Archive | March, 2019

Challenge #29 – Update

27 Mar

From the list of The 40 Books Every Woman Should Read, I have now read 33 of the books. This year I have had another good start to my reading year and being able to read some books and authors that I haven’t heard of before has helped.

The majority of these books have been so good that I have hardly been able to put them down for a break and I have noticed that I have been forgoing watching TV so that I can get through the books even faster.

With only 7 more books to go until I can cross this challenge off my list, you might think that it will only be a few more weeks before I am declaring that this challenge is complete. However, I seem to have unintentionally left the longer books until the end and there is a book on the list that I have begun but abandoned because I found it too boring. So, this might be a tricky one to complete.

Here are the books from the list that I have recently read:

Notes on a Scandal: What was she thinking? by Zoe Heller

I couldn’t put this book down and I read it in a few hours. It’s the story of a female teacher who has a relationship with a pupil. The story is told from the point of view of a fellow teacher and the confident of the teacher who has the affair. I would say that the reader learns a lot more about the person narrating the story rather than the details of the affair – her motives and interest in the story is slowly revealed as the story progresses.

Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

I didn’t realise that this book had been made into a film until after I had read it. The book tells the story of a girl nicknamed Bone and her relationship with her mother and step-father. Her relationship with her step-father is abusive and her mother struggles to admit that there is a problem that needs to be solve. The ending was very emotional and I also found it confusing – the resolution was not what I expected to happen.

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

This book was slightly odd. It starts off by the three main characters reminiscing about an event from the past and then the book switches to a third person narrator. The main character is suffering from a mental breakdown but it doesn’t become clear until later in the book what brought on this breakdown. There is also talk of her daughter who seems to have been taken from her because of health issues but these aren’t discussed or explained in detail. I thought the book had a dream-like quality about it – some parts of it didn’t seem real and I’m not clear about how or why some of the events described happened. It was a confusing read.

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

This is the story of two Native American families over a number of decades and how their lives are affected by one another. The chapters are each told by different characters during different years. It’s interesting to see how one character views events differently to others. You feel involved in the story because the whole book has a conversational style about it – as if you are just sat down having a coffee with someone and they are telling you a story. There is also a complicated love triangle between the two families which makes the story a bit juicier but also brings sadness to the story as well.

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

This was an historic novel that is based on the life of Friedrich von Hardenberg (I haven’t heard of him before either). In the story Friedrich falls in love with a girl, who is lower than his social class but he intends to marry her anyway. I was glad that I can speak German because there were quite a few German phases or words used in the book. I got annoyed reading another book recently that was set in France and had some French words that weren’t translated. It was possible to work out what they meant from the context but it could have been that I misinterpreted them.

The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

This is the story of a young, privileged woman called Lily Bart, who lives in New York at the turn of the century. She likes to gamble and gets into a lot of debt and these debts force her to make decisions that make her situation, relationship and life even worse. I liked the main character and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her; everything she tries to do to make her life better end up backfiring and people are not kind to her and believe malicious rumours. I did take a lot time to enjoy this book. I felt like the story was slightly boring in the beginning. It was only in the second half when things start to get worse and worse that I wanted to read quicker to find out what was going to happen to her.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Even at the very start of this book, I knew I was reading something that was going to be epic. The book starts with the narrator, Richard Papin, revealing that because the snow came down the police didn’t find the body of his college classmate for ten days. What a way to start a story! I was hooked straight away. The book is his recollection of the events that led up to that point, from how he ended up choosing that college, how he ended up being accepted into a strange group within the university. It was a long book but I couldn’t put it down. The ending was unexpected as well.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

This book has such a sad ending. It tells the story of Edna Pontellier who realises that she is in love with a man who is not her husband. She struggles with being a wife and a mother and doesn’t have any interest in raising her own children. It is clear that the man she is in love with has the same feeling about her but they are both trapped because of the norms of society. I realised a few pages from the end what was going to be the outcome but it did make it any less upsetting.

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Practising for Masterchef

24 Mar

Recently I’ve been joking that I am going to apply for Masterchef. I say it every year when I get swept away watching episode and episode and spend most of the evening salivating at what the contestants have managed to cook up. I didn’t expect that last night when I had been invited to a cat’s first birthday (yes, a cat not a human called Cat) that I would be able to get some practice in.

