Masterminds by Gordon Korman, 336 pp, RL 4

Way back in 2011 I reviewed Swindle by Gordon Korman. As a bookseller and now a librarian, it is the perfect go-to book for boys who don't like to read. My quick pitch for Swindle, which is now a seven book series, is to tell kids and parents that it's basically a heist story, like the movie Ocean's Eleven but with kids. Korman is a skilled writer who can tell a fast-paced story with multiple, diverse characters in a way that is especially accessible for struggling or reluctant readers. Dan Gutman, prolific author of a recent favorite of mine (and my son's), The Genius Files series, is a similar sort of author, although Gutman's books are packed with humor and absurdity where Korman's books have a bit more suspense, sometimes of the nail-biting kind.

A fan of the movie the Truman Show, a concept I couldn't get out of my head long after viewing, as well as Lois Lowry's The Giver, the blurb for Korman's new book hooked me right away. Masterminds reads a bit like The Giver, if John Girsham had written it. Masterminds is narrated by five different voices, all residents of Serenity, a small, isolated town in New Mexico founded in 1937 with the motto, "Honesty, Harmony, Contentment." There are only thirty children in the town, population 185, and it's over eighty miles away from the nearest town. Most of the residents work at the plastics factory that makes orange traffic cones. As the story unfolds, you quickly realize that the narrators are living a Serenity-centric, sheltered life that shields them from the darker aspects of modern life like violent crime and war. Despite censorship of all kinds, including the internet, and a strict teaching of narrow doctrines (the children don't know what murder is and are largely unaware of the violent nature of existence in the rest of the country) that the narrators are initially unaware of, the individual personalities and curiosities of each narrator, three boys and two girls, lead them to a life changing discovery.

Eli Frieden, son of the principal of the town's school, begins the story trying to complete one of the many stunts his best friend, Randy, has cooked up for them. This one involves a boomerang, a tree house and a swimming pool. Later, a bike ride to the edge of town ends with a frightening, debilitating illness for Eli and a permanent trip to his grandparent's farm for Randy. Confused by this strange string of events, Eli tries to make sense of a seemingly normal promise Randy makes - one that leads to a huge revelation. Raised to always tell the truth - and to naturally assume that the truth is also being told to you - Eli struggles with what he discovers, unable to believe that he has been lied to by adults. His gradual realization and the choices he makes in who to share this with and how to respond are captivating - as are the truths behind the community of Serenity and the special children living there. Korman ends Masterminds with a spectacular, high speed car (well, truck, really) chase, a ride on a boxcar and a surprise visit to an old friend.

*********SPOILER ALERT*********
(read on only if you want to know the secret of Serenity)

A few other reviews I checked revealed this information, but I chose to keep it out of the main review because it is a great surprise. However, I do think that gatekeepers who will not be pre-reading this book should know this plot aspect. The children of Serenity are part of a grand scientific experiment that studies nature versus nurture. They have all been cloned from the DNA of some of the world's greatest (living) criminal masterminds. Raised in a secure community by adoptive parents, they are studied closely to see if they can overcome the criminal impulses that sent their DNA donors to jail. Near the end of the story, Eli discovers that he is the clone of a serial killer who left complicated crossword puzzles he made himself behind as clues. Masterminds itself is pretty tame in terms of the criminals, however, as this series unfolds I have no doubt that details about the criminals will be revealed. That said, I also have no doubt that Korman will present these details in an age appropriate manner.

Source: Review Copy

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