Ham On Rye by Charles Bukowski

410MZ2FASWLHam On Rye is a semi-autobiographical novel that chronicles Charles Bukowski’s early childhood leading all the way through to his mid-twenties.

The story is told in first-person through the fictional lens of Henry Chinaski. Starting from a young age, each section is written in the voice of that time period, which makes the book almost feel like a diary. The reader soon becomes caught up in Chinaski’s life as we witness the change in his maturity, the progression of his thoughts, and his gradual switch in perception of the events and people around him. And yet seven-year-old Chinaski still sounds similar to twenty-five year old Chinaski, which is where the genius in this book lies — Bukowski manages to write in a singular and unique voice and yet stretch it over a period of years, moving seamlessly between time periods without sacrificing the authentic voice of his central character and narrator.

And Bukowski doesn’t hold back or try to sugar coat anything. Bad or good, it’s all here for everyone to read in graphic detail. He takes us step by step through his tough upbringing with an abusive father, his sexual awakening in his early teens (with Henry suffering a ridiculous level of horniness which every male should be able to relate to), his torturous confidence-crippling skin condition, his propensity towards random acts of violence, and his eventual decline into a directionless, misogynistic, womanising, borderline alcoholic with nothing to live for, no one to die for, and nothing to look forward to. Bukowski portrays Chinaski as lost and confused — maybe even hurt and insecure — but most importantly, he comes across as real.

Ham On Rye may not appeal to those who prefer heavily structured and manipulative genre books. There’s no plot as such, no deliberate structure, no twists, and no real direction, other than forward, from one moment in his life to the next. The focus is as sporadic as the main character’s is, and that’s the point. His whole world is just one day at a time, one event at a time: the next fight, the next lay, the next drink. And we’re given a roadside view of it all, as depressing as it can sometimes be. There’s no happy ending, no life lesson learned or big character change at the end. Bukowksi just gives his readers the truth and feeds them wisdom through his own pitfalls. 

Above all, the book is hilariously sarcastic. It’s the equivalent of having a politically incorrect, foul-mouthed, sexist granddad tell you a lifetime of anecdotes. But don’t be blinded by the filth. The book is packed with insight. Bukowski offers a lot more depth below the surface. It’s merely hidden by his brashness and ego.

In short, if you’re not easily offended and have a good sense of humour, check out Ham on Rye. It might just be one of the funniest books you’ll ever read.


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Burial by Neil Cross

imgresBurial is a crime-thriller-cum-horror written by the man behind the hit TV series, Luther.

The story kicks off when Nathan, an employee of a famous radio DJ, attends his boss’s house party. From there, everything goes wrong. First he argues with his girlfriend in front of everyone, making a fool of himself. Then, drunkenly, he swings for his boss. And finally, he meets a girl and decides to drive out to a forest with her (alongside another guy he met at the party: Bob) and have sex with her. Bob also has sex with her, and during this twisted backyard swap-session, the girl dies. The two men bury her and conspire to cover up her death. To be on the safe side, they cut all ties and part ways. 

Nathan gradually gets his life back on track, and in a misguided attempt to assuage his guilt, he hunts down the sister of the deceased. To complicate things further, he falls in love with her. Then, ten years down the line, with that horrible night far back in his rearview mirror, and everything falling into place for the first time in forever, Bob turns up at his house and tells him they need to dig up the dead girl.

The story speeds towards its conclusion from there.

It’s a gripping premise, one that draws the reader in instantly, and the story, for the most part, delivers on it. As a whole, the book’s quick-moving, atmospheric, and realistic, with one major set piece (the death of the girl) and everything else just a long, winding, emotional aftermath. The finale is a little too neat and easy, but the novel is still worth reading for the journey to get there. The book almost feels like a novella in some respects; something that was stretched into a novel. But if that’s so, Neil Cross stretches it with skill. 

It’s not a story that will linger in the memory for years to come, but it will help pass a boring weekend.

Check it out.


