Kids books for Christmas – non-fiction

As promised, the first of three blogs this week on book recommendations. Even though my children are now teenagers, they still get a book or two in their stocking – I live in hope! In my experience younger kids are easy – you can just buy them a story or picture in some subject they’re vaguely interested in and they will love it. Older children are not so easy, especially if you don’t know them that well. Having said that, I don’t always get it right for the kids that live with me either! Oh well, it’s ALWAYS worth giving a book, in my view, and you never know, you might even spark a new interest – kids are notorious for sticking with what they know.

So, if you are looking for some ideas for the young people in your life, here are some fab non-fiction titles that I have spotted.

Primary School

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There Are Fish Everywhere – Britte Teckentrup and Katie Haworth

Stunning illustrations, informative, weird and wonderful facts about sea creatures. Beautiful.

 

 

 

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Young, Gifted and Black: Meet 52 Black Heroes from Past and Present  – Jamia Wilson and Andrea Pippins

Short biographies of towering figures in Black history, some you will have heard of and some less well-known, but equally important. Boldly illustrated.

 

 

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The Human Body: A Pop up guide to anatomy – Richard Walker and Rachel Caldwell

Anatomical books make very popular gifts and the pop-ups in this one are wonderful. Has the added twist of presenting it from the perspective of a 19th century medical student, so something for those with an interest in history too.

 

Late primary/early secondary

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Code Like a Girl: Rad Tech Projects and Practical Tips  – Miriam Peskowitz

I’m all for a book that busts a gender stereotype – boys can like fashion, girls can like coding.

 

 

 

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Unlock Your Imagination: 250 boredom busters – published by Dorling Kindersley

When you try to peel your children off their devices, how often do you hear them cry “But, I’m bored!”? There is an argument that our kids should be more bored, as this can stimulate creativity. This book may help and many of the activities are short and straightforward, so could be done whilst travelling. Suitable for younger kids too, so good if you have children of different ages to please.

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An Anthology of Intriguing Animals – Ben Hoare

This is a beautiful book, taking a close-up look at 100 animals and their special talents and characteristics. Lovely short chapters with some off the wall facts, and a mix of stunning photographs and illustrations.

 

 

Teens

Many teenagers are happy with adult books, but we all know that they can also have some very unique and specific needs and interests. Thankfully, the book market in recent years has evolved to cater to this very special group, when interest in books can really fall off a cliff.

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Zen Teen: 40 ways to stay calm when life gets stressful – Tanya Carroll Richardson

This book will be published on 6 December and I’ve already got one on pre-order! Many teens are interested in mindfulness now as a way of managing the pressures in their life, and this can only be a good thing. This title looks as if it will be a worth addition to any teenager’s library.

 

xmas 18 8Cooking Up a Storm: The teen survival cookbook – Sam Stern & Susan Stern

Teenagers love independence and at some point that is going to mean cooking for themselves, so you may as well get them started sooner rather than later. This book dates back to 2014, but is a good one, with real food, and not just the sugary bakes that are often marketed at this age group, and particularly females. Boys need to know how to cook too!

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Would You Rather Randoms: A collection of hilarious hypothetical questions – Clint Hammerstrike

My kids’ favourite dinner table conversation seems to revolve around such questions as would you rather eat the same thing for the rest of your life or never eat the same thing twice???? Hmm. They love it though. This little book could spark some similarly edifying conversation in your household.

 

I hope there is something here that is useful to you. I’d love to hear your suggestions too.

Look out for my fiction recommendations later in the week.

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The NHS at 70: 9 books with medical themes

There is a great deal of debate and attention on the UK National Health Service at the moment as it celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. If you live in Britain, you can’t move for television, radio and newspaper commentaries at the moment. But the talk is not just about celebration, but about what we want and expect public services to provide in the way of healthcare, and, just as important, how the immense costs of it all should be met. The challenges are mind-boggling: we have an ageing population, advanced medicines come at a high price, the long-term nature of public health investment, not to mention dealing with developed world problems such as obesity, addiction and mental illness. The issues are massive.

