Customer Reviews: Frog Music: A Novel
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This novel is set with engaging historical detail of San Francisco in 1876, It is based on a true murder mystery of that time, and its characters are intriguing occupants of an underworld that in fact existed. Jenny dressed as a man, and in that era cross dressing could result in prison. Her name will evoke dozes of hits online. Blanche worked as a dancer and entertained men on the side to support her "fancy man" Arthur. Their one year old son P'Tit had been farmed to be raised in the country.

What follows is a fascinating and horrifying account of real baby farms, homes in the business of tending infants and children for money and which were most often appaling in their conditions. The entire view of the underside of the glittering post gold boom San Francisco is evoked in detail that allows the reader entry into this closed world. The characters are multi-dimensional, and each is fascinating in her own right.

This book appears to be a large departure from her previous work. In fact, "Room" shares with this novel the world of women struggling against the strictures in which they find themselves. Donoghue also has a back list including "Slammerkin" another historical novel with women who must make a living in a world who sees their worth in strictly defined limits. Some graphic scenes are portrayed, but frankly I found the state of the baby farm to be more shocking than the sexual scenes. I found this book to be interesting, well written, and educational. References are provided at the end that include the genesis of the songs sung by the characters in question. I recommend this book.
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on April 1, 2014
I loved Emma Donoghue's previous best seller, Room. So when I first heard about Frog Music, I was so excited to read it. Unfortunately, I was completely disappointed.

Frog Music, which is set in 1870s San Francisco in the midst of an incredibly warm summer and a smallpox epidemic, takes up the story of a real historical figures. Jenny Bonnet, a fast-talking, pants-wearing frog hunter befriends Blanche Beunon, a French burlesque dancer and prostitute. One night, Beunon flees her Arthur, her pimp and boyfriend. Blanche follows Jenny outside of the city to plot her next move. Trouble is close behind, though, and through the window one night, Jenny is shot and killed. The story follows Blanche's quest to discover her friend's murderer.

I was taken quickly with the historical aspects (having just finished and loved Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life) and cursory descriptions of the book as a whole. I do have a better picture of 1876 San Francisco - the ravaging impact of smallpox, the racial tension with Chinese immigrants, and the Gold Rush sentimentality.

However, despite all of my excitement, even as I first sat down to read, I was unable to really get into the story. Part of the issue was, I didn't really like any of the characters. Also, the book started to get explicit. Blanche is a woman who loves sex and has quite a few rough encounters that are fairly hard-core.

I have trouble with plots in which very few characters are good or appealing (Breaking Bad, for instance, yes, I know, it's blasphemy to dislike that show, but I do). In part because Blanche is so inherently flawed and selfish, and given that the novel was rife with explicit sex scenes, my distaste started to add up early and quickly. Additionally, the plot kept moving back and forth in time, over the few weeks preceding and following the murder, which I found a bit frustrating and confusing. The book had extremely long chapters, only 8 in about 400 pages, which I generally dislike as well. Finally, the pace of the plot was fine, but the story itself just wasn't all that engaging.

All and all, I just didn't like it. The book took me about 2 weeks to read, mostly because I just didn't really care what happened next. So, my recommendation? Skip it.
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on April 10, 2014
I am a big fan of Emma Donoghue but I did not think "Frog Music" was up to her excellent standards. I think she set out to deal with some heavy issues in a popular format, the whodunit, but the result is an overstuffed melodrama.

On the positive side: The murder mystery that is central to the story is compelling and the solution to the murder is surprising and thought-provoking. The social underside of San Francisco in 1876 plays a big role and, through the story, Donoghue exposes the alarming levels of discrimination and brutality that existed in the so-called "good old days." I loved the character of Jenny Bonnet, the frog-catching cross-dresser who is the catalyst for the transformation of the protagonist. Jenny is a real character in the mold of that old bee charmer, Idgie Threadgoode. There are witty asides scattered throughout the book, some aimed at the Irish (Donoghue's tribe, so it's OK). An interesting Afterword presents facts about the real crime that is fictionalized in the book.

On the downside: There are too many cardboard characters - mostly one-dimensional villains just this side of Snideley Whiplash. The flashback and flash-forward structure promotes suspense but becomes cumbersome and a little confusing, even to this careful reader. The heroine, Blanche, was hard to relate to, partly because she is sexually wanton, mostly because she is shallow and a nit-wit about her own exploitation. Despite Donoghue's skill at depicting mother-child bonds, I had a hard time buying Blanche's newfound maternal devotion.