I was suspicious when I arrived when the table was covered in a cloth and there didn’t seem to be a lot going on in the kitchen in terms of food preparation for the invited guests. Soon the plan for the evening was revealed.

First we selected at random our cat ears in keeping with the party theme. I ended up with black ears and also a bow tie and a tail. Then we were told that we would be helping to make the meal for the evening. There was a twist though. We would be cooking in a relay and we weren’t allowed to talk to the next person who was taking over the cooking. This is one of my favourite challenges on Masterchef because it means you have to think on your feet. Every one had 13 minutes to cook and then they had to leave the kitchen for someone else to take over. The items that we used to cook had to be bought from the market and we weren’t allowed to spend more than 40 CHF in total, which is a big ask in Switzerland.

As if this wasn’t tricky enough our host threw in some wild cards. The actions on the cards had to be performed during your allotted time in the kitchen. Unfortunately, I had bad luck with my card – I would only be able to cook for 10 minutes. Those who were not cooking had to stay in the “cat den”, also known as the guest bedroom, which was decorated and had lots of cat themed games to play while we were waiting for our turn.

When it came to my turn I was overwhelmed. I was the fourth cook out of 6. Things were already in the oven and the majority of the budget had been spent. I realised that the person before me wanted me to boil potatoes because some were washed in the sink and there was a pan of boiling water on the stove. I did that and then bought some pak choi from the market. I knew I didn’t have time to cook it but I washed it and left it so that the next cook would hopefully see what I intended. With time rapidly running out, I decided to make some cocktails but I only had time to splash some rum in the glasses before the timer went off.

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By now I was hungry but only two more people were left to cook so there wasn’t long to wait. The clock buzzed for the last time and we were ready to eat. There was food to eat but it wasn’t very cohesive. We ended up with:

  • two chicken breast stuffed with mozzealla;
  • roasted vegetables (which was intended to be blended into a soup but no one realised –  we made the soup quickly later);
  • a mushroom cream sauce;
  • pak choi cooked with a chilli sauce;
  • 2 kg of potatoes;
  • 3 kg of spaghetti (courtesy of Araz who didn’t see the potatoes already cooking, panicked and decided to cook all of the pasta as well)
  • one portion of cat food.

I was criticised for buying the cat food because it was sold in the market for an inflated price and actually devoured 25% of our total budget. But the birthday boy had to eat so I thought it was more than reasonable. In all the excitement I had forgotten about the part about us having a strict budget. Admittedly, a poor show from the only qualified accountant in the room. But Araz played a wildcard to strike my (*cat pun alert*) purr choice from the budget when she was allowed to delete one bought item from the list, so we ended up spending 35.20 CHF.

The food wasn’t bad considering we had come over to celebrate a birthday and found ourselves chopping and dicing things in a mad panic in a kitchen that we’re not familiar with. And no one can say that there wasn’t enough carbohydrates on the table!

Luckily dessert had been made in advance and we were able to tuck into a delicious chocolate and strawberry cat cake made by the original star baker, Stefan. The sparkler on the top of the cake was impressive as well.

Thank you to Mark and Stefan for hosting the event, coming up with such a great evening of original and fun entertainment and allowing me use of their photos, my fellow cooks (Araz, Jana and Stefano) for not poisoning me and, of course, Macka for the invitation to his celebrations.

As for my application to Masterchef, I think I need more practice before sending it in!

Writing Progress

20 Mar

Earlier on this year, I decided to stop making excuses and sit down and write a book. This is something that I have wanted to do for a long time but I have always come up with reasons as to why I can’t or shouldn’t attempt it. I feel like the time is right at the moment to put my efforts into a project this size.

I decided to make the first draft on paper which might seem a bit old fashioned. I do feel like a dinosaur when all of the other members of the writing group furiously typing away on their brand new Macs and I’m fumbling around in the bottom of my rucksack trying to find a pen that works. I realised recently that 98% of the short stories and work that I have tried to do on a computer have remained half finished and my theory is that writing a first draft on a computer stifles my creativity. I have no evidence at all for this theory but I think that there is a ring of truth to it. I’m not sure if this is connected to the fact that I wrote stories by hand in English when I was at school and I have it in my head that that is the correct way to do it.

