Christians read a lot of non-fiction such as testimonies, devotionals and books about prayer, spiritual growth and of course the Bible itself. The new kid on the block is Christian fiction, which has attracted huge sales in the US and is starting to make inroads in the UK. It still struggles with bad PR - many Brits think Christian fiction is poor quality, a view publishers and retailers haven't yet shaken off. Fact is - there are some great page turners out there.
So which novels and authors that are making ripples? And what are the hot novels to buy for our holiday reading this summer? Christianity takes a whistle stop tour of five popular genres of Christian fiction. Endtimes
It's not possible to write about Christian fiction and ignore the 'Left Behind' series of books penned by Tim LaHaye and Jeremy B Jenkins. These follow a literal and very graphic, dispensational pre-millennial line on the end of the world. The series begins with the rapture, which Left Behind portrays as the literal and sudden disappearance of all the Christians in the world. This has disastrous consequences as, for example, cars crash and terrified relatives watch in horror as their loved ones vanish in front of their eyes. The 12-part series follow the unfolding drama of seven years of tribulation, the rise of a one-world government under the 'beast' and the climax of Armageddon, where the rest of the world attacks Israel. The theological line these books take is very popular in the US, but is very much a minority view in the UK - none of the UK mainstream evangelical theological colleges teach this view of end times. Part one of the series was written 10 years ago, since when each book has sold in blockbuster numbers. Including the bewilderingly large range of spin-off books and children's versions, the 'Left Behind' material has sold a stupendous total of around 75 million. No less than Time magazine described them as 'among the best-selling fiction books of our times - right up there with Tom Clancy and Stephen King'.
But is it a good read? Well it's certainly fast paced and many millions of people are hooked on this series, treating the release of a new title like the arrival of the next Harry Potter novel - so surely they can't all be wrong? Hmmm. Your local Christian bookstore will have copies or you checkout: where you can read an excerpt from the latest book in the series.
The Left Behind phenomenon has resulted in big profits for the US series publisher Tyndale House and has encouraged other publishers to commission Christian fiction. Some of these have bombed - one trilogy of books on an end-time theme never made it to the third book because sales for one and two were disappointing. So the publishing Christian fiction route is not always paved with gold.
Anglican vicar GP Taylor sold his motorbike to raise the cash to publish his novel Shadowmancer. Set in the 17th century this ripping yarn follows the adventures a group of kids who try to steal an ancient relic that will be used by a sorcerer to being darkness to the world. It's classic good versus evil stuff with some biblical themes in the background. It all ended happily ever after for the former minister - word of mouth recommendations resulted in him being signed up by a big publisher. Then Shadowmancer sold very well in the UK and the US, as has the follow-up 'Wormwood' - attracting a strong following among younger readers as well as adults. Taylor has given up the ministry to write full-time. His third book, Tersias is published this autumn, while Shadowmancer is set to be made into a film by a Hollywood studio.
'In the world of Christian fiction, the hottest novels are those by Frank Peretti,' so says Newsweek magazine. Frank Peretti's books about angels, demons and dragons have sold over 12 million copies. After numerous rejections from publishers and a slow start in sales, word-of-mouth enthusiasm finally lifted 'This Present Darkness' which neatly synchronised with a growing wave of interest in spiritual warfare.Piercing the Darkness followed a year later in 1989. Large numbers of British Charismatics read This Present Darkness and loved it. At his best, Peretti skilfully cranks up the tension in his plots to the point where readers find it hard to put the book down. After six years where he focused on mostly children's fiction, Frank Peretti has written a new novel for adults. Monster with its suspense and horror storyline delves into the ethical problems of genetic engineering and attempts to debunk evolutionary theory. Released earlier this year it has received mixed reviews. It looks set to sell in large numbers, but is unlikely to top the popularity of Peretti's earlier 'Darkness' novels.
