Book Review

All Seated on the Ground by Connie Willis, A Guest Review by CarrieS

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Title: All Seated on the Ground
Author: Connie, J.K. Willis, Potter
Publication Info: Subterranean Press 2007, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-59606-161-3
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy

Book Cover

There are only three kinds of people.  There are those who think Connie Willis is a genius (that would be me).  There are those who can't figure out what all the fuss is about and think she's over-rated (bah!).  Finally, there are those people who haven't read her yet.  If you are in the third group, go read her right away!  Christmas is a great time to start, because she is widely beloved for her Christmas stories, one of which perfectly fits my geek profile as it involves aliens and romance.  If you feel something has been missing from your holiday experience, allow me to suggest that probably in the deep places of your soul you've been sensing a certain lack of aliens at the mall.  That is why I suggest you try Willis's novella, All Seated on the Ground.

It's hard to describe the plot of All Seated without either giving the whole thing away or making it seem boring (it isn't).   At the start of the book aliens have landed in Denver, but they aren't zapping people or making crop circles.  They just stand there, not speaking, not moving, but glaring with utter contempt and disapproval at everyone and everything around them.  The narrator, Meg, has somewhat accidentally found herself on a committee to try to communicate with them.  I really don't want to say more, except to tell you that Meg finds herself working with Calvin Ledbetter, who is the Choir director for a church, a junior high school, and “ACHE” – the All-City Ecumenical Sing.  

This is the perfect book for fans of light sci-fi, fans of gentle parody, and anyone who has ever been in a choir and recalls the complete chaos of dress rehearsal.   It's a fast read so it's the perfect stress-reliever for the busy holidays.  It's funny, and it's touching without having that syrupy quality that a lot of Christmas stories suffer from.  I really like the romance, although it's somewhat sketched in.  We don't really see a whole “character development through romance” arc  – it's more that Willis seems to firmly believe that a man who is willing to stay up all night playing every single version of “Silent Night” every recorded to aliens that you have delivered to his living room on the night before his big choir concert (while you sleep on his shoulder, no less) is a guy you want to keep around.  I find it difficult to argue with that.  I would have like to have seen a more slowly and fully developed romance but I also like the brevity and simplicity of the story – it's like finding all those little treasures in the Christmas stocking as opposed to the mad extravaganza of stuff under the tree.

The only thing I really dislike about All Seated is that the paper version is out of print.  However, Amazon is currently selling it as on Kindle for $4.99.  I also suggest the library.  I get my copy every year courtesy of interlibrary loan.  I'm a fairly pessimistic person, but I find it impossible to despair about the fate of a species that could invent and carry out something as delightful as interlibrary loan.

Be warned that Willis is not specifically a romance writer and many of her books, while wonderful, are absolutely harrowing.  That being said, I can't resist pointing you to two other Willis creations.  Her short story collection, Miracle, consists of delightful Christmas stories in a variety of genres, including the title story, which is a wonderful and unconventional romance.  The story “Newsletter” from the same collection has a surprising romance element as well although it is subtly used – and very, very funny.  Also, many readers on this site have mentioned the romantic time travelling extravaganza To Say Nothing of the Dog, a novel in which time-travellers hop between our future, the London Blitz, and Victorian England with hilarious results.  Romance abounds and the novel features my favorite quote about those wacky Victorian days. 

Here's the protagonist being tutored for his first trip to Victorian England:

 

He's Twentieth Century', she said.  “That means he's out of his area.  I can't authorize his going without his being prepped.

 

“Fine”, Mr. Dunworthy said.  He turned to me.  “Darwin, Disraeli, the Indian question, Alice in Wonderland, Little Nell, Turner, Tennyson, Three Men in a Boat, crinolines, croquet, penwipers, crocheted antimacassars, hair wreaths, Prince Albert, Flush, frock coats, sexual repression, Ruskin, Fagin, Elizabeth Barret Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George Bernard Shaw, Gladstone, Galsworthy, Gothic Revival, Gilbert and Sullivan, lawn tennis, and parasols.  There”, he said, “He's been prepped”.

If that quote piques your interest in the slightest degree, go get whatever version of All Seated you can, and don't forget Miracle, and kick all your relatives out of the house and get some reading in.  Also, in keeping with the plot of All Seated, sing carols, or, if you don't celebrate Christmas, sing whatever music makes you happy, every chance you get – it's for SCIENCE!


This book is available in digital format from AmazonBN.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Megan S. says:

    “All Seated on the Ground” can be read at Asimov’s for free online, here! :)

    I reread Miracle this weekend and am still basking in its warm and fuzzy glow.