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I started off with a rough idea in my head about what I wanted the story to be about. So I just started writing. I wanted to get into a habit and write something every day if possible. It isn’t a hard habit to keep especially if you dedicate set hours each day to it. I guess it’s like watching a soap opera every day of the week at 7pm – once you expect to do it every day it just naturally happens.

As I was writing lots more ideas popped into my head and I became bombarded by ways I could improve things I had already written and how I could develop the back story of the characters more. I was so tempted to start the story again adding in the bits that I thought would make the story better. I wasn’t sure if this was the correct approach though. I asked the members of the writing group what they did – did they start to re-write the story as they went along or was it more useful to keep on writing until the end and then go back to add improvements?

The overwhelming answer was to keep on writing. One member of the group said that she had gone back to make improvements as she was writing and she hasn’t made any progress on the book as a whole because nothing that she ever writes seems perfect enough. I think this is also one of the reasons why I have found it problematic to finish even shorter pieces of writing; I get stuck on one bit where the writing doesn’t flow properly or I can’t think of the right words to express what I want to say. In the end I just give up because I can’t work out a way to progress.

So, I carried on regardless, knowing that some of the writing was awful (and some of it truly is) and that there were characters needed to be developed, specific descriptions that needed to be worked on and many other things. I made of list of things that I needed to address as they came into my mind. Things like: is the character’s reaction believable? Does it make sense that this person would live in this community or this style of housing? The more you think about it, the more it makes you crazy. By having a list, I hoped that it would be easier to come back to my original ideas later.

I finished my first draft two weeks ago. It is a very rough draft. I have a good outline of the story. Some parts make more sense than others, some are much better written than others. But it’s written. People often say that no one ever writes a good first draft and I certainly wasn’t going to disprove that.

I left it a few weeks so that I could forget about what I had written and come back to it with fresh eyes as I begin to type the manuscript onto the computer as I attempt to improve it and make it readable for an audience. I have found that as I improve something in one part of the story that I have to change or improve something in another part to make the story make sense. It’s very much a work in progress. I realise that I am at the start of a very long journey. I have, for example, started another list of things to consider and improve for the next draft version!

Like before, I am trying to write a bit each day. This time around I am making a conscious effort to make sure that what I am writing is good rather than just trying to get words down on a page. It seems to be working so far.

I have no idea how long it will take me to finish the second draft. Or the third. Or even the fourth but I am finally making some progress at last. I will, of course, let you know how I am progressing…

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Another update on Challenge #8

16 Mar

I have been cracking on with this challenge over the past few months. The sofa is starting to show signs of wear and tear because I have been sitting on it for so long. However, I feel like I am starting to make progress with this challenge. I have now watched 151 of the 250 films, which means that I have 99 films left to watch – psychologically this is very important. I am beginning to think that I am going to be able to get through this challenge.

Here are the films that I have seen recently:

15. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

I must admit that this film lost me somewhere in the middle. Rather than the main action being about Froggo taking the ring back to Mordor, there seems to have been a switch to a lot of sub-plots that are happening. After being so pleasantly surprised after seeing the first installment of the series, I now feel a bit deflated. I hope that the final installment that I am still to watch is better.

21. City Of God

Any film that starts with an armed gang of men and young boys chasing a chicken down the backstreets of Rio is always going to be a winner. This was the story of a ghetto in Rio in the 1970s and the violent drug gangs who run it. It’s gory and graphic in places but it tells an interesting story and is based on a true story.

55. Cinema Paradiso

This film won the Oscar for the best foreign language film. As the name suggests the story revolves around a cinema. The cinema burns down leaving the projectionist blind, so a young boy takes over the responsibility. The projectionist tells the boy he must leave because he can achieve better things. The boy becomes a famous film maker and returns years later to his home town. I really enjoyed this film.

