Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Review: How to Lead a Life of Crime


How to Lead a Life of CrimeAuthor: Kirsten Miller
Release date: February 21st 2013
Publisher: Razorbill
Hardcover, 434 pages
Buy: The Book Depository

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?

First, a quick note: How to Lead a Life of Crime is among the most violent young adult novels I’ve ever read. If you enjoyed I Hunt Killers, for example, you’re likely to enjoy this too, but if the thought of YA books that contain murder, corporate crime, illegal drug trials, teenage prostitution, implied rape and even a severed head bothers you, then this is not a book for you.

Flick’s is one of the clearest voices I’ve come across in YA. He grabs your attention right from the first page and he never lets go. He is instantly likeable, despite being a small-time thief. Flick cares about two things in life: avenging his younger brother (which entails destroying their father, the murderer) and Joi, a girl he met on the streets. Because he loves Joi, he considers her his great weakness and knows he’ll have to abandon her as soon as he’s strong enough to confront his father. Flick is not your typical street kid; his family is obscenely rich, but Flick sees surviving on the streets as a way to toughen up enough to face the man who abused him all his life.

I never set out to be a thief. I suppose I once had something grander in mind. But when you live on the streets, you find out that your career options are limited. You can be one of the kids who disappear with the strangers who cruise through every night. You can sell the stuff that helps those kids forget what they’ve seen. Or you can be a thief. If those choices don’t suit you, you can always be dead.

Once Flick agrees to go to Mandel Academy, hoping to find evidence against his father, it’s nothing at all like he expected. The school is full of kids with colorful pasts and nowhere else to go. Some of them are hackers, some skilled thieves, some are drug dealers and prostitutes and some are even serial killers. Most of them aren’t poor misunderstood individuals, no matter what we’d like to believe. They are cruel, they’re vicious and they’d do anything to survive. Mandel Academy breeds psychopaths and sociopaths and prepares them to be world leaders.

In the second part of How to Lead a Life of Crime, Miller strayed into more implausible territory, and the further she took things, the less enthusiastic I became. The plot suddenly became too big, far too over the top and while it was still bloody and wildly interesting, it paled in comparison to the realistic grittiness of the first half. Some of Flick’s outrageous confidence was also lost somewhere along the line, which meant that he wasn’t nearly as funny (or as endearing) as he was at the beginning.

If there’s one thing in this book I truly object to, it’s the censorship of swear words spoken by the characters, and somehow I don’t think it was the author’s choice. I am firmly against using asterisks or anything similar in their place. That’s not to say that I advocate excessive profanity in YA, but there are times when it’s expected. In this book, all the teens come straight from the streets. They are ex drug dealers, thieves and prostitutes. They will use swear words on occasion or they wouldn’t be very realistic, would they? What are we protecting our teens from, exactly? And can we really write something they haven’t already seen? If we replace every F-bomb with f---, what message are we sending, especially in this context? That severed heads are fine, but the word fuck isn’t?! I think that’s ridiculous and maybe a little bit sad.

I’d have preferred it if this book remained as realistic and unsettling as it was in those first two hundred pages, but even with the turn it took later, it was a read I won’t easily forget.


28 comments:

  1. I don't usually mind violent YA novels and I think if it wasn't your review alone I wouldn't have considered giving How to Lead a Life of Crime a try. But the way you described the way the second half changes, has me thinking that I could probably put off reading this book a little while longer. And I get what you mean about using swear words, I read a book recently and the mc was a tough mc and all she did was swear and the author didn't censor anything at all, as you expected these phrases to be thrown about, so I think that I would be bummed about the censoring of swear words too, especially with where these kids are expected to come from :(

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  2. Your first two paragraphs had me really wanting to read this but then when you mentioned about the second half and your issues with it, I felt a little cautious. Still, it seems like you enjoyed most of it so I think I might still try to pick this up some day. And yeah, I agree with you about the swearing. Ironic how they could describe a very detailed gruesome things but can't even fully put the word "fuck". Thanks for the honest review, Maja! :)

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  3. There has been so many positive reviews for this book and I'm waiting to get a hold of it from my library. I hadn't heard much about the direction which the second half of the book takes, so thanks for letting us know. I do like the sound of the main character though. It's too bad about them censoring the swear words though. Like Eunice above said, it's ironic that couldn't put the word!
    Lovely review, Maja!