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Rob Boffard: Part II

imgresIn PART I, Rob Boffard spoke about his debut novel, Tracer, which is due for release on July 2nd 2015. He also gave advice on how to approach an agent and some insight into the publishing world. Check it out here

In PART II, I delve a little deeper into his writing habits. 

GK: You have a strong journalistic background. Was the plan always to transition into a novelist?  

RB: I never planned transitioning into being a novelist. It just sort of happened! I’ve always enjoyed writing, and I was a journalist because to my mind that seemed like a career where I’d be able to do it regularly (plus, I love journalism anyway). I discovered over the years that while I was perfectly capable of being a journalist, the part I enjoyed most was actually putting pen to paper and writing the stories. It felt like a natural progression.

GK: How have your years of journalism informed and/or improved the way you approached the writing business?

RB: The advantage of being a journalist was that it gave me the opportunity and impetus to write regularly. I excised a lot of bad writing, because if I didn’t then my editors wouldn’t accept it. Being freelance has also taught me a great deal about managing money and selling my stories. It also helps me deal with rejection, because even now I still get my story ideas rejected on an almost weekly basis — sometimes daily. I’ve learned to move on very quickly.

GK: What would you say is the main difference between being a journalist and a novelist? In a sense you were creating stories and shaping narratives before, and now you’re doing the same but they’re all fictional.

RB: Absolutely. In many cases, it is actually quite rare for an editor to let me see their changes to a particular article before it is published, simply because of the nature of journalism and daily deadlines. Obviously I love it when that happens because it gives me a chance to make the story a lot better, but I don’t get too fussed when it doesn’t. When we first began editing Tracer, I told my editor that I would happily make any change she suggested as long as there was a good and logical reason behind it. So far it’s an approach that has paid off, because every change she has suggested has made the story better. I can only think of one change that I actually vetoed, although I’m going to keep that one under wraps.

GK: Many first time authors can be precious about their work — not wanting to change or rewrite certain things. You said earlier (in PART I) that “endlessly tinkering” with your book was a difficult process but essential. How important do you think it is to rewrite? And what advice would you give to the stubborn writers who refuse to change their work?

RB: You can’t publish a story without rewriting it, even if the rewrite isn’t extensive. No one’s first draft is ever quite good enough. If you think yours is, then you’re wrong. It’s that simple. The only time that isn’t the case is if you’re some kind of insane genius, and since those come along about once every hundred years, I’m going to assume that’s not the case.

GK: What’s your writing process? Do you try to hit a certain word count a day? Only have banana and eggs for breakfast? Wear your lucky pants and socks combo every morning before you start typing? Or do you just make it up as you go along?

RB: Pretty boring answer I’m afraid! I aim for around 1500 words a day, and often end up getting closer to 2000. I write in the morning after my fiancée leaves for work. I do a bit of a work out, listen to some loud and aggressive hip-hop, have a shower, blend up a smoothie so I can get my fruit fix, then all I have to do is tear myself away from the Internet and actually sit down and write. But it’s a rare day that I don’t hit my word count.

GK: I won’t ask where you get your ideas — I hate being asked that question myself — but how do you cultivate your ideas? If you get a flash of something, do you write it down that day and get to work on it? Do you let it simmer? What’s your process for nurturing an idea into something deeper and more satisfying?

RB: Interesting question. My ideas tend to come in bright flashes at the most unexpected times. I don’t usually write them down as they are pretty clear in my head, but sometimes I might make a few notes if the idea is particularly complex or is an intricate solution to a problem I’ve been having. After that, it’s just a case of interrogating the idea for weak spots. Once I start writing it down, I usually know pretty fast if it’s a keeper or not. 

GK: Are you the type to plan out your book in advance, or write as you go along? And if you’ve done both, which have you found to be more useful?

RB: Tracer was the first novel I’d ever written and I had no idea how to do it, so I did an outline more or less on reflex. It worked well, so I did it for the second one too. I also found that in both cases I went quite a bit off the original plan, and was more than happy to do so. After the second book was done, I launched straight into a completely different novel which I didn’t plan at all, and I found that to be quite a stressful experience. With an outline, even a very rough one, I feel like I’ve got something to help me find my way.

