Monthly Archives: February 2013

Marry Me – Dan Rhodes

Fret not, this is not some random post where I declare my love for Dan Rhodes and ask for his hand, though I have been a big fan of his for years and years I wouldn’t go that far. However ‘Marry Me’ is the title of Dan Rhodes latest collection of short stories, which seemed the perfect antidote for having had a real book slump after the torture experience of ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’. I needed something that would make reading a joy and get me thinking and that is just what ‘Marry Me’ did.

**** Canongate Books, hardback, 2013, fiction, 158 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The theme in all the short tales in ‘Marry Me’ are, rather unsurprisingly from the title, all based around marriage. Be these tales of people who are thinking of getting married, getting married, having just been married or ending their marriage the whole gambit is covered here. You have couples getting married through true love, guilt, accident and people getting out of it for the same reason.

Describing them like that makes them sound like they are all going to be rather dark and cynical, and whilst there are a good few dark little twisted tales (part of the reason I am a fan of Rhodes writing so much) here there are also some that are incredibly raw and also rather sentimental and tender too even if it is not initially obvious.

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You would think in a collection of 79 oh-so-short stories there might be some kind of repetitive nature. I will admit that on occasion there were a few that opened with ‘when my fiancé died…’ and there were lots of cheating spouses and husbands who thought everything was fine when it really wasn’t yet the book is brimming with variety. ‘Perfect’ shows the lengths that people will go to for the most special, better than anyone else’s, of days. ’Androids’ takes the theme of, erm, themed weddings to a very dark (but I laughed so, so hard) conclusion. ‘Her Old Self’ shows you should never marry someone because you think you are doing them a favour or out of guilt. There was even a hint of a different genre, science fiction, in ‘Cold’ where a woman gets sick of her husband interfering with the plans she asks him to be cryogenically frozen for a few weeks to let her get on with.

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What I always admire with Dan Rhodes work is how he likes to contradict himself and throw the reader completely. Here he does this by being super critical of marriage, despite the fact the book is dedicated to ‘wife features’, on the one hand and then suddenly giving you a quirky cute tale that you weren’t expecting. This is always the case in both his novels and his short stories. With his short stories like these, and many of the tales in his previous collection Anthropology, which at the longest can be a page and a half and at their shortest a few sentences (flash fiction really) it is like his brilliance is concentrated. He can create a situation and atmosphere in a paragraph a whole character in a sentence, it is quite mind-bogglingly clever. They are also overall darkly funny, you’ll laugh when you normally wouldn’t.

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I would heartily recommend anyone and everyone give ‘Marry Me’ ago. You might not want to buy it for someone you love, they might not get the way it’s meant, but if you love literature, language and the way that words can work at their most concentrated (and because you like to be entertained and made to laugh) then you should definitely give this a whirl. I would highly recommend it, like I would all the books of Rhodes that I have read.

I have just realised that Dan Rhodes should really be in my Hall of Fame, as I have read and liked so much of his work, but I am going to save that for when I have read ‘This is Life’ which has been on my TBR for far too long and I have been saving to read for a rainy day. Who else has read Dan Rhodes and what do you think of his work?

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Filed under Canongate Publishing, Dan Rhodes, Review, Short Stories

Other People’s Bookshelves… A Hiatus

Today should be Other People’s Bookshelves’ day. However there has been a slight issue as I have done something a little bit silly, and I’ve no idea how I did it so can’t reverse it alas. When synching various bits and bobs from laptop to varying devices I some how managed to delete every email I have been sent before the Monday before last that I had yet to respond to or was storing.

This is rather gut wrenching, and highlights why I needed glasses, but means if you sent a request to take part in Other People’s Bookshelves or indeed had sent some pictures and the questionnaire already it has vanished. I’m so sorry. Could you all send again? In the meantime here’s my bookshelves looking lovely in the sun to supply a small book porn fix for you all…

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The blurring in this image shows how bad my eye sight is, without glasses I thought this was clear!

