A Delicate Balance | Christian Fiction Genre Spotlight

This summer, actor Wesley Snipes made his fiction debut with Talon of God (Harper Voyager, Jul.), a supernatural thriller that featured a strong black woman who finds her faith and fights off a scourge of demons with the help of Talon, a warrior of God. LJ’s starred review praised the novel, coauthored with Ray Norman, as “an exciting, fast-paced, religious thriller that will draw in even the most cynical reader with its mashup of science and faith.”

Clearly this is not your typical inspirational novel. Indeed, Pamela Jaffee, senior director of publicity and brand development for Avon Books and Harper Voyager, notes that the book stretches the Christian fiction market in a new direction. “It’s frankly a theological horror novel, which is not a commonly seen subgenre.”

The next generation of readers

As Snipes’s novel demonstrates, Christian fiction is expanding beyond the clean, spiritual reads favored by older generations. With millennials increasingly making up a greater proportion of the market once dominated by mostly white, middle-aged female readers, publishers are taking note.

At the 2017 Christian Fiction Readers Retreat, a book blogger–hosted, publisher-sponsored conference held August 12 in Cincinnati, Bethany House publicist Amy Green was delighted to see that many of the most devoted fans in attendance belonged to a younger demographic. “Many of them came to [our] booth to tell us they read our blog posts, follow us on social media, and love our authors, an encouraging sign that we’re doing things right to reach the next generation.”

Coming in March 2018 from HarperCollins Christian Publishing’s (HCCP) Thomas Nelson imprint is Mary ­Weber’s Reclaiming Shilo Snow, a YA sf novel with adult crossover appeal. This sequel to The Evaporation of Sofi Snow stars a female gamer, and the main characters have either Cherokee or Latinx heritage. The author also explores issues of human trafficking and self-worth in a way that Alison Carter, HCCP senior publicist, fiction, believes speaks to millennials who are becoming more vocal about social ­justice issues.

Bethany House is also covering tough topics such as prostitution with Melissa Jagears’s “Teaville Moral Society” historical series, which follows heroines in an early 1900s Kansas town seeking to show Christ’s love to the sex workers of the local red-light district and their children; the third installment, A Chance at Forever, is set to release in March 2018.

Terrorism, police accountability, and immigration are dealt with in romantic suspense author Dani Pettrey’s October release, Blind Spot, the third volume in her “Chesapeake Valor” series. Terri Blackstock’s “If I Run” series deals with two protagonists suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for differing reasons—one witnessed a suicide when she was young and the other served in the military and is scarred by his war experiences. The final installment, If I Live (Zondervan), will be published in March 2018.

Addressing Race

“We definitely have authors who are tackling relevant issues and writing stories sparked by politically and religiously charged news headlines,” says Amanda Bostic, HCCP fiction publisher. Robert Whitlow’s legal drama, A Time To Stand (Thomas Nelson, Sept.), was inspired by the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, in Ferguson, MO, and is one of several new novels that address Civil Rights–era issues recently resurfacing in mainstream media coverage. Elizabeth Byler Younts’s The Solace of Water (Thomas Nelson, Jun. 2018) is set in 1957 when two women, one an Amish recluse, the other an African American preacher’s wife, form an unexpected friendship as they fight personal battles of freedom.

“Elizabeth’s book is certainly one that will hit with readers of both general and Christian fiction,” comments HCCP’s Carter, who adds the novel might hold potential appeal to fans of The Help and Dollbaby. While considered general fiction, Younts’s novel drew on the author’s Amish family background. “It will be interesting to see if there will be crossover [to Amish fiction readers],” the publicist adds. “With such a creative story line, we’re looking for it to defy reading genres. That’s the strength of a powerful story.”

