Why Christian Fiction?

I remember very vividly the moment I realized there was a whole realm of fiction that I never knew existed. 

I was a new staff member at WWIB, a Christian radio station in western Wisconsin and each week we would gather in the boardroom as a staff to pray over the requests that had been sent in. The shelves in the boardroom always caught my attention and tripped over from my OCD because they were covered in piles of books. Higgledy piggledy piles of disorganized books. 

Having studied literature, I’ve always felt a magnetic pull from any pile of books, so it didn’t take long for me to ask about them. The answer was a dram come true. 

“Oh they’re review copies from publishers. Help yourself.”

HELP YOURSELF? Oh my. 

So began a 23 year love of Christian fiction. It was in those early years that I met the work of Gilbert Morris, surely the granddaddy of the genre. Then Frank Peretti’s ‘This Present Darkness’ blew my mind and forever changed my walk with the Lord. I was able to walk in the sandals of Centurions in Masada and consider what the Second Coming might look like, courtesy of Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. 

Then there were the romances. So sweet. I had never really thought about how dating should look when you’re saved so there was a lot of food for thought there. Those piles of books morphed into a successful radio review show and I got to interview some of my very favorite writers.

Upon moving to England in 1996, Christian Fiction was somewhat sparse so I did a lot or re-reading – how did we live in a pre-Amazon world? But a few years later a move to Texas provided a huge library with more authors to try. The Baxter Family came home with me, along with a lot of Tracie Peterson, Lori Wick and more Gilbert Morris (it seems, in the best possible way, there is always another of his books to be read).

Then I found there was this thing called ‘romantic suspense.’ Seriously. As a new mom by this point, I didn’t nap much when my baby slept, I was too busy! Irene Hannon, Dee Henderson and Dani Pettrey can all probably claim to have added a bag or shadow to my face. When baby two came along and didn’t sleep much because she was unwell, I didn’t worry about company in those long nights watching over her. I had Karen Witemeyer, Becky Wade and Lawanna Blackwell to assist me, even making me smile along the way. 

But why? 

Romans 12 exhorts us to be in the world, but not of the world. So while I had been reading Patricia Cornwell, Nicholas Sparks and John Grisham whenever I didn’t have a good Christian book, they didn’t quite hit the spot. I didn’t turn their pages in rhythm with my heart. 

There are some secular books that are fantastic works of art that can transport readers to far away places so they can witness unimaginable events. However, books of the world don’t move me one inch closer to Heaven in the real world (borrowing some artistic license from Steven Curtis Chapman).

When I felt so nauseous I couldn’t move in the first trimester of pregnancy, when I was at a loss following the death of my brother, at times when I have been more cold than hot in my faith these books have cajoled, nudged or full on shoved me back on the path. They have reminded me that Heaven is coming; that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made and completely loved by the God of the universe and most importantly they have shown me that no matter what, we are never, ever alone.

I don’t mean to ever suggest or imply I wasn’t reading scripture all this time too, I have been. I’m merely suggesting that done well, this genre is magnificent. 

I’d love to know why you read Christian fiction and if you have a favorite author or genre? Do please leave a comment. 

Rediscovery

Rediscovery – the biggest lesson I ever learned.

One of the hardest parts about being married to a military man is the separation. The days that stretch into weeks and then months with only being able to get in touch sporadically (and usually at the worst possible moment).

When it begins to feel normal that he’s gone, alarm bells should start ringing in your mind.

Even if he’s away for great swathes of time, that is only a season in a lifelong commitment. While in preparation for being a military wife, you can to an extent, anticipate the time apart, no one pulls you aside and explains what it’ll be like when he gets home.

Oh that they would.

The first year in our little apartment, Biggles spend two-thirds of it away. First deployed and then on a ten-week training exercise. To survive it, I got into a tight routine so that my time was all filled and I didn’t have much space to miss him.

That was a rookie mistake and a massive error. Having been fully loved up and very close before he left, we fought like never before when he returned. The first few days were wonderful, but after that, I was annoyed every time he did something differently to the way I’d been doing it, and he felt surplus to my busy life.

So here’s what I learned – the very hard way: those of us that stay at home must find a way to need our men and yet live independently from them. We have to leave room in our lives for our husbands, but not wilt like three-week-old tulips when they’re away.

