Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark

The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark
Copyright 2008
Atria Books - Historical Fiction
367 pages

Before I review this book, I must mention that the author's website is fabulous. And, if that isn't enough to convince you to visit . . . there's a Dark Chocolate Mousse recipe. Wait! Read the book review before you go off to read recipes, though. I'm not trying to get rid of you.

Now, look at that cover. Doesn't it take your breath away? Even if you're not interested in the story, please walk into a bookstore and take a gander at the whole tamale. The cover of The Book of Unholy Mischief is even more beautiful than you might imagine, with that lovely design extending all the way across the slip cover and gorgeous end papers illustrated with painted mounds of beautiful food inside the hard binding. Actually, I think it would be really hilarious if several hundred people went into bookstores across the country to feel up this book and then told their book dealers, "It's all Bookfool's fault." I'm just thinking with my fingertips.

The Book of Unholy Mischief tells the story of Luciano, an orphaned boy living in the streets of Venice during the Middle Ages. Whilst eating a stolen pomegranate, Luciano is pulled aside by a chef by the name of Ferrero, who takes him off the street, cleans him up and puts him to work in the palace kitchen. As Luciano is swept into the workings of the aromatic kitchen, an intrigue is brewing. Rumors about an ancient book hidden in Venice are growing wilder and life is becoming more dangerous. What is in this mysterious book that people are willing to kill to obtain? And, why was Luciano chosen to work in the kitchen, rather than some other street urchin? What will become of Luciano's starving friends?

The Book of Unholy Mischief is partly a mystery about the missing book, but more than anything it's Luciano's story. It's written in reflection, as he remembers the madness of his time in the doge's kitchen, his love for a young nun named Francesca, his struggles to unravel the mystery on his own while taking care to surreptitiously spirit away scraps of food for his friends. The most outstanding feature of the book is that it's loaded with the senses. Chef Ferrero's cooking is described in steamy detail; you can almost smell and taste his creations.

At the beginning of the story, I actually felt a little burdened by that same depth of detail. I wanted to know about the mystery and sometimes thought, "Just get on with it!" But, there was never a point at which I felt like not sticking it out and the further I got into the story, the more the descriptions (particularly those of the cooking process) intrigued and delighted me. Luciano and Chef Ferrero are wonderful characters. I cared about them and wanted to know what was going to happen. The ending is pretty much spelled out about two-thirds of the way through and what the author revealed wasn't a problem for this reader. I liked the fact that Newmark forewarned readers of what was to come and I found the closing pages of the book immensely satisfying.

Also . . . this is strange . . . Newmark's food descriptions are so tempting and she made cooking sound like such a joy that reading The Book of Unholy Mischief made me want to become a chef. That's particularly odd because if you've read my blog much you'll know that I'm a survivalist cook. If I have to feed myself and my son, I whip something up and get the heck out of the kitchen as quickly as possible. This book reminded me that before I ended up in my current home, I really did enjoy cooking at times. My distaste for our poky little windowless kitchen has led to some serious avoidance, but after reading The Book of Unholy Mischief I was ready to hop a plane to Italy to take one of those 4-day cooking courses. Weird, but a nice off-shoot of the reading.

The mystery in this book is mild, but the assault on the senses is so marvelous that I'd recommend reading it for the experience alone. Since it takes place in the 1498, everything is graphic. When Luciano's stomach is aching with emptiness, you feel his pain. There are violent moments and plenty of horrors in addition to the tempting food scenes. I have a distaste for violence but I never felt totally overwhelmed, although there are some scenes that made me cringe.

It's been nearly a week since I closed the book and it's still sticking with me. I can easily place myself back in the doge's kitchen, in a dark and damp alley or behind a door, watching the wealthy eat and drink their fabulous meals. The more I think about it, the stronger the thought that I want to put that lovely book on my shelf and reread it, even though my initial sense was, "I liked it but I didn't love it." If I were to have rated the book as I closed it, I probably would have given it an "above average" rating of 3.5/5. Now, having reflected a little, I'd give it a 4/5, simply because I liked that unusual stirring of desire to cook and would like to revisit the feeling. Also, I really liked Luciano. He's a great character. I'm really looking forward to seeing what Elle Newmark comes up with, next.

Have you read a novel or cookbook that compelled you to create in the kitchen? If so, please share the title and author's name with me. I'd like to read more books like The Book of Unholy Mischief.

Other reviews (if you've reviewed this book and would like me to add a link, just let me know):

Booking Mama
S. Krishna's Books
Lover of Books


  1. I haven't read many mysteries, but the idea of a book full of delectable food and cooking descriptions makes my mouth water.

  2. Nice review! I totally know what you mean about this book making you want to cook.

  3. Anonymous1:12 PM

    Your review has made me hungry. I really want to read this book. It sounds wonderful.

  4. Erica Bauermeister's School of Essential Ingredients is the most recent one that comes to mind....absolutely inspired me to try to actually cook something besides boxed mac-n-cheese.

    Thanks for the review...this one has been on my radar for sometime, mostly because it was self-published at first before being picked up by a publishing house, which I thought was neat.

  5. Jeane,

    The mystery part is, in my opinion, less important than the story of Luciano. I'm not a big mystery reader, myself, so I was really happy about that.


    The funny thing about that is that I really do skirt the kitchen. It's my least favorite room in our house, so I just avoid it till I'm hungry. Good thing I didn't do that when I had small children. LOL I told my husband this book made me want to hop a plane to take a cooking class in Italy and he said, "We can do that!" He's so funny.