  2. 2
    Kaye55 says:

    Put me firmly in the first category – I adore Connie Willis.  She is one of those writers that I wonder, what goes on in her head to come up with her stories, her imagination is off the charts.  She tells charming, funny stories.  You go for a ride when you take on her books, but – oh, the places you will go!

    I, too, have just gotten a copy via interlibray loan (which in my county is being threatened by budget cuts) of “Mriacle and other Christmas Stories” and am savoring them, one each night.

  3. 3

    Connie Willis wins Nebulas and Hugos for good reason—she’s a wonderful, entertaining sf author. Romance readers might especially enjoy her older novels Uncharted Territory (one of my favorites!), Remake and Bellwether.

  4. 4
    Cally says:

    Bellwether! I love that book. My bookstore finally got a new copy in – I’m sensing a Christmas present to me. I wasn’t into romance at all at the time I first read it, but I have no problem saying now that I love the developing relationship and would recommend it to romance readers.

  5. 5
    Karen McCullough says:

    Add me to the Connie Willis adorers. I read “All Seated on the Ground” a few years ago on the Asimov site and fell in love with it.

    I completely lost it and almost fell out of my chair laughing at the word “Chestnuts” in the story.  Go read it and I’ll be surprise if you don’t lose it somewhere, too. I’m going to buy the Kindle version anyway because I want it on my Kindle, and just to support a fabulous author. 

    All of her books are good—even the extremely harrowing Doomsday Book, which I had to put aside a couple of times when I couldn’t see to read anymore due to the tears.

    I don’t think it’s in the Miracle anthology (though I’m pretty sure it’s another anthology of her stories), but my second favorite Willis Christmas story is “Spice Pogrom.”

  6. 6
    snarkhunter says:

    I suggest a fourth category: those who adore Connie Willis *for the most part*. I think she’s brilliant and amazing and To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of the greatest books ever…

    …but I have yet to forgive her for inflicting Lincoln’s Dreams upon the world.

    And I have yet to get over Passage. I will never get over Passage (which I acknowledge is pure genius, but i hate it all the same).

    To me, she’s a bit like AS Byatt: really hit or miss.

  7. 7
    MissMariah says:

    Thank you, Megan, for the link!  I just read All Seated on the Ground and it was complete awesomeness!  That was my first Connie Willis book, and I do believe I’ll go looking for more!

  8. 8
    Christina Auret says:

    Sadly, the kindle edition is not available in South Africa. I clicked the link all hopeful and everything. :(

  9. 9
    emkw says:

    I am forwarding the link to “All seated” to my brother the choir director, and the mix of professional and sing-for-fun singers like myself. I sing in a local community group, and there will be laughter. We all can appreciate the challenge of singing together.

  10. 10
    Becca says:

    I agree, snarkhunter. While I admire Connie Willis’ range and bredth of topics and tone, I dont’ tend to read her because I just don’t feel I can trust her – sometimes having a wide range can work against you.

  11. 11
    Deb says:

    Count me in with Snarkhunter. I adore “Dog” and “Doomsday.” “Passages” I hated at the end though I have to say it still sticks with me. And I could not understand why “Blackout” and “All Clear” were as they were. I love her writing, but this was basically one book that cried out for fewer main characters and better editing.

  12. 12

    Another one who agrees with Snarkhunter. TSNotD and Bellwether are absolute favorites and I liked Passages, but… maybe it’s just because I’m a big ole Pagan hippy, but I hate how one-dimensional some of her characters are, especially ones that have non-scientific beliefs.

  13. 13
    Hyacinths says:

    I’m ambivalent. There’s so much I like about Willis’s work: her engaging characters, her creative premises. But I find that her books are often bloated with what I would call “bad sitcom stall tactics”—an irritating series of happenings that are boring, repetitive, and irksome, and exist only to prevent key characters from actually talking to one another (because if they did, the plot problem would be solved).

    Case in point: Her book Passage is *jammed* with scenes straight out of a frustration dream: characters repeatedly miss phone calls, cancel appointments, can’t find a missing book, leap to stupid erroneous conclusions about each other and never bother to verify them, repeatedly get lost navigating the floors of the hospital where the novel is set, get interrupted whenever they are about to get an important question answered, etc. Sorry, but manufactured petty obstacles are no replacement for real, plot-driven dramatic tension.

    She also loves to set her novels up for a big zinger of a “surprise” that the reader has actually figured out a hundred pages or more before she gets around to revealing it. This happens in Passage, and most glaringly in The Doomsday Book, where anybody with half a brain has figured out exactly where her time traveler Kivrin has ended up about 5 minutes after she arrives there. But Willis tries to make it a big dramatic revelation many, many chapters later.

