Cover of Shine: white background with pink, gold, and white origami stars, and gold glitter trailing out of a gold star

About the Book

Title: Shine (Shine #1)
Published: 2020
Series: Shine
Swoonworthy Scale: 5

Cover Story: Instagrammable
BFF Charm: Let Me Love You
Talky Talk: Gossip Sonyeo
Bonus Factors: K-pop, South Korea
Anti-Bonus Factors: Mean Girls
Relationship Status: Slumber Party Pal

Content Warning: A character gets drugged, although they do not sustain any physical harm. Characters’ weights are also micromanaged; while eating disorders are never explicitly mentioned, there’s at least constant explicit pressure to stay thin. 

Cover Story: Instagrammable

It’s not quite millennial pink, but this totally reminds me of the Instagram aesthetic back when there were places to go to and infographics hadn’t taken over. It’s also reminiscent of Lauren Conrad’s YA novel, except with origami stars. But if this cover didn’t say K-pop on it twice, there’d be zero indication that’s what the book is about.

The Deal:

Singing, dancing, media training, and, of course, no dating: that’s the life of a K-pop trainee. After six long years of it, Rachel Kim’s dream of becoming a K-pop idol is finally within her grasp — as long as she can fend off the fierce competition and be the picture of perfection 24/7. (Oh, is that all?) Although nowhere in that plan does it include catching feelings for K-pop’s hottest rising star, Jason Lee, which could jeopardize everything that Rachel has worked towards. 

BFF Charm: Let Me Love You

BFF charm with teary eyes hugging a heart

Rachel’s admirable in so many ways; who among us can say that we’ve been on the cusp of achieving our dreams at sixteen?!?! (Or maybe you can. I don’t know your life!) But getting here hasn’t been easy, especially her entire family was uprooted from New York City to Seoul. Not only does she put immense pressure on herself to succeed, but her label’s trainee system is DEMANDING AF.

Despite the hardships, I totally understand Rachel’s motivation to share her culture and connect with people through music, because K-pop is what made her feel less alone during her childhood. Thank goodness that she has good friends in her corner like fellow trainee Akari and glamourous twin classmates Hyeri and Juhyun, who provide welcome relief from her otherwise cutthroat and duplicitous surroundings.

Swoonworthy Scale: 5

What adolescent experience is more ubiquitous than having a celebrity crush? Only Rachel doesn’t crush on Jason Lee from afar; he’s her labelmate and they actually know each other like real people! Except their record label has a STRICT rule against dating. But Jason’s the rare person who knows what it’s like to be in Rachel’s shoes as a foreigner* in K-pop (he’s Canadian) — although less so as a girl in the industry, since he’s unfortunately oblivious to the double standards. 

Still, there are mega perks to being romanced by the golden boy of K-pop — like, international jetsetting perks! But what’s most endearing about Jason is his Peter Kavinsky-esque affection for Rachel’s little sister, Leah (YEAH I WENT THERE). 

*I do wish the book explored Rachel and Jason’s bilingual connection more. Like, do they speak English with each other? Konglish? (It’s only explicitly described once that they were speaking English.) Moreover, does she speak English at home? These are the things I wonder about fictional characters all the time.

Talky Talk: Gossip Sonyeo

Cheongdam-dong might be halfway across the globe from the Upper East Side, but the antics of the privileged and powerful are universal and universally compelling. Jung’s casual use of Hangul also reminds me of Hasan Minhaj’s short-lived Patriot Act, in that she doesn’t necessarily feel the need to explain every little cultural detail — because the real Rachel Kims reading this book wouldn’t need them. Sometimes context clues make it obvious, but if something’s unfamiliar to you, that’s because you’re a visitor in this world, not the other way around. Other than the names of K-pop groups and celebs, everything seems to exist IRL. Google is your friend!

Some of the American references, however, fall under the umbrella of ‘Gen Z teen conveniently loves older pop culture’. I can forgive one instance of it, but the likelihood of a teenager stanning Say Anything, Savage Garden, and Mean Girls from when they were -15, -7, and 0 is a bit of a stretch for my suspension of disbelief. My other extremely niche nitpick is that this book contains a deep inaccuracy about Canada. There’s a mention of Tim Hortons’ Roll Up the Rim promotion happening in the summer, but in reality, it only takes place from around February to April! 

One thing that I’ve literally never seen in another YA novel yet is the stylistic choice of capitalizing white when it pertains to race. It certainly is A Choice, and one that I do understand better after seeking out opinions in support of it, but I’m ultimately not adopting it myself. 

Bonus Factor: K-pop

Inspired by her own journey to superstardom with Girls’ Generation*, Jung provides probably the closest thing we’ll ever get to a K-pop tell-all. If you’re craving juicy details, this book DELIVERS. I don’t know enough about Second Generation K-pop to connect the dots with any IRL references, but I’m so curious to know what industry insiders (esp. those who may have been alluded to) think of this.

Although in slight defense of the K-pop system, even it has to evolve with the times, albeit very slowly. Artists have become more outspoken about mental health and more involved with producing their own music, and even dating has become less of a taboo (at least for those who are already superstars, anyway). 

*In the video above, she’s the one with a blunt bob and wearing a blue hat in the clothing store scenes.

Bonus Factor: South Korea

Most of the novel takes place in Seoul, but I was delighted when it took a short detour to Jeju Island* and even featured haenyo, the centuries-old tradition of women divers who have been — and are still! — harvesting seafood without any breathing equipment. (Seriously, they’re amazing, and I’ve been obsessed ever since I learned about them.)

*Aka one of the last places I travelled to in the Before Times, where I came across a wild horse (pictured above) like Rachel did. 

Anti-Bonus Factor: Mean Girls

Karen, Gretchen, and Regina at the mall (Mean Girls)

The actual movie might be a fave of both Rachel’s and FYA’s, but it’s much less fun to vicariously experience flat-out bullying. Trainee ringleader Mina is nowhere as sympathetic as Regina George, and she’s just cruel without at least being entertaining. (In other words, she really puts the ‘mean’ in Mina. *rim shot*)

Relationship Status: Slumber Party Pal

Like a good sleepover companion, this book does not hold back on spilling its secrets. (It’s why its hair’s so big!) It had me flying through the pages and hanging onto its every word, and I can’t wait to find out what happens in the sequel. (Yes, this isn’t a standalone, but there’s plentyyyyy of material left to mine for Book 2 (emphasis on the tea).)

Literary Matchmaking

I Believe in a Thing Called Love

For a love letter to Korean pop culture (although TV shows instead of music), try Maurene Goo’s I Believe in a Thing Called Love.

Jesse’s Girl (Hundred Oaks #6)

Craving another star-studded romance? Check out Jesse’s Girl by Miranda Kenneally.

Loveboat, Taipei (Loveboat, Taipei #1)

Abigail Hing Wen’s novel is another 2020 debut set in Asia with rowdiness and romance abound.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my free review copy from Simon Pulse. I received neither money nor gelato for writing this review (dammit!). Shine is available now.

Mandy (she/her) lives in Edmonton, AB. When she’s not raiding the library for YA books, she enjoys eating ice cream (esp. in cold weather), learning fancy pole dance tricks, and stanning BTS. Mandy has been writing for FYA since 2012, and she oversaw all things FYA Book Club from 2013 to 2023.