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Chain Gang All Stars

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Human beings are terrible, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah turns this fact into absolutely captivating, angry writing. I already LOVED his daring short story collection Friday Black, and "Chain-Gang All-Stars", his debut novel about the prison-industrial complex and affect-based entertainment culture, doesn't disappoint either. In a dystopian future, people incarcerated in privatized prisons can opt to join their prison's battle squads, the so-called chains, and become combatants (links) in televised death matches, whose lives (and deaths) are turned into media spectacles on the Criminal Action Penal Entertainment channel (CAPE) - if they survive for three years, an almost impossible task, they are granted their freedom. Of course, the viewers devouring capital punishment as a past-time are not giving in to the worst human impulses, no: they are watching "hard-action-sports". This book is razor-sharp, brutal, and coming from a place of outrage.

The author, son of a defense attorney, was driven to activism for prison reform by The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, this novel (that developed from a short story originally intended for Friday Black) is his investigation into the topic by means of fiction. While we follow main character Loretta Thurwar, who almost made it to the three-year goal, and her lover Hurricane Staxx, Adjei-Brenyah extrapolates to other Links, viewers, protesters against the inhume system, and many other characters to give a full picture of the world he imagines and the topics he tackles. In footnotes, he also gives some actual info on the real-life US prison system, which renders his fictional story more plausible than one would like.

Sure, the story brings to mind such stories as Battle Royale, The Hunger Games, or the movie "Gladiator", but as all of these media, the real source is the Roman Colosseum: This novel tells us that the idea of panem et circenses is still true, that if people have something to eat and entertainment that appeals to their base instincts while simultaneously putting the fear of the mighty system into them, the ruling class can do whatever they want (and cash in). "Chain-Gang All-Stars" adds aspects of sex, class, and race (Thurwar is a Black woman), also talking about the sexualization and overall framing of links as marketable media personalities as opposed to their framing if they were average, anonymous prisoners.

Once again, Adjei-Brenyah goes all in, writing passionately and forcefully, aiming high and packing in many excellent ideas. The fighting scenes, for example, oscillate between reporting on full-contact sports like football (that also leads to widespread permanent brain injuries for pros), war reporting and psychological writing, and the effect is fantastic, as in unveils the full brutality of the system while also working as a particularly relentless satire. Still, of course the many storylines sometimes veer off course, the whole thing is slightly over-ambitious, but God, I have to give it to an author that goes all in and produces such an intense, fascinating outcome.

This guy is only getting started, and I'm excited to follow his career.

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In an alternate future, prisoners can take part in a program where they fight to the death for their freedom. They become kind of like reality stars and stadiums of people watch their fights. Some are kind of forced into the program and many people also protest and so there’s a bit of a social justice commentary there.
It was pretty violent, but very unique and interesting.

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The Hunger Games meets Mad Max and the Thunderdome! Killing is now world wide entertainment - convicts are given the enticement of freedom; that is, if they can survive for 3 years in CAPE - the Criminal Action Penal Entertainment. Prisoners travel to different arenas to fight to the death (with some death matches along the way on their marches too). Two women, Loretta Thurwar and "Hurricane Staxx" Stacker are CAPE's big stars, as both are close to getting out. The gladiators try to maintain their humanity and that of the other convicts in their chain, but at what cost? It's not for the faint of heart, but the parallels to today's incarcerated population and the racism that permeates it, is a thought provoking read.

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This novel blew me away.

The writing is exquisite, and the story itself is unforgettable. I will say that is darker than what most readers may be expecting, and yet, I can't imagine this story being written with any less darkness.

Truly masterful.

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"Retribution of the same kind promises he was not wrong but rather that he was small. To punish this way is to water a seed."

I have never read anything like this before, and I can't believe more people aren't talking about Chain Gang All Stars. This book confronts the realities of the American criminal justice system within a fictional, dystopian world of televised "hard action-sports"—a horrifying combination of gladiator fights and the Hunger Games. The writing is vivid and violent, fast-paced and heart-wrenching.

