Porter Shreve
Mariner/Houghton Mifflin

The newspaper business is a rough one, and it takes a hungry reporter to rise in the ranks. Late nights, coffee, early mornings, and time away from the family. But that's what the main character of The Obituary Writer wants. Gordon Hatch has spent his life collecting newspaper clips and writing fake features to prepare himself for the challenges of chasing down the story. But he writes obituaries ... for an editor who doesn't think too much of him. And he's been doing it for a year.

Porter Shreve's first novel is a humorous look into the life of an ambitious but unlucky newspaperman who has a lot of trouble with women. He's jealous, really jealous. And naive. And stupid. And it shows when he falls for the widow of a man whose obituary he has written. This gets the story rolling with his obsessive searches to find out whatever he can about his new "love."

But the story is predictable. Shreve sets us up for all his "surprises," and it's easy to guess what's coming next. Maybe not the exact plot points, but still, we know where the book is headed. It's a shame because Shreve has created a frustrating but unique mix of characters. Alicia, the woman for whom Gordon falls, shows a lot of promise as a psycho. And Gordon himself is just crazy enough to keep us reading. He's definitely crazy enough that the potential for a great story is here. And though he makes a good run of it in the end, Shreve doesn't quite pull off the jump from decent to really great. -Steven Tweddell

Michael Herr
Grove Press

While not the first biography of Stanley Kubrick to be published after his death, and not the most complete account of his life (the book runs a brief 96 pages), Herr's Kubrick is less a biography than a portrait - a glimpse of the filmmaker that Herr alone saw, heard about, and dealt with during his writing of Full Metal Jacket and their friendship afterwards. It by no means attempts to encompass more than that; and by recounting his relationship with the turbulent and eccentric Kubrick, Herr hopes to dispel some of the myths and provide some kind of insight into the man himself as he lived, as opposed to how he directed.

Herr pulls it off pretty well. While the first part sounds a bit like a love poem to Kubrick's genius, Herr eases into the difficulties of being friends with someone whose life was his work, whose genius demanded whatever vision Kubrick himself had, and would brook no other. Herr is careful not to romanticize too much, showing Kubrick, warts and all, but his defense of Eyes Wide Shut feels a little more bitter than clarifying. All in all, the anecdotes of Kubrick - his impossible demands, his infinite patience with a shot, his limited patience with actors, his love of America and popular culture - and the relationship between the two men - demanding ideas, demanding work, demanding help and feedback on whatever he was interested in - does in fact provide a satisfying glimpse into the life of the auteur. It's worth the read, knowing that it is a handsome, if one-sided portrait, which nonetheless offers a surprisingly full view of the subject. -Rob Bricken

Michael Ondaatje

Into the depth of the Sri Lankan countryside, the heat of an archeological dig, and the heart of a spectacularly developed cast of characters is where one finds himself in Michael Ondaatje's (The English Patient) latest novel, Anil's Ghost. Anil Tissera is a forensic anthropologist sent to her native country of Sri Lanka to investigate mass murders occurring during a time of civil war and political unrest. Paired with fellow anthropologist, Sarath Diyasena, the pair unearths an intact skeleton, affectionately dubbed Sailor, that they feel will shed light on the truth behind all the killings.

The wonder of the novel comes in the two scientists' journey to help the people of their country and in the characters to whom we are introduced along the way. Ondaatje blends quite a unique cast, connecting them to one another in a complex web that continues to hold readers' attention throughout the main characters' extraordinary journey.

Ondaatje's characters further lure readers into the novel, offering up the sharp contrast between calm and turbulence by juxtaposing a doctor's debilitating need to help the people of his war-torn country against the serene and solitary forest existence of an old mentor. The depiction of the countryside highlights old tradition in steep contrast to the current state of chaos and uproar.

Whether engrossed in the characters and their inextricable link to one another or the mystery surrounding Sailor, readers will come to the end of their journey satisfied and touched. Despite the death and tragedy that occupy the bulk of the novel, Ondaatje finds a way, with his characters, to inject a ray of hope and compassion: "He felt the boy's concerned hand on his. This sweet touch from the world," such is the beauty of this novel, the ability to find love and to welcome it in the most inopportune circumstances. -Christina Dwiggins