A new story about the old textile mill era

By Deena C. Bouknight

9780062313119-2From 1899 to 1996, cotton goods were in production at Olympia Mill in Columbia, one of four cotton mills in Columbia. At one time, it was the largest cotton mill in the world under one roof.

The South was home to dozens of cotton mills before cheaper labor and resources became readily available outside the United States. Many small but once-thriving towns throughout southeastern states eventually quieted, or became forsaken vestiges. While the mill town flourished, so did a distinct way of life and culture. Wilmington, North Carolina-based author, Wiley Cash, who is also writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina – Asheville, captures the fortitude of the everyday mill worker in his new novel, The Last Ballad.

The main setting is Gaston County, near Charlotte, in the 1920s, but the primary character Ella May Wiggins works in “the countless mills in both Carolinas.” When she arrives in Gaston County, described as running “on textiles,” there is another reference to the importance of the mills as a way of life for many Southerners: “Everyone across North Carolina, perhaps everyone in the South, knew this about the place that had come to be known as ‘the City of Spindles.’”

Ella May represents countless women of the time. Her parents died, she married young, immediately began having children, and was whisked away from her hometown by a husband who thought mill life would secure them. Yet, he decides that moonshine distribution and carousing are better for him than mill work, so she is left toiling grueling hours for a paltry income.

The Last Ballad’s omniscient narrator describes Ella May witnessing a gruesome machine accident at the mill; coming home exhausted only to care for sickly children watched daily by her 11-year-old and perpetually needing food, clothing, and other basics. But the main point of the story is Ella May’s courage to join the highly controversial National Textile Workers Union – considered communistic and anti-American by many (especially mill owners) at the time. Ella May desired a standard wage to get herself and her brood of four (and another on the way) out of poverty’s grasp.

Though relatively uneducated, Ella May understands innately the concept of fairness. She also recognizes condescension. She is a responsible, committed worker but occasionally has to ask for a shift off to tend to sickness suffered by one of her children. Her boss’s uncaring and unsympathetic attitude is the impetus she needs to challenge mill authority and way of life. She knows she could be fired for even thinking of joining a union, but union organizers are convincing.

The book gets its name from Ella May’s simple song, scrawled in pencil on a scrap of paper, about joining a union for the sake of children and their futures. When she is asked to deliver the song during the rally, she shrinks. But remembering her wage of $9 a week for six full work days, she reconsiders. What results is a beautiful ballad with convicting lyrics that not only spellbinds the audience, but garners media attention. She visited the rally to learn more about the union but instantly becomes the face of the union. “Ella’s senses awakened to the noise coming from the crowds: people cheered, whistled and pointed, called her name and chanted union slogans.”

The Last Ballad is both beautifully tragic and interestingly historic. It lauds mill workers from a bygone industrial era while at the same time spotlighting dynamics and conflicts between the weighty influence of paternal mill possessors and the sometimes overzealous ideals of union organizers.

EX LIBRIS ONLINE– Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

A tale of spine-chilling drama, history, and heroism

By Deena C. Bouknight

exlibris-5e7e8392-a367aaceDespite its intimidating size at 600 pages, Eric Metaxas’ biography Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy is a page turner. Metaxas, who also penned the recent biography of Martin Luther just in time for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation this past October, clearly conveys ardent fascination of his subjects. In fact, to write about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Metaxas traveled to Germany to not only research the man’s life, but to also sit down with those who actually knew him before his life was cut short by the Nazis. Metaxas writes in his acknowledgements: “To have broken bread with those who broke bread with the subject of this book was an unmerited honor I will treasure all my life.”

While digging into his subject’s life, Metaxas learned of commonality.  Metaxas’ maternal grandfather was a “reluctant” German soldier killed during World War II in 1944. Dietrich Bonhoeffer – who not only resisted going along with his native country’s Nazi movement, but was involved in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler – was murdered the following year. Metaxas says that this correlation left him staggered when he first heard Bonhoeffer’s story. He shared in a Harper’s Magazine 2010 interview about the book: “As a German-American, I was especially touched by his story, because he was a German who had spoken up for those who couldn’t speak. First and foremost for the Jews of Europe, but also for many like my grandfather, who were powerless and who in their own way were also victims of the Nazis.”


