All The Books I Can Read

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Review: Reach For The Dream – Anne McCullagh Rennie

Reach For The DreamReach For The Dream
Anne McCullagh Rennie
Penguin Books Aus
2014, 448p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Alice is only 8 when her life changes forever. A bushfire takes not only her family home but also part of her family and not long after Alice and her 5yo brother Ben are sent to live with their father’s sister, their Aunt Bea in the small farming town of Billabrin. Although lonely and missing her parents and her old life, Alice falls in love with rural life. She cares for her aunt and uncle’s goats and dreams of one day owning her own property and breeding the best wool sheep in the country.

As she grows up, Alice faces setback after setback, tragedy reappearing in her life until finally she leaves her dream behind and flees overseas to England for a new life. Betrayed by her resentful cousin and the man she loved, Alice seeks a new life working as an assistant in a laboratory, far away from her bush and the outback. But she never forgets her dream of owning her own property and acquiring the best sheep, building a wool dynasty.

When once again Alice finds herself knocked down she decides to return home to the bush and put her dream in place. It’s going to take a lot of hard work – the area is in a drought and although this has brought prices of land and stock down, it’s driven up the price of feed. Alice faces discrimination because she’s a woman and a single one at that and hardship as she seeks to build from the ground up. And of course she is returning to the area that houses her first love, the man she’s never been able to forget, even overseas in London. But it’s going to take something of a miracle for the two of them to finally be able to find the happiness together they have long desired.

Reach For The Dream is a sprawling rural story focusing on Alice who is 8 at the beginning of the book. Her bush smarts and paying attention to her mother’s drills saves her and her younger brother’s lives when a bushfire rips through their property and destroys almost everything in its path. Unable to cope in the aftermath, Alice’s father takes her and her brother to his sister and leaves them there, even though they already have four of their six children living with them in their small 2 bedroom house. There Alice finds solace and comfort in her Aunty Bea and comes to love the land and the animals on it however she is always dealing with the jealous underhandedness of her cousin Katie, who resents the arrival of Alice and the theft of her parent’s affections.

This is the sort of book where anything that can happen to the main character, will. Alice suffers with deaths, bullying, loss, grief and betrayal, makes a fresh new start only for the cycle to repeat several times throughout the book. However each time she manages to pick herself up and dust herself off and begin again with a kind of grim determination. No matter what is thrown her way, Alice is unwavering in her goals, be they her own property in Australia or a work/life balance in London. It’s just unfortunate that things keep happening to her although it must be said that some of them are of her own doing or more accurately, her inaction. Alice has a lot of determination to get things done but she has very little spine/backbone and is walked all over by Katie when they are children. This becomes a bit tedious as the story goes on because Katie is really the most horrible character with zero redeemable features but yet the reader is never satisfied in relation to her actions. It’s just her inherent selfishness and jealousy coming up again and again and she’s so overdone that I stopped feeling sorry for Alice and started wanting her to just defend herself.

The love between Robert and Alice is very swift and all-encompassing despite the fact that they only interact two or three times before they are torn apart. It also forms a huge part of their lives for the next ten plus years – both are unable to forget the other and their love for each other colours every other relationship they form and perhaps because of this, the choices they make are very poor ones. Robert is perhaps not entirely to blame for his but his stupidity got him into the situation that enabled someone else to force his hand anyway, because he was acting like a child. Alice however, should’ve heeded the warning bells a long way out but in typical Alice fashion, just buried her head in the sand and pretended it wasn’t happening and just went along with it.

The story picks up a lot when Alice returns to Australia. The most interesting thing for me was her acquiring her own property and buying her stock and putting her dream into action. For me that should’ve been a much larger part of the story than it was – the England section dragged a lot and could’ve been a lot shorter. Most of it wasn’t important to the core story. I’d have liked to read more about Alice and her uncle fixing up the house, more about the building up of stock rather than just a couple of brief sales scenes. The whole farm thing is a dream for me that I won’t actually ever make reality but I enjoy reading about others doing so. And given Alice had been so passionate about it for so long, it would’ve been nice to be a bit more involved as the reader in that part of the story.

Although I enjoyed some of the relationships in the book, such as the ones Alice forms with her aunt and her gruff uncle and I found the story of Alice’s dream in setting up her property when women weren’t really doing that sort of thing (the book starts in around 1951) really interesting, it didn’t get deep enough into that for me and I wasn’t overly invested in Alice as a character until the end of the book, when she returned to Australia. Prior to that her passivity frustrated me and although I know she grew up a certain way, being quiet and unobtrusive and not causing trouble in her new household, there comes a time when you just can’t be a victim anymore. For Alice that was when she decided to return to Australia and she had a bit of a new attitude – she confronted people when she thought they’d done her wrong. Her best scene was the one where she goes to demand an explanation from the real estate agent who allows someone else to gazump her on purchasing a property neighbouring hers. For me, this part of the story needed to be longer and the England section shorter.

7/10

Book #47 of 2014

AWWW2014

Reach For The Dream is book #17 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

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Under Southern Skies – Anne McCullagh Rennie

Under Southern Skies
Anne McCullagh Rennie
Penguin AU
2012, 357p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Cate Perry is one day off turning 18 – not much time left if she wants to win the bet that she’ll make her first solo flight before her birthday. She grew up on a cattle property in the Northern Territory named Twin Falls. She has so much to look forward to besides piloting solo – she’s a daughter of the land and loves the family property and working around it dearly. Plus there’s Alf (short for Alfredo) a family friend whom she has grown up with. Alf was like a brother to her in childhood but now she’s feeling some distinctly unbrotherly-like feelings towards him. She makes her first solo flight with ease and is excited about the potential in that, such as perhaps learning to muster properly from the air one day. On a property such as that, the skill would be more than handy. Planes are almost a necessity in the Northern Territory, given it is usually the best way to visit neighbouring properties and can make a heavy workload easier.

