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Oz: The Complete Series

OzA few things happen after you spend a couple of months busting through the 54 episodes of HBO’s prison-drama Oz. First of all, everything looks white. That is, after six seasons of a show showcasing diverse racial, ethnic and religious makeup, every other show out there just looks… too white.

It probably is.

And a second thing happens. You walk away mad. Really mad. Because the American prison system is broken.

The entire American justice system has serious problems, there’s no arguing that. But the prison system itself is a mess, full stop. Draconian legislation like the Three Strikes laws first enacted in Washington D.C. and California were very popular in the early-to-mid 1990s; 23 more states had enacted similar laws within a few years.

Habitual offender laws like Three Strikes meant that prisoners can receive sentences out of proportion for their crimes, such as life for shoplifting. Mental health laws, meanwhile, were subjected to severe criticism in the aftermath of John Hinkley’s attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan in 1981; after Hinkley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, Congress and many states wrote laws shifting the burden of proof of insanity to the defense, and three states abolished the insanity defense altogether. Mental health facilities, penal and otherwise, lost funding, and many across the country were shut down over the next two decades. Meaning, all those people who'd ordinarily have gone into mental health facilities were sent to prison instead. Other shifts in penal laws across the 1980s and 1990s resulted in dramatically increases in prison populations across the board, coinciding with an upswing in death sentences, which began rising in the late 1970s, took off in 1981, and peaked in 1997.

I don’t mean to start piling my soapboxes up. What I’m trying to do is provide a little context for Tom Fontana’s HBO series Oz, a show that’s both timeless and a undeniable product of its time. 1997 was a bad year to be a prisoner in America.

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Review Round-up: Something Wicked

Something WickedIt is hard to find a body of work more darkly enjoyable than the twenty issues (to date) of Something Wicked magazine.

Founded as a print magazine in 2006, Something Wicked, edited by Joe Vaz and Vianne Ventermoved online in 2011. Although the magazine often develops showcases talent from its native South Africa, it has published authors, interviews, reviews and non-fiction from all over the world. Something Wicked is currently going through another change of format, making now the perfect time to catch up on its back catalogue - especially since most issues are now available on the Kindle.

Now that the gushing is out of the way, here's a not-so-random collection of stories:

"The Genesis Jack-O-Lantern" by Richard H. Pitaniello begins with the line "Mary Wildred first knew that something was the matter when she found a dead rat on the floor and her Hallowe'en jack-o-lantern's teeth were bloody." The lonely teenage Mary has inadvertently birthed a monster and has no idea what to do with her (murderous) (gourd) creation. Mr. Pitaniello has the opportunity to play the story for laughs but instead leads the reader on an increasingly disturbing splatterpunk journey. The result is something worthy of the early (and best) Clive Barker, down to the horrifically twisted ending and lingering imagery. Art by Vincent Sammy, who does his best to make the reader has nightmares. (Something Wicked #8 - this issue also contains works by [and interviews with] Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz.)

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Worlds after tomorrow: what we learned from our survey

Last week, many of you were kind enough to fill out a survey about the Worlds of Tomorrow event and blog series, and Kitschies events in general and a few other important topics (like, whether or not a space squid could beat up a talking tree). We really appreciate it.

The results indicated a few pretty clear trends. Here are some things we've learned...

1. Our readers want to hear more from authors. The author posts were the most popular thing about the Worlds of Tomorrow series and the least-likely to go unread (this is backed up by Google Analytics, too). Plus, every respondent said you wanted to hear more from authors on the blog (100%, seriously).

Obviously the tough part is that it means we're asking professionals to do their job for free. Similarly, we're not keen on being another stopping point on an author's big blog tour - we want thoughtful stuff that isn't part of a marketing blitz. So: it is on us to come up with good questions and make sure that the blog is a worthwhile place for authors to invest time in. No pressure there.

Some great examples of author guest posts out there: Bookworm Blues' Special Needs in Strange Worlds and pretty much any of the original non-fiction on the World SF Blog.

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Space Squid Victorious!

Thanks to everyone who took our survey last week. You gave us a lot to think about - both in terms of blog contents and future events, as well as some great feedback about both what you like and what we could be doing better. We'll have a bit of a ponder and a bit of a scheme, then report back.

Of course, the most important question on the survey was this:

Who would win in a fight? Space squid or talking tree.

We're not-so-secretly pleased to reveal that the space squid beat the talking tree like a drum, reeling in a whopping 73% of the vote. 

Some of your explanations were awesome. They're anonymous, so please feel free to take credit for the one you find the most convincing.


"Alphabetically superior, more gravitas"

"Mobility", "Greater mobility" and "Trees don't move. Duh."

"Space Squid is our new Master from the skies."

"Talking trees explode in space" [Maybe that's why they don't move]

"You gotta root for any floating thing with multiple suckers." [Pun?]

"Because it's upset about Margaret Atwood's comments and decided to take it out in the tree." 

