Review | (You) Set Me on Fire, Mariko Tamaki

20622284Remember being seventeen and in love with someone you knew was bad for you? In (You) Set Me on Fire, when seventeen year old Allison Lee enters college, she has been in love once (disastrously), burned twice (literally), and appears headed for yet another romantic disaster. She finds herself drawn to beautiful classmate Shar, who soon becomes the centre of Allison’s universe.

As an adult, I immediately found Shar pretentious (the “too cool” outsider who looks down upon other students), and later emotionally manipulative and utterly messed up. I honestly didn’t understand the appeal, when there were perfectly nice classmates like former cheerleader Carly who were inviting Allison to join them in various activities. However, thinking back to myself as a teenager, I have to admit Allison’s decisions may not have been so far-fetched as I’d like to think.

Tamaki is fantastic at capturing the teenage voice. Allison sounds like a teenager without the usual Clueless/Valley girl trappings of authors trying too hard to sound young. Allison sounds smart, and more than that, funny. Here is a story about a girl heading into a toxic relationship, who’s had some problems with fire, and who feels she doesn’t quite fit in with others her age — and it’s funny! This is not to diminish everything Allison is going through — at times, her encounters with Shar and her flashbacks to her previous romantic disaster (high school classmate Anne), are almost painful to read because the emotions are so raw. But the narrative as a whole is laced with sardonic humour, and that, combined with an ever-present undercurrent of raw vulnerability, makes Allison’s story so powerful.

Take a look at this passage for example, shortly after Allison enters college and realizes her classmates there know nothing about her or her past:

So for a brief moment in time I was in the freshman threshold of opportunity: the people around me knew only what I’d told them about myself, Nothing more. They’d had almost no time to formulate an opinion for themselves and no one was around to inform them of anything different from what I said or what I did. If I smiled and giggled at their jokes, I could be a happy-go-lucky person. If I slept with the first boy I laid eyes on, I could be a slut. I could even get in a fight and be a loose cannon or a bully.

The world was my oyster. [p. 38]

I remember that moment of opportunity, that moment when I could completely reinvent myself, redefine who I’ve become. It happens every now and then, with a new school or a new job or even a new city. It’s exhilarating, and a great part of figuring out who you want to become. That moment of hope, so early in Allison’s story, is particularly poignant as we read on, and realize she’s falling into an old pattern, and that this too is a familiar experience for anyone trying to reinvent themselves.

The brilliance of Tamaki’s writing is evident even in the title, which is possibly one of my favourite book titles ever. The parenthesis create a dual layer of meaning, with both layers somewhat at odds with each other. The declarative, almost accusatory romantic statement “You set me on fire” is in tension with the directive “Set me on fire,” which could be either a demand or a plea. This subtlety is carried through with her use of fire as a metaphor, a somewhat overused symbol for passion, yet in Tamaki’s hands it feels fresh. From Allison’s scar to escalating incidents with fire in the story to the striking allusions to history and mythology, fire is woven through the narrative in a masterful way that is overt without, to my mind, ever being over the top.


I made a pledge in 2015 to read books by Asian American women writers, based on a list compiled by Celeste Ng. Mariko Tamaki isn’t on the list, but this book happened to catch my eye in a shop, and I’m glad it did. If you happen to be joining me on this pledge, I highly recommend you add this to your list as well.

Blog Tour: Review | The Poisoned Pawn, Peggy Blair

blair_poisonedpawn_pbTalk about a timely book! In The Poisoned Pawn, second in Peggy Blair’s Inspector Ramirez series, the Cuban inspector deals with corruption in the Vatican and the injustices faced by aboriginals in Canadian residential schools. Inspector Ramirez is also concerned about his family, with women dying of mysterious causes in Cuba, and Ramirez’s friend and plastic surgeon turned forensic pathologist Hector Apiro restricted by lack of access to the first victim’s records.

