Book Review: Henry VIII, The Heart and The Crown

“he had heard people predict that, in the future, the whole world would talk of him”

Henry VIII: The Heart & The Crown, by Alison Weir, is the second book in the author’s Tudor Rose Trilogy – I review the first, which focuses on Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York, here. After a short prologue, this latest release opens just after the death of Elizabeth, who young Henry loved dearly. He had not mourned the passing of his elder brother. Raised in separate households, Henry had been jealous of the preferential treatment Arthur was granted as heir to the throne. He also coveted his brother’s new wife, Katherine, believing himself in love with her. Throughout his life Henry was driven to act incautiously due to lusts that he regarded as love, despite often being short lived. Once sexually sated he would question why he had been so enchanted by someone he would invariably come to view as just another woman.

Henry may have loved his mother – an ideal Queen in his eyes for her regal bearing and procreative abilities – but he resented his father. When the man died, making Henry the King while still a teenager, he relished the freedoms made available. Feeling adored by the common people, he set about making his court a lavish and fun filled institution, with himself the centre of attention and a generous benefactor. Indulged and feted by all, Henry grew high on the power and prestige of his position. Despite the pomp and grandeur, he often acted in ways that were highly unregal.

It was interesting to read of the life of this younger Henry – as he was before Anne Boleyn arrived on the scene. He may have been vain, conceited and often jealous of others – a spoilt child – but he was also a King eager to be admired for his accomplishments and demeanour. Katherine was his brood mare, suffering eight pregnancies with only one child surviving beyond infancy. Despite her loyalty, he could not cope when her body changed due to these travails. He took mistresses, berating his wife when she complained.

The interminable wait to marry Anne is well conveyed but made for tedious reading due to the repetitive nature of attempts to persuade the Pope to annul Henry’s marriage to Katherine, or to find another way to take Anne as his wife and Queen. When they finally get together anyway, the pace picks up but the King’s day to day life remains much the same. Alongside his own aging body, his temper shortens and he shows little wisdom in the decisions he makes. Anne does not prove herself worth the deaths and destruction she cost, either in pleasing Henry as Queen or providing the required male heir.

“In his worst moments, he suspected that it was a crown, rather than himself, she coveted”

I was curious to find out more about Henry’s health and found this article of interest (yes, of course I go to Google when reading a book and have questions). I also learned that ‘This king was responsible for more deaths than any monarch before or since’ – quite the legacy given royal history. According to Weir’s story, many of these deaths were carried out due to fabricated evidence, as courtiers vied for power and influence.

I felt a degree of sympathy for the wealthy ladies of the time. For all their finery and grandeur, they spent many years pregnant – large families being desired as so many children died. As any who have been in this expectant state will be aware, the reward may make it worthwhile but the experience is rarely pleasant – what a life to have to live.

One of the big questions I pondered as this tale progressed was why, despite the number of wives he took and their ability to conceive, Henry could not beget more healthy children. I came across this article which suggests the lifestyle choices of the King may have been a contributing factor. Naturally, he never thought to blame himself other than as being punished by the god he feared. It is interesting to note how little he worried about breaking biblical commandments and teachings that did not relate to marriage and procreation.

Henry appeared to learn nothing from his mistakes. He recognised that his noble ‘advisors’ were only out to improve their own positions yet still put to death any they accused of going against their King. Whatever the greed and cruelty of Wolsey and then Cromwell, they appear to have served him to the best of their abilities.

Henry’s life with his final four wives goes by swiftly here, although once again there is repetition in the telling. He gets his wife pregnant. He awaits the much anticipated birth. He is disappointed and blames the grieving mother. In his free time he finds sport in killing animals. He is forever building or refurbishing palaces. He buys costly clothes and jewels. He entertains foreign dignitaries. He sends any he is jealous of, or suspects is working against his wishes, to their deaths.

Having read Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series, this was a summation from a different perspective. The story it tells offers little that is new but does draw down the focus of how power corrupts, and how those who believe they are above other men will likely be blind to the possibility that it is they who are truly the fools.

