Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

Skim (Goodreads)

Image courtesy of Goodreads

Suicide, depression, love, sexuality, crushes, cliques of popular, manipulative peers – the whole gamut of teen life is explored in this literary graphic masterpiece.

Above is the blurb for young adult graphic novel Skim. A bold claim, to be sure. But is it accurate?

I agree with the blurb – to an extent. Skim never delved deeply into any of the promised themes. They are all within the pages, but don’t expect a thorough examination.

My evaluation may not sound enthusiastic, but I think it was the right approach for the story. Whenever suicide, depression, or falling in love touches our lives – whether directly or through others, whether as teenagers or as adults who should know better, we are left with far more questions than answers. Worse, our sense of self and established beliefs are often shaken.

The year is 1993. “Skim” is the nickname of Kimberly Keiko Cameron, a Canadian high school student with estranged parents. She lives with her mother, but the relationship is distant. She is into tarot cards, Wicca, and astrology. She’s starting to have differences with her best friend Lisa. She’s a misfit at school. And she’s falling in love for the first time.

Yet her story is essentially a subplot. Katie Matthews is one of the popular girls, whose outgoing and athletic ex-boyfriend committed suicide. The overarching narrative of Skim centers on the aftermath of this boy’s suicide.

The students at Skim’s high school don’t know Katie’s ex-boyfriend (they go to different schools), but everyone has a response. From insensitivity to ignorance (teenagers, eh?) to eye rolling at the random hysteria, everyone has a response.

What Skim captured well is the voice and reactions of teenagers. A lot of stupid ideas are executed with (likely) good intentions.

Skim is wonderfully realized. She is the way teen misfits usually are. Smarter, sharper, and wiser than the expectations of those around her, but not as wise and smart as she wishes she is.

I so love the page where the concerned but bungling school counselor pulled Skim into her office. Girls like Skim, with their gothic ways and “depressing stimuli”, were “very fragile.” In other words, girls like Skim were more prone to suicide.

To which Skim snarkily thought: “Truthfully I am always a little depressed but that is just because I am sixteen and everyone is stupid […] I doubt it has anything to do with being a goth.” Oh, and “John Reddear was on the volleyball team and he was the one who committed suicide.” I chuckled. Then cringed. Skim’s inner thoughts were close to those of my teenage self, though I was never a goth and always a humanities nerd.

So ends my adventures into Groundwood Books’ graphic novels. I’ve read four so far (I’ve also read A Year without Mom, Harvey, and Jane, the Fox, and Me). All the graphic novels are quiet, slice-of-life stories of innocence’s transition into mature realization after one central event, and Skim is definitely my favorite. It’s the grittiest one I’ve read, which makes sense as the other three are targeted at much younger audiences.

Despite my reluctance to read young adult fiction as I often find the characters’ interests too shallow and juvenile, Skim is a winner. Sensitive topics are treated unflinchingly (though never deeply) yet with restraint and understanding. The characters and their reactions ring genuine, especially those of Skim and Katie.

I know there’s very little chance anyone from Groundwood Books would read this, but it is thanks to them that I could read these graphic novels. During the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, their representatives very kindly let me take the books I was interested in off their stand free of charge as they didn’t want to take them back to Canada. It sounds like a win-win situation, but the reps were generous. Other publishers got rid of their books by selling them at a discount. Yet one of the Groundwood reps said she is more than happy if someone took the books to a welcoming home.

The publishing world is a business like any other. But stories like the one I experienced reminded me that book lovers are united in something wonderful. Loving books is often a personal matter, but the community created is tangible and passionate.

Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault

Jane, the Fox and Me

Translated from French by Cristelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou

At this point, I’ve read three of Groundwood Books’ graphic novels for children. Organized by reading order and incidentally, from least to most adored: A Year without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova, Harvey by Herve Bouchard and Janice Nadeau, and now, Jane, the Fox and Me. I’m sensing a pattern here: the artwork is always superlative, the stories quiet, gentle, and tender. So quiet, gentle, and tender are they – that all of them are a tad forgettable.

