Paul Magrs (1969 – ) is an English author who writes prolifically across a number of genres. I would not know of him at all but he is a favourite of Liz Dexter (Adventures in Reading, Running etc). At the beginning of her 2020 #Magrsathon, she held a giveaway which I won and so Exchange slowly wended it’s way across the oceans from England to Australia, it’s arrival eagerly anticipated by us both.
This morning I had the unenviable task of writing to Liz to say that I found the book a disappointment. She replied graciously, of course. Before writing to her I thought for some time about writing a neutral review but I didn’t have it in me. Exchange (2006) is YA but Magrs has written quite a bit of SF including some Dr Who novels, so if I can locate it online the least I can do is give his Mars trilogy a try.
YA is a genre to which I am not usually attracted. And yet there are some brilliant YA books. My Brilliant Career and Pink Mountain on Locust Island are books written by and about teenagers which are complex enough to appeal to adults. Sense and Sensibility, a novel about the loves of 16 and 19 year old sisters, is universally treated as adult. Little Women, the story of a family of sisters preparing for marriage, while mystifyingly treated as a book for children, is still an excellent read.
And then there is Exchange, the story of a 16 year old boy in an English country town which reads like a book for ten year olds.
There he was: down the cheap supermarket, after school, making himself useful and picking up a few bits and bobs for his gran… He was all buttoned up and mortified in his anorak. He looked like a daft lad, he knew. And that’s how all the kids hanging around the town marketplace saw him.
Simon’s parents have been killed in a car accident and he has come to live with his grandparents. He and his gran are readers, the house is filling up with second hand books, as they take regular excursions on the bus to surrounding towns to buy more. Granddad is not so keen on having his house all cluttered up with dusty books, nor on Gran neglecting the housework in favour of reading, and spends more and more time down the pub or out in the garage (with his secret cache of 1950s girlie mags).
Simon and Gran on one of their excursions discover a second hand bookshop whose central purpose is to persuade readers to bring their books back for others to read (all such shops used to be ‘exchanges’ once but perhaps that was an Australian thing). The owner’s assistant is a girl, Kelly, a little older and a lot more mature than Simon, who wears goth makeup and makes the unilateral decision that she will be Simon’s girlfriend and teach him to do normal things like kiss girls.
Kelly starts telephoning and taking the bus to visit Simon, she even punches out the town hooligan who hangs around the town bus stop and public telephone and shouts stuff at Simon as he slinks past. They kiss. They inevitably clash teeth. He tries again, gets a mouthful of gelled hair as she turns away. The usual stuff and soon got over. By everyone except Simon.
Kelly hatches a plan to sell Granddad’s girlie mags to finance taking Gran to a book signing/dinner for an author who writes about her and Gran’s childhood in the slums. There’s other stuff. Gran and Granddad grow apart. Granddad makes a bonfire of Gran’s books. Kelly and Simon get on the wine at the author-dinner and end up in a private swimming pool in their underwear
Then he was aware that she was pushing up rather closely. He didn’t dare look down at her black lacy bra… ‘Simon?’ she asked and, very gently, moved in to kiss him. He responded and they kissed gently and then with a little more heat… They kissed again and there was an awkward fumbling moment, to do with whose arms went where. Kelly moved back a bit … ‘It isn’t really working, is it?’
Two tipsy teenagers, up close and personal in wet underwear, choose that as the time to decide to be best friends!
There’s a bit more, but Simon is by some distance the wettest teenager I have ever read.
Paul Magrs, Exchange, Simon & Schuster, London, 2006
17 thoughts on “Exchange, Paul Magrs”
The plot points you describe actually sound rather fun to me. This isn’t your standard high school girl if she’s punching out bullies. However, the excerpts you gave don’t seem particularly well-written. If anything, that moment in the undies should be incredible sexual and sensual if the author gets at the emotions of the moment. I think that’s my beef with most YA: the writing is so uninspired. Then again, if I were a teen, I’m sure it would be a good reading level for me. I tried reading books like A Little Princess and Anne of Green Gables when I was the suggested age for them (something like 9) and I couldn’t make heads or tails of the first paragraphs.
