December 6, 2011

A Wicked Children's Book

Plain Kate
Erin Bow
Young Adult Fantasy

As you can tell by my recent lack of posting, the time I've allotted in my life for reading hasn't really been up to snuff lately, not that I sit back and allot time for things in my life, but you get what I mean (hopefully). My plan has been to remedy that with audio books listened to while working (don't worry guys, I'm a hard worker and even better multi-tasker, my work performance is in no way affected by whatever I listen to during the day...thought I'd throw that disclaimer out there). This resolution has led to several recent trips to the library, which is convieniently located just across the street from my work building...
I read (listened to --) this book by accident. As it happens, they do not have 'adult fiction' and 'young adult fiction' sections of audio books at my library, which is where I was when I noticed this book - in audio format - obviously. I had already picked two other books, and was tentatively browsing for a possible third when I saw the colorful, interesting cover of this one. I read about half a sentence of the synopsis on the back - "Plain Kate lives in a world of superstitions and curses, where a song can heal a wound and a shadow can work deep magic." - and added it to my pile of auditory literature. For no reason in particular, I chose this of the three to listen to first. (WHY do I always have to explain the entire story of how I came to read something? How lame am I for doing this??)

 So about the book - I had somewhat of a hunch this was a young adult fiction book before I started it, but was hoping it wasn't. It's not that I have anything against YA, but I've grown up and out of that stage, though I enjoyed reading the angst-y dramatic soul searching morals of that genre up until a few years ago (and still enjoy a really good one every once in awhile if the writing is good enough to compel me). 30 seconds into this book and I pressed pause to re-evaluate my choice. 

First, let me distinguish a distinct difference between actually reading a book and listening to one. You cannot see the pages of an audio book. You have the freedom to look at whatever you choose while you listen, which can cause much more distraction if you are not careful, but I think there is just something fundamentally different between reading to yourself mentally and being read to. (This subject may lead to it's own blog post soon.) Recalling specific details is more difficult. When I think back on a certain passage, it, for whatever reason, helps me to picture the words on the page, which I can't do if I've never seen the page. It is one of those things you don't notice until it isn't there, like the noise of your fish tank running at night, or the noise of anything electronic, really. Read any poetry and you'll know, things don't sound quite the same in your mind as they do read aloud. Keep this in mind if you are considering an audio book.

The justification for that brief divergence of topic - this book sounds a little kiddie. The sentences were short, and simple language was used. This would be okay if the subject matter were a little bit less, uh, frigging horrific. I kept thinking to myself during the book - this author needs to pick her audience a little better, the writing is geared toward younger readers, around ten I would say (from how it sounded, I didn't actually see the words, which is probably enormously helpful when making an assessment such as this, but take it however you will), but the subject matter of human cruelty, starvation, being orphaned, loneliness, death, trickery, references to blood everywhere (needed to work powerful magic spells), and witch burning - I thought was not fit for such young people. 

The story is about a young girl who loves her father. He teaches her carpentry with which she later supports herself (to a point). Her father dies in a plague people say is caused by witches, which in turn causes people across the country to persecute and burn persons suspected of witchcraft. Kate is orphaned and forced to leave her home and sleep in a drawer. She finds some cats, and miraculously she survives four years without starving. Townsfolk start gossiping that she may be a witch and she is forced to leave. A real witch barters her shadow for her secret wish, which is to have someone to talk to, and all of the sudden her cat can talk. The rest of the book is spent with Kate trying to get her shadow back, and I guess there is something of a mystery involving the witch who took her shadow (and nearly every other character Kate conveniently meets on her journey). Also, this book was set in a Scandinavian-esque country - but there weren't many ways you could tell throughout the writing, though at the same time it was made blatantly obvious. For example - Plain Kate's last name is Svetlana (full first name is Katerina). The country's name is Samilae (had to look up this proper spelling since I'd only heard it sim-a-lay). 

So many reviews I just browsed over on gush about how they cannot believe this is Erin Bow's first novel, while to me, it screamed inexperienced from the first track. I know most of you who read this blog wouldn't be interested in YA, but if by happenstance someone who is looking for good YA to read and has ended up here, this is for you: I would not recommend this book. There are so many other good books out there it's ridiculous. If you happen to love books about magic and hardship and cheesy mysteries, go ahead and try Plain Kate, it seems plenty of other people have enjoyed it (the average rating on is 3.83, which is somewhat high -- I gave it a 2 -- seriously, it baffles me how many people loved it). Here is a list of YA books to consider instead of this one: 
Ender's Game - Orsen Scott Card
This Lullaby - Sarah Dessen
The Giver - Lois Lowry
The Hunger Games series - Suzanne Collins
His Dark Materials series - Philip Pullman
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants - Ann Brashares
HARRY POTTER series - Jo Rowling
Hatchet - Gary Paulsen.

Hope to have new reviews up soon. Thanks for reading!