Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Co-review: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

William Shakespeare's Hamlet has been told and retold countless times in the last 400 years. But neither it's iconic familiarity nor popularity stops David Wroblewski from tackling it in his debut novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. This time the setting is a pastoral Wisconsin farm where the Sawtelle family has been engaged for several generations in breeding and raising a special kind of dog that goes beyond a simple trained pet to a sensitive and intelligent companion.

Details of the breeding and training programs are a major focus of the story, and the whole beginning section sets up the history of the farm, the dogs, and teenage Edgar's personal history -- his inability to speak at birth, learning to communicate through sign language, his lifelong companion Almondine, and his relationship with his parents, Gar and Trudy. When his long-absent uncle Claude enters the picture, things in his world begin to fall apart, culminating in the sudden death of his father. In the midst of their grief, Trudy and Edgar are vulnerable and desperate, and Claude tries to work his way into their hearts to replace the anchor they've lost. It works on Trudy, but Edgar is suspicious and jealous and soon the story of Hamlet begins to really take off.

The appearance of his father's ghost, his consuming rage that verges on madness, the play contrived to determine his uncle's guilt, the exile to England, and a final scene of confrontation and truth revealed -- all these scenes from Hamlet are replayed in Edgar Sawtelle. But they are worked into this new story of Edgar and his grieving mother and their dogs and the Wisconsin landscape in such a way that you still feel like you are uncovering the story for the first time with just a hint of familiarity, rather than rushing on a freight train of predictability. The narrative is lyrical and intelligent, the pace thoughtful, and the character exploration deep and compassionate.

And now you'll get to hear our take on it!

Caren: For starters, I am not a dog person. (Think of Henry Lamb from the story.) I roll my eyes at people who treat them like their babies. I shy away from them when they approach me on the street, hoping they'll keep their tongues to themselves. I think they're hairy and stinky and slobbery and obnoxious, and I will never voluntarily own one. So I wasn't thrilled to read yet another story about a boy and his dog and their special relationship and blah blah blah. But wow, that no more describes The Story of Edgar Sawtelle than calling the Titanic a boat! The Sawtelle Dogs were created with such detail, such intelligence, and such compassion that I found myself wishing I could own one. Me! I'm still shaking my head in disbelief that Wroblewski could undermine that deeply held prejudice of mine. Good thing it's just fiction and there are no true Sawtelle Dogs, so when the effects of this story wear off that prejudice should remain safely intact!

Jenny: I felt the exact same way about the Sawtelle dogs. I'm not crazy about dogs in general, but I wanted one of those dogs. If they were real, my husband might someday talking me into owning one. It's a very good thing it's fiction.

I loved your summary of the book, Caren. When I got my copy from the library, I had an internal debate about whether or not to brush up on Hamlet before I dove in. I had a vague idea of the general plot of the play, but since it's been years since I've read or seen it, the only details I could remember was that Hamlet's uncle killed his father, there were some ghosts, some crazy people and everybody died in the end. I decided instead just to read the book and judge it by how much I enjoyed it, instead of how close it held true to the play.

Everything felt vaguely familiar, like you described, but I was so caught up in the story and Edgar's life that it felt completely new. Even the ending caught me a bit off guard, even though I knew better that it wasn't going to end happily. Looking back, I am so glad that Wroblewski did all that work to introduce us to the Sawtelle family, their history and their dogs so that it didn't dive right into Claude showing up and turning everything topsy turvy. How would we know how thoroughly he changed their lives if we didn't know what it was like before?

Caren: Yes, I think that was a wise move on his part. It took a long time to develop, but I felt so much more deeply for Edgar after Gar's death than I would have if we'd just skipped right ahead to the main action (as Shakespeare does). It also helped make Trudy a more sympathetic character than the original Queen Gertrude; a woman with strength of character and deep love for her husband who was drowning in grief and grabbed the only lifeline she could find. Seeing things from her perspective and the depth of the grief she and Edgar experienced made a difference (and also made their closeness seem more natural and less like Shakespeare's "bordering on incestuous" version). And I don't think we could have fully appreciated that grief without all of the backstory leading up to Gar's death and coming to love him as a living, vibrant character.

