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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