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text SPOILER ALERT! 2017-12-23 09:07
This happens to all my favorite characters
Frog Music - Emma Donoghue

I both love and hate how the book is written. Given the time jumps in this book  slowly find out about a character whose fate is already written. I love that because get to know them slowly in contrast to present events. Hate that because the more I read about that character the more I like them and then have to go ...oh right have to deal with the present events that can not be unwritten.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-06-27 00:28
Book 49/100: Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
Frog Music - Emma Donoghue

Historical fiction tends to be a little hit-or-miss with me, and murder is not one of my favorite plot devices. As such, I would not have read this book if a friend had not recommended it -- but I'm glad that I did.

The thing that overcomes my ambivalence about historical fiction and my general disinterest in murder stories is Donoghue's beautifully rendered characters. The cast in this book is small, but each individual is rendered exquisitely -- whether you love them or hate them, you can't deny that these people feel real. I especially appreciated the complexity of Blanche's character, a burlesque dancer/prostitute who eschews both the "prostitute with a heart of gold" stereotype and the "downtrodden" stereotype. She sees her work as a valid means of support and independence, and she loves sex. If this same character were written by a male author, it probably would have triggered my gag reflex as some male fantasy about how much hookers really LOVE having sex with these guys. But because Blanche was written by a woman, her experiences are infused with subtlety and reality -- she likes sex, but also must deal with the inconvenience of avoiding pregnancy and thwart the assumption that she is "always available" based on her line of work. Although her character arc goes through something of a feminist awakening through her short relationship with the cross-dressing Jenny Bonnet, it manages not to be too heavy-handed. (Although there were some moments near the end, when Blanche decides to give up sex for pay in lieu of earning her independence as a dance teacher, when I detected the slightest whiff of authorial "judgment" on her previous life. That, and the sheer amount of punishment she takes, from losing everything she has to narrowly avoiding rape not once but twice, made me a little uncomfortable. Underneath it all, is Donoghue imparting another cautionary tale in which women are "punished" for their sexuality? My mind was somewhat put at ease by the fact that Blanche does get her 'happy ending' of sorts.)

The other thing about historical fiction that is often off-putting to me is that so often it reads as a "greatest hits" summary of all the most notable events of a certain era, resorting to summary often between events and using its characters as mere vehicles through which to zoom in on historical events. Frog Music all takes place within the span of one month, using as its basis an obscure, real-life murder. This allows Donoghue to examine the minutia of the era, from period costume to the sweltering heat to the fear surrounding the smallpox epidemic. She never resorts to overview but instead brings you into the middle of a historical time with exquisite, sometimes painful detail. She does not romanticize the past, and in feeling like you are "there," you will find yourself very happy to be living in the present time, with air conditioning and running water.

Finally, all of this is presented in eloquent, sensuous prose that gets out of its own way as it brings these rich characters and their era to you. Judging by its other reviews, this book is not for everyone -- but for this reader, it was historical fiction of the most satisfying sort.

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review 2015-08-19 19:06
Emma Donoghue - Frog Music
Frog Music - Emma Donoghue

The first line is already awful before you get to the end of it. No book that starts with such a stiff sentence can be great. Emma Donoghue thinks that telling us the characters are in the front room this early in the book means something. It’s not. It’s just another extra word, like a lot of words in this book. I have written so much about terrible maximalism in novels, it’s getting hypocritical. Yet books like Frog Music keep coming my way.


What happened between this and Room is a more interesting mystery than the one in the book. Room was blessed with flowing, unique writing. The langauge conveyed an atmosphere and the psyche of the character. It’s been too long since I read it, so I cannot remember whether it was more manipulative than deep, but it was a brave experiment that worked. It felt like the logical sequel to claustophobic films like Cube. Frog Music is Emma’s attempt at lifting the thriller genre, but I doubt there are worse mysteries out there.


Room worked because its claustrophobic genre relies on characters to drive the story. Thrillers need good pacing, easy writing and attention-grabbing events. Emma can’t divorce herself from a character-driven story, but she also can’t experiment with the Thriller genre’s main elements. She tries to write a Harlan Coben novel with the style of Ian McEwan. It doesn’t work.


The novel tries really hard to get you inside it. A lot of things are being described, and you’ll always know what the sky’s like or how high the temprature is. Each place gets an epic poem. The story also happens in a big city, so Emma spends a lot of time trying to give us a tour there. It borders on romanticization, but Emma describes plenty of the city’s uglier side.


Emma doesn’t have McEwan’s skill, though. McEwan built long sentences that were easy to read even if they ended up as non-sequieters. The langauge was beautiful, and McEwan was more selective in his descriptions. It felt like he described everything, but he just described a lot. He still had focus. In the hospital scenes, he confined his descriptions to the sick, the wounded and the attempts at treating them. By focusing on this one thing, McEwan makes the reader feel like they’re really there.


Donogue lacks this focus. She just throws any imagery she can think of. Descriptions of how full of life and cool the city is sit next to descriptions of poverty, who sit next to descriptions of the weather. There is no order, or structure to these descriptions. These various categories don’t compliment each othe. They just come from the mindset that thinks you can immerse your readers in your environment by describing every detail that makes it.


There’s also the litany of useless paragraphs that do nothing to move the story. They only repeat past events and possible outcomes, but that’s not very helpful. This is a novel, not an RPG game. Showing me the various dialogue options is useless because I can’t choose. Check out this awful paragraph.


“McNamara’s nightshirt, folded on the bureau. Could Jenny have gone back to the city already? Did she leave first thing in the morning, or in the middle of the night, right after Blanche lost consciousness? Could Jenny not even look her in the eye today?”