The NHS was described by politician Nigel Lawson as “the closest thing the English people have to a religion” and it is indeed dear to the hearts of many. Observe the profile it enjoyed at the opening ceremony to the London 2012 Olympics and the influence the promise of extra cash for the NHS most likely had on the Brexit debate.

I have no intention of starting a political debate here, but if health is on your mind, you might want to dip into some books with a medical theme. Here are some of my suggestions (not all of which I have read, I should add):

  1. Still Alice by Lisa Genova – a moving account of a 50 year-old woman’s development of early onset Alzheimers. Made into a film starring Julianne Moore.
  2. Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon – a YA book about a young woman suffering from a rare condition which means her immune system is dangerously impaired.
  3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby – a harrowing true story where the author developed locked-in syndrome after a car accident. He was initially thought to be in a coma, but was in fact fully conscious. He was eventually able to communicate through blinking, and wrote this book using only this tool. Incredible and reminds you of the fragility of life.
  4. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – another YA novel, both my daughters love this book, about teenage terminal illness. Also made into a tear-jerker of a film.
  5. This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay – award-winning non-fiction writing from a junior doctor telling it like it is on the NHS front-line.
  6. Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth – love the TV show, currently reading the follow-up Farewell to the East End, Worth was a young midwife in East London in the 1950s so for a taste of the early days of the NHS look no further.
  7. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – a young Scottish woman’s mental illness, compounded by loneliness, detachment and the harshness of modern life.
  8. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon – challenging life events, seen through the eyes of a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome. A must-read.
  9. Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill – I have recommended this book so many times. It’s an intense novel about eating disorders, mental health and sexuality.

 

If you have suggestions for any other books with a medical theme that you have enjoyed, I would love to hear them.

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Science writing: “Catching Breath: the making and unmaking of tuberculosis” by Kathryn Lougheed

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been working on my first book for just under a year now. It’s a long process! I finished my first draft just before Easter, but even though it was gratifying to reach that milestone, to be able to type “The End” I was aware that, in many ways it was just that – a milestone, not the end. It was the end of the beginning.

In the last few weeks of writing I had begun to build up a list of gaps, things I still needed to research, passages or chapters that I knew would not read the way I wanted and tweaks that may be necessary with the structure. I conducted my first full read through a couple of weeks ago and found it reassuring that I was indeed right – there were gaps, bits that did not flow and the non-linear structure I was so excited about, well, perhaps that did not work as well as I thought. I wasn’t down about it though. I have a long list of tasks again, but feel generally positive.

Emily Bronte, John Keats and George Orwell are among the many artists who died young from TB, giving the disease a ‘romantic’ image

An area where I felt I needed more information was in understanding tuberculosis (TB). This disease was rife in Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The numbers are astonishing: in England and Wales about four million people are thought to have died from TB between 1851 and 1910. TB-related deaths began to fall from this point onwards but were still shocking: in 1913, there were 36,500 deaths from TB in England and Wales (reaching a peak of 46,200 in 1918, at the time of the European Spanish ‘flu pandemic). By 2013, there were just 280, down from a rate of almost 100 per 100,000 population in 1913, to 0.5 per 100,000 a century later. (Source: Office for National Statistics)

The decline in the mortality rate for the disease can be put down to a number of factors: mainly improved living conditions and sanitation, but also better understanding of the disease (it was once thought to be hereditary, not contagious), the discovery of an effective antibiotic treatment in the late 1940s and, latterly, a nationwide vaccination programme (remember the BCG?). The virtual eradication of the disease in this country is a cause for celebration, but, worldwide, it remains a devastating killer: 1.4 million people a year die from TB.

