Dancing with the Enemy by Diane Armstrong

 I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but this is the first Diane Armstrong book I have read. It will not be my last, even though I tend to avoid stories that centre around WWII and the Nazis (most of my family died as a consequence of the pogroms and genocide systematically carried out by the Nazis and for years, I read and watched so much in an effort to try and make sense of such cruelty and atrocities, I became so despondent. After all, how can one make sense of the senseless?). But Diane Armstrong not only uncovers a lesser known chapter in WWII history (the occupation of Jersey by the Nazis) but writes such a compelling tale, I couldn’t put it down.

Dancing with the Enemy is told across two different time-frames. The first is the lead up to WWII on Jersey and how that island – indeed, the Channel Islands – was the last frontier before Europe, or a stepping stone to conquering England – depending which side you’re on. Facts are, Jersey was basically left to fend for itself once the German invaders arrived. In Dancing with the Enemy, we follow the extraordinary bravery and resilience (or capitulation) of the Jersey residents who remained, but especially the local doctor, Hugh Jackson.

With invasion imminent, Dr Jackson sends his pregnant wife to the safety of England but chooses to remain behind to care for his patients. Believing the separation would be brief, Jackson’s decision not only changes his life and that of his wife and son, but resonates in ways none could have foreseen.

Then, there’s young, angry and foolhardy but brave, Tom Gaskell who, determined to fight the enemy, not dance to their tune as his parents and others appear to, takes dreadful risks – ones that have catastrophic consequences.

When young, troubled Australian doctor Xanthe Maxwell arrives on Jersey decades later in the hope of finding the place restorative after experiencing terrible trauma, she not only stays in Jackson’s old house, but stumbles upon detailed journals he kept. From these, Xanthe learns, not only about the suffering and struggles of the islanders, but also their incredible bravery in the face of German hostility and barbarity. Upon arrival, she also meets an Australian academic Daniel Miller, on the island to research what happened to the small Jewish population when the Germans invaded.

As the novel segues between past and present, it becomes clear that Xanthe, Daniel, Hugh and Tom are connected and bound in ways no one expected.

Compelling, heart-wrenching and always fascinating, this is a masterfully written story that draws you in and doesn’t release you until after the final page. It explores the many ways in which humans so often work against their own best interests, can turn their back on goodness and kindness, and for what? How cruel and even downright evil we can be, but also courageous, irrepressible and above all, forgiving.

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The Alexandria Link by Steve Berry

Having read so many of the Steve Berry, Cotton Malone, books, I finally decided to return to the beginning of the series and read the ones I’ve so far missed. The first on my list was The Alexandria Link, which according to various websites, is Cotton Malone #2.

12157050As per usual, the reader is plunged into the action, before the narrative divides into three threads: in one, we follow Malone as he’s sent on a mission to recover the Alexandria Link. Apparently, he’s the only person in the world who knows what (actually, it’s who) this is. The second story line involves his former boss, Stephanie, and the marvellous Cassiopeia Vitt who are busy uncovering government corruption at the highest levels. The third story line involves a mysterious sect of powerful and wealthy men and those who rule them – they too want the Alexandria Link and will do anything to possess it, thus they kidnap Malone’s son, Gary.

So, before Malone can follow orders, he has to recover his son. When his ex-wife arrives to “help” him, things become fiery and the danger quotient is upped – this is mainly due to the presence of Pam Malone (see my comments on this below).

Moving from one storyline to the other, the narrative progresses towards a climax and the exposure of a secret so great it could unravel not only the major world religions, but the entire geo-politics of the globe as well.I admit, the great library at Alexandria and the promise there might be a “link” to it, even though it was destroyed by a catastrophic fire in ancient times is terrifically appealing and, in principle, the plot surrounding the library, and those chosen to protect it is a good one. I also didn’t mind the way Berry fiddled with historical and religious details in order to invent a cataclysmic “truth”. All good so far…

What I did mind was a few things that let down an otherwise fast and entertaining read. images-1The almost caricature-like portraits of the “baddies” (there is no other way to describe them – meaning they are two-dimensional and like something out of an early Bond movie. I was imagining Blofeld – even the thick accent and sycophantic henchmen were there. All the head honcho (bad) needed was a pet cat to stroke and possibly outrageous and heavily waxed mustachios to twirl).

However, compared to how some of the women are portrayed, this was nothing. Whether it was Stephanie being deliberately and, frankly, uncharacteristically obtuse to the point of wilful stupidity (mostly to further a plot point or allow a male to prove himself noble and her wrong) and being called or thought inept, an “arse” and various other names by men in power, including the President (it was interesting having read the later books to see how Stephanie and Danny Daniels relationship commenced) and having a marked lack of respect for them, or Pam Malone being a stupid bitch (I accept that she may take umbrage at her ex ordering her around the first time, but when her ignoring him almost causes loss of life and then she does it again, I thought this is just beyond plausible and makes her look like an utter fool; never mind when she chucks a hissy fit later in the book), I found it hard to swallow (admittedly, there is growth in Cotton and Pam’s new relationship later and that was good to read). Then you have the villain’s ugly daughter. Of course, she couldn’t be attractive, could she, that’s reserved for the likes of Cassiopeia or the “good” gals. I don’t know whether it’s just me, but these characterisations stuck in my craw. Again, I’ve no objection to Pam being shitty and angry and blaming her ex, but that this intelligent woman deliberately courted danger, causes death and then, in the middle of an operation, knowing Malone is the person she has to rely on to survive, does what she does just to gratify her rage and fright was so unnecessary and didn’t fit with the growth you felt occurring. Mind you, his actions didn’t either. He withheld information and then used that against her: and for what? So, he could get a little payback or just “keep the peace”? Didn’t gel at so many levels. Maybe it’s just me.

Finally, the Stephanie/US/Israeli governments storyline was made more complex than it needed to be and was, frankly, confusing in parts.

Overall, however, it is a good escapist read and I was able to put my misgivings aside as the end came quickly and I turned the pages eager to discover what happened next. I gave this 3.5 stars – the descriptions of various places were great, but the library, which Berry pulled from his imagination, is the one that lingers.


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