As it so often happens, I took notice of this book thanks to the review from fellow blogger Lynn, but did not add it immediately to my reading queue, so that it took Lynn’s mention of the second volume in the series to finally push me start this one, and now I know I will not let too much time elapse before adding the sequel to my TBR because I had a great deal of fun with The Stranger Times.
The book title refers to a Manchester-based newspaper focused on the strange and the bizarre – like alien visitations or kidnappings, the birth of two-headed cows and so forth – its anchor to reality being that the paper is only reporting those weird occurrences, not stating a belief in them. The staff is just as eccentric as the news it publishes, consisting of Vincent Banecroft, the editor, a foul-mouthed, mean-spirited drunkard who lives on the premises; Grace, Banecroft’s secretary and office manager, whose main activities consist in keeping the editor’s profanities to a minimum and making tea for everyone; Reggie and Ox, the actual reporters, who seem to have lost faith in their work; and Stella, the young apprentice who looks far from happy about being there.
The latest addition to the team is Hannah, recently divorced from a philandering husband and the recipient of unwanted fame for having set fire to their home while burning the man’s clothes: having left her comfortable life behind, Hannah is in dire need of work and her last chance comes though the ad published by the Stranger Times, claiming to look for “desperate human being with capability to form sentences using the English language. No imbeciles, optimists or Simons need apply”. Despite the oddities of the place, and Banecroft’s foul temper, it does not take long for Hannah to find her niche as assistant editor in this new setting, and just in time, because strange happenings are troubling the city of Manchester and soon enough a death that touches the staff very close to home launches them into an investigation where the supernatural and its dangers are not limited to the rantings of the newspaper’s readers.
The rapid POV changes in the story – which besides the main characters include a powerful villain, a police inspector and some of the gruesome crimes’ victims – make for a quick and lively run through this book, which alternates its more dramatic aspects with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor that I found quite refreshing for the genre: Urban Fantasy tends to be uniformly dark, its characters often tormented by a dismal past, and finding here this successful blend of seriousness and fun offered a very welcome respite from the gloom of our current reality.
Where the story is quite intriguing, listing a series of bizarre deaths and the hints of some magical dastardly plot our heroes need to prevent, the characters are its true backbone and it’s through their spirited exchanges that their nature is revealed as they turn, slowly but surely, from a group of people at odds with each other into something approaching a found family. Hannah is of course the one whose journey is more detailed, and the one who shows the greatest changes: at first she is not only the classic “fish out of water” due to the upheavals in her life, she also looks somewhat clueless and fumbling, since her first days at the Stranger Times are a source of misery, thanks to Banecroft’s vicious attitude and to her duties for “Loon Day”, when a long theory of contributors comes calling with their weird anecdotes. But as the days pass, we can see how those challenges help Hannah to tap some unknown reserves and turn into a determined, proactive person who is also able to face unusual or terrifying situations and even to challenge Banecroft on his own ground, probably gaining his unexpressed respect in the process.
Banecroft himself is a very interesting character: even though he’s outwardly rude and profanity-inclined (to the point that Grace had to put a daily limit to his use of nasty language), and lives in what can only be described as a disgusting mess of papers, dirty clothes and empty liquor bottles, it’s difficult to outright hate him because the way he’s written and his over-the-top demeanor lead the reader more toward indulgent amusement than real disapproval. What’s more, there are some hints at a past tragedy that might explain his current manners (or lack thereof…) and that I hope will be explored in more depth in the next book(s). I liked Grace very much, particularly for the unflappable way in which she deals both with Banecroft and with young Stella, whose difficult-teenager attitude hides a very interesting secret which ties with some of the information (sorry, no spoilers!) we gather along the way. And, last but not least, the interactions between Reggie and Ox are nothing short of delightful.
What’s interesting here is that we see the point of view of the villain just as much as that of our “heroes” and that serves to counterbalance the whimsical tone of the story with some darkness, which grounds the story in its dramatic aspect as we learn of the increasing danger presented by this mysterious figure as he claims his victims with a sort of… amused nonchalance that’s quite chilling.
I had a very good run with The Stranger Times, to the point that I have already acquired the sequel – This Charming Man: the blend of Urban Fantasy and humor is very well balanced, an amusing journey that at times makes you laugh out loud, particularly when you get “extracts” from the newspaper itself detailing some of the published articles. A different take on the usual elements of the genre that will not disappoint and will leave you with a smile on your face.