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Ratings & Reviews for

Church of Marvels

5 stars
2,402 (23%)
4 stars
4,161 (41%)
3 stars
2,636 (26%)
2 stars
658 (6%)
1 star
225 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,578 reviews
Profile Image for karen.
3,988 reviews170k followers
June 26, 2018
put it on a t-shirt - 2015 is officially the year of spectacular carnival/sideshow debut novels by women.

this is a great contrast and companion to the other circussy book i recently read: The Book of Speculation. they are two very different treatments of similar themes - family seeecrets and the lives of sideshow performers. The Book of Speculation has a lightness to it - where its magical elements give it a fairytale feeling, despite some potentially bad things happening to its characters. this one?? there is no magic to be found here; this is a dark dark world.

and i do so like the dark.

this is manhattan and coney island - 1895, and the story has four major characters: the twins odile and isabelle, sylvan, and alphie. it's a tricksy book, and at first, it is unclear what connection these characters have to each other, as the narrative jumps from one to t'other, but have faith - things wind up tight as can be, with many unexpected revelations along the way. even the surprises you can half-predict will have unexpected details that are shiveringly good.

it's got a sarah waters quality in its breadth of historical detail, and parry never shies away from gruesomely vivid descriptions. whether it be the brutal conditions of women consigned to an asylum or the details of the sex trade or waste removal in turn of the century new york, or how to make absolutely sure a secret is kept - nothing is spared. and yet it isn't gratuitous for all that - there's a matter-of-factness to her prose that prevents it from veering into that shock value territory that lingers unpleasantly over the gory details. it's a hard world on display, but it feels utterly, howlingly real.

this one requires a little bit of patience and attention - it's not a difficult read, but it simmers for a while before the rolling boil. but it's a great simmer, and the eventual boil is just frosting. i may have gotten lost in my own metaphor there.

i don't want to give any details away with this one - you will forgive me. but this is a book whose reading experience i feel can be negatively impacted by going in knowing too much. all you need to know is that it is a brilliant debut that's not always pretty, but is incredibly well-crafted.

i liked this one more than The Book of Speculation, but i am someone who skews dark. potential reader - know thyself. i predict that The Book of Speculation will appeal to a wider audience, but this one is a little more ambitious and a lot more gritty, which is what appeals to me. they're both outstanding - if you have room in your life for two circussy books, you should absolutely read them both. if not - gauge your mood and assess whether you are feeling magical realism-y or bleak realism-y.

i have only one word: alphie.

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,309 reviews120k followers
January 26, 2023
All great shows, she told me when I was little (and still learning to flex the tiny muscles in my esophagus), depend on the most ordinary objects. We can be a weary, cynical lot—we grow old and see only what suits us, and what is marvelous can often pass us by. A kitchen knife. A bulb of glass. A human body. That something so common should be so surprising—why, we forget it. We take it for granted. We assume that our sight is reliable, that our deeds are straightforward, that our words have one meaning. But life is uncommon and strange; it is full of intricacies and odd, confounding turns. So onstage we remind them just how extraordinary the ordinary can be. This, she said is the tiger in the grass. It’s the wonder that hides in plain sight, the secret life that flourishes just beyond the screen. For you are not showing them a hoax or trick, just a new way of seeing what’s already in front of them.
Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up. The show is about to begin. See the four-legged dancer, the half-man-half-woman. See the wheel of death, where knives fly toward a spinning lass. See the sword swallower (no, not that sort, puh-leez) and watch as one of our performers eats actual glass. But you had better be quick. This Coney Island sideshow, the Church of Marvels is about to burn to the ground.

"1996.164.5-10 bw SL1" by H.S. Lewis - Brooklyn Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons - Remnants of a 1903 fire at Coney Island.

Sylvan Threadgill is 19 years old and living on his own in the bowels of end-of-the-19th century New York City. He earns a meager living as a night-soiler, cleaning up the remains of the day, and picks up some extra cash as a boxer. It is while at the former job that he comes across an unusual discard. Sylvan is a (mostly) good-hearted sort, and he takes the baby in, intending to find it's mother.

Odile Church, the spinning girl on the Wheel of Death, having lost so much, including her mother, worries about what became of her twin, Isabelle, the star of the Church of Marvels. Belle had vanished before the fire. Odile sets off to the never-seen far away land of Manhattan on a quest to find Belle, following a single clue.

Alphie, a “penny Rembrandt,” and sometime sex-worker, is in love, having been swept off her feet by an undertaker. His old-world Italian mother does not approve, but he marries Alphie anyway, making for a very tense household. Alphie suddenly finds herself a virtual prisoner in Blackwell’s asylum on what is now Roosevelt Island. It is a lovely place, specializing in order over humanity, with generous doses of cruelty tossed in. Charles Dickens actually visited the real Blackwell’s in the 1840s and did not have anything good to say about it. Alphie encounters another prisoner (who never speaks) with unique skills and they plot their escape. Sylvan pursues the truth about the found infant, as Odile tries her best to track down her sister. Truths are discovered, both wonderful and horrifying and all converge to a thrilling climax.

