I’ve been short on time and unable to concentrate on reading lately, so I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks. They’re so wonderful when you’re driving or cooking or doing something else with your hands! I’m weirdly picky when it comes to narrators–I literally reject about 90% of the ones I sample–but it’s always a joy when I come across a reader whose voice and style I like.
Today I’m reviewing two audiobooks I listened to recently, both of which are middle grade books featuring main characters with unusual names.
Nest by Esther Ehrlich
For fans of Jennifer Holm (Penny from Heaven, Turtle in Paradise), a heartfelt and unforgettable middle-grade novel about an irresistible girl and her family, tragic change, and the healing power of love and friendship. In 1972 home is a cozy nest on Cape Cod for eleven-year-old Naomi “Chirp” Orenstein, her older sister, Rachel; her psychiatrist father; and her dancer mother. But then Chirp’s mom develops symptoms of a serious disease, and everything changes.
Chirp finds comfort in watching her beloved wild birds. She also finds a true friend in Joey, the mysterious boy who lives across the street. Together they create their own private world and come up with the perfect plan: Escape. Adventure. Discovery.
Nest is Esther Ehrlich’s stunning debut novel. Her lyrical writing is honest, humorous, and deeply affecting. Chirp and Joey will steal your heart. Long after you finish Nest, the spirit of Chirp and her loving family will stay with you.
As much as I enjoy fantasy and science fiction, I love everyday stories about childhood. It’s when I was climbing trees with friends or daydreaming alone in my own back yard that I started to have a sense of my own identity separate from my family, as well as to think about my small corner of the natural world. In Nest, “Chirp” explores her neighborhood, wrestles with her sister, has small feats of daring with her friend Joey, and is pretty content–until one day, her world is turned upside down when her mother is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
This story ended up being much more serious and moving than I expected; alongside the scenes of bird-watching and school projects, the illness that comes into this family casts a shadow for every single member of the household. While the story is from Chirp’s point of view, you also absorb the impact of this painful new reality on her sister, on her father, and on her mother. As the relationships are tested, the book becomes much more grave and heart-wrenching than I was prepared for. With the benefit of the knowledge we’ve gained since the time period in which this book is set, it’s particularly sad to see the limited understanding and resources available to those coping with depression and disabilities during this era.
Two small quibbles: I liked the road trip towards the end, though I think its length slowed down the momentum a bit. I also love (and was scared for Joey), and felt an unbearable amount of tension during one important walk to his front door–but I think his story wrapped up a bit too neatly and quickly after all the anxiety that had been building throughout the book. Still, these don’t detract from the overall experience of the book, as everything else is so well done, as well as realistically depicted through the lens of Chirp’s view.
This is probably also my favorite audiobook experience to date. I listened to much of it as I was huddled under the covers in the dark in my own nest, much like the ones Chirp finds comfort in when she feels alone. Jenna Lamia does a beautifully subtle reading, with particularly distinct voices for Chirp’s mother, Joey, and Chirp herself, whose youthful narration is in turns quietly curious, comfortably sure in what she thinks is right, and sad. At one point I also skipped back so I could listen to hear her charming rendition of a horned owl again! And it’s because she gives such an understated performance that we also feel the shock of disbelief and sadness at two distinct moments in this book that closely follow one another. I teared up and literally flinched, and I wanted so badly to gather these girls close and hug them tightly to me. That’s the power of both great writing and a great performance.
I’d highly recommend Nest if you’re looking for a good audiobook–though if you’re giving this to children, I’d strongly recommend reading it first or reading it with them. There’s a lot to process, and a lot of points you’ll want to discuss or provide context for. The author does provide a little bit of info on the Disability Rights Movement, as well as illustrations and clips of the birds Chirp comes across on her website. For all the seriousness of the story, I also take away such beautiful feelings of love and appreciation for nature in this astonishingly assured debut.
This is a lovely book that takes the time to let its story breathe, and a really lovely audio experience.
Rating: 4 shining stars. I loved it.
Nightbird by Alice Hoffman
In her first novel for middle-grade readers , bestselling author Alice Hoffman tells a bewitching story of love and friendship that is truly magical.
Twig lives in Sidwell, where people whisper that fairy tales are real. After all, her town is rumored to hide a monster. And two hundred years ago, a witch placed a curse on Twig’s family that was meant to last forever. But this summer, everything will change when the red moon rises. It’s time to break the spell.
“I love the way Alice Hoffman creates the most ordinary people and then turns their lives magical. . . . [Nightbird] is like reentering a wonderful dream that you vaguely remember.” —Lois Lowry, two-time Newbery Medal–winning author of The Giver
After the wonderful experience of listening to Nest, I was thrilled to see that the narrator Jenna Lamia also read this new release. I didn’t love this one as much as I’d hoped to, however–this is a pleasant enough fable, but ultimately a rather slight one.
While I liked the premise of the story (somewhat similar to another middle grade book I read recently View Spoiler »called Centaur Rising, though this is a different mythical creature « Hide Spoiler), I wonder if the author, who is a well-respected writer of adult fiction trying her hand at children’s for the first time, underestimates her audience a bit. There are few surprises here, whether in plot or characterization or emotion–and if a book doesn’t thrill you or inspire you or move you, that’s a rather sad state of affairs.
I did enjoy a few moments here and there, View Spoiler »particularly at the end when it’s revealed that the statue of her brother has hidden feathers « Hide Spoiler, but with this book’s rather uncomplicated story and style, I think it’s one probably best suited for reading with young children. View Spoiler »I’m glad that something that happens towards the end that SHOULDN’T have happened was reversed, however. Enough of the “cure” tropes and troubling messaging. « Hide Spoiler
The excellent narrator Jenna Lamia does her best to infuse Nightbird with wonder. But for me, the magic was really only in her interpretation, not necessarily in the story itself. But it’s a pleasant enough story to pass the time if you’re curious.
Rating: 3 stars
Audiobooks were provided by the publisher for review. Both the hardbacks and audiobooks are available in stores now.
Are you a fan of listening to books? Do you find that the narrator makes a big difference to your enjoyment of the story?
P.S. I love how Jenna Lamia says “pie.” And she says it in both books! Lemon meringue in Nest, and apple pie in Nightbird. You know that that alone is enough to beguile me.