Home / News / Bibliography on Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s ‘Chain-Gang All-Stars’

Bibliography on Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s ‘Chain-Gang All-Stars’


You cannot read all the books.

Even if you are someone like me who is lucky enough to say that reading books is a professional obligation, you may not even be able to read all the books you want to read. As I hope readers know, I take very seriously my responsibility to recommend books to people who want them. Part of that seriousness is trying to recommend books that people might not otherwise discover on their own.

This means that most of the time I deliberately don’t read books that many other people read. Usually these are books that I’m sure are pretty good and that I’ll enjoy, but will also be on the radar of anyone who considers themselves a reader.

I just confessed so I had never read a word of Amor Towles; I received emails for weeks from people telling me I was missing out on a great experience (or two).

I know! I don’t know what to tell you. A man must have his own principles.

Because of these principles, you won’t find me reading recent publications of broad appeal, such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Demon Copperhead” or Abraham Verghese’s “The Covenant of Water,” or almost any book selected by Oprah, Reese, or Jenna. Book clubs unless I read before the selection is announced.

These principles are why I had not read Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s book “Chain-Gang All-Stars” until recently. The book was chosen as part of Jenna Bush’s Today Show Book Club, and although I was a fan of Adjei-Brenyah’s previous book, the story collection “Friday Black,” I thought this was a book I didn’t need.

Frankly, I don’t need to find a readership of passionate readers, but when it was chosen as one of the contestants for the upcoming Book Tournament, where I’m one of the color commentators, I figured I should read it.


“Chain Gang All-Stars” is a tour de force on a conceptual, character, plot and action level. Part near-future, part apocalyptic novel, part high-octane thriller, part moving emotional tearjerker, part civil rights lesson. What a shame it would have been if I hadn’t read this book.

In Adjei-Brenyah’s future United States, people incarcerated may choose to compete in “extreme action sports,” which are essentially gladiatorial contests to the death against other incarcerated people. Over time, rivals can level up, acquire new weapons, receive better treatment, and gain serious notoriety as their lives are captured by flying drone cameras that watch them every waking moment. If you survive for three years, you are given your freedom.

The novel focuses on the story of Loretta Thurwar, a contestant who is only two weeks away from release and needs only a few final victories to be released. Also part of Thurwar’s chain is Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker, perhaps the second toughest fighter in the competition, Thurwar’s lover and also possible future rival. Around this hub circulate stories of fans, protesters, and prisons and entertainment companies fueling the bloodsport.

Adjei-Brenyah portrays the return of gladiator fights as part of a culture that finds ways to exploit and monetize every aspect of our society so realistically that a sense of dread began to creep through me as I read this, and it seemed that if a similar real-life scenario was inevitable.

It’s not a book that will appeal to everyone. Violence is as brutal as violence can be, but that’s part of the point.

An amazing book that I almost missed.

John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Requirements.”

Twitter @biblioracle

Book recommendations from Biblioracle

John Warner tells you what you should read, based on the last five books you’ve read.

1. “Civil War Land is in Bad Decline” by George Saunders

2. “Dictionary of Lost Words” By Pip Williams

3. “Like Lightning” By Ada Palmer

4. “Angel’s Game” By Carlos Ruiz Zafón

5. “Plough on the Bones of the Dead” By Olga Tokarczuk

—Christine C., Skokie

Christine seems caught up in the uncannyness of her narratives. This brings me to Aimee Bender’s book, “The Special Sorrow of Lemon Cake.”

1. “Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow” By Gabrielle Zevin

2. “An American Beauty” By Shana Abe

3. “Forgiveness” By Alice McDermott

4. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde

5. “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury

—Alicia D., Wheaton

A few classics mixed in with some more contemporary fiction. You really can’t go wrong here. I’m going with “Cleaning”, a contemporary classic by Marilynne Robinson.

1. “D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II” by Stephen E. Ambrose

2. “Seeker” By Tana French

To eat. Watch. To do.


What to eat. What to watch? What you need to live your best life… is now.

3. “The Watchman” By Ron Rash

4. “The Place of Death” By Lee Child

5. “No drift” by David Rhodes

— Michael C., Alsip

I hope Michael isn’t yet familiar with Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro series, starting with “A Drink Before the War.”

Get a reading from Bibliocle

Send a list of the last five books you read and your hometown to: biblioracle@gmail.com.


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