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Shine by Jessica Jung – Review by Sarah Raughley

You know I had to do this. I held a little Instagram read-along of Chapters 1 through 3 a few weeks ago, but couldn’t continue. I was too busy working on my own book series, The Bones of Ruin, a YA Fantasy coming Fall 2021. But I just had to finish this book and share with you all what I thought. Here we go!

Non- Spoiler Review

As a K-POP fan, and as a YA author published under the same publisher and imprint, I just had to pick up this book. My own trilogy, The Effigies Series (Sailor Moon meets Pacific Rim) is inspired a lot by the K-POP world, so this was a must read. Shine is essentially a very fun, zippy contemporary YA read that gives some insight into the K-POP world. And who better to give that insight than a legendary K-POP idol from one of the most legendary K-POP groups of all time.

The story is basically about the plucky and relatable 17-year old Rachel Kim’s trainee life as she readies herself to debut. The language and pop cultural references are current, the prose is as simple as possible, and the first person present POV makes the reader feel like they are right in the character experiencing everything she is at that moment. It’s a very fast read—took me a little over 3 hours to finish. But I would say that it feels more like an interesting set up for what will no doubt be a far more intriguing sequel, which will give us more insight into the K-POP world after you debut—a world with a million times more pressure and backstabbing.

Okay, so now you want the good stuff, right?

Very Detailed Spoiler Review Up Next

Spoiler Review

Plot Overview

So this book is about Rachel Kim’s journey from trainee to debut. At the beginning of the book, Rachel is 17 and thus the window of her debuting before she ‘gets too old’ is closing fast. There’s rumors around the company that DB Entertainment is debuting a new girl group in six or seven years. Rachel has to debut before the DB Family Concert in fall or else she’ll get cut and won’t have another chance. Why? Because at 24 she’ll be un-debutable according to the eternally-youth-chasing world of K-POP that borders on creepy.

Unfortunately, Rachel has some obstacles, the most obvious being Choo Mina, a chaebol’s daughter who decides she hates everything about Rachel since the moment Rachel accidentally ‘disrespected’ her as a trainee sunbae. That, and the preferential treatment Rachel seems to get from Mr. Noh, DB Entertainment’s CEO. While Mina seems to do everything she can to sabotage her, there’s also Rachel’s own mother, a former sports star-turned-university professor who knows the pressures of a competitive world and disapproves of Rachel’s Kpop dreams. The final obstacle is the dreamy Jason Lee, star of the DB Entertainment boy group NEXT BOYZ, who doesn’t seem to get that the more he woos Rachel, the more deeply she falls in love, the greater chance she has to get kicked out of the company due to their strict no-dating policy.

When Rachel gets a chance to wow the investors, she screws it up on the account of having been drugged at a trainee-idol party at the DBE trainee house the previous night by none other than Mina. So when it comes time for her to step out in front of the investors, she not only looks a hot mess, but she pukes all over Jason who kind of has this Disney moment of stepping out on stage and harmonizing with her in the middle of her performance. It’s all very High School Musical: The Musical: The Series Part 2: The Squeakquel. She sounded great before puking at least, but uh. Her life is over.

But not so fast! You know that dance teacher from Dream High who supported T-ara Eunjung’s character? Well, she’s totally in this book, except with electric blue hair and she’s about to help Rachel keep her K-pop dream alive! Just so happens that this woman, Yunjin, is the daughter of the grandmother of K-POP, so of course all the top celebrities are at some party she’s hosting, which Yunjin invites Rachel to. Jason is there, as are the NEXT BOYZ members. Rachel sings with Jason. Sparks fly. Yunjin records the video. It goes viral. Rachel is back in the game!

This is where things get tricky. Most of the book turns into a y/n fanfic with Jason wooing Rachel into a relationship, flying her out to Tokyo, sending her cute text messages, having secret dates at a fan meet, serenading her at the company, and of course, sending her prom-posal donuts and kissing her back stage behind a Girls Forever concert. It’s very deliberate in that you can insert yourself as Rachel and picture Jason as your favorite K-POP boy. But the bigger storyline is Jason’s song, “Summer Heat.” Originally, it was supposed to be a duet with Jason and Mina, but because of Rachel’s viral video, it becomes a trio.

You’d think there’d be a love triangle plot, but although Mina initially shows some jealousy towards the attention Jason shows Rachel, she’s all business. The real issue is that the song blows up, and DB Entertainment sends the three out on tour, even internationally. In Toronto and New York, Jason and Rachel’s relationship heats up while it seems Rachel’s relationship with Mina gets more complicated – one minute they’re bonding over Timbits in Toronto and the next, Mina is accusing Rachel of sabotaging her heels, causing her to slip and fall on stage.

