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

Project X
By Jim Shepard
Knopf, $20

In an era whose actual events surpass in horror the strangest fictions, novelists face unprecedented challenges. In his disquieting vision of disaffected youth and violence in post-Columbine America, Shepard provides an intimate and highly sympathetic portrait of thirteen-year-old Edwin Hanratty, a present-day Holden Caulfield whose terminal apathy smothers his own creative energies. Increasingly alienated and let down by teachers, principals, and parents, and finding no adequate forms of rebellion, he and his friend Flake find solace in the antagonistic rituals of male bonding. After continual failures and embarrassments at "FS" -- Fucking School, that is -- the two misfits can revel only in a dream of destruction, so they hatch Project X, a Columbine-esque shootout at their own school. Shepard makes no excuse for teenage violence, and no blame is placed on the incompetent and self-absorbed adults for their eventual demise. We see only systemic social failure -- guns in the home, distracted parents, precocious youth -- converging, tragically, upon the fate of a young person. The accuracy of Hanratty's clever teenage banter, and the sadness of his expressions of self-loathing and pain, make his character convincing. The novel becomes a powerful statement about the perils of teenage boyhood and the violence that has too often become its hideous and perverse outlet. -- Amrita Sidhu

Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of the New Space Age
By Greg Klerkx
Pantheon, $27.95

The band Blur supports human settlements on Mars. Pizza Hut has delivered to space. NASA spacesuits come equipped with built-in diapers. Those are the least of the factoids -- or dirty cosmological laundry -- aired in this investigation of why NASA once led the race to the moon, but now doesn't even reach for the stars. Klerkx presents ample evidence and maddening examples of NASA's "fractitious bureaucracy roiling with politics and infighting," which is more concerned with perpetuating its own status-quo survival than with actual progress. Kinda like the modern Disney machine, but producing space-shuttle sketches instead of Aristocats prequels. Well-researched and boasting astral ambitions, Lost lacks a coherent narrative push forward as we jump from space vignette to space vignette. If you don't own your own set of Spock ears or didn't know about Apollo 13 before the Tom Hanks flick, some of the acronym-heavy text can be downright soporific. True joy enters the writing during the (too-few) accounts of Klerkx' own experiences, whether he's hurtling across meteorite craters in an ATV or exploring a mournfully decrepit Russian launch site (and seeing the Pizza Hut logo on a Russian rocket). Mostly, he encounters the same problem here that idealistic alt.space activists encounter in real life: NASA's faceless, dull bureaucracy. This makes it a difficult target for passion -- or blame -- in the book and the real world. Then again, Klerkx might say that's just how NASA likes it. -- Nicole Ankowski

The Matter of Desire
By Edmundo Paz Soldán
Mariner, $12

Soldán is a leading spokesperson for the McOndo literary movement, which eschews what this novel's press material calls "the more bucolic magical realism of such writers as Gabriel García Márquez and instead embraces an urban vision that incorporates the pervasive influence of American pop culture in today's Latin America." Judging by this slim novel, Márquez has little to worry about. It tells us very little about Bolivia, life, the author, or, for that matter, desire. If anything has influenced Soldán, it would appear to be graduate school in North America, where this novel is imprisoned. The story? The author, a Bolivian émigré; at the University of Madison, conducts an affair with a student, shuttles back and forth to UC Berkeley and Bolivia to find himself, and sylphs about in a perpetual state of ennui invoked by uncertainty in love and failure to write a novel. Here is revealed the perils of writing fiction when one's actual life experience is confined to the halls of academe. A few promising characters -- notorious drug lord Jaime Villa, a charismatic liar who eats his cigarettes' ash for the potassium; and the narrator's Uncle David, a failed inventor famous for writing cryptograms -- are sidelined in favor of duller, conventional ones such as the love interest, Ashley. Foreign novels, like foreign travel, potentially offer the promise of adventure abroad. But in this one we have imported yet another cultural vacuum. -- Nora Ostrofe

The Frozen Water Trade
By Gavin Weightman
Hyperion, $13.95

It takes some skill to make ice cubes interesting. They might be the most boring things in the world today, but they were an exciting novelty in the prerefrigeration days of the 19th century, when they had to be cut fresh from frozen lakes every winter. Ice was a seasonal luxury available only to the rich, until eccentric Boston merchant Fredric Tudor hit upon a wild moneymaking scheme: selling ice to folks in the sweltering tropics. The only problem, of course, was getting the merchandise to the customers before it melted. Weightman turns what could have been a dry history lesson into a gripping personal drama as he follows Tudor's struggle to turn his crazy dream into a profitable enterprise. Peopled with colorful characters such as Nathaniel Wyeth (explorer and inventor of now-forgotten ice-cutting contraptions) and Henry David Thoreau (Tudor harvested ice from Walden Pond at one point), this book conveys all the energy of a world just on the brink of modernity -- full of daring entrepreneurs and strange new devices, and where almost everyone has an idea just crazy enough to work. Always meticulous, Weightman traces the rise and fall of a globe-spanning ice empire in exacting detail. His occasional droning about the mechanics of ice harvesting are more than made up for by compelling human drama. -- Mike Rosen-Molina

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