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  4. Humm, that is a little odd that they would censor the swear words but not any of the violence. That doesn't make sense to me at all and I'm pretty sure that would bug me, too. Despite the second half not being as realistic and gritty as the first, I am still definitely intrigued by the premise of this one. And I'm okay with violence so I don't think I would have a problem with that. Flick (or at least first-half-Flick) sounds great! I'm thinking I need to read this one - it doesn't sound perfect, but it does sound unlike any YA story out there right now, and I dig that. This review was very helpful, thank you!!

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  5. I haven't read I Hunt Killers nor this one but...when I think about it I haven't read some violent YA book. Hm...I must change that. I see that you enjoyed this one. I hope I'll get some time to read it :) Great review Maja.

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  6. I, too, find it very strange that given the book's high violence quota that there isn't any language. I don't get that at all. Books like this make me wonder if there's a quota for YA books- a certain percentage about sex, violence, drug/alcohol use, etc. I still don't understand why an excess of violence is still ok but not a tame sex dialogue or scene isn't. Still mixed about picking this one up. I did like sound of the realistic first half but then the exaggeration in the last half isn't all that appealing to me. I'll stick this one in my maybe pile.

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  7. Fantastic review, Maja. It sounds cleverly done, but thanks for the warning about the violence because I've gone off violent books. I think there was a month where one after the other of the books I picked up was gore upon gore, and my stomach was churning with it all, lol.

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  8. You know I think your review is the first one I have read that contains a warning about the violence, which I really appreciate! I am still going to read this because I have heard nothing but great reviews about it but at least now going into it I sort of know what to expect and won't be too shocked about the violence aspect of it.

    Awesome review!

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  9. "The plot suddenly became too big, far too over the top and while it was still bloody and wildly interesting, it paled in comparison to the realistic grittiness of the first half."

    I like the sound of this book simply because I tend to gravitate toward dark and gritty, but when things escalate from pleasantly unbelievable to over the top, I tend to lose interest as well. The censorship of the word "fuck" seems downright silly given the violence already present in the book, so I don't quite understand that. Kids swear. As long as it's not every word out of there mouths, I don't understand writing f--- at all.

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  10. This sounds like very interesting read Maja, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm not sure if I would, I have a trouble with ya books that are not really ya. And such a stupid choice with word censorship. I've never encountered that before in book. Weird.

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  11. I completely agree with what you mean about swear words. Especially in a book that incorporates so much violence it almost seems silly to bleep out words. But my guess is that's not the authors choice but the publishers have to understand how odd that makes the book seem. Severed heads are okay but don't say fuck! lol That's really quite humorous. Still very interested in reading this one, I've heard Kristen Miller is an author not to pass up reading. Great review!

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  12. The more I read about this book, the more it fascinates me. I'm a little wary about all the violence, however, I'm intrigued by Flik's voice and the idea of the story. I'm also quite curious about where the author takes it, though I wish the second half had been better for you. I'm always confused by writer's choices - or publishers - when some aspects of the book are pushed (like the violence) and others are held back (the language). I'd much rather it be all or nothing, otherwise it affects the authenticity of the story. Another great review.

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  13. I first saw this on Alice Marvels and I can't say I would pick it up on my own, but after reading both reviews I am very curious. It is definitely way out of the ordinary in YA. I so agree about the striking out of letters in swear words. As if your brain doesn't already fill in the gaps. Seriously, what is the point?

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  14. I've been interested in this book since I read the blurb. It seems so different and interesting. The first half of the review lived up to my expectations ... and then the turn and the censorship. I agree that it's probably not something the author decided on, but with such a violent book ... how does the cursing tip it into "inappropriate"? I cant stand that. If you write "sh*t" -- then it's the same thing as "shit" in my opinion, because your mind is going to fill in the blank. Same with replacing fuck with something like "frickin" or whatever lesser word....

    You make a lot of great points in this review. The censorship thing still bothers me, but I think I'll pick up the book and read it anyway. Great review!

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  15. I don't mind dark reads at all, even when in YA, so the premise really grabs me. However, I do hate hearing that second half just didn't really work as realistically has the first half. And really? They cross out the cuss words? If you're doing to have a dark book, you gotta keep the cussing! Even less dark YA has actual cuss words.

