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Saturday, May 28, 2011

'Beauty Queens' by Libba Bray

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Teen beauty queens. A lost island. Mysteries and dangers. No access to email. And the spirit of fierce, feral competition that lives deep in the heart of every girl, a savage brutality that can only be revealed by a journey into the heart of non-exfoliated darkness. Oh, the horror, the horror! Only funnier. With evening gowns. And a body count.

Join Libba Bray in this wicked satire of beauty pageants, reality TV and teen pop culture.

Little girls want to be them. Boys want to bring them home to Mama. And dirty old men want to ogle them from the comfort of their couches ... they are the Teen Dream contestants. Competing for the title of ‘Miss Teen Dream’ in the beauty pageant that stops a nation (or at least it used to, when ratings were better).

On their way to film the opening dance number for the pageant, a terrible accident befalls these teen dreamers. Their plane crashes on a deserted island. Half the contestants, their handlers and the camera crew die in a fiery grave. There’s no cell phone reception. No radio contact. Nobody knows where they are . . . and their makeup is waterlogged!

There’s no polar bear on this mysterious island, but strange things are happening. Like giant, girl-eating snakes and men in black running around, not to mention a discovered supply of Lady StacheOff exploding hair removal cream . . . and reality-TV boy-band pirates.

It’s up to these teen dreamers (self-named ‘Sparkle Ponies’ and ‘Lost Girls’, for awesome effect) to beautify the island and carve out some survival tactics, while also practicing their question-and-answers and working on a killer tan.

‘Beauty Queens’ is the new young adult book from Libba Bray.

I was a little sceptical going into ‘Beauty Queens’. Sure, putting pageant misses on a deserted island is bound to offer up a few laughs. But I was doubtful of reading a running-gag for 390-pages. So it’s a good thing that Bray has written a book that’s jam-packed with hilarity, social commentary and fabulous feminism.

First and foremost, ‘Beauty Queens’ is a total snort-fest. The kind of book that induces you to laugh with abandon until snot comes out of your nose and people on the train look at you weird. Libba Bray isn’t giving us subtle, tongue-in-cheek humour here. She revels in stereotypes (the Beauty Pageant circuit offers a plethora to choose form) and she writes big, goofy typecasts that are outlandishly funny.

“Ahem. Dear Jesus,” Taylor intoned more fervently. “We just want to thank you for gettin’ us here safe–”
There was a loud, gurgling groan. Somebody shouted, “Oh my gosh! Miss Delaware just died!”
“– for gettin’ some of us here safe,” Taylor continued. “And we pray that, as we are fine, upstandin’, law-abidin’ girls who represent the best of the best, you will protect us from harm and keep us safe until we are rescued and can tell our story to People magazine. Amen.”

But Libba Bray also mixes some surprises amongst her characters. There’s Sosie Simmons (Miss Illinois) a deaf contestant and avid dancer. Petra West (Miss Rhode Island) is a girl with a big secret. Jennifer Huberman (Miss Michigan) is doing the pageant as a part of a juvie-outreach program and coming to accept her homosexuality. Nicole Ade (Miss Colorado) and Shanti Singh (Miss California) are the token ‘black girls’ who are competing against their skin colour and bending to family pressure. And then there’s Adina Greenberg (Miss New Hampshire) who is a beauty queen spy, intent on subterfuge for the sake of journalistic integrity and feminism. These characters elevate the story above a running-gag, and despite there being so many to keep track of, each of their stories is memorable and funny enough to keep them all in line.

There’s a shadowy presence throughout the novel. ‘The Corporation’ own the Teen Dream pageant, as well as a number of beauty products and fashion lines, they also produce movies and TV shows aimed at the young and beautiful set. Bray hilariously incorporates ‘The Corporation’ into the novel with footnotes, advertising, ™ and © references which gives some idea of the real-world pressures these teen dreamers cope with, while also perpetuating the mock media machine. This side-story, like the caricature Pageant Queens, is not subtle and requires no reading between the lines. This is Libba Bray mocking and criticizing people’s fascination with being beautiful, having the latest and looking the coolest. The Corporation make TV shows like ‘Design This!’, which allows a girl to interior decorate her worst enemy’s bedroom. They make stuff like ‘DiscomfortWear’ which has been known to eliminate circulation while minimizing lumps and bumps! This is Libba Bray flaying consumerism with witty subterfuge – she makes a mockery of teen sensations and latest crazes, by holding up a fun-house mirror of truth for readers to stare into, horrified and cackling.

‘Beauty Queens’ is big on laughs and determined to mock empty pop culture. But there’s also a fair bit of heart to this novel. For all that Libba Bray teases the Beauty Queen stereotype; she also shatters it by getting to the heart of the matter and remaking these baton-twirling, high heel-wearing dreamers into strong, lipsticked Amazonian warriors;

“I've been thinking about that book about the boys who crash on the island,” Mary Lou said to Adina one afternoon as they rested on their elbows taking bites from the same papaya.
“Lord of the Flies. What about it?”
“You know how you said it wasn’t a true measure of humanity because there were no girls and you wondered how it would be different if there had been girls?”
May Lou wiped fruit juice from her mouth with the back of her hand. “Maybe girls need an island to find themselves. Maybe they need a place where no one’s watching them so they can be who they really are.”
Adina gazed at the expanse of unknowable ocean. “Maybe.”
There was something about the island that made the girls forget who they had been. All those rules and shalt nots. They were no longer waiting for some arbitrary grade. They were no longer performing. Waiting. Hoping.
They were becoming.
They were.

‘Beauty Queens’ is what you’d get if Diablo Cody and JJ Abrams wrote a novel together – it’s full of biting sarcasm and ridiculous hilarity, with an awesomely complicated survivor-esque plot. There’s consumerist propaganda, singing reality-TV star pirates and a swimwear component. Libba Bray has written a mock-pop-culture extravaganza that should be on everyone’s must-read list this year!



  1. wow, I would NOT have thought this was so great from the cover... it goes to show you, huh?

    Awesome review! JJ Abrahms and Diablo Cody? I am SOLD!

  2. Totally agree on all aspects! Great review!

    Beauty Queens was amazing; have you read Libba's book Going Bovine? Also extremely funny.

  3. @ Skye - no, this was my first Libba Bray experience ... but it won't be my last!

  4. The only books I've read by Libba Bray are in the Gemma Doyle trilogy, but I think I'd like to see her do satire. Sounds like a good read!


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