Monday, January 15, 2018

Book Review: 'Quasar' by Jamil Nasir

Book Review: 'Quasar' by Jamil Nasir
2 / 5 Stars

'Quasar' (207 pp) was issued by Bantam Spectra in November, 1995. The cover art is by Bruce Jensen.

‘Quasar’ was author Nasir’s first novel, and represents a third-generation cyberpunk tale.

The story is set in a near-future earth where, in the aftermath of global war, much of the surface is an uninhabited wasteland, poisoned by biowarfare pathogens and toxins. Humanity has retreated to the confines of an enormous city, where they lived crammed into tiny apartments, breathing filtered air.

The lower levels of the city are decrepit slums, inhabited by mutants and outcasts, permanently forbidden to ascend to the city resting above their warrens.

Protagonist Ted Karmade is a ‘psychiatric technician’, who uses modified headsets to electronically jack in to the minds of the afflicted and deliver necessary counseling.

Ted’s life is humdrum and mundane, until he gets a summons to the Sentrex Complex, the highest, largest, edifice in the city, and the home of the unimaginably wealthy ZantCorp. There he is tasked to treat the psychological traumas of one Quasar Zant, the beautiful heiress to the ZantCorp fortune.

As Karmade settles into his job as psychiatric counselor to Quasar Zant, he discovers that, far from being a deranged party girl, Zant is a genuinely troubled soul whose life is stealthily manipulated by her trustee and aunt, Nelda Cloud.

Quasar is adamant that the solution to her psychic turmoil somehow lies in the Warrens under the city. When Quasar slips away from her minders and flees to the forbidden zones, it’s up to Ted Karmade to find her and bring her back before ZantCorp’s executives realize they have lost control of their future CEO.

But as Karmade learns more of Quasar’s childhood, it becomes clear that what is taking place within the confines of the Sentrex Complex is not just a struggle over the future of the corporation. Rather, what happened to the young Quasar Zant, and her since-vanished parents, will have implications for the survival of the city and the entire human race……

‘Qausar’ is a middling first novel. It starts off on an intriguing note, as we follow Karmade into the Sentrex Complex and its warped atmosphere marked by the presence of the decadent rich, and their mercenary staff.

But the middle chapters are overly preoccupied with the burgeoning psychodrama between Quasar and Karmade, and the narrative tends to drag.

Things liven up in the novel’s last chapters, although some plot developments struck me as a little too contrived – the ‘cosmic’ revelations come so thick and fast they tend strain the novel’s structure as a tale centered on the emotional interactions of doctor and patient.

Nasir would revisit the theme of a man who (against his better judgment) is gradually caught up in the political and social turmoil surrounding a beautiful, but flawed, young woman in his 1999 novel Tower of Dreams, which much improved over ‘Quasar’.

Cyberpunk fans may want to give ‘Quasar’ a try, but I would recommend ‘Tower’ as a better entry to Nasir’s writings.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink: photographs by Bill Yates

Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink
photographs by Bill Yates
Six Mile Creek, Hillsborough County, Tampa, Florida 1972 - 1973
"It was all rock and roll and muscle cars out in the orange groves.”

This is a fascinating series of black-and-white photographs taken of the young patrons of a Florida roller skating rink in 1972 - 1973.

This is an era when the Sun Belt was just beginning to take shape. Central air conditioning in individual homes and businesses still was relatively rare. This is the South that you see in 70s Burt Reynolds movies like White Lightning and Gator : two-lane blacktop roads; small towns roasting in the heat; soda in bottles, not aluminum cans; people driving cars with the windows down (because there is no A/C); and people sweating..........constantly.

And at the roller rink, plenty of people, even 'tweener' -aged kids, smoke............!
Many of these kids are behaving much older than they are; they aspire to adulthood. They want to be independent. This is a time when the concepts of the 'helicopter parent', or 'My Mom is My Best Friend', didn't really exist. 

An interesting look at American culture, particularly when comparing kids back then, with those of today.