I have to admit that most of what I remember from the original Hamlet wasn't from reading it, but rather from the film versions (I prefer Kenneth Branagh's). It's been a while since I've either read it or watched it, so some of the parallels weren't as obvious to me at first. I didn't pick up on who was Polonius until the scene where he died, and I puzzled and puzzled over who Ophelia was until finally when Edgar was on his way home and pining for Almondine. I felt really stupid about missing the Fortinbras/Forte connection since just his name should have made it obvious! Horatio was a little harder to pin down, I thought, but I also didn't remember much about him as a character, so maybe there were more connections than I picked up on.

The more I started making the connections, though, the more I was impressed at how Wroblewski wove the two stories together. And like you said, it was easy to get caught up in Edgar's story because it felt very genuine and organic -- not at all like he was manipulating it just to fit the classic. Even if you removed the Hamlet parallels, the story was strong enough to stand on it's own, and there was enough variation that I didn't feel like I knew how it was going to end until the final pages. I kept hoping for a happy ending, and while it wasn't as happy as I would have liked, it was at least softened with the final scene between Edgar and his dad.

Jenny: Okay, it wasn't until you started listing off characters that I remembered who all the other people of the original play were. Wow, my brain is rusty. It does make me want to grab a copy of Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet and watch it again. What is it with that man and Shakespeare? Why is he so darn good at it? On a total sidenote, I love his version of Much Ado About Nothing. I've probably seen it three or four times and it still hasn't gotten old.

Back to Edgar. You know what is interesting to me? This is Wroblewski's first book and he's not a young guy. If this is his first attempt, what else could he have in store for us? And why did it take so long? And is he going to get cracking and write something else or do a Harper Lee and disappear? I think of all this because his first book is based on Hamlet, for cryin' in the mud. Will he stick with the Shakespeare angle or show us his stuff with something completely different? I just want to knock on his door and ask.

Did you not want to go to Wisconsin after reading these descriptions? I grew up in the Midwest and I thought I knew exactly what it was like, but he made it new to me. The rambling forests, the streams and lakes, the bugs and cold and harshness. By golly, he better write another book.

Caren: Yeah, talk about jumping into the deep end of the pool for a first novel! But he completely knocked it out of the park (yes, I'm mixing metaphors), so I would be very interested to see what else he produces. Reading the acknowledgments at the end made it seem like it was a pretty arduous project, so I guess we can't expect him to be the kind of author that puts out a new novel once a year! But I loved the depth with which he explored grief, love, and our need for language despite its inadequacies. There are so many ways to examine this story and its themes, and then he wraps it up with stirring metaphors and beautiful pastoral imagery. I have never been to Wisconsin, but I felt like I was there and it made me wistful to visit. Well, except for the tornadoes and waterspouts. I could do without those! Oh yes, and the mosquitoes! (shudder, shudder)

Jenny: That's what I'm saying here, he needs to write some more, but I'll give him some time if he's got to do some leg work. Well, I give this book a big recommendation. Make the time and dive in.

Caren: Me too! By the way, for those who are sensitive to these things, be forewarned that there are a few instances of bad language. But for a novel that size the bad language was pretty sparse and other than that I can't remember anything objectionable. Definitely a worthwhile read!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Buffy is awesome

If you've read this here blog since it's inception (circa 2007), you'll know that I have some strong opinions on Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. I'm posting this video with the confession that I fully support the actions of the creator. Buffy could totally kick Edward's patootie.

If you want to read more on the video, go check out the blog where I snatched this from.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Warded Man with my friend, Libby

Sometimes when I read a book, a specific person will come to my mind that I want to chat with about what I just read. When I read The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett, I thought of my friend, Libby. She is also a lover of fantasy books and it was at her house and through her connections that I got to meet Brandon Sanderson. She's currently undertaking the enormous task of reading all of the Robert Jordan Wheel of Time books before Sanderson comes out with the 12th book this fall. We're talking about thousands of pages of reading, people. She's no light-weight reader. When I asked her to get a copy of The Warded Man and read it so I can pick her brain, she did it in, like, two days.

