Monday, October 5, 2015

Middle Grade Audio Book Review: Goose Girl


Title: The Goose Girl (The Books of Bayern #1)
Author: Shannon Hale
Publisher: Full Cast Audio, 2005 (Original: Bloomsbury Children's, 2005)
Source: Library (digital)

Publisher's Summary: 
Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, spends the first years of her life under her aunt's guidance learning to communicate with animals. As she grows up Ani develops the skills of animal speech, but is never comfortable speaking with people, so when her silver-tongued lady-in-waiting leads a mutiny during Ani's journey to be married in a foreign land, Ani is helpless and cannot persuade anyone to assist her. Becoming a goose girl for the king, Ani eventually uses her own special, nearly magical powers to find her way to her true destiny.

A note on the production quality first: while the reader is very good, the recording itself has strange hesitations in it, as though the splices weren't quite smooth. I found this distracting, as it at times disrupted the meaning of a sentence, or made it seem we were starting a new paragraph or section when we were not. I am currently listening to the second book in the series, and it has the same quirk. I may shift to print. I have never encountered this in any other Full Cast Audio books I have listened to, so don't know what's up with that.

This book is the author's re-envisioning of the old fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm tale of the Goose Girl, a princess who is forced by her evil maid to trade places so the maid can marry the prince of a distant country. Hale looked at the obvious questions (like why the princess was so spineless as to let the maid force her that way) and came up with some very inventive answers.

I found the story a little slow at first, as we began with Ani's birth and a rather reportorial accounting of her early years. The story picks up, though, when Ani begins the journey to Bayern and we encounter her maid's treachery. I ended up enjoying a a great deal (aside from the problems with production values on the audio).

Although this book is pretty universally shelves with children's books, I would have to say that some aspects of it push it closer to YA (though I think the romance is not central enough for many YA readers). I would recommend for 5th or 6th grade, at least.

Full Disclosure: I borrowed an electronic copy of The Goose Girl from my library, and received nothing from the author or the publisher in exchange for my honest review. The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."  

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Flash Fiction: Weather Permitting

Last week, the Wendig Challenge gave us a whole lot of titles to choose from (several hundred, provided by the readers of his Terrible Minds blog. I picked on early, and last Friday published a story called "How the Rain Gets In."  Go read it if you haven't (oh, quit whining. The two together are still less than 2000 words!), because this week, I spotted Jemima Pett's contribution to the title tsunami, and it screamed to be added onto that story. So, for a bit more adventure in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, here is...

Weather Permitting

When we plan a late-season hike, we always say we’ll do this or that, weather permitting. It’s a reasonable precaution, but we don’t expect the weather to take us up on it.

It is cold and damp in our tent. It has been raining for two days, and the water has insinuated itself into everything, including into our hearts and souls. Down bags lie limply on pads that are less soft and a great deal less warm than they were a few days before. The weather isn’t permitting much, including a hot meal. Cheese and crackers in the tent aren’t a satisfying dinner.

By night we are snappish, willing to argue over whose idea this trip was, and why we didn’t see this coming on the weather report. Arguing is a warming activity, so we keep it up in a half-hearted way until the drumming rain on the tent lulls us into stupor, if not sleep.

In the morning, weather permitting, we’ll hike the 15 miles to the road and hitch a ride home.

Weather permitting. It’s late September in the North Cascades. The weather is the tyrant.

Sometime in the night we wake up and the sound of the rain is gone. We imagine a bright sunny morning as we huddle deeper into our damp bags, happier at the prospect. It’s cold, but it does that when the clouds clear off. We are wearing everything that isn’t wet, and the cheese and crackers have worn off. Empty bellies are cold bellies, but we manage to drift off again.

We expect to wake early to bright sun, but we awaken more slowly, and all is still dim, though less grey than the previous day. Is it still early? Icy fingers fumble for a watch. Eight a.m.? The dimness says that the clouds haven’t gone, not completely. At least it’s quiet—no rain. A bit of a breeze stirs the trees and fingers its way into the tent.

About then we notice the white crust on our bags, on the inside of the fly.


One of us musters the courage to look outside, fumbling with zippers, and a light shower of ice floats down from a roof that no longer drips. We know what we’ll see out there, but we have to look.


It’s several inches deep, and still coming down from a grim sky. This is no blizzard, but visibility is limited, and the trail is already more covered than we’d like. The road suddenly seems a great deal farther away, and “weather permitting” a more sinister phrase.

