The Weight of a Piano by Chris Cander

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5

Captivating novel about the lifespan of an antique (circa 1905) upright Blüthner piano and the two women whose lives are inextricably bound to it across place, time, and culture. Katya grows up in Leningrad. She inherits the piano at a young age from the blind pianist in the building with the note: “Even a blind man could see the music beating in your heart.” She devotes her life to music and the Blüthner until she is ripped from everything that she loves by her husband’s unilateral decision to leave Russia for a better life in the U.S. (~1980). Life is not easy for Soviet Jews in that time period (well, any time period in Russia, really).

Clara is a mechanic. Born to academic parents in Santa Monica, she loses everything in a fire when she is twelve. Only the Blüthner piano that her father gave her a week before he died is saved, having been in the shop for repairs at the time. She is insistently self-reliant, having learned long ago the heartbreaking loss when someone you depended on disappears abruptly. She grows up with an Aunt and Uncle in Bakersfield, and while she never develops any musical skills, the Blüthner is her prized possession. When a professional photographer offers to rent her piano for a series of desert shots in Death Valley, she is reluctant, but persuaded by the large sum on offer. She impulsively follows the piano on its journey and ends up discovering more than she ever imagined about her own history and approach to living.

Told through alternating narratives, the story is intricate and riveting. I loved the descriptions of music and the myriad ways it affected different people. Katya’s favorite piece, and one which threads through both narratives, is Scriabin’s Prelude #14 in E flat minor. Clara’s father’s attempt at characterization: “It’s poetry and color and imagination. In any of the languages I know, I can’t find the right words for it.” The depictions of Death Valley and the piano-centered photographic essay process make for both an inspiring travelogue and a photography primer for the uninformed (that would be me) — worth the price of admission all on its own.

As one narrative proceeds from bittersweet to utterly heartbreaking, the other narrative flows towards understanding, growth, and release. A full and satisfying read full of characters with depth for whom we cannot help but have great empathy.

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Writing: 5 Characters: 4.5 Plot: 4.5

Another middle school age book snuck into my (overwhelmingly large) pending reading pile yesterday by means of the “bookseller recommends” shelf at the local Indie bookstore. Inspiring, heart warming, and laugh-out-loud funny, it features a 12 year-old, highly gifted misfit as its heroine. Willow Chance is a happily adopted, probable genius, with obsessions for medical conditions and plants. She prefers “large talk” to small talk.

As a warning, what starts as a funny book takes a nosedive on page four when Willow comes home to police cars and finds out that her parents have both been killed in a car accident. That felt like a smack in the face. Keep reading — the book gets better and better after that inauspicious start. Mai Nguyen, who only recently met Willow at the counselor’s office where her brother was also “seen,” manages to get her mother to temporarily take Willow in — to their subpar dwellings in the garage behind her mother’s nail salon. Dell Duke is the fairly unlikable, total loser of a guidance counselor, but he too has a pretty interesting (and unexpected) role to play in the proceedings. The action takes off from there.

Though race is not emphasized, most of the characters are clearly of mixed race — Willow is adopted and states that she is “a person of color”; Mai’s mother is the daughter of a Vietnamese woman and a black GI, and her children have a Mexican father (who left years ago). Did I mention that the action takes place in Bakersfield, California? Not sure I’ve ever come across Bakersfield as a novel venue before.

I could not put this book down — started it around 3pm and finished before I went to bed. Willow is a character you will love — reminiscent of Harriet the Spy or Eleanor Oliphant, middle school style. You will also love the impact she has on those around her. What emerges is a story about family, communities knitting together on the fly, and determination. Fantastic read for adults and middle schoolers alike.

Some favorite lines:

“The instructor, Mrs. King, had just plowed her way through a popular picture book. It featured the hallmarks of most pre-school literature: repetition, some kind of annoying rhyming, and bold-faced scientific lies.” (about her pre-school experience)

“The teenage boy and the man are as close to wild animal observation as anything I’ve seen.”

“When the soil is too alkaline, which can be thought of as being too sweet, you need to add sulfur. I explain this, but I can tell that it’s not a spellbinding discussion for the people I live with.”

“What is more temporary than nail polish? No wonder she has such an attachment to the concept.”