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Country of the Bad Wolfes

Texas Monthly
Blake’s boisterous tenth novel unspools an epic filial tale, detailing the confluence of Mexico’s ill-starred destiny with the fate of an Irish-British-American family so thoroughly accursed that it seems almost inevitable that the clan should become Mexican … A multigenerational saga [with] wonderfully drawn characters … Blake excels in gorily choreographed fight scenes [and] while [he] keeps you immersed in his wildly picaresque tale, he slowly reels in the novel’s dark take-home: it doesn’t matter if your distant ancestry is pre-Columbian or Hibernian, Aztec or Iberian. Sooner or later, it’ll catch up with you.
- John Phillip Santos, February 1, 2012 
Library Journal
A great read from start to finish, full of grit, local color, and a large cast of vibrant characters … this brawling, high-spirited, and superbly realized family saga … offers many pleasures, including endearing characters, unlikely love stories, and all manner of mayhem. Highly recommended for fans of literary fiction.
Blake has become a master of historical fiction (In the Rogue Blood), and this latest novel is a great read from start to finish, full of grit, local color, and a large cast of vibrant characters—as well as a full measure of pitiless frontier violence. Set in Mexico and Texas from the 1820s to the 1920s and based partly on Blake's own family, this brawling, high-spirited, and superbly realized family saga chronicles three generations of the Wolfe family, beginning with family patriarch Roger Blake Wolfe, a pirate captured and executed by Mexican authorities in 1828. At the center of the novel are twin brothers Blake and James Wolfe, who grow up on a remote Mexican hacienda and rise from humble beginnings as crocodile hunters to become gun runners and finally major landowners in Texas, with large families and powerful friends.

