MOVIE REVIEW: Divergent

written by David Steffen

Divergent is a 2014 dystopic science fiction movie distributed by Lionsgate, based on the 2011 book of the same title by Veronica Roth. Much of the general summary of the plot here is the same as the review here of the Divergent book because it was very closely based.

The story takes place in an isolated city-state that used to be Chicago in the future, where it is walled off from the rest of the world where no one seems to know what is happening outside of it. Almost all of society is split into five factions, each of which values certain human traits above all others. At the age of sixteen, every person must decide which faction they will belong to for the rest of their lives or risk falling into the huddled masses of the factionless who are barely acknowledged by the society.

The Abnegation values selflessness, and expect its members to never think of themselves. Dauntless values courage, its members are like a trained military force, expected to take on dangerous challenges without hesitation. Candor values honesty, and its members are expected to always tell the truth in all situations. Amity values harmony, and wants everyone to get along peacefully. Erudite value intelligence, they’re the inventors of the society. Every person is expected to be a clear fit for one of the factions or they are an outcast, but there are whispers that some people are “divergent” who have tendencies toward several factions at once, these people are considered dangerous to their social order.

Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is born and raised as Abnegation, but although she sees the worth in Abnegation’s values, she feels like an impostor because she can’t seem to hold to those values. On her Choosing Day she has to choose between staying with her family in Abnegation or leaving them behind to join one of the other factions. She joins the Dauntless faction because it seems to be the closest to what she wants to be, there she is trained by a mysterious man who calls himself Four (Theo James).

This is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the movie. The main difference overall seems to be that it feels like the Dauntless acts are dialed up even higher so that rather than being simply reckless they are borderline suicidal, I guess to punch up the movie shock effect. But this is still an interesting look at a really terrible social structure that I would never recommend (particularly that you have to choose your faction at sixteen and can never change it forevermore). Worth a watch!



BOOK REVIEW: Dog Man: A Tale of Two Kitties by Dav Pilkey

written by David Steffen

Dog Man: A Tale of Two Kitties is a 2017 graphic novel for kids, the third in the Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey (creator of Captain Underpants), the series has been reviewed here. The title character Dog Man is a half-dog half-policeman who fights crime with the strengths and weaknesses of both a man and a dog, often against Petey the Cat, but also against other villains that threaten the peace of his city.

In this book, Petey the Cat buys a cloning kit with the intent with having an evil villain clone to wreak havoc alongside him. But he doesn’t read the fine print to realize that it does not produce a fully grown clone, so he ends up producing Lil’ Petey, a child version of himself who calls him Papa and has very different interests (like telling the world’s worst knock-knock jokes). Suddenly having this new responsibility, will Petey turn over a new leaf?

Another entertaining book in the series, and it’s fun to see the origins of Lil’ Petey (who is a major character for following books which I read first so it was weird to go back and have him not be there!). Recommended for early grade school kids especially, this kind of book can be great for kids to practice reading, as long as you don’t mind some potty humor.

BOOK REVIEW: Dog Man Unleashed by Dav Pilkey

written by David Steffen

Dog Man Unleashed is a 2016 graphic novel for kids, the sequel to the popular Dog Man graphic novel, previously reviewed here. In this novel, Dog Man (half dog half policeman) is facing off against both old villains (like Petey the Cat) and new: a telekinetic fish, another Petey made out of paper.

This is another solid addition to the series, very appealing to early grade school kids especially! Great for helping kids learn to read by giving them something to be excited about! Very fun! Dav Pilkey has a great sense of humor for kids!

BOOK REVIEW: Dog Man by Dav Pilkey

written by David Steffen

Dog Man is a 2016 graphic novel for children written and drawn by Dav Pilkey, the creator of the Captain Underpants books. Just as, in the Captain Underpants books the Captain Underpants comics were invented by in-book characters George and Harold, Dog Man is their newest creation.

The story begins with a villainous attack that leaves a policeman with a dying head and a dog with a dying body. A fast-thinking ER nurse proposes a drastic procedure to try to make the most of a dire situation, and soon Dog Man is born, half cop, half dog, with the strengths (and weaknesses) of both. Dog Man is the new hero extraordinaire, beloved by all and eager to save the day! Dog Man will face off against Petey the Cat and other dastardly villains, foiling their plots and saving the day!

Dog Man is a great book for kids in early grade school. It’s the kind of books that kids love to read and especially just as they’re learning to read the funny kid-targeted jokes and funny illustrations will encourage them to come back for more. And if they like this book, there is an ongoing series still being published. Highly recommended!

