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‘It’s not for us to provide the cement for unworkable relationships, Marjorie,’ cautioned Richard Adler, the director of the Wellbeck Centre where she worked, once casually with smiles and apologetic nods, and once more formally when a brief note had been scribbled to her on one of the Centre’s pistachio-green correspondence cards. Marjorie had shrugged all this off, of course. Beside, she liked cement – its dark, powdery ooze, its scent. And you had to remember, all marriages were bizarre places, rife with signs and codes and unimaginable sharp practice where the more insane aspects human nature flourished, were endured, tolerated, overlooked, sought out and sometimes even admired. You did not need to be a genius to see that people were more unhinged in their behaviour with the very person to whom they were closest. It was the most natural thing in the world.

Very excited about this evening. Once I post this I am running out the door to attend this evening’s Zombies vs. Unicorns event at Kinkuniya Sydney. Margo Lanagan and Garth Nix are representing Team Unicorn, so my loyalties are assured.

Today’s book was a present from Stephanie. She literally judged the book by its cover. Strangely her method has proved the old maxim somewhat inaccurate – so far her choices have proven quite good.

Marjorie is a volunteer marriage counsellor who enjoys her role. She sees it as defending the institution of marriage itself. The couples who come to her find a patient listener and advisor, but the subject of separation is simply not tolerated. Marjorie’s devotion to marriage is spurred on by the early death of her own husband Hugh. Her seventeen year old daughter May has recently left home and the downstairs lodger Frank is nursing a curious infatuation with her, which only serves to increase her anxiety. Adding to her confusion a popular soap star happens to be her doppelganger, causing people to stop her in the street and ask her for her autograph.

As it happens, her clients are increasingly coming to resent her steadfast belief in the sanctity of marriage, cruelly speculating as to the nature of her own ‘missing’, husband. Marjorie’s calm increasingly unravels with every obstacle, forcing her to question everything she has come to believe in.

What I really enjoyed about the book was the richness of the language. It reads in a naturally descriptive manner, the small details of people’s clothing, or appearance lovingly polished. Marjorie’s mental digressions are also winningly captured. The overall tone of the novel is thoughtful and questioning, a honest reflection on the personal insecurities that people must endure.

The endless cavalcade of clients with their casual cruelty and barbed comments are also well described. The Braintrees in particular are trapped in an endless loop of passive aggression and finely tuned marital discord (is that a mixed metaphor?….meh, train’s in twenty minutes).

Susie Boyt‘s writing is full of winning observations, studied humour and captures the incessant fretting of an emotionally strained character.

Warm, lively in its perspective on personal reflections and rich. Sweetly enjoyable.

It was like an Abadazad museum. There were copies of the first three books…Little Martha in Abadazad, Queen Ija of Abadazad and the Eight Oceans of Abadazad

…that looked as old as Mrs Vaughn. A tiara that looked just like the one the Two-Fold Witch wore (I’m sure the rubies were fake, but they sure seemed real to me. Of course I’ve never seen a real ruby in my life). And best of all, hand-painted figurines of Queen Ija, Professor Headstrong, Mary Annette, Mister Gloom, Master Wix, and a whole mess of other characters. And they weren’t like the plastic junk you see in the toy stores. They weren’t even like those ridiculously expensive “collectibles” they sell to super-nerd adults who never got a life. This stuff – I wish I could explain it – it was like they weren’t based on the characters, they WERE the characters. Like each of those little figures had…I dunno…a soul or something.

I remember the first time I heard about Abadazad. It was featured on the sadly defunct Ninth Art review site. J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Ploog‘s series received rave reviews, even talk of a Disney film adaptation shortly after the first issue, but that was not enough to protect the book from the implosion of publisher Crossgen. Fortunately Disney did acquire the rights to the series, but only three books out of a proposed eight were ever published. Here’s an interview with DeMatteis explaining what inspired the story in the first place.

What I am reviewing is in fact the second iteration of Abadazad, published by Disney in a format that mixes Ploog’s art with pages of text. DeMatteis introduces the clever premise that we are actually reading the diary of the main character, Kate, which has been enchanted. So the images that appear are in fact magical windows into the world of Abadazad itself, which Kate can look through – but sometimes the creatures she sees can see her as well. It’s an inventive wave of justifying the use of these colourful illustrations and text.

For most of her life, fourteen-year-old Kate raised her younger brother Matty. Her parents separated when the children were young and instead of having a typical childhood in Brooklyn, the two would read the novels of Franklin O. Davies together, describing the adventures of plucky young heroine Little Martha in a magical land called Abadazad. Their mother Frances was left a mess after the divorce, so retreating into this fantasy world afforded the children a welcome escape from the adult world of depression and misery they were trapped in.

