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The Coffins of Little Hope

The Coffins of Little Hope

3.3 20
by Timothy Schaffert

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Timothy Schaffert has created his most memorable character yet in Essie, an octogenarian obituary writer for her family’s small town newspaper. When a young country girl is reported to be missing, perhaps whisked away by an itinerant aerial photographer, Essie stumbles onto the story of her life. Or, it all could be simply a hoax, or a delusion, the child and


Timothy Schaffert has created his most memorable character yet in Essie, an octogenarian obituary writer for her family’s small town newspaper. When a young country girl is reported to be missing, perhaps whisked away by an itinerant aerial photographer, Essie stumbles onto the story of her life. Or, it all could be simply a hoax, or a delusion, the child and child-thief invented from the desperate imagination of a lonely, lovelorn woman. Either way, the story of the girl reaches far and wide, igniting controversy, attracting curiosity-seekers and cult worshippers from all over the country to this dying rural town. And then it is revealed that the long awaited final book of an infamous series of YA gothic novels is being secretly printed on the newspaper’s presses.

The Coffins of Little Hope tells a feisty, energetic story of characters caught in the intricately woven webs of myth, legend and deception even as Schaffert explores with his typical exquisite care and sharp eye the fragility of childhood, the strength of family, the powerful rumor mills of rural America, and the sometimes dramatic effects of pop culture on the way we shape our world.

Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
The Coffins of Little Hope is like an Edward Gorey cartoon stitched in pastel needlepoint. Its creepiness scurries along the edges of these heartwarming pages like some furry creature you keep convincing yourself you didn't see…This satire of the popular exploitation of macabre crimes works only because Schaffert has such a light touch. His sleight-of-hand storytelling constantly draws our eye to other curious aspects of the plot, little set pieces woven from strands of comedy and woe…Schaffert blends his sentimentality with enough melancholy humor to keep this novel alluringly strange to the very last page.
—The Washington Post
Janet Maslin
There's a lot of plot to The Coffins of Little Hope. But Mr. Schaffert's style is so gossamer-light that the story elements don't become cumbersome. His book can accommodate a large cast of characters who bump into one another with an almost screwball regularity…Mr. Schaffert's sly wit and frank affection for his characters can make him sound like a very American Alexander McCall Smith.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
It's small town, big drama in Schaffert's sublime latest (after Devils in the Sugar Shop) as Essie Myles, an 83-year-old widowed obituary writer for a small Nebraska newspaper stumbles onto the story of her life. The paper's printing press has been working double-time since a New York publisher contracted it to print part of the print run for the final installment of a wildly popular YA novel series—part of a plan to keep the book's contents under wraps—and Essie kicks into high gear as well when she gets a tip from a local that her daughter, Lenore, has been abducted by her photographer boyfriend. But the more Essie digs, it becomes less evident whether the tale is true or the concoction of a lonely woman desperate for attention. Meanwhile, parts of the YA novel are leaked, the missing person story blows up, and the once quiet town suddenly finds itself on the national stage. Schaffert spins out the story and its offbeat characters with compassion, spoofing the nation's voracious appetite for "news" and suggesting that perhaps not all stories are created equal. Piercing observations and sharp, subtle wit make this a standout. (May)

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THE Coffins of Little Hope

a novel
By Timothy Schaffert


Copyright © 2011 Timothy Schaffert
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60953-040-2

Chapter One

I still use a manual typewriter (a 1953 Underwood portable, in a robin's-egg blue) because the soft pip-pip-pip of the typing of keys on a computer keyboard doesn't quite fit with my sense of what writing sounds like. I need the hard metal clack, and I need those keys to sometimes catch so I can reach in and untangle them, turning my fingertips inky. Without slapping the return or turning the cylinder to release the paper with a sharp whip, without all that minor havoc, I feel I've paid no respect to the dead. What good is an obituary if it can be written so peaceably, so undisturbingly, in the dark of night?

Though my name does not begin with an S, my byline has always been S Myles because I'm Esther, but more often Essie, or Ess, and thus S (just S, no period) on the page.

