The Book of Unholy Mischief
by Elle Newmark
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
The Book of Unholy Mischief features Luciano, a mischievous teenaged street urchin of late fifteenth century Venice, who by sheer luck finds a place as apprentice to a fatherly chef in the palace of the doge. All Venice is agog over a mysterious book said to contain a wondrous magical formula. Is it an alchemical secret for making gold? An infallible love potion? The secret to eternal youth? Everyone seems to have his own idea about the book and everyone wants it, including the doge, who is willing to torture and kill to get it.
Luciano's chef has some mysterious secrets of his own locked in a cabinet he sometimes opens to prepare one of the special, mouthwatering recipes he allows no one to assist him with. Luciano conveys the dishes to the maids who wait on the doge. "Tender veal cutlets had been dipped in beaten eggs and seasoned flour, then lightly seared and served in a dark brown sauce. The presentation was completed with a sprinkle of lavender leaves and marigold petals—green and gold, like a spring morning—and served with a loaf of crusty bread rather than the customary glazed onions." But what is in the Sauce Nepenthes? And why does it have such an astonishing effect on the doge and his guest? Is it possible, Luciano wonders, that the chef knows something about the book everyone is questing after?
For a novel that involves hungry street children, secret police, torture chambers and unrequited love, The Book of Unholy Mischief is a suprisingly, irrepressibly cheerful book. The lusty descriptions of food are part of the reason, the swinging rhythm of the prose another, and perhaps the unobtrusive presence of Luciano's cat Bernardo is part of it, too. After all, everyone knows cats have nine lives. (2008, 372 pages including an Author's Note separating fact from fiction)
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Other historical novels set in Renaissance Venice:
In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant (2006), about the adventures of a sixteenth century Venetian courtesan, narrated by her servant, a dwarf. More info
The Floating Book: A Novel of Venice by Michelle Lovrie, (2004), about a German printer, a promiscuous Jewish woman, and a variety of other characters in fifteenth century Venice. More info
Dirge for a Doge by Elizabeth Eyre (1996), a mystery novel about a soldier of fortune and his seemingly dim-witted sidekick tracking down a murderer in Venice; #6 in the Italian Renaissance Whodunit series. More info
Nonfiction about the culinary history of Venice and Europe:
The Banquet: Dining in the Great Courts of Late Renaissance Europe by Ken Albala (2007). More info
Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination by Paul Freedman (2008). More info
Francesco's Kitchen: An Intimate Guide to the Authentic Flavours of Venice by Francesco da Mosto (2007). More info
Venice and Food by Sally Spector (1998). More info
The Cooking of Venice and Veneto
at Anna Maria Volpi's "A Passion for Cooking" website.
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