Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas

Crème de la crème…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Shona McMonagle works in an Edinburgh library, putting to good use the excellent education she received at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls. Woe betide anyone who requests a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, though – That Book, as Shona calls it, which she believes so misrepresented all that the School stood for. Being a middle-aged woman of steady nerves and common sense, Shona takes it in her stride when the supposedly long-dead Miss Blaine shows up in the library one day. Miss Blaine is not dead, however – she is a time-traveller, and wants to recruit Shona to her elite team of people who travel through time on missions to sort out problems. Soon Shona finds herself transported back to Russia, sometime in the early 19th century, where she believes her task is to save young Lidia Ivanovna from marriage to an elderly general, and instead make sure she marries the super gorgeous and charming Sasha. But, despite her encyclopaedic knowledge of history, her multilingual abilities, and her skill in martial arts, sometimes Shona gets things wrong…

….“Yes,” I said, “every single Blainer is the crème de la crème by virtue of our outstanding education. But a depraved novelist claimed that this epithet applied only to a small coterie, the pupils of one particular teacher. And in a salacious misrepresentation of our beloved school and its irreproachable staff, she portrayed that teacher as a promiscuous adulteress who was prepared to prostitute her pupils. Pupils whose prepubescent sexual fantasises she described in sordid detail.”
….I had to clutch a nearby gilt salon chair for support, and to let my pulse slow down. I pride myself on my self-control, but this is a wound that will never heal.
….A lady sitting nearby leaned forward eagerly: “Please, Shona Fergusovna, may we have the name of this book and its author? In order that we may avoid it, of course.”

Well, this is a total hoot! Olga Wojtas has created a wonderful character in the astonishingly talented but oddly myopic Shona, a woman who can do just about anything but fails to see the blindingly obvious even when it’s right under her nose. The book cover mentions Wodehouse, and I see that comparison – Shona’s Russia has the same unreal quality as Wodehouse’s England, though not nearly as idyllic, and there’s no doubt the book had me laughing as much as Wodehouse does. But I’d be more tempted to compare it to Blackadder – based on ‘proper’ history grossly exaggerated for comic effect and with a central character who is somewhat apart from the others. The Russian aristocracy reminded me very much of Queenie and her courtiers, with their total disregard for their inferiors and their general level of silliness, while Shona’s chief serf Old Vatrushkin could easily have stood in for Baldrick. But Shona Fergusovna (as she calls herself in Russia) is much nicer than Blackadder – her ambition is to help everyone around her, even if they don’t particularly want to be helped.

….“If you’re not able to follow my instructions, then Lidia Ivanovna is not able to go to Madame Potapova’s party,” she said, yellow wool flowing from her needles. “Which is a pity, since I know she would enjoy wearing this fichu.”
….I sighed. “All right. I agree.”
….“You swear?”
….“Never. I believe it’s the sign of a limited vocabulary.”

The plot involves a whole host of ghastly deaths but it’s fine, because nobody cares and they mostly deserve it. One of the most fun aspects is that, unlike in most crime fiction where the point is for the reader to be way behind the fictional ‘tec and surprised by the solution, in this one, the reader sees what’s going on long, long before Shona catches on. Since we’re being told the story by Shona in first person (past tense), we are treated to her constant misinterpretations of the events around her. This could have been annoying if Shona had been less likeable, but it’s her desire to see the best in people and her kindness that lead her astray time and again, plus she’s very funny, sometimes even intentionally. She’s also a feisty feminist, who can’t help trying to spread political correctness everywhere she goes, much to the utter bafflement of everyone she meets, who seem to think their society is fine the way it is. It’s beautifully done – Wojtas manages to make fun of non-political correctness and political correctness at one and the same time.

….“We’ll start with a Dashing White Sergeant,” I told them…
As I played, the other musicians gamely following my lead, I called out clear, simple instructions for dancing the reel. “Forward, back, forward! Grab an arm! Twizzle! Hoppity-hop!”
….But despite the precision of my directions, it was a catastrophe. The dancers careered into one another, crashing into tables and chairs, smashing glasses, knocking over footmen. Then came an ominous commotion at the far end of the ballroom, and a shriek of “Saints in heaven! Save him!”

