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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Liar & Spy, written by Rebecca Stead. Wndy Lamb Books, Random House. 2012. $18.99 ages 10 and up

"And then I think about all those thousands of dots Seurat used to paint the picture. I think about how if you stand back from the painting you can see the people, the green grass and that cute monkey on a leash, but if you get closer, the monkey kind of dissolves right in front of your eyes. Like Mom says, life is a million dots making one gigantic picture."

I read this much discussed book front to back, without a break. I was totally captivated by the characters, unaware of the mysteries and in awe of Rebecca Stead's extraordinary storytelling. She had me from the start:

"While the rest of the class is hanging on every syllable that comes out of Mr. Landau's mouth, I'm looking at the false tongue poster and I'm kind of wishing it wasn't wrong. There's something nice about those thick black arrows: sour here, salty there, like there's a right place for everything. Instead of the total confusion the human tongue actually turns out to be."

It has such heart, while also being funny, sad and sometimes downright scary. Georges (named for Georges Seurat) is moving, from the house that he loves to a new apartment. The move does not mean a new school, or neighborhood. It is a result of his father's job loss and the need to downsize. While his father starts his own business (a lifelong dream), his mother is working double shifts in the intensive-care ward to earn extra money as they struggle with their new reality.

In a bid to make his father happy, Georges finds himself attending a 'spy club' meeting in their new building, where he meets Candy and her older brother Safer. They are unusual, to say the least. Georges soon finds himself embroiled in some spying within the building. He and Safer keep watch for Mr. X through the lobby camera that is available to all tenants. Safer tells him that the man dresses only in black and can always be seen lugging big suitcases to and from his apartment. Safer worries that he is up to no good, and he convinces Georges to help him spy; ultimately, he suggests that they should go into the apartment and see if they can find any evidence. Georges becomes quite fearful and refuses to help Safer...he doesn't want to break any laws.

I really like the characters who helped to make Georges' story resound with me. Safer, Candy and their family are most interesting, and I love the way the author develops Bob English as friend and confidante. He is intelligent, accepting and supportive of Georges. Bob is very interested in spelling reform and uses the notes he passes to Georges to champion it. Candy has a special sparkle and some of the best lines in the book...she is a true free spirit, and a welcome voice.

Games play a defining role in this book...from Scrabble and the tiles Georges and his mother use to leave each other notes morning and night, to the spying games that Safer and Georges play in trying to determine what exactly Mr. Xi is doing, to the blue team and the games they play in gym class, and even the game that Georges plays with his gym teacher concerning their mutual love for Fridays and the joy of the coming weekends.

There are big issues here; they never overwhelm the story by being about them. The interactions between all characters are wonderful and kept me thoroughly entertained and involved in the action. The twists are unexpected and eye-opening and make for a very satisfying read. Bravo once again, Ms. Stead!

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