Cover Image: Chain Gang All Stars

Chain Gang All Stars

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Criminal Action Penal Entertainment, or C.A.P.E., doesn't feel satirical. It feels nauseatingly predictive. This first novel, by the author of the excellent story collection <I>Black Friday</i> (my all-but five star review at the link), is a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in presented in less than a week's time.

The horrors of imprisonment aren't new. Neither is it news that African-Americans are disproportionately affected by those horrors. The horrible prevalence of carceral solutions to minor infractions started their rise with the ludicrous "War on Drugs" that was utterly ineffective at its stated goal, but gigantically successful at creating inmates for an increasingly corporatized and profit-driven prison system.

This novel's a shout of outrage, a howl of fury and grief, a klaxon of warning about this facet of the dehumanizing and victimizing of people of color by the racist system of "justice" in place in the US. It's equally effective as an anti-capitalist bellow of rage at the unchecked quest for profit above all other goals that is doing so much to actively destroy the planet's biosphere...that we all live in...with its greed.

We start our visit to a barely-fictionalized present-day US with a violent scene of battle brought to us by the CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment) program. Take a moment, please, to view this acronym. Look at the cultural tie-backs; the superhero comic-book culture polluting my screens for a decade now gets a brickbat right away, as does the Orwellian alphabet soup so prevalent in modern governmental bowls of gruel served to the needy (SNAP, WIC, AFDC and the like). This is Author Adjei-Brenyah's most well-honed talent: In <I>Friday Black</i>, he invented the slang term "shoelookers" for socially awkward teens unable or unwilling to meet their peers' or anyone else's gaze. This is a writer with an excellent ear serving a flensing-knife of an eye. Nothing in this read has any less sharp a perception or a usage case behind it. That is probably the most discomfiting thing about the novel: As I admired his wordsmithery, I realize the point of the red-hot blade he was forging was aimed squarely at me. Old white man, privileged and pampered by a system designed to coddle and comfort me. Well. That's me told.

So it is...and most of y'all, too. You won't necessarily like this part of your reading experience, if my own is any guide; I don't think it should, in your minds, present an excuse for you not to make the effort to read it. If the world has justice in its sharing-out of cultural kudos, this novel will win the National Book Award for Fiction in a few days' time. The reason I want it to is that it shouts the quiet part out loud in a cultural landscape of politely, passively sleepwalking into a new authoritarian era of unspeakable, horrifying intentions. The people trying to gain control of the world aren't troubling to hide their intentions, either, except to say blandly homogenized inoffensive acronymic things...or exactly what Author Adjei-Brenyah is warning us about so very effectively in <I>Chain-Gang All-Stars</i>.

If I'm honest, that is also a problem with the read. It is a warning. A story that, while I believe in its worldbuilding, is still meant to tell me something uncomfortable about my world. Historically, awards aren't always willing to put their celebratory wreaths on creative projects that poke people hard in their painful spots. I very much don't want that to be the case for <I>Chain-Gang All-Stars</i>, but it could easily lose the public lauding that the National Book Award for Fiction represents just based on what juries often refer to as "controversial ideas." I want all y'all to go get the book and engage with it on the intellectual level; the carrot to that perceived stick is a story that could easily be a superb action flick, unremittingly violent and all with genuinely elevated stakes...no one could ever fight for their literal life and have it be mellow. Reading the story on that level is exciting, as it is when you read the Reacher books that fly off the shelves. That's not my reading sweet spot. I look at it, frankly, as the cheese wrapped around the pill that you need to get down the dog's throat.

If I'm committed to that metaphor, I will say it's a bit like using Roquefort for the purpose. Rich, creamy, power-packed flavorsome stuff. Rare and expensive (in lost illusions). Hard to find the real, genuinely, ethically sourced stuff.

Here it is.

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This book is powerful. I wasn't sure what I was expecting, but I got so much more than I could have hoped for with this book! That sentence probably doesn't make sense, but to me, it does.

The book is about prisoners who travel in the Chain Gangs and are referred to as links.  Two women gladiators, who are the all-star fights, fight for their freedom after they have been incarcerated. They will fight to the death for their freedom.

This book broke my heart. A prisoner had a phone call with their parents, which made me think of the phone calls prisioners make to their moms. As a mom, I couldn't imagine waiting to hear from my child like the mother in the book had to do. Reading about the prisoners working together to try to change the system from the inside was heartbreaking. This book was bloody and emotional.

I finished this book in September, and I still can't put together a proper review. I have so many emotions and thoughts that I'm unable to put down into words.

If this is a book that caught your attention, then you definitely need to read it!!

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Chain-Gang All Stars was an excellent read and I can see why it's on so many book award lists. I loved the excitement of the fighting but also the clear critique of the prison industrial complex. I think the fiction pointed out all the horrors of real life prison even more.

