Cover Image: Chain Gang All Stars

Chain Gang All Stars

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I'm still processing the impact of Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah's powerful "Chain-Gang All-Stars". Centering on two women, Hamara Stacker, and Loretta Thurwar, stars of CAPE or Criminal Action Penal Entertainment. A twisted form of entertainment in a very near future where prisoners are pitted against one another in an arena setting to battle it out to survive. Think American Gladiators with a very different outcome.
     The story of the members of the Chain pulled me in. The story OF the Chain and the system angered me. I don't say this in a negative way. The book pulls from, and has plenty of info about our gross prison system, and that should make us angry and think. It also makes you think about the huge appetite for entertainment at the expense of others and the constant 24/7 cycle of celebrity visibility we currently have. There's a thirst for blood that really needs examined. 
       There are some twists in the story of how things play out, frustration for some character's that show growth, but have nowhere to go with it. Just keep feeding the machine.
        Entertaining, thought provoking, political, dystopian, and ultimately, I feel, an importantant book to start conversations and put more eyes and minds on a huge problem. Definitely recommend adding to your list in April when it's released from Pantheon Books to read!

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What a ride… Stunning, and damning. This novel finds itself as a beautiful hybrid of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s "Bitch Planet" comic series and Stephen King’s "The Long Walk" and "The Running Man," presented with the poise and militancy of Angela Davis. The general premise is not new; blood sports have been hand-in-hand with carceral systems for as long as they have existed. And this is not some dystopian future, this is just light bending around a prism, slightly skewed from the immediate present but more prescient than speculative. In that way the world building and story are new versions of something that has been done before. Yet the powerful writing and the great plotting make this visceral debut-novel gripping and cinematic, make it still feel fresh and exciting. Yet, what really makes this story shine, its true power, is the humanity that saturates every word. Every character is given not just agency, and not just a robust and complicated personal history distinguishing them from flat, cookie-cutter archetypes, but actual humanity, frailty, divinity. It is the humanity that makes this novel succeed so wildly, and it is what also makes it devastating.

This novel has humor, action, and love, without sacrificing a ferocious commitment to the honest exploration of the regular violence we enact on each other, the deadly combination of fear and bloodlust we adopt as entertainment and hide behind hollow labels like “justice” or “public safety.” It is fun and quick to read, not weighed down by how serious and relevant the subject matter is but not holding back in its social critique.

I want to thank NetGalley and Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, and Anchor Press, who provided a complimentary eARC. This honest review is voluntarily given.

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If you are a fan of gladiator movies, you are going to love this novel. The author has transposed the roman circus replete with plenty of blood and gore to a contemporary setting. The bigwigs who oversee the prison system have realized there’s much money to be made by offering the worst of the prison population, the murderers and rapists, serving life sentences and on death row, the opportunity to win their freedom, while becoming heroes with major brand name endorsements and huge followings, by participating in blood sports. Gender equality is a reality as women battle against women and men. The story follows the rise of two women titans who along the way become lovers.

There are the forces outside the ring, activists who protest the sport. The speeches, the pro and con arguments, the guilt and rationalizations, move the story without getting in the way, the author knows how to handle different forms of speechifying and oratory, probably learned from reading books by Ralph Ellison and George Saunders. Readers with a literary eye might also see the influence of Ellison’s battle royal Invisible Man in the author’s combats, and certainly the influences of Saunders’ fiction are heavy handed. The two of them, Adjei-Brenyah and Saunders, are tag-team partners, in the arena of fiction.

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3.5 stars

Woah. This is quite the novel. Very unique as others have said. There is a lot going on and I’m not sure I was up for the task. While I did very much enjoy this on the surface level, I think those that really take the time to read this with a critical mind will get so much more out of it.
I will give this a second read in the future as I do believe that my mind wasn’t totally invested this time around. I do highly recommend this though.

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Since I’m not a huge fantasy reader, I tend to find world building too slow, BUT, if you are going to set your book in a different world, then please give me something to work with.

