her sister and her dead best friend. As with when she fought back against bossy Angelie, Hannah held her own and refused to be cowed, and that just made me respect her and root for her so much.
Admittedly, I was quite skeptical of the romance at first, because I feared it was going straight down stereotype highway. See, Hannah has a secret crush on one of the bad boys. When we first see him, he's wearing a wife beater, even. He dyes his hair white-blonde with Clorox, has tattoos, and a missing pinkie. Early on, he shoplifts. I mean, not really swoon material. He never really does become the kind of guy I would swoon over, but Yovanoff makes him work, and I totally ended up shipping Hannah and Finny, who made me think a bit of Hanna and Caleb from Pretty Little Liars. Also, their romance reminded me a bit of Pushing the Limits too, only with less focus on romance, no pet names, and a murder mystery.
Yovanoff gives the reader a little bit of everything, and, after my lackluster first experience, I now plan to read The Space Between, her second novel, as well as whatever she has coming next. What a wonderful lesson in the importance of not writing an author off based on one book, especially a debut, because they have so much room to grow.
As other reviewers have said, readers in search of a murder mystery should not pick up Paper Valentine in hopes of an enthralling chase to unmask a serial killer. Personally, I came into this with that expectation, and it took a bit of adjustment for me to realize that Yovanoff’s story had more to do with people living their lives and going through day-to-day stuff (whilst a serial killer is abroad), than about finding and punishing a murderer. Instead, Paper Valentine is about a girl and a ghost and relationships and imperfect people.
Most of the time I don’t have much trouble picking out what an author’s themes are. I can say, “this book is about moving on after grief” or “this book is about learning where loyalties lie” or something along those lines. But to be honest, I can’t do that here. For me, Brenna Yovanoff just sat down to write about real people in real situations, and if there were any messages she wanted readers to take away from Paper Valentine, they weren’t obvious or easy to pick out. Everything was subtle, kept beneath the surface, and, in my opinion, masterfully done. This entire novel is approached with a fairly light hand, and the story was allowed to grow and shape organically. Authorial presence in this book is kept to a minimum.
Paper Valentine’s main character, Hannah, is teenager who’s being haunted—literally—by her best friend, Lillian. Lillian died six months ago after several years of being anorexic. And Lillian’s ghost is a projection of all the very worst things about Lillian. Her selfishness, her need for control, her obsession with perfection, her snobbishness. But in some way, Hannah still clings to Lillian, and neither of the girls is able to let the other go.
Aside from the obvious problem with Lillian’s ghost, Hannah’s also dealing with the reality of a serial killer loose in her town, one who targets young girls. Her parents and younger sister are understandably freaked out, and so is Hannah in a less significant way. Primarily, Hannah and Lillian take on something of an obsession with the murders, and that leads them into trouble. Trouble, in this case, takes the form of Finny Boone, a trouble youth with the scars and foster care experience to prove it.
Initially, Hannah is taken aback by her attraction for Finny, but not for long. With him, she finds the voice she’s always kept hidden, and when he tries to break things off, she isn’t afraid to speak out.
“Stop,” I tell him.
He glances over, squinting at me. “What?”
“Stop acting like you need to protect me from yourself.” And I sound angrier than I ever usually sound. “I’m not a victim or a fragile little thing. And maybe there’s dangerous stuff out there, but not you. Okay? I don’t need to be kept safe from you” (pg. 272).
And now that she’s found the courage to do it, Hannah begins talking back. First to her friends, who are jealous and petty and snooty. To them Hannah proves that she won’t be controlled any longer, not the way Lillian controlled her. And Hannah also speaks to her mother, who’s clung so long to an image of what “perfect Hannah” should be that she doesn’t quite know how to deal with Hannah’s grief and confusion.
“For maybe the first time in my life, she is listening to the words I’m saying and not telling me the words she thinks I should use” (pg.241).
As the different relationships in her life come into sharp relief, Hannah is forced to think about things and people differently. She has to learn (to some degree) who she is now that she’s out of Lillian’s shadow, and how to step out of the mold everyone expects her to fit into. Without a doubt, Hannah was a dynamic, well-rounded character, though her growth isn’t immediately obvious.
Eventually, of course, the serial killer catches up with Hannah and Lillian and Finny. The villain gave the obligatory monologue for the reader’s benefit—to recap important plot points without too much difficulty on the author’s part. But it all comes out right in the end, of course. Everyone safe and sound, happy and well. But Hannah still has to learn to come to terms with Lillian. Who she was, who she is as a ghost, and what their relationship meant.
“The idea that a person can be defined by anything so superficial [as sickness] is terrible. […] The simple version isn’t even recognizable when you hold it up against a living, breathing human being. Her ghost will always be so much less of her than the girl I used to see every day” (pg. 256).
Paper Valentine is a book that really defies categorization. It is its own entity, separate from anything else either the paranormal or mystery genres have to offer. Brenna Yovanoff’s storytelling is unique, her prose is engaging, and the way she treats characterization is uncomplicated and straightforward.