GK: Seeing as you began writing the sequels to Tracer whilst in the middle of going back and forth on the first one with your editor, did anything from that experience shape or change how you approached the writing of your sequels? Did you learn about a particular writing flaw of yours — maybe a propensity to overuse certain words/phrases, perhaps? Or did you just steam ahead with it knowing you’d deal with it in the rewrite stage?

RB: Yes, absolutely. I learned that there are certain things that I forget to do (like include physical descriptions of the characters, which is pretty important!). But I also don’t believe in waiting for things to be perfect before I start a project. I decided that I was capable of editing and writing at the same time, and changing things on the fly if I needed to.

GK: Any advice you could pass on to the aspiring authors out there reading this?

RB: None whatsoever. Almost all writing advice is snake-oil. The only thing that’s ever worked in all circumstances is: read lots, write lots.

GK: Great, I think that’s everything. Thanks for your time. Is there anything else you wanted to add?

RB: Thanks for the interview, and check out Tracer this July. It’s bad-ass. 

If you enjoyed the interview, please share/tweet/Facebook/ignore everything I just said, and also check out Rob’s website. He updates it regularly and there’s plenty more information on Tracer along with some cool artwork of his characters. And if you end up buying Tracer (which you can pre-order here), make sure to email me/comment below and let me know what you think. I’ve read it and it’s a fantastic novel. 

I’ve got a feeling the name Rob Boffard will be making some waves over the next few years.


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Rob Boffard: Part I

imgresI first heard of Rob Boffard when he wrote a long piece for Huck about the world of battle rap (read it here). As a freelance journalist, fresh from his hometown in Johannesburg, South Africa, Rob had been writing and selling his articles to publications for years: from Music Tech to Wired to The Guardian. On this occasion he’d covered a Don’t Flop tryout event that I’d participated in, and had nothing but complimentary things to say about me. After reading it online, my fiancée hunted down a physical copy of the magazine for my birthday, and then I searched for Rob on Facebook to applaud him on his writing. Not only because he’d written such nice (and obviously true) things about me, but also because I genuinely enjoyed his work. I could tell this guy had a real spark with words. I suggested we meet up for drinks. 

Over time we built up a friendship based on our mutual passion: writing fiction. We began to correspond regularly, sending short stories and novels back and forth, offering advice and criticism, and sometimes meeting up for more drinks so we could drunkenly rant at each other about the torment of novel writing. Eventually Rob snagged an agent, and a short while later a three-book deal for his Outer Earth trilogy with the Science Fiction publishing house Orbit

Since then he’s moved to Canada with his fiancée, and been chasing deadlines.

He kindly took time from his busy schedule to talk with me.

We not only discussed his new book, but Rob also gave an insight into his writing process and offered some valuable tips for any aspiring authors out there.

Check out PART I below:

GK: Firstly, let’s talk about your debut novel Tracer. It’s set for release on July 2nd 2015. Can you tell us what it’s about?

RB: Sure. It’s set on a space station, Outer Earth, which holds the last of humanity. Outer Earth is old: broken down, rusted, falling to pieces. There are couriers, called tracers, who take packages and messages across the station. One of the couriers, Riley, discovers she’s been transporting something pretty gruesome, and uncovers a conspiracy that could destroy Outer Earth . . .

GK: It’s the first in a trilogy. When you originally wrote Tracer, did you envision it as more than one book? Or was that the publisher’s decision?

RB: I didn’t know what Tracer was going to be! I just wrote it. Only when I got to the end did I realise that I wasn’t done telling the story. Orbit liked that, and bought the books as a trilogy before I’d even finished writing them.

GK: And are they all finished now? 

RB: I’m editing book two at the moment, and the first draft of book three is about two weeks away from completion. Crunch time!

GK: And then how long do we have to wait before we can read them?

RB: Book 2 is out in February 2016, and Book 3 in July 2016.

