Not since Kafka's Metamorphosis has a giant cockroach been brought so majestically to the printed page. Yes, The Order of Odd-Fish, by James Kennedy (2008, Delacorte Press, 403 pages), has the most triumphantly realized giant cockroaches of any book I have ever read, which does not, incidentally, include Kafka's Metamorphosis. Although actually these sentient cockroaches are only about 3 1/2 feet tall, and are minor, though very entertaining, characters in the tumultuous sea of insanity that is this story. Yet through the wild and the whimsical journey there runs a coherent plot, to which I clung like a life-line.
During a party at Aunt Lily's ruby palace in the middle of the desert, a boy costumed as a hedgehog fires at an overweight Russian colonel, who isn't, really. This sort of thing has been par for the course of Jo's 13 years of life, ever since she was found with a note attached, warning "This is a dangerous baby" and was taken in by the famous film star Lily Larouche.
But in the days that follow the party, Jo's life becomes infinitely more surreal. The colonel and Aunt Lily (along with the colonel's cockroach companion, Sefino) whisk her off in a ramshackle plane, which is shot down into the ocean by the zeppelin of a wanna be Master of Evil, and is eaten by a large fish. This, in turn, takes the quartet to Eldritch City, where Jo meets the Order of Odd-Fish, and gradually learns just why she was labeled a dangerous baby. I am not even going to try to describe the city or the order, because it would take too much time and I wouldn't do them justice.
But all distractions of setting aside (such as the cleverest of all the gods, Aznaht, the Silver Kitten of Deceit), Jo does, in fact, face a very real threat in Eldritch City, and is, also in fact, a threat to its continued existence. And (this is where the plot falls into plot-like place), Jo and a handful of Eldritch teenagers must figure out how to thwart the demonic goddess who is lurking in the heart of the city, waiting to use Jo to return to power...
I was anxious lest the insanity, and there is a lot of it, prove such a distraction that the book became unreadable. It did not. Letting it all wash over me, I enjoyed the journey and the people, and read with quickening page turning-ness as the Climax approached, and all the disparate threads (I think--I might have missed a few) were gathered with a masterly hand as Jo confronted her Fate...
In short, this is a great book for a 13ish year old reader of fantasy, or anyone who wishes to read a book that offers an entertaining and satisfying escape from the quotidian world (battles on flying ostriches, anyone?)
The Order of Odd-Fish was a Cybils nominee (which was nice for me, because I enjoyed reading it very much, and might not have come across it otherwise, so thank you whoever nominated it, and thank you, Delacorte Press/Random House, for sending us copies!). Sadly, we could not shortlist all the books of which we were fond, so it was nice to see Odd-Fish honored by the Smithsonian as a 2008 Notable Book (although I don't, myself, quite understand why the Smithsonian takes a tender interest in children's fiction, but why not. They're smart people).
Here's another review, from my Cybils compatriot Laini Taylor (Hi Laini!)
Edited to add: for those interested in reading books featuring kids of color, Jo happens to be biracial, and a second central character is Chinese; here's a post in which the author discusses this.