Robyn Reviews: The Stranger Times

‘The Stranger Times’ is a debut comedy-fantasy by Caimh McDonnell, an Irish stand up comedian. The premise is excellent – a divorcee seeking a job to pay the bills accidentally ends up working for Manchester’s leading newspaper of the paranormal (or at least, what people claim to be the paranormal). The urban fantasy elements are solid, but unfortunately the comedy isn’t my cup of tea.

Hannah Willis is desperate. After finally divorcing her serial cheater of an ex-husband – and accidentally burning down his house in the process – she needs a job, any job, to pay the bills. After a series of failed interviews, she finally responds to an ad she isn’t entirely sure is real:

“Publication seeks desperate human being with capability to form sentences, using the English language. No imbeciles, optimists or Simons need apply”

Suddenly she finds herself the assistant editor of ‘The Stranger Times’, a newspaper of the world’s weird and wonderful – from a parrot that its owner claims is the reincarnation of Elvis Presley to a haunted toilet in Scotland. She’s not sure what’s weirder – the paper’s subject matter or her new colleagues. However, when tragedy strikes, she finds out that the paper’s subject matter might have a grain of truth after all -and everyone at ‘The Stranger Times’ is in the firing line.

Hannah has great potential as a protagonist. A woman who’s gone from being a trophy wife in Knightsbridge to living in a spare room in Manchester, her entire life has fallen to pieces – and that’s without bringing the secret existence of the paranormal into it. However, whilst the novel is told through her eyes, she’s never developed as fully as she could be. She’s more used as a piece of normality amongst the strangeness of everything else in the book than as a fully-fledged character of her own. She’s likeable enough without being particularly memorable.

The other employees of ‘The Stranger Times’ are far more interesting – especially Banecroft, the paper’s editor who was once a famed media mogul and ended up at ‘The Stranger Times’ after a public mental breakdown, and Manny, a secretive man who runs the printing press. Banecroft initially comes across as incredibly unlikeable, but whilst he’d be an awful boss he becomes far more endearing as the story progresses. Manny plays a relatively small part but is an absolute sweetheart with a clearly fascinating backstory.

The plot is solid – the adventures of the employees of a paper about the paranormal – with some great twists and turns. Where it falls down is the humour. The approach is slapstick and over-the-top, making all the characters unnecessarily caricaturic. As the plot progresses, and starts to become a more conventional urban fantasy rather than a comedy, the novel improves – but the lack of subtetly at the start is hard to recover from. Those who like their humour brash and juvenile may love the approach McDonnell takes, but those who are more fond of biting sarcasm and clever quips will probably struggle with it.

My other big issue is with the dialogue. This isn’t a particularly fast-paced book – there’s a slow introduction to all the main characters before the plot takes off at all, and once it does there are regular interruptions – but it’s slowed to a turgid pace at times by the dialogue. Several of the characters are clearly intended to be very proper, which is shown by the omission of abbreviated words during speech – were not instead of weren’t, it is instead of it’s. I can see why McDonnell has chosen to do this, but it makes simple sentences take an awfully long time and feels very stilted. It says a lot that in a book featuring haunted toilets, the way characters speak is sometimes the least believable part.

Overall, I’m sure that some people will love this book, but unfortunately it isn’t the book for me.

Thanks to Transworld and NetGalley for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of my review

Published by Transworld
Hardback: 14th January 2021

Gig Review: Adam Kay in Bristol

Last Thursday evening my husband and I set off, through chaotic travel conditions that had emptied motorway traffic onto every other route toward Bristol, to attend a sold out show I had booked tickets for in the spring. It was touch and go whether we would get there on time but we made it – just! Judging from the empty seats in the auditorium a fair few didn’t.

We were there to see Dr Adam Kay on his comedy tour based around his best selling book, This Is Going To Hurt. Much of his material was taken from the published diary entries. Added to these readings were songs in a similar vein.

The show is very funny. I did feel a tad sorry for the doctor seated near the front who Adam kept referring to for laughs. Hopefully he took it in good spirits.

