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