Rocking Horse Hill by Cathryn Hein

In brief: Emily is surprised when her brother brings home an unexpected fiancé. She’s determined to withhold her reservations this time – after all, her snobbish behaviour destroyed her relationship with Josh. But now Josh is back – can Em redeem herself in his eyes?

The good: Incredibly detailed with a strong sense of atmosphere. Plus, the character of Granny B is wonderful with her dry humour.

The not-so-good: The pace in the middle was a little slow for me, but the end made up for it.

Why I chose it: Several reasons – 1. Prize from ARRA; 2. Always meant to read Cathryn Hein; 3. Will be seeing her at ARRC.

Year: 2014

Pages: 312

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin)

Setting: South Australia

My rating: 8.5 out of 10

Cathryn Hein is an author who has been on my radar for some time, but I’ve never got round to reading – perhaps it’s because those ‘must read!’ moments for me come at inopportune times (like driving, flying and while daydreaming in meetings). Perhaps it’s because some of her books feature horses on the front – and I’m a car girl (although Emily with her Nissan Patrol would not be as good a cover as it would only attract 4WD enthusiast/romance readers like me as we are few in number). Anyway, I need to stop finding excuses and tell you that now I’ve gotten around to reading Rocking Horse Hill, it’s brilliant. The atmosphere Hein creates sparkles and crackles on the page, whether it’s a foreboding landscape or a heated argument between family members.

Rocking Horse Hill is set in a country town in South Australia where Emily’s family is one of the few pioneer families in the district. Not only do they have a gorgeous colonial house (complete with balcony and converted stables) but they feel that they are quality, a few notches above other people in town. However, this has come at a price for Emily after she discarded her first love Josh in cruel circumstances as his family status didn’t match hers. Many years have gone by and Josh has returned home, now divorced, to look after his ill mother. Emily’s family is in for a shock when her brother Digby brings home a fiancé who is from the ‘wrong’ part of Adelaide. This time Em is determined not to be a snob and accept Felicity in addition to apologising to Josh. They become a casual couple again, but things become rocky as Felicity starts to emulate Em and family ties are strained.

Rocking Horse Hill contains a little of everything I like, adding up to a fine story. There’s the lost love reunited in Em and Josh and there’s a strong personal growth in Emily as the plot progresses. She’s truly sorry for the way she treated Josh as a teenager and keen to make amends. Likewise, she’s determined to look over her granny’s concerns about Felicity and see the best in her. This could have Em coming across as a goody two shoes but Hein gives her enough quirks and faults for her to be likeable. What also made Emily easier to relate to for me was the great pets she keeps out at Rocking Horse Hill – two abandoned donkeys that are skilled escape artists, a duck called Chelsea and some hens. Plus there are also some horses and horse-y scenes with Emily and her friends, but not enough to turn the petrolheads off!

Rocking Horse Hill – a former volcano – is almost a character too in this story. A former volcano, it’s slightly creepy and eerie in the way it watches over Emily and the house. Emily feels very close to the hill and it stars in several of the momentous scenes in the book. It’s part of her life and where she goes to think or relax. The final scenes on the hill have a completely different pace to them and you’ll be hooked until you find out the fate of those on the hill.

There are also some great minor characters in this book, and my number one ranking would have to go to Granny B. She’s a cigar chomping grandma who calls it as she sees it and isn’t afraid to use her charms or age to get what she wants. This is generally the best outcome for Emily and her family – Granny B is wise beyond her years. Josh and his family are also hardworking, good-natured types – they sound like the type of people who would fiercely and passionately look after each other. That’s something that Emily hasn’t quite experienced in her own family life, but after some false starts, she’s keen to learn.

I found the settings of Rocking Horse Hill to be beautifully and lovingly described – it’s got me wanting to visit that area of South Australia once again. I loved the sense of rediscovery between Josh and Emily but I wish that things with Felicity had picked up the pace a little sooner before things really heated up with the finale on the hill. Apart from that minor quibble, Rocking Horse Hill is a stunning example of the Australian rural romance genre – give it a go.

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