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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Book Review: Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray

May 28, 2011 at 9:00 am (Book Reviews) (, , , )

I know I usually start off book reviews with a summary of the book, but I honestly have no idea how to give this book a proper summary that comes anywhere close to doing it justice. Here’s the jacket copy: The fifty contestants of the Miss Teen Dream Pageant thought this was going to be a fun trip to the beach, where they could parade in their state-appropriate costumes and compete in front of the cameras. But sadly, their airplane had another idea, crashing on a desert island and leaving the survivors stranded with little food, little water, and practically no eyeliner.
What’s a beauty queen to do? Continue to practice for the talent portion of the program- or wrestle snakes to the ground? Get a perfect tan- or learn to run wild? And what should happen when the sexy pirates show up?
Welcome to the heart of none-exfoliated darkness. Your tour guide? None other than Libba Bray, the hilarious, sensational, Printz Award-winning author of
A Great and Terrible Beauty and Going Bovine. The result is a novel that will make you laugh, make you think, and make you never see beauty the same way again.

In a nutshell? It’s Lost meets Lord of the Flies meets Heart of Darkness meets Drop Dead Gorgeous.

If that isn’t enough to make your head explode, I don’t know what is.

This book is hysterical, as in be careful about where you’re reading it because people will look at you oddly if you burst out laughing in public. Do not start this book when you have something else to do. Do not takes sips from your drink while looking at the pages, and make very sure you swallow before you return to reading. Eating is probably also a hazard. It’s ridiculous, beyond crazy, and over-the-top.

It’s also brilliantly sneaky.

Let’s be honest: almost the only people who take beauty pageants seriously are the contestants, their parents, and their handlers coaches. They are the butt of so many jokes, probably because they seem like such easy targets. I don’t mean in any way to imply that there aren’t incredibly intelligent, talented, wonderful women that participate in pageants. I’m just saying that picking on beauty queens is like the grown-up version of picking on cheerleaders. Miss Congeniality pretty much nailed public opinions of beauty pageants- they’re all self-absorbed airheads with a bizzare range of ‘skills and interests’ who give safe, politically correct interview answers, give the judges and audience exactly what they want, and might as well be talking Barbies for all the genuine personality they show.

They seem like caricatures.

And at first, that is exactly what Bray gives us. Every single one of these girls comes off as a caricature, a smiling and waving picture of a perfect primping princess. There’s the die-hard who lives and breathes pageants. There’s the one who seems too stupid to breathe and panics when faced with something that hasn’t been practiced and memorized for endless interviews. There’s the anti-pageant feminist who’s out for blood- or at least sabotage and humiliation of the companies and people that exploit women in such a way. There’s the sweetheart. There’s the lesbian. There’s the black girl. The other-minority girl, in this case Indian. The joyfully-overcoming-disability girl, in this case deaf. None of these girls are a surprise when we’re introduced to them, so we sit back and relax and settle in for a few hundred pages of sheer ridiculosity.

Then slowly, sneakily, they start to surprise us, and themselves. Secrets start to emerge, realizations are made, there are things to be discovered. Here’s the true genius: we laugh at the caricatures as we encounter them, but as continue, we start to find that some of these girls don’t even know who they are beneath those perky, perfect pageant personalities. They’ve been doing this so long, or so desperately feel the need to win, that they’ve entirely made themselves over in the images they think people want to see. And now, stuck on an island with the need to survive and no one to watch them or judge them, they have a brave and terrifying world spreading before them. It’s a little bit tragic, but also amazing to watch. These girls suddenly have to find out- or decide- who they really are, even if that means disappointing the family members they’re not entirely sure they’ll ever see again.

The resourcefulness never loses its edge of funny- like turning heels and bras into weapons or a prom dress into a desalinization process- but it’s never out of the blue. All the things they’ve been doing for years for the pageant circuit gradually find real-life applications. Most of these girls, virtually indistinguishable at the beginning of the book, grow into real, solid people. The dumb one is still too dumb to breathe but there’s something painfully sweet about her and the revelations that unfold about her history. The anti-pageant still rages at the slightest provocation but she also learns that wanting to be pretty isn’t necessarily a sign of shallowness. The good girl learns that it’s okay to be a little wild.

As one of them very astutely points out, the boys in Lord of the Flies crash in the wildnerness and descend into savagery. The girls crash in the wilderness and find themselves to such a degree that ‘lost’ is only a physical description of location.

My favorite part actually sneaks its way through the entire book: I LOVE the footnotes. Seriously: footnotes. They’re scattered through the book, some fifty of them, and they’re almost always product pitches for The Corporation, the somewhat shadowy organization/network that seems to have pretty much taken over all of pop culture. The products are ridiculous and absurd and slightly frightening, and some of them come complete with commercial transcripts and ‘word from the sponsor’s. We also get sneak peeks at the girls’ information forms for the pageant and classified descriptions of things going on elsewhere that all come to a head near the end of the book (sneaky sneaky around the spoilers).

Librarians, you may end up taking parents to the mat over this one, but it’s worth it to get it included on the school shelves. There’s coarse language, there’s sex, there’s frank talk of anatomy, all the things that stoke the flames of battles over what is and is not acceptable in school libraries. But it’s amazing and totally worth the battles it might engender. As over-the-top as it frequently is, there are amazing things to learn from it, and frankly, they’re things I think teen girls could definitely use the reinforcement on. As funny as the book and the circumstances are, it’s ultimately empowering, not in an uber-feminist hate all men and prettifying cultture kind of way, but in a real, down to earth, this is a sensible way to live kind of way. The fact that we get that from beauty queens crashing on an island is a little terrifying but it’s true. These girls learn that there’s more to life than being perfectly beautiful and universally adored and what everyone else wants them to be, but they also learn that it’s okay to have a beauty regimen as long as it stays within reasonable boundaries. And it’s not a bad book to put in boys’ hands either. At first they’ll just sit back and laugh at how stupid so many of the girls are and act, but substance creeps in so subtly they might not even notice it until they’ve already had their eyes opened.

Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray, the reason I spent most of an afternoon giggling myself breathless. Definitely check this one out!

Until next time~

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