Platform Book Club: Changing Trains by Mark Johnson

This week’s review comes from Robbie Nichols, expressing his opinions on Changing Trains by Mark Johnson.

Before I get into this review, I am going to preface it with the fact that this was an impulse buy on my kindle – so I’m not too heartbroken that I didn’t love it.

All in all, the book is fine. It’s readable, but I didn’t love it.

The story follows Sam, a 40 something year old boarding the Eurostar for his regular trip to the South of France. A chance encounter on the platform leads to him to recount his interrailing experience across Europe in the 80s. We follow as Sam travels round France, Spain, Monaco, and Italy.

The novel is a fictionalised version of author Mark Johnson’s teenaged travels, whilst also being inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Diaries.

Whilst the concept of the book seems pretty interesting to me, I have a few issues with the book. Johnson seems to have more of a tell, don’t show attitude to his writing. Everything is laid out for you in terms of Sam’s motivations and feelings. There’s nothing for you to work out on your own, which makes for a story that gets old rather quickly.

My second issue with the book is that it feels more like an itinerary of Sam’s journey through Europe rather than a story of his travels. The author spends more time discussing his train journeys and where he plans to travel to next than telling us about his time in each place. Train journeys are described in excruciating detail, whilst his nights in Paris or Nice are over in a couple pages.

It feels more like I’m reading the reviews of a rail company more than a novel. After reading up on Johnson, he worked previously as a journalist for the Telegraph writing a column about working as an expat commuter so the intense focus on the travel makes sense. It just doesn’t lead to overly enjoyable reading.

I also feel as though the book doesn’t know its audience. It’s marketed as a coming of age book, which to me, suggests it’s marketed for those coming of age. The sections we get of younger Sam fit that mould. They feel like a classic YA novel, if a tiny bit boring. However, older Sam spends a lot of his time lamenting on how interrailing has lost its charm since the invention of the smartphone.

He claims that he misses the romance of having to use guidebooks for cheap hostels, or even having to find somewhere to stay once he arrives at his destination, and that smartphones have ruined this. In fact, Sam quite frequently has to find accommodation when he gets to each city he’s visiting, and let me tell you, it stressed me out having to read about his wandering around Venice at gone 10pm looking for somewhere to stay.

I just feel as though if your book is targeted towards those coming of age – those who have smartphones – I wouldn’t go on about how their interrailing adventures wouldn’t be as fun and genuine as yours were in the 80s because of those gosh-darn-smartphones. I personally just felt a little demonised as a reader for ever googling a hotel to stay in on my phone just because I have the capability to now.

Reading this book isn’t completely joyless, I admit. It has its moments, despite being far and few between, and it was worth the 99p I paid for it on my kindle. But I was lucky enough to catch it at a discounted rate. There are far better books to spend your money on, so save it for those.

By Robbie Nichols

Feature image: The Guardian

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