Cover Image: The Mayor of Maxwell Street

The Mayor of Maxwell Street

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I wanted to like this book, but found the pacing and characters inconsistent. 1920s Chicago and racial issues had so much potential but it was wasted. The characters were just not gripping and too long.

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Loved this book and can't wait to see more from the author. Thanks to the author and the publisher and Netgalley for the opportunity to read an ARC.

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This novel told a gritty tale of Prohibition era Chicago. It was an interesting story but the execution fell short in some areas as the pacing occasionally drags and the character development felt rough. The writing is very atmospheric of 1920’s Chicago.
Many thanks to Hyperion Avenue and to Netgalley for providing me with a galley in exchange for my honest opinion.

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Twenty-year-old Penelope "Nelly" Sawyer, wealthy daughter and now only child of a successful Kentucky horse breeder, is grieving. Her beloved brother died suddenly in a car accident, and now all of her parents' attention is focused on her making a successful marriage that will ensure and increase their influence in well-to-do Black society.

Nelly is not impressed, as she has other aims, wanting to gain respect for her writing and reporting. For the past year, she has successfully submitted stories she investigated and wrote about to the Chicago Defender, but under a man's name.

When she reveals this to the Newspaper's editor-in-chief, Richard Norris, he agrees to print stories under her actual name, but she has to prove herself first, by finding out who the real Mayor of Maxwell Street is. This elusive man is behind a number of criminal and political actions in Chicago, but no one knows who he really is. It would be a real coup for Nelly, and the paper, to reveal the man's identity.

Meanwhile, Nelly's mother decides it's time for Nelly to meet all the eligible Black wealthy bachelors of the city, and trots Nelly out to various events. There are only two men whom Nelly is intrigued by:

1) Jay Shorey, whom she met at her brother's funeral. He's biracial, a natty dresser, and who is passing amongst the city's white population, and has some influence amongst the Black and White wealthy.
2) Tomás Escalante y Roche, the only son of a very wealthy Mexican family and due to eventually gain the title of Marquis.

Naturally, Nelly's mother is thrilled that Tomás seems very interested in courting Nelly, while Jay very reluctantly agrees to help Nelly with her investigation, as he has access to the criminal side of Chicago. Jay runs a speakeasy, and moves easily amongst Chicago's movers and shakers.

Nelly begins attending exclusive parties where she can meet Chicago elite, while dating Tomás. Nelly has lived a sheltered life, and is shocked when she encounters the racism all Black women face, and also the level of violence the men running the city use to control things.

Nelly also gets to know Sequoia McArthur, the daughter of a preacher. Sequoia is an unconventional woman who has her own secret, but who does prove helpful in helping Nelly understand the relationships amongst both the White and Black elite of the city. Sequoia is also less than enthused by Nelly's fascination with Jay, whom Seauoia feels is untrustworthy, preferring that Nelly see the value in accepting an engagement with Tomás.

That Nelly does eventually determine the identity of the Mayor of Maxwell Street was not a surprise. What I did find surprising was that it was a mystery at all, considering all the easy clues the author littered the story with. I felt that it really should have been obvious to Nelly from the get-go, and was a little disappointed that someone whom we're told is intelligent and observant can not see the evidence in front of her.

Also, I really did not like the love triangle, and also wondered how Tomás could be so unquestioningly supportive of everything Nelly did. This felt more than a little unbelievable, though it was nice to see a fictional suitor not act like a jealous jerk for a change.

I found that this book never really came together coherently for me. There were so many great elements, but I found the story meandered about, giving us obligatory scenes in a speakeasy, at fancy parties, in encounters with gang leaders, in economically depressed neighbourhoods, and within Nelly's family, but the elements didn't flow into a well-paced narrative for me, and I felt like this story needed to be tighter to achieve the "shocking reveal" of the Mayor. Also, though I appreciated Nelly's anger at the story's end from all she has experienced, I was not moved, which I would have expected to be.

I think this story had tremendous potential to be gripping, and though I was not as entertained as I wanted to be, I am interested in this author and what she creates next.

Thank you to Netgalley and to Hyperion Avenue for this ARC in exchange for my review.

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I didn't really enjoy this book. The description sounded like a great storyline but I thought it bounced around a lot. The characters made some really stupid decisions, there was stuff that didn't make sense and it was a really messed up love story. I didn't really like the characters and didn't care so much what happened to them.

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The world building here is very well done and I loved the vibes it was giving but I just had a hard time staying connected to this story. It was just way too long and I feel it could've been condensed.

