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This One’s a Winner!: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (AUDIO)

I take back everything I’ve ever said about authors narrating their own audiobooks (don’t, please, don’t!) after listening to Libba Bray‘s incredible performance on Beauty Queens. She brings to life her own satirical look at advertising and news media, corporate ethics, commercialism, and pop culture, through the darkly humorous story of teen beauty pageant contestants who survive a plane crash onto a jungle island. (Only a small percentage of the original fifty states’ contestants survive. Miss Massachusetts is not among them, although her gown does come in handy at one point.) The airline staff, the camera crew…all dead. As if in a reality show without the show, the girls appear to be on their own with only few supplies other than some waterlogged bags of airline pretzels and a surfeit of beauty aids.

With this year her last chance to win before she ages out, the bold and brassy Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins, representing Texas, takes charge, insisting that the girls keep up their pageant routines while Adina (Miss New Hampshire) sardonically observes that shelter, food, and water should probably take priority, but is ignored. Each of the main characters has a story that gets revealed as they begin to trust each other, but there’s no time to sentimentalize each girl’s individual discovery of strengths she didn’t know she had, as the author throws the girls into one dangerous situation after another, and not just snakes, tropical storms, slumbering volcanos, or other jungle threats. The author’s wild subplots involving terrorist, politics, reality shows, and more, keep the action and humor going strong. And, yes, some hot boys do eventually come into the picture, so there’s romance too, but with a few twists on the usual YA romance fare.

Like the Miss Teen Dream contestants themselves, who are not all as they present themselves to pageant judges and each other, this young adult novel is more than meets the eye. Under the hilarious satire, skewering everything from product placement to international arms dealing, lie serious themes that readers of both sexes can think about and form opinions on. The salty language, frank talk about sexual desire in teens, left-leaning politics, and the distinctly Sarah-Palin-by-way-of-Tina-Fey voice of Ladybird Hope (former Miss Teen Dream now presidential candidate) might make this book slightly less humorous to social conservatives than to more liberal-leaning readers. But I was impressed by the author’s even-handedness in many parts of the book where she avoided the common pitfall of only being open-minded about opinions that match our own, allowing for the girls from both red and blue states to experience some brief, eye-opening moments of understanding before switching the story over to crazed villains or hot pirates.

The audiobook production – with its distinctive voices for each contestant, sound effects signaling the end of a CD, and Saturday Night Live-worthy “commercial breaks” – is far more than just a reading of the book. It deservedly won this year’s Audie Award for best narration by an author. An interview with Libba Bray at the end of the audiobook is also humorous and enlightening.

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More Than Satire: The New Republic by Lionel Shriver

Edgar Kellogg, the main character of The New Republic, a novel by Lionel Shriver, is a striver and a fan –the salutatorian instead of the valedictorian, the vice president, the second-place finisher. He’s tired of doing the admiring; he wants to be admired. His place near the top of the legal profession means nothing to him now that he’s made it there, so he throws it all in to take up the calling of his old English public school idol Toby Falconer – foreign correspondent for the National Record.
Author Lionel Shriver (an American woman who lives in England) has expressed some exasperation in the past with publishers who insist on putting “girly” covers on her novels, saying it’s “like stuffing a rottweiler in a dress.” They’ve finally listened with the cover of The New Republic, a book that the author finished in 1998 and couldn’t get published. (It’s not that it’s poorly written –Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin got a lot of rejections, too, but when finally published, became a critically acclaimed bestseller – it’s more because of the subject matter, terrorists and their political wing who are more inept than intimidating, and the characters, who are all flawed and unlikeable in various ways.)
The New Republic is set in Barba, an imaginary peninsula of Portugal, where a band of terrorists with the unfortunate name S.O.B. has sprung up, demanding independence for Barba, the most godforsaken province you could ever imagine, and responsible for barbarous acts of terrorism in Europe. Edgar lands his first real gig as a foreign correspondent in Barba, a backwater that only interests the rest of the world when the S.O.B. and its political arm, O Creme de Barbear, make the news after committing some new atrocity.
To his vast annoyance, when he arrives in Barba, Edgar finds himself following in the footsteps of another outsized, charismatic personality like Toby Falconer back in high school. Barrington Saddler’s English accent, animal magnetism, insider’s knowledge, and sparkling repartee, charmed the females in Barba’s journalistic enclave and had the male reporters vying for his approval, until Saddler suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. At first, Saddler’s absence makes more of an impact on the enclave of foreign correspondents than Edgar’s presence, but Edgar is staying in Saddler’s house, eating his leftover food, and becoming attracted to Saddler’s former lover, Nicole. The more Edgar learns about Saddler, Barba and the S.O.B., the more he learns about becoming larger-than-life himself.
Lionel Shriver writes unsettling books. Her characters are always human, rarely heroic. They make mistakes; some are big and disastrous ones. The New Republic is funny, as biting satire should be, but also frightening in how plausible the outrageous scenario she sets up seems.
Not recommended for fans of women’s fiction (!) but if you liked The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, you might also like The New Republic‘s portrayal of foreign journalists.

The New Republic
Shriver, Lionel
HarperCollins
March 2012
978-0-06-210332

Disclosure: I read most of this book as an e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley, but it expired before I finished, so I read the ending from a public library copy of the book.
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