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Source: (consider it) Thread: December Book Group: All Seated on the Ground
Jane R
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The chosen book for this month is All Seated on the Ground by Connie Willis. This is a novella; it's included in the collection Time is the Fire , recently published as part of the SF Masterworks series. If you don't want to buy your own copy your local library may have a copy; mine seems to buy all the Masterworks series.

<pause to consult diary> Normally we allow three weeks to read the book of the month, but as Christmas is looming and this is a short book I suggest allowing two weeks for reading. I will open the discussion on 16th December, two weeks from tomorrow.

[ 01. December 2016, 08:46: Message edited by: Jane R ]

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jedijudy

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I was able to get "All Seated on the Ground" individually on my Nook. I look forward to the discussion!

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Trudy Scrumptious

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I'm going to see if I can get it. It's not available (either individually or as a part of Time is the Fire) from Kobo, where I normally get e-books. It is, as you said jedijudy, available from Nook; I need to see if I can get the Nook app on my Kobo reader and possible get hold of it that way. I love Connie Willis and I haven't read this one, so would really like to.

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Sarasa
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I'm in. Looking forward to the discussion.

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Marama
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OK, I'm going to take the plunge with this SF - not a thing I normally read.
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Fineline
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I read this yesterday - it's a very quick read, and quite humorous. [Smile]
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Trudy Scrumptious

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Just got hold of it today and I'm loving it! I'd forgotten how much I enjoy Connie Willis -- everything she writes has a great sense of voice.

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Jane R
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*bump* Anyone else interested in joining in? If everyone's finished reading it we could start the discussion early - or shall we stick to Friday as planned?
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Sarasa
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I have just re-read this on a rather broing train journey, so I'm happy to go anytime that you are.

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Trudy Scrumptious

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I'm ready to discuss it anytime now.

--------------------
Books and things.

I lied. There are no things. Just books.

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Jane R
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Here are a few questions to start everyone off:

- Who is your favourite character?

- Do you like Christmas music? If not, did you enjoy the story anyway?

- What do you think of Dr Morthmann? (there is no need to answer this question separately if he is your favourite character)

- What are your thoughts on (a) the aliens and (b) the media/political reaction to them?

- Have you read any of Connie Willis's other Christmas stories, and if so which is your favourite?

...and feel free to talk about anything else that comes to mind.

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Sarasa
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Who is your favourite character?
I'm torn between Calvin and the whole of the 7th grade choir. I liked the way Calvin came across as a bit nerdy and not the sort of person you'd notice, until he started directing his choirs. He reminded me of Gareth Malone or some of the music teachers in the last school I worked in. The 7th grade girls were very believable and the relationship between Calvin and them was great.

Do you like Christmas music? If not, did you enjoy the story anyway?
I do like Christmas music, though not when it's being piped at me in shopping centres.I think I have very middle of the road tastes, carols sung by choirs with nothing too fancy in the arrangements, and popular pop songs. Mind you I play Bob Dylan's Christmas album every year when trimming the tree, I'm probably one of the few people who really enjoys it.

What do you think of Dr Morthmann? (there is no need to answer this question separately if he is your favourite character)
It wasn't until the second reading I got how much he ignores Meg. Iwasn't sure if there were any other women on the committee, but he does come across as the sort of person who decides who's opinion they are going to value, before they start.

What are your thoughts on (a) the aliens and (b) the media/political reaction to them?
For a story about aliens, the aliens were, to my mind, the least well drawn of the characters. I wasn't sure Willis had a grip on exactly what she wanted them to be. As for the media, political reaction. I think it might have been a case of shoot first, ask questions afterwards in real life, but other than that I think it was fairly likely the sort of thing that would happen. Certainly I think various groups would try to win them to their cause.


Have you read any of Connie Willis's other Christmas stories, and if so which is your favourite?
I've read very little Willis, and was unaware that she'd written other Christmas stories. I've just downloaded them to my Kindle for some pre-Christmas reading.

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Trudy Scrumptious

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- Who is your favourite character?

