Chat with Brandy Heineman, author of Whispers in the Branches

Chat with Brandy Heineman, author of Whispers in the Branches

Author photo courtesy of Emilie Hendryx of E. A. Creative Photography, 2014

Today I’m delighted to host author Brandy Heineman, who marries two of my own interests–genealogy and inspirational fiction–in her debut novel, Whispers in the Branches. Brandy likes writing stories seasoned with secrets from the past and mysteries of the faith–and this one certainly includes both. Here, she chats with me about what that intersection looks like. To learn more about this as well as her giveaway on Goodreads, read on…

Brandy, welcome! Which came first: your interest in genealogical sleuthing, or the idea to write Whispers in the Branches, in which genealogical sleuthing plays a key role? How has each influenced the other?

I’ve always loved books and writing, and I had an interest in genealogy from a fairly young age, too. Case-in-point: when I was about ten, I created an unfortunate family tree out of paper cut-outs, string, and clothes hangers.

So the sleuthing came before the story, but they were intertwined from the beginning. Around the time when I started asking God if it was even possible for me to write a “Christian ghost story,” I received some family documents that hinted at a story of regrets, and that was ultimately the seed for Whispers in the Branches—the desperate ache of wanting what you can never have.

One of the themes of your novel is discovery—which is also, of course, what genealogical research is all about. What do you hope your readers discover about themselves in Whispers in the Branches?

For the most part, I hope readers simply find whatever they need in the story. Whether that means a few hours entertainment or a spur in the soul is out of my hands. Nonetheless, since this book includes some characters who wrestle with truth—or what they wish to be true—I do hope readers will examine their own assumptions about faith. For example, we’re all susceptible to sliding into patterns of relating to God in terms of our circumstances, rather than according to who He is. If this story gives readers pause about any ill-conceived spiritual notions they’re holding, praise God!

“Those who do not look upon themselves as a link connecting the past with the future do not perform their duty to the world.” As a genealogy buff, you must appreciate this quote from Daniel Webster, but “duty” is a strong word. Do you agree?

It is a great quote, but I can’t say I agree. It’s a tough question, though. History is full of lessons, of course, and our experiences (as individuals and as the human race) can and should be mined for their treasures. However, if we indeed have a “duty to the world,” I’m not convinced that being a link from past to future is the only way to perform it.

As I see it, story is powerful. That power imparts responsibility to exercise wisdom in choosing the stories we tell. Merely discovering an ancestor’s dark secret doesn’t create an obligation for me to dredge it up. I have found horrible stories, barely hinted by relatives, splashed across newspaper pages from a hundred years ago. Who knew way back then that yesterday’s news would one day be indexed and searchable? If my best judgment tells me that a particular dark moment of our family’s story is better left forgotten, then my duty to the world would be not to forge that link.

To put it another way, it’s often said that gossip hurts three people: the person it’s about, the person who tells it, and the person who hears it. If the subject happens to be dead, is it less toxic to the other two? I would say no. I have definitely had moments in my research that left me heartsick, and that’s not a feeling I want to multiply without cause.

What can our extended family’s story tell us about ourselves?

I think a legacy of story presents us with a slew of choices. Can I live up to my family name or rise above it, as the case may be? Will I be defined by it? To the extent that I can identify generation patterns of thinking—and you’d be amazed—will I assess and choose my attitudes, or automatically agree because that’s how I was raised? Will I excuse bad behavior in others because of how they were raised?

We often hear people say that they’ll never forget where they came from. I think the choices we make in response to knowing our heritage are a part of that sentiment.

An underlying question of Whispers in the Branches seems to be, Can we find redemption in the past? Well—can we?

Since several characters attempt to fill their need for Jesus with other things, I’d shy away from saying we can find redemption in the past. I do think that for many of us, there’s a sense of satisfaction and completeness derived from knowing what factors that shaped our lives and attitudes. More importantly, if understanding the past helps us to see varied perspectives and bridges difficult relationships with the living members of our families, then in that sense, perhaps it is indeed a form of redemption.

And of course, if something from the past is haunting you, you’ll want to chase it down and subdue it. Whether you should or not—that’s a question for another day!

Thank you, Brandy!

My pleasure, Katherine! Thank you for having me!

About this book: (from the publisher) Tending a void in her heart that demands to be filled, Abby Wells uproots her life in Ohio to Chat with Brandy Heineman, author of Whispers in the Branchesmove into the ancestral home in Georgia. Now that her mom is gone, it’s her best chance to connect with the last of her family, and she can’t deny the pull of the supposedly haunted house. The seductive comfort of believing that ghosts could be real drives her search, but Aunt Ruby’s plans for Abby don’t include revealing secrets kept for seventy years. Oh, there’s dirty laundry she’d like to air—just not her own. Indulging in the attentions of the house’s handsome caretaker helps numb her pain, but Abby’s ex-boyfriend won’t let go of the past. He hounds her about his newfound religion in hopes of reconciling, but why reach for him or the God who couldn’t or wouldn’t spare her mom? In the stillness of the old house, the spirit world feels so close she can almost touch it. But she doesn’t know yet that there’s more than one way to be haunted.

