It’s Kpopalypse book review time again! Read on as Kpopalypse reads books about k-pop, so you don’t have to!
Hello, I Love You
Author: Katie M. Stout
St. Martins Griffin, 304 pages, hardcover, 254mm x 191mm
e-book ISBN: 978-1-4668-5459-8
RRP: US $18.99 – CAN $21.99
I got sent a press release email about a month ago by someone in the marketing department of St. Martin’s Press, talking enthusiastically about a new fiction book called “Hello, I Love You”. The email gave a brief plot synopsis and also stated the following:
This June St. Martin’s Griffin will publish Hello, I Love You, a debut YA (young adult) novel by Katie M. Stout.
Katie Stout’s novel is a wondrous blend of dynamic characters, witty dialogue, and KPOP—the music that has taken the whole world by storm.
Sweet, fun, and romantic, Katie M. Stout’s Hello, I Love You explores what it means to experience first love and discover who you really are in the process. If you would like a copy of Hello, I Love You for an online review or feature, please send a mailing address.
My initial reaction was “fuck yeah, I’ll review this! Send me a copy! Send me ten copies!” – why not? I was mainly curious to see if a piece of young adult fiction about k-pop could outperform the trash on AsianFanFics – if so, then I’d have a good time reading it, and if not, I’d have a good time laughing at it. Also, my last book review went down
like a lead balloon just swimmingly, so I figured you folks would appreciate the entertainment of me not writing crappy fanfiction but throwing down on someone else’s fanfiction for a change.
So – what is “Hello, I Love You”? Here’s a scan of the back of my advance reading copy that the lady from St. Martins nicely posted out to me:
Note “blog outreach” is actually listed as part of their official marketing campaign – which is kind of scary when I think about it. I find it hard to imagine some girl in an office tasked with the mission of “blog outreach” cruising around k-pop blogs, stumbling across my own blog of all places and thinking “yeah – let’s send a press release to this guy”. I figure that there’s only two possibilities as to how this occured:
- She just saw that I write about k-pop and figured “ahhh, publicity” and didn’t investigate what I do any further than that because she was busy spamming every blog with “kpop” in the title and maybe it was close to lunchtime (hey Katie maybe you should have a word to her, just saying)
- She’s a cao ni ma and thinks that my review of this would be hilarious
So let’s get down to it. What is this book about, and more importantly, how good is it, and should you read it?
The story is about an American girl called Grace Wilde (!) who is blonde, pretty and oh-so-famous in America and who the tabloids are writing about a lot because her brother was an oh-so-famous country rock star or some shit. She’s having a hard time dealing with her oh-so-famous family and lifestyle, because nobody really understands how internally tormented she is, so she runs away to South Korea where nobody knows how oh-so-famous she is and attends a boarding school. There she meets oh-so-famous Korean musician Jason Bae (!!!), who is in an FTIsland-style three piece manufactured k-pop pseudo-rock group called Eden (okay the group name is actually realistically awful), and who also happens to be the brother of the girl who she is boarding with. Did I mention that Grace is oh-so-famous and that tabloids write about her? The first problem with this book, if you hadn’t guessed yet (her name alone is a giveaway), is that the main character has a bit of a case of the Mary Sues. She’s just too much of a special snowflake, and our author makes sure that the reader knows just how special and unique she is:
I finger my own blond curls, which flattened along the journey but still hang down to my elbows. Momma likes to call my hair my “crowning glory,” a gift from her side of the family. I’ve always loved it; it matches perfectly with what my sister, Jane, calls my “hipster look,” but I now realise [that in Korea] it makes me stick out like a goth at a country concert.
And trust me when I tell you, that’s pretty obvious. I’ve been to my fair share of concerts, both country and otherwise. When your dad is one of the biggest record producers in the country music business and your brother has topped the country charts five years in a row, you start to learn your way around the Mecca of the music lover.
Of course she’s also the only American at the boarding school, because if she wasn’t, then she wouldn’t be so special and unique. You get the idea. It’s far from the most extreme case of Mary-Sueism that I’ve seen in fiction, but I would have liked the story a lot more if the main character was just a little more ordinary and thus believable.
Anyway in the story Grace checks out Jason’s band and then things start gradually simmering in a typically teen romance kind of way. That’s the first 35 pages of the book revealed, and honestly if you’ve read to that point and you’ve got half a brain, you can probably write the remaining 270-odd pages yourself. The second negative point with “Hello, I Love You” is that it’s completely predictable and the basic teen romance plot outline of “girl meets boy > girl crushes on boy because he’s hot even though she also realises he’s a dickhead > girl gets to know boy deep down and he’s really alright underneath the 57 layers of fuckwit > shit looks like it’s about to happen between them but then it doesn’t for some trivial bullshit reasons > eventually everyone changes their smelly tampons and everything is okay” is strictly adhered to. There are no surprises here and an attentive reader will see every twist coming at least 100 pages before it happens thanks to the author telegraphing everything miles in advance. When a random photographer shows up in one scene and oddly takes a photo of unknown-in-Korea-but-oh-so-famous-in-the-US Grace instead of k-pop star Jason, it’s obvious that the author is setting up American tabloid journos tracking her down at her Korean boarding school later on in the book. When Jason scores a part in a k-drama with a hot female lead, it’s clear that the hot female lead is inserted as something for Grace to get jealous about, and that this is a device insert partly to give the narrative some friction. When it’s mentioned that one of the members of Eden is a good dancer, you know straight away that eventually he’ll be thinking about going the k-idol route instead of being stuck behind an instrument. I don’t feel bad about spoilering any of this stuff because all I’m doing is demonstrating how the book does a great job of spoilering itself as you read it – the only unknown about these plot points is when they will occur, not if. The only twist that might catch some people by surprise is the unexpected meaning of the book’s name, and even that development can be spotted way in advance for those who have knowledge in certain areas and are paying attention…
Mind you there’s nothing wrong with predictability as long as you enjoy the ride, and the ride in “Hello, I Love You” is surprisingly enjoyable – but not for any k-pop related reasons, as the k-pop aspect of the book is actually a lot more incidental than hyped. It figures too, as according to the author the story was never originally meant to be set in Korea anyway, but was changed to a Korean setting down the track for ease of comprehension and marketing reasons. What keeps the narrative moving forward is the romance between the two lead characters which is quite engaging and page-turning, mainly because it’s all told from the female character’s point of view and she’s a relentlessly clueless self-sabotaging fuck-up moron (and of course she has to be – without her being this way, there is simply no story for her to tell). This characterisation is welcome because besides being funny it chips away at her initially-established cloying Mary-Sueism and makes her much more likeable, also giving the book some much-needed realism and somewhere for her character to grow. You’ll want to read the next chapter because you’ll be curious about how (and how much) Grace will make a blundering assclown out of herself next, not because of anything to do with k-pop.
