Author: Kirsten Miller
Genre: YA, Thriller, Mystery, Crime
Publication Date: February 21, 2013 (Razorbill/Penguin – North America)
Source: Publisher-provided ARC
Summary: A meth dealer. A prostitute. A serial killer.
Anywhere else, they’d be vermin. At the Mandel Academy, they’re called prodigies. The most exclusive school in New York City has been training young criminals for over a century. Only the most ruthless students are allowed to graduate. The rest disappear.
Flick, a teenage pickpocket, has risen to the top of his class. But then Mandel recruits a fierce new competitor who also happens to be Flick’s old flame. They’ve been told only one of them will make it out of the Mandel Academy. Will they find a way to save each other—or will the school destroy them both?
☆: 4.5/5 stars – an excellent standalone from Miller – definitely her best yet!
Review: Okay, guys. Seriously. This is Miller’s best yet – which is saying a lot. I felt like the second book in the Ourobouros Society duology was a bit of a snore, but man, it feels like she improved in pretty much every area in this book. It’s a little long, but I had a LOT of fun with this. A warning: there’s a lot of satire, snark, gallows humor/dark comedy and not nice fluffy things, so if you’re not quite into that, this may not be the read for you. However, I encourage you to try “How to Lead a Life of Crime” – you may learn something.
I can’t tell if this is a semi-modern retelling of “The Count of Monte Cristo” mixed in with a little of “Peter Pan”, or both, or neither. There’s heavy retelling elements from both books in this one, though for “Monte Cristo”, it may take you a little bit into the novel to really spot them (the “Peter Pan” ones are pretty blatant, but I won’t spoil you with anything further there). Either way, I feel like Miller grew as a writer in almost every way in the technical department. Character building, worldbuilding, sensory imagery, the works. It was a lot clearer this time around, and I genuinely had the most fun with this book out of all of her stuff so far.
I say this often when I talk about worldbuilding and contemporary books – even if it’s contemporary, you need worldbuilding. And I feel like Miller really did a great job here – because she has to melt two worlds (the streets and Mendel Academy) together, but before the melting begins, she has to build both up. And both are built really, really well – we get a lot of sensory details, so much so that in the world of the streets of New York, I felt like I could practically smell everyone that was in Joi’s sanctuary. In terms of Mendel Academy, some of the death scenes were a bit much (even for me, and I’ve got an iron stomach for the most part when it comes to stuff like that) for me, but still, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s hyper-real, almost surreal at parts, especially when Flick and Peter Pan are talking. She builds up everything with grace and detail, and in general, both worlds are very, very polished even on their own (especially on their own), before they collide in the last third of the book.
The characters. Flick, to me, is “book boyfriend” material (even if he’s a bit of an ass and definitely not a nice guy). is impossibly layered, and just when I think he’s going to do something, he does the opposite. I was continually surprised and amazed at what Miller put him (and the rest of her characters) through – and I love that she was totally not afraid to torture and kill her darlings to get that excellent emotional payoff. That’s what makes this book great – the characters. They stand out the most. They never ceased to intrigue me, and that’s always refreshing. Also – look, ma! No love triangle! I was practically dancing in my seat as I read with the lack of love triangle.
Even better? Miller successfully achieves cross-gender narration in her creation of Flick – he sounds like a realistic boy, not like so many of the boys written as main cast characters by women in YA, where they’re too good to be true. I’d say that in this case, all of Flick’s many faults and his candidness about how he feels about pretty much everything is what helps him get across as a real boy.
This book is dark and sardonic, and this brings me to my final area that I loved the most – social commentary. It’s always a risk for any author in any genre to do a social commentary novel, but it’s an especially huge risk in YA due to that whole “moral of the story” thing that so many authors try to stuff in in contemporary books in particular. But that’s not the case here – Miller manages to get across her absolute disgust in how our society has become (bankers making millions off of others’ suffering – I’m looking at you, AIG) without being preachy. At all. If anything, it all left a rather clean taste in my mouth. Which was surprising – because usually, social commentary books with which I agree (ranging from ‘yeah, okay’ to ‘YES THIS IS SO WRONG LET’S FIX ALL THE THINGS!), it leaves a taste of me needing to do something to fix things. But here, there’s a general ennui with all of the shenanigans that have happened since the Great Recession started. And that ennui, that honesty about how tired we’ve all gotten of it and yet can’t really be bothered to do much? That honesty was really, really needed. Especially in YA.
Final verdict? If you’re looking for something new and fun in YA with a bit of bite to it? “How to Lead a Life of Crime” is definitely your book. “How to Lead a Life of Crime” is out from Penguin in North America February 21, 2013, so definitely be sure to check it out then. It’s definitely in good company as one of my best of 2013 so far.