Guest post by independent publisher, Peirene Press

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. I am grateful to those who responded so generously as the articles and Q&As they provided offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

Today I welcome Molly from Peirene Press whose book, Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (translated by Margita Gailitis), I reviewed here.

The aim of Peirene Press is a simple one – to bring the best of European fiction to the UK market and expose English-speaking readers to unfamiliar authors, ideas and worlds. To do this, we specialise in publishing contemporary European novellas for the first time in English in translation. Once all this hard work is done, 50p of each sale is donated to our chosen charity (currently Basmeh and Zeitooneh, who work in refugee camps in Lebanon and Turkey) – as our publisher Meike Ziervogel says, ‘a good book should change the world for the better beyond the last page.’

I guess you could say that we are a rather niche publisher. But even we did not realise quite how niche we are until we did some digging into the statistics of translated fiction. Surprisingly, only between 3-5% of books published in the UK are works of translation. Of that only 30% are written by women authors – and so, with some quick maths we can see that translated books by women writers actually make up only 1-1.5% of our literary market!

Over the last 10 years we are pleased to say that 60% of our writers and 70% of our translators have been women. That’s already double the amount of women writers that make up the UK’s translated fiction market, and we hope that this number only continues to grow.

So this year our mission is even more focused. In 2019, we are only publishing books written by women.

Soviet Milk, our novel longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize is an excellent example of the power of women in translation. As Jeremy Davies from Dalkey Archive Press said, Soviet Milk ‘opens up new paths not only for Latvian literature in English translation but for English literature itself.’

This makes being longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize extra special. Not only are we raising the profile of small presses, but also all those women writers and translators that we have worked with for the past 10 years. We’ve been part of the 1% of the market taken up by women in translation and we couldn’t be prouder. In the future we hope to grow this unique part of the publishing industry and publish authors that would otherwise not have reached UK readers.

If this sounds like something you fancy head to peirenepress.com to get yourself some translated goodness! If you subscribe you’ll be supporting our work in the long term and you’ll also have access to our Subscriber Book Club which includes; discussions, giveaways and author Q&As!

You may keep up with all the news from Peirene Press on Twitter: @PeirenePress 

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Book Review: A Chill in the Air

Iris Origo is perhaps best known as the author of her previous diary, War in Val d’Orcia, which she published to acclaim in 1947. It was praised for the positive effect it had on Anglo-Italian relations as it detailed the risks taken in the German occupied region of southern Italy, where Origo lived with her husband and daughter, to assist partisans, fugitives and refugees. A Chill in the Air is another of Origo’s diaries covering the years 1939/40, when Italy was looking to Mussolini to keep them out of a war slowly spreading across Europe. It details the rumours and propaganda of the time – the struggle to sift truth from a variety of news sources and the debates these sparked.

Origo was born to wealth and privilege. She had high placed connections in the arts as well as diplomatic circles. In 1924, aged twenty-two, she married Antonio Origo and they purchased an estate in southern Tuscany. Despite having a child (who died, aged 7) she continued to travel abroad periodically, indulging in occasional love affairs. She would return to her husband who was taking advantage of Mussolini’s ‘Battle of the Wheat’ to turn their arid land into productive farms worked by peasants.

The book offers a first hand account of a strange time written by a woman largely raised in Italy but not fully belonging due to her British and American parentage. As well as providing insight into the thinking of her peers and the local population, it offers thoughts on wider attitudes to the growing threat of conflict. Early on Origo recognises that governments must manipulate popular opinion by whatever means necessary if they are to get their way.

“It is now clear what form propaganda, in case of war, will take. The whole problem will be presented as an economic one. The “democratic countries”, i.e. the “haves”, will be presented as permanently blocking the way of the “have-nots” to economic expansion.”

There is resentment from wives and mothers as their husbands and sons are conscripted. They question the point of raising boys, of working hard for a better life, if the men they nurture can simply be taken away.

There are predictable prejudices and blind spots recounted, depending on who the author is talking to. Despite differences of opinion, few have any appetite for the coming war.

“A still, lovely summer’s evening; the grapes ripening, the oxen ploughing. Only man is mad.”

