The Reader’s Gazetteer: G

For some reason, certain letters of this gazetteer are much easier to populate than others. G is a case in point. The fictional map of Europe is chock full of countries whose name begin with G. Here are a few of them.

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I gave up on the Princess Diary series before we ever visited Genovia – the princess in question lives in New York, and has only just discovered her royal status – but even from a distance it was pretty convincing. In The Princess Diaries: Take Two, Mia describes it as:

a small country in Europe located on the Mediterranean between the Italian and French border

The history, as Mia tells it, seems a little bit unlikely, taking no account of Italian unification, and claiming a much nobler backstory than Genovia’s real-life equivalent Monaco, but the geography is plausible enough. How to get there? On your million-pound yacht, or don’t bother.

I can’t quite believe in the Brontës’ Gaaldine and Gondal, but a brief foray into Sherlock fanfiction allows me to bring in A. J. Hall’s Queen of Gondal series, which relocates them from an African island to somewhere in the Balkans and makes them into quarrelsome, complicated, plausible nations.

In The Heart of Princess Osra we have a visit from the Prince of Glottenberg, which I don’t propose to spend too much time on, given that I can’t actually tell where it is and I’ll be devoting a lot of attention to Anthony Hope when we get to Ruritania (and probably Strelsau and Zenda, too).

And I have to admire Robert Louis Stevenson’s bold assertion in Prince Otto that the reason you can’t find Grünewald on your map of Europe is that you’re looking at the wrong map; the one that would actually show you where it is has been long since rolled up:

You shall seek in vain upon your map of Europe for the bygone state of Grünewald. An independent principality, an infinitesimal member of the German Empire, she played, for several centuries, her part in the discord of Europe; and, at last, in the ripeness of time and at the spiriting of several bald diplomatists, vanished like a morning ghost. Less fortunate than Poland, she left not a regret behind her; and the very memory of her boundaries has faded.

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There’s a good sense of physical and political geography, too, if one allows for some creative licence in the inclusion of The Winter’s Tale‘s Bohemia:

North and east the foothills and Grünewald sank with varying profile into a vast plain. On these sides many small states bordered with the principality, Gerolstein, an extinct grand duchy, among the number. On the south it marched with the comparatively powerful kingdom of Seaboard Bohemia, celebrated for its flowers and mountain bears, and inhabited by a people of singular simplicity and tenderness of heart. Several intermarriages had, in the course of centuries, united the crowned families of Grünewald and Maritime Bohemia; and the last Prince of Grünewald, whose history I purpose to relate, drew his descent through Perdita, the only daughter of King Florizel the First of Bohemia.

I can’t help wondering if that’s meant to be the same Gerolstein as the one in La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, which I haven’t included because it’s not a book. In fact, I rather suspect that Stevenson is having a good deal of fun with other people’s fictional locations. Which is, as is probably apparent, a favourite pastime of my own.

Books referred to in this post

The Princess Diaries and sequels, Meg Cabot

Queen of Gondal series, A. J. Hall

The Heart of Princess Osra, Anthony Hope

Prince Otto, Robert Louis Stevenson

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#indiechallenge – Milkman (Anna Burns)

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The blurb

In this unnamed city, to be interesting is to be dangerous. Middle sister is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her trouble and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. to be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous…

Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.

The author

Anna Burns was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She is the author of two novels, No Bones and Little Constructions, and of the novella Mostly Hero. No Bones won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in East Sussex, England.

The publisher

Faber & Faber calls itself ‘one of the world’s great publishing houses’. It was founded in London 90 years ago. I’d associated it more with the highbrow end of the market and with poetry, but it also does things like the QI tie-in gift books.

The bookshop

I bought this in Hatchards in Saint Pancras station (and missed my train). Hatchards is a subsidiary of Waterstones these days, but the carrier bags are a very classy green and gold design, if you care about that sort of thing.

The bingo card

This could count for either ‘an award winner’ or ‘a press over 20 years old’. This one the Booker Prize in 2018, and Faber & Faber have been around for a very long time.

