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Paperback Pickings

Wizards in Mumbai

Valentina (Headline, Rs 299) by Evie Blake goes the same way as erotic fiction that only offers the reader page after page of average sex. It gets boring, and any frisson of excitement the reader may have felt initially dies an early death. At the centre of the story are two women — Valentina, a photographer in Milan in 2012, and Belle, a socialite from Venice in 1929 — whose lives are “intertwined”. There is no time travel involved, though. All this means is that both the women, in their respective eras, experience an awakening of a darker side of their desires. Valentina, a commitment-phobe, takes up an assignment where she must photograph couples indulging in BDSM. Soon she gets drawn into that world. Belle, who is abused by her husband, plays out her darker fantasies by moonlighting as a courtesan. The only (annoying) thing one takes away from this forgettable story is that the author — like most other writers of erotic fiction — has no problems using the word “penis”, but will go to any lengths to avoid saying “vagina”. Blake even calls the vagina an “oval”, and goes on to describe its “plushness”, at which point it would be wise to shut the book and spare oneself further torment.

Gray Wolves and White Doves (Tranquebar, Rs 295) by John D. Balian revolves around Jonah, a young boy born in a remote village in Anatolia whose journeys over the course of 10 years — through dingy, dark basements in Istanbul, seminaries in Jerusalem to the inhospitable environs of Bavaria and Sweden — force him to accept a terror mission at the Paris-Orly international airport. Balian’s prose is thoroughly enjoyable. Jonah’s experiences — inspired by Balian’s own — are described vividly, but the descriptions never cause the pace of the narrative to slacken. Balian, who is Armenian by descent, deals sensitively with the accounts of the Armenian genocide and of how the event influenced the relationship between the Turks and the Armenians in the 20th century. In spite of the heavy historical context, Balian succeeds in not turning the book into a history lesson.

The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street (Hachette, Rs 250) by Shabnam Minwalla is an ode to Mumbai. The story revolves around Nivi Mallik, who has just moved to the ‘Cosy Castle’ on Dorabji Street, and her five friends who must defeat the evil ‘dragon’ and ‘crone’ — both of whom are old, dangerous women — with the help of their own brand of “practical magic”. Minwalla’s attempt at fantasy fiction makes for an easy read. But what stands out is the author’s love for dear Mumbai and its enduring landmarks such as the Radio Club and Crawford Market.