All The Books I Can Read

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Review: Tracking North – Kerry McGinnis With Author Q&A

on March 28, 2014

Tracking NorthTracking North
Kerry McGinnis
Penguin Books AUS
2014, 346p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Kelly Roberts lives with her husband on a huge spread in the remote cattle country in northern Australia. This has been her life since she left home at eighteen and boarded a bus. She worked as a ringer/jillaroo and there she met Bob, a skilled horseman who knew his place in the world and how to do his job. Together they had two children, raising them on properties. When tragedy strikes, Kelly takes her two children to her father-in-law’s property. Bob was long estranged from his father but both Kelly and her father-in-law Quinn believe that they can start over again and heal the rift.

At the property Evergreen Springs, Quinn has been slowly turning it into a camping ground for tourists and Kelly, as part owner of the property, isn’t sure that they should be splashing so much money around without having much of an idea about the return. She has the children to think of – both of them have been schooled by the School of the Air but her eldest Rob will soon either need to go to boarding school or board in town with a local and attend the high school. Kelly doesn’t want to leave Evergreen Springs but the reality is, she may need to move to town and get a job so that she can afford to send the children to school. Quinn convinces her to give six months on the property a go and see if she can sees them making a proper go of it. The tourists are coming – their land has a creek, a perfect camping ground and Quinn makes sure that there’s always plenty to do and lots of fresh fruit and vegetables to sell them. In his mind it’s the perfect business, they just need to nurture it and watch it grow.

Then Rob makes a sinister discovery in the bush and Kelly realises that danger lurks not too far away from the peaceful property they have made their home.

Tracking North is the first book I’ve read from Kerry McGinnis and it’s set in the Gulf Country, the north-west region of Queensland that is wedged between the Cape of York and Arnhem Land and fronts onto the Gulf of Carpentaria. The setting is beautiful. So much time is devoted to describing the properties, the isolation, the types of buildings the characters live in and the improvements they use. They live without grid electricity, using wood stoves for cooking and heating until Quinn rigs up a generator to light the buildings. In the Wet season they can be cut off from town for weeks if the roads flood or just the sheer amount of rain makes them impossible to navigate without being bogged. The children have a lovely freedom that’s somewhat reminiscent of the Mary Grant Bruce Billabong series that I loved so much as a kid – riding their ponies, helping out with chores, doing some lessons and growing vegetables etc until they head either to boarding school or into town at 12/13 years old to go to high school.

The story is so enjoyable, I found myself sinking into it with absolutely nothing distracting me. Kelly is having to ‘start over’ after a tragic loss. She’s had to uproot her children and change their lives and they’ve lost someone who was most important to them. Her son is growing into a man, fighting against her restrictions and she longs to hold him closer for just a little longer, keep him her baby. But he’s been raised in the bush to be independent, to be capable and strong and she knows that she needs to let him have his freedom, keep growing up and developing and learning things. They are all capable really – Kelly is used to isolated life having lived it with Bob for well over a decade. She can cook, keep a garden and is not afraid of hard work. She can read the weather and knows what the patterns mean.

I’m not cut out for that sort of life (am far too precious to give up my indoor plumbing, laptop, cable TV etc) but I love reading about it. McGinnis paints a lovely sense of community as well, detailing the local events and the way they welcome each other’s children into their homes, often for weeks at a time (or to board semi-permanently). She also capitalises on the remoteness of the Gulf to work in a story of a mystery aircraft and what it might possibly be up to. There’s also the small possibility of a new future for Kelly as well and all of these strands work together quite effortlessly, woven into one cohesive and enjoyable story. I loved the character of Quinn – a tough old bushman, no education to speak of but possessed of a very different sort of knowledge and skilled in all sorts of bush and rural trades plus he turned out to be much wilier than anyone, especially Kelly assumed. Quinn definitely added a certain spark to the story and it was fantastic watching his relationships with the children grow as they got to know each other.

Tracking North is a wonderful story and Kerry McGinnis has obviously used her extensive knowledge of the area and also remote cattle property living to craft it. I am definitely adding her other books to my TBR list.


Book #65 of 2014


Tracking North is book #25 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

Kerry McGinnis

[photo credit]

Thanks to the lovely people at Penguin Books AUS, I was offered the chance to ask Kerry McGinnis a few questions on writing and life in the north.

