Review by Claudine Yip
Walker Books (Penguin Random House), September 2021
352 pages, hardcover, $24.99 CAD, 978-1-5362-1364-5
Ages 12+, Grades 7+
Young Adult, Contemporary Realism
“How about I ask what does singing make you feel?”
I didn’t even have to think before answering. “Singing is the only thing that can make me feel fearless. I love how when I perform something I’ve practiced a lot, I can shut my brain off and the song just pours out of me. I love when I hit certain notes, like really hit them, I get this powerful feeling, like my heart is breaking but in the most euphoric way.”
Look out BLACKPINK, make way for A-List!
Alice Choy has never had trouble expressing herself through song. But even she isn’t prepared when a casual night out singing karaoke with her little sister in Seoul ends with an offer to audition for one of the top K-pop entertainment companies in the world. The chance to train at an elite K-pop academy and debut with a girl group should be a dream come true. If only there weren’t a few hiccups:
- Born and raised in America, Alice doesn’t speak Korean.
- Dancing lies outside the span of her body’s physical limits.
- A popular gossip blogger is willing to tear down K-pop idols and trainees alike if it means exposing the industry’s dark side.
An immediately eye-catching aspect of Idol Gossip is its use of a unique formatting strategy: before each chapter comes a scathing post from the anonymous gossip blogger V that outlines the latest scandal in K-pop news. V’s taunting personality and anonymity, combined with comments from energetic K-pop stans and Alice’s fish-out-of-water perspective make for a compelling set of narrative voices that leave you wanting more at the end of each section. V also broadens the lens of the story beyond the walls of Star Academy. By illustrating how precarious even an established idol’s grasp on success can be in the hands of the industry, V exposes the terrifying stakes that confront Alice before she and A-List can even debut.
Although the novel is advertised as “delicious gossip squares off with genuine heart,” I found the most compelling conflict to remain within Star Academy, where Alice struggles to connect with her groupmates, obtain years’ worth of dance training in a matter of months, and still devote time to her sister. As a sibling currently struggling through long-distance with her own sister, the relationship between Alice and Olivia was a highlight. Their complementary feelings of displacement provide insight into issues of trans-cultural friendship politics. Alice’s lack of Korean knowledge continuously leaves her out of the loop and is a main obstacle in her desire to connect with her groupmates. Alice’s most fraught relationship at Star Academy, though, is with her group leader Aria, who speaks perfect English. In fact, Aria’s language skills allow her to be the most vocal about Alice’s shortcomings. Through their conflicts, Young depicts disagreements that point to more subtle, cultural differences between the two, addressing notions of respect, entitlement, and intimacy.
What separates Idol Gossip from other recent YA K-pop-centric publications is a refreshing take on perhaps the most infamous rule in the industry: no dating. The focus on the interpersonal relationships between Alice’s groupmates and sister, rather than romantic love, is just as heartwarming and no less emotional.
Those who anticipated the debuts of Jessica Jung’s Shine, Lyla Lee’s I’ll Be the One, or Stephan Lee’s K-pop Confidential will surely enjoy Young’s take on the notoriously intense K-pop world and, if they’re like me, wish to experience an A-List concert of their own.
Claudine Yip is studying Creative Writing with an Art History minor at UBC. She is currently drafting her way through a YA contemporary novel and sporadically blogs about food as an excuse to post all the pictures she takes at bubble tea shops. Visit her at @cyieat on Instagram and @claudineyip on Twitter.