All Lit Up: Books Set in Toronto

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Toronto may play the stand-in for American cities in television and film, but when it comes to literature, it takes a starring role. Here’s some great literary fiction that explores our urban roots (+ top literary festivals and book stores). By Heather Camlot

A woman scans bookshelves. Find books set in Toronto at one of the city's great book stores.

Building a City

Michael Redhill’s Consolation draws an evocative portrait of 19th-century Toronto. Leaping between 1855 and 1997, the novel centres on priceless photographs of the young city, rumoured to be on a sunken ship beneath modern-day downtown. Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion also documents a burgeoning city, focusing on the conditions of migrant workers who were key in building infrastructural landmarks the Prince Edward Viaduct and R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant in the early 20th century (which can still be seen today). 

Coming of Age

In 1954, Hurricane Hazel tore through Toronto, damaging homes, bridges and roads. The Carnivore by Mark Sinnett recalls the chaos—as a backdrop to a failing marriage in 2004. Margaret Atwood has set a multitude of novels in Toronto; Cat’s Eye stands out for its description of a changing city, from the 1940s through the 1980s, with nods to the ravines, Yorkville and Queen West. All of which feel miles away from the laneways of Little Portugal in Anthony De Sa’s dramatic crime thriller, Kicking the Sky, set in the summer of 1977.

Living the Now

Toronto is the fifth major character in Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For, which revolves around four racially diverse friends struggling to find their identity and purpose. The opening chapter perfectly captures the multicultural city during an early-spring commute. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim graphic-novel series also features the 20-something set, with slacker Pilgrim passing by or making his way into iconic institutions like Lee’s Palace, Sneaky Dee’s and Honest Ed’s. For a completely different perspective, the title characters in André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs offer their impressions of the city via their new-found power of language. The novel even provides maps of The Beaches and High Park neighbourhoods.

Literary Festivals

The Word on the Street Toronto

Attend speaker events, wander the booths and shop, shop, shop during this free event celebrating the written word. Harbourfront Centre, September 2018.

International Festival of Authors

Internationally renowned writers converge on Toronto for readings, book signings and round tables. Harbourfront Centre, October 2018.

Top Bookshops

Get a read on the city’s best places to indulge your habit.

Mabel’s Fables Bookstore

Fantastic curated collection of children’s lit, with a cheerful staff that reads, reviews and recommends. 662 Mount Pleasant Road.

A Good Read

Elegant treasure trove of first and signed editions, along with secondhand and remaindered books. 341 Roncesvalles Avenue.

Type Books

Cool, general-interest stores small in size but big in heart and knowledge. 427 Spadina Road & 883 Queen Street West.

The Monkey’s Paw

Expect the unexpected and celebrate the eccentric at this antiquarian shop. Pop a toonie ($2 coin) into the Biblio-Mat, a vending machine full of surprising books. 1267 Bloor Street West.

Glad Day

The legendary LGBTQ bookshop—North America’s oldest—was recently revamped to include a coffee shop, cocktail bar and dance club. 499 Church Street.