Some of the writing in "Frog Music" disappoints. I will never forget the startlingly original similes that brought Donoghue's Slammerkin to life. In "Frog Music," we get "wrung out like a rag," "sick as a dog" and "limp as old cabbage." This might be a stylistic use of Old West vernacular but, after almost 400 pages with dozens of these cliches, it became grating and perhaps indicative of lazy writing. I wanted to holler, "Whoa, Nellie!" As much as I admire Donoghue's social consciousness, I got fatigued by the piling on of issues like child abuse, the sex trade, economic exploitation, and racial, sexual and gender bias - these on top of disease, jealousy, revenge, murder! Some of the scenes were so over-the-top they made me roll my eyes or laugh, and I'm pretty sure that was not the author's intention. "Frog Music" would have been more effective both pared down and toned down.

Having admired Room: A Novel,Slammerkin,Hood: A Novel,Touchy Subjects and Astray by Donoghue, I will always give her the benefit of the doubt. I look forward to her next book.
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on August 31, 2014
is the biggest mess I have read - and stuck with reading through - because her Room was so compelling.

This reads like a confused compilation of every historical fact the author learned about historic San Francisco and romantic? pulp fiction. You've got it all folks - Chinese discrimination, dance hall girls & pimps, sexual exploitation of women, a trans-gender mystery, immigrants, farming out babies, reform school abuse, women who leave their babies and want them back, women who imagine their abusive partners love them/are sufficiently obsessed to kill them (?), even some architecture and old SF/Cali tourism.

It's a mess not even a hot mess--the narrator is the most wretched person and not in an anti-hero we-are-all-flawed-humans way. Just boring and contradictory. But don't worry! She is so fabulous (it so the author tells us) that even as a homeless, filthy, shoeless, beaten down wreck, she can still win over men right and left to take care of her, with or without sexual favors.

I kept hanging on to the idea that it would turn out that she was the killer - that would have at least been a fitting and mildly interesting twist.

Alas - there is a lot interesting in this story - I would like to read a good book about this era - but this is not one if them. At the end, you will find a ton if bonus material about the characters, the "facts" behind the fiction and a glossary of foreign/antiquated terms used - truly the only part of the book even worth skimming.

I rarely write negative book reviews. If I anticipate something wonderful due to limited prior experience with an author. In this case and with another recent poor review (Silver Star), I end the book feeling betrayed by the author and the publisher for putting out a rushed, poorly edited effort to make $$ off the author's deserved reputation from better efforts.
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on April 10, 2014
While I can't say that I found this book to be as instantly engrossing as Room, I was soon grabbed by the story, reading it whenever I had a chance. Donoghue takes us into the dirty underside of San Francisco in 1876 and shows us "baby farms" where children are warehoused for a fee, mindless racism against the Chinese, whorehouses and dance halls, and casual violence. The novel is a story based on an actual event, and Donoghue paints the story in detail that is sometimes almost shockingly graphic. I'm still puzzling Blanche's attitude toward sex, her willingness and need to be used and debased by the men who have sex with her - surely a topic of conversation when my reading group meets. I would have given the book five stars, but I found the ending not to be quite believable.

I love the title! The book is full of snippets of French songs sung by Blanche and Jenny. My dad, who served in Europe in WWII, used to refer to the French as "frogs."

(I received a preview copy of this novel from the publisher.)
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on April 22, 2014
Quick: can you tell me who Emperor Norton was?

Time’s up. Emperor Norton was just one of a long line of colorful characters who have helped give San Francisco its distinctive reputation as . . . well, more than a little wacky. He proclaimed himself “Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico” in 1859 and ruled his vast domain from the streets of San Francisco for two decades. In her own time, shortly before the Emperor had passed from the scene, a homeless woman, Jenny Bonnet, joined him in the pantheon of the city’s greatest creations. Bonnet was a favorite subject of sensational news coverage for wearing men’s clothing, collecting live frogs for sale in sacks to restaurants, riding (someone else’s) high-wheeled bicycle all over town, and getting herself into all manner of scrapes.

Emma Donoghue brings the incomparable Bonnet back to life in Frog Music, her fact-based novel set in 1876 in the City by the Bay. Bonnet’s story, as related in Frog Music, is a murder mystery told in the voice of Blanche Beunon, a French immigrant like Bonnet, a dancehall-girl celebrated for her bawdy performances and a highly sought-after prostitute. The two women meet one day as Beunon is crossing the street and Bonnet runs into her with her high-wheeler. Their lives quickly become entangled with each other in the weeks that follow the collision, with the eccentric Bonnet showing up without warning from time to time and pestering Beunon with perplexing and inconvenient questions that eventually upend her life.

