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One Breath Away

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In her most emotionally charged novel to date, New York Times bestselling author Heather Gudenkauf explores the unspoken events that shape a community, the ties between parents and their children and how the fragile normalcy of our everyday life is so easily shattered.

In the midst of a sudden spring snowstorm, an unknown man armed with a gun walks into an elementary school classroom. Outside the school, the town of Broken Branch watches and waits.

Officer Meg Barrett holds the responsibility for the town's children in her hands. Will Thwaite, reluctantly entrusted with the care of his two grandchildren by the daughter who left home years earlier, stands by helplessly and wonders if he has failed his child again. Trapped in her classroom, Evelyn Oliver watches for an opportunity to rescue the children in her care. And thirteen-year-old Augie Baker, already struggling with the aftermath of a terrible accident that has brought her to Broken Branch, will risk her own safety to protect her little brother.

As tension mounts with each passing minute, the hidden fears and grudges of the small town are revealed as the people of Broken Branch race to uncover the identity of the stranger who holds their children hostage.

379 pages, Paperback

First published May 29, 2012

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About the author

Heather Gudenkauf

18 books6,812 followers
Heather is the NYT and USA Today Bestselling author of THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE and THE OVERNIGHT GUEST.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,222 reviews
Profile Image for NZLisaM.
414 reviews414 followers
February 6, 2022
In an effort to cut down on the amount of novels on my bookcase, because I loved Before She Was Found by this author, and having read all the recent high praise reviews regarding Gudenkauf’s newest release, The Overnight Guest, One Breath Away seemed like the obvious choice. And, it proved to be the right one.

In the sleepy Iowan town of Broken Branch, on the last day before spring break, a stranger walks into a third grade classroom of the combined elementary/middle/high school, and threatens the children and their teacher with a gun. Who is he? Why is he there? And what does he want?

Mrs. Oliver, who has taught third grade for forty-three years will do anything to protect her young charges.

Thirteen-year-old Augie Baker, in a classroom a floor below, fears for her brother PJ, who’s in Mrs. Oliver’s class.

For the past few months, Augie and PJ have been living with their grandfather, Will Thwaite. Outside the school, he waits anxiously for news, praying for their safety.

Meg Barrett, one of the officers called to the scene, is grateful that her third grade daughter, Maria, is absent that day.

In Revelation, Arizona, Augie and PJ’s mother, Holly, lies in a hospital bed, in the burn unit.

Well, let me tell you, the opening chapter was jaw-dropping, the various red herrings and false leads saw me lost in the story, and the reveal of the gunman, and why, threw me for a loop. The explanation for the fire was also surprising. I wouldn’t call it fast-paced or action-packed, definitely more character driven, but it was tense, suspenseful, and emotional, and I even shed a few tears in the final chapters.

All of the five main characters were wonderfully drawn, and almost every chapter had a character reflecting on a memory, which added so much more to their personalities, was a great way to get to know them, their relationships, and their place in Broken Branch, as well as try and decipher which story or stories were relevant to the mystery.

For those worried about the content, obviously I’m not going to lie and say that an armed intruder taking hostage a class full of eight-year-olds wasn’t distressing to read about, but as far as violence goes I’d compare this to a Lifetime movie from the 1990’s, with a handful of added F bombs.

However, there were three reasons which prevented this from being a five star read.

1. Teachers and students were more proactive than the police department.

2. The level of violence the gunman displayed was inconsistent. You might think this contradicts my point above, but it doesn’t. Still PG with some strong language I promise.

3. I wouldn’t go as far to say that it was an unanswered question, but I expected there to be more to it regarding one particular plot thread.

Those points aside, it was a dramatic, heartfelt read, that I have no hesitation in recommending.
Profile Image for Mandie Lowe.
376 reviews36 followers
February 22, 2013
I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. I knew it was about a school shooting, or at least a gunman inside a school, so I thought it would either be a tear-jerk drama, or a psychological thriller. I was hoping for the latter.

My heart was definitely pounding harder while reading this book, but not from the thrill. I experienced rage at how unbelievably stupid the characters were. Rarely do I want to harm a book, but I wanted to smack this one against the floor, tear out pages with my teeth, chew them and spit them out before stomping on them. That is how annoying the characters were. I wanted them to get shot. I was cheering the gunman on.

None of the characters ever expanded beyond fictional representations. I never felt that any of it was within the realm of possibility. The writing felt as though it was written by someone whose only experience with people came from watching tv shows. Bad tv shows. It was weird.