Q1. Hi Kerry and welcome to my blog. Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for me. Firstly how did you get started writing and what was the road to publication like for you? 

I have been writing  since I was 9. I  started with  the old Women’s Own mag, circa  1954.  It  had a double  page  spread  called The Picaninnies’  Page (very politically incorrect, but hey! it was back in  the Dark Ages.) I used to write little stories, and produce anagrams for it. One year I earned 10 shillings ($1) but they only paid about a shilling (10 cents) or 1/6 pence (15 cents) a piece, so 10 shillings was quite a lot of work. I started freelancing in the 60’s –bush/stock stories, then went on to city papers like the Sydney Morning Herald and The Bulletin. I wrote a monthly column for Blue’s Country (T’ville) for some years, and won a handful of short story competitions then was published in Meanjin. That was just before my first book came out: the autobiography Pieces of Blue. That was the year 2000 so you can see it wasn’t by any means instant success.

Q2. Share a little about your writing routine: do you write  full time or balance it with other work? Do you have a favourite place to write (such as a study or café) and is there anything you consider essential to the creative process, such as music or coffee?

Nowadays  I  write  something  most  days.  That  wasn’t  always  possible  in  my previous life but I’m now retired so my time is my own. I write on a computer. I started with  scrap paper and a pencil but we all have  to move with  the  times. I write at my desk at home and like to do at least a thousand words a day. I do best on my  own without  distractions and wouldn’t  have  coffee in the same  room as my computer.

Q3. Are you a plotter or a pantser?

A  bit  of  both. I  start  with a  general  outline  and then things  happen  as  my characters  develop. The  background  mostly decides  the  plot (what  is  possible within the constraints of the country and the weather pattern).  The subconscious is also a great help. I often go to sleep at night wondering, what next? And wake up with  the  so  obvious  answer  that  hadn’t occurred  to me before. The  country itself seems to work on the characters so that they evolve into what’s needed to handle their settings.

Q4.  I’ve  never  been  further  west  than  Dubbo  or  further  north  than Maroochydoore  and  I  thought  your  setting  was  beautiful!  What  can  you share about spending time in the Gulf Country?

You have to love it or you wouldn’t be there. It is a hard land, nothing is easy and  it takes self‐reliant people  to  live  there  year round.  Summer’s  are awful – very hot, very humid, far too many insect pests, and a good Wet Season isolates the station properties for up  to 3  months.  That’s a long time without  mail or visitors. Also the so‐called Computer Super Highway is more like a goat track. The tyranny  of distance  is  still  a  problem,  and  freight  is  terribly  expensive.  But  the country is beautiful ‐ vast, rugged and slightly dangerous (saltwater crocs); great fishing, great birdlife, great people.

Q5.  I  adored  the  character  of  Quinn  –  I  found  him  almost  like  a  little  fairy godfather, skilled in so many ways and determined  to make amends. Where did the inspiration for him come from?

He’s a compilation of many old bushmen I’ve met ‐ miners, station hands and boundary riders. All were as capable as Quinn, able to turn their hand to anything. Build  a  fence,  a  yard,  a  dwelling – tie  knots,  grow  things,  butcher  animals, fix engines,  bake bread. These were the necessary skills of their existence, only remarkable if a man didn’t have them.

Q6. If you won an all‐expenses paid holiday, where in the world would you go?

Maybe to Ireland to have a look at where my family originated. They came out as convicts in  the Second Fleet, all 6 of  them, starving Irish  thieves according  to the records. And France – Paris; then a tour of the beautiful gardens dotted across the country.

Q7. What do you like to do to relax away from the keyboard?

I read a lot, do crosswords. I garden, take daily walks and bird watch, go to the gym.

Q8. Share five of your favourite books and/or authors.

Robin  Hobb,  Reginald  Hill,  Harlen  Coban,  Dorothy  Dunnett,  William Shakespeare are all current  favourites. They all use language superbly, conjuring stories like master magicians. I like Hobb’s imagination, Hill’s knowledge of words, Coben’s immediacy and mastery of pace, Dunnett’s ability to handle hundreds of characters, and I just love Shakespeare’s tragedies and Sonnetts.

Q9. And lastly….what’s next for you?

Another bush  book.  I’m  working  on  it  now.  And  someday  I’d  really  like  to publish a fantasy novel.


Thanks so much for your time Kerry – I’m looking forward to your next rural novel.

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