Leslie Parry - from Missouri Review

Leslie Parry has written some wonderful characters, people you will most definitely care about, and she has placed them in a marvelous setting.

The New York City of 1899 must have been a particularly bleak place for those at the lower end of things. But it is a marvelous place to read about. Parry has painted a colorful portrait of the time, offering chilling images of the era. She has a Dickensian penchant for naming her characters. A noseless street urchin is Sniff. A servant girl is Mouse. A nightsoil foreman is Mr. Everjohn. Another night-soiler is No Bones. A "widow" working in a bordello is Pigeon. There is much here about seeing what is in plain sight, but it is also clear that the author has done considerable digging to bring to light things that were hidden, or at least only slightly known. Opium dens among other things. The treatment of asylum inmates is as appalling as one might expect. The profession of night-soiler was news to me, as was the presence of a civil-war era floating ship hospital. You will enjoy learning of the professions of penny Rembrandt and JennySweeter, and of the significance of a north star symbol on the facades of local businesses.

There are sundry images that permeate the story. Tigers figure large for the girls, from the quilt their mother made for them as kids, to carnival tigers grooming Odile, to a literal take on Blake, to a notion of the secret in plain sight being a "tiger in the grass." Church references extend beyond the family and family business name. A floating "church" serves as a venue for boxing matches, complete with a preacher and prayer cards. A sense of divinity is summoned on occasion as well. You might keep an eye out for crescents. Parry offers some passages on passages that certainly remind one of birthing and a sort of Campbellian descent.
…for a moment Sylvan had the dreamy sensation that he was swimming through the vein of a body, toward a lush, warming heart. Ahead of him the man was lumbering and stout, so large he had to duck beneath the doorframes, but he moved quickly, almost gracefully. The passage seemed to turn and fold back on itself, and then it came to an end. The man pulled aside a blue curtain and beckoned Sylvan inside.
One consistent concern is being seen for who one is, being appreciated, or at least, being accepted.
To be seen but not known was perhaps the loneliest feeling of all.
While I adore this book, I do have some gripes. There are enough orphans here to cast a production of The Pirates of Penzance. While lost or missing parents may have been a much more common thing in 1899 than it is today, it seemed to me that the rope being used to lower the bucket to this well was getting a bit frayed. Mickey Finn is put to considerable use as well. There are two concerns that are heavily spoilerish, so I urge you to pass these by if you have not already read the book. Ok, you have been issued fair warning.

Church of Marvels offers a richly colorful landscape, although the hues tend to the dark end of the spectrum. The story is riveting and moving. The main characters are very interesting and mostly sympathetic. And there are enough twists to keep a contortionist bent out of shape. The image that Parry conjures of the time is richly detailed enough without being overwhelming, and the whole is presented with a warmth and charm that reminded me of The Golem and the Jinni. No, there is not here the literal magical element of that other book, but both look at a historical New York and their characters with warmth and charm. In this case, presenting early New York as a kind of sideshow in and of itself.

I am not a regular attendee at any church, but I can heartily recommend Leslie Parry’s debut novel. This church is both unforgettable and marvelous. Can I get an "Amen?"

Publication date – 5/5/15
Review first posted – 1/30/15

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Facebook and Twitter pages

A 5 minute sample of the audio version, read by Denice Stradling

Flashback: When Roosevelt Island Was Blackwell's Island

Ten Days in a Madhouse, by Bill De Main – about Nellie Bly’s 1887 undercover commitment to Blackwell’s

Some of Bly’s report is available here

Some of Bly’s report is available here

An intro to Nelly Bly on PBS
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,777 reviews14.2k followers
August 8, 2015
When I first started reading this I found it hard to follow, four different story-lines and I was confused, couldn't figure out what was going on nor who was who. My advice is to just enjoy the story let it lead where it takes you, don't try to figure out where it is going. Eventually that is what I did and soon found myself feeling like I was in the dark underbelly of New York at the turn of the century. The atmosphere of this novel is very dark, a part of the city that is inhabited by baby sellers, children for hire, dog boys who clean out privies, opium dens, freaks of all kinds and a journey to the insane asylum. Not a pretty, clean spruced up city.

The characters though are amazing, full of depth, flawed and anguished, searching for a better life. Capable of great kindness and a great capacity for love. The twists, seriously did not expect most of them, couldn't have guessed for all the money. They kept coming, especially in the last third of the book, and I was amazed at the author who put this all together. Totally different from any other book I have read.