What we have here is well written historical fiction in that it makes for easy reading, even if the repetition at times lost my engagement. Perhaps I am simply weary of senselessly entitled kings.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

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Book Review: Elizabeth of York, The Last White Rose

last white rose

Elizabeth of York, The Last White Rose, is the first book in a new trilogy by historian Alison Weir. It is a novel rather than a biography, thereby enabling the author to fill in gaps between known facts about the woman who became the first Tudor Queen. Elizabeth was the eldest child of King Edward IV of the royal House of York. The simmering rivalry between his kinsfolk, and those of the royal House of Lancaster, festered throughout his reign. It did not help that Edward’s wife, Elizabeth Wydeville, exerted her considerable influence to promote members of her family to positions of power, leading to resentment among those from more established aristocratic families who regarded them as upstarts.

The first half of the book covers the time before young Elizabeth’s marriage, aged nineteen, to King Henry VII. She and her siblings enjoyed the opulent surroundings of the many palaces her father kept, although suffered periods of imprisonment, albeit in comfortable surroundings, when Edward’s position was challenged or defeated. When Richard III took the throne and Elizabeth’s brothers were taken to the tower the family had to make difficult decisions to ensure survival. The disappearance of these two young princes cast a shadow over her remaining years.

Although a political marriage, following Richard’s defeat at the Battle of Bosworth, Elizabeth and Henry are portrayed as having as happy a marriage as could be hoped for at the time. The country remained unstable, with numerous uprisings to contend with, but the Queen supported her husband, mostly accepting that her own claims to the throne could not be pursued further. A female monarch was unlikely to find the support necessary to rule effectively in late medieval England. As she reflected, had she been a boy she would likely have been killed by rivals.

Elizabeth bore seven children, although several of these died in childhood. When not defending his kingdom from usurpers, Henry put much time and effort into negotiating advantageous marriages for his offspring. He regarded these as a means to secure peace as well as economic benefits.

The story being told offers a window into the day to day life of a Queen during a turbulent period in English history. Elizabeth was expected to give birth to her children and then immediately hand them over to others for care and education. The fine food and clothes she enjoyed were as much for show as her pleasure. Henry wished to be seen as a ruler equal to those much admired in other realms.

The author undoubtedly writes well, although I did find this offering a tad repetitive. It is a lengthy book and key events in the Queen’s life have little to differentiate them. Kings must travel forth to quell dissent. Wives give birth and mourn their children’s deaths. There is little trust, even between siblings, understandable given rivalries and favouritism.

The family tree provided at the front of the book was a necessary reference given so many names were repeated across generations. It was interesting to read of the various palaces and other grand houses visited on the royal progresses, and to work out which still existed or what had replaced them. Having read Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series, I enjoyed learning more about Henry VIII’s parents. Clearly, they lived through a time when it was dangerous to claim the throne of England.

A worthwhile addition to the author’s fictionalised covering of Tudor royals and the personal lives they led. I look forward to reading the rest of this new series to see what fresh perspective can be offered on already well covered personages.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: In the Shadow of Queens

shadow of queens

“Fiction offers the scope to develop ideas that have no place in a history book, but which can help to illuminate motives and emotions.”

In the Shadow of Queens, by Alison Weir, is a collection of fourteen short stories, most of which were released in digital format to accompany the author’s Six Tudor Queens series. Brought together here in a beautifully bound book, they offer further insights into the lives of the aristocracy, and those who served them, during the increasingly turbulent reign of Henry VIII and beyond.

After an introduction by the author, the collection opens with what turned out to be my favourite story. The voice is that of a young Arthur, the heir to the Tudor throne, whose untimely death led to his brother, Henry, taking on both Arthur’s wife and the role he had been so diligently prepared for. Arthur was raised apart from his parents and siblings, in a castle near the Welsh borders where he was to learn the arts of kingship. Although mostly fond of those charged with his care and education, it proved a lonely existence. Weir skilfully captures the voice of a child trying hard to please but still too young to fully grasp the political aspects of his father’s ambitions.

“Arthur did his best to look suitably impressed, but getting married meant nothing to him and it was ages and ages away in the future. He just hoped that, when she came to England, Catalina would share his interest in King Arthur and St George and toy soldiers.”