Blair’s first book The Beggar’s Opera absolutely captivated me. Inspector Ramirez is a fascinating character — haunted (literally!) by the ghosts of the victims whose crimes he is tasked to solve, worried his sixth sense is a sign of impending death, and above all, an honest man (more or less) who must operate in a corrupt world. While Ramirez sees nothing wrong in lying to suspects during interrogation (“How else will you get them to talk?”), and while he quite openly takes liquor from the evidence room for his staff to enjoy, he also draws the line at taking the cash from the evidence room for himself. He works within the system, yet still maintains a level of idealism in his dogged determination to get to the bottom of the mystery.

I also loved Blair’s depiction of Cuba. Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh and Donna Leon’s Venice reveal the corruption their protagonists have to battle, but in some ways, Blair’s Cuba feels so much more immediate. Perhaps it’s because unlike Rebus, who drowns his sorrow in alcohol, and Brunetti, who is an absolutely upright man, Inspector Ramirez is compromised by and implicated in the corruption. This makes for an interesting dynamic — Ramirez is hardly an anti-hero, but he’s far from a traditional hero either. Rather, he’s all too real, all too human.

Poisoned Pawn takes Inspector Ramirez to Canada, where he must bring home a priest found in possession of pornography depicting Cuban children. Rather than a regular man-hunt, the “hunt” for the priest played out in back-room negotiations and political concessions. Even the more traditional mystery involving the deaths of women was discussed by characters primarily because of how it would affect the tourist trade in Cuba — a much more significant, much less callous concern than it sounds, considering Cubans like Ramirez consider pencils a luxury, and rely heavily on tourism to maintain even the limited rations they are permitted. Despite being set mostly in Canada, Poisoned Pawn delves even deeper into Cuban politics and corruption, and reveals how playing within the system rather than fighting it head-on can score a much bigger victory for the good guys.

The story lends itself well to exploring corruption — the Cuban government probably has nothing on the Vatican when it comes to cover ups and under the table deals. Poisoned Pawn draws parallels between the experiences of Cuban children in Catholic boarding schools and Canadian aboriginal children in residential schools — a well known piece of history made discomforting by the knowledge that still, restitution has not been made.

I didn’t enjoy Poisoned Pawn quite as much as Beggar’s Opera. That may be partly because I read them back to back — after the vibrant, colourful, utterly fascinating Cuba that Blair created in Beggar’s Opera, the no less vibrant but far more familiar Ottawa in Poisoned Pawn felt like a letdown. Beggar’s Opera subverted my expectations and surprised me at almost every turn; in contrast, Poisoned Pawn unfolded pretty much as I expected, at least until the very end. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — rather, a testament to how much Beggar’s Opera raises the bar.

Author Peggy Blair, photo by Alan Dean Photography

Author Peggy Blair, photo by Alan Dean Photography

On the other hand, I think Poisoned Pawn dealt with much more significant issues. It took the framework laid out by Beggar’s Opera and brought some important points to light. While each book can be enjoyed without the other, Poisoned Pawn feels not so much like a sequel, but rather like the second half of a book Beggar’s Opera started. The best part is, the connecting threads are based on larger contemporary issues rather than series-specific plot points.

I do have a couple of quibbles with the book. One is that a key piece of evidence involves a detail that I believe is scientifically inaccurate. I will keep this spoiler-free, so the only thing I’ll add is that it’s entirely possible that it’s a character’s understanding (or my own, to be fair) that is flawed rather than the detail being inaccurate.

[UPDATE – 6 MARCH 2013 – Peggy has kindly invited me to ask her about this in more detail over an email, and then explained that the character involved would have had no way of knowing the proper science behind the detail. True enough — what I had seen as a scientific inaccuracy instead is an unfortunate reality about a certain group of people’s lack of access to information. Thanks, Peggy, for clarifying!]