A very good read, though dark, be warned and some of the things are not easy to hear or read, though not horribly graphic. Found it memorable and am very glad to have read it.
Profile Image for Debbie.
454 reviews2,886 followers
March 20, 2016
Holy moly, this is one fantastic book! Parry created one of the most imaginative stories I’ve ever run across; truly, I’ve never read anything like it. I’m in awe of her! I can’t fathom how she came up with all this crazy stuff.

Try to avoid the marketing blurb, as it was fun to go into this one almost blind. All I knew was it had weird characters, a circus, and a loony bin (oh how I love loony bins).

I can’t believe I almost didn’t pick it up because it had “church” in its title! I’m seriously sermon-intolerant. Little did I know that Church is the name of the family, and believe me, they are far from churchy.

I’m not a fan of historical fiction (often too long, dense, unfunny, and boring). In fact, the tons of description almost turned this book into a 4.5 star. But I have to give it 5 stars because the twisty and far-out story will stick in my mind for a looooong time.

The descriptions are rich and lyrical, and man does the writer create a vivid and harrowing picture of the underbelly of New York City in the late 19th century. True grit, Dickens style. But it’s slow going, because I wanted to pay close attention to every word, and it usually took me extra time to absorb it all. Also, the story that Parry weaves is complicated, so it was sometimes work to keep track of everything.

It's the kind of book that you need to read in long sittings. It's not one that you can hop into and out of easily, so if you have even a touch of ADD, it will be a rough read. And be patient: For a long while, it will seem like three separate stories that cannot possibly come together. I promise that things will eventually blend.

This book is super dark and atmospheric, with lots of bizarre and disturbing images (not horror-genre stuff, though). The characters are edgy and freaky, complex and earnest, strong and sad. These victims are on a mission and they don’t complain about their fate, which makes them even more endearing. Get ready for squalid and bleak settings and lives, and get ready for some true villains. There are lots of secrets that slowly unravel and shock you (one in particular will blow your socks off).

Here is the first paragraph of the Prologue. It sure grabbed me:

“I haven’t been able to speak since I was seventeen years old. Some people believed that because of this I’d be able to keep a secret. They believed I could hear all manner of tales and confessions and repeat nothing. Perhaps they believe that if I cannot speak, I cannot listen or remember or even think for myself—that I am, in essence, invisible. That I will stay silent forever.

I’m afraid they are mistaken.”

I can’t believe this is a debut; Parry must have been an extraordinary storyteller in a past life. You better believe I’ll be waiting impatiently for her next book. Meanwhile, I want to go inside her head. It might be plenty scary in there, but I don't care--the adventure will be so worth the fright.
Profile Image for Barbara**catching up!.
1,391 reviews806 followers
June 12, 2023
Leslie Parry’s CHURCH OF MARVELS uses NYC at the turn of the century as the backdrop of her dark and gritty tale. This isn’t a novel for everyone, as it exposes the seedy party of NYC in an unusual way.

Basically, it’s a story of a “night-soiler”/fighter who finds a baby and wants to find the mother of the baby. It’s a story of a woman who awakens in an insane asylum and wants to get out. It’s a story of a young woman who wants to find her twin sister in NYC with few clues. And these three characters converge in unforeseen ways.

Parry shines in weaving three stories into one. She also shines in creating vivid characters who are considered to be grotesque or misfits in common life and humanizing them to be champions of humanity. Few characters are as they appear, although there are despicable ones who are what they appear to be.

This is a dark tale of misfit lives converging into an ending that is unexpected from the start. I like novels that surprise me like this one did. I really enjoyed the way Parry crafts her sentences. I was illuminated into parts of NYC that I didn’t know existed and shown what some needed to do to survive. I highly recommend it to those who enjoy book that exposes parts of humanity that aren’t part of their personal world. Also, it’s a great turn-of-the century read. It’s just not your average person’s read.
Profile Image for Dem.
1,190 reviews1,127 followers
July 25, 2017
I lOVED Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

Set in the New York at the turn of the century this stroy is cleverly written and such an engaging novel full of twists and turns with complex characters and a plot that is dark and gritty. ( Just my kind of story )

My favourite thing about this novel was the wonderful sense of time and place, New York City at the turn of the century was not for the faint hearted by all accounts and Parry's portrayal of the gruesome realites of Carnival life on Coney Island and life in the slums in New York really was excellent. My Great -Grandmother aged 16 arrived in Manhattan from a small farm in Rural Ireland at the turn of the century and I just couldnt help thinking of her in New York as a young emigrant alone and so navive while reading this book.

The author really has a talent for bringing characters to life and I enjoyed each and every one of the diverse characters in this novel. The writing is complex and detailed and I did at times find myself rereading passages expecially as the characters kept slipping into their past in the middle of paragraphs and I would find myself still caught up in their present stroy. Having said that I still found her writing unique and refreshing.

