Every time I get back into Kpop it’s like an addiction where it feeds into everything I as a consumer get. My art was the first thing hit as a number of the portraits I’ve been doing were definitely Kpop idols I currently follow, but my reading this time also had some Kpop influencing it when I picked up XOXO. Would you believe me though if I said that I picked up more books that involved Kpop in them even after that? Because I did, and it was a thing. Just doing separate book reviews after going on a Kpop reading binge didn’t feel right though, so instead I am breaking down the good, okay, and the bad from the three books I picked up, so maybe you know what you’re in for with these YA novels featuring Kpop.
Note: I am an average consumer of Kpop music, not an exclusive fan/stan of any group, which if you’ve met me is pretty on point with anything I get into. I know basics from the industry, and occasionally go down YouTube rabbit holes, which is how I was originally introduced to Kpop pre-2013 and loved the music these groups (gen 2 at that point) were producing. I am in no way an expert, so anything said in this is pure opinion/thoughts based on what the books introduced, and what I as a casual fan have heard about the industry and groups I follow. Like anything else in this world, the Kpop industry is known to produce many great groups we all enjoy, but it isn’t an easy journey, and many idols have already spoken about their experiences (good and bad). Knowing that we have some stories from actual idols/groups out there I want to approach these books with the usual enjoyment factor in mind, but also look at how they tackle the training camps or life of idols since quite a few are taking a stance against certain aspects of the industry itself. With that in mind (sorry for the long winded intro guys), let’s get into my thoughts on the following books:
- XOXO by Axie Oh
- Shine by Jessica Jung
- Kpop Confidential by Stephan Lee
XOXO by Axie Oh
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
XOXO is by far the cuter/sweeter, more fun option of the three Kpop books under discussion. I’ve actually reviewed this one before (See Here), but given that we’re talking exclusively about Kpop centric books it felt right to include this one in the mix. Like the other two books it is a coming of age story at its core, but while growth is a big focus it’s handled in a somewhat normal high school setting (as close as a high level music school can get at least). XOXO mainly follows Jenny who meets one of the famous group XOXO’s members, Jaewoo, in the States. It’s a chance encounter, but the two feel a deep connection in that moment. Like most random encounters though, they both walk away not expecting to hear much from the other or possibly see one another. That is until Jenny finds out her mother has to visit her grandmother in Korea while she’s in the hospital. Jenny sees her chance to not only visit a relative she’s never gotten to truly meet, but also experience life and possibly find Jaewoo. The book focuses on the troubles of Jenny and Jaewoo as they navigate their feelings, but also what that will mean for both their lives as the secret becomes National knowledge.
The main Kpop issue put forward in this one is idols dating or the nature of privacy in their lives. Jaewoo and Jenny meet in a chance encounter while in the States, sparking a relationship, but also a danger to not just Jaewoo’s career, but his group’s and Jenny’s privacy by association. This isn’t necessarily just a Korean celebrity issue as even American/European stars face their private lives constantly being put on show, but there is a different approach/feeling to how Korean celebrities lives are marketed as well. The key word is ‘marketed’ in this, as Kpop stars in general have their lives revolving around their career, and their group’s success. At least when I first delved into the Kpop section of Youtube originally, we were given a huge view of the idol’s daily lives as film cameras navigated cramped dorms where multiple members would share the same room, and help one another with clothes, food, and day to day life. It wasn’t the most glamorous view, but there was a precedent at that point for fans getting a very up close/personal view into their favorite idol’s life for better or for worse. There’s also a sense of the idols belonging to the fanbase in some instances where fans genuinely get upset when they find out their idol is dating, or has a stance on something that they don’t personally agree with to the point that the idol is boycotted. It’s not always the case with fans, as many Kpop fans I’ve met are genuinely nice and kind, but the outliers do mean that that is a real concern for idols as they try to live their personal lives.
As far as XOXO tackling the issue, I’d say it takes a soft approach from the beginning. I think Axie Oh wanted to include Kpop in her story and have fun with it, and that shows. She tackles an issue that does exists, but does it respectfully. The Kpop industry wasn’t put in a negative light at any point, but shown as being an industry like any we’ve seen. There are areas where we see companies taking initiative to protect their members and give them freedom in their careers, but there are also companies that even fans call out for not doing enough. The members of XOXO also were like a family, which feels pretty accurate from some of the groups I follow like Shinee, who come across as genuinely close on and off camera. It all around felt like what you see in a typical headline for a Kpop star, just told in a YA Contemporary Romance novel. This one was cute, fun, and an enjoyable read. If you’re looking for a fun, Kpop centric book this one definitely gives you that in one package.
Shine by Jessica Jung
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
Shine is actually written by a Kpop Idol herself, Jessica Jung, who was a member of Girl’s Generation, or SNSD. This one follows Rachel Kim as she navigates being a Kpop trainee under DB Entertainment, all while still going to school and living with her family. From other readers it sounds like this one may have been modeled on her own life as a trainee as she, and Rachel struggled to get close with other trainees without being in the dorm and living similarly. For most of the story, she struggles to compete with another trainee, Mina, who refers to her as a “little Korean American Princess” and actively sabotages her place in the company. It gets even worse as the opportunity to work with an actual Idol, Jason Lee, comes up and the two are pitted against one another, all while Rachel starts to have feelings for him.
