20 Books of Summer 21 nos. 14-15 & a second for #WITMonth

Gosh! I’ve read 16 out of #20BooksofSummer21, so with a fortnight to go, there’s a definite probability of beating my previous best of 17, and a possibility I might just make the full 20 – it’ll have to be novellas or easy to read thrillers though. Bring it on! Meanwhile here are reviews 14 & 15…

Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink

I’m late to the party on reading this book, recently out in paperback, and I loved it. If you’ve not read Dear Reader yet, but have read any other Cathy Rentzenbrink books be they memoir or novel (See here or here) you’ll love it; similarly Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm (see here). Also, look at that dustjacket with its embossed flowers and gold highlights – I had treated myself to the hardback when first published.

Dear Reader is a winning combination of memoir and the exploration of the joy of reading. Cathy always had her nose in a book as a child; when tragedy struck their family which she wrote about in her moving memoir The Last Act of Love, reading kept her afloat. She went on to become a bookseller, journalist and writer.

I particularly loved reading about the vagaries of working in the Waterstones branch within Harrods, a very regimented workplace, that she was glad to escape from to Hatchards, and the Waterstones flagship store. She combines her anecdotes about work with those of family, and moments helping her father to becomes a reader – he’d never learned to read well – were lovely.

At each stage she recalls the books she read, from Narnia to Adrian Mole and Harry Potter, from Julian Barnes to Hanya Yanigihara’s A Little Life which blew her away. We’re presented with classics for the young and old and contemporary novels alike, summarised with her trademark wit and passion. In between the chapters of memoir and reflection on a reading life, are some reading lists. One that tickled me was her list of ‘Pub Books’ which takes us from Cormoran Strike’s locals to Jamaica Inn and Les Miserables via Pullmann’s altenate Trout in La Belle Sauvage and George Orwell’s essay on pubs, The Moon Under Water.

I love books about books, and Dear Reader is a fine one indeed. (10/10)

Source: Own copy from the TBR. BUY the paperback (231 pages) at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

The Forest of Wool and Steel by Natsu Miyashita

Translated by Philip Gabriel

My second #WITMonth read is another novel with a gorgeous cover. Just look at the way the trees merge with the piano keys – the moment I spotted it in my local indie bookshop, I had to have it!

When seventeen-year-old Tomura is given an errand to take a visitor to his school gym little did he know that the following couple of hours would change his life forever. In the gym is a grand piano, and the visitor, Mr Itadori is a piano tuner. Tomura stays and quietly watches the man at work, marvelling at the way he can coax beautiful sounds from the instrument as if coming directly from the mountain forests. The novel begins:

I inhale the scent of a forest close by. I can smell the earthy fragrance of autumn as night falls, the leaves gently rustling. I can feel the damp air of dusk descending.

The forest is not there. It is in my mind’s eye. Because right now I’m standing in the corner of a deserted school gym at the end of the day. I’m a lower sixth student and I’ve just accompanied a man with a large briefcase into the building.

In front of me is a black grand piano, a little grubby in places where it needs a polish. The lid is open. The man stands beside it. He glances over at me, but we both remain silent. He gently presses down on the keys and the scent of warm earth and whispering leaves rises up in my mind, drifting from beneath the open lid of the piano.

Night has deepened. I am seventeen.

Tomura has never touched a piano keyboard before, but the tuner’s skill and the emotions raised in him make him decide that he wants to become a piano tuner too. So Tomura leaves his small town by the mountains in Hokkaido for the piano tuning school on Honshu, returning after three years of study to gain an apprenticeship at the piano store back home, working with the three tuners, Mr Itadori, Mr Akino and Mr Yanagi. It’ll be a long time before he’s let loose on a client’s piano on his own, but the three men have much to teach him and he wants to learn.

It’s when he meets the teenage identical twins Kazune and Yuni that Tomura’s life starts to get a little more complicated. Both girls are excellent piano players, potential concert soloists, but have different styles. Yuni gives a bold performance, but Tomura falls for Kazune’s precision and sensitive playing – the easy way for him to tell the girls apart. Mr Yanagi has been their tuner for years, but Tomura is called to make some emergency adjustments one day when Mr Yanagi is not available. It’s fair to say he does the job and then panics! As Tomura continues to develop as a piano tuner, he and the twins will continue to resonate around each other, until he can create the perfect sound for the perfect playing.