There is great suspense in this stroy and I looked forward to picking this book up every evening.

This Novel was a great read for me and had me gripped from page one. This one will certainly be on my favourites list and I look forward to future novels by this author.
Profile Image for Jen CAN.
504 reviews1,477 followers
March 7, 2016
Contortionists, sword swallowers, a 4 legged human, a half male half female freak. Welcome to the church of marvels. A carnival sideshow at the turn of the century. It's a gritty story where 4 lives converge through mysterious passages, underground opium societies and an asylum for the mentally ill. It's a mystery within a mystery and a story so outlandishly shocking, it's fascinating. A little slow paced at times but lyrical in nature. I'm giving 4 ★ and am surprised I enjoyed it as much as I did. Well done, Parry.
Profile Image for Jennifer Masterson.
200 reviews1,168 followers
May 15, 2015
This is not a happy Circus tale! It is also not a perfectly written novel. Know this...The Church of Marvels is freaking fantastic! The story is so so good! That's why I'm giving it 5 stars! I'm not going to say much about this one in fear of spoiling it for the reader. I just wanted to say that even though it takes time to develop, and might seem confusing, it all comes together at the end and has one of the best epilogue's, EVER!!!

Put it at the TOP of your to read list!!!
Profile Image for Faith.
1,896 reviews536 followers
May 20, 2022
I like stories set in old New York and I loved this book from the very first sentence of the prologue. This is an amazing first book by the author. It is extraordinarily polished with a delicious, twisty plot that is full of surprises, memorable characters and vivid historical details.

Set in 1895 New York City, the story is told in alternating chapters by the various characters. Their histories are revealed very gradually. What the reader knows from the beginning is that the twin sisters Belle and Odile have just lost, in a fire, both their mother and the Circus of Marvels on Coney Island where the three performed. Sylvan, the orphaned night soiler, has just found an infant in a privy. Alphie has just (mistakenly?) been carted off to an insane asylum, where she waits for her husband to come rescue her. Those are the basic details, but how these people are eventually brought together is a mesmerizing, almost dreamlike, tale.

I would never give away any of the secrets of this book, but I suggest that you pay attention to every detail. One revelation that I will share is that, before her marriage, Alphie had one of the most unusual jobs I've ever heard of. She was a penny Rembrandt. For a penny she applied cosmetics to men who had been carousing in order to hide the signs of their debauchery. You don't read that in a lot of books.

The descriptions of how NYC felt and smelled during the sweltering summer during which most of this story takes place were really splendid. A room smells "like the damp of a ship, wet fur and raw potato" or like "the sweet rot of flowers, a wet flintiness, and then something bitter and earthy, like vegetable root".

This was a wondrous book and I felt like reading it again as soon as I finished it to see what I had missed (and I never reread). I hope the author writes many more like this.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
Profile Image for Angela M .
1,308 reviews2,192 followers
May 7, 2015

There's something alluring about a story that tells of seemingly disparate individuals, each of whom have there own history and day to day life challenges . There's something alluring , knowing that their lives will converge at some point, leaving you wondering what impact they will have on each other . This is one of those stories . It wasn't just the discovery of how they would meet that grabbed me . The writing pulled me in from the first sentences and I immediately liked all of the main characters .

Belle and Odile, twin sisters raised at Coney Island where their mother , Friendship Willingbird Church ran her side show , The Church of Marvels before the fire . Odile leaves Coney Island for Manhattan in search of Belle when she runs away . Nineteen year old , Sylvan ,a privies cleaner and fighter has only himself in this world until he discovers a baby girl as he is cleaning the privies one night . Then there's Alphie, disowned by her family at fourteen , making a living on the streets until she meets and falls in love with Anthony.

It's the seedy side of New York City in the late 1890's and these broken and alone people, each bearing their sadnesses find and help save each other .Through flashbacks of their pasts, the author skillfully develops these characters and slowly we find out who they really are but it is not until close the end and in the epilogue that we know all of the secrets about them . But from beginning to end it's one amazing ride .

It's difficult for me to say much more without giving the story away so I'll just say that I definitely recommend this book about that time and place and about family , belonging, acceptance.

I love when a first novel is this good because it leaves me with the possibility of perhaps more from this author .

Thanks to Harper Collins and NetGalley .
Profile Image for Debbie "DJ".
352 reviews403 followers
August 6, 2015
Yup, this is one crazy book. 19th century carnivals, freak shows and so much more. In the beginning there are three different stories that eventually come together. A feat this author delivered in an extraordinary way. I loved the feel of the dark atmosphere, but also felt it was overly descriptive. This is a book that requires one to pay attention! Not only was I taken back and forth in time, but also piecing together how the characters come together. I confess, I became bored around 50% and missed an essential plot twist at around 60%. One that is so subtile, if you miss it, (like me!) the story loses it's OMG,WHAT? factor. I was even talking with a friend as we went to the exact three sentences...(three sentences!) that changed so much. Oh well, I soldiered on, as I still found the story interesting. At 80% I wasn't sure I wanted to continue, but that's too far in to quit! Well guess what? The rest of the book was so good, I literally could not put it down, and had to rate it a 4!

