Category: Bookish Question

When does a contemporary novel become a historical?

Bookish Question #122 | When does a contemporary novel become historical fiction?

When do you think a contemporary novel becomes historical fiction (or vice versa)?

This question came up in a Facebook group recently. An author wanted to know if a novel set in 1979 would be classified as contemporary or historical. That got me thinking … and searching.

Who gets to decide whether a novel is contemporary or historical? It could be:

  • Libraries (if they classify by genre)
  • Bookstores (who usually classify by genre)
  • Writing organisations (especially those with genre-based contests)
  • Authors (especially when they’re self-publishing)
  • Readers

Most libraries I’ve visited organise fiction by author surname, not by genre, so that’s no help.

Bookstores often classify by genre.

But each store has different classifications, and it’s not always easy to tell what’s what. It doesn’t help that bigger stores usually classify a Christian historical romance as Religious rather than Historical (and if a book featured an African-American character or was written by an African-American author, it might be classified as African-American fiction, not Religious or Historical).

I checked Amazon, but couldn’t find any definition of historical.

That’s not to say it doesn’t exist. I just says I couldn’t find it. If you know where Amazon has a definition of contemporary vs. historical, please add it in the comments!

Amazon use the BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) codes, and I couldn’t find any definition of historical on their site either.

Amazon also isn’t helpful in that publishers self-classify—which is how we find novels in the nonfiction categories, and The Tattooist of Auschwitz in the Australia and Oceania category. (I can only assume someone mixed up Austria and Australia …)

What about writing organisations?

American Christian Fiction Writers have Contemporary and Historical categories in their Genesis and Carol Awards. They define Historical as “up to and including the Vietnam era”. The Vietnam war ended in 1975, so I guess that’s ACFW’s current definition of “historical”.

In contrast, the Romance Writers of America RITA Award and Romance Writers of Australia Ruby Award both classify “historical” as set before 1950. If you’d asked me, I think this is what I would have said—but I’m equally happy with a 1975 or even 1980 date.

With more recent historical fiction, I expect the time setting to be deliberate. For example, Pamela Binnings Ewen has written several legal thrillers set in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She’s writing about things like women’s rights and women in the workplace, so the 1980s setting is important. They would be different stories if they were set in the 1990s or 2010s—no matter whether the stories were labelled “historical” or “contemporary”.

In general, I expect contemporary stories to be set today—this year (or last year).

I expect characters in contemporary novels to have smartphones and Facebook and GPS and the Uber app (unless they’re philosophically opposed to smartphones and Facebook and GPS and Uber … which could make for a fascinating story).

If the novel is “contemporary” and doesn’t have these things, then I need to be clued in pretty quickly that the novel isn’t set today.

When does a contemporary novel become historical fiction? Is there a fixed date? Or is it up to the publisher (or reader)? #HistoricalFiction #ContemporaryFiction Click To Tweet

I’ve recently reviewed West of Famous by Joni M Fisher, which was set in 2010. That worked for the story, but also worked because the opening made it clear the story was set in 2010. (And yes, there were a couple of plot points that wouldn’t have worked as well in 2019). In that respect, the story was actually historical … even though 2010 is hardly a long time ago.

But what about a story written and published in 2010 that I’m only reading today? Personally, I say that’s a contemporary story. Why? Because it was contemporary when it was written and published.

Using that same logic, Jane Austen was a contemporary novelist, because she was writing about the issues of her day. So were Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie.

So I consider a contemporary story as one that is written and published in the time in which it is set (whether that’s today or two hundred years ago). And a historical story is any story where the author is consciously looking back in time.

What about you? When do you think a contemporary story becomes a historical story (or vice versa)?

What social media sites do you use to find books to read?

Bookish Question #120 | What social media sites do you use to find books to read?

I’m a reviewer, so I mostly find books to read from NetGalley (which is hardly a social media site), or from other reviewers (e.g. through the weekly First Line Friday posts).

But I do occasionally find books to read through social media—although those posts are often links back to a review blog.

My favourite social media site for personal use is Facebook, but I rarely find books to read there in my general feed. That’s partly a function of the people I follow. I use Facebook to connect with real-life friends and writing friends.

However, I often see great recommendations in the Avid Readers of Christian Fiction Facebook group. If you’re on Facebook and looking for Christian novels to read, then Avid Readers is the place to go. You can post a request for what seems like an oddball book and dozens of recommendations. (I don’t post requests because there are too many books and too little time.

More often, I find books on Instagram (as I tend to follow readers and reviewers there), or on Goodreads. I guess that’s not surprising: that I’d find books to read on a social network dedicated to booklovers. I’m also a member of Litsy, but follow a combination of people there (i.e. not just Christian fiction readers). That means they’re often recommending books I’m not interested in.

