Reflective Reads and Listens for the Busiest Time of the Year

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Joy of Every Longing Heart

By Sara Groves
Reviewed by Paul Delger

On her new Christmas album, Sara Groves centers songs on individuals with roles in the nativity stories—the angels, Magi, and shepherds. Groves uses her simple, soothing voice to bring a sense of peace and calmness to the music. The album features nine songs, both traditional ones, such as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and original offerings including “We Wait,” “Tidings,” and “Let Our Gladness Have No End.” With a bluegrass and folk feel with a twang of steel guitar, this album offers opportunity for quiet reflection during the sometimes-chaotic Christmas season. (Fair Trade Services)

The Film Doesn’t Lie

By Jimmy Dykes
Reviewed by Paul Delger

ESPN commentator Jimmy Dykes challenges readers—particularly men—toward heartfelt self-examination in “The Film Doesn’t Lie.” Dykes addresses commitment, forgiveness, toughness, focus, and obedience with pithy maxims. On toughness, for example, he says, “I believe toughness can be defined as: you do what’s right when it’s hard to do what’s right.” And on focus: “Not everything that gets your attention deserves your attention.” Dykes said he struggled with different areas of the book. “Every chapter challenged me,” he said in a telephone interview. “Writing the book was a cleansing process for me.” Dykes offers biblical and present-day examples of people overcoming their obstacles, resulting in an easy read centering on a “deeper and more obedient walk with God.” (Triumph Books)

The Beautiful Ashes of Gomez Gomez

By Buck Storm
Reviewed by Trevor Denning

Lives change in unexpected and hilarious ways in this novel about love, forgiveness, and Elvis’ ghost. Populated with quirky, memorable characters, Buck Storm’s novel spins a laugh-out-loud tale perfect for a lazy day. These are people we want to spend time with even at their most pathetic or most despicable. They’re relatable. Maybe we’ve never talked with a snake or the ghost of Elvis. But like Gomez Gomez, we’ve felt full of holes and wondered how to fill them. Like Jake, maybe we’ve held onto faith despite trials and still found ourselves at a loss for direction. But don’t be surprised if, after all the laughter, there’s some water in your eyes by the end of the story. (Kregel)

The Beethoven Connection, Vol. 1

By Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, pianist; sonatas by Clementi, Dussek, Hummel, and Wölfl
Reviewed by Otto Selles

In his introduction to this album of sonatas by contemporaries of Beethoven, French piano virtuoso Jean-Efflam Bavouzet notes that those composers, including Clementi, Dussek, Hummel, and Wölfl, were no slouches when it came to writing and performing their own music. Bavouzet arranges his performances “in an order progressing from the most classical style to the most romantic,” allowing the listener to appreciate Beethoven’s genius in context as well as the changes in composition style during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With fluid and flawless playing, Bavouzet scales many musical peaks, offering moments of cliff-hanging emotion and majestic tranquility. (Chandos Records)

All Creatures

By Rain for Roots
Reviewed by Robert J. Keeley

All Creatures, the new album from Rain for Roots, a group of women who write and sing songs for children, is a delight from start to finish. As the title suggests, many of the songs are about animals. It opens with a new setting of the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” Combined with the next song, “Hallelujah (Psalm 148),” we see the album’s two themes: nature and the psalms. You’ll soon find yourself singing along. That’s the real strength of this album: it combines simple yet thoughtful musical arrangements with rich texts. Rain for Roots has once again given us an album to be treasured by both children and adults. (Rain for Roots)

Restoration

By Lecrae
Reviewed by Micah van Dijk

When Christian hip-hop artist Lecrae performed his song “Welcome to America” on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in 2014, mainstream America was introduced to Lecrae’s passion for racial justice. Ironically, this declaration sparked intense criticism from some Christians. On Lecrae’s newest album, Restoration, he admits he was deeply shaken during this challenging journey, but he reveals a renewed spiritual peace and continues to build important bridges with the mainstream hip-hop community. We sense his faith is stronger and more mature than ever. Collaborations include John Legend, Kirk Franklin, and newer female hip-hop artists such as Blu June and Gwenn Bunn. (Reach Records)

