Plot: A pastor of a growing New England megachurch finds himself losing faith in the tidy religion he's been preaching. After he melts down in front of his congregation, the elders ask him to take a leave of absence. He undertakes a journey both physical (to see his Franciscan uncle in Italy) and spiritual, to learn from Francis of Assisi.
Gist: The pastor tells his congregation: "I started feeling . . . more like a salesman of a consumerized Jesus I didn't believe in. Learning about Francis helped me fall in love with Jesus again-and with the church again, too."
Plot: Former FBI agent Colton Parker is now a private detective. After the death of his wife two years earlier, relations with his daughter, now 15, worsened. When he receives a phone call from her saying, "Daddy, please don't try to find me, please," he knows she's run away. The rest of the story follows his search to find and rescue her.
Gist: Dodson's hard-boiled hero confronts evil in the form of a satanic cult and learns that some enemies can't be defeated with a gun.
Plot: This swashbuckling sea story takes its young hero, Packer Throme, from his destitute fishing village to a pirate's ship in search of the elusive Firefish. He hopes his quest will enrich his village and help him win the brave Panne Seline's hand.
Gist: Throme loves God, although he left seminary to become a swordsman. His true love is the daughter of the priest, so he must convince the old man of his worth. The second volume of the trilogy, The Hand that Bears the Sword, is also available.
Plot: Jan Karon moves the action from Mitford to the small Mississippi town where Father Tim grew up. A mysterious unsigned note summons him back, and with the permission of his wife, Cynthia, he sets out with dog Barnabas. There he meets old friends, discovers long-buried secrets, and confronts racial issues from the past.
Gist: Karon breaks one of Elmore Leonard's rules (see below), relying heavily on dialect, which can be distracting. Fans will enjoy reading Father Tim's backstory and getting a hint where this new series will take him.
Budding authors will benefit from Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing. Leonard, writer of hardboiled urban thrillers and Westerns, writes, "These are the rules I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I'm writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what's taking place in the story."
Donna VanLiere's Christmas Promise is a slender novel about a widow nursing a secret sorrow: Her youngest son ran away when he was 17 and she hasn't seen him since. Meanwhile she's thrown herself into good works, taking in stray people and providing for the destitute. This story of redemption and grace avoids Christmas sentimentality.
Frank McCourt's Angela and the Baby Jesus is a story about a little girl who fears that the baby Jesus in the manger display at church is cold-so she takes him home with her and hides him in her bed. Comes in two formats, both beautifully written and illustrated, with a story and humor that may be more appropriate for 8-year-olds than 4-year-olds.