How Christian Do You Like Your Christian Fiction?

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Recently I was talking with an author friend about a favorite Christian author’s most recent book, which wasn’t particularly Christian, unlike her previous books. He said that Christian publishers are now encouraging authors to write moral stories which are not overtly Christian because there’s no market for the latter.

I was astonished. Admittedly I’m just one small speck in the universe, but I hear from people all the time who want Christian fiction. Clean, moral stories are fine in their place, but readers of Christian fiction want the Christian content. It doesn’t have to contain a full-blown conversion story (though it’s fine if it does), it shouldn’t be didactic, some things may be implied rather than spelled out, but one reason we read Christian fiction is for Christian content. We want to see how people apply Christian principles to their dilemmas and everyday life. We expect to see them acting Christianly, as a friend recently said. That can be done and has been done without the book being preachy or stuffy.

I know there is a market for such books, though I am sure it’s a smaller market than secular or just moral books.

But one major bestselling series with a clear Christian thread running through it is Jan Karon’s Mitford series. I don’t think it’s even marketed as Christian fiction, yet there are conversions, clear gospel presentations, characters attending church, praying, reading their Bibles, Biblical principles worked out into life. I don’t know if it’s so well accepted because the main character is a minister, or if it’s because Jan Karon weaves everything together so naturally and realistically. But it can be done.

I have noticed, though, with some books that seem to be striving for the middle ground, that some reviewers criticize it for having too much religious content and others criticize it for not having enough. So it seems like this is one area where it’s best to be overtly Christian or not at all.

I’d love to know how you feel. If you don’t like Christian fiction, fine, you don’t need to trash it here. But if you do like Christian fiction, how Christian do you like for it to be? And what do you think we can do to let publishers know that, besides, of course, the most important way: buying it?

See also:

Why Read? Why Read Fiction? Why Read Christian fiction?
The Gospel and Christian Fiction.
Sexuality in Christian Fiction.
“Edgy” Christian Fiction.

(Sharing with Faith on Fire, Literary Musing Monday)

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Two Short Christmas Reviews

In The Great Christmas Bowl by Susan May Warren, Marianne Wallace is an avid football fan, but none of her sons have been interested in playing – until her youngest son’s senior year. She becomes the Big Lake Trouts’ biggest fan. But is she a big enough fan to don the trout costume when the mascot is out for the season? Especially when her husband, thinking she needs some spice in her life, volunteers her to head the hospitality committee with its upcoming Christmas Tea (note to husbands: don’t do this!) and she’s trying to create the perfect Christmas for her family.

The Christmas Tea is a challenge as the older pillar-of-the-church ladies want to keep the tea the same as it has been for eons, but the younger women want to change it up. And as her grown children one by one cancel their plans to come for Christmas, this holiday season is shaping up to be one of the most disappointing and stressful ever.

The story is written in a humorous vein but it still manages to tackles key issues, for instance: is showing another person your love best done the way you think conveys it, or are the unusual and perhaps unorthodox opportunities that arise, that seem like hindrances, actually new opportunities to show love? Another: what’s the nature and focus of traditions and hospitality?

Loved this novella!

The second one also happens to be by Susan May Warren: Evergreen: A Christiansen Winter Novella. The Christiansens are facing their first Christmas with an empty nest. John is excited, planning a surprise trip to Paris to renew their vows at the top of the Eiffel tower. But Ingrid agrees for them to head up the church’s live Nativity, their dog has a major illness, wiping out the savings for the trip and needing their time and attention, and Ingrid’s sister, who is going into rehab after being arrested, asks them to take in her son, a nephew they haven’t seen in years. Their disagreements over these things dredge up past unresolved hurts, driving a wedge between them.

Some quotes from this one:

Even Mary had to let her child go…You have to wonder, as Mary watched Jesus on the cross, did she look back and ask herself if she had made a mistake? God had told her she would be the mother of the Savior. You can’t get more devastated than Mary, watching her Son—the Savior—die…But Jesus’ path wasn’t for Mary to determine. Her greatest ability as a mother was to be His mother. To love Him, nurture Him, care for Him. She embraced her destiny, then let Him go to embrace His. You have to let your children embrace theirs.