All I can say is enter at your own risk. It really is a ride in more ways than one!
Profile Image for Dianne.
567 reviews931 followers
December 23, 2015
"For I've found that here in this city, the lights burn ever brighter, but they cast the darkest shadows I know."

No kidding, Belle. What a dark, twisty, turn-y ride this was through late 19th century Coney Island and New York City. It reminded me a bit of Alice Hoffman's "The Museum of Extraordinary Things" in theme and setting, although not in the writing style.

The story has four main protagonists in a cast of memorable characters - Belle and Odile, twin teen sisters and performers in their mother's Coney Island theater, The Church of Marvels; Sylvan, an orphaned seventeen year old night-soiler in New York City, who survives by cleaning privies and fist fighting in matches for money; and Alphie, a young wife of a drug-addicted undertaker who awakens to find herself in the Blackwell's Island lunatic asylum in New York City. How these 4 story threads come together is the best part of the book, so I will leave that to readers to discover. I will say that this book had the best plot twist I've come across in recent memory - totally did not see it coming and it was very well executed. When I went back through the book, I could see little clues but they were never enough to reveal the big secret. Loved it!

It took a while for Parry to set the stage and get things moving, but if you hang in there, it's worth the ride. The only drawbacks for me were that I feel it was a bit "overwritten," as if the author were trying too hard to impress, and the ending seemed a bit drawn out. For a debut novel, though, pretty impressive stuff.

Leslie Parry is another graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop - I have never yet encountered an author from that program who wasn't a star. Watch out for Ms. Parry - I think we will see good things from her.
Profile Image for Taryn.
1,209 reviews189 followers
May 6, 2015
This book is the slowest of slow burns.

Practically the entire time I was reading it, I felt like I wasn't quite grasping all the details. It didn't help that I was reading in brief snatches of time here and there—over my lunch break as I munched a pb&j, for ten minutes at my desk if I arrived early to work, in between chatting with my husband while we were getting dinner ready.

That's the kind of reading time my life is allowing me these days, but it's not the best way to read this book. Church of Marvels would be best enjoyed in long, leisurely swaths, so that the spidery threads of story have room to unwind without getting hopelessly tangled. If you find yourself in a place where you can read for a solid couple of hours at once, then by all means seize the opportunity. Maybe unlike me, you won't get quite so lost among all the overlapping characters and the tiny details that define them. I'll admit to some frustration as I struggled to make sense of how the various players relate to one another.

But oh, the payoff is so good. I reached the Epilogue, and my mind was completely blown. Every single seemingly throwaway detail converged into a beautiful, complete whole, and I forgave Leslie Parry all the confusion and consternation she had caused me.

Church of Marvels is set in 1895 New York City. A young man named Sylvan finds a baby, discarded in a privy but still miraculously alive, as he works as a night soiler. Odile, a young woman with a twisted spine and a limp, works on Coney Island in a circus-style knife-throwing act. Alphie thought her life was finally looking up after she married a man she loved and moved into his mother's home, but now she's been committed to an asylum with dwindling hopes of rescue.

All the characters are connected, but the myriad ways in which that turns out to be true aren't revealed until practically the final pages. The novel is very dark, atmospheric, the seamy underbelly of turn-of-the-century New York laid bare. Parry does some sophisticated stuff with gender identity and sexuality, and imagines one of the most interesting pairs of sisters I've ever read. And who can turn down a book about carnies—sword swallowers, contortionists, trapeze artists? Not me!

If you can be just a little patient with it, this book will blow the socks right off your feet.

With regards to Two Roads and NetGalley for the advance copy. On sale today, May 5!

More book recommendations by me at
Profile Image for Carol.
834 reviews499 followers
June 16, 2015
The Hook - Church of Marvels is a debut. This in itself might have been enough but what truly sold me were the dual themes of twins and a circus.

The Line”Your curiosity, Mrs. Scarlatta had once said, is a dangerous thing. We all need to know our place, or how else would the world go on turning?”

The Sinker – In the late 1800’s, twins Odile and Isabelle (Belle) Church, circus performers in New York’s Coney Island are suddenly thrown into despair and grief when their mother is killed in a tragic fire. The fire burns the renowned Church of Marvels, a sideshow theater, to the ground ending an era for all. With little warning Belle leaves her sister behind and disappears into the poor and wretched streets of Manhattan. When a letter from Belle arrives that alerts Odile that her sister might be in trouble, she makes her own journey across the water.