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Penelope “Nelly” Sawyer is in Chicago for her brother’s funeral. She is set to inherit her family’s wealth if she stays and has a coming out. She has no interest and instead, wants to be an investigative journalist. Under a pen name, she’s been writing about the life as a Black person during the Jim Crow era. Her next article is to uncover the Mayor of Maxwell Street, the supposed leader of an underground crime syndicate.

Jay manages a speakeasy and wants in on the wealthy world that Nelly now inhabits. She wants the dirt from the underworld and gets enthralled by Jay. In the meantime, Nelly is also starting to get involved with Tomas, a wealthy man. This is billed as a love triangle and while it might’ve started out as that, it didn’t end that way.

I wish the book was shorter. It also got confusing to follow the myriad of characters but I loved the world building. I’m a born and bred Chicagoan and I loved reading all the details of a Chicago set at the start of the 1920s. I loved reading about the facets of Black Chicago during that time as we don’t get enough of that history.

Thanks to NetGalley and Hyperion Avenue for this novel. The Mayor of Maxwell Street is out now.

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Fast paced, funny and a rollicking read, this was a great story - epic and heartfelt, but also sprightly and compulsively readable. I’d highly recommend it. I also loved the setting that was pure escapism.

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3.5 stars
1920s Chicago, life in high-society for a black Nelly, the prohibition and the underground. Nelly could be just a rich girl but she has something to prove, her journalistic skills are put to use on the sly. Because, who the heck is The Mayor of Maxwell Street?
She is naive in her choices of safety and travels in circles that she is not familiar with. But, she is 20 so we forgive her. Jay shows up, his background is a bit of a mystery and their connection is palpable. But who is he? The mystery continues.
Tomas is the opposite of Jay but perhaps what my mother would have called 'smooth'.
With all the choices that Nelly has before her, romance is not on the front burner. I would not call this an 'epic love story'. It filled in some pieces but Nelly, oh what becomes of your ambition?
Lukewarm, entertaining, and way too long.

Thank you #NetGalley for intro to this new author.

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Step into the bustling streets of 1920s Chicago with "The Mayor of Maxwell Street"! This historical fiction novel is packed with mystery, romance, and a touch of glamour that will transport you back in time. Join Nelly and Jay as they navigate the corrupt city in search of truth, all while their blossoming romance adds an extra layer of excitement. While the pacing may falter at times and the book is a hefty 500 pages long, the vivid writing style will keep you hooked until the very end. Immerse yourself in a world of vice, virtue, and intrigue with this captivating read!

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The Mayor of Maxwell Street by Avery Cunningham is about a young black debutant named Penelope (Nelly) Sawyer who secretly writes under a pen name stories about the lives of Black Americans under Jim Crow. She aspires to become a well-known journalist while her parents want her to marry well and secure her future. While in Chicago to bury her brother, she meets up with the editor of the Chicago Defender. He promises her the desired by-line if she is able unearth the identity of “The Mayor of Maxwell Street.” This quest will take her into the dangerous trenches of Chicago where her choices not only risk her own life but that of others.

The world building was my favorite part of the book. This was done well. I have no doubt that much research went into building up Nelly’s universe. My hesitation falls to the plot. It felt too long in the sense that it dragged, and too short because it lacked a clear direction, so information felt missing. Nelly’s motives and actions throughout the novel contradict themselves from time to time. One minute she has a heart, and the next she is cut-throat to save her skin. Jay was just full of sketch. Couldn’t tell the truth if it saved his life. Nelly was always getting hurt in his presence.

It is billed as a love story but a love story it is not. I believe this would have worked great without the love triangle. A tale of a rich girl, despite not having the greatest reasons to risk her breath, hides her quest to be a journalist from her parents set in prohibition era Chicago. Or even just an investigative story trying to discover if her brother’s death was an accident or suspicious.

I’m still not sure what exactly happened at the end. The plot does a skip and loses me in the epilogue. I would not even be speaking to Jay if he did what he did to my family. I kept asking myself… why is she sharing airspace with this man? Everything about you and him can only be described as toxic. Even Tomas, her polo playing suitor, her I’ve only known you a short time ride or die, was giving me toxic vibes with the whole “I’ll keep asking you to marry me shtick.” I could be overthinking that relationship but Jay… throw the whole man away behind bars and walk away. Also, what happened to the journalism career? Did she make it? Did she give it up to be a wife as her remarks of forsaking her family name suggest?

I am undecided if I would glowingly recommend but may if someone asks for historical fiction mystery set in 1920s Chicago. Due to this being the authors debut novel I would not hesitate to try her next book as I did enjoy the writing. The story just needed to be more cohesive and less rushed at the end.

Thank you Netgalley for an e-arc of this book in exchange for an honest review. I look forward to seeing what other books this author releases in the future!

