Cover Image: The Violin Conspiracy

The Violin Conspiracy

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Growing up Black in rural North Carolina, Ray McMillian’s life is already mapped out. If he’s lucky, he’ll get a job at the hospital cafeteria. If he’s extra lucky, he’ll earn more than minimum wage. But Ray has a gift and a dream—he’s determined to become a world-class professional violinist, and nothing will stand in his way. Not his mother, who wants him to stop making such a racket; not the fact that he can’t afford a violin suitable to his talents; not even the racism inherent in the world of classical music.
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Ray is a professional violist preparing for the prestigious Tchaikovsky competition when his Stradivarius violin and stolen and held for ransom.  As Ray struggles to continue his preparations and recover his violin, he is faced with the memories of his struggles to get where he is today - his live growing up as a poor Black student with an instrument borrowed from the school; his grandmother's support of his career and the lack of support from the rest of his family; and the entwined history of his family and the white family that originally owned both his ancestors and the violin.  A coming-of-age tale that looks at racism and expectations, set in the world of classical music.
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This debut work defies a book classification, it can be a mystery book, a coming of age book, a music book, but it ca also be a book that defines race and how it influences your place in the world.
Hard to believe that this is a debut book, it has the maturity of a much more set writer. Mr. Slocumb took his life experience as a black violinist and wrote about it for the world to read, as he stated on the Author's notes, a lot of what Ray goes thru in the book, it happen to Brendan Slocumb in his life journey.
Being an accomplished musician the author was able to transmit to the reader the world of music, classical music especially, I am very familiar with this world and reading about the pieces that Ray plays in his concerts and competition made me feel like I was there with him in the audience listening to his music, it was truly enjoyable.
The mystery part, the stealing of the violin, will make you shout at the end when the thief is revealed. The pace of the mystery and the development of it was very good.
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1st Line: "On the morning of the worst, most earth-shattering day of Ray McMillian's life, he ordered room service: scrambled eggs for two, one side of regular bacon (for Nicole), one side of vegan sausage (for him), one coffee (for Nicole), one orange juice (for him).

Review: Having been fascinated by the violin since childhood - never learned, as I didn't have one to practice with - the title alone suckered me into this incredibly skillful debut; a mystery that begins when the life of a Black violinist, whose career is just beginning to bloom, is shattered when his violin is stolen ... and held for a five-million dollar ransom.

Ray McMillian has spent his life loving - living for - classical music. Taking to the violin at an early age, playing seems to be the one thing that gives him genuine peace and happiness, even over the harsh criticism of his mother to just find a job at the local Popeye's, or the realiation that finding Black musicians in the leading orchestras of the world is more rare than a lottery win. Thankfully, Ray's always had Nana, and the opening of the book takes readers back and forth between the early stages of the investigation of the violin's theft, to how Ray grew up loving music and getting inspired by his grandmother ... and how a young Black man in rural North Carolina came to own a violin worth a five-million dollar ransom in the first place. Writer Brendan Slocumb, a natural storyteller, masterfully weaves Ray's backstory as a kid, who often only had his own dream to keep him going, in with the intense jealousy and bigotry he was forced to face in high school for his talent, to his getting out in the "real world" of college and adulthood, only to find that no matter how much fame or experience or talent he had, so much of life - so much of the struggle - still always boiled down to the color of his skin. Aside from a riveting mystery, what this first novel has to say about racial inequality and hate in this country toward its Black population, particularly Black men, is both powerful and enraging ... and a sickening commentary on how little progress we've made in America by 2022, even for those of us who understood that already. Slocumb's talent and TLC with his tale, however, means that the mystery of the missing violin and Ray's personal story (bat-shit greedy family, devoted grandma who became his rock, the teacher who changed his life, the injustices waged against him just because of his skin color) never ever over-shadow each other - and by the time I caught up with how Ray ended up with a Stradivarius everyone wants a piece of, how it was taken, and Ray's one-man hunt to find out who took it ... I was hooked, roaring through the last hundred pages or so hanging onto the coattails of one of the most believable, sympathetic fictional leading characters I've come across in a very, very long time. 