Catching Breath imgOne of the books I consulted as part of my research into understanding more about the disease, its symptoms and its effects, was published very recently, in 2017. It’s called Catching Breath: the making and unmaking of tuberculosis by Kathryn Lougheed. The author is a former scientific researcher and is now a journalist and science writer. The book is excellent. It is fantastically well-written, even funny in parts (the author has an interesting sense of humour – her Twitter handle is @ilovebacteria!). She is out to make some serious points, however, about this, one of the oldest diseases known to humanity, which has so successfully mutated, crossed species and diversified and which just keeps on winning. Her main argument is that TB remains a disease of poverty and inequality. Globally, it affects the weakest – the young, the old, the poor or those who are already sick.  She argues that, although it is a complex disease, if there was sufficient political will, many more lives could be saved. If there was as much resource and international effort put into tackling TB as there has been, say, to addressing AIDS, there would have been far greater success to date. In 2015 the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced its ‘End TB strategy‘, which set a goal to reduce worldwide deaths from the disease by 95% by 2035, although it would seem that nothing short of a heroic research effort will be required to meet this.

If you are at all interested in the politics of health and disease, inequality between the developed and the developing world, and about humanity’s ongoing battles with diseases old and new, this is a fascinating and engaging read. I had intended merely to dip into the bits that interested me for my own research, but I have ended up reading the whole book. In Kathryn Lougheed, science’s loss is the publishing world’s gain. I hope this book gets nominated for some non-fiction or science-writing prizes.

Have you read any good science or non-fiction books recently?

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Book Review: “Big Magic: creative living beyond fear” by Elizabeth Gilbert

I don’t fully subscribe to the idea that the universe has a plan and we simply have to ask for what we want in order to achieve our goals. A friend lent me a copy of The Secret a year or so ago and I still haven’t completed it. I simply can’t believe in it. Do I believe in Karma? Yes, to the extent that if we do good in the world, we are probably more likely to see good and therefore experience it, but for me it is not some sort of divine zero-sum game.

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I feared that this book might be a little like that. Why did I read it then? Well, my September reading challenge was to read a self-help book and I chose this one because I am in the process of writing a book and I thought it might support me in what is proving a phenomenally difficult task! There are a thousand books I could have read about how to write my novel in a month, a week, or whatever, but I’m a bit cynical about those too! No, it was the subtitle that attracted me. I’ve been describing myself as a writer for over a year now, albeit rather quietly, but do not yet feel I have the legitimacy to call myself that on my tax return or my car insurance policy! Yes, I write, quite a lot, and did so for a long time before I ‘came out’ about it, but I don’t yet feel like a writer. I don’t feel like I own or deserve that title and I want to know when my sense of entitlement to that will commence.

Big Magic

Elizabeth Gilbert is probably best-known for her 2007 best-seller Eat Pray Love which was made into a film starring Julia Roberts. That was an autobiographical account of her journey towards happiness and balance in her life (I haven’t read it), whereas Big Magic is about incorporating creativity into your life. Her starting point is that it is part of our human nature to be creative, to make things, and to deny ourselves that is to impoverish our soul.

 

 

Gilbert is a writer, and uses examples and anecdotes from her personal journey to illustrate her points, but she is adamant that creativity takes many forms, from painting to poetry, from gardening to decorating, it is all legitimate.

“A creative life is an amplified life.”

The book is divided into six parts, each dealing with a different aspect of the creator’s dilemma: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust and Divinity. The messages that resonated particularly for me were that:

  • It takes courage to accept your fears, but that most fears are irrational and a waste of valuable time – we simply do not have enough time on this earth to be paralysed by our apprehensions
  • Talent and inspiration alone are not enough – creativity requires work to be realised and you will get good at anything that you practice
  • The magic of creativity is in the journey not the result – do not fear the reactions of others, they are not your problem
  • The path to success always involves some failures and these are also important lessons
  • Do not burden your creativity with the need for it to make your living – that will certainly kill inspiration
  • Do not strive to be perfect – “Done is better than good”

“Perfectionism is just a high-end haute couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, ‘I am not good enough and I will never be good enough’.”

She goes on:

“Perfectionism is a particularly evil lure for women.”