She didn’t want to hear it. To see his love in a thousand small ways. Because then she’d have to loose her hold on the ember of bitterness, let God heal her heart.

I should have leaned into God for courage, instead of reacting in fear.

Along with the nature of love and the best ways to show it, this one also discusses protection and fear. Protecting each other is something we’re supposed to do, yet sometimes it can stifle the other.

This was a different tone from the first one, but poignant and quite good. Evidently Susan has a whole series involving the Christiansens.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: One Enchanted Christmas: A Novella

Enchanted ChristmasIn One Enchanted Christmas by Melissa Tagg, Maren Grant had one of the best nights of her life one December evening. Her book was about ready to be published, and as she developed a serious crush on Colin Renwycke, the model posing for the cover of her book, he actually asked her out. They had a wonderful, “enchanted” evening going to dinner and then a carriage ride around the city, ending with his issuing an open invitation to come visit his family’s farm, even to stay there and write for a while.

A year later, even though Maren only heard from Colin once, via a postcard reminding her about his open invitation, and at the urging of her best friend, she decided to take Colin up on his offer. She had begun to think of him as her story’s hero, and was stuck in her next novel. She decided seeing Colin’s home and town might provide her with inspiration. She couldn’t reach him, so she decided to just show up. He had told her where to find the key if the family was away, and as she tried to retrieve it, who should arrive but – not Colin, but his brother, Drew, mystified as to why this woman was trying to break into his house.

After much explanation and the fortunate recognition of her by Drew’s niece, Winnie, who had read Maren’s first book, Drew invites her into the home he shares with his sister and niece. He had inherited the family farm and was trying to make a go of it as a haven for his siblings and himself, helping out with their problems the best way he knew how. He and Colin had argued over the inheritance, and Drew had not see his brother since. He begins to entertain the hope that this author might draw Colin back to the farm.

But as Drew shows Maren around town and as she unavoidably gets pulled into some of the family issues, they find they mesh well, her playfulness a complement to his seriousness. He may not want Colin to rediscover Maren after all.

My thoughts:

I had never read Melissa Tagg before, and romances aren’t my favorite genre, but this was a delight. I loved how Maren and Drew interacted, and a quirky narrator popped up occasionally to summarize, give background information, etc. Though the story has something of a romantic comedy feel, there’s drama as well from the family issues and misunderstandings. It’s a little light on the faith element, but otherwise it’s quite an enjoyable Christmas read.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Keeping Christmas

Keeping ChristmasIn Keeping Christmas by Dan Walsh, Stan and Judith Winters are empty nesters. Stan enjoys having a little more freedom of schedule and quietness, but Judith’s life has always been wrapped up in her children, and she misses them. She’s sad that they can’t come for Thanksgiving, but when she learns that none of them can come for Christmas, she falls into a deeper depression than Stan has ever seen. She doesn’t even have the heart to decorate the Christmas tree. That was something they had always done together, and most of their ornaments are what Stan calls “ugly ornaments,” ones Judith made with the kids.

Judith’s best friend does her best to distract her, with minimal success at first. Judith doesn’t think her friend understands, since all of her children and grandchildren live in town. But her friend conveys that just because they’re all there doesn’t mean everything is idyllic and shares some of the family conflicts and quandaries.

Judith and Stan had developed different and separate traditions for their after-Thanksgiving activities, and not only had they hardly talked over their meal, but Stan had even left the TV on. But as he tries to help lift Judith’s spirits, he becomes more attentive. Finally he has an idea, one involving the box of “ugly ornaments” and some sacrifice, but it’s his last option.

