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The ecstasy of history

PARIS by Edward Rutherfurd Hodder & Stoughton (2013 June release) €20 **

FOUR men from four different families – an aristocrat, a communist, a labourer, and a bourgeois – represent different walks of life that epitomise what has made the Paris of today. Rutherford is an epic writer of the epic history of places, and the last several, including the two volumes it took to chronicle the story of Dublin, have not been as satisfying as his first forays.

What's happened? What struck me as problematic in Paris was the heavy-handed way in which background information was expressed – and given that this is a fictionalisation of history, you know you're already in trouble. It reads exactly like the class of history book that readers of historical fiction absolutely don't want to read. It makes for frustrating, slow, and dull reading.

Being a Francophile myself, I found that on the one hand, I was familiar enough with many of the main themes to be annoyed, but on the other, I'll read anything about Paris any day. Rutherford has crafted several interesting characters, chief among them Thomas Gascon, who helped to build the Eiffel Tower and his brother Luc, a streetwise procurator.

He beautifully invokes the South of France and the influx of Americans to that region, and equally writes exceedingly well about the French Resistance. Ultimately, however, much of this felt like a chore, and not nearly as romantic and evocative as I'd hoped.

THE BATTLE OF CLONTARF: GOOD FRIDAY 1014 by Darren McGettigan Four Courts Press (2013) €17.50 ****

THIS is actual, proper history, meaning that in its presentation, McGettigan is not trying to trick us into thinking this might be historical fiction. The writing is extremely engaging, which is a great lesson in many ways. Not only because he's teaching us something, but also that academic writing can be eminently readable. As a former denizen of Clontarf, I particularly enjoyed descriptions of the area at the time of the battle.

I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUPPER by Wayne Williams and Darren Allan Piatkus (2013) €11.50 ***

AND I know what they're trying to do with that catchy title: fool us into thinking this isn't a fairly serious reboot of the Judas Iscariot story. Anything that seeks to rewrite what many people consider to be the inviolate word of God is going to be rather tricky to spin, and in this case, the authors have gone with a flashy title, and the publishers with a lurid, pulp-fiction cover, which undercuts the creativity of the work. It is as gory as the cover type suggests, and the authors' take on why Judas did what he did is compelling, but feels like a bit of a cop-out.

THE CURIOUS HABITS OF DR ADAMS by Jane Robins John Murray (2013) €21.50 **

JANE ROBINS has tirelessly researched the story of a beloved family doctor who had a prediliction for offing his patients. His wealthy patients, of course, and as he was beloved, he was often – surprise! – a beneficiary of a legacy of some kind. While it can't be a whodunnit, it's meant to be a gobsmacking how'd-he-manage-it? My gob was not smacked, as the premise gets bogged down in too much procedural detail.

THE MAID AND THE QUEEN: THE SECRET HISTORY OF JOAN OF ARC by Nancy Goldstone Phoenix (2013 paperback) €14.50 ****

THIS is proper history, and sort of heretical in an opposite direction: Goldstone is proposing that the Maid of Orleans didn't spring from nothing, and that the power of Yolande of Aragon, the wife of the dauphin, was as much at play as the power of the Almighty.

Despite this, Goldstone does not take away from the sacredness of Joan's mission and her innocent courage. It's a delicate balance, well wrought by the author, and a plausible reframing of an historical event.

THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY by Irving Stone Arrow (reissue 1990) €12.99 ****

ONE star off for pussyfooting around the whole homosexuality thing, but otherwise, this account of the rise and fall of Michelangelo Buonarroti, particularly the chapters regarding the sculpting of David is worth its weight in florins.

The fact that I read the book for the first time on my first trip to Europe, in Florence, has a lot to do with my deep and abiding love for this tome.

This is as entertaining and as informative as narrative non-fiction gets.