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The Stranger Times (book 1) by C.K. McDonnell (book review).

Ever since mankind began to be curious about his environment, he has tried to explain things. What you understand doesn’t seem quite so scary. In the early days, weird phenomena were explained by the intervention of gods or other supernatural means. The Chinese once thought that banging pots and pans could chase away a dragon that was devouring the sun and causing an eclipse. It worked.

With the development of science, the modern Chinese person would be confident that dragons were not involved. There are still enough unexplained phenomena to give rise to weird theories. Charles Fort (1874-1932) was an avid collector of the weird, searching newspapers for stories of strange events such as rains of frogs. He published a number of books collecting these articles. In 1973, Bob Rickard started a magazine that evolved into the Fortean Times, continuing the work of Charles Fort.

The Stranger Times is the fictional version of the Fortean Times. C.K. McDonnell has based it in Manchester, and the offices are in a dilapidated, disused church. The editor is Vincent Banecroft. When Hannah Willis arrives for an interview as assistant editor, she almost turns around and walks out. Banecroft is drunken, unwashed, irritable, rude, and irritating. But she needs a job of some sort, as she has dumped her cheating husband and wants nothing more to do with him. Getting a better job is difficult, as she was suspected of burning down the marital home.

The team at the newspaper are a disparate bunch. Reporters Ox Chen and Reggie Fairfax get sent out to check reports of interest. Rastafarian Manny, who doesn’t always remember to put his clothes on, inhabits the ground floor, where the press that prints the paper resides. It is his responsibility. Stella is the apprentice, taken on when she climbed through the church window. Camped outside is Simon Brush, a youngster who wants to be the paper’s photographer but whom Banecroft has banished. The team is held together by Grace, the only one who appears to Hannah to be sane.

Although the team concentrates on weird events, they are unaware that there are real supernatural forces at work. The reader, though, is aware that there are strange things at work in Manchester. The villain of the piece is an American called Moretti. He tells Gary Merchant that he can cure his daughter of her illness, but he will have to help him. Moretti, though, is not someone who tells the truth or only the part of the truth that will benefit him.

Shortly after Hannah, against her better judgment, joins The Stranger Times as assistant editor, a number of strange events take place in the area. One is the death of a rough sleeper. Not in itself big news, but a witness said that he saw a huge beast attack him. Simon thought this might be his big chance. If he could get a story suitable for the newspaper, Banecroft would have to let him be part of the team. When he is discovered dead at the foot of an under-construction skyscraper, the police dismiss it as suicide. Some of The Stranger Times staff are not so sure and launch their own investigation.

To add to the complications, people are going missing and being collected by Moretti.

By the end of this novel, the team at The Stranger Times has a different view of the world that they inhabit.

Most books that declare that they are humorous try too hard, and for this reader, they generally fail to live up to the billing. This book takes its humor from the situation and the absurdity that the characters find themselves in. It works on many levels and is extremely enjoyable. The characters all have their own voices and personalities, making for a very enjoyable read. I look forward to the next installment in the series.

Pauline Morgan

February 2024

(pub: Penguin, London, 2022. 419 page paperback. Price: £ 8.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-5521-7734-4)

check out website: www.penguin.co.uk/series/StrangerTime/the-stranger-times

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