Not Your Grandmother’s Christian Fiction

For years, Christian fiction was largely characterized by historical romances populated by characters from simpler, more wholesome eras. Now, that’s changing as publishers of Christian fiction are releasing a growing number of contemporary titles that take on complex and often touchy subjects. 



 

Tackling tough issues with authenticity… and a ray of hope 
 

For years, Christian fiction was largely characterized by historical romances populated by characters from simpler, more wholesome eras. Now, that’s changing as publishers of Christian fiction are releasing a growing number of contemporary titles that take on complex and often touchy subjects. More and more, Christian fiction reflects the defining issues of our times — and the struggle to maintain faith amid trying circumstances.

“The common stereotype from 20 years ago was that Christian fiction was mostly sweet and not very controversial,” says Amy Green, fiction publicist for Bethany House. “Someone picking up a book in 2020 might be surprised to find that it’s not what their grandmother’s Christian fiction looked like.”

Strong female characters grappling with modern problems such as drug addiction, broken families, and the anger, guilt, and self-doubt that arise from these challenges are becoming more common. Readers are also seeing influences from trends in mainstream fiction, with fantasy, mystery, and suspense thrillers being published alongside traditional mainstays of the genre.

“Christian fiction is like young adult fiction, in that we’re seeing a huge variety in sub-genres,” Green says. “There’s something for everyone now, resulting in a broader appeal to readers.”
 

“Christian fiction is like young adult fiction, in that we’re seeing a huge variety in sub-genres. There’s something for everyone now.”  Amy Green, fiction publicist, Bethany House

 

Bethany House

Purchased in 2003 by Baker Publishing Group, Bethany House is a pioneer in Christian fiction. The company’s 1979 publication of Love Comes Softly, by Janette Oke, marked the emergence of the modern American Christian novel. Bethany House publishes about 120 books a year, more than half of which are fiction books in all sub-genres of Christian fiction.

A Mosaic of Wings, by Kimberly Duffy, May 2020, ISBN 9780764235634, is one of four books that Bethany House is publishing from debut authors this year. Set primarily in India in the 1880s, it’s about a female entomologist who’s looking to prove herself in the field. But she’s faced with impossible choices that test her faith. “The author spent more than a year living in India, and that familiarity comes across in her novel,” says Green, Bethany’s fiction publicist.

The Crushing Depths, by Dani Pettrey, June 2020, ISBN 9780764230851, is the second book in Pettrey’s Coastal Guardians series of romantic suspense novels. Each book focuses on a romance between different members of a Coast Guard rescue team, as they race against the clock to solve a challenge while also grappling with their faith. The Killing Tide, the first book in the series, reached No. 6 on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list.

Tammy L. Gray is an established author who’s new to Bethany House. Her book Love and a Little White Lie, August 2020, ISBN 9780764235894, is a humorous contemporary romance in which the narrator, an agnostic, takes a job at her aunt’s church. She tries to navigate a world that’s foreign to her while hiding her lack of faith. It’s a minor deception… until she meets the church’s guitarist and sparks fly. “There’s great tension throughout the book, and the idea of being caught between two worlds and belief systems will be familiar to many people,” Green says.

An Ivy Hill Christmas by Julie Klassen, September 2020, ISBN 9780764233807, is a Christmas novella in the tradition of Jane Austen “It’s a story of the prodigal son who returns for the holidays,” Green says. “People who love BBC dramas will love this book as well.” The novel brings back the characters from Klassen’s three-book Tales From Ivy Hill series.

The Sowing Season, by Katie Powner, October 2020, ISBN 9780764237591, features a multigenerational friendship between a retired man who is estranged from his family and a teenage girl who’s unsure of the plan that her parents have set out for her. Their unlikely bond profoundly changes both characters. This debut novel about second chances “would make a great novel for book clubs. There are so many discussion points,” says Green.

