Blog Tour for ‘The Trials of Isabella M Smugge’: new fiction by Ruth Leigh

I am delighted to be part of the blog tour for this, the second of Ruth Leigh’s contemporary novels about Isabella M Smugge, lifestyle blogger and instagram influencer. The Trials of Isabella M Smugge is published by Instant Apostle.

Ruth Leigh, author of The Diary of Isabella M Smugge & The Trials of Isabella M Smugge, both published by Instant Apostle in 2021. Ruth is a novelist, blogger and freelance writer based in beautiful East Suffolk.

I found the previous Isabella book a surprise, expecting a high farcical content: instead, it was a poignant and touching story of about contemporary family life and relationships. Fans of the first book will find this follow-up exceeds all their expectations.

I was intrigued by how Ruth chooses to handle the character of Isabella: lifestyle blogger and Instagram influencer, a style guru with enormous expertise in fashion, interior decor, and haute cuisine. Ruth is acutely observant about our consumer society, obsessed with brands, trends and image. She is brimming with phrases like ”carefully curated personal appearances”; “doyenne of the lifestyle blogging world”, “so not me”; “I was the first to spot that seagrass was over”; “my trademark eye for a good finish”; “conceptual layered pieces”; “a delightfully on-trend and vibey air”. I did love this, and it often made me laugh out loud.

Behind it all, we feel great sympathy for Isabella herself, in her increasingly chaotic personal life: betrayed by her husband, coping with an unexpected baby on the way, targeted by a vicious gossip columnist, and trying to rebuild her life as a single mother. Alongside all this, her drive to keep up her perfect online image becomes increasingly ridiculous.

Johnnie, her faithless, charming, hedge-fund-manager husband, masquerades as protective but in fact is emotionally manipulative and controlling. Around Isabella and her family, the author develops a cast of characters who either support or goad or torment her, some leading her along the path to true authenticity, others urging her to negative behaviour and values.

Ironically, Isabella appears to be “a woman in control”, on top of things, telling other people how to attain high society‘s false idea of perfection; yet in reality we can see she is not in control at all. She is not liberated in the true sense of the word, she is enslaved by what her husband thinks of her, and is rarely true to herself. We just want her to break through the web of artificiality she weaves around herself, to become real and honest about who and what she truly is.

As the story builds, the author includes sharp and waspish descriptions, especially of church services and Christians praying. Yet it is Christian friends who become a lifeline to Isabella. Following childbirth she suffers what many would recognise as postnatal depression: nothing she has to say about her baby is loving: the only things she notices are very negative and even cynical. Then we feel a great sense of relief when Isabella’s friend Nicki speaks the truth to Isabella at last, about herself, and Johnnie.

This is very much a book about family life and friendship as well as growing self-knowledge. I do like the end, very much: it is clever and perceptive, and the signs of transformation in Isabella may give rise to sparks of amusement and recognition in the reader.

A highly recommended book. You may find it online among contemporary women’s fiction.

Ruth may be found on Facebook as Ruth Leigh Writes and as @ruthleighwrites on Twitter and Instagram. You can visit her website at ruthleighwrites.co.uk if you would like to order a signed copy of the book.

Published by Instant Apostle, Ruth’s books are widely available in bookshops and all online book retail stores as well as from her website.

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A Visit to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard: HMS Victory, HMS Warrior and the Mary Rose, a perfect time capsule that transports us into another world

On a recent trip to Portsmouth, we were absorbed into the lives of the great ships there, and their rich histories. The Mary Rose Museum shone out for us with its immersive experience and its astonishing recovery of details of the sailors’ lives back in 1545.

View of Portsmouth Gunwharf Quays Marine from the HMS Warrior

But HMS Warrior and HMS Victory also enthralled us as we explored both ships, full of wonder at the insights flooding in on us (in the metaphorical sense only!).

HMS Victory

The audio tour of the HMS Victory helped us to relive the dramatic and heartrending moments of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s fatal injury, his journey to the surgeon’s quarters and his final hours, with his loyal second-in-command Captain Hardy.

