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Book Review: The Dry by Jane Harper

The Dry, by Jane Harper is fast-paced, suspenseful and utterly engaging. Federal police officer Aaron Falk returns to his home-town in rural Australia to attend the funeral of his childhood friend, Luke Hadler, who’s been accused of murdering his wife and child and then turning the gun on himself. Unable to accept that their son committed this terrible crime, Hadler’s parents convince Falk to help the local police with the investigation.

There is, of course, more to the case than is first apparent. The town of Kiewarra is steeped in hidden secrets, including the one that drove sixteen-year-old Falk and his father out of town twenty years previously, never to return. The townsfolk make it clear that Falk is unwelcome, and the more he delves into the events surrounding the Hadlers’ deaths, the more violently they express their displeasure.

Harper’s writing takes the reader effortlessly through Falk’s story. Her depiction of a rural Australian town caught in the midst of a drought is evocative. You can feel the heat, hear the flies buzzing, taste the dryness in the air. The tension simmers from the first page, and builds to a crescendo at a pace that keeps them turning. The characters are convincing and likeable. What more could you want from a good crime novel? I will definitely be looking for future works from this author. Highly recommended.


Book Review: About Grace by Anthony Doerr

About Grace, by Anthony Doerr, is the story of David Winkler, a scientist and a man with an unusual gift; prophetic dreams. The story starts out as Winkler (as he is consistently referred to in the book) flies to Alaska to determine the fate of his daughter, Grace. Twenty-five years earlier, having dreamt that Grace died in a flood while his was trying to rescue her, he abandoned his wife and infant daughter, fleeing to a remote Caribbean Island in an attempt to prevent the dream from coming true. What ensues is the story of his life as he seeks to come to terms with his actions, never quite certain whether they saved his daughter’s life or not.

Doerr’s prose is languid and evocative. The pace is leisurely and contemplative and the detail almost overwhelming at times. There are beautiful descriptions and explanations of snowflakes, shells, stars and insect habitation, as well as the settings of Alaska, Ohio and the Caribbean that place the reader firmly in Winkler’s world. However I did not find David Winkler to be a likeable character. His angst and indecision throughout the book, his unwillingness to help himself, combined with his social ineptness and his unerring ability to do the wrong thing was frustrating, and I did not feel myself empathetic towards him. While the story comes around in an arc to a satisfying conclusion, I was left feeling that Winkler’s was a life wasted, not by circumstance, although that was the inciting incident, but by his own character.

Book Review: Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

I loved Jasper Jones. The characters were engaging, the prose lyrical yet easy to read, the setting solid and real. The story starts out with 13 year-old Charlie Bucktin reading late into the night, unable to sleep due to the oppressive heat of an Australian summer. Along comes Jasper Jones knocking on his window, urging him to come out. He desperately needs his help. Jasper is the outcast of the small mining town of Corrigan, mixed-raced and solitary, he is the first to be blamed when anything goes wrong. And yet Charlie finds him compelling and cannot resist the impulse to sneak out of the house and follow Jasper deep into the bush where he witnesses something that changes his life irrevocably.

Silvey has a unique voice, the ability to draw out tension and bring it to a feverish conclusion, all the while masterfully weaving in the subplots of this coming-of-age story. There is young love, racism, families falling apart and unspeakable secrets. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

Room, by Emma Donoghue, is unusual, moving, and somewhat haunting. Told from the perspective of Jack, a 5 year-old boy, whose world is comprised of a single room, the soundproofed, reinforced garden shed in which his mother has been held captive since the age of 19. Having been told that Room, as he calls it, is the entirety of the real world, that he and his mother and ‘Old Nick’ are the only real humans, and that everything outside of Room is outer space, when circumstances force his mother to tell him the truth about the world, he greets it with anger and disbelief. Gradually, however, he comes to accept this unlikely truth, as he sees it, and agrees to a plan to help the both of them escape.

When I heard about this book, I immediately wanted to read it. And I wanted to like it. I expected to love it. I must say, however, that I found it hard to get into and almost gave up on it.

Jack’s voice, as a 5 year-old, was not convincing to me. Donoghue did a great job of keeping Jack’s perspective, of viewing things from the eyes of a boy who knew nothing of the world, who had never had to walk on an uneven surface, who had never worn shoes, who had never seen a dog or a tree, had never spoken to anyone other than his mother, who had never felt rain on his face or sunlight on his skin. However I found the language Jack used hard to read. A real mix of immature and unusual grammar, use of proper nouns for common items, personal pronouns for inanimate objects and misuse of verbs like ‘switch off’ for going to sleep and ‘waking up’ for lamps being turned on. Jack knows what sarcasm is, uses words like hideous and hilarious, can read Alice in Wonderland and knows that twice ten makes twenty. The language didn’t seem to fit, and I struggled with it at first.