Great YA Thriller
Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanof
Published by Razorbill (Penguin)
On Shelves Now
Reviewed by Middle Sis Jenn
The Sisters Say: Creepy and Thrilling with a touch of sweet romance
This is one of those books where you read it and then wonder, “Why did I wait so long to read this?” I’ve had an eARC of this book since at least November, but I kept putting it off because I just didn’t know how much I would enjoy it. Now that I have read it, I can say without a doubt that Brenna Yovanof knows how to give you that fearful tingle that travels slowly up your spine until you want to run through your house and turn on every light!
The whole serial killer aspect of the story was slow starting—I think it was only mentioned once in the first 30% of the book, but after the murders start escalating, then the book really takes off. Now that doesn’t mean that the first part of the book is boring—I actually really enjoyed it. You get to see inside Hannah’s mind and into her life, and its heartbreaking watching her deal with the ghost of her dead best friend, Lillian. She’s angry at Lillian because she doesn’t understand how Lillian let herself waste away, never fighting the ugly thoughts in her head; and that anger defines Hannah’s current personality. I related to Hannah even though I had never been in that situation because Brenna’s writing just made the strained relationship come to life (in the face of death).
I really enjoyed the thriller aspect of this story, and no matter how hard I tried, I could not figure out the identity of the killer. I think I went through 5 different suspects before the truth was revealed! I never saw that ending coming, and that was what made this so great! I love books where I can’t predict what is going to happen, and unfortunately, predictability seems to be a common problem in the YA genre. I also loved the psychological side of this book. You get Lillian’s inferiority complex and low self-esteem and Hannah’s brokenness and add that to Finny’s (the love interest) danger-seeking, destroy me attitude and there are certain to be fireworks. Plus, you have a serial killer who stages his scenes like something out of a deranged toy store and the creep factor just zooms to new levels.
Perhaps my favorite part of the story was watching Hannah and Finny fall for each other. They are both so broken in their own way, so it’s heart-wrenching to see them cling to each other for support and trust. However, the waves of doubt that seem to ripple through their relationship make them all the more relatable and tender to read about. I loved that Brenna gave us a sweet romance to offset the brutality of the murders and the creepiness of the hauntings.
The only issue I had with it (and this is what makes me go with 4 stars instead of 5) is that there are some plot holes that are left unexplained. For example, Hannah is being haunted by Lillian, the ghost of her best friend. Is this the only paranormal element that exists in her world? Or could there be something else? How the ghosts appear is never explained, and Hannah never even questions the how or why of it. I just find that a bit strange. Furthermore, it never explains why Hannah is the only one who can see the ghosts. I would really have liked to know if it is a power she has or if ghosts can reveal themselves to chosen people or what not. That was never explained and it still leaves me wondering about it now.
Overall, this was a great read and it was definitely something different in the YA genre (at least for me). I have not read many ya thrillers, so the psychological warfare and the murders were new to me. I really did enjoy it, though, and I look forward to more from Brenna and this particular sub-genre in ya.
Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff
After reading that book blurb and looking over that GORGEOUS cover, doesn't it get you super excited to read this gripping thriller of a mystery that's about a killer stalking the streets of Ludlow and there is one girl who is able to fix it all with the help of her ghostly friends and her boyfriend who everyone deems the killer prematurely? Well that's what I wanted too, but not what I got. I was really disappointed.
This book reads more like a contemporary rather than a mystery. I had myself all ready to be kept up late at night due to being scared, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. There were so many things I disliked about the book, its hard to find anything that I DID like.
Starting with the writing, I won't say I disliked it, but I won't say I liked it either. It seemed to read more like a MG novel than a YA novel. But ironically, it was a MG novel that I would actually have enjoyed. While reading it I was able to picture everything that was happening. From the suffocating heat in Ludlow and the quirky, fun pre-teen that Ariel was. Her descriptions are fun and easy to read.
As for the plot, I was a little lost. As I said, I was expecting a full throttle gripping mystery and instead I got a contemporary romance. Then as I was reading, it seemed to just get more and more confusing. I was able to pick out what happened to Lillian, but after that, I found myself only wanting to read it because I wanted to know for sure who the killer was. It just seemed that nothing was happening and the mystery took the back burner to the love interest. Which is the complete opposite of what I was looking for.
What I DID like, was the characters. Finny is a broken boy and we all know I love my broken boys. He's different than the others and has a bad boy image, so naturally he is the one suspected for the murders. But he turns out to be a real softy. He doesn't say too much, but the parts featuring him and Hannah together is definitely swoon worthy. I ended up putting an entire paragraph on Goodreads as a favorite quote because I was like in total awe. And then there was Ariel, my favorite character. She was so sweet and funny and I loved reading about her. The only problem I had was the fact that she is mentioned to be 12 but acted more like she was 6 or 7. She was not portrayed the way 12 year olds in this day and age act. It just felt easier for me to picture her as younger.
All in all, I wasn't too happy about the way the mystery aspect of the book was written, but I was happy with some parts of the book. I'm not going to say I didn't enjoy it because I did, but it just lured me to read it under false pretenses. It really served as an eye opener for me, "Don't judge a book by its cover."