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One Breath Away by Heather Gudenkauf

So it took a while to find another book to read.  I started and discarded several books for various reasons (main one being that the writing didn't hold my attention) before I finally settled into Heather Gudenkauf's third novel, One Breath Away.  I've previously read and reviewed her debut novel, The Weight of Silence.  I didn't read the novel between TWoS and OBA.  I just couldn't get into the story--something about a woman who's released from prison after doing time for a crime that she didn't really commit because she was covering for someone?  It was something along those lines.  OBA returns with a similar structure to TWoS.

Gudenkauf's writing effortlessly draws you into the world of her characters through chapters that alternate among the third person perspectives of a handful of characters integral to the drama taking place.  It is a story in which tensions mount and pulses race as the chapters progress.  My heart was definitely pounding as the last chapters flew by.

In the wake of a house fire that severely burned their mother, Augie and her brother, PJ, have been living with their grandfather in Iowa while their mother struggles to heal in a hospital in Arizona.  Both children struggle to cope with a multitude issues that range from adjusting to their new home to complicated family relationships that estranged their mother from her family.

On the last day of school before spring break in tiny Broken Branch, an anonymous gunman walks into the k-12 school and takes a classroom of third graders hostage.  Complicating and compounding the ongoing incident is the coming blizzard that's rapidly cutting off the town from any outside help.  The local town cops and the county sheriffs department are on their own and running blind as conflicting reports come in to dispatch from those inside the school.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Oliver tries to keep her third graders calm while she struggles to suss out both the identity of the gunman and his motive in taking them captive.  Is he a former student bent on revenge?  Is he the father of a current student gone off the deep end in a custody dispute?  Or does he have some other connection to one of her students?  As time goes by, it's clear the gunman has a specific purpose, that he is perhaps on a deadline, that he has planned out and specifically targeted this particular classroom--but why?

On the outside Officer Meg Barrett, whose own third grade age daughter left early for spring break, tries to piece together what's going on in the school, who's responsible, all while containing the growing panic in the crowd of gathered parents outside the school.  As the stand off between gunman and hostages and gunman and police continues, the gunman's demeanor rapidly deteriorates while his possible identity becomes ever more puzzling and dangerous as the possibility of a connection between him and Officer Barrett crystallizes--but who is he really, what does he want, how is Officer Barrett connected to him, and what is his endgame?

Thanks to the rotating perspectives, the reader is given glimpses of the histories of each character as they reflect on that which led them to where they are today in the midst of a life threatening crisis.  I recommend you pick up this book the next time you visit the library.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie


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