Cover Image: Chain Gang All Stars

Chain Gang All Stars

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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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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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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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