Hell or High Water by Joy Castro

There was no reason for me to like, or love as it was, this book.  I nearly put it down a couple of times, but then something kept pulling me back again and again until I was nearly finished and had to know what happened.  In full disclosure, I was lucky enough to win a copy of this book from Chick Lit is Not Dead.  I probably wouldn’t have bought, or even found, this book on my own, but I am very, very glad I had the opportunity to read it.

Hell or High Water by Joy Castro follows Nola Céspedes, a young latina journalist, in post-Katrina New Orleans.  That sentence would be enough for me to stay far away under normal circumstances.  I’m not a big fan of New Orleans — too many annoying high school memories that left me feeling like I was doing nothing to help the world.  The one time I visited I was left underwhelmed, despite the fact that it was pretty enough.  Still, I liked the idea of a story set there, it seemed like it would be a fun change of pace from the big city/european settings I would usually seek out.  The fact that the main character was latina felt alienating at points when she got drawn deep into her own problems living in that world, but was ultimately just an added facet to her character.  I could see how, if you were a young latina woman reading this book, Nola might really speak to you.

Nola works at the Times-Picayune for the Entertainment section, but desperately wants to work with the big dogs in the news/features department.  Then, one day, she gets her break when the boss asks her to write a feature about the many sex offenders living under the radar in New Orleans.  Nola quickly gets drawn into the story, which happens to coincide with the abduction of a white girl from Kansas.

After reading that you could easily think that you’re about to read a gore-filled, thrilled that was very disturbing.  Castro goes about the story in a way that defies your expectations.  Nola doesn’t go on a hunt for the Kansas girl’s rapist.  She gets into some tricky situations, but the hair on the back of your neck never stands up.  The book is cerebral, focusing on the ideas behind the sex offenders’ actions as opposed to what the actions were.

The same cerebral quality filters into the actual narrative.  There is a lot of description.  A lot of it.  Nola spends page after page discussing New Orleans, how she feels about her city and how it has changed post-Katrina.  While this can get tiresome at points, it was ultimately enjoyable.  So many times you read a book set in a certain place, but get barely any description of the surroundings.  Not so here.  If you love New Orleans, you’ll love this book.  Nola eats local cuisine, visits everywhere in the city and describes it all at length.

While the story progresses moderately slowly, you keep reading because a sense of caring about the characters creeps up on you.  All of a sudden you realize that Nola is nice, that you care about her story.  I was actually shocked when I realized that I had to know what happened.  And then there are the curve balls.  While I like surprises in stories, there were some here that seemed a bit shocking, that weren’t backed up enough.  Read it yourself, I don’t want to give anything away.

Overall, I was astonished at how much I truly enjoyed, nay loved, Hell or High Water.  Castro takes a story, a character and a setting that could be unbearable and infuses such life and sympathy into them that you can’t help but want to read more.  If you’re looking to surprise yourself with a book, check this one out.

Do you enjoy traditional mysteries or thrillers?

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