Life is nothing but a board game

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The Homeward Bounders
by Diana Wynne Jones
written for ages 11-14 | acceptable
published in 2002 (1981) | HarperTeen | 272 pages

Jamie Hamilton inadvertently discovers "Them": a mysterious group controlling his world as a board game. He is himself discovered and is exiled as a Homeward Bounder, doomed to walk between worlds, forced to cross from one to another whenever a move finishes in its controlling game. He meets other Homeward Bounders and some natives and with their help starts a rebellion to overcome "Them".

A cross between science fiction and fantasy. The idea has interest; it's remarkably iffy if you choose to interpret as reality the notion of everyone's life being controlled as part of a sort of war game. The author manages to bring the legends of the Flying Dutchman, the Wandering Jew and Prometheus into the story quite skilfully, and the central character, Jamie, is portrayed well enough for one to have sympathy for his predicament at the end.

Tim Golden is a comptuer programmer living in London. This review first appeared on his website

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Feminists accuse author of mysogyny

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The Witches
by Roald Dahl
written for ages 7-10 | recommended
published in 2007 (1983) | Puffin Books | 208 pages

Author Roald Dahl unwittingly started a controversy a few years ago when he said in an interview about his book The Witches:

A witch is always a woman. I do not wish to speak badly about women. Most women are lovely. But the fact remains that all witches are women. There is no such thing as a male witch. On the other hand, a ghoul is always a male … both are dangerous. But neither of them is half as dangerous as a REAL WITCH.

For some reason this story about vicious witches, who masquerade as normal-looking women by day, has offended the sensitivities of people since its publication in 1983. Roald Dahl's witches hate children and want to rid England of every single child. Feminists have criticised it as being mysogynist because all the evildoers in the story are women. Libraries in England went so far as to ban it. Hollywood's most recent movie of the… click here to read whole article and make comments



The New York Times compared this book to the Narnia series

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The Emerald Atlas
by John Stephens
written for ages 9-12 | recommended with reservations
published in 2012 (2011) | Yearling | 449 pages

Ever since her parents left them ten years ago, Kate has felt responsible for her younger brother and sister, Michael and Emma. Shuttled from one orphanage to the next, the children have never given up hope that their mother and father would someday return. At age fourteen, Kate has vague memories of them, but no recollection as to why they left.

Eventually the threesome arrive at an unlikely home for children, run by a Dr. Pym with the help of his eccentric housekeeper, Miss Sallow, and obliging hired hand, Abraham. Michael is the first to note that an orphanage with only three children is not really an orphanage at all. Since they have never eaten or slept as well, however, they set out to explore their new home. Immediately they sense there is something amiss with their surroundings. Why are there no children at all in the village of Cambridge Falls?

The discovery of a magical atlas in an underground… click here to read whole article and make comments



City boy meets country boy

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The Hollow Land
by Jane Gardam
written for ages 11-14 | recommended
published in 2015 (1982) | Europa Editions | 160 pages

A series of short stories rather in the mould of Alan Garner. Each story centres on an episode in the lives of two families living on the Cumbrian Fells, one a local farming family, the other a London-based family who rent a cottage from the locals. The characters of Bell and Harry, local lad and city child respectively form the basis for most of the stories, with the stories spread over a number of years.

A pleasant read, especially the relations between the two families, initially quite hostile but later extremely close. The last story is particularly intriguing, set as it is some short time in the future when all fossil fuel is finished and steam, electricity, etc. are the only ways.

Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. This review first appeared on his site

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Scientists discover that aliens cause climate change

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The Arctic Code
by Matthew Kirby
written for ages 9-12 | acceptable
published in 2015 | Balzer + Bray | 336 pages

Everyone has always considered Eleanor a bit odd. She has a daredevil streak that often gets her into hot water. While her mother, climatologist Dr. Perry, struggles to understand her, she accepts that Eleanor will always be full of surprises. Dr. Perry simply blames the anonymous "donor" who is Eleanor's unknown father. The only person who seems to "get" Eleanor is Dr. Perry's brother, Uncle Jack. Uncle Jack lives with Eleanor and her mother, taking care of Eleanor when Dr. Perry travels north to study the glacier that is edging its way to the equator.

Living in Phoenix with thousands of refugees from the frozen North, Eleanor has grown accustomed to these absences, though she does not like them. All climatologists working with GET, the Earth's primary supplier of energy, desperately want to discover a way to provide heat for the world's population. Dr. Perry is no exception. When she sends cryptic messages to Eleanor on her "Sync" with instructions… click here to read whole article and make comments



This spooky story has a more adult perspective

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Dead Scary: the ghost who refused to leave
by Sally Gould
written for ages 9-12 | not recommended
published in 2014 | Orbis Media | 152 pages

The story goes that Adam's mother has inherited a mansion, so Adam and his family move into it. However, Adam, who can see ghosts and their auras, meets an unfriendly ghost who lives in the mansion. The ghost's name is Edward Lawrence. He has lived in the mansion since his death in 1945 and doesn't want Adam moving in with him.

