Exchange, Paul Magrs

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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