I didn't feel like it was the kind of story where any of the characters other than Meg and Calvin got to be very well-developed -- it's so short most of the other characters feel pretty one-dimensional. I liked both Meg and Calvin and how their relationship developed -- it felt quite rushed, but then, that's the confines of a short story.

It wasn't until typing this that I realized that Meg and Calvin are the couple in Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and sequels. I wonder if the names are intended as a tribute.

- Do you like Christmas music? If not, did you enjoy the story anyway?

I love some Christmas music and hate some Christmas music. I don't love choral music as much as I'm supposed to, but I loved how it was used in this story. Although I thought the premise was a little thin (that the aliens would stay completely silent for months until triggered by music that makes reference to choral singing, then respond only by doing the things the songs say to do), I found it really enjoyable once my disbelief was suspended enough.

- What do you think of Dr Morthmann? (there is no need to answer this question separately if he is your favourite character)

I can't imagine him being anyone's favourite chararcter; he's completely awful! But again, a bit thin and not really well-developed.

- What are your thoughts on (a) the aliens and (b) the media/political reaction to them?

As I said above, I thought the contrivance with what the aliens wanted and how they expressed it was pretty flimsy, but it didn't stop me enjoying the story. I actually liked the media reaction to them a lot -- all the different groups with their different agendas, the various things they try to do to communicate. I found that believable. If aliens did show up to earth and didn't immediately make their purpose clear, I think we'd get very much the variety of responses we see in this story.

- Have you read any of Connie Willis's other Christmas stories, and if so which is your favourite?

I've read and liked several of her books but did not know she wrote Christmas stories. My favourites of hers are To Say Nothing of the Dog and The Doomsday Book. The two I read most recently, All Clear and Blackout, were engrossing while I was reading them but suffered from a problem that I think this story has too, to a lesser degree. Connie Willis has a way of setting up a problem, almost a mystery, that is absolutely intriguing, and then the payoff isn't QUITE as good as it needs to be to justify all the setup. But I still enjoy the ride. I just think sometimes she creates mysteries that are too fascinating even for her to solve.

All in all, though, I really liked the story. I would read other Christmas stories by her, for sure.

--------------------
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Jane R
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- Who is your favourite character?

I take Trudy's point about none of them being particularly well-developed apart from Calvin and Meg, but I still like the 7th grade choir. I can hear them saying 'She doesn't have a boyfriend, Mr Ledbetter'... maybe because I know quite a few 12-year-old girls (that's about the age of 7th grade, isn't it?). However, my favourite character is... Aunt Judith. She never actually appears in the story directly (unless you count the phone call at the end), but her presence broods over the whole narrative. I love the running joke about people's reactions to the aliens (like... my mother-in-law/a soprano who hasn't got the solo she wanted/my congregation when I preach a sermon they don't approve of).

- Do you like Christmas music? If not, did you enjoy the story anyway?

I like choral Christmas music (except for anything by Benjamin Britten). I don't like sentimental secular music and I detest Musak at all times of the year. I don't know how shop assistants stay sane...

I like this story, though, because it's a story about a choirmaster and a bunch of choirs Saving the World (but see below) and because it points out that a lot of carols (OK, most of them) include really gloomy and/or violent lyrics.

Not that I'm biased in any way, but I happen to be in a choir myself [Angel]

- What do you think of Dr Morthmann? (there is no need to answer this question separately if he is your favourite character)

I have met academics like Dr Morthmann in my previous incarnation as a librarian, and what I really think of them is not suitable for sharing in heaven. The kindest thing I can think of to say about him is that he needs to work on his listening skills. He is so busy trying to organise everyone and panicking about not knowing The Answer that he fails to notice the people who have the information he needs. Do I detect a hint of misogyny, too? Is that why he ignores everything Meg says, or is he just an intellectual snob - because he ignores everything Calvin says, too.

- What are your thoughts on (a) the aliens and (b) the media/political reaction to them?

(a) I don't recall any other First Contact stories where the Earth is invaded by anthropologists, but that's what it looks like to me. The aliens appear to be conducting an experiment to determine whether humans are sentient. I suspect that if Meg and Calvin had failed to convince them that we are, they would just have left and written (or sung in chorus) a learned paper for the galactic equivalent of the Journal of Intercultural Communication Research .

