karen's Reviews > Frog Music

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
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really liked it
bookshelves: from-publisher-or-author

From the Author Q & A:

One journalist kindly alerted me to the fact that there was a hoax in my Wikipedia entry, a claim that I was writing about 'the murder of a cross-dressing frog-catcher!' - and was abashed when I told him it was true.

and it is indeed a story about that, although it sounds a bit silly described that way, but it's not at all a silly book. it is an entirely serious book based on an unsolved murder case in san francisco in 1876, during the smallpox epidemic and a terrible heat wave. which makes it a perfect book to have read during this polar vortex situation. emma donoghue is one of those authors who does all the right things when it comes to her historical fiction. there is an author's note in which she describes all the research she did for this book, and the difficulties she faced with much of the primary materials having been destroyed in the fire and earthquake of 1906, and a later fire in 1921, plus an extensive back matter section for all the songs used in the book and their provenance and meaning, as well as a glossary with all the french terms, which was particularly helpful when it came to the slang.

the story is about two women thrown into each other's lives when one of them, jenny, runs into the other one, blanche, on her bicycle, which would have been one like this:



despite their completely different backgrounds and personalities, they form a sort of friendship, and blanche ends up bearing witness to jenny's murder, and takes it upon herself to see justice done.

blanche is a french woman brought to this country, pregnant, with her maque arthur and his ami intime ernest, all of whom have come from a background of circus and performance. the men now live off of the money she makes dancing in a burlesque theater and her… other services to men, while they swan about town in their fancy clothes, living their bohemian lifestyle. she has left her infant son in the care of others "farmed out," in the french custom, but once she learns of the conditions in which he is being kept, she takes him back home with her, even though she has no idea how to care for him, or even how to love him.

jenny is an irrepressible sort - living life on her own terms, frequently thrown into jail for daring to wear trousers in public. she is one charmed by the world - socializing with every person she encounters, picking up scraps of stories and songs wherever she goes like a musical magpie. she seems to glide through life - all bluster and bravado, and her relationship with blanche is conducted entirely on her terms, whenever she happens to show up, grinning and full of energy. she does indeed earn her crust by hunting frogs, where the trousers come in handy, and she sells these frogs to the french and chinese immigrants as the delicacies they are.

as in Visitation Street, which is not so much a mystery novel as a celebration of location and character, this book is also a celebration of location and character but also time period, although "celebration" may not be quite the right word when it comes to the time period. it is certainly an evocation of the period, though, with its spreading disease and racial unrest and sweltering heat and gender inequality etc..

blanche is a tough character to applaud from the comfort of our modern sensibilities. she has cast off her inconvenient child without a second thought in order to pursue her life in the sex trade, giving both her money and her body to these two men who degrade her and then go out on the town on her dime to have sex with other women, and subtextually, each other. her feelings towards jenny are both feelings of envy for her freedom and carefree attitude, but also disdain for the same. and yet the friendship flourishes in a way that is genuine and meaningful despite blanche's realization after jenny's death that she knew very little about this woman to whom she had become so attached. her treatment of her son, after she removes him from the squalor of the "nursery," is not a typical mother's unconditional love - she is almost revolted by him, although at her very core, she has a reluctant mother's love that needs him near, even as she is unfit for the task of caring for him.

the middle gets a little draggy, as blanche flounders around without direction, but even then, the description of the city is so vividly rendered in these parts, it doesn't ruin the overall novel, it just makes the pacing a little uneven.

again, this novel is based on an unsolved murder. donoghue offers what she calls an "educated hunch," and from a narrative standpoint, her conclusions are justified and satisfying, but we will never know the truth of what happened, or the truth of jenny herself. even within the confines of this novel's explanation, she remains a cipher, as blanche's inquiries only lead to more questions about how much of jenny's persona was real and how much a protective contrivance.

it's a strong return to historical fiction for donoghue, and while it doesn't have the shock value "ripped from the headlines" appeal of room, it will most likely be a bestseller with book club potential.

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Reading Progress

January 6, 2014 – Started Reading
January 6, 2014 – Shelved
January 9, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-42 of 42 (42 new)

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message 1: by Jason (new)

Jason I'm going to try to win this one. I really liked her previous novel.


message 2: by Julio (new)

Julio Genao that penny-farthing ruint my coffee sipping technique


Lauren Stoolfire I'm going to try to win it, too. I've got my fingers crossed!


message 4: by Mindy (new) - added it

Mindy Have you read Slammerkin?


karen i did, yes, and i remember liking it, but it was before my goodreading, so i didn't write a review. but i remember having a positive feeling afterwards, and i gave it four stars!


message 6: by Mindy (new) - added it

Mindy Oh darn. It's one of my favorite books and I really wanted to read what you thought of it. It's pretty dark and some people I loaned it to thought I was weird. Her writing is so good. I never read Room. I think I would enjoy her historical fiction better. Can't wait for this one.


karen booooo to me! i wish i had always had goodreads, to remind me what i thought of every single book i had ever read.


message 8: by Mindy (new) - added it

Mindy Hahaha, imagine how many reviews you would have. I don't really review, but it would of been cool to have a record of all the books I've read.


karen i know. this brain of mine is too good at forgetting things. ):


message 10: by Julio (last edited Jan 20, 2014 05:04PM) (new)

Julio Genao karen wrote: "booooo to me! i wish i had always had goodreads, to remind me what i thought of every single book i had ever read."

you should download your csv regularly. bit of a dust-up today among another circle of friends about a book whose listing has been deleted a couple times—taking all their reviews and comments with it.

i am now completely paranoid about it.


karen oh, no!! which book??


message 12: by Julio (new)

Julio Genao https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

multiple times, apparently.