I picked The Warded Man to read because the description I read said it was for people who like Brandon Sanderson. Well, that's all they had to say to get me to read it. I have some thoughts about that comparison and some ranting about the book in general, but let's see what Libby has to say too. Just as a warning, we got some spoilers going on here.

Jenny: So, what do you think? Sanderson-worthy? I can see how they make the comparison, since Sanderson is an amazing world-builder and that is what Brett is doing in The Warded Man, and pretty successfully too, in my opinion.

Libby: First, I'd like to say a little 'hello' to the folks in the RHE world. I'm so honored that Jenny would pick me to help her review this book. She is seriously my hero in all things literary. I am a light-weight reader when compared to Jenny.

So, on to the book. When Jenny asked me to read it, I decided I wasn't going to find out anything about it. I didn't even read the dust cover when I got it from the library. I assumed from the name that it was something about a man with special markings on his body, but I didn't know it was fantasy until the 2nd or 3rd page. I like seeing how a story unfolds and to me one test of a good storyteller is how completely he can envelope me in the first chapter. That is one reason I love Sanderson books: he is a master of showing just enough in those first few pages to make me want to continue on into his worlds. The Warded Man does have a very unique world. One of the scariest I think I've ever encountered in a fantasy novel.

I liked Brett's characters. The three main characters possessed both good and evil facets to their personalities; most of the "bad guys" had redeeming qualities, and Bruna is just cool. Brett uses his characters well to tell the story and I was pulled into the story quite rapidly. To answer your question, though, I don't know that I would put Brett on the same level as Sanderson, as a storyteller. I can see why reviewers would compare their writing: strong female characters, religious themes, creative worlds, and awesome magic. My biggest complaint with The Warded Man is that I think Brett relied too much on sex to create tension in his story. Sanderson, on the other hand, uses dialogue, intrigue, politics, and other non-physical human relations to create tension and make his stories flow. I felt like anytime the story was slowing down a bit (i.e. no big, scary, human-eating demons seen for a few pages) Brett tried to pick it up by throwing in a sex scene or a conversation about sex. Sorry to be so prudish, but I had thoughts of giving up on the whole book after Arlen and his father stopped at that farm on their way to find help for his mother. But I always finish my homework so I pushed on and skimmed when I needed to, though that wasn't the last time I considered just putting it down for good. Am I being a prude?

Jenny: Heck no, that was one of my complaints. Was the incest that necessary? It did nothing for the story and just made me want to toss my cookies. And another sex-related annoyance was when Leesha was raped, then promptly knocked boots with Arlen all after having carefully guarded her virginity for twenty-seven years. I was floored. Does Brett know women at all? Has he ever met a woman? Is he just stupid?

On a positive note, I loved the development of each character. Arlen, seeking out ways to battle the demons, or corelings, that rise from the depths of the earth each night, eventually separates himself from everyone he loves thinking that's the only way to accomplish his goals. Leesha, brilliant herb gatherer who just wants to be loved for who she is, not how beautiful she is. Rojer, running from his own personal demons and trying to make a name for himself. Following their stories and seeing how they intersect was a big part of the fun for me. And yes, this was one of the scariest books I've read in a long time. And I like to be scared.

Sanderson is still a better writer, hands down. Comparing the two in my mind just makes me want to go re-read the Mistborn trilogy for some truly satisfying reading. I just wish I didn't already know how it ends, darn it. Maybe I wouldn't cry so hard at the ending this time.

This is something I often do when I read a book, so I'm going to throw out the question for Libby. If this book were made into a film, who would you want to be cast as? Male or female. Who would you want to pretend to be, knowing that when you went home at night, you'd still be yourself. I like villains myself, but since most of the villains in this book are demons, I might actually have to pick a good guy.

