Marlene Perez, Dead is the New Black (Harcourt, 2008)

Dead is the New Black is the first in a new series by YA author Marlene Perez. Daisy Giordano has always felt like the odd one out. In a town 'chock-full of the unknown, the unusual, the unexpected' and in a family of gifted psychics, Daisy is normal. No telepathy, no telekinesis, no special powers or secret identities -- just unruly hair and a talent for cookery. When her mother asks her older sister Rose for help with a case it's the final straw for Daisy. She's going to prove that she can help solve crimes too, powers or no.

Only with cheerleaders dropping like flies and the "Divine" Devereaux, head cheerleader and Daisy's arch-enemy, reinventing herself as a gothic fashion-plate over the summer, that might not be as easy as Daisy hoped. Luckily she has some skills that even she doesn't know she possesses and she can always depend on Ryan, son of the local police chief and maybe more than a friend to Daisy, to help her investigate.

Dead is the New Black is a fun, quirky urban fantasy with a likable protagonist and an even more likable cast of secondary and background characters, including the town of Nightshade itself. The cast is enchantingly off-beat and original, from the world-weary waitress and her erratic, prophetic sentient jukebox to Devereaux dragging an actual coffin around as a fashion accessory. Daisy is a good-hearted and believably flawed heroine, clinging to her insecurities and preconceptions despite the evidence to the contrary. The male characters -- from the romantic lead Ryan to Daisy's absentee father -- tend to be less developed and serve mainly as foils for the female characters. But then the book is clearly aimed at a female readership -- right down to the hot pink and black cover -- and there are plenty of indications that both Ryan and Daisy's missing father will probably recur in later books. They will likely get more developed then, along with the town of Nightshade itself, with its strange history and secretive paranormal Council set up by the founding families of the town.

Perez has also created a soundtrack for the novel that can be seen on her Web site, a fun addition to the world. Especially when you remember the prophetic jukebox.

Although Dead is the New Black is fun, it struck me as slightly more simplistic than I would expect for YA fare, while at the same time the discussions of boys and relationships might be too sophisticated for the children's market. Daisy was surprisingly unworldly for a sixteen year old and the plot unfurled as much through coincidence as investigation. Still, it was a fun and well-written novel and Marlene Perez took care to wind a number of potential future plots throughout the narrative with some skill.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the next book in the series, Dead is a State of Mind, now that Daisy has come into her own and is involved in the secret side of Nightshade.

[Tammy Moore]