HMS Victory

The audio narration and dramatic re-enactment engaged us on every level, enabling us to imagine the feelings, sights, sounds and smells of that experience, along with all the emotions of horror and disgust and tragedy and to guess at how the news of victory may have provided some compensation to Nelson for the imminent loss of his life.

Underneath HMS Victory in the dry dock
Underneath the bow of HMS Victory

HMS Warrior, a magnificent Victorian armoured ship in immaculate condition ‘never fired a gun in anger’. Built in 1860 it ran on half sail half steam.

On board HMS Warrior

Now, with Living History actors on board playing the part of the original sailors we felt a real sense of how it must have been to spend time on board as a member of the crew.

HMS Warrior

Beyond these two wonderful ships, the Mary Rose Museum filled us with awe. Sunk in the Solent in 1545, and raised over four centuries later, the Mary Rose and her story exerts a curious power over us: her many artefacts recovered along with the mortal remains of 129 crew, this exhibition was a truly amazing experience for us. The number of people originally on board at the time of the tragedy is not known for sure and it varies between 500 and 700. It is thought the shop was overloaded, and this may have been one of the factors causing it to sink. The number of survivors is also thought to have been between 35 and 40. They would have chanced to be in the right place on the ship at the right time to escape and be rescued by small boats sent out to save them. Many others were trapped by the “anti-boarding nets” stretched over the decks to prevent the enemy swarming on board. The ship sunk very quickly, and half of it ended up deep in silt so it was preserved.

Now, the recovered part of the timber hull is held in a state of perfect equilibrium, so the timbers no longer need to be sprayed with water or viewed through portholes. Instead, thanks to a fine balance of atmosphere and temperature and a series of air-lock doors, we may gaze at the recovered hull in its entirety, at every deck level.

Most poignant of all are the many objects and possessions of the sailors and the remarkable amount of details about several individuals on board: the Master Gunner, the Master Carpenter, the Pursar, the Archer, the Surgeon – their lives, medical histories and personal items.

I am in awe of the skill, ingenuity and expertise of the archaeologists, the divers, the forensic anthropologists and other scientists and all those who made this exhibition possible, for us to see and imagine and empathise with those many hundreds of people who lost their lives that day in 1545.

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A Poignant Story from Charlestown, St Austell Cornwall

We recently visited Charlestown, a beautiful little Cornish seaport, which opened up several stories for me. Not only did we explore the moving and compelling tales of numerous historical shipwrecks and recovered artefacts  in the Shipwreck Treasure Museum: but also I learned the poignant story of the man who created, designed and built Charlestown: Charles Rashleigh.

Along with the history of Charles Rashleigh’s rise and fall, we have numerous heartrending accounts of shipwrecks in the museum. As we wander through the museum gazing at the recovered treasures and reading of the sea tragedies  we may reflect once again on the high risks humans take, for the chance of adventure and the dream of making their fortune. Some succeed; others perish. In no other sphere of human aspiration can we best reflect upon fate than in the realm of sea voyages. The sea remains powerful, mysterious, cruel and merciless: yet a source of unending wonder and attraction.

Charlestown Harbour  St Austell Cornwall

Charles started building the seaport in 1790. It was completed by 1804 and  has changed little since: now it is popular among film location scouts and has appeared as a film location on several occasions.

Views of Charlestown Harbour

The poignancy of Charles’s story lies in the fact that he created Charlestown out of his own personal wealth and was a hugely gifted man, for the port was highly successful: yet in later life he formed an attachment to 2 young men, Joseph Dingle and Joseph Daniel, who betrayed him and brought him to bankruptcy.  The whole story is told in the book ‘Charlestown: a guide to Charlestown and the Shipwreck Treasure Museum’ by Richard and Bridget Larn.

