Saturday, 30 March 2013

Passing It On - Retrospective from a History Boys fan

If you follow my life in any way, you may have picked up on the fact I care a great deal about Alan Bennett's The History Boys. It is the greatest work of theatre I have ever seen, and, by extension, my favourite film. It sounds simple enough to say that - my favourite film, my favourite play. It's so much more than that. It's my touchstone. I know literally every line of the work, and quote it in conversation nearly every single day. My best friend and I regularly text each other random quotes and the other will follow up with the corresponding dialogue, acting out scenes over SMS.

I've seen the movie countless times. I have Alan Bennett's diaries from the film's production, and my copy of the play's original script is rarely shelved – before I sat down to write this, I found it half-tucked under the couch, where it fell a couple of days ago when I pulled it out to check the exact wording of a scene that popped into my head. This is not uncommon, it's usually on the couch or desk or coffee table – I constantly pick it up for reference. I listen to the BBC radio-play that the original cast made all the time - while at the gym, while walking, while cleaning my room.

There is never a moment when I am not willing and able to consume this text in some format. I'm about to receive, in the mail, an illegally-purchased bootleg of the show when it went to Broadway in late 2006, and I am so very, very excited about this that I've been rushing out to check the mailbox every day.

This is how it began:

I was lucky enough to see The History Boys, with its original National Theatre cast, on their opening night at the Sydney Theatre Company. The show, which premiered in London in 2004, toured Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong before heading to Broadway, and when they came to Sydney in early 2006, the film had been completed but not yet released.

I did not have any sense of anticipation or excitement, going to see this play. I had never heard of it. I was there because the parents of my then-boyfriend had a family theatre subscription, so we were basically told "you're seeing this play tonight." I had never heard of any of the actors, particularly, aside from Richard Griffiths, and I recognised Stephen Campbell Moore from a recent film I'd seen, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windemere's Fan called A Good Woman. I was intrigued and excited to notice that several of the boys had been in a production of His Dark Materials, a book series I loved (and still love) and as soon as I saw the photo of Dominic Cooper, I knew he would have been an incredible Will Parry.

Associations with His Dark Materials, Oscar Wilde, and Uncle Vernon rapidly fell away as the play began and proceeded to change my life. I don't remember what struck me so severely that first time – a particular scene, a quote, or anything like that - I just remember feeling overwhelmed, full to bursting. It made something inside of me cry out, in a way no work of theatre ever had before. It changed me. It would go on to change my life in many ways, but in that initial experience, something clicked, or snapped.

After the performance, I felt the need to meet some of the cast, to say something, to express something of what they had made me experience. The cast was gathered in the foyer bar, celebrating their opening night. At this point in my life, I hadn't met too many “celebrities,” or artists whom I admired, but I'd met enough to know that I wasn't naturally star-struck. However, I remember not having the courage to speak to Dom Cooper, and when I approached Samuel Barnett – at that time, a 25-year old boy whom three hours ago I hadn't known existed – I was so overwhelmed by what I'd seen him do that I was trembling, physically shaking. I don't remember what I said to him. I remember he was wearing glasses and looked much older than on he had on stage, as Posner, and I remember the way his hand felt when I shook it. I'm sure I said something simple like, “that was amazing, congratulations” - something to that extent. The only explanation I have for how stricken I was by facing this totally unknown actor was that the work had genuinely meant that much to me, had already lodged under my skin.

After that, I met Stephen Campbell Moore, which became much more comfortable. I told him that I had loved him in A Good Woman, and he was very surprised that the film had even come out here. He was happy to talk, about that film and about the filming of the History Boys movie, about how it was to tour the play. I remember talking with him in the outdoor bar as we both watched Richard Griffiths holding court on a bus stop seat, right on the street outside the theatre, alongside James Corden, who at the time had a little popularity due to starring in the show Teachers. We had a great conversation – probably half an hour of chatting – and he actually cancelled three phone calls coming in on his phone, in order to continue talking to me. He kissed me, in response to my compliments about the show, and again when saying goodbye. He was so kind, and treated me with a sense of grace, familiarity and interest that, upon reminiscing, probably set a high bar for what I now consider to be a worthwhile fan interaction.

The film of The History Boys came out about six months after I moved to the UK. I was shocked, thrilled and proud to see posters for the film in the Tube tunnels – I snapped a photo and did a blog post about it at the time, as I was not aware that the film would be having a wide release – I didn't have a perspective on how well-known it was in England. Trailers started showing at the cinema where I worked, before sessions of The Queen, and I would sneak into the theatre each session in order to catch the preview a few times a day. I ended up going to see the movie, by myself, in a small screen at the Leicester Square Odeon, some time in November.

I loved it, of course. The film is directed and staged very similarly to the play – it does not attempt to make the complicated dialogue more natural, or anything like that – so it's not really a movie adaptation of the story, it is the original work, captured on film in a more complex set than a theatre stage. It uses the same cast that I saw, the original National Theatre cast, the screenplay was adapted by Alan Bennett himself, and, like the play, it was directed by Nicholas Hytner. It's the same team, putting on the same production - it cuts out the breaking-the-fourth-wall monologues, but that's it, pretty much. A few things are trimmed, and a sub-plot is removed, but nothing is really changed about the way the characters speak and deliver their lines. I've heard from people who aren't really into theatre, that have only seen the movie, that this aspect it makes for a strange or even boring experience. I have pretty much nothing to say to those people. If a person isn't able to understand how this film is brilliant and beautiful, my capacity to have a conversation with them would diminish immediately – not on principle or anything, they just clearly are not the kind of person I'll connect with.

This cast – the boys especially - are people who you know. If you're a casual consumer of British media, of things like Doctor Who and Sherlock and Never Mind The Buzzcocks, you know Russell Tovey and James Corden - they are BBC superstars. If you follow the British industry more closely - if you're interested in the small comedies and historical miniseries, or if you follow theatre, you know some of the others - Sam Barnett, Sacha Dhawan, Jamie Parker. Dom Cooper, of course, aside from work in British TV, film, and theatre, is now a Hollywood film star - never quite the leading man, but nicely featured roles in Captain America, An Education, Mamma Mia and The Duchess. He shows off his amazing diversity as the lead in biopic The Devil's Double, where his character is forced into playing body-double for the son of Saddam Hussein.

