It’s like Romeo & Juliet for Plain folks

When we first moved to Amish country, I was entralled with Amish fiction, hoping to glean some understanding about a people with whom I was previously unfamiliar.

I’ll admit it: I got burnt out. I felt like I was reading the same plots with different characters.

I’ve been reluctant to pick up another one in quite some time, but I found a pleasant surprise in Cindy Woodsmall’s The Scent of Cherry Blossoms. Though the story was slow to start, it soon picked up speed, and I was fully invested in the Romeo-and-Juliet plot set in the Plain community.

Aden and Annie, the love protagonists, are separated by their faith communities, one Old Order Amish, the other Old Order Mennonite, and though they work side-by-side and have been friends for years, their relationship is not permitted to progress beyond a working one. The plot is almost frustrating because the line separating the two groups, from the outside, seems almost negligible. Woodsmall, however, writes from personal knowledge — friendship with an Old Order Amish woman — which lends credibility to the story and its characters.

FAVORITES: Likable characters. Enchanting setting. Compelling story.

FAULTS: Aden stutters, and Woodsmall writes that into his dialogue. It’s an important part of his character, but it’s hard to read at times. Distracting, almost. But I don’t know how else you convey a stutter on the printed page. Also, the ending felt abrupt. After all the build-up, I thought, “that’s it?” It wasn’t a bad ending; the story just concluded hastily, I thought.

IN A WORD: Redemptive. It’s Christian fiction, so it ought to be, right? For me, The Scent of Cherry Blossoms redeemed Amish fiction. Maybe I’ll try another one soon.

How about you? Interested in this book? I’d like to give it away.

Click here to read the first chapter.

Leave a comment here on the blog about why you love Amish fiction, or why, if you don’t, you’d be willing to give this one a try.

Want extra chances to win? Share this post/giveaway on Twitter and/or Facebook, then come back and leave another comment letting me know you did one or both of those things. Three chances to enter and win in all.

I’ll pick a winner this time next week and announce it on Wednesday’s blog (March 7.)

And if you liked this review, take a moment to rank it on the Waterbrook Multnomah Blogging for Books Web site below. You could have another chance to win a copy of the book.


What are you looking for?

Our daughter, the almost 4-year-old, loves books. When we walk out of the library every 3 weeks, our bag is loaded with books. A few months ago, she discovered Where’s Waldo? and other seek-and-find sorts of books.

Confession: I kind of hate these books. If I can’t easily find Waldo or characters from the Lion King within a few minutes, then I’m ready to turn the page and move on.

Isabelle still needs help finding the hidden pictures, so I can’t exactly leave her to herself with these books. What’s interesting, though, is that after we’ve been through the book once and found the pictures, finding them gets easier. She usually can pick out what we’re looking for without help after a couple of times through, and I start to remember where we looked to find the pictures.

This is somewhat like faith in Jesus. Although the apostle Paul writes in a letter that “what may be known about God is plain to them” and “God’s invisible qualities … have been clearly seen” (Romans 1:19-20), finding God in our lives, in our world, can be like looking for a hidden picture. If He’s not obvious, we might want to give up. If there are too many things blocking our view, we might get frustrated.

On the other hand, if we keep seeking, we will find Him. Jesus said “seek and you will find” (Matthew 7:7). When you start looking for God, and you find glimpses of His presence — in people, in nature, in circumstances — finding him the next time gets easier.

But it all depends on what you’re looking for.

Our Sunday School class at church is watching a video series about John’s Gospel from the point of view of where he wrote those words — in Ephesus, modern Turkey. Yesterday’s lesson focused on Jesus’ first words to John, as recorded in John 1: “What are you looking for?” (also translated “What do you seek?” or “What do you want?”).

Some people look for a moral teacher when they look for Jesus. Or a miracle maker. Or a magician. Or a genie to grant their every wish.

Others seek Him as the answer to their greatest need. As a deliverer or rescuer from themselves and evil. Some see Him as a servant. Or a king. As God. Or as a man.

Those aren’t all bad things. What you find when you encounter Jesus, when you look for evidence of God, depends a great deal on what you’re looking for in the first place.

So, what are you looking for?

Sometimes we need a little help finding Him, until we learn to look for His presence and working in our lives and others’ lives.

The more we look for Him, the more we’ll find Him.

