Saturday, February 25, 2023

Book Review: The Maid of Ballymacool by Jennifer Deibel

Brianna Kelly was abandoned at Ballymacool House and Boarding School as an infant. She has worked there since she was a wee girl and will likely die there. Despite a sense that she was made for something more, Brianna feels powerless to change her situation, so she consoles herself by exploring the Ballymacool grounds, looking for hidden treasures to add to the secret trove beneath the floorboards of her room.

When Michael Wray, the son of local gentry, is sent to Ballymacool to deal with his unruly cousin, he finds himself drawn to Brianna, immediately and inescapably. There is something about her that feels so . . . familiar. When Brianna finds a piece of silver in the woods, she commits to learning its origins, with the help of Michael. What they discover may change everything.

Fan favorite Jennifer Deibel invites you back to the Emerald Isle in the 1930s for this fresh take on the Cinderella story, complete with a tantalizing mystery, a budding romance, and a chance at redemption.

In Jennifer Deibel’s The Maid of Ballymacool, readers will find elements of the classic Cinderella tale, along with many new components as well. Not the least of these is the simmering theme of Identity which is imbued throughout the narrative. Brianna Kelly inhabits the role of scullery maid in 1930s Ireland, slavishly toiling away in an estate where she is rarely shown any sort of compassion or love. Unlike the fairy tale, however, this story is a work of historical fiction, based partly on chronicled events and/or plausible incidents that are devoid of any kind of special magic. There are no transforming pumpkins or spontaneously-created ball gowns. That said, Brianna shares many common characteristics with Cinderella, as she creates ways to cope with her dire situation with grace and in God’s strength. She also struggles with an inner longing, as she yearns to be more than just an orphaned girl who labors up to twenty hours a day for her room and board. As a young twenty year-old, she makes discoveries about her identity that reach far beyond her wildest dreams. She begins to unearth clues to her clouded history, which include a mysterious connection to a handsome gentleman. This quest not only teaches her about her identity as a woman, but also about how her past will transform her outlook for the future.

The main element which drew this reader in to open the pages of The Maid of Ballymacool was the notion of a Cinderella retelling. This fairy tale/genre was my favorite as a girl, and as an adult I still appreciate the rags-to-riches theme, even if the “riches” are metaphorical. What held my interest as I read Jennifer Deibel’s novel was the quality of writing, character development, and plot execution. While not a riveting spy thriller, the story did maintain an even pace with a likable (and sometimes deliciously detestable) cast. I loved the “winks” to the source material, including lost shoes, an almost-fairy godmother-like character, a handsome gentleman of higher social rank, and a passing mention of “goin’ to a royal ball.”

The Maid of Ballymacool does fall under the umbrella of Christian fiction, as certain elements of that faith are mentioned. Some characters do utter short prayers, and the notion that one’s identity and self-worth can be found in God is raised from time to time. Brianna loves to fellowship with God in nature. Deibel makes her beliefs clear, but they are not shoehorned into the content. The story of Brianna Kelly, Michael Wray, Maureen Magee, and others carries the day. Some adult themes are mentioned, including adultery and some physical abuse endured by a few individuals. However, the details given are minimal and not gratuitous. Any coarse language on the printed page is safe for all ages. The romantic element of the narrative is certainly an important aspect, but the details are sweet and fairly chaste. 

Jennifer Deibel is a new author for this reader, and I very much enjoyed her latest work The Maid of Ballymacool. Lovers of Ireland, Cinderella, early 20th century historical fiction, and even Downton Abbey will find much to recommend in this novel. Much like Cinderella and Brianna Kelly, the search for significance is a common theme in the lives of many. Ultimately our identity will not be found in our job titles, but in who God says we are. As God’s creations we are all of value and worth, and to quote one line from the novel, "Yer purpose in this world has precious little to do with what job ya hold. It's to do wi' the way ya impact the people around ye." 

Read the first chapter of The Maid of Ballymacool here!

About the Author

Jennifer Deibel is the author of A Dance in Donegal (winner of the Kipp Award for Historical Romance) and The Lady of Galway Manor (a Parable Group bestseller). Her work has appeared on (in)courage, on The Better Mom, in Missions Mosaic magazine, and in other publications. With firsthand immersive experience abroad, Jennifer writes stories that help redefine home through the lens of culture, history, and family. After nearly a decade of living in Ireland and Austria, she now lives in Arizona with her husband and their three children. 


Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Book Review: Not in Want of a Wife by Amanda Kai

What if Darcy and Elizabeth pretended to court?

