Monday, January 31, 2022

THE VIOLIN CONSPIRACY, novel of greed, racism, and triumph


Anchor Books
$28.00 hardcover, available tomorrow

Rating: 4* of five

One of NPR's Best Books of 2022!

The Publisher Says: 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?


My Review
: Want to know what people really think of you? Stand between them and a big, fat payday. You will get your actual, genuine position in their hierarchy delivered at express speed and before the varnish could be applied, still less dried.

Rayquan (usually "Ray") McMillian learns that there's nothing in this world like the benjamins to bring stuff into focus very early: He grows up without anything extra and the minimum was as cheap as it could reasonably be (often enough cheaper). As soon as it became possible, Ray was pressured to stop wasting time with his stupid fiddling and get a shelf-stockin' job to "help the family" (aka his selfish mother). Time to make horrible noises on his fiddle was more than merely grudged, it was a source of actual anger...seen as selfish, unproductive, the action of a loser. (All those fingers pointin' back from the accusatory poking one missed her notice, it seems.)

You knew there'd be a grandmother in here, right? One who Believes in Ray? You were right, there is.

And a more wonderful soul it's hard to conjure. I was all ready to Pearl-Rule this bad boy before Grandma Nora (she whose belief in Ray makes her "talk so sweet {about him} it could give you diabetes") came on stage, I was so pissed off at the Philistines and money-grubbers Ray has to call family! What malign genetic flub gave Grandma Nora a daughter like Ray's mom?! And there's no end to the nasty, of course, since this is a thriller/mystery. But that's the tour I signed up to take, and was ready for. A bracing dose of lovingkindness later, it was all gas no brakes and that finish line won't know what hit it.

Ray, as you'll have gathered, is a fine musician and to hell with his grasping, whiny mother complaining about the "racket" his practicing makes. He perseveres, Grandma Nora's staunchness in his corner, and actually begins to climb the ladder of classical violin's performance hierarchy. What he faces along the way is no surprise to anyone reasonably sentient, as his ethnicity is used by everyone around him. Only rarely to help him, I'm sure you'll be stunned to learn. His other shining light is his teacher, his one professional mentor, Dr, Janice Stevens. She makes school a haven, a place where someone really gets him and sees the music in his being.

Ray's early training in Keep Calm and Carry On within the loving bosom of his family pays off. That ability to focus is his superpower. It leads him to the *pinnacle* of a violin soloist's ambitions: the International Tchaikovsky Competition, a quadrennial classical-music Olympics that unquestionably makes a musician's career. Even competing there is a leg up...and for a Black man raised with nothing, it is damned near unprecedented for him to be there.

That? That's enough novel for most of us. But Author Slocumb said, ", what happens if the Black man happens to get a Stradivarius from his grandmother...?"

What happens is betrayal, heartbreak, and the kind of publicity you damn sure can't pay for. Broken hearts mend; wounds don't fester forever; a career launched into the stratosphere by a juicy scandal leads to a lifetime of opportunities. Ones Ray's absolutely up to taking full advantage of, coming away with a silver medal in spite of the horrors around his violin's rape from him. This one unique possession, it will surprise no one to learn, opens so many doors to him. It will not surprise anyone, either, that he walks boldly up to the doors expecting them to open...and they do.

Ray's search for the thief of his prized possession, his almost desperate desire not to believe where the search leads him, and his dogged perseverance through it all speak volumes for the value of adversity surmounted in creating character. I think Author Slocumb did exactly the right thing by enabling Ray to reach back, to offer a hand of fellowship from his place of privilege.
Ray made it a point to highlight music by Black and Latinx composers. After all those years fighting and proving wrong the preconceptions that people who looked like him couldn't play the music of dead white men, he dove into the phenomenal music written by those people who did indeed look like him.

It is the thing that defines my memory of Ray McMillian, fictional character: He worked his ass off, he focused on the problem at hand, and he stomped the daylights out of the inner voices installed early that demanded he think about unimportant stuff instead of powering himself, supercharging his gifts with well-honed talents.

In the end, what matters in a life? Looking back, what difference does any of what we do make?
"Music's the gift. Caring's the gift. There are a lot of ways apart from a concert hall to make a difference in someone's life."

That's Dr. Janice Stevens, if you're wondering, having a ghostly chat with post-disaster Ray. Thanks, Janice. Whatever your name, wherever you might be...whichever one of us you reached out for, gave a hand to...Thanks to the Janices the world over who do something easy for them and priceless to the recipient.


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