As writer Jean M. Twenge observes in her September, 2017 article in The Atlantic:

The rink was a place where kids could get away from their parents and inhabit a world of their own, a world where they could drink, smoke, and make out in the backs of their cars. In stark black-and-white, the adolescent Boomers gaze at Yates’s camera with the self-confidence born of making your own choices—even if, perhaps especially if, your parents wouldn’t think they were the right ones. 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Dax the Damned The Paradise Tree

Dax the Damned
'The Paradise Tree'
by Esteban Maroto
from Eerie Issue 59 (August 1974)

'Dax the Damned' was the English-language adaptation of Esteban Maroto's strip Manly el Guerrero ('Manly the Warrior'), that originally was published in the early 70s in the comics section of the Spanish paper Pueblo.

The first episode of 'Dax' apeared in Eerie 39 (April 1972). Additional episodes ran until issue 52 (November 1973).

Never one to spoil a chance to repackage previously published material and foist it on the buying public, James Warren took all the Dax episodes and made them the content of Eerie issue 59, which billed itself as a 'Super Special Summer Giant !' 

Unfortunately, Eerie writer Budd Lewis couldn't help meddling with the speech balloons in these reprinted stories, making extensive changes to Maroto's original wording.

Maroto's exceptional draftsmanship was unlike anything yet seen in American comic art at the time. In 'Dax', he would craft myriad tiny details (like using a small piece of Zip-A-Tone to cast a shadow over one half of a female character's face) to give each page a highly ornate styling.

As for Maroto's plotting, he instilled the Dax adventures with a downbeat, existential tenor that contrasted sharply with the more ebullient atmosphere of Marvel's Conan the Barbarian comics.

Maroto also seems to have modeled the female leads of his 'Dax' strips on the beautiful Spanish actress Soledad Miranda (1943 - 1970), who looked really good in a metal bikini:

Posted below is the episode titled 'The Paradise Tree', scanned at 300 pdi from the original Eerie issue 59.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Groovy by Mark Voger

'Groovy: When Flower Power Bloomed in Pop Culture'
by Mark Voger
TwoMorrows Publishing, December 2017

TwoMorrows Publishing is a Raleigh, North Carolina company that publishes books on comic books, and comic book artists; it's now expanding into the broader field of pop culture with the release of Groovy (192 pp).

The Groovy Era spans the interval from the mid 60s to the mid 70s. Author Mark Voger (who previously published Monster Mash: The Creepy, Kooky Monster Craze In America 1957-1972 with TwoMorrows in 2015) clearly knows what he is writing about. In his autobiographical Introduction, he recalls how it was to be 12 years old in 1970, and how revelatory it was to visit the head shop at a New Jersey shopping mall……ultimately decorating his bedroom with selected purchases: a skull ashtray, and a black-and-white poster of Raquel Welch in her animal-skin bikini from One Million Years BC

He also relates a July, 1969 encounter at the Moorestown Mall in New Jersey with Tiny Tim, who was on a tour to promote his book ‘Beautiful Thoughts’. Voger was a firsthand witness to Tim’s adroit handling of some dismissive ‘mall hoodlums’.

Any Baby Boomer reading Voger’s memories of adolescence during the Groovy Era will undoubtedly smile with their own recollections.

Groovy primarily focuses on music, but other aspects of the pop culture of the era are covered as well. Within its pages you will find informative articles about, and interviews with, The Turtles; The Rascals; Mickey Dolenz; Tiny Tim; The Doors; Wild in the Streets; Easy Rider; Steve Ditko; Peter Max; The Who; Wonder Woman; Jesus Christ Superstar; Maureen McCormick; the late David Cassidy; Teen Magazines; The Banana Splits; and H. R. Pufnstuf.

The book’s copious illustrations, color scheme, and formatting are designed to recall the bright colors and Pop Art presentations of the covered era.

