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As a sudden Spring snowstorm swirls down on Broken Branch, Iowa, an armed man walks into the town's only school. While the police scramble to figure out what's going on, parents huddle together outside the building, anxious for news. No one knows who the gunman is, what he wants, or how far he's willing to go to make his point. Hazardous road conditions make it impossible to bring in outside help. Without the aid of trained SWAT teams or experienced hostage negotiators, it's up to local law enforcement to end the standoff. They only hope it can be done quickly, peacefully, with no casualties. As precious minutes tick by and the snow continues to fall, all the people of Broken Branch can do is wait. And pray.
Meg Barrett, a 33-year-old police officer, can't stop thinking about the kids trapped inside the school. She's got to find a way to get them out, even if it means ignoring orders from her superior and going against police protocol. Anything. She'll do anything to save the children. Eighth grader Augie Baker already hates Broken Branch, hates that she has to live in the middle of nowhere with the grandparents she hardly knows while her mother recovers from severe burns in Arizona. It's just her luck that she's now locked inside the school with a madman. But when she discovers a way to save herself, she can't do it. Her little brother's inside the school, too, and she refuses to leave without him. On the outside, Augie's grandfather waits helplessly, not knowing the fates of the grandchildren he's only just getting to know. After 40 some years of teaching in Broken Branch, Mrs. Oliver's ready to retire. She plans to end her career quietly, without a fuss, something that changes the minute a man with a gun steps into her classroom. Now, the 65-year-old educator may be the only thing standing between a desperate, armed man and a school full of innocent children.
Tension mounts with each passing moment. While the police fumble around looking for answers, the townspeople grow increasingly antsy. And angry. When Meg discovers a personal connection to the gunman, she knows it will be up to her—and only her—to put an end to the madness.
Violence at school is every parent's worst nightmare. Which is why it makes such excellent fodder for intense, edge-of-your-seat reading. Add in an inexperienced police team and a snowstorm that cuts them off from any outside assistance and you've got the makings of an A-grade thriller. That's what I expected from One Breath Away by Heather Gudenkauf after reading its very promising premise. Did the book deliver? Not exactly. While the potential was definitely there, the story started too soon, forcing Gudenkauf to spend too much time filling in back story and not enough on pushing the plot forward. A little restructuring along with some overall tightening would have resulted in a much more streamlined, pulse-pounding novel. I still enjoyed One Breath Away, which is, overall, a fast, engrossing novel, I just wanted something more polished and, ultimately, more satisfying.
If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for strong language and violence