Phoenix Island first came to my attention when I went to my first meeting of the Brandywine Valley Writer’s Group. The special guest speaker was a member of the group, John Dixon, who’d just published his second novel, the sequel to Phoenix Island titled Devil’s Pocket. He spoke about the sources of inspiration for this Phoenix Island (which is always interesting for a wannabe writer like myself), his experiences breaking into the publishing industry (short version: years of hard work and lots of rejection) and the process of writing Phoenix Island and Devil’s Pocket.
Dixon just seems like a super humble, normal dude who’s passionate about his writing and that made me want to support this person’s writing efforts. Plus, he read a little from something he’s currently working on at the last writer’s group meeting and his characterization is just phenomenal. And there’s a fist on the front cover of this thing, so I pretty much had to read it.
Now, I consider myself to be well versed in the YA genre, but I’d never heard of this John Dixon bloke. Phoenix Island was the winner of the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in 2014, which is apparently a big deal in the horror genre. I can sort of see why this would be considered horror…The official definition of horror: it’s intended to, or has the capacity to frighten, scare, disgust, or startle their readers or viewers by inducing feelings of horror and terror.
Yeah, that’s about right.
So, our main character is Carl. He’s sixteen and a champion boxer. Unfortunately, he has the habit of starting (and finishing) fights with bullies (the boxing was supposed to be an outlet for all the aggression). Carl finds himself orphaned and bouncing around the foster system thanks to his fists. We meet him at the “end of the road” so to speak. He’s picked a fight with the wrong bunch of kids and finds himself in front of a judge who recommends Carl be remanded to a camp for hard cases until he turns eighteen. Carl accepts the deal because he doesn’t feel like he has a choice and he understands where his future lies if he doesn’t change his ways. Of course, not all is as it seems when he gets to this place, which turns out to be an island out in international waters…
I really enjoyed this. I read it in one day – during the lovely blizzard we had about a week and a half ago – and there is nothing that I can think of that I didn’t like about it. The fight scenes were great. I love a good fight scene. Dixon lets Carl fail over and over again, which had me thinking “he HAS TO succeed this time!” and then he wouldn’t, but he’d get right back up again, which I thought was a refreshing change from the norm. It certainly wasn’t predictable. At the writer’s group meeting, Dixon talked about how he had wanted to make a strong male character in his book and I think he’s succeeded here with Carl.
Dixon also mentioned that much of the criticism he received for this book was that people thought it was too violent for the YA genre. I really have to disagree. If you write a book about a ballerina, for example, the expectation of the reader will be that there will be dancing. There has to be dancing, otherwise, why a ballerina? If you write a book about a boxer kid who likes to thrash bullies, who ends up on some prison island, the expectation is that he’s going to hit someone.
Carl’s being a fighter is essential to the plot. And seeing him using this *ahem* ‘talent’ is also essential… I think what these critics were really saying was “This book wasn’t for me,” which is fine but it’s not the same as “This book is too violent for the kids.” Was the violence gratuitous? I didn’t think so. How is this any more violent or disturbing than The Hunger Games, for example? Or The Chocolate War? I really don’t think it is. Swearing is virtually non-existent, in that I don’t even remember there being any, which is very unusual for a YA book, period, let alone a YA book of this subject matter, but maybe that was a deliberate choice by the author – violence OR language, not both. Anyway, all I’m sayin’ is, get your expectations in line-this isn’t a book about bunnies and rainbows.
This one may not be everyone’s cup of tea but the book is well written and I couldn’t put it down. I can’t not give it an A.
And now for the super fabulous reward for reading this review – I am giving away a hardcover copy of Phoenix Island to one lucky reader. All you have to do is leave a comment below. Any old comment is fine but if you’re out of ideas, tell me about your favorite fight scene in a book. Please fill out the email address field in the comment form – your email will not show up on the comment post but I can see it in my comment admin. This is how I will contact you, should you win. I will randomly select a winner by comment number using random.org. The contest will close at midnight on February 14th, 2016, and I’ll contact the winner shortly thereafter.
Thanks for reading!
~Hardcover purchased from Amazon Marketplace.
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