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Plain Kate
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Plain Kate is the orphaned daughter of a master woodcarver, and a skilled woodcarver herself. She lives in the town of Samilae, whose inhabitants are a superstitious lot; when the crops fail or disease strikes, they cast around for someone to blame. A Roamer (Rom), perhaps. A person with a deformity. Or, maybe, someone with a skill they think is uncanny. An enigmatic stranger arrives in Samilae with a terrible plan, and vulnerable Kate is just the right person to serve as the linchpin in it. He frames her for witchcraft, then offers to help her escape... for a price.

Witch hunts, prejudice, diabolical bargains... Plain Kate is a much darker book than you might expect based on the jaunty cover art. When you do reach the roof-walking scene, you'll recognize it immediately, but you might be surprised at the dire circumstances that surround it! Yet it's not without its share of brightness to balance it out: compassion, courage, love, heroic sacrifice, and a smattering of humor.

Plain Kate is written in the style of a fairy tale and draws heavily on Russian folklore. Erin Bow's prose, especially when describing nature or Kate's craft, is lovely and lyrical. The plot is epic in a way, since the fate of a country rests on the outcome, but at the same time it's a very intimate story. Almost all of the major characters turn out to be connected. The two major threads are Kate's struggle to stop the villain and to find a place to belong, and the villain's quest for revenge and the deep hurt at its core. The central events pit love against fear and bitterness in a beautiful, moving way.

I say "love," but I wish to clarify that I don't mean romantic love. There is, in fact, no romance whatsoever. If you're sick of romantic YA fantasy, you'll like Plain Kate. If you prefer books with a prominent romantic element, this may not be the book for you (though I'd recommend trying it anyway, because it's terrific).

There aren't a lot of books like this on the market right now, and so it's hard to make comparisons between Plain Kate and other novels. Precisely because it's difficult, I'm going to try to make some comparisons, to help you guess whether you'll like this book, or decide what to read if you've finished Plain Kate and liked it: The works of Robin McKinley and Juliet Marillier -- especially the latter, given the craftswoman heroine and the persecution theme. Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted, for its subtle humor and its engaging heroine with a strong sense of honor. Eileen Kernaghan's The Snow Queen for the well-drawn female friendship; Gill Arbuthnott's The Keepers' Daughter for utter "un-romanciness"; and finally Janni Lee Simner's Thief Eyes, which is quite different on the surface but similarly features a sympathetic villain and a heartbreaking sacrifice. If you liked these books, you will probably like Plain Kate, and vice versa.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 6, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
What is the worth of a shadow?

Plain Kate values hers less than her life. To escape being burned at the stake, she trades her shadow to a witch-white stranger and takes to the road. She has her carving knife and a cat; she is not alone. Soon, though, someone will notice the way light passes through her. Who can she trust? Where can she belong when she's been marked by magic--what will Linay, cruel and kind, do with the shadow he's taken?

I can so easily imagine _Plain Kate_ as one of those books you read when you're young and remember forever, for all the people in it and the way the ending touched you. Honestly, I wish I could've read it at thirteen or fourteen so it could have the same immortal glow in my heart as the stories I cherished then. Perhaps it will manage that anyway. Erin Bow's first novel (I'd never guess it was her first if the book itself didn't tell me so) is a lovely, rending tearjerker, the unwanted adventure of a girl in an impossible position. Kate Carver is brave, and maybe wise, to wish above all else not to face the world alone. Sometimes her companion and sometimes her nemesis, Linay holds on to hate and love too tightly. These two show between them the danger in trading away any part of yourself.

Their story combines frequently-used elements of fantasy like witch burning and gypsies with rarer hints of Russian culture and rich Russian folklore. A little past the halfway mark the tone of the book shifts, when Linay and Kate meet again. Events, mantled in a chill fog, flow towards disaster from that point on. The finale and its aftermath demand a box of tissues close at hand. This climax is where the story stumbles, though, in a way that hurts it, because the final sequence of events is confusing, as is the logic behind them. However, the ending was worth shoving the protesting corner of my mind into a closet for awhile to enjoy--if 'enjoy' is the word when you're sobbing into a Kleenex. It's so powerful and sad that I can ignore the muddled bits, or at least prefer to try.

Not a cheerful story, this. Not the happiest one. But rich, especially in character and pain; moving, significant, beautiful in the same deep way as its heroine, and very worthwhile. I'd recommend it to anyone who loves stories of magic and sorrow.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 4, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The language of this book is so poetic than when I finally finished and read the author's bio, I was utterly unsurprised to learn that she is a published poet. But it's not just the language that reads like a poem. The story itself has a kind of poetic grace that harks back to the bards and ballads of medieval Europe, or maybe to the retelling of those tales, say, in Tennyson's poem, "The Lady of Shallot." If this tale is romanticized, however, it's only in the sense of being stylized; Plain Kate is a tale well suited to the age of the Black Death, and in fact, one key plot feature is a vengeful, magically induced plague.

Not just Kate, but Plain Kate, this girl in medieval Russia (or some Slavic country!) barely manages to survive after the death of her father, a wood carver. For one thing, even though she is a talented carver herself, the guild of carvers sends a man to take over her father's business and home, leaving her living in the tiny street stall where her father used to sell his work.

Even so, Plain Kate is getting by until the arrival of a strange man named Linay who offers to buy her shadow in exchange for granting her a wish. When Plain Kate turns him down, he proceeds to use his magical powers to frame her in the eyes of the villagers as a witch, a charge they're all too willing to accept.

Knowing she will die without some kind of assistance, Plain Kate agrees to sell her shadow to Linay. In return, he gives her supplies and the companionship she longs for in the unexpected form of her cat being able to talk. Telling her cat to keep his mouth shut, Plain Kate manages to convince the Roamers (gypsies) to let her join them on their journey out of town. But despite her uneasiness about what Linay has done, she hasn't the slightest inkling of the ramifications of him getting his hands on her shadow--not just for herself, but for the entire countryside. Because Linay is mad with grief, and he's determined to get revenge on the people who hurt him.

Plain Kate makes friends with a Roamer girl named Drina, but soon Linay's dark magic causes still more trouble, and Kate realizes she must actively try to stop him. There's a rusalka involved (a Slavic female ghost or water demon), and that changes everything.

I'll stop there, but suffice it to say that you'll spend much of the book hating Linay for making Plain Kate's already difficult life a real hell for his own purposes.

The best thing about this book is its graceful language and melodically dark tone. On a lighter note, the second-best thing is Bow's characterization of Plain Kate's cat! Taggle is both selfish and loyal, also matter-of-fact. Completely cat-like.

The rusalka is far more terrifying than the latest crop of vampires in teen fiction, especially since the author builds the horror gradually and shows the ghost's connection to Linay and other characters in this atmospheric story. In many ways, Plain Kate is a tragedy about grief and vengeance, with more dead bodies than Hamlet.

Bow fumbles a little at the end, trying to decide who to save, who not to save, and how, but I think when you finish Plain Kate, you'll feel as I did--clamoring for this poetic new fantasy author to tell us another tale.

Note for Worried Parents: Plain Kate is a book for teens, with mature themes including prejudice and persecution (even witch burning), death, sorrow, and revenge. There's also some evil magic. Plain Kate's tone is fairly dark throughout, although it is a lovely book and ends on a somewhat hopeful note.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 21, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
A long time ago, in a market town by a looping river, there lived an orphan girl called Plain Kate.

Plain Kate, Kate the Carver. No one's friend and no one's daughter. Little Kate might meet her fate whittling sticks till it's too late.

Kate's shadow is long and her talents with a knife are great. Taught by her father, Plain Kate can draw the truth out of any piece of wood with skill and her knife, not with magic.

But in a town looking for someone to blame for the bad times, a little skill can start to look a lot like magic. And in a town where witches are feared and burned, working magic with a knife--even if that magic isn't really magic--can be a very dangerous thing.

As things go from bad to worse in her small market town, Kate knows she has to leave. But you need money and food to go anywhere. So Kate makes a deal with the mysterious stranger passing through town.

In exchange for her shadow he can give her what she needs, and grant her heart's wish. All Kate really wants is to get away, so she agrees. But as Kate sets out with her provisions and her cat, Taggle, she soon realizes she can't live without her shadow for long. But Kate isn't a witch and her only magic is a talent for carving. Will that be enough to help Kate change the course of things and get her shadow back in Plain Kate (2010) by Erin Bow?

Plain Kate is Erin Bow's first novel.

Bow blends element of traditional folk tales with her own lore to create a unique world for this dark fantasy. Kate is a carver through and through, a fact that the writing returns to again and again as Kate works on her carvings and views her surroundings through a carver's eyes.

The writing here is lyrical and evocative, making up for a story that became somewhat scattered in the second half of the book. Plain Kate will easily appeal to anyone looking for a traditional fantasy but be warned: this is a story that is very grim even in the midst of its flights of fancy.

I loved the 'book trailer' for Plain Kate but I hesitate to mention it because I think it's misleading in terms of how very, very dark this book really is. Now might also be a good time to mention that I really enjoyed the cover art for this title by Juliana Kolesova even though it (again) suggested a much more whimsical story than this really was.

This dichotomy between the cover/trailer and the actual story also makes it hard to determine my own feelings about the book. I can see the merits of the writing and the premise. The world Bow created is wonderfully developed. All the same, I found the contrast between the story I was expecting and the story I got to be so jarring that I cannot love it as wholeheartedly as I thought I would.

