""It is less dangerous to burn things than to save them,"" says 22-year-old Ella, the protagonist of Steinke's sensitive, eerie first novel. Ella works at the Linden Hotel in a stifling small town in Indiana. She likes to set fires and watch them burn. She also has scars on her torso and legs from a childhood accident that has never been entirely explained to her. But then, much remains unspoken in her family--her grandfather's suicide, old photos of the neighborhood women (including her grandmother) dressed in Klan garments, and the defection from the family of Ella's favorite aunt, Hanna. After her grandfather's funeral, Ella takes a room in the Linden Hotel and tries to locate Hanna, hoping that if her aunt explains her mysterious past, Ella will be able to understand the questions that haunt her own sense of identity. Meanwhile, she checks in on her possessive mother, who has been severely depressed since her husband died when Ella was 15; now, after her father's suicide, she has stopped eating and is wasting away. Ella begins an affair with a co-worker at the hotel, but she continues setting fires as a form of expression--she burns a dress, a book, the garage of a bigoted family. Her need for burning escalates, and she knows it's only a matter of time until fate compels her to set the biggest fire yet. Steinke's rich, sensuous prose is studded with arresting imagery; long, italicized descriptions of fire, flame, and smoke are poetic and mysterious e arly in the novel, but somewhat tedious later when they get in the way of the story. She succeeds in establishing a cool, calm voice for her tormented arsonist, but the hypnotic language keeps Ella at arm's length, and her free-floating anxiety eventually becomes enervating to the reader. Still, there's no denying that Steinke is a writer with potential to burn. Agent, Simon Green. (Mar.) FYI: Steinke is a cousin of Darcy Steinke, author of Jesus Saves.