If you ever get a chance to go to a book signing with Dav Pilkey, I would highly recommend it as well. He is great with the kids and has a great energy, and he takes the time to give each kid some attention, looking at drawings they make just for him.

BOOK REVIEW: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

written by David Steffen

Allegiant is a 2013 dystopic science fiction novel by Veronica Roth, the final book in the Divergent trilogy after Divergent (reviewed here) and Insurgent (reviewed here).

These stories take place in a future Chicago which is walled-off from the rest of the world and has been split into five factions: Candor (who value truth, Abnegation (who value selflessness), Amity (who value harmony), Dauntless (who value courage), and Erudite (who value intelligence). This order has existed for a long time, relatively undisturbed, but now the world is reeling from several major disturbances in the social order that began when Erudite converted much of dauntless into mindless soldiers and slaughtered much of Abnegation before they could be stopped. The factionless who have lived starving and forgotten in the background for much of recent history have risen up under a new leader, and now on the heels of that change, a video has surfaced that shakes the foundations of their whole world.

The video shows a woman claiming to work for “an organization fighting for peace” says that the world outside of Chicago had been corrupt, and that the city was sealed to allow the Divergent population to increase and that this recent increase means that it is time to reopen the city to the outside world again.

“Divergent” is this society’s name for people who don’t fit into one of the five factions. Many have considered such people dangerously unpredictable, and some have been killed to prevent their unpredictability.

Tris Prior and her boyfriend Tobias are both Divergent, both members of Dauntless that switched from Abnegation at the age of choice, and because of these traits have saved many people when they were able to resist the conditioning that other Dauntless fell prey to.

Now, Tris and Tobias and some others allied with them are venturing outside the city, the first time anyone has done so in generations. No one has any idea what they will find out there, what the society on the outside looks like, if it has survived at all. And now they’re going to find out.

The previous two books were told in first-person from the point of view of Tris. This one takes a little bit new angle on it, by having dual first-person points of view: both Tris and Tobias. I found that I had trouble keeping track of who was the first-person at any given time since they have similar backgrounds and are similar in several ways, I would think I was following Tris until something was mentioned about the character’s parents that didn’t fit Tris and then I would realize it was Tobias. I think multiple first-person can work, but I don’t think it worked very well here because of the similarity between the characters and their situation.

Much of the plot of the story also revolved around romantic tension between Tris and Tobias. In the book, both of them get jealous of the other talking to someone of the opposite sex, and then immediately go and do the same thing themselves. It gets pretty old after a while, especially since they are in a series of life and death situations where their actions affect the lives of hundreds or thousands of other people, and they’re worried about this. I wanted to take them both aside and just tell them too that this is their first relationship and it might not last forever and it’s not worth ruining your entire life over, but that doesn’t seem to be a popular angle to take in a book written for and about teens, so I guess that wouldn’t work.

I didn’t really care for the ending, though I won’t say anything else about that. Overall, I thought this one was the weakest of the three books, though if you’ve read the other two you’re probably going to want to find out how the whole thing turned out–I would!

BOOK REVIEW: Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book by Terry Jones

written by David Steffen

Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book is a 1994 fantasy book by Terry Jones parodying the historical Cottingley fairy photographs of 1917 which caused a sensation when they seemed to depict realistic fairies with children.

The story of the book begins when Lady Cottington is a young child and she manages to smash a fairy in her diary, preserving it there. As she examines the fairies she starts to pick out different types and she starts to make a habit of it, pressing more and more of them. As her life progresses and her interest ebbs and flows, this keeps a historical record of her growing into womanhood and as her interests become more adults and the fairies play their tricks on her in turn. The words in the book are interspersed with illustrations of squashed fairies, some nude and contorted into painful death poses.

The illustrations are bizarre and morbid and sometimes funny, and of an excellent quality, and the book itself (the one that I got anyway) had a cool design making it seem like an old diary.

A content warning for those who do pick up the book, drawn by the premise and illustrations, that the storyline does involve some situations that, though described some opaquely, seem to suggest sexual abuse. That wasn’t something I was expecting and it does make the book harder to recommend as a result, since the book as a whole doesn’t give the impression it involves that topic.

Submission Grinder April Fool’s Recap

written by David Steffen

Readers of Diabolical Plots may or may not know of its sister website also run by Diabolical Plots, LLC, called The Submission Grinder. The Submission Grinder is a donation-supported website to help writers find publications for their work–it hosts thousands of listings of fiction and poetry publications which are searchable by attributes such as genre, word count, pay rate, and other factors. Writers can track their submissions to these publications, and submission response time statistics and graphs are produced from these submission records for each publication to help writers know what to expect.