56. The Lives of Others

A couple are investigated by the secret police in East Germany. The man who is put in charge of their surveillance ends up becoming involved in their lives. The whole film is in German but I did use English subtitles because I am not sure that I would have had understood all of it.

66. Oldboy

If I had’ve known what this was about before I sat down to watch it, I’m not sure I would have. It is probably one of the most gruesome films I have seen in a long time. It’s a South Korean film about a man, who is imprisoned in a room for 15 years, but he has no idea why or who is keeping him captive. When he is released, he sets out to get revenge but ends up falling in love with a woman, who later turns out to be his daughter. It’s all very disturbing.

147. Elephant Man

The story of John Merrick is well documented but I still found this story quite shocking and incredibly sad. I also never knew that Anthony Hopkins was in this film which was a nice surprise.

148. Wild Strawberries

This was a first for me –  a black and white Swedish film. What would we do without subtitles! I found it to be quite a weird film. A doctor is on his way to collect and honorary doctorate and on the journey to the ceremony he has a series of nightmares and day dreams about his past that have always made him feel uncomfortable. It was a good exploration of the meaning of acceptance.

152. Warrior

I’m not so sure why this is so high on the list. It’s about two estranged brothers, who independently decide to enter a mixed martial arts competition because both of them are broke. I thought you could see the plot twists coming a mile off – the elder brother is a physic teacher struggling to pay the mortgage, the younger one is a former Marine who deserted. Having said that, it was more about the action out of the cage than in it. The brothers also have an alcoholic father and come to terms with the circumstances under which their mother died.

170. Mary and Max

I have never heard of this film before but it had an all-star cast. It was an animated film (Wallace-and-Gromit-esque but a bit darker) about an eight-year-old Australian girl who is being bullied so she becomes pen pals with an older Jewish man living in New York. It was a really emotional tale because both of the characters have hardships and their friendship is something that helps them through those times. A must watch.

180. Gone Girl

I always get this story mixed up with The Girl on a Train because I read the books at around the same time and the stories both involve a grown woman going missing. It was a powerful story about manipulation and revenge and follows the plot of the book very closely. I had forgotten how horrifying some of the scenes in the book were though.

187. Platoon

 

188. Hotel Rwanda

This was one of the films I was dreading watching because of the subject matter. I watched this after watching Oldboy (above) so the scenes of genocide weren’t so horrific as I was expecting. I didn’t know a lot about the genocide in Rwanda apart from that there was one and thousands died. It was well acted and it felt like I was watching a documentary or a film than something for entertainment. At the end of the film, it is revealed that the film was based on real events which I found chilling but also awe inspiring.

195. The 400 Blows

This was a French film about a boy struggling to fit in at school, who also has to deal with his neglectful parents. I was disappointed. Not a great deal happened in the film and if I am honest, I was a bit bored half way through, even though some scenes were very funny.

206. Amores Perros

I realised fairly quickly that I have seen this film before. I watched it anyway because it was a long time ago that I saw it. It is three separate stories that intersect into one during a car accident. The subject matter is forbidden love (between a man and his sister-in-law), loss when a model is scarred for life after being involved in the crash) and remorse after a former assassin cheats his way into some money and goes to find his daughter, who he left behind years previously.

219. Prisoners

I do love a kidnap story and I think I might be becoming an expert in them because I had virtually guessed who did what to whom before the film was three quarters finished. When two girls are kidnapped, it leads to one of their fathers, taking the law into his own hands but he ends up getting more than he bargained for. It was tense at times and interesting to see the view of a revengeful father figure rather than someone who sits back and lets the police do their job. But if he was then the film wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good.

230. The Bourne Ultimatum

One word to describe this film: intense. From the beginning it was all action. I have only seen the first film from the Bourne series but I don’t think that I missed out from not seeing the others. I do think that the music had a significant impact on how dramatic the action was. The pace of the film was good in the sense that there weren’t big build ups to storylines which I find boring.

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Spending a day in Liechtenstein

12 Mar

If you have been following my blog, you might recall me saying back in February that my next trip to another European country would be in May when we go to visit Poland. I had a feeling that I would be getting itchy feet long before then and I was right. So I decided to visit Liechtenstein for the day.