GK: Moving on to the book itself: as someone who’s been privileged to have read Tracer before it hits shops, one of the refreshing things I noticed when reading your novel is that you have a diverse cast of characters (a compelling mix of races, creeds, and sexes) without it seeming forced or done for the sake of filling a quota. Was it a conscious decision to have so many different — and many would say “marginalised” — voices in your novel? And do you think it’s important to provide a platform of characters that represents the true diversity of real life?

RB: I need to be very careful with this answer, because I know that it’s a tricky topic, particularly in the sci-fi community. We absolutely do need more diversity in fiction, including more protagonists who come from marginalised groups. That’s a no-brainer. That being said, the diversity in Tracer wasn’t a conscious choice, mostly because I was doing my very best to not write a crap story, and that was taking up most of my conscious brainpower! But I knew very early on that Outer Earth was likely to be a melange of different cultures, races, genders, religions. That’s just how, logically, a place like that would turn out. I let that guide me. I didn’t consciously try and make my characters diverse, but subconsciously that’s obviously what happened, and I’m delighted that it did.

GK: Your main hero Riley is a great character: a smart, witty, determined woman who manages to be both vulnerable and made of steel. What was it like writing from a female perspective? Did you find it any more challenging than writing the male characters? And did you get any input or feedback about Riley from the women in your life?

RB: I didn’t think too hard about the female perspective. I knew it was important, but I figured that if I concentrated on writing a believable character, that would come through. From the reactions I’ve got so far I think it came out okay. That’s not to say I have it perfect, or don’t have more work to do in future books. For someone like me — male — it’s an ongoing education.

GK: One thing that struck me about the world you created (Outer Earth) is how legitimate and realistic it seems. Did you do any research into how a space station would work before you started writing? Or did you just make it up as you went along?

RB: I did a huge amount of research on orbital physics, and what the station would be like. This was not something I was willing to make up on-the-fly. I went down and spoke to a genuine rocket scientist at Kingston University, and he helped me put together a station that worked. I also spoke to an expert on fusion energy, an entomologist, and a few other scientists as well. I was quite content to make up the actual story, but I wanted my physics to be straight.

GK: I can definitely see Tracer hitting the big screen one day. If that happens, do you have any ideas about who you’d like to play Riley (and any other cast members) in a film version?

RB: So many ideas. I would love this to be made into a movie, although of course that is a very long way off. There’s a New Zealand actress called Shavaughn Ruakere who I think would make a killer Riley. Either her, or Olivia Thirlby from Dredd. Michael B. Jordan would make an amazing Carver; or a young Ryan Reynolds, circa Blade 3 (not possible now, obviously). Man, so many other names . . . A young Zhang Ziyi as Yao, Sam Worthington as Kevin, Dev Patel as Prakesh. Jada Pinkett Smith would be the PERFECT Okwembu. Darnell, I don’t know . . . someone fucking huge. Basically what I’m saying is, if this ever gets made into a movie I am writing it into the contract that I have casting power. 

GK: Many aspiring authors don’t understand just how long the process is from the sale of a book up until publication. Could you give us a little insight into what goes on behind the scenes once a book’s been accepted? And how have you found that process? 

RB: After the hangover from celebratory drinks has faded away, it’s all about getting the book ready for publication. You work pretty closely with your editor on every stage of the book, making sure it’s as good as it can be. For me, this felt like lying under a car with my arms deep in the guts of the engine, endlessly tinkering. It’s a very difficult process, but absolutely essential. In the background, the publisher is busy with cover design, blurb copy, working on a marketing campaign . . . at this stage, that’s all still going on, as we’re a few months from publication. 

GK: Any positive/negatives you’ve noticed since being part of that world that you were previously unaware of? Any pitfalls that you could advise others to watch out for?

RB: Good question. I think you have to be prepared for the amount of work needed to actually get a manuscript to a point where it can be published. To my mind, it actually felt like more work than writing the book in the first place. But I have to stress that it’s an enormously positive process. You come out of it feeling like you really accomplished something.