About the author: (from her website) Brandy Heineman’s debut novel, Whispers in the Branches,finaled in the 2014 ACFW Genesis contest and was released by Elk Lake Publishing in 2015. When she’s not writing, she divides her free time between reading, scrapbooking, and genealogy sleuthing.

She’s a graduate of Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia with a degree in Business Administration and Communication, and has worked in financial services and marketing. She treasures her family time, which usually means Marvel movie marathons with her husband, Michael, and their two needy, greedy cats.

Brandy is represented by Jim Hart of Hartline Literary Agency. She is active in the North Georgia chapter of ACFW and has contributed articles to Writer… Interrupted, the ACFW Journal, and Book Fun Magazine. You can find her on Twitter as@brandyhei, like her on Facebook, or follow her on Goodreads.

About the sweepstakes giveaway: No purchase required; US residents only; void where prohibited. See official rules when entering. Click here for details.


Tattered and Mended, book review + giveaway

Tattered and Mended, book reviewA crumbling statue. A torn tapestry. A faded painting…

Tattered and Mended: The Art of Healing the Wounded Soul by Cynthia Ruchti

About this book: (from the publisher) Artisans can reclaim exquisite beauty from the broken, frayed, and hopefully shattered—perhaps once thought beyond repair. But what about us? What of the wounds that keep us from living the life we want to live?

In Tattered and Mended, readers walk through a gallery of reclaimed and restored art as well as broken and restored lives of those who have gone before us. With a gentle touch and personable wisdom, Cynthia Ruchti shows how even the most threadbare soul can once again find healing and hope.

About the author: Cynthia Ruchti tells stories “hemmed in hope.” She’s the award-winning author of sixteen books and a frequent speaker for women’s ministry events. She serves as the Professional Relations Liaison for American Christian Fiction Writers, where she helps retailers, libraries, and book clubs connect with the authors and books they love. She lives with her husband in Central Wisconsin.

Find out more about Cynthia at CynthiaRuchti.com.

Genre: Non-fiction/Religion/Christian Life/Personal Growth

Why I read this book: As a Litfuse Publicity reviewer. To see what other reviewers are saying, click here.

This story matters because…it tells us that God doesn’t just heal wounded souls, He heals them artfully.

My take: Cynthia Ruchti is all about hope. She refers to the note she has tacked up in her work space: I can’t unravel, I’m hemmed in hope. I’ve found that Hope and its companion, Redemption, are significant themes in every book she writes.

Which is certainly the case here, in the stories she tells and the conclusions she draws. The pages are filled with Cynthia’s trademark, warm-hearted wisdom, her claims are supported at every turn by well-chosen Scripture. Even so, this particular book didn’t touch me in the way some of her others have (most notably, Ragged Hope). If I had to name a reason, I’d say it was the stories. I wanted more. Storytelling is Cynthia’s gift,and this book to me felt like something else–more a reflection on a theme than a collection of stories. Which is fine, of course, nothing wrong with that–except that, because of my own preconceived ideas, I expected something different. So it didn’t speak to my heart in the same way some of her other books have done. It was the difference between being told rather than being shown through story.

However, as she says in her introduction, Cynthia writes for those whose souls have been shredded by life’s circumstances. It could very well be that Ruchti’s wise ruminations are exactly what some of those tattered souls need.

Thanks to Litfuse Publicity and Abingdon Press for providing me a free copy to review. All opinions are mine.

After words: Have you read any of Cynthia’s other books? (She writes fiction too.) If so, do you have a fave?

How can the wounds that keep us from living the life we want to live be mended and healed? In Tattered and Mended, Cynthia Ruchti walks readers through a gallery of reclaimed and restored art as well as broken and restored lives of those who have gone before us. With a gentle touch and personable wisdom, Cynthia shows how even the most threadbare soul can once again find healing and hope.

Celebrate the release of Tattered and Mended with Cynthia by entering to win her Reclaimed Treasures giveaway!

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One grand prize winner will receive:

Enter today by clicking the icon below. But hurry, the giveaway ends on July 27th. The winner will be announced July 28th on Cynthia’s blog.

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Plus, now through mid-July, sign up for Cynthia’s mailing list for a five-day virtual tour around Madeline Island for the chance to win a Hemmed in Hope prize pack. Each day begins with an email from Cynthia that introduces where you’ll be “visiting” that day (all key places from As Waters Gone By) with various interactive elements, including“I wish you were here” postcards, trivia quizzes, and an ongoing Island scavenger hunt. The person who interacts the most will win a Hemmed in Hope prize pack (valued at more than $200).

