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Elle Newmark – The Book of Unholy Mischief

June 22, 2009

74. The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark (2008)

Read By: Raul Esparza
Length: 11h 26m (384 pages)

Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 15 June 2009
Finished: 19 June 2009

Where did it come from? Library
Why do I have it? I saw it on Shelf Awareness a while ago and thought it looked interesting.

Can food be magic?
Is alchemy just cooking?
Are you hungry yet?

Summary: Luciano was a street orphan in 1490s Venice, before he is taken in to work as an apprentice in the palace kitchens by the Doge’s personal chef. It’s an exciting time in Venice, with people buzzing about the mysteries of the newly-discovered New World, as well as the current hot topic of gossip: a mysterious and ancient book of alchemical secrets, said to be somewhere in Venice, and being hunted by everyone from the Doge to the Pope. As Luciano spends more and more time in the kitchen, learning about cooking and about life, he begins to suspect that there’s more to the master chef’s recipes than meet the eye… but the more he learns, the more danger he’s in from those who will stop at nothing to get their hands on the fabled book.

Review: This book is an interesting mix of genres – about 1/3 historical fiction, 1/3 foodie fiction, and 1/3 conspiracy/secret societies mystery. The good side of this is that there’s plenty here to interest readers of all stripes; but the bad side is that none of these aspects are entirely fully developed, and it wound up feeling a little jumbled at times.

Each individual piece definitely had potential: for historical fiction fans, Newmark presents an vivid picture of Venice at an interesting time – when the tomato was just beginning to be introduced into Italian cooking, and was still widely regarded as poisonous, and when reason and learning were beginning to replace superstition. The “street urchin in 1500s Venice who’s interested in mystical secrets” setting reminded me pretty strongly of Traci L. Slatton’s Immortal, and while they both painted the historical backdrop well, I thought The Book of Unholy Mischief had a more lively plot.

The foodie aspects were equally well done. Apart from the lavish descriptions of equally lavish meals, there was a lot of emphasis on the power of food, and of cooking, and of paying attention to food, and the resulting prose made me hungry – and made me want to go cook something fancy – more than once. In this, it’s reminiscent of Erica Bauermeister’s The School of Essential Ingredients. (And it probably didn’t help that I get the two titles tangled in my brain, constantly wanting to refer to one as “The Book of Unholy Ingredients” or “The School of Essential Mischief” – both of which sound like interesting reads, actually.)

However, I think the weakest link was the conspiracy/mystery aspects. The shocking secrets contained in the Book are… not all that secret, and not all that shocking, really. There’s mention of the Gnostic Gospels, and various other humanist teachings, and the book flirts with the idea of DaVinci Code-esque heresy… but flirting is all it really does, bringing it up and then quickly moving on. It felt like Newmark wanted a hint of scandal without committing to being whole-heartedly heretical, and the result is that it doesn’t entirely feel integrated with the rest of the story.

Overall, while this book wasn’t quite fully polished or entirely satisfactory, it was entertaining, and interesting enough to make me keep going back for more. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: While it’s not the best historical fiction or the best foodie writing or the best secret societies book I’ve ever read, I think The Book of Unholy Mischief would appeal to anyone with an interest in any of those categories, and it certainly makes a good, enjoyable, light summer read.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Links: Elle Newmark’s webpage

Other Reviews: Fantasy Debut, Booking Mama, Literary License, Bookfoolery and Babble, S. Krishna’s Books, The Infinite Shelf, Belle of the Books
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: My name is Luciano — just Luciano.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 22, 2009 11:53 am

    I have this book and am looking forward to reviewing it.

  2. June 22, 2009 12:00 pm

    Well, I’m glad to hear light read. That’s exactly what I’m looking for! I’ll be reading this soon. =)

  3. June 22, 2009 12:09 pm

    I saw this title a while ago and based on the cover and description, I thought it might be worth a read. It may well find itself on my TBR pile. Thanks for the great review. :)

  4. June 22, 2009 1:46 pm

    Hmm, I’m participating in the tour for this and will be reading it soon. I was hoping to love it.

  5. June 22, 2009 3:11 pm

    Sher – It’s a good, uncomplicated, light summer read – I hope you like it!

    Meghan – I’m going to be relying on you to fill me in on the historical inaccuracies. I’m sure there were several, and apparently there’s an author’s note at the back of the print copy where she discusses that… but sadly, it wasn’t included in the audiobook version.

    Ann-Kat – If you can get your hands on a copy of it, I’d say it is worth a read.

    bermudaonion – Well, you still might; don’t let me bias you! I bet you’ll at least like it, even if you don’t *love* it.

  6. June 22, 2009 11:58 pm

    Great review and thanks for the link love! I felt about the same, but oddly decided I liked it better upon reflection. It’s definitely a lively read. Good way to put it!!

  7. thekoolaidmom permalink
    June 22, 2009 11:59 pm

    I’ve read mixed reviews on this, from “It’s horrible and a waste of time” to “It’s my all-time favorite!” It’s interesting how some books do this. I opted to not get the ARC for it because of some of them I read on amazon. One particularly one set about pointing out all the factual errors the author made. I’ve liked some of the quotes I’ve read, but I’ll probably wait to get this one from the library next year sometime.

    Great review :-)

  8. June 23, 2009 10:29 am

    Nancy – Ah, I had kind of the opposite reaction: I was totally into it when I was listening, and only when I took a step back could I see its flaws. Still enjoyable (and lively!) though. :)

    thekoolaidmom – I can see how this book would be polarizing, although I’m not at either extreme. I didn’t notice any glaring factual errors (although there are some things for which you have to stretch your credulity a bit), but then again, I’m about the furthest thing from a historian you could find. :)

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