Category Archives: Reviews

Review: A Playground for Disobedient Dinosaurs by Mark Butler

In September, I said that self-published books did not have to be bad books. With a good writer who pays attention to detail, there is no reason a self-published book can’t be excellent.

Mark Butler’s A Playground for Disobedient Dinosaurs is a great example of this. The author, Mark Butler, is better known (by me at any rate) as a stand up comedian. He has a cheeky, smart, quick wit. Several of his shows have been language-related. In his most recent show, he delighted word nerds and grammar nazis with Grammar Doesn’t Matter on a First Date.

A man who is passionate about grammar was always going to at least produce a correctly punctuated and grammatically lovely text. (Barring a few typos, which escape even the best editors and proofreraders, and even in professionally published books).

But is it a good story? Are all those excellent word skills wasted on a poorly plotted, cliched idea full of ill-conceived and badly executed characters?

Hell, no. Butler constructs stage shows with pace and rhythm, and he brings those skills to his book as well. He’s also a published travel writer, so he has form.

A Playground for Disobedient Dinosaurs sees Red Thomas, a drifter and rogue, a heavy drinker with a gambling habit, returning to England after a failed attempt to rip off a cruise ship casino. He cons his way into a job at a prestigious secondary boys’ school. There, he teaches smart alec kids about probability, chaos theory and the dangers of taking calculated risks. And dinosaurs. Perhaps he even means to take the job seriously as a chance to start over.

Red should not be as likeable as he is, with his vast set of vices and faults, but there’s a vulnerability behind the inappropriate behaviour—even when he becomes attracted to a final year student from the neighbouring girls’ school. His troubled background unfolds slowly and you realise that in his erratic and inappropriate way, sometimes he’s actually trying to make things all right for other people.

Still, he’s heading for trouble, between the maths club in which he’s teaching boys about probabilities through games of chance and his relationship with Lucy. Red, however, is not the only person heading for an uncertain future. There’s a former pupil, now Sports Master, trying to get back to rowing glory; his student Robert, Lucy’s boyfriend and son of a prominent politician; some old friends of Red’s; and of course Lucy herself.

The book isn’t just tracking the slow collapse of Red’s newly constructed world: the plot is interwoven with those mathematical concepts of probability, statistics and chaos theory. The beat of the proverbial butterfly wings carry on past the end of Red’s individual adventures to a few weeks after the end of the school year.

It’s an interesting ride that avoids stereotypes and cliche. The characters have complexity and depth, and are as contradictory as real people. Lucy is no Lolita; she’s neither a corrupted innocent nor a sassy teen seducer, but rather an intelligent, indpendent young woman. Red is a rogue, but his instincts seem basically kind and fair, and his relationship with Lucy is complicated. His relationship with the boys he teaches can also be more complex than you’d think. Red does a lot of things he shouldn’t, but avoids being a terrible person even while he’s doing them.

The writing style is vivid and flows well. There are a few passages which flash back to characters’ history mid-action which can be a little muddy, but the flow picks up again quickly. Something of old British public school stories of old loiter around the text, as they should, but the eccentricity of such stories is distrupted by Red. There are some particularly witty descriptions and wordplay. For instance, there’s the delightful line on Red’s first day of teaching at St Johns: “A new chapter of his life was about to unravel.”  This is before he’s even taken his first class. Every now and then a turn of phrase is perhaps a little too much, disturbing the rhythm for a phrase too good to miss, maybe, but generally I loved these creative word pictures.

On the whole, A Playground for Disobedient Dinosaurs is a well paced and entertaining story about maths, dinosaurs and the unimagined consequences of a person’s actions, even when they seem to be getting away with it.

A Playground for Disobedient Dinosaurs is available from Mark Butler’s website   or from Lulu.

Narrelle's Xmas list for the Nice and the Naughty

It’s that time of year when even the atheists among us celebrate the end of another year by seeking out gifts for our loved ones. Whether your celebrations are secular, religious or pagan, you may be looking for some ideas for gifts. (If you don’t celebrate Xmas, this list may help you for other festivals and birthdays. Also for unbirthdays and those times when you think, damnit, *I* need a present.)