Years ago, I was part of a Bible study that met once a week, and every week, we were asked the same question to start our sharing time: “What’s God been doing in your life?” The first time I had to answer that question, I was stumped. It’s not that God wasn’t doing anything in my life, but I wasn’t looking for Him. As the weeks went on, and I expected that question each week, answering it became easier.

As we continue in Lent, these questions can guide us in reflecting on our faith:

  • What am I looking for?
  • What is God doing in my life?

Jesus’ answer to the disciples when they answered his first question was “come and see.”

Seek Him. He won’t stay hidden.

Come and see what Jesus is all about.

Saturday smiles: end of another week edition

Seriously? It’s Saturday again already? Time seems to be flying in our house right now. Which reminds me a little of those movie scenes where an airplane is flying directly toward a mountain and everyone thinks .they’re going to crash until the last minute when the plane makes a sharp turn or narrowly crests the mountain without a problem. That’s kind of how life feels for us right now. Not exactly something to smile about, I guess, unless you believe that God is good and you aren’t going to crash and burn and even if you did He’d have a plan for that.

Anyway, on to the weekly smiles.

How can you not smile at the first sign of spring? This yellow crocus, poor confused little flower, appeared in our front yard this week. With temps in the low to mid 50s part of the week, I can understand why nature might think spring is approaching soon. It is approaching soon, but I’m afraid the little crocus won’t survive unharmed till then.

The library. Even though I’m not checking out books right now because I have a backlog of books in the house to read, I still have an “I’m home” moment when I walk in. And I love that Isabelle can pick out no less than 15 books every three weeks to take home, even with a library of her own at home. Hello, we’re the Bartelts and we have a book addiction.

While at the library this week, I was reminded that three weeks from now, we’ll be on our way to Florida and halfway through the seminary semester. Crazy.

The time bake feature on our oven. I made these in the afternoon, then the kids and I took a long walk around the neighborhood. When we returned, it was ready to come out of the oven.

Last Sunday, the kids sang in church. Isabelle hasn’t quite been brave enough to do any actual singing since the kids have made regular appearances, but this time, she sang a little bit AND performed hand motions. Way to go, girl!

Making decisions as a mom. This week, it was little stuff, like making a dentist appointment for Isabelle (her first) and signing her up for soccer. I procrastinate and second-guess myself on decisions, so to have made two tangible ones for the well-being of my children this week feels great.

Isabelle’s starting to recognize and learn how to write letters. I’m not a teacher, so maybe this is old news for other parents of almost 4-year-olds, but it’s exciting. She can write her name and with a little direction copy letters and fill in crossword-type puzzles. Seeing her correctly identify letters that aren’t in her name makes me believe that yes, she will learn to read.

Corban’s terrible twos are turning ornery in the cute-but-naughty sort of way. He giggles and runs away when he needs a diaper change or takes something from his sister. I have to say here that it makes me smile because I can’t let him see me smile in the moment. It is sort of funny. But I know I have to lay down the law. He giggles about other things, too. While singing to him for naptime this week, I picked the hymn “Trust and Obey.” He repeated the words as best he could, then nodded his head and said, “I like it” followed by a giggle. It was enough to make me crack up during the song, too. Oh, the joy.

He also does stuff like this.

Friends, new and old, who keep me sane and encourage me.

Playtime at the park.

Making up after a fight.

Winning a license for a writing software I can’t wait to play around with.

Taking action toward meeting a writing goal.

So, what’s bringing a smile to your face these days?

Happy Saturday!

How sweet it is: Review of A Sweethaven Summer by Courtney Walsh

You know how when you’re reading a book and you have to put it down for whatever reason and you’re disappointed and you say, “Oh, man, I was just getting to the good part!”

A Sweethaven Summer by Courtney Walsh is like that from page 1. The good part — that’s the whole thing. Seriously. I started reading it while my son took a nap on my lap and two-and-a-half hours later I was more than 200 pages into the story. I finished it later that night because I just couldn’t wait.

Before I go too much further with this review, I should tell you Courtney and I went to high school together, though one of us graduated before the other one did, and I won’t say which of us it was. We later worked together at our hometown newspaper and reconnected on Facebook years later (doesn’t everybody?). And we had lunch last fall in a cafe dangerously close to a talking moose.

OK. On with the review. And stick around to the end for a Q & A with Courtney about the book.

