‘Suspicious Minds’ book review: An enticing prequel to Netflix’s Stranger Things

I love Stranger Things. To me, it simply has it all. A slick 80s setting, a stylish, retro soundtrack, undeniably likeable characters, and intriguing sci-fi mystery that even Doctor Who could take notes from. So when I picked up Gwenda Bond’s ‘Suspicious Minds‘ I was hoping for a similarly enjoyable level of sci-fi mystery written on the pages of a book. Needless to say, Bond’s book did not disappoint for the most part. All the preludes to the Netflix series were all well and good, but I appreciated the fact that Bond created a relatively engaging story without relying too much on the source material. I think this is quite a difficult thing to do, since fans of the source material may expect plenty of nods and set up. Luckily though, Bond just about pulls it off without being too pandering. This is a story set in the Stranger Things world, but with new characters, a fresh setting, and enough intrigue in the story to keep you turning the pages.

The story follows a young Terry Ives (Eleven’s mother to fans of the series) as she enters the mysterious world of Hawkins lab, and uncovers dark secrets that would never see the light of day. No matter how intimidating the sinister Dr Martin Brenner and his lab orderlies are, Terry has her loyal friends by her side who she makes at the lab. Alice, the introverted mechanic, Gloria, the quirky yet intelligent comic book nerd, and Ken, a supposed ‘psychic’. The story begins in 1969 (14 years before the first series of Stranger Things) and Bond absorbs the reader into the atmosphere of the time. From old-school American diners where you dip your fries in milkshake, references to the moon landing and The Beatles, to a delightfully ongoing Lord of the Rings metaphor between Terry and her boyfriend Andrew; the story has its fair share of cultural references which sets it apart from the slick, retro 80s setting of the TV series.

I appreciated how the narrative wasn’t entirely from Terry’s perspective. Each chapter is stylised to the title cards of each TV episode, also aptly named ‘chapters’. The story often switches perspectives, giving the reader an idea of how each character is feeling about their predicaments, which keeps the narrative fresh and helps to empathise with each character more. You will also find yourself reading what the characters want to say running parallel to what they actually say, which is an everyday mental habit we’re all guilty of. We even get short but sinister glimpses into the mind of Dr Brenner, how dedicated he is to his research, and what kind of moral and ethical barriers he’s willing to cross to reach his goal. The story also provides some backstory to Kali (known to Brenner as number 8), which is the girl with the illusional powers we meet in season 2 of the show. By doing so, we get an idea of how much Brenner truly disregards human feelings and normal experiences for the sake of scientific ‘research’. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t divulge much into what the purposes of the research is, nor does it explore Brenner’s backstory or true motives, leaving the reader guessing at to what kind of intentions the American government may have with the Hawkins laboratory.

Whilst I would say Suspicious Minds doesn’t quite match the show in terms of its character development and story progression, it is still a recommended read for fans of the show. It takes similar tropes from the show, such as the value of friendship in the face of a mysterious adversary, and makes for an interesting side piece for fans to nibble at. The way the book ends gave me the sense that Bond was attempting to balance two things; an effective backstory to the events of the show, and an intriguing story within its own right. It certainly provides the show with some context, providing what is essentially the closest thing to an Eleven origin story. In terms of a story independent of the show, Bond just about hits the mark. Whilst the new characters she introduces didn’t have quite the development I had hoped, they still had enough for me to care about their fates. Most importantly, I enjoyed how Bond showed how much these characters valued each other’s company and friendship. Topped with a neat little romance, this is what I believe Stranger Things is about to its core – the value of friendship and love. The best way I can sum up Suspicious Minds in a sentence would be – Stranger Things is the main course, whilst Suspicious Minds is a tidy little side dish.


