Tag-Team Review: Snakes Among Sweet Flowers by Jason Huffman-Black

Two-time ex-con Camden Sanders has decided that Hog Mountain—an isolated community on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia—is the perfect place to continue running small scams without the threat of more prison time.

But there are a few problems with this plan. One is the neighborly citizens of Hog Mountain thwarting his dirty dealings at every turn with their kindness. Another is Jackson Rhodes, a closeted Hog Mountain police officer who can see right through Cam’s good ol’ boy act and plans to catch him red-handed despite the attraction they both can feel. But the biggest problem of all is that Cam’s past is threatening to catch up with him, and it could mean trouble for more than just himself.

Sheziss 4 Hearts

Move along, move along. Nothing to see here.

Really, move along!

One of the first things you realize about the book I’ve just read is that my kindle is totally hightlighed. And if you begin reading all those quotes I decided to emphasize, you notice very few are emotive sentences or poetic paragraphs. They are not at all wise nor epic. No, what I underlined here were thoughts, dialogues, actions… that really made it for me. Because they were clever, spot-on, neat and they followed my train of thought. They put into words exactly what I was thinking at the same pace I was forming them.

It’s as if the author was a step ahead of my mind and noting down exactly what I was going to say. Every remark that threatened to come out of my mouth was suddently silenced with ink.

(I meant kindle ink, of course)

It may sound creepy but in truth I love it when an author doesn’t treat me like an idiot. When he doesn’t expect me to buy the story blindly and be content with accepting what’s being thrown at me for me to pick it up and say “Well, if you say so…”. No, he kept giving me reasons, here and there, about WHY I should go on. He kept giving reasons, not hoping for me to overlook the corniness or the idyllic life in Pleasantville or the gradual change of a twice convict and opportunistic scammer and the development of that closeted boy-next-door local policeman.

This was damn good stuff indeed.

Yes, I admit the book got me curious due to the cover. Nobody can blame me, right? It’s the first I’ve read of this author and that’s always risky, but the pull was strong nonetheless. When I began the reading, I instantly noticed one thing: the quality. It was quite obvious from the very beginning this wouldn’t be another clumsy try of a novel. This was indeed a solid novel. It’s like being given a piece of bread to dip it in the yellow liquid on the dish and recognizing extra virgin olive oil instantly, with no doubt whatsoever. I don’t consider myself an expert taste-tester, and surely my taste buds are different from everyone else’s, but I could easily foresee this being something big. That’s when Jason really got my attention and I’m pleased to say it didn’t fade.

Jason is like the voice that spoke directly to me, no bullshit and no excuses getting in the middle, just brutal honesty and neat smartness. That’s the word, this book is smart, in every sense that matters.

It may be shocking to say I laughed a lot here. But, oh my God, I really laughed. Constantly. I was so delighted and happy as a clam, you wouldn’t believe. It’s not a humorous book, if that’s what you are thinking. In truth there is nothing hilarious per se here. Just the opposite, serious matters are at stake for the most part of the novel. No. It’s just that I felt so in sync with the characters that every thought of theirs hit the exact target within me and I couldn’t hold my joy and exhilaration for too long. I was a total fan of them, I was in the first row in the threatre, cheering them on and fangirling in an embarrassing way.

I even feigned a faint.

Yes, I know, I have no dignity.

Shut up.

And then we have to talk about the chemistry… and the I-hate-you-on-sight banter. Best aphrodisiac ever, it promised that when this animosity between them “solved”, there would be a long delicious catch-up and THAT’S when I would of course grab my tons of bread I had been preparing awhile in order to dip it into all that mouth-watering olive oil served on a silver platter for my enjoyment only. And I don’t mean the sex. Well, that’s not the only reason, at least.

Ñam ñam (Why the “ñ” here, girl? Was it really necessary? Shut up.)

I loved the characters. They were real, they were clearly defined and totally believable and with depth. Jackson is fantastic. The idealized golden boy everybody adores but whose life is not as perfect as everybody is led to believe. He’s scared of coming out and he doesn’t exactly have it in his agenda to be honest about it publicly. Oh no, that’s the last thing on his list.

(The Spanish flag? Seriously? What the fuck is wrong with you, girl? *whistles*)

However, I have to admit Cam was the one for me. He is this distrustful shady guy who believes the world’s only goal is to make him harm. His attitude, his tattoos, his do-not-fuck-with-me expression don’t exactly invite people to confide in him, but, surprisingly, everybody trusts him (above all when he’s willing to be charming and seductive, and at this stake nobody can resist him) which shocks and frustrates him to no end. When he comes to Pleasantville Hog Mountain, everybody seems so nice and neighborly he doesn’t know how to respond. In the beginning he rubs his hands with greed realizing that he has endless opportunities to take an advantage of all the guilelessness. Piece of cake! But bit by bit, these “pieces of cake” begin conquering him, and he’s more and more prompted to bring good and keep at bay all the muddy ugliness of his past. His evolution is paced and credible, and I followed all his steps, his confusion and all those longings he starts to let himself have. He’s the one that made me laugh the most. We truly were on the same page *bumps fist*.