My thoughts:

Though predictable, this was a sweet story, not just about helping an empty nester mom’s depression, but about a husband and wife learning to reconnect after all their kids are gone. I’d be a little concerned that moms in the same situation reading this might be even more down since the Hallmark-type happy ending in the book is not likely to happen in real life. But perhaps there’s enough in everything else the characters go through and learn to be beneficial even without that ideal ending. Overall a nice, heartwarming Christmas novel.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, and Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Silver Bells

Silver BellsSilver Bells by Deborah Raney opens in small-town Bristol, Kansas in August 1971. Michelle Penn has had to leave college after two years because her parents can’t afford to send both her and her brother, and they hope that having her brother in college will keep him out of Viet Nam. Michelle has found a job as the city reporter in Bristol’s small newspaper. She meets the sports reporter at the desk next to hers, and after she makes a comment about the boss’s son, she’s chagrined to learn that’s him. “First day on the job and she was toast. Burned-to-a-crisp toast.” Thankfully, the boss’s son, Rob, thinks the whole thing is funny.

He shows her the ropes and takes her along for a breaking case, which involves a domestic disturbance. While he’s snapping pictures, she’s supposed to be getting details, but compassion for the battered wife and daughter stop her in her tracks. She talks Rob into using the least graphic of the photos and goes back later to see if she can help the woman.

Later she humanizes the paper a bit by putting a fun, good-feeling photo on the front cover. At first the editor is not pleased that the cover photo did not involve politics or sports, but the response is so positive that he grudgingly assigns her the cover photo from now on. But he does warn her that he has a policy against employees dating.

Unfortunately, Michelle has already taken a liking to Rob, and he is attracted to her as well. They’re thrown together often to cover stories, but Rob’s father once again warns Michelle away from Rob and threatens her with losing her job. Rob wonders if it’s time to get out from under his father’s thumb so he can live his own life the way he wants to.

My thoughts:

This was a sweet, funny, touching, clean romance. I loved the banter between Rob and Michelle. The faith element was woven in naturally as the characters learned to seek and then to trust God with their situation. The 1970s were the era of my teens, and I enjoyed the touches particular to the times that Deborah incorporated. This era is not often written about, so it was refreshing from that aspect as well. The plot ends at Christmastime, making it a perfect Christmas read.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, and Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Sarah’s Song

Sarah's SongSarah’s Song is the third in Karen Kingsbury’s Red Glove series, but can easily be read without having read the first two.

In this story, Sarah Lindeman lives in a retirement home while fighting a losing battle with heart failure. Every Christmas she brings out twelve old yellowed envelopes with ornaments with a single word on each and places one on the tree each day. The words unfold the story of her return to the Lord and her love story with dear husband, Sam, a story involving sin, rebellion, grace, and restoration.

This Christmas, one of Sarah’s nurses, Beth, takes an interest in hearing the story unfold day by day. Sarah senses that Beth has deep needs that the details of her own story can minister to. But will Beth hear it? And will Sarah live long enough to tell it?

A couple of sentences made me wince a bit, like “All of life was a dance, the steps measured out to the music of the days” and especially gloves that “smelled of old love and days gone by.” And though the plot line is somewhat predictable, it’s a sweet, touching story and I enjoyed it.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, and Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: To Be Where You Are

To Be Where You AreI don’t often read books “hot off the press.”  Usually I have so many stacked up from my last birthday, Christmas, etc., that anything new goes behind them. But Jan Karon’s books are an exception: they go straight to the front of the queue! To Be Where You Are is her newest, and its action starts right on the heels of Come Rain or Come Shine, in which Father Tim’s adopted son, Dooley, married his fiance, Lace.

In this book, Dooley and Lace have been fostering a four-year-old boy named Jack, and they’re making plans for a big celebration on what they call Name Day, when their adoption becomes final. That’s probably the major plot line, but as always in Mitford, there are multiple things, large and small, going on at any one time. Some of the other happenings in this book, just to name a few: one long-time Mitford resident passes away; another faces a serious illness and others offer to pitch in at his place of business; major plumbing problems wreak havoc at Dooley’s practice; Lace is offered a major art project which would take care of the plumbing bills, but it’s in California; a number of romances are blossoming; another Mitford resident is looking for ways to spice up his marriage; another is considering running for mayor; another is writing a book (not Cynthia!).