VERDICT This novel offers many pleasures, including endearing characters, unlikely love stories, and all manner of mayhem. Highly recommended for fans of literary fiction.
- Patrick Sullivan, January 15, 2012 
Kirkus Reviews
A rollicking tale … that acquires depth as it moves across generations and national boundaries … Blake doesn't mind a boudoir but his real strengths come in describing manly mayhem, which he portrays with uncommon poetry … [With] Cormac McCarthy's tutelary spirit [and] soupçons of Garcia Márquez … the book keeps good company … full of wry humor and thoughtful writing.
A rollicking, shaggy-doggish yarn of life in 19th and early-20th-century Mexico and the Wild West by prolific historical novelist Blake (The Pistoleer, 1995, etc.)
The author concentrates on telling a tale that on its face is simple, but that acquires depth as it moves across generations and national boundaries. Based on family history, Blake's story begins in New England, its chief characters, at the start, the twin sons of an adventurous ship's captain long lost at sea—or so their mother tells them. In fact, papa is a rolling stone, and so, it seems, are all the Wolfes, who just can't stay put. Pop, we learn, also had an establishing trait: "He was not tall but carried himself as a tall man." And so, across the bloodlines, do the other Wolfes, stiff-necked in their pride, always ready for a scrap—and, for that matter, a dalliance of the sort that Blake
describes in language that would earn a film version an R rating ("breasts upraised and nipples puckered and lean belly sloping to a rubric delta"). Blake doesn't mind a boudoir, but his real strengths come in describing manly mayhem during a time of revolution, as well as death, which he portrays with uncommon poetry ("He felt his entire body constrict and he doubled over, hugging himself, breathless, his cry stoppered in his throat"). In such matters, Cormac McCarthy'S tutelary spirit is allover this book, but there are soupcons of Garcia Marquez as well ("in the final days of 191O, some years after finally accepting that she was past all possibility of conception and at last acquiescing to sexual intercourse with Amos Bentley … ")
We're in McCarthy territory in much of Blake's latest, but without the dazzling verbal pyrotechnics. That's not to say that the book is derivative-merely that it keeps good company. Blake's tale is involved and a touch too long, but full of wry humor and thoughtful writing.
- February 1, 2012 
Publishers Weekly
Murder, politics, and illegitimate children fuel this engrossing and wonderfully realized saga...readers will be curious to see what tragedies befall the Wolfes and whether the family will be redeemed.
Blake’s newest (after The Killings of Stanley Ketchel) is an immersive and complex epic set in New England, Mexico, and the American Southwest and spanning three generations of the Wolfe family, a rough-and-tumble clan sired in 1828 by pirate captain Roger Blake Wolfe, whose execution shortly after the birth of his twin boys, Samuel and John Roger, starts the book off with a violent start. The brothers’ paths separate when Samuel accidentally kills a watchman and signs up for the Army under an alias to avoid prosecution, and John Roger goes to Dartmouth, from whence he graduates with a law degree. Both brothers end up in Mexico—Samuel deserts the Army and John Roger accepts a position as a sales agent at his wife’s uncle’s trading company—, but neither can escape the curse of the Wolfe blood, which persists across generations and geography. Murder, politics, and illegitimate children fuel this engrossing and wonderfully realized saga. The familial relationships are deep and sometimes difficult to trace (though a Wolfe genealogy at the beginning of the book helps a little), but Blake methodically moves his narrative forward to the tragic (but inevitable) conclusion. While he reveals little of his protagonists’ inner lives, readers will be curious to see what tragedies befall the Wolfes and whether the family will be redeemed.
- February 6, 2012 
Booklist
This is historical fiction in the manner of Umberto Eco…many-faceted, slow, and savory.
- December 23, 2011 
Our Man in Boston
Blake has a sure-handed grasp of 19th western US history and culture that is every bit as engaging and authentic as say, Cormac McCarthy and Guy Vanderhaeghe and Jim Harrison … [A] skillful and astute narrative … an enthralling tale.
- Robert Birnbaum, January 17, 2012  Visit Website
Shelf Awareness
[I]mbued with the magical realism of García Márquez … [and] the frontier brutality of Cormac McCarthy … Blake's story will entertain fans of historical and adventure novels alike.
- January 9, 2011 
Bookworks
A sprawling, magnificent story of three generations of men, their fortunes, loves and losses, during a fascinating time in the history of the United States and Mexico.
Texas Observer