Metaxas sets up the story of who Bonhoeffer was and who he came to be with the first chapter, aptly titled “Family and Childhood,” yet, this is no dry, encyclopedia beginning. Descriptively, the author shows readers the idyllic, faithful, and protected home in which he was raised. It was a home where he and his twin sister, Sabine, as well as six other siblings, were encouraged by his teacher mother and his psychiatrist father – who held the appointment of the chair of psychiatry and neurology in Berlin until his death in 1948 – to think critically.  Metaxas writes, “Karl Bonhoeffer taught his children to speak only when they had something to say. He did not tolerate sloppiness of expression any more than he tolerated self-pity or selfishness or boastful pride. His children loved and respected him in a way that made them eager to gain his approval.”

Thus was implanted in Dietrich a gift for quality articulation; he learned that his spoken and written words could hold weight, and he decided to pursue a degree in theology and a calling as a pastor. Yet, while he was learning to hone his skills for expression and rhetoric, Adolf Hitler was rising to power and squelching not only free speech but freedom of religion as well. Instead of aligning himself with Hitler’s views as early as 1933, when Hitler deemed himself chancellor of Germany, the 25-year-old pastor and lecturer of systematic theology immediately began to speak against them. In fact, two days after Hitler became the most powerful man in Germany, Dietrich delivered a radio address that caused many – including Hitler and his minions – to take notice. Ardently, Dietrich warned fellow Germans not to idolize the Fuhrer and become seduced onto a compromising path; the radio address was cut off mid-sentence.

Thus began the dangerous journey on which Dietrich never wavered. His writings, speaking engagements, preaching, and meetings with secret anti-Nazi spies lead him closer and closer to peril. He even established the Confessing Church in an attempt to keep Hitler from destroying Christianity in Germany. A master of the profound quote, Dietrich wrote, “The question is really: Christianity or Germanism? And the sooner the conflict is revealed in the clear light of the day the better.”

Partly because his beloved twin sister Sabina married a cultural Jew who was baptized Christian, but mostly because he was a man of God who considered all human beings worthy of respect and honor, often quoting Galatians 3:28 — “There is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” Dietrich entreated true believers to stand against the harsh treatment of Jews by Nazis. One of his most reflective one-liners is this: “Not to speak is to speak; not to act is to act.”

Mid-way through the book, Metaxas even begins to weave in the love story between Dietrich and Maria von Wedemeyer that would, sadly, not come to fruition.

Significantly, Metaxas begins each chapter with a weighty quote by either Dietrich Bonhoeffer, those who knew him, or someone else important at that time; the words are designed to paint the picture of a man who left his mark on the world in a wholly inspiring and uniquely courageous way.


Ex Libris Online: YA Series for Summer Reading

By Margaret Clay

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It is hard to believe that summer is already beginning to wind down when it seems like Memorial Day was only yesterday. Somehow, there is no slowing down the rapid depletion of these slow days. However, the long dog-days of schedule-less freedom are numbered, and that means limited time to finish summer reading logs. Thankfully, if there are still numerous slots to be filled, Young Adult novel series can be a fast and fun way to knock out multiple books while continuing a story that already engages your child. Who knows, you might even add some of these to your own summer reading log!

You may have read about the “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series in the June issue, and if those books connected with your child, good news — Rick Riordan’s YA writing is prolific as he has created many other mythology series for voracious young readers. Two of these series expose children to two other major cultural traditions — Egyptian mythology and Norse mythology.