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That includes:

  • The letterpress block Hope sign from DaySpring
  • A set of 6 Hemmed in Hope notecards showing a hope-themed Bible verse
  • A leather “I can’t unravel, I’m hemmed in hope” journal
  • Signed copies of each of Cynthia’s books, fiction and non-fiction

Why Remember Our Family’s Histories? by author Nooshie Motaref

Why Remember Our Family's Histories? by author Nooshie MotarefWhy remember our family’s Histories?
Guest post by Nooshie Motaref

Having grown up in Iran, my veins carry the tradition of storytelling as life’s blood.  From ancient times, the Persian oral tradition has been interwoven with the literature of this country, and it continues to this day.  As a little girl, I remember being mesmerized by a storyteller who enacted epics from The Book of Kings (Shahnameh) in our streets, or teahouses. At age five, I sat in the first row and, enthralled by this old dervish’s facial expressions, I drifted into my dreams.  Then the sharp clapping of his hands demolished my dream world–an unsettling experience.

Binding with family members is another reason I choose to write.  In Iran, the unity of family is very important; especially in my family. By spending time with them, I gleaned the imperative of continuity of family tradition.  For example, one day I asked my grandmother, “Why does Aziz, my great-grandmother, have so many wrinkles?” She took offense and in an inflamed tone said, “Don’t see her wrinkles today! Remember her beauty, so spellbinding that a eunuch of the court wanted her for our king!”  I learned that my grandmother was disappointed in life. She had given birth to ten children, and over and over she expressed to me, “I have not tasted life! My husband never cared how I felt!”  However, she had found happiness by reciting poetry of Hafiz and Rumi.

My dear father again and again declared to me, “It’s important for you to be an independent person; even though, you’re a girl. ThereWhy Remember Our Family's Histories? by author Nooshie Motaref is always time to get married and have children.”   And as the years went by, and my life in the Western world took shape, I started missing these bonds; especially when a family member died. To satisfy my melancholy was to give them life on paper. By creating them, I savored what they went through. I felt how Aziz had to be shaken like a “willow caught on the storm” when she heard a strange man inclined to take her to harem.

Now, as a grandmother, I hope this book will play a part in educating and informing the generations to come. As a result of being married to an American, I find my son and his children are unfamiliar with that part of the world. By writing this book, my wish is to remove the veil from my native land and reveal the true resilience and courage of not only my family; but also the Iranian society.

All in all, my book is not only my family’s story, but a story of a nation. This novel is about commoners who arise and fight for what they believe in. These four generations of women lived, loved and endured. Their peaceful battle generation after generation bore fruit. As a young woman, I have been able to battle all adversaries, to leave my birthplace, and to carry the continuity of their lives to a free country. Unbelievable!

About this book: (from the publisher) Tapestries of the Heart: Four Women: Four Persian Generations is an award-winning novel that portrays four generations of Persian women over a span of one hundred years. It depicts the effects of religion and politics-ever changing in Iranian society. Tapestries stands out as a true representation of the cycle of life. The destinies of these characters are interwoven with many threads and the events and consequences throughout have a major impact on their lives. Throughout the generations, these women lived, loved, and fought for what they believed in. Though it was a struggle, they battled and endured when the odds were almost completely against them.

About the author: Nooshie Motaref grew up in Persia.  She studied in four countries — Iran, Germany, Switzerland and United States.  She received her master’s and doctorate degrees in American literature and folklore from Florida State University.  Her dissertation is a proof of Carl Jung’s theory, the “Collective Unconscious,” through Persian fairy tales and folktales.

She taught university courses on humanities, literature and critical thinking.  In addition, she is certified by the Conflict Resolution Program Act to promote peacemaking efforts worldwide.

In March of 2014, she presented one of her articles, “Women and Islam,” at a conference, Women and Education at Oxford University, Oxford, England.

She frequently gives speeches on several subjects related to her birthplace including its culture, traditions and religion. Her purpose is to familiarize Western audiences with the Iranian background and ethnicity of this society.

After words: What have you learned from your family’s history that you would want your children to know?


The Romanov Sisters ~ review reprised + giveaway

The Romanov Sisters ~ review reprised + giveaway

On July 16, 97 years ago, the family of the last Czar of Russia was awakened from their sleep and executed. In her exquisitely researched biography, renowned writer and historian Helen Rappaport depicts the personal lives of the four Romanov sisters. Last year I had the privilege of reading and reviewing their fascinating story–now out in paperback, which I’m delighted to offer one of my readers. You’ll find your chance to win, below. What follows here is my original review: 

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport

About this book: (from the publisher) They were the Princess Dianas of their day—perhaps the most photographed and talked about young royals of the early twentieth century. The four captivating Russian Grand Duchesses—Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov—were much admired for their happy dispositions, their looks, the clothes they wore and their privileged lifestyle.

Over the years, the story of the four Romanov sisters and their tragic end in a basement at Ekaterinburg in 1918 has clouded our view of them, leading to a mass of sentimental and idealized hagiography. With this treasure trove of diaries and letters from the grand duchesses to their friends and family, we learn that they were intelligent, sensitive and perceptive witnesses to the dark turmoil within their immediate family and the ominous approach of the Russian Revolution, the nightmare that would sweep their world away, and them along with it.