I still can't believe it's a debut. Also the first title already seto to appear on my Top 10 Reads of 2022 list, come December. A terrific page-turner of a read I still can't stop thinking about.  5/5 stars

NOTE: I received a free ARC of this title from NetGalley and the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.
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Ray’s violin is missing, held for ransom. While working with the police and insurance investigator to find it, Ray explores who has a motive and opportunity to take it while still trying to prepare for a worldwide music competition. This story delves into issues of family, racism and prejudice, and the world of music through an interesting and twisting mystery.
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What an amazing debut!  This captivating novel is a unique blend of mystery, coming of age, social commentary and the world of classical musicians.  Ray McMillian, a talented Black violinist,  is preparing for an important and prestigious world wide competition  when his treasured violin that his grandfather played ( which is also a priceless Stradivarius) is stolen. As the mystery unfolds, we learn of all the struggles Ray has faced (no formal lessons, lack of support, racism and discrimination) as he has pursued his passion for playing classical violin.  The story is riveting and provides a unique eye opening glimpse into the world of classical musicians.  A particular highlight of the book is the author’s ability to write about and describe pieces of music in a most visceral way which transports the reader.  Highly recommend this book, like a Stradivarius, it is a rare gem.
Thanks to NetGalley for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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This novel defies easy classification: it’s a suspenseful mystery (who stole Ray’s violin?), a coming-of-age story (how to achieve your dream when even your own family thinks you’re wasting your time), a polemic against racism (the descendants of the family who owned Ray’s ancestors want to sue him for possession of “their” violin), and a literary glimpse inside an unfamiliar world (classical music, especially the strings section of major orchestras and cutthroat international music competitions).

I thought immediately of The Queen’s Gambit as I was reading this book (as did a lot of other people, apparently): both feature outsider heroes determined to break into a world that is invested in keeping them out. Reading The Queen’s Gambit I learned a lot more about chess strategy than I knew existed, and the same kind of authentic detail permeates The Violin Conspiracy. The author is a trained violinist, and you can feel the ebb and flow of emotion as Ray works his way through difficult pieces, culminating in his performance at the international Tchaikovsky Competition.  

The structure of the novel requires Slocumb to wrap up a lot of loose ends: readers can see that Ray is a talented musician, but will the right people listen and be convinced of his skill? Ray’s family is skeptical and unsupportive–will he reconcile with his doubters (who include his mother)? And of course, who stole the violin and why? Ray himself has to surmount obstacles ranging from racism and family drama to the titular “conspiracy” surrounding his violin, which sat moldering in his grandmother’s attic for decades but turns out to be a priceless Stradivarius (not a spoiler, as this info is revealed early to explain the presence of the FBI).

The reveal of the mystery whodunnit is surprising and satisfying. I wanted a little more resolution to Ray’s family drama. I’m not really a forgive-and-forget person, and Ray is just a little too healthy for me! Many people probably picked up this book based on the Good Morning America book club recommendation or because they wanted to diversify their reading for Black History Month. I requested and received an ARC from NetGalley, and I’m so happy I did. This novel is a beautifully written page-turner, my favorite type of read.
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Ray’s passion is unquestionable, an intense fire. His skill level is masterful, with constant practice resulting in perfection. With his extremely rare $10M violin his sound is unparalleled. Then it is stolen. Yes, there’s the mystery of the missing violin but this but is much more about passion and music, a violinist’s story of sweat and drive and fighting against all odds to succeed in an industry and world that kept telling him they didn’t want him. It’s about inspiring you to do what you love no matter who tells you you can’t.

It shines a light on one example of how a Black American needs to work twice as hard and be twice as good for a chance of getting half as far. Racism, discrimination and stereotyping are a big part of Ray’s story and we see their impact on his journey for recognition, fulfillment, and success.

