Category Archives: Half Sick of Shadows

Polly and Half Sick of Shadows

Saturn, from Cassini (NASA)
Saturn, from Cassini (NASA)

Today’s blog is primarily about the latest addition to book readings generated using Amazon’s Polly text-to-speech software, but before getting to that it’s worth saying goodbye to the Cassini space probe. This was launched nearly twenty years ago, has been orbiting Saturn and its moons since 2004, and is now almost out of fuel. By the end of the week, following a deliberate course change to avoid polluting any of the moons, Cassini will impact Saturn and break up in the atmosphere there.

So, Half Sick of Shadows and Polly. Readers of this blog, or the Before the Second Sleep blog (first post and second post) will know that I have been using Amazon’s Polly technology to generate book readings. The previous set were for the science fiction book Timing, Far from the Spaceports 2. Today it is the turn of Half Sick of Shadows.

Without further ado, and before getting to some technical stuff, here is the result. It’s a short extract from late on in the book, and I selected it specifically because there are several speakers.

OK. Polly is a variation of the text-to-speech capability seen in Amazon Alexa, but with a couple of differences. First, it is geared purely to voice output, rather than the mix of input and output needed for Alexa to work.

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

Secondly, Polly allows a range of gender, voice and language, not just the fixed voice of Alexa. The original intention was to provide multi-language support in various computer or mobile apps, but it suits me very well for representing narrative and dialogue. For this particular reading I have used four different voices.

If you want to set up your own experiment, you can go to this link and start to play. You’ll need to set up some login credentials to get there, but you can extend your regular Amazon ones to do this. This demo page allows you to select which voice you want and enter any desired text. You can even download the result if you want.

Amazon Polly test console
Amazon Polly test console

But the real magic starts when you select the SSML tab, and enter more complex examples. SSML is an industry standard way of describing speech, and covers a whole wealth of variations. You can add what are effectively stage directions with it – pauses of different lengths, directions about parts of speech, emphasis, and (if necessary) a phonetic letter by letter description. You can speed up or slow down the reading, and raise or lower the pitch. Finally, and even more usefully for my purposes, you can select the spoken language as well as the language of the speaker. So you can have an Italian speaker pronouncing an English sentence, or vice versa. Since all my books are written in English, that means I can considerably extend the range of speakers. Some combinations don’t work very well, so you have to test what you have specified, but that’s fair enough.

If you’re comfortable with the coding effort required, you can call the Polly libraries with all the necessary settings and generate a whole lot of text all at once, rather than piecemeal. Back when I put together the Timing extracts, I wrote a program which was configurable enough that now I just have to specify the text concerned, plus the selection of voices and other sundry details. It still takes a little while to select the right passage and get everything organised, but it’s a lot easier than starting from scratch every time. Before too much longer, there’ll be dialogue extracts from Far from the Spaceports as well!

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

 

Friday June 30th was International Asteroid Day!

Artist's impression of asteroid (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s impression of asteroid (NASA/JPL)

And no, I hadn’t realised this myself until a couple of days before… but NASA and others around the world had a day’s focus on asteroids. Now, to be sure most of that focus was looking at the thorny question of Near Earth Objects, both asteroids and comets, and what we might be able to do if one was on a collision course.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

But it seemed to me that this was as good a time as any to celebrate my fictional Scilly Isle asteroids, as described in Far from the Spaceports and Timing (and the work in progress provisionally called The Authentication Key). In those stories, human colonies have been established on some of the asteroids, and indeed on sundry planets and moons. These settlements have gone a little beyond mining stations and are now places that people call home. A scenario well worth remembering on International Asteroid Day!

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

While on the subject of books, some lovely reviews for Half Sick of Shadows have been coming in.

Hoover Reviews said:
“The inner turmoil of The Lady, as she struggles with the Mirror to gain access to the people she comes in contact with, drives the tale as the Mirror cautions her time and again about the dangers involved.  The conclusion of the tale, though a heart rending scene, is also one of hope as The Lady finally finds out who she is.”

The Review said:
“Half Sick of Shadows is in a genre all its own, a historical fantasy with some science fiction elements and healthy dose of mystery, it is absolutely unique and a literary sensation. Beautifully written, with an interesting storyline and wonderful imagery, it is in a realm of its own – just like the Lady of Shalott… It truly is mesmerising.”

