The Stranger Times by C.K McDonnell
As a former staff member of one of the most recognisable newspapers in my corner of the world, I was delighted to see "The Stranger Times" hitting the shelves of NetGalley. Thanks for the ARC, guys!
The book "combines [C.K. McDonnell's] distinctive dark wit with his love of the weird and wonderful to deliver a joyous celebration of how truth really can be stranger than fiction", and the blurb immediately caught my attention:
"There are Dark Forces at work in our world (and in Manchester in particular) and so thank God The Stranger Times is on hand to report them. A weekly newspaper dedicated to the weird and the wonderful (but more often the weird) of modern life, it is the go-to publication for the unexplained and inexplicable.
At least that's their pitch. The reality is rather less auspicious. Their editor is a drunken, foul-tempered and -mouthed husk of a man who thinks little (and believes less) of the publication he edits, while his staff are a ragtag group of wastrels and misfits, each with their own secrets to hide and axes to grind. And as for the assistant editor . . . well, that job is a revolving door – and it has just revolved to reveal Hannah Willis, who's got her own set of problems.
It's when tragedy strikes in Hannah's first week on the job that The Stranger Times is forced to do some serious, proper, actual investigative journalism. What they discover leads them to a shocking realisation: that some of the stories they'd previously dismissed as nonsense are in fact terrifyingly, gruesomely real. Soon they come face-to-face with darker foes than they could ever have imagined. It's one thing reporting on the unexplained and paranormal but it's quite another being dragged into the battle between the forces of Good and Evil."
We meet the cast of characters through the eyes of Hannah Willis. Following a divorce, she finds herself in a desperate need of a job. Quite by chance, and as if by the will of a wizard, fate decided she would answer to this ad: "Publication seeks desperate human being with capability to form sentences, using the English language. No imbeciles, optimists or Simons need apply…".
After a less-than-usual interview, Hannah joins the motley crew of the newspaper. Office manager Grace keeps the place running on threats, tea, and careful selection of biscuits. Reggie threatens to throw himself out of the window. Young Stella was given a choice between being arrested for breaking into the newspaper’s headquarters and entering the payroll. Nearly-naked Manny operates the printing press in the basement. Ex-Fleet Street editor Vincent holds tight grip on his staff as well as the bottle.
Admittedly, I was not fond of Vincent at all. I could find hardly any redeeming quality of the man in charge, and yet, to my surprise, he became the one I respected the most by the time the book was over.
Also, special mention to my favourite figure: DI Sturgess, a detective the paper deserved. Poor chap…
All the characters make The Stranger Times's Machester such a vivid place. And there is a one determined Simon.
The narrative is written in fluent sass - I laughed a lot! Sometimes it was the wit and sarcasm, and sometimes the situational humour, like Hannah's first Loon Day, when the paper invites readers to share their insane experiences, unbelievable stories, and tips on alien neighbours.
When I finished reading The Stranger Times, it left me wanting more. And to my delight, I found out that it is the first book in the series! As such, most of the narrative time is spent establishing the cast and the setting. I hope that next instalments have more action while maintaining the same level of humour and weirdness.
Overall, the book is part mystery, fantasy, thriller, supernatural, and suspense. It has a bit of everything leading to the fundamental battle of good vs evil.
I've read a few opinions that McDonnell leans heavily on archetypes, and the story lacks creativity. For example, the Accords or the monster's motivations could have been borrowed from a lot of urban fantasies. From where I stand, many books contain elements that were heavily inspired by previously published works. If they are used smartly and sparingly, they don't affect my enjoyment.
However, the most significant bit of criticism is related to the final boss battle. It left me longing for more action, more danger, or highest stakes. I was expecting more from, and for, the monster.
Overall this is a fun and enjoyable read, full of humour that is so desperately needed. I look forward to the next one!
Editorial note: the interstitials - newspaper clippings inserted throughout the book - were an exquisite touch adding to the story's overall feel. However, the e-ARC had some problems displaying them correctly.
-----The Stranger Times on Goodreads