3 out of 4 stars
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Few books have amused me as much as Tara Basi’s literary humour novel Masterminders. Set on the windblown Small Island somewhere off Britain, the story chronicles narrator Terry’s one year with Bobby as a member of their Masterminders duo, hatching plans for quick financial gain or dabbling in philosophy from their base on the school playground.
Driven by low funds to rediscover her Catholicism, Terry’s mother enrols him at Small Island’s Catholic primary school. There he meets Bobby, the brighter half of the Masterminders. The Masterminders try solving such problems as global warming, women’s troubles and politics with a variety of schemes and dodges thought up by Bobby while Terry remains his baffled sidekick, whether they reach the brink of complete failure or have just a taste of success. Meanwhile, they contend with and try to outsmart the Power Three, the trio of playground bullies, among which is Madge, Terry’s cheese grater wielding love interest. The eccentric Small Islanders often aid Terry and Bobby with their missions, chief among them Mr Singh of the Post Office, Chips and Sweets Emporium. While most of the Masterminders’ cunning plans led to entertaining calamities, the book takes a serious turn when Terry learns that Bobby’s father is terminally ill. Terry, in his dim but good-hearted way, is determined to help, and without Bobby’s knowledge, sets in motion a Masterminders charity scheme on his own, with the help of Small Island’s citizens.
This book had me laughing from the first page; its deadpan wit will appeal to readers who appreciate subtle humour. Masterminders reminded me of Ben Elton sitcoms and the tone of Adrian Mole, which indicates what a reader can expect from the book. Each chapter deals with a specific problem the boys try to solve, or a subject they want to master. I think the chapter “Politics” is brilliant; at the start of their campaign to establish a one-party state in the school with Bobby as Supreme Leader and Emperor, he patiently explains to Terry that politics is “Never lying to people while avoiding, at all cost, telling the truth.”
Apart from some small editing errors, the writing is intricate, clever, and a delight on its own. Since Masterminders has the plot as its focus, the characters are quick sketches and archetypes. It would have undermined the witty quality of the book if Basi had lingered on her characters’ inner lives. We know Bobby and Terry by their works, and the rest of the cast by their levels of eccentricity. Mr McStrumpy, former world sheep-throwing champion, stands out as the most Pythonesque character in Masterminders.
As I have to consider the editing errors, I’ll rate Masterminders 3 out of 4 stars. I recommend this book to children, teens, and readers who enjoy fine comedy, clever writing and absurdly funny stories.
[The publisher has reported that the minor editing errors noted by the reviewer have now been fixed.]
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