Nevertheless, as Hitler continues his expansion this mood must be changed – governments control through fear and suppression of resistance.

“Day after day, year after year, every paper gives us the same news, preaches the same doctrine. Plenty of people say, ‘We don’t believe what’s in the papers: it’s all a pack of lies!’ But all the same, something sinks in.”

Horrific tales of atrocities abroad are discussed. The German army, high on cocaine to retain energy, are reported as baiting and killing the ordinary Polish people they come into contact with. Businessmen make money from stolen property and commerce.

“The capitulation of Holland is announced with considerable Schadenfreude. On the same day a grocer in Florence receives a letter from a German firm – already offering him Dutch cheeses!”

More countries fall to Hitler’s occupying forces and freedoms are curtailed. News from abroad becomes harder to obtain. Attention focuses on what Italy’s future role will be.

“we hardly pay any attention to the news that Russia is occupying Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. Japan is menacing Indo China. Banditry spreads fast.”

When Italy joins the war there is a feeling of inevitability. Within the new order, power is shifting.

“the contempt of the new world for the old, of the self-made man for those who have attained with ease what he has achieved with effort.”

It is interesting to read this Italian view of other nations, especially of England – regarded as corrupt and sterile – and of Churchill whose speeches are considered:

“vain boasts, based on no foundation of fact – a cynical last attempt to bolster up the English people to meet their inevitable destruction.”

The diaries cease abruptly when Origo goes into labour – her pregnancy had not been mentioned until she travelled to Rome for the birth.

In an Afterword, written by her granddaughter, we are offered a glimpse of the author’s later years.

These diaries offer a first person account reported with immediacy rather than hindsight. I did not find the entries entirely compelling but they challenged the history taught to me in school. For this I am glad to have read the book even if my interest did at times wane. The politics and loyalties of Italy under Mussolini are portrayed in an alternative and therefore thought provoking light.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Mothers and Daughters

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Everyone talks about the extension of people’s life span as a miracle we ought to rejoice at. The extension of some people’s life is a killing of other people in their best years.”

Set in modern day Croatia, Mothers and Daughters opens with the sixty year old narrator’s husband enjoying a garlic-infused meal and a glass of white wine. The reader will learn that the smell of this gastronomic combination brings with it a reminder of the narrator’s late father. Such memories are hard for her to live with even after many decades.

The woman has recently installed her elderly mother in a top notch care home after the older woman suffered a stroke. The couple can afford the astronomical fees required and the narrator could not bear to look after her mother herself. This attitude makes her feel guilty, something her husband and friends do their best to assuage. Her mother receives quality care with staff always on hand to deal with the many demands being made by people raging against their frailties.

“When you enter the building you’re not hit by the smell of crapped diapers, dirty old skin, urine, and the stench of rotting human beings noisily putrefying.”

The narrator’s mother had been hooked on prescription drugs, not her first addiction, and complains constantly of pain now that her medication has been withdrawn as unnecessary. She refuses to walk to the bathroom and asks for her food to be puréed and spoon fed. She berates her daughter for not killing her before life came to this.

The daughter remembers how her mother has treated her throughout her life, especially the moments when she looked the other way. In a country where domestic abuse is rife but rarely acknowledged, victims are expected to accept their suffering unless they can independently afford to leave.

“How long does trauma last? Anxiety? Regret? Anger? Powerlessness? Sorrow? Self-pity?”

Through one hundred short chapters the reader learns of the narrator’s pivotal experiences, from childhood to the present day. She is now married to a kind and supportive man. They travel frequently and he urges her to relax and allow the expensive carers to deal with her mother’s continuing complaints. The narrator cannot switch off the guilt she feels at putting her mother in a home rather than caring for her herself. If thoughts towards the old woman verge on the caustic there are valid reasons, yet she cannot bring herself to accept what was clearly necessary. As she endlessly broods over her options, aware of her mother’s unhappiness, she ponders how she is not so far from old age herself. The denouement contains an unexpected sting in its tail.

The relationships between parents and their children are complex and demanding whatever their age. This short tale explores the bonds and the blame forged from a shared inheritance and its indelible difficulties. There is bitterness in the writing but also a pathos born of a need to live with oneself after decisions have been made. There is much to unpack around the causes and effects of parental actions and their repercussions in shaping a grown child’s thinking long term.

