Friday, May 18, 2012

Young Adult Fiction: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Beauty Queens is the latest novel by young adult fiction writer Libba Bray. I was intrigued by the book because of its premise, beauty queens trapped on a deserted island, and was once again able to pick up a book from the UTSA library instead of hunting for it at Half Price Books. Free books are kind of the best thing ever...

The Situation: Adina Greenberg (Ms. New Hampshire) will be representing her state in the Miss Teen Dream pageant. But, as a staunch feminist and a proud budding journalist, Adina only entered in order to expose the pageant for what it really is. The novel follows her and twelve other pageant finalists, including (spoiler alert!) pre-op transsexual Petra West (Ms. Rhode Island), African American Nicole Ade (Ms. Colorado), Indian American Shanti Singh (Ms. California), hearing-impaired Sosie Simmons (Ms. Illinois), lesbian/juvenile delinquent Jennifer Huberman (Ms. Michigan), girl next door Mary Lou Novak (Ms. Nebraska), and of course, because Ms. Texas always makes the finalists, my the Lone Star State is represented by the self-determined blond-haired blue-eyed Taylor Rene Krystal Kawkins. While Adina tries to subvert the entire pageant and the world's ideas of beauty, popularity, and womanhood, Nicole and Shanti deal with the fact that, realistically, only one of the can make the finals as past pageants have never been big on diversity. Also, Taylor has been competing ever since she can walk, so understandably she and Adina will immediately butt heads and not agree on anything.

The Problem: As if dealing with all of the egos of multiple teenage beauty contestants isn't enough conflict, the plane all 50 of the contestants are on goes down over a deserted island, killing everyone aboard except for the 13 contestants the book follows around afterwards. Naturally, most of these girls have absolutely no skill when it comes to trying to survive life on a deserted island full of hostile animals and a hopefully dormant volcano. Surprisingly, although not surprisingly, Taylor proves incredibly resourceful in scrounging up food and providing protection against enemies, and is also able to lead the girls not only in survival, but also in continuing to stay sharp in case they are rescued, and the pageant does go on. But even this isn't the end of it. Soon it isn't just giant snakes the girls are trying to outrun, as they slowly begin to realize that this island isn't quite as deserted as they thought, and that staying ready for the pageant shouldn't be their primary concern.

Genre, Theme, History: This young adult novel plays with the beauty pageant idea and uses it to challenge many stereotypes concerning women, teenage girls, and the portrayal of women in popular culture. But eventually, the book begins to explore the issues of corporate propaganda, corporate takeover, product placement, arms dealing , dictatorship and U.S. government's role in the placement of those dictators, reality television, and even trust fund kids. Yeah, the book actually covers quite a bit of everything, which was surprising, but also brings me to my verdict.

My Verdict: The boom starts out okay, and even the shifting perspective is done fairly well as the reader gets a chance to learn about almost all of the surviving contestants and see the range that Bray has provided. However, soon the book dissolves into a contrived mess. The result is the use of some stereotypes being used to take down or explore other stereotypes. While the book does bring up many key issues relevant to our society today, and makes many important points, I had a hard time taking any of them seriously because of the way they were being presented. There were also many times where I simply felt like Bray had an axe to grind against someone (really not sure who), and this book was her way of doing it.

I also have a bone to pick with Bray and a few other modern writers - I have noticed that having a character reject God or be a lesbian (or in the case of this book, both at the same time) has become the cool thing to do in a lot of recently published novels I have read. The rejection of God usually doesn't merit any more than a few sentences. It is usually mentioned somewhere near the beginning of the story and then never brought up again. And there is usually one, but not more than one, lesbian character, while there are no gay men to be seen anywhere. It has occurred enough for me to notice, which means it has occurred quite a bit because despite any evidence presented in this blog, I am actually surprisingly unobservant for an English major. I have read a few books where both trends were handled extremely well (Ready Player One, I am looking in your direction), but most of the time it just comes across as overused and annoying. Just had to put that out there.

Also, the book is just too long for what it is. It almost pulls a Lord of the Rings and has multiple endings.

Favorite Moment: Any time there was a commercial break to advertise any one of the ridiculous feminine products produced by The Corporation. Some of the names of these products include Lady 'Stache Off (hair removal), Bipolar Bears (mood altering pills specifically for teenage girls), Pore It in clay mask (pore-refining mask), What R U, A Woolly Mammoth? (brow gel), and Breast in Show with Fill 'Er Up implants and injectables (the wonder bra of the future). 

Favorite Character: Pretty much all of the contestants ended up being pretty annoying to me by the end. So I choose Momo B. Chacha, the ruthless dictator of the Republic of Chacha island. He is pretty much pure evil, but has a stuffed monkey (not plush, but stuffed as in used to alive but now he is not) he calls General Good Times, an obsession with Elvis as well as white jumpsuits and wigs, and absolutely adores American popular culture and reality television shows such as Captains Bodacious, a show where hot teenage nobodies who are now famous for being famous sail the open seas and have adventures.

Recommended Reading: I am actually going to recommend The Hunger Games, because that is what I call a real story of survival. Having read that before reading Beauty Queens definitely made it even harder for me to take Bray's book seriously.

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