The cast of characters, nearly all of them real people, includes Beunon’s “macs” — a good-for-nothing “fancy man” who lives on her earnings, and a younger man who fawns on him — and others in the French immigrant community in polyglot San Francisco. In the background are a notorious Prussian madam, a police detective, a cruel “doctress” who runs a dormitory for unwanted children, and an albino reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Except for the reporter, these are all historical figures.

But the greatest character of all is the city of San Francisco itself in all its chaotic energy less than three decades after the Gold Rush. As Bonnet and Beunon make their way across town and back, the local color of the famously free-wheeling town leaps from the page. The story is set during a (true-to-life) smallpox epidemic and a simultaneous heat wave so uncharacteristic of that foggy seaside city. (Mark Twain: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”) The extreme temperatures, and the fear set off by the epidemic, force tempers to a boil, triggering a racist anti-Chinese riot as well as many violent private tragedies — and the murder that is the centerpiece of this fascinating story.

Frog Music tells a lively tale of suspense. It’s peopled with unforgettable characters, all the more vivid for having actually lived. Emma Donoghue does San Francisco proud.
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on April 1, 2014
Frog-catcher Jenny Bonnet, an unorthodox young woman often jailed for wearing men's clothing, is shot dead one evening, the bullet narrowly missing her friend Blanche Beunon, a former circus horseback rider turned exotic dancer. In her new novel Frog Music, Emma Donoghue takes this actual unsolved murder from the intense heat wave and smallpox epidemic of 1876 San Francisco and creates a powerful look into the lives of the city's outcasts.

There's so much inside this story that gives a clear picture of societal attitudes and norms of the time, including matters tucked away out of sight, out of mind. The latter being, without giving anything away, one of the most appalling and heart-wrenching things I've read about in a long time.

Frog Music is altogether exciting, suspenseful, tragic, unsavory, and scandalous. Its characters are gritty and flawed in all the best ways. Donoghue writes in a naturally beautiful style, interspersing smatterings of French throughout (there's a glossary in the back of the book), but the pace is quick, which kept me turning page after page.

There is so much more I want to say, but I'm holding back because those things caught me by surprise as I was reading. Let's just say, I think this book would give reading groups a wealth of topics to discuss.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.
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on April 10, 2014
Frog Music is a very enjoyable literary mystery. Donoghue does an excellent job of painting a detailed portrait of 19th century San Francisco. As a medical person, I found her descriptions of smallpox top notch. You really feel like you are living through a heat wave (which would be welcome right now to this mid-westerner!). She clearly did her research, which likely led to the one negative of this book for me - just a bit too many danged songs. After a while I found myself skimming the pages every time another song broke out. These weren't Pynchonesque period parodies, rather actual songs from the time.

Another word of warning/inticement to read (depending on your prudishness) - this book has quite a bit of sex in it. And it's not Harlequin Romance-quality sex either. It's dirty! Bonus for me, but may not be for some.
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on April 7, 2014
I don't often write reviews, but I had to contribute to this book's ratings. I don't think the book description is the best. Personally, i found the book to be more about the transformations of an immature self absorbed prostitute set around a historical unsolved murder. In fact, it got so off topic I was surprised when the author did "solve" the murder. But that was the part of the book I enjoyed most...Blanche's character development.
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on September 15, 2014
Not only have I stopped reading this but I trudged through 91% of the book before finally losing the will. I very rarely leave a book and certainly not so close to the finish line.

This is a well researched and occasionally well written book. Everything about it should make it a winner because the setting, the true (ish) story and the way the writer is able to convey life in 1800's San Fransisco is impressive.

However what unfolds is a slow laborious and repetetive story of Blanche and her ensemble cast. The characters are one dimensional with only a base layer of depth, the only one character of note (Jenny) became a cartoon depiction when some real exploaration could have been done.

I gave up mostly because the plot winds backwards and forwards at a snails pace and the inner voice of Blanche is just unbelievably thick. I can tollerate difficult characters but I could not link how someone so successful and manipulative could be so unbelievably stupid when the plot called for it. I ended up not caring what happened and could not bring my self to trudge on.

This is a bad score and bad review. Trust me there are worse books out there but not many have the ability through plot and writer to be so good and fail so badly.
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