A very special release for Bethany House is Green’s own debut novel, Things We Didn’t Say by Amy Lynn Green, November 2020, ISBN 9780764237164. An epistolary novel like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, it takes place in Minnesota during World War II. The main character is a translator at a German prisoner of war camp, who finds that the POWs have hidden depths. The book invites readers to consider: What does it mean to love your neighbor when he’s the enemy? What are the limits of Christian compassion? The main character has one answer, and her family and the community have another.

 

Kregel Publications

One Christian publisher that isn’t afraid to tackle tough issues is Kregel Publications. A family-owned company, Kregel started in the early 1900s as a reprint house and has been publishing its own original fiction for more than 20 years.

“We’re looking for a good story with some faith-based element to it,” says Editor Janyre Tromp. “We demand a level of writing that’s a step above the rest.”

Addressing sensitive issues through quirky characters and plot lines is one trend in the company’s fiction. For instance, The Beautiful Ashes of Gomez Gomez, by Buck Storm, August 2020, ISBN 9780825446375, is a story of redemption both for the main character — who lost his wife in a head-on collision and spends his nights cradling a coffee can with her ashes — and for the pastor who tries to help him.

Afraid of the Light, by Cynthia Ruchti, June 2020, ISBN 9780825446573, takes on the issue of hoarding. The main character, Camille, is a counselor who helps her clients deal with this crippling anxiety disorder — but it’s a garbage man who helps Camille see that she’s hoarding something herself. “Cynthia has a way of writing characters and stories that really resonate,” says Tromp. “This book gets readers thinking about the things they might have locked away in their own subconscious.”

Another trend in Kregel’s Christian fiction is strong female characters who defy convention. In Burying Daisy Doe, by Ramona Richards, November 2020, ISBN 9780825446528, female detective Star Cavanaugh solves cold cases – a trend in mainstream fiction that is also appearing in Christian novels now. When she realizes that her own grandmother’s death involved suspicious circumstances, she travels to the place her grandmother died — where she must battle small-town politics and her own demons to find the killer.

“Star likes to have control of her environment,” Tromp says. “Things happened in her past that have caused her not to trust people. To solve the mystery, she has to find people she can trust in a place of danger. The story explores how we can learn to trust again. How do you trust God when life constantly throws you for a curve?”

Strong female leads also define the first two books in a new Regency romance and suspense series from Erica Vetsch, calledSerendipity & Secrets. In The Lost Lieutenant, April 2020, ISBN 9780825446177, Diana Seaton is the main character in a marriage-of-convenience story. For her entire life, Diana has been abused by her overbearing father, but she stands up to him to protect her orphaned nephew. In her marriage, she blossoms, helping her swoon-worthy but overwhelmed husband revive a crumbling manor house — and saving the Prince Regent’s life.


"Our stories deal with real-life issues, but we always land on hope at the end. In these times, especially, readers need that .” Janyre Tromp, editor, Kregel Publications
 

In The Gentleman Spy, July 2020, ISBN 9780825446184, Charlotte Tiptree is courageous, resolute, and persuasive. Her husband, the Duke, is a spy on a mission to uncover the identity of the man behind the attempted murder of the Prince Regent. He’s quite sure Charlotte should be kept in the dark for her own safety, but Charlotte has ideas of her own.

Yet another trend in Christian fiction is the deeply researched historical novel that serves as a bridge between narrative nonfiction and fiction. The White Rose Resists: A Novel of the German Students Who Defied Hitler, by Amanda Barratt, May 2020, ISBN 9780825446481, is one such book. Set in Munich during World War II, the novel focuses on a group of students at The University of Munich and the difficult moral choice they face: Ignore the evil they see permeating their country, or resist at the risk of great personal peril. “Amanda is a meticulous researcher… but you don’t see it break into the story — it’s all woven in seamlessly,” Tromp says.

Male authors writing suspense novels with male lead characters are somewhat rare in Christian fiction, but Kregel has two new releases that fit this description — and each happens to be the middle book in a three-book series. Cross Shadow, by Andrew Huff, May 2020, ISBN 9780825446450, is about an ex-CIA agent turned pastor, John Cross, who’s pulled back into working with the CIA and must reconcile what the scripture says about killing with his need to neutralize the enemy. Persian Betrayal, by Terry Brennan, July 2020, ISBN 9780825445316, is about a DSS agent living in Israel whose marriage is falling apart because he’s not at home. As he tries to fulfill his dual oaths to his wife and the DSS, he also struggles to maintain his faith in God.