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I’m pretty sure Chain Gang All-Stars is my favorite book of 2023 so far. It is a scathing indictment of the United States’ prison system that uses Loretta and Hamara’s as an allegory for the way our prison system and the school-to-prison pipeline make not only a mockery of human lives but see them, and the systems that continue to incarcerate them, as a capitalistic opportunity that’s lasted for centuries. I’d call this dystopian, but it’s so horrifyingly real that that almost doesn’t do the book and its characters justice. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is a powerhouse storyteller and I’m so grateful to have read this book. Thank you immensely to the publisher and NetGalley for this e-arc!

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I appreciate what the author was doing with this story. I'm interested in the topics of mass incarceration and abolition, and one of my favorite parts of the book was how Adjei-Brenyah incorporated actual statistics and legislation from the real-world U.S. in the footnotes of this "dystopian" novel. However, I found the world-building to be too expository for my tastes ("show don't tell" and all that), and it was quite distracting through the first half of the novel. I got into the flow of the story and the characters more toward the end, but the writing style just didn't work for me. I did like the commentary on reality television and sports entertainment, though it was second (rightfully so) to the commentary on our prison industrial complex. Speaking of TV, I wouldn't be surprised if this is adapted for television sometime soon.

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Since the murder of George Floyd, I, like many Americans, have become more aware of the racism still prevalent in our country and the prison system is at the root of most of it. Chain Gang All-Stars is a devastating look at our prison system and America's obsession with violence, especially towards black and brown people. Five full stars.

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I was so pleased to see that Nana Kwame-Adjei Brenyah was publishing a novel, and knew I absolutely had to read it. Another searing satire, but this one felt even more grounded than the last book of short stories--which may sound weird if you know the premise. But in today's world of incarceration and reality TV, the jump to combining them is not as farfetched as it may once have been. Adjei-Brenyah's story is fascinating and uncomfortable and heartbreaking all at once. The story follows a Chain on their journey to attempt for freedom, as well as small moments dipping into the people around them that are enabling this horrific spectacle. This is a necessary piece of literature for today's world.

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What an amazing and original story. With the start in the arena, I was hooked. I cannot wait to see what Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah gifts readers with next.

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After reading and enjoying Friday Black, I was very eager to read this one, and I'm glad I did - this book was even better!

We're in a dystopia, where prisoners can get released from prison by agreeing to participate in gladiatorial combats - they're assigned to chain gangs, competing against members of other chain gangs, generally in one on one matches, although sometimes as a group. In theory, at least, after the prisoner wins a certain number of matches, they're released altogether.

The system is uncomfortably close to the current privatized prison system, where prisoner are exploited as a source of labor, going all the way back to the post Civil War south, where Black people were thrown in jail on the flimsiest of pretenses and then leased out as slave labor. Here, the prisons are privately run and make quiet a handy profit from the gladiatorial matches and the ad revenue.

The biggest draw of this book, though, is the people - we get a lot of insight into the participants, some of the employees, and the protestors outside. I found the participants particularly compelling, of course. What was best is that some of them kept their humanity, others didn't, but nobody pretended that they hadn't committed crimes or that they were not capable of pretty brutal killing in the arena. They were still people, though!

I was completely enthralled by this book, and couldn't stop reading. Totally a 5 star read!

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I finished this a couple of weeks ago and I'm still not entirely sure how to review this book. 

I know that I loved it and that it was wildly unique. But I also know that it was completely terrifying and I'm never going to be able to get it out of my head. This book is so violent and capitalistic that it feels like it could aaaactually happen in America. 

This book is about how the prison industrial complex started a reality show called the Chain-Gang All-Stars, which is part of the Criminal Action Penal Entertainment system. Instead of competing for money like in most game shows, they are competing for their freedom, which is basically impossible to achieve. The book follows different members of the Chain-Gang squad, activists, famous announcers, producers, family members of the incarcerated, and so many other people who are wrapped up in this depraved system.

