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Savannah Breeze by Mary Kay Andrews

Publisher:  HarperCollins  ISBN:  0-06-056466-0 

Reviewed by Susan Illis, New Mystery Reader

Recently jilted by her funeral director fiancé (which seems no great loss), Savannah restaurateur BeBe Loudermilk is feeling a bit overwhelmed by staffing problems at her restaurant, tenant problems with her rental properties, and her grandparents' health problems.  Renny, the financial services consultant she meets at a fundraiser, steps in to help.  If he seems too good to be true, he is.  In short order, he liquidates all her assets and takes off, leaving her penniless and homeless, but for her Lexus and her grandparents' sofa.

With the help of her attorney, BeBe learns that he has left her with one unexpected asset:  a rundown motel on Tybee Island.   Needing a place to live and some income, BeBe is determined to renovate and open the motel before Savannah's huge St. Patrick's Day celebration.  Unfortunately, along with dicey plumbing, rodents, and hideous decorating, the motel comes with a resident manager, Harry, a down at his luck commercial fisherman.

Weezie, BeBe's best friend and heroine of Andrews' Savannah Blues, is always up for a decorating challenge and quickly transforms the motel from nightmarish to shabby chic-cool.  With the motel bringing in some welcome cash, and Harry seeming more appealing everyday, BeBe gets a line on the man who conned her out of her fortune.  The unlikely quartet of BeBe, Weezie, Harry, and BeBe's grandfather heads down to Florida, with a scheme to reclaim BeBe's assets and catch Renny in his own game.

Savannah Breeze is tremendous fun.  Like the heroines in Mary Kay Andrews' earlier books, BeBe and Weezie take a harebrained idea and somehow make it work, even if it gives the reader sympathetic heart palpitations.  Not only will you not be able to put this book down, when you do, you may just find yourself scouring the real estate ads for a motor court hotel to buy and renovate!



The Last Cato by Matilde Asensi

Publisher: Rayo  ISBN: 0060828579

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader

What would you get if Umberto Eco wrote The Da Vinci Code, threw in a little Indiana Jones, and (unintentionally) seasoned it with some Monty Python? A mess, most likely. In the case of The Last Cato, a tedious mess.

A plane crash in Greece kills a bizarrely tattooed Ethiopian, who has a tiny piece of wood alleged to come from the cross on which Christ was crucified. Vatican research shows many relics of the True Cross are missing, some removed from supposedly theft-proof facilities. Ottavia Salina, a renowned nun/paleologist who runs a highly-classified section of the Vatican archives, is asked to bring her special expertise to bear on the mystery.

Dr. Salina is teamed with a respected peer from Egypt and a captain of the Vatican’s famed Swiss Guard, tasked with locating the relics, returning them, and bringing the thieves back to account for themselves to the pope. The trio quickly finds themselves up against a secret sect dedicated to the preservation of the True Cross. The Staurofilakes, as they’re called, have their own elaborate and grueling version of a hazing ritual to prove the worthiness of anyone who would find the cross. The tests require traveling to seven far-flung cities, each of which epitomizes a deadly sin, using clues found only through extremely deep and esoteric readings of the Purgatorio section of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Any complex book can be made to look stupid by condensing its plot too much. The Last Cato could be a lot of fun, if approached in the Indiana Jones mold; it could also be profound, if Eco’s path is trod. Author Mathilde Asensi chooses to follow the Da Vinci path, full of brilliant (if logically suspect) deductions made at the last second under mortal pressure, expressed in wooden dialog by characters in whom only a superficial effort is invested to make three-dimensional.

Asensi spins each test out to the bitter end, analyzing Dante’s text, describing the always grueling and endless trail to be followed, ending with one of the protagonists coming up with a dazzling insight in the nick of time. The first couple of tests are kind of cool; then they wind their way from interesting to bearable until you finally just want to shout, “Get on with it!”

Books like this live and die by their ability to get the reader to suspend disbelief. This can be done by not making things too unbelievable (Eco), or by making it obvious we’re just funning with you so you don’t mind that half of what happens is physically impossible (Dr. Jones). Asensi begs too many indulgences. The mystery sect has created under- and above-ground facilities that boggle the mind in their complexity and size, all of them perfectly maintained for over a thousand years, never discovered by anyone. Each test requires superhuman endurance and will, yet with a few hours’ sleep, our intrepid crew is ready to have at it again.

Asensi also labors too hard to maintain suspense. One test involves traveling the route of the original marathon between sundown and sunrise. Asensi makes it seem as though Lance Armstrong on a rocket sled would be hard pressed. In fact, the characters have nine hours to complete the task. Twenty-six miles is never a walk in the park (sorry, couldn’t resist), but it’s no more than a purposeful stroll for a healthy adult with nine hours in which to complete it.

Ottavia’s character also strains credulity. A brilliant scholar chosen for her unique mix of experience and brains, she’s remarkably obtuse about some things. The reader figures out two pages after Ottavia gets off the boat in Palermo that her family is a major player in the Mafia. It takes her almost forty years, realizing it only because an old nemesis spells it out for her. Then Ottavia goes from complete denial to full agreement, thinking about how she’ll get even with her mother for deceiving her all these years. Why the Mafia family link is even brought up is questionable, unless to play on the crises of faith that are sprinkled throughout the story at predictable intervals.

There’s more, but there’s no reason for this review to fall prey to the book’s eighth deadly sin: tedium. There’s good stuff in The Last Cato: the premise is intriguing, and all the ingredients are there for a religious thriller. Unfortunately, the proportions in this recipe were off, and the result is more like wallpaper paste than cake batter. A slow-moving thriller made to seem even slower by uninspired dialog and a heavy-handed approach, The Last Cato ends with a whimper, even if you still care by the time you get there.