Flipping through the pages of Groovy will reward the reader with all sorts of little revelations and discoveries………….for example, I had no idea that Barry White (?!) sang lead on a Banana Splits song. Or that The Jefferson Airplane tried to pay artist John Van Hamersveld half a kilo of pot for making the cover art for the ‘Crown of Creation’ album (Van Hamersveld had to go to the Airplane’s record company to recover his $9,000 fee). Or that Frank Zappa (?!) appeared on a 1968 episode of ‘The Monkees’, courtesy of an invitation from Michael Nesmith.

Don’t be surprised if reading Groovy sends you to Google and YouTube to look up long-forgotten cultural artifacts. For my own part, watching the Banana Splits do a dance number to the song 'Doin' the Banana Split' (sung by none other than Barry White ?!), accompanied by the Sour Grapes Bunch (a group of girls wearing pink miniskirts and black go-go boots) and 'trippy' special effects, is both sublime and surreal.......

As with any book of this nature, there is an element of subjectivity in deciding what material is worthy of content. An argument certainly could be made that a second volume of Groovy is necessary to adequately cover the spectrum of content associated with the covered era.

Summing up, Groovy primarily is aimed at a readership of Baby Boomers, who will find it indispensable. But younger readers may want to peruse a copy as well, if only to see how the pop culture of the Groovy era paved the way for many aspects of contemporary culture.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Cars, New York City, 1978

The Cars
New York City, 1978

From left to right: Ric Ocasek, Ben Orr, David Robinson, Elliot Easton, and Greg Hawkes

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Book Review: The Blood of the Lamb trilogy

Book Review: 'The Blood of the Lamb' trilogy
by Mark E. Rogers

4 / 5 Stars

Mark Rogers’s ‘The Blood of the Lamb’ trilogy comprises the novels The Expected One (230 pp., Ace Books, May 1991, cover artist Michael Racz); The Devouring Void (213 pp. Ace Books, November 1991, cover artist Alan Clark); and The Riddled Man (255 pp., Ace Books, October 1992, cover artist Den Beauvais).

The trilogy is a loose sequel to Rogers’s two previous novels: Zorachus (December 1986) and The Nightmare of God (July 1988), although it is not necessary to have read those books to understand the happenings in the ‘Lamb’ trilogy.

The ‘Lamb’ trilogy shares the setting of the Zorachus novels: the Kadjafi Lands, a fantasy counterpart to the Middle East. The Lands’ peoples have Arabic names, and a monotheistic religion overseen by the Sharajnaghim Order. In a manner akin to that of the Roman rule of Palestine in the era of Jesus Christ, the Kadjafi Lands are ruled by a tribe of Mongols called the Mirkuts. Although the Mirkuts are quick to violently suppress any efforts to overthrow their rule, they rarely interfere in any internal squabbles among the Kadjafi.

With the ‘Lamb’ trilogy, author Rogers implements one of the more imaginative approaches to the genre: the trilogy takes the New Testament gospel of Matthew, and places it in a ‘fantasy’ landscape where magic works.

The trilogy is composed of two major plots. In one plot, a trio of adepts from the Sharajnaghim Order investigate the rumored actions of a man named Essaj Ben Yussef, extraordinary actions that include the healing of the sick and injured, and even the raising of the dead. Could Essaj be a genuine holy man, perhaps even the Expected One of scripture……… or is he a heretic who wields black magic in the service of Tchernobog ?

Interwoven with the narrative of Essaj is the other plot, which deals with a violent assault on the Sharajnaghim Order. Powerful magic is being used to kill selected higher-ranking members of the Order; the identities of the assailants are a mystery. The order’s second in command, Khaddam Al-Ramnal, suspects that the Black Anarites – a death cult that worships Tchernobog – are the likeliest of culprits and urges the Order to mount an attack on the mountain redoubt of the Anarites.

Over the course of the trilogy, the true nature of Essaj and his ministry is revealed, as is the conspiracy to destroy the Sharanajghim Order. Both narratives eventually join in a world-altering confrontation between Good and Evil………with some characters destined for salvation, and others destined for damnation……….