If of course you have yet to take part and want to please do email me (as hopefully the several people who already had will be doing) via savidgereads@gmail.com Thanks in advance, apologies again for being such a klutz! Other People’s Bookshelves will return soon…

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Filed under Other People's Bookshelves, Random Savidgeness

How Short Sighted of Me…

I had intended on doing a book review today however the book I wanted to talk to you about I have had to stop reading as, from now until Thursday, I am banned from reading. Seriously, no joke! I should also really be banned from the computer but like that is going to happen when I have a prize to launch and an event to research for (I am still doing Wilde About Books tomorrow in Leeds, do come if you can) but I am lessening this as much as I can. Why is this all happening? Well all because I need these blinkers…

I hope I can rock geek chic?

I hope I can rock geek chic?

Yes at the age of almost thirty one I am getting glasses. I have been having headaches for a few weeks, right behind my right eye, and as I had a £150 voucher from Specsavers (interestingly as a thanks for doing something for them on the Crime Awards, how kind) so I thought I would spend them on a test and some sunglasses. Well several tests, and frames, later and guess what… my eyesight is rather dreadful, the optician was most relieved I don’t drive, and I should probably have had glasses some time ago, but then I hadn’t had a test for seven years. Oops. They will be ready on Thursday, and then I can get back to some serious reading in comfort. Until then though reading is off the menu, and work needs to be minimal, which I am finding rather frustrating to be honest. Ho hum! Fortunately I have some posts planned, so I won’t completely vanish this week.

In the meantime… what have you been reading? Oh and when did you get your eyes tested last? Let me be a lesson to you all!

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Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

The penultimate read for Classically Challenged has been Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ and I can safely say it is the one out of all of the books that I have had the biggest rollercoaster reading wise. I have liked a lot of the books, strongly disliked one and loved another, yet Hardy and Tess have taken me from one extreme to the other. I am not sure I have ever loved a book so much and then so utterly loathed it, as I have this one. If I hadn’t been reading it for Classically Challenged I would have given up without question, instead I resolutely struggled on. It really has been a frustrating, yet eye opening, reading experiment really.

** Oxford University Press, paperback, 1891 (2008 edition), fiction, 420 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

For those of you who have yet to read it ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ tells the story of a young woman, the eldest of her siblings, who lives in the impoverished parts of Wessex. Her family, the Durbyfields, constantly seem to be living on the breadline until one day a Parson passing Tess’ father, John, tells him that he believes he is related to the noble family of ‘D’Urbervilles’, the name having been corrupted and changed a little over the years (made me think of Savage and Savidge). This John believes is their salvation. Upon discovering that they have a family of D’Urbervilles living nearby he sends Tess to meet them and to claim their fortune, in doing so he puts Tess in the path of Alec D’Urberville little knowing that Alec will become the very undoing of his daughter and may not change their futures for the better but for the worse.

Of course there is much more that goes on. Early in the novel, while still living her simple if hard life in the countryside, Tess meets Angel Clare at the May Dance in the village, she is instantly attracted to him and falls for him yet he doesn’t dance with her, even if he admires her from a far. Without spoiling anything too much I will say they do meet again and it creates further twists and turns as when they meet Tess is not the girl that she once was, despite all appearances.

“Tess went up the remainder of its length without stopping, and on reaching the edge of the escarpment gazed over the familiar green world beyond, now half-veiled in mist. It was always beautiful from here; it was terribly beautiful to Tess today, for since her eyes last fell upon it she had learnt that the serpent hisses where the sweet birds sing, and her views of life had been totally changed for her by the lesson.”

Before I tell you what I loathed about the book I will start with what I loved about it, as that is how I felt when I was reading the first third of the book. I loved the character of Tess, initially, I liked her unknowledgeable yet slightly holier than thou (though heartfelt and only with good intentions) outlook on life. As the book went on I loved how it became darker little by little, the whole book has a foreboding nature to it and often when you think things couldn’t get worse for our protagonist they invariably do, and a brooding atmosphere takes over the pages. Just my sort of thing. I also loved Alec (I am sure people will be screaming in rage at their screens at that) as he is a complete, and though this may be strong its true, bastard and yet a beguilingly devilish one that as a reader I found him horrifying yet slightly comic and fascinating.