Book Blog Tour for ‘The Migrant’: action thriller novel by Paul Alkazraji

I’m pleased to be hosting a stop today on the blog tour for Paul Alkazraji’s powerful novel of Albanian and Greek aspirations, politics and social tension, The Migrant. In view of the current world situation, the themes of this novel are acute: “Crossing borders does not always lead you further from home.”

The Migrant: action thriller fiction by Paul Alkazraji

The action of the novel is set during the 2010 anti-austerity movement in Greece. But all the themes and issues raised in the story are highly relevant to what is going on in the world right now.

Paul Alkazraji, author of The Migrant

I found the novel a rich and detailed evocation of Albania and Greece: the people, their lives and longings, the geographical landscape, and the huge political, economic and ideological challenges they must navigate. The story is relevant to all of us who care deeply about the the plight of those who are deprived of the opportunity to live a fulfilling life in an environment that respects their rights and allows them to flourish on every level.

We follow Pastor Jude, an Englishman who has been working in the Albanian church, as he sets off on a rescue mission to Greece with two unlikely and rather tough companions – Mehmed, a reformed gangster and Luan, a secret-service agent. The tensions between Mehmed and Luan are sharply conveyed, as Jude – whom I found a very attractive character – acts as a bridge between them.

They are searching for Alban, Luan’s nineteen year old nephew, young and vulnerable, who has dodged border police to cross into Greece in the vain hope of finding work there in a country hit by anti-austerity riots.

I have spent some time in Greece in the past, and I was captivated by the author’s evocation of various locations in Athens. His description of the car journey from Albania to Greece, too, is rich and detailed. I could sense the atmosphere strongly and especially his lovely descriptions of the sights and sounds and scents, and particularly the taste of the national dishes and the food and drink they order in the cafes and the tavernas.

Jude’s fears for Alban are fully realised, because this young man’s most likely fate has always been either to fall into the hands of callous sex-traffickers, or to be drawn into the turbulence of violent anti-austerity riots.

This novel held my attention throughout and I was fully engaged in the search for Alban. On the way, I found very different lives being opened up for me in a fresh and compelling way. Highly recommended.

Book cover image for The Migrant by Paul Alkazraji

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY 

Paul Alkazraji worked as a freelance journalist in the UK from the mid-nineties. His articles were published in Christianity Magazine, The Christian Herald, The Church Times, The Baptist Times and other publications. His travel articles were also published in The Independent. His first book Love Changes Everything, a collection of seven testimonies, was published by Scripture Union in 2001. His second book Heart of a Hooligan, a biography of ex-football hooligan Dave Jeal, was published by Highland Books in 2000. His third book Christ and the Kalashnikov, a biography of missionaries Ian and Caralee Loring, was published by Zondervan in 2001. From 2004 to 2010 he was editor and publisher of Ujëvarë magazine in Albania. His first novel, ‘The Silencer’, was published by Highland Books in 2012. His new novel, ‘The Migrant’, set in Albania and Athens during the austerity troubles, was published by Instant Apostle in February 2019. 

BLURB

Fascist populists, callous sex-traffickers and murderous mafia gangs – these were not what Pastor Jude Kilburn had expected to face when he moved to Albania. But when vulnerable 19-year-old Alban disappears from his poverty-stricken village to seek work in Greece, Jude has to undertake the perilous journey across the mountains to try and rescue him from the ruthless Athenian underworld. Accompanied by a volatile secret-service agent and a reformed gangster, Jude soon finds himself struggling to keep everyone together as personal tensions rise and violent anti-austerity riots threaten to tear them apart and undermine the mission. Caught between cynical secret police and a brutal crime syndicate, the fate of them all will be determined by a trafficked girl – but not every one will make it home. The Migrant is a tense and evocative thriller with a powerful redemptive twist.

EXTRACT FROM THE NOVEL

Chapter One Part One

Alban Gurbardhi lay with his face pressed into the earth. He eased his breath out through pursed lips as he tried to stifle any sound he might make. It seemed his heartbeat would be heard across the valley as it pounded in his ears. An angry, black beetle marched across the thyme-grass centimetres from his nose. He glanced at Ervin, who lay in against the crumbling stone wall, and saw his eyes darting.

