The Order of Odd-Fish

The Order of Odd-Fish * Written by James Kennedy

After a mysterious absence of forty years, aged Hollywood starlet Lily Larouche suddenly finds herself back in the Ruby Palace, her old mansion in the California Desert, with no memory of where she has been all this time.  At the same time, she finds a crying baby girl in her washing machine, with a note: “This is Jo. Please take care of her. But beware. This is a DANGEROUS baby.”  As the novel begins, Jo, now 13, is trying to stay out of the way at one of her “Aunt” Lily’s out-of-control Hollywood costume parties at the Ruby Palace, when a strange, old Russian colonel sneaks in and informs her that he has come to protect her because his intestines told him to do so.  Soon, the Russian has taken a bullet for her, a package with her name on it has fallen out of the sky, the Russian’s ascot-wearing, talking cockroach sidekick has shown up on the scene, and a Chinese billionaire who is an aspiring diabolical villain is after all of them.   And that’s only a taste of all that happens in just the first few pages.  Every time I thought the story had settled into its comfort spot and would just flow along, Kennedy turned everything on its head and upped the absurdity ante again, and again, and again.  And, amazingly, every time it works splendidly.  Overflowing with laugh-out-loud moments, totally unexpected plot twists, and off-the-wall fantastical details, this is the most fun I’ve had with a book in a long time.  Highly recommended, particularly to anyone who gets bored easily, and anyone who has ever wondered what a novel written by Dr. Seuss might be like.

Delacorte Books
416 pages
ISBN: 978-0-385-73543-8
Release Date: August 2008

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the NationVolume II: The Kingdom on the Waves

The Kingdom on the Waves  *  Written by M.T. Anderson

Kingdom on the Waves continues the fascinating narrative of the young man Octavian, describing his time in the royally controlled and besieged city of Boston, as well as his subsequent adventures in seeking out and joining the Royal Ethiopian Regiment of Lord Dunmore, exiled governor of the colony of Virginia.  Dunmore has issued a proclamation promising freedom to all slaves who will escape from their rebel masters and join the King’s Army in suppressing the rebellion of the American colonists.  Much of the volume recounts the battles, trials and tragic circumstances of these African-American soldiers devoted to the cause of liberty, fighting others also devoted to the cause of liberty, albeit a different liberty.   This book brings back to light the real moral ambiguities of the American Revolution by presenting the circumstances from the often-ignored perspectives of royalists and slaves in the American colonies.  As in the first Octavian Nothing volume, Anderson reveals himself as a master at re-creating authentic 18th Century language and tone, having immersed himself for six years exclusively in writings of or about this historical period.  These are smart, challenging books that illustrate that books with the “Young Adult” label do not necessarily have to be patronizing or insulting to the intelligence and capacity of teenage readers.

Candlewick Press
561 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7636-2950-2
Release Date: October 2008

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Volume I: The Pox Party

The Pox Party * Written by M.T. Anderson

In the Novanglian College of Lucidity in Boston, the young boy Octavian is raised as the noble son of an African princess.  He is waited upon and receives an education in science, history and philosophy, has become proficient in Latin and Greek, as well as a virtuoso of the violin.  And yet, his every action and bodily function is observed and recorded, and his mother, though a personage of royalty, is sometimes constrained from her own will by the men of the college.  In actuality, Octavian is a slave and the subject of a scientific experiment.  The philosophers of the college wish to ascertain whether, given the same opportunities, an African has the same capacities as a European.  When the college’s longstanding patronage falls through and the slave-owning funders of the college make it clear that they want the “experimental” education of the boy to fail, Octavian becomes personally aware of and subjected to the true horrors and rigors of slavery in the American colonies.  In the midst of the turmoil of the Revolutionary War, Octavian makes his escape, but has nowhere to turn in a land where people are crying out for liberty, and yet would hold him captive.  Written as a first-person manuscript that incredibly recreates the diction and writing style of the late 18th century, as well as incorporating actual letters and documents from historical figures of the period, this is a fascinating, harrowing book with a hint of hope, as the story of Octavian continues in a companion volume, Kingdom on the Waves.

Candlewick Press
351 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7636-2402-6 (hardcover) / 978-0-7636-3679-1 (paperback)
Release Date: September 2006

The Book Thief

The Book Thief * Written by Markus Zusak

Who better than Death to narrate a story of World War II?  He knows all the intimate details better than anyone.  In The Book Thief, Death unburdens upon the reader a story that haunts even him, that of the girl Liesel Meminger of Molching, Germany.   Liesel, after watching her younger brother die on a train ride, is inexplicably abandoned by her mother.  She becomes the foster daughter of Hans and Rosa Hubermann.  Hans is a supremely good and patient man, while Rosa has a rough exterior and a filthy tongue that hide a heart of gold.  In the impoverished and absurd circumstances of Nazi Germany during the war, Liesel and her best friend Rudy negotiate the trials and adventures of early adolescence and develop a taste for thievery; particularly, in Liesel’s case, book thievery.  In due time, in their own dangerous and brave act of thievery, Liesel’s foster parents “steal” something of great worth from the very Fürher himself.  The world of the book is that of a very real and dangerous circumstance in which patriotism and duty to one’s country seem far distant from morality, and often there are no good choices to make.  So many innocent, decent people get caught in horrific realities because of rhetoric and definitions.  The power of words for both good and evil is a central theme of the book.