As for (b): I think it is (unfortunately) quite plausible that the airforce of whatever country the aliens first landed in would try to blow up their spaceship. I also think it's plausible that any politician who was coming up for reelection would want to avoid being snubbed by them - but would the media really have let them get away with it? "Head of State too chicken to meet with aliens"...? Also, wouldn't the UN Secretary-General be the obvious person to represent the whole Earth to visitors from another planet?

- Have you read any of Connie Willis's other Christmas stories, and if so which is your favourite?

I think this one's my favourite (because, choirmaster saves the world) but 'Newsletter' comes a close second.

I think All Clear and Blackout suffer from a problem I (as a Brit) probably notice more than the average American, which is that despite her careful research, Connie Willis occasionally slips up with details of British culture. In those books, for example, she has an upper-class English girl called Paige, which would be very unlikely even nowadays and completely unheard of in the 1920s (when someone old enough to be a FANY in WWII would have been born).

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Dafyd
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quote:
Originally posted by Jane R:
- Do you like Christmas music? If not, did you enjoy the story anyway?

I do like Christmas carols. Particularly with the grim bits. The point of the Nativity is that Jesus is born into a fallen world. He was little, weak, and helpless in a world where being little, weak, and helpless is a problem.

quote:
...and feel free to talk about anything else that comes to mind.
I've enjoyed those of Connie Willis' novels that I've read. That said, there's something cosy about them. Even when they're dealing with the Black Death or the Blitz or random murder in a hospital, the default emotion is comic exasperation. It works in To Say Nothing of the Dog, and I think in Passage and the Doomsday Book it's relatively muted. But in All Seated on the Ground I think the division between the nice and sensible people and the not sensible on the other is too wide and too obvious for it really to work for me.

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we remain, thanks to original sin, much in love with talking about, rather than with, one another. Rowan Williams

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Sarasa
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I've just downloaded her book of Christmas stories, and I've got a problem even before I've started on the tales. Reading the introduction I totally diagree that Miracle on 34th Street is a better film than It's a Wonderful Life.
I agree with Jane R's comments about the stories in the collection set in the UK. I loved The Winds of Marble Arch but I was expecting it to be a story about how you could get to all those places quicker by walking than on the tube.

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Jane R
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Dafyd:
quote:
The point of the Nativity is that Jesus is born into a fallen world. He was little, weak, and helpless in a world where being little, weak, and helpless is a problem.
YES. I think you just put your finger on the reason why I find schmaltzy Christmas music and sentimental "it's all about family" films annoying. Baby Jesus definitely had smelly nappies and probably threw up on Mary several times.


quote:
...random murder in a hospital...
Haven't read that one... or are you talking about 'Passage'? I don't recall any murders in that.

She has done some darker works - mostly short stories though. I've only ever been able to read "All my darling daughters" once; she must have been very angry when she wrote that (it's about child abuse), it's not like her usual tone at all. And 'Last of the Winnebagos' and 'Samaritan' always make me sad (I haven't read 'Samaritan' very often either).

I think 'comic exasperation' is an unfair description of Doomsday Book. Yes, there are comic moments, but I think the point she's trying to make in it is that people go on being themselves even when they're facing the End of the World. And sometimes they surprise you (as when Kivrin finds some of the people she initially disliked have hidden depths).

It's just occurred to me that there are parallels between the Altairi and the alien in 'Uncharted Territory' - or at least, the human characters' views of them. The humans behave as if they're the really intelligent species condescending to their evolutionary inferiors - and then it turns out the aliens had their own agenda all along.

And a lot of her recent work has been about communication in one form or another - the whole point of this story is that they have to find a socially acceptable way of communicating 'welcome' to the Altairi before they get fed up and leave. In 'Bellwether' and 'Passage' the story is about two people working together to make a scientific discovery. Her latest one, 'Crosstalk' is about what happens when you have too much communication.