Chapter Two

Our town, statistically, was the oldest it had ever been, population-wise. At eighty-three, I was years and years past a reasonable retirement age, but I'd never been so busy. We were all of us quite old, we death merchants—the town's undertaker (seventy-eight), his organist (sixty-seven), the desairologist (desairology: dressing and ironing the hair of the deceased, manicuring their nails, rouging their cheeks with a simulated blush of heat; seventy-three), the florist (her freezer overgrown with lilies; eighty-one). The cemetery's caretaker, who procured for the goth high schoolers who partied among the tombstones, was the enfant terrible among us (at an immature fifty-six).

I'd chronicled the town's dead since dropping out of the eighth grade to work for my father, the publisher of the County Paragraph, a newspaper eventually to be run by my grandson, Doc (called Doc for his professorial carriage, in three-piece suits and neckties, and for his use of overly brainy words in his editorials, words lifted from a brittle-edged, outdated thesaurus in his top desk drawer). My first obit had not been meant as an obit but rather as an essay about my mother, who'd died giving birth to me. Throughout my childhood, I'd studied the sewing room my father had left untouched, and I'd stitched together a portrait of her based on notes she'd scribbled in the margins of recipe cards ("orange peel works too"), and on the particular velvet dress—with a patchwork of mismatched buttons—that had been left unfinished on the dressmaker's dummy, and on the postcards she'd had the bad habit of starting but not finishing (Dear Millie [her sister], Just a fast, quick, short, unimportant note so I can get this into the mail before the carrier comes— then nothing else).

You would think a woman in her eighties wouldn't cry for her mommy, and I don't really, it's really for the little girl that I was that I cry after I've had three or four whiskeys of an evening. But the weeping is pleasure. When I cry like a baby, my aches go, and I feel skinned, refreshed afterward. At that moment I'm happy to be sad and wish I could be so melancholy for hours. But it's fleeting. Sobriety is quick, and the night too long, and as I lie awake with sleeplessness, nervous from drink, I wish I hadn't drunk a drop.

Chapter Three

And this very book began not as a book but as an obit of a kind for a little girl who up and went missing one simple summer day. On this girl we pinned all hopes of our dying town's salvation. The longer we went without seeing her even once, the more and more dependent upon her we grew. She became our leading industry, her sudden nothingness a valuable export, and we considered changing the name of our town to hers; we would live in the town of Lenore. Is it any wonder that we refused to give up hope despite all the signs that she'd never existed, that she'd never been anybody—never, not even before she supposedly vanished?

By the time Daisy, the mother of that vaporous Lenore, finally called me to her farmhouse, after all the weeks of bickering and debate that enlivened our town yet ruined its soul, after most of the events of this book had passed, no one anywhere was any longer waiting for word of Lenore's death. It was the last Thursday of January, and the week had moved from an unseasonable thaw into a bitter chill that pained your teeth as you leaned into the wind. I went, alone, as requested, intending to help Daisy, as if plotting to steal her away from her own delusions. For some of us, Lenore was nothing but a captivating hoax, while for others, she was a grim tragedy, a mystery cynically left unsolved.

You were either one of the ones who truly believed in Lenore or you were one of the ones who believed in the same way you believe in the trickling stigmata of a plastic Virgin, with a trust in magic and miracle mostly for the thrill of it. Or you were one of the ones with no faith at all. Those were the ones, the ones with disbelief, who benefited the most, who made the most money on the sad pilgrims who skulked in and out of our town.

Some of you may say I'm just as bad as the worst of the people who've exploited the summer, flail, and winter of Lenore, that I've played this story like an accordion for the purposes of melodrama, squeezing and stretching, inflating and deflating scenes and events at will. You'll say I wasn't everywhere; you'll say there's no way I can know all that I've depicted. But I stand behind all the truths in this story of deception. Maybe because I've so long looked so old, even when I was relatively young, that people feel they can be revealing around me, that they can unbutton their lips and let slip intimate facts and trust that I have the maturity to keep my mouth shut.