    -Lauren

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  16. For the first half of your review you had me really wanting to read this book, but then it sounds like the author kind of lost her way with the changes in Flick's character and the plot becoming kind of unbelievable. The censoring of the swear words would have annoyed me and I think maybe interrupted my reading a bit. So, I don't think I'll be picking this one up unfortunately. Awesome review Maja :)

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  17. Wow, I didn't give this one too much thought, but it sounds really good. As someone who loved I Hunt Killers, I'm very curious to pick this one up, despite the evident qualm you had with it. I have a feeling that censorship would grate on me as well, but I'm contemplating reading this regardless. Lovely review, Maja!(:

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  18. I agree about the swearing, my feeling is if the character as portrayed should say it, then they should. Kids on the street are going to have fouls mouths. I enjoyed I Hunt Killers and think I would indeed like this well at least the first half..LOL

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  19. Now this is a book I would have passed up, but with all the reviews, I'm so changing my mind. I'm so curious now. As with the swearing... I think that censoring it just brings it to more attention especially by teens. I agree, who are they protecting. You need to learn how to swear? Goto a middle school and visit for a while. LOL

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  20. I think the violence would get to me but I do love Kirsten Miller. I love your point about the cursing. Like they don't already know what it means, it just seems pointless to blank it out. And like you said, it's more realistic in this book cause these are rough kids from the street, obviously they'll be cussing. I'm glad this was a good read for you, I haven't decided yet if I'll give it a try or not.

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  21. Wow. Great review. I'm not sure if I'm big on huge violence in YA books. But this does sound amazing for me too. Thank you greatly for sharing about this one.

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  22. I don't mind violence (or swearing!) so this book sounds rocking to me-- but why would they censor the swearing? That doesn't even make sense, seriously. I'm offended by that-- and I AM a teen. O.O

    But other than that, I think that this could be a read that could rock my world. I love that quote, LOL! Flick sounds like a good character, and I'd like to see how all of this turns out! I'm not so sure about over-the-top plots, though. Fab review, Maja! (:

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  23. Severed heads? I'm in! Seriously, when I first saw this book as an ARC, I totally passed on it think it was something way different. I kicked myself hard once I took the time to find out what it was REALLY about. Now I have to wait and fit it in when I can. I'm pretty confident I'll like this book a lot. Love the review!

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  24. I'm surprised to hear that the swear words were censored like that. My last read wasn't nearly as violent as this one sounds, yet it had no problems with profanity. Anyway, this sounds pretty good overall, even though the second half wasn't quite as strong as the first. I hadn't even considered reading it until recently, but all these positive reviews have changed my mind. Great review, Maja! :)

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  25. So glad you read this, Maja! I agree, this book is unforgettable, however flawed and violent and gritty it may be. It definitely pushes the boundaries of my experience of YA fiction, much like I Hunt Killers and the Gone books.

    The castrated curse words really annoyed me. "If we replace every F-bomb with f---, what message are we sending, especially in this context? That severed heads are fine, but the word fuck isn’t?! I think that’s ridiculous and maybe a little bit sad." <----YES! Amen. The publisher is definitely to blame for this decision. I also read on Kirsten's site that the finished printed copies had been compromised! Apparently somewhere in the publishing process at Penguin someone went in and rewrote the class titles, making them less offensive. I hoped the f--- was part of that, but apparently not. It's a shame censorship had to distract from the story. It definitely pulled me out of the moment more than once.

    Thanks for this wonderful, insightful review! :-)

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  26. Okay, okay, you talked me into it. I can't resist any longer -- I want to read this book NOW!! Though, I have to agree about the censorship of curse words. Either take them out altogether (though that's not really very realistic in YA...for the most part) or got for it. No asterisks or whatever. Just...no.

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  27. I don't know if I would enjoy this not because of the gruesome nature but more because of the type of school it is. Trying to hone skills such as being a prostitute, thief or serial killer is not the type of education I want to read about. It's one thing to train to be an assassin against evil (like Dark Triumph) but this sounds entirely different. Wonderful review Maja.

    I use symbols to censor the F word in my reviews so I don't offend others. But I don't mind reading it or seeing it myself (or saying it on occasion! Lol!). This is actually one of the reasons I was worried about Amazon buying Goodreads. I have to go through and disguise curse words in my Amazon reviews so they'll publish. I hope they don't start with the same thing on Goodreads. :/

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  28. I was really excited about reading this, but the idea of violence and then language censorship will be one which would make me angry when reading I think. I think swearing is definitely realistic in some books and I am not personally offended by it. It's interesting that the author has used violence but not swearing.

    Fab review in any case Maja. :)

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