Spanning three generations, [Blake] spins the tale of a family ‘cursed by twin passions.’ Some in the Wolfe clan are ‘in thrall to the passions of the flesh,’ others ‘to a passion for risks of blood,’ and many are ‘damned by both.’ Love and violence rule the day, and are parceled equally between the sexes … Country of the Bad Wolfes is an engrossing novel.
- January 5, 2012 
Dallas Morning News
[A] sprawling saga … Blake's knowledge of the history and particulars of the periods and places where the account takes place reveals close research and almost encyclopedic knowledge, especially in small details … his [is a] prodigious talent.
- January 29, 2012 
GQ.com
Blake's literary badlands are uniquely his own — crime novels set in well-researched historical settings that manage to avoid crime-fiction clichés.
- Stayton Bonner, February 13, 2012  Visit Website
MysteryPeople
The book is trademark Blake with rogue heroes, duels, and demons and angels of human nature locked in a violent dance with one another. It’s a look at the United States and Mexico and the bloodshed, politics, and history that lies between the borders … As a whole, James Carlos Blake’s work has the feel of lived-in legend. It’s a collection of old folk ballads singing to a new present. And I highly recommend you listen … Country of the Bad Wolfes tells us the best is yet to come.
- Scott Montgomery, January 13, 2011 
Southwestern American Literature
"Over the years, Blake has often been compared to Cormac McCarthy, mainly because both writers often use Mexico as setting and symbol and both are known for focusing on aspects of the human attraction to violence. Blake delivers on both in Country of the Bad Wolfes ... [which] is the first of a rumored series of books about the big bad Wolfes. This first book will lead many readers to look ahead anxiously for the next one’s appearance.”
James Carlos Blake’s tenth novel, Country of the Bad Wolfes, was pub¬lished earlier this year by Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso. Like several of his other nine novels, this new one takes place in varied settings in England, New England, Texas, and finally Mexico. Blake’s earlier works were gener¬ally well-received; In the Rogue Blood won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
The new book’s title is not a typo; it refers to the Wolfe family, the subject of this 456-page novel based, Blake says, on his own family. The story spans more than a century and approaches the category of historical epic fiction, covering three generations of a family with vices and virtues that appear in the various generations. Roger Blake Wolfe, the forebear of the Wolfe clan, begins the family line but is soon hanged as a pirate in Veracruz, leaving twin sons John Roger and Samuel Thomas in New Hampshire. Samuel Thomas is drawn to a life at sea like his father, but after he kills a local law officer in self-defense, he enlists in the U.S. Army and is off to the Mexican-American War, later deserting to join the San Patricio Battalion, mainly made up of Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany who became part of the Mexican Army against the U.S. After the war and after almost all the San Patricios are sentenced to die, Samuel Thomas manages to escape.
His twin John Roger ultimately accepts a job running an import/export business in Veracruz. During these several decades of the narrative, John Roger has three sons (including identical twins), builds a large hacienda, and coincidentally connects with his brother’s side of the family. One con¬nection turns out to be Edward Little, the main character of In the Rogue Blood, who is also linked to the historical President Porfirio Díaz, who leads the novel into the historical details of Díaz’s tumultuous regime.
Although Blake’s story covers many years of history, Blake focuses mainly on a family history that, except for the Díaz’s regime, is generally unknown to the reading public. He therefore avoids one of the major complaints of historical novels—that they do not accurately portray the past. The novel therefore depends upon how effectively the writer can engage the reader in the fictional history of his characters. He succeeds with some parts of this long family narrative, especially with the early parts of the two brothers’ lives and later with the twin sons’ stories, but less so with the later twists and turns of the extended family story. And some of the coincidences seem far-fetched.
Over the years, Blake has often been compared to Cormac McCarthy, mainly because both writers often use Mexico as setting and symbol and both are known for focusing on aspects of the human attraction to violence. Blake delivers on both in Country of the Bad Wolfes. Where he diverges from McCarthy is in his use of language, which never reaches the Faulknerian heights of McCarthy in vocabulary or verbal verve. In fact, Blake often adopts a formal style, writing about the 19th century in a language that seems often to be from that century. Here, for example, is Blake’s description of John Roger’s wedding night:

