"...There is an infinite number of ways to get hurt. And only a tiny number of ways to find happiness."
Jack is a con man, specializing in insurance fraud and identity theft that was inspired by a painful past. He gets caught and sentenced to three years in the Patterson Correctional Facility (PattX) by his double crossing partner-in-crime/lover, who also makes away with most of his money. With a heavy heart and the taste of betrayal, Jack must learn to navigate the political climate of PattX, which includes its two rivaling factions, the apathy of prison guards, and being cellmates with a man labeled a psychopath. This said man is nicknamed Adder - a prisoner of 13 years who doesn't speak, and has a violent temperament when provoked. However, Jack soon realizes that the best way to survive PattX would be to forge a friendship with Adder and will be surprised with the consequences of doing so.
The setup for The Fence and Then The Trees is such: it takes place in the year 2000. Each chapter is a snippet of time that spans two years, with some chapters skipping months ahead in time. The story is told in third person, from Jack's point of view. There are a few flashback chapters, some of which explains Adder's past (these are the only chapters that are told from Adder's perspective). I'm not a fan of flashback chapters sprinkled here and there, but was fortunately kept short in this book (yay!).
Honestly, I really enjoyed Jack. While his occupation as a con man didn't garner sympathy points from me, he still had his reasons that spoke of a man who was wronged in the past. He is intelligent and can read people's emotions, as needed for anyone successful in his field of specialty. Even though he's a criminal, he's still honorable and compassionate. I believe his biggest downfall is the fear of ever loving anyone again (which may sound cliche and overly dramatic, and I would normally agree), but he's also old enough to know that being ignorant of his own feelings doesn't solve anything (thank God!).
Then there's Adder. I can't say much about him, since knowledge of his character is part of the fun of reading. Though there's nothing "fun" about his past, and I just felt my heart aching for him.
The story started off kind of slow for my liking. The setup for PattX, introduction of secondary characters, and some early scenes delayed any consistent Jack x Adder interaction for a good 15-20% of the book. It wasn't boring, but my inner romantic was screaming for these people to meet for more than a page. But once it did, I was interested in how their relationship develops. It's a sloooow burn, and is reminiscent to an enemies-to-friends-to-lovers type of development, though they weren't really enemies in the typical sense.
There is non-con and violence, which is pretty different from what I'm used to from this author. But it's not described in too explicit a detail, and Jack isn't the type to be emotionally traumatized for life if he's forced to bend over (doesn't mean he likes it though). Even consensual sex in this book is glossed-over or mentioned briefly - again, nothing explicit. Maybe I'm just too experienced in the non-con and violent scenes of M/M, but the book didn't really push me out of my comfort zone (I would label it "border-line" dark).
A trademark of JF Smith's books are the entertaining, yet vital casts of characters. While The Fence And Then The Trees had some okay secondary characters, they didn't really make a lasting impression (meh). I was more interested in the silent Adder than anyone else asides from Jack. Most of the story also didn't pack an emotional punch, but I guess he was saving it towards the end! (and damnit, I don't care if Mr. Smith likes recreating a certain type of scene in all his books, it's still beautiful regardless). So While most of the book got a 3.5 stars, the later 1/3 of the story pushed it to a 4 star read for me.
Also, I know prison stories don't always have a happy ending. If you are curious to know if it's a happy ending or a sad one: it's happy!
So overall, I think JF Smith tried to branch out into something different with this book. I think he did a good job, with minor irritations to yours truly (i.e. characters and flashback chapters). The Fence And Then The Trees is a story about the price we pay for past mistakes, yet finding salvation and a second chance in the people we least expect.
(Note: when I first saw the book cover, I thought "WTF, it looks so plain and ugly." When I was done, my heart went a-flutter <3. And also, the book is only $2.99 for a little over 100,000 words. I pay like over twice that for books I like LESS! Absolute madness - you should just buy all his books like right now).