I’ve lamented before about the lack of good Christian book review sites and gotten myself into heaps of trouble. Okay, so I’ve mellowed a bit since then. But finding Christian Fiction Review has helped. Tim Frankovich is the MC over there… and man can he crank out the reviews. Tim clearly has a love for good storytelling. Between his regular posts and massive archive, you’ll stay up to date on the growing field of Christian fiction. I’ve found Tim’s reviews helpful, and appreciate his honesty and understanding of the industry. When you visit, make sure to check out his essay, Why Christian Fiction? It’s a great apologetic for the relevance of reading and writing Christian fiction. I tossed Tim some difficult questions recently, which he answered with ease… probably in between books.
* * *MIKE: What prompted you to start Christian Fiction Review and how has it changed since its inception?
TIM: Originally, I was just trying to think of something else to add to my personal website, related to my personal hobbies. One of my biggest hobbies is reading, so I decided to write book reviews. I put up a few reviews of books that I had recently read, and notified the authors via email. The response was so encouraging and exciting that I was motivated to start a separate website for it. In focusing specifically on Christian fiction, it seemed that I had found a niche that very few others were filling. There were other Christian book review sites, but none that were devoted solely to fiction.
In the three-plus years of the site’s growth, it has grown steadily, increasing in traffic almost every month (all solely through word-of-mouth). Ive had great opportunities for contact with various authors and publishers. Overall, its been an amazing development in my life and I,m very happy with it.
As for changes, the site has changed design a couple of times. I’m always trying to improve the look and feel of it with my limited web design skills and even more limited free time. I’ve refined my reviewing style somewhat, hopefully improving it, and I’ve really broadened the genres/styles I’m willing to read.
MIKE: What is the overall purpose or objective of your site? In the end, what are you hoping to accomplish with Christian Fiction Review?
TIM: The purpose of the site is to provide reviews of current Christian fiction, hopefully encouraging and promoting quality and excellence in this arena. I’d like for a promotional quote from Christian Fiction Review to be something to be respected.
On a purely personal front, I’d love to be able to find a way to do this full time. At the rate I read, I’d have a new review up virtually every day…
MIKE: With so many books on the market, how do you decide which ones you are or are not going to review?
TIM: Since I can’t do this full time, I am limited in how many books I can read and review. At my current rate of available free time, I can usually get two reviews done per week. That’s over a hundred books a year, but it’s still a small percentage of the swiftly-growing Christian fiction market. I have to pick and choose which titles I review.
Obviously, I start with availability. If a publisher or author doesn’t send me a book for review, it’s not getting reviewed, unless I’m really eager to read it. But even with that, I get lots more books than I can handle. I end up with three stacks of books: a “must read” stack, where I put everything by favorite authors, anything from my favorite genre (speculative), and anything that looks really interesting to me personally; a “might read” stack, where I put ones that look vaguely interesting or that I”m being begged to review; and a “probably not” stack, where I put everything else.
I try not to restrict myself to just stuff I know I’ll like. The site would get very boring that way, and I’d miss out on some great writing. For example, I’d never have discovered Lisa Samson if I hadn’t started reading Tiger Lillie one day, a book that I never would have given a second glance a few years ago.
MIKE: Your reviews range from Highly Recommended, to Mildly Recommended. There’s even some books you do not recommend. To be frank, this is unusual for a Christian review site.
TIM: Actually, here’s the ratings range: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Mildly Recommended, Neutral, and Not Recommended. I actually borrowed that scale from a comic book review site some years ago, and while I considered modifying it a few times, I think it works pretty well.
I gave a “Highly Recommended” rating to 23 books in 2005. On the other hand, I’ve only given “Not Recommended” to two or three books in three years (usually because if a book is bad enough, I don’t finish it and so don’t feel right about posting a full review). I’ve given a fair number of “Neutral” reviews, and everything else falls into the other two categories.
MIKE: Have you ever received flack for giving a lukewarm or negative review?
I’ve gotten a couple of “disappointed” remarks from an author or two, but most of the time, even when the review is somewhat negative, they say they appreciate my honesty. I did get one author who totally freaked out over a “Mildly Recommended” rating and wouldn’t stop pestering me until I removed the review from the site. I felt like the “unjust judge” from the Parables! The LA totally ripped the book apart in their review, while mine was pretty fair. It just highlighted the different attitude people have toward Christian fiction.
MIKE: Don’t you think it’s unloving or inappropriate to give a fellow believer a bad book review? And why do you think many Christian reviewers only give “positive” book reviews?
TIM: No, I don’t think it”s unloving or inappropriate, although that author I just mentioned would probably disagree with me. Writing fiction is an art form. It’s subject to critique just like film or sculpture or painting, etc.
The disagreement arises when some Christians (and reviewers like you mention) judge a story (or other artistic endeavor) solely on the basis of whether it has a good message and doesn’t contain anything objectionable. As long as God is praised and nobody curses, it’s a great book!