Liechtenstein is the fourth smallest country in Europe and is only 1 hour and 20 minutes from Zurich by train. I was surprised when I got there to see that there was so much snow on the mountains and the temperature was a lot colder than it is in Zurich.

As the country isn’t big, everything in the city centre is easy to get to by walking and there are plenty of museums. Here is what I go up to:

Vaduz Castle

I hiked up to the castle, which is on the top of a  hill looking down on the city. I’m not exaggerating by saying ‘hike’. It’s a pretty steep path up to the castle. Unfortunately, the castle isn’t open to the public because it is the permanent residency of the Liechtenstein royal family. I thought that was a bit of a shame. There are 130 rooms in the castle so I would have thought that it would be possible to open it up to visitors for time to time. They can’t possibly use all of those rooms all at once. Even the Queen let the public into her residence when she was skint. Perhaps that’s the fundamental difference between the British royal family and their European counterparts – money. However, the castle is still impressive even if you can’t see it from the inside.

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The Stamp Museum

This is only a small museum but it is free to visit. There are some cool interactive tools, like being able to browse through the whole of the back catalogue of Liechtenstein’s stamps. I also didn’t realise that stamps used to be printed by engraving the design onto metal and then these engravings were used to make the individual stamps. Some of the examples on display showed how detailed the engravings are.

There was also an exhibition about the history of postcards which was interesting, especially as people don’t send them these days. Did you know that the stamp didn’t always used to be in the top right hand corner? Sender used the position and orientation of the stamp to communicate secret messages to the recipent.

Sculptures in the Street

As I was walking around the city and taking photographs, I noticed that there was a lot of art in the street. There is a large contemporary art museum (which I wasn’t in the mood to visit) so the city has a feeling of being quite arty. I like art and sculptures being in the street – I don’t see the point of things being locked away behind closed door rather than been enjoyed by people.

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Liechtenstein is the 29th country that I have visited in Europe which means that I have another 11 to visit before I can tick Challenge #8 off my 40 Before 40 list. Plus I now know how to spell it properly!

We have decided to have a few long weekends in different places this year rather than two weeks somewhere. Our next planned trips will be in Poland (May 2019), Luxembourg (July 2019), Serbia (September 2019) and Ukraine (October 2019). It could be that I end up being spontaneous and book a few more trips in the meantime but I will try to restrain myself.

Book Challenge by Erin 10.0 – Bonus Round

9 Mar

To coincide with World Book Day this week, I completed the bonus round of my online reading challenge. If you have been following my blog, you will know that I finished the first round and ten books in an extraordinarily fast time. If you want to remind yourself you can check it out here.

Once the first round is completed, you can go on to take part in a bonus round, which is reading books based on the same categories but trying to read books that have been chosen by other people who are taking part in the challenge. When you finish reading a book, you make a comment about it so that people can see if the books is worth reading or not.

Here are the books that I read for the bonus round:

Freebie (any book that is more than 200 pages long) – Me Before You by JoJo Moyes

I have heard a lot about Jojo Moyes but I have avoided reading any of her books so far because I thought that they were going to be too girly and sentimental. If I hadn’t taken part in this challenge I would never have taken read this book. I am glad that I did though. It wasn’t a classic boy-meet-girl story. It dealt with a some very gritty subjects and taboos.

Book that was turned into a Movie – Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen

This was a great read about the story of the vet from a travelling circus. He ends up joining the circus after failing to take his final veterinary exams after his parents suddenly die. The different characters make the story and the descriptions of the animals, performances and the events are excellent. The story is told from different points in time so you learn about what happens long after the circus stops travelling. A highly recommended read.

Set in Europe – Dracula by Bram Stoker

This is another classic that up until now I haven’t got round to read. There was an ominous feeling to the book from the very start. Because the book is written from different points of view in the form of letters and diaries, the reader gets a holistic view of everything that is happening. Even though I knew that Count Dracula was the source of strange happenings, I still found it shocking when it was revealed that there were “two small puncture wounds on the neck”. I can imagine that reading this when it was first published without knowing the real identity of Dracula would be truly horrifying.