I finished the ‘Lamb’ trilogy with mixed emotions. Its setting and premise certainly are imaginative, and it certainly succeeds in bringing something new and novel to the ‘fantasy’ genre.

As with Rogers’s ‘Zorachus’ books, the ‘Lamb’ trilogy works in abundant horror motifs – the headquarters of the Black Anarites, for example, is the setting for all manner of appalling atrocities. And, as with ‘Zorachus’, Rogers liberally applies splatterpunk imagery. A large catalog of grievous injuries are inflicted on the novels’ major and minor characters, and the battles between good and evil magicians feature the casting of spells and the conjuration of demons in the manner of a Dr. Strange comic, albeit battles with no shortage of limbs, heads, and torsos being severed, burned, or blasted into atoms………!

The third volume in the trilogy features some of the bloodiest battles, and some of the higher body counts, in any fantasy novel I’ve yet read. But these lend the narrative the drama and suspense that justify the necessarily involved world-building that occupies the first two volumes of the trilogy.

However, ‘The Blood of the Lamb’ has its faults. A major fault is the insistence of author Rogers on inserting lengthy epistemological discussions into the narrative; many of these passages have the awkward nature of a college student’s term paper on theology:

“The truth is, this notion that Essaj is God incarnate is hardly more palatable than the idea that God can die. As a matter of fact, the two are inextricably linked. If you assent to one, you assent to the other; and as we both know, God has become man. For the first time in all the worlds, transcendence has become immanence. The myth – the most potent myth of all – has instantiated itself. We have seen its adumbrations since God first summoned us from the slime; thousands of dreamers have been possessed – and destroyed – by it. But Essaj is no feverish vision, no truth glimpsed through a darkened glass. The Word Made Flesh is in our midst. He is one of us. His mature has fused – fused homeostatically – with ours.

“But flesh perishes, doesn’t it ? And what then is implied ? The syllogism’s quite elegant; all men are mortal, God has become mortal, therefore……….”

Erim shook his head. “God is eternal.”

Another weakness of the trilogy seems - on the surface - to be a minor one: its use of Arabic names. It’s understandable that, in light of the books’ Middle Eastern setting, that some degree of authenticity be employed when bestowing names on the large cast of characters. However, author Rogers has a habit of using similar-sounding titles, and over the course of three volumes, this becomes confusing…………for example, trying to keep ‘Ahwaz’ distinct from ‘Akram’, who is distinct from ‘Arghun Khan’, who in turn is distinct from secondary character ‘Anwar’, had me stopping at regular intervals to try and recall who-was-who.

Summing up, I gave ‘The Blood of the Lamb’ trilogy a four-star rating. Those looking for something a little more offbeat in the fantasy and horror genres will find it rewarding, while those who are at ease with the more traditional stylings of the ‘high fantasy’ genre, and less comfortable with in-your-face violent content, might not find it to their liking.

[If you do decide to acquire the ‘Lamb’ trilogy, be advised that, being long out of print, all three volumes are fetching increasingly steep prices in the used book markets.]

Friday, December 29, 2017

A Novel History of Spencer Gifts

A Novel History of Spencer Gifts

If you're a Baby Boomer, then you must remember Spencer Gifts. If you went to any shopping mall in the US during the 70s and 80s, you likely had a Spencer Gifts there, and you likely went'd be hit with the overpowering smell of incense while you checked out the bongs and water pipes and bowls and pipes for sale, the tee shirts, the posters, the cheesy gag gifts, the even cheesier 'adult' gifts............ all the cheap crap that marked the pop culture of the time.

Over at the Mental Floss site, Jake Rossen has an interesting history of the chain (which persists nowadays simply as 'Spencers'). 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Older Woman by The Bugaloos

'Older Woman'
by The Bugaloos

The Bugaloos was a live-action TV show produced by Sid and Marty Kroft; 17 shows were aired on Saturday mornings on NBC during the 1970 - 1971 season. 'Older Woman' was performed on the show's 7th episode, 'Lady, You Don't Look Eighty'.

