Audio Book Review: Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray

April 28, 2015 at 8:20 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Audio books have not, traditionally, been kind to me. They’ve just never meshed with my particular manifestation of ADD. Sitting and just *listening* to something inevitably makes me drift away-it made lecture classes a unique breed of hell in college. Lately, though, I’ve discovered that I do pretty well listening to books I’ve already read and loved, as long as I’m doing something else at the same time, like cleaning/packing, driving, crafting, or leveling up in video games. This weekend, I listened to Beauty Queens by Libba Bray.

Beauty Queens

I reviewed the book a few years ago, when it first came out, and it’s absolutely hysterical and subversive and thought-provoking and fantastic. I loved it.

And now, having listened to the audio book, I might get down on my knees and worship it a little.

One of the unavoidable problems with audio books is that you HAVE to have a good narrator or actors (I do have a love of full cast audio, a la Tamora Pierce or Brian Jacques). A bad narrator can absolutely kill a good book, but it is extremely difficult to find people who can read consistently over long periods of time (weeks, in many cases, to get enough good takes to edit together), read clearly without over-doing it, AND do distinct voices for characters without shredding your ears. (Example: I recently listened to the first Harry Potter narrated by Jim Dale, and think he does an amazing job–except for Hermione, whose voice made me want to retch with every line) It’s a challenge, and there are many, many audio books that fail to meet this challenge sufficiently.

I am VERY happy to say that Beauty Queens is not one of those.

It’s narrated by Libba Bray–you don’t often find authors reading their own books outside of non-fiction–and she does an AMAZING job. Nearly every voice is distinct, and those that aren’t belong to characters who are, by design, not particularly distinct to begin with. Even heavily accented characters, like the very Miss Texas, or the British-inflected Indian Miss California, don’t lose clarity. The regional dialects are respected, and for the most part (MOST part) not made outlandish. When they are, it’s because that’s the joke. I think the only character voice I had any issue with was Adina (Miss New Hampshire) who had a bit of a flat affect that made it difficult to hear sometimes, but that flatness fit her character so well it was easy to forgive.

This is a rare example of an audio book that can actually give you a little more than the book itself. Part of that comes from fantastic sound effects, like background for the commercial breaks, little chimes for the forty-something footnotes (seriously, footnotes; only novel other than Good Omens where they fit so perfectly), and every single character that mentions a trademarked item gives a high-pitched, sing-song TM after the full product name. A larger part of it, though, comes from being as close to inside the author’s head as it’s possible to be. Here, in the very purposeful choices of delivery, we get unexpected depths to characters who already had the ability to surprise.

One of the strongest elements of that came out in Taylor Renee Crystal Hawkins (aka Miss Texas). She’s a huge personality, completely dedicated to the Miss Teen Dream pageant and a set of very stereotypically Texas ideals. She’s meant to be larger than life, and she absolutely is–but listening to her, rather than reading her, also gives more of an edge to what is, ultimately, a profoundly sympathetic and pitiable character. The performance of Taylor’s break with an already fragile reality is exquisitely performed. Tiara, Miss Mississippi, is still sweet and sincere and too stupid to breathe, but we hear more of that sweetness, and the uncertainty just beneath it. Her obliviousness, and her simple joys and the growth she makes as a character, all come through so much stronger with Libba Bray’s performance.

And then there’s Ladybird Hope. A veteran (dare I say dowager queen?) of the Miss Teen Dream Pageant, a sponsor of the pageant, a corporate superstar, and presidential hopeful, there was always something in her that came off strongly reminiscent of Sarah Palin in the book. Given that the voice was only in my head, it was easy to shrug off that resemblance as pure coincidence. With the audio book? It is definitely not a coincidence. There were many places in this book where I nearly hurt myself laughing, but it was a definite risk EVERY TIME we heard from Ladybird Hope. Really just THE definition of painfully funny.

Beauty Queens is a ridiculous, high-strung journey into the absurd, stretching the absolute limits of plausibility, but travels through genuine, thought-provoking regions of gender and femininity and what those concepts actually mean. It’s a phenomenal book that I love to push into people’s hands, either to start the conversation or continue the discussion, and the audio presentation not only lives up to that love, but quite possibly surpasses it. Even for those like me who love the book, I strongly recommend the audio for your rereading enjoyment. And many congratulations to Ms Bray for taking an already phenomenal book and leading it to make even more of an impact.

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