Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond (website, Twitter)
Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
I read it as a: hardback
Source: my own collection
Length: 301 pp
Published by: Del Rey (7 Feb 2019)
Set in 1969, this first official Stranger Things novel focuses on Terry Ives, Eleven’s mother, and how she becomes entangled with Dr Martin Brenner and his MKUltra experiments. An ad in a local paper promises $15 (around $100 today) for each week a person participates in a top secret experiment. Terry joins the group and is subjected to Brenner’s work which involves loading up test subjects with LSD and other stimuli, including electroshock, to see if any specific combination will bring forth special powers. Terry and her friends – a motley group of people from various backgrounds – quickly figure out that Brenner is operating under the radar to perform morally compromised tests. The group struggles to find a way to escape Brenner’s control while also striving to bring him down and free a child who is trapped in his grasp.
This is a difficult review to write. On the one hand, I was delighted to read a Stranger Things novel. On the other hand, it was kind of a hot mess. If I didn’t pay attention to anything but the story, it was an ok read. But ONLY ok. If I pay attention to writing, plot holes, and lack of answers, this is a terrible book.
Let me first say this is in no way a personal attack on the author. However, what the fuck was Netflix thinking in hiring an author who, previously, has exclusively written YA?? Stranger Things is most definitely NOT a YA show, nor is it appropriate for children to watch. The books should similarly reflect the darkness and danger of the show. But this book barely touched on most of what we have come to love about the show, and is written in a very simplistic style, which one might expect for a YA novel or younger.
I had hoped to get some answers that we missed in the show, such as more about Brenner himself. That was entirely missing from this book and Brenner remains as mysterious as ever, but not in a good way. The other people who joined Terry in the lab experiments – Gloria, Alice, Ken – were all very flat characters overall, as was Terry’s boyfriend Andrew, and even Terry herself. None of them seemed to have much depth. Terry even had a thought early in the book about how Andrew actually ended up having an interesting personality, opposite what she had experienced before with boyfriends, and yet we don’t get to see said interesting personality. He is vaguely anti-Vietnam, and yet he doesn’t hesitate when he’s called up for the draft and goes off to war with only a little backward glance. His draft lottery being pulled up was manipulated by Brenner, and then he dies in Vietnam. Everything about him is just too easy and convenient. The other people of the group are delivered to us as instant friends once Terry meets them, a pretty tired YA trope (insta-friends, insta-love, insta-hate, etc.). They aren’t developed enough as characters for me to care about them, not even when it’s discovered that one is being electrocuted in the lab. I didn’t even care about Kali, and she is just 5 years old in this novel.
In short, all the characters were just a facade with no depth, character growth, or personality traits to make them seem like real people with whom readers can form attachments.
Nothing is really shown to us; we are told about things, emotions characters are feeling, etc, but it falls flat since little actual emotion goes into it. Terry was filled with rage. How do I know? Because the text says, ‘Terry was filled with rage.’ There are no indicators otherwise, such as clenched fists or stiff posture, to indicate her anger. Telling us she was filled with rage might work fine for a YA audience, but for most adults, this isn’t sufficient. We get beaten over the head that this is set in the 60s – yes, I know, there’s the moon landing; I know, there’s Woodstock; I know, there’s Vietnam and the draft – but there is very little feeling of the 60s about this novel. We want to be shown, not told.
Brenner is the biggest letdown of all. He was not the creepy, dangerously calm man we see in the show. He was hardly even competent in this book. He was tricked into letting Terry join the experiment, even though she was found out to have switched spots with her roommate early on, and he appears to have little control over his staff. The plot to rescue Kali/008 was half-assed and yet it fooled Brenner quite easily. Yes, he still retains control in the end, but the fact that he was tricked at all by a bunch of mediocre undergrads doesn’t mesh with what we know of him. He didn’t get any of his back story filled in at all, which was kind of implied this book would focus on heavily. Also, holy lack of security on your top secret experiment, Batman! If it’s so top secret, why were any of the participants allowed to know each other? Why were they able to sneak out of their rooms and go gallivanting about whenever they wanted? Why weren’t they isolated and locked in their rooms each time at a minimum?
Also, I get that this was supposed to be a different time and people didn’t talk about pregnancy and/or birth control like we do now, but honestly. How does a woman not know she’s pregnant for seven months? Even if you don’t show a lot, you’ll show some, and there are other changes that might trigger normal women to at least see what happens if they pee on a stick. You don’t notice that your boobs hurt, that you are breaking out like a teenager, the crushing fatigue? This must be written by someone who has never had a baby and didn’t think to research the common signs of pregnancy. Similarly, why didn’t the scientists at the lab notice that the subjects were remarkably lucid and check that they had actually taken the LSD? Didn’t they monitor them for things like pupil dilation or other autonomic responses that can’t be faked? Why didn’t they stay with their assigned subject the whole time they were there each week to monitor things and make sure they didn’t OD or something? Worst scientists ever.
If you want to read this purely because you’re a huge Stranger Things fan, like I am, and just want to read a Stranger Things book no matter what and don’t plan to read too deeply into the story, you’ll probably be moderately entertained by this. If you expect something actually good that answers questions you have from the show, and you can’t overlook the glaring plot holes and other problematic areas, get ready for disappointment.