Friday, August 12, 2011

The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman by Ben H. Winters

Reviewed by Liesl

Published: 2010

It's about: (Stolen from the jacket cover) It all starts with a Special Project in Mr. Melville's Social Studies class: Solve a mystery in your own life. For seventh grader Bethesda Fielding, one mystery is too tempting to ignore: Ms. Finkleman. Bethesda is convinced that her mousy Music Fundamentals teacher is hiding a secret life, and she's determined to find out what it is. But no one is prepared for what she learns. Ms. Finkleman used to be...a rock star? Soon the whole school goes rock crazy, and a giant concert is in the works with none other than timid Ms. Finkleman at the helm! But the case isn't quite closed, and the questions continue to swirl for Bethesda. Could there be even more to the secret life of Ms. Finkleman than she already revealed? With the help of her rock-obsessed classmate Tenny Boyer, Bethesda won't stop until she solves the real mystery of Ms. Finkleman once and for all.

I thought: I confess, I bought this book for the cover. I was on a buying spree at Borders, and besides, I really liked the art of the artist who did it, so why not? Of course, that's risky. Don't judge a book by its awesome cover and all.

However, I'm glad to report that this book lived up to the charm of its cover. The writing is lively and delightful, told from a pretty much omniscient narrator that reveals just enough to help you piece the story together, but also withholds information to keep the reader intrigued. Its protagonist, Bethesda, is smart and works hard without being too much of an annoying know-it-all, and her classmates and teachers are entertaining. It has a School of Rock feel to it, what with the students' obsession with rock bringing out new personalities within them, but it still feels refreshing.

While this novel is more plot-driven than character-driven, the characters nonetheless are what brings the story to life. From the space-cadet Tenny to the psychotic principal Van Vreeland to the dictator Mr. Melville, I adored each character and constantly shouted in delight at their little mannerisms.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: Probably meant more for kids, as some of the characters are a bit much, but hey, I liked it. Easy read. Take an afternoon off.

Warnings: teenagers, with graphic exclamations of deity

Favorite excerpts: Bethesda stood and addressed the other kids at the table as if she were making a big closing argument in a courtroom. "This woman is a part of our lives! She's a part of our community! We take music from her every single day." (Which wasn't true, since music and art alternated, plus there were weekends and everything, but nobody interrupted. Bethesda was on a roll.) "And yet we don't know the first thing about her! Ms. Finkleman is a walking, talking mystery, right in our midst, and I am going to solve her! I mean solve it! I mean -- you know what I mean!"
And with that, Bethesda spun on her heel and exited the lunchroom. And then, a second later, came back. "I forgot my Snapple."
Then she spun on her heel and exited the lunchroom again.

"You are looking at me like I'm wearing a giant foam sombrero that says GO GROVER CLEVELAND on it."
"Yes. I was. I may have been. I can't remember. But, as you know, the fact of the matter are wearing a giant foam sombrero that says GO GROVER CLEVELAND on it."
Principal Van Vreeland leaped up from her desk. "And whose fault is that?"
"Um -- mine?" stammered Jasper.
"No," snapped Principal Van Vreeland. "But good guess."

In her imagination, Bethesda fixed her gaze on a distant mountaintop, reshouldered her heavy pack, and kept climbing. She had been tutoring Tenny Boyer in American history for three weeks, and they hadn't made much progress. Bethesda had decided that her task was a mountain, and she was a mountain climber. A brave mountain climber! A dauntless mountain climber! Audacious! Steadfast! Intrepid! (She had looked up brave in the thesaurus.) She was counting on the mental imagery to inspire her, hoping that if she just worked hard enough, Tenny would finally start getting this stuff.

What I'm reading next: Still Johnny Tremain (I get distracted easily), also Three Willows