Since the site was a few weeks old, way back in the launch year of 2013, it has had the same banner on the top of the site, with the large title text “The Grinder” and subtitle text “milling your submissions into something useful”, with a picture of a meat grinder with written pages sticking out of it and pieces of loose paper blowing away over the title. The image and the title are conceptually tied to Diabolical Plots‘s mad scientist logo–when we were thinking up the name for the site we imagined the mad scientist from the logo stuffing his rejection slips into a meat grinder and cackling while he turned the crank. M.S. Corley was the artist who made the original art.

The Grinder: Milling your submissions into something useful…

We’ve never done an April Fool’s joke before, but this year with all the added stress of social isolation and worries about health and employment, we thought that people would appreciate something that gave them a little laugh, so we scheduled a bit of a light joke in the hopes of brightening someone’s day. On April 1st we announced a rebranding and asked for people’s feedback. On that day and that day only, instead of loading the classic banner it would load one of nine alternate banners. M.S. Corley reprised his role, doing the typography for all nine, and the illustrations for seven of the nine.

The Joke Banners

The Blender

The Blender: Juicing your submissions into something useful…

This one is probably the closest to The Grinder conceptually, since both are ways to process things that people eat–though someone really should have kept the lid on!

The Colander

The Colander: Draining your submissions into something useful…

The flying spaghetti noodles make me laugh every time.

The Flounder

The Flounder: Fishing your submissions into something useful…

This was the first joke idea that came to mind!

The Gander

The Gander: HONKing your submissions into something useful…

It’s a lovely morning at the writing desk, and you are a horrible goose.

The Griper

The Griper: Whingeing your submissions into something useful…

I am the artist for this grumpy pixelated face, M.S. Corley added the angry cartoon squiggles. 🙂

The Kinder

The Kinder: sledding your submissions into something useful…

In case you don’t know, “Kinder” is the German word for “children” (as in “Kindergarten”). This is another artwork courtesy of myself–in case you can’t tell this is supposed to be a line of children sledding down a pile of manuscripts (or rejection slips).

The Salamander

The Salamander: Sliming your submissions into something useful…

I had to Google to make sure salamanders are actually slimy and have long tongues, I wouldn’t want my April Fool’s joke to be factually inaccurate!

The Salander

The Salander: Inking your submissions into something useful

I was asking for some ideas for the jokes from my writing group The Dire Turtles, and someone suggested “The Salander”, when meaning to type “The Salamander”. “The Salander” made me think of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and I liked the idea of the dragon. And “Inking” also seemed appropriate since it applies to both tattoos and writing.

The Winder

The Winder: Spooling your submissions into something useful

This one is extremely appropriate because needlework is probably the majority of the Diabolical Plots Twitter feed by volume!

MOVIE REVIEW: Onward

written by David Steffen

Onward is a March 2020 CG-animated fantasy action/comedy film from Disney/Pixar. It had a brief theatrical release, but its lower ticket shows were attributed to shelter-in-place orders from COVID-19, and as a result it was published on digital streaming services much earlier than usual (we watched it on Disney+).

Ian (Tom Holland)and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) are brothers. Ian is a shy, self-conscious high-schooler, trying to build a life for himself but finding that his fear of everything holds him back. Barley is his older brother, graduated from high school and still living at home, full of confidence but not a lot of ambition for doing anything in the real world, focused almost exclusively on his role-playing games which are historically accurate from the time before the magic faded from disuse, displaced by technology. They live in a world with many elements that we would recognized as fantastical–they have a pet dragon that has the size and behaviors of a dog, their mom’s boyfriend Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez) is a centaur police officer. But magic itself is absent, until their mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) gives them a package from their father (Kyle Bornheimer) who passed away when he was young, who had asked that it be given to them when they were both sixteen.

It’s a magic staff and the instructions for a spell to bring their dad back for just one day to meet his sons. But the spell goes wrong and only half works, and their dad is reincarnated with only the bottom half of his body, from the waist down. They only have 24 hours to find a way to finish the spell if they want to be able to look him in the eye and have a conversation. With a book of spells and lots of determination, they set out on a quest to do whatever they can to reunite briefly with their father.