First time novelist Mark Paradise has served in the British Merchant Navy and the Spanish Foreign Legion. God's Assassins features warrior monks, demons and angels in a no holds barred fight between forces of light and darkness. The book blurb describes it as a cross between 'Piercing the Darkness' and 'Reservoir Dogs'… and goes on to suggest it is 'not for the faint hearted'. If you like your novels red-blooded and your Christian men to have muscle, and not be afraid to use it, Paradise's full-on style may appeal.
Karen Kingsbury, the author of over 30 titles with several US publishers, is one of America's favourite inspirational writers. One Tuesday Morningand her recent sequel Beyond Tuesday Morning were hugely popular. The novels are set in 9/11 and the years following. The central figure is the widow of a fire fighter who died on that terrible day when terrorists flew planes into New York's Twin Towers. Kingsbury's plots engage the reader - in these novels issues related to loss, doubt, hope, grief and faith are sensitively handled. Kingsbury and publishers Zondervan gave away a thousand copies to the New York fire department that have been so affected by 9/11. Ian Matthews, UK Sales & Marketing Manager of Zondervan, describes the feedback from firefighters as "just incredible… Karen describes her writing as 'Life Changing Fiction' and the testimonies of many people show this to be true".
Set in the Californian gold rush of the 1850's Redeeming Love is the tale of Angel, a woman who expects nothing from men but betrayal. Sold into prostitution as a child, she survives by keeping her hatred alive. Then she meets Michael Hosea, a man who obeys God's call to marry Angel and love her unconditionally. This powerful retelling of the Old Testament prophet Hosea, who was told by God to marry the prostitute Gomer, has sold well in the UK since its publication last summer. US author Francine Rivers has written over 20 novels and is a big seller in the States. British publisher Monarch has recently begun to publish more fiction - and this moving and sympathetic story has done well for them.
Stephen Lawhead is a prolific author of fantasy novels - most focus around Celtic and Arthurian themes, which have over the years built him a large following in the UK and US. He began his writing career in journalism as editor of the American Christian magazine Campus Life. An excellent storyteller his novels are meticulously researched, Lawhead is keen to faithfully reconstruct the times he is writing about. Another distinction between him and the competition is that he does not veer away from the religious aspects of the times he writes about. "If you are telling a story about the Celts in Arthur's time then spirituality plays an integral part," he insists. "The Celtic Church represented the dawn of the Christian faith for Britain and it would have been an amazing time to live in. For Arthur to be the first Christian king was a truly powerful concept." If you are new to Lawhead a good place to start is The Paradise Warwhich is the first of an epic celtic triology entitled 'Song of Albion', or you could try any of the books from his best-selling Pendragon Cycle series.
Publishers are adding a Christian twist to 'chick lit' a genre of fiction aimed at young women, which Publishers Weekly magazine has described as 'Bridget Jones goes to church'. Classic chick lit tackles the issues that single women supposedly focus on - the size of their hips, how to get a man to commit, and is there time in my lunch hour to buy those latest Gucci shoes? Christian chick lit includes storylines about real-life situations that women of faith grapple with and asks: 'How do I live an authentic contemporary Christian life?'
Two British authors in this growing genre are Penny Culliford and debut novelist Abidemi Sanusi. Thodora's Diary and the follow-upTheodora's Wedding centre around 30-something Theodora Llewellyn. Chocolate, romance and faith mingle with self-deprecating humour to good effect in this easy to read 'diary'. Writing on an American website about what makes good Chick lit the author of Penny Culliford, lists: 'A strong, quirky, usually single, female protagonist. Characters who are dealing with real life situations, careers, boyfriends and friendships. Characters who don't get it right all of the time. Identification is vital: the readers must see part of themselves in the character. Most importantly, a good dose of humour.' The gritty storyline in London-based Abidemi Sanusi's novel Kemi's Journal, follows a recent convert to faith who sleeps with a former partner, gets pregnant and books herself into an abortion clinic. "I wanted to write a real book that deals with the real issues out there," Sanusi explains. "I wanted to puncture some myths - for example that non-Christians aren't good people and that Christians are always good. We are always being shocked by stories of vicars being caught out in sexual or financial sin and we wonder, how that can happen to a good person?