The Romanov Sisters sets out to capture the joy as well as the insecurities and poignancy of those young lives against the backdrop of the dying days of late Imperial Russia, World War I and the Russian Revolution. Helen Rappaport aims to present a new and challenging take on the story, drawing extensively on previously unseen or unpublished letters, diaries and archival sources, as well as private collections. It is a book that will surprise people, even aficionados.

About the author: Helen Rappaport studied Russian at Leeds University and is a specialist in Imperial Russian history and the reign of Queen Victoria. She lives in Dorset, England and can be found online at HelenRappaport.com and facebook.com/helenrappaportwriter.


Genre: Non-fiction/Biography

Would I read this book, judged on its cover alone? Oh my yes. Gorgeous. (Family photos included inside are also a plus.)

If this book were a movie, I would rate it: PG. Appropriate for all audiences.

You’ll want to buy this book if … you’re a student of humankind. Of special interest, naturally, to those interested in Russian history and in the Romanov family in particular.

Why did I read this book? For St. Martin’s Press for review.

Would I read another by this author? Absolutely. Am especially keen to read this volume’s predecessor, The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg.

My take: The double entendre of the subtitle subtly captures the essence of this lush biography: the lives of these four girls were lost both literally and figuratively. It is the loss in the literal sense that we are all most familiar with, but after reading this book, for me the greater tragedy is the figurative loss. By which I mean that because of several factors of their circumstances–including the introversion of their beloved mother and the terminal illness of their little brother, heir to the Russian throne–the true nature of these sisters’ lives and personalities were so hidden from public view. In fact, I can’t help but wonder if their fates might have been altered if the charm and beauty of their characters had been fully revealed and allowed to flourish in the light.

But here, I’m getting ahead of myself–though this is part of the wonder of this richly researched biography. It not only answers many of the questions you may have about this infamous family but fuels your imagination as well. This is a thick tome–492 pages in all, including copious, meticulous end notes and index–making it perhaps slightly better suited for the serious student of the Romanovs than the dilettante.

The depth and breadth of Rappaport’s research is breathtaking; on her website, she is described as “writer, historian, Russianist”–in that order, which fits perfectly. Her vocabulary is a notch above, intended for the educated reader who wishes to become even more so.

In reading this telling of the Romanovs’ story, the biggest surprise for me was realizing the depth of their faith and family devotion. In fact, the author encapsulates this by quoting 1 Corinthians 13:13: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Of equal interest were her conclusions about the notorious Rasputin and his connection to the revolution–and ultimately to this family’s awful and untimely demise.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for providing me a free copy to review. All opinions are mine.

After words: Before seeing their names listed here, would you have been able to name all four of the Romanov sisters?

For the giveaway, enter here: a Rafflecopter giveaway


Save Your Tales…It’s Your History ~ by author Jean Debney

Save Your Tales...It's Your History ~ by author Jean Debney

Jean Debney, author of Far Away Hills

Save Your Tales…It’s Your History
Guest post by Jean Debney

In this world that seems to move ever-faster with hardly a moment to reflect, it is sad to think that most people have no idea of where they came from before their parents’ births.  In fact, very few even question those who may know when they have the opportunity to do so.

For my new project, I am setting out to try to solve this wasteland of history that is now growing into a gaping chasm. Because unless we do something, it will cut many off from any knowledge of their personal history. And I don’t mean by merely researching on a genealogy website, which can tell you much of dates and places but cannot give the colour and the tales: what people looked like, the things they did, the way they spoke.

This is what we are in danger of losing.

My interest in capturing these details started when I was 18 in 1982.  I was the youngest born to elderly parents, which some would call a curse because of my parents’ inability to be active. I call it a blessing because they were so full of stories.  My father had been a serving soldier in World War II; my mother had been an artist and a part-time writer, but her main role was rearing five children and filling our heads with stories.  She used to emphasis how lucky she was, and by association how lucky I was, because she had been orphaned and brought up by her elderly grandmother of Irish descent who had told my mother stories that went back even before the Save Your Tales...It's Your History ~ by author Jean Debneygreat famine in Ireland.

Of course we all think that our parents are the same as everyone else’s. We have no idea that some have time to talk and some do not, and that some know their stories but most do not.  How lucky I was, because not only did I have that fertile soil from both parents, full of characters and happenings, fabulous for an embryonic writer, but I also had a mother with an amazing story of her own.

Born in 1919 in a cabin built by her father on a Canadian prairie, snowed-in for six months of the year, stories of her young life were peppered with images of Sioux Indians and hot summers, bitter winters and tragedy–so much tragedy, in fact, that few would believe it was true.

Even I, her own daughter, thought it was a very creative tale, probably highly embellished.  That was until I made the pilgrimage by train across Canada two years ago and found, to my absolute delight, that every word was true.  Every piece of description, every place, every childhood landmark was there.  Which was even more remarkable when I considered that she was not even four years old she left that place, never to return. She had a phenomenal memory, and I had to write Far Away Hills as my tribute to her.

So here’s my advice for you: Sit down with an elderly relative today, take out your smart phone, set it to record, and get her to talk over a pot of tea or coffee.  Find out as much as you can. It is your history, and that is what matters!  Share it on the What Are Your Stories? Facebook page or however you like, but save your history for posterity. Because every story, however trivial it may seem, is important.

