Book Review: Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Published: 5th Oct 2010

Pages: 416

Format: Paperback

Genre: Contemporary

Recommended Reading Age: 14+

Rating: 7/10


 ‘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.’

Hate List both succeeds, and fails, at being the novel I hoped it would be. This isn’t really about a school shooting, or even really about the shooter. Hate List is about the girl in the background – the shooter’s girlfriend, who may, inadvertently, have had more to do with the death of her classmates than she first realises.

I really enjoyed the way in which Brown chooses to tell the reader what happened the day of the shooting. The majority of the book is told in the present tense, from Val’s point of view, as she faces returning to school and seeing everyone whose lives were irreparably altered by her boyfriend’s actions. A lot of the story is Val’s internal monologue which admittedly, does get a little tiring at times, if only because Val’s character is not the easiest to empathise with.

What I loved, and thought worked particularly well, were Val’s flashbacks to the day of the shooting, and the newspaper reports, that were placed intermittently throughout the book. We only discover in fragmented pieces what, exactly, happened that day and Brown allows us to create the full picture for ourselves. The writing in these extracts was understated, conveying a growing sense of dread, as you re-live that last morning minute by minute, and a sense of horror when you learn some of the details of what took place. It is very effective story-telling and it’s a shame the rest of the novel felt a little long-winded in comparison.

The main issue I had with Hate List was that I didn’t like Val very much. I felt sorry for her, but more often than not I felt tired by her. No – she wasn’t to blame for Nick’s actions and yes, she tries to stop him. But, I felt she needed to take responsibility for what she did do. Because, the reality is, that Nick guns down the people she targets. The emails and words exchanged between the two of them about these people are hateful and nasty. I wanted to see her acknowledge that and try to make amends. Mostly, she just hides away. Val lost a lot that day, but she isn’t the only one grieving. Her lack of interest, or care, as to how everyone else is coping made it very difficult to like Val, as too often she comes across as self-absorbed, uncaring and childish.

The strongest aspect of Hate List, is, strangely, Nick, who barely features at all. Brown succeeds in creating a character I actually liked, one who I wanted to know better. She doesn’t paint a monster or even a damaged kid, but a sweet, intelligent, generous boy. If anything, I just felt incredibly saddened by his story, and mourned him just as much as any of the victims. Being able to provoke such a reaction is a testament to Brown, as, in reality, the shooter is rarely considered as a person, someone to mourn. In the horror of what they have done, we forget they are someone’s child too.

Nick is also, interestingly, the weakest aspect of Hate List, because we never learn enough about him. The reasons for his actions, what drives him to one day take a gun to school and kill 6 people, is never fully explained. This is Val’s story, but it felt like there was a vital part missing. I wanted more of Val and Nick’s relationship. I wanted to actually experience those ‘warnings’ that Val feels she should have picked up on, rather than just be told that looking back, she should have seen the changes in him. Val has a difficult time reconciling the Nick she knew and loved, the boy who made her laugh, with the same boy who walked into a cafeteria one day, dragged people out from underneath desks and shot them at point-blank range.

And so do we. Because the only Nick we get a glimpse of, is the Nick of Val’s happier memories. Brown creates an exciting, complex character in Nick but the moments we get with him are few and far between and I was desperate for more insight into his character.  I wanted to know exactly what happened in that last moment together, when Val steps in front of Nick to try to stop him. Does Nick kill himself because he feels betrayed by her? Is he remorseful in that moment? Confused? Did he always plan to die that day? Or does he turn the gun on himself because of what he has done to Val? Realistically, I suppose these are the types of questions the real survivors and victim’s families never find the answers too. In that sense, Hate List portrays a very realistic aftermath of a shooting, but it does make for a rather unsatisfactory reading experience.

This is quite a long book, but it somehow feels as though little is really resolved, while a long time feels spent on Val’s internal panics and complaints. The problems within her family are never properly explored. Val make friends with some of the same people she loathed before, but they never talk about their past relationship, nor does Val apologise or explain why she put them on a hate list. And they never ask. Jeremy’s story line is extremely important – he may, or may not have been, the catalyst that causes Nick to tip over the edge, but he is dropped quite suddenly not half-way through and never mentioned again. This particularly bothered me because Nick wasn’t an outcast, or from a broken home (as far as I could tell). He was badly bullied but he had a support system. So how and why does he sink so suddenly? This is an interesting story to tell and one we never get to read.

But, saying that, it’s important to note this is a good book, despite its potential to be more. There are several, genuinely poignant and breathtakingly sad moments (Nick’s defeated moment in the car will stay with me for a long time) and the bullying and harassment scenes, not to mention the shooting, were incredibly well done and felt very realistic.

Hate List tackles very difficult subjects: bullying, mass shootings, death, grief, guilt, and for the most part, tackles them well. There were parts I disliked and moments that truly gripped me. It’s a mixture of a book – I can’t say I loved it but it is an engaging read and felt all too real at times. There were too many stereotypical characters, such as the random art teacher and the students, but then there was Nick, who had the potential to be a fascinating, complex character, one who could have really broken my heart, had he been allowed to shine. There are a lot of good things about this book, and some very disappointing things as well. Well worth picking up.


5 thoughts on “Book Review: Hate List by Jennifer Brown

  1. I hope you enjoy I Am The Messenger by Markus Zusak! I’m a big, big fan of Zusak and although it’s completely different to The Book Thief, it is equally as good! I recommend it to people all the time 🙂

  2. Hate List
    Jennifer Brown
    This book has taught me a lot about the effect bullying can have and has made me want to be nicer to someone because you don’t know what he or she could be going through.
    I’ve read part of the Hate List before but I didn’t have the chance to finish it. I have spent the last four days reading all 405 pages and I’m really glad I did. I know this book is fiction but I think it has a really good point to it. It reminds me a lot of the Columbine shooting but I like how Valerie lives and goes on to tell the story after the shooting. I found the friendship that formed between Jessica and Valerie interesting after something so tragic happening. I thought it was big of her to want to be friend someone she used to be mean to and that disliked her so much. It took a lot of courage to accomplish the things Valerie had accomplished by going to school everyday and sticking it out even after she was told many times that she was not welcome.
    The hardest thing these kids went through was trying to forgive and move on. It’s hard to move on when you still have to go to the school, sit in the commons, have flashbacks and nightmares about May 2nd. Some lives lost and some changed forever, but they knew they had to move forward and some how find it in their hearts to forgive Valerie knowing that it’s a possibility she had no idea what her boyfriend, Nick, had been planning to do to “win”. “Sometimes we get to win too” was probably my favorite line in the book. I read the line over and over again thinking to myself that I could tell myself that same thing some days.
    I like to read and normally I like to read adventure books instead of something that is sad with a twist to the ending. I didn’t really expect the ending that happened. I had something much different in mind and I wish the author would have gone into more detail and kept the story going. I definitely wanted more when I got to the end of the book but I still liked the book and would definitely recommend it to some of my “darker” friends who like to read tragedies.

  3. My main issue with the book was the language. The way Val talked just bothered me and she just sounded too… preppy, I guess. It didn’t match the tone of the overall story. It was a great story, but the actual language was too much for me. 😦

  4. This book is amazing. I love the set up, it reminded me alot of this book I read once called Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver (you should check it out). But this book had me going through a roller coaster of emotions. I love how in the end the entire story comes together and makes a world of great sense, and how all thourgh out the book Jennifer would switch between past and current like Valerie was having a flash back. I love this book so much it’s going on my top favorites list!!

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