Find out for yourself at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.

Half Sick of Shadows Alexa skill icon
Half Sick of Shadows Alexa skill icon

Or chat about the book with Alexa by enabling the skill at the UK or US stores.

Bugs, faults, and writing

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

Today’s blog looks at bugs – the little things in a system that can go so very wrong. But before that – and entirely unrelated – I should mention that Half Sick of Shadows is now available in paperback form as well as Kindle. You can find the paperback at Amazon UK link, Amazon US link, and every other Amazon worldwide site you favour. So whichever format you prefer, it’s there for you.

So, bugs. In my day job I have to constantly think about what can go wrong with a system, in both small and large ways. No software developer starts out intending to write a bug – they appear, as if by magic, in systems that had been considered thoroughly planned out and implemented. This is just as true of hacking software, viruses and the like, as it is of what you might call positively motivated programs. It’s ironic really – snippets of code designed to take advantage of flaws in regular software are themselves traced and blocked because of their own flaws.

Cover - I, Robot (Goodreads)
Cover – I, Robot (Goodreads)

But back to the practice of QA – finding the problems and faults in a system thought to be correct. You could liken it, without too much of a stretch, to the process of writing. Authors take a situation, or a relationship, or a society, and find the unexpected weak points in it. Isaac Asimov was particularly adept at doing this in his I, Robot series of stories. At the outset he postulated three simple guidelines which all his robots had to follow – guidelines which rapidly caught on with much wider audiences as the “Three Laws of Robotics”. These three laws seemed entirely foolproof, but proved themselves to be a fertile ground for storytelling as he came up with one logical contradiction after another!

But it’s not just in coding software that bugs appear. Wagon wheels used to fall off axles, and I am told that the root cause was that the design was simply not very good. Road layouts change, and end up causing more delays than they resolve. Mugs and jugs spill drink as you try to pour, despite tens of thousands of years of practice making them. And I guess we have all come across “Friday afternoon” cars, tools, cooking pans and so on.

1947 bug found and taped to the engineering logbook (Wikipedia)
1947 bug found and taped to the engineering logbook (Wikipedia)

Bugs can be introduced in lots of places. Somebody thinks they’ve thought up a cool design, but they didn’t consider several important features. Somebody thinks they’ve adequately explained how to turn a design into a real thing, but their explanation is missing a vital step or two – how many of us have foundered upon this while assembling flat-pack furniture? Somebody reads a perfectly clear explanation, but skips over bits which they think they don’t need. Somebody doesn’t quite have the right tool, or the right level of skill, and ploughs on with whatever they have. Somebody realises that a rare combination of factors – what we call an edge case, or corner case – has not been covered in the design, and makes a guess how it should be tackled rather than going back to the designer. Somebody adds a new feature, but in doing so breaks existing functionality which used to work. Somebody makes a commercial decision to release a product before it’s actually ready (as a techie, I find this one particularly frustrating!)

And then you get to actual users. So many systems would work really well if it wasn’t for end-users! People will insist on using the gadget in ways that were never anticipated, or trying out combinations of things that were never thought about. A feature originally intended for use in one way gets pressed into service for something entirely different. People don’t provide input data in the way they’re supposed to, or they don’t stick to the guidelines about how the system is intended to work – and very few of us read the guidelines in the first place!

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

All of which have direct analogies in writing. Some of my books are indeed focused on software, and in particular the murky business of exploiting software for purposes of fraud. That world is full of flaws and failures, of the misuse of systems in both accidental and deliberate ways. But any book – past, present or future – is much the same. A historical novel might explore how a battle is lost because of miscommunication, human failings, or simply bad timing. Poor judgement leads to stories in any age. Friction in human relationships is a perennial field of study. So the two worlds I move in, of working life and leisure, are not really so far apart.

Now, engineering systems, including software engineering – have codes and guidelines intended to identify bugs at an early stage, before they get into the real world of users. The more critical the system, the more stringent the testing. If you write a mobile phone game, the testing threshold is very low! If you write software that controls an aircraft in flight, you have to satisfy all kinds of regulatory tests to show that your product is fit for purpose. But it’s a fair bet that any system at all has bugs in it, just waiting to pop out at an inopportune moment.