The Kane Chronicles

Like Percy Jackson, the protagonists of “The Kane Chronicles” (siblings Carter and Sadie Kane) alternatively narrate their tale of discovering their divine heritage. Descended from the two pharaohs Narmer and Ramses the Great, these siblings discover that they are powerful magicians who must contend with the Egyptian gods and goddesses, who still interact with the real world despite most people’s oblivion of them. These books sport Riordan’s typical fast-paced, action-driven plot that will keep young readers on the edges of their seats … all while receiving a lesson on Egyptian mythology. Once the trilogy is finished, fans have the delightful opportunity to read Demigods and Magicians — a series of short stories where the worlds of Ancient Greece and Egypt collide when the Kanes meet “Percy Jackson” protagonists Percy and Annabeth. These magic-wielding teens find they must team up in order to defeat an ancient enemy who is mixing Greek and Egyptian magic to ultimately rule the world.

As a middle school teacher, Riordan was inspired to write this series after completing “Percy Jackson” and discovering that the only subject in ancient history that his students enjoyed more than Ancient Greece was Ancient Egypt.

By these books here.

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard

In the trilogy “Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard,” the titular hero is actually cousins with Annabeth Chase of “Percy Jackson,” thus linking the two series together. In the first book, Magnus discovers that he is the son of the Norse fertility god Frey and is immediately confronted by a fire giant named Surt, who plans to hasten the end of the world by freeing the Fenris Wolf. Magnus must enlist the help of a valkyrie, a dwarf named Blitz, and an elf named Hearth to attempt to foil the giant.

Norse mythology was a major influence in J. R. R. Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth, and LOTR fans will enjoy a deeper acquaintance with the original folklore that inspired that beloved series. The third and final book in Riordan’s newest trilogy will release this fall.

By these books here.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

For the sci-fi lover in your household, have you discovered Douglas Adams’ “trilogy in five parts,” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? The wit in these books is classically British — dry and somewhat sophisticated while playing with the ludicrous — making this series probably best suited for a slightly older child who appreciates this droll type of humor. Arthur Dent finds himself to be the last surviving man from Earth (following the demolition of the planet by a Vogon constructor fleet to make way for a hyperspace bypass) when he is rescued at the moment of destruction by his friend Ford Prefect, who turns out not to be a human at all. Ford is an alien writer for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and has been researching the planet Earth for the guide for a number of years. Arthur goes on to explore the galaxy with Ford and learns information such as that the planet Earth was just one big experiment set up by lab rats to study humans, how to use a Babel Fish to interpret other galaxy languages, and the ins and outs of Vogon poetry.

The story combines science fiction with the finest tradition of English humor and was originally broadcast as a radio comedy on the BBC in 1978. Its popularity led to later adaptations into novels, comic books, stage shows, a 1981 TV series, a 1984 computer game, and finally a movie in 2005. The Folio Society has published all five books in their usual fine quality, illustrated by Jonathan Burton.

Buy these books here. 

The Borrowers

For the younger reader, he or she can still enjoy British fantasy storytelling in a more traditional manner with “The Borrowers” series. Have you ever wondered what exactly happens to all the safety pins? Factories keep on manufacturing them, yet there is never one handy when most needed. These five books chronicle the adventures of one small family of “borrowers” — little people who live within the walls and beneath the floors and who “borrow” anything within their grasp. They are a very inventive people as they must cleverly construct human homes and lives for themselves using the over-sized goods that people leave lying about.

The big adventures in which these little people continually find themselves are enthralling, and readers will become enamored with Pod, Homily and young Arrietty… and with the rare few children who are lucky enough to make their acquaintance.

By these books here.


Childhood Memories

Dutch Dives In, written by Margaret “Peg” Finlay Averyt, tells the Pawley’s Island beach adventures of a little blonde girl, Dutch.

By Deena C. Bouknight

Peg Finlay Averyt is an artist, gallery owner, little sister of former Columbia mayor Kirkman Finlay Jr., and now achildren’s book author. She combines her knowledge of art as Finleaf Gallery owner, her skills as an artist, and her creative writing talents in her books: Willowbel’s Wagon and Dutch Dives In.

Both stories pull from powerful memories of growing up in South Carolina. Willowbel’s Wagon, published in 2013, is a fanciful tale about a family of brown rabbits who inhabited woods in the Heathwood Circle neighborhood.  Published this year is Dutch Dives In, which revisits time Peg spent on Pawley’s Island with her favorite doll, Mary California, and her family. She conveys at the end of the book how her father, Kirkman Finlay Sr., gave her the nickname Dutch because of her white blond hair, blue eyes, and fair skin.