You know these boys - now. You didn't then. I didn't then. But since that day I have kept tabs on the careers of each one of them, and through that, helped to develop my taste in media and found so many things that I care about. Through the simple method of watching something that has a History Boy in it, I've discovered the BBC Cupboard – you know, that closet full of actors that the BBC pulls out to stick in anything that's going on. Via association with a History Boy, I found more shows, and people, to love and follow, and became a full-blown fan of the current British arts industry, of the huge family of actors that have worked together in some way – of people like Mathew Horne, Aiden Turner, Rafe Spall, Ruth Jones, Zoe Tapper, Eddie Redmayne, Gemma Areteton, Sam Crane, Matthew Goode, Olivia Colman, Ben Whishaw. Throw a rock in Britain and you'll hit someone associated with The History Boys, by one or zero degrees of separation. Matt Smith was a History Boy, did you know? He played Lockwood in the second run in London, while the original cast toured overseas, and he would have been amazing. Ben Barnes signed on to play Dakin, he had to leave due to signing on as Prince Caspian, but my god, he would have killed it.

Shows like Being Human, Gavin and Stacey, Beautiful People and the mini-series Desperate Romantics have become some of my favourite television ever. Starter For Ten – one of the greatest British contemporary films – stars Dom Cooper and James Corden with James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch, though James I already knew via Shameless, and actually, Stephen Campbell Moore was in Amazing Grace, which was the first thing I ever saw Benedict Cumberbatch in. If you like pain, try Painted With Words, a biopic of Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, starring Cumberbatch as Vincent alongside Jamie Parker as Theo. Jamie's also in The Hour, with Everyone Ever That Was British, and James Corden snogged Nick Grimshaw at the Brits.

That's just the actors, though. Following them has led me to the world of the British entertainment industry, a place I now love deeply and wholeheartedly for so many reasons, especially compared to the Hollywood industry. But through the text of the play, I have come to look more personally - the way the boys do - at certain aspects of literature, and at my way of thinking about it. I already had Wilde, and GK Chesterton, a little - who, in turn, sort of reminds me of Hector. I had the Romantics - Keats the sweetheart and Coleridge the dreamer and Byron the madman. I knew Blake and Eliot - but none of them, bar Oscar, who is in a different part of my heart, have had the impact that the poets quoted in The History Boys have had on me. It isn't because they're the ones featured in the play. They affect me for the same reason that they're the ones featured in the play – because it's some of the most gutting commentary about the human condition ever put down on paper.

I knew Auden a little already, but man, the war poets, particularly Sassoon – that's lead to a deeper interest and trauma about the First World War, something I already was fairly emotionally invested in, due to the experiences of some literary characters in novels. Then, of course, there's also A.E. Housman, who is, now, far and away my favourite poet. I have read every poem Housman ever published and I have dark Housman in-jokes with one of my friends and I love him and he kills me. His stuff is so.. bleak, but it's so real. Also, I once had Carl Barat of The Libertines, my only idol in the truest sense of that word, recite my favourite Housman poem directly into my ear in a salon bar in Paris, and that was an odd moment on a journey that started with The History Boys, so, you know.

Last month, I went to see a production of The History Boys that was running at the Sydney Opera House. I haven't had the opportunity before now to actually see a new run of the show, but the idea has always filled me with trepidation, because it wasn't my cast. This is an absolutely ridiculous notion for a fan of theatre to have, because plays are changeable, the casts are always moving on, new productions are interesting. I've fantasy-cast plenty of my favourite plays and musicals in my mind, oh, wouldn't Jamie Parker be amazing as Jack in Earnest? Gee, if Brendon Urie ever did Broadway, he'd make a perfect Marius in Les Mis, he looks just like the book description of Marius.

I've wondered if my fear about re-casting The History Boys was because it was a play I'd seen in its original run, or because I was now used to the movie, but I don't think it is - I've seen new shows in their original runs, and I've seen film adaptations of theatre, and it doesn't stop me fantasy-casting those works or being keen to see new versions. There was just something about The History Boys that made me want to keep it as it was, to protect it, or my memory of it.

I made myself go and see The History Boys when it ran at the Opera House last month, despite being very nervous about it. I was scared it wouldn't be the same, I was scared that it wouldn't mean as much to me. I was scared that my obsession with the characters was too tied into my fondness for the actors, after following their careers for seven years. But I forced myself to go, to go and see - to test myself on how much I really loved the work, as an entity, as opposed to loving a particular performance of the work.

It was a successful experiment. I definitely love the work, and the work definitely stands on its own. The moment we got there, I picked up a flyer with a pictures of the eight boys on it, posing in character. Simply from their body language in these shots, I could immediately identify which characters they were meant to be. I then looked them up in the actual program, and I'd gotten six out of eight correct, and the two I mixed up with each other were a pretty understandable mix-up, especially due to one of them being the boy who, in my opinion, gave the most different/out-of-character/weak performance compared to the original.

The new production wasn't quite perfect, it wasn't the same, I didn't like it quite as much, but it was The History Boys, it was my show, they were those characters. My attachment wasn't just to the one-off performances of the original cast. The personalities of each of the characters - the meaning and implication behind the lines performed, the analysis I've made of those boys over the years - this company had clearly studied the text in the same way, because despite the difference in actors - and some of them were very different - they were those boys, they were easily recognizable, and they came alive again.

There were a few flaws. Unfortunately, the character I mentioned above - the one I didn't pick out and the one who ended up being the weakest, to me, was Scripps, who is my favourite character in the show. His good nature, sheepishness, resignation and inner turmoil about his religion make him incredibly complex. He's an amazing friend to both Dakin and Posner, and he's basically an incredible role model - he's a genuinely good person. I'm not going to write an essay on Scripps' inner soul, but know this - I could. It's been seven years, and I'm still not tired of how much I like Scripps. Most of the other actors characters really got their characters - Dakin, Posner, Timms, Totty and Irwin in particular were all just... Wonderful. Timms and Posner played their roles slightly differently from the original actors, but still in a way that was really true to the characters.