Mr. Darcy is not in want of a wife. At least, not one that only loves him for his money. Ever since he came of age, Darcy’s been an object of prey to fortune hunters– greedy ladies and their scheming mamas who would do anything to get their hands on his ten thousand a year and his luxurious estate. Tired of being the most eligible man in any room he walks into, Darcy decides the only way to stave off the fortune hunters is to make himself unavailable to them.

Elizabeth Bennet is convinced that only the deepest love could persuade her into matrimony, and since that has yet to appear, she would do anything rather than marry without affection. Unfortunately, all her mother's thoughts are bent on finding rich husbands for her and her sisters. With the arrival of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy causing a stir among all the mothers of Meryton, Elizabeth knows it is only a matter of time before her own mother pushes her to try to capture one of these rich gentlemen for herself at all costs.

Seeing themselves in virtually the same predicament, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth come up with a convenient arrangement: they will pretend to court while Mr. Darcy is staying at Netherfield. Mr. Darcy will get a reprieve from the relentless husband hunters, and Elizabeth can satisfy her mother with the notion that she has landed a suitor.

But when the time comes for their partnership to end, the feelings that were merely an act have started to become a reality. Will Darcy and Elizabeth find a way to express the feelings that are in their hearts, or will they part ways for good?

There is no shortage of Pride and Prejudice variations, much to the delight of many Janeites who enjoy the exploration of what Austen’s characters might have done if new life choices had been presented to them. Such is the case with Amanda Kai’s speculative work Not in Want of a Wife. In this adaptation, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet agree to a fabricated, temporary engagement for purposes that do not include a romantic attachment between each other. While this solves a few problems, it leads to complications due to unexpected developments within their circles of friends and family. Likewise, as is the case in many narratives of this type, the faux lovers are surprised to find a tender regard growing between themselves as well. This produces a collection of issues in need of resolution.

As those issues are addressed, Author Amanda Kai offers a realistic and entertaining tale in Not in Want of a Wife. She is undoubtedly an admirer and respecter of Jane Austen’s source material, as each character remains fairly consistent with the way Austen presented them. Direct and modified quotes from Pride and Prejudice are sprinkled throughout the text, which often brought a smile to this reader. Kai also interjects her own flavors, including material that incorporates none other than the work of William Shakespeare into the story. A Bardian “callback” near the conclusion of the novel was particularly sweet. The complications and resolutions offered are consistently Austenesque in tone, delicious, and very believable in light of the original text. The manner in which all of the plot threads were completed was deftly handled and satisfying. 

For my conservative readership, I can report that Not in Want of a Wife is consistent with the type of content that Austen herself presented. Adult issues are mentioned, but are not highly detailed or gratuitous in nature. Language on the printed page is conservative, with epithets not described directly. The romance level is very sweet and appropriate for all ages. There is one moment of violence, but its presentation is relatively minor and almost humorous. 

This critic has one general quibble with Not in Want of a Wife, and while it is singular, it will inhibit me from offering a rave review. Although Amanda Kai does mention in her Acknowledgements that beta readers assisted her in revising historical inaccuracies throughout the text, I felt that this area and other aspects of the writing sometimes were not very strong. On more than one occasion, 19th century English characters were uttering 20th century American idioms. Other issues of weak grammar were also very distracting. The story itself, its construction, and the nature of the characters were very well done. However, the writing technique left this reader wanting on more than one occasion.

That one criticism may not be a concern for many readers. In fact, some may not even notice the issues I have indicated. The novel is an enjoyable read, with many moments of humor, suspense, and romance. Amanda Kai has written a sweet Austenesque tale that highly respects the source material. At the same time, she has forged her own path in a way that is creative yet honors the world that Austen fashioned. As she continues to hone her skills, I look forward to what this talented author has for her audience next.

About the Author

Amanda Kai’s love of period dramas and classic literature inspires her historical romances and other romances.  She is the author of several stories inspired by Jane Austen, including Not In Want of a Wife, Elizabeth’s Secret Admirer, and Marriage and Ministry.  Prior to becoming an author, Amanda enjoyed a successful career as a professional harpist, and danced ballet for twenty years. When she’s not diving into the realm of her imagination, Amanda lives out her own happily ever after in Texas with her husband and three children. 

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Monday, January 16, 2023

Book Review: The Rose and the Thistle by Laura Frantz

In 1715, Lady Blythe Hedley's father is declared an enemy of the British crown because of his Jacobite sympathies, forcing her to flee her home in northern England. Secreted to the tower of Wedderburn Castle in Scotland, Lady Blythe awaits who will ultimately be crowned king. But in a house with seven sons and numerous servants, her presence soon becomes known.