Death, in addition to telling the story with his expectedly dark and ironic humor, tired voice, and outsider perspective, also reveals to the reader that he has a heart.  This is one of those rare and precious books that, while describing dire and heartbreaking circumstances, are also filled with joy, life, humor, and humanity.  Death voices his perplexity over the paradox that so much good and so much evil can come from humanity, and, by the end of the book, I was left pondering upon the same quandary.   I highly recommend this book to any reader, probably 9th grade to adult.

Random House
560 pages
ISBN: 978-0-375-83100-3
Release Date: March 2006

Andrew Bird and M. Ward (Listen To New Albums From)

I don’t know how they were able to intuit my music listening desires so well, but it turns out that NPR is streaming new albums in their entirety before they are even released, and they just so happen to be the exact albums I’ve been wanting to hear.  I guess it could just be that my tastes fall in with a key market demographic for public radio, but I’d rather not spoil the magic too much with those sorts of thoughts.

I just listened to the beautiful new album by singer/songwriter/violinist/guitarist/whistler Andrew Bird, entitled Noble Beast.  I think it will take a few more listens for me to truly digest it and describe it fully, but I’m definitely picking this one up when it comes out next week.

Now I’m listening to M. Ward’s album Hold Time, which doesn’t come out until Feb. 17.  Ward continues to write songs that sound like classic folk/country/rock n’ roll sides, all performed in his easy, seemingly effortless style and recorded with his signature old-timey, atmospheric production.  This album adds some occasional strings and keyboards to his usual mix of acoustic guitar and reverb, as well as some classic T. Rex-styled stomp on a few tracks.  All in all, it’s a bit of a Jack White meets Jack Johnson kind of album, and another one I’ll be looking for in February.

As of Monday (1/19), these good folks will also be streaming Animal Collective’s latest noise celebration masterpiece Merriweather Post Pavilion (which I’ve been listening to repeatedly since I purchased the early release vinyl version last week), and Bruce Springsteen’s soon to be released Working on a Dream.

The Year of the Ox

If I were a good conventional blogger, about two or three weeks ago I would have written a summary of the past year, filled with pictures, descriptions of wonderful happenings, and lots of exclamation points! I may have even sent this out as an email or even paper letter to my family and friends!

If I were a good and true nerd, I would have posted all sorts of best of 2008 lists on my blog.

If I were totally awesome (please don’t think of Dell Schanze when I say that.     Oh, crap.), I would have listed all of my goals for 2009 in this place for inspirational and accountability purposes.

Indeed, I intended to do all of these things, and many more! (except maybe the exclamation points). I may even still do these things, albeit in a several-weeks-belated attempt.  Maybe I could cover myself by claiming that I am observing the Chinese, or “Lunar,” New Year this year; I guess I should find out when that is. For your information, the Chinese New Year, which shall be known as the Year of the Ox,  begins on January 26, 2009 of the Gregorian calendar.

If you’re at all like me you may be wondering,  “Why didn’t I compile all these lists and write all these summaries and post all these wonderful ideas over my extensive twelve day break from work?”  I honestly can’t find a good answer to that question.  During this same period of time  I did manage to beat Gin three times at Metropolys.  So that’s at least something.

I will offer this, though.  Lately, I’ve been extremely self-conscious about writing reviews. I’ve tried and failed miserably on a couple of music reviews intended for this blog that I never completed and never posted. I’ve forced my way through some book reviews for work, but have felt extremely self-conscious about them.  I want to become better at reviewing. So, among other things, I am going to start posting many reviews on this blog as a practice.  Start to look for my book and music and other reviews, if I ever get around to writing things on a regular basis again. Perhaps I will highlight my favorite albums of 2008 by posting a brief review for each one, with a sample track. If I get really ambitious I may give voice to the wanna-be foodie part of me and start posting restaurant reviews of some sort. And, on a different front, I’ve been meaning to post some of my thoughts from my all-too-infrequent gospel/scripture studies. At any rate, these are type of things that readers of this blog can look forward to in The Year of the Ox, if I will properly yoke myself and push my way into writing things again, like a proper draft animal. The bad jokes will keep coming, folks.  Thanks for watching and have a nice day!