The show took advantage of the co-opting of the hippy aesthetic by the popular culture in the late 60s and early 70s, when kids TV shows like The Banana Splits and H. R. Pufnstuf gleefully presented themselves as 'trippy' and 'psychedelic'.

The Bugaloos cast was made up of four British teens; Joy, who wore a pink tutu, was played by the 20 year-old UK actress Caroline Ellis. She sported a stunning 'shag' haircut.

Most of the episodes featured the Bugaloos singing (or, rather, lip-synching) to at least one pop song. A 1970 LP collected all the songs from the show.

The performance of the song 'Older Woman' can be found here. It's undeniably a catchy song, but it also has an........undertone.......... that, while perfectly acceptable back in 1970, may evoke vague feelings of...... creepiness............?   nowadays. Whether this segment would be allowed in any contemporary kid's TV show is open to debate.

But, watching Joy boppin' and groovin' while her three male co-stars revolve around her is a priceless moment of early 70s just didn't get any better for kiddie entertainment back then !

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Colored Lights by Ben Katchor

'Colored Lights'
by Ben Katchor
from the December 1978 issue of Heavy Metal magazine

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Book Review: Experiment at Proto

Book Review: 'Experiment at Proto' by Philip Oakes

3 / 5 Stars

Philip Oakes (1928 - 2005) was a UK reporter, poet, and writer; 'Experiment at Proto' was his only sci-fi novel. 'Experiment' first was published in hardback in 1973; this Avon paperback was published in April, 1975. The cover artist is uncredited.

The novel is set in rural England in the early 70s. Mark Barrow, a zoologist, and his wife Biddy have just arrived from California; Mark is taking a position at the Proto Animal Nutrition Corporation. Although Proto's profits come from sales of its animal feeds, Barrow's job is to assist with Proto's distinctive research unit, labeled 'Contact', which enjoys private  funding by a wealthy widow named Monica Deely. 

Widow Deely, it seems, is obsessed with teaching chimpanzees to speak, particularly her former pet, an older male chimp named Otto. With Deely's bankrolling, the Contact group is a recognized world leader in research into the nascent field of human - animal communication.

The narrative, while easily moving from one character to another, primarily focuses on Mark Barrow's adventures working under the direction Contact's esteemed director, Dr Francis Hoover. As Barrow begins experiments to determine if the chimps housed at Contact are indeed capable of speaking, he finds himself drawn into administrative rivalries and office politics, endeavors that are passionately pursued by Proto's senior personnel.

The narrative spends nearly as much time covering the domestic dramas endured by Biddy Barrow, who, as a new, 'stay at home' mother, is obliged to interact with the wives of the other Contact researchers.

As the plot unfolds, Mark Barrow discovers that his predecessor, a man named Ryman, was dismissed from Contact under mysterious circumstances. Ryman, however, is not content to go quietly into the night, but in fact may be deranged, introducing an element of danger into the goings-on at Contact. 

Complicating matters is the antics of a crusading Member of Parliment, who seeks to investigate accusations of animal abuse at Proto. 

Mark Barrow finds himself having to put out figurative fires both in the workplace and in his home life. But the biggest drama of all has yet to play out, for it seems that Otto may not be the ordinary chimp everyone assumes him to be...............  

I finished 'Experiment at Proto' with mixed emotions. The sci-fi elements of the novel are superficial, and the Big Revelation that is promised by the cover blurbs is underwhelming. 'Experiment' is at heart a melodrama about the wives and lives of research scientists and company adminstrators; it's not a subject I would find particularly engrossing. However, author Oakes writes about these topics with a smooth, sophisticated style that mixes in enough glimpses of dark humor and (later) sharp violence to keep the narrative from becoming overwrought.

Summing up, if you're willing to read a character-driven novel that adroitly captures life in the UK in the early 70s, then 'Experiment' is reasonably engaging. Those hoping for a UK version of Paddy Chayefsky's Altered States, or Michael Stewart's Monkeyshines, likely will want to look elsewhere.