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The Book of Unholy Mischief, by Elle Newmark

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The Book of Unholy Mischief, by Elle Newmark

Post by Kasthu » Fri January 2nd, 2009, 1:11 am

It’s 1498, and the Renaissance is at its height in the city-states of Italy. Savonarola has just been executed in Florence, and Rodrigo Borgia is Pope Alexander VI in Rome. And half of Europe is in a race for dominance across the Atlantic in the New World. Venice is the home for a convergence of cultures in the Mediterranean, allowing its residents to experience foods never before seen in Europe (including the supposedly poisonous “love apple”).

Luciano is a homeless Venetian street urchin, forced to live hand-to-mouth and to steal in order to survive. One stolen pomegranate and Luciano finds himself as the apprentice to the chef of the doge, the secular head of Venice. When the doge (not named here, but probably Agostino Barbarigo) poisons a peasant in the palace’s dining room, Luciano embarks on a search for a highly-prized book that holds secrets that many powerful people will kill for. But what are those secrets?

Venice comes to life in this vibrant novel. The author has clearly done her research; you feel as though you’re walking the streets of the old, decaying city; and the reader never quite shakes off the feeling that danger and evil are luring around each corner.

Food is also described in deep detail in this novel, though the author may have attached too much significance to its impact on the story. There are a few anachronims (such as having tomatoes in 15th century Europe), but they didn't interfere with the story very much. Still, Newmark has a wonderful way with words and a turn of phrase that’s just as magical as the book described within. This is the kind of book that will make you think about it long after you’ve finished reading the last page. I really hate The Da Vinci Code comparisons, but The Book of Unholy Mischief is a much more sophisticated, layered, and intelligent version of that book.

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Post by Catherine Delors » Mon January 5th, 2009, 7:13 pm

Venice, an "old, decaying city," in the 15th century?? It must have been spanking new then...

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Post by annis » Mon January 5th, 2009, 9:27 pm

Venice has a long and ancient history, but really only became a significant centre after the theft in the ninth century from Alexandria of the relics of St Mark and their rehousing in Venice.

< From the ninth to the twelfth century Venice developed into a city state . Its strategic position at the head of the Adriatic made Venetian naval and commercial power almost invulnerable. The city became a flourishing trade center between Western Europe and the rest of the world (especially the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world)> (Wikipedia)

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw it reach the apogee of its power, sealed in 1204 by the Sack of Constantinople by the Frankish Fourth Crusaders. Venice was the instigator and main beneficiary of this blow to the Byzantine Empire.

By the fifteenth century Venice was in decline. The explorations of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries opened up new trading routes, meaning that Venice lost its hold as a naval and commercial power, and consequently its sources of wealth. So I'm not sure just how ruined the city was in the fifteenth century, but the cracks would certainly have been starting to show.

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Post by gyrehead » Fri January 23rd, 2009, 2:15 am

[quote=""Catherine Delors""]Venice, an "old, decaying city," in the 15th century?? It must have been spanking new then...[/quote]

Several bits of it were. Significant bits. Venice was still pretty powerful in terms of trade having still incredible wealth from it's Greek Isle empire (which was diminishing rapidly under the Turks), its banking which didn't rival the Florentines but still had deep ties throughout Europe. IT also had some serious trade monopolies on Silk Road commerce and what came through Egypt -- both African and Indian Ocean trade. Throw in their hold on a serious trade route into Austria and Eastern Germany and into Russia and its no wonder that when the book takes place you have a brand new in stone Rialto Bridge. The wonderfully Palazzos like that of Dario, Ca' d'Oro were built in this time and were exemplary of the wealth by the families that built them. The turn of the century also saw the completions of huge expressions of city wealth in the likes of the magnificent Santa Maria Gloriosa de Frari (a must see), and smaller but still wonderful gems like Santa Maria dei Miracoli, San Giovanni Crisostomo

The city also encouraged and nurtured the likes of Bellini, Conegliano and of course Titian in the years right before, during and after the book takes place. In fact the riches in culture and the arts strongly suggest the city was not in a state of decay at all though I guess one could argue that building on water leads to a cosntant state of decay. And most of the wonderful palaces on the Grand Canal actually date after this period. But among the oldest that still exist, would have been brand spnaking new or at least still eye-popping in their less than a century old glory.

As well, Venice was still quite the player on the Italian peninsula. Having the means to play Sforzan Milan against France, Rome and Naples. This also the period of Gonzaga's tempestuous period of being Captain General of Venice's considerable and feared land forces.

That all aside, I did find the book quite readable. But I found way too much to quibble about historically. Plus some things the main character witnesses and the way he does so just seemed a bit too ridiculous for me. Way too much convenience with no real plausibility for me.

And while I did appreciate the food elements on one hand, I also thought she relied way too much on a exotic level of 'New World" foods that really probably hadn't been introduced as of yet to the extent Newmark likes to employ them. Even just Newmark's sense of Columbus (proving the world was round? Magellan maybe; Columbus just proved you could sail beyond the horizon without failing off) and the idea of the New World discovered in 1492 and its now 1500 and the main character dreams of running off with his love to the "New World".

I wouldn't sneer at a free arc of her next book, but I wouldn't be rushing out to buy the next one by any means.

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Post by cw gortner » Mon December 7th, 2009, 10:32 pm

From The Historical Novels Review, where I reviewed this novel:

In her highly anticipated debut The Book of Unholy Mischief, Elle Newmark faces a daunting task: produce a novel that lives up to the hype surrounding its phenomenal auction and still stands on its own in a time where anything resembling “The Da Vinci Code” fast approaches its expiration date. Fortunately, Ms Newmark succeeds, though perhaps not quite as literally as some readers will expect.

Set in 15th century Venice, the novel conjures with delightful ease the cramped canals, crumbling palazzos and sumptuous allure of the floating city, as seen through the eyes of a wily urchin named Luciano. Orphaned and intelligent, hopelessly enamored of a seductive convent beauty, Luciano is snatched off the streets unexpectedly by the Doge’s own master chef and brought to work in the kitchens, where he soon discovers that his meticulous maestro of the culinary arts guards untold secrets. All of Venice and most of Italy’s rapacious nobility are seeking a book of alleged supernatural powers, one that could contain the key to immortality itself. As he becomes privy to the chef’s own secrets, Luciano finds himself thrust into an unpredictable world where recipes are seasoned with danger.

Newmark excels in describing the sensory delights of food and its mystical influences on the human heart; yet as the truth about the unholy book of the title becomes apparent, the familiar revelation of heretical gospels deprives the story of some of its fey originality. Nevertheless, Newmark’s Venice lingers in the mind— a place of sea-salt and veal in white wine, of ambition, violence and greed in an era when the quest for otherworldly power coupled quixotically with the worldly pleasures of the table. - C.W. Gortner
THE QUEEN'S VOW available on June 12, 2012!
THE TUDOR SECRET, Book I in the Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles


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Post by Madeleine » Tue December 8th, 2009, 12:20 pm

I agree with Gyrehead that there's far too much emphasis on food - enough already, get to the main story! Can't believe there was a bidding war for this, I'm nearly halfway through and STILL waiting to find out more about this bl**dy book!
Currently reading "Destroying Angel" by S G MacLean

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