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Kazuo Ishiguro's "When We Were Orphans," and Adriana Trigiani's "Big Stone Gap" are good reads.

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Repressed Emotion
Anyone who read "Remains of the Day," or "An Artist of the Floating World," by Kazuo Ishiguro knows what a master this author is at describing characters who have lost touch with their emotions, who think they are operating like everyone else, but who are failing emotionally to touch base with their world.

This new novel "When We Were Orphans," (Knopf, $25) has such a protagonist, Christopher Banks, who has this same quality, but, this time, the plot is not at all straightforward. Banks' early childhood is spent in Shanghai in the early 20th century. At 9, his mother and father disappear and he is sent to England to live with an aunt.

This is Christopher's story, an account of how, belatedly, he feels impelled to return to Shanghai to search for his family. It is when he arrives in Shanghai that the story takes a few turns that seem totally unreal — more like a Dali painting than a believable story. Banks thinks he will find his family after all these years still in captivity. Indeed, he talks with others about the ceremony that will be held when they come safely back. He searches for a young friend and several times thinks he has seen him. But has he? He plans to run away with a young woman, but his emotions about her are very cool. It is apparent that Banks has not only suppressed his emotions, he has lost touch with reality.

It is unfortunate that Ishiguro has given us this plot which, at times, seems ridiculous, because once again he proves that he can write, in simple expository sentences, of people who have lost their way and who, we know, will never understand what they have missed in life.

— Rozanne Epps

Discovering her Dreams
The heart-stopping surprises Ava Maria Mulligan is in for aren't the sort revealed in any of the books she borrows from the Wise County Bookmobile, even her favorite one on ancient Chinese face reading.

Television writer and playwright Adriana Trigiani effortlessly threads Ave Maria's journey to self-discovery through a story as sharp and sturdy as the needle on a sewing machine.

Set in 1978 amid the bucolic Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia where the sky turns a "rich Crayola midnight blue," Trigiani weaves "Big Stone Gap," (Random House, $23.95), a first-time novel that is as tender as it humorous. Each page is a simple but necessary stitch. The result is a super, cookies-and-milk read that unfolds precisely the way you hope it will.

Months after Ave Maria Mulligan's mother dies, a secret letter, two marriage proposals, dreams of Italy and a visit from a movie star prompt the 35-year-old pharmacist to step outside her predictable life in a small Virginia mining town.

What she discovers when she does is that she's not nearly as comfortable as she thought.

Ave Maria enlists help and wisdom from a hodgepodge of supporting characters, from her teen-age misfit employee, Pearl Grimes, to snakehandling preacher Rev. Gaspar, to the sex-crazed Sanka-drinking bookmobile driver, Iva Lou Wade. While Ave Maria seems to have little in common with any of them, she adores and admires each one. They have something she does not. They possess the confidence to know what they want in life and the fearlessness to go after it. Even the square-jawed and smooth-faced Jack MacChesney knows this. And Ave Maria hates him for it.

When Elizabeth Taylor comes to Big Stone Gap, even the night sky gets gussied up lavender. Despite her velvety and anecdotally choking appearance — that drives the town, if not Ave Maria, wild — Taylor's visit is far less a spectacle than everyone had dreamed it would be. It's much more a lesson in how great expectations often are deflated, if not forgotten.

In the shadow of a movie star's small-town kisses, Ave Maria begins to feel lucky for the first time, even in Big Stone Gap. Especially, she's lucky the boy from her childhood never got over her. And just when you thought they'd at least be friends, he does something that changes their relationship forever.

— Brandon Walters

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