I wonder if the 'cosiness' you detect is a faith that everything will work out in the end because God has a Plan? (see the denouement of 'To Say Nothing of the Dog') So however bad things might seem - even if the ship is sinking and the Carpathia is over fifty miles away and can't get to you in time - everything will be all right in the end.

Sarasa:
quote:
I loved The Winds of Marble Arch but I was expecting it to be a story about how you could get to all those places quicker by walking than on the tube.
Yes, my husband objects to that one because he says the Tube journeys are all completely illogical (even setting aside the question of whether it would be quicker to walk). I didn't like it because... well... not much happens. I suppose it might be more appealing to an American (any American or Canadian Shipmates care to comment?) but the whole "History happened here, some of it was horrible, some of it was wonderful" idea... doesn't have the same impact on a European. You want history, we've got it. The drains under York Minster are nearly 2,000 years old (and still working).

Marama, are you still there? Did we put you off SF for life?

[ 19. December 2016, 09:36: Message edited by: Jane R ]

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Marama
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Well, no, I enjoyed this. I'm into choral singing, have been in a mass sing-along (of the Messiah) and of course have to use shopping centres, so much was familiar. And it was delightfully funny, with two very likeable main protagonists. The idea of a choral concert saving the world is preposterous - but made perhaps just believable in this tale.

Who is your favourite character?
I agree that only Meg and Calvin are well-developed, inevitable in such a short work, so it must be them - but I agree that the 7th grade girls are delightful.

Do you like Christmas music? If not, did you enjoy the story anyway?
I like choral music, but not musak - and certainly having been in many Christmas choirs added to the fun of the story. But Dafyd is right; the Christmas story does demand some dark thoughts too, and they are there is many carols. Certainly the story made me think about the words of some carols again.

What do you think of Dr Morthmann?-
I think anyone who's been in academia (or many other workplaces) has met a version of Dr Morthmann. So sure they are right that they never listen to anyone else, particularly if they happen to be a woman - oh yes, we can all think of someone like that!

- What are your thoughts on (a) the aliens and (b) the media/political reaction to them?
I like JaneR's comment that they come across as rather like anthropologists. I hadn't thought of that, but I think she's right. They certainly are more passive than I expected (not having read much SF). The basic premise of the story - that they remain silent till they hear particular songs and then obey their words - is, as Trudy says, a bit thin when you consider it seriously, but I still enjoyed the story. The media and political reaction is very believable.

I haven't read anything else by Connie Willis, so can't comment further, but having downloaded the 'Time is the Fire' collection I may read some of the other stories. I used to enjoy John Wyndham's novels - does anyone still read them? - but otherwise I'm an SF novice. Still, this encounter certainly hasn't put me off further encounters in the genre.

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Dafyd
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quote:
Originally posted by Jane R:
Dafyd:
quote:
...random murder in a hospital...
Haven't read that one... or are you talking about 'Passage'? I don't recall any murders in that.
You don't recall a random knife murder in Passage?

quote:
I wonder if the 'cosiness' you detect is a faith that everything will work out in the end because God has a Plan? (see the denouement of 'To Say Nothing of the Dog')
It's not that; there's the same theology in Tartt's The Goldfinch. I think it's problematic there too, but not cosy.
I think it's that in Willis the costs aren't properly born. People die heroically, and give their lives to help others; but the people who live on after them can move on with their lives. There's not a lot of grieving.
Also as I said I think all her main characters are sensible and nice, and think roughly the same way; and there's a rough feeling that you wouldn't find any of her likeable characters disagreeing seriously about any given issue. (Which is easy to do when the issues in question are the Blitz or pandemic.) I think that sense that nice sensible people don't have serious disagreements over anything is part of what I meant.

[ 20. December 2016, 10:47: Message edited by: Dafyd ]

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we remain, thanks to original sin, much in love with talking about, rather than with, one another. Rowan Williams

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Jane R
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Dafyd:
quote:
You don't recall a random knife murder in Passage?
<thinks for a moment> Doh! Well, it's been a long year.

quote:
I think it's that in Willis the costs aren't properly born. People die heroically, and give their lives to help others; but the people who live on after them can move on with their lives. There's not a lot of grieving.
I suppose so, but you could level the same criticism at a lot of other fiction - including some that's praised as being 'dark'. If you want to deal with grief properly in a work of fiction you need to write a story that spans several years, not a few weeks or days.

quote:
I think that sense that nice sensible people don't have serious disagreements over anything is part of what I meant.
I wonder what she'll write after the Trumpocalypse...

