Daily Archives: June 8, 2012

The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman by Ben Winters

Bethesda Fielding is an over-achiever.  And when she is given the assignment to solve a mystery in her life, she takes it seriously.  Her target is Ms. Finkleman, the entirely unremarkable, and unnoticed music teacher.  No one in the school (staff, students) know anything about Ms. Finkleman, and it is only when Bethesda finds a scrap of paper that leads her to some 1990s punk rock music, that she discovers that Ms. Finkleman was apparently once Little Miss Mystery, lead singer of the popular band, The Red Herrings.

The school is quickly in an uproar over the jaw-dropping news, and Ms. Finkleman becomes the most famous teacher in school, when all she really longs for is continued obscurity and to forget the past.  However, wheels are in motion, and before Ms. Finkleman can regroup, her program for a multi-school music competition is switched from 16th-century English folk ballads to rock music.  In order to cope, Ms Finkleman makes a secret bargain with Bethesda and rock-obsessed loner Tenny Boyer to get the show off the ground.

Full of quirky humour, zany side characters and plot twists, this book feels like a tribute band for Gordon Korman (he gives the book his recommendation on the cover) or Louis Sachar.  And, as my co-worker points out, it’s very clever and smart, built for eager middle-grade readers like the over-achieving Bethesda.  As a classroom read-aloud, it would be perfect, and I’m sure anyone reading it will be keen to share it with the teachers in their life (I have plans to give it to two middle grade teachers I know).  A little School of Rock, a little Harriet the Spy, Ms. Finkleman is a fun and engaging read for those looking for a mystery and a little wackiness.

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Filed under Book Review, Books I've Enjoyed, Just Read, Middle Grade Fiction

Middle of Nowhere by Caroline Adderson

Caroline Adderson is a Vancouver, BC author with a lot of awards, and award nominations behind her.  She’s chiefly known for I, Bruno, a book for younger readers that I always feel I should have read, but haven’t yet made time for.  Her latest, Middle of Nowhere, is a bit of a granola book (teachers and other adults will love it), but is very well written and well told.

This is yet another story with a mother who is MIA.  I’ve encountered a lot of these lately – I guess mothers are a huge obstacle to interesting adventures – though usually there’s been a father kicking around.  Here it’s just twelve-year-old Curtis and his five-year-old brother Artie left on their own.  When their mother doesn’t return from work on time, Curtis is 100% positive she will – soon.  So rather than risk their being sent to a foster family, Curtis covers for his missing mother – scrounging to feed them, show up for school dressed and clean, and generally look like there’s an adult in their lives.  His faith in his mother, and all his efforts and worries are heart-breaking.

Things change for the better and more interesting when the boys make friends with Mrs. Burt, a frighteningly cranky old neighbour who asks them to run errands in exchange for some much needed food money.  Soon she is offering them an escape from their desperate situation (with landlords demanding rent and teachers closing in on the scent), and they take it.  As the trio begins their escapade to a cabin in the woods, the book becomes very complex.  It takes the reader and Curtis a long while to figure out what is up with Mrs. Burt – why she is so unhappy, so kind, and also so shifty.  I’m not sure what kids will get from this book (probably an interesting read), but adults will certainly sympathize with her and find her to be a rich and fascinating character.  And because it’s a children’s book, everything does end up ok, with a twist I truly didn’t expect.

Well told and with a bit of freshness, Middle of Nowhere is a solid book for 8-11 year olds and a nice addition to the children-abandoned-by-their-mothers genre.

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Filed under Book Review, Books I've Enjoyed, Just Read, Middle Grade Fiction