Waterloo Region Record devours Amphibian

Say hello to Phineas, an endearing nine-year-old
By Cindy Matthews
Waterloo Region Record
August 15 2009

Canada keeps producing great authors. Carla Gunn's debut novel Amphibian is a darn good read.

Some writers can grab your attention with their opening sentence and never let go until you have gobbled up the last word on the final page. Carla Gunn is that kind of author. She holds your attention through use of crisp description, realistic characters and believable dialogue.

In Amphibian, we meet Phineas William Walsh, a super smart nine-year-old boy with a pile of encyclopedias residing in his brain. He is also sensitive, often serious, at times obnoxious yet also endearing. He knows more about science, the environment, nature and animals in general than 100 other nine-year-olds combined.

In order to be so smart, Phin spends hours combing the internet like an ant in an open jar of honey.

But all this knowledge pushes him over the edge sometimes, into an unhappy world of excessive fretting. More often than not, when his before-sleep anxiety takes over his brain, he finds comfort crawling into mom's bed to bunk with her.

Phin's mom gets quite fed up with him at times.

She becomes so concerned about her son's worrying about the world that she makes him visit a shrink. Mom and the shrink decide that Phin watches too much TV, in particular too much of a disturbing show called Green Channel. They decide to ban Phin from watching such anxiety-producing media.

There are things about life Phin doesn't understand, such as why bullies can't be stopped, why his dad left his mom, and why a 'waste-of-flesh' like Lyle always picks on him and wins.

When his sometimes very stressful existence gets the better of him, Phin expresses his dismay through extreme tantrums.

At one point, Phin's teacher brings a White's tree frog to school to become the class pet.

It's given the name Cuddles. The choice of class pet suits Phin because of his particular interest in amphibians, particularly frogs. He and best friend, Bird, eventually find a compelling and compassionate reason to steal Cuddles, a plan that goes horribly wrong and has an untimely, unexpected result.

Occasionally, this book reminded me of Mark Haddon's book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The tone is sometimes light, but often very dark.

The story ends far too quickly, but leaves the reader fully satisfied.

While this novel is about a young boy, it's safe to say this is a read more suited for adults than kids.

Readers should be aware Gunn uses some off-colour language — but they are words that certainly fit the circumstances in the story.

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