March 2023

Not an Easy Win

By Chrystal D. Giles
Review by
Chrystal D. Giles turns chess into a drama-filled endeavor in this empathetic novel with special appeal for anyone who feels misunderstood or out of place.
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Twelve-year-old Lawrence and his family have had “a double dose of hard lately.” His dad left his mom and has been in and out of prison ever since, and Lawrence, his mom and little sister have recently moved from Charlotte to “the middle of Nowhere, North Carolina,” to live with Lawrence’s no-nonsense grandmother. When Lawrence is expelled from his new, mostly white middle school for fighting, Granny is quick to quash his plan to stay home and watch TV. 

When Mr. Dennis, who lives nearby, spots Lawrence walking aimlessly around the neighborhood, he invites the boy to join him at the local rec center, where he teaches Lawrence to play competitive chess. “Chess is a game for thinkers,” Mr. Dennis explains, and through the game, Lawrence learns lessons that apply to both chess and life, such as the importance of seeing the big picture and how to plan ahead and avoid falling into enemy traps. He also connects with other kids at the rec center, including brilliant Twyla, who captures his heart, and combative Deuce, who turns out to share something important in common with Lawrence.

In Not an Easy Win, author Chrystal D. Giles turns chess into a drama-filled endeavor that reaches its peak when Lawrence returns to Charlotte to compete in a junior chess tournament. These scenes are filled with all the tension and thrill of a high-stakes athletic final, and even readers with little or no knowledge of chess will be lured in.

Lawrence makes an appealing narrator, and his honesty will quickly win readers over. Giles has a knack for believable turns of phrase that memorably convey Lawrence’s emotions. For instance, when Lawrence recalls the day he was expelled, he observes, “There’s something about being constantly reminded that I’m different that makes me extra edgy, like a revved-up engine ready to spin out.”

Giles explains in an author’s note that, like Lawrence, she grew up in “a multigenerational home . . . with a parent who was absent and often incarcerated,” which led to “moments of embarrassment and shame.” Lawrence’s father doesn’t appear in the novel, but his son maintains a significant, supportive connection with him through an old iPod filled with his favorite songs. 

As Lawrence thinks back to how he felt when he first moved to his new home, he recalls wishing that his family could be “a normal family. I’d already figured out normal wasn’t real. Still, that didn’t stop anyone from wanting it.” With understanding and authenticity, Giles captures Lawrence’s feelings of confusion, displacement, anger, sadness and, eventually, hope. Not an Easy Win is a meaningful, moving read, especially for those who feel misunderstood or out of place. 

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Not an Easy Win

Not an Easy Win

By Chrystal D. Giles
Random House
ISBN 9780593175217

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