There was further audience participation in a sing along quiz. This worked better than it may sound – Adam had most of the audience in the palm of his hand.

My husband, who hasn’t read the book, was laughing more than I have seen in years throughout the evening. He wasn’t, however, impressed by the way the show was concluded. Having shared the very moving reason for resigning as a doctor, Adam gave his views on health secretaries and the way governments blame staff for problems in the NHS, which the media duly reports thereby influencing the general public’s perceptions. He asked that we consider the challenges of being a medical practitioner where, despite best endeavours, patients may die. Doctors are human. They sometimes make mistakes. The job is stressful enough without having to face accusations of greed when ninety hour weeks are being worked to ensure patients are cared for.

On that somewhat downbeat note the show ended. Adam received rapturous applause and moved to the foyer where he signed books purchased. He had explained earlier that, on each leg of the tour, a local bookshop is invited to provide stock as some tax may thereby be paid.

It was an enjoyable evening. Fairly short – for a show at that price, not a book event – at around an hour but was packed with laugh out loud anecdotes and irreverent banter. If you haven’t read it already, I recommend the book.

Gig Review: How to Build a Girl

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So, yesterday evening my daughter and I jumped on a train to Bristol for a girls night out. I say jumped on a train. Husband actually drove us to the station and came inside to buy our tickets, because manned ticket offices are just so last year and I am utterly inept when it comes to machines. If I ever have to face a cyber army that demands I remember any sort of number or password under pressure then I am doomed.

Prior to setting off on this latest adventure I had Googled the hell out of Bristol centre, plotting and memorising our journey from station to venue. Wonder of wonders, I broke the habit of a lifetime and did not get lost. We traversed that mile across the city like pros. Can I say that? Do you now have a picture in your head of a different type of street walker? Moving swiftly on…

I had promised daughter food, but when it came down to it was rendered useless in the face of vast quantities of people, buildings and traffic. Realising that there was a risk she may not be fed, daughter took me in hand and marched me across streets filled with street art and and an eclectic mix of people such as would never make an appearance in our sheltered little corner of Wiltshire. It was fabulous. We found a supermarket, stocked up on picnic items, and went to sit, eat and watch the world go by. I had never before realised that, just as London has its black taxi cabs, Bristol has blue. Simple pleasures.

Suitably sustained for the evening ahead we made our way to the venue, Colston Hall, where Caitlin Moran was due to take to the stage to tell us How To Build a Girl.

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What can I say about Caitlin Moran? She comes across as outrageous, irrepressible, hilarious, rude and slightly bonkers. She is also as real and inspiring as any entertainer I have had the pleasure to go see live. Within the first half hour she had the 1769 women and 53 men in the sold out venue standing on their chairs shouting “I AM A FEMINIST!” My daughter and I were right there, seven rows back. The only members of the audience who didn’t join in were the ones who fell off their flip up chairs, victims perhaps of the lure of the bars on such a hot, summer’s night.

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The evening was such fun. I loved the fact that the audience, although mainly women, were of all shapes, sizes and styles. Theatre attracts the affluent, music gigs the fans, Caitlin attracted women in all their incarnations. It was refreshing to feel at home, not to have to even think about what I looked like despite being out in public. It was a rare and thought provoking experience.

And my daughter loved it too, she even thanked me for taking her. At seventeen she was amongst the youngest in the audience, which I thought a shame. Young women would benefit from hearing this message presented in such an amusing and irreverent way. Woman are normal even though we are not men, we should not allow ourselves to be conditioned to feel shame.

A great night out was completed with a slow exit from the hall during which we saw Caitlin taking more photographs of the crowd with her phone. I loved the thought that she was as blown away by the camaraderie as the rest of us. Daughter and I made our way back through the buzzing city streets of Bristol, avoiding the leers of passing men, to catch our train home.

Thank you to My Independent Bookshop for providing us with tickets to this event. Daughter was most impressed that I was on a gig guest list, and very much enjoyed being my plus 1.

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