That’s not to say that Groundwood Books choose stinkers. Far from it. These are good graphic novels with some excellent qualities. To me personally, they just don’t have that special something that would push me to rate them higher. And in fact, I respect Groundwood Books for choosing subdued atmosphere over dramatic bombast. One of the elements I appreciate from these graphic novels is how precisely they capture a child’s innocence/self-centeredness. Political havoc in A Year without Mom matters not to little Dasha. She’s more concerned about her first crush and how her school friends treat her. A parent’s death is unreal to the titular protagonist of Harvey – he spends the night thinking of an old movie he once saw.

Jane, the Fox and Me similarly tells of a young child’s tribulations. Helene is not living in a war-torn country. She is not dealing with abusive parents. But she is struggling all the same. Girls who were once her friends are bullying her at school. Her mother, although loving, is too tired raising three children alone to notice. Helene finds solace in reading Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. She identifies with Jane, from her plainness to her mettle. But when Helene’s class leaves for a two-week nature camp, will Jane Eyre alone save her from the cruelty of other kids?

I’m not the first reviewer who has noticed that Helene’s world is drawn in black-and-white yet moments when she is recounting Jane Eyre are fully colored. A clever and beautiful touch, I think. Not to mention, long-term bibliophiles would relate – As a child, school is too mundane and gray to be real, fictional worlds were brighter and felt more corporeal to me.

So to conclude, I was mildly disappointed because I had heard such lovely things about Jane, the Fox and Me on booktube. Perhaps the hype ruined it for me even though there was nothing particularly wrong with Jane, the Fox and Me. Britt and Arsenault really captured Helene’s isolation and loneliness exceptionally well. You can really feel Helene and her perspective of the world.

Of course, the artwork is simply beautiful – I expect no less from anything Groundwood Books publish at this point. Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki is the final unread Groundwood graphic novel I own and I’m looking forward to it.

Harvey by Herve Bouchard and Janice Nadeau


My edition of Harvey was translated from French by Helen Mixter

Someone ought to stop me from compulsively checking on Groundwood Books’ catalogue. The Canadian children’s publisher has released many beautiful picture books and graphic novels. Harvey is the second graphic novel of theirs I’ve read and the art doesn’t disappoint. The illustration style is lovely and whimsical, with a muted color scheme that echoes the story’s mood and setting. I can’t remember any bright shades anywhere in Harvey.



Harvey feels like a picture book/graphic novel hybrid. There are no speech bubbles, although dialogue exists. All the text is presented in a picture book format. And the text’s font relays a subtle sweet touch. Handwritten and stiff, it perfectly mimics a schoolboy’s best classroom writing.

The plot follows Harvey, our eponymous narrator of young grade school age. Harvey and his younger brother had only finished racing and playing in the slush of Canada’s early spring when they find out their father has died of a heart attack. Harvey deals with the boy’s life immediately prior to this sudden death and his reactions and coping approach immediately after.

Having read Groundwood’s Harvey and A Year Without Mom (reviewed here), I have a hunch that their editors love gentle, tender stories. Because A Year Without Mom is set in early 1990s Moscow, I had thought the graphic novel would impart some historical and political lessons. With Harvey, I had thought the father’s sudden death would feed a lot of drama into the story. But it is not so in both cases. Both Harvey and A Year Without Mom are about kids quietly struggling with life. Their struggles aren’t overwhelmingly bombastic. Rather, they are relatable day to day hurts and aches: problems at school, problems with friends, feeling alone and out of place and uprooted.

What I loved and related to most about Harvey is how accurately it captures a young child’s reaction to death. Little Harvey wasn’t sobbing, wasn’t distraught. In fact, his emotional reaction can feel too subdued to a reader. Little Harvey fended off the idea of death by searching for his father at home, despite seeing an ambulance take the body away. He spent the night fantasizing about a film. But gradually he grows to understand things are different now. Permanently so.

Overall, I appreciated Harvey’s art more than the story. But then, there’s not much of a story to begin with. I admired that the book feels emotionally true –especially taking into account that the story is told from a young child’s perspective. I like Harvey more than A Year Without Mom and I absolutely would love to read more of Groundwood Books’ publications.

