Red Edge by Des Hunt

I’ve only read a handful of books set in my home town of Christchurch. James Norcliffe’s Under the Rotunda was read to me at primary school and it stuck with me because I recognised the places that the characters went to. Recent kids books set here have focused on our earthquakes, including the wonderful Canterbury Quake by my good friend and fellow school librarian, Desna Wallace. Des Hunt’s latest book, Red Edge, has just been released and this story is set in Christchurch in the present day, a decade since the earthquakes. Red Edge really resonated with me and it feels like one of Des’ best books yet.

Cassi Whelan has just moved to a new house, close to the Red Zone in Christchurch, the area of cleared land that was once full of houses and streets. Cassi has moved houses eight times since the September 2010 earthquakes but she’s hoping this will be the last time. She lives next door to an abandoned house that is known as the Haunted House. However, with the help of her new friend and neighbour, Quinn, they discover that it’s not ghosts they should be worried about. Dodgy people are visiting the garage next door, there are wetas crawling around in there and large amounts of money appear in the letterbox. Cassi and Quinn know that something illegal is going on and they’re going to find out the truth. When they do discover what is happening they know it is up to them to stop it and bring the criminals to justice.

Red Edge had me on the edge of my seat the whole way through and I couldn’t stop until I knew how it all ended. Des Hunt really knows how to tell a story that draws you in immediately and keeps you furiously turning the pages. It’s fast-paced and some parts are quite nail-biting, especially in the second half of the book. Des makes you worry for his characters and hope that they can bring the bad guys down.

As someone who has lived in Christchurch my whole life I thought Des really knew my city. He doesn’t live here but it feels like he has driven the streets and knows the layout. He has clearly done his research. He has captured what it is like to live in this city and how years of earthquakes have affected us all. I’ve lived in the area where much of the story is set so I could picture everything so clearly.

The characters felt very real, from Cassi and Quinn to Lou and Raven. Cassi and Quinn are kids who were quite young at the time of the first earthquakes but it’s clear to see how they have affected their lives. Both Quinn and Cassi share their experiences of the September and February earthquakes and this part of the story made me choke up because their stories felt so real. Cassi prefers to be out in the open, running through the Red Zone because she knows that nothing can really fall on her if there is another big quake. She also sleepwalks which Quinn thinks might be tied to her cat running away during the earthquakes. Quinn is the target of vicious cyber bullying and the affect of this shows in his character. He is initially untrusting of Cassi, especially when it comes to her needing to text or call him. One of the girls at school has previously sent horrible texts to him and this starts up again after an incident at school. The adult characters in the story are wonderful too, especially Jim Maclean the ex-reporter, and Matiu the tow-trucker driver, who made me laugh every time. Des Hunt writes great villains and Lou and Raven are no exception. They’re nasty and sneaky and prepared to do anything to get their way.

Red Edge would make a fantastic read aloud for Years 7-9. It is a story that hooks readers straight away and keeps the tension high. This is New Zealand fiction for kids at its very best!

Sparks! Double Dog Dare by Ian Boothby and Nina Matsumoto

Sparks! by Ian Boothby and Nina Matsumoto is one of the funniest graphic novels for kids. I recommend it to kids in my library all the time. When I saw that there was a sequel coming I was super excited and I’ve been counting down the days. When I opened a book delivery for my school library the other day it was on the top and I did a little squee of excitement. Double Dog Dare is everything I hoped it would be – silly, funny and action-packed.

Charlie and August are two cats keeping their city safe, dressed in the mechanical superhero dog suit known as Sparks. When there is a family trapped in a burning building, a twister heading for a bus full of children or a pizza truck that’s crashed into the ocean, Sparks is there to save the day. But when a second, evil Sparks shows up and starts causing trouble everyone blames the real Sparks. Who is this fake Sparks and what do they want? It’s up to Charlie and August to uncover the truth and prove that Sparks is a good boy.

Double Dog Dare is another hilarious, explosive adventure with Charlie and August. While we don’t have the alien baby overlord in this story there is a lot of action, with explosions, fire and fights. August’s inventions always make me laugh and I especially love the way he uses the most advanced laser beam in the world. Charlie loses his confidence when a new cat moves in across the road. This cat is polydactyl (meaning it has extra digits on its paws) and Charlie thinks that August wants to replace him. After all, a cat with thumbs could do some pretty awesome things in the Sparks suit. Charlie’s insecurity leads to us getting a flashback to his life before he met August.

The story and the illustrations feel bigger and bolder than the first book. I really love the action of Nina’s illustrations that flows really nicely from panel to panel. I want to give a special mention to David Dedrick, the colourist of this book. The colours are sharp and really make the illustrations jump off the page. There is a lot of action in the story and David’s colours make the action pop.