I don’t agree with that. The Bible says that whatever we do, we should do it heartily, as to the Lord and not unto men. To me, that implies that we should strive for the best in all we do. When writing fiction, Christians should strive for the absolute best, the highest quality in storytelling, grammatical and stylistic elements, and every other aspect of writing.
So while the message is vitally important in a story (I don’t give a book a Highly Recommended rating unless it moves me), I’m also asking questions about the readability and creativity of the writing, among other things.
(For example, Oceans Apart, by Karen Kingsbury, was one of my favorite books of 2004. Some reviewers simply raved about how it showed the terrible consequences of a one-night stand, etc. It played on my emotions greatly, as well, and I highly recommended it based partly on that. But I also noticed and mentioned a couple of flaws in the storyline: a major cliche, and a superfluous sub-plot. If those two elements had not been there, it would have been an even better novel, and I would have praised it even more.)
MIKE: As a regular reader, what is your opinion about the state of Christian fiction? Do you think there’s a gap between the overall qualities of ABA vs. CBA books? If there was something about the Christian book industry you could change, what would it be?
TIM: Christian fiction is undergoing remarkable growth, and with that comes growing pains (now I’m writing cliches…). On the one hand, publishers are experimenting much more, allowing different kinds of stories to be told. On the other hand, because of the success of specific types of books, they’re also churning out a lot of product that all looks the same. I’m encouraged this year by a lot of surprisingly great books early on. I’ve given out eight or ten Highly Recommended ratings in only three months!
On the ABA vs. CBA front, I’m not entirely sure. I read very little non-Christian fiction any more, just because of the time factor. I think the quality gap has been narrowing, overall, but there’s always room for improvement.
If I could change anything, it would be the gender ratio of Christian readers. The large majority of readers and purchasers of Christian fiction are female, and so the publishers are catering to that market (and they should, economically). If more men would turn off the TV and read some good books, it would alter the market, allowing for more variety and growth in various sub-genres. That’s not intended as a slam at women readers, but a comment on the limitations of the market. (As an opposite example, the American comic book market is mostly male, so the comic book publishers cater to that market, and it’s limited in the same way.)
If I could change anything regardless of the gender factor, I’d encourage more variety and flexibility. For example, I know of one author who would like to write a Christian-themed vampire story, but he doesn’t believe any CBA publisher would touch it (sadly, probably right). I also know of another author who would like to write a novel dealing with human trafficking, but again: she doesn’t believe it would pass CBA muster. In both of these examples, it’s not that either writer wants to describe graphic sex and violence. They just have story ideas that don’t fit into what the publishers regard as acceptable.
And I’d make Stephen Lawhead write fantasy again.
MIKE: If you had to make a list of five or six must-read books written by Christians or containing Christian themes, what would those books be?
TIM: The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. No, watching the movies is not enough. Read the book! It’s a classic example of how a book can not be overtly Christian, but shot through with so many Christian themes that it’s breathtaking. I never run out of praise for J.R.R. Tolkien…
This Present Darkness, by Frank Peretti. It’s not a major example of excellence, but it’s interesting simply because this one book could be said to be the jumpstart to Christian fiction’s modern-day growth. Since then, there’s been numerous copycats, both in style and content.
The Testament, by John Grisham. I love how Grisham built a huge audience with his legal thrillers and then wrote one complete with the plan of salvation as an integral part of the story. Funny how Hollywood didn’t want to make this one into a movie…
Thr3e, by Ted Dekker. Dekker’s best work, in my opinion, and a great illustration of what can be done with the written word. I refuse to believe the upcoming movie of this will be any good, since a great amount of the plot depends very specifically on how things are worded throughout the story.
The Song of Albion, by Stephen Lawhead. This trilogy is Lawhead and Christian-themed fantasy at its best. WestBow is re-releasing it this Fall at the same time that Lawhead’s new book comes out.
Bad Ground, by W. Dale Cramer. My favorite book of 2004, and one of the best Christian novels I’ve ever read.
That’s six, but I hesitate to say they’re the top, necessarily. That’s very hard to narrow down.
MIKE: What qualities do you think make a good book reviewer? What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a book reviewer?
TIM: Read. Read. Read. And then read some more. You have to have a broad reading experience in order to know what is good, and how to make fair comparisons with other writers/books.
Beyond that, you have to be able to effectively communicate your thoughts. Spelling and grammar skills are a must, of course, but more than that: you need to know how to write in a concise and organized manner. I can hardly insist on excellence in fiction writing and not advocate the same for review writing!
Honesty is vitally important, as well, though it needs to be tempered with compassion. “Speak the truth in love.”
* * *Terrific interview, Tim! Keep up the great work at Christian Fiction Review. But in between all your reading, feel free to breathe some fresh air, walk barefoot through cool grass and fritter the night away at your local Starbucks with back to back Frappacinos. You deserve it, bro.