So, overall, I’d have to say I mostly use Goodreads or the Avid Readers of Christian Fiction Facebook group to find books to read.

What about you? What social media sites do you use to find books to read?

Who is your favourite Christian romance hero? What makes him so special?

Bookish Question #119 | Who is your favourite Christian romance hero?

Who is your favourite Christian romance hero? What makes him so special?

Tough question!

I read a lot of Christian romances, and I almost always love the hero. If I don’t love the hero at least a little bit, then I generally don’t like the book either. After all, who wants to read a novel where the heroine ends up with a guy you don’t like? If I like the heroine, I want her to have better than that! The same holds true when i like the hero—I want him to have a heroine who is worthy of him.

But a truly great Christian romance hero would fall for someone who wasn’t worthy of him, but would pursue her anyway. She wouldn’t be the riches or the cleverest or the most beautiful. She would have faults—major faults. He’d love her when she wasn’t lovable, when she didn’t love herself. He’d demonstrate God’s love in good times and bad.

Michael Hosea from Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers is this hero.

If you’ve read Redeeming Love, you know it is loosely based on the biblical Book of Hosea. If you haven’t read Redeeming Love, you need to. There is a reason why this is probably the top-selling Christian novel of all time.

So Michael Hosea is my favourite Christian romance hero. Who is yours?

What makes a good book review?

Bookish Question 118 | What makes a good book review?

Reviews are for readers.

The objective of a review is to help a potential reader decide whether or not they will like a particular book. Should they spend their hard-earned money buying this book? Is it worth their time to read? My time is valuable. I don’t want to waste hours reading a bad book when I could be reading a good book.

So what makes a good book review?

Some reviewers, especially Christian reviewers, say a good book review is a five-star review. They believe that “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”, or that a positive review is building up God’s Kingdom.

I disagree.

I don’t believe God’s Kingdom is built on second-rate work.

Praising books with basic writing faults encourages mediocrity, and we should be aiming to give God our best. This takes a combination of (God-given) talent and (our) hard work.

I also believe reviews should be honest.

Readers deserve to know whether a book is worth their time and money. Even a free book takes several hours to read, hours the reader can never get back, so the book needs to be good enough to justify that time. As a reviewer I have a responsibility to be honest, and sometimes that means being critical. If I don’t like a book, I need to say so.

It’s hard to write a less-than-glowing review. Really hard. It’s much easier to write a four-star ‘I liked it’ review or a five-star ‘I loved it’ rave than to try and explain why I could barely finish the book “everyone” else loved.

Having said that, I don’t review every book I read. And I don’t publish every review I write.

I don’t have time. And I don’t have the space on my blog. I’m only sharing one new review a week, so (as far as possible) I want to review books I’ve enjoyed and recommend. On that note, I don’t force myself to finish every book I start. If I get to the point where I’d rather clean the toilet, then that book goes on the Did Not Finish pile.

Everyone has different opinions on what makes a good book review. What do you think? #BookReviews #BookishQuestion Click To Tweet

But we’re all different.

I’ve had conversations with hundreds of book reviewers over the years, and discovered that most of us tend to write the kind of reviews we like to read. So people who like reading long book report-type reviews with all the trigger warnings and all the spoilers will write those kinds of reviews. People who like the one-sentence “best book eva!” reviews will write those reviews.

Over the years I have come to the conclusion that there are five main aspects that contribute to my enjoyment of a book.

So these are the issues I try to address when I write a review:

  • Plot: Does the plot make sense? Do the sub-plots add to the overall story? Is it believable? Is it original, or do I feel I’ve read it before?
  • Characters: Do I like the characters? Are they people I’d want to know and spend time with in real life? Or are they too-stupid-to-live clichés?
  • Genre: Does the book conform to the expectations of the genre? If it’s Christian fiction, does the protagonist show clear progression in their Christian walk? If it’s romance, is there an emotionally satisfying ending? If it’s fantasy or science fiction, has the author succeeded in convincing me the world they have created is real?
  • Writing and editing: With many books, especially those from small publishers or self-published authors problems with the writing or editing take me out of the story (like a heroin wearing a high-wasted dress). Bad writing or insufficient editing makes a book memorable for all the wrong reasons.
  • The Wow! Factor: Some books, very few, have that extra something that makes them memorable for the right reasons. The Wow! factor is usually a combination of a unique plot and setting, likeable and intelligent characters (I loathe stupid characters), and a distinct and readable writing style, or ‘voice’. This is highly subjective and other readers might not agree with my taste. And that’s okay.

That’s what I think makes a good book review. What do you think?

What's one thing you'd like to see less of in Christian fiction? Why?

Bookish Question 117 | What’s one thing you’d like to see less of in Christian fiction?

If you’ve read my posts over the last two weeks, then this week’s answer probably won’t come as much of a surprise.

