The Stranger Times by C.K. McDonnell (book review).

The Stranger Times’ is the title of this humorous fantasy novel by C.K. McDonnell and also the name of a fictional newspaper in Manchester that features stories of the paranormal, often sent in by readers. Examples of these are scattered through the book and include: ‘Dawkins Is God’, ‘Ghost Of Bowie Keen To Record New Material’, ‘I Wax To Suck Your Blood’ and my favourite ‘Everyone’s A Critic.’

This concerns the remote Wantaki tribe who either applaud or throw faeces at art drawn on a large rock by other tribe members. Researchers note that ‘the natives capable of producing the most faeces have become dominant.’ Perhaps a hint there of author McDonnell’s view of critics. He has nothing to fear.

The novel features several points of view but our hero is Hannah Willis, previously Hannah Drinkwater before she divorced her late, very rich husband when his philandering came to light. She quit university to marry him and now has no money, no qualifications and no work experience except living high and organising the odd charity ball. In desperation, she applies for the job of assistant editor at ‘The Stranger Times’ and, when successful, sets to work in an abandoned church with the odd crew of misfits who labour in that bizarre outpost of the fourth estate.

The editor is Vincent Banecroft, a foul-mouthed, shouty, bad-tempered whiskey drunk who used to be a bigshot on Fleet Street but cracked up when his wife died. Ace reporter Ox is an East Asian who argues a lot with Reginald Fairfax the Third, a tartan suited eccentric who threatens suicide every Monday but has hidden talents.

Grace, the office manager, is a god-fearing, efficient secretary and Stella is a stroppy but intelligent teenager who somehow manages to read a book while perpetually doing something on her mobile phone. The paper has its own press downstairs run by Manny, an efficient old-fashioned craftsman perpetually stoned who sometimes forgets to wear clothes.

Meanwhile, a portly little bald man named Moretti is going around Manchester scheming to perform some forbidden magic ritual. He’s involved with two deaths that appear to be suicides as they jumped from a tall building with no one else present. One of the dead is Simon Brush, a youth so keen to join the staff of The Stranger Times that he worked as a freelancer submitting articles, all rejected and investigated by himself the mysterious death of a homeless man. Simon’s own death arouses the interest of The Stranger Times reporters and they begin to investigate seriously.

The story is interesting enough to keep you reading, the characters are well-described and likeable and above all, it’s funny. C.K. McDonnell has been a stand-up comedian, a TV writer and had several well-received Edinburgh shows but now focuses on books. The early chapters reminded me of some Ben Elton novels I read long ago but without the overt political slant of those works. There are plenty of jokes built into the prose and a few laugh out loud moments.

Moreover, the plot isn’t simply a loose framework to hang gags on. It’s carefully worked out. The characters come across as real, albeit odd people that both Assistant Editor Hannah Willis and the reader begin to care about. There is drama along with the comedy which always makes it work better. Beneath the slick surface, a lot of labour and thought has gone into this book.

I’m not entirely sure that McDonnell has worked out a particular system of magic or a hierarchy for the powers that appear towards the end of the story but perhaps that will become clearer with the promised sequels. I look forward to them. Meanwhile, I enjoyed every page of ‘The Stranger Times’ and can recommend it as pleasant light relief in these difficult days.

Eamonn Murphy

January 2021

(pub: Bantam Press, Penguin. 432 page hardback. Price: £14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78763-335-3)

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Eamonn Murphy

Eamonn Murphy reviews books for sfcrowsnest and writes short stories for small press magazines. His works are available on Amazon and on Kindle Unlimited.

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