Book Reviews


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. San Francisco is hot and riddled with smallpox. At least that was the case in the summer of 1876, and that's the setting of Emma Donoghue's new novel. It's called "Frog Music." Here's our reviewer, Alan Cheuse.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: Don't let the odd title put you off. There's real frog music in these pages, the riveting cries of the creatures caught and sold to San Francisco restaurants by Jenny Bonnet, one of the two main characters. Jenny's a pistol-packing, Northern California woman in her late 20s and she wears pants around town and act quite against the law in San Francisco.

In the opening chapters, she comes rolling along a busy street on a stolen bicycle and knocks down French dancer famous for her leg dance on local stages, Blanche Beunon, not yet in her mid-20s, and the young mother of an undernourished infant. Blanche supplies another variety of frog music, the charming songs she sings while putting on erotic shows.

She's cobbled together her earnings from the dance hall and occasional prostitution to buy a small building in Chinatown. There she supports her former circus aerialist consort and his acrobat pal. Before the first chapter ends, Jenny's dead from buckshot wounds. Blanche is stricken and the time of the rest of the novel dances back and forth between the few days before the murder and the days after.

This sets a merry pace and emerging from it is a portrait quite compelling of two strong late 19th century women and the city they live in - raucous, violent, charming, filthy, plague-ridden San Francisco and a portrait of their brief and intense affair. Though Donoghue poses the book as a mystery, who killed Jenny Bonnet, it's as much a celebration of love despite hardships galore, and the rising call of motherhood against near impossible odds, a jaunty historical novel about crime and love and, I should add, with the soundtrack on the page of vintage dance hall songs, some of which are the raunchiest you'll ever hear.

Cock your head. Listen. Ah. Frog music.

CORNISH: That's the title of the new book by Emma Donoghue. It was reviewed for us by Alan Cheuse. His most recent book is called "An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring and Other Stories."

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