Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Emma Donoghue’

Akin by Emma Donoghue

I’ve read a few books by Emma Donoghue and have enjoyed all of them, including Akin, Donoghue’s most recently published book.

The story starts with 79-year old Noah Selvaggio, a retired widower living in New York as he plans a trip to Nice in the South of France. Noah had lived in Nice with his mother as a small child and was very much looking forward to revisiting his former home when he received a request from Children’s Services to take on the care of his eleven-year old great-nephew Michael.

Noah already knew that Michael’s father had died and that his mother was in prison on drugs charges, but had assumed that Michael was being cared for by his grandmother, which had in fact been the case until her recent death. Although Noah was scheduled to leave for Nice in just a few days he was railroaded by Child Services into taking Michael temporarily to prevent him from being sent to foster care.

Noah found himself in the company of a child who didn’t want to be with him either, but he pressed on with his trip and after hurriedly arranging a passport for Michael, they travelled together to Nice.

Noah’s main reason for the visit was to investigate the meaning behind a mysterious set of photos that had been found amongst his mother’s belongings. The photos seemingly pointed to her having collaborated with the Nazis during their occupation of Nice in World War Two. Prior to the war Noah’s grandfather had been a famous photographer and Noah’s mother had been his assistant but mysteriously to Noah and his family, during the war she had insisted on staying in Nice with her father, despite Noah, his sister and their father having gone to America.

During their stay in Nice Michael constantly challenged Noah, sometimes irrationally and at other times with the intention of being deliberately perverse, but despite being difficult Michael’s intelligence shone through. He swore constantly, wasn’t particularly interested in anything that Noah had to say and ran rings around Noah in their negotiations over his behaviour, bedtime and how much junk food and fizzy drink he should have, but as the pair spent more time together Noah realised how much Michael actually needed him. I will say that in real life I wouldn’t have had as much patience with Michael as Noah did, but as Michael had been the victim of very difficult circumstances and knew his future was just as uncertain, his behaviour was certainly understandable.

I did think that Michael was probably far more clever than most children his age but I gave the author the benefit of the doubt on this point as Noah was himself a chemist and intelligence seemed to be a family trait.

Noah often heard the voice of his dead wife Joan offering him support and advice as he cared for Michael, just as she would have if she had still been alive. I liked this trait and felt comforted by it, and freely admit to occasionally hearing the voices of loved ones in my own head.

I enjoyed the theme of photography that ran through the story, from the selfies Michael constant took on his phone to the descriptions of the groundbreaking art of Noah’s grandfather’s work. I also enjoyed my armchair visit to Nice and learning a little about the area’s history. The story also showed how the 2016 terrorism attacks had changed the place and I felt gutted to learn of another attack just a few days after I finished reading Akin.

For the first time in ages, I felt totally immersed in my reading. Emma Donoghue fans will love Akin.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue


Hmmm. I’m not sure about Emma Donoghue’s stories. I was unable to put down Room, but found Frog Music to be irritating, and I didn’t finish Life Mask as I got bored with the story. The Wonder was intriguing, but there is always a streak of nastiness in this author’s stories.

‘The Wonder’ is an 11-year old Irish girl named Anna, who has supposedly not eaten for months, and is instead said to be sustained by ‘manna from heaven’. Lib, a nurse who trained under Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, along with a nun, have been engaged by a local Catholic committee to provide a constant watch on Anna, to determine the truth about her eating habits. Anna’s family and many of the locals are deeply religious and they, along with visitors who make a pilgrimage to Anna’s home, believe she is a saint in the making.

Lib is not religious, believing in science instead. She suspects Anna is being fed secretly by someone but is unable to work out who by, and how they are managing this. Lib comes to care for Anna and suspects that the girl is being manipulated by others either for financial gain or to ‘create’ a saint, and she becomes increasingly afraid that Anna will starve to death during the watch.

The story is well written and I could not have stopped reading without finding out how the story ended, but the nastiness that is always somewhere in an Emma Donoghue story has coloured my enjoyment of the book. I liked the characters of Lib, Anna and a journalist who sniffs around looking for the true story, but I found the religious zeal of the remaining characters to be so over the top that I could not like them. The local doctor was a particularly poor example of a person, as were other characters who should have protected Anna.

I admit to liking books which leave me feeling happy and uplifted more than those that portray misery, but will no doubt continue reading Emma Donoghue’s stories, which admittedly leave me with slivers of hope that no matter what, things might turn out to be okay.

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue


Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue was an interesting story, although as I read I continually wondered why the author was allowing her characters to complicate their lives so badly. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I realised the book was based on a true story. Emma Donoghue was obviously hamstrung by the facts.

I read Room a while ago and loved it. Frog Music was good, but for me, never reached the same levels. I think I stayed up all night reading Room until I finished the book, but read Frog Music over a week.

