All for Love

Posted on 23rd May 2016 by Cathy Rentzenbrink
Cathy Rentzenbrink began her career as a Waterstones bookseller and has moved on to be a familiar voice in British publishing, including her regular books column in the influential Stylist magazine. Her moving memoir The Last Act of Love was shortlisted for this year’s Wellcome Book Prize.

Our Non-fiction Book of the Month The Last Act of Love details the intimate story of Cathy Rentzenbrink's family tragedy; her brother Matty was hit by a car in the summer of 1990 and rendered unconscious. As Cathy grew up, Matty did not regain consciousness and after eight years, her family had to make the devastating decision to apply to legally end Matty's care and his life. 

While the book is an agonising read, as it depicts the near-decade-long aftermath of the accident, The Guardian notes it is an unexpectedly uplifting read too: 'This is a book you would want to re-read, during a tough time, to make you feel less alone.' 

Long before I was a writer, I was a bookseller. I worked in seven different shops in and around London over the course of ten years. My favourite thing about the job was talking to strangers about books and my second favourite thing was creating a display around a new title. I’d think of all the different angles and look for other books that appealed to me in a similar way.

I’ve made book lists about bad love, posh people behaving badly, murders on trains, characters with red hair . . . It’s endless fun and I still do it now as a journalist.

Here’s a selection of books I love that I would display with mine, and the resonances they have in common. And because a lot of this is rather heavy, tear-stained reading, I’ve thrown in my three best books that cheer me up at the end.


Working Class Memoirs

‘What’s the matter with you? Did you swallow a dictionary?’

I grew up in Yorkshire and was often told I was too full of myself, so sharp I’d cut myself, had too many opinions, that I should learn to shut up and that book learning wouldn’t get me a husband. When I told a teacher that I wanted to be a writer she told me not to be silly.  It’s difficult to jump over all that and summon enough confidence to put words out into the world. The books below were a continual inspiration because in many ways their authors had far more to overcome than I did. They helped me to see it was possible.

How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran 

Maggie and Me by Damian Barr

The Boy with the Topknot by Sathnam Sanghera


Death and Grief

Grief is a lonely business because society seems to want us fixed and capable of behaving in a civilized fashion from pretty much the day after the funeral. There’s an idea that grief is a process that follows accepted steps, wheras in my experience it’s an unwieldy beast that keeps coming back for another bite. I find reading about other people’s experiences makes me feel less alone and therefore consoled.


When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

A Grief Observed by C S Lewis

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes


Brain Injuries

If my brother had been knocked over 20 or even 10 years before he was, he would have died in the road and I now see that it would have been better for him and for everyone who loved him if he had. In medicine, our technical ability to keep people alive has outstripped our moral, philosophical and legal capability to know whether or not we should.

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Family Life by Akhil Sharma

Beyond the High Blue Air by Lu Spinney


Sibling Loss

Since my book was published I’ve had lots of letters from other bereaved siblings, and from parents who tell me they feel they now understand more of the experience of their surviving child. I still feel like my partner in crime, the person who would love me warts and all, has been cruelly taken away. These books all explore that sense of absence and yearning.


The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

The Travelling Hornplayer by Barbara Trapido


Comfort Reading 

I read to find out about the world and to find out about myself but I also read to escape. I have a real fondness for books about posh eccentrics living in a pre digital age. These are all delightful and I’ve read them time and time again when in need of a glimmer of light in my life.


I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Mapp & Lucia by E F Benson

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

I hope you enjoy the recommendations. I enjoyed writing them almost as much as if I’d been chatting to you in one of the shops where I used to work. (Harrods, Piccadilly, Oxford Street, Hatchards, Teddington, Chiswick and Richmond)


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