Quite a number of the stories that follow focus on young women who served the ladies of the royal court. Most came from wealthy families and were expected to remain chaste but also attract a suitable husband. I found the risks they took frustrating to read as again and again a young lady, aware of the cost to her reputation, permitted her admirer access to her body. Of course, such desires are natural, but all around, at this time, were men and women punished horrifically for indulging in such behaviour, or even abetting it.

Despite covering each Queen’s life in detail within the original series, some of these stories delve into additional aspects of their lives (why were they not included in the individual and lengthy fictionalised biographies?). Anne Boleyn’s sojourn with a French suitor would have been more interesting had it been less repetitive – she takes increasingly bold risks that appear foolish in her attempt to retain her beloved’s interest. Given the rabid court gossip, I pondered how Henry remained unaware of this history of hers – she had so many detractors when he became smitten.

The Princess of Scotland started well, offering an alternative setting around the life led there, but became more of the same when its subject entered the English court. Her behaviour, again, was bound to bring down trouble. She knew she was now a chattel of the King.

The stories featuring servants added welcome variety, although if their employers fell out of favour they too could be drawn into the ensuing maelstrom. It was a dangerous time to have anything to do with anyone the King may notice and therefore blame, as yet another of his wives fell.

Several names appear repeatedly, their lives rarely running smoothly. Children run the gauntlet of ambitious parents. Those who serve must travel wherever sent. I enjoyed the story of the painter required to teach The Princess of Cleves English, although would personally have preferred it to end earlier.

It will come as no surprise to readers that there are many, many deaths. Some of these are natural, particularly following childbirth, while others are punishment for behaviour. Coming back to the risks some took, for love or ambition, it grew harder to conjure sympathy.

I enjoyed the author’s take on what happened to Katherine Parr’s baby daughter. This tale offered a window into the world of children raised away from their families, within the households of supposed benefactors. The precarious situation female children could face if without a financial settlement provided interest.

A couple of the stories include a contemporary setting. These worked well. The final tale in the collection reveals the appalling treatment of Katherine Parr’s dead body through the ages. There is a degree of dark humour as those harbouring a lofty curiosity in history seek the kudos of viewing a rare artefact, and then cannot resist taking a damaging souvenir. Each believes they are better, more respectful, than their predecessors then behave in the same selfish way (I do not include the author, who has written herself in, here).

There are ghosts aplenty alongside descriptions of grand buildings, many of which still exist albeit in a redesigned or derelict state. Perhaps it is their longevity that makes the history of the wealthy so much easier to interrogate than that of the majority of the population.

This may be the weakest book by Weir I have read but that is not to say it is bad, although it did drag in places. I suspect the stories worked better when released as shorts alongside the books they were written to accompany. Nevertheless, they complete what has been a fascinating series.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline Review.

My reviews of The Six Tudor Queens Series:

Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen

Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession

Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen

Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets

Katheryn Howard, The Tainted Queen

Katherine Parr, The Sixth Wife

Book Review: Katherine Parr, The Sixth Wife

katherine parr

“She had a loving, attentive husband, who might be a little eccentric and overpowering at times, but who was at heart a decent man.”

Katherine Parr, The Sixth Wife draws to a close Alison Weir’s excellent Six Tudor Queens series. As with the previous five books, known facts have been meticulously researched and then woven into a fictionalised story that brings to life the times and places in which the protagonist lived. Katherine married four times so only a portion of the tale directly involves her most famous husband, Henry VIII. That said, the decisions he made, especially during The Reformation, reverberated throughout his kingdom.

Katherine was born in London and lived during a time when many, including her father, would be struck down by plague. As her mother served the Queen at the royal court, Katherine and her siblings were subsequently raised by relatives. It was a happy childhood and the uncle whose properties she lived in proved a wise and loyal advisor throughout her life.

Katherine’s mother was ambitious for her children, placing them within influential households and arranging marriages she believed would be of ongoing benefit to the whole family. Aristocratic children were betrothed young as their parents vied for suitable matches. Katherine, unusually, made it to seventeen before she was first married, her husband four years her elder. He proved a kind young man but was incapable of making her entirely happy. Nevertheless, she mourned his death, although being a wealthy widow gave her freedoms few women at the time could enjoy fully.

