John Dixon attended the grad school program in which I’m currently enrolled. He was gone before I started, and other than on social media—where we once had a conversation about the joys of tomato sandwiches (fresh, homegrown tomatoes on toast with mayo and pepper, of course)—we’d never met. When Phoenix Island was released (January, 2014) it went on my To-Be-Read List, but until last month, hadn’t physically made it to my TBR Tower1. In June, I had an opportunity to not only purchase the book, but get it signed by the author. I took advantage of the opportunity.
About a week later, I picked it up, read the first chapter, and knew this was going to be one of those books. The ones that magnify my insecurities and make me wonder why I ever thought I could write. Why I’m wasting my time even trying. I was in the middle of revising a particularly tough part of my thesis novel, and my Evil Inner Voice didn’t need any encouragement. I put Phoenix Island away.
This morning, I left the house and forgot a key piece of my traveling technology arsenal. Other than my phone, with only a 50% charge, I was shut down for the day. No laptop, no iPad, limited Internet—but I did have a couple of books in my bag. Old fashioned, made from dead trees, real, low-tech, no battery or charger needed books. I pulled out Phoenix Island and started reading.
I didn’t even miss my technology. And I’m an addict.
Sixteen-year-old Carl, boxer and orphan, has spent years being shuffled around the foster care system and in and out of trouble. The trouble is always the same—beating the crap out of bullies. After sending a couple of small-town football stars to the hospital and taking the high school team out of contention before the season starts, he’s sentenced to Phoenix Island, a terminal facility. Carl is told this is his chance to turn his life around, either wipe the slate clean or end up in the state penitentiary. What at first appears to be a militaristic boot-camp turns out to be terminal in more than one sense of the word.
F. Paul Wilson’s cover blurb calls Phoenix Island “Lord of the Flies meets Wolverine and Cool Hand Luke.” I can’t come up with a better description.
Phoenix Island is a thriller, with an underlying science fiction element, and the pacing is perfect. Through the first half, the story careens forward, and Dixon takes both his characters and his readers to the breaking point, then backs off, leaving us room to breath. But—although the Carl may be lulled into a sense of security, as readers, we don’t trust the calm. We know that we, and Carl, are being set up for something worse. The second half marches forward at a slower pace, but with no less suspense as the situation worsens and the tension mounts, making Phoenix Island difficult to put down.
Dixon is a former Golden Gloves boxer, and I have no doubt fans of the sport will find much to appreciate in his depiction of Carl’s skills. I’m no boxing fan. Although I can watch fictional bouts in movies, I can’t watch people pounding on each other in a real match without looking away. Literary fight scenes are more than jabs and punches and bobs and weaves. The author needs to pull the reader into the moment and make us not only see the choreography of the fight or feel the physical aspect of the conflict, but also experience the mental and emotional, Dixon does. I never looked away. As much as I sometimes wanted to, I had to stick with Carl through every moment.
And then there’s the scene with the spider and another with bugs. Scenes I don’t even want to think about. This is not a bad thing—it’s the result of Dixon’s fine writing.
Phoenix Island was published as a YA book, and would make a great gift for any young adults in your life, but do yourself a favor and read it yourself. Go. Do it now. You won’t regret it. Devil’s Pocket, the sequel, is set to arrive next spring, and I can’t wait.
Visit John Dixon on the web at his website or on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter at @johndixonbooks. Phoenix Island is available at Barnes and Noble and all the usual places in hardcover and e-book. The paperback is due out in December and is available for pre-order.
by John Dixon
320 pages. Gallery Books, a division of Simon and Schuster.
1. It passed pile status years ago.