Yes, it’s crazy difficult. But here’s the thing – love comes first. When I come first, my heart, my agenda, then it turns out there’s no room for him or what he needs from me. And when he comes first, then it doesn’t take long before I’m resentful at him for my needs not being met. Instead, love comes first. When I humbly do whatever is loving, the Lord multiplies that in my marriage.

It comes from the book of Matthew, chapter 22 where someone asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is. He tells them this:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”

From personal experience, this takes great humility but yields huge rewards. I only find the strength to sustain humility when I am putting my relationship with Jesus first. Prayer, daily quiet time, worship and fellowship with other Christians. And repeat.

People often ask me how I manage to be a military wife (“how do you put up with all the separation and the uncertainty? I couldn’t do it, you’re very brave.” Etc.) That’s how. By putting Jesus first I can put my Biggles second and love him the best.

For more information about my military wives Bible study, please contact me here. I’d love to hear from you.

The Widow of Larkspur Inn by Lawanna Blackwell

Have you ever read about a place and then wanted to visit or perhaps even move there? 

I just admit that I wouldn’t need much persuading to pack up and head for Hawaii, despite all the murder Colleen Coble has created there. I wouldn’t mind hanging out in the diner frequented by Susan May Warren’s Montana smokejumpers, and Thomas Kincade’s Cape Light with its orchards and lighthouses sounds just shy of heaven.

Lawanna Blackwell introduced me to a sleepy little village in rural north-west England that I’d love to see; it’s called Gresham. Gresham has dainty shops, cobbled streets, flowery gardens and a beautiful hill to climb and admire the views from.

We first see the village through the eyes of new residents. The freshly-widowed Julia Hollis and her three children, fortified by her housekeeper Fiona inherit an old, run down inn. With no other means of providing a living, they set about fixing it up to run as a guest home for the retired.

Of course the path isn’t smooth with rumors of ghosts, unhappy children, financial concerns and colorful residents. But the deeper she needs to dig, the more Julia prays. Then a new, widowed vicar moves in and, well, enough said. It is historical romance after all.

What unfolds over the four books is a beautifully interwoven series of love stories, examples of redemption, heartwarming character development and determined faith in action. Blackwell’ characters stand out for the pages and you can often feel as if you are in the room or on the picnic with them. I felt the hurt after one rogue betrayed his sweetheart and lived and died as another humbled herself to try and secure a happy marriage to escape a life of hard labor with no appreciation.

Each “trip” I have taken to Gresham (and I go there once every couple of years) is a joy and a delight. If you haven’t been, I’d highly recommend you take a trip. The Widow of Larkspur Inn has long been one of my favorite books and I hope if you pick it up, you’ll feel the same. 

Now, would you tell me where you like to visit between pages? 

The Stars for a Light

Do you have a favorite fictional hero? Perhaps it’s Becky Wade’s Ty Porter (My One and Only) who oozes charisma. Or maybe you prefer Marcus O’Malley (The Guardian), with his quiet strength. If you like to see a man who can humble himself in the light of revealed sin and return to the Lord, then Luke Baxter (Baxter series), might be your guy. And of course, we can’t rule out Constable Jack Thornton, the impossibly noble Mountie (When Calls the Heart).

For me however, there can be only one. His name is Shiloh Irons. Perhaps you know him too?

He’s found in two series of books by Lynn Morris with her father Gilbert. For those of you new to Christian historical fiction, Gilbert Morris is one of the greats, having placed someone from the Winslow family at almost every global event for around 200 years. But back to Shiloh Irons.

When we first meet Shiloh in The Stars for a Light, we see him rescuing his future boss, Cheney Duvall. Dr. Duvall is one of the earliest female doctors and has mistakenly hired a man to be her nurse. But given that their first encounter involves him saving her from some thugs down at the New York docks, perhaps employing Shiloh was part of God’s provision for her life.

Shiloh is a war hero who fought for the Confederacy but ended up learning to be a nurse and tending to soldiers from both sides. One of the greatest things about the series is that when we first meet Shiloh, he isn’t saved and we get to a front row seat to his unfolding faith journey.

Shiloh seems virtually unflappable, despite Cheney’s ability to get herself into all sorts of trouble. He’s also a man of mystery having been left in a box from Shiloh Ironworks on the steps of an orphanage as an infant. Along with his turning to Christ, we also see his background be slowly revealed.