Libby: The first two are easy: I'd pick Sean Astin to play Rojer. Christian Bale would be Arlen (must be that whole misunderstood Batman image he does so well). Leesha is more difficult. I can picture a lot of beautiful actresses pulling it off, but I would love to see Anne Hathaway try it. I would cast James Cromwell as Cob, I think Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn) would make a great Ragen. I'm not sure about Arrick. For some reason, I'm picturing Orlando Bloom. Not because I think he'd do a great job, but I can't picture any other male with long golden hair. And he'd be a bad guy I'd love to hate. I think Geena Davis would be a perfect Elona. There's a villian you could play. She was just plain nasty, worse than the demons, I think.

As for who I'd like to pretend to be, it's definitely Bruna. She is just so smart and sassy. I love how she knows everyone's secrets and isn't afraid to use that knowledge when she needs to. She's just a nice, bossy old woman who is in control of everyone.

Jenny: You're right, I would like to be Elona, being all mean, nasty and manipulative. Good fun. I wasn't thinking of who I'd want to cast in the movie, but I love your suggestions. Were you thinking of Sean Astin just because he's short? I totally picture Rojer as short. Christian Bale would make an excellent Arlen, but I like pretty much everything he's in. I think whoever ended up doing it would have to sit through so much makeup to put all the tatoos on. Yikes.

Well, I don't know about you, but I'm itching to read Brandon Sanderson's new book, Warbreaker. All this talk about his amazing writing is putting me in the mood for something awesome. Thanks for coming to visit, Libby!

Libby: Oops! I misunderstood the question. I almost always try to cast the actors who would play the characters in the book. It helps me to keep their faces in my head while I'm reading. I just love Sean Astin as an actor. I think he'd be perfect as Rojer because he's short and stocky and child-like. I always picture him as Rudy or Sam.

I know! The Warded Man was just enough like Sanderson that it makes me long to read some good fantasy. Of course, like I told you, I've made a mid-year resolution that I have to improve my brain (no matter how painful it is) so I'm forcing myself to drag out one of the non-fictions from the bottom of my library stack before I dive into to Warbreaker. I read Warbreaker when it was still in its Word version online. I really enjoyed it then, so I can only imagine it will be even better.

Thanks for inviting me to your blog, Jenny. I am an avid fan. Every time you review a book, it immediately goes on my holds list at the library.

Jenny: Well, I've got Libby under my influence, now for world domination.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

Probably the most powerless-feeling person on the earth is a fifteen-year-old girl. Being a teenager makes one rife full of righteous outrage anyway, but I remember feeling like I had no control over my life. I was at the mercy of the decisions of adults. Well, duh, it's supposed to be like that. If teenagers were allowed to completely rule their own lives, most of us wouldn't survive to adulthood. I have the wisdom of being far from adolescence now, but it wasn't so long ago I can't remember how it felt. I can now look back with scorn at my so-called fury over injustice and agony over being completely misunderstood. Man, you couldn't pay me enough to go back to it.

Unfortunately, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart took me back to the thankfully never-to-be-repeated fifteenth year of my life. Well, sorta. I was never wealthy or went to an exclusive boarding school in New Hampshire or had a boyfriend who was the most popular guy at school or was consumed by the fact that he belonged to an ultra-secret boys club that he refused to tell me about. But I did feel powerless and frustrated by the perceptions all my peers had of me, that I couldn't seem to break out of a mold formed when I was so much younger and continued by people who didn't know me as anything different. I could relate to all that.

Frankie cannot stand the fact that her boyfriend is involved in this club that, she eventually discovers, goes back to the 1950s. When she does uncover more information about The Loyal Order of the Bassett Hounds, she decidees to use what she knows to control the guys involved. As the narrator explains, Frankie could someday use her talents for good, becoming the CEO of a large company or striving for finding peace between warring nations. Or she could become a crime boss to rival all others. She has the potential for both.