Chapter Four

What will you most remember? It's a question I've asked of the grieving hundreds and hundreds of times. The people I ask almost always take a deep breath and exhale. "What will I most remember?" they most always say, looking up and off as they're thinking back. Their first responses, which come too quickly, simply to fill the silence in the room, are unexceptional: her infectious smile, his playful wink, her bubbly laugh, his gruff demeanor, which disguised his sweet, soft heart. But here's what I do: I write nothing down. I give them absolutely nothing, as if they've not yet said a word. I sit, my skinny legs crossed beneath my long skirt, my steno pad atop my knee, the point of my pen pressed on the paper but not moving, not even to doodle. They know that I know they can do better than that. To please me, then, they see past their grief and breathe vivid life back into their beloveds, in idiosyncratic detail.

What will they most remember about me? Will it be the cherry cough drops I constantly popped and the tart, antiseptic scent they gave my breath and the noise they made knocking against my teeth (my death rattle, my great-granddaughter lovingly calls it)? Because, you see, I've always been nervous among all the despair. And the older I've grown, the more nervous I've become.

Once upon a time, I could ease into a house of mourning as inconspicuously as a neighbor dropping off a coffee cake. An obit writer should not, by nature, be a memorable visitor. But when my crooked shadow falls across the doorstep, people likely think I've come grim-reaping. My hair is snow-white, and I'm quite tall, my head only just clearing some of the shorter of the doorjambs, even with an old-lady slouch I've had since girlhood. As a gangly teen, I thought it made me lady-like to curl in on myself. I thought it demure to lean forward into invisibility. All the admonishment I took from my concerned aunties for letting my hair fall in my face (flirty-like, one aunt said with disdain) failed to get me to straighten up, but I did take to wrenching it all back into a tight ponytail with silk ribbons, and I do still twist my knotted braids atop my head and riddle them with combs and clips and, my favorite, an ostentatious dragonfly hairpin bejeweled with colored glass. It's how people know me, for better or worse.

Chapter Five

The January afternoon I was summoned to Daisy's farm, on the pretense of writing Lenore's obit, Daisy welcomed me in and brushed the snow off my disgraceful fur coat, a mink that had long been on its last legs. She helped me to unravel the wool scarf I'd wrapped around my head, fussing with it when it caught on the wings of my dragonfly hairpin. She stuffed the scarf into a sleeve of my coat and hung the coat on the corner of the open closet door.

We sat at the kitchen table with cups of coffee, and after she told me stories of Lenore's childhood, all stories I'd heard before, she poured more coffee into my cup, though I'd yet to drink a sip. The coffee smelt burnt somehow, and it spilled over the brim. I held my hand above the rising steam in hopes of nursing my stiff joints.

Daisy pulled a thin cardigan tight over her shoulders. She wore a wispy blue dress meant for summer. She had a craggy, haggard beauty, all her troubles having taken their toll. Even sitting still and shivering, she had a bitter edge, a low-level fierceness. Middle age had rendered Daisy wasted and lovely both.

Daisy bit at the dry skin of her lip.

"Your lip's bleeding, sweetie," I said.

Daisy took the tissue tucked into the cuff of her sweater and dabbed at her lip. She pulled the tissue away to check the spot of blood, then dabbed again, then checked again. She kept dabbing and checking until the spots of blood shrank away.

"I know you're not going to print what I've told you," Daisy said, gesturing toward my notes in my steno pad, making a little scribbling motion in the air.

I removed my reading spectacles, partly for effect—like a doctor pained by the diagnosis he's delivering—and partly because of the glasses' weight on the bridge of my nose. I set them atop my notebook. "No," I said, "we won't print it." I took off my watch, heavy on my wrist. How many more winters until my bones simply shattered beneath the weight of my skin? I lifted the dragonfly hairpin from the knotted braid atop my head. The insect's hooked legs had felt snagged in my hair, yanking at my scalp with my every nod. "I won't be writing an obituary for Lenore."

"Then what'd you come here for?" Daisy said, looking up at me with genuine interest.

"I thought it might help you," I said. "I want to help you." Help her, I thought, sneering to myself, even then. We were the ones who'd done all the damage, every last one of us. How could any of us help? I unclasped the cluster of rhinestones clipped to my left earlobe, a cumbersome piece of costume jewelry, and placed it among my other things. I hear best with that ear. "Daisy, I think you're hurt, is what I think. I think your heart is broken. Do you think my heart's never been broken? I know what such a thing does. If there's anything I know from this life, I know what heartbreak does."

