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.