The gunman, oh boy. It could have been any number of stupid psychos, since this small town has an unusually high number of them. But the author decided to go with the most boring option, creating a convoluted story to explain why this person, who should really know better, decided to go off the rails like that.

Let me talk about the school for a minute. The majority of the story takes places inside this school. From reading the book blurb, I thought it was about a school shooting, that the school or the children would be relevant to the story in some way. Nope. Turns out this scenario could have played out in a cheese factory, a bank, an old age home, a KFC, or anywhere else where there were possible hostages. There is a brief attempt to make the school a relevant choice, but the justification does not match the story reality, so it falls flat.

Now, allow me to summarize the story. Possible spoilers ahead.

Our tale takes place after 9/11 and Columbine and various other school shooting incidents. The police are informed that there is a gunman inside a school. They have a manual with instructions on how to deal with this situation.

What actually happens:

* Follow the first three instructions in the manual, then toss it.
* Townsfolk hear there is a man with a gun, best thing to do is storm the school with guns.
* Oh look, a way to escape, but sullen teenager #1 is going to stay inside the school instead, because her brother might be inside, maybe.
* Oh look, another way to escape, sullen teenager runs all the way to safety, then runs back into the school, chased by police.
* Hmm, sullen teenager wonders what to do in this tense situation, what with a crazy person with a gun being inside the school. Of course, she will lock the doors so that the police can't enter.
* Stupid cop leaves the scene and drives around in a blizzard trying to solve the mystery of the gunman's identity.
* Parents of a witness deny cops the right to question the child, because she is tired, they can ask her who the gunman is tomorrow. Because the gunman is just going to hang around in the school with a gun for days, while people outside try to guess his name.
* Stupid cop disobeys a direct command and enters the school, alone, untrained for such situations. Because screw the manual.
* Stupid cop can't be bothered to check her phone for messages, because that can't possibly be important during this type of situation.
* Meanwhile, stupid teacher is antagonizing the gunman, because that seems like a good way to protect the children.
* Stupid husband receives a call from inside the school, listens to his wife talking loudly about the gunman who is standing right there and then decides that the best course of action would be to start screaming into the phone, asking whether his wife is okay.
* The gunman, having had to deal with nothing but incompetence and stupidity and crying, whining children all day, doesn't shoot all the annoying people. Pretty bloody unlikely.
* Oh yes, there is a nymphomaniac burn victim in a hospital far far away, wondering how she's going to be able to have sex with strangers now that she's no longer beautiful. This really adds something to the other tale of the village idiots trying to get shot.
* Blah blah blah boring bits, and the gunman is...? Oh, that guy. He was mentioned a couple of times, I guess.

Not recommended.
Profile Image for Sharon.
1,056 reviews196 followers
August 24, 2017
When a lone gunman walks into a local school in Broken Branch, Iowa it sends the whole school and the community into total chaos. The gunman takes a whole classroom, including the teacher hostage, but no one knows precisely why or what he really wants or who he is.

Outside the school is a gathering of worried and frantic parents and family who just want answers, but unfortunately no one holds any answers. Will the police be able to get all the hostages out safely and back to their loved ones?

An intense read that had me on the edge of my seat. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Christa.
2,217 reviews438 followers
June 13, 2012
One Breath Away is a great example of why Heather Gudenkauf has quickly become a must-read author for me. She is a master storyteller, and I loved every second that I spent reading this book. The author was able to rachet the tension so high that I felt like I was on pins and needles, breathless, throughout the entire story. Gudenkauf created characters that I quickly cared about, and I sympathized with them and hoped for a positive outcome to their situation. Telling the story from different viewpoints worked very well, and I was completely captivated from cover to cover.

The citizens of the small town of Broken Branch, Iowa are confronted with some of their worst fears when an unknown gunman enters the local public school. As frantic parents and families gather to try to find out the fate of their beloved children, the police work to gather information and try to figure out how to diffuse the situation. Holly, a mother who has had to entrust her children to her father in Broken Branch while she recovers from horrific injuries, feels her world start crashing down again when she learns her two precious children are in the school. Augie, Holly's young daughter, is determined to get herself and her younger brother safely out of the school, and is willing to take great risks for the safety of her brother and other younger children. Mrs. Oliver is the 3rd grade teacher whose class the gunman has taken hostage. She will do anything for the safety of her students. Meg is a police officer whose daughter, Maria, a student in Mrs. Oliver's class, was thankfully absent from school on this terror filled day. Meg works desparately to figure out the identity of the gunman and to secure the safety of the children. Will, the grandfather of Augie and P.J., feels that he failed his daughter, Holly, while she was growing up, and he will not fail her now while her beloved children are in danger. Broken Branch is paralyzed by a snow storm while the gunman holds the fate of its children in his hands.

