Sunday, June 30, 2013

Book Review: How to Lead a Life of Crime, by Kirsten Miller

Title: How to Lead a Life of Crime
Author: Kirsten Miller
Publisher: Razorbill
Publication Date: February 2013
Read: June 2013
Where It Came From: Library
Genre: YA-thriller-ish?
Rating: 3.5 Peter Pan Hats

The Quick and Dirty:

Flick, a teenage pickpocket, leaves the streets of NYC to attend a prestigious academy-- the Mandel Academy exists ostensibly to give not-well-off kids a leg up in the world, but in reality to train the next generation of powerful criminals. Flick agrees to attend in exchange for an opportunity to exact revenge on his father, whom he suspects of murdering his younger brother. As he rises up through the ranks, will he be able to achieve his goal, or will he lose sight of who he truly is? And when the girl he left behind to attend the academy shows up as a fellow student and his best competition, things only get more complicated. Fun and enjoyable, but also very violent, very long, and the protag’s self-loathing became grating at times.

The Wordy Version:

When I began reading this book, I remember thinking about how the jacket copy didn’t really seem to capture what was going on in the book—I mean, it did in a very basic sense, but somehow missed the feel (and the whole middle section) of the book. And now when I just typed up the Quick and Dirty, I can feel those jacket-copy-writers’ pain. This is a hard book to blurb, and that’s the best I was able to do. Also, let’s take a moment to appreciate the awesome cover art. ((moment)) Isn’t it cool?

As an added fun fact, I started reading this book when I was sitting in a Police Office one day (fingerprint cards stuff, not law-trouble stuff). It wasn’t until later that I realized reading a book called How To Lead a Life of Crime in the presence of the police might not have been the best idea I’ve ever had. Hah.

Anyway! I returned this book about a week ago and it’s already starting to become fuzzy in my mind, so we’ll see what I can do here. Overall, I enjoyed this book. I enjoyed it quite a bit, in fact! I liked the gritty atmosphere, and the characters were really well done. Flick, the protagonist, had a distinct, sassy voice, and it was fun to read his snarky perspective. (There was some weirdness with changing verb tenses, though—like for awhile it was like Flick was talking about things that happened in the past, and then switched to telling it like it was happening in present tense, and I just didn’t follow.) For most of the other characters, there was always more to them than what was on the surface. It would’ve been easy for some of these other criminals-in-training (especially the legitimately psychotic ones) to become two-dimensional, but Flick, and thus we the readers, eventually perceived the layers and were able to see them as actual people, complete with pasts and regrets and different motives and all sorts of complicated people-stuff.

Now would be a good time to mention that this is also a very violent book. And even when it’s not being violent, per se, it is very graphic. There were some scenes that actually made me feel a little nauseated. I’m not saying this is a good or bad thing—that’s completely subjective to the reader. I personally thought it fit with what the book was about and what was going on, but that didn’t make it any easier to read some of those scenes.

This book was also very long. It clocked in at 434 pages (which I consider to be long for a YA book. Am I crazy? Is this the new normal for YA?), and while some long books just drag you right on through and you don’t even realize how long it was until after you are done, this one felt long while I was reading it. I even took a break for a while and read a couple other books before finishing this one. I’ve been trying to pinpoint what exactly made it feel long to me, since I was actually enjoying the book when I decided to take the break, but I’ve not had much success. I think part of what made it feel long was that the blurb (damn the blurb!!) made it seem like Joi (the girl from Flick’s past) shows up at the Academy early on, when really that happened closer to the end of the book. And I kept waiting and waiting for that to happen, and the whole time Flick goes through changes with regards to his goals. Like, he’s at the school, and hopes to accomplish A. Then he learns something about the school, and decides to go for goal B instead. And then when it looks like that won’t be happening, he settles on goal C as something new to strive for. Which was fine—goal-changing for him was good and made sense as he learned new things about the school and the situation he was in, but the fact that the poor guy was working hard and not making much headway made reading feel long. Yeah, maybe that was it.

As much as I liked Flick and his voice, at times his level of self-loathing really got to me—him thinking about how he’d failed at various things, how he didn’t deserve anything good, etc. On the one hand, yeah, I could see how he came around to that way of thinking, but on the other, I just wanted to shake him and say dude, lay off yourself!!! Joi, now, Joi was well-adjusted and a pretty kick-ass lady. I would want to be friends with her. And she was good for Flick, to help him get his head on straight.

There were also some really touching and poignant moments interspersed throughout the violence, hopeless situations, and Flick-snark. I think I even teared up during one particular scene at the end of the book, when Flick finally lets go of his dead-too-young brother.

One more note—I think it’s fun when conspiracy-related books act like everything that happens in them is real—you know, the ones that have the foreword or epilogue telling you that everything you read is true, and that all the evidence disappeared mysteriously, and things like that. It’s very meta and fun and immersive and I think it can be very cool. That was done with this book, too—at the end is some extra material that a reporter (wink wink) compiled about the school and its students before he disappeared. Kind of interactive and pulling the reader into the reality of the story. And that was fun.

Overall, I liked this book. Snarky narrators are some of my faves, even more so with a little badassery thrown in. Some likable protagonists, some detestable-yet-complex villains, and some poignant moments to add depth and grey to a story that could’ve easily wandered into black-and-white territory. Length that got a little draggy and occasional frustration with the main character were minor ticks against it, but in my estimation it remained a pretty good read.

Edit: It wasn’t until after I’d read for a bit that I realized this book is by the same person who wrote the Kiki Strike books! I remember reading the first one some years ago and enjoying it—there are some similar undercurrents in those books (at least the one I read) and this one, I believe. Gritty NYC and conspiracies!

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