The Shattered Skies by J. Birmingham, a review

Hey guys, been a rough day around here. Eleven inches of snow last night, I spent all morning shoveling snow. Then I came in and finished The Shattered Skies by John Birmingham, the day before I had binged a bit while the snow fell. I tried to finish it in one day, but I kept falling into the trap of getting excited and skipping to see what happens next.

I didn’t want to do that with this book, it’s too good for careless reading. So, I forced myself to finish up today.

Glad I went through the extra effort, because:

BLUF: Better than Cruel Stars, which I five-starred.

Hold on. How do you get better than five stars.

It’s easy, you can’t. The Cruel Stars was an awesome book, great space opera played across a magnificent new universe and word canvas. However, I must say I always expect a bit of a let-down in the bridge novel of a trilogy because writing book number two is hard. I know this because I’m in the middle of penning a bridge novel myself, and I’ve done it a few times now.

Not easy to beat out book number one.

JB did it.

The Shattered Skies is brilliant, entertaining, and fast-moving. It was a real exercise in self-denial stopping last night, but I really didn’t want to squander the end of this book in a frenzy. I wanted to savor it.

I’m glad I did. This book pretty much kicked butts, and the ending was flawless, perfectly executed to keep you on the hook for book three, which hopefully is in the works already.

Let’s talk a little about The Shattered Skies, I wrote down a few impressions.

First, JB is a talented wordsmith. I love his turns of phrase. A few examples. “Strength foundry,” a space Nazi title for the lowly gym. This phrase: “…the second and a half needed to throw this whole potential fail cake into the oven and bake a delightful space Nazi smackdown.” “You’re missing one arm, half of your other hand, and you are riddled with holes.” “Fuckin’ flesh wound.” Shades of Monty Python. Hilarious. On point.

Second, JB showed his mastery of the form early with a seamless info dump as seen through the eyes of Captain Revell, a Sturm aide-de-camp and problem solver. Over on my patreon page I recently discussed how I’m not a big fan of long passages in continuation novels written strictly to bring the reader up to speed, well, JB does it here the right way. The standard-setting way. And oh by the way, he introduces us to a new character while doing so. (Claps.) Well done.

Finally, JB knows how to turn the screws on tension, and he can raise some decent laughs as well, especially with his Easter eggs, which range from Taylor Swift to Star Wars (“This is not the droid we’re looking for”). To touch back on tension, there is a long scene inside a moonlet which I felt and experienced as reminiscent of “Aliens.” The scene, which I will let you all discover, was profoundly eerie and claustrophobic.

And those examples were at the beginning of the book. I’ll leave the rest for you to discover and comment upon.

Suffice to say, JB hooked me in flawlessly and dragged me (or led me?) all the way to the conclusion.

Seriously, if you are a sci-fi fan you should read this.

I’d give this six stars, but that’ll break the meter.

Five Stars.

Go buy this book and blow off the snow shoveling. I wish I would have.

-J

Writing, pondering upon.

Alright, readers.

This is how I do things. At least in terms of writing. First, I create an outline. Then, using the outline as a base, I create skeletal chapter Word documents. I organize them. Then, as I write, I make sure to post a few future chapters on my desktop ahead of the piece I am currently working on.

Why do I do this.

Because flow is important, structure. But what does posting a few future chapters have to do with flow?

Alright. I place them there for reference, and sometimes I have to go back and review past chapters before I can write. Everything has to tie in together, be a cohesive whole.

I’ve evolved this method over the years, partially from suggested reading, partially through observing the work of others and finally, through trial and error.

As you can see, I am currently crafting (stuck on) Chapter Fifteen of STORY2, my latest novel, the first one of which (The Storyteller’s Heaven) is available in RD form on my Patreon website.

“Stuck on” is kind of a big phrase, actually. I’m not stuck on Chapter Fifteen. I’ve simply been doing a lot of thinking about it. My chief beta mentioned that he felt as if the chapter before was a set-up (it was), so something has to happen in this chapter. Upon reflection, I realize that he was right, and I came up with a plot device for this particular scene.

But it must be written correctly. I will not release any spoilers out here, but I will say that what I’d like to convey with this chapter is loss, horror. Perhaps helplessness.

But I’m not entirely sure. So I’m thinking about it, then I’ll write it.

The process has been unusually long for this chapter, about a week.

But I’ll get there. I always do.

