Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Dark Side of Beauty

There's nothing quite like author loyalty. As soon as I'd finished A Great and Terrible Beauty all the way back in the sixth grade, I knew it would stick with me (and it did: it's still one of my favorite-to-recommend YA novels). However, while I still have space reserved on my bookshelf for that series, I've never tried sampling any of her other works... until I saw the intriguing cover of Beauty Queens on the library book shelf. It was time to put my faith in Libba Bray to the test.

The novel is centered around the Miss Teen Dream beauty pageant, which suddenly finds its contestants crashed on a seemingly-deserted tropical island, teeming with native species of poisonous spiders and giant snakes. It is also a secret location of secret weapon holds and  armaments for The Corporation, the megalomaniacal organization that holds a tight monopoly over America and clamp on not only consumer's wallets, but society's expectations of beauty and perfection (which explains why they sponsor the pageant itself in the first place). With such obstacles in their path - as well as others, like mind-altering flowering berries, sexy British reality show TV pirates, an Elvis-obsessed and volatile dictator, and the active volcano on the island - these girls have a lot cut out for them if they hope to get back home safely. Suddenly, the smile-and-wave act isn't going to cut it.

The topic of the novel itself was interesting, but through the rest of the plot, it got progressively more and more ridiculous. The ludicrous nature of the elements involved made the novel over-stylized with satire and over-saturated with progressively more insane plot twists. Satire itself typically thrives in the nature of the unreal, but as the novel drew on, the instability of the world Bray created simply got so unbelievable, that it didn't read like any kind of a statement at all... the whole "exciting and new" surprise of unexpected elements, itself, grew tedious and expected.

The element of the book that could have used a little more reality, was in the inclusion of lesbian, trans-woman, disabled, and ethnic minority characters. All of these offer really unique perspectives and deserve a larger place in YA, being that the current social attitudes and government treatment of these types of people are more important to upcoming generations. But because of the zany nature of their reality, as well as the current attitudes of society, it seemed like the calm-faced normality and expressive breakthrough with which they were treated, could only exist in a world as insane as the one they inhabited in the novel. It didn't help that it seemed like every other character beyond this set was pure stock, too.

Overall, the novel tackled some heavy topics, like government inability, materialism, corporate monopoly, and the ideals of modern feminism and femininity. But instead of bringing out the big guns like the AK-47s the girls could handle so well, it was more like staring down the barrels of Yosemite Sam's pistols: it was simply too cartoonish to be taken seriously.

The writing of the novel was, additionally, a little sloppy. In some places, prosaic and to the point, in others, cutting and sarcastic, in others... well, let's just say that I assumed a girl was part werewolf for a portion of the novel because her "curse" was explained in such a poor manner, in an attempt at being poetic.

In the end, I read the entire novel, not because I was enjoying it all that much, but just to see how bat-sh** crazy things could get before the page count was up. Definitely for fans of weird summer beach reads, maybe not the best for anyone taking a plane soon.

An in terms of my loyalty to Libba Bray... it is unchanged. AGaTB had it's weirdo moments, but was for the most part, refined and efficient, in terms of building suspense and maintaining a realistic view of a world. Beauty Queens was so absolutely opposite of that. However, both having something in common: they were things I had never seen done in YA before, involving the inclusion of unique and personable characters, humor and wit, and plot elements that no one else would ever think of (I mentioned the sexy British reality show TV pirates, right?). I will continue to read her works, to see how many different kinds of out-of-the-box, as well as refined, elements she can bring to the table.

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