Daisy said nothing, only stared at my undrunk cup of coffee. I then felt compelled to drink it. I leaned over to sip off the excess before lifting the cup. The coffee tasted humid, like the smell of a dishcloth left in the sink.

"Okay, I'll tell you the truth, Mrs. Myles," Daisy said.

"Please," I said, putting my chin in my hand and leaning forward, my good ear out.

"I lied," she said. "I don't really think Lenore is dead. I wanted you to write her obituary, and to print it, to wake everybody up. People would be disgusted by it, an obit for Lenore; I know they would. And they'd care about her again. Because, Mrs. Myles, I know he didn't kill her. He loved her. That's why he took her. She's somewhere alive, and afraid."

Finally a tear rolled down her cheek and over the pout of her lower lip. I was unmoved. Maybe I didn't want to help her at all. Maybe I just wanted to hear a confession, and I wanted to be the one to tell the truth to others. If I live to be a hundred, I'll still have this infantile need to know everything before everyone else.

None of this was an effort toward closure. It seemed just another beginning in a story that was all beginnings. And that was probably why my little town couldn't get enough of it. We were so tired of endings.

Chapter Six

But if we were to begin at the beginning, we would need to begin, strangely enough, with a book, the eleventh book in an eleven-book series. Many of you have read it at least once by now, whether aloud to a child at bedtime or simply to yourself. The eleven-book saga took years to unfold, invoking nightmares among generations of children. Many otherwise stable men and women well into their forties still feel struck with the heebie-jeebies when they recall the gothic predicaments of the two sisters, Miranda and Desiree, the innocent wards of Rothgutt's Asylum for Misguided Girls.

The eleventh book was long anticipated. We were finally to learn the fate of Miranda and Desiree, who'd spent the first ten books longing for their mother to come and collect them from the dank, infested halls of Rothgutt's. Even if you had never read a word of the Miranda-and-Desirees, it was impossible not to be versed in the language of the books, and their characters and places, and to be curious about how it all might end.

The first Miranda-and-Desiree books were morbid curiosities with small print runs, but eventually mad housewives in Middle America challenged the books at their local libraries. The books worked their way up the national banned books lists; they went up in smoke in bonfires fueled by zealots. When one First Lady took as her cause a campaign against violence in children's entertainment and censured the Miranda-and-Desirees for their inappropriate carnival of calamities, it was as if the publisher had rigged the lottery.

And that was how my family's newspaper, the County Paragraph, came to use its press to print a portion of the Miranda-and-Desiree novels. The series' publisher was a company in New York called Henceforth Books, and it was seeking presses in obscure parts of the country where it could covertly print the novels, avoiding the security breaches that had led to thieved copies, details leaked, plots spoiled. Executives of Henceforth consulted a Washington Post article called "The Last Gasps of the Small-Town Chronicle," in which the Paragraph was profiled among several little-town Tribunes, Republics, Heralds, Independents, Sentinels, and Optimists.

Doc, my grandson, was unhappy with the article—he'd been painted with a broad brush as a tad hapless, having built, in the country, a massive new state-of-the-art press, anticipating contracts with other area publications—a miscalculation, as newspapers decades old, some of them more than a century old, toppled all around us with minimal fanfare.

Though Doc foolishly underbid in his determination to become one of the several small-town publishers printing the books, and foolishly expanded the press's equipment to allow for the particulars of book publishing—the binding and the sewing and the finishing of the spine—the deal did manage to keep the press from getting mauled by its own gears. And had not the books become central to our conversations about Lenore, we would likely still be keeping mum about our involvement, just as we had since we'd first contracted with Henceforth Books, our confidentiality clauses quite rigid. When the books were being printed, the factory lights were dimmed to prevent workers from seeing so much as a single word; employees were subjected to pat-downs and searches of their lunch boxes by private security firms sent in by Henceforth. Midnight trains chugged up along rarely used tracks at the back of the factory, our forklifts cradling the boxes of books into the cars, to be delivered to the world. Ali that activity, and all that employment, and none of us breathed a word of it to anyone.