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Nelly Sawyer is so much more than she seems. She is the very marriageable daughter of a wealthy Black horse-raising (and racing) family, thrust into the social spotlight after her brother's death. She is also secretly writing and publishing articles about the reality of Black life in the age of Jim Crow. She unexpectedly finds herself in the shades of grey world of Jay Shorey, a light-skinned Black man who seems to have his finger in a great many pots in the underside of Chicago society. The two of them share ambition and a strong connection that may mean disaster for both of them, as Nelly tries to uncover the mysterious character known as the Mayor of Maxwell Street.

Avery Cunningham has crafted a dense, thrilling book. It captures the excitement of being a socialite in the 20's in Chicago, without ever letting the reader forget that Nelly's glittering world is a construct that could collapse at any time because she is Black. For me, as a reader, realizing that there was an entire debutante structure and astounding wealth in the Black community in Chicago was eye-opening, and helped me realize the bias I was carrying around the time period.

The characters are gorgeously drawn. The reader understands why Nelly is drawn to Jay while knowing that he is, without question, not a wise choice. She also has to do a fair amount of growing up through the book, and that is well-captured. The group of people who surround both the main characters are also extremely well-rendered, with their own complexities and identities.

In a lot of way, first and foremost, this is a book about identity, and intersectionality. It's about figuring out what is truly important to you and what you might be willing to give up for that. It would be an interesting book to use with senior high school students, particularly in contrast with something like The Great Gatsby.

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It was an okay story. I was not an engaged with this story as I thought I would’ve been. It was still entertaining.

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Let me start by saying that I love a good Chicago-based read. As long as it is local, present day, futuristic, or historical vibes are my jam.
That being said, I wanted to love this, but didn’t. Historical fiction always puts me in a weird space because I must shift my thinking back to a time that isn’t my own. Everything from my present-day social skills, confidence, and even levels are naivete require major adjustment. There are books, where I can easily make the adjustments and find alignment; this isn’t one of those books.
This book felt like it had modern day bravado in a historical narrative, which just didn’t gel for me.
I thought the character development was fairly good. Nelly made me want to root for her, even when she did things I didn’t agree with her doing. Jay seemed super smooth, and Sequoia was a real one at every turn. In a book this long, I wanted to know even more and was disappointed that the end felt rushed.
I had some good moments during my time on the historical Maxwell Street, but I’m sad to say I didn’t truly enjoy being there.

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This gorgeous book cover perfectly captures the era this novel is set in.

Chicago 1921

Penelope “Nelly” Sawyer, the daughter of Ambrose Sawyer, whose horse breeding empire in Kentucky catapulted his family into Black High Society, is in town to attend her older brother’s funeral. Now that she’s the sole heir to her family’s wealth, she is forced to remain in Chicago and do a proper coming out. But Nelly isn’t interested in cotillons. She dreams of becoming an investigative journalist for the Chicago Defender, and her next assignment is to expose the notorious Mayor of Maxwell Street, the suspected leader of an underground crime syndicate.

Jay Shorey is the son of murdered bi-racial parents. He fled rural Alabama to escape an angry mob and reinvented himself in Chicago. He manages a speakeasy and has connections to the underworld Nelly wants to infiltrate; she is a member of the society Jay desperately wants to be a part of. The chemistry in undeniable whenever their paths cross, but he is an enigma. The way he sheds his old life, adopts a new identity, and is involved in organized crime is giving Jay Gatsby. Nelly has no idea for whom she is falling.

In this story, the glitz and glamor of the roaring 20’s is mingled with the underbelly of Prohibition-era Chi-town. Speakeasy passwords, illegal champagne, gangstas, mafiosos, shady politicians, and the mystery surrounding this Mayor of Maxwell Street, who people paint as a boogeyman, make for an entertaining read. Side note: he didnt seem like such a bad guy to me. No worse than the other hoodlums. He just wanted them to stop fighting over turf and focus on getting bread together.

I liked Cunningham’s biting commentary on how Black wealth and being respectable Negroes is never enough for racists; how poor Blacks who migrated from the south had their aspirations dashed when they realized the arms of Jim Crow stretched north; and how Jay “passing” for white gives him access to different societies despite no one really knowing his background.

Thanks, Netgalley and congratulations to Avery Cunningham on a string debut. The writing is smart and a breath of fresh air. Over 500 pages, and she had my attention to the end. I furiously swiped the pages, because I couldn’t wait to find out who this Mayor is.

