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Chain Gang All Stars

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A dystopian novel that pits incarcerated criminals against each other in fights to the death, where the winners move up and can hope to one day be freed. A powerful commentary on the penal system, the love of violence as entertainment, and how people can become inured to almost anything. I'm not sure if the author didn't trust his readers to relate the themes in the book to real life, but there were frequent footnotes about real people and events that, while informative, took me away from the story and disrupted the flow.

Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for a free e-ARC of this book.

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The Hunger Games would be an obvious comparison to this book since both focus on people killing each other as entertainment. Beyond that though, this is a commentary on the American prison system. Prisoners can elect to participate in the CAPE progam, in which they can gain freedom if they survive for a full three years. The average prisoner lasts three months.

I liked the addition of footnotes to include real life facts and statistics, many of which I wasn't previously aware of. One issue I had though was that there was this big build-up and anticipation for the final fight, and it just quickly came and went in the last five percent or so like the author was rushed to just finish the book. Still though, this was a powerful book that will really make you think, or at least see things in a new perspective.

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Love love loved this book. A dark intense, but great read. Thank you so much for sending this to me to read and review!

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Easily one of the best, most disturbing books I’ve read in a long time. It’s most disturbing because of how easily we could end up in this dystopia.

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An absolute masterpiece. An explosion of creativity and innovation that deftly skewers modern America in all ways, not just in issues surrounding crime and punishment. Took me a few chapters to grip onto the voice and place, but once I did I was captivated. The ideas here and the execution: Just superb. It should be read and studied for a long time to come.

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Fantastic. The originality and creativity is impressive. The footnotes gave me pause and I loved them. It took me a while to get used to everyone's nicknames and the names for the weapons, but that's on me. The action propelled the narrative forward and what a sharp criticism of the prision system. As all good books do, "Chain Gang All-Stars" helped shine a light on areas in our world that need it most.

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In a dystopian future, the US has overhauled its criminal justice system. Those with a sentence over 30 years can choose to enter a gladiator-style competition and earn their freedom—if they survive the death matches. At the center of this new sports gaining traction across the country are two rising stars, Loretta Thurwar and Hamara "Hurricane Staxxx" Stacker. As they ascend to stardom, both women face difficult choices to clench their freedom. Will Thurwar and Staxxx be free?

CHAIN is a brilliant book that examines the ways in which a for-profit criminal justice system fails society, both those serving time within and those searching for closure & healing outside. While the setting is extreme, where a fight-to-the-death system is implemented for those incarcerated, Adjei-Brenyah draws parallels between this distant future and the current prison system; both focus heavily on punishment rather than reform.

We follow multiple POVs throughout CHAIN, and the readers are tasked to figure out who the narrators are. Additionally, footnotes on the US history of incarceration & prison complex are scattered across chapters. While these intricacies could break the flow of reading, I appreciate Adjei-Brenyah's inclusion & originality in painting a layered story that encourages the readers to reimagine a more humane & compassionate justice system. At its core, CHAIN asks us: can we design a system that creates more peace and less pain?

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Art imitates life and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah builds a futuristic America in which the incarcerated fight to the death for their freedom in a gladiator-esque setting complete with heightened sensationalism of the NBA/NFL playoffs with all the garrish machinations and outrageous hype of the Met Gala. In this world, the prisoners, are strategically elevated to celebrity status with each match win (which is really a fight to the death). They develop crazed fan-bases, don branded clothing (or if lucky, sponsored athletic wear), develop signature kill-strikes and highly-stylized weaponry. They are romanticized (and sexualized), marketed, and exploited for ratings and monetary gain by the show’s producers, and network sponsors – all of which is perfectly legal. They are expected to keep killing until “freedom” is earned - either by death or consolation.