A Year without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova


I must begin my review of A Year without Mom, a graphic memoir, with several apologies. A good graphic book review will appraise both the art and the story. Here’s apology #1: my understanding of art is low. So is my knowledge of art terminology. My description of the art will therefore be layman and subjective since I don’t quite know the conditions that make an illustration great.

Now, I could –and will—attach some pictures of the contents so you can visualize the art style. Well, here comes apology #2: I have no camera, only a cell phone and bad photography skills to boot. So yeah, questionable photo quality ahoy! You would be forgiven for thinking this post will be terminally useless and clicking the back button. For the rest of you intrepid ones, carry on!

The titular mother of A Year without Mom has been accepted to a graduate program in the United States, leaving her twelve-year old daughter Dasha behind in early 90s Moscow. Life goes on for Dasha as she continues school and navigates friendships and crushes.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the 90s Moscow setting would make this memoir lean slightly political. I thought the same. We were both wrong. Any political and historical context is glossed over entirely. You could tell the same story of 6th grade tribulations anywhere, be there Moscow or Addis Ababa or London.

I expected a dramatic story where mom’s absence overwhelmed Dasha with the task of fending for herself while dealing with a murky political climate. What I got was an everygirl story. A Year without Mom is a misleading title as the mother’s absence never felt strenuous. Dasha has always lived with her grandparents and mom being MIA still means two loving family figures and nice vacations during school holidays. A more appropriate title would be Grade School Drama as this memoir is all about Dasha’s nascent puberty. Dasha goes to school. Dasha worries about the “coolness” of good grades. Dasha has hormonal crushes. Dasha wonders if her friends are true.

I’ve read some goodreads reviews that describe the plot as dull/mundane/soporific/all of the above. One commenter stated that if it weren’t for the Moscow setting no publisher would even try to publish this book. To some degree, I agree that the “plot” feels quite throwaway and not very memorable but after page fifty, it’s crystal clear that Dasha Tolstikova wasn’t trying to follow in Marjane Satrapi’s footsteps with Persepolis. A Year without Mom is meant to be relatable, not informative. A Year without Mom shows no matter where you are, some feelings and experiences remain the same.

Once I realized that this was a piece of juvenile literature with no intention of making a grand statement, I enjoyed A Year without Mom more. There were moments when I chuckled and hung my head in shame at Dasha’s actions –so similar to my own youth and present (cough, repetitive screams of “MY LIFE IS RUINED!” cough).

I like the art more than the story. The art is in pencil and ink wash, with limited, muted colors. The color scheme (or lack thereof) is the first thing that struck out at me. Nearly everything is paper white and ink gradations, making the pages a succession of white, grey, and near-black tones. Rarely, there’s red to liven up Dasha’s cap, a character’s clothing, or the blush of one’s cheek. Rarer still are splotches of navy blue.

The art style itself is lovely, whimsical, and childlike. It looks like something a child would draw, which adds to the authenticity of a young girl’s voice.

A Year without Mom is part of my Frankfurt book loot. I’m happy to own it, as I like the art. But come now, how can you not be happy to own a freebie? For those of you considering a purchase, I’d say a youngsters and tween girls would be happy to have it. Adults should tread with more caution.

Some pictures below to give you folks a peek at the illustration style:


Dasha’s apartment and front door


Dasha and her friends


Interior of a school

Book Tag: My Life in Books

The lovely Marwhal once again tagged me in a fun book tag that I am very happy to participate in.

  1. Find a book for each of your initials

I have quite a long name, so for brevity’s sake I will only use my first, middle, and last name. All together, they add up to R-C-S. Here are my choices:


R is for Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I read this novel in August and while it is not my favorite book of the year, it is technically faultless. I still think about this novel from time to time; I especially cannot let go of Yates’ masterful characterization. There is a reason why I found Revolutionary Road quite funny, despite its crushing tragedy and that reason is Frank Wheeler. Oh Frank, you silly, silly man. So unlikable! And yet, so shockingly true to flesh-and-blood people. So charming, so charismatic! Yet so false and desperate. So many found you onerous. Yet I found you a delightful scream!


