February 04, 2012

Neil Flambé and the Crusader's Curse

by Kevin Sylvester
Simon & Schuster Books for Young People
291 pp.
Ages 8-14

It's not easy to empathize with Neil Flambé, teen chef and Vancouver restaurateur: he's precocious, arrogant and haughty.  How he ever got his cousin, Larry, to partner with him in the restaurant business or young perfumier Isabella Tortellini to become enamoured with him is beyond comprehension.  But, when his culinary skills and his extraordinary sense of smell (he is called The Nose, after all) seem to fail him, especially when hosting a group of food critics who send back their food or get food poisoning, those around him begin to worry.  After the setbacks Kevin Sylvester documented in Neil Flambé and the Marco Polo Murders (Key Porter, 2010) and Neil Flambé and the Aztec Abduction (Key Porter, 2011), Neil has had to refurbish Chez Flambé with new appliances, cutlery, furniture, heating/cooling, etc.  He should be in culinary nirvana, amazing everyone with his gifts, but now, on his fifteenth birthday, he's apprehensive and confused.  Something is very wrong.

Of course, the reader is privy to a series of historical episodes, starting in the 1200's, in which an ancestral Flambé chef (seems they were always great chefs) is prohibited from cooking but continues to create dishes using unlikely ingredients (e.g., seagull, tree bark, narwhal) and recording the recipes in a notebook of parchment.  History shows that, through time, many Flambés have been cursed.

Of course, the Nose knows no curse.  All he knows is that his glorious dishes now taste worse than sawdust and the restaurant's re-opening is doomed to fail.  Then Neil's life seems to flip out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire: the safe with his recipes is stolen; a new restaurant, Carrion, is slated to open across the street; Greta Carbo from the Health Department shuts the restaurant down; and computer wiz and rival, Stanley Picón, with computer Deep Blue Cheese (DBC) challenges Neil to a cooking duel.  Luckily, Neil does have allies: Larry, Isabella, her bodyguard Jones, his mentor Angel Jícama, food critic Jean-Claude Chili, and police inspector Sean Nakamura.  With some clever sleuthing, innovative gastronomy, a little travel and even some charity, Neil and his associates discover a plot cooked up to flambé his reputation and his restaurant.

Kevin Sylvester has created a winning character in Neil Flambé. (Speaking of winning, did you know Neil Flambé and the Marco Polo Murders won the 2011 Silver Birch Fiction Award and Neil Flambé and the Aztec Abduction is nominated for the 2012 Silver Birch Fiction Award?) Of course, Neil is not necessary likable (his arrogance tends to rule his personality) but he is growing up and learning to get along better with people (hence his proliferating entourage).  All Kevin Sylvester's characters are quirky and rich with life, even those who only appear in a single caper.  There are no two-dimensional stereotypical players in these plots.  In fact, the plots which may seem directional (i.e., problem to solution) are quite rich, teeming with red herrings and subplots and sub-subplots, perfect for a younger reading audience.  What will always endear the Neil Flambé Capers to readers, as it does here, is the nutty humour of the narrator and the characters.  It is often so subtle,  just a play on words (e.g., "..humming now, a little ditty DBC liked to call 'Happiness Is a Warm Bun - an Ode to John Lemon.'"; pg. 63), that I wondered if all readers "get" it.  But, if you check out some of the book trailers made by enthusiastic young readers of the Neil Flambé Capers and attend a Festival of Trees™ celebration with thousands of cheering readers, you'll know that they "get" it and they love it.  We all do.

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