Kevin Sylvester’s Neil Flambé Cooks Up a Murder Mystery

Neil Flambe and the Marco Polo MurdersWhile the staff of the Indigo book store finished their final preparations for the reading, Kevin Sylvester drew pictures for the kids. He’s a great doodler and artist, so he stood by his easel, making little drawings according to the kids’ instructions, or illustrating the way he used to dip his fries into his strawberry shakes when he was young. The kids were totally grossed out and happy!

But soon everything was ready to get down to business, the promotion of Sylvester’s new YA novel, Neil Flambe and the Marco Polo Murders. Of course, he just kept doing what he’d been doing, chatting with the kids, asking which ones liked to eat, and using the food as an introduction to this novel about a brilliant fourteen year old master chef who helps the police solve food-related crimes with his expert knowledge and a supersensitive nose.

Family promo t-shirtThe kids enjoyed what Sylvester called his “multi-media” presentation: the drawings, the brief readings (accompanied in chapter one by a burp that really was part of the story), and the chef’s jacket and hat that Sylvester wore. He moved quickly from one thing to another, recognizing the attention spans he was dealing with, keeping the kids interested with a second reading, followed by a little drawing lesson. He had them count down, 5-4-3-2-1, promising to show them all they needed to know before the countdown was finished.

When they reached “1,” he drew a circle. Did you know that all you need to start with is a circle, upon which you then doodle till the details come out right? Or that the Mona Lisa was essentially a 40-year doodle by Leonardo da Vinci? Or that you can draw a dragon just by beginning with a circle and a triangle?

CBC Junkies!

CBC Junkies!

This Neil Flambé story, apparently the first of at least three novels, has had a long and rather public gestation. It first saw the light of day in 2007, as Sylvester filled in for the summer on the national CBC Radio One morning program, Sounds Like Canada. He decided to write the story over ten weeks, working on a chapter each weekend and having it taped and read on the show during the subsequent week by anime and television voice actor Anna Cummer. Even the listeners got some input as the story went along, contributing on a Facebook page.

So there were thousands of us who followed and loved the story of this audacious and arrogant boy-chef the first time through, and who have waited ever since, toes tapping impatiently, for the radio play to be reborn as a novel. It’s probably for kids a little older than the ones Sylvester was reading for today (which is why I’m calling it a YA novel rather than a children’s book), but it’s going to have a horde of adult fans too, I can guarantee it.

When I ask, “Do I Want to Read Your Book,” I confess that I cheated this time, because I knew long before I arrived at Indigo that I wanted to. But I still like to go to readings and book events and try to judge from the atmosphere and the presentation whether I’d have wanted to read a book if I didn’t already know about it. And judging from the kids’ enjoyment, and Kevin Sylvester’s fun and entertaining presentation today, my answer would still be yes.

Kevin and his adoring public

(For more news about public appearances and other things Sylvester is up to [including his ongoing “cat” series of doodle pictures], check out the Kevin Sylvester blog.)

Four mayors, little politics: no, this was not a dream

Shape of Suburbs cover

Four city mayors in the same room, with no politicking??

I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

I may be exaggerating a bit: there were really only two mayors, one deputy mayor, and one former. And almost all they did was talk politics, but not in the usual “gotcha” sense. For a change, this was a genuine conversation, with very little sense that they were saying what they had to say just to get re-elected.

The occasion was the recent launch of former Toronto Mayor John Sewell’s new book, The Shape of the Suburbs: Understanding Toronto’s Sprawl, at another of Pages Books & Magazines’ This is Not a Reading Series events at the Gladstone Hotel. And in honour of the book, Sewell took part in a panel discussion with Mayors Rob Burton of Oakville and Steve Parish of Ajax, and Deputy Mayor Jack Heath of Markham, moderated by architect and urban designer Kim Story.

The evening provided an unusual chance to hear people at the top level of municipal government talking frankly about subjects like how to plan for water and sewage, how to manage population intensification, and what in the world to do about traffic. You felt less like you were listening to politicians and more like you were watching several intelligent people work away at some significant planning problems.

I swear I’ve never heard so much honest and thoughtful discussion from politicians in my entire life. These guys really think about these things. In fact, they worry about them. A lot.

And they were surprisingly critical of politicians doing things that we non-politicos think of as sheer manipulation for political gain. For example, Steve Parish spoke of the almost “incestuous” relationship between developers and politicians, which absolutely must be done away with. Rob Burton considers the urbanization of rural land to be a gigantic wealth-creation device. How do we discover who is behind these schemes? Burton says we merely need to ask, “Who got rich?” All the developers’ promises of low costs never produce cheaper houses; they just increase the profit margin for the developers.

