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Summary and book reviews of How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball

How to Set a Fire and Why

by Jesse Ball

How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball X
How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jul 2016, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2017, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Book Summary

A singular, blistering novel about a teenage girl who has lost everything - and will burn anything.

Lucia's father is dead; her mother is in a mental institute; she's living in a garage-turned-bedroom with her aunt. And now she's been kicked out of school - again. Making her way through the world with only a book, a zippo lighter, a pocket full of stolen licorice, a biting wit, and striking intelligence she tries to hide, she spends her days riding the bus to visit her mother and following the only rule that makes any sense to her: Don't do things you aren't proud of. But when she discovers that her new school has a secret Arson Club, she's willing to do anything to be a part of it, and her life is suddenly lit up. And as her fascination with the Arson Club grows, her story becomes one of misguided friendship and, ultimately, destruction.

Part One
In Which I Introduce Myself
1

Some people hate cats. I don't, I mean, I don't personally hate cats, but I understand how a person could. I think everyone needs to have a cause, so for some people it is hating cats, and that's fine. Each person needs to have his or her thing that they must do. Furthermore, they shouldn't tell anyone else about it. They should keep it completely secret, as much as possible.

At my last school no one believed me about my dad's lighter. I always keep it with me. It's the only thing I have from him. And every time someone touches it there is less of him on it. His corpse is actually on it—I mean, not his death corpse, but his regular one, the body that falls off us all the time. It's what I have left of him, and I treasure it.

So, I said, many times I said it, don't touch this lighter or I will kill you. I think because I am a girl people thought I didn't mean it.

Someone told me they read in a ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

In essence, How To Set A Fire is a character study. The journal format allows for little development of the supporting cast. Lucia is not without friends, but they are barely sketched in. The plot is minimal so the extent to which you like this book will be determined by how willingly you buy into the cult of Lucia. The fact that this book isn't sadder is a credit to Jesse Ball's skill and light touch, the narrative never descends into hopelessness, even when it feels like it should...continued

Full Review (628 words).

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(Reviewed by Lisa Butts).

Media Reviews

The Huffington Post
Jesse Ball began his writing career as a poet, which explains a lot. His novels Silence Once Begun and A Cure for Suicide are both spare and elliptical, frog-hopping from scene to scene, making stories that aren’t plot-driven into page-turners. How to Set a Fire and Why seems to be no exception; it’s told by a teenage protagonist who can’t manage to stay in school in spite of her knack for seeing straight through to the truth that underlies things. She’s a lovable misfit worth hanging out with.

Kirkus Reviews
A brilliant portrayal of a girl who's quite aware of what she's going through.

Library Journal
Starred Review. A startling, unsettling, and significantly memorable novel.

Booklist
Starred Review. Readers will share Ball’s adoration of this incisive and valiant young survivor from whom life cruelly subtracts nearly everything but her incandescent intellect, blazing wit, and radiant sense of justice

Publishers Weekly
Starred and Boxed Review. The beautifully blunt narration of a gifted delinquent propels this excellent sixth novel…A song of teenage heartbreak sung with a movingly particular sadness, a mature meditation on how actually saying something, not just speaking, is what most makes a voice human.

The Sydney Morning Herald
All that's written, all Lucia's actions and decisions, seem not just believable but somehow right…There's beauty in the simplicity, in the story that's told, in the plight of one girl to find what's true.

Author Blurb Emily St. John Mandel, bestselling author of Station Eleven
How to Set a Fire and Why is a rare and startling work. Days after I read it, I find that I can't stop thinking about it, and what I've realized is that this is a book I will not forget. This is a harrowing, subtle, and absolutely electrifying novel."

Author Blurb Peter Heller, bestselling author of The Dog Stars and The Painter
I was captivated from the first line ... Lucia belongs with all the great child truth tellers: David Copperfield, Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield. She has a rapier wit, an infallible nose for hypocrisy and injustice, and is always in trouble. She is subversive and funny and has a capacity for love that outstrips her circumstances ... I loved her and I loved the book, every page of it.

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Beyond the Book

Young Adults as Unreliable Narrators

In How to Set a Fire and Why, Lucia claims to not remember exactly what occurred during an argument with her aunt's landlord, leaving her exact reasoning and motivation somewhat mysterious. In writing Lucia as an unreliable narrator, Jesse Ball draws from an established tradition.

The Catcher In the RyeAn unreliable narrator lies, expresses uncertainty or bias, or seems to have a misunderstanding of situations that occurred. The author may employ an unreliable narrator to intentionally mislead the reader or as a means of characterization. Part of the pleasure in encountering such a narrator is parsing out what is true and what is not. Teen and young adult narrators are some of the most obvious and well-known examples of the trope, and this makes logical sense...

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