Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween! Random memory + a book review: The Order of Odd-Fish

We are laming out on Halloween, as usual. No costumes or parties, no jack-o-lanterns, no pumpkin guts on a sheet of newspaper, no skeleton in the window. And I like Halloween. I love the woodsmoke nights of this time of year, the dark, misty mornings, the grim reapers on porches, their eyes glowing red. And I don't mind sinking my hand to the wrist in a gigantic bowl of candy, either, but for some reason, we have no will to participate. Lazy? Preoccupied? It's so easy for life to flash past the lazy and preoccupied. I look forward to [hopefully] having young children some time in the not-too-distant future and getting reinspired to celebrate holidays like this.

But tonight we will just watch a scary movie with a couple of friends. It's John Carpenter's The Thing, which scared the bejeezus out of me -- in a good way -- when I was a kid. I have always loved scary movies, since I was a wee little twig. I remember watching Trilogy of Terror (you know, with the freakish doll that cuts its way out of the oven with a butcher knife?) when I was very small. I can't imagine why my mom let that happen, but perhaps my brain was wired to horror on that very occasion. After that, whenever it was my turn to choose the movie, I chose horror. There were plenty of options. From the age of 9 to 13, we lived in Gaeta, Italy, a small southern Italian beach town with one movie theater, where all movies were in Italian. We saw E.T. there when it first came out ("telefono, casa"), but mostly we rented movies one night a week at the video club held in the basement of the American school. Or better: we watched them aboard the USS Puget Sound, the 6th fleet destroyer-tender stationed in Gaeta.

I don't recall how often my father had "duty," which meant he had to spend the night aboard the ship, but when he did, we would go down to the harbor in the medieval quarter of Gaeta and go aboard the ship for dinner with him in the officer's mess (I only remember the terribly watered-down red drink that was called "bug juice") and a movie either with the sailors or alone in the Admiral's wardroom, which in my memory is a place of leather sofas and masculine luxury.

If you've never been aboard a Naval vessel, they're labyrinths inside; I don't know how sailors learn to find their way! My brother and I could find our way from the officer's mess to the Admirals' wardroom, and every once in a while we'd go it alone, to find the "head" or whatever. And once I didn't pay attention to some alert siren that had gone off signaling a security drill, and I got held at machine-gun-point by some poor confused young sailor for several long minutes before my father came to find me. I was probably ten, and the sailor was above me, pointing his gun down through the stairwell, so I didn't really realize what was happening, and when he told me to halt or whatever, I just sort of hung out there, leaning against the wall patiently. It was only when my dad came that I realized the sailor had a gun on me the whole time! Maybe ships aren't good places to play. . .
This is Old Gaeta, by the way, where the ship was harbored. There were great festivals here every August for Gaeta's saint day, and a fireworks *battle* with Formia, the town on the far side of the harbor. This was a great place to be a kid. Halloweens weren't great, to try to bring this back to topic, but we would have an American carnival in the school gym with candy and booths and a cake walk (man, as a kid, I really wanted to win the cake walk and have a whole cake to myself! In fact, I still want that!). School festivals are most memorable for the awesome Filipino food that the Filipino Navy wives would make: pansit and lumpia. Yum! That's something that's not so easy to find, Filipino food. I wonder why. It's so delish, and I'd wager that any Navy brat probably knows it well.

A book to mention, in honor of Halloween, though it's not exactly horror, it is squeamishly gross at the climax, like icky read-squinting-through-your-fingers gross. My lastest Cybils read. But first, do you want to see the Cybils reading list in my category, Fantasy & Sci Fi? Here's the middle-grade list, and here's the YA list. Wowza. We will come up with a short list of 5 in each category and pass that up to the judging panel. (Can you imagine the blogging prowess and powers of concentration it took to put that post together with all the links and nifty formatting?)

Okay, The Order of Odd-Fish, by James Kennedy. This book is very difficult to describe. The word "wacky" wants to be used, but I'm scooting it aside with my shoe because it's not quite right. "Wacky" is a little distasteful to me, because it carries with it a hint of "zany" and nobody likes zany, right? Or madcap? Zany and madcap are trying too hard, and wacky is kind of like a clown with a manufactured laugh. . . So let's say that this is. . . a carnival of odd. When Jo Larouche was a baby, she was found in the washing machine with a note pinned to her blanket that read, "This is Jo. Please take care of her. But beware. This is a DANGEROUS baby." For 13 years, Jo has been about "as dangerous as milk," but at her Aunt Lily's annual costume ball, an adventure is kicked off that will unveil to Jo her true provenance, and the nature of the DANGER within her. Okay, if I had to give a one-line "elevator pitch," I suppose it would be something like that, but I'd have to follow it with something like, "The imagination, whimsy, and humor aren't like anything else you've read before." Truly.

You know how it's better to watch a comedy with somebody, that somehow the humor is riper and deeper when shared? Well, the whole time I was reading this I wished I was reading it with someone, so I could elbow them at particularly bizarre moments, or chortle, or read passages aloud and savor them. I don't recall having that kind of reaction when reading a book before, at least, not so consistently.