One thing the weather now permits. Working under a tree where the snow hasn’t accumulated, we boil water and make a hot breakfast, boil it again and make extra coffee we drink while we pack up.

The tent is drier now, since the snow and ice shake off. Our fingers ache with the cold, though, and toes are numb inside now-frozen boots . Hot food and drink help, but the temperature has dropped, a lot. We start hiking. Movement will warm us.

We do get warm as we follow the trail, under its dusting of snow. The white stuff is still coming down, harder and faster than we like. Nerves are buzzing, keeping us on edge, scanning constantly to be sure we don’t lose the route. At least it’s not too windy. Weather permitting, we may still make the trailhead today.

The wind picks up. We exchange looks, but say nothing. We know. “Weather permitting” isn’t just a phrase, not here, not now. We pick up our pace, balancing the need for speed against the risk of slipping, of losing the trail in open places where the snow covers it.

Sometime around noon we stop, needing more food, and try to figure out where we are. If we could see more than a dozen yards, it would be easy to track our progress, but with no visible landmarks, we can only try to follow the twists and turns, ups and downs, of the trail on the map.

Four or five miles. Conditions are slowing us down too much, but we can’t go any faster. The weather doesn’t permit it.

It’s not a big deal, we remind ourselves. We were planning to be another night or even two out here. We have plenty of food.

It’s cold, and the wind has picked up some more. Maybe that’s just because we’re on a ridge. We trace the route on the map, and see we should be dropping soon, back into the trees. The shelter will help, and with luck the trail will be bare, or close to it. Even up here, the wind offers one benefit: the snow isn’t getting any deeper. It’s blowing off to drift in the lee of trees and boulders.

Somewhere in the afternoon we suddenly relax. We aren’t going to get out today. We know that. But we have decent equipment, experience, and a camera. When we stop worrying, the land is beautiful. We slow down, take some photos. We even build a small snowman, just because we can.

Fear lingers in the back of the mind. What if the snow is so deep by morning that we can’t get through, or can’t find the trail? What if our damp gear isn’t good enough to keep us warm? What if, what if? We ask it, then look at each other and shrug. We are here now. We can worry, or we can enjoy a world no other hikers are sharing.

We choose to smile.

Weather permitting, we’ll get home in a day or so.

 ©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Non-Fiction Review: Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand


Title: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
Author: Laura Hillenbrand. Read by Edward Herrmann
Publisher: Random House, 2010 (473 pages). Random House Audio, 2010 
Source: Library (digital)

Publisher's Summary:
In boyhood, Louis Zamperini was an incorrigible delinquent. As a teenager, he channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics. But when World War II began, the athlete became an airman, embarking on a journey that led to a doomed flight on a May afternoon in 1943. When his Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean, against all odds, Zamperini survived, adrift on a foundering life raft. Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.
My Review:
What can one say about a story like this? The story is incredible, and Hillenbrand is a master storyteller who spins it out just about right. I appreciated that she included the stories of many of those around Zamperini--he was, after all, not the only one to endure things of this sort, and, in fact, the pilot who was the only other survivor of the crash and the time at sea had just as much of a story. The author even touches on the basic unfairness of who got the attention at the time and afterwards; Zamperini got the limelight because he was a runner of unprecedented talent.

At times, the story does feel a little too "wow"--a little too much emphasis on the amazing struggles, the miraculous salvations, and a tone of drama that the story doesn't really need, given how dramatic it is on its own. This bothered me more in the early part of the book, which focused on Zamperini's boyhood and his prodigious feats as a runner. By the time the airmen are dumped into the waters of the Pacific, no drama needs to be added to the story.

Probably the thing about the story that bothered me the most was something the author can't very well be blamed for: Zamperini was saved from PTSD by religion, a miracle I have some trouble crediting. But that is his story, and she told it well, even convincingly. As for the writing--it is solid, pulling the reader (listener) into the story and into the lives of the men she follows into the Pacific. I listened to this to the exclusion of getting other work done, because I had to hear it all, horrific though much of it was.

The reading is also excellent, and the narrator succeeds in keeping the story clear and straight in the listener's mind, with just about the right balance between drama and the calm that reminds us this is non-fiction.

No surprise, given the book's best-seller status and the popular movie, but this has appeal for a wide audience. It's great for those who are fascinated by WWII, for those who like inspirational stories, and for those who just like a good hero. It's not flawless, but it will still knock your socks off.

Full Disclosure: I borrowed an electronic copy of Unbroken from my library, and received nothing from the author or the publisher in exchange for my honest review. The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."