Peg’s treasured memories include her grandmother making clothes for Mary California, packing the doll’s clothes for the beach vacations, and generally treating the doll as a person. “Mary California and I would swim and swim and then we just played out on the beach,” she says.

In a small cardboard suitcase, Dutch packed play clothes and a pink night gown for her doll, Mary California.
“Oh, Carolina Moon keep shining, Shining on the one who waits for me.”

In the book, Dutch Dives In, the memory of the doll being sung the song “Carolina Moon” is shared, complete with a verse from the song, which was a hit in the 1950s.

Each book features watercolor illustrations by Peg. In Dutch Dives In, the artistic process is explained: “… hand-painted watercolors on squares of cotton batiste found in a mill in Union, S.C.” Edges of the batiste are fringed.

Dutch swam in the ocean, built sand castles, and collected sea shells.

Both books are available at the Finleaf Gallery on Devine Street, along with works by other local authors and artists, plus handmade gifts, bridal registries, a ladies boutique, and teas.

Ex Libris Online: The Odyssey

Suggestions for Summer Reading

Review: The Odyssey by Homer

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.

He saw the townlands
and learned the minds of many distant men,
and weathered many bitter nights and days
in his deep heart at sea, while he fought only
to save his life, to bring his shipmates home…

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The second oldest piece of surviving Western literature, Homer’s Odyssey exemplifies the timeless power of the written word. Within it lie the seeds of the traditions, atmosphere, and style in today’s literature and art. Its influence on both historic and modern culture in the West cannot be overestimated, with its monstrous creatures living on in a variety of modern guises.

While most people study The Odyssey in high school, I happened to miss it as I changed my allegiance as a Highlander to a Skyhawk; Heathwood scheduled for the 9th grade curriculum while Hammond planned it for the 8th grade. A couple of years ago, I decided to remedy this deficiency and, considering the original poem was composed and preserved in the oral tradition and was thus originally intended to be heard rather than read, I bought a copy on Audible in preparation for a long trip. The rhythm of poetry and the beauty of the descriptions swept me far away to the foreign lands of Ancient Greece, yet the plot was surprisingly relevant. This year, I returned to this classic for a more modern, conventional experience and obtained a physical copy of the text. This Folio Society edition did not disappoint!

Zeus about to loose a lightening bolt at Odysseus’ ship.

Through Robert Fagles’s lyrical translation and Grahame Baker-Smith’s stirring images, I was again enraptured as Odysseus, king of the island of Ithaca, struggled against the monumental supernatural forces to return home to his family. While most people have not faced a succession of fantastical monsters and hazards – from the Lotus Eaters to the Cyclops, the Sirens, and the fearsome crags of Scylla and Charybdis – many can relate to the passionate need to return home and reunite with family against all obstacles … whether separated by war, jobs, or other individual circumstances. Bernard Knox’s introduction to this edition discussing the history, the language, and the nature of Odysseus as a hero was fascinating, and the index in the back listing all the characters was a very handy reference for keeping all the Greek names straight.

Odysseus tied to the mast as the sirens sing.

If you have read Ex Libris in the current June issue on “Percy Jackson and the Olympians,” reading The Odyssey is also a wonderful way to follow up with your children on the actual myths surrounding many of the characters in the novel series.

A seminal classical text, The Odyssey certainly remains as essential and as entertaining as it ever was, with Odysseus standing as a refreshingly complex figure, full of cunning and pride.


As Memorial Day passes by this week, heralding summer’s official launch, I highly recommend returning to this ancient classic, or experiencing it for the first time, as the perfect commencement to summer reading.

Buy this book here.

