What’s Sera Reading? The Travelling Bag by Susan Hill

Susan Hill was born in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, in 1942. She is a highly decorated author of several genres, but her favourite is always ghost stories. She has written over 55 books in several genres, including the ghost story THE WOMAN IN BLACK. The stage adaption is still running in London’s West End after 25 years. I’M THE KING OF THE CASTLE has been a GCSE set text for over 10 years.

The Travelling Bag And Other Ghostly Stories was initially a 2016 collection of four short stories. The 2017 paperback edition, which we have at Stourport Library, included a fifth story, ‘Printer’s Devil Court’.

The collection of short stories all have the setting and content of dark and menacing but not gruesome Hill likes to sneak into your uneasy feelings and draw them out. ‘The Travelling Bag. is a classic victorian ghost story. It’s the revenge of genius and fear of moths. (my sister would agree moths are creepy) narrated by a detective who concentrates on the travelling bag brought to him by a widow and finds the truth about the bag and its winged contents. In ‘Boy 21’, it’s the loneliness and the sense of the unwanted or rejected that causes the oddness. A lonely boy finds a friend, but years later, the odd friendship has the man questioning his sanity. ‘Alice Baker’ is the odd one out for me. I love the description and tone. The smells of death and decay around her, the foreboding, but it ends all too quickly and not fully unravelled. ‘The front room follows the slightly more modern family drama haunting 1950s suburbia. I love how much we, the reader, are drawn into hating the character of stepmother Solange. The sinister way she draws on the energy of the children, much like she did to Norman’s Father. I don’t mind the giggle at the Sunday sermon being taken a bit too literally. Finally, the ‘Printer’s Devil Court’ tale is creepy and tense. It has the feel you get from an old Hammer House of Horror movie. The raising of Lazarus has been debated in science before, and I love this version of collecting the final breath to give to another person to prevent them from dying completely. The consequences undoubtedly pursue one of them to the grave – and perhaps beyond.

In all, this is a beautiful collection of stories and a great way to be introduced into the occult/ghostly genre. They are quick and easy to read, you won’t be disappointed.

What is Sera Reading? The Facemaker By Lindsay Fitzharris

Lindsay Fitzharris with her copy at the UK Launch. Old Operating Theatre in central London. May 25 2022.

Sera with Stourport’s copy of The Facemaker.

“In France, they were called les gueules cassées (the broken faces), while in Germany they were commonly described as das Gesichts entstellten (twisted faces) or Menschen ohne Gesicht (men without faces). In Britain, they were known simply as the “Loneliest of Tommies”—the most tragic of all war victims—strangers even to themselves.”

The Facemaker

My Review

Fitzharris is a medical historian but also a truly accomplished writer. There is a lot of information and facts in this book, but thankfully, Fitzharris knows the strength of a well-told narrative. Hardcore History readers’ comments say that the additional WW1 history is distracting in a book focused on such a narrow subject. [Not as narrow as you might think] The accomplishments and the pioneering techniques made during that time in surgery are not just talked about but shown against the staggering advancements in warfare. “The science of healing stood baffled before the science of destroying.”  These are not the only comparisons made, nor are doctors from other nations ignored for their efforts, influences and inspirations. Dentistry is shown in a new light, as we now have so much access to dental hygiene we forget how new the treatment is. More than just WW1, history plays a part in how this is miraculous and complicated. Fitzharris also goes on to tell us how plastic surgery went on to become so much more, but also, its partner, cosmetic surgery, grew out of need. Fantastic quotes from varied sources help to solidify the evidence. Yet, the best part of this book is hearing first-hand from soldiers’ accounts and their lives during and after treatment. For me, the closeness to the living subjects was the most brilliant read. The injured had so much to deal with; for those who survived, the chances of being welcomed back into society were slender. How Gillies did more than just treat a man’s injury but also his whole person. The importance of personal care that he instilled in his team, including the nurses, cleaners and artists, is a true testament to the greatness of this doctor. We can easily forget what we are handling when we talk and work with other people. The uniqueness and personality of a man or woman is that personal expression of self; it’s extremely valuable to us and society. So much of what we communicate is not verbal but in the way we move or look at each other.

Harold Gillies was an ENT (ear, nose and throat) surgeon, and he volunteered to go over with the British Red Cross when the war broke out. He was introduced to facial reconstruction on the western front by a really amazing character called Charles Valadier. He was a French-American dentist who retrofitted his Rolls Royce with a dental chair and drove it to the show under a hail of bullets; I mean, he was an absolute legend.

So Gillies went back to Britain and petitioned to open his own speciality facial reconstruction unit at the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot, and that’s how it all began. Eventually, he was so overwhelmed by the number of men needing his help that in 1917 he opened the Queen’s Hospital, which later became Queen Mary’s Hospital, in Sidcup – a hospital dedicated to facial reconstruction.

This was when losing a limb made you a hero, but losing face made you a monster to a society that was primarily intolerant to facial differences. Whereas a prosthetic limb doesn’t necessarily need to look like the arm or leg it’s replacing, a face is an entirely different matter.