The adventure that Jo embarks upon with her Aunt Lily, a fat Russian named Colonel Korsakov, and a giant, vain cockroach butler named Sefino, carries them (in the belly of a fish) to Eldritch City, which is not exactly of our world. I love the word "eldritch" (I think I first fell in love with it when Kelly Link used it to describe an oddly upholstered couch), and to my mind Eldritch City joins the ranks of China Mieville's New Crobuzon and Scott Lynch's Camorr for mind-bendingly imaginative, sprawling weird cities. Only, it's less disgusting than New Crobuzon and Camorr -- but not entirely un-disgusting either. To make a complex story simple: Jo finds herself a squire to the knights of the Order of Odd-Fish, and she has to hide her true identity while seeking to thwart her hideous destiny, all this while riding flying, armored ostriches to fight duels, exploring ancient, drowned cathedrals buried deep beneath the city, drinking fermented centipede milk, fueding with other squires, sneaking around through secret passages, and soothing the oft-wounded vanity of a posse of cockroach butlers. Oy!

And the villains! Ken Kiang, who has studiously shaped himself from a do-gooder philanthropist billionaire into the vilest (he thinks) of super-villains: "He devoured books about evil; he interviewed terrorists, serial murderes, and dictators; he dabbled in strange and wild diabolisms, slit the throats of shrieking beasts on stone altars in far-off lands, drank kitten blood, and sold his soul no fewer than twenty-thhee times to any supernatural being who cared to bid on it. No price was too low: the fifteenth time he sold his soul for a bag of barbecue-flavored potato chips. Ken Kiang had eaten the chips with indecent glee as the demon looked away in embarrassment."

But Ken Kiang's most industrious efforts at wickedness pale in comparison to the astonishing depths of evil of the tale's true villain, a mysterious character known as The Belgian Prankster, who dresses, if my memory serves, in goggles, a cape of furs, and a ragged rawhide diaper.

Ancient devouring goddesses; weird creatures; ritual exchange of insults; wars fought entirely with sarcastic apologies; a musical instrument that is a giant worm one climbs inside of (lubricated) and squeezes its internal organs to expel air through its 41 orifices; gods with names like "Nixilpilfi, the Gerbil Who Does Not Know Mercy" and "Zookoofoomoot, the Maggot of Dismay." And did I mention the climax is really squishy-gross?

This book is too much fun. If you read it, let me know, so we can mentally elbow each other at all the weird parts :-)


Elise Murphy said...

My daughters just did their first cake walk at the school Fall Festival. It was heart breaking to watch their disappointment. At 6 years old, they were SO confident they'd win that cake and so confused when they didn't.

Amber Lough said...

I remember eating dinner with my dad and watching rented movies when he had duty, too, although it was never on a ship. He always worked near bulldozers and things like that, which I found incredibly boring.

A few days after I had PRK eye surgery, I had to go teach on board the USS Lincoln. So yes, the ship was a maze and I was nearly blind. Worse, I was wearing my Air Force uniform and got crazy stares and ridicule the whole week. (But it was still kind of cool!)

You've got to find a way to include the scene of you and the sailor with the gun in a MG novel sometime. It's too good to pass up!

Happy Halloween

~Stella said...

I'm telling my professor on you.

Every time I get ahead in my schoolwork, I check out your blog and find the review of a tantalizing book. You are keeping me from ENG 575 in which I edit scientific and technical documents. Interesting stuff but thoroughly trumped by cockroach butlers.

Trick or treat!


tone almhjell said...

Hm. My gerbils were always of the most merciful, sweet kind.E xcept perhaps for Freddy, named for his weak chin (of the Mercury sort), but also for his long, sharp teeth and willingness to use them (of the Krueger sort).

Yes, that Nixilpilfi must be Freddys deity.

Charlotte said...

Oh my gosh that sounds so strange!!!!

Amber said...

"a carnival of odd"--- Gosh that is good! lol! That is what I am going to call my family from now on. Ha!

I might pick that up for Wyatt... hey, guess what? Wyatt scored the highest in all of 2nd grade (4 class rooms) in reading and writing, on the standardized test. He got a 98 out of 100! His teacher said nobody else got over 90, and most kids were in the 70's...So yes. I am bragging. lol! But I wanted to tell you, because when I read his fiction story, it was great! It would have made you laugh. And it had real plot! *beaming* It was a "halloween kidnap adventure", as he puts it.


Anonymous said...

"Oh, and as for Al Franken: I still have hope. If memory serves, the Washington gubernatorial race in 04 came out for the Republican by a very narrow margin, and the Democrat, Christine Gregoire, won in the recount. So, fingers crossed for Al!"

I was living in Washington back during that recount. King County elections in Seattle "found" all sorts of ballots in between the first and second count to be included. I just hope Al has the ethical standards that Gregoire didn't have to, whether win or lose, to do so fairly.

Melissa said...

So I'm 2/3 of the way through Odd-Fish, and I decided to dig around and see what's been written on it (found you through Charlotte...). You're right: you need someone to nudge at all the right places. (Not yet to the squishy-gross climax, though...) Still, I am enjoying it.