Her second husband was an older widower but, again, proved a considerate as well as a loving man. The couple’s main concerns were due to the King’s religious diktats which did not sit well with the local population. It was during this marriage that Katherine came to realise how precarious life could be however carefully one tried to speak and behave. By the time she was widowed for a second time they were living in London, her husband being required to sit in parliament.

The troubles that erupted around them in the north of England where he preferred to spend time are covered well in the story. I had not previously been aware of such uprisings. They did, however, drag on a little in the reading – my interest in such politics is, perhaps, limited. Other notable elements of the story are the details recounted of women’s clothing. How they dressed, particularly in and around the royal court, were important markers of wealth and status.

Of course, it is not just the adults in these times who die or are put to death. So much hope is placed on sons, the heirs, yet so many babies did not survive even into childhood. Katherine longs for a baby yet must make do with mothering her various stepchildren, something she is depicted as doing well.

Having been a good wife, careful and necessarily discrete, Katherine then took risks when she mistook lust for love with her third suitor. That the King was by now also showing an interest made this even more foolish. It felt out of character given everything she had been through to date – sometimes it seems passion really can be so blinding. Katherine does, of course, end up marrying Henry and is once again blessed with a husband who cares for her. These years in her life story lead to the King’s death and the political machinations surrounding such a momentous and anticipated event are woven in well.

Katherine believed herself fitting and able to be appointed Regent to the next young King. Given how she behaves when believing her life at risk – she becomes hysterical – such ambition looks to be over reaching. She does not come across as clinically controlled enough to hold and wield what power meant in those times. There were always many – men and women – mercilessly plotting for their own ascension.

One such person is Katherine’s fourth husband, an obvious knave. It seems a shame she did not appear to appreciate how her previous husbands had demonstrated true love in how they treated her, especially as so many women at that time were required to put up with appalling treatment in their marriages. Katherine appeared blinded by passion and the excitement of lively sex, even when blatantly informed of seriously errant and politically dangerous behaviour.

Having to read of her foolishness made the denouement somewhat frustrating and I was glad when the story ended. Having said that, I wanted to know what happened next to those who lived on. I therefore found this by the author of much interest. It also helped make sense of Katherine’s skewed judgement and her final husband’s thinking.

“a man of much wit, and very little judgement”

Weir is clearly a skilled writer of historical fiction and brings to colourful life a much covered dynasty in a way that still entertains. A long but interesting tale that provides a fitting ending to an ambitious yet successfully wrought series.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline Review.

Book Review: Isaac and the Egg

isaac and the egg

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Isaac and the Egg has been much hyped by its publisher, crossing my radar months before publication. While this would normally make me somewhat wary, the synopsis proved too intriguing to resist (well done, publicists).

It tells the story of the titular Isaac, a man broken by grief. In the depths of a cold winter he drives himself to a lonely wood where he unexpectedly finds an unusual creature. Fearing for its wellbeing, he decides to take it home. The tale is mostly told from Isaac’s point of view but there are occasional sections where the creature gets to share its thoughts and insights. These offer a fresh perspective on this strange human who is obviously hurting so badly. One of the strengths of the story is the creature’s back-story, although this takes some time to reveal.

The book opens with Isaac standing on a bridge, ‘unsure whether to jump or not’. He cannot remember driving there. He has been drinking heavily and regularly but this is not the only cause of the blanks in time he has been suffering. Struggling to cope with the unrelenting pain of loss, he screams into the void – and something screams back. It is enough to distract him from whatever else he might have done next.

Isaac’s life is a mess. He is neither eating nor sleeping properly. He neglects basic self care. He has shut out the many people who wish to try to help him. At first it seems that the creature he brings home is only adding to the many problems he is failing to deal with. Gradually, there is a shift as looking after and hiding this strange new companion serves as a diversion from the damaging fallout resulting from Isaac’s raw grief. As time passes the reader may ask if Isaac is caring for the creature or is it caring for him.

I found this a slow burn of a story, the first third providing necessary background but lacking sufficient tautness to keep me fully engaged. Clever use of foreshadowing encourages the reader to judge certain of Isaac’s actions, and why he is assiduously avoiding particular places. The creature remains something of an enigma until close to the end.

Although a story exploring loss and guilt, there is also humour. The creature’s actions, attributes and attitude mock many human traits. However badly Isaac is behaving, the sense of overwhelming grief is well conveyed. He is bereft and adrift but not as alone as he wishes to be – something he will eventually come to appreciate.

Having early on questioned why I had fallen for the hype, by halfway through I was drawn into and enjoying the tale. What lifts it is how the creature came to be Isaac’s sidekick. To go into further detail would risk detracting from future readers’ right to experience spoiler free developments. I may have been put off initially by certain elements that seemed implausible, but by simply going along with what was apparently being suggested, it all came to make satisfying sense.

The denouement offers hope for when grief becomes overwhelming. If this sounds heavy then rest assured, while the topic certainly is, how it is handled here makes it accessible. Although poignant, the story remains entertaining.

Any Cop?: An impressive debut in which a highly unusual character is used convincingly to effect. A moving but never cloying read.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Shiver

Shiver, by Allie Reynolds, is a thriller based around the competitive world of snowboarding – a sport the author trained for at the highest levels. Set high up in the avalanche prone French Alps, it focuses on a group of elite athletes who get together for a weekend reunion a decade after events that changed the course of their careers. The timeline moves between then and now, offering the reader insights into the complex relationships that form when friends and lovers are also rivals professionally. The killer instinct required to succeed can be harnessed literally.

The narrator is Milla, a young women driven to prove herself but never quite able to be as good as she needs to be to attract the kudos and sponsorship that would enable her to fully fund her obsession. In the early timeline she travels to Le Rocher to spend the Alpine winter training for the British championships in the freestyle halfpipe event – still a relatively new Olympic sport at the time. Here she meets the woman she needs to beat – Saskia Sparkes – who proves as icy and dangerous as the slopes on which they compete.

Saskia’s older brother, Curtis, is an established champion snowboarder. His friend and nearest rival is Brent, who has a history with Saskia. Also at the reunion are Dale and Heather – now married. All harbour secrets linked to Saskia’s disappearance. She has recently been pronounced dead in absentia having not been seen since the day of the competition.

The reunion quickly turns out to be a complex ruse but none of the attendees will admit to having organised it – nor know anything of the way they are being played. Trust between the group is in short supply, with everyone blaming the others when events turn threatening. Phones disappear preventing communication with staff who could operate the cable lift that brought them there, and will be needed if they are to leave safely. Trapped in a building high up near a glacier where deadly crevices can send the unwary plummeting to their death, tension mounts as accusations fly.

I found the earlier timeline – the story of the group when they were training for the championship – more interesting than the reunion. Although there is an obvious attempt to build on the claustrophobia of the situation, the constant and recurring unknowns became irritating – a device rather than a tightly woven tale. Expectation was overblown leaving truths, when finally revealed, deflating what should have come across as horrific.

The portrayal of athletes at the top of their game was shocking to consider, although sadly believable. Drive and ambition can create men and women who focus on their own needs above anything else. These young people put their lives on the line to win, seemingly unaware of how shallow and transitory their achievements appear to those outside the bubble of their chosen specialism. The highs described brought to mind drug addiction – the desire to succeed the pitiless means employed to acquire the hit.

I was bemused by the presumption that talented sportsmen will be good in bed – they may have confidence but such success goes hand in hand with a degree of selfishness. Competitiveness in all manner of interactions was far from friendly, leaving me questioning if professional athletes are really so mean minded. What it takes for them to win – determination and ruthlessness, to self as well as others – made me ponder if they ever look ahead, to what follows their peak. With decades still to live do they condemn themselves to disappointment when they cannot relive the success they strove so hard to achieve? The cost is not just theirs to bear.

It is not necessary to like characters to enjoy a story, and readers interested in snowboarding may well find this worth reading for the details on tricks and spins, functional aids and equipment. Relationships between the characters were well evoked in the earlier timeline. It was events of a decade later that too quickly became tedious. There are only so many locked doors and power cuts that can be employed as tension builders before they become repetitive.

