Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond

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Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback Edition – 5 February 2019)

Series: Stranger Things

Length: 301 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

From acclaimed young adult fiction author Gwenda Bond comes this first official tie-in novel to the television sensation, Stranger Things.

It is 1969, and while America languishes in the midst of the Vietnam War, shadowy events with long-term implications are starting to take place in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana.  The enigmatic Dr Martin Brenner has arrived at the Hawkins National Laboratory to start conducting a series of experiments as part of the CIA’s secretive MKUltra program.  Arriving with him is the doctor’s most gifted test subject, a young girl simply known by the number Eight, who can create illusions with her mind.

In a nearby college campus in Bloomington a young student, Terry Ives, signs up as a test subject for a government experiment at her university.  When she meets Dr Brenner her determination and curiosity impresses him enough to include her in his new experiment.  Travelling to and from the Hawkins National Laboratory in an unmarked van, Terry meets her fellow participants in the experiment, Alice, Gloria and Ken.  Each of the participants has a unique set of skills or abilities, which Brenner hopes to draw out through administration of psychedelic drugs and other invasive techniques.

As the months pass and the experiments become harsher and even more unethical, Terry attempts to find out more about who Dr Brenner really is and what the objective of his experiments are.  When Terry discovers Eight, she begins to question everything that Dr Brenner has done.  With their academic and personal lives deeply tied to the experiment, Terry and her fellow test subjects must find a way to leave the program.  But Dr Brenner is determined to keep each of them involved in his project, and he will do whatever he can to not only trap each of them, including doing the unthinkable to Terry.

It is near impossible to be unaware of the cultural phenomenon that is Stranger Things, the Netflix show that takes its audience on a dark journey into a world of alternate universes and psychokinetic powers with a healthy dose of 80s nostalgia.  Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds is the first official tie-in novel to the television series, and it provides its readers with a prequel story that not only reveals some much-needed backstory to one of the series’ most beloved protagonists (no, not Barb), but also highlights the true nature of a sinister character from the first series.  Suspicious Minds is written by young adult author Gwenda Bond, who has significant experience writing tie-in novels, having previously written the intriguing-sounding Lois Lane series, which focuses on a younger version of the famed comic book journalist.

Despite Bond’s background as a young adult fiction author, this book is much more targeted towards an older audience.  The overall story can be quite dark in places, featuring canon-typical violence and horror themes, and the final chapters of the book show the antagonist doing some exceedingly cold and ruthless actions towards the protagonists.  Due to me being a fan of the television series, I did have a good inkling about how this story was going to end, but I still really enjoyed the dark twist regarding the main character and antagonist at the conclusion of the book and thought that it was quite cleverly done.  One of the other reasons I enjoyed Suspicious Minds was due to Bond’s outstanding story that contained some excellent allusions to the Stranger Things television show and a brand-new historical context to set the story within.

It does need to be said that Suspicious Minds is really a story for those fans of the Stranger Things television show.  This book is set some years before the television show and reveals how Eleven came to be in the custody of the Hawkins National Laboratory.  As a result, one of the main characters of this book is Eleven’s mother, Terry Ives, who was briefly seen in Season 1 and Season 2 of the show.  Some investigation in the first season and pretty powerful flashback in the second season have revealed some of these events, but not a lot of context was given.  As a result, viewers were uncertain about how Terry came to the attention of the government, who or where Eleven’s father was, or why Eleven was considered to be so special even before she was born.  All of these questions and more are answered within Suspicious Minds, and Bond is able to construct a fantastic background for this part of the television show.

