Friday, April 28, 2023

Interview with Olga Wojtas

A time-traveling Scottish librarian with a chip on her shoulder because the school she proudly attended (the Marcia Blaine School for Girls) was panned in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and a feminist philosophy that she does her best to inflict on a past where it is very much unwelcome—who could resist such a heroine? Certainly not me. Olga Wojtas’s tongue-in-cheek approach to history—a trait she shares with her main character, Shona McMonagle—makes a nice change from the more serious historical fiction that so often crosses my path. I have yet to read the second novel, Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Vampire Menace, but I have read the first and the third.

Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar (book 1) takes place in the Russian Empire on a date that is never specified but can be deduced from clues in the text. Shona knows she has a mission, but not what it is, and much of the action involves her swanning about St. Petersburg high society trying to figure it out before her assigned week ends and she is summoned back to contemporary Edinburgh in disgrace. It’s all very lighthearted, especially the contrast between Shona’s view of her own near-omnipotence and the reality that lies right under her nose.

Book 3, Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Weird Sisters, has just come out. For this one, Shona remains in Scotland but travels far into the past, where she encounters Macbeth. Yes, that Macbeth. Also Lady Macbeth, King Duncan, the three witches—I could go on, but you get the idea. There’s even a cat with three names, in an unspoken but, I assume, not unintended nod to T.S. Eliot. To celebrate her latest publication, Olga Wojtas agreed to answer my written questions, so read on to find out more about Shona and her various missions.


This is the third novel featuring your time-traveling librarian, Shona McMonagle. What was your inspiration for this series?

I’m a journalist and a news junkie and was getting stressed out by current events, so I decided to write a comic romp where the reader could relax knowing that everything would work out and there was no jeopardy. Normally there’s character development in novels, with the protagonist going on a literal or metaphorical journey. I don’t have anything like that—my heroine is exactly the same at the end of her missions as at the beginning and has learned nothing. A great influence was P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books, where Bertie constantly gets into terrible scrapes and has to be bailed out by Jeeves.

Shona goes first to tsarist Russia and then to fin-de-siècle France. How do you pick your settings?

I studied Russian and developed a love of its literature, especially Tolstoy. That was the inspiration for the first novel because I could steal some scenes: the grand ball; the duel in the forest; the drama involving a train. The second novel was inspired by the time I lived in Grenoble in France, which is in a valley surrounded by mountains. It had a vampire theme, and I imagined a French village surrounded by mountains so high that the sun never reached it. There’s a vampiric link with Aberdeenshire in Scotland, which led me to introduce a real person, the Scottish-American opera star Mary Garden. She became Debussy’s muse in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century, which suggested the time period.  

Before we get to the current novel, tell us a bit about the Marcia Blaine School for Girls and its proprietor. And how does The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie get in there?

The Marcia Blaine School for Girls is where Miss Brodie teaches in Muriel Spark’s novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It was based on James Gillespie’s High School in Edinburgh, Scotland, the school Dame Muriel attended and where I went as well. I’ve fictionalized the school even further, giving it the motto Cremor cremoris, the crème de la crème. My heroine, Shona, is appalled by Dame Muriel’s novel, which she believes has brought the school into disrepute. A librarian in Edinburgh’s Morningside Library, she spends her time preventing the book falling into the hands of readers. One day the school’s founder, Miss Blaine herself (who Shona calculates must be over two hundred years old but appears to be a woman in her prime, like Miss Brodie) turns up in the library, and Shona finds herself sent on a time-traveling mission. The aim of every Blainer is to make the world a better place, and time traveling means they can make previous worlds better as well.

From the title of this novel, it’s pretty clear that Shona will meet Macbeth and the three witches. What is her mission, to the extent that she knows herself?

It has to be said that Shona rarely, if ever, has a proper grasp of what her mission is. She occasionally muses that it would be easier if there were written instructions, but this usually results in a pain in her big toe as though someone has trodden on it very hard, so she tries not to complain too audibly. In this instance, she knows that Shakespeare’s Macbeth is historically inaccurate but finds events panning out in such a way as to suggest they’re following the play. She’s afraid that this may change the whole course of history, so she decides that her mission must be to prevent King Duncan being murdered when he comes to stay with the Macbeths.