A thriller that I did not find thrilling, although I chose to read to the end to find out what had happened. The denouement offered a reasonably well structured finale but one that then took a turn that did not fit with how the character got there. Perhaps this is a story better suited to those who understand the need to take risks in order to feel alive. A much hyped book that was not for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: The Things We Learn When We’re Dead

The Things We Learn When We’re Dead, by Charlie Laidlaw, tells the story of a young women named Lorna Love. She has just completed her final year studying law at Edinburgh University and been offered a training job at one of the city’s top corporate law firms. On the evening of 7 July 2005, having attended a difficult dinner party at the house of her future boss, she steps in front of a car outside her flat. Dimly aware of the arrival of paramedics – who cannot find a pulse – she wakes up in a bland, white room that looks nothing like the hospital expected. She is told that she has been assigned to Irene, a chain smoking, Kate Winslet lookalike. It is Irene’s job to tell Lorna that she is dead and that God has chosen her to live eternally in heaven. There is more to be explained but this must wait until Lorna’s memories have returned. With the trauma of regeneration, this could take some time. Time, it turns out, is the one thing residents of heaven have rather too much of. God tries hard to provide novel forms of entertainment but all become wearisome after many centuries with the prospect of an endless future.

Lorna’s memories start to filter through and form the bones of the story. She was born and raised in Berwick where she lived in a flat with her brother and parents. At school she met Suzie who remained her best friend – they shared the rented flat in Edinburgh. Money was tight for the Loves whereas Suzie’s parents were wealthy, her lawyer father driving a Porsche that Lorna greatly admired. The girls shared all their secrets – including the details of sexual encounters. Suzie was not the most discrete confidante.

The reader learns early that, at the time of her accident, Lorna was unhappy and on medication. There is mention of an ex-boyfriend who she regrets sleeping with after their breakup.

Memories from childhood reveal a valued family holiday on the Norfolk Broads where Lorna watched Star Wars – her favourite movie since. Flashbacks suggest there are shadows flickering behind some of her happier recollections – the most difficult of these taking longer to coalesce.

Alongside dealing with what was her life, Lorna must learn to adapt to heaven. Trinity, the helpful on board computer, creates simulations that she hopes will make heaven’s residents days more pleasant. There are shops where they may help themselves to the most expensive designer clothes and accessories. There are beaches where they may swim and indulge in delicious refreshments. All of these turn out to be a reflection of Lorna’s life experiences. There is a subtle undercurrent of unreliability.

God made man in his own image, and heaven’s residents change the way they look regularly – many adopting the bodies of celebrities. Irene is bossy and suggests Lorna too may wish to change – she remains unconvinced. Suzie was widely regarded as a beauty but Lorna seemed to cope with being her sidekick. There is an admirable strength to her work ethic and determination.

I enjoyed the way the author portrayed heaven – the world building woven in to Lorna’s unfolding life story and the concerns this brings. There are subtle glitches that caused me to flick back to check previous reveals. Continuity is handled skilfully.

Memories are known to be fluid, transient and unreliable. The questions the reader will ask do not affect flow or engagement. I couldn’t warm to Irene’s arrogance, her constant smoking an irritation. I wondered if Lorna could recognise their likenesses. I pondered how Suzie could eat so many buttered bread rolls and still find work as a model. This may be jealousy on my part (the bread rolls, not the modelling).

This is a fun to read story despite several tragedies along the way. Its handling of the famous – those who contributed particularly to human understanding thereby aiding progress – was inventive. The denouement was perhaps just a little drawn out but still clever. An enjoyable and original read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Katheryn Howard

“she had been in her tender youth, too frail to resist her wanton appetites, too greedy for carnal delights. How blind the young can be!”

Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen, by Alison Weir, is the fifth installment in the author’s Six Tudor Queens series. Like its predecessors, it is a fictionalised biography of one of Henry VIII’s wives based on extensive factual research. Written as a story, it offers a window into the life of a young woman raised in privileged households. Katheryn is always aware that she is a Howard and that her family are both wealthy and influential. She was regarded as very beautiful but is not portrayed as particularly bright.

Opening in 1528, when Katheryn was seven years old, the tale begins with the death of her mother in childbirth. Katheryn is sent to stay with a kindly aunt, along with her half-sister, Isabel, who will become a lifelong friend. Katheryn’s father lives beyond his means and goes on to marry wealthy widows. He is not well regarded by the wider family but they are still willing to help raise his children.

