Nesbit Likes: The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang

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Just because a book has a cast of animals doesn’t mean it’ll be a light read. Anyone who has read George Orwell’s Animal Farm will tell you that; anyone who has read Colin Dann’s The Animals of Farthing Wood will persuade you otherwise, too. Today’s pick, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang, rightly fits this category, and like the others, shouldn’t be ignored when it comes to your reading list.

The story goes. We follow Sprout, a hen. Sweet at heart, kind in mind. No longer happy with laying eggs for the farmers, no longer content with the horrid routine, she plans her escape, to venture beyond the fence and live in the wild. There, she hopes to hatch her own egg, to make some friends, and to achieve some joy and independence in her short life. It’s no easy task, and Sprout finds herself prey to the relentless Weasel, who lurks her every night, forcing Sprout to forever sleep with one eye open.

From the surface, it certainly seems a simple story – and you’d be right to assume so. This isn’t a deep read, nor is it a book to pry apart and poke and analyse. It’s one that fulfils a basic goal: to captivate, to hold your attention for ~140 pages, to take you on a little journey on the life of an ambitious hen.

What really makes this book is the prose – there’s so little to it. Brilliantly translated from the Korean text by Chi-Young Kim, who retains Hwang’s voice and style, there’s absolutely no fluff or clutter; Hwang has found the exact words and has made this an effortless read. However, that’s not to imply it’s a vanilla narrative – it’s moving, emotional, and refreshingly original. There’s twists and turns and with the hugely varied cast of animals and their quirks and habits, this has the flavour of a new age parable.

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly makes this weeks Nesbit Likes because it’s simplistic yet gripping gravity. I was fooled to think the brevity would mean it to be a quick read to absorb a plane or train journey. This story has long ago found its way through my own writing and it’s become a huge inspiration for its core simplicity, for its resonating morale on friendship and sacrifice. You may need a box of tissues for this one.

Sprout is a rich character of courage and strength, and her journey is one that will surely echo with any reader. It’s beautiful, it’s sweet, there’s humour and there’s tragedy, wonderfully harmonised in modest writing.

I think it’s most appropriate to say that this is a special little book and certainly one for you to add to your list.

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Nesbit Likes: The Earth Hums In B Flat by Mari Strachan

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This book has been on the shelf for a while. There’s a few up there of which I can’t recall where they came from. Perhaps they were bought, borrowed, appeared overnight, or were left behind by a friend. I do make an effort to slowly read my way through them, because you never know what you’ll discover. In this case, it was The Earth Hums In B Flat by Mari Strachan. Tucked behind an old thesaurus, I’m glad to have decided to give it a go, and here’s why.

There are no spoilers below!

The story goes. Set in the 1950’s, twelve year old Gwenni Morgan lives in a small Welsh village. She’s sweet, kind, and a little odd. When a neighbour goes missing, she decides to become a private investigator and solve the mystery. Her mother, strict and controlling, does everything to stop Gwenni as well as to halt her weird behaviour, which is apparently a paramount task. Of course, that doesn’t stop her, and aided by her wild imagination and charming oddity, she discovers more and more about the world around her in her search for answers whilst stirring the pot of conspiracy.

To put it simply, this book is about secrets. There’s a whole crowd of skeletons in the closet, and with so little room for more, it’s only a matter of time before the beans are spilled. Although there’s an incredible sense of family, and although it’s a small village where everyone seems to knows everything about everyone else, there’s a lot of mystery, and this is a story about the slow unravelling of dark pasts, and the consequences of inquiry.

Strachan’s writing is great. It’s poetic, vivid, and strongly weaved with real Welshness. The pace is steady and doesn’t fall into bad habits of repetition or staleness. As well, there were quite a few passages that were absolutely sublime, and all required a second read to relish the sound and fluidity. I would say that this is a book that could fall into the young adult category, but the issues of mental illness and social stigma, and how they’re handled, explores how difficult life can be, suited for the mature reader.

It’s not an easy task to portray the mind of a child. Whilst we have all been young, to replicate it isn’t straight forward. However, Gwenni’s naivety and innocent perspective of the world is brilliant, and as the story unfolds, it’s a refreshing break to learn it as she does. The dynamics between the family members are truly organic and immersive in every quirk. At times, it’s certainly funny, and at others, it does get dark. It should be said that whilst this book may not rock the cradle, it’ll bring a chill to the sense of security and comfort given to you in the opening chapters.

