Now this is a fantastic book. I've read a few of Magrs' things for kids before (which were fun but not necessarily earth-shattering) and some of his Doctor Who novels (which were great but... Doctor Who), and this is streets ahead. In fact, this is streets ahead of any kids book I've read in ages. Clever, touching, funny in places and quite sad/scary in others, suffused with a love of books and stuffed with wonderful - and, more importantly, real - characters, I really can't rave about it enough.
Simon's parents have just died, so he moves in with his Grandparents in their little bungalow. Like Simon, his grandmother is a voracios reader - but his grandfather doesn't like books, and dislikes the fact that the piles of paperbacks are taking over his house. Simon is having a bad time of things - having to settle in to a new school, loss of his parents, trying to learn how to live with these old people - but he has his books, and he and his grandmother have their weekly ritual. At the weekend, they get on the bus and go to a nearby town, where they scour the charity shops and second hand bookshops, bringing their discoveries home to add to the stacks of books, and to aggravate Simon's grandfather. Then, one day, quite by chance, they ind a shop neither of them have seen before - the Exchange. And everything changes for them.
The Exchange is a secondhand bookshop, but one with a slight difference. As the name suggests, once a book is bought, it can be returned to the shop to be exchanged for credit towards something else. But the man who runs the Exchange, Terrance (who has fake plastic arms, for reasons that become clear only very late on in the book) takes the idea a little further - books must be returned, because he only stocks books that will mean something to someone, and if you haven't found the one for you it must come back so someone else can find it. That sounds a little mystical, but it makes sense within the book, which is defiantly unmagical and mundane. The Exchange also has Kelly, a gothic girl who has a huge impact on the lonely Simon - he has a new friend, and she is a girl as well, a fact that causes much amusement for his Grandparents.
I won't give much more away, because one of the joys of the book is the way in which it suddenly heads off in unexpected directions. But every plot development and twist is wonderfully handled and seems completely right for the moment, even if some of them are a little unlikely. The book doesn't talk down to its audience - in fact, although marketed as a kids book, this would really sit better in adult fiction, in a Curious Incident way - and, brilliantly, doesn't suggest that there are happy endings to all stories. There isn't always a sad one, either - sometimes things just happen that are neither good nor bad. By the end of the book, Simon's life has changed dramatically, purely because of a chance decision to go into a specific bookshop - but his life still isn't perfect, his parents are still dead, and he still has to go to school in the morning. Books aren't always the answer, because people are infinitely more complex than any possible portrayal of them - but they are also the most important thing in the world, because they can change your life, your ideas, your beliefs, who you are. I really can't recommend this one highly enough.
I read a proof of this, 14/01/06 to 16/01/06. It is published in Hardback in April, ISBN: 1416916628.