Cover Image: Chain Gang All Stars

Chain Gang All Stars

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In a dystopian near future, convicted murderers are pitted against each other in death matches that have become a very popular national sport.

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A book that is thematically and artistically right up my alley (now considering the idea that I have an “alley”). Adjei-Brenyah makes a couple strong, significant choices. For one, the novel is written like a TV show with a wide cast of characters covering every element of the reality TV show that is the basis of the story, a gladiatorial combat game between incarcerated people, adored by the masses of America. Secondly, he chooses to inject sociopolitical (or probably better, humanitarian) commentary throughout the book, in footnotes, and in characters who are protesting the existence of the TV show itself. This is to set the novel up as an abolitionist text… but I wonder if saying the quiet part out loud, in fiction, reduces the power of said fiction. I also think I would have enjoyed a more focused narrative, centered on one or two of the fighters, more. With the book carrying so much plot and so many characters and the subtext being eliminated, my reading experience wasn’t as deep or compelling as I’d hoped it would be. But I’m also a person who didn’t need a fight to the death game show to understand that the prison industrial complex in America is fucked. A case of preaching to the converted.

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Thank you to NetGalley, author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, and Pantheon for providing me with a free ARC in exchange for my honest opinion!

If you are to read one book this year, make it this one. I'm writing this review the day after finishing the book because I still don't feel that I have adequate words to talk about it. Chain Gang All Stars is equal parts heartbreaking, horrifying, gripping, exhilarating, and reflective. The best way I can describe it is taken from the book where a character describes how sickening it is when a car crashes and yet we can't look away. There are horrors described in this book that made me feel sick to my stomach, even more so because I know equal horrors happen every single day in prisons located throughout our country. There is also so much beauty, joy, and humanity found in so many of the characters, especially through the relationship between Loretta Thurwar and Hurricane Staxxx. The duality of this is representative of real life and how at the end of the day, prisoners are people, and people, no matter their background, should not be treated in such horrid ways. We need to do better, and I think this book is going to spark a lot of discussion and though-provoking reflections. The way the story is told throughout so many different perspectives is beautiful, as the reader is able to see so many sides of what is occurring. The writing is electric and magnetic, and I especially appreciated the inclusion of footnotes throughout the text to provide real facts about our current prison system/history as well as background to characters mentioned throughout the text. Chain Gang All Stars is a book that will stay with me and is necessary reading in today's day and age. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is a brilliant author, and I look forward to seeing what he does in the future, as well as checking out his short story collection.

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“This was competition. All other sport was just a metaphor for this. This was the real thing. There was nothing better”

Thanks to NetGalley for granting my wish on this one - I was overjoyed to get my hands on this and it didn’t let me down.
Chain Gang All Stars was an astonishing read, one that lingers in the mind long after reading. Combining Nana Kwame Adjei Brenyah's horrifying vision for the near future with very real societal problems facing America today, it’s pitch-dark satire that is equal parts chilling and hilarious.

The story centres on Loretta Thurwar, a champion in the bloody Hard Action Sports world. Chain-Gang All-Stars - the game in which she participates, “the most visceral viewing experience ever conceived” - is basically televised, hyper-marketed gladiator fights. Convicts fight to the death in the hopes of becoming “High Freed” - a feat which Thurwar has come closer to than anyone in the games’ history.

Thurwar is in a relationship with fellow competitor, Hamara “Hurricane” Staxxx, who is another high-ranking star of the games. The two women are very different - Staxxx is showy and leads with love in her fights; Thurwar is stoic, but works behind the scenes to give some dignity back to the contestants in this bloody fight to the death. Thurwar and Staxxx’ relationship is the novel’s through-line but it goes far beyond the twosome, encompassing characters who are affected by the games in different ways, including competitors, viewers, and those who protest against them.

Shifting time periods and places give the reader a 360 view of the impact of the games on daily life and gives the novel a short-story quality that worked so well for me. It really is an astoundingly clever story - funny, brutal and pitch-dark. It also posits a slippery slope which American society could easily fall down - unlike The Hunger Games, which this has been favourably compared to, I could absolutely see Chain-Gang All-Stars coming to a screen near us someday.

The novel is a powerful indictment of the prison-industrial complex and makes an overt call for abolition. This argument is a persuasive one, especially combined with the footnotes that illustrate the very real laws and cases that the Chain-Gang All-Stars could hypothetically, grow from.