Despite the recent trend toward heart-pounding suspense, “there is always going to be a place for sweet books in Christian fiction,” Tromp says. This fall, Kregel is releasing a collection of three Christmas novellas that meet this demand: Joy to the World: A Regency Christmas Collection, by Carolyn Miller, Erica Vetsch, and Amanda Barratt, October 2020, ISBN 9780825446696. Each story is based on a line from the hymn, and while they address weighty topics — one features a character with an illegitimate child; another concerns a disagreement that’s driving a family apart — readers ultimately come away inspired.

“Our stories deal with real-life issues, but we always land on hope at the end,” Tromp observes. “In these times, especially, readers need that.”
 

Revell Publishing

Another imprint of Baker Publishing Group, Revell is known as a leader in romantic fiction but publishes in all sub-genres of Christian fiction. “We’re addressing issues that might be considered too sensitive for other publishing houses,” says Publicist Karen Steele. “We’re stretching the boundaries of what people might be comfortable with in Christian fiction.”
 

“We’re stretching the boundaries of what people might be comfortable with in Christian fiction.”
Karen Steele, publicist, Revell Publishing

 

Even so, there’s a clear message of hope in Revell’s books. “Our mission is to inspire and equip readers for their everyday lives and to give them hope and health,” says Editorial Director Andrea Doering. “Leaving readers with no hope — that’s not going to happen in a Revell novel.”

The Heart of a Hero, June 2020, ISBN 9780800735852, is the second book in author Susan May Warren’s Global Search and Rescue series of action-adventure romance novels. Rescuing Aria Sinclair during a hurricane is just what former Navy SEAL Jake Silver needs to make up for past mistakes. It’s a story of finding self-forgiveness – and the desire we all have for a second chance.

Acceptable Risk, by Lynette Eason, August 2020, ISBN 9780800729356, is also the second book in the series, Danger Never Sleeps. Back home after being held hostage overseas, journalist Sarah Denning searches for the truth behind her brother’s death with the help of former Army Ranger Gavin Black. “Lynette has a huge following,” Doering says. “She’ll take you on a rocket ride with snappy dialog, where the good guys win and the bad guys get what’s coming to them. As a reader of Lynette’s work, you get the sense that God is active in the world and wants to see justice done.”

Susie Finkbeiner’s Stories That Bind Us, June 2020, ISBN 9780800735708, is about the healing power of stories that link us together. The main character, Betty Sweet, is still recovering from the loss of her husband when she becomes the guardian of a five-year-old nephew she never knew she had. As they struggle to move forward, they build a relationship through the power of faith and storytelling.
 

Tyndale House Publishers

Tyndale is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its groundbreaking novel Left Behind, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins with a special edition (August 2020, ISBN 9781496447562) featuring an essay from Jenkins that looks back on the novel’s influence. “Left Behind marked a shift from historical to contemporary fiction for the company,” says Associate Publisher Karen Watson. “Before it was published, people had the impression of Christian fiction as characters riding wagons on the prairie. Left Behind was a clear departure from that.”

Tyndale is also releasing its first novel from bestselling author and eight-time Christy Award winner Lynn Austin, called If I Were You, June 2020, ISBN 9781496437297. It’s a split-time story of sisterhood and self-discovery, the novel is set against the backdrop of World War II. “Lynn is a well-established author who is new to Tyndale, and we’re delighted to have her,” Watson says.
 


Authenticity at work

A common theme running through many of these works is that maintaining faith can be difficult. “In writing Christian fiction, you need a winsome portrayal of someone who’s authentically pursuing his or her faith and finding evidence of God at work,” Tyndale’s Watson says. “It’s not always tidy. Authenticity requires that we show that faith can often be a struggle — but hope ultimately prevails.”

 

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