Thursday, May 22, 2014

book review: Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

The backstory: Emma Donoghue is among my favorite authors. Room remains one of my all-time favorite books, and I've also enjoyed The Sealed Letter and Astray.

The basics: Set in the summer of 1876 in San Francisco in the midst of the smallpox epidemic, Frog Music is the story of the murder of Jenny Bonnet, a cross-dressing young woman who dies in the novel's first pages. Her new friend Blanche Beunon, a French burlesque dancer and prostitute, tells the story. The action shifts between the days after Jenny's murder and a month earlier, when Jenny and Blanche meet.

My thoughts: Although Frog Music is the story of an unsolved murder, I'd classify it more as historical fiction than historical mystery. The mystery itself is compelling, particularly as the novel climaxes, but it's not what I loved most about this novel. As I read, I was immediately immersed in San Francisco in the summer of 1876. Donoghue strikes the perfect balance between vivid historical detail and a fast-moving plot. Blanche is a beguiling, fascinating character, and I enjoyed every moment of her story.

I read this novel compulsively. I was curious to see how the mystery unfolded, but I was equally intrigued with many of the novels smaller mysteries. In this sense, the two timelines (albeit only a month apart at their longest) were smart storytelling. Because so much was different at the two times, I never found myself confused. Instead I marveled at how many key events impacted the lives of these characters.

At the novel's end is a lengthy author's note on the real people Donoghue brings to life in Frog Music. Her research was impressive, but this piece of historical fiction clearly takes the real events, still shrouded in mystery, and uses them for inspiration. Donoghue's fictional tale may well be true, but it's a gift of this particular real-life mystery that is the greatest gift: because there are no known answers, the fictional possibilities are even more enchanting.

The verdict: Frog Music is an utterly immersive piece of historical fiction. It's based on true events and impeccably researched, but it's magic and charm lie in Donoghue's characters and setting.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 412 pages
Publication date: April 1, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Frog Music from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Emma Donoghue's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

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4 comments:

  1. Hmmm. I did not like room at all. I had a really hard time believing the voice of the kid. It just didn't seem realistic to me. His phrasing, etc. But, I wanted to give the author another go since I was clearly in the minority with Room. I have Frog Music but haven't started it yet. Most of the reviews I've head have been negative. Yours is the first positive one so far.

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    1. Frog Music is totally different from Room (and much more in line with her 'typical' historical fiction.) I liked it a bit better than The Sealed Letter, which I also loved, but I've been surprised more people aren't talking about or gushing about this one, particularly after there was so much discussion about her last book, a short story collection. Alas, I'd love to compare notes if/when you read this one:-)

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  2. I have this one on hold at the library, and I can't wait! I also have Slammerkin on my TBR which has been staring at me for a while. Maybe I'll try to get to it this summer.

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  3. I'm close to the end of the audiobook, so I'll come back and read your review when I'm finished. I solved the mystery a little early, but that happens a lot with audiobooks, I think. It's harder to bury details! I started Frog Music thinking it was a short story collection, and that the leisurely pace of the "first story" was more suited to a novel. And it was!

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!