Imagination aplenty, but this rousing animal tale needs some refinement.



A red panda shaman confronts a villainous brown bear and his clan with the help of new friends and elementals from the spirit realm in this debut YA fantasy novel.

Bears populate a Far East-like world of the past in this series opener. At its center is Saraynea, an orphaned female red panda. An untrained shaman, she has the ability to manipulate the elements of fire, earth, air, and water. Saraynea is relentlessly pursued through forests and icy mountains by an evil clan led by brown bear Darkstorm, another shaman, who wants to use her as a means to harness and corrupt the power of magical beings in and outside of the spirit realm. Journeying toward her final confrontation with Darkstorm, Saraynea accumulates a cadre of female friends to help: a shy monk, a fierce warrior, a hunter, a mage and her sister, and a turncoat “shadow priestess” named Kheiryn. The priestess has a potent bond of “dark magic, so strong that shadow energy” emits from her back, which she keeps “in the form of black wings.” In addition, Saraynea’s “guardian spirit” turns out to be a formidable lion, whose jaws can shatter a warrior’s blade. The inventive story clearly reflects the author’s stated influences (zoology, anime, and video games), showing the female characters’ insecurities and growing closeness—scenes depicting the latter deliver a good deal of the book’s charm—and offering numerous fierce battles, lavishly detailed with martial arts action, arrows, swords, and magic. The bear characters (clad in robes, armor, and other garb) are believable in both their human attributes and their beastly qualities (paws, fangs, fur). But flaws in execution detract from the vivid world of Pluchino’s creation. Errors include a confusion of pronouns, repeated use of the same word within a single paragraph (“Fear rushed….The rush of thoughts….She rushed”), awkward phrasing, and run-on sentences (“Achamaru was happy to see her starting to feel better since they found her while Ayumei excitedly listened to Saraynea’s stories of how she would play with the spirits when she was a cub as well as when she met her spirit guardian”). Abrupt time shifts, too, undermine urgency and consistency. But the ending’s lighthearted resolution, setting up the bear friends for romance and adventures to come, is unexpectedly touching.

Imagination aplenty, but this rousing animal tale needs some refinement.

Pub Date: July 21, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-5190-2842-6

Page Count: 395

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: March 20, 2018

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.


High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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