‘Sssst … They are near here. We’ll get them,’ Alban heard one of the men say in a low voice. ‘Keep looking. Óchi … over there.’ Ervin lifted a finger to his lips and gestured with his palm forwards to stay put. Alban blinked and thought. They should have waited at the last Albanian village for the full cover of darkness before entering Greece. He remembered Ervin saying he’d come this way many times before and not to worry. The Greek border guards were less active these days – they were lazy. As they’d taken the track up from the old Communist hut at dusk, they’d still been visible in the open from lookout points in the woods to the east. That’s why they’d been spotted. He glared at his friend: older, yes, but wiser? Stones ground underfoot as one of the policemen trod close to the other side of the wall. Alban waited for a hand or something worse to strike down on him.

He flinched and screwed up his eyes, bracing himself, and a tear welled out of one corner. Oh, Lord … let us pass, he pleaded in his mind.

The sounds of shuffling over fallen branches and rocks moved away. Alban waited. He raised his body slowly with his hands and slid his feet under him. He glanced at Ervin, who nodded, and eased his head over the top of the wall. The two men were moving up into the pine trees around five metres away. Alban saw their dark blue T- shirts and black military boots. The taller of the two looked a strikingly muscular and athletic man. His hair was dark and razor-cut close in at the sides with a quiff on top.

AMAZON LINK TO BUY

If you share this blog post on any social media platform, please do include the hashtag #THEMIGRANT

Here are the author’s social media links:

Twitter: @paul_alkazraji

Amazon Author Page

 Goodreads

Book Review: ‘Urban Angel’ by A J Chamberlain

Today I review a recently published Christian Fantasy novel, Book 1 of the Masters series. Urban Angel by A J Chamberlain was published by Nielsen both as paperback and ebook on 23 May 2021.

‘Urban Angel’ by A J Chamberlain

This is a fascinating story: for the young main protagonist, Alex Masters, the journey to faith has been marked by grief and loneliness, but still she chooses to believe…. Alex thinks she is truly alone; but she is not, and never will be … Daisy is a child of the social media generation, lost in every belief and none. When tragedy strikes, she seeks out her cousin Alex because she knows that Alex understands what it is to face the darkness.

Alex and Daisy come together, hunted by an enemy that will do whatever it takes to achieve its goal. Alone, Alex and Daisy would be defenceless, but this is not a struggle against flesh and blood, and not every weapon is visible.

As I read the story, I loved the way the author describes the interactions of angels and demons as a seamless part of the narrative, weaving in and out of the choices and actions of the characters in the physical realm.

The story reminded me a little of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s film Bedazzled, and also of the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley in Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens – and this despite the fact that I am well aware the respective creators of those works hold a different worldview from the author of this novel! One part of A J Chamberlain’s story even reminded me a bit of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, when he is in the mind of The Assassin, and when he makes mysterious references to ‘his master’.

I believe all these comparisons show how well tuned in to our culture A J Chamberlain is, whilst handling this subject of a spiritual battleground. The dialogue and relationship between 20 year old Conner and Daisy absolutely rings true. The dilemmas, conflicts and temptations the characters face are all so authentic and relatable.

The narrative moves at pace, and is very tense, strong and gritty. I found this a wonderful depiction of spiritual warfare around human activity. This first book promises very well for the next one in the series.

A highly recommended novel.

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Fiction Genre: What is it Exactly?

As a writer, I believe we should be willing to explore new areas, and to step outside our comfort zone. And that applies very closely to our lives as readers too.

I read a wide variety of books, both non-fiction, and fiction of all genres. I admit I do like psychological insight but I believe all good writers in every genre should incorporate that in their novels anyway.
I find that the way I think about genre is influenced by my own eclectic reading habits. Now, as I work on a new novel I still have trouble trying to work out what genre I’m writing in.

