Review: The Girl with the Red Balloon, Katherine Locke

Does anyone else here have a habit of mentally constructing syllabuses to replace the syllabuses you had as a kid? Where you’ll be like, “Instead of A Separate Peace, I decree that all the youths will now read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” or whatever. I haven’t exactly decided what specific book on youthful summer reading lists The Girl with the Red Balloon should replace, but I’d love for it to be on those lists.

The Girl with the Red Balloon

Ellie Baum thinks her grandfather’s stories about being saved from the Holocaust by a magic red balloon are just that — stories. But when she sees a red balloon on her school trip to Berlin, she grabs at the string and is instantly transported back in time to East Berlin in 1988, with no way to get home. Though she meets a boy called Kai who helps people escape East Berlin with the help of magic red balloons, nobody in his circle seems to have any idea how Ellie got there, or how to get her back.

(To help you budget emotionally for this book, I will also mention that a minority number of chapters tell the story of Ellie’s grandfather living in a ghetto in Poland in 1941, and how he escaped to freedom. If you want more specific spoilers, get at me in the comments.)

Why I’d have loved to read this book as a kid: I didn’t know any damn thing about the Berlin Wall! This is partly my failing, because I was awful about Current Events as a tot, but I didn’t know until high school that there had been a Berlin Wall and that it had come down during my lifetime. Which is a pretty big thing not to know! And then in history classes, because the Berlin Wall was so recent, we didn’t really learn about it. Do youths learn about it now? They must, right? (But do they?)

But also: Locke is telling a story of hope and magic. The Runners who help connect escaping Berliners with magic balloons, and the Schopfers who make the balloon magic in the first place have an operation that spans the entire world. Wherever there are people who need to get out, there are balloons to help them. The Girl with the Red Balloon is in many ways a sad book, but its fundamental message is one of hope: That people want to help, and that even in the darkest of times, it is possible to help and to be helped.

This is a book about living in dark times and surviving them, drawing strength from moments of joy and from friends and from faith. If that sounds like something you need this year, I’d urge you to pick up The Girl with the Red Balloon.

Review: Song of the Current, Sarah Tolcser

Either book covers have become more beautiful lately, or I have become more susceptible, but I find myself in a constant state of awe over book covers these days. Look at this one, for Sarah Tolcser’s YA novel of at-sea adventures, Song of the Current:

Song of the Current

With the moon? And the way it sparkles on the water? I’m into it.

Song of the Current is about a girl called Caro who comes from a family of wherrymen favored by the river god. At seventeen, she’s never heard the river god’s voice and fears she never will. When her father is arrested and her friends’ boats burned, she must agree to take on a dangerous smuggling job to secure her father’s freedom. Water- and land-based adventures ensue (but mostly water) (hooray).

This book is hard to talk about without spoiling at least one thing, so I’m going to spoil that thing now. It happens very early on and is quite guessable (I guessed it, QED). The crate that Caro is asked to smuggle turns out to contain a human boy. GASP. He’s snooty and bad at boats, and he wears fancy clothes, and he doesn’t want to be smuggled to the place where Caro has been ordered to smuggle him. But she has no intention of letting a snooty landlubber determine the fate of her wherry and her family. DOES a grudging respect build? You’ll have to read it to find out.

(But yes. I mean, of course. What blog do you even think you’re reading right now?)

Song of the Current is so fun, y’all. Caro is clever and resourceful, a smuggler and a talented sailor; she belongs to a number of overlapping communities, all of which are deeply important to her. Her growing relationship with Marko is important, but it’s not the only relationship that matters or changes in the book. We also get to see her coming to terms with her destiny, with her mother’s family, with her father, and none of these relationships are as simple as she wants them to be.

This is also my favorite thing, a road trip story!, which necessarily makes it a little episodic. If you are fine with this (I am), you will be delighted — not every obstacle is an antagonist, and not every antagonist fights with the same weapons. We got a chance to see each of the characters at their best, a series of competences that makes it easy to root for everyone. Song of the Current reads like a standalone but appears to be the first in a series, and I can’t wait to see more of these folks. Song of the Current is a fresh, exciting debut with all the watery adventures your heart could hope for.

Review: Iron Cast, Destiny Soria

Oh friends, I needed this book so much. Iron Cast is a YA alternate history novel about two best friends who can do illegal magic and have fallen in with a gangster club on the eve of Prohibition. I liked it a ton, and it cheered me right the hell up in a week where I was feeling hopeless.

Iron Cast

Ada and Corinne are hemopaths: Corinne can create completely believable illusions by reciting poetry, while Ada can induce strong emotions with her music. They work for the gangster Johnny Dervish of the Cast Iron club, where they perform for crowds of regs (non-hemopaths) at night, carry off cons during the day, and receive shelter from the special forces that hunt hemopaths and carry them off to Havisham Asylum. Until Johnny Dervish is murdered.

If you liked The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, I feel good about recommending Iron Cast to you. At its heart is the friendship between these two girls, the quiet, practical Ada and the fierce, stubborn Corinne. Possibly my favorite thing about Iron Cast is the absolute confidence Corinne and Ada each felt in their friendship. Though they both have love interests, the stories begins and ends with their friendship. They are also both powerful hemopaths — we don’t realize exactly how powerful right at first — and it’s so much fun to see how their trust plays into the ways that they work together to Get Shit Done.

As far as I can tell, Iron Cast is a one-and-done, but I’d love to see more in this world. Soria has a knack for character, such that I’d gladly read a book about virtually any of the supporting characters. Even when we see very little of them, the characters clearly had lives and interests of their own, from the queer shapeshifter who runs a low-budget theater to Corinne’s wealthy brother making a politically advantageous marriage. It was to the point that when I realized how fully Iron Cast was wrapping up its plot, I was kind of disappointed. I wanted sequels, dammit! But I guess companion novels would be okay too.

All in all, an extremely fun YA fantasy novel with lots of adventures and lies and female friendships for you to sink your metaphorical teeth into.