A Sweethaven Summer brings friendship, scrapbooking, family secrets, forgiveness, and even a little bit of romance together. Please don’t let the “romance” word scare you. It’s part of the story but it’s not over the top or in your face. Subtle is how I’d describe it. The main character Campbell isn’t on a quest for love, at least not the handsome fella, sweep you off your feet kind. After her mother’s death, she sets out to find the father she never knew and along the way discovers a mother she didn’t know as well as she thought she did either. Scrapbook pages bring old friends together in their former summer community of Sweethaven, Michigan. She also meets Luke, a local who helps her with her search.

A Sweethaven Summer is the first in a three-book series, and I, for one, can’t wait to read more about these characters.

FAVORITES: No word is wasted. I’m kind of a skimmer when it comes to novels. I don’t get caught up in endless paragraphs of description. I linger over dialogue, wanting to get to the action to find out what happens. (Although I will NOT read the end of the book before I read the rest of it.) I tell you that so that when I tell you I read every word of this book, you’ll understand how rare that is. Courtney uses words wisely to both set the scene and move the plot along. I didn’t feel bogged down at all.

FAULTS: Related to what I liked best is what I liked least: it was over too soon! Now I have to wait a few more months for the story to continue. OK, that’s not really a fault. I feel like I’d be nitpicking to mention anything. I want to say that Luke seems too good to be true, but I like his character. Maybe there’s more to discover about Luke.

IN A WORD: Sweet. Not the sick-to-your-stomach-after-eating-too-much-candy kind of sweet. More like a delicious and satisfying slice of your favorite pie to top off your meal.

Courtney was kind enough to grant an interview during her busy book launch schedule. Read on for her thoughts about family, writing and who would play her lead characters in a movie.

So the book is out, people are reading and reviewing it, the launch party’s over… are you still pinching yourself about being a novelist?

Ha. I think at this point, the “work” of it takes over. Marketing your book is a huge part of the process, so I haven’t really stopped and thought “Hey! I wrote a book!” yet. I’d like to you…you know, eventually. 🙂 I did have a sort of surreal moment when I saw it in Barnes and Noble though…that was the moment where it all kind of came together for me!

What has surprised you most about your first novel (the process, the editing, the reaction, etc.)?

The whole process and the amount of work involved was very surprising…and still is! I don’t say that as a bad thing–I actually LOVE the whole process, but I was maybe a bit naive as to what it really took to write a novel! It’s a lot of writing and then rewriting and “cutting your darlings” as my editor says…but I also think I am surprised at how incredibly volatile it feels to have it out there, for people to read. I keep saying it’s like running across the stage naked with a follow spot on you. And it really is! (And, friends, that’s just not a pretty picture!)

How do you make writing a priority with a busy family?

I have an amazing husband. When we lived in Illinois, my mom came up once a week and kept my youngest (who is still at home.) But then we moved to Colorado. One of her attempts to keep us in Illinois went something like this: “You’ll never have time to write now without me there to watch Sam.” She almost got me on that one! It’s VERY challenging at times, but I’m so fortunate that my husband is supportive. He will give me a day away (or just locked in my office under the headphones) without any question. He doesn’t even ask me to make him dinner. I love that man. 🙂

Also, now, I pretty much only write on the weekends…I find that having a set time with a word count goal in mind really helps me.

The women in Sweethaven tackle some pretty serious issues: being raised without a father, unforgiveness, infertility, broken family relationships (and others I’m probably leaving out!) … how did you choose these themes for your novel?

Gosh, if I told you that the characters kind of told me their stories would you suggest I voluntarily check myself into a mental hospital? Because, truly, these women became so real to me, I really didn’t “dream up” stories for them…they sort of just unfolded while I wrote them. The unforgiveness thing probably comes from my own struggles, but everything else, I really feel like they fit in with the lives the characters lived.

And on a totally less serious note, if Sweethaven was turned into a movie, who would you want to play Luke and Campbell? (Or any other characters you’d like to cast.)

Oh, this is my favorite interview question of all time. ever.

Don’t think I haven’t thought about this. Until recently, I had NO one pictured for Campbell, but then my sister and I were talking about it and she found an image of Carey Mulligan. And it was like, “YES!” That’s her! To me, Luke has always been Scott Speedman from Felicity, still one of my all-time favorite shows. Wouldn’t they be so cute together? (It probably wouldn’t work anymore age-wise, but I can dream…)

I’m still thinking of the other parts…but Adele was inspired by Paula Deen. I don’t care how much butter she uses, I love that woman! 🙂

What’s next for you?

