Monday, March 13, 2006

Goths and Grandparents

Exchange - Paul Magrs

The back of the proof copy of Paul Magrs new book, ‘Exchange’ says that the book has ‘wide YA appeal’, by which I assume it means Young Adult rather than something more cryptic.

That puts the book in competition with writers like JK Rowling, Philip Pullman and the apparently ubiquitous Jacqueline Wilson. Which is a shame because, leaving aside Ms Rowling’s frankly dreadful last Potter book, in such company ‘Exchange’ dies a bit of a death.

It’s not that it’s not a well written book or that the characters seem false or don’t ring true. But ‘Exchange’ feels like a very slight book in comparison to Pullman’s wild imaginings, Wilson’s heart-felt dissection of teenage relationships and Rowling’s… number of words per book, which remains impressive even though the actual words she chooses tend to be trite, clichéd and dull.

The Book Exchange of the title is an interesting starting point – a bookshop which appears out of the dark to a book-hungry boy and his grandmother, where old books can be exchanged for new for a very small charge, read and then returned to the shop in their turn.

That the shop appears mysteriously from the snow and is run by a man with plastic arms are the kind of Magrsian touches you would expect, as is the very fact that this is a *book* exchange – in the modern, electronic age it’s hard to imagine a shop dedicated to swapping genuine, made-of-paper books working as a real business, which just adds to the magical feeling. Other touches like the nature of Simon’s grandfather’s secret collection and the meeting of his Gran and her childhood friend are as good as anything the author has done before

That said, there is a problem with the book – but I can’t decide if the problem is that not enough happens, or that there’s too much going on.

For instance, Simon’s Gran has a brief flirtation with the owner of the Exchange and meets up with a childhood friend turned successful novelist; Simon and Kelly, the shop’s Goth assistant, hook up and Kelly sees off some bullies who have been harassing him before convincing Simon to steal something precious; and Ray, Simon’s grandfather, reacts badly to his two relations’ love affair with reading.

All of which sounds quite exciting, but in actuality the numerous sub-plots never go anywhere particularly or – as with Kelly beating up the leader of the gang of thugs who hang round the local phone box – seem very implausible (it seems more likely to me that those kinds of gangs are exactly the type who kick grown men to death for asking them to move on, rather than being cowed by a small, if cocky, girl in black make-up).

Added to that, the plethora of minor plot lines tends to obscure any larger theme running through the novel (the obvious theme – that of exchanging the old for the new – looks promising for a while, as Gran exchanges Grandad for Terrance the Armless Man and Simon exchanges his dead parents for his grandparents for instance, but neither change lasts and by novel end nothing concrete has changed).

To be clear, it’s a good book which is well worth reading, and there’s a lot of clever and funny writing in there, but at times it felt like a re-tread of previous work, which left me feeling a little disappointed.

As an example, Magrs is as capable as ever at writing older northern women, and Gran in ‘Exchange’ is a genuine and rounded character, but she isn’t a patch on the group of old women in the northern sections of The Blue Angel. Plastic arms are an interesting disability to have, but it’s no match for turning into a Gila monster or being in league with demons in the “extra-ordinary things happening in an ordinary world” stakes and doesn’t really serve any purpose (the reason for Terrance’s disability, when revealed late in the book, isn’t convincing nor does it serve any obvious or necessary narrative purpose either).

Anecdotally, I lent this book to my 12 year old nephew and 14 year old niece, both voracious readers. They read it and enjoyed it but neither was prepared to say anything beyond ‘yeah, it was OK’ when asked what they thought of it, whereas my niece had gone on for ages about Strange Boywhen she read that (and my daughter is still annoyed that Magrs’ new kids’ book isn’t the promised sequel to The Good, the Bat and the Ugly set on the TV show Pipkins).

I don’t want to be too hard on ‘Exchange’ since I read it and enjoyed it and really there’s nothing else you can reasonably ask of a book. But having loved ‘Strange Boy’ (which is aimed at a roughly similar age group) and devoured ‘To the Devil – A Diva’ (which utilises a similar writing style to ‘Exchange’, as opposed to that in Paul’s earlier novels), I’d been hoping for something astonishing and instead got something which is only rather good.

On reflection though, I take back one thing I said at the beginning of this review - ‘Exchange’ craps over ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’ from a huge height, it really does.
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Blogger TimeWarden said...

I would like a shop to appear where you can part-exchange VHS copies of old "Doctor Who" stories for those same stories on DVD!

I hate repurchasing material even if the quality of reproduction is vastly improved. I always feel the money would be better spent on something I don't have at all!!

3:10 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

lol - it's impossible to give old Who videos away nowadays, unless they're The Invasion.

Luckily I didn't buy much Who on VHS so I've yet to have the BBC release a DVD I already owned a copy of.

9:31 am  

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