Tuesday, June 21, 2011

From bimbos to badasses in BEAUTY QUEENS by Libba Bray

A plane full of beauty pageant contestants crashes on a deserted island.  It's an awesome premise, but in Beauty Queens, Libba Bray does so much more than give us Lord of the Flies in heels.

Bray's smart and hilarious writing takes us deep into the psyche of our ensemble cast of teen beauty queens.  Each girl has her own reasons for entering the pageant and each girl has her own demons to conquer on the island as she comes into her own. It is a truly ensemble cast, but Petra is my favorite.  She might be the one with the biggest secret, but she is also the girl who has the clearest sense of who she is.  Beauty Queens is somehow both campy and deep, it delivers a strong message and yet is light-hearted and hilarious.

If you took LOST, James Bond, Glee, Clueless, The Heart of Darkness, added some feminist-flavored rum, and put them in a blender, Beauty Queens would be the fruity cocktail you'd enjoy by the pool.

I loved Bray's use of footnotes in the novel and many of them had me literally laughing out loud.  Example: "Che Guevara, the Argentine Marxist revolutionary who later became a best-selling t-shirt icon."

Although they might start off as superficial pageant contestants, Beauty Queens is full of strong heroines, some of which become pretty bad-ass.  It's great fun to see the girls use their beautifying skills to survive on the island and confront any dangers that come their way.  I love this book and I think anyone who's ever seen an advertisement for a beauty product should read it.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Holly Black knows how to make readers feel smart in RED GLOVE

I read because I like to feel smart.  Sure, I read as an exercise in escapism.  I read to step into someone else's shoes and to learn about the world around me.  I read to laugh.  I read to cry.  Sure, whatever.

I love books that make me feel smart.  I'm not talking about reading Plato's Republic and then annoying my friends with Socratic quotes.  Not that kind of smart.  I love figuring things out.  I love that "aha!" moment, when I'm pretty sure I've solved the mystery.  I love that light bulb moment so much, that I'll sometimes put a sticky note on the page where things finally came together.  That way, later when someone asks "When did you figure out the BIG MYSTERY?"  I can say, "HA! I knew all the way back on page 98."  (No one's ever asked, but you know, just in case).

BUT! Here's the thing.  As much as I love feeling smart, I also love being tricked.  And this is where Holly Black is most brilliant.  She's weaved so many mysteries, twists, and turns into Red Glove that while I'm patting myself on the back for figuring one thing out (sticky note ready) BAM!  Someone sneaks up behind me and whacks me on the head with a shovel.  (Not literally, you know what I mean).

Red Glove is the second book in Holly Black's magical mobster Curse Workers Series.  But Red Glove is so much more than a sequel to White Cat.  As Kiersten White eloquently points out, Red Glove avoids all the second book pitfalls and is the "perfect middle book."

Cassel's brother is murdered and he has to figure out who killed him, while hiding his powerful curse, and shaking off both the mob and the feds who are breathing down his neck trying to recruit him.  The thing is, Cassel is a pretty screwed up guy.  With an emotion-worker for a mom, he doesn't trust his own feelings, let alone those of others.  His family is full of criminals and killers, and although he doesn't want to be like them, he doesn't know how to be anything else.  He doesn't trust his own sense of right and wrong.  Lies come more easily than the truth.  His self-loathing is so complete, he can't believe anyone would like him unless they're being conned, worked, and/or lied to.

Black does a brilliant job of letting the reader figure some things out long before Cassel does.  He's so lovably screwed up, he can't see what's right in front of him.  But at the same time, Cassel is so busy lying, hiding, and conning, we never see the end coming.  Dark and heartbreaking, with thrilling set-ups and cons, Red Glove's best con is the one Black pulls on the readers.

**Ok, so I know I'm breaking my own rules by raving about a book with a male protagonist.  But, I wouldn't mess with ANY of the women in this book, they're all pretty kick-ass in their own right.  And, they're my rules and I can break them if I want to.  So there.