Saturday, November 10, 2012

Joy Castro, A New Voice in Literary Suspense

Hell or High Water: A NovelTouted by none other than Dennis Lehane, Joy Castro, literature teacher at the University of Nebraska, will be sharing the stage with another Lehane admiree, Atticka Locke, at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival next March. I'm so looking forward to meeting the two of them.

I've been listening to Ms. Castro's book in my car while simultaneously listening to Gillian Flynn's much ballyhooed Gone Girl on my ipod and I have to say, as devious and clever as Gone Girl is, the less well known Hell or High Water seemed to me a more superior novel.

Joy Castro's characters have heart. They are real, tangible people that you might actually know and their behavior is the result of understandable motivations. The excellent reading by Audie winner Roxanne Hernandez brought the characters to life for me. Her gorgeous Spanish language skills added depth to the narration as well.

The setting for Hell or High Water is post Katrina New Orleans and the news room of the famous Times-Picayune, where Nola Cespedes, a promising young journalist is working on a feature story that will propel her from the Arts and Leisure section to the front page - or so she hopes. But she's got to get her act together. Out trolling for men every night, drinking into the wee hours of the morning, and showing up late with an attitude, is not the way she'll endear herself to co-workers or her boss Bailey.

The damaged city of New Orleans as it tries to rise from the ashes of Katrina is a metaphor here for the damaged characters who fill this novel. It opens with the disappearance of a young woman from a French Quarter restaurant in broad daylight, later found raped and murdered. The article that Nola is working on revolves around sexual predators who have served their time and the difficulties they face while trying to reintegrate into society. Castro is doing a good service here, teaching through her characters, the good, the bad and the ugly, the men who Nola confronts and interviews in often awkward circumstances.

There is a constant atmosphere of underlying tension throughout the novel that keeps one on edge. Nola is so smart, a Tulane graduate, hanging with a posse of great gals with careers and lives, but the reader learns through Nola's first person voice, that she always feels like an outsider. She is prickly and resentful of her background growing up in the projects. She has worked hard at hiding her past but still harbors a sense of loyalty to the less fortunate that she left behind.

She's distrustful of men and rebuffs all attempts at true intimacy in favor of one night stands without names or faces. She only feels safe with her roommate, a gay man who will never be a threat, and with her newly acquired pistol that accompanies her everywhere. On Sundays, like any good Latino young lady, she takes her mother to church and reverts to the woman she could be for a few hours.

It's not often that I don't see it coming but when the shocking thing happens, you know, the gun that's introduced in the beginning of a play must be used before the end, I almost stopped my car on the side of the road. Yup, Joy Castro did what Gillian Flynn didn't - took me by surprise. Take a look at her website, grab a copy of her book, meet her in March. You won't regret it!

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