“I’m starting to feel as if life inside S.A.Y. is the only real life—everything’s so intense and new and dangerous and exciting in there—and everything outside it, this vast, bustling country where my mom and grandfather are, where my ancestors are from, is just a distraction.”
Candace Park loves to sing, but for most of her life she’s been wasting her talent learning the viola to please her parents and help round out her college applications. Secretly she is a big K-Pop fan, an enthusiasm she shares with her best friends, Ethan and Imani. When Imani learns about an open call for talent from S.A.Y. Entertainment, Korea’s biggest K-Pop label, her friends encourage Candace to try out. To her surprise, she is offered a spot in Seoul, and a chance to compete for one of five slots in the girl group S.A.Y. plans to launch at the end of the summer. All she has to do is convince her parents that diving into their homeland’s most cut-throat industry is an opportunity too good to pass up.
The world Stephan Lee has crafted in K-Pop Confidential represents a strange mixture of truth and fiction. Lee invents S.A.Y. Entertainment for the site of his story, replacing one of the largest real companies in the industry with this fictional analogue. However, other bands mentioned in the book are real, and you could craft a fairly substantial playlist of K-pop girl bands just from the songs mentioned in the course of the book. For example, Lee mentions Girls Generation, the band that Jessica Jung—author of Shine—was a member of. In Seoul, Candace is surrounded by young women who have given up large chunks of their childhood for a chance to debut. One her group mates, Binna, has been training for a decade. If you’ve enjoyed books set in other competitive, high pressure environments like ballet school, or the film industry, idol training makes for an analogous setting.
We get a little bit of development of Candance’s relationship with her grandfather, since she is able to see him in person on her days off, but her family is largely out of the picture when she is ensconced at S.A.Y. Her relationships are focused around those she makes with the other girls in her training group, and her feelings for two boys, one of whom is already an idol in the company’s biggest boy band, and the other who is a fellow Korean-American trainee. Neither of the boys are particularly well-developed characters, and Candace’s relationships with her fellow female trainees are significantly more interesting. However, because romantic scandals and gender disparity play such a key part in the downfall of many female idols, the boys remain an important part of the story.
It’s a difficult line for Lee to balance making Candace resistant to the norms inside the idol school, while also having it seem at all realistic that her rebellion would not get her kicked out of the program. The manager who plucked her from the audition in New Jersey is invested in showing the company she made the right choice, which provides a little bit of cover to her behaviour. However, she also simply accepts the grueling hours and restrictive diet, hiding these facts from her mother when she is allowed to visit on weekends, so that she won’t be pulled out of training. Candace develops close friendships with some of her fellow trainees, but her interactions with even the people she likes can be fraught by the competition. Particularly interesting is her antagonism with Helena Cho, a fellow Korean American who believes the company will not select more than one American to be part of the girl group. Interestingly, it is Helena’s fate that ultimately shapes Candace’s biggest choices about her future.
The book reads well as a stand-alone, but according to the author, a second volume tentatively titled K-Pop Revolution will follow the girl group formed in K-Pop Confidential, due out in 2022.
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Shine by Jessica Jung
Tiny Pretty Things by Dhonielle Brown and Sona Charaipotra
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