Blood Moon Over Britain, by Morag McKendrick Pippin

>> Tuesday, May 01, 2007

I wasn't completely convinced by Morag McKendrick Pippin's first book, Blood Moon Over Bengal, but I found it interesting and original enough that I bought her next Blood Moon Over Britain. Also, a book set in WWII England! How could I resist?

BTW, the two books are unrelated, in spite of the similar titles.

LONDON, 1942

With the clouds of war dark and cold hanging over her, Britain is fighting the Nazis nearly alone. German U-Boats are sinking homeland-bound supply ships, the Desert Fox's panzers are winning in North Africa and the Luftwaffe seems to be shooting the RAF out of the skies. But Britain has an ultra-secret weapon: The German Enigma Code has been broken, and agents at Bletchley Park are spending 24 hours a day decoding the messages. Hope remains.

Cicely Winterbourne is one of the workers at Bletchley Park. She's an ordinary girl, but nearly every dirty little secret of WWII passes through her hands. One may get her killed. Already two people have been murdered, and Cicely must find out who wants her dead: the Germans, the Russians, or an entity too terrifying to consider. The world hangs in the balance, and as perhaps the only person in Britain able to save her country, Cicely knows she can confide in no one..not even Alistair Fielding, dashing war hero of Dunkirk.

The first law of espionage is to never trust anyone, not even those who make you burn with desire. Especially not when there's a...

I've just reread my review of the previous book, and though obviously, the plot differs, my perception of what was good, what was mediocre and what was bad is so identical that I could perfectly just cut and paste here!

But first a little plot summary: Cicely Winterbourne works as a clerk at Bletchley Park, where some of the most top secret work of war-time Britain is taking place. When her cousin and his lover, who are both just as involved as she is in the secrets of Bletchley Park, apparently commit suicide in quick succession, Cicely suspects the worse. And her suspicions are confirmed when she finds a secret code among her cousin's possessions.

Travelling to Cornwall, where she'll hand the code to the only person she knows she can trust, Cicely is joined by Alistair Fielding, the Scotland Yard inspector who was in charge of investigating her cousin's death. Cicely knows enough about spying to realize she can't depend on anyone but herself, and Alistair doesn't like Cicely's apparent ease at subterfuge at all, but both will need to trust each other in order to stay alive.

Here's what I wrote about BMOBengal:

Pippin is a new author and I think that even if I hadn't known that as I started the book, I would have figured it out. There's just a certain awkwardness there, especially in the initial sections of the book.
BMOBritain does show a bit more polish, but things are still don't flow as they should.

I think my main problem was with the characterization, with how most characters felt like caricatures, rather than like real people. Their reactions were way over-the-top, and the dialogue felt stiff.
Right, yes, and 99% of the secondary characters remain that way. Even Cicely and Alastair start out flat and awkward, but things do improve with them. Their characterization is a bit on the superficial side, but they develop some interesting depths.

I especially liked the role reversal in how they perceived that in a war, sometimes even the good guys are forced to behave in not-so-perfect way. It's usually the heroine who's idealistic and can't seem to understand that sometimes certain lies are necessary, and the hero who's world-weary and experienced and knows how things work.

It's the opposite here. It's Cicely who has already come to terms with the fact that though the Allies have deciphered the Enigma code and know where the German air raids will hit, they can't warn people because they'd reveal that they have the code. That would mean the German blockade would starve Britain completely, and so it's been considered the lesser of the two evils. Cicely obviously doesn't like it, but she accepts that it's a choice that had to be made. Now, Alistair is completely different. He's the naive, idealistic type, and he has the hardest time understanding how Cicely can keep this secret. He's got this very simplistic dislike of everything duplicitous and initially rejects Cicely for being a liar, never mind that liars like Cicely are necessary for his country's very survival.

Anyway, it's an interesting conflict, which could have been even more interestingly explored.

There's a whole lot of telling and not showing in the romance. We're told about how Nigel is sooooo lusting after Elizabeth, but it's just that: told. I didn't feel it, didn't feel I was being shown that.
It's a bit like that with Alistair and Cicely. He's supposed to be incredibly horny every minute he's with Cicely, but the chemistry doesn't sizzle much.

Also, for all that I found Pippin's portrayal of her setting and her exploration of the main issues of the time fascinating (and, in fact, I thought this was the very best thing about the book), I can't deny that at times, this just wasn't naturally integrated into the story. Sometimes (and especially at the beginning of the book) you could see the author's hand very clearly, as she introduced characters solely for the purpose of expounding at length about this or that, whether it was believable or not that they would do so, usually using slang that felt self-conscious to me.
I'm afraid that was the case here as well. Some historicals feel steeped in their period and the sense that we're in that particular time and place is seamless. This wasn't the case here. It felt as if I were watching dressed-up characters play their roles before a WWII movie set.

Oh, it was an excellent, very rich and detailed set, full of realistic details. The person who built it had studied for years, and taken the care of finding the original old furniture (no reproductions allowed here) and the person in charge of the wardrobe had searched vintage boutiques for months in order to find the right clothing, from the very period. But it was still characters dressed up in costume playing their roles in a set, not real people in the real place and time.

Er, convoluted analogy, much? Anyway, it could have been done better, but it was a fascinating setting all the same, made all the more interesting by the fact that it's so uncommon in romance. And it really took me back to my school years, so there was also a feeling of nostalgia as I read. No, I'm not that old, it's just that I attended the British School here in Montevideo, and we spent a lot of time studying this period. One of my most vivid memories was of watching a BBC miniseries in class that followed a London family from 1939 onwards. The ration books, the bombings, the kids going to stay with families in the countryside, it was all there. Oh, and what sticks in my mind the most: the eldest sister drawing a vertical line down the backs of her legs so that it looked like she was wearing stockings!

And this is just about where my comparison between the two books ends. All that's left to add is that this one had another thing that bothered me somewhat, and that was how it was so easy for anyone (and I do mean anyone... not just professional German spies, but the son of a small town butcher charged by his dad to protect Cicely) to follow them, whatever circuitous routes they took and whatever steps they took to conceal themselves. I kept going "yeah, right" when I read that.

Like the other book, a B-. I'll probably keep reading Pippin's books, as long as the settings continue to be as unique.


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