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Home » Books & writing

Book Review: U IS FOR UNDERTOW

Submitted by on December 13, 2009 – 12:51 am 11 Comments

I’ve been reading Sue Grafton for a quarter century now, starting in high school when I found her books in the school library (I spent a lot of time there). I devoured the “A” through “C” Kinsey Millhone adventures like an ex-con having his first meal on the outside. Over the years, the books were uneven but I kept reading out of obligation, as if Kinsey had become an old friend whose imperfections I accepted. I listened to her tales even if she rambled a little.

I was thrilled, then, to find her latest adventure, U is for Undertow, utterly captivating. After only a few pages, I knew Kinsey was back on track and I could dive in out of pure pleasure.

The case begins when Kinsey is approached by a young man named Michael Sutton who suddenly remembers something that happened when he was six years old. At the time, Sutton attached no significance to the incident but, after reading a newspaper article about an unsolved 21-year-old kidnapping of a little girl, he believes what he saw were two people burying the child.

After Sutton hires Kinsey to investigate, the story moves back and forth between 1988 (Kinsey’s present) and 1967, when the kidnapping occurred. Grafton deftly juggles multiple POVs; besides Kinsey’s, the author doles out pieces of the puzzle from the perspectives of several characters who are directly and tangentially involved in the crime, painting a full-bodied portrait of each. The plot turns in unpredictable directions and though it might be obvious early on who did it, Grafton keeps you guessing about the why.

The case is complex enough to keep Kinsey busy, but she’s also grappling with personal issues after making startling discoveries about her past which destroy her long-held perceptions of certain family members. Because the books are told in first person and I’ve sided with Kinsey for years against the relatives who abandoned her as a child, these new revelations threw me for a loop as well. Kinsey won’t be able to change overnight but at the end of this book, she takes brave, hopeful steps towards what could be an extreme life makeover.

Nerd verdict: Strong Undertow will pull you in

11 Comments »

  • MelodyGirl says:

    I’m enjoying this one, too. I skipped the last few books after having major problems with “Q” but this one’s got me hooked on Kinsey again.

    Thanks for a good review without spoilers!

  • EIREGO says:

    I avoid Sue Grafton as a rule now. I have read some of her books, but never felt she deserved her rabid fan base, especially regarding the ‘Kinsey’ character. Kinsey is way too whiny for me. I have the same feelings about pretty much all of John Grisham’s heroes. I find them both formulaic and, other than a decent hooky plotline once in a while, quite predictable. BUT if you say it’s worth the read, I will promise to reserve judgment while reading the first two chapters of “U.”

  • Jen Forbus says:

    As someone who hasn’t read the whole series, is this a book you can read without the background or do you think previous books are necessary to fully understand “U”?

  • READER#9 says:

    Sue Grafton is hit or miss for me. I think it has a lot to do with writing a whole series of books using the alphabet as a guideline. I impressed with her for taking on the task, but I think it naturally effects the creative process to work in this manner. I have enjoyed the Kinsey character though and, since you say this is a good one, I’ll check it out.

  • I love your play on words with your verdict, PCN. You always come up with something clever ~ I’ve been meaning to sincerely praise and flatter you for that for a while now!

  • Pop Culture Nerd says:

    MelodyGirl—I’m glad you’re liking it, too! I’ll also confess to not loving Q.

    EIREGO—I think after 2 chapters, you’ll want to read more. If not, please feel free to come back and yell at me.

    Jen—you can still enjoy this if you haven’t read the others. Grafton is very good at including all the necessary facts for you to understand what’s going on. BUT, there are revelations here that upend some things Kinsey have believed for years about her personal history (these disclosures don’t spoil any past cases). So, you can skip all the angst and get to the truth!

    Reader#9—I mentioned the hit-or-miss thing in my review (I think it’s understandable in a series that’s been around as long as this one) but this one is GOOD.

    Shell—thanks! Sometimes I think they border on cheesy but I enjoy trying to come up with them. Well, except when I’ve got nothing and just want to write, “It’s good. Read it.”

  • Haven’t read a lot of her books, as I find the personal information distracts from the main plot and slows the novels down. But she is a good writer and gave her a good review on this book.

  • The Wild Sow says:

    Melody Girl — Try “S is for Silence” — it’s fabulous. Sadly, “T is for Trespass” is more like “Tripe” — skip that one. Dumb story, repulsive characters, and chock-full of anachronisms.

    U, now, back to the great storytelling Grafton is capable of.

  • MelodyGirl says:

    Hi Wild Sow, thanks for the recommendation. I heard horrible things about “T” but will perhaps read “S” now based on what you said and the fact I like “U” so much.

  • BichonBookie says:

    I’ve enjoyed all of Sue Grafton’s books that I’ve read . . . . probably about half of the alphabet series. Also enjoyed “U” but to me, it didn’t sound like it was in her usual voice. Sentence structure, pace seemed different. Just me or you, too?

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      HI BichonBookie,

      Except for the multiple POVs, I thought this one reverted back to what I liked about her earliest books, A – C, which were my favorites. Somewhere around P or Q, the voice went astray for me so I skipped a couple books after that.

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