The actor playing Scripps unfortunately just did not get Scripps. I'm not just saying this because he's my favourite and so I was judging him more closely, or because I'm desperately fond of Jamie Parker, his actor - out of all the boys, he's the dearest to me, but it's because of his own crazy self, not because of his role, I love them both separately. I saw the show twice, in hope that he'd improve, and I saw it the second time with other people who know at least the film and they agreed - that actor did not get Scripps. He was too self-satisfied, and the way he delivered some lines completely changed the meaning and implication of them, by extension changing the personality and intentions of the character. He was the only one of the boys to do this, far and away the most recognizably different. This was sad to me.

Another thing I disliked was the fact that the piano - there's piano in The History Boys, several singing parts, it's part of Hector's class and in the original, Scripps is the piano player - was played by several different boys, including Dakin and Lockwood. I presume this is because the actor playing Scripps wasn't good enough at piano to do the whole thing - he played on a couple of simpler things - but Scripps as the pianist has always meant a lot to me, especially as an accompanist to Posner. It paints a picture about their relationship as friends, and it's one of my favourite things about the show. So it made for weirdness to have these scenes where it's just meant to be Dakin, Scripps and Pos, and then, because Scripps can't play the piano, Lockwood's hanging around ineffectually. So that irked me.

I have three serious favourite scenes in the show, and, thankfully, two of those three were really satisfying. One of my three favourites is the "can you teach the Holocaust" lesson with the boys, Irwin and Hector. That entire scene, the argument, the defence, makes me get tight in the chest, every time. It makes me really feel something, feel the anger or thrill as if I was in the class myself, wanting to shout or contribute. This company did this scene well - even Scripps did okay, it was the only moment where his friendship with Pos really came across, in his defence of him in this moment. They did it justice.

The next of my favourite scenes that they really knocked out of the park was the final scene between Dakin and Irwin, when Dakin gets his scholarship and goes to ask Irwin out for a 'drink.' This scene, wow, the actors playing Dakin and Irwin, their chemistry was off the charts. It was really something, like this slight undercurrent for most of the first act, and then as soon as they had scenes alone - BAM. Their private scene prior to Dakin's Oxbridge exam was also very good, but this one, I actually found it difficult to breathe. It was electric. I've read Alan Bennett's thoughts on this scene - that he was encouraged, for the film version I think, to go further, that the tension wouldn't come across on film, that they needed to make Dakin grab Irwin by the shirt, or add a kiss. Bennett rejected this idea, and I'm glad, and I love this scene in the movie, but it doesn't nearly give me a heart-attack the way that this live scene did, simply from Dakin trailing one finger over Irwin's hand. It was amazing, completely perfect.

I suppose two out of three ain't bad, but unfortunately the final of my three favourite scenes was very disappointing. It's, of course, the Drummer Hodge discussion between Hector and Posner – I'm willing to bet that if you've seen one quote from the History Boys floating around the internet, it's Hector's beautiful speech after he describes the meaning of a line and Posner says “I felt that, a bit.” Hector's response is one of the most lovely lines, a sentiment that I am sure everyone has felt, and, upon reflection, I'm sure it was this scene that made me know, at that opening night in 2006, that I had found something that was going to be very important to me.

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - that you'd thought special, particular to you ... and here it is!, set down by someone else, a person you've never met. Maybe even someone long dead. And it's as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

This scene comes at a crucial time in the play, it is quiet, it has an undercurrent of immense sadness due to Hector's circumstances, that Posner does not yet know about, and about how touched he is by the boy's devotion to his teachings. It is just... really something special, and in the new production I saw, it wasn't. It wasn't well done. Posner was fine, and actually close to tears in his last recitation of the Hardy poem, but Hector... There was a problem with this Hector, played by Australian TV veteran John Wood, in the production in general, but in this scene it was just unforgiveable.

I'd been intending to write up my thoughts about seeing a new version of The History Boys ever since I saw it a few weeks ago, but I hadn't found the time. Yesterday, I was making notes in my diary about writing this post. I literally put down my pen while writing “Finish History Boys Blog” to pick up my phone and answer a text. The text was telling me that Richard Griffiths had died after complications with surgery. He was 65. Hector, at the end of the play, also dies unexpectedly in his sixties, and the irony or coincidence seemed too cruel that I just wrote back “no, that's not possible.” I went on Twitter and I knew it was true. Aside from news sources, the boys – Jamie, Sam, Russell – were already grieving.

I was horrified and devastated – as a fan, because he made art that I loved, not only in The History Boys but all throughout his career. But I was more deeply touched with sorrow for those guys, especially Jamie, whom, as previously mentioned, I am inordinately fond of, and who doesn't really hold back when expressing his feelings, even when he has dark thoughts. His hurt was cutting and palpable, and I was so sad that this lovely, honest, unusual man, whom I respect and care about, had lost his friend.

But I was sad for all of them – they had been a family, they had toured the world together for years, they are still close. Richard Griffiths was a part of many wonderful things, and many people will feel his loss, but this was my corner of his world, and knowing that these people, who together made something that means the world to me, had lost one of their own and how that must make them feel. That hurt me much more deeply than knowing that Richard will never sign my opening-night program alongside other members of the cast that I've met over the years.

It wasn't until yesterday, upon Richard's death, that I realised exactly what John Wood lacked, as Hector. I realised because two of his boys - Jamie Parker and James Corden - wrote beautiful tributes to his work, and they put into words what I could not quite grasp myself. In a lovely piece for the Guardian, Corden wrote “Richard had an ability in even the biggest comic creations to give his characters a humane quality – he always played the truth of the scenes, never the jokes.” This was it, this was it exactly. To start with, Wood didn't seem to be making a huge effort – he forgot or messed up some lines at each performance, and I'd know, because I was literally reciting the whole thing under my breath, start to finish – and he also dropped his British accent a bunch of times, like he just... stopped caring or something.