As an elementary teacher, this book dealt with some of my worst nightmares and the fear of how I would protect my students in a similar situation. The subject matter was handled in a very credible manner. I could feel the fear and the determination of the characters, and they really struck a chord with me. Having lived in rural Iowa, I felt that the atmosphere of the small town portrayed was perfectly captured. Although I absolutely loved Gudenkauf's first two novels, I feel right now that One Breath Away was even better. However, I imagine that if I read all of them again, I would say that about whichever of the three I was currently reading. I only wish Ms. Gudenkauf would turn them out faster. I received this book as an ARC through NetGalley.
Profile Image for Aoibhínn.
158 reviews208 followers
November 14, 2012
This is the second book I've read by Heather Gudenkauf and it is absolutely outstanding! This is an extremely well-written, fast-paced novel with well-drawn out characters, each one had their issues and their flaws, yet all of them were likeable. The plot is gripping and full of action and suspense. The story is told from the perspective of five characters involved in the school hostage situation; Augie (a student in the school), Mrs Oliver (a teacher), Holly (the mother of Augie who is in hospital recovering from a house fire in another state), Will (Holly's father who is looking after her children while she is in hospital) and Meg (a police officer on the scene). The chapters switch between the characters and this works very well as we get to see the situation from different points of view. We get to see how a parent feels about the situation, how a police officer deals with it, how the children trapped with a gun-toting lunatic feel.

I found this novel very hard to put down and I look forward to reading more from this wonderful author. Five stars!
Profile Image for Robin.
1,732 reviews66 followers
February 1, 2022
As a March snowstorm hits a small Iowa town, a man with a gun enters the local school, taking a class full of children and their teacher hostage. The police respond quickly, surrounding the school and requesting help from neighboring towns. Parents hurry to the school to find out what is happening. No one seems to know the identity of the gunman or why he is doing this.

This story is told from the points-of-view of five different characters. Holly is in the hospital. She is the mother of two children in that building. Augie is Holly's daughter, hoping to rescue her younger brother. Will is Holly's father who is waiting with the parents of other children in the school. Mrs. Oliver is the third-grade teacher whose class is being held by the gunman. Meg is a local cop who is trying to find out why someone would take a gun into a school.

This is the first book I've read by this author. I will be looking for more of her titles. This book was hard to put down. It wasn't very suspenseful. It was more like a mystery with us having to figure out the identity of the gunman and his reason for holding the children hostage. My rating: 4.5 Stars.
Profile Image for Lisa B..
1,296 reviews6 followers
May 23, 2012
This is my first Heather Gudenkauf book and oooooh - what a dandy. The story is fast paced and hooked me from the very first page. I like the way the story unfolded from five different viewpoints: Augie, Will, Mrs. Oliver, Meg and Holly. Not only did we move forward with each charcter, but also backwards to get an understanding of each individual and what lead them to this fateful day.

Ms. Gundenkauf writes a well organized, fast paced story. I always like that I have to get to the very end before finding out “who done it”. I guessed and guessed and guessed - but nope - I got it wrong. Having two nieces who teached, I particularily fell in love with Mrs. Oliver, the 3rd grade teacher who’s class was held hostage.
She loves her students and her actions are motivated by her feelings of responsibility to them.

I have always heard good things about this author’s books and now I know them to be true. I will definately be checking out her two earlier books and looking forward to more.

The publishing date is June 19, 2012.
Profile Image for Crumb.
189 reviews539 followers
August 24, 2017
I am a big Heather Gudenkauf fan, so I had high expectations going into this novel. Unfortunately, I didn't love it as much as I had hoped.

This book was told in alternating perspectives by Holly, Augie, Meg, Mrs. Oliver, and Will. We meet Holly in the first chapter. She has been badly burned in a house fire and is miles away from her children in a hospital located in Revelation, Arizona. Her children, Augie and P.J., are staying in Broken branch, with their grandparents. Holly cannot believe her children are staying with the family that she had tried to run away from all her life, and eventually did. Holly and her father, Will, have a very contemptuous relationship, as we readers will come to find out. When Holly is resting in her hospital bed, her cell phone rings. It is her daughter, Augie.. and there is a gunman in her classroom.