The audiences are desensitized to this violence and have normalized (and monetized) the brutally graphic slaughter (after all, these are inmates, criminals who deserve punishment) as entertainment. Ironically, it is the stars of the stage and novel who attempt to cling to their humanity - Loretta Thurwar and her lover, Hurricane Staxxx (aka Hamara Stacker) amid the insanity of it all.

The novel sheds insight into their internal battles as well: fears, regrets, emotions, and struggles with self-forgiveness. Although satiric, it examines the “for profit” history of the Prison Industrial Complex currently in place and thriving in the US penal system. There is so much to unpack with this book – book clubs can have great discussions with the plethora of themes, morality issues, and the flaws of humanity.

Thanks to the publisher, Pantheon, and NetGalley for an opportunity to review.

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This is a wildly ambitious premise and Adjei-Brenyah rises to the challenge. It is a novel that implicates its readers as it draws them into the horrifying spectacle that unfolds over its pages. Perhaps its greatest achievement is the way it humanizes individuals that our society demonizes and forgets.

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Many thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an early review copy.

Set in a near future dystopia where prison inmates battle to the death on TV to attempt to win their freedom - this book... gory, tender, full of facts about our justice system.

This one grabbed me from the first sentence and took me on a wild ride. It is thought-provoking, powerful, and one-of-a-kind. There were a lot of different characters and stories to keep straight. It was a bit long overall, and the ending was too quick for me, but I'm going to be thinking about this one for a long time.

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Welcome to a near-future America not all that removed from our own, where an unchecked privatized prison system has resulted in the formation of Criminal Action Penal Entertainment (CAPE). In CAPE, prisoners fight each other in televised death matches, competing for the ultimate prize: their freedom. Between matches, they travel around the country as links on a chain-gang, being filmed for CAPE's popular reality show, LinkLyfe.

The narrative encompasses several perspectives -- protestors, prisoners, rabid fans, corporate lackeys -- but is anchored by two of CAPE's biggest stars, teammates and lovers Loretta Thurwar and Hamara "Hurricane Staxxx" Stacker. As Thurwar nears her final fight, CAPE places a new obstacle in Thurwar's path that will make her journey to freedom even more dramatic and devastating -- all in the name of ratings.

Chain-Gang All-Stars is an unflinching, gritty, violent novel in which Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah uses his fictional dystopian prison system with its gladiator-style death matches to point out the failings of America's current one: the problems with privatization and mass incarceration, the systemic racism that exists (and thrives) at its core. Using footnotes showcasing real-life facts and data, he shows that his fictionalized prison system truly is a close relative of our own. The narrative is brutal and audacious, caustic and riveting.

In addition to the effective, thought-provoking social commentary, Adjei-Brenyah's world-building is stellar as he immerses readers in the system he's created, complete with a complex reward system, innovative torture technology, and cutthroat corporate strategy. The characters are complicated and emotionally resonant, with even the vilest among them inspiring my sympathy at times. There were maybe a few too many perspectives, and the book felt a little long -- but that said, everything felt important. An ambitious and powerful call to action, Chain-Gang All-Stars is a book that demands you sit up and pay attention.

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Unfortunately, for me, this book did not live up to the hype at all. The premise was an intriguing one but the execution fell flat for me. There were too many characters, which made it hard to care about most of them, and sometimes you weren’t sure who was who in a chapter until you were partway through it. There were occasional footnotes, which took you out of the narrative flow, an odd feature for a book of fiction. I nearly DNF’d it at about 50%, but then decided to speed through/skim a bit to get to the end. (And the ending was quite unsatisfying.) The theme of how awful and racist the penal system is, was hammered home early on, and it just felt repetitive after a while.

Thank you to NetGalley and Pantheon for the opportunity to read an advance readers copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

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This book was phenomenal. Like so many great futuristic dystopian novels, you find yourself thinking "oh my god, this is so disturbing and terrible," and then realizing that the future being described is just one or two moves from our current situation. I loved the way the author alluded to historical atrocities throughout and explained them with meticulously researched footnotes. The whole book was a great study in compassion, empathy, abolition, and what it means for a society to lock people away. The ending was incredible. Would recommend this to anyone. An easy five stars.