The summary didn’t excite me at first but the writing drew me in immediately and it was hard not to be swept away by Ray’s passion. I was a bit let down by the ending where the writing felt more rushed and the voice/tone seemed to switch but I loved the journey to get there and picked it up at every chance I could.
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Ray grows up in the South and as a Black man, his life seems to be mapped out for him.  Until he discovers that he has a talent for playing the violin.  Then he begins to dream of a different future, no matter what those around him say.  As he begins to make his new path, a giant stumbling block is placed in his way when his heirloom violin is stolen from him.  Can he overcome this new block and make the future he wants?
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This is a book trying to do a lot of things at one time. It is a heist mystery, a treatise on race, a family saga, a book about music and of belonging. While I enjoyed the book, I felt at times that maybe it was trying to do too much.
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This was mesmerizing!  The musician Ray describes his life. Starting from when he was younger until the present time. He has always been interested in playing. Even when his mother thought it was pointless and was cruel about it. And even when he encounters racism throughout the classical musical world he desperately wants to be a part of. He faces so many challenges along the way, even having his violin stolen. I admired Ray’s steadfast determination through out all of the challenges he faced. The people who helped him along the way was touching. And unforgettable moments
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The title and description of this book are rather misleading. I expected a mystery, maybe even a thriller. Unfortunately, neither one applies; the huge bulk of the novel is about the protagonist's experiences overcoming racism in his journey as a classical musician, with the theft of the violin providing a loose framing device and really being the focus only at the very end of the book. Even so, the central story could have been interesting, but to me it failed on that note as well; the characters lack nuance, falling cleanly into either "hero" or "villain" categories. How much more interesting would it have been, for example, if Ray's mother was torn between wanting to support her child and having serious reservations about him pursuing a career in the arts? The writing at times almost has a YA feeling to it. Verdict: skip it.
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OK. Is this a good book? Particularly in audio? Yes..... if you REALLY enjoy getting into the details of music and like going back to the beginning to figure out what a violin means to a professional musician. I really just wanted to find out who stole the instrument, so I kept going. And going and going.

The reveal was infuriatingly slow and, to me, anti-climactic. I just needed to know WHO and WHY. If you feel like getting angry at unsupportive, jealous, greedy family and love the ins and outs of a Black musician rising to fame, this is a great novel. The audio is read by JD Jackson, who made the plodding story more enjoyable.
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“Until then, he’s been a solitary, lonely kid — and then a solitary, lonely man — who had had one special person in his life, dressed in a pink housecoat and smelling of lavender and bluing solution in her hair. She had gone, but she had given him music, and music had filled his world, that allowed him to connect with people in a way that he sometimes could not believe could ever be real. But now she was gone, and the violin had gone, and the music had gone, and he felt so lonely and guilty now that he often thought the misery would paralyze him and he would simply, suddenly, stop breathing under the weight of it.”

Ray McMillian has to play a crappy school-issued violin, and he loves to play. His family can’t afford private lessons, but even if the money had been available his mother would have never paid for the lessons or a better violin. To say that she was unsupportive would be an understatement. Fortunately, there are 2 women who change his life forever. His Grandma Nora gives him a decrepit old violin that had been given to her grandfather by Marks, the man who owned him. Janice is a college professor who recognizes and nourishes Ray’s drive and talent as she mentors him. One other event that shapes Ray’s life is the discovery that the old fiddle was actually made by Antonio Stradivari and is worth $10 million. 

The book begins with the theft of Ray’s violin accompanied by a $5 million ransom demand (despite the enormous care he took to protect it), and then goes back a few years to Ray’s early experiences with the violin and his family. Once the value of the violin is discovered, his family demands their share. The Marks family also comes out of the woodworks and claims the violin. Ray refuses to either sell or return the violin. One of the best parts of this book is the way the author (a music teacher and violinist) makes the reader feel Ray’s love of music and the joy he takes in playing the violin, especially this particular violin. “The opening adagio starts out rich and full, slightly mournful, announcing its presence with passion and wistfulness; and then it lightens, begins to dance, bob along in the current of life: excitement and great joy competing, soaring, grateful, and alive. The violin took over: he wasn’t playing notes he was making music the way Ravel intended, the way Antonio Stradivari intended, the way he always dreamed he could play. He poured out into the air what he was unable to put into words: his gratitude — for this violin, for Janice, for Grandma Nora, for Mischa Roland’s assessment — a few words transforming his life utterly. Thank you.”

Ray faces racism from employers, orchestras stereotype him and assume that a Black violinist can’t play classical music. Fortunately, Ray is strong, and not cowed by this. To an orchestra that assumes he can play only Gershwin, he says: “I need you to understand something. I am a musician. I happen to be Black. That doesn’t mean that I am any less skilled or knowledgeable than any musician of any other race. You might want to invest in some diversity training, rather than paying for a soloist. Get your act together and I may come and play for you one day. Best of luck.”

At the time the violin is stolen Ray is preparing for the Tchaikovsky Competition, held every 4 years and judged by classical musicians and conductors.  Art crime experts try to track the violin, but as Ray sees it there are only 3 possible suspects for the theft - his family, the Marks family or his chief rival in the competition. The mystery continues as Ray participates in the competition. 