I just finished Book Two and am almost done with Book Three, which will be released at the end of summer and late Nov/early Dec. of this year…beyond that, I’ve got some things in the cooker but I’ve already made plans to take a month to really focus on finishing some projects around the house! I can’t wait to clean/purge and decorate! 🙂

Connect with Courtney on Facebook, Twitter (@courtney_walsh) or on her blog Courtney also is the author of two scrapbooking books, Scrapbooking Your Faith and The Busy Scrapper. If reading A Sweethaven Summer has you itching to dive back in to scrapbooking, like it did for me, then check out her other books as well.

Carrot sticks, a cup and the cross

Lent begins this week. Did it sneak up on you like it did me? It happens every year, yet somehow, it surprised me with its arrival this year.

I’m never quite sure what to do with Lent. When I was a kid, friends who attended church always talked about what they were giving up — usually something they really liked like chocolate or pop (soda now that I live in Pennsylvania). As I got older, I noticed the increase of Friday fish fry events, and when my husband and I were in our early dating years, I caught his excitement for McDonald’s fish sandwich specials during Lent.

Even after I gave my life to Christ, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Give stuff up? Read the Bible more? Sacrifice to the point of pain like my Savior? Pray more? Nothing special?

Since moving here and my husband being in seminary, we’ve come to appreciate the beauty of the church calendar — the seasons, the holy days, the celebrations. We’ve worn ashes on our foreheads, something I thought I’d never do, not being Catholic or mainline Protestant and all. We’ve read special devotional collections focused on the season. We’ve committed to sacrifice in different ways.

I don’t know yet what this season will hold for me. I want it to be meaningful and a time of dedication, but I’ve yet to think about it deeply. Wednesday’s coming soon.

Here’s what I do know.

One night this week, Isabelle, our 4-year-old, made a cross out of her carrot sticks at dinner. She was so excited. “Look, Mom! I made a … I made a cross!” I asked her what the cross meant, why it was important, and she said, “Because that’s where God died.”

For Lent, I want both excitement and remembrance. The season begins solemnly and ends triumphantly. I want to remember the cost and rejoice in the victory.

As I was washing dishes another night, I spent a lot of time cleaning plastic straws with cotton swabs. I’m not sure I will ever buy a cup with a plastic straw again because they’re impossible to clean. Even with the cotton swab, I found I had to close one eye and focus on the hole to pick out the junk resting inside the straw, sometimes just out of reach.

By closing one eye, I blocked out of my view the rest of the dishes, the kitchen, the kids and saw only the straw and the food particles lodged in there.

Life is full. I feel like I always have a million things to do and maybe I accomplish two or three in the course of a day. I start something, then I get interrupted or distracted, and I have to come back to it later. Sadly, my spiritual life is like this sometimes, too. Opportunities to grow in my faith are endless, and if I start something new, I’m likely to be interrupted by life or distracted by worries and fears.

Maybe what I need to do this Lenten season is to close one eye to those things — the things I can’t control or change, that seek to divert me from my purpose and mission — and focus in on the cross.

Twice in recent weeks, this passage has confronted me. I may make it my Lenten theme.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Throw off what holds me back and trips me up. Run with perseverance on the path God has for me. Fix my eyes on Jesus.

How that manifests in my life these next weeks, I’m not sure. But it’s a start.

How about you? What does Lent mean to you? How do you commemorate the season?

May it be a time of blessing and renewal of your faith.

Saturday Smiles: Valentine edition

If you were hoping to leave Valentine’s Day on Tuesday, never to be remembered again until next year, then this post is not for you. I have a double dose of Valentine’s smiles for you this week, beginning with a kid-friendly project on Tuesday and ending with an eight-course Italian dinner on Friday. Those were definitely the highlights.

So, let’s get started.