He’s comfortable enough in his own skin that he’s happy for Cheney to be the doctor and him the nurse without any sort of inferiority, a good reminder that when we are doing what we’re called to do, it is enough to satisfy. Before nursing, Shiloh made a living as a prizefighter and was quite successful, so keeps getting recognized. He also seems to know a lot of military leaders – another facet that comes in very handy when in a sticky spot.

But I think what I like best about Shiloh isn’t his quiet strength, his capability, his calmness or his honesty when he is wrestling with something tough. I think it’s that he goes on a journey with Cheney. In the first book, Stars for a Light, Cheney believes in God but doesn’t have a close, personal relationship. Shiloh has no faith at all. Gradually we see both come to a deep and abiding walk with the Lord. If you like historical fiction with a decent side of real history, a good romance, lots of action and an unfolding Christian journey, you’ll probably love the Cheney Duvall/Cheney and Shiloh series.

So, who’s your favorite hero? Do tell…

Just Above a Whisper by Lori Wick

There are many writers I fully enjoy reading. But few whose work I claim to completely love. Lori Wick is one of them. I’ve read about half of everything she’s ever written and can happily reread her books annually, a good indicator that her work is excellent.

The Tucker Mills Trilogy is quiet and charming but also pretty eventful with plenty of twists and a couple of shocks before the end. Even though it’s a trilogy, each of the books Moonlight on the Millpond, Just Above a Whisper, and Leave a Candle Burning can be read as standalone novels. The second book, Just Above a Whisper is my favorite so I’m going to review that today.

It’s worth noting that Wick was first published in 1990 and has written pretty steadily since then. The Tucker Mills books came out in 2005 and 2006. The thing I love about these books is the way Wick weaves vivid characters with compelling storylines while having her secondary characters simmering nicely in the background, stepping in and out as needed but painted with no less clarity.

For instance none of the books feature the pastor and his family as the main characters, but yet I feel as though I know them equally well.

Just Beyond a Whisper tells the story of Reese, an indentured servant, and bank owner Connor. They really come from two different worlds and both have tragedy in their past to overcome before they can even consider a friendship. However, Wick shows us that with Christ at the center, anything is possible. We get to see both of them wrestle with their issues within the framework of faith and both of them leaning on their pastor and his wife at different times. Not many authors weave Biblical truth into the very heart of their novels like Wick and as an aspiring fiction writer, reading her work (The English Garden Series is another example) is like taking a master class.

I’d highly recommend the whole trilogy. They’re quick to read yet still contain deep spiritual discussions that will set you thinking about your own faith journey.

Disclaimer: In researching Lori Wick I discovered some legal problems within her church community and family. Charges were brought against those considered to have broken the law, Lori Wick was not among them. There have been a lot of opinions shared across social media and the internet about what happened. I wrestled with whether it was wise to review her books. But here’s the thing I couldn’t escape – her work is some of the best Christian fiction I’ve read (and I have read a lot) and it felt cowardly not to write about a series of books I love. But I also couldn’t pretend that some people have chosen to no longer read her work. In reviewing this book I’m not condoning anything that may have happened at Lori Wick’s church.

I just know I’m not picking up the first stone.

Submerged – by Dani Pettrey

Why do you read a book? Do you want to travel back in time or be swept off your feet? Perhaps you want to fight crime from the comfort of your armchair? For me, I want to travel the world. So when a novel or even better a series comes along and it’s set somewhere I’ve never been to, I’m pretty excited.

Christian romantic suspense is one of my favorite genres to read. I love a good mystery with lots of twists and turns. Dee Henderson, Lynette Eason, Colleen Coble and Irene Hannon, to name a few, are authors that I tend to stick to.

One day, Amazon, in it’s oh so altruistic manner (ok perhaps not) suggested I would like ‘Submerged’ by Dani Pettrey. I’d never heard of her, but the book was the first in a series set in Alaska, so I read the synopsis, thought it sounded intriguing and bought it. Seven books and a novella later and I still enjoy Pettrey’s writing very much.

For a new author launching a brand new series, there was nothing timid about this book. From the first few pages the pace and action moved right along.