In other news, surely you know that John Birmingham has released a pretty awesome new space opera novel, The Shattered Skies. (Spoiler. Prob review it on this website soon) Well, there’s a good interview with JB out there, and he was kind enough to say cool things about my original trilogy in there. Check it out, both his latest and maybe my Valley trilogy, which was my first stab at this whole writing thing.

-J

An aspiration

Alright guys, so as you know I’ve been pursuing my long neglected pursuit of playing the violin. Actually the fiddle, there is a major difference.

Look, I know I will never be awesome. I’d be happy really just to amuse my friends while hanging around on a lazy summer day, grilling steaks or something. You know, play a couple of good songs without sounding as if you’re killing a bag of cats. This. This is what I want. To enjoy life, to be a good friend, to share some decent moments with people I like and care about.

The war almost killed my desire to play. I felt as if my life wasn’t worth a nickel, so why should I mess around with an instrument? Bullets, MREs and cigarettes, that was my life, with a strong background odor of body funk and diesel oil.

So, the music died, just like my friend Clarence the fiddler. A real fiddler, an Appalachian prodigy.

Well, I discovered a violin on the internet that looked just like Clarence’s prized ancient fiddle, and I watched a demo video of it and it seemed to have the same rich tones (as far as my RPG blasted ears can tell, anyway).

I had to have it, cost be damned.

I reached out to the shop that makes them, fiddlershop.com, and they were very accommodating and cool with taking a close copy of an Italian master’s violin (a Maggini), and setting it up like Clarence did.

Like all good things, it took a couple of days to happen, and then they sent me this amazing approval video with some songs that I specified.

You want to talk about blown away by the results. It was as if Clarence was alive once more; the songs played on the video were magnificent.

And what an instrument! Holy cow. I will NEVER be able to play on its level!

But that’s OK. That why aspirations are just that; aspirations.

This spectacular violin will drive me to do better.

Much thanks to the good folks at fiddlershop.com!

Bravo!

A good New Years to you all.

Hey, all. First off, I’d like to wish all of you a good New Years, my friends in Australia are pretty close to 2022. Me? I still have one more full day in this benighted year.

But hey, at least I have a new violin, and I need to practice. A lot.

Below is how this thing sounds. An old song called “Faded Love,” performed imperfectly.

It’s OK, I guess, for not having practiced for twelve or thirteen years.

Hope in this new year to get a lot of playing in, pick up some new songs. Also hope to be able to play them pretty well, but we’ll see. I’m already looking forward to sitting out on my deck, the corn lush and green, and messing around with my fiddle. Heck, though, that’s seven months off into the future.

What am I doing now?

Well, besides drinking coffee.

In 2022 I’ll release the second installment of The Promised Land trilogy on my paid website, along with the second book in the Ohio Rifles series. I’m pretty excited about that. In addition, I should actually have at least one officially published launch, time unknown. Probably going to stick with Amazon’s KDP service, but I’m unsure about that as of right now. Also, of course, there is the matter of my collaborations with others. These are bearing fruit, and I’m pretty excited about this.

Dunno. At the moment it looks as if 22 is wide open with possibilities, but I don’t think I’m going to do the long-delayed Australia trip this upcoming. Too many variables in travel arrangements right now.

Besides that, not a whole lot going on.

Good luck to all of you this upcoming year, and may it be better than what we had.

-J

The Fiddler

A pretty nice gift, this Christmas Eve. Our family’s tradition is to give out one, and mine happened to be the first new violin that I have ever owned. In fact, the newest one I’ve had was a school fiddle from the twenties, my other one, my G. Grandma’s, was made 1860-1880. Pretty old.

That’s a nice fiddle, that old one, but that’s the problem. I feel like it will snap in half every time I tune it, so I’ve wanted a new fiddle for a while. Well, my family got me one, a nice acoustic/electric model. It has a nice sound.

But that’s not really what I want to talk about. I’d like to talk about the guy who taught me how to play in the manner of these hills, a fella by the name of Clarence.

Clarence was an older gentleman with coke bottle glasses, his poor eyesight was a source of life-long frustration to him.

No, it wasn’t because he couldn’t see the music. He never read a sheet, anyway, he played strictly by ear, his foot always tapping.

Clarence was pissed because his eyesight kept him out of World War Two, he took that regret with him to the grave. He told me the story. When the 37th Infantry mustered for overseas deployment, Clarence volunteered and for a while he wore the uniform. Then the Army docs said his eyes were too bad, and they sent him home. He went back to work in the steel mill, and he eventually retired from there.