My thoughts

This was one of three books offered as choices for my office book club, and I have to admit that my first thought on seeing the shortlist was, ‘Ugh, this is all a bit worthy’. By the time we’d all voted and the results had come back, however, I’d read a review of this by a friend, which suggested that this novel wasn’t going to be as much of a slog as I’d feared.

And it wasn’t. What I’d heard about it – that it’s set in the Troubles; that the paragraphs are long and the prose is involved; that hardly anybody has a name – was all true. But, although it was often grim and often bleak, it sometimes struck a gorgeous seam of hope and sometimes made me laugh outright; although I occasionally lost track in the middle of a flashback in the middle of a conversation, I always had a reasonable idea of what was going wrong; and the thing with the names didn’t bother me at all. After all, we often find ourselves talking about ‘you know, thingummy, the narrator’s sister’s husband, the one with the shop,’ even when we’re talking about books where all the characters have names. The narrator was unreliable, but not in the annoying way, more in a demonstration of how living in the middle of a state of war messes with your head, and how other people don’t see us the way we see ourselves.

And it was all horribly plausible. The unwritten rules of interaction are written down here; the narrator knows them (she thinks) and sets them out as a thing that everybody knows. Burns makes the link between ‘existing as a woman’ (which is a thing that I know about) and ‘existing as a person in the middle of sectarianism and violence’ (which is something that I don’t), and it’s very effective:

I did not want to get in the car with this man. I did not know how to say so, though, as he wasn’t being rude and he knew my family for he’d named the credentials, the male people of my family, and I couldn’t be rude because he wasn’t being rude….

At the time, age eighteen, having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack from something that wasn’t there? At eighteen I had no proper understanding of the ways that constituted encroachment. I had a feeling for them, an intuition, a sense of repugnance for some situations and some people, but I did not know intuition and repugnance counted, did not know I had a right not to like, not to have to put up with, anybody and everybody coming near.

I thought Milkman was well-observed and convincing and, rather to my surprise, I enjoyed it very much. Book club hasn’t met yet. I’ll be interested to see what the general response is…

The Reader’s Gazetteer: F

Back to England, and back to Barsetshire and Framley. Framley Parsonage provides some more detail of the geography of Barsetshire in general.

… that letter went into Barchester by the Courcy night mail-cart, which, on its road, passes through the villages of Uffley and Chaldicotes, reaching Barchester in time for the up mail-train to London. By that train, the letter was sent towards the metropolis as far as the junction of the Barset branch line, but there it was turned in its course, and came down again by the main line as far as Silverbridge; at which place, between six and seven in the morning, it was shouldered by the Framley footpost messenger, and in due course delivered at the Framley Parsonage exactly as Mrs. Robarts had finished reading prayers to the four servants.

The further I get through this abecedarium, the more I’m coming to appreciate the importance of plausible fictional systems as a component of plausible fictional locations.

Because novels are about humans, and humans create systems, and are part of systems, and are influenced by the systems that contain them and are around them. A village is a system; a town is a system; a country is a system.

One doesn’t necessarily need pages of infodumping explaining how it all works. The odd snippet of details can be enough to convey the idea of a coherent universe. In the Framley Parsonage extract above, it’s the postal system (which of course Trollope knew a lot about), which intersects with the rail system, and, here, meets the class system and the religious system. Framley Parsonage is not about the post or the trains. The systems that it’s really looking at are politics and money and friendship and marriage. But that little excursion along the Barset branch line situates it in a geographical system.

It’s where systems meet landscape – are imposed upon a landscape, shape landscape, are shaped by a landscape – that we get the kind of place that I’m looking at in this series. Different landscapes mean different systems. Which brings us to The Nine Tailors, and Fenchurch St Paul. The landscape here is fen – reclaimed from the sea, flat and prone to flooding, dotted with churches built with wealth from the wool trade – and the system is drainage.