"Have you seen the likes of Treebeard? Far too slow and philosophical dude."

"Need you ask? Space Squid conquers all!"

"Squid are cool." [Yup.]


"The bark is mightier than the squash" 

"It's badass"


"Presumably Talking Tree can't move, so Space Squid would have to build a suit so he could survive in Tree's oxygen rich environment. But if they fought, he'd be at a disadvantage because he's in his suit." [A worthy riposte to the exploding in space issue]

"The tree's thermodynamic bark-lassos would multiply until they outnumbered the squid's tentacles: Ent-ropy tends to increase" [Oh my.]

The Kitschies: 2012 Inky Tentacle Judges

Inky_2011The Kitschies' Inky Tentacle is presented to the year's most progressive, intelligent and entertaining cover art for a book containing elements of the speculative or fantastic. (That's a mouthful.) 

Last year - the inaugural year for the Inky - we had a brilliant panel of judges from a variety of artistic disciplines, including comics, fine art and television. They each brought their own unique perspective on art and design into the mix, as well as a (very) rich discussion of the award's criteria.

There was a fiercely competitive shortlist, but Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf, designed by Peter Mendelsund, clawed its way to victory. You can read his acceptance speech here

This year, we're pleased to continue the traditions of diversity and discussion with with three amazing talents:

Gary Northfield has been writing and drawing kids' comics for nearly 10 years. Famous for his crazy (and creator-owned!) Beano character, Derek the Sheep, he has also worked for The Dandy, Horrible Histories Magazine, Horrible Science Magazine, The DFC and The Magical World of Roald Dahl. He currently beavers away on strips for The Phoenix and National Geographic Kids, with a graphic novel about little dinosaurs due in 2013. (@gnorthfield)

Lauren O'Farrell is an author, traveller, artist, graffiti knitting pioneer, photographer and wrestler of giant squids. She's the founder of the UK's largest craft community, Stitch London and has been sneakily stitching graffiti knitting as 'Deadly Knitshade' since 2007. She's responsible for unleashing Plarchie, an 8-metre giant squid and The Kitschies' unofficial mascot, into the world. Her books include Stitch LondonKnit the City and the upcoming Stitch New York. (@deadlyknitshade)

Ed Warren is a Creative Director and founding partner of London-based advertising agency Creature. Over the years he's worked at agencies like Mother, DLKW and Lowe London and has been responsible for award winning ads for PG Tips, Pot Noodle, adidas,, Frank and Amnesty International to name but a few. He is also a screenwriter. (@creature_ed)

Gary, Lauren and Ed's backgrounds encompass art, craft, illustration, advertising and film. They're also all very nice people and promise not to break anything during the judging sessions. Jared will be acting as the fourth judge this year.

This year's literary judges (Red and Golden Tentacles) include Patrick Ness and Rebecca Levene. For more about The Kitschies and the submissions process, please see Submissions for 2012 titles open on 1 June - please read the criteria carefully. We all look forward to poking and prodding this year's entries.

For the latest discussion of The Kitschies, please join us on Facebook.

Getting Younglings Reading by Adam Roberts

I’d say Publishers Weekly are due another ‘best-selling children’s book’ list. Their last (compiled by Debbie Hochman Turvey, with Diane Roback and Jason Britton) appeared at the end of 2001; just late enough to catch the first flush of Pottermania, when Harry became the Krishna of kids’ reading. The list is a little distorted by including only hardback sales, which explains I think why it slews towards some older US titles — back in the day when buying hardbacks was more the norm. Indeed, I’ll be honest and admit I’ve never even heard of half of the top ten titles, including the number 1:

Worlds of Tomorrow

  1. The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey (Golden, 1942) 14,898,341
  2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (Frederick Warne, 1902) 9,380,274
  3. Tootle by Gertrude Crampton (Golden, 1945) 8,560,277
  4. Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1960) 8,143,088
  5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic/Levine, 2000) 7,913,765
  6. Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt (Golden, 1940) 7,562,710
  7. Saggy Baggy Elephant by Kathryn and Byron Jackson (Golden, 1947) 7,476,395
  8. Scuffy the Tugboat by Gertrude Crampton (Golden, 1955) 7,366,073
  9. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1957) 7,220,982
  10. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic/Levine, 1999) 6,335,585

I’d guess a 2012 list would see a few more Rowlings rolled-in, and possibly a Twilight or two, but I’m not sure it would otherwise see many changes. Publishing for young readers has certainly expanded since I was a kid; not only many more titles published annually but whole sub-genres invented, catering to all manner of perceived tastes. But it’s hard to shake the sense that children’s books as a mode has become somehow diluted by this process: more choice, but fewer definitive titles. And, Rowling aside, to run one’s finger down the PW top-100 — it’s at the end of this article, if you’re interested — is to be struck by how many of the really big sellers are picture books for very young readers, books (of course) parents buy for kids, with little input from the youngster. When kids get to choose their own books, or indeed to decide whether to spend their own pocket — or paper-round money on books, they, as often as not, don’t.