GK: There’s a common belief amongst many unpublished authors that finding an agent to represent their work is more about luck than talent: you either hit the lottery or you don’t. Could you tell us how you found your agent? What did you do — hockey mask and gun to the face? Fireworks through the letterbox? Or something more traditional?

RB: I’m a big believer in tradition, which for me meant duct tape and bolt cutters. No, I think you need a bit of both — luck and talent, that is, not assorted weapons. You not only have to have the drive and talent to get your manuscript to a semi-readable state, but you do need a tiny bit of luck in finding the right agent for it. Simply because an agent rejects you doesn’t mean that your manuscript is bad; it just means that they may not be the right agent for it. I got about eighteen rejections before I found my guy, and that came simply through the process of cold submitting. No shortcuts, no magic button. I just kept at it.

GK: Any advice you could give authors on how they should approach an agent?

RB: Be polite, accept a no and move on, and don’t think that submitting anything other than a standard cover letter and the first bit of your manuscript will work. Agents have seen every “clever” submission under the sun, and they’re far more likely to respond to you if you work within their parameters.

GK: When you signed with your agent, what was your initial reaction? And then, later, how did you feel when you found out you were finally going to be published?

RB: Both of them are among the best feelings in the world. It’s not just that someone has expressed interest in your work, it’s that they’re prepared to then work hard on your behalf (initially without compensation, in the case of the agent) to make sure that it gets out into the world. When I found out that Orbit had made an offer, I was sitting in bed in Vancouver on a Saturday morning. It was a bit early for whiskey, but we had the mother of all fry-ups . . .

That’s it for PART I. In the meantime, check out Rob’s website here for more information. 

In PART II, we discuss Rob’s background in journalism, his writing routines, and the importance of rewriting your work before sending it off. Make sure you check it out here.


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Suspect By Robert Crais

imgres“She snapped at the raining debris, and barked at the metal birds now circling the distant buildings like terrible wasps. There were more explosions, then a sudden silence filled the desert, and the clatter of running Marines approached . . .”

Best known for his series of Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novels, Robert Crais, on this occasion, chose to depart from the much-loved, much-debated characters of Cole and Pike, and instead penned a standalone book. His previous non-series release, discounting the Joe Pike spin-offs, was The Two Minute Rule.

Suspect is the story of police officer Scott James, who happens across a dangerous diamond heist in the early hours of the morning — and soon everything turns bloody: bullets flying and people dying (including his partner, Stephanie). Luckily, Scott makes it out alive . . . barely . . . with multiple gunshot wounds. Zap forward a number of months and Scott is mostly rehabilitated, although the psychological scars still remain. He sees a psychiatrist to help overcome the guilt of his partner’s death, and also, with the aid of hypnotherapy, he tries to remember any pertinent details that could push the police towards capturing the killers. 

Aside from this, Scott has just joined the K9 team — a special dogs unit — and is quickly enamoured by Maggie, a dog who has suffered her own pain (and bullet wounds) and whom he instantly relates to and bonds with. And from there, it’s a story filled with mystery, intrigue, guns, death, and canine-human bonding, all wrapped in a generically plotted bow.

The story isn’t the strongest (or most original, especially considering some of Crais’s past work); the detective angle, for the most part, is meagre and reactive; the twists are rare and obvious, although sufficiently executed; and the main meat of the story relies heavily on a chance encounter and a dog with a sharp nose. Yet, minor flaws notwithstanding, there’s enough here to sustain the reader’s attention, and although the plot ultimately follows a much-treaded ground by Crais, the dog angle at least gives it a fresh spin. And the crux relationship between dog and human is expertly handled, bringing a warmth and depth to the story that it might otherwise have lacked.

Its main downfall, however, is the ending. It seems rushed and a little too easy, as if Crais wanted to finish the book, or had to finish the book, in time for his deadline, and didn’t put much thought into how to end it. It’s not a terrible ending as such; it merely feels glossed over and raced through. The lovely, slow, simmering build-up of friendship and loyalty between dog and hero is smashed apart in twenty pages by a speedy dénouement and a tacked on ending.