As regards writing, you could liken editing to the process of QA. The editor aims to spot slips in the writing – whether simply spelling and grammar, or else more subtle issues of style or viewpoint – and highlight them before the book reaches the general public. We all know that editing varies hugely, whoever carries it out. A friend of mine has recently been disappointed by the poor quality of editing by a professional firm – they didn’t find anywhere near all the bugs that were present, and seem to have introduced a few of their own in the process. But just as no software system can honestly claim to be bug-free, I dare say that no book is entirely without flaw of one kind or another.

Half Sick of Shadows and a giveaway…

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

Tomorrow (May 1st 2017) is the release date for the Kindle version of Half Sick of Shadows, to be followed by the paperback version in a couple of weeks once the final details are sorted out.

For reference, here are the preorder links, which should still continue to redirect to the final purchase links as soon as the book goes live!

Who is The Lady?

In ancient Britain, a Lady is living in a stone-walled house on an island in the middle of a river. So far as the people know, she
has always been there. They sense her power, they hear her singing, but they never meet her.

At first her life is idyllic. She wakes, she watches, she wanders in her garden, she weaves a complex web of what she sees, and she
sleeps again. But as she grows, this pattern becomes narrow and frustrating. She longs to meet those who cherish her, but she cannot.
The scenes beyond the walls of her home are different every time she wakes, and everyone she encounters is lost,
swallowed up by the past.

But when she finds the courage to break the cycle, there is no going back. Can she bear the cost of finding freedom? And what will
her people do, when they finally come face to face with a lady of legend who is not at all what they have imagined?

A retelling – and metamorphosis – of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott.

And to celebrate the release, I am running an Amazon reduced price offer on all my previous books, science fiction and historical fiction alike, timed to start on May 1st and run until May 8th. So you can stock up for the reduced cot of 99p / 99c for all of these. Links are:

Far from the Spaceports:

Timing (Far from the Spaceports 2)

In a Milk and Honeyed Land

Scenes from a Life

The Flame Before Us

Enjoy the whole experience!

 

Half Sick of Shadows – “final” manuscripts submitted

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

Over the weekend I worked on both Kindle and paperback versions of Half Sick of Shadows and have queued up what I think are the final versions of both. Kindle release day is May 1st, and I have a window of only a couple more days to make changes before it is frozen ready for deployment. As for the paperback version, a proof copy should be on its way to me very shortly, and, all being well, that will go live not long after the ebook.

Meanwhile, preorder links are at:

There are also a couple of other ways you can get a Half Sick of Shadows fix:

Alexa Half Sick of Shadows logo
Alexa Half Sick of Shadows logo

On Alexa: enable the Alexa skill for Half Sick of Shadows on the UK or US Alexa stores – listen to extracts and hear about the book directly.

Or on Issuu:

And finally, here is the latest version of the blurb (which may change yet again over the next few days):


Who is The Lady?

In ancient Britain, a Lady is living in a stone-walled house on an island in the middle of a river. So far as the people know, she
has always been there. They sense her power, they hear her singing, but they never meet her.

At first her life is idyllic. She wakes, she watches, she wanders in her garden, she weaves a complex web of what she sees, and she
sleeps again. But as she grows, this pattern becomes narrow and frustrating. She longs to meet those who cherish her, but she cannot.
The scenes beyond the walls of her home are different every time she wakes, and everyone she encounters is lost,
swallowed up by the past.

But when she finds the courage to break the cycle, there is no going back. Can she bear the cost of finding freedom? And what will
her people do, when they finally come face to face with a lady of legend who is not at all what they have imagined?

A retelling – and metamorphosis – of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott.

Half Sick of Shadows – some extracts and the cover

Draft Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Draft Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

I thought for today that I would put together several snippets from Half Sick of Shadows, together with a good draft of the planned cover. Both picture and writing may change a little over the next couple of months, but they’re pretty close now to final version. All being well, I am hoping to release the book around or just after Easter this year.

Half Sick of Shadows is a fantasy, of novella length rather than full-length novel, and owes a great deal to Tennyson’s poem, The Lady of Shalott, which itself is based on 13th century material concerning Elaine of Astolat. However, I have taken the plot in what I suspect is an entirely different direction than the earlier authors had in mind.