Frog Music is set in San Francisco in 1876 and tells the story of Blanche, a French exotic dancer and prostitute, who befriends (or is befriended by) Jenny, a pants-wearing frog-catcher. (Before you ask, Jenny sells the frogs to restaurants. Yes, to be cooked for people to eat. No, I haven’t eaten frogs, but I hear they taste like chicken. Enough about the frogs already). Jenny croaked, (sorry, I couldn’t help myself), after being shot by an unknown person early on in the story while hiding out with Blanche.

Blanche’s lover, Arthur, is also the father of their child, P’tit, who has been in care since he was a few weeks old. Arthur is nasty, and has an equally horrible friend, Ernest, who idolises Arthur and barely tolerates Blanche, although her ‘leg dances’ and prostitution bankroll all of them. I consulted Google to see what a ‘leg dance’ is, and still am not sure, but think a leg dance must be something like a can-can. The description of another dance performed by Blanche, reminded me of Lola Montez’s Tarantula, where the dancer strips, supposedly unaware of her audience as she tries to get a spider out of her clothes.

Blanche’s dancing and prostitution meant she was successful enough to have owned the six story Chinatown building she and Arthur lived in when Jenny ran Blanche while riding her bicycle, a Penny-Farthing. Somehow Blanche and Jenny, who has been in and out of jail for cross-dressing and is far and away the most interesting character, become friends. Jenny’s nosy questions caused Blanche to rethink some aspects of her life. In particular, Blanche seeks out the now one-year old P’tit and finds him living in squalor. She brings P’tit home, which throws all of their lives into a different kind of chaos.

The story, which goes back and forward constantly in time, becomes even more complicated at this point. By now I was feeling annoyed with Blanche for not booting Arthur and Ernest out of her home and hiring someone to look after P’tit while she got on with earning money. Even at the very worst times, Blanche had options which she did not take. Sigh.

Arthur caught smallpox and Ernest faithfully nursed him, while Blanche did her best to care for P’tit, all the while avoiding Arthur for fear of catching smallpox herself. Arthur survived, but fought with Blanche once he recovered, causing her to flee in fear of her life, leaving P’tit behind with Arthur and Ernest. Arthur sold Blanche’s apartment building out from under her, Jenny was killed by an unknown person, and Blanche suspected she was the intended victim. Meanwhile, Arthur and P’tit disappeared.

Frog Music started really well but the story quickly became far too complicated. I would have preferred to read more of Jenny than Blanche, and for Blanche to have made better choices. The sex was constant and unappealing. I get that Blanche was a prostitute and exotic dancer, but it was still hard to understand Blanche’s attraction to Arthur. Based on how good Room was, I would read another book by this author, but I wouldn’t recommend Frog Music unless you are very, very interested in the history of this particular unsolved crime, or of San Francisco during the gold-rush.



Life Mask by Emma Donoghue


I read Room by Emma Donoghue recently and loved it, so was keen to read other books by the same author. I’ve had Life Mask for a while and had deferred reading it to enjoy the anticipation a bit longer, but as things turned out, if I read Life Mask first, I probably wouldn’t have picked up Room. The politics of the time, which the author goes into in depth, bored me silly.

The main thing to bear in mind while reading Life Mask is that all of the characters were real people and that the story is based on real events. Eliza Farren, one of the main characters, was a Drury Lane actress who was known as The Queen of Comedy. Eliza kept Lord Derby (of the horse race) dangling after her for a great many years. Lord Derby wasn’t free to marry Eliza, and she wasn’t prepared to become his mistress.

The other main character was Anne Damer, a renowned sculptor. Anne’s friendship with Eliza and the eventual breakdown of their friendship is one of the major themes of Life Mask. Anne is a lesbian, or Sapphist, as lesbians were called at this time, although Anne doesn’t seem to realise that she is attracted to women romantically until much later in the story. During the glory days of their friendship Anne created a marble bust of Eliza which was shown at the Royal Academy. (Google the statue, it is absolutely beautiful, and so was Eliza. You can also find a portrait of Eliza by Sir Thomas Lawrence on the internet).

Eliza broke off her friendship with Anne because associating with a sapphist would have been damaging to her career, and would also have lost her standing with Lord Derby. Reading Life Mask, I had the feeling that if Eliza’s ambition not been so important to her, she and Anne would eventually have became involved romantically.

Anne eventually finds love with Mary Berry, who was also a creative woman. Anne is portrayed throughout Life Mask as being a good person, hard working and talented.

Lord Derby is the other main character and his friendships and political relationships form the backdrop of the story. The novel is set during the French Revolution, while in England the Whig Party are trying to remove Prime Minister Pitt and the mad king from power. Lord Derby and other political movers and shakers admit the right of all Englishmen to express themselves freely, however they rely on the English character to stop before someone gets hurt, unlike the French, who are gaining their freedom in a bloodthirsty manner.

I have to admit that by the time I reached the middle of Life Mask, I was skimming over the politics as I didn’t find this aspect of the story interesting. For me, the women’s personal stories were the only reason I read (or skimmed) the book to the end.

To sum up Life Mask, Eliza got her man (and his title), Anne got her woman and Lord Derby eventually won his horse race.  


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