Stories That Bind Us: A Novel

By Susie Finkbeiner
Reviewed by Cynthia Beach

With a folksy voice, Betty Sweet draws us into the bygone world of the 1960s, when iconic Chevy Impalas fill the roads and the conflict in Vietnam hovers like a thundercloud. The novel revolves around an odd pairing: 40-year-old, newly widowed Betty and her 5-year-old biracial nephew, Hugo. Betty feeds Hugo’s heart with story after story, and he opens and grows despite all that has happened to him. Bit by bit, Betty relinquishes her rosy reality as she confronts her own suffering and then the suffering of those around her. What of those bruises on Hugo’s arms? What of her estranged sister’s seemingly endless struggle with mental illness? This novel’s meandering pace is refreshing as it reminds us of God’s presence with us in our suffering. (Revell)

Their Eyes Were Watching God (Audiobook)

By Zora Neale Hurston, narrated by Ruby Dee
Reviewed by Michelle Loyd-Paige

Originally published in 1937, this classic novel is a glimpse into Black life during the early years of the 20th century. It follows the life of Janie Crawford and the development of Eatonville, Fla. Four themes weave in and out of Janie’s story: longing for love, the role of women, racial oppression, and the will of God. The audiobook is narrated by Ruby Dee, whose rich voice masterfully conveys the earthiness and cadence of rural Southerners. Listening takes us back into time and connects us to the present; it reminds us of how far we have come and how far we have yet to go in race and gender relations. (HarperAudio)

My Friend Kaden

By Erin Ondersma
Reviewed by Sonya VanderVeen Feddema

This informative children’s picture book shares the story of a boy named Kaden who has autism. Through the voice of Kaden’s fictional day-care friend, children learn about the limitations Kaden faces, but more importantly they discover all that Kaden contributes to his family and friends. The narrator concludes, “If Kaden could use his voice to talk to you, he would say, ‘I am different from you in a lot of ways. But mostly, I am just the same.’” Ondersma’s warm, gentle illustrations and caring, sensitive narrative capture the beauty and uniqueness of a boy with autism and the loving community in which he spends his days. An excellent resource for parents, teachers, and caregivers to teach children about God’s love and purpose for all people regardless of their abilities. (Black Rose Writing)

Fins

By Randy Wayne White
Reviewed by Sonya VanderVeen Feddema

In this fast-paced, adventurous novel for middle-school readers, Doc Ford, a marine biologist in Florida, invites three children—Luke, Maribel, and Sabina—to help him on a new research project: tagging sharks to protect the threatened shark population from poachers who cut off the creatures’ fins to be used in shark fin soup. Luke has just moved from Ohio to Florida to live with his grandfather, leaving behind sadness and burdens too heavy for him to cope with. Sisters Maribel and Sabina are newcomers too. They escaped the hardships of life in Cuba on a raft, with all the dangers and deprivations that entailed. White weaves together adept characterization, marine biology, a compelling plot, and a glimpse of the reality faced by newcomers. Some profanity. (Roaring Brook Press)

Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars

By Gary Golio, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
Reviewed by Sonya VanderVeen Feddema

Born in Texas in 1897, Willie Johnson grew up to love singing. When his father recognized Willie’s passion, he made his son a cigar box guitar, and Willie learned to play it. A few years later, darkness descended on Willie’s life. His mother died, and, at the age of 7 or 8, Willie became blind. In the years following, Willie became a recording artist. In 1977, decades after Willie’s death, his song Dark Was the Night was chosen to “represent humanity” on the Golden Record (along with pieces by Bach and Beethoven and songs from various global cultures) carried into space on Voyager I. Renowned illustrator E. B. Lewis has once again created sensitive art for young children to complement Gary Golio’s compassionate, stirring narrative. (Nancy Paulsen Books)

The Summer We Found the Baby

By Amy Hest
Reviewed by Sonya VanderVeen Feddema

Eleven-year-old Julie Sweet, her 6-year-old sister Martha, and their 12-year-old neighbor Bruno Ben-Eli live on Belle Beach, Long Island. It seems like an idyllic summer setting for the three children, but World War II, though being fought on foreign soil, has life-changing implications for them. What begins as an average day soon becomes anything but routine as Julie and Martha discover a baby in a basket on the steps of the new children’s library and Bruno watches from a distance. What follows is a masterfully crafted unfolding of surprises, with poignant revelations of secrets and the children’s private musings. Hest deals age-sensitively with the consequences of war and portrays families as places where children are loved, nurtured, and offered hope even when life is difficult. (Candlewick)

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