Mini Reviews: Saint Mazie and Land Where I Flee

Something must be in the air, because I’ve been in a major reviewing slump for the last month. I’ll read a book, have many thoughts about it, and then move on to something else, unable to find the motivation to sit down and write. Today, I’m going to try to get back into the groove, little by little, starting with mini reviews of two books that came out this week: Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg and Land Where I Flee by Prajwal Parajuly.

Book Review: Saint Mazie by Jami AttenbergSaint Mazie by Jami Attenberg

Plucked from an abusive household by her married older sister, Mazie Phillips grows up under the roof of a man who always has plenty of money — even if he can’t reveal how he obtained it. One thing that is for sure, though, is that he owns the Venice, a movie theater in the Bowery neighborhood of New York City. When Mazie is old enough to work, she is sent to work the ticket booth, where she spends her days people-watching and chatting with the colorful characters who pass by her window. But spending her days trapped in a tiny cage isn’t enough; she longs for a big life, and she spends her nights galavanting through Jazz Age New York with a number of men, with one of whom she forms a life-long entanglement.

But the revelry can’t last forever, and when the Great Depression hits, Mazie dedicates herself to helping those who have lost everything, opening the doors of the Venice to people who can’t pay and feeding the homeless whatever she can. Based on the life of a real woman, this novel tells the compelling story of Saint Mazie, Queen of the Bowery. Big-hearted and full of moxie, she is an easy character to fall in love with, and her story, with all of its heartbreak, yearning, and kindness is going to stick with me for quite a while.

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Book Review: Land Where I Flee by Prajwal ParajulyLand Where I Flee by Prajwal Parajuly

To celebrate Chitralekha’s landmark 84th birthday, her three Westernized grandchildren travel to Gangtok to be reunited for the first time in decades. Flying in from New York is Agastaya, a successful oncologist dreading the inquiries into why he isn’t married — and terrified that people will find out the real reason. Manasa is coming from London, where despite living a life of wealth, she is the miserable caretaker of her wheelchair-bound father-in-law. And Bhagwati, fearful of her reception nearly twenty years after eloping with a man from a much lower caste, is joining them from Colorado. Adding to this cast of characters are Chitralekha’s servant Prasanti (a female eunuch or “hijra”) and two unexpected guests who turn the party upside down.

I really loved the cultural perspective of this book; it is set in a Indian town nestled between the borders of Nepal and Bhutan, and it deals with everything from caste and social status, to gender and sexuality, to national identity and refugee life. Prasanti’s story, in particular, sent me down a Wikipedia black hole — and I love it when a book sparks that kind of curiosity. I also can’t resist a good dysfunctional family reunion novel, and this family has long-simmering grudges and misconceptions out the wazoo. However, I had a hard time really caring about or feeling interested in most of the characters, and the lack of development made Land Where I Flee fall a bit flat.

Book Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

It’s 1922, and London is facing hard times in the wake of the war. Spinster Frances Wray has lost her father and both of her brothers, and she and her mother have had to say goodbye to their servants. Unable to pay their bills, they are forced to admit lodgers into their South London villa. In come a modern young couple of the clerk class, named Lilian and Leonard Barber. Although Frances is resentful, at first, about having to share her home with people of a lower class, she is soon unable to ignore the chemistry between herself and Lilian. The two women begin an illicit romance, and their secret leads to a dark moment that will forever change their lives.

I’ve never read Sarah Waters before, so I can’t comment on how The Paying Guests compares to her other books. However, it was quite different from what I was expecting. It felt… a bit more like a soap opera than I was expecting, with its lesbian affair and the “dark moment” that I don’t want to spoil. The way it all played out felt rather melodramatic. That said, it’s an extremely well written soap opera with some pleasantly unexpected qualities.

Frances’ disposition makes this novel really unique. It’s not often that you read about a gay woman who lives so freely during this time period. Before she met Lilian, she had a relationship with another woman, which nearly culminated in the two ladies living together. It was really interesting to see Frances so boldly reject the social mores of the time to follow her heart, pursuing relationships society would condemn her for. It was refreshing that she didn’t try to stifle her impulses for the sake of security. At the same time, though, she is very smart about the way she conducts herself. She IS concerned about appearances, so she doesn’t act blatantly, but more subtly and cautiously. It was interesting to read a book from a perspective that I think is often ignored historically.

The Paying Guests would make an excellent book club read. I don’t want to give too much away, but there is a LOT to talk about, plot-wise. I think readers will have many different opinions about Frances and Lilian’s actions and the way they respond to the big twist. Groups will also enjoy discussing social roles of the time — the different classes and the ways social positions changed after the war, expectations for women, and how Frances subverts those expectations. I didn’t entirely love this novel, but it certainly gave me a lot to think about.