It becomes quickly evident that Frankie is smart, ruthless and a bit obsessive. If I was her mom, I'd have a royal freak-out when I found out what she was up to, but you have to admire her talent. She directs a gang of teenage boys to carry out pranks the likes of are impressive on any scale, and pins all the blame on her nemesis, who pretends to have done it all to get the credit. That, of course, comes back to bite him, which was Frankie's plan all along. All because her boyfriend thinks she's harmless and her family's nickname for her is Bunny Rabbit. Way to prove them wrong, kiddo!

Even though I read this through the eyes of an adult instead of a jaded teenager, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Frankie is awesome and awe-worthy in her mischief and you can't help but admire her. Every bit of it was enjoyable and I felt a bit jealous that she got to work out her teen angst in such a creative way. It's a whole lot cooler than wearing alot of black and listening to music that drove my mom up the wall, just as an example that I may or may not know about.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Friday Night Knitting Club

All right, I admit I've been a slacker lately. Fortunately, Jenny keeps up with her reading a lot better than I do, and my to-read list keeps growing thanks to her reviews. Now that school is out for the summer, I am finally able to start tackling my list! Or at least, maybe skim a few off the top.

I recently finished The Friday Night Knitting Club, by Kate Jacobs, for my book club. My very first thought when I picked it up was, "Are you kidding me? You couldn't come up with a better title than that?" Seriously, if you were browsing a bookshelf and looking for a good read, would the title The Friday Night Knitting Club leap off the shelf at you? Yeah, I didn't think so. Although, maybe bookshelf-browsing is obsolete now that we can browse while sitting in front of the computer at home. If that's the case, and titles are less important as marketing tools these days, maybe we should just start calling them by opus numbers. In any case, I started The Friday Night Knitting Club while at the dentist's office the other day and found myself trying to cover up the title as often as possible because wow, if that doesn't say, "Holy boring!" I don't know what does!

And, to be honest, it was a little hard to get into at first. There were so many characters introduced that it was hard to keep them straight initially, and even harder to care about them very much. The first few chapters were full of lots of description and background, with very little dialogue or plot development. (The words of my creative writing professor echoed in my head: "Don't tell us what happened. Show us!") Way too much telling going on and not nearly enough showing. But despite the initial slog, it did get more interesting.

The story centers around a single mom (Georgia) who started a yarn shop in New York City when her daughter (Dakota) was a baby and in the twelve years since has turned it into a successful business. She has struggled with grit and determination to provide for her daughter on her own, but her happiness is kept in check by loneliness and doubt in her abilities as a mother. When the story opens, previously absent James (the ex-love-of-her-life-and-father-of-her-daughter-who-broke-her-heart-and-made-her-unfit-for-a-serious-relationship-forever-afterward) has returned from Paris and suddenly wants to be a part of Dakota's life and Georgia has to figure out if and where he should fit in.

While she is going through this personal crisis, an old high school friend who deeply betrayed her many years before also comes back into her life. Cat seems to have everything at first glance. Money, influence, and beauty (though much of that is obviously skin deep, so to speak). But all this comes at a horrible price, and she is desperate to get out of her abusive marriage and wondering if there's any depth left in her soul to start a real life. There's also Anita, Georgia's elderly mentor, a sweet and classy widow who is trying to sort out her feelings for her dead husband with a new possible love interest. And I haven't even mentioned the 4 or 5 other characters who also get air time.

Knitting is the craft that brings these women together in one way or another, and the book is filled with textile talk and parallels between their relationships and the art. The knitting motif is strong, but I don't think you have to be a knitter to enjoy the story since it's really about relationships (friend/friend, mother/daughter, husband/wife, etc.). But you will probably enjoy it more if you are a knitter, and if you're like me you'll be dying of curiosity to see the hand knit formal gowns Georgia creates for Cat, because wow, how does THAT work? It makes knitting seem very contemporary and not stuffy like the title suggests. But more importantly, there are interesting transformations that take place, and one lucky character even gets to have cancer before it's over!