In conclusion: Suspect is not one of Crais’s best . . . but even an average Crais novel is better than a great novel by many others in his field. 

Read it and enjoy it if you already know his work.

Start with LA Requiem if you don’t.


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Live By Night By Dennis Lehane

imgres“The word was out — choose a side or choose a headstone . . .”

Dennis Lehane is one of the greatest authors ever — past or present — and no one else’s opinion on the matter is valid. It’s the truth. The man is a beast with a pen. He wields his words like weapons of mass destruction.

Live by Night carries on from The Given Day (as the second in a now-completed trilogy), albeit with a different cast of characters and set many years later. It’s the story of Joe Coughlin — a small-time outlaw — and the novel follows his life as he falls in love, commits crimes, messes up, and struggles to come to terms with the type of person he is and the type of life he’s leading. The events take place over a number of years, primarily during The Prohibition Era, and chronicle Coughlin’s rise to the top as he moves deeper into the gangster lifestyle. Predictably, he soon runs into trouble — and those troubles gradually swell and grow and eventually converge in a satisfying and bloody climax.

Overall it’s a strong novel, as was The Given Day, with likeable and authentic characters, an engaging plot, page upon page of witty and realistic dialogue, and a powerful conclusion. You can read this without having read The Given Day, but I’d suggest starting from the beginning and reading the trilogy in order. It’s worth the effort. 


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Death By Hollywood by Steven Bocho

th-1“The story I want to tell you involves, among other things, a screenwriter whose career is fading out more than it’s fading in, a billionaire’s wife, and a murder . . .”

Death by Hollywood is a shallow attempt to expose and lampoon all the shady, unscrupulous, ego-driven sociopaths who run the American film industry. 

In PopcornBen Elton approached a similar subject (albeit from a different angle), but whereas he ripped into his subject with cutting insights and still maintained a moral epicentre to the book — a depth of character and plot — this book fails to reach the intelligence or enjoyment of that satire. In contrast, Death by Hollywood is all style with zero substance, no different from the bimbo dilettantes it tries to send up: alluring on the surface, but not much going on upstairs. 

The plot concerns a borderline alcoholic writer who chances upon seeing a murder, and then manipulates the proceeding events so he can write the truth from the inside out, even going so far as to hang out with the lead detective in the homicide. It’s a straightforward story with a few obvious twists, and reads like a guy at a bar telling a humorous and extended story to his friends about a couple murders; something they won’t remember the next morning, but which is nonetheless hilarious and engrossing on the night. Also, at times, the story is a little too clever for its own good: with all the inside jokes and secondhand industry stories, etc.

However, in spite of the flaws, it’s still a fairly entertaining read with a humorous, engaging voice. It won’t be one you recommend to all your friends, but it’s worth reading over the space of a Sunday afternoon when you’re bored and have nothing better to do. 


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11.22.63 by Stephen King

63lg“Even people capable of living in the past don’t really know what the future holds.” 

11.22.63 is the story of Jake Epping (also known, later in the book, as George Amberson) and his attempts through time travel to save former president John F. Kennedy from assassination. He believes if he does this the world will become a better place. But it’s not as simple as going back in time, popping one in Lee Harvey Oswald’s head, then returning to the 21st century to bask in a renewed and beautiful present-day America. He needs to be certain Lee was a lone shooter. He needs to be certain there aren’t any loopholes that can come back to bite his plan in the ass. And without any definitive proof either way, he chooses the safe option: to investigate and follow the infamous Oswald from afar.

During this time, he falls in love with a librarian called Sadie — who’s harbouring a dark secret that’s intent on catching up with her — and pretty soon the past begins throwing roadblocks up to stop Jake Epping/George Amberson from toying with the world’s only known reality. And as the story rockets along through a twisting road of romance and suspense, the tension soon intensifies and elevates, leading to a powerful climax.

In short: if you like your stories with scope, brains, humour and horror all mixed into one, then this is the perfect book for that.

This is Stephen King on form.

This is the master at his best. 

And if you’re a not fan of King already, this might just convert you.


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