Friday, 28 December 2012

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray, first caught my attention when it was discussed on the Galactic Suburbia podcast a while ago. Although it's technically not a spec fic book, it has some spec ficcy sensibilities (indeed Bray's most recent book is much more obviously fantasy-ish) and I think it will broadly appeal to fans of spec fic and mainstream YA.

The premise of the book is simple: a planeload of teenage beauty pageant contestants crashes on a deserted island. All the adults are killed, leaving only fourteen (I think) contestants alive. Alone on the island, the girls have to find a way to survive — find food, avoid the giant snakes, build shelter.

There are many characters, only four of the surviving girls are background characters, but they are easy to distinguish from the start. I admit I didn't necessarily remember all their states at first (except for Miss Texas who was very distinctively Texan) but their personalities and other characteristics made them easy enough to keep track of. As far as diversity goes, Bray seems to have ticked almost all the necessary boxes: there's the Jewish girl who's against the ideals of the pageant, the black girl, the Indian second generation American girl, the gay girl, the trans girl, the deaf girl, the dumb girls, the girl who gets an aeroplane tray stuck in her head, and a few others that are harder to summarise in a stereotype. Not that the characters are stereotypical. They all have complex back-stories and a wide variety of reasons for participating in the pageant. All the minority issues were dealt with well, as far as my knowledge of them goes, with the possible exception of the bisexual girl but she wasn't handled that poorly, just a tad stereotypically.

At its heart, Beauty Queens is an indictment of the beauty and pageant industries and the beauty standard. Through the interactions of the characters and their journeys towards self-discovery on the island, the story explores what it means to be female in a materialistic society obsessed with perfection and the limitations (and secret powers) of feminine expectations.

All the issues explored in Beauty Queens can get a bit heavy. Luckily, the story is interspersed with commercial breaks from The Company (which runs the pageant and makes all the products and is generally a force of evil) and a background plot involving conspiracy, an evil lair with a piranha tank, an arms deal and a dictator of a small Caribbean republic (well, I think it's Caribbean). The silly elements are a perfect counterbalance to the more important issues explored. And in some cases, like the commercials, serve to highlight the issues further in an amusing way.

Beauty Queens was an excellent read. I highly recommend it to everyone.

5 / 5 stars

Published: May 2011, Scholastic (US)
Series: nope
Format read: paperback
Source: (requested) Christmas present


  1. I can't wait to read this book. I've only heard exceptional reviews of it. I bought it ages ago, but somehow keep picking up other books instead. I must fix this!!!

  2. I just read this recently too, I don't know what took me so long because I've been hearing about it for years. So glad you enjoyed it, especially as it's quite a contemp. read! I loved the girls and thought all the different characters/races were done really well!

    1. Re: being a contemp read, I think it is and it isn't. I mean, in the most literal sense, it's set in the present and doesn't have magic... But it's not quite te real present, it's a bit more dystopic (with the corporation) and it had a lot of elements that one might associate with James Bond (silly tech, adventure, piranha tank) or similar. That's part of the reason I said I thought it would appeal to a broad audience. You can read it as contemporary or as a lightly science fictional story or as a girls' own adventure.

  3. This was my first Libba Bray book, and it was hilarious! I'd heard not so good things about Going Bovine, but now that I've enjoyed this one, I'll have to check it out too.