About this book: (from the publisher) In the waning age of the nineteenth century, Sal McBride has been separate from her pioneering husband for years. But the time has finally come for her to escape the poverty-stricken hovels of Glasgow and rejoin her lover in the vast wilderness of the Canadian prairies. The physical and emotional journey will be a tortuous one. Strong and determined, yet fully alone on the brink of her greatest task ever attempted, Sal will come face to face with the ultimate cruelties of life as her quest exacts its harsh and thankless tolls.

Based on the author’s own ancestral history, Far Away Hills traces the ups and downs of a young, fragile family struggling to make their way through an unforgiving world. Though the pioneer story has long been thought to be the province of men, Jean Debney’s tale of courage, grit, and resolve will prove once again that history’s women are far more complex and powerful than records have ever shown.

About the author: Dr. Jean Debney studied for her first degree in Glass Design in Stourbridge in the West Midlands. Following a highly successful, 15-year career as a teacher of Design and Technology, she went on to run a national project to recruit young people into engineering.  Her thesis for her Doctorate in Education focuses on women engineers in the oil and gas industry of the North Sea.  She has written and published five books to date through Brewin Books Ltd; three academic history books and two novels.  She is now publishing her third novel.

Far Away Hills has fulfilled a personal mission as it features the very young life of her late mother and her grandmother.  It was book she promised to write “to keep the story alive.”


The Idea of Love, book review

The Idea of Love, book reviewAs they like to say in the south, “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

The Idea of Love by Patti Callahan Henry

About this book: (from the publisher) Ella’s life has been completely upended. She’s young, beautiful, and deeply in love–until her husband dies in a tragic sailing accident while trying save her. Or so she’ll have everyone believe. Screenwriter Hunter needs a hit, but crippling writers’ block and a serious lack of motivation are getting him nowhere. He’s on the look-out for a love story. It doesn’t matter who it belongs to.

When Hunter and Ella meet in Watersend, South Carolina it feels like the perfect match, something close to fate. In Ella, Hunter finds the perfect love story, full of longing and sacrifice. It’s the stuff of epic films. In Hunter, Ella finds possibility. It’s an opportunity to live out a fantasy – the life she wishes she had because hers is too painful. And more real. Besides. what’s a little white lie between strangers?

But one lie leads to another, and soon Hunter and Ella find themselves caught in a web of deceit. As they try to untangle their lies and reclaim their own lives, they feel something stronger is keeping them together. And so they wonder: can two people come together for all the wrong reasons and still make it right?

About the author: Patti Callahan Henry is a New York Times-bestselling author whose novels include And Then I Found You, Between the Tides, and Driftwood Summer. Patti lives with her husband and three children in Mountain Brook, Alabama, where she is working on her next novel.

Genre: Fiction/Contemporary

First impressions: The cover suggests a breezy summertime read, so naturally I was interested. First pages took off rather slowly, I felt, but the story concept kept me going–for a while, anyway.

If this book were a movie, I would rate it: PG-13 for language, mature themes (adultery, etc.)

Reminds me of… Kristin Hannah

Will especially appeal to…women who enjoy contemporary fiction with lots of relationship drama and hints of the south.

This story matters because…to paraphrase Mimi, we can’t wait for someone else to give permission to chase our own life.

My take: Novelists set themselves a particular challenge when they begin a story with two unsympathetic protagonists. On the plus side, this gives the characters plenty of scope for growth. The downside, however, is that it makes it hard for readers to want to stick with characters who are rather unlikable. Harder still for readers to care what happens to them.

Unfortunately, I found this to be the case here. Both characters begin their interaction by feeding the other a lie. I was initially okay with this as the basis for the story, but now I realize that my “permission” was predicated on being able to otherwise like them. But I found Blake so unappealing in the first chapters that I didn’t want to hang around him–not even in the pages of a book. He consistently drank too much, exhibited selfish motives at every turn, and was an inattentive dad as well as a cheating husband (and lover). Ella was somewhat more sympathetic as the jilted wife, but even she engaged in behaviors that lost my sympathy. Her actions on the night of the Debacle, for instance.

This lack was eventually helped, a little, by the introduction of Mimi, a fairly appealing secondary character. But for me, it fell short. While I thought the story’s premise was promising (which was what made me want to read it in the first place), it wasn’t enough to win me over. In the end, I couldn’t believe that these two characters could create anything permanent based on the foundation they were building on. Even when the truth comes out–as it almost always must–what remained felt as unsubstantial as a house of cards.

I have enjoyed a Patti Callahan Henry novel or two–most notably, The Stories We Tell–and will hope for better the next time around.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for providing me a free copy to review. All opinions are mine.

After words: What breezy summer titles on are your reading list?


