I want to begin this review by making a confession:
I own an Insight From the Dalai Lama calendar. You ever wonder who buys those for 75% at the bookstore? It was me. I admit it.
It is one of those page-a-day rip-off style ones with a new quote for each day. Except for the weekends - there is only one quote/page for Saturday and Sunday. I guess the Dalai Lama needs some time off too.
What does this have to do with Rebecca Stead's new book? Two things.
First, I was incredibly eager to see if Liar & Spy was going to live up to the Rebecca Stead of When You Reach Me. Like everyone else on the planet, I fell deeply in love with that book and Stead's writing style. To me, Stead is the Dalai Lama of children's books. Her prose are at once deep and moving but always optimistic and full of love. She writes with such economy and clarity. If Stead's words had a body, I think they would look like the Dalai Lama: smiley, comfy and a just a little bit kooky (have you heard the Dalai Lama laugh? It's a bit kooky. But enjoyable so).
I worried that this mix of loveliness and faith that permeated When You Reach Me was a bit of a fluke, and Stead was going to come out next with a dystopian adventure set in Norse mythology or something. Or that her next book would just be WYRM 1.0. But Liar & Spy isn't WYRM 1.0. It's just as good. It might even be better.
The second reason I bring up my Dalai Lama calendar is because I believe owning one is highly embarrassing. Isn't it just one step away from owning a Chicken Soup For the Soul book? I mean, really. And I don't just own the calendar, people. I save some of the quotes and put them on my fridge. I take them down before I have company, much like a murderer would hide the arms and legs of her latest victim before having a friend over for sushi and Mad Men.
I bring this up because it relates to one of the themes I found particularly intriguing about Liar & Spy, which is the theme of lying to oneself. I can't get into detail without blowing the lid off Stead's now-signature surprise awesome endings, but both main characters - Georges and Safer - have trouble coming to grips with aspects of themselves. That's really all the plot synopsis you need. This "coming to grips" theme usually makes up the whole plot of a middle grade book: kid can't come to grips with the fact she has an absentee parent, kid can't come to grips with the fact he is partly some sort of magical beast or wizard or whatever, kid can't come to grips with the fact he is a horn growing out his butt. You get the idea. But the brilliance of Liar & Spy is that figuring out our protagonists' weaknesses compromises the book's big climax/revelation - it's not the whole dang show. And that is cool.
Others have done much better Lia & Spy reviews wherein they don't divulge personal oddities and/or affection for the Dalai Lama. Travis Jonker has a great one over at 100 Scope Notes and Betsy Bird included it in her recent post on 2013 Newbery predictions (my money is on her money that it is going to be a Random House vs. Random House kinda year).
To end this post, I think we should all enjoy this moment of the Dalai Lama not understanding a joke about pizza.