Thursday, April 25, 2013

Historical Western. Wait! Come back, it's good!

Henry Chappell

TTU Press
$22.36 hardcover, available now

Reviewwd by Richard, 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In Blood Kin, Isaac Webb, a young Texas ranger, struggles for decency amid the violence of the Texas Revolution and the early days of the Republic. Still in his teens when he joins the legendary ranger captain Noah Smithwick, Isaac discovers in himself extraordinary mettle in battle and a fierce yearning for young war widow Catherine Druin.

But victory over Mexico does not bring the new Republic nor Isaac the peace and stability he fought for. Escalating Indian depredations forestall Isaac’s hopes to work the farmland he’s cleared near Bastrop, and to marry Catherine. Pressed into accompanying Smithwick as Sam Houston’s peace emissary to the Comanches, Isaac befriends Looks Far, a young warrior at whose side he fends off Waco Indian attacks and with whom he learns to grieve. As the Texans’ hunger for land and the Comanches’ penchant for raiding imperil Isaac’s friendship and thwart peace negotiations, Isaac returns to Bastrop prepared for the worst.

When his future with Catherine is confounded by her father’s blind hatred of the Comanches and his own commitment to the indomitable Inez, a Lipan captive, Isaac must confront a brutal dilemma and a painful secret. So achingly honest and culturally sensitive is Chappell in his telling of this epic story that every image, every characterization rings true. It is hard to believe that he did not live it himself.

My Review: I loved this book. It's about a fascinating time in Texas history, and a group of men who can often be reviled with justice...told from the perspective of a young, innocent man who joins the Texas Rangers almost by accident, it traces his development into an upstanding husband (of a Waco Indian woman) and father, a fighter for justice for all, not just all whites, and a friend of several of the founders of the Republic.

I loved the descriptive power of the author's prose, and felt his characters were limned in fast, sure strokes. He comes at the subject from a deeply personal perspective, a love of his native Texas in all its warty glory. He makes the landscape, one I'm familiar with since Bastrop is close to my hometown of Austin, more real than I would ever have thought possible. He's describing the frontier, the time when there was nothing urban about anyplace much in Texas. And I can see it in my mind's eye, fitting over the modern small-town exurban reality of Bastrop.

Chappell does an excellent job of making the dilemmas of his characters come to life. It's amazing to me how much drama and passion there truly is in history and how the way it's taught to kids makes that seem impossible. Novelists like Chappell see the story in history, choose a thread in the tapestry, and showcase it for us. It cuts through the propagandizing and malarkey of most works of historiography, when done properly and well. It's done both properly and well in this book.

I can't recommend it strongly enough, especially to non-Texans.

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Lacking in Bite, But Plenty of Suck

Blood Oath

by Christopher Farnsworth

Published  by Jove

Reviewed by Amanda
2 Out of 5 Stars

After avoiding the vampire genre for so long (thanks to Stephenie Meyer turning it into one giant suckfest of romantic longing), I've lately been wallowing in it.  Between watching seasons 1 and 2 of SyFy's Being Human, reading DC's excellent The New 52 I, Vampire, as well as Scott Snyder's American Vampire, my faith in the genre has been restored.  Bring on the bloodsucking fiends!  So I was more than ready to tackle Blood Oath, which, based upon several excellent reviews, I thought would also put the bite back into the genre.  And my final verdict is . . . eh, not so much.

The premise is promising:  when a sailor is found aboard a whaling ship, surrounded by the ex-sanguinated corpses of his mates, President Andrew Johnson brings Marie Laveau in to bind the vampire to the office of the President for as long as he walks the earth.  As a result, Nathaniel Cade has been our country's best kept secret weapon for 140 years, protecting our country against threats foreign, domestic, and supernatural.  He lives in an off-limits wing of the Smithsonian Institute and uses his prowess as a hunter to serve our country.  The latest threat?  Dr. Johann Konrad may be helping Islamic jihadists create zombie soldiers from the parts of fallen U. S. servicemen.  His credentials for doing so?  He was in charge of Hitler's attempts to create Unmenschsoldaten, soldiers raised from the dead to fight without feeling pain, empathy, or hunger.  Oh, and did I mention that waaaaayyyyy back in the day Johann lived in Castle . . . Frankenstein?