Olga Wojtas

Then there’s the Scottishness – such joy! So many Scottish writers abandon their Scottishness, understandably, so that their books can appeal to a wider audience. I sympathise, even though it annoys me. Wojtas instead makes a feature of it, and does so brilliantly. There’s no dialect at all that would make it hard for non-Scots to read, but lots of specifically Scottish references and figures of speech that had me howling. Any book that includes a reference to Jimmy Logan, a John Knox joke, a running gag on Jock Tamson and his bairns, and more than one side-swipe at the Glasgow-Edinburgh rivalry will work for me! But it will also work for non-Scots, because Wojtas lightly provides just enough information to explain the references, so that the jokes still deliver.

Great fun! I hope Wojtas is working hard on the follow-up because I really don’t want to wait too long to meet up with Shona again…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Saraband.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….After another short rest, Curtis finally made it to the third floor. It hadn’t been easy, but he was fifteen – old enough to get all the way to the top if he’d wanted to. He finally reached the beam he’d been dreaming of sitting on – perched like a bird over the city street below. When he got to the beam, he slowly straightened up and prepared to walk to the end of it. He knew he could do it: all it took was concentration. Foot in front of foot. He focused carefully and started moving. Then he heard it again – that same noise he’d heard earlier. He stopped for a moment but didn’t hear anything. Still, he couldn’t help feeling like someone was watching him.
….All of a sudden, the world spun out of control as Curtis felt a hard push from behind and lost his balance. He scrabbled frantically to grab something – anything – to keep him from falling…

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….Seated with Stuart and Brent Tarleton in the cool shade of the porch of Tara, her father’s plantation, that bright April afternoon of 1861, she made a pretty picture. Her new green flowered-muslin dress spread its twelve yards of billowing material over her hoops and exactly matched the flat-heeled green morocco slippers her father had recently brought her from Atlanta. The dress set off to perfection the seventeen-inch waist, the smallest in three counties, and the tightly fitting basque showed breasts well matured for her sixteen years. But for all the modesty of her spreading skirts, the demureness of hair netted smoothly into a chignon and the quietness of small white hands folded in her lap, her true self was poorly concealed. The green eyes in the carefully sweet face were turbulent, wilful, lusty with life, distinctly at variance with her decorous demeanor. Her manners had been imposed upon her by her mother’s gentle admonitions and the sterner discipline of her mammy; her eyes were her own.

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….It would be easy to blame the Chernobyl accident on the failed communist system and the design flaws of Chernobyl-type reactors, implying that those problems belong to the past. But this confidence would be misplaced. The causes of the Chernobyl meltdown are very much in evidence today. Authoritarian rulers pursuing enhanced or great-power status – and eager to accelerate economic development and overcome energy and demographic crises, while paying lip service to ecological concerns – are more in evidence now than they were in 1986. Could the nuclear Armageddon called Chernobyl repeat itself? No one knows the answer to this question. But there is no doubt that a new Chernobyl-type disaster is more likely to happen if we do not learn the lessons of the one that has already occurred.

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….So we two poor terrestrial castaways, lost in that wild-growing moon jungle, crawled in terror before the sounds that had come upon us. We crawled, as it seemed, a long time before we saw either Selenite or mooncalf, though we heard the bellowing and gruntulous noises of these latter continually drawing nearer to us. We crawled through stony ravines, over snow slopes, amidst fungi that ripped like thin bladders at our thrust, emitting a watery humour, over a perfect pavement of things like puff-balls, and beneath interminable thickets of scrub. And ever more helplessly our eyes sought for our abandoned sphere. The noise of the mooncalves would at times be a vast flat calf-like sound, at times it rose to an amazed and wrathy bellowing, and again it would become a clogged bestial sound, as though these unseen creatures had sought to eat and bellow at the same time.