C is for Cotillion by Georgette Heyer, a recent acquisition of mine. I’m very excited to read this, as it has been described as “a literary bubble bath” and “like pink champagne.” Who doesn’t want to read something light and frothy and romantic and uplifting? We can’t all survive on literature alone. Yes, yes, I have clearly misnamed this blog.


S is for Saman by Ayu Utami. Very thought-provoking, especially for a city girl like me. I was –and still am- quite ignorant on how corrupt central government and big business can affect negligible villages. But Saman gives a piercing, distressing portrait on just one small example in novel form. It’s a shame that most of the press this book gets is for its depiction of female sexuality. I would think corruption and human rights abuses should generate more uproar but hey, sex is so distracting, innit?

  1. Count your age along your book shelf: What book is it?


A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. Gosh, I’m so ashamed to say that I’ve only read book 1 and 2 of this series when I love the story so much. When you can juggle multiple characters and POVs and plot points and characterizations, yet make things comprehensible to the reader, you are a talented author. GRRM is certainly a talented author. I just have too many books. Will try to dive back into the series next year. Hopefully. Fingers crossed.

  1. Pick a book set in your city/state/country


Senja di Jakarta (Twilight in Jakarta) by Mochtar Lubis. An Indonesian classic I have yet to read. I hear Lubis is very harsh on Jakarta in this novel since this book is all about Indonesian corruption and the unsavory characters that populate the city. This novel was published in the 60s and everyone who has read it has said the corrupt practices evoked this book is still applicable fifty years later. Since I plan to write an author spotlight on Lubis, I hope to read Senja di Jakarta very soon.

  1. Pick a book that represents a destination you would like to travel to


Out by Natsuo Kirino. This is an odd choice, since Kirino’s depiction of life in Tokyo is scathing. The characters here work numbing, menial jobs. A lot of horrible things are done to people. Yet boring jobs and crime happen in every city. It’s probably not healthy to build an idealized version of any place in your mind. Kirino’s prose, despite her subject matter, is pristine and effortless and I look forward to reading more of her work.

  1. Pick a book that is your favorite color


One of my favorite books has my favorite color as its cover scheme. Perfect. Reams has been written about The Handmaid’s Tale but I do have an unpopular opinion about it. Beneath the din of whether this book is science fiction vs. speculative fiction, my own belief is that this is domestic fiction. This is a book about the small spaces women make for themselves, the steady ways women try to survive despite the grind and oppressions of life.

  1. Which book do you have the fondest memory of?


The easiest question! The Adventures of Tintin. Thanks to Herge, my first big dream was to travel the world. I was sad that reviewing Tintin on this blog proved to be an unpopular endeavor, it seems that not a lot of people care for this series anymore. Yes, some sentiments are outdated. Yes, there’s racism in Tintin in the Congo. But Tintin is life-affirming too. The most beautiful depiction of friendship! The lesson that changing yourself for the better is hard and will slap you with setbacks, but you can do it. And Captain Haddock! Who doesn’t love Captain Haddock?

My favorite of the series (and this was excruciatingly hard to decide) is probably Explorers on the Moon. An engaging plot, the funniest slapstick and dialogue, and a darkness I did not expect to see at something aimed for children are the ingredients for something truly sublime.

  1. Which book did you have the most difficulty reading?


The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. So many sleepless nights were spent during high school trying to figure out whether the nanny was insane or if there really were supernatural forces at work. I still have nothing. I still don’t know anything! Not to mention, James had a lifelong torrid affair with commas. Gosh, he loved endless sentences. It was exhausting trying to make sense of his excessive clauses

  1. Which book in your TBR pile will give you the biggest sense of achievement?


Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. Russian epic. Bigger-than-a-brick tome. Nuff said.

I know I’m supposed to tag others in turn but I’m not sure who would want to be tagged. I love being tagged but I don’t think this sentiment applies to everyone. So anyone who wants to do this tag, please go right ahead!