NKAB is one of my favourite writers working today - imaginative, super smart and on a different wavelength to any other writer I’ve read. This wildly ambitious novel is proof of that - it expands on the nightmarish vision of a hyper-capitalistic, racist society first presented in his short story collection Friday Black. He digs the knife even deeper - somehow! - in this one and the result is what a recent Washington Post review called “a dystopian vision so upsetting and illuminating that it should permanently shift our understanding of who we are and what we’re capable of doing.” It shines a light on the reprehensible American prison system and refuses to let you look away. Utterly savage, chilling and brilliant.

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Set in a future in which the prison industrial complex has developed unspeakable weapons of torture and an abhorrent revenue stream packaged as an extreme sport, Chain-Gang All-Stars tells the story of a culture and system driven by racist, classist blood lust under the banner of justice.

Prisons have teams of fighters, "links," who have "volunteered" to join the Criminal Action Penal Entertainment (CAPE) program and fight to the death in matches with other links from other prisons. You either die ("low freed") or survive long enough to be released ("high freed"). "Volunteered" because these future prisons have become even more inhumane as technological advances contrive more effective tools for pain and control. Adjei-Brenyah magnifies the injustices of an ethically corrupt system to speculative proportions in order to show the reality of the existing system. Footnotes throughout remind readers that this future is not so different than the present (while reading this, Massachusetts lawmakers proposed decreasing prisoner sentences in exchange for their internal organs).

Both the story and the telling are brutal, bleak, and punishing, but there is an undercurrent of love and hope carried by Loretta Thurwar and Hamara "Hurricane Staxxx" Stacker. Thurwar killed a former lover in a fit of rage; Staxxx killed her attempted rapist. They are the best fighters in the CAPE program, they are fan favorites, and they're in love. As Thurwar's last match approaches, she struggles with what it means to be free after all the people she has killed on the circuit and how to help her teammates resist the dehumanizing efforts of the program. The ending is as harrowing as the rest of the book and I'll be thinking of Staxxx's message for a long time.

If you enjoyed Friday Black, you'll probably enjoy seeing the author continue his dark, weird investigations into the hideous spectacles of racism, capitalism, and the commodification of bodies.

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The plot, the characters, the violence, they all make this a tough book. It gives you the chills, it's so brutal and you don't want to believe that the human race could end up living in a society like that. Yet, we are almost there. It was sobering to read the footnotes with the statistics of reality.

This is not a slow book, but you need time to digest what's going on, and there are lots of characters to remember. I was hoping for a different outcome, but we all deserve what we get at the end.

You don't read books like this every week.

Thanks to NetGalley and Pantheon Books for an Advance Review Copy.

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I have a couple of nitpicks - some of the POVs aren't as interesting as others, some of the sections are so short it leaves the story feeling a little disjointed which makes it hard to get into a flow. And I have mixed feelings about all the real-life footnotes. The information is important and brings home the idea that our awful for-profit prison system probably isn't as far removed from this world as we might like to think, but they also pulled me out of the fictional world at times. But sometimes you just have to give it up for a book that takes a big ol' swing and mostly connects. I was thinking about it even when I wasn't reading it, and I'll continue to think about it after. It's a brutal read at times, but I'd especially recommend this to anyone interested in prison reform/abolition.

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This book has been on so many "must-read" lists and I now know why. This book, like the characters within, is a powerhouse. I won't repeat the plot, but I will share my thoughts.
You may see this labeled as "dystopian", but is it? A dystopia is defined as. "relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice". Guess what? it's not all plagues and EMPs. BIPOC have been living in a dystopia for quite some time. Is it really such a jump to imagine private prisons making money by using prisoners for blood-sport entertainment?
This book contains a lot of violence, but don't let that stop you. There are statistics scattered throughout the story that are far more disturbing than fictional violence.

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The best book i've read in some time. Amazing characters, succinct interconnecting stories, the whole shabang. Highly reccomend!

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I loved Friday Black so much and was both excited for this novel and nervous it wouldn’t live up to the author’s short story collection. Well there was nothing to be nervous about this is one of the best if not the best novel I have read so far this year.

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Its like the Hunger Games and 1984 mixed together into a twister, horrifyingly realistic tale. Readers are going to be engrossed in the story till the end, but will always be left wanting more.

