Beauty Queens

Several years ago I was talking to a doctor friend of mine and she told me a new type of bi-polar disorder that mostly affected girls. These patients didn't have manic highs and depressive lows; instead they cycled from being nice and friendly to being mean and cruel. She said that it was likely that many of the malicious girls that make life so difficult in middle and high school had this disorder and that hopefully with medication life would improve for everyone. I asked her what she thought the book Lord of the Flies would be like if it had featured these girls instead of schoolboys. Would their descent into brutality have been faster? Would they have fallen further? Would the results have been even more devastating?

Skip ahead fifteen years or so and imagine my interest when I hear Libba Bray is releasing a book called Beauty Queens, which just happens to be about a bunch of teen beauty pageant contestants crashing on an island. The plane they are in goes down at the beginning of the book and the survivors appear to be ill equipped to cope with a hardscrabble fight for existence. Lip gloss and sequins are not what most people pack when they're getting ready to head off into the wilderness.

But these girls are overachievers and the skills they've picked up to excel at the talent portion of the pageants may just have real world survival applications. Can people who have been taught to be super competitive since infancy put that drive away and work with their rivals? With no food, water or any real tools they're going to have to be creative to come up with solutions to their problems before they succumb to dehydration and the tropical sun. (It seems particularly cruel that girls who are professional dieters and presumably don't have an ounce to spare are stuck with nothing to eat. They don't have many reserves to rely upon.)

The Teen Dream contestants are not the only characters we meet in this story. There are pirates, who are big on charm and handsomeness, corporate execs, an ecowarrior/terrorist, an eccentric ruler of a tiny country, an ambitious ex beauty queen who sounds suspiciously like an ex vice presidential candidate and a whole passel of people up to no good. Isn't trying to survive on a volcanic island hard enough? Apparently not.

I thought Beauty Queens would remind me of Lord of the Flies but it reminded me more of Feed (I talk about that book here in that everything in the Beauty Queens universe is ruled over by a giant corporation, which is called simply The Corporation. Unfortunately Beauty Queens lack's Feed's subtlety and the sarcasm and a sense of smugness are heavy-handed, which detracts from the story. In Feed everything meshes perfectly but things don't work quite so well in Ms. Bray's story.

Another problem I had with the book is the characters each seem to have their own Very Special Episode going on. Every contestant that we get to know has an issue that makes them worry about not fitting in or their terrible secret being found out. I think that many, if not most, teens do worry about these kinds of things but I did come away from the book feeling like I'd watched several After School Specials in a row.

That being said Beauty Queens is Ms. Bray's best book yet and is a fun and satisfying read. You can read a sample here:

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is a short story from Strange Horizons called the Peacock. Written by Ted Infinity and Nabil Hijazi, this love story for the post-post-modern age is adorable and tons of fun. Starring a lonely fellow and a hopelessly romantic sentient spam program this story should definitely brighten your day.