[A]s he lay abed in their room while she finished with her bath, his appre¬hension grew overwhelming and he was certain of impotence. She emerged with her face rosy from the bath and the heat of her own excitement, her hair a lustrous spill on the shoulders of her white gown. But as she ap¬proached the bed she sensed his tension and in the low candlelight saw the alarm in his eyes. An instinct she hadn’t known she possessed prompted her to kiss a fingertip and put it to his lips, and then she stepped back and turned about and unbelted her gown and let it cascade to her feet.

The rest of this scene unfolds in more contemporary language (more bodice ripper than porn), showing another difference between Blake and his strong influence, McCarthy, whose writing rarely ventures into the bedroom.
It is to Blake’s credit that he has not aped McCarthy. He has gone his own way, and this sprawling family history takes him in a new direction. The Country of the Bad Wolfes is the first of a rumored series of books about the big bad Wolfes. This first book will lead many readers to look ahead anxiously for the next one’s appearance.
- Mark Busby, July 1, 2012 
San Antonio Express-News
A literary page-turner … a romantic, violent, panoramic historical saga (written) with a journalist's eye for detail and a poet's love of words … a fascinating read.
- February 17, 2012 
Tucson Citizen
[A] beautifully crafted book … rich in historical detail and featuring memorable characters … takes the historical novel to an entirely new place … an exceptional piece of modern fiction.
- Larry Cox, February 29, 2012  Visit Website
Poisoned Pen
This is the masterwork that Blake has been working on for years. Don't be intimidated by the book's epic, multi-generational scope either. You'll be absolutely riveted from the first page … Full of fascinating history, the Wolfe family saga is ribald, raunchy and essential reading … don't miss it.
- Patrick Millikin, March 1, 2012 
Midwest Book Review
[In] a story of power and what will be done to keep it, James Carlos Blake puts together a historical novel packed cover to cover with intrigue … a fine and much recommended addition to any historical fiction collection.
- March 1, 2012 
Tucson Weekly
“[A] worthy book … Country of the Bad Wolfes is a poetic ... offspring of Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Cormac McCarthy. … The Wolfe family is said to be cursed by 'passions of the flesh' and 'risks of blood' ... 'a curse like a ready noose around the neck of every Wolfe.' In the end, it is the quick, thoughtless choices of flawed men, women, leaders and nations that cause suffering, violence and early death. For Blake, it seems, we are all cursed with that noose around our neck.”
- Tim Hull, March 29, 2012  Visit Website
Helium
[A] wild tale of family, twins and politics. ... [with] Hemingway-like descriptions.... You won’t want to put this one down until it’s over. ... The Wolfes are a lively bunch ... that make Zorba the Greek look dull.... The book is not for the weak-hearted, or the highly Moral. It will make you squirm a bit, no matter how open-minded or tough you think you are. It is a violent book ... of turbulent times ... [but] there is beauty and love, and antics of a high-spirited family. It is exciting and rewards an intellectual curiosity about how things work, how the world changed, how history is interpreted. You will want the read all of Blake’s books. Bravo.
This family saga by James Carlos Blake is a dynamic and slightly irreverent view of history as well as families in general. The book covers many years and much terrain between the Civil War era and fifty or so years that followed, featuring New England, then the rough territories of Texas and Coastal, Northern Mexico. It is a wild tale of family, twins and psychology, and politics. The story of ex-patriots and a grisly, poignant theory of what is worth loyalty both come through. It is based on reality, partially inspired by the family history of the author.

James Carlos Blake is the new epitome of Western storyteller. The wild Southwest, survival and outlaws as well as corruption and natural beauty, is always a fascinating theme. You can tell that he was born in Mexico. Blake adds his own Hemingway-like descriptions, Sundance Kid action, and intelligent political analysis to make a modern application of old lessons and historic facts. You won’t want to put this one down until it’s over.

There are timely lessons about the military life, prisons, banana-republics, economics, corruption and manipulation. It is American history, with a personal perspective. Perhaps the world needs to re-read some of this. Fiction often gets the messages across when dry journalism fails.

The Wolfes are a lively bunch indeed. The sparkle in their eyes, at least the younger branches, and the recognition of adventure and unconventional views is both a blessing, for ultimate survival, and a curse, highly frowned-upon by society. They took individuality to the extreme heights only Americans are known for, and yet adopted and appreciated the Mexican culture and landscape with a thorough belief in working together.

Not a bit sexist, the siblings plus extended families make a difference and thrive with a combination of fierce instincts, intelligence, and a life-force that makes Zorba the Greek look dull. The love stories that inevitably evolve throughout the family, and even influence the plot, are good ones. There is much loss, much love. Priorities are not predictable, but they are understandable. Life was cruel and difficult in the cities as well as the plantations of old Mexico, yet somehow the comparisons of North American life make it all far more desirable.