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A truly ambitious novel tackling the prison system and injustices surrounding the Black community. Really strong world and system building can be seen throughout the text, but I feel like it muddles the story's theme sometimes. It feels a little contradictory to be fighting the injustice in a dystopian/must die setting. I really liked our main characters, but felt like the amount of characters was a little overwhelming. I enjoyed the book, but felt like it mixed too many elements at once.

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Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker are the top women gladiators for Chain-Gang All-Stars, part of Criminal Action Penal Entertainment (CAPE), an extremely popular (and controversial) fundraising program in America. In CAPE, these prisoners travel around and compete in death matches for packed arenas of spectators. Thurwar and Staxxx are fan favorites - and also lovers - and Thurwar has only a few more matches before she is a free woman. As she struggles to figure out how to help her fellow captives retain their humanity, the powerful corporate owners of CAPE do everything they can to thwart her attempts.

When this horrific satire works, it works. It’s acerbic and timely, and there are moments where it feels so close to the the world in which we actually live that it’s physically uncomfortable (which is the point). In lesser hands, the novel’s premise would feel outlandish, in Adjei-Brenyah’s, the opposite is true: it feels all to plausible. The writing is powerful, the action sequences absolutely riveting, and the world-building immaculate. I wish I hadn’t listened to this as an audiobook - in addition to utilizing a lot of footnotes, the cast of characters is sprawling and my brain would have benefitted from seeing the words on the page - but it’s still an incredible piece of art and criticism. I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

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Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing an advance copy of this title in exchange for honest feedback. A truly incredible novel. Challenging to read, but should be required of everyone

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Wow is all I can say! This book was definitely not what I was expecting. It was a very dark and heavy read and honestly at the end I wasn't sure how to rate it...did I love it or hate it. Since it has stuck with me, I am rating it 4 stars. The deduction of a star is because at times I was lost because of all of the characters involved and I couldn't keep track. Yes, this is probably a personal problem, but several of the characters played such minor roles that I do believe they weren't needed.

Thank you to NetGalley, the publisher, and author for a copy of this book to review. This did not affect my rating.

I feel people will either Love this book or hate this book. I truly don't believe there is an in-between. This is a book set in the future where the prison system allows prisoners who have been sentenced to 25 years+ or who have received a death penalty to partake in a program to fight for their freedom. Think Gladiators to the extreme and the population is watching under the headline show "Chain Gang All-Stars." If you survive the 3 years, you are free. There is mental anguish and so much more.

I don't want to give away anything, so I will end my review there and suggest reading of you can handle violence.

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This is an explosive literary novel that packs a punch. I enjoyed the exploration of racial injustice and capitalistic corruption of the American incarceration system. It was a hard read, but a necessary one.

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This book was an incredible read from start to finish - the annotations drawing from real life statistics and people were a great addition that helped me more fully understand the ways in which our current carceral system fails people. It was incredible to see the way in which all the chapters of the book wove together to create one complete story - it was satisfying for me as the reader to connect each of the characters dot and create a map of the world in my head.

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This maybe was more of a didn’t meet the hype as much as it is anything. Really from start to finish I though it was fine - and by that I really mean some of it worked VERY well and some of it didn’t work for me at all. It was a weird mix for me.

So let’s go over what worked.

-The premise. Basically the themes are reality tv and the death penalty wrapped up in a hunger games package. I found this to be an awesome idea.

-Thurwar and Staxxx are great characters and I think they represent so many groups of people.

-The action sequences are written really well

What didn’t work for me

-a lot of the other characters fall flat for me and don’t feel fleshed out

-the back and forth between our main action and people watching it happen is really confusing for awhile if not maybe just a few too many people going on.

-the plot is mess-which I respect with a first time author, but still…there’s a lot going on here.

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I struggled through Chain Gang All Stars and then struggled even more to get my thoughts together. While I thought the writing was excellent and the premise very creative, in the end, it was too dark for me (and I like dark). I chose not to share a public review of this book feeling like I'm not the right person to do it justice.

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"Chain Gang All Stars" by Adjei-Brenyah is a mixed bag. it touches on societal issues Adjei-Brenyah's writing is thought-provoking, but at times it all felt like flash over substance.

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Chain Gang All Stars is incredibly tough to read, but it is also incredibly well done. It is a searing indictment of the prison system in the US, and for all that it is sci-fi in terms of its shift to gladiator-style competition for death row inmates, is it really sci-fi at all? The prose is not always perfect, but the themes come through and the characters are not paper cutouts to stand in for the author's position. This should be required reading- and a reminder of the dignity that is missing from our penal system (but ever-present in the writing of these characters).

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I was incredibly excited for Chain Gang All Stars. I enjoyed Adjei-Brenyah's Friday Black. I was intrigued by the novel's exploration of the injustices of incarceration as prison abolition is something I've read and thought about a lot.

Unfortunately, it took me FOREVER to get through this. The concept of the novel is a little overly complicated. There is a lot thrown at the reader as the world is our own, but exaggerated to make a point. While the message is important and relevant, I don't think this storyline is my cup of tea.