What I’m Into ~ July edition

What I'm Into ~ July editionAt the moment, I’m very into packing. We’re headed for Ireland, and even though it’s July, do I still bring boots? Average temps don’t generally top 70 degrees, so I kinda think I do. And while we’re not expecting much warmth, do I bring a summer outfit anyway? Just in case? And what about BOOKS? Because there are few things more distressing for a book-lover than being caught on vacation without a good one. On my short list: Somebody I Used to Know by David Bell; Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon; Sleeping in Eden by Nicole Baart; The Untold by Courtney Collins. Thoughts, advice, recommendations?

On a not-really-but-kind-of-related note, I’m also very into dresses. I am a dress What I'm Into ~ July editiongirl. I love the simplicity of them, the look of them, the feel of them. If the Pacific Northwest weather allowed, I’d wear ’em year-round. As it is, I get in as many dress-wearings during the spring and summer months that I can. And as we’ve been, so far, enjoying a beaut of summer, even I am getting my fill.

What I'm Into ~ July editionYou know how big life events go in waves, when for a few years it seems that everyone is, say, getting married or having babies? Well, for us, this year it’s high school graduations, and we’ve had a bumper crop of them. I think I counted eight new graduates in our circle, including the first of our extended family’s next generation–our niece, Caitlyn. She’s the cutie in the middle here, photo taken on her 18th birthday, just days before she graduated. Thus marks the beginning of a new era for us, leaving us wondering where on earth the years went. They fly fast, folks.

So that’s it for me. What are you into these days?


A Week at the Lake, book review

A Week at the Lake, book reviewA novel about secrets, loyalty, and the bonds of true friendship . . .  

A Week at the Lake by Wendy Wax

About this book: (from the publisher) Twenty years ago, Emma Michaels, Mackenzie Hayes, and Serena Stockton bonded over their New York City dreams. Then, each summer, they solidified their friendship by spending one week at the lake together, solving their problems over bottles of wine and gallons of ice cream. They kept the tradition for years, until jealousy, lies, and life’s disappointments made them drift apart.

It’s been five years since Emma has seen her friends, an absence designed to keep them from discovering a long-ago betrayal. Now she’s in desperate need of their support. The time has come to reveal her secrets—and hopefully rekindle their connection.

But when a terrible accident keeps Emma from saying her piece, Serena and Mackenzie begin to learn about the past on their own. Now, to heal their friendship and their broken lives, the three women will have to return to the lake that once united them, and discover which relationships are worth holding on to . . .

Included in this edition only—Wendy Wax’s novella, Christmas at the Beach

About the author: Wendy Wax, a former broadcaster, is the author of ten novels. The mother of two college-age sons, she lives in the Atlanta suburbs with her husband, and is doing her best to adjust to the quiet of her recently emptied nest.

Genre: Fiction/Contemporary

If this book were a movie, I would rate it: PG-13 for language and mature content

Reminds me of…Patti Callahan Henry, Mary Ellen Taylor

My take: While I like the idea of this novel–an ensemble cast drawn together by a crisis, forced by circumstances to confront the secrets of their pasts–I was not able to get into A Week at the Lake. It started slow, but even when the pace picked up, I was not drawn to the characters, and therefore not drawn into their stories. I wasn’t interested in the vacuous lives of Emma and Serena, who struck me as self-absorbed. Mackenzie had more depth and something of a moral compass, but her insecurities were such that I had a hard time relating to her as well.

So–not a hit with me. I was hoping for more, as the front cover suggests a summer read I would enjoy. But the storyline did not hold my attention and I failed to connect with the characters. While I wouldn’t write off all of this author’s stories for good (I understand Southern settings are her strong suit, and this one was set in New York), I can’t honestly recommend this one.

Thanks to Berkeley Books for providing me a free copy to review. All opinions are mine.

After words: How much does a book’s setting influence your enjoyment of its story?


Meet Gracie Klumpp, illustrator & storyteller

Meet Gracie Klumpp, illustrator & storytellerIf you’ve taken a stroll around my site recently, you may have noticed new artwork on many of my standing web pages (here, here, & here).

Where did I find such heartwarmingly whimsical illustrations? Well, I’ll tell you.

Meet Gracie Klumpp, an illustrator with a passion for finding and communicating people’s stories. She believes we all have a story to tell. And here on Story Matters, she’s now helping me tell mine.

I’m delighted to have the chance to meet her and her husband face-to-face later this summer when they’re visiting Seattle. (Read more about their epic road trip here.) Meanwhile, she’s graciously answered my questions about storytelling from an artist’s perspective. So read on…

Gracie, welcome! As an artist with a background in animation and visual storytelling, you relish being a part of discussions about what *story* means to us as humans. So I have to ask: what does story mean to you?

Oh, boy.  I could talk forever about this. Fortunately, you’ve asked a lot of fantastic questions that touch on most of what I want to say, so I’ll start with a short one here as an overview:

I like to think of God as the Master Storyteller. He’s been telling this incredible story of beauty, love, a dark evil, betrayal,  sacrifice, redemption, and victory since the beginning of the world. We’re all a part of this Great Story, and He created each of us with a bit of His Image. Part of that Image is a heart for story, and an urge to create and tell stories of our own. When we tell our stories, we tend to use a lot of the themes and structures of the Greater Story, whether we know it or not, and seeing those connections is something I get especially excited about.

