Thursday, November 14, 2013

Revisiting my very first post - Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

This is a copy of my very first review posted on September 4, 2012 on Randomly Reading. It is always interesting to see how things have changed and evolved.

From the Publisher:
When seventh grader Georges (the S is silent) moves into a Brooklyn apartment building, he meets Safer, a twelve-year-old coffee-drinking loner and self-appointed spy.  Georges becomes Safer's first spy recruit.  His assignment?  Tracking the mysterious Mr. X, who lives in the apartment upstairs.  But as Safer becomes more demanding, Georges starts to wonder: how far is too far to go for your only friend?

My Thoughts:
When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn (Flatbush, as a matter of fact) my best friend and I became fascinated with a lady that lived in the building next to ours.  We would sit on the stoop, endlessly speculating about the incredibly exciting life we had convinced ourselves that she led.  After all, she was a singer, always wore lots of perfectly applied makeup, even to walk her dog, and to us that meant a glamorous life.  We kept up our speculations for about five days, but it turned out that things were not what they seemed (her life may actually have been duller than ours) and then the allure of games and friends proved to be more fun.  I hadn't thought about that summer in years, until I read Rebecca Stead's new novel Liar & Spy.

Something about Georges and Safer and their spying adventure reminded me of our youthful selves.

Well, almost.  Things aren't going well for Georges.   His dad has lost his job, his mother, a nurse, is working more hours than ever to make up for it, and they have just moved from the house to an apartment.  At school, his best friend has abandoned Georges for some much cooler kids and he is being bullied by some boys who have nicknamed him Gorgeous.  Homeschooled Safer looks like a pretty good bet as a friend at this point, except that he doesn't ever leave the building.   And Georges never sees his mother because she is always at the hospital, but they do communicate by leaving messages for each other using Scrabble tiles.

It all seems so straightforward, not good, but straightforward.  But one must remember that at the heart of this novel is a 19th century Impressionistic painting by Georges Seurat and as his namesake explains "What you can't tell from our poster is that the picture is painted entirely with dots.  Tiny little dots.  Close up, they just look like blobs of paint.  But, if you stand back, you see that they make this whole nice park scene, with people walking around in old fashioned clothes.  There's even a monkey on a leash." (pg11)

And that is the whole point of the novel - that sometimes things are not what they seem to be until you look at the big picture. 

I have to admit I was a little disappointed with Liar & Spy when I first finished it, especially when I thought about how great Stead's Newbury winner When You Reach Me was.  But then, the story started to worm it way into my thoughts and the more that happened the more I began to really appreciate the incredibly clever way the story is woven together, each part adding to the whole picture and the wonderful subtleties of Stead's writing. 

And it is all peopled with characters that are unique, full bodied and perfectly suited to Liar & Spy.  Even the not-frequently-appearing bullys are drawn so well that you can really feel the bullying.  And Safer's smart, sassy, sweet-loving little sister Candy is just the right humorous touch to make the spying not spill over into creepy.

One small piece of advice: there are lots of little hints in this novel to enable the reader to begin to form a big picture.

This is a book not to be missed and I wonder if enough time has passed since Stead's 2010 Newbury award so that it can be a Newbury contender this year.

My only objection to Liar & Spy as far as the middle grade reader it is aimed at is that there is no picture of the Seurat to use as a point of reference, since it plays such a big part and maybe not many kids would bother to go look it up.  So here it is for anyone who wants to know what it looks like:

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grand Jatte - Georges Seurat

This book is recommended for ages 9+
This book was received as an E-ARC from Net Galley

NB. This isn't the first time Seurat's painting served as inspiration.  The musical Sunday in the Park with George, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, was based on the book by James Lapine.  It won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, among other awards.  

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