The research into Alaskan and Russian heritage was also evident. This was a novel carved out of hours of meticulous detail gathering. It’s set around the McKenna family of siblings in Alaska. The family runs an Adventure Recreation company so there’s a great backdrop for all kinds of intrigue and mix up.

This first novel revolves around a sabotaged plane, hidden treasure and a stone cold romance revived. Beautifully woven around that is the story of heroine Bailey’s redemption from a nasty past and the repairing of Cole McKenna’s heart in the process.

For me, discovering a new author is like opening a sack of gifts and through the Alaskan Courage series I have (among other things) gotten to be professional skier (as I sit her with a torn ACL) and raced the Iditarod.

If you enjoy a cracking plot, characters you want to be friends with, description that sets your imagination loose and being reminded of why the Lord is so great, go check out Dani Pettrey. Oh and Submerged is free for Kindle right now too!

Self Sacrifice

Dying to self and living to righteousness is impossibly hard and to even try it takes a great deal of courage. No less difficult is consistently putting the needs of your man (and the demands of his career) ahead of your own, and those of your family. As military wives, we often have to come second, or ideally third behind The Lord and then the military.

My personal highlights include buying a house and preparing to move only to learn he was delayed so I had to panic-organize a team of friends to help with two days notice. Or the time the car blew up while he was still on his flight out. Or even the time I tore my ACL days before he departed. Two days after we said goodbye, one of our daughters fell and broke her wrist. In short, him leaving typically spells looming disaster of some description and my best friend is nowhere near a position to be any help, or even contactable sometimes.

But more than that, with the frequent moving there’re the developing friendships, career opportunities, family help and so on that we miss. There’s that sense of belonging that comes very rarely in this life. It’s very easy to get fed up and become resentful. But be on your guard.

A little irritation unaddressed can become a gaping wound.

I recently watched ‘Risen’, telling the story of a centurion tasked with finding out what happened to Jesus’ body. I cannot even begin to imagine how truly horrific the crucifixion must have been for Mary. I am totally at a loss to understand how she coped with that. I found it hard to watch a Hollywood re-enactment, knowing the nails and the blood and the spears weren’t real. But to have that really be your child enduring such brutality, I don’t really have the words.

Sacrifice was no stranger to Mary; it had been her constant companion since the day Gabriel showed up with his glad tidings. She missed out on a normal pregnancy (there must have been some very awkward conversations with Joseph and then getting on a donkey in your final trimester – seriously), then didn’t get to raise a typical boy (not many start teaching in the temple before they grow facial hair), and then came the miracles, adulation, hatred, death and the blinding joy of Resurrection Day.

But nowhere does the Bible show Mary complaining or worrying. She is as constant as the sunrise. Mary was faithful, or turned around, full of faith. She was fortified by the Holy Spirit. Did that make her life easier? Not if you believe everything we read in scripture (and I do). However, the presence of God, often front and center in Mary’s life meant she had a steady view of the bigger picture. When I find myself getting annoyed or bitter about the things we miss out on, that’s where I try to look too. Would life be significantly easier if my husband was home much more often, or we moved less? Absolutely. But if I love him (and I do, very much), then he comes first after God.

Look at Mary, the disciples (not so much Judas though) and Jesus himself. They all sacrificed greatly. When it got hard or unimaginable, they cried out to God and He never failed them. He’s still the same today, just ask Him and He’ll show you.

Thanks for reading this today – I hope it was useful. If you’d like to know more about my Bible study for military wives, please get in touch.

Dee Henderson – The Negotiator

Let me begin with a warning that should really come with all Dee Henderson books – don’t even consider opening one if you have anything important to get done. This lady’s writing can seriously affect your to do list. I have lost half days and sometimes half the night quite easily.

The Negotiator begins a magnificent series about the O’Malley brothers and sisters. None of them are related by blood, which is a great twist allowing Henderson to infuse each novel with a different back-story. Each of the siblings works on the front lines in some capacity. In this first novel we meet the seven of them but the focus falls on Kate, the eldest of four sisters. Kate is a Chicago PD negotiator (the clue was in the title). She is ferociously tough, tenaciously protective of her family and one of those rare characters that shines through every page with just a few magical words of description or dialogue.

Through a criminal fluke, she meets Dave Richman, a character we first see in the prequel to the O’Malley books, Danger in the Shadows. He’s an FBI agent with a big heart and as he begins to work a case he and Kate are embroiled in, he falls hard.