“Tess wished to abridge her visit as much as possible; but the young man was pressing, and she consented to accompany him. He conducted her about the lawns, and flower-beds, and conservatories; and thence to the fruit-garden and greenhouses, where he asked her if she liked strawberries.
“Yes,” said Tess, “when they come.”
“They are already here.” D’Urberville began gathering specimens of the fruit for her, handing them back to her as he stooped; and, presently, selecting a specially fine product of the “British Queen” variety, he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth.
“No–no!” she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips. “I would rather take it in my own hand.”
“Nonsense!” he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in.
They had spent some time wandering desultorily thus, Tess eating in a half-pleased, half-reluctant state whatever d’Urberville offered her. When she could consume no more of the strawberries he filled her little basket with them; and then the two passed round to the rose trees, whence he gathered blossoms and gave her to put in her bosom. She obeyed like one in a dream, and when she could affix no more he himself tucked a bud or two into her hat, and heaped her basket with others in the prodigality of his bounty.”

I also, initially, really liked Hardy’s prose. No pun intended but I thought that this was going to be really hard work. I was expecting endless descriptions of the surrounding villages and fields (there were a few at the start but not many, boy does that change) yet whilst there were a few descriptive passages it was all done with a pace to it. I also, and I think the above section I have quoted shows you some of this, found his writing raw and rather (and this might sound odd) earthily sexy. There is an almost animalistic quality to it, well in the first few parts, that really gives it an edge and drive. You might all think I am mad but that’s what I thought.  Anyway, I genuinely flew through the first hundred or so pages… And then it all went wrong.

The problems I had, without giving any spoilers away, were these. I stopped believing in Tess after a while, or maybe my sympathies left, as whilst initially she is naive and then she shows great courage, with a really bad lot, she soon becomes rather ineffectual. Maybe that is Hardy’s point, women had no real role in society at the time and certainly no stature, plus if life keeps throwing hard times in your direction you might not crack but just go with whatever is simplest, yet that to me wasn’t the Tess I had met. Secondly I hated, yes hated, Angel Clare who really is supposed to be the hero of the whole book. He’s a complete patronising, self serving, ineffectual and slightly pompous hypocrite of the highest order. Give me Alec D’Urberville any day of the week, ok he is a slightly slimy self serving tool himself but at least you know what you are getting. (Have any jaws hit the floor there or are you with me?)

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The final three nails in the coffin, for me at least, were that in the middle of the book all the endless descriptions of the countryside and farming that I had expected from the off suddenly actually happened. Almost at the same time all the misery that I was expecting, for Hardy hasn’t a reputation for being the jolliest – not that books should be all smiles, also hit and I found the middle up to about six chapters from the end really hard work. As I said had it not been for the challenge I would have given up, it had all the elements that killed ‘Anna Karenina’ for me. Then came the end, which of course I won’t spoil, which to be honest I simply didn’t buy despite the fact it caught my attention again, it just seemed so out of kilter.

Yet despite all this I can’t say that I hated ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ nor can I say I am sorry that I read it. I did really love the first one hundred pages and could see what all the fuss was about; alas for me it just didn’t stay like that the whole way though I am glad I gave it a whirl. I had show that whilst reading is very much about the enjoyment for me it can also be about being challenged, reading some things that you don’t like and putting it all down to experience. Will I read another Hardy, probably not, but this wasn’t a wasted effort by any means.

What are your thoughts on ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’? Have you read it and loved it or read it and loathed it? What did you think about Angel vs. Alec and Tess’ progression? Have you put off reading it and if so why? It is interesting I mentioned to Gran my dislike for this, and Trollope, and she said ‘Simon, do you think you like good books and proper literature?’ do we have to love classics (and I still can’t stop thinking about ‘The House of Mirth’ which I read last month and finally watched the film of last night, so I know I like some) in order to love literature? I don’t think they necessarily correlate, do you? Now then, deep breath, it’s time for ‘Middlemarch’ next…

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Filed under Classically Challenged, Oxford University Press, Review, Thomas Hardy

What Makes Us Tougher or More Forgiving Of The Books We Read?