Given that care of the elderly often falls to daughters and not all mother-daughter relationships are loving this is an interesting exploration of an increasingly problematic issue. The author pulls no punches in portraying the grotesque elements of aging bodies and the resentments felt by both elderly parents and their children. Although well written it was not an easy story due to its honesty and lack of smoothing over the cracks that are widely felt but rarely acknowledged, perhaps for fear of public approbation.

Any Cop?: Thought provoking and fearless, this is reading to challenge societal expectations of adult daughters, whose back stories cannot be assumed.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: A Perfect Explanation

“It was the starting that was the joy when no mistakes had been made, when the world was free and open, when nothing was said that needed to be unsaid”

Eleanor Anstruther grew up knowing the family story of how her father, as a boy, was sold by his mother to his aunt for five hundred pounds. These forebears were an aristocratic family whose wealth included large properties in Scotland and London. Children were important as heirs; the family inheritance to be managed and passed on. Although A Perfect Explanation is a work of fiction it was built around facts found in letters, court papers, medical reports and photographs. It offers a fascinating picture of a family bound by gendered tradition, in which truths deemed unpalatable, including parental favouritism, silently festered to the detriment of all.

The tale is told across two timelines – a day in 1964 and the years between the two world wars. The protagonist is Enid Campbell, a society beauty who later eschews company. Although pampered and selfish she regards herself as hard done by. The coldness of parents and their favouring of certain offspring repeat across the three generations featured. Mothers love their sons more than their daughters who are expected to do their duty without unseemly fuss.

Enid is one of three siblings. They were born and raised in the fairy-tale castle of Inveraray in Argyllshire. When her uncle, the ninth Duke of Argyll and husband of Princess Louise, died, Enid’s family had to move to a smaller property on the estate, thereby freeing the castle for her cousin’s occupancy. Enid regarded this as her first lesson in how anything she loved could be taken away. The next lessons were when her beloved brother, her parents’ heir, was killed in the war, and her father, who had always favoured her, died of illness. Enid was left with her domineering mother who she believed preferred her sister, Joan. Enid had married Douglas to spite her mother, an act she was told contributed to her father’s demise. She regretted that Douglas rather than her brother returned from the war.

Enid and Douglas have a son, Fagus, and a daughter, Finetta. Enid struggles with the demands of motherhood and grows to despise her husband while still expecting his support. Their son was born with hydrocephalus but the obvious signs are neither discussed nor treated. The condition makes him clumsy and he suffers a life changing fall while under Enid’s care. As well as the guilt she feels there is resentment as she believes she is being unfairly blamed.

With the young heir now damaged and therefore the inheritance Enid had expected to come her way in jeopardy she decides she must produce another son to prevent Joan being bequeathed their mother’s sizeable estate. The responsibility of providing care for a disabled child and a newborn baby – her daughter is largely ignored – tips Enid over the edge.

The book opens on a day in 1964 with Finetta preparing to make one of her regular visits to Enid who now lives in a nursing home in Hampstead run by Christian Scientists, a belief she turned to in an attempt to cure Fagus. We learn that Finetta has a son and a daughter but the same skewed parenting preferences as her mother and grandmother.

“She’d fed and bathed them both, divorced their father and sent them away to school as soon as possible. They had grown up.”

“Her daughter was a stranger who moved with a stranger’s mood; a thing that passed and left little trace, unlike her son, for whom she felt a love so crushing she could only watch him, constantly, whether he was there or not.”

Finetta is doing her duty towards her mother but takes pleasure in observing the limitations of the life of the ‘almost dead but not dead enough’. She regards any suffering Enid must endure as her just deserts. This visit though will be different as her younger brother, Ian, is to join her – the first time he will have seen their mother in twenty-five years.

Enid feels no gratitude at her daughter’s willingness to visit each Tuesday.