In the future, prisoners travel in Chain-Gangs, competing in death-matches for packed arenas. The prisoners are lovers and teammates, and some of them are fan favorites. The matches they fight are to the death and the prisoners never know if they will make it out alive. The prisons are for profit, and these matches turn quite the profit because the American people love this entertainment.

This book was unique and brought brand new things to the table – but for me it was just bam you’re in the middle of it all without knowing what I was in the middle of. I needed some world building in this one, and I ended up lost. However, if you can just dive into new things without knowing what you are getting into, then this book is for you! This book is imaginative and really makes you think, but it does so at the expense of the reader unfortunately. I just never could get into this one, but I can see how many people will really enjoy this one. It is beautiful, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I do not possess the eye this one needs.

I am thankful to the publisher, Knopf Pantheon Vintage and Anchor, @aaknopf, and @netgalley, for this book in exchange for an honest review. Please check this one out if you are looking for something new and different in the dystopian & sci-fi genre. This one is out April 4th or grab a copy on @netgalley for yourself.

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There is so much in this book that it requires subsequent readings to understand the layered storytelling that fronts as an action packed narrative. Chain gang all stars is set in a future where all the things that is currently simmering in American society has overflown. In a society where capitalism has gone unchecked, mass incarcerations is on the rise as the prison industrial complex is thriving on broadcasting gladiator-esque games for prisoners. Three years in the games circuit where death is an expectation and not an aberration, would get the prisoners free if they were to survive; whatever that means.

The snippets of lives we see of the main leads - two women who are lovers, fighters and, fan favorites, and the start of an time where the society around them are critical of the brutality that these prisoners are put through. The need for entertainment, for profit and for nothing more than the sheer escapism that people have found in these games, are purposefully dealt in the narrative as a matter of fact. The sheer violence that takes place in the arena among screaming fans, lights and cameras, makes this a spectacle and removes all the humanity from it. At its core, this is best entertainment for those outside the arena, profits for those who endorse the prisoners and run ads, and disproportionately increases incarceration for just the sake of it.

In its narrative, the author navigates the system that's already rigged, a society that's already biased and a culture that's already corrupt. In someway the book is a mere extreme of a world that already exists, reality for many.

<i>Thank you </i>Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, and Anchor <i>and Net Galley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.</i>

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One of the most unique and powerful books that I’ve read in a long time! I simply couldn’t put it down!

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Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s wrenching debut, “Chain Gang All Stars” is meant to be a science-fictional tale. Unfortunately, it was all that and more for me. I live in a place where the Sheriff has a chain gang, replete with prisoners dressed in bold black & white horizontal striped uniforms, foot shackles, ankle monitors, and 24/7 electronic surveillance. Members are chosen for their strength and obedience. They are paraded out in the community at every opportunity. They are promised that, if they behave well, their incarceration terms will be reduced. The Sheriff has his own, personal TV/media studio and a right-wing web outlet that broadcasts anything the studio produces. I am going to do what I can to make sure that the Sheriff doesn’t get a hold of Adjei-Brenyah’s stunning novel. I don’t want him getting any ideas.

I was blown away by “Chain Gang All Stars”. The entire premise is flawlessly executed. Adjei-Brenyah’s naming, dialogue, references, metaphors, pacing, jump cuts, and footnotes - all made me alternately laugh and cry. Weaving in the central issues of societal ills in subtle and not so subtle ways: child abuse, guns, drugs, racist law enforcement, the dysfunctional child welfare system, a criminal justice system without a heart, for- profit prisons, inmate punishment as a spectator sport, the list goes on.

“Chain Gang All Stars” is brutal, but it pulls its punches to stop just short of being gratuitous. Character interaction, both non-verbal, but especially verbal, is rich, deep, and compelling. Adjei-Brenyah writes so that the pages turn themselves. You have to force yourself to take a break - get up, stretch your legs, drink some water, digest what you have just read. Is there hope for us? Maybe. What’s next for Adjei-Brenyah? Hugo? Nebula? Hollywood? Atlanta? New York? The sky's the limit. Can’t wait.

Thanks to Pantheon Books and NetGalley for the eARC.

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