Review: How To Lead a Life of Crime by Kirsten Miller

Rating: **** / 5 out of 5
Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, Crime, Suspense, Thriller
Published February 21, 2013 by Razorbill
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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? 

What takes more guts? To fight for your own life at any cost – or prove that you’re willing to lose it?

A fair bit of warning: this book is NOT for the faint-of-heart. It contains and talks about a lot of stuff, both sensitive and controversial, that will highly likely bother and rattle your squeamish and soft-hearted side. Organized crimes, underground syndicates, briberies, rape, prostitution, suicide, serial killings, secret laboratory stuff that will make you look away in disgust… yup, you name it, and the list goes on and on and on. I don’t even think this book is suitable for those below 15, but if you’re tough and open-minded, then I reckon you can handle it.

How to Lead a Life of Crime is easily one of the most violent, gritty Young Adult books out there. The stuff I previously stated alone is a testament to that; however, despite such a claim, it’s also one of the most refreshing and heart-warming I’ve ever read. It touches upon differing themes: friendship, love, family, and revenge; it pushes you into a variety of emotions you can barely control. You’ll get angry. You’ll get frustrated. You’ll probably root for the main character regardless whether he’s doing the right thing or not. And you’ll also get sad. Very, very sad. It’s a whirlwind of feelings, but I assure you – in the end, it’ll be worth it. So, hang in there!

There are so many things to love in this book, but the factor that I appreciated the most was the main character and the way his personality, his narration and everything about him were written. We’re introduced to Flick, a seventeen year old guy scavenging the streets and trying to survive as a thief. He has a troubled and dark past thanks to his super rich and powerful but also brutal and abusive father, who has beaten him left and right while growing up. Flick believes that in order to get back at this dad, he needs to get stronger first, and thus takes it to the streets. One day, however, another powerful man invites him to this prestigious, well-known Academy, only to find out that it’s a school that makes and breeds criminals.

Flick’s voice grips you from the very first page and doesn’t let you go. He’s amazingly intellectual, cynical, witty, calculating, and masculine, making him such a refreshing person to read. I haven’t had this much fun reading a male character narrate for a long time. It’s pretty obvious that Flick has a lot of conflicted feelings inside him; he’s angry, sad, and frustrated all at the same time, but even with all these feelings bottled up, he keeps up a cool and tough façade, seeing things in a wary and cynical eye. He doesn’t hesitate to throw a sarcastic comment every now and then, and when he’s trying to be funny, he’s really funny. His flaws, reactions, and gestures are very realistic and genuine, making him such a likeable and authentic character.

Sometimes you’ll find yourself questioning his actions. But whether or not he’s doing the right and good thing, you’ll root for him, anyway. He’ll make his struggles your struggles, too. Maybe this is why he became such an effective individual. I couldn’t help but be in his shoes all the way thanks to the convincing narration Miller has written.

Aside from this, I loved how scary social issues were presented here. Now, I don’t think that such an Academy does exist, but organized crimes, syndicates, briberies, murder, suicide, rape… all of these are real in the real world. They do happen out there, somewhere, making this book, for me, scarier than a zombie/vampire novel. Many times the thought of such activities made me want to back away and hurl, but I eventually held my ground, especially since I saw how the characters, in the end, wanted to fight against it. I appreciated the fact that this book made these concerns more accessible to the intended audience, making it not just simply a background, but also a relevant matter that should be given more thought and attention.

Also, this book is like a “you and me against the world” kinda thing. The plot is extremely engaging and compelling. IT IS NOT BORING. It’s like, once you think things are going to cool down, another event happens that will blow your mind away, another twist you just didn’t expect coming appears. It will punch you in the gut, kick you in the chin, crack your ribs wide open. It’s THAT gripping. There is a lot of shock factor given the fact the plot is not without the controversial stuff that were mentioned earlier, so be wary and cautious, but if you’re fine with it, be prepared for a fun ride.

My only problem is the censorship of swears. I don’t understand the need to censor it when in fact the book talks about a lot of scarier stuff that are more sensitive than “fuck”. We’re talking about murder and suicide. If teens can take it, why not that single “f” word, especially since it’s common to the ears nowadays? :/

All in all, How to Lead a Life of Crime finds a spot in my 2013 favorites. The voice, the plot, the overall writing is pitch-perfect, crystal clear, and extremely pleasurable to read. I would love to read it again and again in the future :)

What would it be like to exist in a world without suffering? To have no needs, only desires? To be surrounded by so much beauty that you forget how ugly life is for everyone else? Who wouldn’t want that? Who wouldn’t be willing to fight for it? What the alumni did to get there – lie, cheat, steal, kill – I’m sure they’d all say it was worth it. And I bet they sleep soundly because they know that their nameless, faceless victims would have done the same thing.

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A 21 years old Filipina who loves books, games, languages, and most especially, food. Secretly wishes to be an astronaut so she can explore the stars. Has a love-hate relationship with Philippine politics. To get in her good graces, offer her Foie Gras, Or shrimp. Or a JRPG. A YA sci-fi book works, too. You can follow her on twitter here: @kawaiileena


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  1. says

    I’ve heard the same thing about the swearing censorship. If there’s violence and all that in it, what makes swearing worse? That aside, I still really want to read this book. Great review!

  2. Karen H in NC says

    Finally, a book I might enjoy reading. Even though it is YA, the premise of the story sounds really good. Thanks for your review.