In 1531, Katheryn is sent to live with her father’s stepmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Unhappy with this change, Katheryn’s stepmother comforts her by explaining why.

“It is quite usual for noble children to be reared in great households, and you are now of an age for that. Under the Duchess’s rule, you will learn the skills and graces that will help you to make a good marriage or even obtain a place at court.”

Being a Howard, Katheryn is given her own room, unlike the other young ladies placed in the Duchess’s care. They must sleep in a dormitory where they get up to all sorts of shenanigans, including sexual antics with the young men of the household. By the time Katheryn is a teenager, she is joining in.

This activity is preceded by a crush Katheryn has on her music master. The sections describing their affair – when they would ‘pleasure’ each other in secret – were disturbing to read.

Katheryn’s regular fumblings and tumblings during the years she lived in the Duchess’s house grew tiresome to read due to repetition. There was little attempt at discretion during lascivious activity, much to the chagrin of some of the young ladies who were forced to bear witness. There is risk but this only adds to the frisson.

In 1539, Katheryn’s father dies. Following this, she is finally found a place at court serving the King’s latest wife, the Lady Anne of Cleves. Although basking in the opulence of the royal palaces, and enjoying the sumptuous gowns she is given, Katheryn grows bored by the quiet manner in which the new Queen mostly lives.

When it becomes clear that the King no longer wishes to be married to Anne, Katheryn’s powerful uncles concoct a plan to place her on the throne. She must present herself as virtuous, keeping secret the life she led while under the care of the Dowager Duchess. The King is smitten by her youth and beauty, and she grows fond of him.

Once again, Katheryn’s sex life is described in repetitive detail – key to her role as Queen is that she produce a royal heir. When she rekindles an affair with one of her previous lovers, it is frustrating to read of the foolish risks she takes. Yes, she is young and vivacious, but her actions were always bound to lead where they did.

Portrayed as an admired young woman who has been offered little moral guidance growing up, Katheryn’s behaviour can be understood despite its repercussions. In this marriage at least, Henry appears the victim.

I enjoyed the historical aspects of the novel – the lives led by the noble families of the time and those who served them. Political maneuvering was ruthless and added interest. It is a shame that, while understanding it was Katheryn’s sexual antics that led to her undoing and therefore they had to be included, the many pages devoted to describing them became tedious.

Katheryn was young, fell easily in love, and was used by those looking for preferment. That she couldn’t control her urges, despite being adored by her aging husband, makes it harder to sympathise. Nevertheless, the author does a good job of presenting choices made through the lens of desire – which has, after all, caused regret in many.

An author’s note at the end explains the facts she used as the basis for the story and where she chose to use her imagination. Having read each of the books in this series, I am glad to have read this one for completeness. I do, however, hope that the final installment will contain less carnal content. I look forward to learning more about Henry’s final Queen.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Anna of Kleve

Six Tudor Queens: Anna of Kleve – Queen of Secrets, by Alison Weir, is the fourth in a series of specially commissioned books which together tell the tales of Henry VIII’s wives, from their point of view. Each instalment is a highly detailed, fictionalised account based on known and researched facts, with literary licence taken to aid storytelling. The author is a well regarded historian and explains at the end of each book why she presented key moments in her subjects’ lives the way she did.

Anna of Kleve opens in 1530 when the young lady is fourteen years old. She has been raised by her wealthy and aristocratic family to put duty before her own desires. Anna’s upbringing has been strict but loving. Betrothed to the eldest son of the Duke of Lorraine since she was eleven, her wedding – to a boy she has yet to meet – is expected to take place later in the current year. Anna’s acceptance of the life she has been raised for is threatened when her cousin by marriage visits and she is smitten.

The fallout from this encounter could have been personally devastating but, with the advice and support of her devoted nurse, events are managed and defused.

Anna’s life resumes its quiet monotony. Years pass during which her betrothal is annulled. Then, in 1538, England seeks an alliance with Kleve. King Henry requires a new bride and his Principal Secretary, Cromwell, recommends Anna.