You’re also a Christian who looks for what the stories God tells says about Him, His creation, and us. By “the stories God tells,” do you mean the Bible—or something else?

Yes. I mean the Greater Story of creation to eternity, which includes the Bible as well as the stories unfolding in our lives today. Learning to see what God has done throughout history (in the Bible, including Jesus’ actions and parables, and how the Holy Spirit works today) as a story really changed the way I saw God.

Story has always spoken to me in a way that’s hard to describe, and I think most people experience this at least sometimes in their lives. When I was little I had no idea what it was. I would experience what C.S. Lewis called “Joy,” at seemingly random moments, like in seeing a leaf fall on a walk in the woods, or reading a particular line of a book.  It felt like a window had opened into this amazing, beautiful, magical world that I somehow knew and felt at home in—but only for a second. Then it would close and I’d be left feeling homesick for something I couldn’t even put my finger on. It was the most real thing I’d ever felt.

And it wasn’t in church. No one ever mentioned it in church, and no one talked like any kind of magic was real. So what was that? I would wonder. It wasn’t until years and years later that I put together that it was God, and the magic of His creation. It was then that it started to make sense to call it His Story.  He did, after all, create the world it is set in. He’s in control of all its arcs and twists. And the storyline is incredible. All our stories mirror it in one way or another, which makes sense, too—He also created us, and in His image.

Seeing the world this way brought together what had been two very separate parts of my life, in a way that made complete sense and blew the top off the way I had seen God and church—and it was fantastic! I started to see how they intertwined in this incredible harmony as threads in the Great Story, and how I was there, too—tiny, but there—in the middle of it. So are you.

That’s the Story I mean.

Meet Gracie Klumpp, illustrator & storyteller

Sunday Afternoon by Gracie Klumpp

Your artwork is charming! Is creating it as effortless as it looks? Trick question of course—anything that looks effortless never is. :) But maybe you could share a little about your creative process as well as how you arrived at the name for your Etsy shop, The Chartreuse Umbrella.

Aww, thank you!

I love experimenting, but I have a favorite basic process that starts with regular graphite pencils. Sometimes I sketch things out first as a tiny thumbnail image of the whole illustration I’m planning to do, and sometimes I just dive right in. I’ve tried making it all neat and tidy, but it doesn’t feel natural. I like kind of messy, with what one of my professors used to call my “fingerprints” all over it. Sometimes there actually are fingerprints in the graphite smudges.  Then I scan it, and color and texture it digitally. I love the texturing part—it always surprises me how it turns out, which I love!

The Chartreuse Umbrella grew out of my senior project. During college I struggled a lot with anxiety and depression, and to combat that I started creating images of hope and joy in everyday life—those little moments we tend to pass over, but that can mean so much. After I graduated and starting thinking about selling my artwork on Etsy, it made sense to continue the theme, so I came up with the tagline “the ordinary is extraordinary.” I picked an ordinary object I love, an umbrella, and give it an unusual color (that I also love!) for the “extraordinary,” part.

As a freelance illustrator, you promise clients that you can help them get to the heart of their story with a simple, organized process. Without giving away trade secrets, can you tell us a bit about your method?

I have a lot of both my parents in me, which resulted in a rather weird (and sometimes difficult to balance) combination of creative and organized. This took some work to figure out, and I used to lament not just being more creative like a lot of artists around me who come up with this incredibly imaginative, fun work. But now I see the organization is a strength, too. When I work with clients on projects, I’m able to both deliver creative options and an engaging final piece, and also do it on time, making sure they know what’s going on at each step. I’ve found a lot of clients are really looking for that organization part so they know they can rely on me.

The getting at the heart of their story part isn’t a streamlined process—that wouldn’t make much sense. I love sitting down with clients and just talking to them, asking them questions and learning more about them to figure out what it is they’re really like and what they’re really trying to say with their project. Family portraits are especially fun—I love creating images of the family that really represent them, and not just what they look like all dressed up together. It’s fun to encourage clients to talk about what they do for fun, or what they talk about around the dinner table, to get a feel for their family’s personality, both as individuals and as a whole. That part is always different and messy, but beautiful.

You’ve blogged honestly about your own struggles with depression and anxiety. What role does art play in your healing process?

It’s huge. Whenever I’m really struggling, my dear friend, Annalee, always tells me to pull out my sketchbook. In those situations, picking up a pencil can be one of the hardest, scariest things to do, but it’s always worth it.  I can process a lot of things through drawing that I didn’t even know I was dealing with, and wouldn’t even begin to be able to talk about.  During my senior project I did a series of illustrated journals that were incredibly helpful for me—I would always write them out beforehand, but by the time I was finished illustrating them, completely new things would surface and I would end up sorting through messes I didn’t even know were there. It can be a really healing process.

You’re planning a change of scope for your work, from its current focus on the hope and joy of everyday moments (which is lovely), to stories and creation and what these things say about God and humanity. Why the shift?