*dons tinfoil hat*


karen boooooooo


message 14: by Jason (new)

Jason When we signed our librarian contracts we were told we couldn't delete books once they were added to the system. Someone's a renegade!


message 15: by Julio (new)

Julio Genao yer. poor goodreads engineers. it's always somethin.


alisha Renee Robinson You can read more about the story


message 17: by Lee (new) - added it

Lee nice review Karen, I want to read this, although I still haven't gotten around to reading Room.


karen thanks! they are totally different books, but both excellent.


message 19: by Tim (new) - added it

Tim Martin Great review! Neat to read, wow, talk about trouble with source material. Love those types of stories where a crime goes almost unnoticed, certainly under investigated, during other big crises.


karen i know - all those murders that took place during katrina - yeesh


message 21: by Tim (new) - added it

Tim Martin There is a fiction series out there about a dedicated police detective investigating murders while a comet hurtles towards Earth. Everyone is probably going to die, but he still does his job.


karen oooh- the ben winters, right?? i want to read those


message 23: by Tim (new) - added it

Tim Martin I think so. I saved them to my to reads list. Been on my list of books to get.


message 24: by Tim (new) - added it

Tim Martin Yes, I looked it up, The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters.


karen yesssss - it has been on my to-read for a while, too. someday...


message 26: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason Were the french portions a bit distracting (provided you dont know french). I paged through it a bit and it's sparsely here and there. I was wondering if it is really important to the storyline to translate all of it.


karen it is actually all translated for you in the backmatter!! which is good, because my french slang is spotty.


message 28: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason karen wrote: "it is actually all translated for you in the backmatter!! which is good, because my french slang is spotty."

the back and forth is going to kill me. My bf (french fellow) was like, it's literally like you are texting it, just ignore it. French men and their pride


karen ha! well, you could photocopy the backmatter and use it as a bookmark!


message 30: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason karen wrote: "ha! well, you could photocopy the backmatter and use it as a bookmark!"

oh that's genius. Do you think i could get away with the occasional kindle auto correct which seems a bitch patchy here and there and avoid the rest of the stuff it struggles with? i mean at the very least i'll get an idea. The french sections dont seem to be that abundant


karen ummmmm dunno. i don't know from kindle. but you can pretty much just barrel through the french stuff and read the notes at the end. it's mostly just for flavor - it's not going to be - "AND THE MURRRRDERRRRER IS blah-di-frenchy-blah!!"

or anything


message 32: by Julio (new)

Julio Genao *mad cackle*

that was excellent.


message 33: by Bill (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bill just started this...so far it's great!


karen yay! glad you're digging it!


Betty Rice I think it starts out slow and gets better and better. I couldn't put it down last night. I saw the sun come up. :)


karen hahah that's awesome!


message 37: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason ok, did no one else have a problem with the random, yet relevant French. I date a French fellow and I still stumbled over it. tripped me up a bit, I guess.


karen it's all translated in the appendix. i speak french reasonably well, but i'm not strong on slang, so that helped me


message 39: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason karen wrote: "it's all translated in the appendix. i speak french reasonably well, but i'm not strong on slang, so that helped me"

Cool. I just picked up a sample via amazon.


message 40: by Charlotte (new)

Charlotte Just started reading this book couple of days ago and am really liking it. But I must be at that draggy middle part you talked about cuz it has slooowed down a bit, which is why I'm on Goodreads right now instead of reading the book. Needed a little break. I did want to address the comments made about all the French used. Well, I don't speak French but there were many words that I either figured out or, if I really didn't know, looked up their translation. I did take French when I was a kid but that was a very long time ago. I think it's more that all the Romance languages share roots and similarities. I take it as a challenge, an opportunity to stretch my mind and learn something new. For example, while reading I realized the French word "maque" means the same thing as "mack", which is American slang for "pimp". I never knew that but now that I do it makes perfect sense. Ok, back to the book.


message 41: by Gill (new) - added it

Gill Struggled with this for a while; multiple library renewals over a couple of months but just couldn't finish it. I didn't care enough about Blanche et al to push through. Maybe I would have done better reading it in the winter, because the descriptions of the oppressive heat didn't help my comfort levels during our own heatwave!


message 42: by Bud (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bud Mallar I tried to like this, but Blanche, the lead character, just did some things I could not buy into. Perhaps just my perspective, but think she could have been a more 'with it' in several situations. A good read, and fun and interesting historical perspective about the steamy side of life in old San Fran...


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