Meg, a police officer in Broken Branch, has a daughter Maria that attends the same school the gunman is in. However, Maria didn't go to school that day. Meg rushes to the scene to see how she can help.

Will just wants to win back his daughter's love and affection. He can't seem to do anything right in Holly's eyes. If only he can deliver Augie and P.J. to safety, maybe, just maybe he can earn back his daughter's love.

Then, there is Mrs. Oliver. She has been a teacher in Broken Branch for over 30 years. She is a dedicated and hard-working woman and loves all of her students dearly. She thinks if she can just reason with the gunman, then hopefully not one child will have to get hurt. But.. who is this gunman? Why is here? What does he want from her and the children in her classroom?

I found myself drawing comparisons to other books about school shootings e.g., Finding Jake and Nineteen Minutes. Another thing I didn't really like about this book was the shifting perspectives. There were too many. I don't mind a book that alternates back and forth between two people, but this book went back and forth between five. I felt like that was a bit too much. Books that are formatted like this, I find myself always being drawn to one character's perspective over another.

The bottom line is that I did enjoy this book, but I felt that other books handled this subject matter better. If you are looking for a book like this, I would recommend Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. I thought that was brilliant.
Profile Image for Tammy.
970 reviews196 followers
February 13, 2018
One Breath Away is an intriguing story about what happens in a small midwestern town when a lone gunman enters a school with one thing on his mind - revenge. I was on the edge of my seat and tearing up, very good!
Profile Image for Deanna .
691 reviews12.5k followers
September 29, 2019
Heather Gudenkauf is one of my favorite authors. This is an extremely well-written novel. It is fast-paced yet easy to follow and held my interest throughout. I was on edge often throughout the novel. The story is told from five different perspectives and I found the multiple narratives interesting and easy enough to follow.
An ordinary school day a the local school in Broken Branch, Iowa. A lone gunman has entered the school and taken a classroom of children along with their teacher hostage. Nobody knows what he wants.
I don't want to give anything else away so I will leave it at that.
I highly recommend this book.
Profile Image for Laura.
724 reviews106 followers
July 21, 2016
When you have recently read an excellent book - and have somewhat of a book hangover - the only problem is the next book has to also be pretty special to keep the momentum going. I chose this novel based on its favourable reviews, it sounded just my cup of tea. Unfortunately, I was disappointed in its execution.

Written in the style of Jodi Picoult (I am a fan of hers); told from the perspectives of several characters, we are introduced to the townspeople involved in a hostage situation taking place at the isolated towns only school. The author references real-life school shootings such as Columbine, but this book becomes eerily familiar of the Sandy Hook tragedy.

I liked the way the author structured the book. I enjoy stories told from different peoples points of view. I like to see how different characters interpret the same situation. It usually makes for an intriguing read. I also liked reading about Meg, a female police officer who responds to the hostage crisis. Of all the characters, she was probably the most realistic.

I found it difficult to connect with many of the characters; perhaps because some of their perspectives were written in first-person and others in third. I wish the author would have stuck to one or the other. Because of this, and indeed the irritatingly short chapters (sometimes just half a page!) I struggled to identify with anyone in particular.

The storyline didn't captivate me the way I had hoped. I liked the premise, but the novel was poorly executed. As the book takes place over a relatively short period of time, the first two thirds of the book consists of a lot of umm-ing and aah-ing: the police considering their next move, the townspeople asking 'whats going on?' over and over. By the time the 'good stuff' began, I was almost too bored to continue.

Oh, and one last critique I can't not mention. I found some of the characters dialect unbelievable, and not in a good way. Example: "If you don't do what I say I am going to shoot you!" Not exactly menacing language is it?

I could have justified a one star rating based on the above, but I have read worse books this year which I gave one star to, so it only seems fair to award this two. Will I read another book by this author? Maybe. But I certainly won't rush out to buy a copy.

Profile Image for Brenda.
4,232 reviews2,734 followers
August 22, 2012
This was a wonderfully written novel, Heather Gudenkauf’s best to date in my opinion. Each chapter was written in the voice of the main characters, and I found I clicked with them straight away.

Holly, Augie and PJ’s mum, is in hospital after a dreadful fire at home, where she was burned pretty badly around her face and one arm. Holly’s mum, Maryls, has come to be with her in the hospital, and in the meantime, Augie and PJ have been sent to live with their grandfather at the farm Holly grew up on, thousands of miles away, and where she vowed never to return. She hadn’t seen her parents in 18 years, missing her mother, but not her father, Will.