  14. 14
    ECSpurlock says:

    Thanks for this, and thanks for the link to All Seated. You made my day.

  15. 15
    Kirsten says:

    I’ve loved almost everything she’s done, except for Lincoln’s Dreams and the behemoth that was Blackout/All Clear. She must love the era, she’s written so much in it, but so much of it was disheartening. I agree that Miracle is a fantastic collection (and the title story is a great story). I will have to go look this one up.

  16. 16
    Darlynne says:

    Something of hers I haven’t read or don’t own. Thanks! I’m with you and I even liked Lincoln’s Dreams.

  17. 17
    zinemama says:

    I really wish I loved Connie Willis, because so many people I respect think she’s the bees knees. But I started To Say Nothing of the Dog and was all, “Huh?” I just wasn’t seeing it. I was also left very cold by the Jasper Fforde books, which I also wanted to love. Could this be a related phenomena? (But I adore Ursula le Guin!). I’m willing to give old Connie another go, since my TSNOTD encounter was years ago. Anyone want to point me in the right direction?

  18. 18
    delphia2000 says:

    “All Seated..” is only 4.99 as a Nook Book at B&N, and “Miracles” is only 7.99. I liked “Doomsday Book,” but didn’t care much for “Bellweather.” I may go for “All Seated..” at that price tho.

  19. 19
    Olivia Waite says:

    I love Connie Willis when she’s being playful—curse you and thank you, for adding another book to my list!

  20. 20
    snarkhunter says:

    Try Bellwether. It’s shorter (by quite a bit) than TSotD, and it does a delicious send-up of Corporatese.

  21. 21
    PSJ says:

    I only stuck with To Say Nothing of the Dog past the first couple of chapters because I was in Germany and it was the only book I had brought. I found it really hard to get into—but once I was into it, I loved it, and it’s one of my all-time favorite books now. I reread it regularly. (Also not a fan of Jasper Fforde. I find him smarmy.)

  22. 22
    cleo says:

    I second the Bellweather rec, and I’d also try Miracle – the collection of Christmas stories that CarrieS mentions.  It gives you a good sense of her style and range without having to commit to a huge, huge book.

  23. 23
    kinseyholley says:

    I think she’s perfect. I’m about to start All Clear and I’m afraid I might have to go back and read Black Out again to get caught up. I read Black Out while in London and it was SO cool. I love the Oxford time travel books the best, but they’re all great and thought-provoking.

  24. 24
    cleo says:

    Thanks for the review CarrieS.  I love a lot of Connie Willis but didn’t know about this one.  And I can get it for my Nook.  Woo Hoo

  25. 25
    Candypants says:

    I loved Doomsday Book so, so much.  Found it harrowing, but could not put it down.  Loaned it to my Dad (who pretty much only reads non-fiction) who snuck it onto a plane so he could keep reading.  Really excellent read.  Found Passage way too frightening.  I’m a bit of a wimp.

  26. 26
    Catherine says:

    I love all seated on the ground so much!  I run a Christmas choir at work and am in two church choirs at this time of year, and my first paid job was singing Christmas carols a capella in shopping centres all over Melbourne, so I know a terrifying number of traditional and medieval carols – the part where they are talking about all the really dodgy / violent / easily misinterpreted carol lyrics fills me with joy every time I read it.

    Must re-read my copy this week…

  27. 27
    Catherine says:

    Eek, I must be tired.  I forgot to capitalise All Seated On The Ground.  Sorry.

  28. 28

    Blackout and All Clear thrilled me to NO END.  Speaking of romance, tragedy, comedy, and a love letter to the generation of Londoners who won the Blitz.

  29. 29
    persnickety says:

    I think Connie Willis stories fall into three types- comedy types that can cause one to laugh out loud in public places, tear your heart in pieces tragedy and the odd incomprehensible.  I do enjoy her books (love Bellwether and TSNOTD), but haven’t read passage again ever, and held off on blackout until all clear was available (and lost my copy along the way).  TSNOTD was enhanced by reading Doomsday book first (although it is a tearjerker) and by already having a strong affection for Three Men in a Boat, which it references quite a bit.
    Other stories- The winds of Marble Arch, and some very odd Egypt one, just do not enthrall.

  30. 30
    Marlene Harris says:

    Bellwether is the one I usually hand people to try to introduce them. Or the collection “Impossible Things”. Any woman who can get through “Even the Queen” without laughing, I’m not sure I want to meet. I laugh myself silly every time. OTOH I only managed to get thru TSNOTD because I listened to an audiobook while commuting 3 hours per day. Not so much YMMV as lots of mileage, period!

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