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I went into The Mayor of Maxwell Street with high expectations and I will say it was a quite interesting read. Nelly and Jay were individually two very interesting characters independent of each other. I was intrigued by their scenes and their chemistry however there were some writing and plot choices that lost me. While reading I kept hoping that the mystery and action would connect with my intrigue about the character but for me it never came. I would give this author another chance seeing as this was a debut. Still included the book in my haul and on other socials!

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What an extraordinary introduction this proved to be! Set amidst the vibrant backdrop of 1921 Chicago, the narrative centers around the life of Penelope (Nelly) Sawyer, a Black heiress. Born into the affluent Sawyer family, led by her father Ambrose Sawyer, Nelly finds herself at the pinnacle of Black society alongside other prosperous families, converging in Chicago for a Grand Cotillion.

Yet, this tale transcends mere romance, delving into Nelly's aspirations of pursuing a career in journalism. Despite her prior anonymous contributions, aided by her brother, circumstances force Nelly to confront the editor herself, who, taken aback by her youth and race, challenges her with a daunting task: uncover the elusive identity of the Mayor of Maxwell Street, a figure shrouded in mystery yet wielding considerable influence over Chicago's underworld.

Avery Cunningham's "The Mayor of Maxwell Street" is hailed as an "epic love story," weaving together intrigue, racial tensions, and class conflicts against the contrasting landscapes of glamour and grit synonymous with early 20th-century Chicago. Cunningham adeptly captures the essence of the Prohibition era with razor-sharp wit and an engrossing narrative, providing readers with a fast-paced and enthralling glimpse into the Roaring Twenties from a fresh perspective.

One reviewer aptly likened it to a Gatsby-esque tale set in the Prohibition era, a comparison that resonated deeply with me. I am thoroughly impressed by Cunningham's storytelling prowess and eagerly anticipate her future works. Heartfelt gratitude to Hyperion Avenue and NetGalley for providing this Advance Reader Copy.

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3.5 stars
I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley. Review based on final copy. All opinions are my own.
I was intrigued by The Mayor of Maxwell Street, both due to its intriguing premise, but also due to the fact that I believe it’s the first fully original story from Disney’s adult Hyperion Avenue imprint, with their prior releases having been retellings of their popular fairytale films. So, with that in mind, I didn’t entirely know what to expect, beyond it being a historical fiction, and while I had some minor issues with it, it’s promising overall.
I haven’t read many books set in the 1920s, and even less with a Black protagonist, but I really like how this allowed the book to stand out, while it also evoked a similar feel to some other books on the market. I liked how there were some of the high-society pressures, crossing over with the grittier underbelly of the mafia.
Nelly is a sympathetic protagonist, and I loved the dichotomy between her being compelled to navigate high-society, due to her family’s status and connections, and her secret work as an investigative journalist. She’s definitely a bit naive and shielded from the worst of the realities of the world due to her status, but she’s ultimately well-intentioned, and becomes more self-aware throughout the book as a result of her experiences, and truly comes into her own.
And while it’s not primarily a romance, there is a romantic plotline with Jay, a biracial speakeasy manager. I find some of the dynamics of the relationship a little iffy, with it occasionally going into troubling territory. But I also felt it worked in the context of the environment Nelly was in, even if I wasn’t super won over by Jay himself.
There is a lot of intrigue with the mystery element, which is what kept me invested in the book throughout. However, the uneven pacing meant the story lagged in places, and I’m not sure the book merited being as long as it was as a result.
Overall, this is a solid debut in spite of its flaws. I’d recommend it if you’re interested in a well-researched immersive historical fiction about Black people in the Jazz Age/Prohibition era.

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Overall, I really enjoyed this book. The characters were multifaceted and the message was never just about racism, gangsters, coming of age or finding love, but someone an organic amalgamation of all of the above. The plot was gory, fabulous, depressing and beautiful, and I found myself easily drawn in. Would recommend!

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Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an arc of this in exchange for a review.

In review, I will admit that it took me several attempts to pick this up and read it. As a debut author I tried to keep my mind open to possibilities. However, at 20% through, I was very bored. There was a lot of detail to the rich, snob style life and I really didn't care.

Nelly comes from a wealthy Black family. The book starts with the death of her brother and a move from Kentucky to Chicago. Nelly's parents are trying to get Nelly to find a well off man to help her in her future and help them as well. That just didn't sit well with me, but I know it happens. Nelly has her own dreams and aspirations. She wants to be a journalist writing about the mistreatment of Black people. This is a book that touches on some very important social issues both in 1921 and even now. I had high hopes for it being a great historical fiction read, but it didn't feel like there was much historical to it. There is a "love" story with Nelly and Jay but it didn't really seem like a good fit either. Jay is a white passing Black man.

I got bored with it and just didn't really care about it by the end.

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