Friday, October 28, 2011

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

I picked this book up at the library and read it on my commute, and that was the perfect way to do it, I think. The story is set in a future downtown Toronto decimated by poverty and riots, and there is something so totally eerie about reading it while the streetcar you're on rolls down the same streets described in the story, past protesting members of Occupy Bay Street. It hits close to home, for sure.

The story is part dystopian fiction, part supernatural thriller. It deals with a Toronto separated into the dangerous downtown and the safe and prosperous suburbs; in "the Burn", there are no police, no services, and things are run by mob rule. However, an organic community has sprung up, and a barter economy, and I found a lot of parallels between this world and the kind of society the protesters in St. James Park are establishing on a micro level.

The protagonist is a young, single mother of Caribbean descent, named Ti-Jeanne. She lives with her grandmother in the former Riverdale Farm (!) across the street from the Necropolis, which has a prominent part in the story - making me so glad that I was able to tour it during Doors Open Toronto this year! Gros-Jeanne, the grandmother, is a healer and a woman who "serves the spirits"; she is beloved by the community although her relationship with her granddaughter is sometimes strained.

How to describe this plot? In a nutshell, the premier of Ontario requires a human heart (!) and for various reasons the leader of the "posse", Rudy, is commissioned to obtain one. He orders Tony, a former nurse who was fired because of a drug addiction, to basically kill someone and get their heart. Tony is Ti-Jeanne's former lover (and baby daddy) and comes to her and Gros-Jeanne for help escaping the Burn and Rudy's long reach.

From there you need to discover for yourself, but it gets pretty intense! There are spirits and visions and drugs and people get flayed with knives! But it is also great. I like the way it is written. Almost all the characters are Caribbean and speak in that almost musical dialect: he go do this, she nah go do that, etc. The setting is perfect; it both is and isn't Toronto. I love reading about areas that are familiar to me, especially when the author describes how they have changed since the riots - those familiar with downtown Toronto will recognize Dundas subway station, the Don Valley Parkway, Allan Gardens, and especially the CN Tower where the climactic scene unfolds. This is a story that needs - and loves - its setting.

What I loved most about the book was the characterization of the protagonist Ti-Jeanne, and the unapologetic use of female characters throughout. Ti-Jeanne is flawed and roundly drawn - completely three-dimensional. She is feeling the same disbelief as the reader when the spirits first start to appear; we take our cues from her. Her sexuality and sexual desire are portrayed as completely unremarkable. Most of all I loved that the two heroes of this story are women of colour: a single mother and a witch. Amazing amazing.

Hopkinson sticks women in lots of peripheral roles as well that in most stories would probably default to men: the Premier is female, the heart surgeon is female (with a female partner), the lead street urchin (oh you better believe there are street urchins) is female, and on and on.

I have to say I loved reading this. It is a quick read (it only took me five one-way commutes) and totally engaging. It can be dark at times and I really wasn't kidding about people getting flayed with knives, but there are strong themes of hope and redemption and it is brilliantly written.

Four towers out of five.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Fables of Brunswick Avenue by Katherine Govier

I was given this book as a gift from my soon-to-be mother-in-law when I moved to Toronto. It is a collection of short stories which, if not all set on Brunswick Ave., are certainly tied to it through the author's memory of a certain time.

The stories are brief, and I don't just mean short - they seem to be deliberately set up as fragments or snapshots of their character's lives. I found them all to be well-written and evocative, but unavoidably bleak. I don't think there was one story in the collection that was happy; not even a little bit. They have the distinctive flavour of an older and wiser author looking back at a time in her life that probably seemed sweet and exciting at the time, but through a different lens, it does come out as somewhat depressing.

The stories deal with the doubts, fears and neuroses of people in their twenties, and added to the clear Toronto backdrop, they should have been totally relateable for me. But perhaps I am a couple years too old - or twenty years too young - to understand the problems the characters were facing. Or maybe I'm just not fun enough, complicated enough. I did have a hard time sympathizing with people who seemed very self-involved. The whole time I was reading it I had the sense that the author is much nicer than the characters in whom she was seeing herself.

One thing I loved was the introduction, in which Govier talks about her own time living on Brunswick Avenue and the funny encounters she had. It is frank and hilarious and honestly gave me too high hopes for the rest of the book. I can't help wondering if a non-fiction collection - of stories of her time there - might not have been a better choice.

Reading a whole book of short stories at once is perhaps not recommended. I think that if you are in the mood for something that's a bit of a downer, a story from this book would be perfect; for all the thematic gloominess, they are beautifully written stories. And for a taste of Toronto in the 1970s it is excellent. However, having read the author's full-length fiction and knowing it to be vastly superior, I have a hard time recommending this book.

Two towers out of five

Friday, October 7, 2011


Welcome to Smoke City Stories! The concept is simple: I will be reviewing fiction set in Toronto. Right now I'm just thinking novels, graphic novels, short stories etc. but who knows, perhaps I will expand into film as well.

I'm not qualified at all except that I live in Toronto and I like to read. Please feel free to send book suggestions to me: pedgehog at gmail dot com.