CH7[ Before Lenore vanished, Daisy worked at our printing factory, though none of us really knew her. She biked to the press in the early mornings and biked away in the early afternoons. She ate her lunch on a bench in the yard in the summer, and in the winter she ate on the floor in the hallway. She wasn't beloved for her eccentricity, but she wasn't hated for it either.

A man who Daisy called Elvis, because of his Vegas-style pompadour and sexy drawl, came to the door of her farmhouse the summer that the pages of the final Miranda-and-Desiree roiled secretly through the tumblers and cylinders of our press.

He stood at her door on a night in June with his denim shirt all unsnapped down the front, offering to help her clear the farm of the branches that a tornado had ripped from the trees and tossed asunder. He stayed in Daisy's house, and he was so good with Lenore, she claimed, so good that it broke her heart to think how long Lenore had been without a father figure. He waited for Daisy every evening in the parking lot of the printing press, and they would ride back to her farm, the two of them on her bike, wobbling along. He would ask her to describe the work she did, and she'd tell him how important it was, with this particular book, to manage the flow of the ink to the inking rollers. "It's a special ink, I guess," she said; "not a drop should be wasted"—an ink concocted of blueberries and carrots and kelp.

(Continues...) ]CH7

Excerpted from THE Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert Copyright © 2011 by Timothy Schaffert. Excerpted by permission of UNBRIDLED BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Timothy Schaffert grew up on a farm in Nebraska and currently lives in Omaha. His short fiction has been published in several literary journals and he’s won numerous awards, including the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award and the Nebraska Book Award.
He is the author of two other critically-acclaimed novels, The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God and Devils in the Sugar Shop.