For Revell senior fiction publicist Karen Steele, fiction offers a way to tackle and process the sensitive topics of race and status issues. Coming in January 2018 is Missing Isaac, a first novel by Alabama-born Valerie Fraser Leusse. Set in 1965, the era of Leusse’s own childhood, the novel revolves around Pete McLean, a fatherless white boy from a wealthy family, who searches for his friend Isaac Reynolds, a black field hand who has disappeared from their small town. With its focus on a small town far removed from the marches and bombings and turmoil in the streets that were broadcast on the evening news, Steele explains that the book will provide readers with a different perspective on what the South looked like during this volatile time in history. The author agrees: “What often gets overlooked in news stories and documentaries about this era is that some of the social upheaval was of a quiet nature.”

Shannon Marchese, the fiction editor for Penguin Random House’s WaterBrook and Multnomah imprints, is excited about No One Ever Asked (Waterbrook, Apr. 2018), a stand-alone from Christy and Carol Award–winning Katie Ganshert. “I want to call [this title] out because of how it deals with contemporary racial tension in a way that no novelists publishing in the Christian space are doing,” says ­Marchese. When an impoverished, predominantly black school district loses its accreditation and a neighboring wealthy white community must take on transfer students, the lives of three women—a PTA chair, a working mother, and an elementary school teacher—converge in a conflict they didn’t expect.

With a still mostly white genre beginning to address difficult issues that it once avoided, the question of representation arises. At the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) first-ever “The Art of Writing Conference,” sponsored by Bethany House and held November 8 in Nashville prior to the Christy Awards gala, a seminar by communications professor Theon Hill discussed critical issues about diversity in Christian fiction. In helping to plan this event, Bethany House’s Green chose this topic in particular because of the conversations she had been hearing among white authors who want to write diverse characters but are afraid of getting it wrong, losing sales, or offending others. “Dr. Hill has told me he thinks we’ve reached exactly the right time in the publishing industry, the church, and the culture at large to have this conversation.”

How real is too real?

As writers increasingly tackle gritty and sensitive topics that challenge CF’s traditional norms, a dichotomy has arisen between edgy ripped-from-the-headlines tales that might appeal to readers new to the genre and the traditional redemptive stories beloved by inspirational fiction’s core fans. “Christian writers are faced with finding ways to remain connected to current readers while also drawing new audiences who need inspiration,” says HCCP’s Bostic.

While the pendulum now swings toward more realistic fiction, the demand for more idealistic fiction remains strong. “There are certainly ways to convey the idea of vulgar language without spelling it out and to depict sinful activity without being gratuitous,” argues Kregel Publications marketing and publicity manager Noelle Pedersen. “Skillful authors can do so in a way that seems natural.” The Christian readership, she notes, is divided on which of these traits is of greater importance in their book choices, not only for what they read themselves but for what they recommend to others.

Whichever side readers fall on, Christian fiction doesn’t have to mean insipid or dull or unsophisticated about difficult topics. Kensington senior editor Esi Sogah disputes the general misconceptions about the genre. “I often think people believe that inspirational novels have a very strict good vs. evil point of view, but the wide variety of inspirational and faith-based novels of our Bouquet titles make it clear that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

She cites Laura Bradford’s Portrait of a Sister (Kensington, Jun. 2018), in which the protagonist struggles to reconcile her talent for drawing portraits, considered a sin in the Amish world, with the desire to stay in her community. “One of the beautiful things is how Laura explores the very real role doubt can play in discovering and strengthening one’s faith,” says Sogah. “The protagonist has to figure out how to use this secular thing and make it work for her spiritual beliefs.”

crossover appeal

As an editor at a commercial house that has been growing its Christian fiction program and sales, Sogah is also seeing an increase in faith-based story lines in mainstream fiction. Kensington has picked up on this trend by publishing Christy Award winner Davis Bunn’s romantic “Miramar Bay” series, which is aimed at a crossover audience. The next volume, Firefly Cove, releases in December.

Another Kensington romance with potential wide reader attraction is Sarah Price’s Belle: An Amish Retelling of Beauty and the Beast (Zebra, Oct.), which launched her “Amish Fairy­tale” series. “By using the beloved tropes of the familiar fairy tale but setting it in a small Plain farming community, Price expands the appeal of traditional romance,” says editorial director Alicia Condon. In a saturated Amish fiction market, readers are looking for fresh twists on genre tropes, notes Condon, and Price’s fairy tale–themed stories do just that. Upcoming novels will be retellings of Cinderella (Ella, Jun. 2018) and Snow White.

