#BookReview Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen by Alison Weir


cover180777-mediumAbout the Book

A naive young woman at the mercy of her ambitious family.

At just nineteen, Katheryn Howard is quick to trust and fall in love. She comes to court. She sings, she dances. She captures the heart of the King. Henry declares she is his rose without a thorn. But Katheryn has a past of which he knows nothing. It comes back increasingly to haunt her. For those who share her secrets are waiting in the shadows, whispering words of love… and blackmail.

Format: ebook (478 pages)                Publisher: Headline
Publication date: 6th August 2020 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen is the fifth book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series. I’ve read all the previous books with the exception of Anna of Kleve which is patiently waiting on my bookshelf. Perhaps conscious of previous criticism, Alison Weir writes in her Author’s Note, “Apart from fictionalising the historical record, I have invented very little.” The result is a convincing account of the character traits and events that led to Katheryn Howard’s tragic end.

Written in the first person, the reader gets a picture of a naive young woman who lacks the awareness or guidance to realise how the foolish mistakes she makes whilst in the household of the Duchess of Norfolk will come back to haunt her. The author depicts a surprisingly licentious atmosphere amongst the young men and women of the household with frequent midnight “feasts” that don’t only involve food. Katheryn is drawn into this activity, conducting affairs with firstly her music tutor and then with Francis Dereham. If the book is an accurate reflection of the amount of sexual activity taking place, given the primitive methods of contraception available it’s surprising no pregnancies ensued.

I confess I struggled to maintain my interest in this section of the book with its accounts of nightly youthful indiscretions. And I found some of the writing rather laughable. Examples such as “Pulling down his hose, he entered her and rode her like a stallion” or “For answer, he took her hand and guided it inside his codpiece”. However, during this period an important exchange takes place between Katheryn and Francis, the effect of which will prove pivotal later.

Because of her youth and beauty, Katheryn becomes a valuable pawn in the hands of her Howard relatives, who seek both power and the restoration of the Catholic faith. She is dangled in front of the King in an effort to encourage him to divorce Anna of Kleve. Katheryn goes along with this out of gratitude to them for rescuing her from a life of relative poverty and because she is dazzled by the thought of becoming queen. “The prospect thrilled her, colouring everything else.” The idea of being shown deference, wearing gorgeous clothes and jewellery, living in splendid palaces, having servants dancing attendance on her and obeying her every whim is irresistible. I could actually see how the opulence of court life would turn a young girl’s head. Despite her disappointment at her first sight of the now ageing and obese Henry, she concludes: “She could do it if she had to. For the first time, she knew herself to be as ambitious as the rest of her family. If submitting to the King’s desires was the price of her elevation, she would pay it.”

Although Henry’s eagerness to marry Katheryn is undoubtedly driven by lust and the need to secure the succession, in the author’s hands the reader sees a real tenderness develop between the two. For me, this part of the book, describing the relationship between Katheryn and Henry, and detailing daily life at Court or whilst on progress around the country was one of the most fascinating and compelling.

Despite everything she has achieved, the King’s obvious devotion to her and the example set by the demise of Anne Boleyn, Katheryn foolishly sets out on a course of action that will ultimately result in her downfall and death. It left me thinking “You silly, silly girl” especially when she fails to see how she is being manipulated or, at best, being given extremely poor advice.

This is the point where the limitations of the author’s decision to write in the first person become evident. As she herself admits in her Author’s Note, because the reader is never privy to the thoughts of Henry, it is impossible to explore the possibility that he did not want Katheryn to be condemned to death. The author points to signs of his initial leniency, such as the fact she was not sent directly to the Tower of London, arguing that he may have been influenced by reformers on his Council who seized the opportunity to remove a Catholic queen and bring down the Howards in one fell swoop.

One very interesting point Alison Weir makes, which is unknown to Katheryn and therefore to the reader as well – because we only know what she knows – is that she might have saved her life if she had admitted to a pre-contract with Dereham. As Alison explains, “If she had never been the King’s legal wife, she could not be accused of adultery, only bigamy, with the second marriage being rendered invalid. Bigamy was seen as a spiritual offence…it did not become a felony until 1604.” For me, this made the final chapters all the more poignant.

I received an advance review copy courtesy of Headline via NetGalley.

In three words: Detailed, dramatic, moving

Try something similarInnocent Traitor by Alison Weir

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Alison WeirAbout the Author

Alison Weir is the biggest-selling female historian (and the fifth best-selling historian) in the United Kingdom since records began in 1997. She has published twenty-three titles and sold more than 3 million books – over a million in the UK and 2.2 million in the USA. She is now working on two concurrent series of books: Six Tudor Queens, comprising six novels on the wives of Henry VIII and England’s Medieval Queens, a quartet of historical works of non-fiction.

