So what makes a novel a Christian novel? There's no quick answer. The four novels considered here are but a small taste of the wide variety now available in Christian fiction. Each fills the category's basic requirements: good and evil are clearly defined, and characters are tested by real-world temptations and aware of what their choices mean in religious terms.

For suspense fans
Sinner is part of author Ted Dekker's Paradise series, which, along with the Circle Trilogy and the Lost Books, makes up his Books of History Chronicles. Dekker describes them as "circular, not linear," and has created a world readers can really dive into. This fast-paced tale is a thriller involving characters with very special powers, a series of lynchings and a constitutional amendment limiting free speech in order to prevent hate crimes. One of the amendment's results is the National Tolerance Act, which "opens the doors to laws that could make the teachings of Christ a hate crime" because they include claiming that Christ "is the only way to enter the Kingdom, [implying] that another's path is wrong."

Dekker is especially adept at examining the way people can be seduced into thinking that their talents give them rights others don't deserve. Sinner is thought-provoking; it left me feeling uncomfortable, but that may have been Dekker's intention.

The dangers of tolerance are also part of the plot of James David Jordan's Forsaken. Former Secret Service agent Taylor Pasbury, a woman who is haunted by her loss-laden past and who drinks and avoids relationships, gets a big client for her new security firm: televangelist Simon Mason, who's been getting threats from Muslim extremists and is especially concerned about the safety of his daughter and only child. Simon, too, has had a large personal loss to shoulder in the death of his wife, but his faith has buttressed him. Taylor is drawn to Simon, who is not without flaws and secrets, and who can be extraordinarily thick when it comes to women.

Simon's faith is tested in a terrible way when his daughter is kidnapped. The drama then moves to another stage, and some last-minute surprises are sprung. Forsaken is a highly readable book, and Taylor is a character who is worth another visit—Jordan is hard at work on the sequel, Double-Cross.

Traditional romance
Cathy Marie Hake's Whirlwind is well named: it's a traditional historical romance that moves from England to Texas without a hitch. After Millicent Fairweather loses the two little girls she's been nanny to for years when their father unaccountably decides to send them to boarding school, she sets off for America with her sister and brother-in-law. When widower Daniel Clark discovers his young son's nursemaid has fled the ship, Millicent finds herself employed. Millicent is something of a super nanny who soon wins over her young charge and, unbeknownst to her, his father. Although they end up marrying for the sake of appearances, each is hiding romantic feelings for the other. This is classic Christian fiction: the characters are devout, and it is common for them to talk with and about God. It is tempting to complain about the too-neat ending, or to find Daniel too perfect. But this frothy tale will entertain fans of inspirational fiction and romance.

Women's fiction
In Heavenly Places, the affluent African-American residents of P.G. County, Maryland, also talk to God regularly, even the not-entirely-saved Treva Langston. In Kimberly Cash Tate's charming debut, Treva has reluctantly returned to the place where she unhappily grew up and the mother who caused her misery. She can't find a new job (she was a lawyer in the Washington, D.C., area), and now has to stay at home with her three daughters, something she's never done. Treva can't get out of joining her sister's prayer group for stay-at-home mothers, but she doesn't feel at home with the women in the group.

Readers will identify with Treva, berate her for her lack of appreciation for her husband (who is on a level with Whirlwind's Daniel in terms of perfection) and her inability to see how great her daughters are, all the while admiring her for her honesty. Treva is not guilty of wanting it all, because she only wanted the career, not the children; and like most of us she's never had it all because something has always had to be sacrificed in order for her to have something else. In the end, she finds balance and discovers what Heavenly Places are.