Kensington also hopes to build interest in Amish historical fiction, still a tiny subgenre in a crowded field. “Those titles that are being published stand out from the abundance of contemporary-set Amish romances,” explains editor in chief John Scognamiglio. Coming in January 2018 is Molly Jebber’s Liza’s Second Chance (Zebra), a series launch that is set in an Amish bakery in 1912 small-town Ohio and that is characterized by charming historical details about Amish culture and food. “Molly is one of the few authors writing about the Amish in a historical time period, so her novels are unique to the genre,” says Scognamiglio.

Still, has the popularity of Amish fiction, especially contemporary romances, peaked? Bethany House’s Green believes the genre has leveled off, with big names doing well and lesser-known authors mostly out of the category. But Tyndale House publicist Kristen Schumacher points out that while these novels may not be selling as well as in prior years, they still drive traffic into retailers and online sales. Among Tyndale’s rising stars is Jolina Petersheim, whose dystopian The Alliance is a 2017 Christy Award nominee; the concluding volume, The Divide, was released in June.

And Revell’s Steele stresses the enduring success of certain writers such as Suzanne Woods Fisher. “I think Suzanne’s ability to create a community that readers want to return to is a big part of the appeal. And she truly loves her characters. I always feel that shows in the writing.” Fisher’s newest book, The Return, was published in August.

The Times are Changing

Fisher switches genres and times in February 2018 with Phoebe’s Light (Revell), bringing her signature twists and turns to bear on an intriguing new faith community: the Quakers of colonial-era Nantucket Island. Her new series debut is one of several forthcoming novels that explore early American history, a growing category in the perennially popular inspirational historical genre.

“While there are some eras that always do well—the West in the 1800s for example—it’s fun to see new eras starting to take hold,” comments Bethany House’s Green. On the publisher’s winter 2018 list is Lisa T. Bergren’s ­Keturah (Jan. 2018), the first volume in “The Sugar Baron’s Daughters” series set in the 18th-century West Indies. When Lady Keturah Banning Tomlinson and her sisters inherit their father’s estates, they travel to the Caribbean to examine what is left of their legacy. In Jocelyn Green’s A Refuge Assured (Bethany House, Feb. 2018 ), a young lacemaker flees the guillotine of revolutionary France for safety in a settlement established by French refugees in a newly independent America. Another lacemaker is suspected of being a British spy in colonial Williamsburg, VA, in Laura Frantz’s historical romance The Lacemaker (­Revell, Jan. 2018).

For genealogy and American history buffs, Barbour Books’ new “Daughters of the Mayflower” series explores several generations of Mayflower descendants, starting in 1620 with Kimberley Woodhouse’s The Mayflower Bride (Feb. 2018) and followed by The Pirate Bride (Apr. 2018) by Kathleen Y’Barbo, which takes place in 1725 New Orleans.

Frontier America remains evergreen

A longtime favorite since Gilbert Morris and Janette Oke sprung on the scene, the 19th-century American frontier setting appeals to readers who enjoy stories about characters who are bold, fearless, and self-reliant. “It’s a period of rugged traditionalism that is absolutely in vogue right now,” says Kensington executive editor Selena James.

Just released in August is The Promise Bride (Zebra) by Gina Welborn and Becca Whitham, the latest entry in the “Montana Bride” historical series that centers on the feisty and determined women who embrace the challenges of life and love in the wild Montana Territory of the 1880s. In Scarlett Dunn’s second volume in her “Langtry Sisters” trilogy, Return to Whispering Pines (Zebra, May 2018), her heroine must confront her past and her outlaw brother as she tries to set up an orphanage in Colorado. Kensington’s ­Scognamiglio notes the rough-hewn nature of some of Dunn’s characters; on the surface they may not appear to be very Christian, yet their faith helps them cope with the dangers of life on the frontier.