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“… Ah! look – over to the right – that must be Van Leyden’s Sluice that turns the tide up the Thirty-foot Drain – Denver Sluice again on a smaller scale. Let’s look at the map. See, here’s where the Drain joins the Wale, but it meets it at a higher level; if it wasn’t for the Sluice, all the Drain water would turn back up the Wale and flood the whole place. Bad engineering – but the seventeenth-century engineers had to work piecemeal and take things as they found ’em. That’s the Wale, coming down through Potter’s Lode from Fenchurch St Peter. I shouldn’t care for the sluice-keeper’s job – dashed lonely, I should think.”

This is a system that’s been put in place by humans, and is therefore vulnerable to the shortcomings of those humans.

“Nobody knows whose job this here sluice is, seemin’ly. The Fen Drainage Board, now – they say as it did oughter be done by the Wale Conservancy Board. And they say the Fen Drainage Board did oughter see to it. And now they’ve agreed to refer it, like, to the East Level Waterways Commission. But they ain’t made their report yet.”

It could be argued that we hear more than we strictly need to about the drainage around the Fenchurches. But I think it contributes to the book as a whole. Certainly I would find it difficult to describe what drains into what and where floods or doesn’t flood as a result, but I come away with a sense of a vast landscape imperfectly controlled, and when, at the climax of the book, it plays its part, I believe in it unreservedly. (I feel much the same about the bell-ringing; I let my eyes pass over the page without feeling any particular need to understand what’s going on.)

Fenchurch St Paul itself has two pubs and a Big House and, set a little way off, on a hill (this is important later), a church, and it’s a very plausible fenland village. I’m quoting the description of the church, because it’s lovely:

At the first glance he felt himself sobered and awe-stricken by the noble proportions of the church, in whose vast spaces the congregation – though a good one for so small a parish in the dead of a winter’s night – seemed almost lost. The wide nave and shadowy aisles, the lofty span of the chancel arch – crossed, though not obscured, by the delicate fan-tracery and crenellated moulding of the screen – the intimate and cloistered loveliness of the chancel, with its pointed arcading, graceful ribbed vault and five narrow east lancets, led his attention on and focused it first upon the remote glow of the sanctuary. Then his gaze, returning to the nave, followed the strong yet slender shafting that sprang fountain-like from floor to foliated column-head, spraying into the light, wide arches that carried the clerestory. And there, mounting to the steep pitch of the roof, his eyes were held entranced with wonder and delight. Incredibly aloof, flinging back the light in a dusky shimmer of bright hair and gilded out-spread wings, soared the ranked angels, cherubim and seraphim, choir over choir, from corbel and hammer-beam floating face to face uplifted.

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Later we learn that the angels have in the current vicar’s tenure been restored with new gilt, which made me raise my eyebrows a little. I would be surprised to hear of a church doing that these days; but then fashions in church upkeep change – which is itself an important point.

Detective stories often oblige the reader with a plan of important locations. My copy of The Nine Tailors has three: the two showing roads and drains, and the church:

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They’re particularly useful in detective fiction because they allow readers to follow the action and authors to make sure that all the characters are in the right place at the right time. Some people use them to make a fictional location seem more real. But Fenchurch St Paul feels quite real enough already.

Books referred to in this post

Framley Parsonage, Anthony Trollope

The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers

 

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#indiechallenge – 119: my life as a bisexual Christian (Jaime Sommers)

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The blurb

As a bisexual Christian woman, happily and faithfully married to a man, a mother of three children and with a blossoming ministry as a preacher, Jaime Sommers had always felt as if her true self did not really exist in the eyes of the Church. She could find neither theology nor pastoral support for a person who felt the need for physical closeness with both sexes in order to feel well or ‘whole’.

Following a brief, isolated incident in which Jaime kissed another woman, the full extent of the Church’s inability to acknowledge or understand her identity became apparent. The disciplinary process to which she was subjected led to her suffering depression and anxiety and feelings of isolation.

Jaime’s powerful and emotive story reveals the failure of the Church – and of large parts of wider culture and society – to recognise and support the experience and needs of those who identify as the silent ‘B’ in LGBT.