So here we are, a policeman that takes no bullshit from Cam and watches every step Cam makes waiting for the smallest of mistakes or any slip-up he can find, and an ex-con who knows exactly what Jackson is doing and tries to push every button of his and find every reason to drive Jackson mad. When the shit finally hits the fan and an unexpected turn of events drives the plot to a different direction, things are put in their place and everything begins to fit between them. I liked how natural their relationship is, no forced nor rushed conclusion whatsoever, but a nicely done ending I found more than satisfying. I could perfectly picture them both happily together in the following years.

I even loved the secondary ones, even when I thought they are going to be sappy, they were not. When someone was going to fit into a certain stereotype, they demonstrated they weren’t going to. When I thought the rhythm of the story would get stuck there was yet another surprise that kept the action going. When I believed the scene was going to be overstretched, more material was given, so it never got drained.

So, all in all, this was a winner.

“You are a lot different than I thought you would be. A pleasant surprise.”

I agree wholeheartedly.

Ann  5 Hearts

I’d read the authors short stories previously and was really anxious to get my hooves on his debut novel. His writing is incredibly smooth and easy to read (the kind where you don’t even realize you’re reading because you’re so engrossed in the story and then you look up and two hours have passed) and his style transitioned from short story to novel easily. I couldn’t believe how quickly the 240 pages went by and I wasn’t even close to ready to let the characters go.

And oh my, the characters . . . Cam is so flawed yet so amazing I was rooting for him from the beginning. Even when he disappointed me, I still rooted for him. And I think that’s what made him so memorable, the author didn’t try to sugarcoat his shortcomings or excuse them in any way. Cam knew what he was about and he wanted to change, but didn’t really know how, and was a little lost in the town of Hog Mountain. Some of my favorite moments were when he would get angry when people were being nice to him. His confusion was just so darn cute yet completely understandable. He didn’t exactly grow up in a friendly environment and being that he actually had a conscience (a tough thing to have for a con) it made me believe his evolution from predator to neighbor throughout the book.
Cam left the restaurant with a grumble at the unexpected customer service. Sean called out a sincere ‘Have a great day!’ as the door was swinging closed behind him. What was wrong with these people? Not that it wasn’t great to have an entire town full of suckers who thought being neighbors meant being neighborly. But did they have to be so nice about it?
Jackson is the golden boy cop who grew up in Hog Mountain and is very protective of the townfolk. He doesn’t trust Cam from the get-go and with good reason. The banter back and forth between the two of them was fun to read. There was an obvious attraction, but there was nothing forced to move the story along. The relationship evolved as Cam’s enlightenment did making the hard earned ground the two made that much more satisfying to read. Jackson is deep, deep, deep in the closet and my heart broke for the guy and the life he couldn’t live because of it.

Cam’s past comes back to him and the dude is hella scary with no compunctions about taking out his frustrations with Cam on the small town that Cam has begun to think of as home. Before Harold wreaks havoc on Hog Mountain though, Cam has been ingrained into the fabric of everyday life, really by accident and honestly, this was my favorite theme throughout the book. I really appreciated how the author handled small town life.

So often the small town becomes a caricature of a place that the reader expects instead of another character in the book that adds to the depth of the story. Yes, Hog Mountain is a small town, but the people who live there are not just small town yokels with backwards sensibilities and a permeating homophobic bent throughout. Not that Cam, and Jackson for that matter, knew otherwise. Hog Mountain is no different than any other place in that there are a myriad of personalities and beliefs, just like in the city, but because there are fewer bodies, gossip travels faster and some attitudes are magnified just from the sheer lack of human traffic. But, the author didn’t rely on that trope to build the setting, he let the citizens have their voices and let them share their experiences with Cam and Jackson, giving the whole town dimension and personality.

The towns’ older generation was brilliant. Sure, maybe just a smidge too good, but they embodied what we should all strive to be like in our golden years. Church was a big part of their lives (not that the story had a lot of religious undertones, but just enough to make the small town aspect believable and the attitudes relevant) and for the most part they heeded the adage, “Do to others as you would have them do to you”. The characters that became part of Cam’s life remembered their own past mistakes and regrets, shared them with Cam and really showed him that change and redemption was attainable. I could feel the hope radiating off of Cam in those moments. There was no “telling” Cam what to do, there were meaningful anecdotes, kindness and respect, and then letting Cam do with them what he would. And, because Cam really was a good guy with a conscience, he did the right thing. It wasn’t easy, but it was important and it was meaningful. The author really did an amazing job with those secondary characters and their interaction with Cam and Jackson.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I LOVED Cam in full snark mode. He loved stirring up shit when said shit needed stirring, and it was hilarious. It drove Jackson nutters, but that was part of the fun. Hog Mountain needed a little stirring and Cam’s brand of forthright dialog was perfectly shocking while still being respectful enough to throw his target off their game. Also, the kids the author wrote were well done for their ages and experiences. They weren’t precocious mini-adult attention whores, they were regular kids and the story was better for their presence. Sure they were a vehicle for Cam’s change and his journey towards becoming a responsible citizen, but they were by no means an afterthought. The family was fully fleshed out and just as important to the story overall as they were to Cam.

I would love to read more about Jackson and his experiences with the town and his family. That’s not what this story was mainly about and too much detail would have been overall too much given all the shit that got real in the end. But, I loved his heart and the scene towards the end in the Church and the sermon killed me to death in the best way.

I can’t wait to see what the author comes up with next. It will be an auto-buy for me.

Pick up your copy of Snakes Among Sweet Flowers at Dreamspinner Press.

**a copy of this book was provided to BMBR for an honest review**

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