"Kemi's story shows what happens when we leave God out of our lives, when we get our priorities mixed up. But it's a story that shows there is always, always a way back. No matter what we do, our God is always waiting for us to turn back to him for forgiveness." Lin Ball of Scripture Union, who published Kemi's Journal accepts that Christian fiction for adults doesn't have a strong platform in the UK. "Much of what we see in the shops are romantic family sagas from the US and, for UK taste, is often considered saccharine and trite. I believe many UK readers will welcome and identify with strong, gripping fiction like Kemi's Journal that is rooted in real experience."
Comparisons with the States
Tony Collins, Editorial Director of Monarch (an imprint on Lion Hudson) considers that the larger US market is not the key reason why Christian fiction is so much more popular in North America than in the UK. After all, says Collins, "Some Christian books sell far better in the UK than in the States," he points out. "Christian fiction depends for its success upon word of mouth, as all fiction does. But it is generally read for pleasure, and UK Christians, who are less numerous, are more likely to draw their leisure reading and watching from mainstream culture than from the Christian subculture. "Our beliefs may be Christian but our tastes are frequently secular. There is less of the all-enveloping Christian world-view that can provide support and comfort in the US context. Thus word of mouth sales are less likely to reach critical mass."
Collins highlights that Christian fiction does better in Scotland and Northern Ireland than it does in England and Wales, which reflects areas where the Christian sub-culture is strong. He adds: "Novelists with strong Christian subtexts, such as Susan Howatch, also do better in the States than in the UK, even though she is accepted as a major general market novelist in the UK."
Phil Whittall editor of Christian Marketplace magazine, a sister title to Christianity magazine, which is read by Christian publishers and retailers, agrees with Collins. "Christians approach fiction in the UK in a different way to those in the US because there isn't such a highly developed Christian sub-culture. We don't have separate schools, pop charts and the like... There isn't the need to read something exclusively 'Christian'. When we want books to inspire and teach us in our faith we tend to head to the Christian bookshop, when we want a book to read on the beach or in the bath we tend to head to Waterstones and we see nothing wrong in that."
"Novels can be just 'a good read', without being a 'good preach'", says Chris Jackson, publishing manager at Eastbourne-based Kingsway Publications. "As for what makes a good Christian novel? The answer is a good novel by a Christian. "Good novels are well-crafted stories that engage the reader," insists Jackson. "This does not mean that they cannot have a strong message. We don't have to hide our faith in being over-subtle, equally we mustn't accept bad writing as long as the message is strong."
Despite some UK Christians who remain badly informed and stereotypical in their views that all Christian fiction is poorly written, British sales of this genre are rising. And with cross-over stars like Susan Howatch, the stellar CS Lewis - whose children's classic The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, will enjoy a new sales surge with the release of the Hollywood film of the same name in December - and the all time classic Christian fiction of John Bunyan - whatever you choose to call it - Christian fiction or fiction written by Christians, is popular. So whether you choose a golden oldie or a more recent offering, don't forget to pick up a good read before you head off for the beach or the back garden this month.
Summer reading suggestions
Beyond Tuesday Morning by Karen Kingsbury Zondervan 0-310-25771-9
God's Assasins by Mark Paradise, Publish Britannica 1-4137-4107-X
Kemi's Journal by Abidemi Sanusi's Scripture Union 1-84427-0920
Left Behind by Tim LaHaye & Jeremy B Jenkins Tyndale House 0-14240-3415
Monster by Frank Peretti WestBow 1-5955-4032-6
One Tuesday Morning by Karen Kingsbury Zondervan 0-310-24752-7
Shadowmancer by GP Taylor Puffin 0-14240-3415
The Paradise War by Stephen Lawhead Lion 0-7459-2466-2
Thodora's Diary by Penny Culliford Zondervan 0-007-11001-4
Theodora's Wedding by Penny Culliford Zondervan 0-310-25039-0