Tough words from guys who we lay people tend to think of as being in bed with developers. Maybe we just didn’t have the “right” mayors in attendance that night.

Or maybe a shift is starting, as conscientious people take office and get a good look at what’s really been going on in these cities, with all the implications for a looming future. That became more and more evident, at least, when they got onto the subject of traffic and transit. In fact, everything kept coming back to that. With transit and roads all over Toronto and the satellite cities already stretched to full capacity, these mayors have to devise ways of increasing transit to prepare for the even greater population boom that’s now developing. It’s a subject constantly on their minds; everyone in the crowd could see that.

In the collegial and entertaining atmosphere, the only time any panelist got touchy was when some topics from Sewell’s book seemed too Toronto-centric. As Jack Heath reminded everyone, all 20 municipalities around the city are “also Torontonians.” Parish maintained that the real goal is to make a harmonious “Toronto region.” And in response to Sewell’s theory that the extra density in Toronto helps make people more courteous as people learn to live closely together, Burton remarked, “If density made you polite, nobody would ever complain about how they were treated in Paris.”

A panel discussion about sewage, population, and traffic — one of the best book-related evenings I’ve ever had? Yes, believe it or not. And do I want to read John Sewell’s book as a result? Certainly I do.

But even more, I’d like to spend another evening talking city planning with these guys.

It’s all fun and games until someone does an interview

The huge Snakes & Ladders drop cloth

The huge Snakes & Ladders drop cloth

Stand on a snake, you get a tough question. Stand on a ladder, an easy one.

This may sound like some weird torture ritual from the Inquisition, but it was actually a simultaneous Interview and Snakes & Ladders game, at last night’s This is Not a Reading Series event at the Gladstone Hotel. Indeed, the whole evening was nothing but fun and games. Literally. Every table in the room was set up with bowls of chips, tacos, and dip, and bore at least two boxed games.

Our table had three: Monopoly, Pictionary, and Trivial Pursuit (the 80s version).

Shaun Smith autographs books

Shaun Smith autographs books

Author Shaun Smith, whose YA (i.e. Young Adult) novel Snakes & Ladders was featured at the event, experienced a bit of a homecoming. He was one of the two co-founders, five years ago, of This is Not a Reading Series itself (along with Mark Glassman of Pages Books & Magazines). He had left to do other things, but now returned to experience one of these evenings from the other side of the fence.

Nathan Whitlock, Books For Young People editor of Quill & Quire, interviewed Smith as the two moved around an actual Snakes & Ladders drop cloth that covered most of the stage, their moves determined by the roll of a gigantic air-filled die (note to the unfamiliar: the singular form of “dice”). It was a fun concept, though the randomness of where they moved meant that the interview was a bit random too. Ah well, that’s how the dice roll, I guess.



The two main characters in Smith’s book, set in 1971, are a young girl and her younger brother, spending the summer at the family cottage in Ontario’s Muskoka region. They get involved in trying to help save a duck’s eggs from being eaten by a snake, and in trying to save the beloved tree where the sister has her private retreat. Several plot streams run through the book: that of eco-activism, family difficulties, and a lot of dark things that might make some adults wonder if young readers can handle this story.

But Smith maintained that kids can deal with deeper stories than we often give them credit for, when the tales are told carefully.

The purpose of this not-reading series is “to get to the roots of the creative process,” as Mark Glassman often states. Smith revealed that he only discovered he was doing a kids’ book as the story evolved during the writing and this discovery necessitated his editor helping to remove a few racy elements. Another thing he learned, once the book was finished, was that YA writers have great camaraderie, and are usually eager to help each other.



Before the rather sporadic interview ended, Smith left the audience with one important tidbit. When asked, knowing what he knows about the publishing industry, why he wrote a book at all, his answer was simple: “Real writers stick with it.” Serious writing is a vocation, and he’s in it for the long haul.

It should be encouraging to his future prospects that the entire room burst into applause at this pledge.

Wacky Stacky

Wacky Stacky

And then the “book part” was over, and the games began! One small group immediately launched into a Scrabble match at one table, while another set up a checkers board nearby. While several people headed for the bar to get refreshments, another duo built a small tower on their table with rectangular wooden blocks, and then began the game of trying to pull blocks out of the middle of the tower without the whole thing collapsing.

Did this event make me want to read Shaun Smith’s book? Perhaps. As I said, the interview was a little disjointed, so we got our information in random little chunks. But the atmosphere in the room was cheerful and playful enough that I would definitely approach the book with a positive feeling.