As far as issues that came up around the Kpop industry, this one focuses on the individual, more so than group struggles. We are shown Rachel, and other trainees being assessed on their weight as much as their singing and dancing throughout the process. I think that is something that should be pointed out as potentially triggering for some. There is also a little of the ‘no dating’ rule thrown out there with Rachel and Jason, but also a more seasoned idol. Overall, this one is focused on the tough, and highly competitive nature of the trainee life with the added pressure of high level adults judging them on their talent, skills, and appearance.
Shine was a mixed experience for me. On one hand it really hit the nail on the head when it came to the “fat” shaming, and overall pressure female stars in particular face. The idol relationship where the male counterpart doesn’t care about keeping the relationship secret, but the female does really points out the added pressure the women get to seem perfect and accessible to fans. Where it struggles though is in characters, pacing and focus. The weight shaming and other appearance based aspects that were brought up felt like they could have been explored more, or touched on better in terms of the main characters, and the relationship we are supposed to be seeing in this book felt like it happened all too quickly. Where Rachel in the beginning was someone I hoped would succeed, and overcome the challenges DB and Mina threw at her, I slowly questioned her very one sided view of the experiences. For one, she points out a lot of the evils around her, but is quick to enjoy other trainees being criticized, and while her friend has been there for her through a lot, she quickly forgets about her in the midst of everything. It feels like it was gearing up towards another book, but I didn’t end up feeling attached enough to the main characters to keep up with this. I think this one is worth picking up if you’re a fan of Jessica Jung, and want to wonder at what parts of her personal experience influenced the book, or want to read about bits of Korean culture, but this one didn’t really get me excited at all. If anything, I’d rather see an autobiography than a YA book that takes influences from her life.
Kpop Confidential by Stephan Lee
Rating 3 out of 5 Stars
Out of the three books, Kpop Confidential was the one with the rougher, tougher atmosphere to it. In this book, we follow Candace as she auditions in America to become a Kpop trainee. To her surprise, she’s recruited, somehow convinces her parents, and all of them move to Korea to pursue her future career as an Idol. The world of Kpop though is not one with easy entrance, as Candace soon finds herself signing a contract that either will ensure her success, or primly put her family in huge debt if she drops out. She bravely signs it, but the work as a trainee is hardly what she expected as she finds herself the replacement for another trainee in a group that only partially accepts her.
This one obviously focuses on the life of trainees, as Candace gets put in a group that’s been together for a long time, and feels that her addition to the group actually hurts them. There’s bullying within the group, sabotage as always (because sabotage is instant drama), more weight shaming, forbidden dating, and the double standards female idols face like in Shine.
I felt like this one gave a much darker side than even Shine did when it came to the trainee life. The boys and the girls were separated. Their diet was hardly anywhere near what qualifies as a meal throughout the whole day. To top it off, the bullying and sabotage hit on a more personal level between the girls in this one. I genuinely felt for Candace throughout the book as she’s going through all these struggles, but where this and Shine struggled character wise was that the main character was also more of an insert the reader character, more than someone we could truly connect to. Candace in this case only whisper sang before auditioning and got it, then though she’s not the best dancer she makes it through time and again based on her unique voice. What truly made me rate this three stars though, and not higher was in Candace’s “revolutionary” behavior. She literally voices her complaints in front of the CEO and then in front of the fans, and is celebrated for it. The main issue here is that she is a rookie at best, trainee for most of this and from what I can tell even well seasoned idols are very careful of what they say about the CEO, or company in general. You don’t mess with the person writing the paychecks, and she does it a lot. I think the lack of plausibility took me out of the story in those cases, and made it hard to back her since it was just so unlikely. I want to see the changes she voiced, but I think it’s going to take veteran groups banding together, as well as fans backing them for that to happen, not a rookie who also is not from Korea (could be seen as an American forcing their beliefs on another culture). This one was an entertaining one that had me caught up in the drama, and wondering who would make the final cut. I think it does give a look at how tough trainee life could be, and it does have some really nice friendships written into it. I just wish we could have left out some of the romance and sole idol fixing the whole industry aspects, so it could have been stronger.
Overall, I’d say XOXO was the one that truly connected with my love of Kpop, and felt like it achieved what it wanted to point out, all without feeling like we were pointing out the negatives of the industry as the main plot. The other two were enjoyable, but lost their way as they tackled some of the tougher aspects of Kpop. Shine, I’d say was a victim of glossing through the issues, while Kpop Confidential tried to make the Protagonist a little too much of a hero. I think they all are fun, and enjoyable reads, but the one that just felt the most solid was XOXO. What each of these as a whole pointed out to me is that I would like a novel that follows a trainee, and their struggles, but shows them overcoming it. It doesn’t necessarily need romance, but I would love a really great success story since there are idols with really interesting stories out there.
Have you read any of the books in this review? What were your thoughts? I am a fan of multiple Kpop groups, but I wanted to go into this and truly look at the issues these books were working to present, please let me know if there was anything I missed or got wrong.