One Breath Away
Published by Harlequin MIRA
Available on Amazon.com.
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview.
4 / 5 cupcakes
Before you begin this book, make sure you have a few hours free from any distractions. Take the phone off the hook, send the kids outside, and lock yourself in your room. You will not be able to stop reading until the last page.
Broken Branch, Iowa, finds itself in the grip of a Columbine-type nightmare. A gunman has taken over the school - it houses all the students in the community, kindergarten through high school - and no one knows why. They don't even know who he is. One thing they are certain about is that they are, as the title tells us, one breath away from rescue or tragedy.
Heather Gudenkauf tells the story from several points of view. Holly Baker has two children at the school, but if it wasn't for a disaster of her own, those kids would be home in Arizona with her. As it is, Holly had to send them, much against her will, to her parents while Holly heals. Her father, Will, provides the sole male pair of eyes through which we get the story. With his wife and daughter in Arizona, the caring of his grandchildren falls to him. He is determined to help them and Holly. Augie Baker is Holly's thirteen-year-old daughter, and she is full of all of the angst and attitude of a thirteen-year-old. Her soft spot, though, is her brother, P.J., and when she discovers that the gunman is in P.J.'s classroom, she knows she must help her brother. P.J.'s teacher, Evie Oliver, tries desperately to help her charges while dealing with the gunman. Her mantra to herself is that she will save them; she will not be a person who sits and does nothing. The final point of view comes from Meg Barrett, a police officer whose daughter Maria is one of Evie Oliver's students. Fortunately, Maria is not at school that day, but Meg fears a personal connection to the gunman nonetheless.
This is a tightly wound, gripping thriller that does not let go of you until its very last words. Who is the gunman? Why does he take the school hostage? What will happen to Holly and her children? To Will? Can Evie Oliver save the day? And Meg. Can she rescue the children and prevent casualties?
As we go through the hours of the hostage situation, Gudenkauf fills us in on each character's background. We find out about Holly's marriage and some of the shenanigans she was up to before the accident that landed her in the hospital. (Holly, by the way, is very unlikeable. Very.) We see Will's regrets, hurt and determination. We are in Meg's head, as she reflects on her own marriage and Maria. We understand why Augie is so focused on saving her brother, just as we understand Evie's strength through the prism of her life. By the time the book is over, we feel a kinship with the characters and want them to be okay.
And that's what makes this book so good: the characters, and not just the five who tell us the story. All of them are wonderfully crafted, whether they are schoolchildren, a diner owner or Meg's fellow police officers. This hostage taking is not limited to the school, but to the community as well. Gudenkauf does an excellent job of creating a suspenseful atmosphere that affects everyone - characters and readers.
The only problem in this otherwise excellently written book is the bad guy. His rationale for doing what he did requires a leap on our part. We understand his anger and desperation, but we question whether it was enough to provoke him into such an extreme reaction. That's the part that rang hollow to me.
Even so, this is a terrific book. But when you read it, please don't make the mistake I did and start it about an hour before you plan to go to bed. Unless, of course, you want to be up all night.