Creativity gives us the opportunity to liberate ourselves from the self-limiting roles that society has allotted to us. This gets to the heart of my own angst about my writing. I don’t know if I deserve to be called a writer yet, but I #amwriting (regular Twitter hashtag), I am creating. A few years ago I made soft furnishings for a (modest) living, but I called myself a cushion-maker; just because I cannot yet claim any authenticated ‘success’ as a writer, doesn’t make me less of one. After reading this book, I feel emboldened, but I might need to bookmark a few pages and re-read them from time to time to stir my courage!

An easy engaging read, that you will find inspiring at some level. Recommended.

Do you have difficulties with perfectionism or with claiming a title for yourself? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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September reading challenge: a self-help book

I swished through my August reading challenge very quickly (a book whose cover title reminded me of summer) having selected a fairly slim volume (On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan) that was absolutely compelling. I couldn’t put it down and since I was away visiting family at the time I decided to read it, I had plenty of opportunities to not put it down.  It’s a fabulous book, so look out for my review next week.

This month, the challenge is also related very much to the time of year. I have written on here before about how I find Autumn very energising. It is probably related to the fact that I have had children at school for twelve years now (by the way, allow me a proud parent moment – we are celebrating the eldest one’s excellent GCSE results!) My year is very much determined by and planned around the ebb and flow of school term times and holidays. After a period of repose stepping off the treadmill of the daily school routine, usually a family holiday and bit of sun, the change of pace again when school returns, and the sense of new beginnings seems to give me a sense of optimism and vitality.

There is also something about the climate and the light in England in the Autumn that makes my mood reflective: the days are getting shorter so I am reminded that time is precious. The weather is usually cooler but because I don’t have kids to entertain or days out planned, my expectations are lower, so I appreciate the rain (it waters the garden), I don’t mind the wind (it dries the laundry) and I am thankful when the sun appears, not cross when it doesn’t. It’s as if my mental goalposts have moved.

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For me, September is a great time to make plans, think about where I am and where I’m going. I also know that I will have more energy and fewer commitments in the next two to three months than at any other time of the year, so it’s an oppportunity to take some big steps forward. This month’s challenge is to read a self-help book.

I went browsing in my local bookshop as I did not have a very clear idea about what I wanted to read this month. The self-help section seemed to have a different sort of feel to it compared to the last time I was buying there. After years of exhortation to do better, be better, have more, look better (ideals that few of us can sustain in real life, leading to inevitable anti-climax, disappointment and feelings of failure) the general tone of most of the titles seemed to be more about acceptance, gratitude, and enjoying the smaller things in life. That has to be a good thing.

I spotted three irresistible books, and can’t decide which one to read this month. My biggest goal this season is to complete the first draft of the book I’m working on. I made some strides with NaNoWriMo in July, but I’m still only about a quarter of the way in and and I’m finding it incredibly challenging. So Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear seems appropriate, a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while. I also like the look of Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain, and Women Who Run with the Wolves: contacting the power of the wild woman by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. I am an introvert, and I’m also a feminist who believes all of us women have special inner resources that benefit the world, so both of these appeal.

 

Hmm. Decisions, decisions. What would you pick?

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Reflections on being a mother of girls

My elder daughter turned 13 recently. I find this fact quite extraordinary and I am filled with a new sense of responsibility. Getting three children this far has been something of a feat, of course (!), but I now feel as if I have the huge challenge of nurturing a young woman. I have an older son, but that seems different somehow. Perhaps that’s because I have never been a young man, but I do have experience of being a young woman, so I am profoundly aware of all the special ups and downs that life can present to girls.

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A beautiful mother and daughter (this is not us!)
My daughter is strong, talented and determined. She is also loving, conscientious and kind, and experience tells me that this can make her vulnerable. The world has yet to fully come to terms with this potent mix of feminine powers, does not yet know how best to embrace it. It seems to me the world often seems to fear it. So, as a parent, as a mother, the conundrum is how to prepare my daughter for a world that may not be fully ready to receive her for all that she is and all that she can be, whilst also fostering her single-mindedness, encouraging her independent spirit and emboldening her to stay true to herself.