But the big twist comes when Rachel finds out that Jason is throwing his NEXT BOYZ brothers under the bus to go solo. Just when she’s about to congratulate him, she sees paparazzi pictures of Mina and Jason canoodling like a couple. Is he two-timing her? Well, yeah, but it’s all for show. The whole thing was part of a publicity blitz. The song, “Summer Heat,” is actually about Jason’s split identity as a half-white, Korean Canadian being stuck between two worlds. But DB Entertainment promotes it as innocent angel Jason Lee being stuck between two girls. The dates that Rachel enjoyed with Jason were all setups, carefully planned to promote Jason’s career while DB paid the paparazzi to follow them and leak the photos online. The only difference between Mina and Rachel was that Mina knew the whole thing was fake from the beginning. Rachel is heartbroken.

Jason insists that his feelings for Rachel are really real, honest! Meanwhile, he reminds Rachel that she used him to get a viral video. They break up. True love is dead! But Rachel learns a valuable lesson: the K-POP world is vicious. Just as DB Entertainment allows the media to paint Rachel and Mina as evil whores playing with poor little Jason’s heart, the fans eat it up and the comments rake Rachel over the coals. DB doesn’t care about throwing a few trainees under the bus. That’s how dark the K-POP world is. But Rachel embraces it, realizing that she’s worked too damn hard to get this far and she’s going to meet every backstabbing challenge head on.

That’s why she barely flinches when she realizes Mina used her adorable, unsuspecting younger sister Leah to get video of Jason and Rachel kissing back stage during the Girls Forever performance. Mina means to use it as blackmail, even as the girls are chosen to be part of the same debut group: Electric Flower. Rachel says, ‘nah bitch’ and breaks the phone right before they step out for their debut. Meanwhile Jason and Mr. Noh scheme something in the corner of the auditorium as the members of Electric Flower are being announced in front of investors. The Rachel at the end of the book has effectively murdered the wide-eyed, naive Rachel at the beginning and isn’t going to let any stupid b***, male or female, get in the way of her dreams.

And thus, the book ends as she smiles for her close up.

But the real question you’re probably asking is: where’s the TEA?

Competition, Trainee Life, Cat Fights

I actually expected more on this front. The beginning chapter made it seem like the nine members having their mock interview would be in full focus, but aside from Rachel and Mina, the other trainees kind of just orbited around them without strong storylines of their own. A movie might flesh this out, but really, this is about a battle between two arch enemies, plus tasty fake relationship. Take that for what you will. Even Rachel’s best friend, the Japanese trainee Akari, eventually disappears from the narrative, but that’s kind of the point. As “Summer Heat” rises on the K-POP charts to #1, and Rachel’s star rises along with it, their friendship becomes strained. Eventually, Akari transfers to another company without Rachel even knowing about it. And by the time Rachel tries to call her, it’s too late: Akari has disconnected her phone number. It’d be interesting to see Akari turn up in a rival group in the sequel.

The ruthless life of trainees is detailed in full, and it’s pretty much everything we’ve heard before—no dating, no eating, no living, train 24-7, watch your back from sabotage and rumors, and if you’re foreign you’re on a lower wrung no matter how many years you’ve been there. There’s also some tidbits that’s maybe lesser known (at least to me), like the regular parties trainees have with debuted idols at the trainee house where alcohol abounds and it’s easy for someone to get drugged (like Rachel). I also thought it was hilarious that DB Entertainment gets top world athletes to teach the trainees tennis and skating and whatnot. Like Simone Biles is their gymnastics instructor and Mark Zuckerburg is hired for career day. Chile. Okay.

The punishment of the trainees is severe, like one girl who had to sit against the wall in 90 degrees while her singing instructor hit her in the diaphragm. I saw something similar happening to NCT’s Johnny in some 2012 ABC video about K-POP, but he was standing as he was getting physically attacked, so that was clearly the sanitized version SM Entertainment was willing to show.

Of course, as you’d expect, Mina, her mean girl minions and Rachel all end up debuting in the same group. In an interview at the end of the book, they’re smiling and talking about loving each other all the while Mina has a blackmail video against Rachel and Rachel’s thinking about how being a trainee helped her learn how to watch her back. There’s one speech she gives that’s basically Jessica screaming at the top of her lungs, SOSHI BOND ISN’T REAL YOU DUMMIES.

So next time when you look at your favorite K-POP group cheesing it in an interview or having fun in a variety show ask yourself, who’s blackmailing who, who’s tampering with the other’s shoes and mics, who’s family just bought another member’s dad (yes that happens) and who is willing to throw the rest under the bus for a solo career. It’s all fun and games for K-POP fans until a T-ara or AOA situation bursts into the media. Then suddenly, you’re reminded that you’re an outsider. You know nothing about their real lives. The book makes that clear, subtly showing just how clueless fans truly are.

Boys and Privilege

It was actually interesting how the book makes sure to talk about the difference in how male and female trainees are treated. Jason Lee, as a top K-POP star and a male, is so pampered that he doesn’t see how his constant and obvious, public attempts to woo Rachel are putting Rachel’s career in jeopardy. He seems oblivious and even hostile when Rachel brings this up to him. This is mirrored in the relationship between Kang Jina, top bitch of the legendary group Girls Forever, and her own boyfriend (more on that later). But even though Jason understands the pressure of being a trainee, it’s nowhere near what the girls go through, such that they get in trouble for his screw ups and he’s like “did y’all hear sumn?” He does eventually get wise, though not before he’s exposed for using Rachel to further his own career. Oops!