Fertile ground

The two World Wars and the Great Depression remain rich soil for Christian fiction. Roseanna White’s “Shadows over England” duology, which launched in June with A Name Unheard, takes place at the start of the Great War; the second volume, A Song Unheard (Bethany House, Jan. 2018), involves a young violin prodigy who must steal a cipher from a famous violinist whose father had been a noted cryptologist and whose mother and sister have vanished in the wake of the German invasion of Belgium.

In regards to the popularity of novels set during the Depression and World War II, Kregel’s Pedersen notes the last members of the generation that experienced these momentous years are leaving us and that readers are hungry for more of their stories before they are lost forever. She highlights one Kregel author, Susie Finkbeiner, who conducted personal research with Oklahoma dust bowl survivors for the first of her Pearl Spence novels, A Cup of Dust (2015). “The third novel, A Song of Home: A Novel of the Swing Era (Kregel, Nov.), is also based on real, lived experience and touches on topics of racism and prejudice in the author’s own state of Michigan in the 1930s.”

Three-time Christy Award winner Cathy Gohlke, who explored the moral dilemmas raised during the Second World War in such novels as Secrets She Kept and Saving Amelie, returns to this dramatic historical period for her next book. Until We Find Home (Tyndale House, Jan. 2018) stars an American woman who joins the French Resistance and escapes to England with five Jewish refugee children. And the home front is addressed in Irma Joubert’s The Crooked Path (Thomas Nelson, Nov.), featuring a pioneering South African female physician who both practices medicine and raises a family during World War II and its aftermath.

SLIPPING INTO TIME

Interestingly, a number of CF writers are incorporating the aforementioned historical periods into a subgenre of romantic suspense that is generating buzz in the industry: Bethany House’s Green is seeing a lot of dual-time stories (also called time-slip, or split-time). On her fall list is debut author Jaime Jo Wright’s The House on Foster Hill (Nov.), which revolves around two protagonists in two different time periods. The story line transitions smoothly between the present, when widow Kaine Prescott buys an abandoned house with a tainted past, and 1906, when Ivy Thorpe discovers the body of a pregnant girl stuffed in a tree. “I think readers enjoy [time-slip fiction],” says Green, “because there’s something for everyone—a little contemporary, a little historical. And even when the book isn’t classified as suspense, [there’s] the tension of wondering how two different stories will intersect and resolve.”

According to HCCP’s Carter, the appeal of this kind of fiction lies in the dual viewpoints from the two main characters. “While these perspectives play out in different eras, the plots, challenges, and circumstances draw on timeless themes, allowing readers to draw a connection.” Coming next June is Rachel Hauck’s The Love Letter (Thomas Nelson), which weaves stories set in the Revolutionary War with the present day. In Hauck’s novel, the story lines and characters are linked through a common object, a treasured item that also becomes somewhat of a character itself.

Karli Jackson, HCCP associate acquisitions editor for fiction, works closely with Hauck and understands why readers keep coming back for more. “I think there’s a strong desire for connection to previous generations in our own families that we get to explore in stories like these. We learn a lot about ourselves when we uncover the mysteries of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lives, and Rachel does a great job of showing the magic in that distanced familial connection,” remarks Jackson.

Best-selling author Kristy Cambron juggles three historical periods—the French Revolution, World War II, and the present day—in her fifth novel, The Lost Castle (Thomas Nelson, Feb. 2018). The time lines revolve around a medieval castle in France, forgotten for generations and left to the ravages of nature.

A promising newcomer in time-slip fiction is Heidi ­Chiavaroli, whose debut novel, Freedom’s Ring (Tyndale House, Aug.), connects two dramatic events in Boston history: the Boston Massacre of 1770 and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. “There is much to learn from the past,” says publicist Schumacher. “Dealing with such timeless issues as perseverance, faith, sacrifice, and healing are not that different today than they were years ago.”

