Saturday, February 2, 2013

Book Review: Hate List 
My return to classroom teaching hasn't left me with as much time for pleasure reading as I would like, but once I started reading Hate List by Jennifer Brown, I couldn't put it down.  It was recommended to me by several of my students, all of whom described it as "amazing" and "incredible."  Since many of my students are rather reluctant readers, I just had to see what had gotten them so interested.

Hate List is the story of a school shooting and its aftermath.  The main character, Valerie Leftman, was a social outcast.  She had very few friends, and her parents' constant fighting contributed to her feelings of depression.  Her only real source of comfort was her boyfriend, Nick.  While others described Nick as "depressed" and "obsessed with death," Val saw a different side of him--a kind, caring boy who could always make her laugh.  Together, Val and Nick vent some of their frustrations by creating a "hate list."  The items on the list begin with Valerie's hatred of her parents' fights, but over time, the list grows to include the names of every classmate and teacher that has ever offended or ridiculed them.

Valerie thinks this is harmless, that it's just a form of stress-relief.  But then, Nick takes a gun to school, and his targets are taken directly from the hate list.  Valerie is shocked by his actions, and she actually intervenes by blocking another student--which leads to Nick killing himself.

In the aftermath, Valerie is left with hundreds of unanswerable questions.  Is she a villain, for creating the hate list with Nick?  Or is she a hero, for helping to stop the shooting?  How was it possible that she didn't see any warning signs from Nick?  Is she at fault because she should have "seen it coming"?  Can she ever return to her school or a normal life?  Did the kids who were shot "deserve" it, or had she and Nick misjudged them all along?  How can either side even begin to forgive?

Jennifer Brown tells Val's story by alternating between past and present, with Val's return to school intermingled with her memories of both the shooting itself and the bullying that she endured before it.  Val's emotional narrative is mixed with more "factual" newspaper clippings about the shootings.  While Hate List is a lengthy book (405 pages in paperback), it was a quick read--probably because I couldn't put it down!

While I really enjoyed this book, I wasn't totally satisfied by it.  I really wanted to sympathize with Val after all that she had been through, but her anger made her difficult to love.  Because I was seeing the story through Val's eyes, I just couldn't understand what caused Nick to make such a terrible, destructive decision.  I wanted there to be a neat, tidy "why" to the story (and thought that the logical path for this to take was a deeper investigation into Nick's friend Jeremy).... but as is the case in real life, there was no simple answer.

In both subject matter and approach, I found this book to be very similar to Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes.  The most significant difference is that Nineteen Minutes also examines the lives of the adults in the community, while Hate List falls squarely into the category of young adult.  Both were heartrending reads.

If you'd like more information on Hate List, you can find an excellent review at Turn the Page.

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