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Book Reviews Review: New and notable fiction from Marissa Campbell, Lindsay Cameron, Amy Stewart, Jonathan Evison and Selma Lonning Aaro

Avelynn

By Marissa Campbell, St. Martin's Press, 480 pages, $18.50

Ontario-dwelling Marissa Campbell's debut, Avelynn, is a must-read for Diana Gabaldon fans – but also for anyone in the mood to escape into an enchanting, romantic world vividly portrayed by an author with just the right pitch for this type of fiction. Campbell's sentences easily transport the reader back in time, but never self-consciously; this isn't heavy-handed historical writing. Set in the year 869, the novel follows 18-year-old Avelynn, the beguiling and secretly pagan daughter of the Ealdorman of Somerset. She has been indulged for too long; now her father feels he must marry her off before the war that has been threatening in the distance finally reaches their land. Her husband-to-be is unsuitable, of course, and so Avelynn seeks to escape the evil, shallow Demas by way of an ancient coastal ritual. Here, she stumbles into the arms of Alrik the Blood-Axe, who would be perfect, except that he is accompanied by an army of Viking berserkers – they are just as terrifying as they sound – seeking to destroy everything Avelynn holds dear. Campbell writes about Alrik and Avelynn's star-crossed love affair in a gorgeous, breathless manner that should cement her status as a Canadian author to watch. Stay tuned for the next instalment in the series.

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Biglaw

By Lindsay Cameron, Ankerwycke, 270 pages, $31.95

Debut author Lindsay Cameron's Biglaw is the Devil Wears Prada for the legal set, and has already been optioned for film to Paramount. The novel is published by Ankerwycke, a new trade imprint associated with the American Bar Association. This is a new development: normally, ABA Publishing releases only weighty legal tomes. Punishing hours, a terrifying workload and co-workers who can only be described as sociopaths pepper this brisk tale of the dangers of overachieving. If this is what the legal world is really like, then it's no wonder University of British Columbia School of Law graduate Cameron has traded her briefcase and power suit for a laptop and a table at Starbucks. What I loved about the novel was the swift pace, the clean writing and Mackenzie, the charming and determined main character. What I didn't like was the way the book perpetuated the idea of women in corporate life being pitted against one another. But catfights make for compelling movie scenes and I'm already imagining the cast members in this one.

Girl Waits With Gun

By Amy Stewart, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 416 pages, $36

This book thrums with the best kind of girl power: no gimmicks, no clichés, no recycled plotlines, just a rollicking tale adapted from the true story of Constance Kopp, one of the first female deputy sheriffs. Girl Waits With Gun features a heroine to root for and a supporting cast so strong any one of them could stand alone. The writing is no-nonsense, but also quite lovely at turns: "Against the dusty road she looked like a trampled bed of roses," Stewart writes of Constance's sister Fleurette after she is injured by the automobile of N.J. Henry Kaufman, reckless son of a rich silk-dyeing-plant owner. This event prompts Constance to demand $50 in compensation. Instead of paying up, Kaufman unleashes his gang of hoodlums on Constance, Fleurette and their other sister, Norma. The sisters have led a sheltered life on a farm – their mother has died; their drunk father abandoned them years ago – and all calm is shattered by the tormenting ministrations of these relentless criminals. But Constance is plucky. She digs deep and finds courage and strength, then uses it to change her own life story, as well as the lives of her sisters, and the many women who have followed her path because she proved it was possible. Let's hope this isn't the last we hear from Constance and her eccentric family.

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!

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By Jonathan Evison, Harper Avenue, 296 pages, $21.99

Do you remember This Is Your Life! – possibly the first reality program in history? (It's alright if you don't want to admit you can recall a 50-year-old television show.) That's where the title of Jonathan Evison's fourth novel, This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!, comes from. Evison uses it to jump off into a unique narrative technique that is chaotic on purpose, or so he repeatedly insists through an oddly pushy omnipresent narrator. Pinball plot aside, Evison writes with his typical unflinching honesty about a life that is not what it seems. As we follow the trajectory of Harriet Chance's 78-year existence, secrets are revealed so slowly that you gasp when they are, and poignant reflections on aging, parenting, friendship and marriage constantly surprise with their quiet truthfulness. (Like this one: "People evolve, or they don't. Either way, they grow apart.") Don't let the buoyant pastel cover and the optimistic exclamation point in the title fool you: This is not a book that is going to make you laugh until you cry. Probably, it will just make you cry – for Harriet, for her hopes and dreams, for everything she never was and didn't know.

I'm Coming

By Selma Lonning Aaro, Anansi, 261 pages, $16.95

The cover of the advance copy of Norwegian author Selma Lonning Aaro's I'm Coming bills it as a "hilarious novel about why women fake it." But perhaps something got lost in Kari Dickson's translation because mostly this novel just made me feel sad. Not that it wasn't a good book: it's well written, wry, observant, and timely. But not being able to have an orgasm, ever, is a serious problem – and I've passed the point in my life where I would ever titter about such a thing. Is the book funny at all, as the cover suggests? In places. A pink vibrator with bunny ears and a 30-day orgasm guarantee figure largely in the plot, and there's also some situational comedy with a zucchini. But at the root of the story is a deeply depressed, profoundly dissatisfied (obviously!) character named Julie who allows her nubile au pair to roam the house freely while she spends her days locked in her room trying to figure out why she's never, in her life, had an orgasm. None of the reasons she comes up with are comical: she lost her virginity at 13 to a much older stranger; she once had a disturbing encounter with a pedophile flasher; she has serious mommy issues; she was physically abused by an ex-boyfriend. And these revelations feel like they've sprouted from seeds of truth, which makes them all the more painful to read. Just as the much, much longer literary musings of a certain other Norwegian author brought the literary world to its knees, this novel should be allowed to do the same. Instead, it's likely to be buried under pink writing and cover lines promising hilarity. Men won't read it, and they should. Because Julie, and this novel, are like women everywhere: a careful veneer hides murky depths. We should plumb these depths, not laugh at them.

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