But regardless of that, it's what Corden mentioned – playing the truth, never the jokes – that's the important thing. That's what made Richard as Hector so lovable, and what Wood truly lacked. He played the jokes, hell, he added jokes. He added strange bits of accent in some parts, doing imitations – Scottish at some point, and in the scene where he talks about the pronunciation of “words” sounding Welsh, he tried to go into a Welsh accent, which was just... unnecessary and missed the point. But the most grievous thing, in my opinion, was – in that Hardy poem scene, in that 'hand has come out and taken yours' scene, he played up a piece of physical comedy, in which Posner reaches out to touch Hector's hand, and Hector smacks it away with a finger waggle. They left a pause for laughter and everything, and I was pretty appalled.

Jamie, in a Twitter essay, went on to describe another aspect of Richard's perfect performance, something else that Wood certainly lacked:

“Richard was a musician. To my knowledge he wasn’t a singer per se, or player of any particular instruments, beyond the odd doodle on a guitar. But as much as anyone I’ve encountered he had a complete understanding that it is what one does with the silences between sounds that give those sounds their impact. And even though the sounds he dealt in were those of the spoken word, and not ‘notes’, this remains the only way to describe his profound, innate musicianship. It only occurs to me now just how spoilt we History Boys all were, as new practitioners of our trade, to get to listen to Richard night after night, over two and a half years, handling A.B.’s non-naturalistic text – those long, elegant, carefully constructed sentences - with such natural, deft delicacy that it just seemed self-evident those words were supposed to be spoken that way.

It may sound a ludicrous tribute, but the man spoke in whole sentences - while making damn sure the audience clocked every single word along the way. Honestly, there are not many around who can do both; who can fine-tune the very same inflection on the very same line from night to night, in order to make it seem like it’s being thought of for the very first time. This way of working may be less pyrotechnical than an improvised, unpredictable, ‘dangerous’ approach, but it is every inch as exciting, entirely as flamboyant, absolutely as compelling, just as infinitely fascinating, vibratingly beautiful - and moreover it’s the kind of thing that’s deeply needed if we are to retain our ability to bring epic and larger-than-life texts to life; to manifest them in real time for the collective mind.”

John Wood as Hector really had an air of Michael Gambon's Dumbledore about him, in the sense of not really respecting or understanding the character he was playing or the play he was performing in. Some scenes were fine, but never fantastic, he was saying his lines, not feeling them, and certainly not with the spontaneity and ability to turn unnatural dialogue into perfectly understandable conversation that Jamie described. I don't think I realised how difficult that must be until I watched another person fail to hold it up, and I am deeply grateful for Richard's performance and for the fact that I both got to see it live and in a permanently recorded fashion.

All in all, though, seeing this new production did prove and re-affirm my attachment to this work – that it isn't just a fondness for an actor or a moment in time or an association. This show, in all its forms, has changed my life in many ways – both within its own text, my feelings about the characters, the dialogue, quotes, the poems – and within its existence in the real world, the actors, my interest in their careers, my interest in theatre in general. I haven't even mentioned the writer, Alan Bennett, who has produced many other clever, twisted and generally brilliant works which I greatly enjoy, particularly his novellas Smut, The Laying On Of Hands, and The Uncommon Reader. I think, though, that first and foremost, being a fan of this play has made me more intelligent: more interested in things, more able to imbibe art in the way Hector wanted his boys to, for its own sake. More able to see moments of history, and long-dead writers, as real things, real people, to have the kind of investment and empathy that I never had in my own education. It makes me want to learn, makes me consider that, with this perspective, if I went back to study now, the way I approached it may be very different, and much more successful. It's just as Posner tells Irwin about Hector - "He makes you want to."

At the closing of the play, after Hector's funeral, there's a surreal scene in which Ms Lintott speaks to the boys about their futures, how they all turned out. At the very end, Hector appears one last time. "Pass the parcel, that's sometimes all you can do," he tells them. "Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me. Not for you. But for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys, that's the game I wanted you to learn. Pass it on."

They have.

Monday, 11 March 2013

2013: Books I Have Read So Far

I started off 2013 by re-reading two Tamora Pierce quartets. My friend Mark is reading all of her Tortall books over on Mark Reads, and last year I read along with him as he read Song of The Lioness, but I kind of ended up racing ahead. Tamora Pierce was my first true obsession – I first read the Lioness/Alanna books nearly 20 years ago. They were a gift from my ex-stepmother, who had given the books to all the important young women in her life, her nieces and god-daughter and then later, me. When she first brought me them to read, they were not in publication – they went out of print in the 1990s and came back in a few years later, maybe the very late 90s or early 2000s. She lent me all the books once, and was able to track down the first and fourth of the Lioness books in print in England. When she couldn't find the others, she took her niece's copy and recorded the entire thing aloud, the two middle novels, on cassette tape for me, and sent them to me from England. To this day, it's the most thoughtful and loving thing anyone has ever done for me. I still have the tapes, and I really want to get them made into MP3s.

Tamora Pierce's books, her characters – they forged me. Harry Potter, a few years later, brought me into fandom and things like that, it changed my life, but Tamora Pierce books made me who I am. I don't think anything will ever feel as mine as her books are, especially the Tortall books (though, in some ways, I find the Emelan series cleverer and more pithy.) They would be my specialty subject on any game show. I've always been incredibly possessive over them and this world – like they're the one thing that, if a film adaptation was made, I'd be like “wait, wait, wait, hold the phone, this is NOT OKAY, wait, I need to be involved in every aspect of this, I need to be the casting agent, I need to play Alanna, nope, NO ONE CAN MAKE THIS RIGHT EXCEPT ME.” They are my home. I cannot count the amount of times I have read them – I am on my third copy of the Alanna series – the first has fallen apart, and the second is on the way. They fostered a lot of other interests in me, like real-world medieval history and weaponry, and I'm sure that Alanna being my major favourite fictional character from age seven made it so I never even considered or doubted that there was anything a little girl could not do.

When I stayed with Anna, my ex-stepmother, in London a couple of years ago, I visited her while she was house-sitting for one of her nieces, who is, I guess, a few years older than me, in her 30s. I was staying in a spare room or study that contained a lot of books, and I saw, in her shelves, that she had the Beka Cooper books – Tamora's latest series, published in the last three or four years, which is a Tortall prequel series. This made me so incredibly emotional – I've never met this girl, this niece, but she had the books, Anna had given her the Alanna books as a young teen and she, like me, has kept Tammy all her life, she's kept buying the new releases, she's kept caring, well into adulthood. This surprised me, and meant so much to me. I've rarely felt so connected to someone, and this is a girl I'd never met or even really seen a photo of. I just saw those recent copies and knew she'd taken the same path as me. It was a really special experience.

One great thing about Tammy is that the books never quite feel the same – as I've grown and changed, I've viewed the books and various characters differently. The Alanna series used to be my world, and while it is always going to be the most special to me, I can look at it objectively now and see that it's quite rough and simplistic. I can see the restrictions put upon her by publishing as an unknown author in the 1980s, I can see the inconsistencies that are ironed out in later series set in Tortall, even in things like dialogue, slang they'd use. That is not to say that it doesn't still mean the world to me, because it does, they do. The characters in those books... are my friends. I can visualise them better than any other fictional characters, and I love them. I just wish that they could have been given the same opportunities, of length and progressiveness, as her later publications, in the 1990s/2000s. Like, my god, as an older reader, the canonical subtext between Thom and Roger is... almost painful, and it would be so cool to see those books exploring the full potential that they could have had. But they were an author's first work, and in the 80s, and at a time when it was hard enough to get a fantasy book taken seriously, especially one with a girl protagonist. Oh well. They're still great, they're still an amazing adventure and they're still my world. Hogwarts is for all of us. Tortall is for me.

The second series set in Tortall, around 10 years after the end of the first, is Daine's series, The Immortals, and that was the first thing I read in 2013.

The Immortals Quartet:
1. Wild Magic
2. Wolf-Speaker
3. Emperor Mage
4. Realms of the Gods

I realised on this re-read that my perspective on these books has changed the most out of any of Tammy's quartets. The format of them is quite different – both Alanna's series and Kel's, the next one, cover long periods of time – around ten years in total, each series. They're a pretty specific formula. The Daine books cover short periods of time – once a year, we drop into a specific adventure or conflict that covers a few weeks of Daine's life, rather than following her over the entire period of those four years. I found on this re-read that I actually really like this aspect, the close, fast-pasted, detailed coverage of a specific event rather than the vague coverage of four years in one book with a few main highlights. It is a lot more in-depth and interesting. I also liked Daine a lot more than I ever have before – I always loved her powers, naturally, but I don't think I much liked her for herself, I found her a bit tedious, and looking at her now, that's really changed for me. I – and I think this is an age thing – am also now obsessed with Numair. I used to not really notice him that much, and was never moved by his relationship with Daine. He, on this re-read, became my favourite romantic character of Tammy's. As a younger reader, I was a bit weirded out by the eventual Daine/Numair romance. It seemed strange to me, not inappropriate exactly, but not realistic and the age-gap put me off. I think this is because I was too young or immature, because now, at someone closer to his age – I'm seeing him not as a odd teacher figure, but as quite a sweet boy – which he IS, I just didn't realise that when I was 13. He's a total darling, and I love him, and I now see him as younger and more relatable than I ever did before. 

As I mentioned, my attitude towards Daine herself has also completely changed – I don't know why, or what changed, because it isn't as if I haven't read the books a lot, it isn't as if I read them once at 13 and once now. But something shifted for the better, and I now adore Daine's series. I've always loved Kitten, and I love what we see of Thayet, Jonathan, George and Alanna in this series, the progress of Tortall in the ten years since we left them. I love Maura of Dunlath. I love Kaddar – Emperor Mage has always been one of my favourite of Tammy's books, no matter what I thought of Daine I always found that story one of the best. And I always liked Rikash, but on this re-read, my liking of Rikash turned to full-blown favourite character obsession. I love every single word he says, I love what he represents, how he changes Daine's perspective and prejudices, and I actually put off finishing Realms of the Gods because of how much I knew I was going to not handle his death scene. I'd read it many times before and never been desperately hurt by it, but I knew this time wouldn't be the same – I know the books almost off by heart, and I remembered what Daine's inner thoughts were, and I knew it was going to wreck me, and it did. It was awful. It is awful. It is the worst death in any of her books, like the most viscerally, emotionally, painfully written for me. More than Alanna losing Thom, more than Liam, more than the little boys in the Trickster books. Daine staring at him getting killed from afar, screaming without realising it. “It was her voice. If she screamed loud enough, long enough, he would live. She hadn't realised that he meant something to her. She hadn't realised her was her friend.”

Jesus fucking Christ, right?

The Protector of the Small Quartet:
5. First Test
6. Page
7. Squire
8. Lady Knight

Kel's books have always been a solid favourite for me, because they take that original structure of Lioness – page and squire training, knighthood, and then out into the world – but they totally flip it around, showing the developments in the system since Jon became king – first and foremost, of course, the fact that Kel is publicly training as a lady knight, as opposed to Alanna's disguise. There are many other changes to the structure, the training processes, and I love all of them. I love all of Kel's friends, especially Neal, Owen, and Merric. The stuff with Joren and his gang is so exquisitely messed up. Lord Wyldon is one of the most interesting and complex of all Tammy's characters, and I love how much he comes to love Kel, and how much she knows it, despite the fact that everyone else thinks he is unfair to her. All their scenes together, where they have this unspoken understanding, they just pretty much all make me cry. They are wonderful. I also, of course – of course – am absolutely in love with what happens to Kel as a squire, that Raoul picks her and that we get a whole thick novel – Squire is one of Tammy's longest novels, and one of my very favourites (apparently it's Tammy's favourite, of all her books, too) – of amazing Raoul antics, he's one of my utterly most beloved from the Lioness books and I love who he has become while remaining his gorgeous, jolly, cheery self. Kel's relationship with Raoul is one of my favourite things in all literature. 

I love Cleon, I love Dom – Kel's fickleness with her crushes frustrates me a little, and I feel really sad for Cleon about how serious he is about her – I'd take him in a heartbeat - but I have read Tammy's take on this, and I respect it and appreciate that not every one of her girls ends up with a true-love ending. When Kel's series ends, she's really only on the start of her path, and while I'd love to see what ends up happening to her in the long run, I like the ending of her series. Kel's character is probably my favourite out of any of Tammy's Tortall girl-heroes – even though I grew up with Alanna as my idol (just like Kel did,) Kel's sense of self, her control, and her general personality is one I really admire and respect. If I could be like any of those girls, I would want, the most, to be like her. I can't wait for more books on her, which apparently are coming, from the point of view of her own first squire.

