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Book Review – Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith

5198d45tByLI said yes to an ARC of Sherri L. Smith’s new novel Pasadena solely on the basis of my deep enjoyment of her last one, The Toymaker’s Apprentice. She is a marvelously gifted author, but I had no idea what I was getting into. What Smith has produced this time, in Pasadena, is a devastatingly honest exploration of loss, grief, trauma, friendship and family – both the kind we are born into and the kind we choose.

It is the summer before their senior year, and Jude is on the east coast visiting cousins when she gets the phone call letting her know that her best friend Maggie has been found dead in her family’s swimming pool. She rushes back to California to confront any number of situations she was trying to escape. There is the failed attempt at a relationship with her other best friend, Joey, that she is trying to ignore. There is the situation at home with her mother’s boyfriend, Roy. And there is the fact that she must confront, now that Maggie is gone, that their group of friends was really only held together by Maggie. Maggie was the center of the wheel, and all her friends, including Jude, are the spokes. Just as Jude has a secret that she has only shared with Maggie, so also have the others confided in Maggie. IT seems that she was everyone’s best friend, and now she is gone.

There are so many things to adore in this novel. Foremost is the voice of the narrator, Jude. Through her, we see and feel both the devastation of her loss and her determination to discover what really happened the night that Maggie died. Through Jude’s lens, we see the disparate lifestyles of Pasadena, from mansions to seedy rentals to crumbling but cozy beach houses, from teens driving cars that cost more than I make in a year to teens driving camper vans to surf at the beach to teens like Jude, with only her feet for transportation. We also see the disparate parenting styles of the families of her group of friends through the honest and cynical veil of Jude’s adolescence. Everything in the novel feels so immediate and real, including the heat, smoke, and ash from the wildfires.

While there are innumerable things to dissect and discuss from the novel, I want to focus on only one point that it drove home with great accuracy: never, never ignore someone’s jokes about suicide. Having spent 20+ years as a public school librarian, I was well versed in our yearly training on suicide awareness and prevention. On multiple occasions I referred students to guidance counselors, social workers, and school psychologists simply because they made an adolescent joke about suicide. Because you never know. For me, it was second nature. Is it for today’s tweens and teens, though? I know that the school I last worked in did yearly suicide screenings of every 7th grade student. But were they teaching the students how to look for signs in their friends? Without being preachy or didactic, Smith does an excellent job of driving home this point.

I think this is both a beautiful and important novel and would recommend it for any collection serving teens in grades 8 and up.

From the publisher:

When Jude’s best friend is found dead
in a swimming pool, her family calls it an accident.  Her friends call it suicide.  But Jude calls it what it is:  murder.  And someone has to pay.

Now everyone is a suspect—family and friends alike.  And Jude is digging up the past like bones from a shallow grave.  Anything to get closer to the truth.  But that’s the thing about secrets.  Once they start turning up, nothing is sacred.  And Jude’s got a few skeletons of her own.

In a homage to the great noir stories of Los Angeles,  award-winning author Sherri L. Smith’s Pasadena is a tale of love, damage and salvation set against the back drop of California’s City of Roses.

Pasadena will be available from G.P. Putnam and Sons on September 13, 2016.


  1. Robin, thank you, and thank you for adding your insight and experience. We all need to listen more, and help where we can.


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