Book Review: Hell or High Water

Hell or HighOn Tuesday, January 22nd we were treated (once again) to a book club chat with the author!

This time, and again, thanks to Typographical Era, we had the great pleasure of speaking with Joy Castro, author of that month’s Critical Era (the book club division of Typographical Era) book club choice, Hell or High Water. Now, Joy Castro is perhaps one of the sweetest, kindest, bubbliest and nicest person we have ever had the opportunity to speak with! It is quite unbelieveable that Joy (her name is a well-suited one!) had overcome such adversity in her childhood (and once reading about her memoir on her site, I immediately ran out and bought The Truth Book! Doesn’t this sound amazing? I mean, in so much as reading a difficult subject can be, but still..) to become this amazing and energetic personality!

Anyway, it was so hard to imagine that this sincere woman is the author of this fierce and gritty story, complete with an equally intense, fierce and gritty main character! Here’s the synopsis (from Goodreads) on Hell or High Water:

Nola Céspedes, 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?

Vividly rendered in razor-sharp prose, this haunting thriller is a riveting journey of trust betrayed—and the courageous struggle to rebuild. Fast-paced, atmospheric, and with a knockout twist, Hell or High Water features an unforgettable heroine as fascinating and multilayered as New Orleans itself.

Penny and Jackie are writing a joint review for this one! You can also read Aaron and Karli’s reviews on Typographical Era for Hell or High Water too if you wish. (Just click on the preceding book title and it will take you to their review) You can also read the interview they held with Joy, here, as well.

Penny’s Review of Hell or High Water – 3.5-4 stars

If you can handle a gritty, fierce story, littered with the hard-hitting topics like sexual offenders, pedophilia and alcoholism, then Hell or High Water is a read for you. If you don’t enjoy reading harsh, in your face stories that are not delicate or filled with sunshine and butterflies, then, you may wish to pass. However, you would truly be missing out on one of the most unique female leads I’ve ever had the chance to read about. Interestingly enough,  I recently read a comment saying the purpose of reading is for entertainment, escapism and to deliver a sense of satisfaction in the end, and not to subject you to uncomfortable and stomach-clenching material that makes you want to shower from the inside out.

Myself, I can’t say I agree with this 100%, as certainly some of the best books I’ve read have been ones that cover harsh and greuling topics and force your eyes wide-open to scenarios that should not be, but unfortunately are, part of our reality . This reality, for many, is their only lived experience. Why should we not be exposed to it and potentially learn from it? Expand our comfort zone?

Such is life for Nola Céspedes. Nola came of age in the Desire Projects located in the 9th Ward of New Orleans. These projects housed some of the worst criminal activity and degraded lifestyle one could imagine. Nola perseveres and escapes Desire to study at one of the wealthiest higher educational institutions in New Orleans – Tulane. She now works writing entertainment fluff stories to entice tourism post-Katrina, for the Times-Picayune.  Nola does dream often however, of the time when she can leave New Orleans, a city she despises, far behind and move to New York. She also takes to surrounding herself with a group of women far outside of her comfort zone or known reality. This is all done in an effort to cast off Nola’s past and project an entirely new image. Although, it is often difficult for Nola to maintain this image, but she does work hard to hide it well.  Indeed, this is perhaps the very first book I’ve read where the female protagonist is one that is most often written for your male counterparts— the male detective, the male crime reporter and crime thrillers in general. You know those guys, the ones that drink way too much, live a solitary existence in a seedy apartment, seek out meaningless sex partners, etc. Nola tops this all and pushes it even further than what you normally read for female characters.

Castro has presented a thriller that absolutely keeps you on the edge of your seat, as Nola, the reporter for the Times-Biscayne takes us on a journey through New Orleans that is not all Mardi Gras and quaint. Nola is presented with a job from her editor that she is at first thrilled to take on. This could mean a major break for her and one that can take her away from this godforsaken city that she despises. It’s a gritty, dirty despicable assignment and one where she must find and interview sex offenders that have “gone off the grid”. Post-Katrina presents New Orleans with a situation that extends beyond repairing its architecture. Thousands of convicted sex offenders have been set free and are living among its good citizens.

But, the more Nola becomes involved in the story, the more unraveled she becomes, and not in a good way. She’s increasingly drunk, seeking out anonymous and dangerous sex partners and lapsing into deeper and more terrifying nightmares. She is barely able to keep up appearances to her girl-friends and is now at risk of losing her job. In the end, she writes the trail-blazing article that gives her that most-wanted recognition she’s been striving for, but also reveals something about her past in the process. The ending of Hell or High Water is extremely satisfying, as you are left hanging on the edge of your seat, and what you think may be coming down the pipe, does, but not at all in the way you were expecting. At all! Great stuff!

8844428Hell or High Water is the first in a potentially 3-book series. I know I can’t wait to read the next in the series, due out by the end of this year.  This story also reminded me of another hard-hitting, fact-based book I read a couple of years ago, but is one that I haven’t forgotten and is titled, “So Much Pretty” by Cara Hoffman. My Goodreads review on that book can be found here.

Jackie’s Review of Hell or High Water – 3.5 stars

Hell or High Water is not a book that I would have chosen on my own. A woman is kidnapped while on vacation in New Orleans while at the same time a female reporter is writing an expose about sex offenders who have “gone off the grid” during the Hurricane Katrina evacuation? I didn’t think it would have been my cup of tea. I keep saying that I am not much of a fan of “crime fiction” but with each and every one I read with the Critical Era Book Club it is seems that is no longer an entirely true statement! I am glad I was “obligated” to read this one because it would have been a shame to skip it!

This book was dark, gritty and even uncomfortable to read at times. The inner thoughts of extreme sexual predators and some of the situations that arose really did have me on the edge of my seat! I was so nervous for Nola the entire time I was reading! Her risky behaviour and abrasive tongue had me shouting out loud– SMARTEN UP AND BE MORE CAREFUL!! But I was always routing for her– Nola is definitely a strong and flawed female protagonist that rivals Lisbeth Salander in her awesomeness! I just LOVED her honesty, her take charge ways and that prickly personality. I am SO looking forward to more Nola in the next book!

When you weren’t looking over your shoulder waiting for the Boogeyman to appear author Joy Castro (who really was a sweetheart and a “Joy” to speak with) treated the reader to everyday scenes that a real person would still need to attend to despite the demands of a job/writing assignment. We saw Nola attending church with her mother, grabbing a coffee or a Muffuletta at the cafe, attending a friend’s wedding and even taking her “Little Sister” to the zoo. That may have come across as mundane in a lesser writer’s hands but in this case it helped to make the city of New Orleans into a character unto itself which enhanced the story even more. It DEFINITELY made Nola more human as she became overwhelmed and eventually fell apart at the seams.

And the ending!?? WOW! Didn’t expect that ending! Yes! Good GOOD stuff! Read it!

We slick on our makeup and carve angels in stone. We drink absinthe and double-knot the ribbons of our masks. We pretty up what we can. Here in New Orleans, nothing that’s buried can stay buried long.