Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Author Spotlight: Heather Gudenkauf

Author Diane Duane once said “Reading one book is like eating one potato chip;” a truer statement has never been uttered. Whenever I find a book I love, my first instinct is always to quickly find that author’s previous works or their next. Finding a great book is easy, but finding a great author that reliably, book after book, delivers an edge of your seat suspense, heart-melting romance or a page-turning thriller isn’t such an easy feat; so when I do find such an author, I love to share them with you, my family and friends, which was the rationale behind my author spotlight posts.

This month I selected Heather Gudenkauf, the New York Times best-selling author of the book I’m currently reading, Little Mercies, as well as three older novels which I had previously read, making her a perfect spotlight candidate. As you’ll note from my previous author spotlights, my reading preferences lean toward gripping suspense novels or spine-tingling thrillers and Gudenkauf’s novels are no exception. Not only do her novels deliver on the tension, drama and the always requisite twist and turns you’d expect from the genre, but she offers compelling and insightful character development for each of her protagonists, ensuring moving, poignant and always memorable stories you’ll carry with you long after you’ve finished the last page.

All three of Gudenkauf’s novels (The Weight of Silence, These Things Hidden, and One Breath Away) are set in Iowa, where she’s supposedly lived nearly all of her life and you can readily see in each why it pays to write what you know, because she perfectly captures the local color, people and culture. She also conveys with seeming ease the sense of family and close-knit bonds found in those small towns, while never overlooking the fact that human frailties – weakness, evil and sin – are found in rich and poor families, and large cities and small towns alike.

A key feature in all of Gudenkauf’s novels is the fact that she uses multiple narrators, written in both the first or third person. Gudenkauf’s talent is notable here in the fact that despite the sometimes obvious similarities in gender and age between her multiple narrators, she manages to create characters that for all their commonality still remain uniquely different from one another with singular voices, including their own hopes, fears, and longings. Gudenkauf has equal ease in finding the voice of a child – their innocence, fear, and sometimes blind courage (in an author interview I read, she credits this ease with the fact that she was a classroom teacher and in education for 20+ years), as she has in conveying the heartfelt gratitude and love of an adoptive mother (“You were a wish that we made every morning when we woke up and a prayer we said before we went to bed each night;” Claire’s beautiful words to Joshua in These Things Hidden).

In short, I love Gudenkauf’s novels because while her stories show the darkness present in many human hearts; tackling subjects sometimes ripped from the headlines, like child abandonment, child abuse or school violence; she also hopefully reminds us that at heart we are all flawed individuals trying to do our best and sometimes we deliver on that innate potential for good. So without further ado, here's a brief summary of each novel, from oldest to newest.

The Weight of Silence. It happens quietly one August morning. As dawn's shimmering light drenches the humid Iowa air, two families awaken to find their little girls have gone missing in the night. Seven-year-old Calli Clark is sweet, gentle, a dreamer who suffers from selective mutism brought on by tragedy that pulled her deep into silence as a toddler. Calli's mother, Antonia, tried to be the best mother she could within the confines of marriage to a mostly absent, often angry husband. Now, though she denies that her husband could be involved in the possible abductions, she fears her decision to stay in her marriage has cost her more than her daughter's voice. Petra Gregory is Calli's best friend, her soul mate and her voice. But neither Petra nor Calli has been heard from since their disappearance was discovered. Desperate to find his child, Martin Gregory is forced to confront a side of himself he did not know existed beneath his intellectual, professorial demeanor. Now these families are tied by the question of what happened to their children. And the answer is trapped in the silence of unspoken family secrets.

These Things Hidden. When teenager Allison Glenn is sent to prison for a heinous crime, she leaves behind her reputation as Linden Falls' golden girl forever. Her parents deny the existence of their once-perfect child. Her former friends exult her downfall. Her sister, Brynn, faces whispered rumors every day in the hallways of their small Iowa high school. It's Brynn—shy, quiet Brynn—who carries the burden of what really happened that night. All she wants is to forget Allison and the past that haunts her. But then Allison is released to a halfway house, and is more determined than ever to speak with her estranged sister. Now their legacy of secrets is focused on one little boy. And if the truth is revealed, the consequences will be unimaginable for the adoptive mother who loves him, the girl who tried to protect him and the two sisters who hold the key to all that is hidden.

One Breath Away. 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.

Why not give one of these three novels a try? You won’t be disappointed.