The cuties and I took Tuesday afternoon to make Valentine’s decorations for our front window. Earlier in the week, we’d stocked up on construction paper and stickers. After taking my husband to school, we paid the scrapbook store a visit for some heart paper, which Isabelle could not live without. I hadn’t been to the store for a long time. This was the first memorable trip there with the kids, who, now that I let them cut and glue things, are attracted to all things paper. Isabelle wanted a die-cut snowglobe paper, and Corban wanted a Buzz Lightyear paper. I understand how they’re so easily distracted. I, too, could have walked out of there with a sack full of paper unrelated to our mission. We restrained ourselves, but not without a little bait-and-switch trickery on my part. “Hey, kids, look at the heart papers over there,” I said while carefully putting the non-heart papers back in their places.

We walked out of there with some free, leftover heart stickers, too. Isabelle was excited.

Here’s what we accomplished.

Isabelle artfully arranged the hearts in a circle. Later in the week, they would take marker to the paper. And the window. A small price to pay for creativity, I guess.

When we’d finished our craft project, it was time to make heart-shaped chocolate chip pancakes. For supper.

Corban didn’t get the message.

“Please, I have a Christmas tree?”

No amount of arguing could convince him that we needed to use hearts because it was Valentine’s Day. He got a Christmas tree.

Then, as I prepared the pancakes and sausage, he provided the entertainment.

Why, yes, Mom, I AM using the measuring cups as a drum set and making a terrible lot of noise.

How soon is too soon for music lessons?

Really, the smile says it all. Trouble and cuteness in one little package.

Dinner was a hit. I mean, what kid wouldn’t like chocolate, butter and syrup for supper? Moms, on the other hand, like it a little less when said kids are bouncing off the walls an hour later, nowhere near settled enough for bedtime.

Live and learn. But I’d do it all over again.

Because my husband was in class on Valentine’s Day, we postponed our couple celebration until Friday night, when he planned and (mostly) prepared a romantic dine-in meal for us.

The kids got to help and eat the first few courses.

Here’s how it looked in the kitchen that day.

I believe Isabelle is yelling “Italian!” here. She had no idea what was for supper, but she was excited for the Italian theme. And Corban’s not wearing pants in this picture. This happens a lot.

I shopped with Phil for the ingredients, but this was my first glimpse of the menu.

Wikipedia + Food Network + love. And yes, it was delicious. Every last bite.

This is how the arugula and fennel salad, and the fisherman’s stew turned out. I ate squid. And octopus. And mussels.


It’s been our tradition since before we were married that our Valentine’s dinner is homemade and dine-in. After we had kids, we had to get a little more creative with our timing. We put them to bed as early as they’ll go and eat a little later. It’s worth the wait.

We don’t get out to restaurants, especially fancy ones, much, so to clothe the table in special decor and turn on some classical music as we eat by candlelight is a suitable substitute.

These two days alone provided a week’s worth of smiles.

But the kids — oh, the things they say. I’m going to need to start writing down their words when they say them because they’ve come up with gems lately.

One day, during lunch or snack time, I was granting one of Isabelle’s reasonable requests, when she said, “Mom, why can’t you call me ‘Frajo’?” (I have no idea how to spell this, by the way. Can’t go wrong with phonetics, right?) Seriously, where does she come up with this stuff?

And Corban, today during lunch, said “We should pray.” We told him to go ahead and he said, “Jesus. Thank you for God. Thank you for playing with blocks.”

Can you hear my heart melting?

OK, that’s enough of my gushing. I should mention that the week was not all smiles and giggles. There are some days I look ahead to this post and wonder what on earth I’m going to write. There’s always something, even in the muck of everyday.

I’m hoping you found some smiles this week, too.

Anthem Thursday: Blessed Be Your Name

We’ve been singing this song in church this month. It’s a longtime favorite of mine because it never ceases to challenge and convict me.

Do I truly bless God when things are good? Do I continue to praise Him when life is rough?

What’s gotten hold of me this time around is this line: You give and take away/you give and take away/my heart will choose to say, “Lord, blessed be your name.”

My heart will CHOOSE to say. I’m having to force myself sometimes to remind myself of God’s goodness, to choose to say, “yes, Lord, You are good,” even when I’m not sure I believe it.

The song came on the radio while Isabelle was in the car with me. She started singing it, too. That’s a sweet moment, when your 4-year-old begins singing truths you’re learning as well.

A Psalmist wrote, “bless the Lord, oh my soul,” commanding his innermost thoughts and feelings to believe in God’s goodness.

Whatever the season of life, whatever the news is personally or globally, whatever the ups or downs of life, even when it’s the hardest thing I have to do, my heart will choose to say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Will yours?