A quote at the top of the blurb on the rear cover of "Miss Blaine's Prefect and The Golden Samovar" by Olga Wojtas describes it as "Anna Karenina written by P.G. Wodehouse." That's a pretty good one-liner that gives something of the sense of a book that brings a number of usually very distinct genres crashing together to highly impressive effect. Historical fiction? Yes, definitely, as the setting is in Russia at some never-quite-defined point in the 1800s. Crime fiction (or, more accurately, that sub-genre sometimes called cosy crime)? Yes, there's a remarkably impressive body-count between the covers. Science fiction? Yes, the central premise has a little of H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" about it. Spy thriller? Yes, the protagonist put us in mind of a slightly ageing Modesty Blaise, albeit with a refined Morningside accent. And, last but certainly not least, humour? Yes, the story is played throughout with a keen eye for the ridiculous.
If we were asked to come up with our own one-liner to describe this book, it would be: "absolutely bonkers, but enormous fun".
Shona is a fifty-something Edinburgh librarian, impeccably educated at the Marcia Blane School for Girls. Her main aim in life is to gather and render inaccessible as many copies as she can of Muriel Spark's novel "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" which Shona believes gives her alma mater a bad name. But then she is selected, by Marcia Blane herself, to travel back in time to the Russia of the 1800s on a mission that is only clearly defined in terms of its one-week time limit. Shona is a wonderfully accomplished linguist, musician and (handily, as events progress) martial artist, and between getting to grips with the Russian society of the day, spends much of her energy trying to work out what it is she has been sent back in time to achieve.
For such a remarkable polymath, Shona does have a major failing. This is the inability to see beyond her starting assumptions and recognise emerging realities that are blindingly obvious to everyone else. As she sets off in pursuit of what she believes must be the objective of her mission, the reader is way ahead of her, and a lot of the comedy value comes from seeing the world through Shona eyes as she maintains a remarkably tight grip on the wrong ends of several sticks at once.
If you read a lot of books, then their definition and distinctness can sometimes have a tendency to blur at the edges. Not all that many books truly stand out as unique, and there are not all that many you know as you read them you will remember in a year's time. "Miss Blaine's Prefect and The Golden Samovar" stands out for all the right reasons, and it's certainly not a book we'll forget in a hurry. As the risk of repetition, it really is absolutely bonkers, but it's also enormous fun.