You could visit Twelfth Planet Press and buy one of their excellent volumes. Publisher Alisa Krasnostein recently won a World Fantasy Award for her outstanding work with this small press. You could even splash out on a subscription to the entire Twelve Planets series. Bad Power is the most recent of the series. (My volume, Showtime, will be released in early 2012. It contains a Gary/Lissa story!)

If you’re a Melbourne local, you should locate one of the Melburnalia pop-up shops, where you can find items hand-crafted by your fellow citizens! Goods on offer include jewellery by the lovely Ali Alexander, delightful books from Arcade Publications, knitware, cycling accessories, tea, quirky buttons and, you  know, neat stuff. The pop-up shops are at terrific Melbourne locations too, like Captains of Industry and the Parlour in the Nicholas Building. The shops are only open until Christmas Eve, so get there while you can! Find them on Twitter or Facebook for addresses and hours.

*Late addition* What was I thinking to have missed a link to Clan Destine Press? If you love Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher books, it might be time to branch out with her historical novels set in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece. Clan Destine also has crime books, including Lindy Cameron’s excellent actio thriller, Redback. Non-fiction, comic fantasy and the story of Dougal the kitten are also on the site.

Bookshops

You could also just go straight to Arcade Publications online to get a set of their wonderful little books about Melbourne. I can personally recommend Madame Brussells: This Moral Pandemonium, about Melbourne’s famous 19th century Madam, but there are books about E W Cole, Australia’s pin-up girls from the 60s and, recently, Australia’s first novelist, Henry Savery.

Other bookshops you should visit, online or in person, are:

  • Embiggen Books, whose names comes from the Simpsons! And they have books about cool science as well as fiction. They stock some Twelfth Planet Press titles too, so show them some love. (I interviewed Warren a while back too.)
  • Readers’ Feast, which is about to re-open at the old Georges building on Collins Street. We’ve missed them. Show them some love too.
  • Of Science and Swords has moved to 377 Little Collins Street and now has a flatmate in Critical Hit. This means you can get great fantasy and SF books along with geek T-shirts and Angry Birds slippers.
  • Oh, and Fablecroft are having a sale: impressive books, with award nominees among the stories.

Books I loved this year:

  • The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins – not new, but brilliant. You may recall that I gobbled the trilogy up in five days.  The film comes out next year, so get your friends and family into the book first! If they’ve already read The Hunger Games, I recommend The Girl WHo Was on Fire, a collection of excellent essays about the trilogy. Here’s my review of that book.
  • A Most Pecular Malaysian Murder by Shamini Flint is the first of her Inspector Singh series. Its great to read a crime novel set in another culture, written by a person from that culture. It’s a good choice for someone who likes their crime fic in foreign locales.
  • The Shattering by Karen Healey – Karen Healey is doing some terrific work, and her second book is a fantasy set in contemporary NZ, with a multicultural cast and a sense of humour, as well as heart-stopping moments. This book deals with teen suicide and grief in ways both illuminating and sensitive. It’s also got magic, idyllic yet sinister small towns, wonderful textured characters and smart, pacy plotting.
  • Melbourne by Sophie Cunningham is a love letter to Melbourne and a beautifully crafted object in its own right. Perfect for the Melburnite who has everything. Here’s my review.

Other books I loved this year (also set in Melbourne) were Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley and Madigan Mine by Kirstyn McDermott. The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do was another favourite, the well deserved Book of the Year winner.

Finally, it’s not out yet (but aha! I read an early version and I think it’s AMAZING!),  Mary Borsellino’s new book, The Devil’s Mixtape, is due out on 15 December from Omnium Gatherum. In her trademark style, all sharp edges, crystal prose, horror, heart and compassion, The Devil’s Mixtape follows three threads: a girl writing letters to her sister from hell, a music journalist following a band on tour and a road trip in 1950s Australia. I can’t wait to get an official copy!

STOP PRESS 16122011:  The Devil’s Mixtape e-book, published by Omnium Gatherum, is now availabe from Amazon.com for only US$3.99!! (It’s brilliant: review coming soon!)

Anyway, I hope you find some ideas there. And hell, it’s the time for indulgence, so why not buy yourself a present while you’re at it?

GaryView: Death and the Spanish Lady by Carolyn Morwood

Gary and LissaLissa: That was a bit of a history lesson. I remember reading about a flu epidemic after the First World War, but I had no idea that it was so bad, or that it shut Melbourne down like that.

Gary: Yeah. I think one of my dad’s uncles died of the flu around when this book is set.

Lissa: This book really brings it home, doesn’t it? The historical setting really works, and I liked Eleanor as well. She’s working through all this grief, but she really wants justice, whether or not the dead guy deserves it.  I like it that the truth was more important to her than staying comfortably out of it.

Gary: You don’t think she should have left the murder for someone else to investigate?

Lissa: I think I have amply demonstrated that keeping out of things isn’t always an option.

Gary: I guess you have. I liked Sister Jones too, though that might be because she reminded me of my mum. Mum was a nurse too.

Lissa: A nurse detective?

Gary: Not that I know of, but I wouldn’t have put it past her. My mum was pretty cool in a crisis. That’s how she met Dad, actually. During the war, she was stationed in Greece. Dad had been wounded and she looked after him on the ship during the evacuation from Crete. They kept writing after he was shipped home, and when she got back to Australia they got married.

Lissa: That must have been hard for him, waiting for her.

Gary: They never talked about it much. Not to me, anyway. Dad had got shot in the leg, though, and they wouldn’t let him stay in the army. He went home and did his teaching degree instead, so he’d have a steady job for when Mum got back.

Lissa: Every time you tell me about your folks I think how awesome they were.

Gary: This book made me think of both of them. They both went through a lot. For years as a kid, whenever I saw someone my dad’s age, or my grandad’s, I wondered whether they had bullet scars too. My mum kept on nursing, too. She used to say the only thing worse than the old air raids was working on the children’s wards.

Lissa: I bet.

Gary: Yeah.

Lissa:. So. Death and the Spanish Lady. Did you work out the killer before the end?

Gary: No. I never do, though. Not even when I was alive. I used to try making notes as I read to see if I could work it out, but I never could. Mum said it was because I wasn’t devious enough.

Lissa: I guess crime stories aren’t really like maths equations. Otherwise all crimes would get solved by the scientists.

Gary: All crimes are solved by the scientists on some TV shows.

Lissa: I like this kind of murder mystery better. And it’s not as gritty and realistic as all those Underbelly-type stories, so I like that better too. I have enough gritty realism in my life. But this has a different kind of realism. That sometimes you succeed in something but it’s not necessarily a triumph.

Gary: I know all about that, too.

Lissa: You and me both. Hey, how about we cheer ourselves up with a musical. <grins at the look on his face> Or a werewolf movie.

Gary: Can I vote for a werewolf movie?

Lissa: Only if it’s the original Teen Wolf.

Gary: Teen Wolf it is.

* *

You can get Death and the Spanish Lady in paperback from Readings, or as an ebook from Booki.sh or Amazon.com.

Review: The Girl Who Was Was On Fire edited by Leah Wilson

This collection of essays about The Hunger Games was an excellent way to follow my five-day binge spent reading the entire series. Everything in this book either brings elements I was aware of into sharp focus or reveals new themes and interpretations to me. With each essay, though, I responded with variations of “Yes! Exactly! YES!”

Favourite essays include:

  • Team Katniss, which questions the whole Team Peeta/Team Gale romance subplot and opts for Team Katniss, The Girl Who Was Compassionate, by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
  • Your Heart Is A Weapon the Size of Your Fist by Mary Borsellino, examining love as a political act
  • Carrie Ryan’s Panem at Circenses, with its look at reality TV and The Hunger Games
  • learning about trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in Blythe Woolston’s Bent, Shattered and Mended
  • The Politics of Mockinjay by Sarah Darer Littman, which I found particularly resonant with the lines it draws between current world politics, the packaging of war footage as entertainment and the political tactics of Panem
  • Community in the Face of Tyranny, in which Bree Despain touches on a theme I felt but did not articulate in my original reading.

But this are just my favourites in a collection filled with intelligent, thoughtful and well written insights into this superb trilogy.

Read another review of this essay collection at Bookmarked.

Buy The Girl Who Was on Fire: Your Favorite Authors on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy in paperback or the e-book The Girl Who Was on Fire: Your Favorite Authors on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy.