Suspicious Minds (Stranger Things #1) by Gwenda Bond

The man drove an immaculate black car along a flat Indiana road, slowing when he came to a chain-link gate with a RESTRICTED AREA sign.

– Opening sentence

I’m a huge fan of Stranger Things, so when I saw that a prequel was coming out in book form, I HAD to read it.

Suspicious Minds tells the story of Eleven’s mum, Terry Ives, and how she became involved with Dr Brenner and his experiments at the Hawkins National Laboratory. Set in 1969, Ives is at college when she decides to take her roommate’s place as a test subject in a secretive government-run experiment, later known as MK ULTRA.

Ives and the three other test subjects soon realise something darker is going on, especially once they discover a young girl at the laboratory, Kali, with an 008 tattoo on her arm.

I know what you’re thinking; Stranger Things, Eleven’s mum, MK ULTRA… this prequel is AWESOME, right?

Well, I’m sorry to be the one to break to you, but Suspicious Minds is actually pretty underwhelming, IMHO. While it certainly had the potential to be great, it just doesn’t quite hit the spot which is beyond disappointing.

What makes Stranger Things so good is the nostalgia, characters, and horror – elements missing from this book entirely.

I was expecting Suspicious Minds to be full of 60s references and influences, in a similar way to Ready Player One or American Psycho with the 80s references. However, apart from a couple of references to the Vietnam War and student protests, the book honestly felt like it could have been set in the present. There was no descriptions of the fashion, music or culture that the late sixties are famous for – something that Stranger Things is really good at.

And although the main character, Terry Ives, was full of spirit, her under-developed character made it difficult for me to really connect with and root for her, even as Dr Brenner’s actions got darker and darker. The other characters were even less developed and this, coupled with the irregular pacing, made some of the key moments feel frustratingly lacklustre (seriously, don’t even get me started about Andrew! No spoilers but, damn, I should have cared a LOT more!).

As for the Upside Down, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment it’s once referenced as “the beneath”, but it’s not the focus; the main monster of the book is supposed to be Dr Brenner. And while Dr Brenner definitely comes across as an unlikeable character, I think he falls flat of being the ‘terror’ Suspicious Minds is trying to portray.

It’s a real shame, because I feel like Suspicious Minds could have been amazing. I was fully expecting Stephen King vibes – but Gwenda Bond falls majorly short (I get it, King is impossible to recreate, but Bond’s writing is so bland that, honestly, it’s almost embarrassing). With the popularity of Stranger Things amongst young audiences, this book could have introduced books and reading to a whole new audience; I can’t help but feel like a huge opportunity has been missed.

I think, in this case, the fact that Suspicious Minds is only the first in a series of Stranger Things books, is telling. This clearly affected the pacing because the author was unable to write a completed story. It also hints to the fact that Suspicious Minds is not just a prequel to a successful TV show, but an exercise in growing the Stranger Things franchise.

As a fan of Stranger Things, I got to discover the story of Eleven’s mum (which I already kind of knew from Stranger Things season 2, but still). But I feel like I deserved more. Unfortunately, Suspicious Minds doesn’t hold up.

2 Stars (2 / 5)

She would see her daughter again. No one and nothing could stop her.

– Final sentence


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