Seoulmates: A Review

Seoulmates by Susan LeeHannah Cho’s dreams of perfect summer before senior year go up in smoke when her boyfriend dumps her. Nate, like most of their friend group, is obsessed with K-pop and K-dramas. While Hannah is Korean American, she has no use for Korean pop culture. After years of leaning into the American parts of her identity to better fit in, Hannah doesn’t know how to handle this shift. Especially when it leaves her suddenly single.

As a rising K-drama star, Jacob Kim struggles with questions of whether he’s committed enough–and Korean enough–to succeed. After years of training, he isn’t sure how much longer he can deal with the pressure to make himself constantly available to his publicity team, his costars, and the press. When a press junket leads to Jacob needing some down time, he’s excited. Until he finds out his mom plans to have them stay with the Chos.

Jacob and Hannah used to be inseparable as kids. But that was before everything soured between them. The two strike an uneasy bargain–and an even more tenuous truce–when Hannah enlists Jacob’s help to win back her boyfriend and Jacob, in turn, asks Hannah to help him complete his summer bucket list of all the things he’s missed in San Diego over the years.

As Hannah and Jacob get to know each other again they’ll have to decide if new memories are enough to make up for old hurts and whether they’re headed for a happy ending or some K-drama level tears in Seoulmates (2022) by Susan Lee.

Find it on Bookshop.

Seoulmates is Lee’s debut novel. The novel alternates close third person perspective between Hannah and Jacob with some fun vignettes from their mothers’ points of view along the way. All principle characters are Korean or Korean American.

Hannah’s relationship with K-dramas and K-pop is partially inspired by the author’s own journey to embrace her heritage and cultural identity. As such, Seoulmates is lovingly filled with as many zany adventures and heart-string tugs as K-drama fans would expect. While Hannah starts the novel bitter and angry at Jacob, her hurt is clearly defined on the page never leaving readers in doubt of the long history between these characters and the difficult conversations they have in order to get back to each other.

Their hate to love relationship plays out against the backdrop of a summer filled with big questions. Hannah has to figure out what it means to be Korean American when, at last, being Korean finally seems to make her cool enough without trying to change herself. Jacob, meanwhile, has to figure out if continuing as an actor is worth the lack of privacy and the pressure–a stressful question to consider when he’s also been supporting his family since his father’s death years ago.

Lee balances these different plot threads well leaving room for the characters to realistically learn and grow as they reconnect while also delivering gasp-worthy twists in the rocky road of Hannah and Jacob’s relationship.

Seoulmates is a fun and breezy summer romance where finding love is tempered well with finding yourself.

Possible Pairings: The Charmed List by Julia Abe, 29 Dates by Melissa de la Cruz, Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Susan Lee here on the blog.

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

XOXO: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

XOXO by Axie OhSixteen-year-old Jenny Go’s entire life revolves her plan to get into a prestigious music conservatory. Jenny knows she is technically talented enough. But after her music teacher says her cello playing lacks spark, Jenny is worried that might not be enough.

Still smarting from the criticism, Jenny decides to try stepping out of her comfort zone when she meets a cute guy at her uncle’s karaoke bar in LA. Everything about this boy screams bad decision. But that doesn’t stop Jenny from having a great time with him. He even says he’ll keep in touch when he has to go back to South Korea.

But then he doesn’t.

Jenny’s plan to forget about the boy and focus on her music goes sideways when she finds out her grandmother needs surgery. Jenny and her mom are going to South Korea to support her with Jenny spending the semester studying at Seoul Arts Academy.

No one is more surprised than Jenny when she runs into Jaewoo at the school. And finds out he’s a member of one of the biggest K-pop bands ever.

XOXO is a big deal. Being friends with Jaewoo and the other members immediately puts Jenny under an unwanted spotlight. Pursuing a relationship with Jaewoo would be even worse when his label strictly forbids dating. Nothing about Jaewoo is part of Jenny’s plan. But sometimes you can’t plan for matters of the heart in XOXO (2021) by Axie Oh.

Find it on Bookshop.

XOXO is narrated by Jenny with a fast pace and lots of humor. All characters are Korean or Korean American. Readers interested in audiobooks will also enjoy the audio production narrated by Greta Jung.

Meet cutes and clandestine hangouts abound as Jenny and Jaewoo find common ground despite their very different musical niches and try to decide if they can have a romantic future. Vivid descriptions of Seoul and Korean cuisine (both in LA and Seoul) will make readers feel like they’re right next to readers throughout the novel. Avid K-pop fans won’t find a lot of new takes on the world of pop groups and idols but Oh offers an accessible introduction for newbie fans and those unfamiliar with the musical genre.

XOXO is a exuberant ode to all things K-pop and music with cinematic romance complete with one big grand gesture. Recommended for romance fans and K-pop stans alike.

Possible Pairings: Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan, For the Record by Charlotte Huang, I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee, K-Pop Confidential by Stephan Lee, The Upside of Falling by Alex Light, Smash It! by Francina Simone, Night Music by Jenn Marie Thorne

The Forest of Stolen Girls: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Forest of Stolen Girls by June HurJoseon (Korea), 1426: The year of the crown princess selection when young women like Hwani should be dreaming of entering the palace as a princess. Hwani has never been interested in marriage or the selection process.

Instead, she is crossing the sea to travel to Jeju, a penal island of political convicts. Her childhood home.

Months ago, Hwani’s father made the same journey. He didn’t return.

Detective Min went to the island investigating the disappearance of thirteen girls–disappearances that might be tied to the forest incident–an event so traumatic that Hwani has blocked out all but the barest details.