Then one day at a summer fair, in front of Kate’s eyes, Matty simply vanishes. That was five years ago. Matty’s face has been on milk cartons and Kate has been seeing a therapist ever since. ‘Frantic Frances’, has retreated further into herself and her daughter has turned on her, in an attempt to alleviate her own guilt. “It’s been five years, Frances, he’s dead. Get over it.”

Kate meets an elderly neighbour, Mrs Vaughn, who owns an impressive collection of Abadazad memorabilia and even claims to have known Franklin O. Davies. At first Kate finds herself reminded of her own dead grandmother, but then Mrs Vaughn starts to say some strange things. Such as that Abadazad is real. She has been there and, what’s more, she was Little Martha. Kate argues that Little Martha was a white girl and Mrs Vaughn is an old black lady. She claims Franklin O. Davies made the character Little Martha white to sell more books, but the books are just adapted from her own magical adventures. Kate is halfway out the door when Mrs Vaughn says something even crazier. Her brother Matty is alive – and he is in Abadazad.

For the purposes of this review I read the first two volumes of the Abadazad series. While some might feel the pace somewhat slow, DeMatteis does  a great job of introducing the character of Kate and establishing this more modern setting, contrasting her upbringing with that of say Dorothy Gale, or Little Nemo. Abadazad itself is a hybrid of Dr. Seuss and Oz – and Mike Ploog’s illustrations reminded me of the Seussian wonderland featured in Tom Fowler‘s Mysterius the Unfathomable.

By the second volume the story really takes off. There are repeated allusions to the censoring of children’s fantasy, with Kate surprised at what Davies left out for commercial purposes.

Warm, funny and sweet – travel to Abadazad.

Once upon a time, a middle-aged associate professor called Knight, armoured only by his self-esteem, which was considerable, journeyed into a mountain wilderness to investigate rumours that a dragon was terrorising farmers, small shopkeepers and eco-tourists in the area.

I remember my dad trying to convince me that fantasy and superheroes were things one had to leave behind with childhood. What about the man who invented the telephone, he asked rhetorically. There was a real hero. Your writers of Tarzan and so forth were probably just lowly shoe salesmen who got lucky with selling their daydreams. This was a very dispiriting notion for me as a kid. Now thirty-something’s continue to indulge themselves in childish pursuits and primetime television schedules have been occupied by sf/fantasy extravagances. It seems the daydreamers won, but I suspect we have gone from one extreme to another.

Australian writer Jennifer Rowe’s collection of short ‘adult’, fairy tales straddles the balance between fantasy and reality. Each short tale describes lonely or foolish adults who maybe need a little magic in their lives. In this world stage magicians have actual magical powers that far outstrip sleight of hand trickery and handsome princes struggle with their sexuality.

My pick of the bunch is Curly Locks, a parable about how ignorance is bliss. A young woman, orphaned by a misdirected letter bomb, spends her days working and caring for her mysteriously disabled boyfriend. Then one day an act of kindness witnessed by a powerful mage causes her fortune to improve, although she never really questions it. The Magic Fish features, well, a magic goldfish and unfortunately a very forgetful one at that. Justin and the Troll shows how vitally important it is to listen carefully. Sadly ‘troll bridge’, sounds an awful lot like ‘toll bridge’.

Rowe carries off the conceit of sour adult lives requiring a small electric thrill to put them on the right path quite well. Known as a crime writer, she has written fairy tales for children under pseudonyms, including the popular Deltora Quest series as Emily Rodda. Fairy Tales for Grown Ups strikes a balance between her parallel careers, grim fairy tales with a jaunty sense of whimsy.

For Rowe the story begins after the ‘happily ever after’, when divorce and bitterness have set in. Several of the tales feature divorcees muddling their way through middle age. The stories are even set in the same world and some of the characters introduced to us in the preceding entries in this collection meet in the final short, Angela’s Mandrake. The hero of The Lonely Prince reminded me a little of Herbert, the effete son of the ambitious lord in Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail. A sensitive romantic maneuvered into a marriage that befits his father’s intentions instead of his own need for a partner. Rowe’s take on the situation is an amusing inversion of the traditional fairy tale, once again introducing a sense of farcical modernity into the proceedings. The Fat Wife has the abandoned first wife character trope meet a gentle, yet sexually rapacious genie, who knows just how to appreciate a woman scorned by a world that favours ‘size 8 models’.

As befits the best fairy tales, each of Rowe’s stories is written in a light and breezy, enjoyable yet also pleasantly forgettable. I mean that as a compliment. All the problems and ailments of these characters are rooted in issues of low self-esteem and the broad theme of the book seems to be that we should believe in ourselves a little more. Maybe allow a little bit of magic into our lives every now and then.

This is a pleasant treat to read on a slow Sunday afternoon.

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