So the issue, of course, is: how do we encourage children to read?

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Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Tom Pollock

WeirdstoneWhen I first read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), I found myself in two places at once. I lay on the fold out bed in my Grandpa’s study, sleeplessly turning the pages under the anglepoise lamp, and at the same time I was dragging myself with Susan and Colin through the narrow darkness of the mines under Alderley edge. I remember feeling a shiver as an idea struck me, a bone-deep conviction I’d never had before with any children’s novel I’d read: Alan Garner’s two young heroes really could die here. They might not be alright in the end.

We might not be alright.

Weirdstone follows Susan and Colin, a brother and sister who come to live on Gowther Mossock’s farm while their parents are abroad. They find themselves hunted through the shadows of the Cheshire hills by goblins, witches and a tall hooded sorcerer named Grimnir, who carries fear wrapped around him like a cloak. These adversaries all seek a family-heirloom that Susan wears around her wrist. Unknown to her, this keepsake is the titular weirdstone and it was once used to weave a spell that binds a hundred and forty knights in sleep beneath the ground, waiting for the battle at the end of the world. If the stone can be broken and the knights wake before their time, they will age and die, and the darkness will stand unopposed when Ragnarok comes.

Susan and Colin lose the stone, regain it and fight to protect it, weaving between their safe, sane mundane world and the enchanted one hidden in, and beneath, the forests. It’s a chase that includes one of the two most shudder-inducing pieces of chthonic writing I’ve ever read, as the children and their two dwarven companions claw their way through the confines of an ancient copper mine. The front of my 50th anniversary edition is plastered with quotes from Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon and Garth Nix, all praising Garner’s writing in general, and this sequence in particular. It showcases everything that makes the novel sing. We have a headlong flight from web-footed hammer-wielding goblins, the clash of swords and screams in the dark and then… silence. Fifty pages where the only enemies are cave-ins, flooded tunnels and claustrophobia. The magic and the mundane rest side by side, with their own particular perils and Garner’s facility with writing each only strengthens the story’s conviction in the other.

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The Art of The Doubtful Guest

Doubtful GuestIt is hard to choose just one of Edward Gorey's works. Like many other fans, I stumbled on Edward Gorey though one of his collections (Amphigorey, etc), and was simply stunned at the macabre weirdness of it all. It looks like a children's book, it even sounds like a children's book, but the themes range from the surreal to the delightfully inappropriate. 

Gorey, who was apparently a lovely, eccentric man who was invariably courteous to his younger fans, didn't just scar and titillate young fans through his own books. His art also appeared in dozens (hundreds?) of other classic titles, not least of which is John Bellairs' The House with a Clock in Its Walls. (If, like me, you grew up in the US watching Mystery! with Anglophile parents, you would've seen Gorey's work in the amazing opening sequence.)

Still my favourite, The Doubtful Guest (1957) is everything great about Gorey in 14 rhyming couplets. For children, there's not only the giggling wonder of the art, but it also encapsulates the lunatic world of grown-ups. This is a world where the intangible laws and by-laws of 'the way you're supposed to behave' prevent people from being brave, telling the truth and chucking out a (monstrous) houseguest. (We may even get a movie of it.)

Art by Edward Gorey

Friday Five: 15 Favorite Children's Films

We've spent two weeks talking about the books we loved as children - today we take a step to the side and consider our favorite childhood (and children's) movies, instead. From the great to the awful, the films we watched (and rewatched, and rewatched again for the billionth time - sorry, mom!) had the potential to be as profoundly meaningful to our adult selves as the books we soaked up.

We're delighted to be joined for today's Friday Five by Lauren O'Farrell and Gary Northfield.

Lauren is a force of crafty nature: an author (Stitch London, Knit the City and Stitch New York), traveller, artist, graffiti knitting pioneer, photographer and giant squid wrestler. She's the founder of Stitch London and has been sneakily stitching graffiti knitting as Deadly Knitshade since 2007. She's also responsible for unleashing Plarchie upon the world - an 8-metre giant squid and our favorite predatory cephalopod.

Gary has been writing and drawing kids comics for nearly 10 years. Famous for his crazy (and creator-owned!) Beano character, Derek the Sheep, he has also worked for Horrible Histories, The DFC, The Phoenix, National Geographic Kids and The Magical World of Roald Dahl. Gary's illustrations can also be found in Stories of the Smoke. His graphic novel about little dinosaurs comes out in 2013 from Walker Children's Books. 

Why not share your favorites in the comments?


ET - If you've never put on a hoodie and pedalled your bike at warp speed pretending you've got a giant cross between a hairless dog, a pair of binoculars, a packet of glowing Twiglets and a bag of potatoes in the front basket then you've never seen ET. And you ought to be ashamed of yourself.The film that first taught us that government men in hazard suits are the scariest thing ever, that frogs deserve freedom, and that no matter what Drew Barrymore did in later life she would always be our Gertie.

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