Seems simple enough but there is a great deal more going on here. Besides the twins there are at least three other important characters. The first is a night-soiler who finds a baby when cleaning out the privies, another, a penny Rembrandt, and lastly, the baby herself. The circus acts and sideshow atmosphere are very interesting. Parry does a good job building her characters and lets us see the seamy side of 1895 New York City.

Two other things that interested me...

One of the characters sings "a meandering song--about brier and moonlight, fireflies and fishermen." I have yet to find this lullaby so if anyone recognizes it let me know.

The second is the use of part of the poem The Tyger by William Blake as an epigraph.
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

I prefer the last line but who am I?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Church of Marvels is creative, imaginative, and Parry’s writing is fine. It also explores sexual mores of the day. It is gritty in parts and may make some queasy. I’m rounding up to 4 stars as this is a debut and I’m feeling positive. Gut feeling tells me that there’s too much quirky plot and that Parry tries too hard. Less might have been better.
Profile Image for Lela.
375 reviews100 followers
July 9, 2015
Have you ever had a book reach out and grab your mind in the first sentence? That's what this did to me. I loved carnivals as a kid but I skipped the human wonders behind the tent flaps. I went for the animals, the rides, the games, the junk food and the weird, pungent smells. It all rushed in as soon as I began reading. Then, the first characters were introduced, and, though the ring of "carnies" was large, each character was developed in wonderful detail. Do you think a book written about a physically twisted girl; her missing sword-swallowing twin; a man abandoned as a baby because of unusual, unappealing appearance; a baby-seller; a weak man tied to his cruel mother; a beautiful transgender-sometimes-prostitute; and, oh, so many more would interest you? Add in a plot of twists, turns, joy, pain with a coming together ending. Shake with the fantastic setting of Coney Island and NYC in an older era. Glaze with deep and beautiful use of language. Finish the delicious book with glorious writing! Yes, it's true - I loved this book! I have a feeling it might be 4 or 4+ star for many of you, but, for me, it was a solid and fabulous 5!
Profile Image for The Shayne-Train.
365 reviews94 followers
June 17, 2015
A lot of reviewers are focusing on the circus-y aspects of this book. But for me, 'twas all about the people and the time period. Yes, there's a classic Coney Island circus location, and yes, it's part of a few of the main characters' lives, but I wouldn't call this a circus book.

What I would call this, however, is an AMAZING book. The beauty of the prose, even when describing the profane and/or deplorable, is striking. The slow, delicious build-up of events and stories coming together is written so well. And gosh, but the New York of the late 1800's is fascinating to read about.

Highly recommended for people that like things that are good, and books that are great.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,661 reviews2,658 followers
June 18, 2015
With settings ranging from a Coney Island theater to an opium den and a mental asylum, this is a gritty look at late-nineteenth-century outsiders. Circus and sideshow themes have been very popular in fiction in recent years, and this is a great example of a novel that uses those elements as background but goes beyond the incidentals of the carnival lifestyle to examine sexuality and societal outcasts. A very atmospheric and accomplished debut novel.

(Non-subscribers can read an excerpt of my full review at BookBrowse.)

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan
The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
Profile Image for Althea Ann.
2,233 reviews1,045 followers
June 19, 2015
New York City, the end of the 19th century. A young man cleaning out a privy finds an abandoned baby, and is driven by compassion to save its life - and to try to find out whose it could've been.

Meanwhile, Odile, a young woman from a family of Coney Island performers, is dealing with the tragic loss of her mother in a fire that not only killed the woman, but destroyed the family business. Odile would expect her twin sister to be her comfort at this time - but instead, Belle has disappeared, off to Manhattan. Fearing her sister will come to a bad end, Belle sets off to find her.

In a third plot thread, Alphie is imprisoned at the women's lunatic asylum on Blackwell's Island. Fragmented memories resurface of a mother-in-law's vicious revenge...

At first, the different points of view feel fractured, unconnected. But each of them is filled with colorful, interesting characters (almost, but not quite to the point of being larger-than-life)... and gradually, the disparate lives of these people are braided together into an intricate knot - with a tightly-crafted mystery and a few wholly unexpected twists and kinks along the way.

I picked this up due to an interest in old New York, and was not disappointed at all. For those who want to find out more about the time period portrayed, I'd recommend Luc Sante's Low Life (

Many thanks to Harper Collins and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinion's solely my own.
Profile Image for Lata.
3,764 reviews205 followers
February 6, 2017
I love stories about New York. And I liked this story that takes place around the end of the 1800s, partly in Coney Island, partly in Manhattan. The story follows three characters primarily, each living lives of varying difficulty and poverty. The author switches PoV amongst these characters, gradually bringing you into their lives, and slowly connecting them together. None of these characters are ordinary, and I found the New York they lived in squalid, frightening, dirty, but with little moments of kindness and happiness. The writing was enjoyable, and though I kind of stumbled a little at first when switching back and forth amongst characters, after a while I found it interesting to see details and events from each character's perspectives. There are a few mysteries resolved through the story (one had me rereading a paragraph then jumping back several chapters to see how the author had introduced and handled the character's situation) and I found myself liking the wrap-up epilogue.
Profile Image for Tania.
1,231 reviews285 followers
August 10, 2015
To be seen but not known was perhaps the loneliest feeling of all.

