Mystery at Sans Souci by Jim Hausman

Everybody knows how much fun parents have traveling with their kids! But the American, Air Force family in Jim Hausman’s Mystery at Sans Souci seems to have more fun than usual—when they are traveling and when they are not. Well, at least the seven children think it’s fun (and you will too!), but their poor mother quips, “If it gets to be any more fun, I may do a swan dive off the Eiffel Tower.” That’s only on page four, and she has no idea about all that is yet to happen!

And, oh, what adventures they are! The candid and witty twelve-year old Jim is our guide through the mad-cap mystery-suspense that is all fun! Even the youngest member of your family will enjoy this tale of the “Cincinnati Seven” and their misadventures in France.

The plot essentially revolves around a mysterious, shabby woman the kids nickname “Mad Mame”; a menacing giant of a man with one boot that is missing a heel; and a puzzling young man named Pierre. Oh yes, and we cannot forget “the Hawk”–a mysterious, bird-like man who wants the house the Hausman family has moved into. Something must be hidden somewhere in the two-story house…or in the surrounding country-side? Track down the clues with the children, who may be amateurs but seem to get the job done. Be warned, their crazy antics will keep you on the edge of your seat…with laughter!

You’d better hang on to your blue beret, though (red is for the bad guys!), because you never know when this family read-aloud is going to take a twist and a turn!

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Allan Quartermain by H. Rider Haggard

I had never heard of Alan Quartermain until two years or so ago. Then I discovered that Quartermain was a famous adventurer in epic stories written by H. Rider Haggard. When I stumbled across this unabridged audio book, I decided to listen to it. It would seem that the Quartermain series began with King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and continued for about a dozen titles. The book I picked up called Allan Quartermain (1887) is the sequel to Mines, but chronologically, it is also the last adventure of Quartermain. After the success of these two stories, Haggard wrote more adventures about Quartermain that took place at various points during his life. Enough with the background and on to the story….

This book begins with Quartermain mourning the death of his son Harry. His two companions Captain Good and Sir Henry sat around London twiddling their thumbs. The three friends then decided to return to Africa for one last big adventure. As fate would have it (it was in the script), they had heard of a lost tribe of white men in the heart of Africa and they wanted to see if the stories were true. Beginning their journey, they picked up their old Zulu companion Umslopogaas. The party battles vicious African natives through night time ambushes and later in a great battle to rescue a missionary’s daughter. They struggle against traitorous help and travel through a great underground river before reaching their destination.

Their destination is interesting. What one considers an ideal society says much about what they believe. Haggard writes about a lost society that worships the sun and dresses immodestly. He makes a big deal that the men and women only cover half of their chest and that everyone is good looking. This race, the Zu-Vendis, practiced polygamy and fought each other regularly, but overall was considered a superior society to Western civilization. In most instances, their failings were glossed over as minor. Sir Henry caused a great stir between the twin queens with predictable results…..

Overall, this was a well-written story. The biggest problem was philosophical. For example, Sir Henry decides (in the last chapter) to bring Christ to the people of Zu-Vendis, while he had submitted to and participated in their pagan sun worship ceremonies without a hint of disapproval. Haggard appears to be very supportive of syncretism though he favors Christianity. Furthermore, Haggard treats the African’s with some disdain (as was common in his day). Actually, for what it is worth, Haggard shows far more respect for the African then just about any author that I have read from that time period. The Zulu, Umslopogass, is highly respected by Quartermain while some of the other Africans are simply barbarous and evil.

In its favor, the book demonstrates good Victorian behavior through the example of Quartermain. Quartermain always strives to treat women well, even when they are his enemies. He also has great respect for creation and others. He often chooses to find peaceful solutions whenever possible though he is never afraid to execute truth and justice. Is he perfect? Nah, but he is certainly a better role model than most main characters in modern fiction.

If you have the opportunity, you should read this book. Quartermain is the quintessential adventurer; the original Indiana Jones. Have you ever read King Solomon’s Mines? What did you think?

Fairest by Gail Carlson Levine

“Fairest” is a retelling of an old fairy tale. The main goal of the authoress is to give life to the wooden characters (now, after so many movies of them, really caricatures), and flesh them out more . If you don’t know the fairy tale really well, it probably won’t hit you until about the end of the book. This was written by the authoress of “Ella Enchanted”, and it should be noted that the BOOK of that title is infinitely different and far superior to the movie that was produced by the same name. Personally, I like this newest offering better; the writing style is more mature, and… well, read on.

Plot: An ugly girl with a pretty voice, who was adopted by kindly innkeepers, learns that her voice has several special talents. In this land, singing is the preffered method of speech, so despite her outward appearance, Aza is beloved for her ability to sing beautifuly. Aza can also mimic other people’s voices perfectly, and make her voice sound like its coming from another part of the room. Between this and her kind heart (SPOILER: she also has exceedingly black hair, blood red lips, and a round face with skin as white as snow,… oh, and yeah, she is poisoned by an apple at the end, only to be saved when the Prince knocks it out of her throat. Yes, in the original Snow White, she is not saved by a kiss, and I was rather impressed by that particular bit of attention to historical detail. END OF SPOILERS), she ends up becoming the lady in waiting of a beautiful, ruthless queen. Said queen will do anything to stay beautiful, and thus does everything that the source of her beauty, a magical being called Skulni, tells her to. The queen gets the monarchy into all sorts of trouble, and Aza is framed for it (the only person in the palace who believes her? The Prince, who also happens to see past her looks and… hey, I said it was twisted fairy tale, not a contorted one!). There are several subplots, involving the history of fairy-tale-land, court deception/intrigue, cute animals, and our heroine’s pursuit of being pretty in an appearance-obsessed court.

Pluses: Very well written, and engaging storyline. Makes you think about fairy tales in a new way. Refreshingly for a modern book (this was published in 2007), the men actually get manly roles and the women are, generally, quite feminine. That feminity, however, is not associated with stereotypical weakness; Aza is noted for being hefty, and has the strength that comes with a healthy weight. Also, most of the people in fairy-tale-land sing instead of talk, so there are a lot of fun “songs” in the text. Not all of them rhyme, but most qualify as poetry, and generally are quite pretty odes to themes like home, love, real beauty, etc. When our heroine decides that being good is better than being beautiful, given the choice, she is rewarded for it in multiple ways. The bad side of magic is given plenty of air time, with a not-so-very subtle message that you don’t want magic used on you or the ones you love (unusual for a fairy-tale story, and one of the reasons I really liked this book. Every use of magic has bad side effects for everyone involved, whether it was intended as an act of malice or as a wedding gift. This point is established with humor, but the overall morale is relatively clear.) Technically, this is a book for the teenager, but the narratives by Aza use such a beautiful, semi-mediveil language that it really is more for the college age group.

Minuses: Magic is discussed and used by fairies and other fairy-tale-like beings. Our heroine uses magic (with undesirable results, more on that in pluses). Violence includes people being hit with projectiles, coma-like state, smashing mirrors, fainting, imprisonment, various threats by guards, references to wars with ogres and how badly ogres treat their prisoners, poisoning, and, talk of assassination and of trying to kill people… nothing very graphic (no blood described). Two kisses, one before marriage, some ladies are described as having low-cut gowns, nothing else objectionable on that front. And lots of lying and deception and intrigue, almost all rebuked.

Overall: Very recommended. Either for personal entertainment, or as a read-aloud for the 7-and-up audience.