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Article  •  22 May 2023


A senior product manager shares the debut novel she's obsessing over

Taryn Burges waxes lyrical about her love for Chain-Gang All-Stars, one of the buzziest debuts of 2023.

I’m just going to start with 'you’re welcome' because if you read the book I am about to wax lyrical on, the first words out of your mouth after reading it will be, 'Thank you.' (Well, technically, the first words will probably be sweary ones because the ending is epic beyond all measure . . . but after that, you’ll definitely thank me.) 

Prepare yourselves for something quite different: a novel of violence, love, danger, racism, greed, freedom, capitalism, family . . . and gladiatorial battles. Welcome to Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s world of Chain-Gang All-Stars . . .

Taryn's pick

'Chain-Gang All-Stars' book cover.

Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

The premise is this: in near-future America, the prison system has become privatised and monetised in an extreme and brutal way, namely, with the creation of the C.A.P.E. program, or Criminal Action Penal Entertainment, to which prisoners can sign up for a term of three years that replaces their current (life) prison sentence. The entertainment? A gladiatorial battle between prisoners (Links) from Chains (groups of prisoners/Links) within opposing penal institutions around the country. Two prisoners enter, only one leaves. 

We are talking Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome in America, where the battles are televised, corporate sponsorship is everything, and the prisoner has a chance to 'win' their freedom . . . if they aren’t violently killed in the process.

But what happens when the current 'Chain-Gang All-Star' favourite, Grand Colossal Loretta Thurwar, who is on the cusp of winning her freedom, is given intel from a resistance organisation that shocks her out of single-minded focus? And who in her Chain will stand with her? Can they effect positive change in their society? This is just one epic storyline in a novel filled to the brim with them – it’s a veritable narrative feast.

Chain-Gang jumps around different POVs and narrative styles, with lots of zooming in on character and system backstory details via footnotes (which are endlessly fascinating).

At times I just wanted to consume this story like a python having a meal: I wanted to gulp it down in one go and then just slowly digest. But I would have missed so much nuance and subtlety; Adjei-Brenyah’s skill at writing both the micro and the macro level in this story is exquisite.

If I had to sum up this novel in five words I would say that it’s:

  • Electrifying
  • Galvanising
  • Propulsive
  • Immersive
  • Unputdownable (technically not a word, but a very apt description!)

And if my review isn’t enough to convince you to read Chain-Gang All-Stars, then perhaps the fact that Booker-winning authors Bernadine Evaristo and George Saunders are huge fans of Adjei-Brenyah might entice you. He is an author with a very bright future ahead, and this book has critical acclaim and award-winning written all over it. 

Orange circle icon with a pot and pan.

What I'm cooking

Okay, so technically I’m not cooking this but it IS being cooked in my household so I’ll claim it!

My husband has been working his way through Nathan Anthony’s Bored of Lunch: The Healthy Slow Cooker Book and all the recipes have worked beautifully. Particular winners among them include Tuscan Chicken and Barbacoa Beef.

Orange circle icon with headphones.

What I'm listening to 

Aurora by Daisy Jones & The Six. It still amazes me how a written-for-TV album is one of the BEST albums I have ever listened to. Period. 

More Fun to Miss and Let Me Down Easy are particularly excellent. Highly recommend everyone has a listen!

Orange circle icon with a speech bubble.

Favourite quote

This seems like a gimmick given that I work in publishing, but I will never not relate to this one from Jane Austen: 

'I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book!'

In addition to that banger, as a working mum, I could not connect more to the following from one of literature’s greatest – and fairly recent – heroines, Elizabeth Zott:

'Children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself.'

Yes. Yes, she does. 

Orange circle icon with a film reel.

What I'm watching

While I eagerly await the new Apple+ TV series Silo, based on the Silo book series by Hugh Howey (Wool, Dust and Shift) I’m doing a rewatch of Disney’s Daredevil series. The Punisher has just entered the fray and is throwing a lot of light on the grey areas of 'justice'. It’s absolutely electric!

Featured Titles

Chain-Gang All-Stars
Welcome to a world where, livestreamed to millions, prisoners fight like gladiators for the ultimate prize: their freedom.
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Bored of Lunch: The Healthy Slow Cooker Book
The much-anticipated first book from the hit diet recipe platform, Bored of Lunch. Eat well and save money with 80 easy, healthy slow cooker recipes. For fans of Pinch of Nom Quick and Easy (463k TCM), BBC Good Food's Slow Cooker Favourites (163k TCM) and The Fitness Chef (20k TCM).
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