A Newberry Award Winner – The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth

This was an interesting and very quick read but I can’t say that I absolutely fell in love with it. The story is set in Japan and centres around a painter who has been commissioned to make a painting for the local temple. He wins the commission after his housekeeper brings home a cat. The painter believes that the cat is lucky and calls it “Good Fortune”.

A Friend’s Favourite – Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger 

The only thing that I didn’t like about this book was that there wasn’t more of it. The narrator is a boy who has been expelled from boarding school because of his constant poor grades. I felt the sense that he is completely lost and angst-ridden and unsure about what he wants to do with his life but doesn’t know where to turn to. I particularly enjoyed the interesting take he has on events that happened around him and some of the expressions that he uses.

Written over 100 years ago – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

It took me a while to get into this book. I’m not sure if that’s because I haven’t read anything else from Mark Twain and the only thing I knew about the Tow Sawyer books that he is famous for is because they are set in the southern states in America. Huckleberry Finn fakes his own murder/disappearance and the book is about what he does while he is “on the run”. I’m not sure that this book made me desperately pick up any more of Mark Twain’s books and read them. I also thought that the ending was a little bit rushed.

Title with 6 Words – The Way Things Look to Me by Roopa Farooki

I found this book in a second hand bookshop and bought it especially for this challenge because I was having problems finding another book with a six word title. The story is about a girl with Asperger’s syndrome and what affect that has on her relationship with her brother and sister after their mother dies. I thought the book was inspiring and explored the complexity of sibling relationships.

Cardinal direction in the title – East of Eden by John Steinbeck

I had high hopes for this book; people who had read it before me had commented that it was an epic masterpiece. I liked it but it’s definitely not one of my favourite books of all time. It charts the story of two brothers, who are complete opposites, and how their lives unfold. There are numerous complications for them – from their relationship with their father to the women who enter their lives. I didn’t really feel very invested into the story until about a third of the way through. Having said that, I was disappointed when it ended because I wanted to know what happened to the characters in the end

Originally in another language – Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

This is a bizarre concept for a story but is beautifully told. A travelling salesman wakes up one morning to discover that he has turned into an insect overnight. He struggles to adjust and understand his new condition and his family are also shocked by his transformation. I felt sorry for both him as he tries to communicate with people but can’t and his mother who is convinced that his condition is only temporary. The ending was tragic as he is shunned by this family.

Begins with the letter N – The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

This is another very popular book that I have avoided to read until now. However it is beautifully and sensitively written. It tells the story of a couple who, despite her moving away and becoming engaged to someone else, fall in love. The story switches from present day when the couple are old and living in residential care and the past when they fall in love.

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Getting fit in Lent

7 Mar

Despite the fact that I noticed a while ago that there are Easter egg and chocolate rabbits in the shops, I hadn’t realised that this meant we were also fast approaching Lent. In fact I only remembered that it was Pancake Tuesday when everyone I knew on Facebook was posting pictures of pancakes that evening.

It has been a while since I have given up (or taken up) something for Lent and I thought I had missed the boat. It was getting short notice to decide exactly what I should do –  after all you don’t want to commit yourself to something that after a few days you realise is going to be impossible to achieve.

Rather than give up something, I have decided to take on something. For me this is slightly easier psychologically because I don’t feel like I am denying myself, rather that I am making positive steps towards something.

For that reason I have decided to get fit for Lent. Every day I will try to do some sporting activity that gets my heart rate elevated. Over the course of Lent, I hope that I will see a noticeable difference in my fitness levels and I will weigh less than I do now. This doesn’t mean that I will be running 12 miles a day, every day until the middle of April. Firstly, I am no where need fit enough to do that and, secondly, it is important to do a range of different activities and not the same ones all of the time.

I hope that I will be able to getting more running done but also some strength exercises, like sit-ups, press-ups and planks, to help with stamina and endurance. I plan to make a log of all of the exercises that I do and I will share this at the end of Lent so you can see how I have done.

I’m quite excited about this mini-challenge. The weather is getting nicer outside which means it is the perfect time to be getting active again.

Have you decided to give up or take something on for Lent? If you have I wish you all the best and hope that you can resist temptation until April 18th!

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