The discussion of race is also interesting in this book. Rachel mentions that the racism she received at the hands of white American society made her hate being Korean. K-POP made her love her Korean identity again and inspired her to go to Korea at age 11 with her parents to become a K-POP star. Even still, she’s treated as an outsider by other Koreans. Jason Lee is half-white and Canadian, which is part of also why he feels in between. I’m curious, though, about why Jason is half-white in the first place? This is the guy who ends up being Korea’s sweetheart and blowing up his group for a solo career. It reminds me of Crazy Rich Asians where they needlessly whitewashed the main hero. Or even To All the Boys I Loved Before where the main love interest is white. The book talks about white supremacy in really subtle ways and how it affects a Korean’s sense of identity, but then the DB Entertainment team celebrates when they’re in Toronto and New York and see mostly white people in the crowd of their performances of “Summer Heat” singing the Korean lyrics. Maybe it’s all a part of the complexity Jessica aims to weave into the narrative?

Is this an Autobiography?

To be honest, this is why most of us K-POP fans picked up this book. Hell, even the Korean publishers marketed it as an autobiography, which it most certainly ISN’T, but that was enough to put SM Entertainment on alert to the point where they are currently as I’m writing this trying to block the book’s release in Korea. Which, of course, will make people more curious and it will sell more books, you dummies!

Hate to break it to anyone, but this really is your run-of-the-mill contemporary YA with K-POP as the main subject matter. However, there are some interesting autobiographical aspects that didn’t escape me.

First, the obvious: DB Entertainment = SM Entertainment. Mr. Noh = Lee Soo Man. Girls Forever = Girl’s Generation. There are also names that crop up, like Suzy, Somi etc. that you should recognize if you’re into K-POP. This is likely just to please K-POP stans rather than to drop tea on any of these idols, but who knows.

You should think of Jessica Jung, SNSD member and author of Shine, as being split into two characters. Rachel seems somewhat of an echo of the young Jessica who dreamed of being a K-POP star. She’s Korean American, her mom is semi-famous and her dad is boxer turned lawyer (sound familiar?). She hates cucumbers, but she loves fashion and has a knack for drawing it that might help her one day become a fashion designer. Not to mention, she has an adorable little sister who, by the end of the book has decided to become a trainee herself. Other than that, Rachel is your typical contemporary YA lead.

But more conspicuous is the character of Kang Jina, top star of Girls Forever of DB Entertainment. She is Jessica of 2014. We first find her at Jeju Island with her secret boyfriend, a male idol from her generation. She’s at the end of her 7 year contract and he wants her to renegotiate her contract, get more money, and more freedom – especially the freedom to be with him. She’s hesitant, but eventually she goes along with it.

Unfortunately, she had every right to be hesitant. Just like Jason Lee, her boyfriend had no idea how easy he had it as a male. He was able to renegotiate his contract and get his demands met at his 7 year mark. But when Kang Jina tried, she was kicked out of Girls Forever while the other members were strong-armed into resigning. Only problem is DB Entertainment media plays the whole situation as Jina deciding to move on. Then they leak some ‘second-hand sources’ about Jina being an irresponsible diva and a bitch whose head got too big. Rachel initially believes the media play too, until she finds Jina getting drunk somewhere and pitching a fit over how no company will want to touch her now that she’s been smeared. We then get a lovely rundown, courtesy of Jessica’s lawyers who may have shadow-wrote this part of the book, about how the 7 year contract is bs and for show. The company has ways of holding all the power, especially over girls, even as their contract runs out. They give you everything, control your every thought, make you the picture of opulence and then use that very opulence against you, discarding you while smearing you as being ‘difficult,’ ‘spoiled’ and ‘arrogant.’ It’s a harsh, harsh world.

Clearly through this book, Jessica wants to give us outsiders some insight into her side of what happened on that fateful day she was told she was out of Girl’s Generation, while also giving insight into the real world of K-POP trainees and idols. But it’ll take some sleuthing to try to cook up connections between herself and the other Girl’s Generation members. Like, who is Mina? Who are Mina’s lemmings Lizzie and…the other one? Jessica points towards there being factions within Electric Flower and no doubt more factions will build as the group gets going in the sequel. But to try to guess a one-to-one connection between a character and an SNSD member might be difficult, to say the least. No doubt fans will try anyway.

However, those who know SNSD lore might get a kick of some of the references that maybe I didn’t catch. For example, while SNSD was on tour in America promoting the English version of The Boyz, they kept getting told how ‘good their English is’ on talk shows. This pops up in the book. Alas no, there is no “Youtube is my Best Friend” Tiffany moment, but there is certainly a line about friendship—mostly about how to fake it is. As a K-pop idol, you have to smile like everyone is your best friend while you lure them into a fantasy that isn’t real.

Can’t wait for the next book.

Thank you to Simon & Schuster for providing a reviewer copy.

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