I have just received reports from five beta readers and am considering their thoughts, and working on polishing and sharpening my final draft. One of the big questions has been: what genre do they consider this novel to be?

Writers are given an enormous amount of advice these days, mostly from online sources, and amongst them is this adage: Write the kind of book you most love reading. But if you read a wide variety of books, how does this help?
Another piece of advice we find floating around the publishing scene is that an author should, when pitching to a literary agent, be clear what genre he or she is working in, so the agent reading the letter can immediately think, “Whereabouts in the bookshop will this book will go?”

Another piece of advice suggests you should name a few established authors to whom your novel could be compared.
All this is anathema to me – and to many other writers, I suggest. Yet we are forced into this kind of mindset.
So now, for the benefit of the readers of this blog, I shall say that my WIP is most likely to be gothic mystery.
An example of my willingness to go into new areas is my recent attendance of the UK Games Expo at the Birmingham NEC, as one of three writers on the Authors Stand.

So what do fighting fantasy and interactive and roleplay games have to do with books such as the ones I write?
The atmosphere at the Games Expo is always wonderful, there’s a great sense of fun, excitement and good humour. The gaming world is one in which a vast number of “tropes” flourish: adventure, quests, danger, violence, fantasy, history, steampunk, sci fi…

My own fiction is indeed using some of those tropes, for instance, the predicament of the main protagonist as he finds himself in a deadly situation from which he must escape. Hidden chambers and secret passageways and dark rooms all find their place in the gaming world. There is an unexpected connection for me.
Hidden chambers and secret passageways and dark rooms all act as symbols for states of mind – and thus their connection to my fiction genre. Family relationships also play a strong role in my novels… I find these provide a fertile stage upon which the action can be played.
Which leaves me still with a fluid situation as regards genre; sometimes magical realism, paranormal, ghost story, gothic mystery, psychological suspense … all is possible.

Fun on the Author Stand at the UK Games Expo 2021

This year we were delighted that the UK Games Expo went ahead ‘in real life’ at the Birmingham NEC.

Three authors displayed their books on the Author Stand; Philip S Davies, Richard Denning and myself. Covid passes were required for all who attended, and everything was much more spaced out than usual.

The atmosphere was warm and friendly, and visitors seemed delighted to be able to come and immerse themselves in a vast array of games, have fun and dress up in quirky clothes and cosplay once more.

I also enjoyed going to the Viking encampment outside and chatting to one of the Vikings who was keen to clear up a few historical errors about his life and times!

Here are a few photos to give a flavour of the weekend.

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Book Review: When This is All Over 2020 -2021: an anthology of writings about the Covid-19 Pandemic

I found this an immensely varied collection of pieces, both prose and poetry. It was very moving to reflect upon how differently people react to the onslaught of Covid-19 upon the world.

Book cover: When This is All Over – anthology about the Covid-19 pandemic

The range of moods and outlooks among the 220 writers is fascinating: funny, sharply satirical, melancholy, fearful, heartbreaking, hopeful.

Some of the lively contributions from very young writers stood out for me: for instance ‘Riddle’ by 9 year old Cailin Abercromby Gemmell:

“Look out, look out, one and all, whether you’re big, or whether you’re small / Because I cannot be seen at all, and I won’t catch you when you fall.”

I admired some exceptional observational writing, for example in this piece by Angela Cheveau:

“A man walks down the street, hands in pockets, his dreams emptying onto the pavement like loose change.”

Many of the writers give us precious insights into their lives and circumstances, as in the case of Nick Cox who volunteers in a shelter home in Snehalaya, India. All through the pandemic he has remained there, protecting and supporting women and children rescued from slum and red light areas.

We are given glimpses into so many different worlds: for some positive, for others negative: a kaleidoscope of the human heart, here a terrible struggle, there a gift, elsewhere, new opportunities; but very close by, grief and loneliness.

Some have lost weight, some have gained weight, because of the same event. The experience of one writer has been heartrending, as in “A Dog’s Life” by Alexa James; and for another writer a time of longing, as in the beautiful poem by Sheila Johnson, “A Piece of Thyme.”

