Phoenix Island by John Dixon - BOOK REVIEW - Fiction/Action/Thriller - 01/07/2014

1/07/2014 10:13:00 AM

Goodreads description:
Phoenix Island by John DixonThe judge told Carl that one day he'd have to decide exactly what kind of person he would become. But on Phoenix Island, the choice will be made for him.

A champion boxer with a sharp hook and a short temper, sixteen-year-old Carl Freeman has been shuffled from foster home to foster home. He can't seem to stay out of trouble, using his fists to defend weaker classmates from bullies. His latest incident sends his opponent to the emergency room, and now the court is sending Carl to the worst place on earth: Phoenix Island.

Classified as a terminal facility, it's the end of the line for delinquents who have no home, no family, and no future. Located somewhere far off the coast of the United States and immune to its laws, the island is a grueling Spartan-style boot camp run by sadistic drill sergeants who show no mercy to their young, orphan trainees. Sentenced to stay until his eighteenth birthday, Carl plans to play by the rules, so he makes friends with his wisecracking bunkmate, Ross, and a mysterious gray-eyed girl named Octavia. But he makes enemies, too, and after a few rough scrapes, he earns himself the nickname "Hollywood" as well as a string of punishments, including a brutal night in the sweatbox. But that's nothing compared to what awaits him in the Chop Shop: a secret government lab where Carl is given something he never dreamed of.

A new life. . . .

A new body. A new brain.

Gifts from the fatherly Old Man, who wants to transform Carl into something he's not sure he wants to become.

For this is no ordinary government project. Phoenix Island is ground zero for the future of combat intelligence.

And for Carl, it's just the beginning. . .
My Take: 

Phoenix Island is billed as young adult, but this cross-over debut novel is one for any reader who loves action, nuance, a character-driven plot (yes, in SPITE of all the action) and rooting for the underdog in the face of overwhelming odds.

Carl is the orphaned son of a police officer, a championship boxer who finds himself in a string of foster homes, moved from state to state, until, at 16, he once again beats up a gang of bullies and faces the end of the line - a stay until he is 18 years old - at Phoenix Island, a seemingly military-style boot camp for troubled teens.

Once Carl arrives at Phoenix Island, he finds that it is an isolated place outside of the United States, surrounded by a forest populated by wild pigs and shark-infested ocean waters.  In spite of his resolution to remain "invisible" and to stay out of trouble, he manages to catch the ire of a particularly vicious "drill sergeant" named Parker as well as a group of gangbangers.  Eventually, he runs across a secret journal written by a former teen "soldier" that makes him realize that the suffering he has experienced and seen done to others is only the tip of the iceberg. 

If, as a reader, you think to yourself, "Well, thrillers and action aren't really my cup of tea", think again when it comes to this book.  As I read, I experienced so many emotions - the enjoyment of a story well-told, agony at the unfairness of the situation Carl and his new friends find themselves in, knowing that some of the things portrayed really happen and not being able to hop into the pages to make it stop.  Your heart will absolutely drop in places.  When you meet the Old Man, Commander Stark, you want to like him, and blame everything else on some misunderstanding, just like Carl does, but as a reader, there is foreboding in these pages - you just know with a sinking, creeping feeling that all is not as it seems.

I fairly FLEW through these pages, filled with a moving motion picture in my brain of the island, the kids, the sergeants, the commander, and the mysterious doctor at the "Chop Shop".   The book is totally engrossing, rolling along at a clip that had me looking at how many pages were left and regretting that I was so close to the end. 

I've seen this one compared to Lord of the Flies and to The Hunger Games by some. For me it brought to mind the horrors of The Island of Dr. Moreau totally revamped with modern technology and world domination fanatics. 

This is an absolutely stunning debut novel - one that would be a fabulous ride for almost every reader.  With room left for a new installment, I sincerely hope to see more of Carl, his friends, and even creepy Commander Stark.


You are all orphans.  Why had they taken only orphans?  He thought of the kick he had received, the rough handling of Davis. He glanced around. Here they were, on Phoenix Island, somewhere outside of the United States and its laws.
We're as dead to the world as our parents, Carl thought.  These people can do anything to us.

. . . teachers told you bullies were insecure and cowardly, and, sure, some were.  But guys like Decker, guys who got that look in their eyes, were neither insecure nor cowardly, and they weren't acting out for attention.  Guys like Decker were confident and tough and mean to the core, and they hurt people because they liked causing pain.

"He considers himself a musician of pain.  A maestro.  Pain is his piano, and the victim's nerves are his piano strings."
Great, Carl thought.  I threatened to break his nose.

BLOGGERS:  Have you reviewed this book? If so, please feel free to leave a link to your review in the comments section; I will also add your link to the body of my review.

Writing:  4.5 out of 5 stars
Plot:   4.5 out of 5 stars
Characters:  5 out of 5 stars
Reading Immersion:   5 out 5 stars

BOOK RATING:  4.75 out of 5 stars

Asides:  The author, John Dixon, is a former youth services caseworker and teacher.  Phoenix Island  is partly inspired by the real-life "Kids for Cash" case in Pennsylvania, where judges received kickback to convict and send kids to privately run boot camps. 

Carl Freeman, the novel's protagonist, is partly inspired by a former student of the author's who met a tragic end.

Phoenix Island  is the inspiration for the new CBS television show, Intelligence, scheduled to premiere January 7, 2014.  The fact that a book that hasn't even been officially released yet could inspire a new series gives you an idea of how great the underlying story is.

Sensitive Reader:  Probably not for you; portrayals of violence and implied violence.

Book Club Recommendation:  Yes; depending on whether all book club members can take a grim and gritty portrayal of a camp filled with teens subject to horrid conditions. 

Title:  Phoenix Island
Author:  John Dixon
Publisher:   Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster
Release Date:  January 21, 2014
Hardcover, 320 pages
ISBN 10:  1476738637
ISBN 13:  9781476738635

Author website

BUY IT:  At Amazon, The Book Depository, through the publisher's website,  and through other on-and-off-line booksellers.  

Disclosure:  I received a copy of this title from the publisher for review purposes.  No other compensation was received.  

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