No sooner has Everard Hume lost his father, Lord Wedderburn, than Lady Hedley arrives with the clothes on her back and her mistress in tow. He has his own problems--a volatile brother with dangerous political leanings, an estate to manage, and a very young brother in need of comfort and direction in the wake of losing his father. It would be best for everyone if he could send this misfit heiress on her way as soon as possible.

Drawn into a whirlwind of intrigue, shifting alliances, and ambitions, Lady Blythe must be careful whom she trusts. Her fortune, her future, and her very life are at stake. Those who appear to be adversaries may turn out to be allies--and those who pretend friendship may be enemies.

Imagine the tumult of grieving the loss of a father, balancing loyalties in a country enduring political turmoil, and welcoming a stranger into your home as she seeks protection within that same political storm? Such is the challenge facing Everard Hume, the newly established eleventh Earl of Wedderburn in Laura Frantz’s The Rose and the Thistle. It is the year 1715 in Scotland. Jacobite and anti-Papist tensions are high, and the nobility is forced to choose sides as forces build to an eventual conflict. As Everard takes on the mantle previously held by his father, many challenges are faced both within and without. Likewise, his “guest” Lady Blythe Hedley has narrowly escaped an anti-papist mob, is worried about the safety of her Jacobite father, and feels less than welcome as a fleeing Catholic in the Protestant Hume household. Much is at stake for both individuals during this factious moment in British history.

The Rose and the Thistle is not only an educational read for those interested in 18th-century Scotland, but it is also an entertaining novel by a talented author. Laura Frantz, a descendant of the Humes of Wedderburn Castle has thoroughly researched her ancestors and culture, mixing healthy amounts of realism and fact with fictionalized narrative. The result is a novel that easily held my attention and captivated my imagination. Each character is fully sketched and unique, and I came to care for the protagonists easily. Likewise, a few antagonists in particular drew me into the story, as they provided conflict which made the plot all the more interesting. 

While political intrigue is a strong theme of The Rose and the Thistle, the dominant focus is ultimately a romance between Everard and Blythe. As a Christian author, Laura Frantz keeps the content between her lovers very sweet, without gratuitous details or overly steamy scenes. Passionate moments are clear, but readers are left to read between the lines on many occasions. While Everard and Blythe come from two schools of thought in regard to faith, they share belief in a common Savior and find ways to bridge the gap between their variant traditions. As a Catholic, Blythe does use Rosary beads in her prayer times, but within the pages of The Rose and the Thistle her thoughts are directed more to Christ than in a Papist saint. That said, the novel is not overly evangelistic in tone and could easily be enjoyed by those of varying religious persuasions. 

Although I am half German, I am also part Scottish, a descendant of the line of Robert the Bruce. For almost a decade I have also been a strong follower of the works of Diana Gabaldon and her Scottish-based Outlander series. My husband and I also hope to travel to this beautiful country sometime in the near future, and have enjoyed learning more about the culture. The Rose and the Thistle is rife with Scottish vocabulary, social trends and historic moments. Frantz was right to put a glossary at the beginning of the text, as I needed to refer to it often. At times I found some of the dialogue a little hard to follow with the Scottish accent of some of the characters, but that added to the verisimilitude of the story. I very much felt like I had been dropped into 18th century Scotland.  

Laura Frantz is a new author for this reader, and I highly enjoyed The Rose and the Thistle. The romance was delicious, the political intrigue exciting, and the spirituality encouraging. For all I have learned about Scotland in recent years, my knowledge took a leap forward after enjoying this title. Frantz has done her ancestors a great service in sharing this chapter of their history, and she has given her readers a fine gift in this captivating novel.

About the Author

Christy Award-winning author, Laura Frantz, is passionate about all things historical, particularly the 18th-century, and writes her manuscripts in longhand first. Her stories often incorporate Scottish themes that reflect her family heritage. She is a direct descendant of George Hume, Wedderburn Castle, Berwickshire, Scotland, who was exiled to the American colonies for his role in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715, settled in Virginia, and is credited with teaching George Washington surveying in the years 1748-1750. Proud of her heritage, she is also a Daughter of the American Revolution. When not at home in Kentucky, she and her husband live in Washington State.


Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Review: Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen's England

Jane Austen transports us to a world of elegance and upheaval. The Church of England, at the heart of her life and her world, is key to understanding her stories. Readers may wonder:

  • Why could Mr. Collins, a rector, afford to marry a poor woman, while Mr. Elton, a vicar, could not? 
  • What conflicting religious duties led Elizabeth Bennet to turn down two marriage proposals?
  • Why did Mansfield Park’s early readers (unlike most today) love Fanny Price?
  • What part did people of color, like Miss Lambe of Sanditon, play in English society?
  • How did Austen’s church impact people’s lives and the world?

Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England by Brenda S. Cox answers these questions and many more. It explores:

  • Austen’s Church of England, as we see it in her novels
  • Challenges the church was facing, reflected in her stories
  • Ways the church in Austen’s England transformed England and the world

Comprehensive, yet affordable and easy to read, Fashionable Goodness will help you see Austen’s beloved novels and characters in richer and deeper ways. 

     Printed biographies and filmed documentaries of the life of Jane Austen are plentiful. Her station in life as the daughter of a country clergyman is routinely mentioned within these productions, and men of the cloth appear frequently within her novels. These two aspects alone seem to indicate that the Christian faith played a prominent role in the life of this beloved author. However, many who lived within the culture of the time practiced what was called a “fashionable goodness” or a reserved level of religious observance which was exhibited by those in “proper society.” It would be reasonable to assume that Jane might have been fashionably good and nothing more. Author and researcher Brenda S. Cox shows in copious detail that this was not the case. Within Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England, Cox not only reveals the vibrant, sincere faith of Jane Austen, but she also elucidates church culture at the time and its effects in England and in literature. The late 18th and early 19th century was a time of tremendous change in England. Christianity was often a part of that, and it can be seen in the life and works of Jane Austen. Fashionable Goodness has brought together a large amount of related information in this regard. 

   Brenda Cox begins the first third of her work with an overview of Austen’s Church of England. Readers are given insight into the faith of Miss Austen herself, as well as Christian culture of the time. English terms which are still used today have also shifted in their meaning, and Cox explains how such words as “Evangelical”, “serious”, “duty”, and “manners” were utilized differently in that era. As a Christian I also appreciated her examination of Austen’s epitaph (seen in the photo at right). The words penned by Austen’s brother James have concerned me for some time. Near the conclusion of the heartfelt message, there seems to be an implication that it was Jane’s “charity, devotion, faith and purity” which made her “acceptable” to God. Cox clarifies this inscription by stating, “Were they saying that her good works saved her? That’s one interpretation. However, faith is on the list, and her ‘Redeemer’ is given prominence, meaning Christ who died for her sins. . . . [T]he epitaph more likely means that her charity, devotion, and purity showed the reality of her faith. Jane Austen’s family, her writings, and her life affirm that she was a serious, deeply committed Christian.” (p.16) Cox’s evaluation not only makes sense from a biblical standpoint, but as she outlines in Fashionable Goodness, this point of view also aligns with the culture of the time.

     The second third of this volume focuses upon cultural and religious challenges in Austen’s world. The life of clergymen is given much examination, and specific topics such as female preachers, rented pews and race relations are also discussed. While some congregations may still debate the role of women in ministry today, it hardly seems fathomable that the working poor could not always freely enter churches and sit in any pew they chose. The abolitionist movement is also mentioned with regularity within Fashionable Goodness, highlighting Christianity’s role in working to remove slavery from polite society. Cox discusses the subject and how it finds its way into Austen’s work, such as in Emma and Mansfield Park. The concluding chapter of Cox’s Part Two is particularly of interest for this reader, as I have been working on my master’s degree in Christian Apologetics. The topic of reason vs. feeling is raised often in the world of apologetics, and as Cox discusses, this was also an issue in Austen’s time.

     The final third of Fashionable Goodness is a treasure trove of tables, appendices, notes and other resources. Cox also offers more content on her website, This portion of the volume would be of interest to any strong Janeite, but would certainly be invaluable for other researchers or writers of Austenesque fiction. 

     Fashionable Goodness is a remarkable work, and a labor of love from Brenda S. Cox. Even if the reader does not share Austen’s Christian faith, this resource will be a great asset in coming to understand not only Jane Austen herself, but the time in which she lived. Cox shows her readership that Christianity has historically included those of the “fashionably good” set, but there is so much more to this faith than mere religion. As we see in the life of Jane Austen, Christianity is a vibrant relationship with the Creator, a part of a saving faith that is given by God’s grace. Through that grace we can be made “good” through Christ and affect the world in a positive way, much like Austen herself did.

About the Author

Brenda S. Cox has loved Jane Austen since she came across a copy of Emma as a young adult; she went out and bought a whole set of the novels as soon as she finished it! She has spent years researching the church in Austen’s England, visiting English churches and reading hundreds of books and articles, including many written by Austen’s contemporaries. She speaks at Jane Austen Society of North America meetings (incuding three AGMs) and writes for Persuasions On-Line (JASNA journal) and the websites Jane Austen’s World and Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen.

Where to Buy:

Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England is now available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.


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