The novel follows two women who participate in CAPE, or Criminal Action Penal Entertainment. These women are literally fighting for their lives, killing other prisoners for the chance at freedom. These two women, Loretta Thurwar and Hamara "Hurricane Staxxx" Stacker are the central characters of the story, but various other characters play a role in reflecting this near-future dystopia. Alongside the story, the author also includes footnotes that reflect real statistics, incidents, and legal citations of the criminal justice system in America.

I wanted to love this, but I didn't. That being said, I think this novel is incredibly important and is an interesting way to make people aware of the problems and inhumanity of the U.S.'s prison system.

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The book has a really good opening. But at the 40% mark I decided to skim and skip. It really suffers from the storytelling, which is too widespread, fragmented, with some parts prolonged and repetitive. Aside from the main two characters, I really don't care about the other supporting - and distracting - characters and I wish they could be fleshed out more. The book has great ideas - commentary on the prison system, misogyny, racism, capitalism, and many others isms, but it is just not something I enjoy reading.

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This book took me on a rollercoaster ride! It was the return of the gladiators! It is a riveting look at the American prison system touching on racism and capitalism. It definitely gives you what freedom really means in this country. Go get this book!

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Chain-Gang All-Stars is a huge accomplishment for Nama Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. I loved his short story collection, Friday Black. Although this is a full-length novel, Adjei-Brenyah sensibility and skill as a short story writer still shines through in his kaleidoscopic depiction of moments and the shifts in perspective throughout the book. The characters are memorable, the story is powerful, and the premise is disturbing as it shines a light on real issues in America. I think it is probably a bit longer than it needed to be, but I’m glad we got this as a full-length novel rather than a short story or a novella. Thank you to Adjei-Brenyah for this incredible contribution to books and to Pantheon and NetGalley for the ARC.

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I enjoyed this story: the criticism about the punishment judicial system is great. Pretty dystopic by nature.

The thing I didn't enjoy was the many characters introduced in every chapter. I felt like the arch for the principal chatacters were diluted by it. I think the stoy would resonate more with me if it were character driven instead of this kind of narrative structure (because I didn't feel it had a great plot either).

I0m interested in reading more of the work of this author, but this one it was a 3 stars for me.

Thank you NetGalley and Pantheon books for my digital copy.

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I started this on my kindle and was instantly drawn in. But when I switched to audio, I really felt pulled in to the story. This one I highly recommend as an audio. It does an amazing job with the different POV and the jumping around. It does the ads and special announcements and even different tone for the historical information as well. It was so well done, it felt like I was really a part of the world and almost a part of the show.

This story is unsettling in all the best ways. It shows such an ugly side of humanity - the way some people are drawn to violence. And I am not talking about the men and women in the fights. It showed such a humanity to them, that they were more than the crime they'd been labeled with. It was the people around them, that used and pushed and hurt them but were so drawn to their struggle to survive. It was so ugly, powerful and moving. It was realistic in it's portrayal of a lot of those in power (and those that want power) and the fight of others. It was an amazing story, I loved it. It made me uncomfortable for all the right reasons.

A huge thank you to the author and publisher for providing an e-ARC via Netgalley. This does not affect my opinion regarding the book.

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The premise of this book is excellent, but the execution fell a bit flat for me.

"Chain-Gang All-Stars" sets out with a promising premise, delving into the dark and controversial world of CAPE, a profit-driven program within the private prison industry. The novel follows the journey of Loretta Thurwar and Hamara "Hurricane Staxxx" Stacker, the stars of the highly popular and morally questionable gladiatorial competition. However, despite its ambitious intentions, the book ultimately falls short of its potential, leaving readers feeling disconnected and frustrated.

One of the primary issues that plague the novel is its scattered narrative structure. The constant shifts in point of view from the Links in the field to the protestors, CAPE employees, and beyond, create a jumbled reading experience. As a result, it becomes challenging to engage with the characters on a deeper level and fully invest in their stories. Instead of providing a compelling and cohesive exploration of the American prison system, the multiple perspectives only serve to confuse and alienate the reader.

Moreover, the romantic relationship between Thurwar and Staxxx, which is portrayed as a central aspect of the story, fails to resonate. The emotional depth and development of their bond remain underexplored, leaving readers unconvinced of the depth of their connection.

While the book attempts to shine a harsh light on critical issues such as systemic racism, unchecked capitalism, and mass incarceration, its message gets lost amid the disjointed storytelling. The potential for a scathing critique of the private prison industry is present, but the execution lacks the necessary clarity and focus to make a lasting impact on the reader.

Ultimately, "Chain-Gang All-Stars" holds a promising concept that could have been a searing indictment of the American prison system. However, its ambitious intentions are hindered by its disorganized narrative, lack of character development, and an inability to engage the reader effectively. For those seeking a profound and well-crafted examination of the prison-industrial complex, this novel falls short of delivering a satisfying experience.

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