    Oh, good, I succeeded then! :) Maybe you and I should do a swap. I've been ogling a couple of your Hatchette ARCs. Interested?

  6. Great review! I want this book so bad. I tried getting in but it's never landed on my door step so I imagine it's not coming. lol. I'd love to read this one. One that made me want to create in the kitchen was The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister. Gosh I loved that book.

  7. This sounds good! I could use any encouragement in the kitchen, and if comes via a novel, all the better!

  8. Anonymous5:04 PM

    Is dark chocolate mousse hard to whip up?

  9. Anonymous5:48 PM

    I have this on my to-read stack - and all these positive reviews make me want to get to it very soon!

  10. Michele,

    I just added The School of Essential Ingredients to my wish list, thanks! I've read a lot of positive reviews of that one, but I didn't realize it's inspiring in that way. Wahoo! That's great to know!

    Elle Newmark's story about self-publishing and then throwing a virtual party is awesome, isn't it?


    Did you try to get Unholy Mischief through the Twitter Book Club? Mine arrived pretty quickly, although I've noticed from your ning comments that things arrive a little slower where you live. I actually got a second copy (an ARC) after the hardback for TBC arrived, which kind of stunned me.

    I've added The School of Essential Ingredients to my wish list. I'm so excited that both you and Michele recommended it -- double the encouragement. If I had the money, I'd buy it right now. Sadly, this has been a really expensive year.


    LOL You and me both! I am so uninspired when it comes to food. I truly think I need to move to a house with a kitchen window. I used to not be so bad about lack of light; I get worse every year.


    Only if the mousse is bigger than you are. Actually, I don't know because I just found it, but you can bet there will be some mousse-making going on in this house.

  11. Carrie,

    Just be sure you've got the chopping block and the fresh foods ready when you read. It's going to make you want to cook. Any book that makes me want to cook is really something. LOL I hope you love it! :)

  12. Anonymous7:23 PM

    Hi there! Just wondering if I could get your e-mail to ask you a question? Thanks and love the blog!

  13. Janny,

    Sure. I'll dash off an email to you.

  14. It would take a heck of a lot to get me interested in cooking! Must be some book :-)

  15. Kim,

    I was just sitting on the floor, flipping through cookbooks, about 10 minutes ago . . . and thinking, "This is truly bizarre. Me on the floor with a pile of cookbooks, pondering which recipes might really work and which are impossible because we can't acquire 2/3 of the ingredients." I want to be Elle Newmark's friend.

  16. I'm adding this one to my wishlist.

  17. Oh, another food book! And another for my wish list!

    Diary of an Eccentric

  18. Nikki,

    You should read the book, but then I expect you to immediately sign up for one of those Italian cooking courses and tell me every juicy detail. You're in the right country for this one! :)


    Yeah! I need to get my mitts on The School of Essential Ingredients. Food seems to be the thing, right now. Just thinking about this book makes me hungry, actually.

  19. This sounds so good! I love books that feature food.

    Bread Alone by Judith Ryan Hendricks made me want to bake bread like crazy. I actually did it.

    Pomegranate Soup didn't so much make me want to cook as it made me want to eat!

  20. Tara,

    I think I have a copy of Bread Alone in one of my cabinets (yes, I'm that bad -- I have cabinets full of books). I haven't heard of Pomegranate Soup. I'll have to look that up. I looked up The School of Essential Ingredients, which Dar and Michele recommended, at my library. No luck, darn it.

  21. Anonymous2:58 PM

    you had me at dark chocolate mouse...

    actually, this sounds good. Loved your review Nancy! Will definitely check this one out.

  22. Sharon,

    Dark chocolate mousse is a definite grabber. ;)

    Thank you! I hope you love it!

  23. Anonymous8:41 PM

    Pomegranate Soup made me want to make baklava. Not that I followed through, although it was tempting.

  24. Softdrink,

    I've heard baklava is kind of complex. Or, maybe my brain is making that up. Wonder why I've never heard of Pomegranate Soup, till today. I've unfortunately got an Amazon window open, right now. I guess I'll take a gander.

  25. Anonymous10:27 AM

    I loved the cover of this book as soon as I first saw it, too. This will definitely be one of those books that will owe at least part of its sales to the art designer. I'm glad to hear it's an above-average read as well.

  26. I almost sought after this as an ARC, but I was feeling so overloaded at the time (with everything...not solely ARCs) that I passed it up. Now I'm kicking myself--sounds like a wonderful book. I love those that kind of sneak up on you--put it down and continue to think and think about it. Reading Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl (I may be butchering the last name) really made me want to cook.

  27. Trish,

    I know that feeling all too well. I've passed up a few books without even bothering to read about them or look at the cover image and then kicked myself around the room a bit when they appeared in reviews. The good news is that this book is heavily distributed. I'm guessing even my library will eventually acquire a copy (although it might take a year -- my library is pretty pathetic). I'll look up Tender at the Bone, thanks!

  28. I love the cover and with that review there is no doubt this book is going on my wish list. Sounds wonderful!

    The only book that come to mind right now that where cooking is an essential part of the story is Like Water for Chocolate. Loved that book.

  29. Iliana,

    Isn't it gorgeous? I have a feeling you'd probably like Unholy Mischief, although I can't actually say why! :)

    I've got a copy of Like Water for Chocolate -- haven't read it, yet. Thanks for the recommendation!


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