Ask a Bookseller: 'Chain-Gang All-Stars'

Ask a Bookseller Podcast
Ask a Bookseller
MPR

This week, I spoke with Kathy Burnette of Brain Lair Books, which just celebrated its fifth anniversary in South Bend, Ind.

Chain-Gang All-Stars
Chain-Gang All-Stars
Pantheon

Kathy recommended the novel “Chain-Gang All-Stars” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, which she described as being a bit like "Hunger Games," but with adult prisoners instead of teenagers.

In a dystopian future America, prisoners on a chain gang compete in a circuit of gladiatorial fights-to-the-death, with the hopes of winning their freedom. They serve at CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment), a profit-driven, privatized prison system that draws protesters as well as crowds of fans to its matches. Loretta and her partner, Staxx, are fan favorites, and Loretta is only a few matches away from winning her freedom--provided that the rules don't change. After all, what incentive does CAPE have to release its profitable players?

“It's thrilling, it's fast paced, and the ending is like, you just want to throw your hands up and throw the book across the room because you can't believe what happened,” says Burnette.

The novel weaves in the voices of three main competing teams, as well as the game host and the behind-the-scenes designers of the prison games. As we follow the action and root for favorite characters, we learn how each person came to be incarcerated.  Adjei-Brenyah deftly incorporates facts about prison, inviting readers to take a closer, empathetic look at America's prison system.

Burnette, a former educator and librarian, just celebrated the fifth anniversary of Brain Lair (an anagram of librarian). Her store specializes in BIPOC, LGBTQ, and disabilities, with a heavy focus on books for kids. "Chain-Gang All-Stars," though, is written for adults.

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