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Church of Marvels

3.78  ·  Rating details ·  9,311 ratings  ·  1,490 reviews
A ravishing first novel, set in vibrant, tumultuous turn-of-the-century New York City, where the lives of four outsiders become entwined, bringing irrevocable change to them all

New York, 1895. Sylvan Threadgill, a night soiler cleaning out the privies behind the tenement houses, finds an abandoned newborn baby in the muck. An orphan himself, Sylvan rescues the child, deter
Kindle Edition, 352 pages
Published May 5th 2015 by Ecco
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Shay Thank you!! I was starting to panic that I’d have to make some up on my own!!
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Average rating 3.78  · 
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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
Will Byrnes
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
Diane S ☔
Nov 11, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 sel ...more
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
Jul 24, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites, 5-star
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 Is
May 09, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 d ...more
Jennifer Masterson
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!!!
Apr 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 a
Angela M
Feb 05, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

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 char
Debbie "DJ"
Jul 05, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 mi ...more
Jul 24, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: best-of-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 mot
Sara Batkie
I'm clearly in the minority on this one but to me this book was the literary equivalent of a hipster handlebar mustache: historical appropriation for ultimately shallow ends. Not content to write about one quirky concept, Parry piles it on. There's circus performers, insane asylums, amateur boxers, opium dens, all converging in a plot that moves in the page turning sense but never the emotional one, at least not for me. To her credit, Parry is an impeccable world-builder and the prose is often l ...more
Apr 26, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 20, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I can just imagine the writer's workshop when the author presented this book: I've got a great idea for a book. It will about circuses and turn-of-the-century New York with a whole bunch of crazy characters including a boxer, a gay guy, an abortionist, and (view spoiler). Oh, I know, let's throw in an opium den too and maybe an insane asylum? That will really wow my readers. It will be lush and evocative and that's my whole goal with writing somethin ...more
Apr 20, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, debut
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
Jul 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ph ...more
The Shayne-Train
Jun 08, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 writte
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
Althea Ann
Jun 05, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 04, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 momen ...more
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
Wayne Barrett


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 a
SUSAN   *Nevertheless,she persisted*
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.
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
May 19, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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.
Doug H
May 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 overloa
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 i
Feb 15, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
All the grit I was missing in The Witches of New York showed up in Church of Marvels. Loved it!
Updated review after a re-read in November 2018


I hadn’t quite caught this on the first read, but this book really is about being an outsider, about looking at a world one wants to belong to from the outside and never being quite able to cross over into it, always feeling like one doesn’t quite fit or belong where they are. I really have a thing for that kind of story: I feel deep sympathy for outsiders, misfits and freaks.

The slow unwrapping of each characters’ history is what gives this book
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
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Leslie Parry is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has received an O. Henry Award, a National Magazine Award nomination and an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2013. Raised in Pasadena, California, she now lives in Chicago.

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