As you can imagine, this book is graphic, especially in the beginning. The book starts off in a melee and I almost had to put it down because your girl HATES graphic injuries in books. But if you can make it past the initial fight, you're good.

The ending actually took my breath away.

It's awful and illuminating and if you can stomach it, give it a read.

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I will be thinking about this book for a long time. I highly recommend reading although it is at times challenging due to occurrences of sanctioned violence in prisons, with police, and among people who are imprisoned. From the start, I didn't want to stop reading and many of the experiences of the characters are cut tragically short. Think of this as a grown up Hunger Games that recognized the systemic presence of state-sanctioned violence and police militarization.

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I want to say this is a book about love, finding meaning in what feels meaningless, using your voice when you are just one. But really it is also about our country's love affair with violence as entertainment, it is about our prison system + control + power. It sounds bleak, and it is, but it is also not.
This is a book that is too close to our current reality in so many ways and I cannot stop thinking about it.

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From the very first chapter (maybe even the first page?), Chain Gang All Stars was an EXPLOSIVE read. I was drawn in from the beginning. This book is not for the faint of heart and includes a lot of graphic, violent descriptions and covers very traumatic topics.

Overall, I thought Chain Gang All Stars was a very intriguing read and very much appreciated what the author was attempting to do - the parallels between the book and the U.S. criminal justice and prison systems were evident and I was able to make those connections. This book is bold and important.

However, at times I felt like the author might be trying to do too much in this book.

Thank you to the publisher and Netgalley for the gifted copy.

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Whew. Y’all. This book.

Chain-Gang All-Stars is a near-future novel set in the US in which the Criminal Action Penal Entertainment (CAPE) program puts on a TV show called Chain-Gang All-Stars. Inmates facing dire circumstances can “volunteer” to participate, which means every month or so they fight to the death. If they survive for three years, they’re freed. There are a lot of characters, but it focuses heavily on Loretta Thurwar, who won a massive upset in her first fight and is now one fight away from being freed, and her partner and fellow teammate, Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker.

If you’re thinking that sounds like a sapphic Roman gladiators/Hunger games mashup, you’re pretty much right. But the way Adjei-Brenyah shows this world from so many angles — from the inmates to the guards to the fans to the protesters — speaks volumes about the current carceral state in the US, the way Black lives and bodies have been and are still used as entertainment, the fetishization of violence (especially when the person being killed is “bad”), and a lot more.

Not only that, but the book itself is compulsively readable. Part excellent plotting, part not being able to look away, I was hooked until the last page.

Give this novel the National Book Award, stat.

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3.75

I have previously read and enjoyed Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s short story collection Friday Black, so when I saw this pitched as a reality tv/gladiatorial take on the for-profit prison system I knew I had to read it.

The prose is beautiful, the characters are vivid, and thematically this book is doing a lot. It makes you think about the prison system, the relationship between private prisons and capitalism, and what justice truly means, while admitting that there might not be a perfect solution. The book is brutal yet sympathetic and Adjei-Brenyah clearly highlights his knowledge by using footnotes to call out case law and statistics related to the U.S. prison system.

I do think this book suffered a little in its pacing, which made it feel a little long. Adjei-Brenyah jumps through POVs in a way that ultimately does come together; however, I found it made for an uneven reading experience at times. That being said, I liked seeing some of those side POV character arcs, like watching Emily’s shift fro disgust to fascination as she got involved in the fandom surrounding the Links.

I have been thoroughly impressed by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s work and I think this cements him as an auto-read author for me.

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Very violent and not at all subtle. I know the prison system is broken, I don’t need to be hammered with the point. I didn’t particularly like “Friday Black” either, so this author and I are just not a good match. I eventually abandoned this after one too many battles. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

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The Hunger Games for this generation and for an older audience. This is a perfect book for class to talk about systemic racism and the American prison system. This will be a hit for sure.

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was glad to receive a copy of this book because i really enjoyed friday black. chain gang all-stars operates in a similar vein - a near distant future very similar to the world we operate in now - where people who have been incarcerated can shorten their sentence by participating in a "show" called chain gang all-stars.

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