Every one of the contributions is a window into the lives of others: sad and touching; philosophical; desperate; chilling; witty; satirical; moving.

The book ends with a few harrowing accounts from health professionals: doctors, nurses, a hospice nursing director. Their courage, strength and compassion shine through.

A highly recommended book. Every sale supports the Rennie Grove Hospice Care.

Thoughts on ‘Witch Child’ by Celia Rees

Today I share my review of ‘Witch Child‘ by Celia Rees, now out in a special 20th Anniversary edition. This is a compelling historical novel of the arrival of a group of Puritans in New England in 1650, of their encounters with the Native Indians, and a tale not only of religious intolerance but of the deep-seated fear human beings have of anybody who dares to be different.

Cover design for Witch Child by Celia Rees – 20th Anniversary edition

Having just finished reading The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory, about Catherine Parr and the dangerous path she trod through religious fanaticism and intolerance, I feel my senses have been sharpened to this theme of rejection of women for being different. It seems that historical fiction is an excellent vehicle for this theme but sadly the theme is also highly relevant in today’s world.

Witch Child is a Young Adult novel and has been firmly established on the schools curriculum for the challenging issues it raises, vital for children to wrestle with, themes of intolerance, the true nature of freedom, the forces of conservatism, spirituality and female independence.

The book opens with a horrific account of the persecution of a woman in late 17th century England. Through the eyes of a young girl, we learn how her grandmother is dragged away – feared and reviled as a witch for her role of village “wise-woman and healer” – tortured then hanged for witchcraft. We are confronted with the intense hatred, fear and hysteria that flares up among the local ‘authorities’ (often self-appointed); their fanaticism aroused by another opportunity to publicly shame, humiliate and destroy a woman for being different.

As I read the story of Mary’s departure for the New World with a group of Puritans, I was keen to refresh my knowledge of this period of English history. As it happened, the Puritans sought freedom in another land to practice their own brand of religion freely. Ironically they took all their own prejudices and narrow-mindedness with them and transplanted it into the communities they built in New England.

I was moved by Mary’s growing connection with her two allies from the local Indian tribe, White Eagle and Jaybird. They too knew what it meant to be ostracised for bring just what they were. The themes of nature-connection are strong between the girl trained in ways of herbalism and intuitive healing, and the native people with their deep spirituality and knowledge of the earth and their environment, as with all First Nation peoples.

I loved the overriding structure of the book, pages of an authentic historical journey, found sewn into a late 17th century quilt, and the mystery with which the book ends. I know the author wrote a sequel, but this book left the way wide open for me to imagine exactly how I wanted it to end and what I hope happened to Mary next.

A compelling story from an author who has just brought out a new book, this time for adults, called Miss Graham’s War. Set in Germany in 1946, and published by Harper Collins in May 2021, this will be my next read.

Thoughts on the Tudors and ‘The Taming of the Queen’ by Philippa Gregory

The Tudors have been popular for the last few years, in books and films and TV programmes. And whatever we think of Henry VIII as a man, he was certainly a gift to history. For he must be one of the most memorable of all characters in the story of Britain. Never mind that he was a monster and a psychopath. It seems that Tudor propaganda has won out through the centuries, and many prefer to think of him as a colourful over-the-top character who started up the Church of England, ate an enormous amount, and killed a few wives on the way.

The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

Although I myself love history, and read history books as well as historical fiction, I know that many, perhaps, learn most of history through reading historical fiction. That is why I believe our high quality historical novelists are so important to us, because they engage us in history and encourage us to imagine what it must have been like to be there, and to deal personally with characters like Henry VIII.