Coming back to the island will bring Hwani face to face with her estranged younger sister, Maewol, for the first time in years. In their search for the truth, both sisters will have to confront buried memories from their past and the island’s dark secrets in their search for the truth in The Forest of Stolen Girls (2021) by June Hur.

Find it on Bookshop.

Hwani’s efforts to find her missing father and solve his last case contrast well with the smaller story of her own difficulties in deciding how to balance societal conventions with her own dreams and goals. Hwani’s tentative reconnection with her sister–who has been left alone on the island for years to train with the local shaman–adds further depth and tenderness to this thoughtful story.

An author’s note at the end demonstrates Hur’s thoughtful research for this novel while contextualizing the story here into the larger context of Korean history.

The Forest of Stolen Girls is a tense and atmospheric mystery that is both well-plotted and nuanced. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Mirage by Somaiya Daud, Splinters of Scarlet by Emily Bain Murphy, Wicked Like a Wildfire by Lana Popovic, The Beast is An Animal by Peternelle Van Arsdale, The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

29 Dates: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for 29 Dates by Melissa de la CruzJi-Su is an average student in her prestigious school in Seoul filled with overachievers. Hoping to help her stand out in college applications both in South Korea and abroad, Ji-Su’s parents decide to send her overseas to San Francisco.

There isn’t even enough time to say goodbye to her two best friends before Ji-Su is on a plane to California. Being so far from home doesn’t that mean Ji-Su is completely free to focus on her photography and having fun though. Instead Ji-Su is expected to focus on her schoolwork (which she would do anyway) and continue going on the seons (blind dates) that her parents have set up for her through a matchmaker.

Usually adults go on seons when they’re ready to settle down. But as far as Ji-Su’s mother is concerned it’s never to early to find your perfect match. Ji-Su doesn’t put much stock in the seons but it seems like an easy way to keep her parents happy and maybe even make some friends.

Just when Ji-Su starts to think she is getting the hang of being at a new school in a new city (and maybe even seons) she realizes that all of that is easy compared to falling in love for the first time in 29 Dates (2018) by Melissa de la Cruz.

Find it on Bookshop.

De la Cruz’s latest contemporary has a unique perspective in Ji-Su’s first person narration. Each of Ji-Su’s twenty-nine seons are detailed between chapters. These are fun exchanges though their structure as dialogue only is jarring compared to the traditional prose in the rest of the novel.

The blend of romance and humor is tempered well with Ji-Su’s focus on school as she works on college applications and has to decide what to do as she ends up waitlisted at some of her schools.

29 Dates is a super cute romantic comedy perfect for fans of the genre. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Beauty of the Moment by Tanaz Bhatena, 10 Blind Dates by Ashley Elston, I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Seoulmates by Susan Lee, American Royals by Katharine McGee, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Lucky in Love by Kasie West, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

A Step from Heaven: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Step from Heaven by An NaA Step from Heaven is An Na‘s first novel. Published in 2001, the book has received a lot of praise in reviews as well as winning the 2002 Printz Award (for excellence in young adult literature). The reason I like this book (and have added it to my CLW line up) is that the story shows the character’s evolution as she works to become a stronger, more empowered individual.

Young Ju lives in Korea in a lovely house near the sea with her parents and her grandmother. Everything changes for Young Ju when Uhmma and Apa start talking about Mi Gook. Apa stops hurting Uhmma and scaring Young Ju and his mother. Mi Gook is a magic word for the Park family. Until Young Ju realizes that Mi Gook doesn’t mean heaven like she thought–instead it means moving far away to a strange place called America where nothing is as magical (or easy) as the family had thought it would be.

The novel starts when Young Ju is four, before she knows the word “Mi Gook” and is being introduced to the water and waves. The story ends when Young Ju is about to start college. In between, Na weaves together a series of vignettes to show what life is like for the Parks in America. The story is about the immigrant experience, but even more than that it’s about family–very specifically: it’s about this family, the Parks.

Stylistically, this novel is a dynamo. Na incorporates Korean words and phrases into the novel from the get go. With a couple of exceptions, she doesn’t translate within the text. This does two things: on one hand it makes the novel feel more real in that the narrative (the story is narrated by Young Ju who becomes a more reliable narrator as she gets older) is not interrupted by translations meant to benefit the reader. On the other hand, it gets a little confusing because no translations also means no context for the words. That led to a bit of a stumble when I first started the novel and couldn’t decided if Uhmma meant “grandmother” or “mother” (it means “mother” by the way, “Apa” is father and Halmoni means “grandmother). Eventually I had to look up the words online and reread the first couple of pages–but after that it was smooth sailing.

More impressive, and equally effective, is the way that Na subtly alters her prose as Young Ju ages and becomes more familiar with English. The novel is written in the first person, present tense. The beginning of the story told in short, poetic fragments. Even the beginning chapter/vignettes are shorter than those at the end. The sentences get longer (arguably more complex) through the course of the novel.

Na also maintains both Korean and English throughout the novel. Korean appears in phrases throughout and as dialogue without quotations marks. (English dialogue is presented conventionally which makes it easy to note when the characters switch back and forth.)

As the Park family tries to cope with the hardships of American life it becomes clear that their family might not be strong enough to take all of the pressure. By the end of the novel though, after both Young Ju and Uhmma face some dramatic changes, readers leave with the sense that–after so long–the Parks are finally on their way to that elusive American dream.

Possible Pairings: The Secret Side of Empty by Maria E. Andreu, Drown by Junot Diaz, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai