Will Ferguson – Beyond Belfast

Author: Will Ferguson

Title: Beyond Belfast
Published: October 2009
Publisher: Viking Canada
Length: 390 pages
Genre: Travelogue
Target age: Adult
Why I picked it up: Written by an author I enjoy
Rating: 4 stars
Challenges: 100+ 
Buy: Chapters | Check your local bookstore!

Will Ferguson is a Canadian author known for his books about his travels and about Canadians. I’ve enjoyed him since we first studied Why I Hate Canadians in grade 11 history. My favourite book by Ferguson is Hitching Rides With Buddha. The only other book I’ve read by him, aside from this one, is How to Be Canadian. Still have to read Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw and I’m sure I’ll get around to his fiction one day...Anyhow. Beyond Belfast, the story of his ambitious undertaking to walk the Ulster Way (a 560 mile path around Northern Ireland) will be released in soft-cover just before my birthday and I will definitely be putting it on my wishlist.

The aspect of Ferguson’s books I love most is the way he can blend humour and serious reflection (that’s the best way I can think of to describe it…). There were plenty of sentences that made me grin while I was reading and there were plenty of sentences that made me feel rather sad and melancholic. (There’s a passage in Hitching Rides with Buddha that actually makes me tear up but that never happened in this book). One reviewer had it right: ‘Like Bryson, Ferguson is often as his best (and laugh-out-loud funniest) when most annoyed.’, such as when he realizes he’s the creepy old man in the youth hostel or when he gets trapped in a church during pilgrim ceremonies. To give you a taste of his style, two humorous quotes and one of those sad melancholic passages:

 Ha! You didn’t get me this time, you fokkers! The driver was eyeing me in his mirror. I had said that last part out loud. “The rain,” I said by way of explanation.  “It’s been trying to get me.”

It was bloody friggin’ marvellous, so it was. (A view like that brings out the poet in me).

I thought about pensioners under siege on Park Road, about children burning, about off-duty police officers dragged from pubs and kicked to death, about the watery cries for “Revenge!” As I walked toward the shopping plazas in the city centre, I saw a McDonald’s at one end, its golden arches catching the light- and I felt a sudden surge of relief. I walked toward the arches, rested my forehead on the cool condensation of its windows, the glass like ice on a fever. It was so comforting, the polished surface, the lack of memory, the lack of any larger context.

I like the perspective of an outsider looking in on another country’s struggles, providing a mostly unbiased and balanced perspective and observations on things a native would take for granted. I particularly liked how he distinguished dialects by how they pronounced fokker, fekker, fooker.

Of Ulster’s many verbal tics, the ones I found most charming were “aye” and “wee”…Likewise with the indiscriminate use of “wee”. I’m not sure what “wee” means, but I do know it doesn’t mean “small.” That’s what it seems to mean; certainly the room they found for me in the back was a bit “wee”, but when I told her I was hiking the Ulster Way, all five hundred and sixty damn miles of it, she said, “A good wee walk then.” (No doubt, in Ulster, King Kong would be referred to as “a great wee monkey”)

 He provides a balanced view of the Protestant and Catholics sides and because neither side is prejudiced towards him, he can interact with both. The fact that Ferguson is Canadian is a bonus. I can easily understand a Canadian perspective and appreciate the little jokes he makes about being Canadian.  

Being Canadian in Europe is a lot like being Welsh in North America: no one really cares. It’s not that they hold it against you. If anything, they have a vaguely positive image, a sort of benign lack of interest, as it were. “Canadian? That’s terrific. “Welsh, you say? Good for you.”

Another reason I enjoyed this book is because it’s about a subject I know (knew?) next to nothing about. Northern Ireland has always been this fuzzy patch of knowledge in my mind, where I knew it was dangerous and I think it was dangerous because some Christians were fighting. But that’s all I knew. Starting the book was tricky for me because I had trouble keeping the two ‘sides’ straight, for example, I couldn’t remember if the UVF was for Catholics or Protestants and which side was unionist or loyalist, etc. Fortunately, Ferguson provides a handy little ‘binary code’ of different terms and aspects starting on page 26. He does caution that obviously not all aspects of the two sides can be reduced to this pairing code, but it did help me keep up with the various terms used throughout the book. I very much enjoyed the segments on the history of Ulster. They helped give Ferguson’s tale and the current conflicts greater context. I still had trouble remembering names of places. With so much travelling in such a short period of time, bouncing around through all these tiny little villages, I guess that’s to be expected. It didn’t really detract from my reading, though.

