Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Review of Playing St. Barbara, by Marian Szczepanski (see, I still do reviews!)

Marian Szczepanski's debut novel, Playing St. Barbara, is quite a book.  It's difficult to describe and was difficult to rate.  But I'll get to that.  1st, here is a synopsis of the book from Goodreads:

The secrets, struggles, and self-redemption of a Depression-era coal miner's wife and three daughters play out against a turbulent historical backdrop of Ku Klux Klan intimidation and the 1933 Pennsylvania Mine War. Their intertwined lives eerily mirror the 7th century legend of St. Barbara, patroness of miners, reenacted annually in the town pageant. Tested by scandal, heartbreak, and tragedy, each woman will write her own courageous ending to St. Barbara's story.

It took me almost 100 pages to get into the rhythm of this book.  But here's the thing:  The next 100 pages really picked up, and the last 180 pages flew by.  Despite the slow start, I'm very glad I read it, and I still gave it a 3/4.  Goodreads and Amazon readers were more generous with their ratings than me.  Goodreads averaged 4.4/5 with 15 ratings.  Amazon averaged 4.55/5 out of 9 people.  But that's a bit misleading.  8 people gave it a 5, and 1 gave it a 1 (a ridiculous rating for a ridiculous reason).  By and large, that's a lot of love.

Let me tell you what I particularly liked.  I really liked the setting and the history.  Marian makes you feel the brutal nature of the mining industry in the late 1920's through the early 1940's.  I also really liked some of the ancillary characters, especially the ones associated with the eldest daughter, Norah.  In fact, I felt the most emotional connection with Norah, more so than her 2 sisters, Deirdre and Katie, and their mother, Clare.  The father, Fin, was a beast.  Some of what he did was tough to read (after just seeing the movie 12 Years a Slave, what Fin did to his family was not so different from what many of the slave masters did to their slaves).

So, all in all, it's a very good read.  If the 1st part of the book hadn't been a bit slow, I would have given it a 3.5.  As it is, there's nothing wrong with a solid 3.  If you can pull yourself away from Coben, Brown, Child, Baldacci, et al, then pick this one up.  It's different from the usual cast of literary characters.  And it's got some meat to it.

P.S.  I LOVED the ending.

List of Characters:  If you go to Marian's website - - and click on the heading For Reader, you can actually get the entire list of characters.  This can be very helpful, take my word for it.  


  1. I'd never heard of this book before reading your review today. It sounds like a fascinating read!

  2. Marian is actually from out of the area but will be visiting Northern California in February. She's scheduled to appear at VHOB on Feb. 12. We're looking forward to having her here.