The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Jamaican Slave Who Became Samuel Johnson’s Heir, by Michael Bundock, Yale University Press, RRP£20/$35

Francis Barber, a Caribbean slave, arrived in England in 1750 to work as the valet of Samuel Johnson, the giant of 18th-century English letters. Their relationship became so close that Johnson, on his death, left Barber the bulk of his estate. Barber’s story receives expert, sensitive treatment in Bundock’s biography.

Charles I and the People of England, by David Cressy, Oxford University Press, RRP£30

Cressy, an Ohio State University historian, is the author of several delightful books on the social history of Tudor and Stuart England that draw on unusual material buried in the archives. Here he investigates what the common people thought of Charles I before the king’s tumultuous reign ended in his execution in 1649.

Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way, by Hasia Diner, Yale University Press, RRP£22.50/$35

Diner’s book adds an extra dimension to modern Jewish historical studies. She concentrates on 19th- and early 20th-century migrants who left central and eastern Europe and became peddlers in the Americas and other continents. This is a richly wrought work of cultural and social history from the New York University professor.

A Nation and not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923, by Diarmaid Ferriter, Profile Books, RRP£30

With the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising falling next year, new books on the violent dawn of Irish independence are appearing thick and fast. This outstanding, carefully researched study by Ferriter, professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin, sets the bar high for good writing and scholarship.

Introducing the Ancient Greeks, by Edith Hall, Bodley Head, RRP£20/WW Norton, RRP$26.95

In a book that is both erudite and splendidly entertaining, classics professor Hall identifies 10 defining attributes of the ancient Greeks, ranging from their seafaring skills to their addiction to pleasure.

Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia, by Dominic Lieven, Allen Lane, RRP£25

Aristocratic values, imperial mindsets and the emergence of modern nationalisms are the big themes of this illuminating history of late tsarist Russia by Lieven, professor of Russian studies at the London School of Economics. Here he writes with all the clarity, conviction and fluent command of sources that readers have come to expect of him.

Forests in Revolutionary France: Conservation, Community and Conflict, 1669-1848, by Kieko Matteson, Cambridge University Press, RRP£65/$99

Putting a long span of French history in a new light, environmental historian Matteson explores the struggle between elites and the people over the forests that were a vital resource for Europeans at the dawn of the modern era. A fresh and stimulating study.

Blood Runs Green: The Murder that Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago, by Gillian O’Brien, University of Chicago Press, RRP$25

The 1889 murder of Patrick Henry Cronin, an Irish-American physician and political activist, was one of the great scandals of late 19th-century US public life. O’Brien, a historian at the UK’s Liverpool John Moores University, recounts the story with enormous verve and gripping detail.

Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution, by Rebecca Spang, Harvard University Press, RRP£25/$39.95

Spang, author of a highly original 2000 book on French history entitled The Invention of the Restaurant, has done it again. The Indiana University historian views the French Revolution from rewardingly new angles by analysing the cultural significance of money in the turbulent years of European war, domestic terror and inflation.

‘They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else’: A History of the Armenian Genocide, by Ronald Grigor Suny, Princeton University Press, RRP£24.95/$35

If you read one book about the 1915 Armenian genocide, make this it. Suny, a University of Michigan professor, is one of the world’s leading scholars on the Caucasus region. His account of the fate that befell the Armenians at Ottoman Turkish hands is harrowingly detailed and scrupulously objective.

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