Two weeks ago, we talked about edgy Christian fiction, and how did I see edgy. My answer: fiction that reflects all of us, not just white middle class feel-good safe fiction.

Last week, we talked about what we’d like to see more of in Christian fiction. My answer: Jesus.

So what do you think I’d like to see less of in Christian fiction?

I’d like to see less cultural Christianity and more real faith. Less WASP and more diversity. Less America and more international. Less sanitised “safe” content, and more delving into real issues affecting real Christians (and non-Christians).

I live in New Zealand, which has been called a post-Christian culture for over twenty years. In New Zealand, people might go to church out of habit, but they don’t go just because all the neighbours go and going to church is the “done” thing. People go to church to meet with God and fellowship with other believers—which isn’t the impression I get from a lot of Christian fiction.

What would you like to see less of in Christian fiction? Why? #ChristianFiction #BookishQuestion Click To Tweet

So that’s what I’d like to see in Christian fiction: less sanitised church and more real Jesus.

What do you think? What would you like to see less of in Christian fiction? Why?

What's one thing you'd like to see more of in Christian fiction? Why?

Bookish Question #116 | What’s one thing you’d like to see more of in Christian fiction?

Jesus.

You’d think that Jesus Christ would be a central feature of a genre called “Christian fiction”.

Yet he’s not. An increasing number of Christian fiction publishers are owned by multinational media corporations, so they have no moral or religious compunction to ensure that “Christian fiction” actually shares Jesus Christ. As a result, I’ve seen an increasing number of “Christ-lite” titles from the larger traditional Christian publishers.

Don’t get me wrong: there is a need for “Christ-lite” titles.

A non-Christian isn’t going to pick up Redeeming Love or This Present Darkness. They’re reading The Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades. There is a need for Christian authors to write books that appeal to the unsaved, but which thread Christian messages into their stories. There are many Christian authors writing in the general market, sharing messages of love and hope that reference Christianity lightly and will hopefully plant a seed or two.

But I expect more from Christian publishers.

I expect Christian fiction—novels with characters who are definitely (and sometimes defiantly) Christian. Characters who make mistakes and sin, but who experience God’s grace and change. Characters who look to God first, who show what it means to be a Christ follower in an increasingly secular world. Characters who teach us how to better live as Christians—either by what they do, or by what they don’t do.

Once upon a time, Christian fiction that included Jesus was normal. But at some point, it became abnormal, to the point where Christian fiction with an active spiritual thread is practically edgy.

What's one thing you'd like to see more of in Christian fiction? Why? #ChristianFiction #BookishQuestion Click To Tweet

That’s why I’d like to see more Jesus in Christian fiction.

What about you? What’s one thing you’d like to see more of in Christian fiction? Why?

Do you read edgy Christian fiction?

Bookish Question #115 | Do you read edgy Christian fiction?

Do you read edgy Christian fiction?

If so, how do you define edgy? Who are your favourite edgy authors?

Yes, I read edgy Christian fiction, and I’d like to read more.

How do I define edgy? It’s Christian fiction that isn’t the safe, samey feel-good Christian fiction that dominates the bestseller lists.

Traditional Christian fiction has been safe. Christian fiction is written from a Christian world view, and it’s something you could happily share with your daughter and your mother (and even your grandmother). It reinforced biblical values and even challenged them sometimes—in a biblical way. Christian fiction has traditionally portrayed a solidly white middle class American version of Christianity.

But traditional Christian fiction hasn’t done a good job of portraying the edges.

I want to see different cultures and different races. I want to see people like me. People who don’t live in North America. People who live in multicultural towns and cities and societies. People who don’t speak English as a first language. People who are struggling financially or emotionally or spiritually. People who are held hostage by the mistakes of their past, who can’t see a way to their future. 

Christ died for all of us. I’d like to see Christian fiction better reflect the “all of us”.

What about you? Do you read edgy Christian fiction? How do you define “edgy”?

Flashbacks in fiction—do you love them or loathe them?

Bookish Question #114 | Flashbacks in fiction—do you love them or loathe them?

Yes. Both.

Sometimes I love flashbacks in fiction. And sometimes I loathe them.

I love flashbacks when they are done well—when there is a scene from the character’s history that explains why they’re making the (often stupid) decisions they’re making today. Or a scene that explains the predicament they’re in today, and how they got there.

One novel that does a great job of using flashbacks is Out of the Cages by Penny Jaye. The present story is that of a Nepalese teenager who has just been rescued from sex slavery, and her battle to find a new normal life. The past story is how she got tricked into prostitution in the first place. It’s a tough read, and flashbacks reinforce the current story (click here to read my review).

More often, I loathe flashbacks. Why?

Because the flashback isn’t sharing vital information. Instead, it brings the story to a halt while it takes us back into the past to pass on information that’s only vaguely relevant to the plot at hand.