The town of Broken Branch is also home to Officer Meg Barrett, and her daughter Marcia. She loves it there, the friendliness of the townsfolk, and beauty of the area. The school where Marcia goes, also welcomes 13 year old Augie and 8 year old PJ, when they arrive to be cared for by their grandfather.

Mrs Oliver has been teaching at the school for many years, and is elderly, but very spritely. She cares greatly for her students, and they love her as well. PJ is in her class… When a gunman walks casually into the school, and takes Mrs Oliver’s class of 8 year olds hostage, the school goes into immediate lockdown, with the terror of the staff and students palpable.

The weather is very bad, the snow storms are violent, and this creates further havoc for the police. Meg Barrett is on the scene immediately, along with more police from surrounding towns, plus her police chief. As frantic parents, grandparents and carers, plus the inevitable media, arrive on the scene, chaos reigns. The police have no idea who the gunman is, or what his motive is, but have to try to keep everything under control for the sake of the school children involved.

The tenseness of the situation, the combination of suspects, the weather, the background information of the characters, makes for a great paced, tension ridden novel, and when the gunman’s identity was finally uncovered, I was quite shocked.

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Tania.
1,235 reviews285 followers
September 12, 2014
I read this 400 page book in one day, I just could not put it down. The main story is about a gunman holding kids hostage in a small town school, as told by four characters. One breath had me on the edge of my seat and guessing until the last chapters. The characters was also very well rounded with enough flaws to make them seem real. This is my second book by Heather Gundenkauf, and I will be reading everything she publishes
Profile Image for Lauren Hopkins.
Author 3 books187 followers
July 5, 2012
POSSIBLE SPOILERS...it's a pretty good book and the author, Heather Gudenkauf, is such an interesting storyteller, unfolding the events of only a few hours in such a way that keeps you heavily invested. However, she throws so many red herrings your way that it makes it so easy to guess who's responsible. A man with a gun has entered a school in a small town in Iowa and the town races to find out who he is to stop him from killing a potentially great deal of people. There are many characters brought in, many of whom have nothing to do with the school and the situation, causing the reader to guess and speculate how they could possibly be involved. Then, Gudenkauf basically presents the reader with a list of people it could be...leaving one person, who seems the least likely to do something like this, out. Anyone who has ever read a book or watched TV knows that if you're given a list of potential people, it's ALWAYS the one person you least expect. I guessed the suspect when he was first introduced and literally rolled my eyes and yelled OH BROTHER as he was unveiled. Sigh. I did just read "Brothers Karamazov" so I shouldn't be too harsh but man, they just don't write plot like they used to. That being said, for what it is, the writing is decent and you do feel invested with the story and characters. I just wish authors would figure out a way to unravel a story without making it as obvious as possible for people who think logically.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,783 reviews14.2k followers
May 5, 2012
As I was reading this book I kept thinking "This would make an awesome movie", not because of the way it was written but because the suspense makes one want to keep turning the pages. There is a gunman in the school. a school in a rural area that holds grades K-12, and the school goes on lock down. This is not another Columbine though, the shooter is there for a specific purpose and for a specific person. The who and the why are the big questions and the story is related by four different narrators. It is from these narrators that we learn the back stories of the people involved and the clues that lead to the shooters identity. My favorite character was the third grade teacher in the room that the shooter appropriates for his contact. Her old school ethics, she has been a teacher for many years and is dedicated to her students, reminded me so of my own teacher in that grade. This is not a great book but it is an extremely good and suspenseful one, one that will hold the reader's interest until the very end. ARC from NetGalley.
Profile Image for Dem.
1,190 reviews1,135 followers
September 7, 2012
3.5 starts for Heather Gudenkauf's One Breath Away. I enjoyed this novel. The story revolves around an ordinary school day in March and the local school in Broken Branch, Iowa, where a gunman has entered the school and taken a classroom of children and their teacher hostage. Nobody knows who the gunman is or what he wants.

The story is told from five different perspectives and very cleverly written in the sense that the story is fast moving and your interest is held by short chapters with different characters heading each chapter.

This is certainly a character driven novel but I think the plot was a little predictable as I had guessed the identity of the gunman halfway through the novel. Fans of Jodi Picout will love this novel as the characters are very real and likable.

Profile Image for Wendy.
1,684 reviews569 followers
June 27, 2012
What could be more terrifying than a gunman in a school!

Told from the viewpoints of the children, their families, teachers and the police, this story is a compelling account of the events that unfolded on this horrific day.

Heather Gudenkauf had me captivated from the start and it is easy to see why I love her novels.