9. Playing Beatie Bow
Ruth Park

Playing Beatie Bow is an Australian children's or young adult book, a short novel about a 14-yr-old girl called Abigail who lives in The Rocks, the oldest part of Sydney city proper. She slips back through time to the same area in 1873, where she is – seemingly by accident or coincidence – taken into the care of the Bow family. It turns out that she was actually drawn specifically, and ties into a Bow family prophecy in regards to protecting their slightly psychic and healing Gift. I picked this up again (I had read it several times when younger) because I was thinking about it, and about the Rocks and the settlement of Sydney. It gives a fairly detailed description of the Victorian working classes and slums in Australia and I bet they make kids in school, age around 12 learning Australian history, read it for that cultural reason. It's well known and was recently reprinted in a line of Australian classics along with Seven Little Australians and Picnic at Hanging Rock. This book was written in the late 70s, published in 1980, when the author herself was in her 60s. I looked this up because it sort of seems to suffer for that – the dialogue in the book's present day, in 1980 or wherever Abigail starts out, is so unrealistic – not just dated, but really, really unrealistic that a teenager would have spoken like that. It has the kind of dialogue that you only really ever see written, like really prosy? It's especially noticeable when Abigail is speaking to Natalie, the four-year-old girl who she babysits. I don't know if the writer had ever met a four-year-old girl because no child, no matter how smart, would say lines like this – or have thoughts like this – at age four. They just wouldn't. 

Oddly, the stuff in 1873 is more realistic, though the family she stays with are immigrants from Orkney so a lot of their speech is written as dialect. The book, of course, features young love in the shape of Judah Bow, the son of the family who is one of those lovely, good, golden characters who you can't help but adore. Abigail comes into the past a cynical, sour thing, furious about her parents getting back together after her father had left the family years earlier, and comes back all softened and considerate and changed, of course. And she finds Judah, again, in a way. As I mentioned, the modern parts of this book are not the best-written thing I've ever read, but I would always recommend this as a book to someone who wants to know more about Sydney, because it is a really great portrait of the Victorian times here and the Rocks is a really interesting place.

10. Gray
Pete Wentz

I've been waiting for this book for a long time – a very long time. Since Wentz first came onto my horizon, in around 2005 – at this point he had already published The Boy With The Thorn In His Side, I believe – it was known that he was working on another book, at the time entitled Rainy Day Kids. This project disappeared, and he even told fans that he didn't think it would ever actually happen, but around a year ago – seven years after I first got involved – he started hinting that this thing was actually happening, posting a photo of a few draft pages. This absolutely stopped my heart, because Wentz's writing has always been what primarily drew me to him. I love the way he writes – in lyrics, but in broken poetry and prose as well. I'd go as far as to say that I was a fan of his before I was a full-on fan of the band's – I followed his blogs regularly before I actually knew the band that well, I was absolutely, absolutely in love with his words first. I have followed all his blogs since that time – the public ones, like on FOBRock, Buzznet or FBR, and the secret blogspots as well, of course, like nohartandsole, stagecoaches, and some that came before, though I now find I can't remember the earlier URLs. I think he even still had LiveJournal, as well. One of my favourite things about being a Fall Out Boy fan is hearing a new album and recognising lyrics – phrases, metaphors and such – that are fragments of old blogs, things I had read before and taken to heart, posted right as Pete was feeling them and offered up to the small congregation of those who always knew where to find him, the ones he left “breadcrumbs” for. So even though we have the wonderful fact that Fall Out Boy are now touring and recording again, I was already satisfied, prior to that announcement, just that we would be getting Pete's book.

Oddly enough, it wasn't quite what I expected , but perhaps what I should have. Gray is billed as a novel, and I knew it was going to be about a boy in a band on tour, and in a tumultuous relationship. However, for some reason, I expected it to be, well.. a proper novel, not something actually based on himself. Maybe because he's moved on so much in his life, through marriage, fatherhood, divorce, lowering his fame level, and becoming stable in love and life. I honestly thought he wouldn't want to revisit all of this, I thought he was writing something dramatic, yes, and based on feelings, yes, but this thing is not a novel, it's practically a memoir. Now, I don't claim to know the private goings-on as this man, but he has always been open and public, if you knew where to keep tabs on him, and the fact is that I recognise most of this story. I expected him to put across his opinions and feelings – his uncertain relationship with fame, things about mental illness and medication, and his experiences with love, but into a genuinely fictional story. Gray can only be called fiction in the loosest sense of the word. The protagonist, himself, is never named – it's in the first person – and the girl is never named, but if you know Wentz, you know who she is. The story covers the band's progression, and his love life, from prior of the recording of TTTYG to sometime after the recording of FUCT. So many facts are the same – locations, events, time periods, even the exact locations of the studios where both those records were made. Even people's actual names – not many characters are named but one who is, a crew member of Fall Out Boy's, goes by a famous nickname in real life. That nickname is changed, but his real given name is mentioned and is the same in the book as it is in real life. Patrick's in the book, though is referred to as Martin – as in Patrick Martin Stump. 

I also recognised, while reading, just like when listening to a FOB album, many passages from old blogs, many of his prosier writings, where he'd actually write in paragraphs or tell stories about himself as opposed to his more poetic, lyrical posts. As I said, this really surprised me, purely because I just didn't think he'd ever want to go back to this place, this headspace. Once I established that yes, we are going to this place, I settled in feeling deeply attached and deeply unsettled, because ten to one odds, most of the terribly harsh things I was reading had really happened – and most of these things were things our protagonist was doing, not things being done to him. We've always known how dark and unstable he was, always, but there are some scenes that were startling even to someone who has known just how fucked up Pete was, who had read those old blog posts that he'd post in the middle of the night and delete in the morning. Following the story closely, I knew what was coming – his suicide attempt in February 2005 – and when that didn't happen, I soon realised where the “novel” aspect of Gray comes in. Pete seems to have taken his own story, been an honest as possible, and then given it a completely different ending: ultimately more tragic, but maybe one he found easier to cope with, maybe one he would have preferred. He doesn't kill himself off, don't worry, but he certainly addresses that idea that, honestly, if you haven't felt, you haven't had a bad break-up – the idea that you'd rather someone you loved was dead, you'd rather they left you without it being their choice, that it would be easier to cope with than the pain you were putting one another through on a daily basis.

