Neil Flambé and the Bard’s Banquet (2015), by Kevin Sylvester

Sylvester - BardNeil Flambé (or should I say Kevin Sylvester) strikes again. We know him (Neil, not Kevin) as an arrogant, self-assured 15-year-old chef with a penchant for trouble. He is plagued by unwelcome mysteries, such as a piece of paper preserved in an ancient jar of honey that finds its way into his kitchen. Frustrated, he explicitly refuses to engage; all he really wants is to “just run the restaurant, in peace for a change” (6). Readers know, of course, that this will not be his fate.

Neil has been commissioned by Lord Lane to use the case of honey to make an exquisite meal—which Neil is of course confident he can do—but in the making of the meal, he is forced to open the ominous jar of honey, revealing a poem in Elizabethan script, a cypher to unravel. Neil hands the paper over to Lord Lane and washes his hands of the situation. Readers know, of course, that this will not be the end of it. When Lord Lane goes missing, Neil—as the last person to speak with him—is called to help. Accompanied by his cousin Larry, and eventually his girlfriend Isabella, he and his unerring sense of smell set off to England. The usual gripping and humorous adventure ensues, revolving around British culture and history, especially the history of the Elizabethan theatre: William Shakespeare, Will Kemp and his nine-days Morris dance, and the rivalry between the two men.

The narrative is rife with Sylvester’s trademark punnery and clever names (such as Arthur Gawain, the Oxford scholar) but also brings in new layers of allusion for precocious readers: for example to Harry Potter (97), the Lassie series (131), and the obscure cult film Green Eggs and Hamlet (213). Neil’s slovenly attention to his schooling is represented differently, as well. Not only does Larry show him up with his eclectic knowledge, as usual, but in numerous situations Neil’s lack of knowledge of basic highschool content—most notably Shakespeare’s plays—excludes him from the action. Being forced to recognize this failing grate, and his discomfort is a strong advocate for better study habits; I would not be surprised if curious readers leave this novel and go directly to Shakespeare in some form (Manga Shakespeare is actually very good. As Isabella’s friend Rose dryly observes (as she gains entrance into an exclusive archive), “Academic accreditation opens doors. Stay in school, kids.” (129).

What stands out most in this fifth book in the series is Neil’s development as a young man. Reading over past reviews, I note that in each novel, we’ve watched as Neil grows that little bit more mature, beginning to recognize the value of others—and others’ abilities—in his life. In The Bard’s Banquet, we see a monumental change: Neil moves beyond a recognition of the social contract, and the flutterings of emotional connection to others, to actual behavioral change. He says “please”—twice in a row, shocking his cousin (14); he contritely recognizes the validity of Jones’s criticism of his inflated ego, and sincerely apologizes (165); and he commends Isabella for her prowess: “complements never flowed easily, unless he was talking about his own food, so this was new” (113). A greater emotional epiphany comes when Larry saves him from potential death (not that they haven’t been here before), and Neil breaks down. This scene is a moment of poignancy amongst the adventure and humour: “It’s cool, cuz. … I’ve been waiting for a little emotion to break through that gruff cheffy exterior,” Larry tells him reassuringly: “There’ve been glimpses before, but this is good. Don’t hold back any more” (206). The sixth book in the series, Neil Flambé and the Duel in the Desert is due out next month (March 2016); I am greatly looking forward to seeing how Neil continues to develop as a character.

Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure (2013), by Kevin Sylvester

Sylvester-Tokyo“The Chefs gave him a mission: to keep the world safe and well fed. … He became the greatest Chef of them all…” (5). Kevin Sylvester’s fourth installment of the Neil Flambé Capers—Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure—opens suitably with a foray into the world of manga. The short excerpt from Neil’s cousin Larry’s new online manga, The Chef, sets us up for Neil’s adventure in Japan, where his cousin Larry’s reported death leads Neil to grapple with illegal fishing practices and a maniacal competitive chef.

The pathos that news of Larry’s death produces is honest and heartfelt. Although we know that Larry can’t be dead—Sylvester wouldn’t do that to us… would he?—we tear up with Neil as he slices onions with Larry’s knife, contemplating Larry’s joie-de-vivre and laissez-faire attitude. This is a growing moment for Neil Flambé, as much as his humbling jail-time in The Marco Polo Murders (2010), or his eye-opening visit to the slums of Mexico City in The Aztec Abduction (2010). When Neil discovers an alteration in The Chef that only Larry could have made, he optimistically sets out to find his cousin and solve the mystery he knows is brewing like the finest Saki: warm and subtle, with a sharp bite at the end.

The search for Larry sets Neil up against the environmentally unethical chef Matsumoro Nori. Accompanied by Sylvester’s usually droll punnery, we travel with Neil to Japan, where he engages in a culinary competition that is straight out of James Bond, with poisoned ingredients and losers as shark bait. Between the numerous gastronomic removes of the competition, Neil and his friends collaborate on solving the mystery of Larry’s disappearance. The clues Neil receives, the cultural knowledge and wordplay required to solve them, and Sylvester’s inimitable humour make Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure a gripping, chuckle-inducing adventure. Such a delicate balance between humour and suspense is seldom achieved by other authors; it is not surprising that Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure is up for two awards this year.

The Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading awards are adjudicated by young readers, so winning a Silver Birch award must be extremely gratifying for an author. Sylvester is no strange to such gratification, though: Neil Flambé and the Marco Polo Murders won the award in 2011; Neil Flambé and the Aztec Abduction was runner-up in 2012; and Neil Flambé and the Crusader’s Curse was in 2013.

The Children’s Book Centre John Spray Mystery Award will be announced tomorrow (22 October 2013), which is why I have had to rise up out of my slough of inarticulateness and get this review written and posted tonight! Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure is up against four other books, all of which were written for an older reading audience. The best of these—Devil’s Pass by Sigmund Brouwer—will certainly give Neil Flambé a run for its money… I am not sure whether to be disturbed by the imbalance of having a humourous adventure book for 8-12 year olds set up against YA realist mysteries, or impressed that Neil Flambé should be included in such a collection. I suspect I will subscribe to the latter opinion if it wins, and almost certainly the former if it does not. So best of luck to Neil Flambé on his latest adventure out in literary-award-land. May the best chef win.

The Tale of Despereaux (2003), by Kate DiCamillo

DiCamillo-DespereauxKate DiCamillo is the author of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (2006) as well as Because of Winn Dixie (2009), both of which are delightful, and have been lauded as such in both the academic and public spheres.  Despereaux won the Newbery award, and is touted as associated with the Cinderella trope.  This is a fiction.  While it does concern a mouse helping a princess, there are no elements of the Cinderella tale itself in the story.  It is a pleasant enough story, in itself, but the authorial tone is both colloquial and antiquated, in ways that are jarring and patronizing.  I don’t know what a child would feel, but I found it difficult to read despite the originality of plot and the pleasant character of Despereaux himself.

Neil Flambé and the Crusader’s Curse (2012), by Kevin Sylvester

You won’t be able to buy this one quite yet. It is set for release on May 8th. You can pre-order copies from the large online retailers, or (my preference) KidsBooks in Vancouver. Or, if you are lucky enough to live in the Toronto area, you can meet Kevin at the Toronto Public Library (40 Orchard View Blvd, Toronto) at 9 am on 12 May 2012. Or so the Simon& Schuster website tells me. They even have a map…

Neil Flambé and the Crusader’s Curse

I am so used to Kevin Sylvester’s cast of characters representing the cultural diversity that I know as Vancouver that an important, subtly expressed, relationship in The Crusader’s Curse failed to surprise me sufficiently: or so I am told. It was called to my attention by another reviewer to whom I lent my copy, a reviewer who is prominent in the children’s literature world for his active support of GBLTQ literature for readers of all ages. In the penultimate chapter, Jean-Claude Chili comments that his friend Hugo Victoire “eez used to loud noises. I snore like a greezly bear” (274). They have been together for “many years” Jean-Claude admits, and he strove to keep Hugo, like his sister—the people he loves—out of what he knew to be a very dangerous situation. Nothing more. For years now GLBTQ critics have been asking for texts that aren’t about homosexuality, or about “coming out,” or focus on the conflicts raging within our strongly heteronormative society, but rather present alternative sexualities as a non-confrontational reality, as they should be. Such representation is slowly beginning to appear. Neil Flambé and the Crusader’s Curse, even more than the first two culturally diverse texts in the series, lies in the vanguard of social tolerance.

More than that, though, The Crusader’s Curse is another delectable taste of mystery and adventure: an international Stanley Park for children. When the Neil Flambé cookbook comes out (I mention the possibility purely from desire, not from insider knowledge), I will immediately cook the recipes from this novel (if I can get my hands on some fresh seagull)! If you ever need to seriously cook your Canada goose—or hedgehog, or garter snake—Neil Flambé is your man, or rather, boy.

But Neil is growing up. As he hits his fifteenth birthday, he seems to have lost his panache; the food he serves his guests appalls them, and the arrogant boy-chef learns to eat humble pie. The reader, privy to the historical backstory upon which Sylvester loves to construct his narrative palimpsests, knows that the curse of the Flambés has descended: Neil’s culinary senses have desserted him. He is almost overcome, and readers are on tenderhooks as they follow Neil’s vacillation between depression, anxiety, and anger, with only enough information (such is Sylvester’s admirable narrative control) to trust that the plot will not burst into flame in the oven. It almost does, and I must admit that the final scenes were hard to follow, relying as they did on the reader’s ability to create visual images from the barrage of action words required. But the failing, I know, lies in this reader: the children to whom I lent the book loved the ending with all of its excitement combined with Sylvester’s inimitable sense of humour. But it made me wonder if there are anime artists and producers waiting to create a film version for us? And would we want that…? Perhaps not: Sylvester’s language not only reveals his subtle, sardonic humour in a way that film could not, but also creates layers of narrative that replicate the nuances of culinary artistry, drawing on all of our senses, not only the visual. So, Mr. Sylvester, back into your garret to garnish Neil Flambé #4 (Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure), or are you starting on that cookbook yet?