Profile Image for Christine.
137 reviews13 followers
August 21, 2014
One Breath Away is extremely slow, nothing happens. Each chapter brings stories of the characters that are totally unrelated to the main plot. Many useless details are there as page fillers, but the story never fully develops. The main characters are not believable, nothing is clear and the end is just disappointing and unreal.
Profile Image for Suzanne.
554 reviews117 followers
October 20, 2012
I loved this book. I read it in 2 days. I normally dont like each character in each chapter but heather kept the characters flowing perfectly....
Profile Image for Greta is Erikasbuddy.
851 reviews28 followers
August 14, 2012
I can't believe it!

Heather Gudenkauf has done it again!!

With a story that could be ripped straight from the headlines this book revolves around a gunman and a school.

Told in 5 points of view we get to hear straight from a child, a teacher, a grandfather, a mother/police officer, and another mother.

This story is intense. How would you feel if your child was trapped in a school in a hostage situation? What about your grandchild? What if you were the teacher who was being held hostage? What if there was nothing you could do but watch? What if you had a badge but still couldn't get access to the school?

Set in a sleepy town of Iowa on a cold winter's day this story takes you through it all. From the time the bell rings to the last gunshot. You won't be able to look away!
Profile Image for Madeline .
1,676 reviews126 followers
January 10, 2016
4.5 Stars!

Have you ever read a book that when you were done, you wish that you could erase your memory and read it again? In my opinion, One Breath Away is that kind of book!!!

I have read all of Heather's books and this one is my favorite, and for me it is tied with Whistling Past the Graveyard for my favorite book of the year.

Set in a small town, an unexpected snow storm rolls in creating its own chaos. Then an unknown person (or perhaps not) walks into the local school and holds a classroom of children hostage. The snowstorm and the hostage situation create a book that is intense, suspenseful, and incredibly believable! This is a story that you won't put down.
Profile Image for Susan.
1,198 reviews199 followers
July 15, 2015
OMG OMG OMG!!! I just love Heather's books! This one pulls you in from the very first page and does not let go! Each chapter is told by one person as events unfold around them!

Augie is the hero of the book in my opinion! I had no idea who it was until the end of the book! I loved the characters in One Breath Away and got easily wrapped up in their lives!

Great job Heather! Can't wait to read your next one! Hahahaha no pressure!!

Note: I received this book free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Mary Kubica.
Author 26 books15.7k followers
January 10, 2014
In short, I ended up burning my dinner during the last 50 pages of this book because I simply couldn't put it down. The character development is wonderful, as I felt very connected to each and every character in the book. ONE BREATH AWAY had me on the edge of my seat from the very first page until the last, and I was constantly speculating on the ending of the book - which took me by complete surprise! Another winner from Heather Gudenkauf!
Profile Image for Deborah.
417 reviews250 followers
July 19, 2012
I was catching my breath multiple times as I read this book like a fast-moving train headed for a collision I knew I couldn't stop! Heather Gudenkauf kept me hooked on an adrenalin rush as I sped through her chapter vignettes of each character's reactions and reactions to a gunman holding elementary school children hostage during an unexpected, debilitating snowstorm in a small town. While the book sounds like a clone of Columbine, it's not. I'm sure there may be similarities in how we might imagine people react in certain horrifying situations, but the main focus of "One Breath Away" gives a fresh and piercing perspective that drew me away from the obvious and held my attention like the best of this genre can.

Ms Gudenkauf's use of the character's different inner dialogs and interactions makes this book run quickly. It blasts the plot along like a "just happening" news cast and makes it feel as if you're in the action...actually a part of it and thinking along with the characters. I felt myself reasoning and reacting along with Mrs. Oliver, the children, the grandfather and Officer Meg at different times. In fact the way she employs this certain device made me lose track of time and put me in the "real" situation. Just an out of body sense that was captivating.

The snowstorm played such a real part in the action that it caused me to be frustrated in the way it hampered progress toward finding out who the gunman was! That's anthropomorphic in real action!
I felt weighed down by it, pulled along as it caused everyone to slip and slide and move slower than I wanted them to in resolving the matter of who and how they'd get to the hostage holder in the school! I thought that was genius! A perfect counterpoint.

The townspeople were also quite interesting in their unity and in their sense of judging who the other was and was not. Small town gossips stood out. Small town helpers did, too. And, I was particularly frustrated by a family who had an opportunity to help everyone in the situation by allowing their child to be interviewed by the police, but refused. There are such selfish people in communities and it's just infuriating. I felt that like a hot slap!! Just one example of Gudenkauf's ability to move a reader.