11. Struck By Lightning
Chris Colfer

I haven't seen the film of Struck By Lightning yet, and I will admit that I found it a little bit odd that he was even putting this out as a novel – a bit sell-outy, even, like he just wanted another book out at any cost. However, after reading it, I established that he'd actually – as the film's scriptwriter – taken the opportunity to go further into his characters, perhaps inner thought processes that he was not able to portray in the film. I don't know how much of that kind of thing made it in, like if the main character, Carson, had a lot of inner monologue, but if he didn't, the novel tie-in is, though quite simplistic, definitely a really great, and deep, resource for someone who enjoyed the film. The book also includes the entire literary journal that Carson produces, the writings of all the students that he blackmailed, and that was, I felt, an important experience, insightful and sad, which is something that Carson realises himself. Chris Colfer also, just like he did in The Land Of Stories, makes sure to have his character repeat, in passing, his negative ideas about fame, about pedestals of celebrity, and about the bad behaviour of fans. In TLOS, it's just one character tiredly mentioning dealing with the responsibility of the public eye, but in SBL it is slightly less subtle, because Carson is opinionated and scathing about everything. But yeah, Chris really isn't shy about his distaste for a lot of celebrity and fan behaviour, and it feels like that, if he can't outright tell everyone off, he uses his creations to put his opinions across and teach or guide his fans about how he feels on the subject. I was mostly unmoved, emotionally, by reading this book – I enjoyed it, but quite absently – until quite near the end when Carson discovered exactly what had happened to his Northwestern application. I was so furious and disgusted, like I literally went cold, I felt like a fist was gripping my heart, I was so angry on Carson's behalf. It really took me by surprise, how much righteous fury I felt, I think I said out-loud “wow, that is fucked up.” Anyway, I'm keen to see the movie, and I'm interested to see how much of the inner thoughts expressed made it into the film in some form.

12. How To Understand Israel In 60 Days Or Less
Sarah Glidden

This is a graphic novel that I looked up and purchased after I saw Amanda Palmer looking for recommendations of books about Israel to read before she goes there for an event later this year. Several people recommended this and I had never heard of it. I've only read one or two novels set in Israel before, and seen one film. I'm going there in May on what will be my seventh or eighth visit overall, my first visit in nearly ten years, and my first time alone, not with my dad and younger brother. For those who don't know, my background is Israeli – my dad is from there, and all of his family live there – his mother, sisters, and my two older half-brothers, though both of them lived in Australia for times as teenagers/young adults. The reason I live here, and that he lives here, is because my mother was a control freak, but that is a long story for another day. Israel has always been a fixture in my life, since before I knew its position on the world map, the conflict, etc. It was where I was taken on holidays, to see family, and most of my memories are of the beach, riding bikes around my grandmother's kibbutz, my dad showing me all the places he'd done metalwork, flea markets, being bought new clothes, a particular type of strawberry ice cream, apartments with tiled floors in every room, and lots and lots of cats and dogs – everyone in Israel has a lot of pets, and all I wanted as a child was animals all the time. On the kibbutz, even, my dad's best friend from school ran a small zoo, where she had a tame meerkat, and lemurs and spider monkeys. That's my Israel. I knew nothing about the conflict, about Palestine, about why people might be anti-Israel, or any of that.

This graphic novel is the direct opposite: it's the true story, or diary, of this girl Sarah, from NYC, who is Jewish by birth but who claims to be progressive and liberal, and apparently being progressive and liberal means being anti-Israel? She decides to go to Israel to sort out her feelings on the situation and see for herself – she goes on taglit, a Birthright trip, which is a program set up by the Israeli government which offers young Jewish adults the chance to visit Israel, for free. Like, they pay everything – international flights, accommodation, travel around in a guided tour. There are all different styles of taglit trips – religious, non-religious, ones from different countries or even niche trips – there's ones for outdoors types where most of the spare time is doing extreme sports, and ones for special needs groups... But the basic structure is a 10-day tour around Israel, explaining the history to young Jews. The agenda, I'm pretty sure, is to encourage them to “make aliyah” - to move to Israel and become a citizen, or at least to feel connected to Israel and to defend it on a world scale. No matter the niche, there are several spots that every tour visits – places like Masada, the Old City in Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the Sea of Galilee, they learn the origin of the kibbutzes, they go to the Negev Desert and learn a bit about the Bedouin tribes. They spend time with young members of the army – army service is mandatory in Israel, you go in between high school and uni. I have never had any desire to do taglit, even though a free trip anywhere is appealing. The author, Sarah, went on a non-religious taglit – I mean, Israel is a Jewish state, so things are historically Jewish, but on a non-religious trip they don't push any religious rules on the group. Sarah, the author, is not shy in portraying herself as going in cynical and argumentative, expecting the whole thing to be sheer propaganda, but then goes through the process of an attitude adjustment, as she meets new people. The group visits places that do seem to push propaganda – the visitor's centre in the Golan Heights, for example, but Sarah is surprised to have this issue addressed by the tour guide as soon as the group gets back on the bus. Her group's guides, who are Israeli Jews, don't shy away from the issues of the country and present a more unbiased view of the situation and the conflict than she was expecting, and even though Sarah has done as much objective research as she can and is prepared to attack at every turn, she finds herself questioning a lot of things. She admits that she came there, originally, to validate herself that Israel was definitely the bad guy, because they are the ones with the power, and that she could go home without having qualms of cutting it out of her life forever. She ends up conflicted about this.