Likewise, Michèle Phoenix draws on the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks to link to the 17th-century persecution of the Huguenots (French ­Protestants) in The Space Between Words (Thomas Nelson, Sept.). Recovering from the trauma of surviving the attack on a Parisian nightclub, Jessica finds solace in researching the life of Adeline Baillard, a young Huguenot, after discovering an old manuscript hidden in an antique.

ALTERNATE SETTINGS

Not surprisingly for a genre with deep roots in the South, fiction set in the region remains very popular. Christy Award winner Chris Fabry’s upcoming release, Under a Cloudless Sky (Tyndale House, Jan. 2018), is another dual-time novel. Set in Depression-era West Virginia, with a second current story also set in Appalachia, the title is being marketed for fans of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Lauren Denton’s sophomore effort, Hurricane Season (Thomas Nelson, Apr. 2018), takes place in Alabama and Florida as a record heat ushers in the most active hurricane season in decades. Two sisters and their families must weather some powerful metaphorical and literal storms.

But the success of Joel Rosenberg’s geopolitical thrillers demonstrates that CF readers are willing to travel beyond the South and, indeed, abroad with their favorite authors. The Washington insider’s high-stakes action novel The Kremlin Conspiracy (Tyndale House, Mar. 2018) features an American president distracted by conflicts in North Korea and Iran while a new threat appears in Moscow in the form of a power-hungry Putin-like leader.

Even further afield, inspirational off-world adventures increasingly attract new fans. In Renegades (Revell, Nov.), Thomas Locke (aka Davis Bunn) returns to his Recruits protagonists, twins Sean and Dillon, who share the gift of being able to transfer instantly from planet to planet. Having been arrested and imprisoned by a secret group, they must now choose between those who wish to serve and those who wish to rule. Also coming home to inspirational speculative fiction is best-selling author Ted Dekker, who will launch a new series next May with Revell. In The 49th Mystic, the fate of two worlds rest on a young woman’s journey to regain her sight.

Making a comeback

Gilead Publishing, a new CF publisher that launched in 2016 with a splash (see “Birth of a CF House,” LJ 11/15/16), hit a rough patch and briefly suspended publication. But thanks to a new marketing and distributing partnership with Kregel Publications, a rebooted Gilead returned to the market in October with its first release, the 50th anniversary edition of Catherine Marshall’s classic novel Christy. Other Gilead titles on the schedule include Debbie Mayne’s High Cotton (Mar. 2018) and the first two volumes in Barbara Cameron’s “Harvest of Hope” Amish series, Seeds of Hope (Nov.) and Buried Secrets (Apr. 2018).

Gilead’s sf/fantasy imprint, Enclave, is also back in business, publishing otherworldly novels of a different sort. Upcoming titles include Paul Regnier’s Space Drifters: The Ghost Ship (Apr. 2018), the third volume in his comic space opera series, and Joshua A. Johnson’s Into the Void (Feb. 2018), the second entry in his “Chronicles of Sarco” military sf series. Morgan Busse concludes her award-winning steampunk “Soul Chronicles” duology with Awakened (Nov.). Kat Bloodmayne escapes from the Tower and her father’s experiments only to discover the dark power within her has grown stronger. Popular author Ronie Kendig releases Fieran (Mar. 2018), the third in the “Abiassa’s Fire” fantasy series.

Staying the Course

In a rapidly transitioning environment, Christian fiction’s challenge today is to maintain its central message of hope and faith, while evolving to accommodate a more diverse readership, in terms of both age and ethnicity. “Call it edgy or call it relevant,” says HCCP’s Bostic, “but while the story lines may be inspired by news headlines, the guiding themes of Christian fiction will always remain a part of the stories we publish.”