[ 20. December 2016, 13:08: Message edited by: Jane R ]

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jedijudy

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Who is your favourite character?
Calvin. And the middle school choir, and the aliens. But I loved how Calvin brought order to chaos!


Do you like Christmas music? If not, did you enjoy the story anyway?
I love Christmas music!! In my reality, one doesn't have to wait until Advent or Christmas or Epiphany...it's appropriate all the time at my house. However, I did wonder what hymnal they were using in the Methodist church. Mine doesn't have the tunes Arizona or Laban. The index is easy to use! There's no Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella or On Christmas Night, All People Sing, even though that would be wonderful. Sadly, no Coventry Carol either. Yeah, I am picky, and that probably didn't bother anyone else. But, research would be a good thing, Connie Willis!!


What do you think of Dr Morthmann?
He's wonderfully annoying!! Love to dislike him!


What are your thoughts on (a) the aliens and (b) the media/political reaction to them?
That reminded me of kids trying to get the attention of an important grown-up. Lot's of trying to impress them with non-effective flattery and boasting.


Have you read any of Connie Willis's other Christmas stories, and if so which is your favourite?
I have not.

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Jane R
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jedijudy:
quote:
However, I did wonder what hymnal they were using in the Methodist church. Mine doesn't have the tunes Arizona or Laban. The index is easy to use! There's no Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella or On Christmas Night, All People Sing, even though that would be wonderful. Sadly, no Coventry Carol either. Yeah, I am picky, and that probably didn't bother anyone else. But, research would be a good thing, Connie Willis!!
Maybe it's a carol book for choirs, not a hymnal? Our hymnals just have the most well-known congregational carols in; they wouldn't include things like the Coventry Carol either, but it is in 'Carols for Choirs 1'. Am I right in thinking that 'On Christmas Night, All People Sing' is the Sussex Carol? (why change 'Christians' to 'People'? Christians is gender-neutral too...)

Never heard of 'Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabelle.' But the index for 'Carols for Choirs' is fairly straightforward too, if you know that it indexes the names of the tunes as well as the titles of the carols.

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jedijudy

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That is possible, Jane R. I'm quite sure the book referred to was called a hymnal, but an unchurched person might assume any book with music in a church pew rack would be a hymnal!

In my experiences in Methodist churches, I've never seen a book of carols in the pew racks. We've always used the regular hymnal for Christmas carols.

[ETA extra words]

[ 27. December 2016, 13:20: Message edited by: jedijudy ]

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Trudy Scrumptious

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"Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella," is the carol that my father, from my earliest days, used to parody as:

Watch that torch, Jeannette, Isabella,
You'll burn the house down around our ears.
Call up the man at the fire insurance,
We'll have a new address this Christmas.
Hush! Hush! Don't tell him how it happened!
Hush! Hush! Don't breathe a single word!

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Jane R
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I ended up checking it on Youtube - I thought at first it was another name for Torches. Certainly not a well-known carol in the UK.

[ 27. December 2016, 15:07: Message edited by: Jane R ]

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Curiosity killed ...

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I keep meaning to post on this thread to say that I read All Seated on the Ground and the rest of Time is the Fire as I bought it as an e-book.

It was amusing, an entertaining idea, but I didn't feel as if it stood up to much scrutiny. I found some of the other stories stayed with me for longer and some irritated me - the Winds of Marble Arch in particular (I commute by tube most days and know some of those stations far too well. Bethnal Green wasn't mentioned and was where the biggest WW2 tragedy happened.)

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Sarasa
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I brought the ebook of WIllis's collected Christmas stories as a light Christmas read. Perhaps there was too much of a Pond difference, but I didn't find many of them engaging at all. She did have a list of Christmas stories she liked at the end though, which is why I'm reading Rumpole of the Bailey stories at the moment, which I much prefer.

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