Tintin in the Congo by Hergé

The version of Tintin in the Congo I’m reviewing is a translation of the 1931 black-and-white publication, not the redrawn and colored 1946 version


It is always a bad sign when you remember nothing about a book you once read. A sweeping statement perhaps, but it works as a personal rule. The rule was proven right once again with Tintin in the Congo by Hergé. I first read Tintin in the Congo when I was about seven or eight and never read it again since. For perspective, plenty of my Tintin volumes look as though they are about to fall to pieces, so loved were they in childhood. Tintin in the Congo, on the other hand, is still in good condition. As a child, I never found Tintin in the Congo memorable. As an adult, I find it uncomfortable and can understand why my contemporaries have found it offensive.

There has been a lot of criticism regarding racism and animal cruelty in Tintin in the Congo. Wikipedia is your friend on this issue. For the sake of public service, though, I will list some Tintin in the Congo-related controversy: in 2007, the UK’s Commission for Racial Equality called on bookstores to remove Tintin in the Congo from its shelves because it contained racial prejudice. Also in 2007, a Congolese student in Belgium tried to get the comic banned for its racism. And in 2011, Tintin in the Congo became the subject of heated debate in Sweden dubbed Tintingate (you know it’s serious when an issue has –gate added to its name). Tintingate became a platform for people to argue between removal of problematic content in the media and censorship.

Now, I remembered nothing of the racism prior to rereading. In a way, I suppose that’s a good thing. Shows that being exposed to problematic material as a wee tot does not automatically transform you into a racist, sexist homophobe spouting hate speech. But it did make me nervous as I embarked on the first page.

Well, what can I say? It did start with a disclaimer saying (and I’m paraphrasing here): “publication history, publication information, by the way there’s some racism reflecting the paternalistic attitudes of the 30s. Oh, did we mention animal cruelty? Kaythanksbye.” Can’t say you had no warning…

I’ll start with the good news: plotwise and artwise, it is admittedly an improvement from Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. But not by much. The artwork is still crude, but the body proportions are better this time round. There’s less empty space inside the panels too. The plot is more cohesive in Tintin in the Congo; everything tied up in the end, rather than being one bonanza of slapstick skits. Even so, the plot is simplistic and it’s nowhere near as exciting as later adventures. No wonder Tintin in the Congo left no lasting impression on me!

Tintin in the Congo, just like Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, is also in desperate need of pruning. Too much slapstick! Too much flitting in and out of peril! To be fair, this had to do with volumes one and two of Tintin being serializations. Hergé had had to improvise on creating cliffhangers and then solving these cliffhangers on a weekly basis. Both Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo also ran over 100 pages in book form, instead of the 62-page template Hergé had starting from Tintin in America. Makes sense for there to be a lot of fluff.

For fans of Tintin’s character: this is where his personality started to come into its own. His moral uprightness began to show in an early Tintin in the Congo scene where he refused bribes from three wealthy parties.

But now, the bad news. Oh my, where do I start?

Prior to rereading Tintin in the Congo, I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt. Surely if the racism was that bad, wouldn’t I have noticed it as a child? I thought if I went into rereading Tintin in the Congo convinced of its racism, I might make instances seem racist because of the criticism of racism. Sadly, wanting to give benefit of the doubt didn’t last long. What really got to me wasn’t the portrayal of the Congolese, which critics and campaigners have claimed to be stupid and lazy. It’s the asides made by Tintin’s dog Snowy. Upon seeing the African boy Coco whom Tintin paid to be their guide, Snowy remarked, “He doesn’t look very bright.” When Coco was frightened upon seeing Tintin in an ape pelt, Snowy addressed the audience with ”Why would he be afraid of a monkey?” I mean, seriously?! What am I supposed to think when reading these winky asides? Reading these scenes made me really, really uncomfortable. I know Hergé would display a more enlightened attitude in later volumes but I couldn’t help but think if Hergé once had such an ideology.

There’s also a “white man’s burden” approach towards the Congolese within the pages. Colonists are given credit for giving these benighted folk civilization. Schools, hospitals, churches – all are gifts from the colonists. Whereas prior, the locals simply didn’t know any better.