Why everyone should be watching Seth MacFarlane’s Orville and why we should be talking about it

Every Wednesday Disney’s streaming service, ‘Disney+’ surprises me with new shows and movies I wouldn’t have expected to be on there. I guess I can count Disney’s acquisition of Fox a blessing because Wednesday 15th September 2021 was no exception. Within a week I had watched both seasons of Orville and I’d cried a total of three times watching it.

On that Wednesday I had a friend round and we were on Disney+ having just watched the latest episode of Marvel Studio’s ‘What if?’ (an absolute brilliant anthology series which places unusual twists on the Marvel Cinematic Universe). We happened to notice a new series had arrived on Disney+ – a sci-fi Star Trek parody created by the man behind Family Guy and Ted, Seth Macfarlane. Say what you will about Seth, but Family Guy never fails to make me laugh, and movies like Ted and A Millions Ways to Die in the West are brilliant live action translations of his humour. Probably what I love most about the man is his clear passion for pop culture references (especially 80s movies). Orville is not only an all-encompassing sci-fi reference in itself, but a love letter to Star Trek and anything else sci-fi.

*Minor spoilers ahead for The Orville*

Initially I thought The Orville was going to be a comedy sci-fi, but after just the first few episodes I was pleasantly mistaken. Orville is a sci-fi with comedy, but it is not the main aspect of the show. The main aspect of the show I love and the reason everyone should be watching is the characters. You’ve got Ed Mercer, captain of the flagship (literally) of the show, the Orville, who is still dealing with feelings about his second-in-command ex-wife Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Pallicki). Mercer is proof that Seth Macfarlane is as skilled with a serious role than he is with comedic roles. Mercer sets the example of what a good leader should be. He is placed into the most unique moral dilemmas and makes the tough calls that no one else can. Would you destroy a ship of racist aliens if it meant saving thousands of lives even if there were children on the ship?

Not only that, Mercer maintains a brilliant rapport with his subordinates. This includes Lt. Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes); Malloy is what I can best describe as the Orville’s ‘crew clown’ with a heart of gold. Lt. Commander Bortus (Peter Macon), an alien from the planet Moclus, a planet which dictates every female child must undergo gender transformation surgery to maintain the male-dominated population. Bortus often finds himself stuck between the backward politics of his planet and his sense of duty and morality established by the relationships with his fellow crew. Another alien species, Lt. Alara Kitan (Halston Sage) from the planet Xelaya whose high levels of gravity grant her super-strength aboard the Orville. Then there is Isaac (Mark Jackson), a robot from a planet dominated entirely by artificial lifeforms who forms a relationship with the Orville’s chief medical officer Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald). Isaac is completely emotionless but is always keen learn more about biological lifeforms, so when Claire develops feelings for him after he unintentionally assumes the role of father figure to her two children, the debate as to whether a human can date an A.I. becomes very apparent amongst the crew. Lastly there is Lt. John LaMarr (J. Lee) who unlocks his true potential and becomes chief engineer after the crew discovers his hidden intelligence.

The relationships between these characters and the way they deal with all sorts of unique moral dilemmas is why The Orville is such a brilliant show. Every episode pleasantly surprised me with some unique scenario these characters are placed in. For example, would you date an ex you still had feelings for which came back into your life from the past? Would you still want to be with the love of your life even if she only existed inside a simulation? Would you be brave enough to run away from a society based on sexism even if it was all you had? These sort of questions are the reason I ended up watching both seasons within a week. Many of the episode plot lines are almost Black Mirror-esque in the way they deal with the dangers and possessiveness of technology. In 400 years will many of us be working aboard a government space ship falling in love with robots and computers? The relationships between the characters are the reason the show had me welling up a total of three times within a week of first watching it! The Orville gave me feelings I was not expecting to have from a Seth Macfarlane show I picked up purely by chance. I have a new found respect for Seth and his skill set as a writer/director, and I find it astounding The Orville has not received more recognition. If you enjoy sci-fi in the slightest, or if you enjoy a show with plenty of heart with relatable characters, unique dilemmas, and stella production value then you need to watch The Orville.