★ The Lady of Galway Manor
Set against the backdrop of the Irish War of Independence, Jennifer Deibel’s second novel, The Lady of Galway Manor, springs from the fascinating legend of the origin of the Claddagh ring, a traditional Irish band that features two hands clasping a crowned heart, symbolizing friendship, loyalty and love.
In 1920, Lady Annabeth De Lacy is the British daughter of the new landlord of Galway Parish in Ireland, and she is excited to begin her jewelry apprenticeship with the descendants of the creators of the Claddagh ring. Although jeweler is an unusual pursuit for an aristocrat, Anna takes on this new opportunity with great enthusiasm.
However, Anna’s trainer, Stephen, resents the British and is irritated to have her around. He’s also lost his faith in the ideals and promises of the Claddagh ring’s imagery, especially the love it symbolizes. But as Anna and Stephen work together, their bond grows, and they begin to recognize the misconceptions in their beliefs about each other.
Deibel beautifully re-creates Galway’s sights and sounds, from the allure of the Claddagh area in Galway to the magnificence of its famed Spanish Arch and the locals’ appreciation of traditional Irish music. She also couches the bitter enmity between the Irish and British in the personal struggles of her characters. Stephen is unwilling to let go of his pain caused by past events, including atrocities committed by the British. And Anna is conflicted, torn between following her heart, which would risk alienation from her family, and accepting an advantageous marriage proposal devoid of love.
In their divided world, the characters of The Lady of Galway Manor become open to each other’s cultures, soon making way for acceptance and love.
Count the Nights by Stars
Much like privileged Anna, Priscilla Nichols, the daughter of a wealthy and influential railway investor in Michelle Shocklee’s fifth novel, Count the Nights by Stars, enjoys a cushioned life, shielded from the plight of people who are disadvantaged. In 1897, Priscilla travels with her mother to Nashville to attend the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. They stay at the Maxwell House Hotel, where she meets an Italian immigrant named Luca Moretti. Priscilla appreciates Luca’s poise and confidence but is aware of the strict societal rules that dictate who her “appropriate” partner would be. Meanwhile, she must decide whether to accept a proposal from another man who comes from a wealthy background similar to her own.
After meeting Luca, Priscilla is introduced to a new world where she learns about the challenges facing destitute young women and children who are lured into a prostitution ring run by powerful forces. She quickly becomes an inspiring lead character who fights for the rights of the underserved and advocates for raising the legal age of consent.
The impact of Priscilla’s actions is heightened by a parallel story. In 1961, Audrey Whitfield, the daughter of the Maxwell House Hotel manager, finds Priscilla’s scrapbook. Audrey, who had previously dismissed the eccentric and now elderly Priscilla living in the hotel, is captivated by the woman’s earlier life. She draws encouragement from Priscilla’s lifelong work of activism for women’s rights.
Along with the historical intrigue of both storylines, Count the Nights by Stars also includes appealing mysteries and delightful romance. In 1897, Priscilla and Luca face danger as they try to solve the disappearance of Luca’s sister. In 1961, Audrey welcomes a striking young man into her life, and together they embark on an investigation into Priscilla’s stories and photographs—but it’s clear that someone else is set on having the scrapbook destroyed.
In Shocklee’s novel, the important lifelong work of a daring woman inspires another to follow her dreams. It’s sure to stir such feelings in the reader as well.