Your three witches are, shall we say, a little more approachable than their Shakespearean counterparts. Describe for us, please, Ina, Mina, and Mo.

They’re sisters, Ina being the eldest and Mo the youngest. Ina and Mina always talk in verse, catalectic trochaic tetrameter to be precise. (Think of the Shakespeare version: “When shall we three meet again? / In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”) Unfortunately, Mo has never mastered poetry, and her two big sisters constantly mock her for this failing. They also tell her she’s a rubbish witch, but when there’s a genuine crisis, it turns out that family is the most important thing.

Another character we meet early on is a black cat known alternately as Hemlock, Spot, and Frank. Please say a bit about him and his multiple identities.

He’s a typical cat in that he’s conned two households into thinking that he belongs to them, so that he gets fed twice. He mooches between the witches’ cavern, where Mo has named him Hemlock, and Glamis Castle, where Lady Macbeth has named him Spot because of the white spot on his chest. However, he explains to Shona that he’s not actually a cat but an inadvertent time traveler called Frank, who can’t stand William Shakespeare.

Shona does, in due course, meet Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. What should we know about them in your rendering of the tale?

First of all, that there’s no such person as Lady Macbeth. Her real name was Gruoch, which is the name I use. Second, she and her husband speak Scottish Gaelic—his name literally means “son of life.” They’re a devoted couple, although she’s very definitely the one in charge. He does what he’s told, or at least he tries to. She usually has to sort things out.

I assume that Shona will embark on additional missions. Do you know where Miss Blaine will send her next?

I do.

Ah, were you looking for a bit more? In that case, I can exclusively reveal that the title of the next episode may well include the word “gondola.”
Thank you so much for answering my questions!

A great pleasure—thank you!

Olga Wojtas is the author of the Miss Blaine’s Prefect series and of cosy crime novellas. She lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Long Shadows

As anyone who read my written interview with C.S. Harris to celebrate last year’s release of When Blood Lies, the previous installment in this gritty historical mystery series set during the second half of the Napoleonic Wars, must realize, I am a hard-core fan of the Sebastian St. Cyr novels.

A large part of my enjoyment comes from following the maturation of Sebastian himself, as well as his relationships with various family members and love interests. But there are many other recurring characters—Hero Jarvis and her father; the actress Kat Boleyn; the Earl of Hendon, forever befuddled and somewhat appalled by the unconventional behavior of his heir; the Dowager Duchess of Claiborne; the pain-riddled surgeon Paul Gibson and, most recently, his live-in lover and fellow physician Alexi Sauvage—whose development I eagerly follow. So when I learned that another book in the series was in the works, I actively pursued the opportunity to feature the author on my New Books Network channel.

And the result was a wonderful conversation about how a young woman who set out to be an archaeologist wound up writing historical mysteries set in the 1810s. Read on—and most of all, listen—to find out more, including a hint as to what to expect from the next installment, What Cannot Be Said.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Fans of Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, know that the individual tales that form his saga combine complex, fast-paced, often political mysteries with a series of revelations about his family’s history that it would be churlish to reveal. All this takes place against the background of the Napoleonic Wars, mostly in Regency-era London with its vast social gap between the aristocratic rich and the starving, crime-ridden poor.

The eighteenth of Sebastian’s adventures, Who Cries for the Lost, begins a few days before the Battle of Waterloo, a cataclysmic event—unknown to the characters, obviously—that will end Napoleon’s military ambitions once and for all. A mutilated body is fished out of the Thames River and taken to Paul Gibson—a friend of Sebastian’s who served as a surgeon during the Peninsular War—for an autopsy. When Paul’s lover identifies the victim as her former husband and an aristocrat, the creaky wheels of the London policing system grind into gear. The Thames River Police may provide as much hope for justice as the costermongers and wherry boatmen of the city deserve, but a nobleman falls under the jurisdiction of Bow Street.