A few favorite spots:

She thought that one of the hardest parts of marriage was being loving when both partners were exhausted or wounded at the same time. When you had the least strength, that’s when you had to dig beyond your limits and grab whatever could be found and give it away.

She needed complete solitude to do this huge thing. No music, no interruptions, just the work. But that was not going to happen, and she had to get used to it.

Lights on in the town at the foot of the hill. Stars on in the great bowl above.

How could he do possibly want to do this fool thing?…Maybe it wasn’t about wanting or not wanting. Though he was beyond serving the mission field, wasn’t his own town a mission field?…And didn’t charity begin at home?

Once in a blue moon they got an October morning like this. It was a day when he could almost smell the ocean, when a gull might wing overhead. He wasn’t the biggest fan of sand and sea, but occasionally some hungering gnawed at him for the visual feast of the Atlantic plain and the knowledge – more like a secret revealed only to Tim Kavanaugh – that over there were Ireland and England and Scotland and Italy and…

His sermon had been preached 24/7 on the floor of The Local for more than three and a half decades.

Reading the Mitford books is like coming home for an extended visit. It was fun seeing how things had changed and yet stayed the same. The same warmth, gentle humor, and undercurrent of truth pervades this book just as it has the others. I don’t know how long Jan will continue writing Mitford books, but I’ll keep reading as many as she wants to write!

Another nice plus to reading this volume now is that the book started in October, and I also started reading (or listening) to it in October, so there were parallels in the setting to what I was experiencing personally.

I listened to the audiobook, wonderfully read, as the other Mitford books have been, by John McDonough.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

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Book Review: The Sandcastle Sister

Sandcastle SisterThe Sandcastle Sister by Lisa Wingate is a novella sequel to The Story Keeper, and both are part of the Carolina Chronicles series.

In The Story Keeper, Jen Gibbs had escaped an almost cultish group in the Appalachian hills of NC to go to college and then work in publishing. An old unsigned manuscript led her back to her roots, to a reclusive author, and to a discovery of a people called the Melungeons.

In this book. the reclusive author, Evan Hall, writes a bestseller about the Melungeons and Jen serves as his editor. They develop a relationship, and when the book comes out, Evan insists that Jen accompany him on the book tour, which takes them across Europe. When he wants to tie the knot in Paris, Jen pulls away. An urgent situation with her sister brings her back to the States.

Her youngest sister, Lily, had come out from the same group that Jen had, but without burning her bridges. She wants to become a pharmacist and go back to man the only pharmacy in the area she comes from. But along the way she researches her family history, trying to find out whatever became of the mother who left the family years ago, and discovers a half-sister that no one in the family knew of. Lily is determined to look up this sister, and Jen decides to accompany Lily for her safety and protection. They end up in the Outer Banks of NC (the setting for the first book in the series, The Prayer Box), and come across some of its characters. While searching, Jen wrestles with her reasons for hesitating to marry Evan and wonders if she can overcome them. But what they find in the Outer Banks changes their lives in many ways.

I enjoyed this little book. It was fun to see what became of the characters from The Story Keeper and to see the tie-ins with the other books. The faith element is not quite as obvious in this one, but it’s there. I actually ended up reading the last book in the series out of order before this one, so I’ll discuss it tomorrow.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

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Book Review: The Story Keeper

Story KeeperIn The Story Keeper by Lisa Wingate, Jen Gibbs has just moved up in her publishing career to work with the prestigious Vida House Publishing in New York. A competitive former coworker is there as well. The head, George Vida, has what’s called Slush Mountain in the conference room – a pile of manuscripts that for various reasons were not able to be returned to the owners. A cardinal rule at Vida House is that no one touches Slush Mountain.