As a (rusty) piano player, I was fascinated to learn about piano tuning from this super novel. Miyashita builds an awful lot of technical information into the novel, but it never felt too much, or too esoteric for me. Tomura as a non-player is able to play the role of asking all the questions, and observe the skills of his lovable trio of mentors. I have learned so much from this novel – from how the orientation of the castors plays a role in the stresses on a grand piano’s soundboard to how the quality of the grass eaten affects the density of the sheepswool the felt hammers are made from. The differences between well-tempered and equal pitches (that’s a bit more complicated) and all kinds of things that can affect the tuning and timbre of a piano that a tuner can adjust for. I’d never really thought about the fact that tuners can tune to the player, not just the instrument and location acoustics.

Learning the fine tuning, once technique is mastered, is indeed an art that only comes with a good ear to start with and those 10,000+ hours of practice. This is all really a metaphor for life’s journey for Tomura. His perseverance in learning his trade is second to none, his motivation to achieve that perfection he heard back in the gym where the notes echoed his world can’t be questioned. However, I did find it slightly strange that he resolutely remained a non piano player. But, in that, he will never be disappointed in his own playing. He would rather achieve perfection in tuning, and leave the perfection in playing to the object of his affections, Kazune – although that’s (hopefully) in the future beyond this novel! I loved the different characters of the three senior piano tuners and Miss Kitagura, who looks after the office. They were all supportive of Tomura, even the irascible Mr Akino.

Tomura’s search to find himself in piano tuning has a homespun philosophy about it that made this quiet Japanese novel a pleasure to read. It’s a positive story too, a tad slowburning but elegantly written. Some might find the detail on piano tuning too much – but I loved it. (9/10)

Source: Own copy. Black Swan paperback, 218 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

20 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer 21 nos. 14-15 & a second for #WITMonth

  1. mallikabooks15 says:

    I loved Forest of Wool and Steel which I read I think in 2019. I loved how he was motivated to take up the profession–just the sound that Mr Itadori managed to produce. I don’t play so the finer details were lost n me but I did enjoy the book.

    I hadn’t come across Dear Reader before but loved Lucy Mangan’s bookworm (other than her comments on reading Blyton as an adult), so will certainly be looking this up.

  2. BookerTalk says:

    I’ll echo your thoughts on Dear Reader. At first I thought it was going to be nothing more than a book structured around lists with just a bit of narrative thrown in between. But I was heartened to find it was so much more. The lists were the least interesting part – I loved her insider knowledge about the book selling world and her relationship with her dad.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    An interesting pairing, Annabel. I loved Dear Reader too – I’m going to have to start a shelf for books about books! Like BookerTalk I did find the lists the least interesting part – having read an awful lot, it felt almost like trying to teach me to suck eggs, although I accept others might have found it more interesting than me. But the rest was fascinating.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The behind the scenes glimpses behind top-end retail are always fascinating aren’t they, (like in Mary Portas’ Shopgirl experiences at Harvey Nicks).

  4. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead says:

    By sheer chance I just started Dear Reader this week! I’m going through it very slowly (chapter a night speed, before bed) and am enjoying it very much. The memoir aspect is very moving at times, the author writes well and I do enjoy checking out the lists, which have yielded a stray title or two (I loved “Pub Books”). And, yes, that cover is lovely!
    Forest of Wool and Steel sounds right up my alley, so to speak. Although a non-player myself, I love piano music and never miss a chance to hear it, whether recorded or live; I’m also fond of fiction touching on the arts. This one definitely goes on my TBR list, although it will have to wait awhile before it’s actually read. As I was reading your review, I found myself thinking of an earlier book by Daniel Mason, The Piano Tuner. A very different book, of course, involving different time periods and raising issues of colonial intrigue but still rather interesting that it also focuses on a practitioner of this rather esoteric profession!

  5. Cathy746books says:

    Ooh, as a piano player myself I’m really drawn to Forest of Wool and Steel – I’ll definitely check that out. I have a copy of Dear Reader and just haven’t got round to it, but it sounds like a treat. Good luck with the rest of the challenge!

  6. Liz Dexter says:

    These both sound excellent (I somehow haven’t read the first one yet myself!) and I’m sure you can do the 20! I am about to start book 19 but that and 20 are fairly long novels, will I do it, too!

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