Express Reviews 

Hot new books for your delectation.

The Commissariat of Enlightenment
By Ken Kalfus
Harper Collins, $13.95

Oodles of communist machinations, waves of human misery, generous helpings of raping, looting, and pillaging, and even a handful of premature embalmings thrown in for good measure make this a thoroughly disturbing book, replete with diabolical characters unleashed into the corrupt and chaotic landscape of nascent Soviet Russia. Yet as in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, the sheer skill of the writing propels the reader along, despite the depressing and often intensely unpleasant material. Kalfus' debut novel features enough major and minor historical figures as to be almost a Russian Ragtime, but the story orbits around young cinematographer Nikolai Gribshin. While partaking of the media carnival surrounding the final days of Leo Tolstoy in the remote town of Astapov, Gribshin realizes that the pen might be mightier than the sword, but that it's the camera that will capture -- and shape -- the world of the future. Kalfus' characters exist largely as conduits through which he can impart his message surrounding the use of visual media to inform, and misinform, the masses. And, while set in the Russia of our grandparents' generation, such a warning could conceivably be worthwhile in the fair and balanced America -- or Russia -- of today. -- Joe Eskenazi

The Prophecy of the Stones
By Flavia Bujor
Miramax, $16.95

What if the fate of the world rested in the hands of three fourteen-year-old girls? That's the premise of this young-adult fantasy novel by a fourteen-year-old Romanian-born, Paris-bred author whom European critics -- following the French edition's astounding success -- dubbed a wunderkind and compared to J.R.R. Tolkien and Michael Ende. In this tale, prophecy illuminates a process every girl goes through, even in the real world -- the daunting journey toward self-discovery and adulthood. But not only do heroines Jade, Opal, and Amber have to figure out who they are, they have to use this information to conquer evil in its latest manifestation: a shadowy power broker, his twelve-man council, and the council's enforcers, the Knights of the Order. As the girls make their way toward their destiny in the magical realm of Fairytale, another youngster named Joa (get it?) lies dying in a Paris hospital. Only at the end is the link revealed between the four girls and exactly what the Prophecy of the Stones entails. Bujor's youth lends the book a frisson of excitement. Grown-up readers get an insider's view on the teenage imagination; teen readers enjoy the knowledge that one of their peers has written something that not only metaphorically mirrors their experience, but also is actually fun to read. -- Kate Madden Yee

The World of DJs and the Turntable Culture
By Todd Souvignier
Hal Leonard, $18.95

The term "DJ" has transcended its original meaning. Today's turntablists don't just play records; they use turntables as instruments, manipulating music into patterns that chop sound waves into entirely new forms. The evolution of turntable culture has not only kept up with new innovations in audio technology, but in some cases outpaced them. This is the story Souvignier tells in a book that is really several in one. Cutting between narrative, interviews, and technical sections, it's part manual, part history text for DJs, remixers, producers, and Internet musicians, explaining how the DJ came to be and why such terms as "audio spectrum" and "hamster switch" are worth knowing in 2004. Synthesist and tech-music expert Souvignier begins by relating the history of recorded sound in America, and leading up to modern-day superstar DJs and producers such as Q-Bert and Armand Van Helden. Along the way, numerous subplots arise, involving seminal figures such as Nikola Tesla, Guglielmo Marconi, François Kevorkian, and Grand Wizzard Theodore, and organizations such as RCA, CBS, and the FCC. The historical segments are intercut with interviews with leading DJs, chapters on "turntable anatomy," and a fair amount of geeky tech stuff. Audio history buffs will have to go elsewhere to get more than the cursory details Souvignier provides, but budding turntablists will find this an engaging, up-to-date resource book that stirs their imaginations. -- Eric K. Arnold

Shades of Black
Edited by Eleanor Taylor Bland
Berkley Prime Crime, $23.95

A black writer, bemused by the huge market for mystery books, once quipped that she wanted only one mystery solved: "Why are white people so evil?" The answer to that and more can be found in this new volume of whodunits with a political bent. Among the emerging voices and established writers in the genre (including Walter Mosley), several authors in this collection have been lauded by the Chester Himes Black Mystery Writers Conference. (Named for the author of Cotton Comes to Harlem, which was later made into a successful crime film, the next conference will be held in Oakland on May 1.) In "Small Colored World," Terris McMahan Grimes chronicles the exploits of a sassy mother-daughter team investigating the plight of a jailed elderly black woman: "Getting Mother through the metal detector with five thousand metal stays in her long-line bra was the hard part," Grimes writes. With "A Matter of Policy," Robert Greer crafts a saga about a pensive Vietnam vet whose attention to detail helps him finger the perpetrator of a gory crime. Percy Spurlark Parker opens "A Favorable Murder" with confidence: "By the way of a definition, I've got a kiss-ass job." Some stories scream "amateur hour." Still, the collection explores worlds scarcely imagined by Agatha Christie. -- Evelyn C. White


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