The publisher

Darton Longman Todd is an independent Christian publisher, specialising in books for the awkward squad. (I’m paraphrasing their ‘About‘ page there. I am myself a proud member of the awkward squad and have an essay in Our Witness, published by DLT.)

The bookshop

I bought this in Gay’s The Word, a long-established independent London bookshop (not far from my office, to the great detriment of my bank balance).

The bingo card

There are quite a few squares that this one could be filed under. ‘A book from your TBR’. ‘Biography’. ‘Marginalised people’. ‘Non-fiction’. ‘LGBTQIA’. Even ‘A debut’. I’m going to see what else I end up reading before I decide where to put this.

My thoughts

The ‘119’ of the title refers to the 119 words granted to the subject of bisexuality in the Church of England House of Bishops’ Issues in Human Sexuality. Those are 119 words that I’ve ranted about myself before now, and this book resonated. The early parts, dealing with Sommers’ childhood, adolescence and university years, felt a little incoherent and self-conscious, but when Sommers begins to address the crisis that forms the greater part of the book all that falls away, and she recounts the events with an honesty and clarity that roused my anger and kept me reading. Because yes, this is what it feels like:

It was very clear that they had absolutely no idea what to do with me. I wasn’t gay, but I wasn’t wholly straight. My marriage was not in trouble and my husband was supportive of my sexuality. I did not fit a single box they sought to put me in. In short, I was an inconvenience – and a major one at that.

I don’t experience bisexuality in quite the same way that Sommers seems to – for me, it’s more like a dormant but undeniable sense of possibility, the knowledge that, regardless of the gender of my current partner, my next one (if there is a next one) could be of any gender. But the consciousness of all that being erased, looked past, ignored, because one looks like a straight married person – I recognised all that. And realised how very fortunate I’ve been not to have come up against the Church’s misunderstanding of it in such a destructive manner.

In some ways, ‘119’ feels like a slightly irrelevant title. This book challenges Issues in Human Sexuality, yes, but it’s much more than that; it’s a personal account of how the system failed an individual; it’s representative of the failure of a whole system to recognise and provide for a whole group of people within it. Having said that,  the title does highlight how criminally inadequate the current thinking is.

… what is missing in the bisexual Christian’s life is the ability to hold a bisexual identity – and a clear sense of personal identity is imperative to mental health. Bisexuality is largely invisible in church publications and doctrinal debate and support for bisexual issues are missing in our churches and faith communities. It is as if we don’t really exist, that we are just a figment of our own imagination.

People forget about us, particularly when we can be slotted neatly into the ‘married’ box. I’m glad this book exists, because it must go some way towards stopping people forgetting.

The Journey

Kings and camel from Playmobil nativity set

Crevasse            and chasm,         piano,        bookshelf,        mantel: we set off
when all the rest have got there, go the long way round,
know nothing of what draws us save that far faint blaze
of glory glimpsed across vast empty skies. We saw,
and set out on a path long known, unprecedented,
traced our own steps; idled, forgotten,

inched forward;

travelled

in fits

and starts;

one last unlikely leap compelled us, just in time. To see,
learn what we had forgotten, remember what we longed for.
We have been here before, but never quite like this –

– For one brief day we stand before eternity,
knowing at last, and seeing, seen and known,
this moment not to be clung to, lost in its attainment –

– Journey done, we wait once more in darkness. Next time
we’ll start again from the beginning, knowing
the way to be long, fulfilment fleeting,
but worth the travel, travail, this time, next time,
for all time. Beyond time.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: E

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The second post in this Dickson McCunn mini-series takes him, and us, to Evallonia. We’ve left Dalquharter; we’ve left Glasgow. But, for the duration of Castle Gay at least, we are still in Scotland.