An amazing debut! I only read this book because I was told it was similar to Night circus (which it's not at all) but I'm so glad I did. This is a dark and disturbing story, featuring some damaged characters, my favorite being Alfie. All of these characters are living at the edge of society, and they all share a longing for a place to belong and fit in. Church of Marvels also reminds us that living in the late 1800's was difficult, and very different from our lives now. The author takes us into opium dens, brothels, insane asylums and underground prize fights. The story itself slowly unfolds, and I found myself gasping with surprise at some of the revelations. If you're not intimidated by the ugly things in life then read this.
The Story: Church of Marvels tells the story of Sylvan Threadgill, a dogfaced, twice-orphaned night-soiler and bare-knuckled boxer who discovers a newborn baby abandoned in a lower east side privy; Belle and Odile Church, a disappeared sword-swallower and her knife-throwing sister from a defunct family-run Coney Island circus sideshow called the Church of Marvels; and Alphie, a trick-turning Bowery Rembrandt haunted by a terrible secret.
Profile Image for Wayne Barrett.
Author 3 books107 followers
February 4, 2017


I really wanted to like this... I really did, but...

6 out of 7 friends who reviewed this gave it 4 stars or higher so I had high hopes. Because of those ratings I am going to say, maybe it's just me, but I just couldn't get into this story. It was a dark carnival fantasy, tragic, right up my alley, but I found myself hurrying through the book, bored. If the characters had been developed a little more I might have been more interested as I followed them through their lives which I knew would all intersect at the end. I couldn't find a personal connection that might have helped me care. And that was the biggest problem; I didn't care... and so just wanted the story to end.
Profile Image for SUSAN   *Nevertheless,she persisted*.
517 reviews98 followers
July 26, 2015
Opium dens,freak shows,houses of ill-repute,baby brokers,insane asylum....turn of the century New York/Coney Island. This book was fantastic.
Evocative prose,characters that stay with you long after the last page,at times brutal yet beautiful.
Read this book.
Profile Image for Laura.
828 reviews253 followers
October 1, 2015
I'm positive I made the mistake of listening to the audio rather than reading the book. I was confused most of the time. I admit it got better by the end and had some interesting twists but overall it was ok. I think if I had the book I could have kept up a little better with plot and characters. Skip the audio and go to the real deal.
Profile Image for Lisa (NY).
1,544 reviews601 followers
July 24, 2021
[3.5] This weird and original novel kept me working throughout figuring out how all the pieces fit together. I loved the colorful 19th century NYC setting and was kept involved with the non-stop intrigue and action - I do wish I could have gotten to know the characters better.
Profile Image for Amber.
216 reviews
December 21, 2015
Church of Marvels ended up being a pretty awesome book, but I will warn you that it takes time in getting there. Once you get there though, you will be glad you stuck with it.

It is a dark and gritty mystery in the seedy underbelly of New York in the year of 1895. The first half mostly read like the characters were in a trance and while that was entertaining, it was also confusing and I wondered where the author was taking this story. In the second half of the book, reality starts to surface and all the confusion starts to make sense. At many points throughout, I felt like I knew where the author was taking the mystery, but I am grateful to say that I had it all wrong. Like Karen says in her review, “it’s a tricksy book”. There were lots of details that surprised me, even to the last page. The epilogue was maybe my favorite part of the book. As a reader, it was very satisfying to find an ending written well. This was a really good debut novel and I will keep my eyes out for more books from this author.

This book was in the same vein of Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things, but it was a very different story altogether and I would say that readers who enjoyed that book will probably enjoy this one too.
Profile Image for Lorna.
718 reviews417 followers
August 14, 2021
Church of Marvels was a debut historical fiction novel by Leslie Parry taking place during the tumultuous turn-of-the-century in Coney Island and New York's Lower East Side. There are four separate story lines taking place including the story we come to know of twin sisters Isabelle and Odile losing their mother, Friendship Willingbird Church, when she perished in the famous Coney Island fire and conflagration in the small theater, the Church of Marvels, that she had built making a life by the sea. We also meet nineteen-year old Sylvan Threadgoode, a night soiler who finds a baby in a privy as he is shoveling the muck one night. Being an orphan himself, he knows he must rescue the baby even if it means risking his job. We also meet young Alfie, the wife of the undertaker who married her against his mother's wishes causing a lot of discord in this old Italian household. The dramatic stories of these characters begins to unfold as we learn more of the mysteries surrounding each. I found much of the book with very dark and somber overtones. But nothing prepared me for the the explosive ending to this engaging story as all of the disparate threads begin to come together. The writing was very atmospheric at times and certainly conveying a sense of place with all of the attendant emotions.