I love illustrating those everyday moments, and that will most likely always be a part of the artwork I create. But lately God has really been putting stories and the theology of stories on my heart, and nudging me toward making that passion of mine more central to what I do every day.  And in a way, it’s really a more focused version of The Chartreuse Umbrella. It’s like I’m honing in a bit to really get at more of the foundation of the message God’s put on my heart. What that looks like has grown and changed throughout the last five months as we’ve prayed and read and brainstormed and researched and planned, and it’s turned into the company Ethan and I have started called Once and Still.

A big thumbs-up to your summer plans to road-trip with your best friend (a.k.a. husband, Ethan) visiting creatives along the way to talk to them about what they do and how they do it. What do you hope to gain from the experience?

Back in March, we thought we knew where God was leading us starting this summer, and had a lot of plans based on that. When those plans fell through we were confused and a bit surprised, but we knew there must be something else God was leading us toward.

We’ve talked about running our own creative business together as a couple for a long time now, but it wasn’t until all our plans got turned upside down that we really started thinking this could be the year to take our first step in that direction. On a long drive together, Ethan first suggested the idea of a road trip to get our bearings, and it’s grown from there, with God opening doors all along the way.

We’ve been taking classes and planning what running a business together could look like, but we really want to talk to people who have been there, not only to learn from them, but also to build community among like-minded people.  Working for yourself can feel like you’re completely alone, but I don’t think it has to be that way. We’ll be meeting with some very talented folks—so excited to meet you in person, Katherine!—along the west coast to get to know them, hear their stories, and learn from their experience. We’ll be blogging all along the way to share what we learn with others, too!

And I, for one, can hardly wait to see how it all turns out. Thank you, Gracie!

After words: Friends, you can learn more about what Gracie does by browsing her website, GracieKlumpp.com. She also blogs at Once and Still, which is all about “viewing the world–and our stories–through the lens of the Greater Story God is telling.”

Plus, don’t miss her Etsy shop, The Chartreuse Umbrella, where you can find more of her whimsical, heartwarming cards and prints.

And now, for you, a question: When you think of “God’s story,” what comes to your mind?


Her Sister’s Shoes, book review + giveaway

Her Sister's Shoes, book review + giveawayA contemporary women’s novel that explores and proves the healing power of family.

Her Sister’s Shoes by Ashley Farley

About this book: (from the publisher) Set in the South Carolina Lowcountry and packed with Southern charm and memorable characters, Her Sister’s Shoes is the story of three sisters—Samantha, Jackie, and Faith—who struggle to balance the demands of career and family while remaining true to themselves.

Samantha Sweeney has always been the glue that holds her family together, their go-to girl for love and support. When an ATV accident leaves her teenage son in a wheelchair, she loses her carefully constructed self-control. In the after-gloom of her dreaded fiftieth birthday and the discovery of her husband’s infidelity, Jackie realizes she must reconnect with her former self to find the happiness she needs to move forward. Faith lacks the courage to stand up to her abusive husband. She turns to her sisters for help, placing all their lives at risk.

In the midst of their individual challenges, the Sweeney sisters must cope with their mother’s mental decline. Is Lovie in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, or is her odd behavior normal for a woman her age? No one, including Lovie, understands her obsession with a rusty key she wears around her neck.

About the author: (from Amazon) Ashley Farley is a wife and mother of two college-aged children. She grew up in the salty marshes of South Carolina, but now lives in Richmond, Virginia, a city she loves for its history and traditions. After her brother died in 1999 of an accidental overdose, she turned to writing as a way of releasing her pent-up emotions. She wrote SAVING BEN in honor of Neal, the boy she worshipped, the man she could not save. SAVING BEN is not a memoir, but a story about the special bond between siblings. When she’s not working on her next novel, she can be found book blogging at www.chroniclesofavidreaders.com.

Genre: Fiction/Contemporary/Women’s Fiction

Why I read this book: As an iRead reviewer

If this book were a movie, I would rate it: PG-13 for some language and mature content.

Reminds me of…novels of Patti Callahan Henry and Marybeth Whalen

Will especially appeal to… fans of Dorothea Benton Frank

This story matters because…it celebrates the healing power of family

My take: I tend to gravitate toward novels like this one with an ensemble cast, in which each character carries an equal part of the story. I like to see how an author will weave these individual strands into one whole tapestry, each character’s strengths and weaknesses compelling her to join forces with the others until they all, ultimately, find healing and happiness. Her Sister’s Shoes certainly has all of this, and its evocative Lowcountry setting contributes to its summer-reading appeal.

While technically a well-put-together story with the gravitas I enjoy, it lacked the nuance of character and plot development I prefer. This was most often revealed in dialogue. Of course, this reflects my own taste and may not strike others the same way. Because of its setting and subject matter, many would consider Her Sister’s Shoes an appealing, relatively clean beach read.

To see what other reviewers are saying, click here.

Thanks to iRead Book Tours and the author for providing me a free copy to review. All opinions are mine.

After words:

To enter the giveaway: a Rafflecopter giveaway

To connect with the author: Website ~ Twitter ~ Facebook