Buchan does a thorough job of setting up Evallonia, taking advantage of the disarray at the end of the Great War to suggest that it was always there; we just hadn’t been paying attention. In the middle of the newspaper magnate Mr Thomas Carlyle Craw’s biographical note he reminds us:

It will be remembered that a republic had been established there in 1919, apparently with the consent of its people. But rifts had since appeared within the lute. There was a strong monarchist party among the Evallonians, who wished to reinstate their former dynasty, at present represented by an attractive young Prince, and at the same time insisted on the revision of Evallonian boundaries. To this party Thomas gave eloquent support. He believed in democracy, he told his millions of readers, and a kingdom (teste Britain) was as democratic a thing as a republic: if the Evallonians wanted a monarch they should be allowed to have one: certain lost territories, too, must be restored, unless they wished to see Evallonia Irredenta a permanent plague-spot. His advocacy made a profound impression in the south and east of Europe, and to Evallonian monarchists the name of Craw became what that of Palmerston was once to Italy and Gladstone to Bulgaria.

My father skipped most of this chapter when reading the book to me as a child, so we could get straight to the action. But I rather think he included this paragraph. It establishes Evallonia in the guise of telling us more about Mr Craw; it gives us a vague geographical location; in describing current politics it suggests the past; and, invoking real names and real countries, slots it neatly into real history.

Mr Craw is repaid for his interest in Evallonia with a visit. Several visits. But the action doesn’t leave Scotland. Evallonia comes to him.

In the next book we go there. Incidentally, if I had to credit one book and one book alone for my desire to go wandering around Europe, it would be The House of the Four Winds. It’s this passage that did it:

The milestones in his journey had been the wines. Jaikie was no connoisseur, and indeed as a rule preferred beer, but the vintage of a place seemed to give him the place’s flavour and wines made a diary of his pilgrimage. His legs bore him from valley to valley, but he drank himself from atmosphere to atmosphere. He had begun among strong burgundies which needed water to make a thirst-quenching drink, and continued through the thin wines of the hills to the coarse red stuff of south Germany and a dozen forgotten little local products. In one upland place he had found a drink like the grey wine of Anjou, in another a sweet thing like Madeira, and in another a fiery sherry. Each night at the end of his tramp he concocted a long drink and he stuck manfully to the juice of the grape; so, having a delicate palate and a good memory, he had now behind him a map of his track picked out in honest liquors.

Each was associated with some vision of sun-drenched landscape. He had been a month on the tramp, but he seemed to have walked through continents. As he half dozed at the open window, it was pleasant to let his fancy run back along the road. It had led him through vineyards grey at the fringes with dust, through baking beet-fields and drowsy cornlands and solemn forests; up into wooded hills and flowery meadows, and once or twice almost into the jaws of the great mountains; through every kind of human settlement, from hamlets which were only larger farms to brisk burghs clustered round opulent town houses or castles as old as Charlemagne; by every kind of stream – unfordable great rivers, and milky mountain torrents, and reedy lowland waters, and clear brooks slipping through mint and water-cress. He had walked and walked, seeking to travel and not to arrive, and making no plans except that his face was always to the sunrise.

It takes him – this is the first chapter, so it’s hardly a spoiler – to Evallonia. Which is all set for a revolution, but nobody can quite agree on what it ought to look like. It has a youth movement, Juventus, which I suppose is what the Hitler Jugend might have been like had it somehow managed to get rid of Hitler and become its own thing: ‘… no less than a resurgence of the spirit of the Evallonian nation,’ says Count Paul Jovian.

He explained how it had run through the youth of the country like a flame in stubble. ‘We are a poor people,’ he said, ‘though not so poor as some, for we are closer to the soil, and less dependent upon others. But we have been stripped of some of our richest parts where industry flourished, and many of us are in great poverty. Especially it is hard for the young, who see no livelihood for them in their fathers’ professions, and can find none elsewhere. Evallonia, thanks to the jealous Powers, has been reduced to too great an economic simplicity, and has not that variety of interests which a civilized society requires. Also there is another matter. We have always made a hobby of our education, as in your own Scotland. Parents will starve themselves to send their sons to Melina to the university, and often a commune itself will pay for a clever boy. What is the consequence? We have an educated youth, and no work for it. We have created an academic proletariat and it is distressed and bitter.’

