"How to Lead a Life of Crime" by Kirsten Miller is that rare book that one wants to recommend to everyone. At first glance, it doesn't seem like a book that everyone would want to read. It's about the Mandel Academy, a school for thieves -- and it's based on a real-life school, the Grant Street School, that allegedly trained pickpockets and other criminals in the late 1800's.
But Kirsten Miller takes the basic concept and elevates it to a level that makes it not only a thrilling book about two particular teens who end up at the school, but also a telling commentary on our society. Readers will find themselves nodding when they read about the complete lack of morality in much of the business world.
Why steal from individuals when you can become a banker and steal from millions of people? That would be covered in a class called "Mining the Masses: Big Profits from Little People." Want to know how to make money from starting a black market in a refugee camp and selling antibiotics at ten times what they'd charge at a local drugstore? That's included in the course "International Politics."
Flick is the main character, and the story is told in first person narrative. He's the son of an extremely wealthy and very abusive man. The reader learns that it's easier to be an abusive parent when you are rich and able to bribe those who would immediately report less wealthy abusive parents.
Flick's younger brother, Jude, is the favorite. Although Flick's mother tries to escape her cruel husband with her two sons, they are always discovered and brought back to the family mansion to endure more abuse (the mother and Flick, not Jude). However, after Flick runs away, Jude finds out about his father's criminal activity (the father was a graduate of the Mandel school), confronts him and ends up dead.
Flick is determined to get revenge on the father he hates not only for what he did to Flick, but for the death of his much-loved brother -- the brother who constantly tried to deflect his father's attention from Flick in order to lessen the abuse.
Flick's childhood and his relationship with his father is told in flashbacks throughout the book. His relationship with his brother is more complicated. The deceased Jude, dressed as Peter Pan (a costume he actually wore and loved), appears to Flick in the story, giving him advice.
What makes the story gripping, and very, very difficult to put down, is what happens to Flick at the school. The goal of the school is to turn out successful graduate criminals -- psychopaths and sociopaths -- and those are the students with whom Flick must live, study and ultimately compete. Only nine of every eighteen students admitted will graduate.
The book gets even more interesting when Joi (pronounced "Joey") joins the Academy. She was Flick's girlfriend before he entered the school. She was an accomplished shoplifter who took food and other essentials (always leaving a "donation" receipt) so that she could care for orphans and other street children who would have starved to death without her. Hardly the sociopath type.
This book would be a great choice for a high school English class or book group. It's also a book that could easily cross over into the social sciences and current events with discussion of courses like "Waste Management: Polluting for Profit" and "Hidden Treasures: Finding and Controlling the World's Natural Resources."
Brilliant book; well-drawn, realistic (mostly), likable characters; plot with suitable twists at the end; must-read. I only wish I could give it more than five stars.
Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Razorbill, for review purposes.
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