Onward is very much up to the high Pixar standard, full of fun and funny moments and feeling very much like the RPG story it’s meant to parallel but with a modern angle: pixie biker gangs, centaur police officers, my favorite character: an ex-adventurer Manticore (Octavia Spencer) now running a children’s restaurant. There are tearjerker moments too, of course, this being a Pixar movie and being about trying to magically reconnect with a deceased father.

Highly recommended, check it out if you can!

BOOK REVIEW: Insurgent by Veronica Roth

written by David Steffen

Insurgent is a 2012 dystopic science fiction novel by Veronica Roth, the sequel to Divergent (reviewed here) and the second in the Divergent trilogy.

These stories take place in a future Chicago which is walled-off from the rest of the world and has been split into five factions: Candor (who value truth, Abnegation (who value selflessness), Amity (who value harmony), Dauntless (who value courage), and Erudite (who value intelligence). This order has existed for a long time, relatively undisturbed, but now the world is reeling from coordinated attack masterminded by Erudite that involved turning much of the deadly and well-trained Dauntless into mindless killing drones. Now the remnants of Dauntless are scattered and trying to figure out how they’re going to fit in in the new shaken order.

Tris Prior was born Abnegation but chose to switch to Dauntless when she turned sixteen, the one opportunity anyone has to switch. Although she is officially Dauntless, she has shown tendencies that seem to say she is actually “Divergent”, which means she has aptitudes for more than one of the factions. This is considered very rare, and very dangerous–others have died for even being suspected of being Divergent. This unusual trait may have saved many lives because she was able to resist the conditioning that turned much of the rest of Dauntless into mindless killing machines.

She and many of Dauntless are now hiding out in Amity, trying to find their next plans. It is a troubled truce with Amity, who value harmony and thus do not get along well with the violent and impulsive Dauntless. But their refuge isn’t going to last very long anyway, because the other members of Dauntless, the ones who sided with Erudite after the original conflict, are coming.

Another quite good book, Tris is an interesting and compelling protagonist, though she is very hard on herself for some of the things she did when she was trying to save Dauntless in the first book and it is hard to see her tear herself down that way when her decisions were understandable in the circumstances. She makes a good pair with Four, also from Dauntless, who is now her boyfriend. Solid book, well worth reading.

BOOK REVIEW: Divergent by Veronica Roth

written by David Steffen

Divergent is a 2011 dystopic science fiction novel by Veronica Roth, the first of a trilogy of books. The story takes place in an isolated city-state that used to be Chicago in the future, where it is walled off from the rest of the world where no one seems to know what is happening outside of it. Almost all of society is split into five factions, each of which values certain human traits above all others. At the age of sixteen, every person must decide which faction they will belong to for the rest of their lives or risk falling into the huddled masses of the factionless who are barely acknowledged by the society.

The Abnegation values selflessness, and expect its members to never think of themselves. Dauntless values courage, its members are like a trained military force, expected to take on dangerous challenges without hesitation. Candor values honesty, and its members are expected to always tell the truth in all situations. Amity values harmony, and wants everyone to get along peacefully. Erudite value intelligence, they’re the inventors of the society. Every person is expected to be a clear fit for one of the factions or they are an outcast, but there are whispers that some people are “divergent” who have tendencies toward several factions at once, these people are considered dangerous to their social order.

Beatrice Prior is born and raised as Abnegation, but although she sees the worth in Abnegation’s values, she feels like an impostor because she can’t seem to hold to those values. On her Choosing Day she has to choose between staying with her family in Abnegation or leaving them behind to join one of the other factions.

The basis of this society is ludicrous (but of course it is a dystopia, not a proposal for a new social order, so I’m not saying it’s a bad idea for a book!). The people in this society have been raised with these ideals since birth so they take them for granted. It can be a difficult task for an author to build this world in a way that the reader can understand it without killing the pacing with an infodump, but this book does a very nice job of it, letting us see what it’s like to live in Abnegation day to day, then meet members of other factions and see how their behavior is different, Beatrice goes through the testing to see her faction leanings and etc.

If there is value in such a segregated society, the worst part of it is that you have to choose for life at the age of sixteen with very little information. People change! What if someone is very like Erudite as a teenager, but tends more toward Amity as they age? Well, too bad, you can either stick with your faction or you can go starve in the factionless.

Beatrice is in her head a lot, examining each angle of the situation, so I related to that a lot, as I am always examining every angle of situation before I make a choice about it, whenever I can. There are a lot of strong conflicts between Beatrice and the other initiates who have just chosen their new faction as they compete with each for entry. The book is full of action and worldbuilding and well written, a great start to a trilogy.