Rebuilding a city


The laborious acts of physical rebuilding and personal recovery become scintillating themes in Joy Castro’s compelling mystery fiction debut. The rebuilding is the continued renewal of New Orleans. But equally as important to this engrossing story is the personal growth of Nola Cespedes, a young reporter whose chance to prove herself forces her to take a hard look at her own life.

Nola desperately wants to write news at the Times-Picayune, but this young reporter has no idea about how to compromise or how to show her bosses how capable she can be. Although her editors know she has talent, Nola has alienated her bosses and her co-workers with her attitude. She also is such a novice that she doesn’t recognize a story that could make a career when it is handed to her — a look at the more than 800 sex offenders who have gone off the grid since Katrina and are still living in New Orleans. Nola learns what motivates sexual offenders as her investigation travels through the poorest neighborhoods and the wealthiest, where a matron frets not that her son raped teenagers but that his arrest dried up their social invitations. The story heats up even more when Nola links one of the offenders to the disappearance of a young tourist from a crowded restaurant.

Set in 2008, Hell or High Water vividly illustrates a New Orleans still in chaos from Katrina. Although The Times-Picayune has gone to a three-times-a-week print product this past year, Castro delivers a realistic look at an active newsroom and how vital a print newspaper can be to its readers.

Although she was named after the city, Nola has little affection for her hometown and dreams of working in New York. Her ambition stems not just from a desire to get ahead but also to prove that she can rise above her upbringing in the poverty-level Desire Projects. Her dislike of the Big Easy parallels her own unease with herself and her background.

Hell or High Water is just the beginning of what should be a long-running series.

Oline H. Cogdill reviewed this book for The Sun Sentinel.

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