James Russell & Dionne Christian review a selection of chapter books fit for presents.


by Maurice Gee (Penguin Random House, $20)

At the ripe old age of 85, Maurice Gee has certainly earned his retirement. That's what we all thought he was doing when, suddenly this year, he came roaring back with this.. For reasons unknown to Gee, he was haunted by the image of a girl perched in a tree, watching the activities of the people below. She wouldn't let him be, so he wrote her into a book. Fliss is the plucky heroine who lives in the North with The People, a gentle, civilised race. They're separated from the savage and brutal colonisers of the South by a giant, transparent wall that is beginning to crumble. It falls to Fliss to save it by venturing into enemy territory to find The One. Dark, stark, vivid and breathtaking. Vintage Maurice Gee. They say he's gone back into retirement. JR



by Sarah Johnson (Flatbed Press, $18

)It's surely the mark of a skilled writer who can bring to life such a bizarre premise as this book posits. Tiny food animals, formed from kitchen spillages, live under the cooker until they're swept up and banished to the land of In-The-Bin. One of these food animals, the Spaghetti Giraffe, is not like the others. He's carefree and curious about the world; he wants to get out and about. Besides, he can't fit under the cooker very well. He's also concerned about his creator, the wonderfully whimsical and shambolic Mina Cucina, who's fretting about the Bonbon Annual Confectionation and how she's going to avoid coming last — again. Cue food animals to the rescue. Sarah Johnson is the indie author/publisher of The Bold Ship Phenomenal, a Storylines Notable Book and shortlisted for the New Zealand Children's Book Award. The Spaghetti Giraffe is even better. JR

by Frida Nilsson (Gecko Press, $25)
From the pen of Swedish writer Frida Nilsson this is already a hit in a bunch of countries. Three cheers for Gecko Press, which brought it to us. When 10-year-old Siri and her little sister, Miki, row out to a little island to pick berries, only Siri returns. Miki has been kidnapped by Whitehead, a notorious pirate so feared by the locals that they don't even give chase. It falls to Siri to rescue her sister. But to get to Whitehead's hideout, she must find her way through a bleak, windswept archipelago before the winter sets in and the sea freezes over. It's a stark, frozen wilderness, infested with wolves and mermaids, rogues and villains. The odds are insurmountable. This book will make you shiver, even if you're reading it on a nice warm beach: exciting, brutal, sad and strange. JR


by David Almond (Walker Books, $23)

Poor old Bert's had enough of his job as a bus driver and enough of the annoying kids. Suddenly, he feels his heart flutter, and thinks that perhaps his number is up. Instead, looking down, he sees an angel in his pocket. So begins the wonderful tale of Angelino. He takes him home to Betty, who's so excited she pulls out all the stops — fried eggs, beans, chips and two types of sauce (red and brown) — for the little fella. The next day, she enrols him in the school where she works as a dinner lady. Angelino hasn't a clue who he is, why he's there or what he's supposed to be doing. But he does what all angels do — heal hurts, right wrongs and make life worth living. When he's kidnapped by the errant Kevin Hawkins, Angelino's classmates go to the rescue. Funny, poignant and endearing. JR

by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury, $19)
Katherine Rundell certainly has a way with words — here's (just) a couple of sentences from her book about four children lost in the Amazon: "The birds here make the birds in England look like they're dressed for a job interview" and "Wind is a trickster. It plays havoc with your courage." When Fred, Con, Lila and Max find themselves utterly alone and in grave danger, they need all the courage they can muster as they negotiate their way back to civilisation through the Amazon jungle. It's a classic journey story, inspired by Rundell's own trip to the Amazon, full of adventure and examples of the children's bravery, hope and luck that'll appeal to other kids. There's also pause for thought about the nature of civilisation and whether all secrets really need to be uncovered but it's never preachy. The illustrations at the start of each chapter are a beautiful bonus. DC