Ex Libris Online: Children’s Classics

Review: Norton Annotated Editions

ex Libris MC (2)With Labor Day now practically a distant memory and September already drawing to a close, the lazy days of summer are long gone. However, the pleasurable reading that accompanies these leisurely days does not have to end… for you or the kids. These four Victorian/Edwardian children’s classics published by W.W. Norton & Co. offer both a pleasurable reading experience and an educational opportunity for literature enthusiasts of any age. Whether you read a chapter a night to your children and indulge in the extra content on the side yourself, or whether your readers are old enough to peruse these volumes on their own, these timeless classics are must-reads for anyone who has never experienced them, and for those who have already lived their enchanting stories, rereading them is like returning to a favorite vacation retreat. These lovely volumes add additional interest through their informative introductions from leading literary experts, their beautiful full-color illustrations from various artists across the ages, and their insightful annotations in the wide margins of the page alongside the story, offering the reader explanations of cultural connotations and innuendos, extra tidbits such as recipes, and biographical parallels of the story and the author.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, 1865

Annotated Alice_mech 4p_r1.inddOn an afternoon in 1862, the English mathematician and reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson took his rowboat out on the Thames with the three young Liddell sisters. This outing was one of many, and Dodgson, known better to us by his pen name, Lewis Carroll, often made up fairy tales for the girls. On this particular afternoon, 10-year-old Alice was especially engaged with his story and implored him to write it down for her. Carroll recalled, “In a desperate attempt to strike out some new line of fairy-lore, I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit-hole, to begin with, without the least idea what was to happen afterwards.” It can certainly be said that the “afterwards” made history. After completing the novel, Carroll had it examined by other children, including those of renowned Scottish author George MacDonald, a key mentor to C. S. Lewis, before submitting it for publication.

This 150th anniversary deluxe edition is a must-have for every Alice enthusiast as it compiles more than 50 years of scholarship by leading Carrollian experts as well as a plethora of illustrations as beautiful, fanciful and, at times, disturbing as the story itself. In his introduction, Martin Gardner writes, “No other books written for children are in need of more explication than the Alice books. Much of their wit is interwoven with Victorian events and customs unfamiliar to American readers today, and even to readers in England. Many jokes in the book could be appreciated only by Oxford residents, and others were private jokes intended solely for Alice.”

Buy this book here.

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, 1868

9780393072198_300Louisa May Alcott never planned on writing a “girls’ book,” citing to her editor that she knew nothing about them. Thankfully he thought differently, and her growing up as one of four sisters proved to be ample knowledge and experience for penning such a novel. In writing the first couple of chapters, she journaled, “I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls, or knew many, except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.” However, when her editor’s niece found the first dozen chapters to be enthralling, Alcott flung herself into a creative vortex and finished the 402-page manuscript two weeks later. This was first published as Little Women and is now known as Part First. It was a publishing sensation, and Alcott began to again work feverishly on a sequel, which is now Part Second.

Unlike other children’s classics of the time, like Peter Pan, for example, Little Women is not a story about running away and having an adventure void of parents. In his introduction, John Matteson writes, “Little Women succeeds because it reveals the value of the family, by celebrating the blessings that occur when family members surmount their differences and learn to love and support one another… The book retains its importance in part because it recognizes that many of our most potent enemies lie within us and that life is far more likely to call on us to vanquish our vanity, selfishness, or ill temper than to battle actual evil wizards and slay physical dragons… Even at the outset of writing Little Women, Alcott sensed that a novel deserved to be taken no less seriously because it happened to be written for younger readers.”

Buy this book here.

The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, 1908

9780393057744_300When Kenneth Grahame first published The Wind in the Willows, a novel begun as a bedtime story to his son, Alastair, and refined over a series of letters to him, it was an instant bestseller. This will hardly come as any surprise to lovers of this classic tale of anthropomorphized British animals traveling about the countryside. The adventures of Mole, Rat, Toad, Badger, Otter and the rest most notably include rowboats and racecars, but overlying it all is the core theme of true friendship.

In his introduction, Brian Jacques, author of the popular Redwall series, writes “Fie upon those dullards who scorn anthropomorphic animals, a plague upon their houses, say I! Kenneth Grahame (stout fellow) never had any qualms about mixing animals with humankind…Sometimes, when on a country ramble, I’ll linger beside a tranquil lake or woodland stream, picturing Willow scenes musically. Two small animals, taking their ease in the little blue and white boat, with not a care in their world, apart from the best spot to put in for a picnic. I know that later, when twilight falls, that same small boat, with our friends in it, will be bound homeward, with maybe a twinkling lantern on the stern, drifting into the sun’s last crimson rays.”

