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Hugo Marston Series

1hugo

I discovered The Blood Promise by Mark Pryor at the indie bookstore. The clerk beamed and told me the first two books in the Hugo Marston series, Bookseller and Crypt Thief. This is the beauty of indie—clerk is knowledgeable and passionate about books. Just the covers alone would be enough to take them home.

In Blood Promise, Hugo Marston, head of US embassy security, is stuck with babysitting duty. His charge, blue-collar senator Charles Lake, is a potential presidential candidate. Lake is in Paris to sort out a minor diplomatic matter and bolster his foreign policy credentials. The talks come to a crashing halt when Lake accuses his hosts at Chateau Tourville of going through his papers.

The matter takes on a different complexion when fingerprints taken from the senator’s room link one of the guests at the Chateau to an unsolved crime–a murder that unearthed a secret dating back nearly two centuries. And it’s one that puts Hugo’s close friends in danger.

My dilemma is: should I save these three books until my annual trip to Asia in winter, or I should just read up? This series, all set in Paris, looks like the perfect books to accompany me on long-haul flights and on the Thailand beach.

[569] A Royal Pain – Rhys Bowen

pain

” Oh, Lord. It had never occurred to me that there would be a companion! Of course there would. How dense of me. What king would send his daughter, newly released from the convent, across from the Continent without a chaperone. ” (Ch.6, p.54)

[Her Royal Spyness series #2] About two months after Lady Georgiana, a Windsor who is thirty-fourth in line for the throne, solved the mystery murder case that would have incriminated her brother and threatened her life, she returns to her normal life and makes a living by cleaning houses. She belongs to a branch of the family that has been down on its luck. In disguise she dons her maid uniform and maintains appearance of the upper crust when she is off.

I began to think that Granddad was right. The princess was rapidly turning into more than I could handle. The small stipend from Binky certainly wouldn’t cover outings like lunch at the Savoy and I couldn’t risk letting Hanni loose in any more shops. (Ch.16, p.121)

The Queen is constantly troubled by her son’s intimate liaison to Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee and asks Georgiana to play hostess to a Bavarian princess whom Her Majesty likes her son to be interested in. Georgiana has no servants, no funds to entertain a friend, let alone a royal guest. With a small stipend from Binky, she is to hire a short-term maid, and to install her grandfather and his neighbor as butler and cook.

The book is lighter than what I expect a “whondunnit” to be. When the princess arrives with an overbearing baroness, she proves to be more than a handful—she drinks like a fish speaks like American gangster in movies, and sets her sights on Darcy O’Mara, the one man who makes Georgiana’s heart flutter. To makes matter worse, upon her arrival, three people have died in a remarkably short space of time with no seemingly obvious connection. Parts historical fiction, comedy, and mystery, Bowen’s prose really sparkles. I find myself reading sentences over again just for the sheer pleasure of her words. On top of the clever twist at the end, the book shines in the historic description of the society and the ways people conceive the relations and their ways of thinking. This is a comical royal romp.

307 pp. Berkeley Prime Crime. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[472] Babycakes – Armistead Maupin

” Michael Tolliver had spent rush hour in the Castro, the time of day when the young men who worked in banks came home to the young men who worked in bars. He watched from a window seat at the Twin Peaks as they spilled from the mouth of the Maui Metro, stopping only long enough to raise the barrels of their collapsible umbrellas and fire at the advancing rain. ” (12)

The fourth book in the series (thankfully) shifts the focus back on Mary Ann and Michael Tolliver who, respectively, experiences relationship mayhem. The previous book–its adventure to Alaska with DeDe’s kidnapped children, is fun but Maupin has outdone himself a bit in the adventure. Yet I recognize the book’s necessity to provide a basis in Mary Ann’s plunge into the media business. In Babycakes, after much effort in making baby has proved to be futile, and Mary Ann hides the fact from her husband that he is sterile, the ambitious career wife, with some egging from her friend Connie Bradshaw, has outdone herself in a pregnancy scheme that involves a British lieutenant stationed on the Brittannia by which Queen Elizabeth sailed to San Francisco.

She turned her head slightly and waved at several people assembled on the street corner. They waved back vigorously, holding aloft a black leather banner on which the words GOD SAVE THE QUEEN had been imprinted in silver rivets. It was not until she heard them cheer that she realized they were all men. (2)

The run-away lieutenant ends up swapping apartment with Michael, who, with a stash of money that is courtesy of Mrs. Madrigal, spends a month in London. The trip is more of a therapeutic nature since Jon Fielding, the gynecologist lover, had died from AIDS three months ago; and Michael has been in a bedlam of grief and aloofness. Least of what he expects is a reunion with Mona Ramsey, who has been in London for the trade of international mail-order brides.

