Review: How to Set a Fire and Why


Review for “How to Set a Fire and Why” by Jesse Ball (2016)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Hey. It’s been a while. The fall semester has started. I’ve been reading, but for those who follow this site, I only give you my best reviews. That means if I read a book and can’t find anything to say about it or write a decent review, you’ll see nothing here.

Anywho, I think I’ve broken my dry spell with this one.┬áThis is such a nice, dark little read. I was definitely impressed.

Immediately the first thing you note about this book is that teenager Lucia Stanton has been dealt a really shitty hand in life. Her father is dead, the only memento she has of him is his Zippo lighter, which she clutches onto for dear life. Her mother is in a mental hospital with an unspecified mental illness in which she doesn’t recognize her own daughter. When the story opens, she has been expelled from her current high school for stabbing a boy with a pencil. The bright spot of this book is the relationship Lucia has with her aunt, with whom she finds acceptance, and together they squat in a tiny garage with one bed. Her aunt finds her another high school where she falls into favor with a group of kids who set fires for anarchist purposes.

The brilliance of this book is in the characterization of Lucia. She is a bundle of contradictions. She is cynical, whip smart, angry, and completely authentic. I normally don’t go for quirky, “philosophical” teen narrators (I’m probably one of the few people in the world that doesn’t find anything special about Holden Caulfield) but I LOVED Lucia’s voice. She rewrites her club’s arsonist manifesto, she plans big fires–and all of it makes perfect sense because her aunt is a proud anarchist, as was her mother. Hell-raising is one of the few things in which Lucia has as a family legacy. Lucia is self destructive, yet her unapologetic brand of self-destructiveness never grated on me or made me want to put the book down.

I feel like I can’t write enough to do this book justice. It’s engaging and smart. It’s written for adults, but I can definitely see its appeal as a YA novel.