I received a free copy of this book at BEA.

Book Review: Neverhome by Laird Hunt

“I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic.”

With the first line, Laird Hunt sets the tone for Neverhome, a novel about a woman named Constance who leaves behind her husband, disguises herself as a man, and joins the Union forces to fight in the Civil War. This novel isn’t quite what I was expecting, and at first, I was a bit underwhelmed. But as the weeks have passed, it has stuck with me in ways I didn’t expect.

Neverhome isn’t your traditional Civil War novel. You won’t come away from this book with greater knowledge of individual battles or the tradition of women disguising themselves as men to fight. You won’t learn much about the ins and outs of protecting a false identity or what the war was like for most soldiers. But what this novel does offer is really wonderful. This book subverts so many social norms of the time, and Constance’s story is told in beautiful, dreamy prose that nevertheless feels authentic to the time period.

As alluded to in the opening sentence, Constance’s marriage is not typical. She is the strong, bold person in her relationship, whereas her husband Batholomew is softer, more sensitive — qualities that weren’t valued in men in the 1860s. I loved seeing a relationship where the traditional gender roles are flipped this way. Their marriage is unique in other ways, too; they love each other deeply and have a much closer, passionate, and tender relationship than I would expect from many farming-class marriages of the time. This is just as much a love story as a war novel, and although I typically dislike reading about romance, I loved the way Hunt wrote their relationship.

As much as I admired Constance’s strength, it was easy to see where she got it from; as she reminisces about her deceased mother, we see an incredible role model. Constance was raised by a single mother, her father’s identity being somewhat questionable. And what a mother to be raised by! She belongs to the camp of fascinating, challenging, and memorable mothers in literature.

Although Neverhome wasn’t the book I was expecting it to be, my love for it has grown as it has marinated in my mind for the last few weeks. It’s a beautiful novel of an unconventional woman making her way in a dangerous world — and it has devastating ending that you won’t forget.

I received a free copy of this book at BEA.

Book Review: The Quick by Lauren Owen

After graduating from Cambridge in 1892, aspiring poet James Norbury moves to London, where he rents a set of rooms with the aristocratic Christopher Paige (sp?). Christopher introduces him to high society, taking him into upper-class dinner parties and drawing rooms, where James finds an unlikely love. His new position also leads him to the Aegolius Club, one of London’s most exclusive (and sinister) societies. When James disappears, his sister Charlotte comes to London to search for him, teaming up with an unusual pair of vigilantes.

This is about as much information as the copy on the back of the book gives away. I usually try not to spoil anything the reader could find out from the cover blurb, but I’m going to break my rule in this case because I really wish, before reading The Quick, that I had known more about it. The spoiler I’m sharing comes out in the first 100 pages, and it’s REALLY central to the novel. If you don’t wish to be spoiled, skip to the end of the review.

SPOILER ALERT

So the members of the Aegolius Club? They’re vampires. And in a case of mistaken identity, James is turned into a vampire, despite there being strict rules against changing someone without his consent. When Charlotte arrives in London and learns of her brother’s fate, she teams up with a pair of vampire fighters to retrieve her brother from the club and hopefully restore him to his human form. There’s also a competing faction of non-Aegolius vampires in the mix.

When I realized that this is vampire novel, I had a major “wait, hold the phone” moment. The cover copy makes no indication that there is anything supernatural going on in this novel. If it had, I honestly probably wouldn’t have read it. But in the spirit of reading more diversely this year, I decided to keep going. I’ve never read a gothic fantasy novel, so why not try it out? Maybe I’d like it. However, this wasn’t the case

I think I understand the publisher’s reason for marketing this book they way they are, but I don’t necessarily agree with their logic. The Quick is probably more literary than the typical fantasy/paranormal novel, so the publisher hoped to market it toward literary fiction readers. However, if they promoted it as a vampire novel, lit fic readers might not give it a chance. Honestly, I thought this was really sneaky, and not in a good way. While it did get me to read something I wouldn’t have otherwise considered, I didn’t enjoy the experience, and I think my negative perception is partly due to my feelings of being “tricked” into reading a genre I’m not interested in.

END SPOILERS

Going into The Quick, I expected a Gothic novel full of vibrant characters, danger, and intrigue. While it did have those things, it also had a huge element that I wasn’t ready for. Because this book was so different from what I expected and what I usually read, it’s really hard to review.. With books like this, it’s hard to tell whether the book is actually not good, or whether I’m just the wrong audience for it. However, I did thinkt there were too many characters, and I had trouble keeping them straight. There were also some issues with the pacing and shifting perspectives, and the end was super predictable.

I’m really curious to hear from other people who have read this book. How did you feel about the twist? If The Quick is different from what you typically read, did you like it?

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.