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‘The Boleyn Inheritance’ by Philippa Gregory

(Harper, $36.99)I had this author’s previous book, The other Boleyn Girl, by my bed for a long time before I picked it up. It just didn’t seem like the sort of thing I’d be interested in. But when I finally turned to it in desperation one wet weekend, I had to cancel everything else I was doing because I could not put it down.

That book told the story of how Henry VIII changed heaven and earth so he could ditch his faithful wife of twentysomething years for the saucy Anne Boleyn. The Boleyn Inheritance picks up the story in 1539 and tells the tale of Henry’s fourth and fifth wives: Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard.

If I’d read these books as a schoolgirl, I might actually have stuck with history. They are fictional accounts of real facts, impeccably researched but fabulously juicy. (Probably a little too juicy for the nuns, now I come to think of it.)

What a rotten old sod King Henry turned into. He might have clung to some allure when Anne Boleyn got her claws into him, but when we meet him again he is foul-tempered, fat, often drunk and has an open wound in his leg that makes him smell like something has crawled into his hose and died there. What a catch!

The book has three narrators: the two wives and Jane Boleyn – the late Anne’s sister-in-law and a conniving piece of work who befriends the other two but is really a spy interested only in saving her own hide. Anne of Cleves comes across as a little drab but intelligent and kind. Henry drafts her in sight unseen from somewhere boring and European in the interests of a political alliance, but she gets off to rather a dud start by mistaking her husband-to-be for a tramp and spitting at him. oops.

He has trouble warming to her after that and instead turns his rheumy old eye on one of her maids, silly Katherine “Kitty” Howard. Kitty is very pretty but does not have her head screwed on properly, which is asking for trouble, if you get my drift.

Each of the three voices has a very different spin on the proceedings of the time and even if you know your history and remember whose body parts stayed attached and whose didn’t, this brings those terrible times to life. By the way, while researching this book on the internet I came upon the Royal Paper Dolls website (www.royalpaperdolls.com). Did you know you can actually buy cut-out dress-up dolls of Henry’s six wives? No, me neither.

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