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.