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?
In the year that all of us Muriel Spark fans are taking advantage of the centenary celebrations to revisit her books, a lovely random invitation to join this blog tour enticed me with the dangling carrot of a book with shades of Spark’s most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Quite frankly I didn’t need asking twice, and although I rarely pick up comic crime capers, my interest was piqued by this one, and into the world of Shona, I eagerly scampered…
I think apologies are due to my fellow bus travellers, and staffroom sharers, who had to endure a flurry of guffaws and sniggers as I read this. This book is an absolute hoot, packed to the gills with entertaining misunderstandings, acerbic asides, and comic set ups that although by their very nature were farcical were not annoyingly so. Wojtas has an absolute field day with the inevitable gaps in communication- contemporary Scottish vs 19th century Russian- as Shona responds to each situation with her mellifluous brogue and earthy vernacular, underpinned by her obvious raw intelligence, and mischievous delight at bamboozling those around her. Although her use of language is the primary way she establishes an exotic difference from those around her, this is compounded by her encyclopaedic knowledge of facts and figures, accrued by her ‘crème de la creme’ education, and her by day. mild mannered librarian guise. She continually trawls the depths of this knowledge, to try to establish which period of history she has been transported into, and readily draws on it she needs to extract herself from potentially socially awkward, or perilous situations. I have read other books that have used this conceit in relation to the character, but unlike those I found this clever, witty, and brain-tickling. I have also absorbed a host of possibly useless knowledge, that may stand me in good stead one day, during a particularly knife-edge game of Trivial Pursuit…
Still on the subject of Shona, I would like to applaud the author on putting a more mature woman- no need for the ‘o’ word- as her central character, and the additional layer of fun it brings to the proceedings. With her obvious intelligence, comes a wonderful bluntness, and sense of self awareness that carries the plot beautifully, colouring her interactions with others, but also delightfully lowering her defences at times when her slight susceptibility to flattery becomes evident. She is proudly Scottish, totally adept at manipulating situations to her advantage, and exudes an air of confidence and charisma that charms and alienates in equal measure. As potent a figure as she is in the book, Wojtas does not neglect the need to provide Shona with a consummate surrounding cast, and this she achieves with her merry band of fatuous, wealthy upper class Russian women, and Shona’s inherited serfs, who ramp up the comic aspect of the plot, but allows us to recognise the unfairness and brutality of Russian life and society at this time. With reference to that, Wojtas places both Shona and us firmly in this period with her historical detail, and a heightened sense of place and atmosphere, with colourful, rich description, and accomplished scene setting.
Although I am not an ardent fan of the time travelling trope in fiction generally, I thought this was well executed, even if an amount of suspension of disbelief was needed, and the foray into the upper echelons of Russian society from the rarefied air of Morningside in Edinburgh was easy enough for Shona to insinuate herself in. Yes, the plot was a little obvious from a fairly early stage in the case of whodunit and indeed whydunnit, but to be honest, the book just carries you along on a stream of hilarity with our gung-ho gal Shona, that this matters little. A faint air of the ridiculous, more than a few belly laughs, and you may well pick up some interesting factoids too… Recommended.
(With thanks to Saraband Books for the ARC)
Catch the blog tour at these excellent sites: