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The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence, read by Kim Hicks (Random House Listening Library, four cassettes, about four hours, $26, unabridged). A children's mystery doesn't have to be cute or contemporary. This tale, set in Rome's ancient port of Ostia, tells a sometimes-violent story, but is suitable for a mature fourth-grader. The adventures of a sea captain's daughter centers around the unexplained deaths of dogs in her neighborhood.

In her adventures, the girl detective visits a cemetery, buys a slave whom she hopes to free and almost becomes a slave herself. The well-researched tale also touches on prejudice against early Christians.

Despite the mature themes, the good-spirited story celebrates the sleuthing skills of children. The British-accented narration adds a classic tone. Preteens will find this depiction of ancient Italy inviting and exciting.

-- Knight Ridder Newspapers

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