“Enid had done nothing to deserve such loyalty and she resented it. She wanted to be left alone. She didn’t want to have it pointed out that she was still a mother. It was as if Finetta did it on purpose, shoving the reminder of her existence as a punishment from which Enid could not escape, a revenge dripped week by week”

Now an old woman waiting to die, cut off from the wider family she scorned yet craved attention and sympathy from, Enid cannot still the memories of her past actions which caused the breach and led to suffering for all.

The interwar timeline takes the reader through these actions, when Enid had her babies and failed to meet her own and her family’s expectations. Despite the appalling way in which she treats everyone her story is told with a degree of sympathy.

There is darkness and tension in Enid’s perceptions and yearnings. She appears childlike in her jealousies, incapable of loving selflessly. Her feelings of entitlement and perceived lack of understanding lead to her wishing to hurt her mother and sister. She cannot cope with the demands made by her children. Always she wants without being able to give.

I have read many stories of minor historical figures and the troubles they encounter despite their privileged existences. This tale offers much more depth and nuance than is typical. The writing pulls the reader under the skin of each character from where they may view the pain of selfish frustrations. There are truly shocking moments yet they are never sensationalised. Rather there is a balance in the telling that allows the reader to form their own opinions. The complexities of family relationships and the pressures these create offer much to consider.

A riveting tale of grown children damaged by the relentless actions of their entitled parents. Well paced and skilfully written, this is a haunting, recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: The Near Witch

The Near Witch, by V.E. Schwab, is one of those rare books that may work better if well adapted for the screen. It contains a number of electric set pieces that could be awesome and terrifying if presented with appropriate sound and effects. They are granted a great many words to bring to life on the page.

Even beyond these the wider plot too often drags through its world building and repetitive activity. The concept is of our time – a community fearful of strangers and of change – but the fantasy powers foreshadowed never fully deliver.

The story opens with two sisters settling down to sleep in their candlelit bedroom. Sixteen year old Lexi is telling a story to five year old Wren. The narrative unfolds from the point of view of the older girl. We learn that her father is dead and her mother still mourning, now a shadow of her former self. Their uncle, Otto, lives close and keeps an eye on the little family. He disapproves of Lexi’s continuing interest in her father’s occupation as a tracker. Sixteen is the marrying age of the girls in the town and Lexi has a suitor, one she has little interest in.

The action is set in the town of Near. This is a remote community surrounded by moorland and, as the residents neither see strangers nor leave, must be self sufficient – something that is not explained. Generations ago a witch was banished and the children sing songs about the associated tale in their games. There are still two elderly witches in residence. They live on the edges and are treated with suspicion.

When a stranger is spotted, Lexi is curious. She believes that the witches know more about this young man than they will admit. Then children start to disappear and she fears for the safety of Wren. The town elders blame the stranger, assuming his unexpected arrival cannot be coincidental. Shut out from the efforts of these men, who are tasked with protecting the town, Lexi plans her own mission.

As each child is taken, Lexi seeks advice from the witches and tries to find out more about the stranger. She is warned away from involvement by Otto who eschews her supposed skills as a tracker. A love story is developing against a backdrop of growing suspicion. As the elders are making little progress they look for someone to blame.

The introduction by the author explains that this novel, her debut, was written when she was still at university. It was the spark that lit the flame of her successful career. It has fine ideas and some interesting characters but lacks the momentum needed to hold uninterrupted interest. I would have preferred tighter pacing.

Following The Near Witch, the book contains a second, shorter story, The Ash-Born Boy. This offers further background on the stranger who arrived in Near. Because of his powers he was abused by his step-father, something in which his mother was complicit. The tale posed as many questions as it answered.

The edition I read is gorgeously presented with embossed hard covers, end papers, ribbon and illustrations. I suspect it will be enjoyed by the author’s fans who may wish to better understand where her ideas began. As a first exposure to her work it may not have been the best place to start.

A promising concept and adept use of language but overlong and repetitive given the action contained.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Titan Books.

Book Review: Sweet Home

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine.

Sweet Home is a collection of ten short stories that prove what powerful tales can be told in this condensed format. All are set in and around contemporary East Belfast. They feature ordinary people as their quiet disappointments and resentments bubble to the surface of their everyday lives. The author captures the quotidian with insight and poignancy along with each character’s yearning for what they perceive to be passing them by. There is a depth of understanding, a recognition that most hurts go unnoticed as individuals deal with their own demons and desires.

