This is the award’s 42nd anniversary and the prize is announced on the evening of October 11, 2016 at the Bram and Bluma Appel Salon in the Toronto Reference Library.

Strube Shores of DarknessThis year’s finalists for the 2016 Toronto Book Awards are Howard Akler’s Men of Action (a memoir), Ann Y.K. Choi’s Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety (a novel), The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood (a non-fiction collection edited by John Lorinc, Michael McClelland, Ellen Scheinberg and Tatum Taylor), Cordelia Strube’s On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light (a novel) and Marnie Woodrow’s Heyday (a novel).

The only book I’d already read was Cordelia Strube’s, which was a memorable and intense reading experience for sure. The aspects of Harriet’s story which most struck me did not feel unique to the city of Toronto; the emotional landscape struck me more powerfully. When I think back to her experiences, I picture the Shangrila apartment building, which I could imagine being in any Canadian city. (I said a great deal about this novel here.)

The same could be true, to my mind, of the experiences chronicled in Howard Akler’s memoir, Men of Action, although my memories of his debut, The Ctiy Man, have a solid Toronto-ness which also imbue this more recent book.

akler-men-of-actionThe predominant landscape in this book for me, however, was also something less concrete: the neurological map, largely unexplored.

This is significant for Howard Akler’s story because he is describing his father’s descent into (and residence within) a comatose state. He journeys across memory and through research, in an attempt to understand this foreign state.

Some passages are science-soaked, others sprinkled with philosophy, and yes, indeed, there are some concrete and rooted passages, in which he walks the pavement, acound and approaching various institutions (two hospitals in particular).

Overall, however, Men of Action is a strangely compelling and deliberately constructed volume, which chronicles a journey across territories which are largely unseen and intangible.

He manages to capture the universal experiences which simmer beneath the specifics of his own family’s experience, so that readers are engaged in the meditative exploration, even if their own experiences hover around the margins of the situation he describes in detail.

lorinc-the-wardThe Ward is, obviously, Toronto-soaked. The essays consider the neighbourhood between what are now Yonge and University and Queen and College streets. The pieces are short (most of them are only three pages) and designed to quickly capture a reader’s attention and leave them wanting to know more.

Throughout the volume is a generous selection of photographs, some spreading across double-pages, some claiming large chunks on text-filled pages and others dallying in the margins. There are also some advertisements and several maps (which vary not only in terms of size but also style).

The visual element is perhaps even more important than the text for establishing mood and inciting interest. But the subject matter of the essays is curated so that such a variety of materials are covered that every reader will find something of interest.

There are some pieces which are devoted to general locations (Chinese cafes, public baths and laundries), some which consider specific locations (the Italian Consulate, the University Avenue Synagogue and the Elizabeth Street Playground), and some inspired by specific people (William James, Lawren Harris and Merle Forster).

As has been true of other Toronto-y volumes which Coach House has published, somehow the variety itself is fascinating and even if you aren’t the sort of person who gravitates towards non-fiction, their collections are satisfying and inspiring.

choi-lucky-coin-varietyAnn Y.K. Choi’s Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety is a deceptively simple story, ostensibly about the daily life of a Korean family who owns a variety store in Toronto in the 1980s, but more specifically about the bonds between people which build/destroy identity and core strength.

A clue rests in the advice that Mary’s father gives her: “The difference between true love and infatuation is that while infatuation is about you and what you want, true love is always about the other person and what he or she needs. Remember that. It’s the lesson your mother taught me, and one I’m passing on to you.”

What is passed on (and what is not) and what is shared (and what is kept private or separate) : these are at the heart of the novel. For instance, she and her brother are forced to adopt “Canadian” names when they begin school, so their Korean names are private, known only within the family, and “Mary” makes friends with other children whose parents are from other places who understand what it’s like to be caught between familial expectations and “Canadian” customs.

Perhaps because she is distanced from large parts of her own self, it’s sometimes difficult to connect with her as a character, but the story pulls readers closer. Both vulnerable and daring, Mary has experiences which reach beyond the newcomer-to-Canada novels to unexpected territory; sometimes she is confronted by these, other times she instigates them. (At one point, I was truly shocked by the direction the narrative took: another route would have been much safer, although it was credible.)

The store itself is as much a character as the city of Toronto on the page; they are described with just enough detail to evoke broader scenes for those readers who know the territory well, but they are solid backdrops, not standalone entities.

woodrow-heydayThe Toronto islands play a significant role in Marnie Woodrow’s Heyday. Although I haven’t finished reading the novel yet, it seems the kind of story which is truly rooted in a specific place.

Though not so much rooted in a specific time, for the story is kaleidoscopic, moving across the years in the matter of a few lines. “We met after the man Ferris invented his wheel and before time-share villas on Mars. It was hot for June. You came rushing down the ramp of life, all boots and hope.”

I’ve been fond of Marnie Woodrow’s writing ever since I heard her read a short story about a woman with such separation anxiety that she felt distressed in the supermarket as her food moved away from her on the coveyor belt towards the cashier (which was a funny and not-so-funny story: I love that).

Each of the voices in this novel is distinct and resonant; I want to spend more time in each character’s perspective, even when the content is difficult. Sometimes especially when the story is hard, because there is something very resilient which seems to simmer behind her stories (even with simple tragedies like groceries being dragged in the wrong direction, let alone a difficult death).

The language, too, is matter-of-fact but reaches for the remarkable (and often quietly humourous – because sometimes all one can do is look for a reason to chuckle) in the everyday. Bette’s father looks like a “perfectly wrapped present” and her brother-in-law is “all too passionate about the rising cost of ribbon – every time”.

Have you read any of these nominated titles? Do you follow the award and have a prediction as to the winner?

Is there a similar award which you do follow and read from the shortlist annually?