Book Review: Play the Game by Charlene Allen
From debut author Charlene Allen comes a captivating YA contemporary mystery and coming-of-age story, celebrating the power of friendship, first love, and exploring the criminal justice system from the lens of restorative justice. Perfect for fans of Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, and Maureen Johnson.
In the game of life, sometimes other people hold all the controls. Or so it seems to VZ. Four months have passed since his best friend Ed was killed by a white man in a Brooklyn parking lot.
When Singer, the man who killed Ed, is found dead in the same spot where Ed was murdered, all signs point to Jack, VZ’s other best friend, as the prime suspect.
VZ’s determined to complete the video game Ed never finished and figure out who actually killed Singer. With help from Diamond, the girl he’s crushing on at work, VZ falls into Ed’s quirky gameiverse. As the police close in on Jack, the game starts to uncover details that could lead to the truth about the murder.
Can VZ honor Ed and help Jack before it’s too late?
This book stressed me out. While I know that hardly sounds pleasant, it’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book or anything. It’s a stressful story. Usually I read at work when the kids have their reading time, but I found I couldn’t do this book in little ten minute bursts—I just had to sit down, dig in, and find out what happened. Why was this story stressful? Well, if you read the summary up there, you might see why. VZ’s best friend, Ed, was recently killed, Ed’s killer, a white man, was never charged, and now this same man is found dead in the same area where he killed Ed, and VZ’s other best friend, Jack, is the prime suspect and on the run. I spent a lot of the book mentally yelling at the kids, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!?!?!” as they trailed suspects, tried to gather clues, and put themselves in all kinds of potentially dangerous situations. But, even though they were stressing me and my mom-self wanted to lecture them about risky choices, who can blame them? Who can blame these kids for wanting to see some justice, or maybe even revenge? Who can blame them for making rash decisions as they try to figure out who really killed Ed’s murderer, what really went down? Who can blame them for trying to prove a friend’s innocence while he’s hiding out and not telling them what he knows? It’s heavy stuff. It should feel stressful.
There are lighter moments—VZ spends the book working his way through his friend Ed’s computer game, hoping to be able to enter it into a competition, while also feeling like the gameplay is giving him clues to be looking for in what’s happening in real life. While I watched VZ and friends hunt for Jack and hunt for clues, I wasn’t sure what would happen. More violence? Surprise twist? An arrest? I certainly did not see the ending coming as it did, with the story taking the characters to a place and process completely unexpected. You can go discover that for yourself—I’m not spoiling this interesting turn of events.
This well told story explores racism, the criminal justice system, activism, restorative justice, loss and grief, and so much more. Raw, fast-paced, and full of high-stakes moments, this debut was a great read.
Review copy (hardcover) courtesy of the publisher
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/31/2023
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
SLJ Blog Network