Thanks to Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, and Anchor and NetGalley for the free ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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Chain Gang All Stars is one of the best, most powerful integrations of fiction and nonfiction I’ve ever read. This book is absolutely horrifying, sickening, and heartbreaking. It’s well-written in a way that meshes together the storyline of this fictional world parallel to our own and real-life data pulled straight from historical and current-day research.

The story revolves around a group of “links” in an alternate-prison chain gang. Incarcerated individuals can opt of out a more traditional prison system to fight other prisoners to the death through CAPE, or Criminal Action Penal Entertainment, a league of “sports entertainment” that’s broadcast live like reality tv and in large arenas like your favorite sporting events.

The novel uses the switched perspectives to tell the stories of prisoners, activists, and cogs of the machine, and it does it well. Writing a story with multiple perspectives and flashbacks of a timeline can be really difficult and can make or break an entire book. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah proves his skill through the writing in this book, and absolutely kills it as a world-class storyteller of his generation.

The horrors of Chain Gang All Stars are particularly tough to face when considering how close this could be to our reality. The novel really takes the systemic racism and capitalism in our country and meshes it into an eerily familiar path to where our country is leaning.

This was my first time reading Adjei-Brenyah, but it won’t be my last. He absolutely knocked it out of the park with his creative storytelling and strong writing style. Incredible novel, horrifying idea about the direction we could be heading in.

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Thank you to Net Galley and Pantheon for the ARC in exchange for my honest review. This novel takes us into a world where prisoners of the US penal system can become gladiators and possibly win their freedom by surviving for three years. Yet, this also requires them to kill other prisoners as their matches in packed arenas are broadcasted on pay-per-view as a sport. We follow Loretta Thurwar and Hurricane Staxxx, women and lovers who are on the both Links on the Chain Gang All Stars, the best. Thurwar is nearing her three years and wants to leave the team better off, to find some type of humanity yet the corporate owners of the games will do anything to keep viewership up and the dollars rolling in. The writing is masterful and the author deftly interweaves our present day reality with themes of racism, incarceration, capitalism and freedom throughout the storytelling. This was a hard read due to the themes and violence (although also well written). Highly recommended, 4.5 stars.

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I thought this book was amazing. The author takes the current US prison system situation and combines it with gladiator style arena fighting. It's like The Hunger Games mixed with Survivor and US death row inmates. It's brutal, but that's sort of the point. I'm not going to give away all of the plot points, but my absolute favorite thing was actually the real statistics that the author added in as footnotes in order to make his point. Everyone likes numbers and statistics. Just kidding. I love those things. But I promise that if you don't it doesn't distract from the narrative in any way. Because footnotes.

I highly recommend this. It was on my radar since Roxane Gay picked it for her book club. I am interested in reading his short story collection.

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Bloody hell!! What a ride! Obviously a social commentary but my God incredibly well written!! These are some badass women and the manner in which they have to survive is brutal!!! A not so far off future because I refuse to believe this cant happen when well umm!! A strong and solid debut

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A fascinating and disturbing premise (which, unfortunately, doesn’t feel too far-fetched) told with grit and dark humor. Unsettling but thought-provoking.

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Chain Gang All Stars is dystopian look at the prison system. In this book prison life has turned into a blood sport that's broadcast on major networks. This story is truly disturbing in that the country has embraced a "fight to the death" mentality for individuals incarcerated and we watch it like a football game.

My rating has nothing to do with the story but rather this book was NOT for me. This contains a vast cast of characters, often challenging to track in the storyline. This read is also incredibly brutal and violent. It is truly a mix of the Hunger Games books and the movie Gladiator.

The footnotes scatted throughout the chapters distracted from the reading - not sure why they were needed during the read and not in the authors notes.