As if all that wasn’t enough for a good read, there’s also a subplot of sorts that sees Ferguson seeking out some lost family history. This book is packed full of all sorts of good things and often reads as though Ferguson is sharing his story with you over a beer. If you’ve got any interest in Northern Ireland, humour or travel, I would definitely recommend this book.

Wrapping Up 2010, Looking Forward 2011

Hullo! Is it the end of the year already? That was fast. Christmas came and then things were very busy for awhile and now that I have time to sit down at the computer I find 2010 is over. Well. I suppose I should tie up some loose ends now. Here’s a few things I just finished up:

  • Finished Falling for Snow review (almost…I’m so tired, my apologies…..)
  • Posted a Depeche Mode review for December 28
  • Posted the second part of The Hunger Games trilogy review
  • Edited the books, writing and music links up top. Now you can browse an index of sorts of all my posts in the loads of free time you have. ;P

I’ve realized that posting one book review a week is not enough, especially in 2011 with all the challenges I’ve taken up! Here are some short review of a couple of books I finished recently but didn’t have the change to post review. I just want to wrap them up here so I can have a fresh start next year.

  • The Last Hunt by Bruce Coville (Rating: 3.5 stars) – The fourth and final book in a series I began in grade two. The first two books were published in the last nineties, the third was published in 2008 when I never ever expected the series to be finished. This final book did not disappoint and keeping in mind that it’s a series meant for early/middle schoolers, I still enjoyed it. I couldn’t help but compare the family dynamics to those of Inkheart which of course is an entirely different story, so while the family aspects of The Last Hunt could have been much stronger, they were appropriate for the story. I would have liked to have seen more of the Dimblethum, but otherwise it was a good read. I hope to read these books to my niece or nephew one day, perhaps.
  • Blood Relatives by Craig Francis Powers (Rating: 4 stars) I bought this book at the local writers festival in September and finally read it in November. Young Newfie author, his first book. Completely different from what I usually like to read (very gritty, realistic, people are shit and so is my life kind of story) but I found myself really enjoying the prose and the story, even though almost all of the characters were disgusting (but that was the point). The ending was not at all what I expected but it was satisfying. I’d recommend this if you can get your hands on it.
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (4.5 stars) – I can’t remember why I picked this up. It was very good (dur…). The beginning was a bit slow, but I eventually became absorbed in the characters and the straight-forward but oh so true prose. I don’t usually read books like this, that are sort of a reflection on people and relationships, but I was in the mood for something like that for once. I will for sure be buying this one. I’m also interested in seeing the movie, especially since it stars Carey Mulligan.

Earlier this month I discovered ‘book blogging’ and challenges. While I wouldn’t put myself in the category of book blogger, I’ve been enjoying browsing blogs and I definitely like the idea of challenges. You can click here [page no longer exists] to see the ones I’ve signed up for. I’m hoping these challenges will help me plow through some books I’ve been meaning to read for ages and also to just generally increase my reading habit back to a level where it used to be. With the list of books I have now, I’ll have to read one book every two days or so for 2011. That would’ve been no problem a few years ago…but with a full university course load and work I’ll have to see how well I’ll do! I’m not really sure how I’ll go about blogging about the books…perhaps I’ll do my best do full ‘reviews’ as often as possible and then do a monthly summary review if need be.