“This marriage. It’s just an arrangement to satisfy the immigration people. So Teddy can get a green card . . . ”
” . . . and wag weenie in San Francisco. ” (185)

The series continues to shine as Maupin takes readers on a heartfelt romp celebrating the hodgepodge of absurdities that make modern romance. His trenchant wit and keen dialogue continue in this installment, offering humorous but also compassionate insight into the human condition. Babycakes is also among the very first batch of fiction that chronicles the arrival of AIDS, which ravaged the gay community.

336 pp. Harper Perennial Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[468] Further Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

Michael grinned. “Just a new theory of mine. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are really only two types of people in San Francisco, regardless of race, creed, color or . . . what’s the other one?”
“Sexual orientation,” said Brian.
“Thank you,” said Michael.
Mary Ann rolled her eyes. “So what are they?”
“Jeanettes,” answered Michael, “and Tonys. Jeanettes are people who think that they city’s theme song is ‘San Francisco’ as sung by Jeanette MacDonald. Tonys think it’s Tony Bennett singing ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco.’ Everyone falls into one camp or another . . . in a manner of speaking.” (The Breastworks)

_________________________

The third book is the series is the most grotesque and action-packed to date. Most of the drama revolve around DeDe Halcyon Day, who returns from Guyana via a boatload of gay Cuban refugees; but her problem has only just begun. In San Francisco she has to remain a ghost, for fear of publicity about her half-Chinese twins, heirs of a grocery delivery boy who has now taken over the business in Telegraph Hills. Social columnist Prue Giroux falls for a derelict living in a tool shack of Golden Gate Park.

Then Michael said: “Do you ever get tired of all this?”
“The nursery, you mean?”
“No. Being gay.”
Ned smiled. “What do you think?”
“I don’t mean being homosexual,” said Michael. “I wouldn’t change that for anything. I love men.”
“I’ve noticed.”
“I guess I’m talking about the culture,” Michael continued. “The Galleria parties. The T-shirts with the come-fuck-me slogans. The fourteen different shades of jockstraps and those goddamned mirrored sunglasses that toss your own face back at you when you walk into a bar. Phony soldiers and phony policemen and phony jocks. Hot this, hot that. I’m sick of it, Ned. There’s gotta be another way to be queer.” (Gaying Out)

To the quote above may I add Atlantis this, Atlantis that (Atlantis Events is a gay vacation company). The same words could have spewed out from my mouth. Despite the twists and turns of DeDe’s Alaska adventure, in which she must track down some psychopath who is threatening her half-Chinese twins, and in spite of Michael’s foray into the grandeur of a Beverly Hills castle of which the owner is allegedly Rock Hudson (Maupin actually left his name in a blank), the charm of Further Tales of the City lies in Michael Tolliver whose many sharp and dead-on one-liners constantly steal the show.

“She told me about the cop.” said Jon. “And the movie star. And the construction worker. You’re not having a life, Michael—you’re fucking the Village People, one at a time.” (The Way They Were)

I share the joy and the pain of Michael, whose self-deprecating humor is what primarily drives me on reading the series. I resonate with him the depression (in some gay men) is born of loneliness, boredom, and a pervasive sense of the immense triviality of life. The book really sheds light about the dilemma between desire for stability (and dependability) and libido. This volume also sees Mary Ann tying the knot and advancing in her career as a TV reporter.

384 pp. Harper Perennial 2007 edition. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[467] More Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

” I had to find it out on my own, with the help of the city that has become my home. I know this may be hard for you to believe, but San Francisco is full of men and women, both straight and gay, who doesn’t consider sexuality in measuring the worth of another human being. ” (Michael Tolliver, “Letter to Mama”)

More Tales of the City continues with the adventures of the tenants at 28 Barbary Lane. Spanning three months between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day in 1977, the magically contrived coincidences continue to reign. Following the death of tycoon, Edgar Halcyon, who left behind a legacy for Mary Ann Singleton, she goes on a cruise with Michael “Mouse” Tolliver to Mexico. Despite humorous bouts of social missteps, and that they find it easier to pass as a married couple, Mary Ann finds love at sea with an amnesia-stricken stranger, Burke Andrew. Thought he has lucked out on love for life, Michael bumps into his favorite gynecologist, Jon Fielding, in an Acapulco bar. The encounter rekindles his hope for a happily-ever-after life with a lover.

