Back when I was in middle school, a cousin won her hometown’s beauty pageant.  I wasn’t there.  I was watching a glorious fight in a hockey game between Northern Michigan University and Ferris State University, which culminated in police officers breaking up the players amidst all sorts of gear strewn about the ice.  That pretty much sums up my experience with, and the value I put on, beauty pageants.

So what am I doing reviewing Beauty Queens by Libba Bray?

 Statistics
Checkouts: New to the library, courtesy of the Superiorland Preview Center
Typical reader: Teen girls

Synopsis: A plane carrying the 50 contestants in the Miss Teen Dream pageant and the camera crew malfunctions and crashes on an island in the middle of nowhere.  About a dozen girls survive the crash and must survive with little food and water, and nowhere near enough beauty products.  Will they manage?  And what is their sponsor, the Corporation, really up to?

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars, which may be generous

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that I’ve had such mixed feelings about.  There were times where I probably actually did do a facepalm.  “‘I’m Tiara with an A,’ said Miss Mississippi.”  And there were times when I laughed out loud.  I did not hate this book overall, but I really cannot say that I loved it by any stretch of the imagination.

The book was inconsistent in tone.  Beauty Queens was pretty obviously a satire of beauty pageants, desert island survival (this really felt like it was feeding off the popularity of the TV show Lost), consumerism, and pop culture in general.  I enjoyed the mixed metaphors, similes, and the quirky descriptions.  But it also had serious moments, and I felt that a good chunk of the middle of the book lacked humor.  Like many of the contestants, the book doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be when it grows up.

Some characters were great.  I connected to Miss Michigan, despite her being from Flint, almost immediately, and felt that she was a strong, interesting character throughout the book.  Miss Nebraska had a very odd back-story that felt a bit hyperbolic, but her character really grew over the course of the book.  Then there were some characters who were somewhat fleshed out yet still two-dimensional, like Miss New Hampshire, the high school journalist/feminist who was in it just to do an expose, and Miss California, the second generation Indian-American who loved to win but didn’t really know who she really was.  I was flummoxed through most of the book over how several of the girls weren’t named beyond their states, yet had a bit of personality.  They were finally named with about 40 pages left to go, as if the author finally remembered to address the issue!  Argh.  Did we really need to wait so long to find out that all four were named Caitlin?

There’s a healthy dose of diversity in this novel.  Two girls are ethnic minorities, who know that they have extra work to make it big in the pageantry world.  For sexuality, there’s a lesbian, a bisexual, and a male-to-female former boy band star transgender in the competition.  I do also have to give the book credit for actually discussing and implementing safe sex in one scene after the reality TV pirates show up and woo some of the girls.  Safe sex doesn’t show up much in adult books, much less teen fiction.

I feel the need to address the end of the novel.  In some ways, it highlights how good and bad the book was in its entirety.  The adventure and plot ended satisfactorily.  However, the last few chapters were messy and confusing.  And when did the epilogue happen?  It seems like it’s a survivors’ reunion somewhat in the future, but maybe the stuff said was just speculation about what they would do in the future.  It was quite unclear and left me scratching my head.

Like a lot of satirical works, I don’t see this withstanding the tests of time.  Beauty pageants have been around a long time, but as I mentioned before, this book “works” a bit in part because of the popularity of the TV show Lost.  Boy band references will someday be passe, as will reality TV.  Dictator Momo B. Chacha was similar to Team America’s version of Kim Jong Il; the North Korean leader won’t be around forever.  But for now, maybe some people will enjoy this fluffy, somewhat snarky novel more than I did.

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