I read these books quickly, and there were some similarities between the books. Both are set in the past: Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry in 1890s New York City; and At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen in 1940s Scotland. Both revolve around trouble women: Odile Church, a performer in a Coney Island sideshow whose mother has just died in a fire and who is search for her sister, Belle, who has fled to Manhattan; and Madeleine Hyde, who is trapped in an unhappy marriage and forced by her husband to travel the ocean during war time to search for the Loch Ness monster. Both have an overbearing mother-in-law who did not want their sons to marry the wives they did marry, Alphie's in Church of Marvels and Madeleine's in At the Water's Edge. And both deal with issues of sexual preference and identity - I will not reveal the details of this in either book as that aspect is part of the suspense that needs to unfold naturally. And both are well written and easy to read - though with more characters and changing perspectives I found Church of Marvels a bit harder to follow.
Church of Marvels really deals with three separate stories - and the fun is figuring out how they all come together. I discussed Odile and her sister Belle above. There is also Sylvan, a night-soiler who cleans out Manhattan privies. One night when doing so he finds a baby - and his mystery is finding out who the baby belongs to and why she was discarded. Finally there is Alphie, who wakes up in an asylum and, having been hit on the head, cannot remember why or how she got there. Her mystery is figuring that out and, more importantly, how to escape. I really do not want to reveal much more about the stories as there were a lot of surprises - many completely unexpected and I'm usually pretty good at figuring out the clues. But this was a good read and an interesting insight into the lower classes in 1890s New York.
In At the Water's Edge, Maddie's husband, Ellis, is unable to enlist due to colour blindness - for this and his drunken rants against his father, he has alienated his parents. In order to regain their favour he and his best friend convince Maddie they must go to Scotland to find the Loch Ness monster, a task which Ellis' father had failed to accomplish despite desperate efforts. Maddie is uncomfortable crossing the ocean in wartime, but a traditional wife, with no independent means, she has no choice but to follow her husband. When she arrives in Scotland, at first she tries to assist in the monster hunt, but eventually Ellis and his friend exclude her more and more often. So she befriends the staff at the inn where they are staying (which angers her husband who does not think she should fraternize with the help). Through these friendships she learns more about herself and her marriage - and figures out where the monsters truly reside. As usual Gruen has written a well-researched but easily accessible historical fiction.
I recommend both of these books, though if you only have time for one, I would choose At the Water's Edge; it is better written.