The character of Edward the ghost is well-crafted and consistent in being presented as slightly uppity and well-spoken. Bad spirits from other worlds are shown to be defeated by good spirits and angels. The ghost struggles to be kind despite being in opposition to Adam whom he wants out of his house. Edward eventually uses his powers to send evil warrior spirits to try to get rid of Adam and his family. So the conflict between Adam, who wants to stay in his new house, and Edward the ghost, is what drives the story.

Although recommended on most websites… click here to read whole article and make comments


FRIDAY, 22 MAY 2015

A determined young patriot saves West Point

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Sophia's War: A Tale of the Revolution
by Avi
written for ages 11-14 | recommended
published in 2012 | Beach Lane Books | 336 pages

Young Sophia Calderwood and her mother return to the city of New York hoping not only to find their house but also Sophia's older brother William safe and sound. They are disappointed on both counts. Their home has been ransacked, either by British soldiers or looters, and William is nowhere to be found. They know he joined General Washington's army, but have had no news of him for quite some time. Compounding their fears is the reminder of a terrible scene they witnessed in the city: the hanging of Nathan Hale as a spy and traitor. A patriot herself, Sophia is both horrified and angered by the incident.

Sophia's outrage is soon fed by the humiliation her family must endure when a British officer is billeted to their home. Her parents warn the twelve-year-old that this man cannot know that her brother is fighting with the patriot army. The charming and handsome John André arrives, however, and Sophia has trouble… click here to read whole article and make comments


FRIDAY, 15 MAY 2015

Children defend the sanctity of human life

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Hitler's Angel
by William Osborne
written for ages 13-16 | recommended with reservations
published in 2012 | Chicken House | 336 pages

In 1940 two German-speaking teenagers who have escaped the Nazis and are now living in England are parachuted into Germany to retrieve a young girl who is believed to be an important bargaining piece in the war between the powers. They take her out of the convent where she is staying but are forced off their planned route and are pursued closely by Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler's ruthless head of security, and his men. While they travel they discuss Angelika's fate and agree that she should not be handed over to the British as a mere pawn in the game of war.

Otto and Leni (the names by which they go throughout the book until the very last page) are selected by the British as being German-speaking active teenagers with some initiative. The relationship between Otto and Leni is credible and straightforward. Thrown together unexpectedly with no knowledge of each other's background, they form a prickly alliance at first. Each leads… click here to read whole article and make comments


TUESDAY, 12 MAY 2015

The imagination provides a convenient means of transportation

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by Aaron Becker
written for ages 2-7 | highly recommended
published in 2014 (2013) | Candlewick | 40 pages

I always find picture books without text intriguing, and Aaron Becker's Journey and Quest are no exceptions. In each of them, a young girl and, eventually, the boy she befriends travel to distant lands using magical markers. The brightly colored objects they draw stand out amidst muted images of castles, flying machines, hostile soldiers, and flora. Their imagination enables them to draw objects that help them overcome obstacles and escape capture. Becker’s detailed illustrations provide much to discover and the potential to create a new story at each reading.

A former teacher, Jennifer Minicus is now a full-time wife and mother living in Ridgewood, NJ.

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Parents lose boy overseas

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Hiding Out
by Elizabeth Laird
written for ages 9-12 | recommended
published in 1994 (1993) | Mammoth | 208 pages

The Castles and the Fletchers are driving back through France to Calais and stop for a picnic. They leave in a hurry in their two cars, and Peter Castle is left behind. The parents have traffic problems and get different ferries so they don't realise their mistake until they reach England. Peter, meanwhile, decides to make a go of being stranded, finding things he can eat, lighting a fire and trapping fish, avoiding the local farmers. His father returns to France and mobilises the police who eventually find him.

The point-of-view shifts between the characters to create a nice balance of tensions, heightened by the communication problems of different languages. Peter faces up to his situation, and deals with his fears, mostly by recalling the advice or example of his father and grandfather. There is a subplot of the friendship between Mr. Castle and Mrs. Fletcher whose husband has just run off with his secretary, but this is suitably resolved… click here to read whole article and make comments


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Reading Matters is MercatorNet’s blog about children’s literature. Our goal is to enable parents and educators to find quality books for young people. For an explanation of our evaluation system, click here. We welcome reader input and new reviewers. We love comments on the book reviews. Write to us at

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