Play the Game | Charlene Allen


Play the Game by Charlene Allen

Out Now from Katherine Tegen Books; 304 pages

Content Warning: Strong language, death of a friend, discussion of murder, grief, racism, violence, discussion of police brutality, discussion of shootings, discussion of anti-black racism, drug use, cheating (relationship)

About the Author: “I’m a writer and activist whose debut novel, Play the Game, will hit the shelves in January, 2023! I couldn’t be more excited, especially because I’ll be able to discuss the book with readers. Play the Game is a different kind of whodunnit – more like, who didn’t do it – about friendship and first love, and what it means to name and claim justice. And it’s also about video games! My current writing project is a YA contemporary novel, due out in the spring of 2024. It’s about family ties, secrets and lies. Like Play the Game it’s (mostly) set in the vibrant streets of NYC. I have an MFA in writing for children and young adults, which means I got to go to school to read and write all day, a truly fantastic experience. On the activist side, I do a lot of work to promote restorative justice and end mass incarceration, because I believe those things can truly change the world.” (Bio taken from author’s website.)

Find Charlene Allen on the following platforms:

“Because it’s time Jack and I got out of the mess we’re in. And this time, I’m taking the lead. Plus, on top of it all, I’m finishing Ed’s game for him.”

VZ’s best friend Ed was killed months ago by a man named Singer. Singer seemingly walked free, but now Singer’s been found dead right where Ed was shot. When police investigate, all clues point to VZ’s friend Jack as Singer’s killer. With his confidence in Jack wavering, VZ sets out to clear Jack’s name. VZ is also splitting his investigation time with completing a custom video game Ed started before being murdered. If VZ can finish Ed’s game, then it can be submitted in a coveted video game contest.  VZ is set against formidable foes – corrupt justice systems and unfinished virtual monsters – but he’s determined to overcome both for Ed. 

The best part of Charlene Allen’s debut is the theme of restorative justice, which is rarely seen in YA literature. On Allen’s website, restorative justice is explained as “a set of principles that people and communities can use to address conflict and harm” rooted in “leading people to accountability and healing, rather than punishment.” Restorative justice is incorporated into VZ’s story with nuance and care, juxtaposing empathy with the racial biases and harm of the current justice system. This ultimately created a satisfying ending to the story; we see a path to real change in the lives of VZ, VZ’s friends, and Singer’s family. Now, with that said… I also think that Play the Game had a few too many things going on. The two main conflicts of the book are Singer’s murder and VZ trying to finish Ed’s video game. Because we split time between the two, the jumps between investigating and coding felt choppy. The last major moment with the video game at the contest even feels glossed over compared to the Singer plotline. There’s also smaller plotlines that felt like they took away from the characters. For example, VZ blows off school and his parents multiple times with no real resolution. I suppose these actions point to VZ dealing with grief in his own way, but these felt more like distractions than additions to the story. 

Play the Game may not be a book I choose to read again, but I appreciate the detailed attention to the theme of restorative justice. Books with this theme are so important to have on shelves today. I am hopeful for Allen’s next project, one I am sure will be equally compelling and relevant. 

(Pine Reads Review would like to thank SparkPoint Studio for sending us an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes are taken from an advanced copy and may be subject to change upon final publication.)

PRR Assistant Director, Erika Brittain