by Kirsten Miller
To be published by Razorbill
on February 21, 2013
Source: eARC from the publisher via Netgalley. My FTC disclosure is in the right sidebar.
Connect with the author: Blog | Twitter | Facebook
Summary (adapted from Goodreads):My take: I loved The Eternal Ones and All You Desire, Kirsten Miller's prior two YA books. They were the complicated story of a pair of lovers who have been united, repeatedly torn apart by death, then reincarnated. The story went from Tennessee to Manhattan to Italy, spanning continents and centuries.
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?
After reading How To Lead a Life of Crime, I've decided that Kirsten Miller's work definitely has some common characteristics. There are usually multi-faceted plots, scheming villains, and colorful settings. There are themes of revenge, of lovers separated and love tested, of trust and betrayal.
How To Lead A Life of Crime also incorporated a bunch of literary references. The books starts with a Dickensian feel, following petty criminal Flick as he pickpockets his way across the Lower East Side. He's in love with Joie, a sort of Robin Hood meets Wendy Darling character who mothers a group of urchins, shoplifting new shoes and birthday presents for them and leaving a note of thanks. Peter Pan references are a big part of this book -- Flick tells Joie's crew that Neverland is actually the afterlife and is followed around by his dead brother Jude, whose favorite book was Peter Pan. One of Joie's boys is named Dartagnan, a likely reference to the Three Musketeers and their "all for one, one for all" motto.
I really liked the opening chapters of How To Lead a Life of Crime. I was not as happy when the plot left the Lower East Side and shifted to the Mandel School. The school recruits Flick, telling him that they teach petty criminals to think bigger -- helping them transition from petit larceny to crime on a more massive and lucrative scale. Lucian Mandel, son of the school's founder, is finally able to lure Flick away from Joie and her merry gang by promising Flick something he really wants -- proof that Flick's father was responsible for his brother Jude's death. Shades of Kiki Strike and her ring!
At that point, How To Lead a Life of Crime began to seem like a revenge tale -- something on the lines of another work by Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo. I love books with revenge themes, so I was all on board with this plan. But first Flick has to get settled at the Mandel school, having a tracking chip implanted, then learning about the school's complicated student ranking system. At this point, the Mandel School didn't really make much that sense to me and my interest started to fade. But about two-thirds of the way into the book, the real purpose of the school was revealed and the book's opening began to have significance.
How To Lead a Life of Crime is a dark and complicated book, featuring homicide, suicide, filicide, mariticide, and medicide. (Yes, I had to look up most of those.) The plot even seemed to be lurching toward cannibalism, but I closed my eyes until that part was over. Let's just say that Lucian Mandel is kind of a cross between Gregor Mendel and Josef Mengele and that the book raises a lot of interesting questions about whether criminals and the criminally insane are made or born, and about the nature of evil. Flick and Joie are fascinating characters, and I loved the relationship between the two of them. Not all the characters were as three-dimensional, but I also thought that Flick's father was very nicely drawn.
Random side note: my regular blog readers know about my interest in the way profanity is (or is not) expressed in YA, so I will report that How To Lead A Life of Crime featured a technique I hadn't seen before -- the bleep. As in f---. I'm not sure how I feel about that. Since these characters curse a lot, I guess it was necessary.
Kirsten Miller is definitely not a writer in the "less is more" camp. How To Lead a Life of Crime had a lot of plot and a lot of characters and a lot of ideas. If you're a fan of books with big, sprawling plots, wrenching moral dilemmas, and truly twisted villains, you should definitely give How To Lead a Life of Crime a try. If you prefer your books with a little less depravity and a little more swoon, try The Eternal Ones. I really enjoy her work!