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Likely Stories - Chain-Gang All-Stars

Over the years there have been numerous books that have lingered hopelessly in my list of titles to read. Novels that have captured my interest, sparked my curiosity, and then…found themselves hanging in the ether as I’ve neither found, nor made the time to actually read them. However, one title that has evaded this perpetual limbo is Chain-Gang All-Stars. The debut novel by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.

Upon first discovering this book late last year, it jumped to the front of the cue and barged it’s way into my life. And honestly. I'm so happy that it did.

Chain-Gang All-Stars is the bloody cornerstone of Criminal Action Penal Entertainment, better known as CAPE. A money spinning enterprise that gives convicted prisoners an opportunity to win the ultimate big door prize, their freedom. All they have to do is participate in a series of televised death matches and survive for three years.

Participants in the program travel across the United States as links in chain-gangs, within these groups they form rivalries, friendships, familial bonds, and even develop deep loving relationships, as is the case with the books two central characters, Loretta Thurwar and Hamara Stacker.

Through their deep rooted love for one another and the journey of supporting characters outside of the Angola-Hammond chain, Adjei-Brenyah brings to life a collection of human flaws, fears, mistakes, and lingering regret. But above all he fleshes out the people inhabiting this cruel world with love. Some are completely devoid of it, others are mourning it’s loss or clinging onto it as a lifeline, whilst other links are seeking to find it within themselves or within people they’ve never truly known. And in some cases, those are two examples of the exact same thing.

The human beings working the Chain-Gang circuit, much like the book itself, contain a complex multitude of elements.

For as barbaric as the fundamental concept is, Chain-Gang isn’t the novel a lot of people might expect it to be. Of course it uses bouts of violence to move the plot forward but it’s not a grim, exploitative, splatter fest.

One of the many hats the Chain Gang wears is that of biting satire. A sharp flurry of punches aimed at consumerism, apathy, and herd mentality. It’s also an unflinching dissection of the American penal system.

The book weaves into it’s world building, horrifying statistics and historical events that are both supplemented with corresponding footnotes. The kind which that prompt you to temporarily put the book down and dig deeper into the unjust forms of justice that have transpired in the real world.

But more than anything, Chain Gang All Stars is an incredible body of work that will hopefully spark a chain reaction of empathy, or at the very least a large number of individual perspective shifts.

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If you'd like to be a part of our Likely Stories Book Club, you can find all the relevant information and how to sign up to the mailing list, right here.

After emigrating from Northern England in 2019, Malcolm joined the KWBU team in March of 2023. His experience in podcast production, audio, and video editing have provided a solid base to begin life as an operations assistant and afternoon host. Malcolm is an infinitely curious soul; avid writer, lover of film and music, ardent fan of Liverpool FC, husband to the incredibly patient Robyn, and food giver to Kiki, his fluffy feline overlord.