This is an amazing book. It has all the unique elements of a suspense novel, and more. I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Mark Rubinstein.
Author 34 books817 followers
September 6, 2012
Given the spate of school shootings over the past few years, you would assume a novel about a gunman taking children hostage at a school in a small town would be as suspenseful as it is timely. Unfortunately, I found the suspense lacking and the tension watered down by the novel's construction which was skillfully done, but slowed the novel's narrative drive.

The story is told through the eyes of five narrators, all experiencing the horror and processing it in different ways. They are a mother of two student hostages, their grandfather, a teacher (also held hostage), a police officer,and the mother's 13 year old daughter who is in the school when the gunman appears.

The different perspectives offered by each narrator (either in the first person or third person, in the present or past tense) are interesting, though the first part of the novel can be a bit confusing until the reader sorts them out. Once things fall into place, the story should flow to a furious and compelling conclusion. But the author delves into far too many cul de sacs about each narrator, and bogs down the story's natural flow, which waters down the tension.

Some people would call this a "thriller" because of the subject matter. I think it's more a portrait of a small town, and the dynamics of people involved in a terrifying situation, but the read itself is neither terrifying nor thrilling.

While character development in a novel is very important, it should not feel to the reader like some sticky adhesive holding back the story. After all, when you get down to it, the story is what counts. Three and a half stars.
Profile Image for Kelly Hager.
3,102 reviews133 followers
June 2, 2012
This is my second book by Heather Gudenkauf (I still need to read her first novel) and this one is just phenomenal. I think it's hard to balance multiple narratives and make each one equally compelling (and a unique voice) and she manages to pull off five narrators in this book (Holly, her father and her daughter, plus a teacher at the school---the gunman is actually in her class---and a police officer investigating the case). Obviously I cared the most about Augie and Mrs. Oliver (the ones most immediately affected by the gunman) but the other three were also interesting chapters and I was sorry to leave them, too.

I'm not sure why school shootings/school hostage situations are so interesting for me (I'm pretty sure at least part of that is because I don't have kids; I'm not sure I could handle books like these if I did) but this one is definitely at the top of this new subgenre.

Heather Gudenkauf has become a must read author of mine and this book was a "must recommend" for me, as well. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Crystal Craig.
250 reviews592 followers
November 7, 2015
Heather Gudenkauf's, One Breath Away is a character-driven novel full of suspense, but to me there seemed to be something missing. The entire time I was reading, I couldn't help thinking, been there, done that - like I'd read a similar storyline before. Also, the short choppy chapters and some of the back-story took away from the urgency of what was going on at the school. And, when the who and why was all revealed, I just wasn't sold. Having said all that, I did enjoy the characters. P.J. and Augie were strong characters who - in my opinion - carried the story.

Did I like this book? Yes and no. Would I read it again? Probably not. Would I recommend it to my book buddies? Yes.

Though I didn't care for the book, I can see why others might enjoy it. It is a good suspense novel. Having said that, because of the subject matter, it might be an emotional read for some.
Profile Image for Lisa.
784 reviews
July 2, 2015
Heather Gudenkauf makes you turn the pages just love her writing the story starts when a lone gunman holds a teacher & students hostage in a classroom every parents nightmare it's in the middle of a snowstorm outside the residents of Broken Branch wait& watches to see what will happen loved the characters & plot was strong well written had me guessing right to the end she is fast becoming one of my favourite authors
Profile Image for Samantha.
899 reviews45 followers
December 10, 2014
Ook dit boek lag al een tijdje thuis en moest ik echt gaan lezen, aangezien deze terug moest naar de bibliotheek. Al een lange tijd aasde ik op dit boek, maar toen ik het eenmaal thuis had liggen bleef ik het maar uitstellen. Gelukkig hem toch uiteindelijk opgepakt!

Een bijzonder, intrigerend onderwerp is de basis van dit boek: een vermoedelijk gewapende gijzeling in een school. Niet echt een onderwerp wat je aan zal spreken als je kinderen hebt denk ik, maar helaas nog regelmatig een actueel onderwerp. Het verhaal wordt verteld vanuit verschillende verhaallijnen: Holly (moeder van 2 kinderen op de school), Augie (een van de kinderen op de school), Wil (Opa van Augie), Meg (politieagente) en Mevrouw Oliver (lerares op de school). Dit is echt heel goed uitgewerkt. Het was geen moment verwarrend en zorgde er voor dat er veel kleine cliffhangers in het boek zaten. Dit maakte dat ik maar door en door bleef lezen.