I recently read We should all be feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (look out for the review next week). This was given to me by a friend as a birthday gift. It’s a fuller version of a speech the author gave to a TEDx conference in 2012. Its context is Nigerian society, but there is much here that we can all take on board in terms of how we bring up our children and the values we attempt to instil.

I have a particular conundrum in that I have for a long time been what is disparagingly termed a ‘full-time Mum’. I took the usual maternity leave with my first child (my son) and when I went back to work he went to nursery for four long days every week (we had no family nearby to support us), a fact which haunts me to this day. My job was challenging and I was 50 miles away, so it was a difficult time. When I became pregnant with my second child not only did it make little economic sense for me to continue working but I felt my higher education job was incompatible with our circumstances. There was no way I could be the kind of parent I wanted to be whilst being committed to my career, and with no back-up it seemed impossible. My husband’s job was senior, demanding and in a relatively male-dominated industry so there was little prospect, in reality, of a shared model. So when my daughter was born I took a career break. I had another child during that time and took seven years off, which ended with voluntary redundancy.

When I recount this story I find it quite hard to believe myself – I was always very ambitious, acquired a Bachelors and a Masters degree, had a good career where I was respected, have always been a feminist, and yet as far as my children are concerned Mummy stays at home. Mummy does work of course (I have run a small business, I write and I do some occasional work for a charity) but I don’t work long hours out of the house like Daddy does so the lion’s share of the household work also falls to me. I don’t feel unhappy with this and I don’t regret any of the decisions we made and if I could do it all again I would make the same choice to stop working (I only wish I’d been there for my son sooner and not put him in nursery), but I do worry about the kind of messages this sends to both my son and my daughters about gender roles. What kind of a role-model am I?

We should all be feminists and the small companion book Dear Ijeawele have given me much food for thought. One of the first suggestions in Dear Ijeawele is that a woman should be “a full person” and not be defined by motherhood. I think in the early years I allowed this to happen, although with three young children and a husband working away every week for a number of years I had little time to define myself any other way! However…that is changing now. As my children get older and can take more responsibility for themselves I am trying to strike a balance between being there for them, but also not being there always, if you see what I mean.

Suggestion number ten in Dear Ijeawele is to “be deliberate in how you engage with [your daughter] and her appearance”. Adichie is a beautiful woman who embraces her femininity. She is a face of No. 7 cosmetics, a fact for which she has been criticised and for which she makes no apology. I have always struggled with my femininity; I think it was handled clumsily and fearfully when I was a teenager (I don’t think I’m alone). Being feminine should not be incompatible with feminism, this much I believe, but I struggle with both my young daughters’ desires to wear make-up, for example. I feel very conflicted as I want them to be happy with their natural appearance, to know they are beautiful as they are, and not to feel influenced by the media that they have to look a certain way or that a certain beauty product is a ‘must-have’. I also worry about the pressure to wear revealing clothing, although, as Adichie says, we should never link appearance with morality.

With a teenage and a pre-teen daughter, these are all very urgent issues. I’m afraid when they were young they did play with dolls and much of their environment was pink, though trains, lego and other colours were available! I agree it is important not to provide gender-specific toys and to encourage breadth and variety. Mostly, my kids liked to paint, make things and play with water, and I never tried to stop the girls getting messy – they were worse in fact! But the issues seem to be weightier now, especially as their thoughts gradually turn to their futures and as sexuality begins to emerge. They hear the news and find that there continues to be a gender pay gap in society, that there is not parity of treatment between LGBTQ and straight people, and that women and girls continue to be abused and exploited more than their male counterparts.

There is much that we all still need to do.

I would love to hear your thoughts about raising girls in the 21st century. 