Anna Coleman Ladd fits a disfigured soldier with a mask. Although Gillies disliked masks, he recognised their importance in the recovery process (Photo taken from the book)

The masks were non-surgical solutions created by artists like the sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd, who worked out of a studio in Paris. Sidcup hospital also had a mask-making studio. These masks were all unique pieces of one-off art. When you look at them, it seems almost like a human face. But you have to remember that they are still unmovable. If you were sitting in front of someone wearing one of these masks, it could be a bit unsettling because the masks were expressionless; they couldn’t operate like a face. They were also very uncomfortable to wear, fragile, and didn’t age with the patient. So long term, they weren’t really a solution. Gillies hated them because the masks reminded him of the limitations of what he was doing surgically. However, he sometimes advised recovering patients that they might want to wear masks to go out into society and not be stared at. Time was tricky; it could take more than a decade to rebuild a soldier’s face.

Above: Sergeant Marsden suffered burns to his face and hands after a shell blast. His skin was left entirely blackened by the heat of the explosion. But these photographs, taken between June 22, 1916, and September 7, 1916, show the speed of his face’s complete recovery.

Some Flash Facts Facing Facial Reconstruction Surgery (Plastic Surgery) in History.

  • The term “plastic surgery” was coined in 1798. At that time, plastic meant something you could mould and shape – in this instance, a patient’s skin or soft tissue.
  • Rhinoplasty [reconstructing the nose] is one of the oldest surgical procedures on record, dating back to around 600 BC. 
  • Disfigurement has been strongly associated with shame because of its association with disease. Syphilis, which ravaged much of the world for centuries, caused “saddle nose”, where the nose would cave in. People associated syphilis – and the disfigurement it caused – with a moral failing.
  • During World War I, patients with facial injuries had to sit on unique benches painted blue when they went out so that people knew not to look at them.
  • During the Napoleonic War, there was a widespread practice of comrades killing any facially disfigured battle mates, “mercy killings”, to save them from later shame or ostracism.

What’s Sera Reading? Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

Young Mungo is a 2022 novel by Scottish-American writer Douglas Stuart. It is Stuart’s second novel, following his Booker Prize-winning debut Shuggie Bain (2020).

15-year-old Mungo Hamilton is growing up in a Glasgow council estate. He is quite a gentle boy, very different from his older brother Hamish. There is a constant threat of violence in his life from warring gangs of Protestants and Catholics, plus a threat from alcoholic predators. For most of the story, Mungo is living at home and being cared for by his sister Jodie, with the constant threat of being taken away by social services in the absence of their mother, Maureen. He meets James, a Catholic boy who lives across the street from him. James, who has built a dovecote to raise pigeons, is the most beautiful person to Mungo. The two become friends and soon develop a romance.

The book confronts the homophobia, toxic masculinity and religious conflicts of society in the early 90s. Much like Shuggie Bain, it is a hard-hitting world for a young lad becoming a man. Stuart’s chapters alternate between a fishing trip that Mungo takes with two friends of his mother and a more expansive history of Mungo’s life leading up to the final chapter, where both narratives collide. The reader is taken by a brutal truth in a story you know is going to turn nasty. You will feel deeply for the protagonist as sexual and physical abuse are the main themes in this book. Yet, there is a beautiful story of love. Jodie and James are the islands of hope you find as a reader.

Yes, I did cry when I was reading this novel.

I did find the story to be gut-wrenching. The scenes at the loch were particularly difficult to stomach, and the weather aids the foreboding atmosphere, whose inevitability only serves to heighten its tragedy. Although I was glad to reach the end, this is defiantly a book that would take a second read; so much life is contained in the pages. Worth every moment.

An interesting fact to add [as I happen to be a student of photography] The cover depicts the well-known photograph “The Cock (Kiss)” by German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans.

What’s Sera Reading? The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

In 2022 Crime was the most popular genre across Worcestershire Libraries. Richard Osman topped the most borrowed books list with his latest novel, “The Man Who Died Twice”, borrowed a total of 970 times. His debut novel, “The Thursday Murder Club”, was borrowed 769 times! It was closely followed by Lee Child and Andrew Child’s “Better off Dead” with 733 issues.

Seraphim with Kidderminster Library’s copy

A proper cosy caper. Amateur sleuths in an upmarket retirement village investigate unsolved murder cases that the Kent police force has given up on. Cold cases are put aside temporally when a couple of killings occur on their doorstep. The Thursday Murder Club find themselves in the middle of their first live case. Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron might be pushing eighty, but they still have a few tricks up their sleeves. Four distinct characters who would never have crossed paths are now the best of friends, and each brings their expertise, favours and insight.

The excellent debut of a fun mystery series. And I can see a TV series from it too.
It starts out great, but it gets more convoluted later. Osman may have meant that to be “red herrings”, but it’s just clutter. A brilliant, quirky and loveable cast. It is an intriguing and funny premise which delivers. “on to the next case!” 

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