Although Jaikie notes that it doesn’t quite sound like his friend talking. You can’t quite believe what anybody tells you about Evallonia.

(I always have to check the publication date on this book. 1935, though my Penguin copy says 1925. This would be impossible in terms of Jaikie’s age if nothing else: he can’t be older than about nine in Huntingtower, just after the War.)

I would still have difficulty pointing to Evallonia on a map (‘er… somewhere in the Balkans…?’) but Buchan does a very good job of making me believe that if I set out walking south and east, not really bothered about where I was going, I’d have a good chance of ending up there.

There are, because this is Buchan, some glorious landscapes, but I’m going to save most of them for towns that begin with letters later in the alphabet. Here, though, is Jaikie looking back towards the frontier:

His eye crossed the Rave and ran along a line of hills ten miles or so to the west. They were only foot-hills, two thousand feet high at the most, but beyond he had a glimpse of remote mountains. He saw to his left the horseshoe in which Tarta and its Schloss lay – he could not see the pass that led to Kremisch, since it was hidden by a projecting spur. To the north the hills seemed to dwindle away into a blue plain. Just in front of him there was a deeply-recessed glen, the containing walls of which were wooded to the summit, but at the top the ridge was bare, and there was cleft-shaped like the back-sight of a rifle. In that cleft the sun was most spectacularly setting.

Ivar followed his gaze. ‘That is what we call the Wolf’s Throat. It is the nearest road to the frontier. There in that cleft is the western gate of Evallonia.’

Finding your way to a place is one thing. Finding your way out again can be another thing entirely.

Books referred to in this post

Castle Gay, John Buchan

The House of the Four Winds, John Buchan

 

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2019 reading: #indiechallenge

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I remain committed to my principle of reading whatever the hell I feel like, but I liked the look of this challenge and I think it’s compatible with it. It will be interesting to see what the balance between books from small presses and self-published books ends up looking like. My instinct is that I’ll pay more attention to self-published books, for fear of being bitten by imprints; on the other hand, I’d like to put less business in the way of Amazon this year, and more in the way of independent bookshops.

I’ll be posting brief write-ups on this blog, but if I don’t have anything nice to say about a book I won’t say much at all.

There’s a bingo card:

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It would be very poor business practice not to point out that I have two books that are eligible for this challenge.

I can potentially help with the following squares:

  • A debut. Speak Its Name was my first book.
  • An award winner. It was the first ever self-published book shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize, and that’s one of those lovely prizes where just being on the shortlist means you come away with an award.
  • Book that defies genre. Speak Its Name is LGBT university-set Barchester. A Spoke In The Wheel is… belated coming-of-age? Redemption? Maybe romance, if you look at it sideways? I tend to stick them both under ‘contemporary’ and dodge the question.
  • Out of your comfort zone. Depends on where your comfort zone lies, really. You may run screaming from Christian politics, and I really couldn’t blame you. I will say that a lot of reviews of A Spoke In The Wheel have led with ‘I know nothing about cycling, but…’
  • LGBTQIA. Both of my books feature queer characters in prominent roles (two bisexuals, a lesbian, and I’m still not sure about Gianna). If you want head-on engagement with the space where faith meets sexual orientation, try Speak Its Name. If you want a happy background f/f relationship, go for A Spoke In The Wheel.
  • Marginalised people. See LGBTQIA above, and there’s also Polly in A Spoke In The Wheel, who has a chronic illness.

I also have a short story in Supposed CrimesUpstaged: an anthology of queer women in the performing arts, which is:

  • an anthology

There’s only one of me, and I’m a woman, so you could make a case for my being both:

  • A Women’s Press

and:

  • a micro press

If you’ve never heard of me, I’m:

  • a new to you press

And, if you’re not from the UK, I’m:

  • an author from another country

Finally, of course, there’s the old favourite:

  • free square

 

Now to see what’s already on my bookshelves that will count towards the challenge… Whatever you’re intending to read, I hope 2019 has many good books in store for you!