======================

First extract – from quite near the beginning

From that point on the lady sang each day, whether the people were in view or not. It made her self-conscious at first, and she felt riddled with doubt about the quality of her voice. But then she reasoned that since neither could hear the other, it could hardly matter. The main thing was to join herself in spirit with them. One day in the future, when she finally met them and learned how they spoke, she would concern herself with matching their tone.

But all unknown to her, her voice slipped out from behind her walls, and spilled like a faint echo of the river’s song across the eyot and over to the further shore. Passers-by listened to the leaping sounds, and whispered to each other of places where another world came close.
“It is a goddess of the running waters,” said some, “a queen in exile,” said others, and a few just sighed, aching in their heart for the loss of a place they had never known.
She did not hear that, but she saw how people came out from the village to look at her walls, or kneel with arms outstretched and faces turned up to the sky. A cairn of pebbles started to grow where the bank came closest, and when it was waist-high they left gifts there, little offerings out of their meagre possessions.

Second extract – further on

Unquenchable hunger seized her again. She tried not to eat, but it was stronger than gravity, irresistible as wind, and she could not deny it. Great helpless tears rolled down her face even as she tore at great strips of leaf and swallowed brimming bowls of sap.

Heavy, and feeling full to bursting, she wallowed on her couch, desperate for nightfall to come. Would she have even one more day before the unstoppable urge to sleep overwhelmed her?

They came that evening, and held up the infant again so she could see it. She sang again for them, and her song was full of both the beauty and the sorrow of the passing world. She watched the glow of wonder on their faces as they heard her. She knew what they could not, that this would be the last time she would see them, and she sang to bless them as the shortening day eased into night.

Long after they had gone, she lay looking at the riverbank where they had stood. The world was made up of shadows now. When her brother and sister next came, when they held up the infant for her to see, she would no longer be there. She would be lost in her own world of slumber and transformation, and the quick years of the world would roll unseen around her.

How long would they continue to come, she wondered, once the sound of her singing was gone? Would they think that she was lost to them, lost somewhere in the shadows? She watched herself stuffing food into her body, slithering awkwardly, heavily, into her chamber, and she felt that her heart was breaking.

Third extract – towards the end

The lady saw, and passed softly among the raucous din to stand near him.
“You know it too, don’t you? You know that you should be with her. Not this king, for all the food that fills his larder.”
He shivered and looked around. The man beside him asked a question, but he shook his head, puzzled, took a pinch of salt and tossed it over his shoulder. The lady withdrew, and his anxiety retreated again

.…

The king gestured to the minstrel and sat again. The room hushed in anticipation.
His singing was beautiful, she realised. The assistant kept the rhythm steady and flowing on the longer strings, as the master sang out the tale, plucking out higher riffs and ornaments here and there. She watched with admiration as his lay unfolded, not knowing the words but appreciating the patterns. And her own voice lifted up and joined him, even though her body lay on the couch within her chamber.
The lady moved among the guests, less than a shadow among them, step by step up to the musicians. She stood in front of them, basking in the melody. The singer’s words never faltered, but his gaze followed her as she came up to him. She had no idea what he saw of her – perhaps some extra brightness against the firelight, or a flicker of movement like a hidden bird within a thicket – but something in him knew that she was there.
The people heard his song, though not hers, and they were wild with delight as he finished, stilling the strings with the flat of his hand. The king took a ring from his own hands to give to the minstrel, but he shook his head. Instead, he stood and bowed very low before the lady. The room was silent now, waiting to see what happened. She wanted to lift him up: this adulation was altogether too much. But she knew that the desire was fruitless, and that she could not touch him.
The king spoke, a note of puzzlement in his voice, and the minstrel stood upright again. His answer was quiet, respectful, and he gestured to where the lady stood. The king, eyes narrowed, glanced here and there, but could not see her. She looked beyond him to the queen, and her face was alive with interest. She was aware, and so was the king’s right-hand man, who had moved across behind the queen to protect her.
There was a growing noise in the room, a buzz of speculation, and suddenly the focused attention became too much. The lady fled the room in haste, pulled herself from the couch and its loom, and pattered to and fro in the courtyard, slowly being soothed by the sights and scents of her garden.
Finally, she curled up on a bench in the pale sunshine. She could only face a few people at a time, she realised.

======================

Not too long to wait now…