The worst example was a book I read years ago, where the author kept interrupting the hero and heroine’s story to take us back to how the heroine’s parents met and married … and to how her grandparents met and married. It wasn’t that the writing was bad. It was that I didn’t care—I cared about the hero and heroine, and they were the characters I wanted to read about.

What about you? Do you love flashbacks in fiction, or loathe them?

What makes you click the buy button?

Bookish Question 113 | What makes you click the buy button?

What gets me clicking the buy button?

Lots of things!

  • A new book by a favourite author.
  • A great cover.
  • An intriguing book description.
  • A great first line, as featured in a #FirstLineFriday post.
  • A great review from a blogger I know and trust.
  • A good price, especially a pre-order or new release sale.

There’s not much that gets me clicking faster than a 99 cent sale from a favourite author or an author I’ve heard other bloggers and reviewers rave about (I don’t always enjoy the book, but at least it didn’t cost me much to find out).

But what stops me buying?

A Confusing Cover

One that makes it hard to tell the book’s genre. True story: I went out to dinner with two writer friends last week and showed them the cover of a book I’ve been asked to review. Neither of them could tell whether the book was fiction or non-fiction, let alone what genre. That’s a cover fail.

A Lacklustre Book Description

The book description’s job is to get me to either buy the book, or to check out the first page. It needs to be short and snappy, and introduce readers to the main characters and the central conflict. If there’s nothing interesting in the description, I’m going to assume there’s nothing interesting in the book.

Here’s an example of the opposite: Richard Mabry’s latest Christian medical thriller novella. He’s sold me by the end of the first sentence of the description:

Things were going along just fine. Until the miracle fouled them up.

“Brother” Bob Bannister is content with his life and his itinerant healing ministry, until one night he finds that the woman who walks off the stage under her own power isn’t one of his shills. At that point, doubts begin to intrude on his previously untroubled existence.

Dr. Abby Davis is tired of her family practice and at odds with God. Dealing with critically ill and dying patients has crushed her spirit to the point she’s ready to quit. But she soon realizes that there’s more to healing than ministering to the physical body.

Scott Anderson was the oldest graduate of his seminary class. Then again, most of them hadn’t turned away from a medical practice, hoping to atone for past mistakes (including his wife’s death) by ministering to men’s souls. Now he hopes he hasn’t made a colossal mistake in switching careers.

Each of these individuals becomes linked to the other, and each finds that God has a purpose for them—but, as it often does, the lesson comes with discomfort.

Bad Editing in the Sample

I always check out the Kindle sample of a book from a new-to-me author. I keep reading until I find one too many errors, or until I reach the end of the sample. If I get to the end and am engaged in the plot and haven’t found any basic writing or editing errors, there’s a good chance I’ll buy the book.

What makes you click the buy button? Here's my list of what gets me clicking Buy Now on @Amazon ... and what gets me clicking to the next page #AmReading #BookishQuestion Click To Tweet

An Expensive Book

I rarely pay more than $3.99 for an ebook, but that’s partly because I already have so many books on the to-read pile. If you don’t believe me, I sorted out my bookshelf a couple of weeks ago, and here’s most of my paper to-read pile. My Kindle pile is even bigger …

What about you? What makes you click the buy button … or not?

Do you read book reviews? Where?

Bookish Question #112 | Do you read book reviews? Where?

Yes, but I’d probably read more if I wasn’t a book reviewer myself!

Why is that?

As I’ve mentioned before, I get a lot of my review copies from NetGalley. I can’t read reviews for these books because there aren’t any (yet). If the author, book cover, or book description are good enough to entice me to read the book, then I’ll download it.

If I enjoy the book, then I’ll review it and share my review for others to read. If not … I’ll probably still review it on NetGalley, but won’t share the review.

When I do read reviews, they tend to be reviews on blog sites.

I follow 20+ book blogs through Feedly, and will read reviews for books that catch my eye … but only books that aren’t on my own to-review pile. I don’t like to read reviews of books I know I’m going to read and review, as I don’t like others to influence me. However, I will sometimes read a review, decide I want to read the book, then find it’s still available on NetGalley.

The other main place I read reviews is Goodreads.

It’s kind of like Facebook, in that the latest updates from my friends are front and centre in my updates. I’ll usually skim the updates a few times a week, check out reviews, and add books to my to-read pile (aka Mount TBR).

I’ll also read Amazon reviews if I’m considering buying a book e.g. if I’ve seen the book advertised on BookBub or another online site. But I’ve usually made my buying decision before I get to Amazon—although sometimes I’ll choose not to buy (say, if the ebook is too expensive. I have too many paid-for books in my to-read pile already).

So yes, I do read book reviews, but not as many as I’d read if I wasn’t a reviewer with an overflowing to-read pile!

What about you? Do you read book reviews? If so, what are your favourite review sites?