Buy this book here.

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1910

9780393060294_300“I believe, of course, in magic. Magic is the bringing about of unbelievable things through an obstinate faith that nothing is too good to be true, and many things are to idiotically bad to be able to stand up on their own feet of you charge right at them laughing aloud and with your lance in rest.” With such sentiment, it is no surprise that Burnett was a successful writer of children’s novels. However, she does not sugar-coat life in her stories for her young readers; rather it is through overcoming deep hardships, hardships that many children can relate to all too well, that her characters experience sparks of magic.

The renowned plot of The Secret Garden opens with 10-year-old Mary Lennox moving to Misselthwaite Manor from India as a spoiled, feeble, disagreeable and unloved orphan. Her socialite British parents had left her care to servants, who appeased her as much as possible to keep her out of her parents’ way. It is through the discovery of and caring for an abandoned garden on the estate as well as her invalid cousin that Mary is able to grow into a flourishing, happy child. As well-known as the story is, Burnett does indeed manage to strike the stroke of magic in the minds of her readers with every rereading of this classic tale.

Buy this book here.

Ex Libris Online: Nine Coaches Waiting

Suggestions for Summer Reading

Review: Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

Oh, think upon the pleasure of the palace:
Secured ease and state, the stirring meats,
Ready to move out of the dishes,
That e’en now quicken when they’re eaten,
Banquets abroad by torch-light, musics, sports,
Bare-headed vassals that had ne’er the fortune
To keep on their own hats but let horns [wear] ’em,
Nine coaches waiting. Hurry, hurry, hurry!
Ay, to the devil.

–“The Revenger’s Tragedy” by Cyril Tourneur

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I usually find myself craving a reread of Jane Eyre about every two years (don’t judge). And each time, I finish the book wanting more… begging not to leave the beautiful 19th century Gothic world of Jane and Mr. Rochester and mad women in the attic. After satisfying my biannual thirst this summer, I stumbled upon Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting, which offered the perfect anecdote to easing me out of Thornfield Hall and Ferndean Manor through an introduction to Chateau Valmy … and the mysterious de Valmy family who reside there.

I first encountered Mary Stewart’s writing as a child in A Walk in Wolf Wood, a fabulous novel concerning a sister and brother who travel back in time to 14th-century England and help rescue a kindhearted werewolf in a nail-biting narrative replete with magic. I was most gratified nearly 20 years later to discover that her adult fiction is no less captivating.

Written in 1958, this then-contemporary Gothic romance novel tells the ominous tale of a young English governess, Linda Martin, who moves to 9781556526183France to teach nine-year-old Count Philippe de Valmy, heir to both title and estate and ward of his uncle, Leon de Valmy. When Philippe’s aunt traveled to England to hire an English governess for him, Linda finds herself concealing that she is, in fact, half-French, and pretends to have only a rudimentary knowledge of the language. Although the family is gracious upon her installation at Valmy, Linda perceives a threat to her charge when Philippe narrowly avoids two fatal “accidents.” The charming yet arrogant Leon, who glides noiselessly from room to room about the house in a wheelchair, does nothing to assuage her apprehension. Only his son, Raoul, seems to have the strength to stand up to the sinister master of the house, and while Linda finds herself falling for the handsome young Frenchman, she cannot untangle the web she imagines forming around her and Philippe and thus beings to suspect everyone. Mary Stewart effectively tangles romance, suspense and friendship while sparking readers’ imaginations through vivid descriptions of the French country side and intriguing characters through this narrative.

Linda often uses poetry to analyze the situations she encounters, and in keeping with this background, Stewart employs chapter epigraphs that fit the themes or actions of each chapter. Among these are lines from plays and sonnets by Shakespeare as well as quotes from Milton, Dickens, Keats, Tennyson, Donne, Blake and others, giving the book an erudite literary quality. She also links each chapter to a transportation ride of some sort, counting up the “coaches” in the titles—thus, the first chapter is “First and Second Coaches” and the last chapter “Ninth Coach.”