Then a tragedy strikes, shattering Cate’s world and turning it utterly upside down. Driven out of her home, the only place that she has ever really known and a property that meant the world to her, devastated by the loss of two of the most important things in her life, she retreats to a family friend’s place to ponder her future. Her beautiful singing voice takes her to Tamworth for a look at the Country Music Festival, working for Alf’s aunt and uncle in their Italian restaurant. There she meets Nat, drummer in a band that just happens to have lost its singer. Cate asked if she might be able to audition and bemused, Nat gives her a go. From there Cat is catapulted into a world of singing, rehearsing and writing songs as the band picks up local gigs around the area.

To Cate’s disappointment it seems like life in the Top End is going on without her – Alf is seeing someone and his sister, her close friend, is barely around to take her calls these days. Her music keeps her plenty busy as she wins a singing competition that sees her get to record in Nashville – the world home of country music.

But you can’t keep a girl away from where she feels is home forever and as the singing starts to fall apart for Cate -due mostly to the implosion of her relationship with Nat- Cate finds herself tasked with the job of getting a farm in Queensland up to scratch for the absent owners to sell it. She stocks it with cattle, mends fences, finds a place for herself in the community and even starts singing again. And then Alf, the man she has always loved, reappears in her life.

Under Southern Skies is another Australian rural lit release that I was recently offered the chance to read and review. Our protagonist Cate is young – in fact sometimes it’s easy to forget just how young she is. She’s just 17 (well a day off 18) when the book opens, preparing to take her first solo flight over her family’s vast cattle property in the Northern Territory. That solo flight is important, as it is just the first of many solo flights that Cate will have to take as she goes on her journey to find her place in the world after tragedy strikes.

Cate is a happy go-lucky sort of girl, passionate about the land and her family farm. She works hard on it doing all sorts of jobs and you can tell that she looks forward to taking it over one day, making the property hers and carrying on her family legacy. She’s also a people pleaser, often sacrificing something she wants to do (or trying to) in order to make others happy, particularly her stepmother very early on in the book and then later, her bandmate-turned-boyfriend Nat. When her family farm can no longer be her home, she could’ve stayed in the Top End, with Alf’s family or possibly have gotten a job on a nearby property. But she chooses to go interstate, to country New South Wales and make a life for herself in Tamworth. She’s always loved to sing and if she can’t work on her family farm, then maybe she can make a go of it as a singer.

Luck falls in her lap when she meets Nat and his band, who are currently down a singer. Success finds them steadily after Cate joins and soon she is putting all her energies into music. It was hard not to like Cate, she had suffered a lot in her young life but she managed to retain a very happy personality and an attitude to looking on the bright side. A lot of people would’ve been very bitter about being forced to leave the only home they had ever known but although Cate was devastated, she wasted no time hating. And it was the same when her singing career stalled and she found herself back working the land. She didn’t lament the loss of her fame, or popularity. She found something that she wanted to do, that she could do, and went to do it and once again, made herself happy.

There’s a lot going on in this book – plenty of action at every turn and it can leave you feeling at little dizzy at times, especially when the book jumps forward in time. Cate has a whirlwind life, from the Northern Territory to Tamworth to Nashville, back to Tamworth and then up into Queensland. But it’s a very warm and inviting sort of book with lots of enjoyable characters, such as Alf and his boisterous and generous Italian family and the vet and his daughter that Cate meets when she arrives at the Queensland property.

Overall I enjoyed Under Southern Skies although for me personally it could’ve benefited from a little less action and a bit more character depth and development. But it’s a fun read.

7/10

Book #36 of 2012

I’ve been given permission to share Anne McCullagh Rennie’s inspiration for Under Southern Skies:

I have studied music since I was a child and studied in London and Vienna as well as attending many summer schools in Austria and Germany, was Concert Manager to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London and performed both on stage and worked behind scenes in musical productions.  While I drew on my classical music experience in my novel Song of the Bellbirds, set against the wheat fields of Queensland and the opera houses of Europe and America, (sold over half a million copies), this time, along with my love of the Outback, I was inspired by Australian Country music singers including Slim Dusty, Kasey Chambers, Sara Storer, Troy Cassar Daley, Lee Kernegan and John Williamson to write Under Southern Skies.

As well the top Five Outback experiences Anne recommends you do before you die:

  1. Go camel riding at Uluru
  2. Fly over Kakadu in a six seater plane and see the Jim Jim falls
  3. Watch the sunset over the sea at Darwin Markets
  4. Feed Macaws, parrots and other brightly coloured tropical birds as they sit on your shoulders, head and arm
  5. Sail hobbycats with the turtles near Dunk Island QLD
and Five things Anne discovered when visiting Outback sheep stations
  1.  The galvanised tin shearers’ shed shower is freezing in the early mornings!
  2. Watch out for frogs that croak at you from  the toilet bowl – I luckily saw no redbacks on the toilet seat
  3.  The friendliness of the sheep station owners, managers and rousabouts
  4.  How soft and pristine creamy white wool is if you part the fleece on the rams’ backs
  5. The heat mirage on Outback roads that stretch to the horizon
Although not born here, Anne McCullagh Rennie now lives in Sydney, so I’m counting this novel as part of my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2012! It’s the 10th novel completed for the challenge, which technically completes my involvement but given I haven’t read as widely from the genre pool as I’d like, I’m going to keep participating. Like most rural lit books I’ve read, the setting is important here, from the Northern Territory to Tamworth to Queensland. Cate has deep ties to the land and she’s always thinking about it, even when not fully involved in working it at the time.
My thanks to Penguin AU for the copy and for the additional material.
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