Eamon Duffy’s Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes (2006) was a relatively popular book for table reading, but somewhat uneven. My take is that the first and twentieth centuries material is not as strong as those of the intervening eighteen centuries. That long stretch of centuries covers the major part of the book and provides fascinating information about various popes one would not usually read about. For example, how often does one read about popes from the time of Charlemagne (800ad) to Canossa (1077ad)? Yet that material is here, and covered effectively and entertainingly. The Avignon Papacy, the Renaissance, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation eras are also covered well.
Where the book is weaker in my opinion is on the twentieth-century popes. Duffy is critical about all of the popes in the first half of the twentieth century. He has a tendency of giving you a nice intro to the pope in question (Pius X, say), but then concludes with a very negative estimation. His evaluation of John XXIII, which I was expecting to be overwhelmingly positive, was actually more measured, and Paul VI came in for the most positive appraisal of the twentieth century (This was in fact a quite refreshing aspect to the book). Duffy’s material on John Paul II is quite uneven, almost as if he does not quite know what to make of B16’s predecessor. I think his first critical view of JPII has become somewhat more moderate in later editions of the book (we were reading the third edition). It was actually odd to be reading this material at the time of his beatification.
So I would recommend the book for Table Reading, but caution that not enough historical perspective has been gained yet to make a proper evaluation of the significance of twentieth century popes, who make up the last chapter, entitled “The Oracles of God.”