The story of Ray and his violin was really excellent. This was the author’s first book and he was clearly writing about subjects that he knows well.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
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I thought this was an interesting story. Even though there is a mystery at it's heart the novel addresses so much more, including issues of race, equity, opportunity and family. I appreciated the author's knowledge of music and string instruments (the violin, in particular). There are several scenes related to Ray's treatment as a black American male, which I think would resonate with anyone who has had similar experiences. Fiction provides a place to tell these stories which can educate and enlighten readers from all different backgrounds. 

Ray is a likeable and realistic character. For me, the mystery around the violin theft was a way to move the story forward, but the story of Ray's life and family are what made this novel compelling.
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A semi-autobiographical story of a black musician in love with classical music who is gifted an invaluable violin.  It is a story of being underestimated and dismissed because of the dearth of others of his race in the field.  But it is also the story of his violin, it’s provenance, and competing claims for its ownership, of its loss by theft, and betrayal by the woman he trusts.  It is likewise a tale of mentorship and growth.  A taut story of venality and racism and overcoming adversity.  Highly recommend.  My only misgiving was a jolt early on when he adopts a pejorative to use against himself but it is a momentary lapse that reflects individual truth — he is one with a world of individuals who unconsciously adopt the worst unjustified criticisms as if they are true when they merely reflect the external society rather than our individual value..
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“How do you remember to keep breathing when the most important piece of your life—a violin-shaped marvel that defines who you are, that organizes your day, that completes you as a human being—is stolen?“

THE VIOLIN CONSPIRACY is a debut novel about a new star in the classical music scene who discovers his family heirloom violin was stolen right before his most important competition. The book alternates between Ray’s desperate attempts to recover his violin and his remarkable rise to musical fame. I really appreciated how this book highlights the underrepresentarion of musicians of color in the classical music world, a world in which author @brendanslocumb is familiar. If you’re wanting a deep dive into the music world and are ready to cheer for someone who everyone else seems to be cheering against, pick up this one!
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The Violin Conspiracy is a wonderful first novel. I was riveted from the minute I picked it up and couldn't put the book down.  Part mystery, part social commentary, and all music, the novel tells the story of Ray an up and coming black classical musician.  When the violin he's inherited from his grandmother is stolen on the eve of an international music competition, Ray is determined to find it.  Oh,, and the violin is a Stradivarius.  Mr. Slocumb tells the unvarnished truth of the racism his character deals with while pursuing his musical career.  His love is music is so clear, you can hear it coming off the page.
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Wow! I devoured this book about a Black violinist and his beloved violin. As a music educator and lover of classical music, I hope that Ray’s inspiring story about breaking barriers in the classical music world, and the discrimination that he faced, will shine a light on these issues in the music world and maybe inspire a student or two.
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The Violin Conspiracy

By: Brendan Slocumb

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group


Publish Date 1 February 2022


100 Book ReviewsProfessional Reader

I would like to first thank both NetGalley and Anchor for allowing me to read and review this book.

Good Reads Synopsis:

A riveting tale about a Black classical musician whose family heirloom violin is stolen on the eve of the most prestigious classical music competition in the world.

Ray McMillian loves playing the violin more than anything, and nothing will stop him from pursuing his dream of becoming a professional musician. Not his mother, who thinks he should get a real job, not the fact that he can’t afford a high-caliber violin, not the racism inherent in the classical music world. And when he makes the startling discovery that his great-grandfather’s fiddle is actually a priceless Stradivarius, his star begins to rise. Then with the international Tchaikovsky Competition—the Olympics of classical music—fast approaching, his prized family heirloom is stolen. Ray is determined to get it back. But now his family and the descendants of the man who once enslaved Ray’s great-grandfather are each claiming that the violin belongs to them. With the odds stacked against him and the pressure mounting, will Ray ever see his beloved violin again?

Book Review:

I really enjoyed reading this book. I gave it 4 stars. I was able to figure out who done it at the very beginning. The book did make me think that I was wrong several times, so I really liked that it made me rethink my opinion. The other thing was how our main character was treated. I get that these things still happen, and I feel sad. I also can’t believe that his own family would do this to him. I know it is a story and the author did a great for me to have these feelings.

I am so glad that the book will inspire young people to keep their dreams and continue on even though times will get tough. The main character learned a lot about people and himself in this book. I don’t know much about classical music but really enjoy listening to violin players who are having a great time with their instrument in whatever music they prefer to play.
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