Thank you Knopf, Pantheon, for the complimentary copy.

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My closest encounter with active-sports is me as a young, skinny, flamboyant boy cartwheeling over meticulously linked rubber-band chains as mother, leading my team in Chinese-garter to victory. Dead mother, dead all!

Chain Gang All-Stars is multitude leaps on a different level. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah paints America’s incarceration system to have become an ubiquitous reality entertainment amassing fans from all walks of life. Chain Gang All-Stars pits willing prisoners to the death, forgoing their sentence, for a stab at freedom. While at it, the players are donned celebrity status, gaining support from sponsors and devotees as their fights and downtime shenanigans are streamed in households. Brewing in the sidelines, protests from abolitioners gain traction.

Think Hunger Games x Gladiator x Big Brother. We follow fighters called Links as they earn kills and rank up from a Rookie, to the pinnacle of Grand Colossal, and finally the most coveted High Freed. Each Links are assigned a Chain, a sort of a team, based on facilities they originate from. The current most popular being Angola-Hammond (A-Hamm) where lady front-runners and lovers, Thurwar and Hurricane Staxxx, hail from. Readers are dropped to front seats to witness Links let blood bloom and also observe how their gears work outside the arena. It’s an all out money-shoveling industry catered through paid live viewing, streaming subscriptions, fan service, and merchandise. Name it and you’ll have it.

This novel champions electric fight sequences, impressive world building, and thoughtful real-talk. Despite its fantastical entourage, Adjei-Brenyah employs a satirical flair exposing the dark underbelly of a depraved penal system. The participation of powers in the hand of enforcing institutions, corporations, media, and the justice system is skillfully depicted as they all influence the game and all stakeholders.

From the author’s note, Adjei-Brenyah says, “I don’t think human beings should put human beings in cages, nor should countries murder citizens”. I am not from America but the Philippines has its fair share of the grueling issues depicted in the book especially in the recent years with our war on drugs. It is comical how we justify murder to curb murder, a deranged adoption of lex talionis (law of retribution), which has a snowballing effect that does not know when to cease. The novel is an in-your-face scrutiny of our society’s penchant for violence, our nonchalance shielded by privilege, our perverted desire for gore, and what we are willing to look over for entertainment.

At the heart of all this, and what I think is the spotlight, are its people. The novel triumphantly humanizes the convicts in its resonant showcase of their honest thoughts and turbulent feelings. Thurwar and Staxxx’s bid to protect their love while finding a path to challenge a system that further debases them is a scenario that easily resonates in the real world today. We are immersed in how the Links found their way into prison and even if some willingly signed up for Chain Gang, others only had it as a choice, a way out from a current plight they could no longer bear.

It is also intriguing to read the parasocial relationships that develop between the Links and their fans, who ironically root for them while also believing that the prisoners deserve to be slaughtered for entertainment because of their crimes. It cautiously pins the fact that despite their past, prisoners are people capable of pain, love, and are worth a chance to reformation.

Even the viewpoint of protesters fighting for the Chain Gang Circuit’s abolition offers a stimulating confrontation. It challenges our ignorant predilection to the false dichotomy of good and bad, that there is only the innocent and the damned. Criminals do great harm but that is mirrored in a system that does not address the very reasons why these people resorted to their ruination—racism, socio-economic inequity, unbridled capitalism, volleys of power, and more. In a way, we are complicit for not challenging a forced status quo as it is easier to be comfortable in one’s glass bubble.

To offer a moral soup that might scorch your very tongue is one thing but Adjei-Brenyah’s prose is not one to preach. There is a deeper philosophical jest—catalyzing the rhetoric and allowing the reader to examine their own values as the story unspools the tight coils of degenerating humanity. Chain Gang All-Stars is disturbingly grim but ends in a hopeful melancholy. It is one that leaves an important uncomfortable feeling; a crack cradling seeds that would grow into the very things that will break the chains that bind us.

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