Kelly had the makings of a really interesting heroine, but this wasn’t really followed through and there was never any explanation of what she found interesting about Simon, nor why Simon rejected her advances. It wasn’t just ‘stage fright’, Kelly recognised in that passage at the end that Simon just wasn’t into girls, but Magrs doesn’t discuss that at all.
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This is why I don’t do YA: *though there are always exceptions* it’s nearly always a disappointment and then I’d be writing negative reviews.
Felicity Castagna, an author I really like, nailed it when was discussing innovation in YA texts, she said “more than any other genre YA books are likely to be judged on their relevance and relatability. YA is valued for its ability to speak to, to dissect, to make present, to make clear, to smash over your head the issues that really matter in young people’s lives.”
And that for me is the problem. The issues that exercise adolescents generally don’t interest me because they are so often framed around *yawn* relationships. They might have been interesting when The Offspring was a teenager (though he was reading The Lord of the Rings back then) but #BeenThereDoneThat they are not interesting to me now.
So in general I leave YA alone, with occasional exceptions when written by Indigenous authors.
I certainly don’t enjoy YA authors working their way through a laundry list of whatever issues are currently fashionable, but I do sometimes enjoy YA for the naivety of its protagonists. Liz says I’m missing something about the representation of northern Englanders, and I will have to think about that.
It’s interesting to read your review from a non-UK, non-YA-reading perspective (the Mars novels are supposed to be YA, too, but I have a review coming up soon from a friend who read them with her daughters so you might see more about them then). For me, the writing captures a Northern, working-class voice which wasn’t being so captured then (there are exceptions but working-class writers do seem to get a rougher ride). Paul’s central characters in his more realistic or magical realism novels (as opposed to the high camp gothic of his Brenda and Effie series) tend to be sensitive, gay lads, I’m not sure if this is overt in Simon as I haven’t re-read the book for a little while. He also has quite a simple and flat style generally. So maybe you do need that background to find more value in the book.
Regarding exchanges, some but not all bookshops did / do that in the UK. There was certainly a stall in the indoor market in Birmingham that did that, but none of the bookshops in my town did it. I was very excited the first time I read this by the mention of people leaving books on benches for other people to find – BookCrossing in all but name! I was a massive BookCrosser at the time I first read it and actually found Paul’s email address and wrote to him because of this.
Thank you for your honest review, and I’m sorry it wasn’t for you but glad I’ve sent a favourite author across the seas!
I gathered from his bio that Magrs is gay. I didn’t write that in my review because it wasn’t part of the novel. I’d have been happy if Simon was a boy who didn’t want a relationship to go too far too early, but nothing like that is discussed. If it was Magrs’ experience that a girl kissed him and he decided to back off then I respect that, but why would he build up the situation and than not analyse what happened.
I’ll have to think about the ‘northern’ aspect. I know nothing about regional variations in England (except DH Lawrence).
Thank you again for sending me the book. I like trying new things, but probably for the time being I should stick to Viragos.
I’ve been thinking about this: I don’t think I expect Magrs’ characters to be gay because he is or to be going through the exact experiences he has done (because I know jolly well for example he’s not the Bride of Frankenstein or her Spicy Tea sipping landlady best mate and he’s written eight books about them) but by the time I had read this, I had read a few of his and they often feature a similar central character who is usually gay. I’m not sure you saw gay working class northern characters very much at the time he was writing them. Again, we do have a regional literature but centred on London and then maybe Edinburgh and Glasgow and Manchester – there aren’t many books set in Birmingham, for example. Lawrence was Nottinghamshire which I tend to think of as Midlands, but I can’t think of many even now set in the North-East.
Talking new things and Viragoes, I have just read a Persephone published 1924 about a woman going against convention, last days of the Edwardian era etc only to discover that the next two Viragoes I’d lined up were published 1922 and 23, about a woman etc, last days etc! So not always new and I had to do a swap!
First, ‘voice’. It’s interesting and/or revealing that one of my complaints recently about a book with an Indigenous author was that I didn’t get her attempt to reproduce Indigenous speaking, so perhaps I have a problem with the way other people speak (I’d hate to think so!).
I don’t mind whether or not Magrs intends Simon to be gay, but I thought it a fault in the novel that he offered no motive for Simon withdrawing from a situation 9 boys out of 10 would be delighted to find themselves in.
In passing, that’s interesting that England has less regional literature than Australia, though it’s possible Aust.Lit is all the same with just the name of the state/city changed.