So when Jen discovers an old manila envelope on her desk with a manuscript containing a hand-drawn cover, she can’t help but wonder if someone, perhaps her old coworker, is setting her up for a fall, making it look like she took one of Slush Mountain’s old manuscripts to peruse. But curiosity gets the better of her, and as she starts reading it, she’s drawn into the story of Sarra, a teenage Melungeon girl in Appalachia in the late 1800s. The Melungeons were a mixture of three races, European, African, and Native American, often with dark hair and skin and blue eyes. Unfortunately, they were also the subject of racism and suspicion. Sarra escapes a dangerous situation and ends up with an unlikely protector, Rand Champlain, a man from one of Charleston’s oldest families who is in the area to study the native flora and fauna.

Jen is thoroughly drawn in to the story, and she recognizes similarities in style and vocabulary to a famous author who is now a bit of a recluse. Should she risk her reputation at Vida House to follow this trail? Could she even get through to the suspected author to talk? He now lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains from which Jen herself escaped poverty, ignorance, and an almost cult-like authoritarian religious group. She had planned never to return there: can she face her past for the sake of this story?

Quotes:

All breath in evr’thing been given by Father God, Granddaughter…Not a one he ain’t mindful a. All lives be mattersome to him. Not a one oughtn’t be mattersome to us, same way.

Just a building, created by men, filled with bits of God’s Word torn from context and recombined like the pieces of a ransom note.

The truth was, I yearned, in a soul-deep way, to be Sarra. To ‘feel’ that God was so very close, so very concerned with my particular life, so very ready to protect and to love. Always nearby. Always listening. Always leading.

No matter how many wrong choices we’ve made in the past, we can always decide to make the right ones today. The past need not determine one moment of the future.

My thoughts:

I loved this book: Jen’s progression, the search for the mysteries involving the manuscript, the story within the story of Rand and Sarra, the setting of both a busy NY publishing house and then the Blue Ridge mountain area. Sarra and Rand’s story alternates between the two of them, and I thought Lisa showed great skill writing in their different voices as well as Jen’s – a modern city girl, a backwoods mixed race mountain girl, and a turn-of-the-century Southern aristocrat.

My only very small complaints are, 1), that a lot got wrapped up super-quickly at the end. I had thought, starting into the epilogue, that the story was heading toward a sequel since there was no way everything could be tied up in the last few pages, but it was. And, 2), one of the biggest mysteries was left a mystery, and that was something of a let-down. But those are small enough as to be almost inconsequential.

Otherwise, I enjoyed it immensely. A 9 out of 10.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, and Carole’s Books You Loved)

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Book Review: Threads of Suspicion

Threads of SuspicionThreads of Suspicion by Dee Henderson is the sequel to Traces of Guilt, the main character of each being Evie Blackwell. Evie is one of the lead investigators for the Illinois State Police and has recently accepted a spot on the governor’s new Missing Person’s Task Force. She is partnered with a man named David, and each person on the task force starts looking into individual missing person cold cases, but help each other out in crunches.

Evie’s case involves a college student missing for nine years. Much of the job is going through old information and details, re-interviewing people involved, getting an idea of the personality and lifestyle of the victim, forming and ruling out new theories. Evie describes it as tugging on various threads to see which one starts to unravel the case.

David’s case concerns a missing private investigator, and there are some surprising coincidences connecting their cases and even David’s personal life.

Evie’s less successful at unraveling the threads of her own personal life. She has been seriously dating a banker for some time, Paul, and he’s ready to propose. But Evie has doubts. First, she’s a little engagement-shy since she has experienced three broken engagements before. Plus there are significant differences between herself and Paul – their jobs, their personalities, their ambitions. Would those differences complement each other or pull them away from each other? Plus Evie really likes her job and lifestyle and isn’t sure she’s ready for the changes marriage would bring.

As I said of the first book in the series, this is not what you’d call an action-packed book, though action and suspense are in places. It’s more puzzle-solving, following the threads with Evie and seeing whether you come up with the same theories. Plus in both books, the faith element is natural and unforced. And, as with the last several books, there is some crossover of characters from previous stories, and though that’s fun, I think you could still enjoy this as a stand-alone book if you haven’t read the others. I always enjoy Dee and am looking forward to Evie’s next installment.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday and Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Carole’s Books You Loved)