The section of the book during which Anna is prepared for and then travels to England are fascinating. Her family value modesty and simplicity in women so the fashions and accomplishments of the English court ladies make Anna appear odd and lacking interest. She does her best to fit in but struggles to please her new husband, not understanding why.

As a foreigner, Anna had known about Henry from talk abroad of his religious reforms and controversial marriages. By the time she meets him he is already aged and temperamental. She is required to bear him a child yet he makes this impossible.

Anna and Henry’s marriage lasts a mere six months. Aged twenty-five, Anna finds herself in a position where she must carve a place for herself in England or return to the strictures of Kleve. So long as she acquiesces to his every wish, she is offered Henry’s continued patronage. Over the years factions at court vying for personal betterment put Anna in danger with their intrigues. She must act quickly and with great delicacy to diffuse situations not of her making.

Anna outlives both King Henry and Queen Mary. It is interesting to view the machinations and religious turmoil of the Tudor court through the eyes of someone with inner contacts but living apart. Anna takes risks to make her life more pleasurable but, due to her reliance on their finance, is never free of royal obligation. She suffers when gossip or rivalry threaten to tarnish her name.

The strength of this series is that it portrays the same, well known era from differing perspectives. In this book we are also offered a window into the life of a wealthy, peripatetic household and the difficulties associated with maintaining expected standards of comfortable living. Anna’s later years are spent outside of London. Although highly privileged, her autonomy is stymied by the need to preserve an unsullied reputation within an ever changing political landscape.

The writing is fluid and engaging. As well as being of historical interest it is a captivating story with subplots weaving convincingly around the known headlines. Anna is developed with sympathy but also realism. An enjoyable and refreshingly accessible read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Gig Review: New Voices of 2019 from Headline

On Thursday of last week I travelled to Bath for my first literary event of 2019 – the Headline New Voices Roadshow. Bath was the third stop on what appears to have been a raucous and much enjoyed publicity tour. Check the Twitter hashtag #NewVoices2019 to get a flavour of what went down. It used to be that what happened on tour, stayed on tour; in this case the pictures appeared on social media and provided much entertainment.

Held in the downstairs snug at Walcot House, six friendly authors were in Bath to talk about their new books. They were accompanied by a fabulous publicity team from Headline: Georgina Moore, Becky Hunter, Jenny Harlow, Jennifer Leech, Phoebe Swinburn and Caitlin Raynor. Invited guests included booksellers, PR professionals and bloggers. Given the presence of the latter much has already been written about the three evenings – check the Twitter hashtag to catch other write-ups.

In the time I had available I wasn’t able to talk to everyone but I hope I got a flavour of each of the books before I left, tote bag well stuffed with proofs. I ensured I spoke to Sarah Davis-Goff as her book was the only one I had already read and I wanted to let her know how much I enjoyed this chilling dystopia (click on cover below for my review). I was pleased when she told me that it is the first in a proposed series.

My chats with Richard Lumsden and Rhik Samadder made me curious to read their books so that was a successful outcome. Rhik’s book is not yet finished so I will be asking Georgina if she will kindly send me a proof when available.

I will be checking out the other books at my leisure.

Given the number of people in attendance it was not possible to chat to even all those I recognised from previous events. From the pictures posted the next day I was happy to see that Sharon (Shaz’s Book Blog) partied with the author’s and publicists into the wee small hours. I managed to briefly catch up with Suzan (Novel Heights) who hadn’t expected to be able to stay long but outlasted me (what a lightweight I am).

The night, however, was all about the books. If you would like to know more about them and their trajectory through publication, you may find each of the authors on Twitter. From the fun response to the tour I expect their accounts will be worth following.


I Never Said I loved You by Rhik Samadder  @whatsamadder
The Girl in the Letter by Emily Gunnis  @EmilyGunnis
Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis – Goff  @SarahDavisGoff
Past Life by Dominic Nolan  @Nolandom
The Six Loves of Billy Binns by Richard Lumsden  @lumsdenrich
Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce  @Harriet_tyce

I am always grateful when publishers are willing to travel to their readers rather than expecting everyone to attend events in London. Thank you to the team at Headline for my invitation to what was an enjoyable party.