What’s the point of writing all these questions? The reader has plenty of questions of his own without the author forcing more on him. How is writing these questions down helps the post, or develops the themes? This is not a first person story. It’s okay to ramble sometimes in a first person story, because it’s a look into the character’s thoughts. This is an omniscient author, and a very bad one.


The characters are also just as dull as any bad thriller. The character-driven story only makes it more apparent. The story is driven by Blanche’s decisions, which is great. She’s an awful character though, and so is the story. She doesn’t have any character of her own. None of her choices point to a personality. She’s pretty stubborn, and she loves her baby. It’s not much of a character to build a story upon. The whoe baby thing is especially sad. Donoghue has an eye for women’s issues. Blanche and Jenny take the center not as womem but as human beings, but they’re shallow human beings. Blanche only cares about her baby and Jenny is very cool.


Jenny is even a worse character to drive a story. She’s very cool. We learn how different she is. She wears pants. She has sex with women. She hunts frog. She’s far from a ‘lady’. There’s supposed to be a feminist message here, perhaps. It gets lost among the blows from Donoghue’s hammer. She keeps beating into the reader’s head how cool Jenny is. That’s not very different than beating you on the head with the sexiness of Scarlett Joahnson.


She succeeds a little better with the antagonists. They’re assholes, but reasonable ones. Arthur is an interesting character. Donoghue beats the mighty Atwood for once because she’s aware that the power of attractive people gets them drunk. Arthur’s story of a fallen sex icon is an engaging one, especially how hits the bottom. Ernest’s arc also offer some surprises. They’re not completely fleshed out, but as antagonists they’re not here so we could hate them. They’re here so we could see their mistakes and falls, to confront why their ideas are wrong. Maybe Donoghue was afraid writing a book about an asshole like Arthur, but the fall of every girls’ dream guy is more interesting than this pseudo-thriller thing.


There is barely anything good in this novel. The writing is among the worse maximalism has to offer. The only worthwhile characters are the antagonists. Any theme or meaning is buried underneath this trash. It’s hard to believe this is the same person who wrote Room. Maybe that book was awful too, and I was just inexperienced.


1 lesbian out of 5


AAAlso posted on my blog:


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review 2015-08-10 01:58
Frog Music
Frog Music - Emma Donoghue

Frog Music


Emma Donoghue, 2014


During the summer of 1876, San Francisco is experiencing a record-breaking heatwave, as well as an epidemic of smallpox. French burlesque dancer and high-class prostitute, Blanche Beunon is minding her own business when she is run into by a young woman - dressed like a man, in slacks and short hair - on a bicycle. Her chance encounter with Jenny Bonnet sets off a chain of events that ends in Jenny getting shot to death, the bullets just missing Blanche. Blanche thinks she knows who's responsible, but proving it is another matter.


Based on the true unsolved murder of Jenny Bonnet and on real people and events of the time.



I really liked the story that Donoghue chose to tell here. She states in her "Afterword" that this is a complete work of fiction - she's not trying to solve a murder, just tell a story. But I thought that her story of who killed Jenny was both well-told and plausible, based on the story Donoghue chose to tell. I also feel that whether or not this is the way that it actually happened is irrelevant. Donoghue took statements from public record - Jenny's murder, her tendency to wear men's clothing, the fact that Blanche was with Jenny when she died, and Blanche's statement blaming her former lover for the murder are all on public record from the inquest into Jennie's death. The rest, as Donoghue herself notes, is a work of fiction, based on those facts on on other facts about the characters that she was able to dig up (such as Blanche's dancing and her relationship with Arthur.)


This was an era that I hadn't heard much about previously, so it was one that I enjoyed reading about. Between the end of the Gold Rush and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake that leveled the city, San Francisco was booming and had a high immigrant population. Most of this story takes place in Chinatown, specifically, so we get a good impression about American's racial attitudes toward both the Chinese and the French (the nationality of the main characters). I also had heard about both the smallpox epidemic and how the heatwave played into how easily it spread, but it was interesting to read from the point of view of characters in a novel, rather than from a history text. In addition, Donoghue didn't shy away from the seedier aspects of the city at the time - not only did she tell the story from the point of view of a burlesque dancer, giving the reader a view of that world, but we were also given a glimpse of two cringe-worthy practices at the time: Institutions for "Troubled Youths" and establishments that were known as "baby farms". 


Obviously, this was not an easy book to read at times. In addition to the sometimes troubling subject matter, there were very few likable characters in the story. The main character, Blanche, was actually pretty loathsome a lot of the time. Even Jenny, who was probably - by far - the most likable character and she had a few moments that really made me kind of hate her. [Jenny was a hard character to read, though, intentionally - the character of Jenny that we read in flashbacks keeps a lot of secrets, and when those secrets come out after her death, they do a lot to change the reader's impression of her, for better or worse.] I've read quite a few books lately with unlikable characters - [Why is that? I need to stop this trend.] - and I have to say this was one of the better ones, because while the characters were unlikable, at least they were interesting. 


This book wasn't perfect. Some parts were hard to get through - sometimes because of tough content, but sometimes because they were just slow - and the characters were mostly horrible people. But it was a well-written book and told an interesting story during an interesting time period that I don't get a chance to read much about - especially not from this particular ethnic point of view; most West Coast immigrant stories I've read take a Chinese main character. An interesting story, but you have to be willing to read about the seedy underbelly of the time, which isn't for everyone. 



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review 2015-06-05 05:28
Frog Music
Frog Music - Emma Donoghue

I love Khristine Hvam. I listened to this on audio book and immediately recognized the voice but couldn't quite place it, then quickly made the connection to Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Khristine Hvam has such talent as a reader.


As for this book, it was good. The characters were interesting and the story was good, however I just didn't connect with this book as much as I'd hoped I would. I liked Blanche and Jenny, I liked the time period. I loved the way Blanche developed, but something just didn't quite work for me.

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