I admit to picking up Rebecca Stead’s newest book, Liar and Spy, with overinflated expectations. I loved her 2010 Newbery winner When You Reach Me, although to be fair even I couldn’t expect an author to write a book of that caliber twice. (Could I?) Liar and Spy really didn’t quite come up to my expectations, but I do like it quite a lot. It’s the story of Georges, a boy who has relocated from his beloved home to an apartment with his parents due to his father’s job loss. Life’s pretty good for Georges, except for that pesky problem of being bullied at school. He’s a seventh grader who gets picked on by the “in crowd” boys mainly because he’s not in the in crowd, but they really like using his name against him, changing it to “Gorgeous” and the like. Georges is good at compartmentalizing his life, so much so that no one at home really knows about this problem. In fact, at home his life consists of going out to eat with his dad and leaving his mom notes on his desk using Scrabble tiles since she often works double shifts as a nurse to supplement the family’s income.
All of this begins to change when he meets Safer and Candy, siblings who live in his new apartment building. Safer and Candy are unusual in many ways, perhaps the most predictable way being that they are homeschooled. ( 😉 ) (Certainly this element of the story deserves a post all its own!) Their parents are non-intrusive and kind, and Georges and Safer become very good friends. Their friendship is actually based on a spy club that Safer runs from his family’s apartment, with he and Georges the only members. Safer is convinced that a tenant in their apartment building is a crazed murderer who murders and dismembers visitors and removes them from his apartment in a suitcase. Georges and Safer spend a lot of time monitoring the lobby of their apartment building via the visual intercom system and arguing about actually entering the suspect’s apartment to look for clues. Their friendship is maybe a little odd (let’s face it–Safer is a little odd), but it’s good. That is, it’s good until Georges (and finally, the reader) realize that things really aren’t exactly as they seem. It’s not as sinister as it sounds, but it is rather unexpected–at least it was to me. While the story lacks the emotional impact and complete wow factor of When You Reach Me, it’s still a good, solid story with a lot of heart and just a bit of a sucker-punch in the end. The bullying aspect (which is done to death in middle grade fiction) is subtle and deftly handled, which is definitely a plus in the book’s favor. I read it because it’s a Cybils middle grade fiction nominee and it’s mentioned on SLJ’s mock newbery blog, Heavy Medal as a potential Newbery contender. I don’t think it’s Newbery material, but I could see that this particular novel might really appeal to kids, so perhaps it has a chance at at least being shortlisted for the Cybils. Again, it’s a little lackluster to me because of the high expectations I had when I began reading it (and because I confess to comparing it too much to When You Reach Me because the plot pacing is similar). Still, though–a solid read. (Wendy Lamb, 2012)