In addition to the focus on Terry Ives and the origin of Eleven, Bond spends a significant amount of time focusing on the character of Dr Martin Brenner.  Dr Brenner is one of the main antagonists of the first season of Stranger Things, as he is not only the person responsible for containing and abusing Eleven but also the man in charge of the cover-up surrounding Will Byers’s disappearance.  For a good part of Season 2 of the show, it was assumed that Dr Brenner had died in the Demogorgon attack in the Season 1 finale; however, it was eventually revealed that he was alive and in hiding.  This probably means that he will be a major character again in Season 3 of the show, which means that the content of this book is extremely interesting for fans of the show.  Throughout Suspicious Minds, Bond goes out of her way to highlight what a cold and calculating character Brenner really is and to examine in more detail the crimes that he perpetuated against Eleven’s mother.  I found this examination of Dr Brenner to be absolutely fascinating, and the battle of wits that occurred between Terry and Brenner was a fantastic plot focus for this book.  By the end of the story, Brenner has been built up as a considerable antagonist, and it will be extremely interesting to see how much of Suspicious Minds’ characterisation of him will appear in future episodes of the show.

Aside from the necessary focus on these main two characters and their creation of Eleven, Bond also included a few curious connections to the show that I did quite enjoyed.  For example, there is a bit of a focus on the character of Eight/Kali, who appeared in a second season episode of the television show.  Suspicious Minds shows her as a young child, and focuses on her relationship with the Dr Brenner and some other characters.  There are also a few obligatory references to the Upside Down and the Demogorgon which, while interesting, do not overwhelm the rest of the plot.  I was also rather amused by Bond spending some time explaining how a photograph of Dr Brenner and his test subjects was taken so it could fit into the plot of Season 1.  Overall, I did enjoy these references, but I was relieved that Bond did not go too overboard with them and instead focused on her own unique story, resulting in a narrative that stood by itself and could potentially be enjoyed by someone who has not watched the show.

One of the most beloved parts of the Stranger Things television show is its use of 80s nostalgia, as it provides its viewers with epic amounts of cultural and historical references.  Bond does a good job replicating this scene-setting in the book by highlighting parts of that late 60s and early 70s American culture and society.  While there are several fun cultural references throughout the book, I liked how a large amount of the plot and background story focused on America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, which was dominating society at this point.  Suspicious Minds contains a number of references to the war, and Bond spends a good amount of time highlighting the various attitudes towards the war, including the divide between younger students and the older generations.  Several key events of this time are either shown or alluded to, such as Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech, the 1969 National Draft Lottery and the Kent State University Massacre.  These result in some great settings for the story, and the impacts that they have on the characters and the overall plot of this book are really quite clever and interesting.  I also quite enjoyed how Bond tried to replicate the fantasy roleplaying vibe of the Stranger Things kids in this book by having her protagonists take inspiration from a fantasy source.  As Dungeons & Dragons would not be released until a few years after the events of this book, Terry and her friends refer to themselves as the Fellowship of the Ring, as each of them are major fans of The Lord of the Rings books.  I really enjoyed Bond’s decision to include this as a reflection of the show, and I loved how she chose a more time-appropriate series to serve as their inspiration.

Gwenda Bond’s novel, Suspicious Minds, is a compelling new addition to the Stranger Things universe which serves as a fantastic prequel to the television series.  Utilising an excellent combination of Stranger Things characters and intriguing historical events, this novel paints a dark and tragic picture of the origins of one of the franchise’s most iconic characters, while also examining the dark side of an early antagonist.  Highly recommend for those readers interested in expanding their knowledge of the Stranger Things’ universe, this book is also a dark and captivating story that will stick in the reader’s minds even if they are not fans of the franchise.

Runaways Volume 2: Best Friends Forever by Rainbow Rowell and Kris Anka

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Publisher: Marvel Comics

Publication Date – 30 October 2018

 

Recently reunited and still coming to terms with being a family again, the adventures of Marvel Comics’ favourite group of misfit youths continues in Best Friends Forever, the second volume of young adult author Rainbow Rowell and artist Kris Anika’s run on Runaways.

The Runaways, Chase, Gert, Karolina, Nico, Victor, Molly and Old Lace are finally back together and living in one of their parents’ old hideouts.  While most of the team have grown up since the last time they were all together, this does not mean that they have their lives together.  Each of the Runaways has their issues to deal with, be it Gert’s recent return to life after several years of being dead, Karolina’s relationship problems or Victor’s current existence as a disembodied head.  The only one who appears to have their life even remotely together is the team’s youngest and at times wisest member, