John Eliot live

Poet John Eliot’s first collection, Ssh!, was critically well received and there’s no reason to believe that his second, Don’t Go, will be any different. The new chapbook is due out this spring. John has been giving listeners a taste of what’s in it at readings around South Wales this winter. You can hear and see him in this nicely edited Youtube video”




Cory cares, and so do we

What we like about the amazing Canadian journalist and science fiction author Cory Doctorow is his knack of cutting to the quick of an argument and doing so elegantly and effortlessly as only a master of language can. Take for example his recent blog on self-publishing. He doesn’t say anything that we haven’t heard elsewhere, but it’s the way he does it that, frankly, takes your breath away.

Why should anyone care about books? Why indeed. There must be as many answers as there are readers; no, as there are people.

You don’t have to be a reader to care about books. It may well be that non-readers actually care more about books because they represent knowledge, experience, whatever that’s beyond their reach. Given the proliferation of badly self-published books, their ignorance could truly be bliss.

Caring implies value; you can about that which you value. It may be there is simply so much mediocrity today that good, bad and indifferent get lumped together. So really it’s up to the book publishing world to make sure what we produce, like Cory’s output, is consistently high quality. That’s what people care about.

Two eyes, one mouth

There can’t be many websites “dedicated to reviewing cultural history and theory”, so when one comes along and asks to review one of your books, you tend to take notice. ‘Culturally Bound‘ is one such website, and although we now have a vested interest in recommending it, we would do so anyway. It’s well worth a visit and browser bookmarking.

Culturally Bound was interested in the recently published book Man in a Mud Hut, the second in the African Memoir series by Ian Mathie. Culturally Bound’s reviewer describes Man in a Mud Hut as “an intriguing book, with plenty to offer those who are interested in understanding different cultures, and a great accompaniment to other texts documenting African culture.”

But it doesn’t stop there. It has also gone beneath the skin of the story in a long and insightful interview with our author, Ian Mathie. Here is an extract:

Q. Did you find whilst living in the village your beliefs or life outlook changed? And if so, in what ways?

A. I don’t know if my beliefs actually changed significantly, but I certainly learned a lot. That is bound to affect the way one thinks but I had a clear role and reason for being there, and that wasn’t going to vary. What did inevitably change was the way I went about doing things.

I remember once being told off by an old man for proposing an idea without having first asked what his people thought they needed or wanted. He said I had two ears and one mouth and should use then in that proportion, How right he was and all these years later I’m still grateful to that old man.

You can read the full interview at the bottom of the review of Man in a Mud Hut on the Culturally Bound website.

Still paying the piper after 66 years

Our author Marijcke Jongbloed is a special guest at the opening of an important exhibition in the Dutch town of Epe on 3 August.

The exhibition will highlight the treatment of the Dutch in Indonesia during and after the Second World War. It is a topic very close to Marijcke because she was there, albeit as an infant and toddler, and recorded the struggle of her parents to survive in her book, ‘Morning Comes and Also the Night’.

The Dutch East Indies, as Indonesia was then known, was overrun by the Japanese in 1942 and remained under their control until 1945. The Dutch captured in the Indies were held in detainment camps in steadily worsening conditions, as Marijcke describes in poignant detail in her memoir of survival.

The war ended 66 years ago but for many Dutch, the traumatic experience of the Japanese occupation is a lingering pain. Many are still waiting for recognition, compensation for war damages and back payment of salaries and pensions. They are still hoping for rehabilitation.

The exhibition in Epe is an initiative of the Foundation Japanese Debts of Honour and the ‘Indisch Platform’’. This exhibit is designed to show plainly why the Dutch from the erstwhile Dutch East Indies – the ‘Indisch’ – feel, after 66 years, that they are still paying the piper.

At the opening, Marijcke will present a copy of her book to the mayor of Epe, Ir. H v.d. Hoeve.

The exhibit runs from 3-19 August at the Culture House in Epe. It features many important historical and cultural artifacts made available by residents of the town.

Four becomes five in Ian’s surprise ending

Author Ian Mathie knows a thing or two about suspense — reviewers of his memoir Bride Price have praised its novel-like structure and pacing — but Ian outdid even himself last night.

Speaking at the launch of his new book Man in a Mud Hut at Warwick library, Ian casually mentioned that his four-part African Memoir series had just become five. “I’m 20,000 words into the Danakil,” he said, and judging by the murmurs and nods of approval from his audience, it was a popular announcement.

After a moment of slightly stunned surprise, his publisher concurred.

Ian’s memoirs, which include the forthcoming Supper with the President and The Man of Passage, cover a period in the 1970s when he worked in sub-Saharan Africa as a water resources engineer in the British government’s overseas aid programme. That work took him into Ethiopia and the Danakil region whose inhabitants were famously visited in the 1930s by Wilfred Thesiger.

Ian reviewed the notes of his own time in the region, prompted by recent news reports on the drought and impending famine in the Horn of Africa.

“As I sat watching the news, I remembered  all too clearly the drought in 1971/2 when I was first in Ethiopia,” he said. “The camp at Bati was described then as the biggest refugee camp in the world. Eleven years later, the same thing happened again and once more Ethiopia and Somalia were headlines for the same gruesome reasons.

“And now it’s happening all over again, just as it has for hundreds of years. The cycle has been shorter this time due to a shift in the world’s weather patterns, but it was entirely predictable.”

The working title for this new book is ‘Dust in the Danakil’. It promises to be full of Ian’s now-familiar blend of observation, explanation and narration with a strong hook to current affairs. Watch this space for publication details.



Our man in a mud hut

Ian Mathie checking proofs.

Two books published in quick succession — that’s what’s happening on 14 July when Ian Mathie’s new memoir, ‘Man in a Mud Hut’, is launched in Warwick UK.

Hot on the heels of the critical success of ‘Bride Price’, Ian has done it again with another intriguing and dramatic true story drawn from his life in Africa in the 1970s. This new book will delight anyone interested in Africa, its rural life, culture and characters, with doses of sorcery and witch-craft stirred in for good measure.

‘Man in a Mud Hut’ tells of an uninvited government ‘ferret’ sent from London to find out why a UK taxpayer-funded aid project in Africa was going wrong. Pitched head-first into a culture alien to anything he had experienced before, he uncovered much more than expected; a snake pit of corruption, extortion, murder and evil that threatened to devour him with primal forces beyond comprehension. How the author extracted his reluctant guest from a dicey situation and then helped change his perception of Africa and its people makes a captivating read.

‘Man in a Mud Hut’ is on sale from 15 July through selected bookshops and online book retailers, priced £12.99.

The smell of location

Novelist Tim Pears has a nose for a story, literally. It was enlightening to hear him describe hopping Easyjet to somewhere in central Europe on a research trip with little or no plan of what he was searching for. His destination was where something or someone he wanted to write about had happened, lived, passed through, died. His reason for going there? “I needed to know what it smelled like.”

Well snap, Tim. How many of us, particularly on the trail of ancestors, have arrived somewhere to soak up the atmosphere in the often forlorn hope that something will click, that our DNA will somehow connect with this place? Armed with perhaps an old photo or postcard, we search for tenuous connections. I suspect we all have — and then perhaps busily scribbled some notes to try and justify what to an outsider would appear a complete waste of time.

But it’s not. We all know a sense of place is important elements in a story, and getting it right makes all the difference. If a novelist like Tim knows this, then for a writer of non-fiction memoir, it must be all the more important.

Every memoir writer will struggle with this at some stage. When you reach that point and you can actually dig into your memory bank for sensations of reality to show your reader, you’ll thank your good fortune that you remembered to observe with your nostrils as well as your eyes and ears.

Nobody expected cannibalism

‘So Ian, what happened to the unfortunate and inappropriate suitor?’

‘The people ate him. Barbecued him, actually.’

Oh. Just like that then?

Well not quite, as ‘Bride Price’ author Ian Mathie explained to the nice lady from BBC Radio, but you sense, listening to the recording, that she and her listeners got a little more than she’d bargained for from a live interview with Ian. It was after all the week or so before a certain Royal wedding and one might perhaps have been expecting a more, shall we way, genteel commentary on womanhood and the blessed institution of marriage.

Not a bit of it. Ian isn’t one to pass up the opportunity to tell a good story; this was certainly one of those opportunities and ‘Bride Price’ is indeed a very good story.

Have a listen: go to and click on LINK2.

It all goes to show you can’t judge a book by its cover, or indeed an author from his cover notes.

Just ink on paper?

Don’t follow this link if you’re easily offended by words Especially don’t look if you’re a writer, thin-skinned about criticism, have a collection of rejection slips and a self-published book on your CV. This is a rant you’ll want to avoid.

Which would be a shame, because it’s actually quite funny. It’s written by Chuck Wendig who describes himself as a “freelance penmonkey” and runs a slick site called Terrible Minds (Nope – it’s all one word, l.c. — ed).

Wendig’s points are nothing we haven’t heard before. The trouble is that many writers, too many, have forgotten them in the mad and heady dash to publication through any of the print channels willing to separate would-be authors from their money.

We often seem conveniently to leave our critical faculties out in the cold when they’re most needed; when it’s our own creative output that needs appraisal. Publishing, like so many other things, has become too easy. The currency has been deflated.

Just because a printer will churn out a book for you doesn’t mean that it should be produced. For the printer, it’s just ink (or toner) on paper. You don’t want it to be the same for you.

The problem with ‘me’ in ‘memoir’

Here’s a good and well-written piece of review journalism that offers an insight into why some memoirs work and others don’t. It’s by no means the definitive work on the subject, but a pretty good summary (which is about all you can ask of a print journalist working to a tight word count).

Just as interesting as Genzlinger’s argument for the existence of editors is the long tail of comments he’s attracted. Many simply applaud the reviewer, but he appears to have wounded a sizeable group by suggesting (as his online illustrator has so brilliantly depicted) that too much ‘me’ gives ‘memoir’ an off-putting pong.

It seems what Genzlinger is saying, and what many of the outraged commentators are missing, is that personal experience in itself does not make for a good story. It’s when that experience steps into the realm of the universal that others empathise and become hooked. Certainly the first person singular is important in memoir writing – it’s personal, after all – but there’s nothing like a good third person singular overview from an editor to separate the wheat from the chaff.

If writers listened to them, there’s be a lot fewer opportunities for Genzlinger and others to skewer flawed efforts.