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….“Yes,” I said, “every single Blainer is the crème de la crème by virtue of our outstanding education. But a depraved novelist claimed that this epithet applied only to a small coterie, the pupils of one particular teacher. And in a salacious misrepresentation of our beloved school and its irreproachable staff, she portrayed that teacher as a promiscuous adulteress who was prepared to prostitute her pupils. Pupils whose prepubescent sexual fantasises she described in sordid detail.”
….I had to clutch a nearby gilt salon chair for support, and to let my pulse slow down. I pride myself on my self-control, but this is a wound that will never heal.
….A lady sitting nearby leaned forward eagerly: “Please, Shona Fergusovna, may we have the name of this book and its author? In order that we may avoid it, of course.”

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 150…

Episode 150…

A massive drop in the TBR this week! Down 2 to 221! And now I’m snowed in there’s no excuse for not getting plenty of reading done… except that it’s much more fun laughing at poor Tommy. The snow’s deeper than he is, as he discovered to his shock when he bounced out the back door at dawn this morning and more or less disappeared…

The problem is when he comes in he thinks I’m perfect for warming his snowy feet on. Anyway, here are a few more that are coming up soon…

Factual

The last time I read one of Martin Edwards’ books, I ended up adding 102 books to my TBR. I’m hoping this one won’t have the same effect…

The Blurb says: Winner of the 2016 EDGAR, AGATHA, MACAVITY and H.R.F.KEATING crime writing awards, this real-life detective story investigates how Agatha Christie and colleagues in a mysterious literary club transformed crime fiction.

Detective stories of the Twenties and Thirties have long been stereotyped as cosily conventional. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Golden Age of Murder tells for the first time the extraordinary story of British detective fiction between the two World Wars. A gripping real-life detective story, it investigates how Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Agatha Christie and their colleagues in the mysterious Detection Club transformed crime fiction. Their work cast new light on unsolved murders whilst hiding clues to their authors’ darkest secrets, and their complex and sometimes bizarre private lives.

Crime novelist and current Detection Club President Martin Edwards rewrites the history of crime fiction with unique authority, transforming our understanding of detective stories, and the brilliant but tormented men and women who wrote them.

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Fiction

Courtesy of Bloomsbury via NetGalley. I requested this after reading two excellent rave reviews from Anne at I’ve Read This and Naomi at Consumed by Ink. These Canadians are dangerous when they hunt in packs…

The Blurb says: Michael and Francis are the bright, ambitious sons of Trinidadian immigrants. Coming of age in The Park, a cluster of houses and towers in the disparaged outskirts of a sprawling city, the brothers battle against the careless prejudices and low expectations that confront them on a daily basis.

While Francis dreams of a future in music, Michael’s dreams are of Aisha, the smartest girl in their school, whose eyes are firmly set on a life elsewhere. But the bright hopes of all three are violently, irrevocably thwarted by a tragic event.

Beautifully written and extraordinarily powerful, Brother is a novel of deep humanity which provides a profound insight into love, family, opportunity and grief.

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Weird horror

Courtesy of Pushkin Press via NetGalley. Another classic horror writer I’ve never heard of! And another who apparently influenced the ubiquitous HP Lovecraft…

The Blurb says: The four uncanny and terrifying tales contained between these covers are all linked by their reference to a certain notorious play, a cursed, forbidden play that has spread like a contagion across the world, a play in which the second act reveals truths so terrible, and so beautiful, that it drives all who read it to lunatic despair: The King in Yellow.

These stories are some of the most thrilling ever written in the field of weird fiction. Since their first publication in 1895 they have become cult classics, influencing many writers from the renowned master of cosmic horror H. P. Lovecraft to the creators of HBO’s True Detective.

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Time-travelling crime

Courtesy of Saraband. Having just read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (review to follow), this seems irresistible, especially since it might hopefully be a lighter addition to my Russian Revolution challenge as it draws near to the end…

The Blurb says: Fifty-something Shona is a proud former pupil of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, but has a deep loathing for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which she thinks gives her alma mater a bad name. Impeccably educated and an accomplished martial artist, linguist and musician, Shona is thrilled when selected by Marcia Blaine herself to travel back in time for a one-week mission in 19th century Russia: to pair up the beautiful, shy, orphaned heiress Lidia Ivanovna with Sasha, a gorgeous young man of unexplained origins. But, despite all her accomplishments and good intentions, Shona might well have got the wrong end of the stick about her mission. As the body count rises, will she discover in time just who the real villain is?

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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