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Book Review: One Breath Away

One Breath Away by Heather Gudenkauf

Published June 2012

Genre(s): Fiction, mystery, thriller, suspense

379 pages

“We’re always one breath away from something, living or dying, sometimes it just can’t be helped.”


Summary (from Goodreads)

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.

My Thoughts

I make it pretty well-known that I only read YA and middle-grade fiction, so seeing this review may be a bit strange to people who follow me. However, I was introduced to Heather Gudenkauf in middle school by a friend who brought The Weight of Silence to class and near tears one day while reading, just looked up and went “there’s no more Petra!” Let’s just say, I wasted no time in getting that book, finally finding a copy a ways away at a Borders, and I fell in love.

Heather Gudenkauf is an auto-buy author for me. This is the third book I’ve read by her (though I own all but her two most recent books), and I always enjoy them.

The one thing I love the most about her books is the cast of characters. There are always multiple POVs, and they are always so different and realistic.

In this particular book, we follow the point of view of five different characters:

Holly – a mom who has been put in the hospital for major burns and had to send her two kids to live with grandparents she never wanted them to meet.

Augie – Holly’s 13-year-old daughter and older sister to P.J. who she would protect with her life. She’s stuck in the school during the lock down.

Will Thwaite – A stern old man who work on a farm and had a fall-out with his daughter years before. Now he has the chance to make things right with Augie and P.J…that is, if they make it out of the lock down alive.

Meg Barrett – A police officer who is supposed to be helping to keep things under order and protect those in the town and the school.

Evelyn Oliver – P.J.’s school teacher who must protect the children.

This book doesn’t waste any time in it’s action. In fact, the entire book takes place in an 8-hour time span starting from the moment the armed man comes inside the school. While reading, it’s fast-paced, and with everything that’s going on, and having the perspective of all of the characters, it gives off a feeling like the lock down is never-ending, which is a feeling that anyone in that situation would probably be feeling.

The book is told in present tense, but there’s a lot of memories recalled throughout, and again, I feel like this helps us to understand our characters and the situation a lot better. Many people, when in fear, tend to think about their past, especially if they think they’re about to die. They’ll think about all of the problems they caused, or things they should or shouldn’t have done, ways to to fix the past, or promises of things they’ll do if they have a future.

One thing this book really pushes is the relationship between people. Even though we have an entire town of characters, the central focus is around Holly’s family. Because of that, we get shown a lot of relationships: between P.J. and Augie, between the kids and their grandfather, between the kids and their mom, between Holly and her parents, and between Augie and her dad. Each of those relationships is unique, and not all of them are good. In fact, it was probably my favorite thing about this particular novel. We’re constantly shown just how delicate a relationship between two people can be.

Lastly, her books always hold up their suspense for me until the end. Heather does so well integrating a bunch of incidents together, and instead of feeling like there are too many coincidences going on, she makes things work in a believable manner, and she makes sure to address everything by the end of the book so we’re not left hanging. Even if the revelation feels a little flat or doesn’t make much sense (like it sort of felt in this book), it’s okay because there’s still so much going on that we need to worry about and focus on before the book draws to an end, and it’s easy to stay engaged in the story.

If you’re sensitive to school shootings or similar situations, this might not be the book for you, but for anyone else who might enjoy the suspense of the situation and seeing how character of different ages and positions might think or react, I would recommend giving this a try!

6 thoughts on “Book Review: One Breath Away

  1. I really liked Gudenkauf’s Before She Was Found, mostly because of the way she tells it. I’m looking forward to reading her other books. This one sounds especially good. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahh that was her 2019 novel. I haven’t gotten my hands on that one yet! Her way of telling stories is amazing. I must admit I think One Breath Away will always be my favorite of hers though!


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