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Book review: “Jo Cox: More in Common” by Brendan Cox

No-one could forget the terrible events of June 16th 2016, the week before the UK referendum on exiting the EU, when Jo Cox, the British MP for Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire, was brutally murdered whilst in her constituency. It was shocking on so many levels. Firstly, that, in the midst of a profound expression of our democracy (which I believe we should never take for granted), campaigning during a referendum, one of our most conscientious and hard-working elected members should be killed for doing her job and what she believed in. Secondly, and most upsetting to me and, I’m sure, to many others, that a mother of two young children, a wife, a sister, a daughter, should lose her life and all those close to her should lose the most important person in theirs. It was truly awful.

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In the days that followed, campaigning in the referendum was suspended as the news reverberated around the world. Support was shown and condolences sent by dozens of world leaders, not least President Obama. Jo’s death had a huge impact. So many had felt the insult to our democracy. In those subsequent days and weeks, we also learned much about this young woman and her life, and the loss felt even greater.

Jo’s husband, Brendan, became famous overnight, a role he would never have wanted. The grieving widower, the father of two shocked and grieving young children (then aged just five and three), the spokesperson for his late wife and all the good and powerful things she stood for. He was frequently on our television screens, looking dazed and gaunt, in Parliament, just days after Jo’s death, hearing MPs’ tributes, at a memorial event in Trafalgar, attended by thousands. It is a wonder how he got through those days.

It is thirteen months since Jo’s death and Brendan has been busy. He has set up the Jo Cox Foundation which seeks to promote fairness and tolerance in the world through practical actions. He has also published this book, which is part biography of Jo, partly an account of loss and, I suspect, part catharsis. It is rare that I have sat down and read a book in a couple of sittings over a weekend, but this book lends itself to that kind of immersion.

First and foremost the book, for me, provides an intimate glimpse into the architecture of grief. We will all experience grief in our lives, but most of us will never have to lose someone in the circumstances that Brendan lost Jo, that their children lost their mother. The pain is profound. We see Brendan go through all the stages we are familiar with – shock, denial, etc, though he clearly fights very hard against anger, and seems to have won. He describes in detail the unique way that nature enables children to process it. In the midst of his own grief Brendan’s primary concern was to support his children through their even greater loss to ensure that it was handled in the best possible way. Brendan talks about taking advice from experts in child psychology on how he should talk to them about their mother. The overwhelming consensus is that children should be allowed the space to grieve as they need, in their own unique way, and that it is important that we do not impose adult preconceptions and expectations about their level of sadness. For a young child, losing a mother is a profound and life-changing event that will affect the rest of their lives and it is so important to handle it right.

The sadness in this book is at times unbearable, but Brendan also writes with joy too. He provides an account of Jo’s life, her humble family background and childhood, her life as a student at Cambridge and her early achievements in a career that was destined to be stellar. Brendan, in providing this account, is honouring his late wife and the enormous achievements she made in her short life. There is a definite sense that the best was yet to come.

We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” Jo Cox, maiden speech to Parliament, 2015 

 

Finally, the book is a love letter, a tribute from a bereaved husband to the woman he clearly loved so deeply. His love drips from every page. Some of the detail he gives is surprisingly intimate almost too much for me as a reader. The kind of small details of a relationship that couples normally only share with one another. But then you remember that Brendan no longer can, and his sharing with us feels all the more poignant.

The book is structured so that parallels are drawn between events in the months following Jo’s death and important stages in Jo’s life. For example, the account of Jo and Brendan’s time working in America and joining the Obama presidential campaign is given alongside an account of Brendan’s visit to the White House with his children, at the invitation of President Obama.

It is an incredible book and all proceeds from sales will go to the Jo Cox Foundation. It is hard to say I ‘enjoyed’ it but it felt like a very important read. It has certainly caused me to reflect, and the lesson that comes from it, for me, is along the lines of that old truism (with apologies for misquoting) that it’s not the years in your life that really count, but the life in your years. And Jo certainly packed a lifetime’s worth in her 42 years.

An emotional read, but highly recommended.

If you have read this book, I’d love to know how it affected you.

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