"The Coffins of Little Hope" by Timothy Shaffert (Unbridled, 262 pages, $24.95)
"The Coffins of Little Hope" is great summer reading — a lazy river that carries you away and drops you off much farther downstream than you expected to go.
This breezy but deceptively plot-packed little novel starts and ends placidly in small-town Nebraska. Our narrator is S Myles (not an initial, but short for Essie, which is short for Esther, thank you).
She's 83 and still doing the job she's had since girlhood: writing obituaries for her family's struggling newspaper, the County Paragraph.
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She isn't slowing down. Business is picking up for this sleepy burg's chronicler of death.
Snoozer? Keep reading. The town grabs the national spotlight and won't let go.
First, Daisy, a woman who lives on a farm outside of town, claims that her daughter was abducted by her lover.
But no one remembers ever having met the lost Lenore.
Is it a hoax? Was Lenore even real?
It's the story of a lifetime, and the Paragraph milks it like a prize Holstein.
The story is irresistible to national media. Soon, even S has a cult following for her folksy, albeit thinly reported, obits.
Also, a famous author has hired the Paragraph to print the final volume in a megapopular young-adult series. Before publication, Daisy takes to the CB radio and reads from what she claims is the upcoming book, titled "The Coffins of Little Hope."
Even casual fans pull over to the side of the road, hanging on every word.
How did Daisy get a copy? Did she steal it? Or did Lenore write it? Whatever the answer, the town is under a spell.
Says S: "Only a moment of silence passed before the people in the cars up and down the road honked their horns and flashed their lights, a spontaneous gesture of community. We all heard it, we all seemed to be saying. We all were there."
Shaffert hits some bumps when he tries to impose another story line on the novel — that of Essie's two middle-aged grandchildren, Ivy and Doc, gently struggling over who should raise Ivy's teenage daughter Tiff.
While the abduction is described in detail, the Myles family portrait feels like a sketch. More depth might have made them seem a little more real.
Part Fannie Flagg, part Stephen King, Shaffert spins a tale that's funny, poignant and, at times, macabre.