"We assume that our sight is reliable, that our deeds are straightforward, that our words have one meaning. But life is uncommon and strange; it is full of intricacies and odd, confounding turns. So onstage we remind them just how extraordinary the ordinary can be. This, she said, is the tiger in the grass., It's the wonder that hides in plain sight, the secret life that flourishes just beyond the screen. For you are not showing them a hoax or a trick, just a new way of seeing what's already in front of them. This, she told me, is your mark on the world. This is the story that you will tell."
Profile Image for Doug H.
286 reviews
June 30, 2015
The best book I've read set in NYC at the turn of the 20th Century since The Alienist.

I loved it for its well-wrought and surprise-filled plot, its historical detail, and its focus on identity of all sorts: gender, sexual, familial, et cetera. At times I was strongly reminded of Sarah Waters (another author I love), but Parry definitely has a style of her own.

It's full of the sights, sounds and smells of NYC, 1899, but this wasn't my favorite aspect of the novel. To me, it was a bit too overloaded with sensory detail - especially the smells. At times it works very well and it's never cliche, but at certain points I wanted to shake the author and shout "Okay, okay, enough with all the smells already!" and "Can you actually smell lavender and the fresh spill of guts in the same breath?".

My only other quip is the author's use of the words "fuck" and "come". Because the few sex scenes in the book are more fade-to-black a la Fingersmith and less explicit a la Tipping the Velvet, they seemed out of place to me.

This novel also touched me on a personal level. In 1899, my father's immigrant grandparents were living on Jane Street in Greenwich Village above a bar that they owned and operated. They survived the epidemics and the strife and I felt connected to them while I was reading. I also worked downtown at One Liberty Plaza for several years and I know all of the streets where the novel is set. I'm as intimate with South Street Seaport, The Battery and The Bowery as I am with the veins in the back of my hand.

Anyhow, back to the review: 4.5 stars. Not perfect, but close to it.
Profile Image for Carole.
324 reviews38 followers
June 9, 2015
This book has gotten great reviews, and from the synopsis, I thought I was going to love it! I loved finishing it!

It was a bit dark for me, and I had a hard time following some of it, having to go back and re-read paragraphs. It was very descriptive, and there were quite a few words I didn't know the meaning of. I just wanted to find out what the characters were doing, without too much description.

It reminded me of the movie, "Shutter Island" with the asylum.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend it, but many have thought it was wonderful. Just not my type of book.
Profile Image for Kirstin.
119 reviews
February 15, 2017
All the grit I was missing in The Witches of New York showed up in Church of Marvels. Loved it!
Profile Image for Kitty G Books.
1,562 reviews2,940 followers
November 26, 2015
I was sent this book for free to review but that in no way affects my opinions.

So, this book started out in a way I wasn't anticipating it to and continued in a direction I didn't foresee. From looking at the cover art of this and reading the title you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a story largely circus-related, but in actuality although there is mention of the 'Church of Marvel' which is essentially a circus, this is not the setting or real focus of the story.

Within this book we follow 3 main characters, Odile, a young girl who has a twin sister called Belle. Her sister and she have always grown up in the 'Church of Marvels' with their mother (the owner) and had a happy enough life until a fire destroyed the 'Church of Marvels' and split up their family. Belle has now completely disappeared and Odile is worried for her safety so goes into Manhattan to look for her.

Next we meet Sylvan who is a young man working in the pits of Manhattan and fighting in the streets to earn money. He's a fairly likeable young lad with little aspiration because he's always been an orphan but when he finds a very mysterious and sad thing within the pits it changes the journey he was on to one quite different.

Finally we have Alphie who seems like a completely mad character at first until you start to learn her story. She's locked away in an asylum and so her story is disjointed and muddled, but eventually you learn the injustices and sadness she's had to endure.

Overall I will say that this book certainly surprised me and did interest me because of the fact that it dealt with some interesting topics. However, with that said I never fully got sucked into the story because I never felt truly connected to any of the characters or as if I was rooting for any of them to succeed at what they were doing. When going into this book I was under the misconception that this would be somewhat like the Night Circus, but it really wasn't beautiful or whimsical in the slightest, it was far more focused on the back alleys and shady lifestyles which were being led in New York at this time and it told that story far more than anything to do with the Circus.

I will say this is an easy read and it's written well enough, but I just never felt as though I really 'cared' which sounds bad but just means that I never felt truly excited or angry 'for' a character and what was happening to them in the story. It's an easy read and a fast one, but it's not the best book I've ever read. 3*s overall.
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