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Having just re-read the book, I can see that he really does not point out anything but exceptionally subtly that Simon is gay – he gets called a “puff” by the telephone box lads and doesn’t respond to Kelly. However, there’s also the fact that Gran doesn’t engage in her own possible romance, and this time round I read a powerful message about not having to rush into things, it’s OK to wait and work out who you are, etc. But I wanted to acknowledge that it really is not clear at all unless you read Simon as part of a long string of characters through PM’s novels who are, and it’s not fair to expect someone to see that he is, just reading one book in isolation.
Thank you for commenting again after re-rereading. I hope you enjoyed it again (I’m skiving off today from work paperwork and the business of literature and am lounging about re-reading a Georgette Heyer). I thought too that the underlying message might be take things steady, but that is belied at the end by them agreeing that the whole boy-girl thing just wasn’t working for him.
Sorry I missed this when it was posted Bill. I am struggling to keep up with my blogs but I am getting there!
You wrote there are “some brilliant YA books”. I think there are – I would name, for example, many of John Marsden’s books. But, I think there is an issue of definition. You talk about some books “by” and “about” teenagers, like My brilliant career. For me, the defining characteristic of YA is that they are “for” teenagers. Ignoring the fact that there was no such thing as YA in My brilliant career’s days, I would argue that that book, and books like Sense and sensibility, are not specifically geared to teenagers. Their concerns are framed in much bigger ways than narrow “teen” concerns and their language has a sort of maturity. This is fine stuff, because there are many books in grey or cross-over areas. There are many coming-of-age novels which are pure YA but there are many written primarily for adults with an adult perspective and not real attempt to write in a young voice. is any of this making sense?
So, I eschew YA novels because I’m not really interested in books geared to young people’s concerns and to helping them cope with getting through their teen lives, but I do like many books about young people when their perspective is broader. Oh dear — it is so easy to dig a hole for oneself in teasing the nuances out.
I drove along thinking about your ideas, but too pushed for time to stop and reply. I’m glad that at my second attempt to provoke you, you have come up with some nice distinctions and I find myself persuaded in your direction. Much early fiction (early in a writer’s career) is about teenagers because the best writers write about the subject they know best, their coming of age. This is writing I find fascinating both for the writing and for all that teenage angst, which I find familiar (Gerald Murnane in his hesitations and fumblings is often writing my life). YA then becomes fiction written at YAs. But then there is fiction written for YAs, without the overt messaging, good fiction sometimes – I was engrossed by Harry Potter, by Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began. (And after all that I still don’t understand why Little Women is fiction for 11 year old girls, though I love that they love it).
Your second attempt to provoke me! What was the first? Have I missed another one? Probably. Point me to it and I’ll do my best to rise to the challenge!
I like your point about first novels often being coming-of-age.
And yes, I agree with you re Little Women – though I think that’s its skill, that a young girl can read it at one level while an older person can read it at another. That’s probably where YA fiction is just that – rand doesn’t crossover – because it really can only be “read” at the young person level. I hope that makes sense.
Where are you driving at the moment?
You might remember that I thought S&S could be categorized as YA when I reviewed it a couple of years ago. And yes, you responded, but I thought I’d give another prod.
Ah, THAT provocation! You know how to get me to bite!
Periodically I browse (errr, until the events of recent months) the YA shelves of a branch library nearby for its YA offerings. It’s a community centre library in Little Jamaica with a lovely little section set up for teens that I can imagine having enjoyed as a kid (and during the day, when school is in session, it’s a great quiet corner to sit in and work). One thing that I do appreciate about YA is how the writing is often very economical and propulsive, but unless it’s in the company of solid characterization and overall good story management, that alone isn’t enough to hold my interest. I do see why some readers get addicted to it though…the sheer pace of it all. Too bad that you didn’t enjoy this one, after its having travelled so far and long, but maybe another reader in your neck of the woods will enjoy it more.
Yes, I’m totally embarrassed that I didn’t enjoy it. I must pass it round my family and see what they think. One library I was using had a YA section for audiobooks. I went there initially to re-read Harry Potter and then took up the Ranger series (early England) but I haven’t done that for a while. I don’t mind YA adventures, they’re probably less blood thirsty than ‘adult’ crime thrillers.