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Coffins of Little Hope 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Meshugenah More than 1 year ago
An interesting cast of likable characters with sensible and believable relationships. A reflection on the ways of a small town and the issues it faces to remain relevant and viable. A commentary on our inability to distinguish between the small things that matter and those that do not. For all of that, this book is not heavy-handed or heavy-hearted. It is written in a highly readable, light way from the perspective of a woman who embodies the memory of the town and its people. As other reviewers have noted, the ending does not provide "closure". It leaves us with scandals receding and life moving on, which, in my small town at least, is how we all hope it will be.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was sort of enjoying the story when I got smacked in face with an abrupt ending that left me very dissatisfied. It was like the authur didnnt know how to end the book and just stopped writing.
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harstan More than 1 year ago
In Nebraska octogenarian widow Essie Myles writes the obituary column for her family-owned County Paragraph; as she has done for over seven decades under the byline S Myles. In fact she uses the same 1953 typewriter as she did years ago when she wrote her first obit, an essay on her late mom who died giving birth to her. Essie notices how the press seems to be going nonstop and learns a New York publishing firm contracted the paper among other sources to print the final book in a popular YA series. Essie also learns from a neighbor Daisy that a photographer abducted the woman's daughter Lenore. Essie investigates, but believes no crime occurred as she concludes Lenore went willingly with her boyfriend even as others accuse the mother of killing the daughter. However, the novel is leaked and the missing person report goes viral as Essie's small town becomes the center of international news for fifteen minutes of distorted infamy. This is a lay back satire that lampoons the country's fascination with scandalous news; even when there is none to extrapolate as done with the disappearance of Lenore. The story line is so mellow, it is an anti-action tale not intended for everyone. Subtly mocking the voracious need for negative news, Timothy Schaffert provides a scathing attack on how we invent news made even more powerful by the gentle "much ado about nothing" Nebraska cast counter weighed by the international gotcha feeding frenzy. Harriet Klausner
ReaderOfThePack More than 1 year ago
The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert was a very enjoyable read - one that I wanted to pick up every chance I had a little time for reading. The story is narrated by Essie Myles, an 83-year-old obituary writer for a small town Nebraska newspaper. The newspaper was started by her father and is now run by Essie's grandson, Doc. The newspaper's printing press also happens to be the location secretly chosen to print the last book in a wildly popular young adult series. Essie begins the story with a trip to The Crippled Eighty, a local farm, to write the obituary of Lenore, a young girl who was reported missing months before. Essie sits with Lenore's mother, Daisy, to discuss Daisy's wish for Essie to write her daughter's obituary. Daisy does not believe Lenore to be deceased, but she misses the attention that she received when Lenore was front page news. She seeks to regain that attention. Essie then backtracks her story to the point at which Lenore first went missing so that the reader can better understand Daisy's motives for her obituary request. Daisy's story about Lenore missing is problematic. At first the small town rallies together to search for Lenore, but slowly the town begins to doubt Daisy's story and many wonder whether Lenore ever even existed. Then there is the issue of Daisy working at the printing press where the final installment of that young adult series is being printed. Daisy begins reading excerpts of what may or may not be the official final book via CB radio. The town is captivated by these readings until Daisy stops broadcasting. Then the town begins to forget about Daisy and Lenore. The novel includes additional subplots that depict the dynamic of Essie's family and the reclusive nature of the young adult series author. Schaffert has written an engaging story that brings all of the subplots together in one fresh story. At the end of the story, the reader has to decide whether or not Lenore was a real child or a figment of Daisy's overactive imagination. The Coffins of Little Hope is out in paperback today. Thanks to Unbridled Books for providing me with a free e-galley to review via NetGalley.
kittycrochettwo More than 1 year ago
Esther Myles has written obituaries for her family owned town paper called the County Paragraph since dropping out of school in the eighth grade, her byline has always been S Myles. At the age of 83 she is years past retirement but is busier than she has ever been. She doesn't let her age bother her, she actually considers herself a part of a group in town she calls the death merchants, the people who are a necessary part of dealing with death, such as the undertaker, who by the way is 78, and the town florist who is 81, and the youngest of the group is the cemetery caretaker who is only 56. A couple of things propelled the tiny little town into the spotlight. The first was when the County Paragraph's printing press was chosen to print a portion of the wildly popular but also banned series called Miranda and Desiree. Because the books were banned the publisher used tiny obscure printing companies to covertly print the novels., The second big bit of news was when a girl named Lenore went missing. Her mother Daisy worked for the printing press, and had taken up with a drifter she called "Elvis" a man who took ariel pictures of peoples farms. On the day that he up and leaves Lenore comes up missing as well. Because Daisy was such an unreliable person, people began to wonder if Daisy ever really had a daughter. When Daisy finally asks Essie to write Lenore's obituary, the obituary instead becomes a story of a missing girl, who may or may not have existed. I always enjoy reading books that grasp the real flavor of the small town, and this one does just that. Just like most small towns there are always a few quirky characters who always add a bit of humor to any story. I loved that the story is told thru the voice of Essie an 83 year old woman, whose first obituary was actually an essay about her mother who died while giving birth to her. There are several secondary story lines going on in the story such as the relationship between Tiffany and her mother Ivy, as well as the relationship between Tiffany and Doc, who stepped in to take care of his niece when her mother left. I found the preacher quite interesting , while he preached against the banned books, his wife secretly read them. An intricate story, with no real closure at the end allowing the reader to reach their own conclusions.While not a compelling book that had to be read in one sitting, I still found it an enjoyable read. I was provided a complimentary copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
ChelseaW More than 1 year ago
Essie Myles has been writing obituaries for her small town newspaper every since graduating from the eighth grade. Now at age 83, she has written hundreds of obituaries and has even made a little bit of a name for herself among other obit writers. This also means she knows who everyone in town is and where they came from. Including Daisy, a lonely woman who made local history when she reported her daughter Lenore kidnapped. It has been years since the investigation ended, but a few cult followers (and Daisy) still believe she is alive and waiting to be found. More skeptical residents aren't yet convinced she ever existed at all. When Essie is approached to finally write Lenore's obituary, she navigates through an old story where fact and fiction are often confused. I felt like I enjoyed this book, but am not really sure why. I wasn't excited to get back to reading it, but whenever I picked it up I would like what I read. The ending did not provide any closure and left me with an end-of-the-book void. I was drawn to Essie's calm and factual tone of voice. And I loved the way she told the events of the story, as if she were sitting next to me, sipping tea on the couch. All of the characters had delightful little quirks, pleasantly humorous and fun to read. When all is said and done, I am not sure I would pick up another of Schaffert's books, but this one was a good read.