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#BookReview The Bird in the Bamboo Cage by Hazel Gaynor @HarperFiction @RandomTTours

Bird in Bamboo Cage BT PosterWelcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for The Bird in the Bamboo Cage by Hazel Gaynor. My thanks to Anne at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part and to HarperCollins for my digital review copy via NetGalley. Do check out the post by my tour buddy for today, Jane at Jane Hunt Writer.

9780008393632About the Book

When war imprisons them, only kindness will free them…

China, 1941. With Japan’s declaration of war on the Allies, Elspeth Kent’s future changes forever. When soldiers take control of the missionary school where she teaches, comfortable security is replaced by rationing, uncertainty and fear.

Ten-year-old Nancy Plummer has always felt safe at Chefoo School. Now the enemy, separated indefinitely from anxious parents, the children must turn to their teachers – to Miss Kent and her new Girl Guide patrol especially – for help. But worse is to come when the pupils and teachers are sent to a distant internment camp. Unimaginable hardship, impossible choices and danger lie ahead.

Inspired by true events, this is the unforgettable story of the life-changing bonds formed between a young girl and her teacher, in a remote corner of a terrible war.

Format: Hardcover (400 pages)         Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 20th August 2020 Genre: Historical fiction

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My Review

The story alternates between two first person narrators – Nancy Plummer and Elspeth Kent – providing the reader with different perspectives on the unfolding events. After all, the thoughts and feelings of a ten-year old girl are likely to be very different to that of an experienced teacher. What unites them is the value of friendship. I liked the way the friendship between Elspeth and fellow teacher, Minnie, grows, allowing them to share the past disappointments and tragedies in their lives. Similarly, Nancy’s friendship with Dorothy (‘Sprout’) and Joan (‘Mouse’) helps to ease the pain of separation from her parents.

When the teachers and children are forced to leave their beloved Chefoo School, Elspeth receives two parting gifts from their Chinese servants that will come to be a source of comfort in the years ahead. The first will help her to distance herself mentally from the traumatic experiences she will witness and endure. (It’s a theme picked up later in the book when a character observes, “Thinking is the real war, isn’t it? It’s our minds that will ultimately determine whether we win or lose; whether we survive.”) The second gift becomes not only a symbol of hope and resilience but a way to honour the memory of those who will not live to see freedom.

The reality of what in loco parentis really entails becomes clear as Elspeth, Minnie and the other teachers find themselves thrust into a role far beyond that of merely educators. As Elspeth muses, “I was here to step into the shoes of all the absent parents. I was here to watch over these temporary orphans of war.” Often, Elspeth underestimates just how important she is to the children’s mental and emotional strength. In a way, the need to look after and protect the children provides a distraction from the challenges each day brings – the unsanitary conditions, shortage of food, risk of disease and cruelty of the guards. As Elspeth remarks, “For the children I kept going.

Routine and upholding the principles of the Girl Guides – loyalty, courage, hard work, and so on – are the strategies Elspeth and Minnie use to hold things together, distracting the children from the hardships of the internment camp. However, they cannot protect them from everything and none of the children will emerge from the experience unchanged.

As an admirer of John Buchan, I’m sure you can imagine my delight when one of his books turns up in the camp library set up by the redoubtable Mrs Trevellyan. (There’s also a mention of one of Buchan’s favourite books, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which, incidentally, is used to pass clandestine messages in his novel, Mr Standfast.) And I could only nod in agreement at Mrs T’s observation about the value of books: “This is our escape. Right here, in all these glorious words. Between these pages, we can be as free as the birds. We can go anywhere we please!

The Bird in the Bamboo Cage brings to life the story of the children of Chefoo School in a way that immerses the reader in their experiences. I felt I was living every moment with them. Although there are things that are difficult to read about there are uplifting moments as well, including small acts of defiance and of unexpected kindness. I can only echo the words of the author when she notes in the Afterword, “No matter the time or distance from an historical event, the universal themes of love, grief, friendship, regret and resilience are what connect us all across the decades.

In three words: Emotional, authentic, inspiring

Try something similar: The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

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Hazel GaynorAbout the Author

Hazel Gaynor is an award-winning New York Times, USA Today, Irish Times, and international bestselling author of historical fiction, including her debut The Girl Who Came Home for which she received the 2015 RNA Historical Novel of the Year award. The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter was shortlisted for the 2019 HWA Gold Crown Award. She is published in thirteen languages and nineteen countries. Hazel is co-founder of creative writing events, The Inspiration Project, and currently lives in Ireland with
her family, though originally from Yorkshire.

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