I am currently reading ‘Fanny and Stella; The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian London’ by Neil McKenna and so far I am really enjoying it. As many of you will know I am fascinated by the Victorian period and will generally purchase or seek out any book that is set in that era either written at the time or the contemporary neo-Victorian novels. One of the things that I have noticed lately, though less with non-fiction like ‘Fanny and Stella’, is that I am much, much tougher on these books, particularly the latter and I have been meaning to chat on here about it for a while. Do you think we are tougher on the books that we assume we will love when we start them?

I noticed recently that with two really good books, ‘When Nights Were Cold’ by Susanna Jones and ‘Tom-All-Alones’ by Lynn Shepherd, which I had picked up in part because they were set in the Victorian era and so the Victoriana magpie in me had simply had to have them both. Yet I think, in hindsight, I was tougher on them than if I had read anything by either author set in another period. So therefore what drew me to the books was what made me all the more critical of them.

I think this is partly because of my personal knowledge of, and fascination with, the time (the amount I studied to be a tour guide at Highgate Cemetery, which involves tests and allsorts or did when I joined) and also because I read so many of them. It is natural that the more we read the tougher we are with what we do and don’t like isn’t it? Here I may as well say that I now compare more Victoriana novels to Jane Harris’ ‘Gillespie and I’ or something by Arthur Conan Doyle or Wilkie Collins. I am not sure it is such a fair comparison with the latter two as they are classics of the time and two of the great writers of the time. Yet that does stick in my mind a tiny bit.

This doesn’t just happen with books on my favourite subjects or set in my favourite eras though, it can happen with hyped books or the latest book by our favourite authors. I find it harder to be so impartial with those books too. I know that I am always harder on books that have received a lot of hype from the press, bloggers, friends etc. I am also much more forgiving if the latest novel by my favourite author is not as great as I was expecting, just because it is my favourite author. Fickle aren’t I? Though aren’t we all to varying degrees? It is something I have been pondering so I thought I would throw it out there to all of you.

Do you find that you are harder on books when you love the subject, genre or author or do you find it is the other extreme? What are those subjects, genres, authors or even types of literature? Do you think the more we read the pickier we naturally get? Do you have books that you set as milestones for other books to be compared to and if so what are those books and why?

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Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

It is very rare that I re-read a book, even my favourites. I always have a fear that in doing so some of the charm will wear off or the surprises that you had on the first read won’t reappear. One series of books and indeed one book in particular, that I have returned to again and again over a good few decades is ‘Tales of the City’ by Armistead Maupin. As it is LGBT History Month this month I decided it was a fitting time to return to Barbary Lane once again, hopefully bringing a few of you along with me.

***** Transworld Books, paperback, 1978, fiction, 269 pages, from my own bookshelves

At the end of her vacation from her homeland of Cleveland, Mary Ann Singleton decides, rather recklessly for her, that staying in the city of San Francisco should be a more permanent move. Initially moving in with her old friend Connie, who is a little more free and easy that Mary Ann can believe, she finds her own apartment at 28 Barbary Lane above her mysterious and initially rather odd seeming landlady Anna Madrigal, neighbours Mona, Mouse, Brian and soon Norman. It is Mary Ann’s story of arriving and settling in San Francisco that makes the initial tale in which more and more tales of the mixed bunch of characters around her diverge and merge off of, some linking back on each other and some adding twists and turns you wouldn’t see coming. All together they do, as the title suggests, make a wonderful collection of tales, and indeed a narrative of, the city. I don’t want to spoil the tales and their twists for you though so I won’t discuss the plot/s further.

