Review: Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy


May 6, 2013 by Heidi

Criminal by Terra Elan McVoyTitle: Criminal [Goodreads]
Author: Terra Elan McVoy [Website|Twitter|Facebook]
Standing: Stand alone.
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Published: May 7th, 2013 by Simon Pulse
Format: Hardcover; 288 pages
Source: ARC from publisher via Edelweiss. 

Nikki’s life is far from perfect, but at least she has Dee. Her friends tell her that Dee is no good, but Nikki can’t imagine herself without him. He’s hot, he’s dangerous, he has her initials tattooed over his heart, and she loves him more than anything. There’s nothing Nikki wouldn’t do for Dee. Absolutely nothing.

So when Dee pulls Nikki into a crime—a crime that ends in murder—Nikki tells herself that it’s all for true love. Nothing can break them apart. Not the police. Not the arrest that lands Nikki in jail. Not even the investigators who want her to testify against him.

But what if Dee had motives that Nikki knew nothing about? Nikki’s love for Dee is supposed to be unconditional…but even true love has a limit. And Nikki just might have reached hers.

I knew the moment that I saw the striking (and utterly perfect) cover of Criminal that it was Terra Elan McVoy, but that it was a very different type of Terra Elan McVoy than readers had ever encountered before.  Here, we are not neatly sequestered behind the walls of high school, but very much in the real world.  Nikki is a drop out, but one of necessity.  She’s never met her father, her step-father’s in jail, and rather than take care of her daughter Nikki’s drug-binging mother only desires to whore her kid out for money.  For Nikki, getting a job to support herself and moving in with her friend Bird was a way out and the chance at a future.  A future she wanted to spend with Dee.  Dee, her boyfriend who had left her once but returned saying he needed her.  Dee, the only man who’s ever made her feel anything other than used when he touches her.

Criminal is full of sex and desire, the raw and aching kind, not the tender.  TEM throws us into the story after the crime has already taken place, when Nikki is set to do anything to protect Dee and very confused and in denial about just what happened when those gunshots went off.  This story is a brutal reflection of what people will do when they have passion for another, and the extreme lengths it can take to crawl out of its depths.

What TEM has accomplished so stunningly in Criminal isn’t making readers like her Nikki–at least I certainly never did–it’s making us feel compassion for her.  I can imagine myself seeing a girl like Nikki on the evening news, being arrested for her part in a murder.  She may not have pulled the trigger, but she was certainly an accessory.  I can imagine myself feeling no pity for that girl and hoping for justice on the part of the victim.  In Criminal, I was able to really see what it was to be an accessory to murder, unwitting and blindly following the man she loved.  I never once felt sorry for Nikki, but I did empathize with her on some level.  Haven’t we all at some point made stupid decisions because we believe we’re in love?  What sealed my enjoyment of Criminal wasn’t Nikki’s downfall, it was her growth.  We see her evolve from this raw ball of emotion incapable of facing reality, to someone who recognizes precisely what she has done.  Not only does Nikki realize what the consequences must be, she begins to understand that what will happen to her is justified.

TEM quite purposefully creates a character that is malleable to her readers’ minds.  I Tweeted her early on in my reading, curious to know Nikki’s ethnicity, and TEM assured me that while you were given clues to figure it out eventually, she left it vague on purpose.  For me, this meant that the character could easily slide into the body of whoever readers wanted her to be.  Through this and the material, I feel Criminal widens the audience for TEM’s latest book rather than targeting a different one.  Faithful followers will not be disappointed (in fact, I think they’ll be charged with the newness and edge of Criminal), while new readers find something to hold on to.  It has diversity, looks at a different economic group than we often see in YA, and looks upon family as something you can make rather than be born into.  Criminal involves sex, recreational drug use, and underage drinking, but in realistic and thought-provoking ways.  It is safe sex, it shows the negative side-affects of recreational drug use on children, and reveals that poor decisions can be made under the influence of emotions as easily as anything else.

Personally, I don’t read a lot of contemporary so there is a chance I’ve missed the books about teen girl incarceration, but for me this was something new.  I look at Criminal as a shining example of what the New Adult label should have been.  It is a gritty and true reflection of life in the real world and consequences that mount when you hit that arbitrary age of 18.  Eighteen is certainly old enough to know better, and to be held accountable, but looking back 10 years on I realize, it’s certainly young enough to be fool-hardy and emotionally-stupid but sure.

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  I’m not a huge contemporary reader, but I’ve really enjoyed both of TEM’s books that I’ve read, which means I’ll very likely be back for more, especially if she continues to push the envelope like she did with Criminal.

Recommended for:  Criminal isn’t exactly a thriller–the crime’s already taken place, and we know precisely who did it, but I believe fans of YA thrillers will enjoy it.  I really recommend this one for any contemp fans looking for something edgy and different–there’s certainly no fluff or pretty romance in this book.  But oh, there is angst.

Real life repercussions of reading this book:  Pretty much every time I read the name of this book anywhere I get Smooth Criminal in my head.  The Alien Ant Farm version.  Because it is better.  That’s right, I said it.

I’ve also reviewed:
Being Friends With Boys by Terra Elan McVoy


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  1. This book just arrived at my library the other day. I was debating putting it on hold. I don’t actually think it’s my kind of book, but I think it’s such a good book to have in the collection.

    Great review.

  2. I haven’t heard of this author before, but this book sounds REALLY good. Like you, I’d probably feel no sympathy for the main character, but I like that this book makes you look deeper and empathize with her situation. I’ll have to check out this author – and this book – very soon. Thanks, as always, for introducing me to a new book, Heidi! :)

  3. VeganYANerds says:

    You’ve sold me on this. I’ve only read one of the author’s previous books (the first mermaid one) and I disliked it but this sounds like so much more, and so different.

    I agree, I’d be happy with New Adult if it was more like this.

  4. Alexa Y. says:

    Oh WOW. This book sounds gritty and dark and well-written. I was already sold on reading it prior to seeing your review, but now I feel the urge to read it right away and see how the story plays out for myself. It sounds really good, and I’m curious to find out what Nikki’s story is all about.

  5. This sounds SO good! Definitely a YA contemporary that thinks outside the box, which I love. And the concept of focusing on the aftermath of a crime rather than the lead-up to it is so promising. And it really sounds like the author handled the various issues she introduced tastefully and with a good purpose.

  6. […] that tackle the similar subjects better and would recommend those instead.  For instance, both Criminal and My Book of Life By Angel provide a more emotionally charged looks at a similarly gritty […]

  7. […] Bewitched Bookworms Ren’s Rambles Rather Be Reading Bunbury in the Stacks […]

  8. Lauren says:

    I wasn’t planning on reading this, but now I’m really curious to pick it up. I love the focus on the crime after the fact, from the perspective of someone indirectly involved. It is not tough to imagine doing something epically stupid for love, and I think I’d be interested in watching Nikki’s growth as she comes to terms with the consequences of her decisions. Great review!

  9. I have not heard of this author before any day, but this book too good. Like you, I did probably feel no sympathy for the main character, but I like this book makes you look deeper and empathize with her situation.

  10. […] an enjoyable YA crime novel, with great writing and an intriguing backstory.”  Bunbury in the Stacks’ review: “I look at Criminal as a shining example of what the New […]

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While the source for each book I review is posted within its review, please assume unless otherwise stated that books reviewed on Bunbury in the Stacks were received free from the author or publisher in exchange for an honest review.