She finds some ingrained prejudice, but also realises she has a fair bit of her own. It was a really good read, and gave me a perspective on why people may actually be anti-Israel. Sarah mentions at some point, that she's felt like that if you're Jewish, you're meant to support Israel no matter what, and she doesn't, so she feels conflicted. I think that I'm probably one of those people, though more out of thoughtless loyalty than Zionism. I look at Israel and I'm a child, saying “but what's wrong with it?” This gave me some idea of why people have issues with the creation of Israel, though it is hard for me to really commiserate. My family were in concentration camps, they went to Israel to be free. My father was born in a holding camp as they waited to emigrate. What am I meant to do with this information? I have bias. I was glad to see that Sarah didn't do a total 180, because even my dad hates the creepy Zionist attitude and is against a lot of current Israeli politics – he loved Rabin, naturally, may his lovely soul rest in peace, and hates Netanyahu. He – and most Israelis I know – also really dislike the Hasidic Jews, mainly for their hypocrisy – they, in our experience, find every loophole to live by their laws and feel superior about it. Like how cutting the hair is forbidden, but it specifies something about shears, electric razors weren't invented in the Bible, so they're totally fine to cut the hair with. So even Israelis have varied feelings about aspects of Jewish culture. There's a pretty big rift between secular and orthodox.

The book does a good job of portraying two sides to a lot of stories – like the security wall, disrupting a lot of Arab settlements, but reducing the amount of terrorist attacks from something like two per week, to about four a year. At some point, Sarah hears from an Israeli how it is to turn on the radio and know, if there's a happy song on, it's okay, there hasn't been a bomb that day. I've lived that. I literally know what that's like. I've been there when a bomb goes off – everyone in Tel Aviv loses cell reception, did you know that? It's like when you go to a music festival, and everyone is texting each other so the entire place gets messed up signal? Imagine that, except it's everyone checking to see that their friends aren't dead, weren't in that nightclub or that bus. The same person who recounts this also gives an honest opinion on most people's view of sending kids to the army – that no one glorifies it, thinks it is normal or easy, or wants to send their kids. I've been to a few of the places that Sarah goes to – I've been to the Golan, I have a photo lying around somewhere of us on the edge of a minefield. I've been to the Sea of Galilee. Tel Aviv, of course. I've been to several kibbutzes – my dad grew up on one, and I've seen the way they've changed over the past couple of decades, the privatisation. I've been to the Dead Sea, but not to Masada, and one part of Sarah's aggressive cynicism and determination to root out “brainwashing” that actually really interested me was her comparison of the original recorded story of what happened there to the softened, heroic legend that commonly goes around.

Another part of the book I really liked was where Sarah described the Israeli temperament, the blunt criticism that is common – no soft-pedalling. She explains that the upside of this is that any compliments given are genuine, and she says “My gratitude towards this Israeli honesty did have its limits, though to me, it's worth getting offended by someone if it means I can trust their true opinion.” I was raised in an Israeli family, and this trait is definitely something you may recognise in me if you have experience dealing with me. I'm not saying that I don't have some social problems regardless of culture, but if you're sensitive, and find me too blunt and difficult, I do not suggest making friends with Israelis. They can be harsh, sometimes in a way that seems very mean – more malicious than I believe I've ever sounded. But it's all just candid, unfiltered honesty, and they're also very forward, honest and unfiltered in what they do like. It's definitely something that's influenced me and been part of my upbringing.

I've been to the Old City in Jerusalem, to the Wall, to the markets and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but I haven't been to Jerusalem city proper, or to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. I want to go there – though want isn't the right word, I need to go there, but I have never known how I will handle it. I have trouble dealing with Holocaust imagery in general art exhibitions and such – I mean, I'm sure it's no cakewalk for anyone – but alternately, I've read quite a few books – people's biographies from the Holocaust, or Jews escaping it, in the Second World War. If you have ever received an email from my personal account, you'll see the email signature is a quote, “what gives light must endure burning,” which is a quote by Viktor Frankl. Viktor Frankl is a bit of a hero of mine, he was a Jewish psychiatrist who performed mental health care on other prisoners in the camps with him. Before the war, he set up a program counselling high school students free of charge, and this was credited with vastly decreasing teen suicide rates in Vienna, where he practiced. He wrote many things, including a short but brilliant book called Man's Search For Meaning, which is about his time in the camps and the development of the idea of discovering meaning in all existence, and hence, a reason to keep living. If you are interested in a general Holocaust memoir you could try Night by Elie Wiesel or Elli by Livia Bitton-Jackson. Anyway, the point is, I'm an Ashkenazi Jew and come from a family of Holocaust survivors. I have Holocaust issues. Naturally. I could never, ever visit the actual camps, in Germany, Poland, etc. I have been scared of facing Yad Vashem for over ten years, I don't know how to handle it, who to go with. I didn't know how I felt about going with family or with going alone. What I'd most prefer is to go with a good friend who's more detached than me, who is there to support me, but I don't think that's possible. Naturally, no one is going to come to Israel with me just to hold me upright. So we'll see how that goes.

In May, I'm visiting Israel for the first time since 2004, and I'm going alone. I'll be mainly staying with my family, but I will be an adult tourist, not with my dad and not being ferried around. This is my first chance to experience Israel from my own perspective, and I've been curious and somewhat anxious about it. I feel this inexplicable need to make the most of it, to do and see the right things, to not miss out. I'm only going for about two weeks. My younger brother, since graduating high school, has spent large chunks of time there, like a couple of six month stints. He has been absolutely impossible, I asked him what to do and his answer is to go sit in cafes in Tel Aviv. Now, I'm not exactly a “tourist attraction” type traveller, but sitting around in cafes for six months? Reading this graphic novel was a good experience for me. The author was not scared to portray her own flaws and prejudices, as well as the ones she found in Israel, and was open about expressing her positive experiences and changing point of view. While I don't think I could ever truly empathise with her original determined anti-Israel stance, her story did give me a better perspective and understanding of why people may feel that way and what some of the problems are in a way that actually makes sense. One of Sarah's issues, before she went to Israel, was a lack of objective material about “the situation,” and with writing How To Understand Israel In 60 Day Or Less, she's done a pretty good job at filling that gap in the market. I would definitely recommend this graphic novel to anyone visiting Israel, or anyone who is curious or uncertain about what things are like there.