For me the main joy of the book and this has been the case every time, in the fifteen years that I have re-read it on and off, is the fact that it feels like real life. The city of San Francisco comes straight off the page, I haven’t been there (and would love to if anyone fancies treating me, ha) but I feel I have, so vivid is the description and the atmosphere of the place from the luxury of the Halcyon’s apartments to the supermarkets and dry cleaners of downtown. In fact it does very much feel like a love letter to and from San Francisco in many ways.

‘Well, take your time. There’s a partial view, if you count that little patch of bay peeping through the trees. Utilities included, of course. Small house. Nice people. You get here this week?’
‘That obvious, huh?’
The landlady nodded. ‘The look’s a dead giveaway. You just can’t wait to bite into that lotus.’
‘What? I’m sorry…’
‘Tennyson. You know: “Eating the lotus day by day, To watch the crisping ripples on the beach, An tender curving lines of creamy spray; To lend our hearts and spirits wholly to the influence of”… something, something… You get the point.’
‘Does the… furniture go with it?’
‘Don’t change the subject while I am quoting Tennyson.’
Mary Ann was shaken until she noticed that the landlady was smiling. ‘You get used to my babbling,’ said Mrs Madrigal. ‘All the others have.’ She walked to the window, where the wind made her kimono flutter like brilliant plumage. ‘The furniture is included. What do you say dear?’
Mary Ann said yes.
‘Good. You’re one of us then. Welcome to 28 Barbary Lane.’
‘Thank you.’
‘You should.’ Mrs Madrigal smiled. There was something careworn about her face, but she was really quite lovely, Mary Anne decided. ‘Do you have any objection to pets?’ asked the new tenant.
‘Dear… I have no objection to anything.’

It is the characters that steal the show, Mrs Madrigal, Mary Ann and Michael/Mouse in the main, walking off the page as they do so with flaws and all. Maupin is a master of characterisation and prose each character being multifaceted with good sides and bad, secrets here and there and just regular people of all walks of life. I don’t think in any book I have read outside of the ‘Tales of the City’ series have I found a set of characters that depict all aspects of society, in terms of ages, sexuality, backgrounds, wealth, races, etc, without feeling false of like the author is trying too hard. Maupin covers homophobia, terminal illness, affairs (of people of all ages and sexualities), spies, murder, lies and even cults without any effort or feeling like he is trying to make a shocking statement. There is also a short sharp episodic feel to the book, no surprise as originally it was serialised in a San Francisco paper, that makes it almost unputdownable; you find yourself saying ‘just one more, oh go on another one’ as you go along.

For me at fifteen, and still at thirty if I am honest, what Maupin says to me is that these are characters who are all trying to figure themselves out and so you can too at the same time. As the series goes on, and the more you return to it, all these characters feel like friends. Here I have to admit I wanted to – okay I still do a bit – take the place of Mouse when I was fifteen and have best friends like Mary Ann Singleton and Mona and live in one of Mrs Madrigal’s apartments. In that teenage phase we all have, I think, where I used to save up 20p a week to runaway it was Barbary Lane that I was aiming for. I owe a huge thanks to Armistead Maupin for not only for making me love reading and providing me with escape in my younger years but for also making me realise it was okay to be a bit different from everyone else, that it didn’t matter – or that it wouldn’t matter to those people who really cared about me – and that I would find my way in life okay. It was books like this one and how it reached out to me, way back when in my teens, and made me want to start something like The Green Carnation Prize so other people could find books like this as well, be they a teenager or adult.

Anyway, I have gone off on a tangent, as you can see ‘Tales of the City’ is a book that means a huge amount to me. It is a book, for me, which epitomises what reading is all about, exploring worlds we don’t know and with characters walk off the page and we befriend from all walks of life. It’s one that is a joy to discover for the first time, which I hope some of you have done or will do, and even more of a joy to return to time and time again – and it never seems to age. I cannot recommend, or love this book, enough.

Who else is a fan of ‘Tales of the City’ and the series? Who also loved the TV show, why can’t they do the whole lot? Who has returned to it again and again? Who has tried it for the first time and what did you make of it?

