Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Hell or High Water by Joy Castro

Hell or High Water by Joy Castro
Published July 2012 by St. Martin's Press
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Nola C├ęspedes, an ambitious young reporter at the Times-Picayune, finally catches a break: an assignment to write her first full-length feature. While investigating her story, she also becomes fixated on the search for a missing tourist in the French Quarter. As Nola's work leads her into a violent criminal underworld, she's forced to face disturbing truths from her own past and is confronted with the question: In the aftermath of devastation, who is responsible for rebuilding what's been broken?

My Thoughts:
I wish I were better at remembering or recording where I first heard of books. I know I've been wanting to read this one for several years. I know when I saw Castro at the 2015 Omaha Lit Fest I was hoping to be able to pick this book up then (unfortunately, they didn't have it). Because I can't remember where I first heard about the book, I also can't remember what drew me to it so I went into this one completely blind. Even so, it was not what I expected.

I thought I was going to get a straight mystery with a colorful setting. That's not what I got.

There is a mystery piece to this book - who is kidnapping and killing young women in New Orlean's French Quarter? But that is almost a backdrop for the real stories here.
"In the aftermath of devastation, who is responsible for rebuilding what's been broken?"
In Hell or High Water, that piece of the summary isn't just talking about New Orleans, post-Katrina. It's about those who suffer from sexual predators, who become the subject of an assignment Nola is unexpectedly handed that might make her career. Mostly, though, it's about Nola.

Nola is one of the most interesting characters I've read in a long time. Her mother was a Cuban refugee, her father left them when she was little after moving them to New Orleans, and she grew up in the Ninth Ward, in the projects. To give her a better education, Nola's mother sent her across town to a private school, a place where Nola felt even less like she fit in.

Now, she's feeling stuck and desperate for the kind of story that will allow her to get out of New Orleans, away from her past and away from her mother, an alcoholic who requires Nola's help every Sunday to keep up her place. She has a group of friends that gets together weekly but none of them know about Nola's past and none of them struggle to make ends meet. Even with her closest friends, Nola doesn't feel like she fits in and she can never entirely let her guard down. There's a dark side of Nola that even her besties don't know about and that's the part of her that makes her such an interesting character. And that's the part that's going to make this book really blow up.

The second most interesting character in this book? The city of New Orleans. I'm not sure I've ever read a book where the setting played such a big role in the book. From the French Quarter, to the zoo, to the food, to the nearby plantations, to culture and food. Once in a while it felt like too much, like Castro was looking for ways to get more of New Orleans into the book. But mostly, it really rooted the story and the people in the story.

Trigger warning: When Nola finally gets an assignment she hopes will really launch her reporting career, it's a piece about the sexual predators that went off the radar after Katrina. To get a full story, Nola interviews a number of convicted predators and a psychologist who talks about the effects on their victims. It's a tough read and if it's something that you have experience with, it might be too hard to read.


  1. Sounds a little grim for me right now, but thanks for sharing your thoughts

    1. It's really dark and probably not the best choice for right now!

  2. I'm bad about remembering where I first heard of a book or who sold me on reading it. This sounds really good and we just spent months in New Orleans and I'm missing it so the fact it's a character sounds appealing. Not sure on the trigger warning. That sounds a bit tougher then I'm looking for right now but like a good read for later.

    1. Oh yes, when you're able to handle the tough parts, you will love the New Orleans piece. I think her other books may also be set in New Orleans. Don't know how dark they are.