Ann Y.K. Choi’s debut novel, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, is like taking a time machine to Toronto, 1985. Ann takes us inside the mind of teenager Mary Hwang, whose family emigrated from Korea when she was a young girl. Like many Korean families in Toronto at this time, the Hwang’s anchored their new life by owning and operating a convenience store.  K&L Variety (the real-life convenience store that inspired Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety) remains a neighbourhood staple today, located on Queen Street West, just west of Trinity-Bellwoods Park.

What’s it like to move to a new country and have the principal at your new school advise you to change your name (because your Korean name is too “difficult to pronounce”)? What’s it like to grow up in a store that’s open 7am-11pm, 7 days a week? How is a teenage girl’s experience coloured when she spends her evenings working behind the counter, selling smokes to local pimps? What was our Trinity-Bellwoods neighbourhood like in 1985? These are just some of the questions Ann answers in her brilliant novel that vividly explores the complexity of Canadian immigrant life while also closely examining a tumultuous mother-daughter relationship.

The book’s behind-the-counter point of view presents an interesting perspective when it comes to observing mental health in our society. Depression is a theme throughout the book, and not just for the protagonist and her mother; the characters continually engage with mentally ill customers, be they homeless citizens, patients from Toronto’s Centre for Addition and Mental Health, or local criminals with wretched domestic histories.

Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety officially released yesterday, and I can’t help but think its launch date is serendipitously timed with two local events: Canada’s Mental Health Week (happening now), and Jane’s Walk, a weekend event that encourages citizens to learn about life and communities by walking the streets, and listening to locals share their stories (happening May 7-8).

While the novel inspires a lot of thinking about 80s culture and the challenges of immigrant life, it also inspires you to get outside, walk the city, and see familiar landmarks and neighbourhoods through a different lens.

The map above by illustrator Kristina Groeger shows off Mary Hwang’s Toronto. Read the book, walk the story and then pop into K&L Variety on Queen West for an ice cream. This is where author Ann K.Y. Choi grew up, and it’s the epicentre of her brilliant first novel.

CONTEST: Enter to win 1 of 5 copies of Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety!

For a chance to win tweet: “YES @Shedoesthecity, take me to Trinity Bellwoods in 1985! I want to get lost inside #KaysLuckyCoinVariety from @simonschusterCA”