This was a wonderful period novel, fraught with suspense that kept me guessing, and second guessing, until the end. While I thoroughly enjoyed it, my one critique is that Linda and Raoul’s relationship felt hasty and underdeveloped, which then caused some of the sequences of events feel unlikely and, ultimately, make the conclusion less satisfying. Nonetheless, I would definitely recommend it for anyone who enjoys a good Gothic thriller.

Buy this book here.

Ex Libris Online: Chinese Fairy Tales & Fantasies


Review: Chinese Fairy Tales & Fantasies 

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In honor of summer reading, we will again this year be focusing our book reviews on fiction, for both children and adults, during these upcoming months. A book that I recently enjoyed with potential for any age group is The Folio Society’s beautifully illustrated edition of Chinese Fairy Tales & Fantasies.

Illustrated by Victo Ngai

My younger sister, Helen, was obsessed with mythology and fairy tales as a child … especially those from foreign lands that offered different types of magic and stories than the traditional ones we grow up knowing in American culture. While Chinese Fairy Tales & Fantasies are primarily suited for adults, there are selections that would please advanced young readers, or especially young adult readers, who are interested in foreign folklore. Each magical tale in this collection, whether depicting a wise judge, a poor family struggling to outwit a corrupt bureaucrat, or an insect coming to the aid of a human, offer both entertainment as well as insight into Chinese culture. Interweaving the lives of mortals with the animal kingdom and the realm of gods and ghosts, they range from fables to stories of enchantment and magic.

CFT_14129410982Spanning two millennia of storytelling, these stories illuminates the beliefs and traditions that have shaped Chinese society, and each reflects one of their three core philosophies: Confucianism, Taoism and/or Buddhism. Many of the stories themselves are the works of great philosophers, such as the venerable P’u Sung-ling, who opposed the rigid orthodoxies of Confucianism. More than 20 are by the Taoists Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu, who believed that all things are created equal, rejecting the hierarchical worldview of Confucius.

The Buddhist stories espouse compassion towards all living things, perceiving human and animal forms as fluid and interchangeable. In ‘Three Former Lives,’ the errant scholar Liu is reincarnated as a horse and then as a dog before finally, having atoned for his ills, being reborn as a man.

CFT_14129410980The Confucians, conversely, view social order in terms of inherited status. The imperial family occupied the highest stratum, women, children and animals the lowest. Tales such as ‘A Clever Judge’ reinforce this doctrine, illustrating that stability and justice is achieved when social obligations are properly assigned and fulfilled.

According to translator Moss Roberts, this collection of stories serves two purposes: it gives readers some sense of how imaginative fiction reflects each of the three teachings of Chinese civilization (Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist); and it shows how fairy tales, or as the Chinese call them, supernatural tales, give voice to the injustices inflicted on subordinated and exploited groups, namely, children, women, animals and foreigners. The boundary between the human and the animal is the boundary between the civilized and the barbaric, an issue of the utmost importance in Chinese culture.CFT

Whether an adult wishing to expand his or her knowledge of Chinese culture, philosophy and folklore, or a child entranced by unusual exotic tales of magic and enchantment, these stories are sure to please!

Buy this book here.

Ex Libris Online: Medieval Monarchs

Review: The Deeds of English Kings by William of Malmesbury and Richard III: England’s Black Legend by Desmond Seward

ex Libris MC (2)After so thoroughly enjoying Eleanor of Aquitaine, I was eager to learn more about the royal consorts ruling medieval Britain. Thus The Deeds of English Kings by William of Malmesbury made for a wonderful follow up as it laid the foundation of the monarchs and events building up to Eleanor’s time.

Even more interesting is that the author was Eleanor’s relative contemporary– the librarian of Malmesbury Abbey in the early 12th century– and at Queen Matilda’s prompting (Eleanor’s mother-in-law), he embarked on the ambitious task of compiling a history of the English kings from the first arrival of Saxon invaders up to the contemporary monarchs.