As for the animal cruelty, this is terrible to admit but I found the skit of Tintin accidentally shooting fifteen antelopes to be funny. I questioned my general humanity after, but I needn’t to. The cruelty progressively became unnecessary. Animal lovers beware! A teaser to the awfulness: Tintin drills a hole on a rhinoceros’ back, then inserts a lit dynamite into the hole.

Several commenters have made the observation that both Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo are for Tintin completists only and though my Tintin project has only gotten me two volumes thus far, I tend to side with the commenters. So far, I feel none of the magic the swashbuckling Tintin adventures should have given me. Here’s to hoping that the only way is up from now on!

Tintin in the Land of the Soviets by Hergé

in which I review Tintin’s beginnings and it is a mess


I was surprised to have found Tintin in the Land of the Soviets in my Tintin collection as I don’t remember having bought it. Most probably I found it lying in a bookshop one day and thought to myself, ‘Might as well complete the collection…’ then shelved it and never gave another thought to it. Reading Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is a shock: the plot is disjointed and the artwork is awful.

Hergé’s signature ligne claire (clear line) style may not be for everyone but from childhood I have always loved the simultaneous simplicity and attention to detail in The Adventures of Tintin. The artwork in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, however, is coarse and the body proportions are all wrong. In one panel, Tintin’s head and body looked like a plum attached to a watermelon.

I’m having a foggy time with the plot as it is forgettable and lacks cohesion. And I’m too lazy to flick through the comic again. Ask me to reread The Seven Crystal Balls or Destination Moon and I would gladly do so. But Tintin in the Land of the Soviets again? No thanks.

But it’s not a proper book review without a blurb. Basically, Tintin is a reporter send to Moscow to investigate the atrocities there. Every Russian he meets are evil bumbling agents who tries to kill him. Thus, Tintin gets in a deadly situation and gets out of it every five pages (maybe even less). These situations involve a lot of slapstick. I cringed watching a banana peel skit, the clichéd granddaddy of all slapstick. I know Tintin in the Land of the Soviets was written between 1929 and 1930, so the banana peel joke was likely funny back then but to a modern eye it just induces eye rolls.

One small detail I noticed is that the Tintin of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is less heroic that his future counterpart. From what I remember, Tintin never deviated from being a perfectly good Boy Scout. But in this first adventure, he actively injures an innocent man then mocks him. Yet another sign, it would seem, that Hergé had not known what to do with this would-be iconic character.

Because Tintin in the Land of the Soviets was commissioned by a politically right-wing Belgian newspaper, it was always intended to be an anti-Marxist, anti-communist propaganda. There were two obvious scenes of this nature in the graphic novel. One, when an officer is giving bread to the poor, but only to those who would admit to being a Communist. Two, when party officers rigged a vote by threatening to shoot dead anyone who does not identify as a Communist. These scenes are heavy-handed yet quite sad. Knowing they are meant as propaganda, however, colored the credibility of such panels. I don’t doubt that starvation and other terrible things happened in the Soviet Union but the way it was done, this comic might as well be retitled Tintin and Those Evil Communists.

To be fair to Hergé, he began serializing Tintin in the Land of the Soviets at the age of twenty-one, which is in an impressive feat in itself. An even more impressive feat is that Hergé would later regret this graphic novel, finding it crude, propagandist, and poorly researched. He tried to halt republication of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and succeeded for a long time. Knowing this about Hergé, I feel fine with disliking Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. The small disappointment I feel after reading Tintin in the Land of the Soviets would be assuaged soon, as I distinctly remember that post-Tintin in the Congo, Hergé’s artwork and plotting improved leaps and bounds.

Now, my main problem is getting past Tintin in the Congo. I am dreading the experience of rereading and reviewing Tintin in the Congo as it is unanimously agreed to be the worst Tintin adventure, especially considering the criticism of overt racist and imperialist views. But the larger part of me would rather read it as soon as possible to get the pain over with so expect a review on Tintin in the Congo sooner rather than later.