As the number of corpses rises and pressure from the Prince Regent in Carlton House intensifies, Sebastian must race to solve a series of baffling, seemingly disconnected murders before the outcry demanding a solution leads to the arrest and execution of his friends. Meanwhile, the country anxiously awaits reports from the Duke of Wellington’s army on the Continent, further stoking the tension, even as Sebastian confronts the reality of his nation’s past misdeeds during the war and wonders whether those atrocities explain the crimes being committed in the present.

Friday, April 14, 2023

Bookshelf, Spring 2023

What follows is just a few of the many books that have recently been or are still on my bookshelf for the spring. I’d also like to remind you of Erica Neubauer’s Intrigue in Istanbul, which I included in my winter list although it came out just last week. Other Spring 2023 highlights include Molly Greeley’s Marvelous, Sherry Thomas’s Tempest at Sea, Kristen Loesch’s The Last Russian Doll, and C.S. Harris’s Who Cries for the Lost—all covered (or due soon to be covered) elsewhere on this blog.

And now, on to the May and June novels I have been enjoying. All forthcoming books this time around, although I've made my way through a fair number of older novels as well in the last few months.

Amy Barry, Marrying Off Morgan McBride
(Berkley, 2023)
This classic historical romance matches Epiphany Hopgood, better known as Pip, with Morgan McBride—a free-ranging cowhand who has been stuck for years on a farm in Montana looking after his younger siblings. Pip, a fabulous cook whose outward appearance fails to attract the men of Joshua, Nebraska, answers an ad for a mail-order bride, not realizing that the person who placed the ad was not the intended groom but his young sister, Junebug, desperate for help in the kitchen.

When the truth comes out, Pip insists on staying, because the alternative is to return to a place where she’s never felt wanted. And sparks fly, both angry and passionate, as a result. As with all romance novels, we have a pretty good idea of where things will end up, but the road to get there is long and winding, and the antics of the irrepressible Junebug will keep you laughing along the way. You can find out more from my blog Q&A with the author on June 2, just after the book’s release.

Katharine Beutner, Killingly (Soho Press, 2023)
As a Mount Holyoke alumna, I couldn’t resist this psychological suspense novel based on the true-life disappearance of Bertha Mellish, a student, from the campus in 1897. As the author notes in the book, the result is deeply fictionalized—it would have to be, given that the real case was never solved and the little hard evidence that remains of what happened is tantalizing but not conclusive—but that doesn’t make the story any less compelling. On the contrary, Beutner fleshes out the bare bones of the incident, delving into Bertha’s past in Killingly, Connecticut, as well as her relationship with Agnes Sullivan, a would-be doctor from a poor Boston family who has been forced to conceal her Catholic upbringing to gain admission to the college. Through the overlapping stories of Agnes, the missing girl’s sister Florence, Dr. Henry Hammond, and the inspector whom Hammond hires to find Bertha, Katharine Beutner keeps us on the edge of our seats as she unravels their tangle of secrets and lies. I’ll be talking with her on the New Books Network in time for the novel’s release in early June.

Sofia Lundberg, Alyson Richman, and M.J. Rose,
The Friday Night Club (Berkley, 2023)
This co-written novel explores the lives of a little-known group of Swedish abstract painters. Three of the five—Hilma af Klint, Anna Cassel, and Cornelia Cederberg—were artists who drew their inspiration from the seances conducted by the other two during their regular Friday meetings. For reasons explained in the novel, the women’s artworks received so little recognition in their time that Klint secreted her paintings, stipulating that they could be viewed only twenty years after her death.

This story is interlaced with a contemporary timeline featuring Eben Elliott, an employee of the Guggenheim Museum in New York charged with organizing an exhibit of Klint’s paintings—a choice that brings him face to face with his own past. Even more impressive than the interweaving of these disparate story threads is the collaboration of the novel’s three authors. Like their nineteenth-century counterparts, they have created a single, seamless work of art. They will be answering my written questions on the blog the Friday after their book’s release on May 16.