But in the meanwhile, the 37th slogged through the island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific, it was a very bad time. They ended their war in Luzon, 1945. Nothing but hard, bitter fighting in the worst of conditions for years on end.

Clarence didn’t miss much, in my opinion. But even fifty years later he was pretty sore about it.

He was one hell of a fiddler.

Let’s make one thing perfectly, crystal clear. I cannot play 1/1000th as well as Clarence. There was hardly a tune he didn’t know, and he could play all of them and their variations masterfully, all by ear, all without a single sheet of music. He was a borderline prodigy, and I feel privileged that I knew him.

With regret, I was never able to say goodbye.

During yet another deployment, he died. I came home and he was gone.

This encyclopedia of Appalachian music was closed for good, his knowledge and his collection of violins gone.

If I would have been a better student. If… I don’t know. If I could turn back the clock.

Well, at least I can still play “Shady Grove” the way he taught me. And I still remember him, the best fiddler I have ever known.

Since Afghanistan I have not been able to play. But over the past six months, despite other challenges, I have felt the old desire return. I guess that’s a good thing. And now I have this brand-new, pretty little red fiddle (the lighting makes it look yellow. It’s not).

Hopefully all of your holiday breaks are good, and you get a gift as nice as this one.

A holiday treat

And no, it’s not a pumpkin pie, although those are nice. No, the holiday treat will be over on patreon.com/jasonlambright on the 24th of December, in this fine year of 2021.

I’m a little behind schedule in officially launching book one of the Promised Land trilogy, but that’s OK for a number of reasons, chief among which is that the crucial editing process is still ongoing. I refuse to put a substandard product out there, so that’s cool. The Storyteller’s Heaven will simply have to wait for some point next year.

How is that a treat, you ask. Being denied a book? Some flipping treat.

Alright, here goes. On Christmas Eve the first rough draft chapter of STORY2 will drop on my site behind the paywall. The good little boys and girls, my acolytes, will have unrestricted access to the kickoff chapter as other mere mortals gather around a crooked tree for a sad little package with socks.

No, my peeps will be gifted with the rawest, newest sci-fi fiction out there, a book that is still in progress (in fact, I am well into Act II of the novel).

So, be advised. If you wanna, for a couple of bucks you can sign on and get an entire space opera novel, half of an alternate history, and the lead off to the bridge novel in my latest trilogy for three bucks. In addition, you get my thoughts and the occasional cri de coeur as I try to figure out this writer thing more or less in public.

It’s all behind the paywall, so stop by and check it out. I’d be glad to have ya aboard.

J

Stick a Fork in It…

…’Cause it’s done.

What am I talking about, and why did I bust out a photo of me doing some battlefield planning?

Easy. What I’m talking about is The Storyteller’s Heaven, my first published work since 2017. And I published that picture of me because we’re going to discuss some plans today.

Alright. It’s been kind of tough around here lately with all kids of life event fireballs that I’ve had to dodge, and I am hoping to get back into the swing of things pretty soon. A big deal, a major rock, is the final prep, edits and creation of the ebook file for TSH. I’ve never gone through the indie process before without some major handholding; to say that I’m a bit shy about the process would be an understatement.

However, stiff upper lip and all that. It is going to happen. It’s simple a matter of when, and what will be the final quality.

The “when” is hard to control, and the quality will be the best that I can afford. This. This is what I owe my readers. Good, clean, copy and not some worthless garbage that would be more at home in the bottom of a greasy dumpster behind the local chicken farm.

Therefore, I must plan.

At present, the plan for TSH is about ninety percent.

However, on patreon.com/jasonlambright you can view the entire novel now, if you’d like. As a bonus, there is also a good portion of my alt history series as well. If you sign up now, you’ll get my ebook gratis here shortly, and in the meanwhile there is plenty of material to read.

I believe some 104 odd posts by yours truly, and in each and every one of them you are free to comment and join the conversation.

In my old profession self-promotion was frowned upon, and I still have difficulty marketing anything.

So, in that spirit I’ll say it as I see it. The material is there. Feel free to unlock the door and climb aboard, I’ll be glad to have you join the ranks of the hardcore.

Let’s talk.

-J

Amazon Fire Stick

BLUF: Gives your obsolete TVs an extra five years.

Amazon Fire Stick, where have you been all of my life?