North Chesterfield, VA–based freelance writer Julia M. Reffner has reviewed books and DVDs in a variety of genres for LJ. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) and Word Weavers

Faithful Finds

Below are the titles mentioned in this article.
AUTHOR TITLE PUBLISHER RELEASE
Bergren, Lisa T. Keturah Bethany House Jan. 2018
Blackstock, Terri If I Live Zondervan Mar. 2018
Bradford, Laura Portrait of a Sister Kensington Jun. 2018
Bunn, Davis Firefly Cove Kensington Dec. 2017
Busse, Morgan Awakened Enclave: Gilead Nov. 2017
Cambron, Kristy The Lost Castle Thomas Nelson Feb. 2018
Cameron, Barbara Buried Secrets Gilead Apr. 2018
Cameron, Barbara Seeds of Hope Gilead Nov. 2017
Chiavaroli, Heidi Freedom’s Ring Tyndale House Aug. 2017
Dekker, Ted The 49th Mystic Revell May 2018
Denton, Lauren Hurricane Season Thomas Nelson Apr. 2018
Dunn, Scarlett Return to Whispering Pines Zebra: Kensington May 2018
Fabry, Chris Under a Cloudless Sky Tyndale House Jan. 2018
Finkbeiner, Susie A Song of Home Kregel Nov. 2017
Fisher, Suzanne Woods Phoebe’s Light Revell Feb. 2018
Fisher, Suzanne Woods The Return Revell Aug. 2017
Frantz, Laura The Lacemaker Revell Jan. 2018
Ganshert, Katie No One Ever Asked WaterBrook Apr. 2018
Gohlke, Cathy Until We Find Home Tyndale House Jan. 2018
Green, Jocelyn A Refuge Assured Bethany House Feb. 2018
Hauck, Rachel The Love Letter Thomas Nelson Jun. 2018
Jagears, Melissa A Chance at Forever Bethany House Mar. 2018
Jebber, Molly Liza’s Second Chance Zebra: Kensington Jan. 2018
Johnson, Joshua A. Into the Void Enclave: Gilead Feb. 2018
Joubert, Irma The Crooked Path Thomas Nelson Nov. 2017
Kendig, Ronie Fieran Enclave: Gilead Mar. 2018
Locke, Thomas Renegades Revell Nov. 2017
Luesse, Valerie Fraser Missing Isaac Revell Jan. 2018
Marshall, Catherine Christy Gilead Oct. 2017
Mayne, Debbie High Cotton Gilead Mar. 2018
Petersheim, Jolina The Divide Tyndale House Jun. 2017
Pettrey, Dani Blind Spot Bethany House Oct. 2017
Phoenix, Michèle The Space Between Words Thomas Nelson Sept. 2017
Price, Sarah Belle Zebra: Kensington Oct. 2017
Price, Sarah Ella Zebra: Kensington June 2018
Regnier, Paul Space Drifters: The Ghost Ship Enclave: Gilead Apr. 2018
Rosenberg, Joel The Kremlin Conspiracy Tyndale House Mar. 2018
Snipes, Wesley & Ray Norman Talon of God Harper Voyager Jul. 2017
Weber, Mary Reclaiming Shilo Snow Thomas Nelson Mar. 2018
Welborn, Gina & Becca Whitham The Promise Bride Zebra: Kensington Aug. 2017
White, Roseanna A Song Unheard Bethany House Jan. 2018
Whitlow, Robert A Time To Stand Thomas Nelson Sept. 2017
Woodhouse, Kimberley The Mayflower Bride Barbour Feb. 2018
Wright, Jaime Jo The House on Foster Hill Bethany House Nov. 2017
Y’Barbo, Kathleen The Pirate Bride Barbour Apr. 2018
Younts, Elizabeth Byler The Solace of Water Thomas Nelson Jun. 2018

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Comments

  1. Amy Sorrells says:

    Great article! Another one coming June, 2018, that fits in with these (IMHO) is my new one with Tyndale House, Before I Saw You, set right in the middle of the opioid crisis: https://www.tyndale.com/p/before-i-saw-you/9781496432797

  2. Sarah says:

    “Time slip” is actually that – when characters slip through time periods, as in the Outlander series. “Dual Time”, a more accurate characterization, could also be termed “parallel plot lines” or “dual storylines”, and that is definitely very popular in fiction right now.

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