Frog Music by Emma Donoghue; Little, Brown, 416 pages ($27)
Like Emma Donoghue’s short-story collection “Astray” and her novel “Slammerkin,” “Frog Music” is a detailed slice of historical drama, this time set in the festering boomtown of San Francisco in 1876. Like her hair-raising best-seller “Room,” it incorporates the elements of a thriller; in fact, there’s enough of a puzzle here for it to qualify as a full-blooded mystery.
Best of all, there’s Donoghue’s intricate examination of women in impossible circumstances, bound to repugnant men for survival but never broken by them.
“Frog Music” is based on a true story, the unsolved murder of a cross-dressing frog catcher named Jeanne Bonnet, here called Jenny. Jenny is shot through the window of a boardinghouse, in the company of Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer and prostitute.
Donoghue takes this event and puts her formidable, eloquent mark on it. In her version, Blanche’s survival seems random chance. She has known Jenny for only a few weeks when she dies – and their friendship has hit a difficult spot. Still, Blanche grieves. She spends the next several days trying to track down Jenny’s killer, sure she was the intended victim. Her main suspects are her estranged lover Arthur and his sidekick Ernest, freeloaders and former acrobats who gamble away Blanche’s earnings. Furious at her refusal to work so she can care for her infant son, they spirit the child away, leaving a frantic Blanche to search for him, too.
Donoghue revisits an older and in some ways more horrifying version of the shed where a small boy grows up captive in “Room,” exposing the shocking practice of baby farming, in which unsavory individuals are paid to take in unwanted infants – and then treacherously neglect them. French slang and period songs flow through the novel lyrically, making the era as vital as the plot.
– Connie Ogle, Miami Herald
The Last Wild by Piers Torday; Viking, 322 pages $16.99 ages 8 to 12.
This first installment of a fantasy adventure series from a British author was published last year in the United Kingdom to critical acclaim. It’s a thrilling, smart, terrifying, sometimes humorous, wildly original tale set in a future world where animals have been wiped out by a red eye virus and humans eat vitamin-fortified slop produced by Factorium, the world’s biggest food company. Twelve-year-old Kester Jaynes (son of a scientist blamed for starting the red eye virus) has been unable to speak since his mother’s death and is locked up in the Spectrum Hall Academy for Challenging Children when one day a cockroach begins speaking to him, summoning him to save the Wild. Kester reluctantly heeds the call and so begins a thrilling journey, down a drain, through the sky (carried by pigeons) to a forest where Kester discovers that there are a few animals left and he is the only one who can save them. Torday has constructed a fully realized world complete with a map that every great fantasy adventure requires, interesting heroes, terrible villains and a cliffhanger ending that leaves the reader eager for the next installment. Among the ingenious touches: a river is a “fish road” in animalspeak. The novel’s power comes from the truths it conveys: the greed of men that threatens the planet.
– Jean Westmoore