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Filed under Armistead Maupin, Books of 2013, Review, Transworld Publishing

The Lasses Come to Liverpool…

So this is normally the point in the week where you get to have a nosey through other peoples bookshelves, however that is on hiatus this week. This is partly due to the fact that I cannot find some of the emails that you have sent with pictures and the questionnaire, due to a full inbox not my own ineptness (well not completely) and also as I might start making it bi-weekly. It will be back though. This week though it is time for something a little bit different and a little bit more personal.

003This weekend just gone was possibly one of the best weekends I have had in ages as two of my closest friends Polly, of Novel Insights, and Michelle, who is soon (tomorrow) to be thirty, came to stay for the weekend. Recently I have been missing London a little and so it was lovely to have two of my closest friends from that era of my life come and stay. It also meant a chance to go to some of Liverpool’s tourist attractions that I hadn’t even been to myself, and so I thought you might like to join us all.

After picking up these two lasses from the station the Beard very kindly drove us on to one of Liverpool’s most famous landmarks, the Metropolitan Cathedral. As you can see it looks like something out of a science fiction novel, or possibly the wonderful land of Oz. Despite having been wanting to go and see it ever since I moved here, partly because it looks so odd and partly because it reminds me of the credits from Brookside, having the delightful duo up meant I finally could as, believe it or not,  the Beard has never ever wanted to go in – ever. Well, Captain Stubborn is missing out as what greets you inside is something rather wondrous. It just leaves you slightly breathless and what I loved it that each alcove around the circular congregation is in a completely different style almost reminding you of buildings and eras from the past. Stunning.

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Liverpool boasts not one but two cathedrals, which is really rather greedy isn’t it, and I hadn’t been to the other one and so decided now was the time. Despite the fact that it looks so much older than the metropolitan one it was actually finished later, who would have thought it?

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On arrival we noticed a rather spooky looking path and because we are quite nosey (Polly famously ‘accidentally’ broke into the building that is said to be ‘Wuthering Heights’ when we went to Yorkshire many moons ago) we decided we had to go and explore and discovered a very old cemetery, now park, which reminded me very much of Highgate and soon I was rattling on about what all the Victorian symbolism meant.

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We also thought it would be a great setting for a crime novel scene, probably where a body is discovered. Polly seemed to be an ideal amateur sleuth, don’t you think?

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If I was impressed inside the previous cathedral then this one nearly blew my socks off, it is huge and incredibly grand. I actually almost fell over from dizziness trying to take this picture…

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We would have gone ‘up the tower’ to the top however Michelle doesn’t like heights and announced she gets the most uncontrollable urge to throw herself off them and so we moved quickly on… to the pub, set in the old Pump House down by the docks.

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Then it was time for the Tate Liverpool to see the new exhibition ‘Glam’, where I got told off for taking pictures, and the regular exhibits. I must go there more often; I am amazed that I have not been to the Liverpool Museum even actually, anyway…

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The day whizzed by and after a train ride and walk through Birkenhead Park, which was what Central Park based itself on believe it or not, it was party time. We had just discovered lambrini, a horrendously cheap alcoholic drink, was made in Liverpool and so couldn’t start with anything but that could we? Oh and a few canapés from The Beard’s shop of course…

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Then came the cake, not made and iced by a five year old child but by me, and candles and champers and soon it was time for bed.

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Next day, after the Beards signature French toast and bacon, it was off for more culture at the seaside as we went to Another Place and saw several of Anthony Gormley’s statues in the sand.

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They are quite an eerie site from a distance and the mood of them changes on the day, as you can see though today was all sunshine and jollity…

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Then all too soon it was the end of the wonderful weekend and we had to head back…

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Despite being a little down in the dumps after they had left I realised what a wonderful and fun filled weekend we had had and the lovely memories that we have to share will stay with me when I miss them most next. That said though we will be meeting again for Polly’s hen weekend, which I am organising heaven help her, though I am not sure I will share pictures from that weekend!

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