There’s one more catch this book had in store, that I initially didn’t expect – and in a way, this was the book’s biggest twist. As I read through the book I started to get sick of the author describing Grace’s chest constricting and/or heat running up the back of her neck every time she sees Jason, that certainly got a bit repetitive – then I realised that the author was continually focusing on those things because she was avoiding discussing what was happening in the main character’s genital region. It also dawned on me that the characters have the most clean-mouthed, goody-two-shoes, G-rated arguments ever. Things don’t get very racy either – anyone coming to this book expecting romantic liaisons and bedroom scenes with their favourite k-pop stars, which I imagine would be one of the main drawcards of a book that markets itself with the “k-pop fiction” label, is going to walk away with some seriously blue ovaries, so forget about any fap value (unless you’re really into exposed collarbones on guys or western girls trying to use squatting toilets). For a book that’s supposedly “young adult fiction” the “adult” part of the equation is sorely neglected. I also noticed that church is mentioned a few times in the book kind of just in passing, like it’s no big thing for people to go to church like that’s what people normally fucking do – even though Christianity is hardly a major big deal in Korea – yeah, okay I see what you did there, author. A bit of research later and it turns out that the author is a “Christ follower” on her SNS and a Christian charity worker – notice how the book blurb mentions that she works for a charity but not that it’s a Christian one, that’s the book company doing their best to portray the author positively while also trying not to scare off readers worried about having religion forced down their throats. While it would definitely be a stretch to say that “Hello, I Love You” is preachy in any way, there’s a subtle (and to be fair, probably unintentional… but then again, the k-pop group IS called “Eden”…) undercurrent of conservative religious moral perspective running through it which I couldn’t help but pick up on. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s probably better that the author write true to her own perceptions and values rather than try and throw in lots of edgy, trendy swearing or whatever (I know that might sound ludicrous coming from Kpopalypse, but swearing a fucking lot is consistent with my personal values, just like not swearing is (presumably) consistent with hers). Just be aware that it’s a thing, and while it may not bother some readers, for a music industry insider, the world the author is painting looks candy-coated and difficult to swallow as a result. I mean, the main character’s chart-topping music star brother has a drug abuse problem that doesn’t involve anything illegal? Come on now.
For what it’s worth for k-pop fans, the parts of the k-pop world that the book does handle aren’t too unrealistic. The group Eden write their own material, an unfortunate narrative necessity which rubs up against another narrative necessity – the fact that they don’t like their own songs and play like a bunch of robots, but that’s about as unbelievable as the proceedings ever get, at least for a casual reader who isn’t in on k-pop’s intense behind-the-scenes skullduggery that the book completely avoids even discussing. Fangirls are portrayed by the author in a way that rings true (rabid dangerous zerglings), as are the entertainment gossip media (lying slimy cunts) and the celebrities themselves (cautious and skittish), and other details of Korean life like food (non-westerner friendly) and traffic (insane) seem plausible enough to indicate that the author does indeed know some stuff about Korea. Forget about your bias turning up in the book though – apart from a few well-known western rock bands that are referenced, the music industry world portrayed in the book is a fictional one. The closest this book comes to an actual known k-pop star is some celebrity girl called Na Na but it’s not that Na Na (although it’s possible the character was modeled on her). Despite the blurb on the back you don’t have to worry about Teen Top turning up.
In the end it doesn’t matter much though, because most importantly of all, the author can write, and this carries the book despite its faults. It’s definitely not the AsianFanFics-style muddle that I feared it might be, it’s quality writing that’s quite engaging, and I blew through the book’s 300-odd pages pretty quickly without ever feeling like I was forcing myself to read it just so I could write about it later and be intolerably snarky about it. If you can look past the slight Mary Sue aspect, the lack of any really juicy k-pop related content, the somewhat conservative narrative and general predictability of it all, there’s a decently entertaining “let’s fall for a total douchebag” love story here to be had, if that’s what you’re into fiction-wise. Personally, I dig it – it’s nice to be reminded occasionally that girls still love douchebags, as a certified asshole it warms the heart to know that I am actually exactly what women want.
Final rating: 2 unrealistically perfect female characters out of 5…
…but add an extra one if you don’t know anything about the Korean entertainment industry and therefore the fact that none of the characters do any sex work, visit any sex workers or encounter any advertising for sex services during the entire book doesn’t bother you or strike you as odd in any way.