Okay, I don't mean to make light of it, because really I did get emotional in all the right spots (mothers reuniting with estranged daughters, forgiving and fresh starts, grieving for lost loves, etc.). But at the same time I was irritated because I knew that Jacobs didn't really deserve to get that response. Mostly it was just an okay story with semi-interesting characters. I got the sense that Jacobs was in over her head and should have settled with something less ambitious for her first novel. The writing was okay, but not stellar. There were a few lines that I really liked, but mostly I wasn't overly impressed. And some of the plot was a little awkward -- like a random trip to Scotland that serves as a watershed moment for some of the characters but seems to come out of nowhere. Some of the characters had real potential, but it would take a lot of skill to draw that many characters very well and Jacobs didn't manage it. Instead, they cluttered up the story and the novel could have lost a few and been better off without them. She takes on lots of challenging emotions, but it would require more developed characters to really explore them well, and she didn't have that. My own emotional responses came out of my own experience, not out of any deep attachment to or empathy for the characters -- which is why it irritated me because I didn't think she earned it. And then, to top it off, the whole thing was littered with bad language so you couldn't even recommend it as sweet read to your textile-loving grandma.

Two novels in particular kept coming to mind as I read this one. Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, by Lorna Landvik, and Chicks With Sticks: It's a Purl Thing, by Elizabeth Lenhard. Chicks with Sticks is a young adult novel that uses the knitting theme as well (and similarly features a trendy yarn shop that serves as a safe gathering place for the characters while they sort out their problems). Angry Housewives uses a similar vignette style, but Landvik does a better job developing her characters and their relationships. Shades of these two books were so strong when I read The Friday Night Knitting Club that I sometimes wondered if it was deliberate. Overall, I enjoyed it enough to be worth the late nights I spent reading it. But I really can't see myself picking up a Kate Jacobs Op. 2 anytime soon.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Cheese Monkeys

Sometimes, I pick book titles and put them on my request list only to promptly forget why I picked it or what it's even about. That's the result of reading little blurbs about books here and there and decide to read it based on four or five sentences some random person has written. It's kinda fun, actually, like book roulette. Will it be good? Will I hate it and throw it back into my library bag like the dog poo that it is? Will the title or cover be any clue as to what compelled me to read the book in the first place? This was the story of The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd. I had no recollection of picking this book, nor did I have any idea what it was about by looking at it. It was all so mysterious.

I'm not afraid to admit when a book is way over my head. I'm also not afraid to pretend that I get it, even if I don't. I'm shameless like that. Such was the case of The Cheese Monkeys. I didn't get it, but I'm going to pretend that I did. The book is about graphic design. Are you reading this, Caren's husband Andrew? Now, how could you possibly know from the title that this was fiction about graphic design? Hmm? The actual cover might give you a clue, and especially since there was great care taken in the layout of the font, inside covers and the cool visual effect on the pages of the book. Picking up a copy and just looking it over is worth your time, even if you never read it.

I know nothing about graphic design and neither does our nameless narrator until he goes to his first year of college in 1958, where he decides to major in art, mostly to annoy his parents. The story is told over two semesters, the first where he meets Himillsy Dodd, free-spirited artist with a mean streak and a penchant for misbehavior. He adores her and they have some fun adventures, some at the expense of their teachers and fellow students. However, the next semester is where the story really begins. They enroll in Art 127, Introduction to Graphic Design, taught by Winter Sorbeck, a cruel and brilliant professor who is determined to break their conceptions of art and power.

Sorbeck enjoys their misery and discomfort a little too much for my tastes, but at the same time, I kept having flashbacks to my college days and remembered that my favorite professor was the man who demanded that we think harder, reach higher and refuse to be sheep in the fold. He was cruel at times and impossible to please, but darnit if we didn't keep trying. Our narrator feels much the same way, so I could relate to him constantly trying to achieve what is unlikely to ever happen: getting Sorbeck's approval.

