Symphony of Secrets: A Book Review by Donna Harris

               Brendan Slocumb’s latest novel, the front cover


why read it?


Symphony of Secrets by musician, music educator, and novelist Brendan Slocumb is a unique experience with a powerful message. Slocumb wants to amplify overlooked voices; he hopes this book will help us listen closely to others so we open ourselves up to more transformative stories that are around us.


This author was the first to create a musical novel in the mystery/historical novels genre with his first book The Violin Conspiracy. As the title of his latest novel suggests, Slocumb continues to create books for this market and beyond.


In business, we aim to offer something new to satisfy unserved or underserved markets. Well, Slocumb has succeeded! So, don’t be surprised when he provides interesting characters in creative ways, case in point Josephine Reed. 


Plot Summary:


Plot Summary: musicology professor Kevin Bernard Hendricks (Bern) accepts his dream assignment: he authenticates a long-lost masterpiece by his favourite composer Frederick Delaney for The Delaney Foundation. However, Bern experiences the shock of his life! In the process, he learns to redefine himself and stand up for what matters.


*Spoiler Alert!*: This book has many secrets, so it is difficult to discuss it without spilling any of them. I do however keep it to a minimum.


Narration, Musical Themes, and Things I Question


In this article, I focus on narration, musical themes, and things I question to give you a taste of this extraordinary novel. For instance, Slocumb skillfully uses narration to help us appreciate a character so misunderstood that she is nicknamed “Crazy-Jo”. 




When we first meet Josephine Reed, the narrator hints at her being a composer with perfect pitch who hears music in everything:

“The wind whistled in a wavering B-flat up to an

F-sharp, around or perhaps through the enormous

tan brick building …” 


She is black and neurodivergent in Jim Crow America. Through Josephine, we learn how neurodivergent minds might process life. For example, she colour codes sounds and vibrations: 


“An automobile blared past her with a chug-chug 

-chug that she could feel in her jaw, and the slapping 

of shoes on cobblestones and brick tinted her vision

aquamarine and made her elbow twitch. She 

mumbled under her breath, “Pink, blue, white.” 


Brendan Slocumb’s favourite musical instrument is the violin


Increasingly, we understand Josephine. Her sensitivity to sound leads to composing music. Josephine composes to create order out of chaos “noise”, which makes life livable. Through narration and dialogue, Slocumb reveals Josephine’s story and answers the age-old question: why do artists create? 


“From one side of the page to the other, each paper

was a bewildering tight design of dots, lines, 

geometric shapes. Sometimes the lines seemed 

to be letters, but they could easily be just arrows 

or a pattern of dots …. ‘Dr Moore said it would help

me focus .… He said it would help me sort the

noise …. I’m always writing down the sounds. 

The ones I like hearing separate from the noise.’ ” 


Through Josephine, we see that neurodivergent people benefit from colour coding as a learning tool. This genius composer has photographic memory that she reinforces by using colour and documenting music she hears and composes.


Everyday sounds become colours based on how they make Josephine feel, which leads to her composing. Then, she documents the sounds via personal pictures or symbols, graphic scores. See the book cover.


Musical Theme: Music Is a Language


Therefore, one of this novel’s themes is that music is a language. It can be universally documented and understood via standard musical notation, or personally, as Josephine prefers.


Another character also notices that music is a language. As a teen introduced to music by The Delaney Foundation, Bern had been surprised to notice that 


“It was as if he’d learned a new language and 

discovered that language was everywhere. 

Classical music, yes; but also rock, hip-hop,

bluegrass: the genre of music wasn’t important 

– only that it was music.” 


Treating music as a language helps us learn and remember it. We use language to communicate, tell stories, express feelings, and capture moments.


You must learn or create languages to understand them. Language is tailored to audiences. Sometimes, we tailor language to separate audiences or set trends.


Musical Theme: Good Music Versus Bad


Another musical theme in Symphony of Secrets is good music versus bad.  Good music is defined by the dominant culture, especially in the past. Here, the mainstream culture is white, and black music is considered poor taste, as Freddy is aware:


“The important thing was to play the music

as it’s written, Ditmars always told him. He

wasn’t supposed to embellish it ‘the way

the c—- do up in Harlem….’ ”


All that jazz!

In other words, Ditmars’s music company supports European or white American music – printed music that is played exactly as written – the company does not value improvisation. So, it does not sell jazz, or blues. Such music is frowned upon because it comes from black communities.


However, jazz and similar music is what young Freddy loves and it is becoming popular: “his tastes ran more toward jazz and some of the new music that colored people were bringing up from the South.” 


Young Freddy has had years of formal piano lessons but he wonders why he cannot play the way black musicians do:


“He’d taken lessons for years back in Indiana. How 

was it that these three Black musicians with no 

formal training could be this good? Did they just 

work hard? Was their talent God-given?” 


Freddy’s musical conditioning is why he cannot. When Freddy chooses to learn from a black musician, he expands his abilities. 


Musical Theme: The Music Business


In fact, Freddy has better music business sense than his boss Ditmars. Music’s future is clear to Freddy: black-influenced music is fast becoming mainstream: “Ragtime had started in the Negro community and now was a large percentage of what Freddy plugged every day.”  On another note, there are two things I wonder about.


Things I Question


Something I question is the use of derogatory language to communicate the times the book is set and the hostility that the black characters experience. I wonder if not using those words could still get the message across. Slocumb does however handle the theme of discrimination well.


The other thing I question happens to be a minor inconsistency: Bern’s background is presented as so poor, that as a child he had to eat bologna sandwiches a few times a week.  Later, his background is described as “lower middle class”. These descriptions seem contradictory. However, the book’s message remains strong.


Who is this book for?


Brendan Slocumb Symphony of Secrets Book Summary
                  Meet the author, Brendan Slocumb


Who is this book for? This book is great for non-musicians and musicians alike, teens, and adults; those who love mystery novels without gore; if you are looking for something different and love books supporting diversity, then this book is for you. 


This book gives us insight into autism, so we may better interact with those who are neurodivergent, and generally, those who seem different from us. The author encourages us to ponder what may be hidden within plain sight; how often we miss opportunities to support others; and also, how we may better support ourselves. I would rate it 4.5 out of 5 stars.


Special thanks to Paulette Dale Ph.D for recommending this book! Please read Dr Dale’s book “Did You Say Something, Susan?” How Any Woman Can Gain Confidence with Assertive Communication. It too is an excellent read.


Symphony of Secrets is currently unpublished in the UK, as is Brendan Slocumb’s first novel, The Violin Conspiracy. Post publication of this article, Slocumb’s second novel is now scheduled for release on the 23rd of January 2024. You can try Amazon for your copy.


Enjoyed this book review? Enjoy discussing books?  Maybe you have even read this book. Join my online book club at Music & Books, Books & Music.  Looking forward to meeting you this month!


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