A Guide to: Jenn Bennett's Contemporaries (Alex, Approximately and More)
Jenn Bennett is the author of 4 YA contemporary novels to date. She has a fifth coming out in early November which I do plan to read and review but, for obvious reasons, it won't be included in this blog. She also has several adult fantasy novels and one YA fantasy novel. However, this blog solely covers her contemporaries.
For each book I will give a brief plot summary, my review, and my star rating. The books are ordered from my highest to lowest rating.
TITLE: Starry Eyes
LENGTH: 417 pages
WHAT IT'S ABOUT
Astronomy lover Zorie and experienced camper Lennon are lifelong best friends who have fallen out with each other. They're forced together when they go camping out in the back-country as a group and end up being abandoned by their peers. Forced to survive the wilderness together, they must also confront their pasts.
This novel does an excellent job of setting/atmosphere. I really felt like I was hiking and camping out in the back-country alongside the characters. If you're someone who likes to go camping or even if you're like me and prefer to be cozy in your own bed, this book can appeal to you. The main focus of the story is on relationships; Zorie's with Lennon as well as with her father. Because of this, the novel gets off to a bit of a slow start as it takes time to establish characters and relationships. I think that was ultimately to the story's benefit. Bennett wrote the relationship between Zorie and Lennon to be very believable. They truly felt like best friends who'd fallen in love and subsequently fallen out. The strain and romantic tension between them felt palpable in every scene they shared. I am generally not a fan of the enemies-to-lovers trope, but it worked for me here because of the characters' shared history. I also appreciated the relationship between Zorie and her step-mom. It stressed that your parent doesn't have to be your biological relative to be a loving person whose place in your life is just as valid as your biological family's.
FINAL RATING: 4.75 ⭐️
TITLE: Serious Moonlight
LENGTH: 425 pages
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Sheltered mystery lover Birdie and amateur magician Daniel find themselves as co-workers at a Seattle hotel after a disastrous first date. The two soon find themselves spending time together outside of work, however, as they solve the mystery of a famous author's clandestine meetings at the hotel. MY REVIEW
Both Birdie and Daniel are relatively unpracticed in the area of romance, and Bennett does a good job of conveying this. There is plenty of awkwardness, flirting, and even bickering, and all of it felt very natural. Their relationship is full of hopeful uncertainty and they're a couple you root for. At the same time, I do think that Daniel came across, at times, as a little too brazen. The novel has a couple of settings. Birdie lives on a small island known as Bainbridge Island but commutes via ferry to Seattle for work. I liked this element as it allowed for the quaint uniqueness of a small island setting while also being able to explore life in a big city. There is a mystery aspect to this novel which may help it have cross-genre appeal. I liked the mystery elements of this novel but more so for how they helped the characters to bond than for the mystery itself. I do think it was well integrated within the novel given that Birdie is an avid reader of mystery novels and that it took place at the hotel where they worked.
FINAL RATING: 4.75 ⭐️
TITLE: Alex, Approximately
LENGTH: 388 pages
WHAT IT'S ABOUT
Bailey moves to the California beach town of Coronado Cove to live with her father. She takes a summer job working at a museum where she meets surfer Porter with whom she develops a romance. Meanwhile, Bailey is trying to track down the mysterious Alex, a fellow classic film lover with whom she has formed an online friendship.
The relationship between Bailey and Porter can be loosely described as enemies-t0-lovers. Bailey initially considers Porter to be her 'arch-nemesis' as he teases her when they first meet. However, I felt the teasing came across as lighthearted rather than malicious and maybe even as a misguided attempt at flirting. That being said, I definitely had mixed feelings about Bailey and Porter's relationship. They're very compatible and felt natural together, but Porter was very much an enigma. In one scene he can be thoughtful and gentle and in another he's displayed a mean temper and violence (not towards Bailey but regardless it's concerning). This novel is the only one of the four to see a healthy friendship between the protagonist and another girl character (her co-worker Grace). Zorie from Starry Eyes had female friends, but they were really more frenemies and they left her stranded in the wilderness. I also felt like Bailey showed a lot of character growth throughout the novel. She started as being an 'evader' (someone who would run from conflict at all costs). As the novel progresses and she becomes closer to others she begins to address issues in those relationships as they arise. Much like her other novels Bennett makes good use of environment. I genuinely felt like I was in a beach town and it brought back memories of my childhood vacations to beaches and boardwalks with my family. The plot is not the most original, but overall it's a (mostly) cute love story.
FINAL RATING: 4.5 ⭐️
TITLE: The Anatomical Shape of a Heart A.K.A. Night Owls
LENGTH: 291 pages
WHAT IT'S ABOUT
Aspiring medical illustrator Beatrix 'Bex' and graffiti artist Jack meet on a late night bus and immediately form an attraction. As the two grow closer Jack slowly lets Bex into his world and trusts her with his secrets. But he may not be the only one in Bex's life with things he'd rather keep hidden.
One of my least favorite tropes in books is that of insta-love. Thankfully, while Bex and Jack have an instant attraction to each other, I wouldn't classify their relationship as insta-love. There is actually quite a bit of initial tension between them, a sort of tug of war. Bex feels very conflicted about her attraction to him to start out with and it takes him a while to trust her enough to open up about his family's turmoil. That being said, Jack's character is himself a trope. He's the misunderstood bad boy. He breaks the law but he does it for 'wholesome' reasons, and he has a troubled home life and a soft heart. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this trope necessarily, it's just that Jack doesn't feel like a unique character but rather like a stereotype. This is the shortest of Bennett's contemporaries and I think it could have used another 25-50 pages to wrap things up as the ending felt a little rushed. The novel thematically revolves around secrets and trust. Bex is going behind her mom's back to draw a cadaver (for a scholarship contest), Jack's family is hiding things from everyone, and Bex's mother has a secret of her own. I felt like this was very well done in that this 'theme' tied the story together and allowed for some intrigue to keep the reader interested.
FINAL RATING: 4.25 ⭐️
FINAL THOUGHTS AND TRIGGER WARNINGS
Overall, if you're looking for a contemporary writer who does a good job developing sweet romances and making good use of setting then I recommend checking out Bennett's books. Two of them used my most dreaded trope (enemies-t0-lovers) but it was done much better than any other YA romance I've read. I think each novel offers something unique to the prospective reader. If you love camping/nature then read Starry Eyes. If you are a mystery fan exploring contemporaries then read Serious Moonlight. If you like summer romances and beach towns then read Alex, Approximately. Finally, if you appreciate art and are a bit of a rule breaker then read The Anatomical Shape of a Heart (A.K.A. Night Owls). Whether you read one or all of them I don't think you'll be disappointed.
Finally, I wanted to talk about a couple of major trigger warnings within the novels. Mental health is a reoccurring theme in the novels and in three of them (Starry Eyes, Serious Moonlight, and The Anatomical Shape of a Heart) a character (always off page) has either attempted or successfully committed suicide. In Alex, Approximately there is a minor character who is addicted to drugs. Also in Alex, Approximately there are several scenes involving a gun. I mention these not to dissuade you from reading these books, but simply so that when you do read them you are not shocked and perturbed.
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