It seems like every time I start up with somebody new . . . I don’t know . . . I see the beginning and the end all at once. I know how it’ll die. I can play those scenes in my sleep. This time, though . . . well, I don’t wanna know the end. Not for a while, anyway. (Michael Tolliver, “Table for Five”)

Back at home the venerable landlady, Mars. Madrigal, has no choice but to reveal her past as Mona Ramsey stumbles upon her destiny on a Greyhound bus to Reno. She is left to mull over the secret anagram in Mrs. Madrigal’s name. Meanwhile, Brian Hawkins, the top-floor tenant for whom libido has taken everything, begins a “long-distance” affair with a woman in a nearby Deco apartment tower—with the binoculars!

He raised the binoculars again and zeroed in on an eleventh-floor room that was suffused with a dim, rosy light. Seconds later, a woman appeared.
She stood near the window in a long gown of some sort, a dark form against the fleshy warmth of her room. She was motionless for a moment, then her hands went down to her waist and up again suddenly to her face.
She was wearing binoculars.
And she was looking at Brian. (“The Superman Building”)

This second book in the series has set the wheels in motion, pursuing secrets and relations introduced in the first book. The many adventures, and misadventures, often fun, black, and breath-taking at the same time, are choreographed so fluidly that one can lose track of time, thanks to the cliffhangers galore. Mary Ann’s quest for the cause of Burke’s amnesia takes on a course of a thriller. Equally bizarre but satisfying is Mona’s trip down memory lane as she learns about her parents. Most touching of all is Michael’s reflection of his life as a gay man who found true kindness, passion, and sensitivity from people who never judge him by his sexual orientation. Now I’m hitting the third book, Further Tales of the City, right away.

352 pp. Harper Perennial 2007 edition. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[466] Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

“What about San Francisco?”
“What about it?”
“Did you like it?”
She shrugged. “It was O.K.”
“Just O.K.?”
She laughed. “Good God!”
“What?”
“You’re all alike here.”
“How so?” he asked.
“You demand adoration for the place. You’re not happy until everybody swears undying love for every nook and cranny of every precious damn –”
“Whoa, missy.”
“Well, it’s true. Can’t you just worship it on your own? Do I have to sign an affidavit?”
He chuckled. “We’re that bad, are we?”
“You bet your ass you are.”

_________________________

I have no excuse for not having read Tales of the City: having lived in San Francisco for twenty-five years, being gay, and knowing all the places mentioned in the book like the back of my hand. The fictional Barbary Lane that is the domain of the series is actually based on a street called Macondray Lane right in my neighborhood! It’s my backyard.

I’m not sure I even need a lover, male or female. Sometimes I think I’d settle for five good friends.

Tales of the City is the first book of the series. It opens with the arrival of Mary Ann Singleton, a naive young woman from Cleveland, Ohio, who, seeking a change in life and leaving her cagey one, goes on vacation to San Francisco and impulsively decides to stay. Soon she finds herself living in 28 Barbary Lane and working for Edgar Halcyon, president of Halcyon Communications. Her life becomes intertwined with those of her neighbors and co-workers. There’s the eccentric marijuana-growing landlady Anna Madrigal, the hippy bisexual Mona Ramsey, the lothario Brian Hawkins, the sinister and cagey Norman Williams, and Michael Tolliver, the sweet boy-next-door gay guy who is always “thriving on downers.” Later, her boss and his affluent family come into Mary Ann’s social adventures by way of some astonishingly contrived coincidences.

Hell, Mouse! I hardly know any straight men anymore.
You live in San Francisco. (Mona Ramsey)

Tales of the City is no high literature, but Maupin writes with warmth, acuity and tremendous authenticity about ordinary people learning to live with themselves and one another, regardless of sexual, gender, and cultural difference. I think the charm is that San Francisco being a very small world in which these characters, all separated by less than six degrees of separation, and flawed by human frailty, criss-cross each other’s lives in shifting vignettes, in the most humor0us, unexpected way. How these lives often intersect is also blackest when it’s funniest, hinging on finding a sense of permanence and love in a world in which all the values are being reassessed. The book is a collective vignette of life in 1970s San Francisco, and in spite of the huge cast of characters, everything is explained and tied up neatly.

400 pp. Harper Perennial Paperback 2007 edition. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]