There was plenty not to like about this book. Himillsy is shrill, annoying and makes way too much effort to be shocking. Sorbeck is a louse, even if a talented one. Kidd takes way to long to get to what I felt what the real point of the book. Some of the "typical" college kid antics felt unnecessary and the ending was ubrupt and flat. But what I wish I could talk to someone about was the fact that Sorbeck teaches them art can be powerful. I'm a musician, so I know the power than music as art can have, but reading about design made me realize how much power there is in that medium. Some of the points Kidd tries to bring out made me want to just drive around and look at signs, or flip through magazine ads.

Even though I didn't get a bunch of stuff in the book and parts of it annoyed or disgusted me, I'm still kinda glad I read it. I don't often read about art or design and it was a good branch to scoot out onto. This round of book roulette didn't turn out to be a complete dud, I guess. Oh, and as a small spoiler, I never did find out what a cheese monkey was. Guess that means there's probably a sequel, but I don't know if I'm up for much more cheese monkery.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Clementine is my new favorite Ramona

I grew up on a steady diet of Beverly Cleary's Ramona Quimby, John Bellairs' Johnny Dixon and Donald J. Sobol's Encyclopedia Brown. Toss in some books by Louise Fitzhugh, Judy Blume, E.B. White, and Zilpha Keatley Snyder and you have the first five or so years of my life as a independent reader. As soon as I started having children, I wanted to make sure they got to read the same books that I loved. In fact, shortly after I found out I was pregnant with my first daughter, I joined a children's book club. It was probably jumping the gun a bit, but I knew it would take years to amass a collection that would give us plenty to read in between library trips.

Ramona Quimby has got to be one of the best children's book characters of all time. In Beezus and Ramona, you see her as a irrascible preschooler who is in constant mischief mode. In Ramona the Pest, Cleary started writing with Ramona's point of view instead of Beezus's, which probably saved the series right there. Beezus is kind of a wet blanket. Then Ramona became more than just comic relief and a source of ideas for wreaking havoc. She became relatable. I read Ramona Quimby, Age 8 when I was eight years old and I felt like she and I were actually twins separated at birth. Cleary obviously knows kids. Cleary's other books are just as well-written, with children who act and think like children. Sounds obvious, but some authors either make the children so over-the-top ridiculous (can we say Junie B. Jones?) or too saccharinely sweet to tolerate (I hate to point fingers, Babysitters Club).

With all this praise for Ramona Quimby, let me tell you about some books that nearly reach the Ramona pedestal. Sara Pennypacker's new series about a girl named Clementine has hit our house full-force and taken over story time every single evening. Her first book, appropriately named Clementine, introduces us to this curly-haired little girl who is allergic to sitting still, calls her little brother vegetable names, lives in an apartment building her father manages, and tolerates the hoity-toity attitude of her friend, Margaret. It's told from Clementine, first person, and right off the bat she tells the story of how Margaret chops off part of her own hair in an attempt to get glue out of it, but ends up whacking her hair to bits. Clementine offers to help by coloring hair back onto her head with permanent markers. Margaret's mother is thrilled, as you can imagine.

Clementine is so well-meaning and her ideas make so much sense to her when they pop into her brain, but she ends up in the principal's office more often than not (sometimes at her own request) and her parents end up exasperated. Clementine is eight years old and sometimes I think, "She's too old for some of these stunts. She should know better." Then again, didn't you know kids at that age that were doing things like gluing bottle tops to the bottoms of their shoes? Oh wait, that's in The Talented Clementine. I won't say any more to ruin the story for you.

The fact is, Clementine is so funny, so likeable, so readable, that you forgive anything that seems a bit over-the-top. Our entire family would congregate on my bed to read another chapter and see what she was going to do next. I can't say whether or not she is as relatable to eight-year-olds as Ramona was to me, oh so many moons ago, but she sure is worth reading. There are only three books out so far, but I know what I'll be on the lookout for whenever there's a book sale. These are going in the permanent collection.