I could hardly wait to wrap my peepers around the words that held so much promise for giddy, ridiculous, blood-drenched fun!  Alas, the more promise offered, the greater the potential for disappointment.  The book reads more like a movie script than a novel and all of the characters are flat and one-dimensional.  The dialogue is groan-worthy; the attempts at humor are weak and obvious; the descriptions are virtually non-existent.

Now, don't get me wrong, I like a good, light read, but I also expect it to be done with a certain flair and panache that keeps me entertained.  If the banter had been witty instead of predictable, if the absolute absurdity of it all could have been embraced without always bringing it back to the seriousness of politics and patriotism, and, most importantly, if there had been a vampire that was interesting, this book would have lived up to my expectations.

The greatest weakness of all was the one thing that, if approached differently, could have saved it.  Nathaniel Cade is perhaps the most boring, tedious vampire you will ever meet in literature.  He shows no emotion, he refuses to drink human blood, he's a tortured soul because of the sins he's committed, he admonishes people for taking the Lord's name in vain, he wears a cross that causes him pain to constantly remind him of his sins.  Put a sweater vest on him and he could be a Republican candidate for president.  Hell, Bunnicula has more of a personality than Cade.  To be of interest, Cade needs a few more quirks and more menace; he needs a dash of the devil in him (like Anne Rice's Lestat).  The one bit that held promise--Cade attends AA meetings to help him deal with his "thirst"--is only briefly touched upon and a brilliant opportunity for hilarity to ensue is wasted.  I wanted Cade to want to raise hell and put a brick under it.  Instead, he's just being compelled by the spell of a voodoo queen and a need to right his wrongs. One gets the sense that, if let off his chain he would promptly waste himself by walking into the sunlight or driving a stake through his own heart.  By the end of the novel, I kind of wish he had.

The Family That Shocks Together . . .

The Family Fang

by Kevin Wilson

Published by Ecco

Reviewed by Amanda
3 1/2 Out of 5 Stars

Annie and Buster Fang, like so many twenty-somethings, blame their parents for the lack of fulfillment and success they find in their careers and in their personal lives.  However, unlike many twenty-somethings, Annie and Buster may have a valid claim for blaming their parents for their seeming lack of autonomy and self-actualization.  That's because the Fang children's parents were artists--as in Artists (that's right with a capital A and italics).  And not just any kind of artists, but performance artists hell bent on causing chaos in established patterns and the unexpected in the routines of daily life.     

Their parents, Caleb and Camille Fang, are nothing if not utterly dedicated to their art, which involves creating elaborate "happenings" in the most predictable of American venues: the mega-mall.  People lulled into hypnotic trances by muzak, colorful window displays, and giant pretzels are prime targets for the art favored by the Fangs.  Always admonished by their mentor that "children kill art," the Fangs create an unconventional solution to preserve their art and raise their family: Annie and Buster become Child A and Child B, props used by their parents to pull off the increasingly elaborate happenings. 

Flash forward to Annie and Buster as adults.  Both have managed to completely FUBAR their adult lives and return to the Fang family nest for a real world time-out.  Immediately drawn back into the weirdness created by their parents, Annie and Buster revert to their childhood roles.  Buster becomes the sensitive younger child, always anxious to please his parents, while Annie becomes the protective older sister, encouraging Buster to challenge their parents' authority.  Shortly after their return, the Fangs disappear and foul play is suspected by the authorities.  Annie and Buster, however, believe this is another elaborate art piece created by their parents and must examine their seriously dysfunctional relationship with them as they search for the truth.

The Family Fang explores a dilemma faced by every family.  Most parents consciously or unconsciously push their children toward their own personal passions and expect this shared love (whether it be art, football, reading, politics, etc.) to create a bond that no one can break.  Problems inevitably ensue when the child begins exploring the world on his own terms and begins to assert himself as his own being.  In the case of the Fangs, Annie and Buster try to create their own brand of art (in her case, acting, and, in his case, writing), but find that, after years of their parents controlling and shaping the events around them, they are ill-equipped to just let life happen. 

If all of this sounds weird, it is.  But it's also very entertaining and not nearly as dark as one might expect.  Populated with quirky characters and clever dialogue, Wilson's narrative avoids taking itself too seriously by inserting absurdity and humor in all the right places (especially in the scenes where Annie and Buster bicker and banter like close siblings do).  This is a solid 3 1/2 stars and the only reason I didn't give it a 4 is because I enjoyed the first half immensely; however, after the Fangs disappear, I felt as though the shift to the mystery plot was too abrupt and unexpected (granted, that was probably the point, but it just didn't work for me).