I highly recommend both Sparks books and they have the kid tick of approval too (the first book is hardly ever on the shelf in my library). I hope there will be more Spark books to look forward to.

House of Secrets by Chris Colombus and Ned Vizzini

Chris Coloumbus is the writer and director of some of my favourite movies, including Gremlins, The Goonies and Home Alone.  He’s a gifted storyteller for the screen who has now delved into the world of children’s books.  His first children’s book is House of Secrets, co-written by Ned Vizzini, and I was interested to see if his books were just as good as his movies.

A secret history… A mysterious family legacy… Dark magic of untold power… And three kids who will risk everything to bring a family back together. The Pagett kids had it all: loving parents, a big house in San Francisco, all the latest video games … But everything changed when their father lost his job as a result of an inexplicable transgression. Now the family is moving into Kristoff House, a mysterious place built nearly a century earlier by a troubled fantasy writer with a penchant for the occult. Suddenly the siblings find themselves launched on an epic journey into a mash-up world born of Kristoff’s dangerous imagination, to retrieve a dark book of untold power, uncover the Pagett family’s secret history and save their parents … and maybe even the world.

House of Secrets is an action-packed blockbuster of a book about three children who are transported into the world of fiction.  There’s something in this story to appeal to all kids – adventure, mystery, magic, witches, giants, warriors, pirates, and fictional characters coming to life. Most readers have wanted to actually be in the world of a story at some stage, and this is exactly what happens to Cordelia, Brendan and Eleanor (even if it was the last thing they wanted).

Chris and Ned have said that the story was originally going to be a screenplay for a movie, but they thought it would be too expensive to make so they adapted it into a book.  I thought this came through quite clearly as the story really reads like it should be a movie.  It’s quite fast-paced and there is lots of action so it will definitely keep kids’ attention.  I can see why it would have cost so much to make this story into a movie, because it’s quite epic and there would be huge special effects involved.  The house that the children find themselves transported in is much like the Tardis (‘it’s bigger on the inside’), with lots of hidden passageways, and it gets battered about by witches, giants and pirates.  There are many different fictional worlds, filled with different creatures and characters.

Although I loved the story and the way the authors kept the action moving along, I found the children quite stereotypical and a bit flat.  Within the first 10 pages you’ve had a detailed description of what the three children look like and how old they are, which just seemed a little bit forced to me.  I guess it’s probably a movie thing and they’re trying to give us a picture of the characters, but you don’t need to know everything about a character within the first few minutes.

The plot races along right to the end and leaves the story hanging for the next book in the series.  I’ll be looking forward to discovering what comes next for the Walker children.

Phantom of Terawhiti by Des Hunt

Des Hunt is one of my favourite New Zealand authors because he writes action-packed adventure stories set in New Zealand.  The setting is always so important in his stories and Des has introduced Kiwi kids to parts our beautiful country that are both familiar and unexplored territory for them. In his latest book, Phantom of Terawhiti, Des takes us to Wellington’s wild southwest coast and introduces us to Zac, who stumbles on an interesting discovery.

It’s the school holidays and Zac thinks he might go crazy with boredom. He’s living in exile with his disgraced father on the remote Terawhiti Station on Wellington’s wild southwest coast. Then Zac and his dad witness a boat sink during a storm. Investigating further, Zac finds a set of unusual animal prints on the beach. Whose boat is it? And what creature could have made the prints? Soon armed men are prowling the coast, and threatening Zac, his friends and his family. He must do all he can to protect the Phantom of Terawhiti from those intent on hunting it down.

Phantom of Terawhiti is an action-packed adventure story, packed with mystery,  armed and angry Russians, brainless hunters, wild weather, a car chase, and a race against time.  Des Hunt is a gifted storyteller who never fails to write a story that grips readers and makes you keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.  In Phantom of Terawhiti there are plenty of heart-stopping moments, especially when Zac and Jess clash with the Russians.  The mystery of the ‘Phantom of Terawhiti’ draws you in and, even when the creature is revealed, you wonder how it will survive in the wild with the hunters trying to track it down.

Like the main characters in his other books, Zac and Jess are just normal Kiwi kids, who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (or maybe the right place at the right time).  Zac gets dragged by his dad to come and live on the remote Terawhiti Station, and it’s while he’s here that he discovers the wreck of the yacht and the paw prints in the sand.  When they discover the Phantom of Terawhiti, Zac and Jess know that they must do everything they can to protect it.  Kiwi kids will relate to Zac and Jess and will imagine themselves in their shoes.

Phantom of Terawhiti is one of Des Hunt’s best books so far and I can’t wait to see where in the country he will take us to next.

4 out of 5 stars