Shelly Noble, The Tiffany Girls
(William Morrow, 2023)
We tend to think of Tiffany’s as a jewelry store, but its founder, Louis Comfort Tiffany, was perhaps best known for his dramatic artworks composed of colored glass. He was also unusual in that he both hired women artists and paid them the same rates as men. This novel juxtaposes the stories of three “Tiffany Girls,” as they were called at the time: Emilie Pascal, who flees France to escape possible criminal charges accrued by her abusive father, an art forger; Grace Griffith, who enjoys the security of her work at Tiffany’s but yearns to use her talents in producing political cartoons for the local papers; and Clara Driscoll, the real-life director of the women’s division and an artist in her own right. The result is a rich portrayal of working-class life in New York around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Shelly Noble will be answering my questions here on the blog in just a few weeks, after her novel comes out on May 9.

Ginny Kubitz Moyer, The Seeing Garden
(She Writes Press, 2023)
Nineteen-year-old Catherine Ogden appears to have everything: youth, wealth, birth, breeding, and beauty. No one in New York high society is surprised when she attracts the attention of William Brandt, an up-and-coming business tycoon from California. It’s 1910, and the job of women like Catherine is to marry well and make their families proud.

After a visit to the Brandt estate near San Francisco, Catherine accepts William’s proposal of marriage. But is it William himself who appeals to her, or his house and gardens? As the wedding day draws closer, Catherine must decide whether to fulfill her own expectations of marriage or those of her family.

The author’s descriptions of the landscape and its effect on Catherine are exquisite. I look forward to talking with her about both her setting and her richly realized characters on the New Books Network in July. The novel, though, will come out in May.

Marian O’Shea Wernicke, Out of Ireland
(She Writes Press, 2023)
This fictional look at the US immigrant experience in the late nineteenth century follows the life of a young Irish girl, Mary Eileen O’Donovan, whose impoverished family forces her into marriage when Eileen, as she’s known, has barely passed her sixteenth birthday. Giving up her ambitions to become a teacher, Eileen tries to be a good wife to John Sullivan, her much older husband. When the crops fail and her younger brother falls foul of the Fenians, she and John decide their only choice is to emigrate. After considerable effort, they reach the United States, only to discover that their troubles are just beginning. Find out more by listening to my New Books Network with the author, due in mid-May.

Friday, April 7, 2023

You Want Murder with That?

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the joys and discomforts of switching sides and talking about my own books on the New Books Network rather than asking questions of other people. Here I’m back in my familiar chair, talking with G.P. Gottlieb about the latest of her Whipped and Sipped Mysteries, a fun contemporary series featuring the amateur detective Alene Baron and her police officer boyfriend, Frank, who solves murders for a living.

One thing I love about this series—in addition to the recipes at the end of each volume—is that Alene’s life inside and outside the café she owns are just as important to the story as the crime of the moment. For someone whose main preoccupations are taking care of her kids, her ailing father, and her employees, this seems very true to life. Murder is both horrifying and compelling, but for Alene solving one is at best a fascinating distraction—one that Frank and her family and friends often urge her to leave to the professionals. Read on—and listen to the interview—to find out more about Alene’s latest case.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from the New Books Network.

In Charred, the third of G.P. Gottlieb’s Whipped and Sipped Mysteries, her heroine, Alene Baron, has a lot on her mind. Chicago is in lockdown, a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, complicating Alene’s already hectic life. The vegan café she owns can serve only takeout, and her three kids complain constantly about school via Zoom and the near-absence of opportunities to interact with their friends. Alene’s ex-husband is, as ever, no help. Her aging father also requires assistance, a reality complicated when his usual caretaker falls ill with the virus. Alene struggles to find time even to visit the café, never mind bake. But with her livelihood at stake, she must keep showing up, no matter how many conflicting demands tug her in other directions.

On the up side, Alene’s romance with Frank, a police officer, is progressing—although they have yet to make the relationship permanent. And conflict among her staff members has eased, even though they still argue about the best approach to the pandemic and the homeless man who regularly stations himself outside the café and insults staff and customers as they go in and out, among other issues.  

All that changes when Kofi, the boyfriend of a Whipped and Sipped staff member, stumbles over a charred corpse while searching for wood he can use in his artwork. Kofi’s girlfriend begs Alene not to involve the police, despite Alene’s protests that keeping secrets will undermine her relationship with Frank. Soon Alene has no choice but to find out what’s behind the mysterious death, even if it means delving into the long-buried secrets of her own family.