The collection opens with To All Their Dues which is told from three points of view. A young woman is trying to establish her new small business; a thug is demanding protection money but fears for the future of his nefarious income; his wife is trying to find a way to cope with her familial past. The way these three flawed lives are presented, with understanding but also clear sighted portrayal of limitations and worst behaviours, demonstrates the wit and skill with which the author writes.

Inakeen is an searingly honest depiction of a mother and son whose lives and aspirations are of little real interest to the other. The son visits his mother out of duty, not understanding how dull she finds his conversation. He does not notice her growing interest in her new neighbours, and how she feels let down by his inability to maintain relationships. While he is bitterly resentful that his former partner left him, his mother misses the younger woman’s company and that of her grandchild. She imagines the enjoyment her new neighbours – three women, one dressed in a burqa – have living together. Without knowing them, she longs to join in.

Observation looks at two families whose teenage daughters are best friends. Lauren is drawn to her mother’s new boyfriend. Cath is intrigued by a family setup so different from her own. Cath’s parents talk of Lauren’s mother in less than flattering terms. There is an undercurrent of denial in how much each character knows about what is going on, and in what is being said.

Locksmiths introduces a young woman raised by her grandmother after her mother was sent to prison. The grandmother is now dead and the mother due for release. The reader is offered views of each of these women through the others’ eyes. Little is flattering.

The titular story is a tale of two couples: a man who returns to Belfast with his English wife, both having established successful careers; the other couple younger and more ordinary, who are employed as gardener and cleaner. The latter pair have a child who becomes the focus of the returned man’s interest. None of these adults are content with their current situation and, to a degree, blame their partners.

Last Supper is set in a coffee shop run on a charitable basis. This skews the terms under which staff and customers operate. Daily tasks are carried out but the success of the enterprise is compromised by limitations imposed by the benefactors. The manager does his best to deal fairly with unrealistic expectations built on crumbling foundations.

Arab States: Mind and Narrative features a middle aged woman who allows her lingering regret at a choice made while at university to distort her current reasoning. She imagines that an old acquaintance, who has written a book, will still be interested in her. She wishes to bask in his reflected success. She tries to remake herself as the intelligent conversationalist she thinks he regarded her as back in the day. She is blind to her current self, which is all others see.

Lady and Dog tells the story of a teacher whose life changed when, as a teenager, her lover was killed. As she approaches retirement she becomes obsessed by a young man who teaches sport to her pupils. The denouement is horrific in ways that made me question why certain deaths shock more than others.

77 Pop Facts You Didn’t Know About Gil Courtney is a list, as described in the title, telling the life story of an almost famous musician. The structure is fun, clever but with a depth of sadness. Growing up on the Cregagh estate, Gil’s father would have preferred his son to take the expected factory job at Mackies. Gil’s exceptional musical abilities as a child were nurtured but these did not lead to long term happiness. The rock and roll lifestyle requires financial resources, the accumulation of which requires business acumen. It is interesting to reflect on the cost of fame and benefits of accepting a more ordinary life.

The Soul has no skin is a shattering tale of a young boy whose life is irreparably denuded by an act of kindness. Barry lives an austere and often lonely life, choosing to eschew ambition and exist below society’s radar. He has experience of being noticed and the scars this created run deep.

No mere summary of these plots can do justice to what is special about the writing. The author gets under the skin of what it means to live in a world striving to offer something better than that which an individual already has. This desire for better, rather than taking pleasure in the here and now, leads to restlessness and a blaming of others. Yet the tales are poignant rather than depressing, understanding more than recriminating. The use of language and fragile intensity make them alluring and satisfying to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, The Stinging Fly Press.

Book Review: Tempest

Tempest: An Anthology, edited by Anna Vaught and Anna Johnson, contains a wide variety of speculative fiction, poetry and essays that explore our tempestuous times. Subjects covered include politics, climate change, equality and the possibilities offered from the development of artificial intelligence. Donald Trump appears as himself or in caricature. Dystopias are created to portray imagined post-Brexit worlds or ecological Armaggedon. Although sometimes lacking depth, the collection’s strength is its spread of opinions.