Another is that when a character, Jones, tells Ramirez about the police officer assigned to work with him in Canada, Jones says, “His name is Charlie Pike. He’s aboriginal.” Again, to be fair, it’s possible Jones (as opposed to the author) had a valid reason to mention that Pike is aboriginal, but it felt out of place to me. It’s a personal pet peeve when characters in books mention details apropos of nothing, just in order for the author to impose a deeper context upon the scene. From the conversation to that point, the detail seemed to come from nowhere, and I wondered — why would Jones even bring it up in the first place? I understand that Pike being aboriginal plays a significant part later on, but it seemed like the detail would’ve been more naturally introduced when he first appears in the story.

[UPDATE – 6 MARCH 2013 – Check out Peggy’s explanation for this in the comments.]

Overall, however, Poisoned Pawn is a really good book that tackles some very important issues. If you loved Beggar’s Opera, you’ll love seeing the story continue to unfold. If you haven’t read Beggar’s Opera yet, definitely check it out. Amazing book — it literally kept me up all night. Poisoned Pawn is paced a bit slower, yet offers more food for thought. Blair has taken Inspector Ramirez on a fascinating journey so far — I’d love to see what will happen next!



Thanks to Penguin Canada, you can win a copy of both books in the Inspector Ramirez series! Click on the link below to enter on Rafflecopter:

Win a copy of The Poisoned Pawn, as well as a copy of Peggy Blair’s first book, The Beggar’s Opera! (Canada only)


Thanks to Penguin Canada for a copy of this book, as well as a copy of The Beggar’s Opera in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Line of Fire, Stephen White

About a year ago, Stephen White announced that he would be ending the Alan Gregory series. He told fans that Line of Fire would be the penultimate book in the series, and that the series would end with book 20. He explains his decision on his website, under the book description for Line of Fire. My first thought? That sucks. I’ve been a long-time fan of the series, mysteries featuring clinical psychologist Alan Gregory. I enjoy reading psychological mysteries in general, and this series, more Jonathan Kellerman than Val McDermid, had a nice guy protagonist who made you feel comfortable even as you were reading about disturbed individuals. I also like White’s cast of characters — like Alan’s DA wife Lauren who has MS, and detective Sam Purdy — all with their quirks yet all so well-rounded and fleshed out over the past eighteen books. So it kinda sucks that the series was coming to an end.

That being said, if the series does have to end, what a way to end it! Line of Fire is such a fitting book to begin the end — White ratchets up the tension, brings together a lot of series characters, and fearlessly takes his beloved characters to dark, unpredictable places. If this book is any indication, the Alan Gregory series will end with a flourish. Well done, Mr. White.

Line of Fire begins with an idyllic scene — Alan Gregory at a Sunday night family dinner — yet, even there, White gives us an undercurrent of tension with a conversation about Boulder’s Red Flag Warning, which basically cautions residents about the possibility of a major fire. Alan’s life then proceeds to become even more complicated. His close friend Diane fears her marriage is falling apart and seems on the verge of emotional collapse. He has a couple of new patients who seem linked in some way to his life beyond work. Finally, a secret he and Sam have kept is in danger of being exposed, which could mean the end of their respective careers and both their families being taken away from them.

The stakes are high, and the twists keep coming. At times I thought Alan Gregory’s investigating was just making things worse — I wanted to tell him to listen to Sam and leave it alone — but that often happens in books like this to keep the protagonist involved and the story going. Alan had to deal with a whole lot of knotty problems, and I like how a lot of seemingly disparate plot points came together.

The ending, I admit, shocked me, as did the actions of a series character. White has never been one to hold back on how he treats his major characters (I still remember how I felt about what he did to Adrienne), but what he did here was just balls to the wall, nothing left to lose, let’s end this. I thought the twist was a bit contrived — too convenient, too orchestrated — but it still did have its desired effect. I have no desire to see the Alan Gregory series end, but after this book, I definitely want to see what White has planned for book 20.


Thank you to the author’s website manager for an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.