Then there’s a massive explosion at O’Hare and Kate becomes a target. As Dave and Kate try to unravel what happened, her other siblings descend and the dynamics start to get very interesting. As if that weren’t enough to make you dizzy, Dave introduces the idea of faith to Kate and during the toughest few days of her life, we get to see her considering how life would look with Jesus at the helm.

If you like romantic suspense, make no mistake – Henderson is virtually unparalleled in this genre and manages to combine exhilarating storylines with characters who burst from the pages and thought provoking spiritual content, even for the longtime Christian.

I’m sat eying up one of her latest offerings, Traces of Guilt. There’s a little frisson of nerves in my stomach. I want to read the book but I know what’s going to happen. My afternoon will disappear in a cloud of Illinois State police, a snarl of a mystery, lots of ‘will they won’t they’ and of course, conversations that point me to consider my own faith journey. Yes. Chores can wait, I’m going in…

This Present Darkness

Have you ever read a fiction book that has significantly changed your life? For me the first and biggest time that happened was when I encountered ‘This Present Darkness’ by Frank Peretti. I had no idea what was coming.

If you haven’t read it, it’s what they call and ‘oldie but a goodie.’ First published in 1986, the book took the fiction world by storm and inspired a fresh generation of writers to tackle the really hard topics of faith. Peretti clearly hit a point of interest, selling more than 2.5 million copies with weeks and weeks on the bestseller list.

The book itself starts of gently enough, with a little civil disruption in the sleepy college town of Ashton. But slowly, as a flower opening its petals in the spring, the book accelerates into a gripping tale of angels fighting demons with truth and justice as their battlefield.

For me, the key was twofold – for the longest time, the people that believed in the spiritual (other than Jesus) realm were the slightly weird Christians that thought a bit fanatical. Peretti gave me a clear and sensible idea of how this type of battle might look. Then secondly, he taught me that when the Christians are unified and on their knees, the enemy can only be defeated, but when we are gossiping or putting ourselves first, the demons grow stronger.

Despite it being ‘only’ fiction and not a textbook, This Present Darkness delivers a newfound awareness of those principalities the Bible refers to. It shows us a sneaky, prowling lion delighted to devour the saints of God. All that AND a very compelling story with clearly written characters and a rollercoaster of a plot.

I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Peretti a number of years ago. He’s very laid back and really personifies stories being given by God. He explained he had simply found himself thinking about spiritual warfare before he wrote the book.

If you haven’t read ‘This Present Darkness’ you are in for a real treat, but brace yourself, it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Firewall

If you’re going to be spending some time in the ER and need a great distraction, look no further! After being stretchered off a mountain in Vermont, I returned to Virginia and my next stop was the hospital to get checked out. Braced for a long wait, I had my husband raid my TBR (to be read) pile and grab one of my Christmas gifts.

They say misery loves company and as I sat, somewhat tearfully at first, I found myself totally distracted by Taryn Young, whose week was going even more south than mine. Just minutes away from jetting off on her dream honeymoon, a bomb rips through the airport and when she comes too in the hospital, her new husband is nowhere to be found, despite being at the top of the FBI’s suspect list.

The thing about DiAnn Mills is that she is romantic suspense royalty. I knew I’d be sucked in within seconds and I wasn’t disappointed. The twists and turns come thick and fast from start to finish and it’s hard not to get emotional whiplash from dodging them.

But even in the midst of scrambling for their lives, Taryn and FBI Special Agent Grayson Hall made me pause to consider the role of faith in their lives. While my honeymoon was thankfully void of a bombing, we were out in the Maldives during the tsunami of 2004 so I could relate somewhat to Taryn’s trauma.

Along with being a master weaver of plots, Mills is also a great painter of characters and she captures her main players really well. Long before the midpoint I felt I knew Agent Hall and would trust him with my life.

Somehow between the bombing and the closing pages, we see death and destruction, heartache and grief but also love and redemption, renewal and growing of faith and the beauty that only Jesus can create from ashes.

If you like Christian romantic suspense, or have a trip to the ER coming up, DiAnn Mills is undoubtedly your go to. Thankfully this is the first of three books in the Houston FBI series, so as I go for rehab on my torn ACL, I have plenty more company to look forward to.