I did read on, though, and I’m glad I did. As Jack and Ma escape into the real world, Jack experiences everything for the first time, and his wonder and fear and longing for the safety of ‘Room’, his mother’s prison, is endearing and heartbreaking. We journey with Jack as he learns to navigate the world, from windows and stairs and travelators to paying for items in a store, conversations with adults and his first interaction with another child. Jack’s view of the world is unique and insightful, his emotions raw and his imagination unending. The book left an impression that stayed with me for a long time. 3 ½ stars.

Book Review: The Shifting Fog by Kate Morton

Kate Morton’s The Shifting Fog, also published as The House at Riverton, is the story of two sisters, Hannah and Emmeline, and the secret they share. The story is told from the point of view of their housemaid, Grace, now 98 years old, whose memories are sparked by a film director intent on making a film about the manor house at Riverton and the events that led to the tragic death of a young poet in the summer of 1924.

Morton masterfully captures the essence of the Edwardian age, evoking images of the glitter and extravagances of the upper class, as well as the drudgery of the working and living conditions of those ‘in service’, and effectively conveys the attitudes and mindset of the various characters.

Grace is a likeable character, especially in her 98-year-old self. There are times, however, when it seems that she is lurking in the background for the sole purpose of seeing and telling the story of Hannah and Emmeline. Her fascination for the two sisters, and their brother David, seems to start as an only child’s yearning for the company of others her age, and a fascination for the types of games they play that were never a part of her lower-class upbringing. However it soon becomes an obsession that continues into adulthood as a fixation on and loyalty to Hannah that is somewhat unbelievable in the sacrifices she makes.

The mystery is alluded to throughout the book, but does not really start to unravel until the second half of the book. At that point the pace picks up, accelerating to what seems a preordained climax, fated in the way of classic tragedies by misunderstandings, misguided loyalty, untold secrets and an inability to halt the inevitable.

Overall an enjoyable read for those who love historical mystery, romance and the unshakable tragedy of secret love triangles.

The Many Hats of a Writer

In the world of writing, there are a select few who, for whatever reason, are able to dedicate their days (and perhaps their nights as well) to writing. They wake in the morning knowing that all they have to focus on is the first draft they started last week, a final polish on a manuscript, or the rewrites their editor has requested for their next book.

But for most of us, at least most of the writers I know, we wear many hats. We are mums and dads and partners and teachers, accountants and lawyers, business owners, journalists, librarians, nurses, shop attendants, pilots…The list could go on forever. For most of us, writing doesn’t pay the rent, at least not yet, and while we wait for that elusive blockbuster to enter our minds and flow effortlessly into the computer, we have to keep our day jobs.

For me, my many hats include wife, mother, speech pathologist (in both a private and public capacity) and writer. This means that my days consist of a constantly shifting mind-set. I find myself driving my children to school while thinking of the kids I’ll be working with later in the day, and in the back of my mind, also muddling out who this secondary character is who popped into my latest story. It means taking my laptop to piano lessons and editing a manuscript to the sound of a broken rendition of Fur Elise. It means jotting down story ideas in the car while I’m waiting for my kids to get out of school, and taking a hard copy of a story to a speech pathology conference to re-read in a break between sessions.

At times, working like this can be very disruptive. I may find that I read a sentence or a paragraph over several times without noticing the misuse of the word their, or the missing full stop at the end of a sentence. I may make changes to a manuscript that I later look at and say to myself “What was I thinking?” and change it back to the original. But at other times it can be inspirational. Ideas emerge from observing real life and mixing it with a healthy dose of imagination, and real life is going on where ever I am. I see what kids are doing, I hear what they are saying and how they are acting. And there’s always the question…What if?

Perhaps one day I will happen upon THE story. The one that everyone loves and everyone wants to read, and I will make the move to writing full-time. But in the meantime, I live in my constantly changing hats, and love it.

Welcome to my blog.


Welcome to the blog of Sonya Spreen Bates, dedicated to news, reviews and general musings. I am a Canadian writer living in South Australia. I write for children and adults and my work has been published in Australia, Canada, the USA and New Zealand. If you are looking for my website, click here. It has a new home.

Most of my published works to date are for children and young adssbates-author-photo-2014ults, with the most recent being two hi/lo young adult novels in the Orca Sports series published by Orca Book Publishers in Canada.

Off the Rim (Orca Book Publishers, 2015) was nominated as a YALSA Quick Picks in Canada in 2016.

Topspin (Orca Book Publishers, 2013) was listed on the Canadian Children’s Book Centre “Best Books for Kids and Teens” 2014.

Both titles were selected for the Junior Library Guild in the USA. For more information on me and my books, take a look at my website.


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