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: The Diviners, by Libba Bray

August 29, 2012 at 7:20 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , )

Evie O’Neill has a posi-tute-ly neat-o party trick that lets her read memories from touching anyone’s personal possessions. Doing it at a party, however, gets her kicked out of her home and sent off to her Uncle Will, in Jazz Age New York. What should be a delightful escapade is soured by the presence of a twisted killer with a ritualistic aspect that brings Will into the investigation. As Evie reconnects with old friends and makes new ones in the heady world of Follies, fashion, and speakeasies, unearthly powers are shfiting, pulling together young men and women with unusual gifts. The Diviners are being called- and their story is only starting.

Sometimes timing sucks, because this ARC arrived right as I was supposed to be getting down to the nitty gritty of packing to move. Nitty gritty didn’t happen until the book was finished, because OH MY GOD, strap in.

As much as I want to speak about this intelligently, I’m not even sure where to start. The characters, the setting, the story, the MAJOR creep factor…there are eight million pieces to this book that all come together in this amazing manner that is just mind-blowing.

So…characters. There are a lot of them. The perspective shifts between them, some of them only with us for a chapter, or even part of a chapter, some of them prominent. In as much as you can say there’s a single MC, it’s Evie, but this is very much an ensemble cast. She’s centerstage for this one, but you get the strong feeling that the others will be taking their turns in later books. Despite the sheer number of characters to keep track of, it doesn’t prove to be a difficult or daunting task- each of them is so finely crafted, so detailed and distinct, that you can’t really confuse them. What I really love about them- all of them- is that they each have specific journeys to make. Every significant character has his or her own story arc that doesn’t end with the final page. This is the definitely the first book of a series, but we don’t have to wait for each book to see the growth. Every character has their surface layers- the slang and the parties, the devil-may-care or the dedication to a cause- but they also have layers of secrets and dark pains that define them just as much as the bobbed hair and charming smile. To talk about them individually would take up the entire review, but in a nutshell, some of the things I loved the most: Mabel’s anxieties, Jericho’s broody introspection, Sam’s adaptability, Theta’s vulnerability, Henry’s generosity, Memphis’ guilt, and Evie’s slow realization of a world beyond illegal gin and patterned stockings. Brilliant.

In opening the front cover of this book, we’re invited into Jazz Age New York, the height of the Roaring Twenties. The Great War is done, leaving in its wake a surge of nationalism and euphoria as the nation heals from the first wholescale slaughter of trench warfare. Prohibition is in effect, women have only recently won the legal right to vote, and social reform has swept the streets of the poorer parts of the city. Harlem is the center of jazz, silent pictures and elaborate burlesque stage shows are in their heyday, with the bells poised to ring their deaths with the creation of talkies. Women are bobbing their hair, showing their knees, and glorying in fashion after the deprivations of war. Slang is rich and fast, and for the flappers and their boys, every day is to be lived to the fullest, without care or concern for anything beyond right now. The details of this world envelop us, never drowning or trying too hard to set the stage or to explain, but simply bringing us into it. I mean EVERY detail, right down to word choice and the fact that you have to crank the car to get it started when it’s cold. I’m not normally a Roaring Twenties girl; I kind of overdosed on it in a phase back in high school and haven’t yet gotten past that. But this is…this book made me fall in love with the Twenties all over again. The setting wraps around us in a million different ways, some of which we don’t even notice until we specifically look for them, but it keeps us firmly planted in a time without cell phones or mini-skirts.

It’s a fantastic story, the supernatural woven through with the obsessive nature of the fanatic, a careful balance between the demonic and the divine. There’s a large degree of disgust that comes with the murders and deepens as we learn more behind the motivations and purpose of the deaths, but there’s also a pervading sense of menace. Be careful reading this book at night- some of the most superbly terrifying parts of this book are packed into just a few pages, even a paragraph or two in the midst of so much more, but you devour the pages and in the back of your mind there’s the little voice that’s singing a child’s song that just sends shivers stabbing down your spine. I don’t think it would be a Libba Bray book if it weren’t laugh out loud funny, but it’s a very different type of humor than, say, Beauty Queens, where everything was in your face and over the top and absurd. Here, the humor is part and parcel of the Roaring Twenties, when wit was fashionable and one-liners were idolized. It’s funny as hell, but it’s fast and snappy, and some of them are most enjoyable when the characters around them miss what’s being said- or why it’s funny. Just as the slang and the rhythms of speech show proof of the flawless and deep research, so does the humor.

And the fact that this is a series? Makes me jump with joy. I’m sorry- I truly am- that I can’t talk about this more coherently, but there is just SO MUCH to this book. It’s a hefty one, so it may lose some of the more impatient readers, but those who stay through til the end? Will be waiting for the next one just as much as I am.

And if you want to win an advance copy before it comes out 18 September, check out my giveaway, open til midnight ending Wednesday, 19 August!

Until next time~

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The Diviners Giveaway!

August 26, 2012 at 9:49 am (Giveaway) (, , , , )

I said there’d be another giveaway, right?

There’ll be an actual review for this on Wednesday, but I move tomorrow and still have a bunch to do, so once again, YOU WIN! This book absolutely blew my mind and I want to share it with you all, so I am giving away my advance copy. Seriously, you want this book; Libba Bray is an absolute genius, and despite the length and the incredible humor, you’re held in thoroughly creepy suspense the entire time.

Part of that creep factor comes from the book trailer.

Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m not a huge book trailer person. Every now and then a really, really good one comes along, but this is the first time I’ve ever been influenced to read the book based on the trailer. Normally it’s a function of wanting to read the book in spite of the trailer. (Fair’s fair, I already wanted to read The Diviners, but the trailer clinched it). If you watch the trailer before reading the book, you actually HEAR the song throughout and it’s just so…


Well, you may or may not want to read this book in bed, and if you do, keep a nightlight handy.

And all you have to do to enter the giveaway is watch the trailer and tell me below what you think.

Isn’t that amazing?!

Entries will be accepted through Wednesday, August 29th, and I’ll be choosing the winners for all three giveaways bright and early Thursday morning so I can get the books out on Friday. (Haven’t seen the other giveaways? Up for grabs is Carnival of Souls by Melissa Marr, and a combo pack of For Darkness Shows the Stars AND Seraphina, by Diana Peterfreund and Rachel Hartman respectively)

Until next time~

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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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