Anna Vaught writes in her introduction:

“I would desist, if I could, from political and social involvement – I know plenty of people who have entirely stopped following the news and/or placed severe limits or careful muting on their social media diet. I understand this, but it is not an option for me or, really, for this press, with its philanthropic bent, passionate sense of questing after social justice and being involved in politics.”

This passion is evident in many of the entries. What is refreshing is the lack of shouting despite the frequent despair so clearly expressed. The issues raise awareness. When there is anger it is controlled and measured.

The opening article, The man who would be Christ, was written in 1988 and is a study of Donald Trump, the property developer. This is aptly followed by a story, The Wall, which I enjoyed until its unlikely ending.

Women must act now looks at the development of robots – artificial intelligence.

“Women must act now, or male-designed robots will take over our lives”

“There are great benefits in the use of AI and we should cherish them. However, the issue is not innovation, or the pace of technological improvement. The real problem is the governance of AI, the ethics underpinning it, the boundaries we give it and, within that, who is going to define all those.”

Whilst finding this subject interesting, I remained unconvinced by the author’s arguments that most low paid, replaceable jobs are held by women because they cannot access anything better. I would have liked references to verifiable studies on this premise, to make the piece appear less opinion. If the only jobs remaining in the future will be in STEM, women are as capable as men.

Some Start Fires is a poem around climate change offering a picture but no solution. Of course, there may not be one as man appears bent on destroying his life support system.

This is Earth is a similarly depressing depiction of man’s selfish tendencies, this time written from the point of view of aliens. Although offering a clear message, its development felt somewhat simplistic.

I enjoyed The cowboy with the calcium spur, a poem that I read as having another dig at Trump.

The Walking Stick imagined a post-Brexit Britain, although I considered the ending another ultimately pointless protest.

Save me from the dogs was a more straightforward story about uncared for children living underground and groomed as criminals. Between the lines lies the question of what options society offers those it rejects.

One of the headline contributors is Sam Jordison and it was no surprise that his article, Rage, had Brexit as its subject. He suggested that those who voted to leave the EU did so out of a desire to return to times they remembered as better.

“I’m pretty sure a lot of the Leave Vote was inspired by misplaced yearning for the years when Baby-Boomer voters didn’t have such bad backs, still had flowing locks and something more to look forward to than nights in watching repeats of Mrs Browns’ Boys. They imagined that everything was better before we joined the EU, because that was when they personally felt better.”

Populists are on the rise… is a cogent essay, first published in the Guardian in 2018, that appears to offer more balance than is normally apparent in newspapers writing for their loyal readers. Perhaps it was simply good to consider some alternative opinion.

Nature and culture provides a discussion on the damage to ecosystems from globalisation.

“We have come to believe that harm to the world is inconsequential, or at the very least if something is lost then it can be replaced.”

The essays around nature and ecological collapse put many of society’s current political preoccupations in perspective.

I readily admit that there were certain pieces throughout the collection that I didn’t get. Neither can I comment on subjects I know little about, such as Palestine. It is good that the publisher offers space to such potentially divisive subjects and divergent opinions. Refreshingly, the authors make their cases without getting shouty or insulting.

The Job takes an interesting idea – a future where most people do not work – and weaves a story of coercion. Although sometimes lightweight, I enjoyed many aspects of this tale, including its ending.

A narrow escape for the Chelsea Hotel takes another dig at Trump, exploring what is valued in life other than money. I couldn’t help thinking its conclusion was reprieve more than escape but the Russian angle was a neat addition.

We should own the stars is an fascinating essay on AI and equality with reference to Bladerunner. This entry was a particular favourite of mine.

Tempest on Tyneside offers a vision of the region as a sought after destination offering beer and football while southern England disappears under water. Ironic as this turnaround is to consider I thought the apparent interest men had in female footballers a stretch too far. It says much about the reader what imaginative aspects of a story can be accepted.

As with any collection of opinions there will be favoured and disregarded contributions. What I enjoyed in the reading was that disparate voices were included. Projects such as this, which take us outside our carefully curated echo chambers, are always worthwhile.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Patrician Press.