Such is the case with ‘The Taming of the Queen’ by Philippa Gregory which is the story of Henry’s last wife, Kateryn Parr. This novel was published in 2015 and although I have read several books of historical fiction by other authors, I haven’t read many Philippa Gregory novels, other than ‘The Boleyn Girl’. However I found this story of Kateryn compelling, and Gregory drew me in so that I felt I was there with Henry’s sixth Queen, navigating the mercurial character of the monster she was forced to marry, while keeping her love for Thomas Seymour a secret.

I was also captivated by Kateryn’s passion and intelligence, and her commitment to religious reform, as she led a theological study group in her palace rooms. Kateryn’s tragedy was, in the world of the Tudor court, “Nobody likes a clever, passionate woman.” We see that in the case of the religious reformer and courageous preacher Anne Askew who was ultimately tortured on the rack then burned at the stake.

One of my favourite characters in the novel is Will Somers, the King’s Fool. He is so witty and clever, an acrobat, a juggler, a commentator and observer of the action rather like the Chorus in ancient Greek tragedies. He made the King laugh, he lightened the mood, then when his political satire became too close for comfort, he acted silly to relieve the tension.

“It is easier to stand on your head than keep the king in one mind,” he says. At another point, he remarks, “If I were a wise man I would be dead by now.”

In reading the story of Kateryn, I think the best safeguard any Queen of Henry might have would be her ladies-in-waiting and her gentlewomen of the bedchamber. All the queens depended on their ladies’ 100% loyalty and trustworthiness, their ability to sniff out danger ahead, and to warn of conspiracies in the making. Kateryn relied on Catherine Brandon, Anne Seymour, and her own sister Nan.

Nan, we are told, has served six of Henry’s queens and buried four. Nan forewarns Kateryn she is being targeted for criminal proceedings against her on the grounds of heresy; and as we can see from this novel, Henry changed his mind week by week about what constituted heresy. Bishop Stephen Gardiner (one of the top nasties of the Tudor court, along with the Duke of Norfolk) is assembling a case against Kateryn.

“He’s coming for you, Kat,” warns Nan, “and I don’t know how to save you…. they are changing the law ahead of me. I can’t make sure you obey the law because they are changing it faster than we can obey.”

Thomas Seymour, the man Kateryn loves and believes she has lost, tells Kateryn that he must marry; the Seymours need an alliance at court and he needs a wife who will speak for him; his choice is 12 year old Princess Elizabeth whom Kateryn knows “has a childish adoration for Thomas.”

Alongside this we are constantly brought face to face with the volatile, psychotic King – obese, an addictive over-eater, tormented by the pain of his leg ulcer and his inner demons.

Meanwhile conspiracies continue, and the question of what religion Henry believes shifts daily. A Howard plot to remove Kateryn, replace her with Mary Howard, and bring the country back to Catholicism, is revealed.

When Kateryn is forewarned that Henry has signed a warrant for her arrest, she is able to make her case to him. She submits to him and presents herself as an ignorant, subserviant woman, for the safety not only of herself, but also “of all who depend on this tyrant for their freedom. I can rack my pride. I can dislocate my shame.” Thus the Queen is “tamed”. He then physically abuses her; he whips and humiliates her in a shocking scene (I am not sure if historical evidence exists for this).

But by her willingness to appear “tamed,” Kateryn wins her life, and ultimately survives her marriage to Henry. The novel concludes after Henry’s death with Kateryn exalting in her freedom; she says she is free to be herself at last, may pursue her passions and interests, her commitment to religious reform, and write her books.

I must admit that reading this story I feel surprised that Kateryn didn’t suffer from post traumatic stress disorder afterwards; and perhaps she did. Tragically she only lived a further 18 months because (foolishly, we may believe, taking the long view) she married Thomas Seymour; and having become pregnant, she died shortly after childbirth. The fate of her little daughter Mary Seymour, following the execution of Thomas the following year, is unknown to history. It is thought she died around the age of two; but no evidence of this exists. Perhaps the truth will come to light one day.

Ultimately I found this book an emotionally engaging, enlightening and intellectually stimulating read, and Philippa Gregory’s reputation as ‘the contemporary mistress of historical crime’ is well deserved.

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