It makes this week’s recommendation because it does a great job of transporting you back to childhood, and allows you to feel again what it’s like to question everything, to see the world for all it’s beauty and simplicity. It’s a new adventure that funnels to a claustrophobic environment, where the clues are naturally stumbled upon, and the lives of the locals change drastically in the process. If you liked Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night Time, you’ll likely love this. It’s an easy read but nonetheless thoroughly endearing and delightful, with a side of uneasy company.

Nesbit Likes: The Wasp Factory by Ian Banks

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A while ago, several years in fact, I remember a Goodreads group titled something along the lines of I like books about weird people. There were hundreds of suggestions, books that explore a particular mind, to demonstrate our human variety in it’s lunacy and madness. Before reading through the list, however, I was certain one book deserved a high place in the rankings. Ian Banks’ The Wasp Factory has been a long time personal favourite, a story of a very strange character, and rightly so, it was topping the selection, like a scary cherry.

There are no spoilers below!

The story goes. Frank, 16, lives on a small island in Scotland with his father. He spends his time building dams, going for long walks along the beach, getting drunk at the pub. Fairly normal. Frank’s days are also peppered with some other activities, including hunting small animals with his home made weapons, reciting memorised measurements of household objects, worshipping shrines, and, occasionally, murdering people. Not so normal, I suppose, the murders, as the blurb suggests, “I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.”

This is an odd book. It’s about an odd person, who does odd things. You’ll find little sympathy, you’ll be uncomfortable, and it’s undoubtedly quite an unpleasant read.

But that’s not to say it’s a bad read – in fact, it’s the complete opposite. Whilst there are no role models, characters you’ll (hopefully!) find no relation to, the book has a huge conversion weight; Banks writes strange characters that beg discovery. It’s like covering your eyes with your hands during a horror film, but you peek between your fingers – you want to know what happens, you must know more about this person’s life, why there’s no official record of his birth, why his father imposes control, and what will happen to Eric, his older brother, who has escaped a mental institution and is coming home.

I’m afraid there’s not much more to say. The book delivers twists and turns, unexpected corners that quickly approach giving no guess for the road ahead. It’s a game of Pass the Parcel, and you’ve no idea how many layers there are, or how deep the rabbit hole goes, which only cements Banks’ talent in storytelling. You’ll have to be the one to start unwrapping. Be warned, the novel is staggered with grim events, awful memories, peculiar thoughts, and rises in increments of ghastly proportions, meeting a climax that will truly – truly – haunt.

Written with delicacy married to a strong narration, at times beautiful and poetic in prose, Banks’ first novel is brilliant. There’s controversy regarding a few things (some which are self evident) but I think that only goes to strengthen the book. This is a great horror, and achieves it’s purpose: to disturb, to wrought. Any good horror will make you feel uneasy… yet have you curious for more.

This is not for the faint of heart,  and I strongly recommend it.

Nesbit Likes: Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

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This week’s Nesbit Likes – as well as the next few – will take a step from poetry and focus on prose. More specifically, novels that have been brilliant reads, each a strong recommendation for your next book.

There are no spoilers below!

To some, Darnielle is well known as the lead singer / songwriter for the band The Mountain Goats. Like Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave, he has shown his beautiful prose in novels, where music is a clear aid to great writing.

The story goes. Main character Sean Phillips runs a play-by-mail roleplaying game called Trace Italian. Strangers from all over the country take part, sending him their decisions and actions and he replies with the consequences, akin a Dungeon Master. It catches wind and a good handful of people take part, which means a lot of work and writing for Sean. Suited for him, as he spends most of his time indoors, leading an introvert life.

But there’s real horror to Wolf in White Van. Told non-chronologically, we slowly learn about Sean and his world. Pieces are put together of a picture we cannot begin to predict. In their practice, crime novels may shape a future, where we suppose the ends will be tied. But there’s no mystery here. Instead, this finished jigsaw puzzle details the dramatic events of his life: we explore his childhood, his adolescence, his experiences with love, his family, how his game, Trace Italian, brought severe peril to two teenagers, and how his face became severely disfigured.

It’s not long after starting this book before you realise the text has sunk it’s hooks, and you’re compelled to continue, eager to find out what Sean isn’t necessarily hiding, but has prepared for you in time. With an unforgettable final act, an ending that has lingered for months, this is a refreshing example of storytelling done well.

The characters are raw and delicate; the delivery is forceful and frightening. With efficient prose, at times wondrous and vivid, this was a brilliant read. Darnielle writes peacefully, with delicious syntax and control, and then he pulls the rug out from under your feet, before you even knew the rug was there.