I didn’t realize this was a question until I randomly saw a Black Friday ad a few days ago, and I beheld a product I didn’t know existed- a Borg Brain that takes over your dumb, non-smart TV and turns it into an edifice of streaming, YouTube gazing awesomeness.

Now, it’s probably the case that this product has existed forever and the more tech-savvy among us (Dirk, I know you’re out there) is probably shaking his/her head at my backwardness.

Let me tell you about the Fire Stick, and its awesomeness. Also, it would help if I gave you some background.

A while back I upgraded a few TVs around here to smart TVs, i.e. TVs that can stream without awkward interfaces. TVs that are easy to use with Netflix, Hulu, etc. I’ve been very satisfied with my new smart TVs, but it left me with a dilemma.

A couple of perfectly good TVs that were “dumb.” Well, I hate waste, but what was I to do with the older wall-mounted flatscreen in the guest room or the faithful Sony that had been replaced by its brilliant cousin, the smart Toshiba?

Stupid me, I found the Amazon Fire Stick, and it seemed as if it would transform my dumb TVs into smart ones for a mere twenty bucks.

I had my doubts. But what the heck, I figured, if this would work it would save me a fair bit of jack and extend the lives of some very good, but obsolete, TVs. So, I ordered a couple. In typical Amazon fashion they arrived right away. For a couple of days I let them sit, I feared that using them would be a nightmare of passwords and bulky, glitchy interfaces.

Well, I did it today.

The hijacking of my dumb TV was incredibly easy.

Lemme tell you how this worked.

First, turn on the old TV, then select HDMI whatever (the TV can’t be so old that it doesn’t have an HDMI port, although there are probably hacks for that, too).

This is the last time you will use the old remote.

As soon as you turn on the Fire Stick (which I jammed into the HDMI port and plugged into its independent power supply), the Borg Brain takes over your old TV, and it replaces the old remote, too. All of a sudden the ominous lopsided Amazon trademark appears on your screen, and all you have to do is enter your WiFi password, and then your Amazon PW (yes, you must have an account).

At a certain point, the updating Stick will have you change the volume on the old TV with the new, provided Amazon remote, and the assimilation is over.

The Amazon Borg Brain has taken over your faithful set and transformed it into something new and fearsome.

Want to watch Apple TV? Enter your PW and go for it. Feel like binging on the lives of the British royals? Put in your Netflix PW. Rinse, wash, repeat. And oh yes, I must mention that there’s a ton of free content as well.

The Amazon Fire Stick.

Who knew?

Breathe some life back into your old(er) set.

Thanksgiving

Hey, things could always be worse, I tell myself. I could be riding in the back of a light pickup truck in the middle of hell, as seen above. Where riding across a mine, being hit by a small IED or shot up by small arms would be quick and fatal.

I’m not there anymore, and I probably never will be again, for which I give thanks. I don’t give thanks for some holiday where indigenous people helped out their new neighbors, and their new neighbors proceeded to turf them out of their ancestral lands. I’m not giving thanks for that, nor am I looking into the past and nursing grievances about stuff that happened long before I was born.

That’s not my style.

Rather, on this Thanksgiving I’m thankful for present-day, tangible things.

Survival through this horrible plague, for most of those I know. A full belly. A warm house. A decent glass of wine, and the prospect of a delicious meal with amazing desserts. Eventually I’ll get a new truck, although I must say this year of shortages and stress has given me a surprise or two.

Thankful that most of us have survived, although some have not, with fatalities from various causes. Bad stinking year, after a bad year. Sooner or later the worm will turn, although it hasn’t yet. I remind myself that perseverance is one of the most important of traits. Endurance. Patience.

I try to exercise these things. To remind myself that I’ve lived through bad times before, and eventually these will pass like all the others.

So, on this Thanksgiving I really am thankful. Not for some set-piece Charlie Brown Thanksgiving BS, but for real reasons, and not make-believe.

Maybe that’s the real utility of this holiday.

Not for some white-washed version of what happened in the seventeenth century, but for what we experience today.

What are we thankful for?

There is so much, even in the midst of a terrible epidemic and societal upheaval.

Check it out. I’ll say what I’m thankful for. You guys can chime in if you want.

A good family. Good friends. A cool reader base. A meaningful craft in retirement. A body not blown to bits. Medical care, physical and mental (Thanks, VA). Dry roof. Full belly. Good roads. No gunfire nearby.

The list goes on.

