Thursday, May 28, 2015

Book Review: Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Release date: September 1, 2009
Info about the author: Goodreads - Twitter - Website
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Age group: YA
Pages: 405
Buy the book: Amazon - Book Depository

Description (from Goodreads):

Five months ago, Valerie Leftman's boyfriend, Nick, opened fire on their school cafeteria. Shot trying to stop him, Valerie inadvertently saved the life of a classmate, but was implicated in the shootings because of the list she helped create. A list of people and things she and Nick hated. The list he used to pick his targets.

Now, after a summer of seclusion, Val is forced to confront her guilt as she returns to school to complete her senior year. Haunted by the memory of the boyfriend she still loves and navigating rocky relationships with her family, former friends and the girl whose life she saved, Val must come to grips with the tragedy that took place and her role in it, in order to make amends and move on with her life.

Okay. I have something pretty embarrassing to tell you. I've had this book for like the past 3 years and I have attempted to read it several times. Every time I have picked this one up, I have changed my mind after reading the first page. Why? you might ask. 


So yeah, a one little Nickelback quote has kept me away from this book for years. Finally, I decided that the only way to go with this was to cover that horrible quote, let the book be for a while and then try again. And hey, it finally worked. I read it and I loved it. Damn you, my hatred for Nickelback, for keeping me away from this book for so long. 

School shootings are something that have interested me for a while now and I have read books and watched documentaries from such instances. Arguably the most known shooting is the one that took place in Columbine and often it is seen as the one that started all the other school shootings. Though school shootings had unfortunately taken place before that too, Columbine really is the first such instance that was covered by media with such detail. I did a course on media events in university last year and ended up focusing on my presentation on a school shooting that took place in Seattle in fall of 2014 - I compared that footage to the one of Columbine and quickly realized that school shootings have become so common that the amount of coverage the media contributes to them has diminished. 

Jennifer Brown's debut novel Hate List includes a school shooting, but rather than focusing on the shooting and the shooter, it focuses on a girl, Valerie, who finds herself from the center of it all. As a girlfriend of the shooter and as a contributor to the infamous hate list (a list of people from the school Valerie and Nick hate), Valerie is treated both as a suspect and a hero - while she saves someones life and stops the shooting, she is seen by some as the one who made Nick do it or at least played some sort of role in the planning of the shooting. 

Valerie is an interesting character because though she is not the one who opened fire, she is not completely innocent either. While being afraid that Nick is going to leave her, Valerie fed into Nick's hatred for their classmates. Though Valerie NEVER wanted to hurt anyone and never imagined that Nick would go as as far as he did, a part of her feels guilty for being part of what happened inside the Commons of the school. 

After the shooting, Valerie has spent months inside, only going out for the meetings with her therapist. But as the school starts again in the fall, months after the shooting, she is sent back to the very place the event that changed her life took place. While she was bullied when Nick was still around, she at least had a small group of friends for support. Now, she is a pariah, seen by the majority as almost guilty as Nick. But there are a those who want Valerie around, mainly Jessica, the popular girl who tormented Valerie for years - the girl that Valerie saved. 

It is easy to categorize Hate List as a book about school shooting, but as the author mentions in the author's note, the book really is more about Valerie. It is about a girl that is faced with a situation not many of us can relate with, fortunately. A girl that is trying to figure herself out in an environment that is hostile towards her - the school, and more importantly, her family. While her mother keeps close tabs on her, not because she is worried that something will happen to her, but mostly because she is worried that Valerie will hurt someone else, her father is distant and blames Valerie for what has happened. The family that was broken already before the shooting took place was forcefully put back together and the strains of the fighting have a role in Valerie's recovery.

What I liked about Brown's characterization of Nick is the fact that she does not directly make him a villain. Yes, what Nick did was horrible and something so wrong that you cannot really describe it with words. Yet, at the same time Brown shows a more human side to Nick - a boy that loves Shakespeare and just tries to go on in an environment in which he is constantly bullied and diminished. The way Brown describes the feelings Valerie has for Nick is done with honesty and bravery - how can Valerie go on when she is mourning for her boyfriend, the guy she loved? And what is she supposed to feel when she knows that the one she loved was also the one who caused so much terror.

Hate List consists of narrative focusing on the "present day" (Valerie's return to school), newspaper articles that focus on the shooting from the point of view of the media and from flashbacks to the events of the shooting and the relationship of Valerie and Nick before the shooting. I found the newspaper sections interesting because they really bring into the focus media's role in such situations and how often what is happening within the community isn't the same as what the newspapers are reporting. 

Brown writes well and Hate List definitely made me want to go and pick up more of her novels. In Hate List Brown creates a good balance between focusing on the shooting and focusing on the life after. Valerie is at the center of everything, and as you read on, you get to know her more and more. The consequences of bullying are seen in Hate List in very extreme light, which really works as an eyeopener. Is Nick a villain or a victim? That is a judgement we all have to make on our own.

For those interested to read/learn more about school shootings, I want to recommend Michael Moore's documentary Bowling for Columbine and Dave Cullen's harrowing Columbine (my 5 star review for Columbine can be found from here). 


  1. Isn't it funny what will keep us from reading a book? I was always drawn to the synopsis of Hate List, but I don't think that I ever added it to my TBR officially. It is good to know that there are other possibly better alternatives on the subject. Off to check out your review for Columbine.

    1. I am kind of ashamed to say how much that Nickelback quotation prejudiced me. My hatred for that band kind of made me question the whole book - could I like a book that starts with a quotation that I just despise. I am happy I got over that though, because the book itself was very good.
      Columbine is a very fact-packed, detailed analysis of the actual shooting - definitely better as a book than this one, but if you are not a big fan of non-fiction, then maybe not for you.

      Thanks for stopping by Suzi :)


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