Ethelred the Unready. MS Cotton Claude B VI c.1220. (© The British Library Board)
Ethelred the Unready. MS Cotton Claude B VI c.1220. (© The British Library Board)

William had a unique perspective on British history as his father was Norman and his mother English, and the Norman Conquest of 1066 was still a recent event in the minds of many at the time. His work involved extensive first-hand research, and he did not hesitate to include some incisive disapproval of several Norman kings, an audacious move in that time.

In his introduction to The Folio Society edition, Peter Ackroyd notes that William was a great historian because he was also a great writer; he believed that history should be written with “a competence and splendour that would engage the spirit as well as arouse the mind.” In my opinion, it would do well for more historians today to take this approach! William writes, “I began to get the itch to write myself, not to show off my more or less nonexistent erudition but in order to bring forcibly into the light things lost in the rubbish-heap of the past.”

Genealogical scroll (detail) showing royal lineage, c.1308. MS Royal 14 B VI. (© The British Library Board)
Genealogical scroll (detail) showing royal lineage, c.1308. MS Royal 14 B VI. (© The British Library Board)

Deeds was first published in five volumes in 1125 and is considered to be the finest historical work of 12th-century England. He writes in both a patriotic tone, which was a reflection of classical Roman historiography, as well as a religious one. For example, in his account of the Norman Conquest, both of these assumptions are evident as the pious Normans win the victory, and English defeat results from their own sinfulness. However, couched in classical rhetoric are still laments of Britain’s loss of freedom under the Normans.

Moving into the relative modern era, in comparison with the kings examined by William in Deeds, I then turned to a biography on Richard III, outlining the life of the controversial leader who was both the last king of the House of York and the last of the Plantagenet dynasty, as well as one of Shakespeare’s famous villains.

Richard III’s skeleton. (University of Leicester)
Richard III’s skeleton. (University of Leicester)

Known as the ‘Heathcliff of English Kings,’ Richard III has always been the subject of passionate debate, especially since the discovery of his skeleton in 2012 brought his name back into the public eye. As Desmond Seward writes in this insightful biography, Richard casts ‘a strange spell’ on academics, authors and the popular imagination. The author himself is no exception, writing in the preface to this edition that he had been “enthralled by him” since he was young. While initially drawn to the revisionist view, which lessens or negates Richard’s alleged crimes, Seward finally became convinced of the truth of the traditional version of Richard’s ascension to the throne.

There are two conflicting views of Richard III– one is the traditional view of Shakespeare’s malicious antihero who murdered “The Princes in the Tower” and was of one of the most ruthless adventurers in all of English history. The other is the revisionist perspective of a handsome hero who did no such thing but was vilified by Tudor propaganda.

Born at the dawn of one of England’s bloodiest eras – the Wars of the Roses—Richard was a “thin and pale” man with a famously deformed spine that did nothing to curb his ruthless “Machiavellian genius.” Seward weighs the evidence for Richard’s role in the murder of Henry VI, his failure to prevent the bizarre and brutal execution of his brother George and, most disturbing of all, his disposal of the “Princes in the Tower,” who disappeared after “one of the most brilliant coups d’état in history.”

RC3_14068261860Both of these Folio editions are dazzling volumes. In Richard III: England’s Black Legend, Thomas Penn writes an introduction that puts Seward’s account in context with the traditional and revisionist perspectives. Also included are beautiful portraits of the primary characters in the text, photos of Richard’s now famous skeleton and the type of weapon that killed him, etc.

Deeds titleDeeds contains full-page illuminations depicting dramatic moments from the history it contains, all sourced from medieval manuscripts. Initial letters have been hand-drawn by the calligrapher Charlotte Orr, each one unique. Display fonts and chapter headings are picked out in rubric, while even the deep lower margin is a reflection of the original layout’s ‘golden rectangle’ design. The edition also features gilded top page edges. The result is a beautiful, modern reflection of the distinctive artistry of medieval manuscripts.

Buy The Deeds of English Kings here and Richard III here.

Illustration from The Folio Society editions.