The book is not for the weak-hearted, or the highly Moral. It will make you squirm a bit, no matter how open-minded or tough you think you are. It is a violent book, telling a horrible tale of turbulent times. There is beauty and love, and full of antics of a high-spirited family. It is exciting and rewards an intellectual curiosity about how things work, how the world changed, how history is interpreted. You will want the read all of Blake’s books. Bravo.
- May 7, 2012 
Rain Taxi
"[A] sweeping family saga [of] adventuring and philandering, smuggling and murdering and politicking in early-1900s Mexico and the borderlands... Blake not only weaves a good fireside yarn, he produces a strong literary tale too. [He] expertly plays with form, changing verb tense and perspective occasionally, slipping back and forth through time and place as though from string to string on a guitar neck.... [And] the women in this novel are also strong, smart, and funny ... men's equal in Wolfe country."
" The sweeping family saga of Robert Blake Wolfe— pirate, joker, Romeo, an entire New World Court of characters in one person, and passed down through three further generations— makes for quite a tome, and that’s not a judgment call about modern readers’ attention spans. This story takes a reader from Captain Wolfe’s arrival in New Hampshire in 1828 through his descendants’ adventuring and philandering, smuggling and murdering and politicking in early-1900s Mexico and the borderlands, and readers need to be ready to face this pack of Wolfes.
Keeping the familial relationships straight poses one challenge right off the bat: If the characters’ names don’t rival the length of those in Russian novels, they certainly do compete in terms of confusing repetition. Blake, James, John, Samuel, Sebastian, and Thomas each make their way through multiple generations, sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish, in male and female versions, and in a variety of first-name/middle-name combinations. Two contiguous generations produce twin boys; one Wolfe daughter alone marries five different men.
Fortunately, none of these Wolfes—by blood or marriage— is a retiring character; even the most private of them demands his or her story be heard. They don’t live in a quiet time or place, either. Barely into their twenties, twins John Roger and Samuel Thomas, sons of Robert Blake, are short an arm, an eye and part of a leg between them—and John Roger took the time to graduate from Dartmouth first. Samuel Thomas received his physical hardships (much more than a lost eye and a limp) because he enrolled in the U.S. military instead of boarding a trading ship and then through circumstance became a San Patricio, a traitor to his homeland for Mexico.
Though he details quite a few individual histories along his characters’ family tree, author James Carlos Blake—might there be a serious autobiography in the fictional Country of the Bad Wolfes? —clearly has a heart for the repeating Wolfe twins, first John Roger and Samuel Thomas and then John Roger’s sons, James Sebastian and Blake Cortéz, who follow in their father’s and uncle’s footsteps in terms of brotherly love and new-frontier abandon. Perhaps more importantly, the women in this novel are also strong, smart, and funny. It’s particularly devastating when the first woman we spend any length of time with, John Roger’s wife, Elizabeth Anne, dies (hardly a spoiler; one expects nothing less from a sweeping family drama set within the North American frontier). She, after all, is a better shot, a better swimmer, a better everything than her male counterparts—and they are proud of her for it. Women are men’s equal in Wolfe country; this is a Wild West tale but with a modern take.
Author Blake not only weaves a good fireside yarn, he produces a strong literary tale, too, one that can hold up to the bluster of schoolyard criticism. He expertly plays with form, changing verb tense and perspective occasionally, slipping back and forth through time and place as though from string to string on a guitar neck. One sentence tops out at 166 words long, but it is completely warranted in the exciting actions scene:

Then they saw the white water directly before them and saw too there was a small drop just ahead of it and then the raft seemed to leap off the river before smashing down into a snarling torrent and they were pitching and bucking and the jungle was a green blur to either side of them as the raft rocketed downriver and was jarring off one cluster of jutting rocks after another and rearing skyward and plunging headlong and tilting sidewise and almost overturning and then banging off one step bank to go spinning across the deranged river and bang off the other as the boys held on with all their might and bellowed in wild glee as they were slung about with arms twisting and legs flapping and at times they were in weightless detachment from the raft entirely but for their grip on the crossrope before again being slammed against the deck so hard that for days after they would be dappled with bruises.

Another sentence telescopes in and out and in, physically, temporally, and psychologically, perfectly capturing the moment John Roger, long believing his twin brother dead, happens upon that side of the family: 'They would become still better acquainted over the next few days, but on that gray dawn in that upstairs residence of that rundown café in that ramshackle neighborhood near the center of Mexico city, the only important question remaining was what they should do now.'
In terms of a broader historical significance, Country of the Bad Wolfes is set in Porfirio Diáz’s Mexico, and readers will get a socio-eco-political lesson in it, or at least a refresher. Most important, though, is what readers learn from the more common characters, the highly intriguing Wolfes, about a part of the Wild West not often discussed, at a time when stories from the U.S.-Mexico border are again being squashed."
- Kristin Thiel, June 1, 2012 

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