So, yeah. Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be just some story about the Pilgrims and their Native hosts.

Thanksgiving can be every stinking day.

I encourage you all to be thankful, because for the vast majority of us, we have a lot to be thankful for. I mean, come on, Netflix. Burger King. Walmart. This is a land of plenty and ease!

Do your best, guys. And think about things to be thankful for.

Peace.

The Shithouse Lawyer

First, a disclaimer. I am not advocating whether people should get a COVID shot or not. That’s your call, but I would suggest you do. No, what I am talking about is a dangerous erosion of military discipline. Read further and you may get my drift.

OK, those of us who spent a day or two in uniform knew this guy, the Shithouse Lawyer.

The Lawyer was the dude or dudette who was always trying to find some obscure alternative reading of the regulations to get them out of some onerous detail or to keep them a few steps ahead of Command, who frequently were looking to punish or otherwise penalize the Lawyer.

This person thought they were smarter than everyone around them, the world was their oyster.

Until they finally ran into some sergeant who insisted that yes, the regulations are what they say, and as a soldier you have to follow lawful orders.

“Lawful orders.” There’s another hook that the Lawyer would try to use. I’ll give you an example.

I had a soldier tell me once that I couldn’t order him to place his life at risk. “That’s an illegal order, sir!”

I begged to differ, and he was shocked when I told him that I could use deadly force to coerce him to follow my LEGAL orders and no one would say boo to me. In fact, I could be prosecuted for NOT exercising Command Authority in combat.

Never forget that ultimately military command results in death; but let me give stark illustrations of legal, as opposed to illegal orders.

Legal orders: “You, you and you. Form a rearguard so the unit can escape.” “You, you and you. Load up, go take that pillbox.” “You, you and you. March through this area where we just lit off an atom bomb.”

Illegal orders: “You, you and you. Line these civilians up and shoot them.” “Herd these women into a comfort station.” “Give the minorities in the unit the worst jobs.”

Surely you can see the difference?

A commander must frequently give unpopular orders; a commander frequently suffers under idiots. It doesn’t matter. Soldiers are supposed to have discipline; it is what separates them from civilians.

Soldiers can’t pick and choose which orders they may follow, so long as they comply with the regulations and the laws of war, it matters not.

You may have noticed my shot record above, listing no fewer than eight Anthrax vaccinations. People may not remember, but these vaccinations were deeply unpopular when issued, and they were also experimental in nature with a proven deadly biological warfare agent. Very bad stuff.

Lawful order?

Yes. As it was explained to me in detail nearly twenty years ago. So I lined up with hundreds of thousands of others and took the shot.

Because I was a soldier. Because of discipline. Because of duty.

So imagine my surprise when I saw this headline on Yahoo News.

Well, this soldier, and a general officer in the Oklahoma National Guard is ultimately a soldier, should know better than to play Shithouse Lawyer with the regulations; i.e. a Soldier on Title 32 orders (State) doesn’t have to follow Defense Department directives until recalled to Title 10 (Federal).

Alright, so soldiers in the OK National Guard don’t have to follow orders until federalized? How does this make sense?

Over their left breast pockets, what does that velcro tag on the OCP uniform say? US Army, or OK National Guard? (Hint. “US Army.”)

We soldiers do not get to pick and choose which lawful orders and directives we follow.

I’ll leave you with what a good First Sergeant once counseled a young Sergeant in regard to following orders.

FIRST SERGEANT: “So, Sergeant, you violated orders by doing x.”

SERGEANT: “Well, yeah. We thought it was the right thing to do.”

FIRST SERGEANT: “We?”

SERGEANT: “Yeah. The guys and I.”

FIRST SERGEANT: “So, you let a group of privates talk you into picking which orders suited you?”

SERGEANT: “Uh…”

FIRST SERGEANT: “Let me give you a scenario. You tell one of your little buddies they need to go stand in that watchtower.”

(The First Sergeant points into the distance. The Sergeant looks over.)

FIRST SERGEANT: “You know. That one the snipers like, right? Dangerous, huh?”

SERGEANT: “Well, yeah…”

FIRST SERGEANT: “What if your soldier says “FUCK YOU!”” (The 1SG roars, the Sergeant flinches) “Asshole, we don’t get to pick and choose orders, and your soldiers will fucking notice and call you out!”

I watched this exchange, and I agreed wholeheartedly with the grizzled 1SG.

I still do.

Discipline. You either have it, or you do not.