Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond is a new weird, mystery suspense novel, and the first canonical book in the Stranger Things (Netflix Original) television series. As a fan of the show, when I saw that there were going to be novelised expansions of the universe for this franchise, I knew that sitting on it wouldn’t be an option for me. Even though this was a dark story that was mildly enjoyable, it ended up being basic and mediocre when compared to the serial’s wondrous world-building and craftsmanship.
Suspicious Minds is set during 1969 while the United States is involved in the Vietnam War and it follows a young woman named Terry Ives who is a college student. Struggling to pay rent, when Terry learns about a vital government experiment starting up in the small town of Hawkins, which is a short drive from her home, she decides to participate as a test subject in order to make some easy money. However, as Terry gets more and more involved in the project, she comes to understand that rather than being a world-changing opportunity for a humble cause, it’s a front for dark and sinister motives, which is further exasperated by the project’s menacing director, Dr Martin Brenner.
Please note that discussions about the Stranger Things series may occur in this review. If you haven’t seen the show, proceed with caution. Book spoilers will not be shared.
My initial expectation of this novel was quite high. Dr Brenner is one twisted motherfucker. He is ambitious and doesn’t have a raindrop’s ounce of a conscience or a soul. The narrative is somewhat of his backstory, recounting how he came to Hawkins and the specific elements that eventually led to the events of episode one. Stranger Things is rather shady, and that malevolence is a major reason that I adore it so much. A second reason is how fast-paced and engrossing it is, particularly when you look at the settings and ambiance that contribute to its inherently creepy vibe. Having been acquainted with these particular attributes, I expected nothing less from Suspicious Minds. My hopes may have been a bit too high because this book didn’t amount to even half of the potential that it had within it.
When I began reading about Terry getting involved with the experiment, there was a level of apprehension that sprouted from my foreknowledge. It created this foundation for intense suspense and thrills to come. However, that creep-factor fizzled out surprisingly early on, and was never able to revive again. A lot of this can be attributed to the basic prose style and splotchy pacing, but the rest was a result of the poor attention to the surroundings.
The pacing, like many other things, kicked-off comfortably while still moving quickly. The time between us learning Terry’s name and situation to her being placed in a room for the first experiment was short. It was a quality I appreciated. I love it when stories can get to the point sooner rather than later, plus I figured that things moving at this speed meant that there would be more information on Brenner coming to light later on. Once I reached the halfway point, that comfortably brisk progression just dropped, and it started to drag quite a bit. My frustrations mounted as this unexpected slowness continued until the last thirty to forty pages, possibly fifty.
My brain was bored. I wasn’t scared or apprehensive about what would happen to Terry or the other participants. I lost my emotional connection to Terry completely and when something devastating occurs, I merely blinked at the pages thinking, “Oh, is this where it will get interesting?”
Being gradual in its execution would have been far less agonising to me if the environment and atmosphere at the very least remained consistent. The only time attention to detail was taken with describing the setting in a way to stimulate the different senses (what the characters saw, heard, felt, smelled, or even tasted depending on the scene) was during sections where something dramatic would occur. My mind had this canvas imagery with vague depictions of shapes and colours that were rarely filled in. In a fantasy or science-fiction-based narrative, the senses are extremely vital aspects of the reading experience! These selective descriptions of the surroundings and ambiance ruined the maintenance of the narrative’s velocity, which again, is necessary in something that is draped in wicked and fucked-up dynamics. After reaching the end, I felt really cheated and heartfully disappointed.
Despite these awful qualities, I did learn a lot about Dr Brenner’s project in Hawkins and a couple of key characters that are discussed in the second season of Stranger Things, such as Eleven’s mum and Kali. Getting that background information has also added more depth to my re-watch of the series (season three goes live in a couple of days, fuck yeah!). While these are minor victories, they are ones that I shall hold on to with slight fanhumaning joy.
Since each of the novels shall be authored by different people, I am going to hope with all of my heart that the next instalment shall be an entire truck-load better than this. The author for this is a known young adult writer, so maybe writing adult literature, specially sci-fi-fantasy, just isn’t her forte, which is understandable. I looked up the author for the next book and he is a known and beloved author of adult SFF, which makes me feel so relieved. Maybe my hope won’t be a waste after all.
I would recommend this book to individuals who have an interest in learning more about Dr Brenner and how certain aspects of the Stranger Things universe came to be, such as the ooey gooey monster and the Upside Down. Aside from that, it’s rather forgettable with writing that is about as basic as it can get, flippant world-building, and sloppy pacing.
2 drug hazes outta 5!