De karakters vond ik erg goed en zeer nauwkeurig verteld.
Holly is de moeder van Augie en PJ. Beide kinderen zitten sinds kort op deze school, aangezien Holly is opgenomen in het ziekenhuis na een vreselijk ongeluk. Aangezien Holly de kinderen alleen opvoedt, verblijven Augie en PJ nu bij hun opa en oma die ze op dat moment pas voor het eerst leren kennen.

Augie lijkt in het begin vooral een dwarse puber, maar er gaat onwijs veel onder haar masker schuil. Dit wordt stukje bij beetje duidelijk en maakt haar direct veel sympathieker en maakt tevens haar beweegredenen logischer.

Will is de opa van Augie en de vader van Holly. Holly koestert een enorme wrok tegen Will. Dit maakt dat je eerst een beetje sceptisch bent tegenover Will, maar ook hij is anders dan dat hij zich voordoet. Will kan moeilijk zijn gevoelens uiten, maar dat wil niet zeggen dat ze er niet zijn.

Meg is een politieagente. Haar dochter zou normaal gezien ook vandaag op school zitten, maar haar ex-man heeft haar dochter toevallig uitgenodigd voor de aankomende voorjaarsvakantie. Ik vond haar een harde politieagente en ze pakt dingen aan op een manier die ik niet altijd correct vind, maar dat weet ze en misschien maakt dat haar een nog betere politieagente.

Mevrouw Oliver is een oudere lerares. Ze is een vrouw van de oude stempel en klonk in het begin wat uit de hoogte, maar eigenlijk is ze een vrouw met het hart op de goede plek en heeft ze het allerbeste met haar leerlingen voor. Je leert haar steeds beter kennen en het deed me wensen dat ik ook zo'n lerares had gekend!

Doordat de karakters zo goed waren uitgewerkt, leefde je enorm met ze mee. Het voelde bijna alsof ik daar in de sneeuw stond te wachten totdat er iets ging gebeuren. Dit boek beschrijft een enkele(eigenlijk halve) dag, dat pakt niet vaak zo goed uit. Hoewel ik op de helft al vermoedde wie de gijzelaar was (en dit bleek juist te zijn), was dat niet erg. Het verhaal was zo spannend dat de ontknoping bijna niet eens meer uitmaakte, al was die ontknoping uiteindelijk ook erg goed!

Na een veelvoud aan fantasy en YA boeken, was ik echt even toe aan een thriller. Dit boek was precies wat ik nodig had. Realistisch, meeslepend en ongelofelijk spannend. Mijn eerste thriller van Heather Gudenkauf, maar zeker niet de laatste. De recensies van haar andere boeken zijn evengoed veelbelovend!
Profile Image for Shelleyrae at Book'd Out.
2,493 reviews515 followers
June 21, 2012

Keeping the tension high with short chapters, shifts in perspective and a situation that every parent dreads in the wake of Columbine and similar school tragedies, Gudenkauf has written a pacy suspense thriller that kept me turning the pages into the early hours of the morning.

In small town Iowa, a gunman holds a school hostage. Outside a blizzard rages while the police scramble to identify the man and prevent a massacre. Thousands of miles away a mother receives a phone call, "He has a gun."

The present tense narrative unfolds through the first person viewpoints of Augie, a thirteen year old girl, whose brother, PJ is a hostage in the third grade classroom, Holly, Augie and PJ's mother who is thousands of miles away in hospital recovering from severe burns after a house fire, and Officer Meg Barrett who is doing everything she can to ensure the safety of the school children. A third person narrative reveals the thoughts and actions of Will Thwaite, the grandfather of Augie and PJ who waits helplessly to learn the fate of his grandchildren, and Mrs Oliver, the third grade teacher who is confined with her class of 8 year olds and the gunman, terrified but determined to protect her students at any cost. The multiple perspectives reveals what is happening within and outside the school and allows the author to provide the background of the characters caught up in the nightmare, so that their motivations make sense in the midst of the crisis.

Gudenkauf uses subtle misdirection to conceal the identity of the gunman, with several suspects and possible motives in the frame creating a strong element of mystery. The motive of the hostage taker is also hidden until the last few pages which plays into the tension. It is suspense that drives the novel, what is unknown about the situation and what is possible. There are flashes of violence but really it is simple fear for the characters that sustains the tension.

One Breath Away is a taut, compelling novel of suspense that had me hooked from the first page.
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