I see great things in this book's future, but part of me still wishes it had been the lighter-toned, more whimsical book I had initially expected.

Possible Pairings: White Cat by Holly Black, Fire by Kristin Cashore, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I have been hesitant to write this review. It seems that almost everyone likes this book, except me.

Plain Kate's world is one where witches are burned, people believe in curses and trades, such as that of wood carver, is ruled through a guild. Basically, the world of fairy tales. But, not the happy fairy tales of today; the book is more akin to the original fairy tales of the Grimm Brothers. After Plain Kate's father dies, she is all alone and shunned by her town's folk because they think she is a witch. She strikes a bargain, her shadow in exchange for supplies to get our of town and a wish.

The characters are wonderfully described and their intricacies are woven into the setting such that it is all interconnected. The prose is indeed quite excellent. Erin Bow is a gifted writer and her prose is very good.

So what is the problem then? Erin Bow gave us characters we should care about, especially Kate and Taggle. But, I could not find myself caring enough to feel any empathy for them. The book was so depressing and so terribly slow, I kept putting it down and coming back to it a week later. It took me a long time to read (months). I just could not engage, or care enough to keep reading. After I finally finished I sighed in relief because it was done.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 8, 2011
To be honest, I'm not even sure how this book came into my hands. I can only say that I'm glad it did. I enjoyed this book a lot.

It tells the story of a young orphaned girl, Plain Kate, who has tremendous skills as a wood carver. Because of this, she is suspected of being a witch. Though she is not, she runs away from her home town when the suspicions make her life dangerous, and ends up being tangled in a powerful spell, a spell which she has to break.

Every novelist who creates a world in which magic is real takes risks. It is difficult to create a believable, truthful world of magic. But the world Ms. Bow creates has a solidity that comes from its grounding in what is, essentially, the European Dark Ages. And it has believability because using magic has a cost. Here, when a witch casts a spell, something must be given for the magic to be received. It's a clever, and truthful, conceit.

Of course, when I say I liked this novel, I mean that it moved me. Never to laughter. Sometimes to hope. Mostly, to tears. This is a brutal story, but not of violence on the order of The Hunger Games. Rather, it is the brutality of real life--loss, fear, pain, revenge--couched in a story of magical realism. I recommend it highly.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon November 13, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
There's something about Russian fairytales. Beautiful and grim. Magical and yet true to the less pleasant elements of human nature. And "Plain Kate" is indeed a grim fairytale. Drawing heavily on Russian imagery and folktales it's not your happy-go-lucky affair. Instead it's dark and offers contrasts, not in simple black-white terms, but in grays. I think for this reason the book won't be for every Young Adult reader. Certainly it won't be for many middle-graders who generally like more 'up' moments to carry them along. You don't find that in "Plain Kate".

The story is about a wood carver's daughter. Though her mother died when she was born, her life holds a cheerful promise. Her father is an artisan, and Kate is just as gifted and when she reaches age she has been promised a position in the guild as an apprentice. However that soon changes. Her father dies, and with him nearly everything she owns is ripped from her hands. Their comfortable home goes to the new guilds-man who has come to town. The man just casts her out, and thus begins her journey which leads her from a world of reason to a world where she is warded against because unusually good talent can sometimes mean you're a witch.

You'd think that would be bad enough, but it gets worse. Her path crosses a real witch; a man that takes her shadow and thus forces her to run away from the only town she's ever known. She travels the countryside, never quite at home, never quite trusted, until there is far more magic and madness in her life, than reason.

I would have given this book 5-Stars except for one small facet that bothered me. And that was that the motivation of the characters wasn't always clear. By that I mean that there were attachments that seemed to be made too quickly, or which were made without sufficient explanation. At one point, for example, Kate attaches to one of her malefactors and there's not sufficient explanation for me to understand how that occurred.

But that aside, I very much liked the writing in this book. I liked Plain Kate, our stubborn and feisty heroine, as well as the rest of the characters. In fact, if there was a second book I would be eager to pick it up and find out what happened to those who survived. Can't wait to read Erin Bow's next book. She's a woman of great talent.

Pam T~
mom/blogger
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
The town of Samilae is one where its superstitious town folk believe in curses and stories of witchcraft. Katerina Svetlana was nicknamed Plain Kate by the town baker, and the nickname stuck. She spends her days with her father learning how to carve wood and creating talismans for customers who want to ward off evil from their homes or even for good luck. But when a deadly illness sweeps the town, Kate, not only loses her father, but she loses her home. Her neighbors who have always thought she was a witch because she knew how to wield a knife are even more suspicious after the illness kills many. With only her cat Taggle for company, she sets off on her own, but when food is scarce, the weather is harsh and loneliness leaves her feeling bitter, she finds herself striking a bargain with a stranger that will change her life forever. She trades her shadow for her heart's one desire. But we all know, nothing is ever that simple.

I was fascinated by the beautiful storytelling I found in Plain Kate.

Russian folklore seems to be the base of this story - but Plain Kate's adventure is one that I found to be original, dark and utterly captivating. I truly liked Kate. She's a wonderful heroine - she makes mistakes, struggles with the choices she makes, yet is always brave and strong. But I must say, Plain Kate's cat and sidekick, Taggle, well he stole the show. Some of the best moments revolved around Taggle.

What great characters and stunning descriptions of the town and its residents as well as those that Plain Kate encounters along her journey. The writing was simple yet lyrical in nature. It is told in a way that makes it feel charming a quaint. This story has such fairytale feel to it. You feel as if the narrator is reading a story to you - one that, although at first glance feels like a coming-of-age story, ends up being so much more.

One more thing that I found unique, was that Plain Kate did not have a love interest. I enjoyed that she was not pining over a boy, or the very popular love triangle, nor were there any vampires or werewolves. She was just a girl trying to live her life as best she could. The story had its ups and downs but nothing where you felt it dragged. As for the ending, it was bittersweet and heart-breaking but at the same time, it was perfect.

No matter the age, if you love fairytales, fantasy and just good, old fashioned adventure, Plain Kate is the book for you.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 3, 2010
Beautifully written. I adored the way PLAIN KATE sounded like someone was telling me a story throughout the entire book... as opposed to the beginning starting out fairy tale-y, only to lose steam and transform into a typical 3rd person novel. That made my reading experience all the more exciting. I mean, when you read a book, you expect to either read it in first person or third person POV. And when you read it in third, you expect to hear about multiple characters (usually, at least) while also hearing/seeing how they feel throughout the story, right?

Well, you don't get that in as much detail in PLAIN KATE. Or at least, I don't think you do. I could be wrong, and my excuse is literally feeling as if I was teleported back into that time. I felt like I was in a dream the multiple times I opened my book up, and I think it's because of the writing style.

Plain Kate's life is tragic and full of heartbreak. Yet, despite that, she continues on with her life. It was inspiring. I felt bad for her. I loved her cat companion while detesting Linay. I felt accepted when Kate felt accepted. My chest ached whenever she struggled to fit in or felt achingly alone in the world. I was shocked when she was in the cage and the lantern scene occurred. I felt miserable for Kate. It wasn't her fault that all those horrible things happened, and yet, she's the scapegoat. It made me want to strangle Linay.

Interestingly enough, I felt oddly detached from this book at one point. Go figure the lantern scene would change my mind and rekindle my adoration of this dark, beautiful story.

PLAIN KATE is a refreshingly new addition to the YA genre. This book would be so much fun to listen to on audio as opposed to reading. (I don't do audio books, but I would definitely consider trying them out if PLAIN KATE was my first experience). Especially if the speaker had a calm, soothing voice. It would definitely be something I'd like to listen to as I settled down for the night... for the first half, at least.

If you're curious about PLAIN KATE, I would suggest reading if you're in dire need of a unique YA book that doesn't focus on an unrealistic teenage love (or love triangle). Like I've said, this novel is a breath of fresh air and was beautifully written. Definitely looking forward to future works by Erin Bow, and I think you should be, too (which means... go read this book, already!).
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Kate is an orphan but before her father died, he taught her everything he knew about woodworking. She could be a master craftsman except that she is a girl and very young. When he dies from illness, she is kicked out of her home and must fend herself in the market and for a while she manages it. When prejudice turns against her she must escape her home town quickly and seeks out the help of a witch. The witch agrees to help her, but she must give him her shadow. Kate sees no choice and gives up her shadow and escapes into the night.

That is the start of this bleak and hopeless book. The entire time I read this book, I felt depressed. This is a dark book and there are never any moments to lighten the feel. I think because of how desolate the the landscape and prospects are for Kate, I never warmed up to her or anything in this book. I tried to enjoy the gypsies that Kate escapes to live among but bad things keep happening.

Kate is a young women and I would think I could gain sympathy for her plight but that doesn't happen. I never felt comfortable in this medieval like fantasy world with overwhelming shadows. I kept expecting something to lighten the feel of this book. As this is a young adult novel I wasn't expecting the hopelessness of Kate's situation and how it never seems to improve throughout the novel. I guess I see young adult books and lighter/wistfully romantic or angsty. I can't even say this was angsty...because there isn't really anger or flippancy in the main character. Instead this is a world without hope and while the ending should make it feel a little better, I was just grateful the book was over.

I planned on passing this book in to one of my nieces after reading it but I don't think this is something I want any of them reading. While I could see promise in the story, I was so depressed reading this that I can't pass it on to them. I don't want them to be depressed, hopeless or desolated by a book and those are the best word I can think of to describe this. 1 Star.
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