Book review by
Joly Herman, Common Sense Media
Pasadena Book Poster Image
Edgy noir with violent sex, drugs best for mature teens.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Sophisticated writing style more highbrow than many teen novels. Some words worth looking up: "sycophant," "miasma," "soporifics," "illicit." Brief references to Greek myths of Orpheus and Midas.

Positive Messages

Keep trying to build bridges with friends and family, because nothing lasts forever. Forgiveness may take a while, but it's worth it. We are all worthy of love. Good things can happen even when bad things happen.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The adults in this novel are either checked out, doing drugs, or unable to protect or connect with the teens. Jude's therapist, Dr. B., stands out as a positive influence on Jude because she can confide in her, whereas Jude and her mom aren't able to have meaningful conversations.


Much of the violence in the book has to do with sex: Maggie talks about preferring sex when she's roughed up; rape, pedophilia, and sexual violence are themes for more than one character. The plot centers on the mystery surrounding a teen's death; whether it was suicide or murder preoccupies the characters, who act as de facto detectives.


Sex is not described; rather, there are descriptions of the effects of sex on characters. Abortion is a topic. A teen is rumored to have choked himself in a kinky suicide. A character has contracted gonorrhea after having casual sex. Maggie strips in front of her friends and jumps into the pool.


Frequent strong language includes "f--king," "f--ck off," "douche," "bitch," "bastard," "ass," "jackass," "a--hole," "piss," "s--t," "bulls--t," "d--k," "hussy," "jerking off," "prick," "s--tbox," "screw," "damn," "hell." 


Brands mentioned for scene setting: Jamba Juice, ZX convertible, Coffee Bean, Nintendo, iPod, Maybelline, Hallmark. Prescription drugs: Vicodin, Valium, Rohypnol, Flunitrazepam.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Though the main character doesn't drink or do drugs, everybody else does. Underage drunkenness is normal, as is smoking pot. Maggie's found dead with a "bellyful of drugs," and she smoked "glamorously" and ordered filterless cigarettes off the internet. A parent's girlfriend asks Jude if she wants to get high, saying it might help her grief. A glass marijuana pipe is described. The adults who encourage drinking and drugs are viewed as approachable and not uptight. Prescription drugs mentioned.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Pasadena is a noir mystery in which a teen girl tries to figure out if her best girlfriend's death in a pool was caused by foul play. The novel depicts a world where suicide, rough sex, seductive behavior among teens, pedophilia, and drug use by adults and teens are the norm. Kids are left by checked-out parents to navigate their days and nights, eating alone at coffee shops for breakfast, coming and going at all hours without anyone caring. Parents are described as overly cloying if they try to exhibit concern -- or, alternately, are deemed acceptable if they offer drugs and alcohol. 

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What's the story?

In Sherri L. Smith's thriller PASADENA, Jude is on summer vacation in New Jersey when she hears that her best friend, Maggie Kim, has been found floating face up in a swimming pool in Southern California. Jude flies back to Pasadena, a city east of Los Angeles, puts the pieces together, and suspects foul play. Her friend Joey provides cover, gives her rides, and helps her question possible suspects as Jude uncovers some larger life lessons and is forced to cope with her own dark past as she faces a a future without Maggie.

Is it any good?

An effective page-turner, this noir novel exposes the weaknesses of a community where teens are left to run wild. A teenage wasteland is a good setting for foul play in Pasadena, and the protagonist, Jude, is jaded enough to make a decent noir antihero. It's a seductive world of jaunts to Malibu in a camper van with pot-smoking teen lovebirds, or an alcohol-soaked party at someone's hippie dad's house. It's a place where an iced coffee and a cigarette makes for breakfast -- and where roofies and negligees are the stuff of nightmares.

Though Sherri L. Smith's writing can be overly descriptive at times ("well-tended Victorian houses staunchly ignore the shower as tourists run by in flip-flops and canopied bicycle surreys"), she does nail the atmosphere and teen social scene of L.A.'s suburbs. An enjoyable read for fans of noir or for sophisticated urban teens who are not surprised by what their peers in big cities are getting up to.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how suicide is depicted in Pasadena. Is it viewed as a normal part of life? How is suicide dealt with on the TV shows and in the movies you watch? 

  • Drug and alcohol use is normal for kids in this book. What's viewed as normal by your peers? What do you find extreme in Pasadena?

  • Jude's parents are divorced, as are Joey's and Eppie's. How do their lives differ from those of other kids in Pasadena? How does divorce affect the kids you know?

Book details

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For kids who love mysteries

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