Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Book Report: How to Lead a Life of Crime

How to Lead a Life of Crime

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like, wow. I'm not much a "true crime" reader, but I do have a bit of a thing for secret schools and societies, so reviews of this book hooked me. And I'm so glad they did.

The deal: our narrator, Flick, seems awfully young to be so hardened by life, but this is a book where we see on many levels how awful life can be to even the very young. That's right: life-suckieness does not discriminate here.

It just so happens that hardened youth such as Flick are exactly what the prestigious Mandel Academy is looking for. This elite New York preparatory school has a reputation for turning hopeless lives around... but not by any of the educational means you're most likely familiar with.

Some things about Flick's very troubled past we learn right away; he tells us. Other facts are skillfully and gradually teased out through his interactions with the novel's other characters (all fascinating and meaty... Bravo, Kristin Miller!) Most of these characters are living, but we also get to know Flick through his interactions with the apparition of his dead younger brother, Jude, who comes in and out of Flick's alone time dressed in full Peter Pan regalia. I know: but it so works.

Flick's been living on the streets of New York by choice. He's an excellent pick-pocket and one heck of a thug. But underneath the tough exterior, he also has a tender relationship smoldering with Joi, a young woman who runs a make shift orphanage for runaways in an abandoned building on the Lower East Side. Flick's criminal activities and severed family ties attract the attention of the Mandel Academy's headmaster, Lucian Mandel. He offers Flick a place at the school, but, more importantly, he offers Flick the chance to avenge Jude's death. Flick convinces himself that revenge is the only thing that matters to him, and so he accepts. Fortunately for us readers, Flick has only an inkling of what he's getting himself into. And when Joi gets pulled into the hornet's nest as well, Flick discovers that he does care about something else other than revenge.

What lengths is Flick willing to go to for what matters most to him? What will or won't he do in order to survive Mandel? That question is at the heart of both the narrative and the themes of this page-turning novel. So good!

I see that other reviewers have pointed out the violence. Yes: the explicit is shocking, and the implicit is haunting. That said, I don't think that any of the violence was unnecessary or unexpected; I think it was artfully woven in and always within character. (Is it so wrong that I was appalled and delighted by the way in which a certain character's head is dispatched from his body?) Plus, this book is never anything but up-front about what's contained in its pages: "A meth dealer. A prostitute. A serial killer.... Anywhere else, they’d be vermin. At the Mandel Academy, they’re called prodigies." You get the picture.

As a librarian, I would for sure steer this into the hands of my older high-school readers. It's just not the right book for a younger crowd, not just because of the violence, but for the complex themes and questions this book grapples with as well.

All in all, this book is awesome. I've never read Miller's Kiki Strike series, but now I certainly will.

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