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Thank you so much to Netgalley for giving me the opportunity to read this incredible book early! I knew this book would be devastating going into it, but I didn't expect to be hit in the heart/gut/or both with each chapter. It might be easy to consider this book to be a dystopian version of the United States, but I would disagree with that statement. The version of the country depicted in this novel is one that feels eerily familiar (the country deeply rooted in capitalist gain and institutional racism) and one that does not feel very far off (prison inmate death matches for entertainment).

This is definitely a book that I cannot wait to get my hands on physically. Reading it on the kindle was difficult with the footnotes, and I believe they (the footnotes) would pack much a deeper punch if I were reading them on the page rather than focusing on skipping around on my e-reader. But nevertheless, I love when footnotes in a novel lend another dimension to the reading experience, such as when they provide not only historical detail but also emotional and symbolic prose that simply just adds another layer.

As always, I loved the lgbtqia+ representation, especially the characters' rejection of bi-erasure as well as their perfectly imperfect depictions. Many times in literature queer characters are put on a pedestal, and I loved that this book refused to do so and just made them simply human.

This book is both a fast-paced, high-tension read as well as a devastatingly difficult read due to its subject matter, but it is one not to be missed.

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Wow, what a triumph. I absolutely loved Chain-Gang All-Stars!

This book expertly weaves together a compelling plot, fascinating characters, and highly relevant social commentary. I couldn't stop reading. It's a searing critique of American entertainment culture and prison systems. The characters all felt so fleshed out, even those we only met briefly. I'll be thinking about this book for a long time.

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Chain-Gang All-Stars has already been receiving a ton of buzz, and rightfully so. The synopsis both intrigued and horrified me: in a private prison system, prisoners fight each other to the death for a chance at freedom. Fights are held in packed arenas, and their lives are binged by audiences across the world. These gladiators become celebrities, but murmurs of protests start bubbling to the surface.

The world-building was impressive, and readers are immediately dropped into the action. I would have loved to learn more about the characters' pre-prison backgrounds, but there are countless other important moments - the brutal action, the gossip, and the hopeful strategizing. The story is violent and graphic, yet that's kind of the point. I was at a loss for words by the time I reached the final page.

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This book is so very good, and ambitious and bold. I am glad it was written and think it will spark lots of conversations. The book tries to cover a bit more than it needed to, and can get a little lost in itself, but overall this is one of the most ambitious books that will come out this year.

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An incredibly intriguing and explosive take on a dystopian future and America's prison system.

While this book gives no definitive answer to the multitude of issues in current day prisons across America, this still left me feeling like my eyes are more open to the very real problems at hand.

This story seems to jump all over the place, featuring quite a few different characters and viewpoints, but mostly, this story follows Loretta Thurwar. Thurwar is the reigning champion of a cruel TV show that pits prisoners in fights to the death. The prize for winning, which is beyond difficult, is freedom.

This is a startling but necessary social commentary on many things besides just the prison system. And, without a doubt, this has rattled me. This is a thought-provoking and insightful look into humanity, and I am really glad I read this.

Out May 2, 2023

Thank you, Netgalley and Publisher, for this Arc!

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Dystopian world where prisoners gladiator-style fight to the death for their freedom. 100% agree with the critiques of the American prison system, but I struggled with the pacing and shifting perspectives. I also don’t’ enjoy reading action scenes, which were aplenty here. This author is so incredibly talented and I think the right readers will love it.

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A brutal dystopia that uses the US prison system and militarization of the police as its backdrop. This is a tough read due to its violence and graphic nature, but I think that was necessary in order to provide the kind of criticism our present day deserves, as well as a compelling story. Incredible writing. This is a must-read for abolitionists, activists, and anyone who thinks our current way of doing things should be different.

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I am blown away. I didn't think it would be for me at first, there is a lot of violent action, but once the story began to delve deeper into the characters I was hooked and could not put it down for the last quarter. What's more, there is more than one very real problem with our society that has a light shone on it here. As a former prison librarian, I can say there is so much truth behind this outlandish (or is it) scenario. This will be an important book, I think.

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The book starts incredibly strong with solid world-building and great characters. It quickly loses steam by switching perspectives too often and not making the narrator or timeline clear. The author had interesting commentary about the corrupt prison system, but the lack of focus had me drifting in and out of the story. Not for me.

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