Happy New Year 🙂

Suzanne Collins – Catching Fire and Mockingjay


Author: Suzanne Collins

Series: The Hunger Games trilogy
Titles: Catching Fire/Mockingjay
Published: September 2009/August 2010
Publisher: Scholastic
Length: 391/390 pages
Genre: Dystopian scifi
Target age: Young adult
Why I picked it up: So many people have been raving about it, I felt like something had passed me by when Mockingjay was released so I bought a boxed set of the trilogy
Rating: 3 stars/2 stars
Buy: Chapters | Barnes and Noble | Check your local bookstore!
Related: The Hunger Games review

I am sad that I have so many negative things to say. To see an author put out a fantastic book followed by a good book followed by a terrible book is very sad to see. Let me be upfront: This review is going to be full of nothing but complaints. The reason is, I’ve been paying far more attention to authorial choices, if you will, when I read and these two novels made it very easy for me to see something and think ‘Why would she make that choice?!’ I wasn’t quite so frustrated with the two books while I was reading them, merely annoyed. I was somewhat disappointed in the ending, but the feeling grew as I thought of more and more things I didn’t like. I would still recommend the trilogy as a whole. Read the books, just don’t get your hopes up for a satisfying conclusion.
CATCHING FIRE SPOILERS AHEAD
My first and only point is more of an observance rather than an objection. I wasn’t anticipating the premise of the second book at all. I was fully prepared to follow Katniss as she mentored a girl for the next Hunger Games. I should have known better than to think it would be something like that, but I definitely wasn’t expecting to find her and Peeta back in the arena. I was so surprised by that at first, I didn’t have time to groan about it. But, it turned out to be a much more interesting story than I could have expected. Not quite as exciting as their first time around in the arena, but still a good read.

MOCKINGJAY SPOILERS AHEAD

 

It’s easy to screw up death scenes. But sometimes they’re just so blatantly bad you wonder how come nobody noticed. An author should make an effort to make the reader feel some sort of emotion when a character dies. Two deaths happened that should have made feel something but neither did. Finnick’s death was so poorly portrayed I read past it a few pages and then thought ‘Wait, I think Finnick just died back there’ and I had to go back. Finnick was my favourite character and if he had to die, he deserved a much better death. I didn’t like how Annie was shown dealing with his death, it didn’t seem to fit her character at all. And Prim’s death…ooh, that just infuriated me. Poorly executed scene. Unemotional. Who cares. Ultimately had little affect on the story. Her death could have been handled far, far better and actually served some purpose to the plot instead of just ‘Oh, it’ll be sad if we kill off the cute little sister.’ Gahh.
My complaints about how Peeta was handled tie in with my complaints about how the romance was dealt with. One of my notes for this post reads: ‘Lack of Peeta/hooking up with Peeta at the end/lack of support for Katniss’ choice FUUUUU PEETA.’ It’s not Peeta’s fault that he had to play such a terrible role, though. I feel bad for him. I don’t think Peeta was present enough in the story for being such a crucial character, but I’m not sure if that’s a valid criticism or just my own personal preference. Earlier in the trilogy, I felt like there could be something between Peeta and Katniss. That vanished in Mockingjay but somehow the two have no problems reconnecting and picking up their ‘love’ despite everything that did/didn’t happen between them in the final book.
Perhaps the most shocking/disturbing thing to me was the decision to hold a final Hunger Game, a decision which was decided ultimately by Katniss. That was a true WTF moment for me. It was such a quickly decided thing, with no little explanation and no actual impact on the story. It was just ‘Yeah, sure, let’s hold one more.’ No! No! I want to know why, I want to know more about that, that’s such a huge decision! But it wasn’t, it was totally played down in the novel. Maybe it was just me, but I don’t understand why Collins would include something like that if she was just going to sweep over it.
Those are my biggest issues with the conclusion of The Hunger Games trilogy…other things include there being too many dull passages, cheap tricks (like knocking out the protagonist for the climax. I find that so irritating, I understand why an author might do that, but it feels like an easy way out) and the epilogue (Katniss just settles down and has kids and everything? What a disappointing message. I think the story would have a much better impact if Katniss had been destroyed by her whole ordeal but I like my stories bleak).

I couldn’t resist looking on Amazon to see if I was the only reader so frustrated with this conclusion. Apparently the opinion is split, the two most helpful reviews when I looked are a five star review and a one star review. For a lengthier, more eloquently written review (the review took the words straight from my mouth, if I could have said them as well :P), I’d actually recommend this. I found myself nodding and muttering yes as i read it. I wish I didn’t have to feel this way about Mockingjay. It’s a tragedy to see a story fall apart in just three books.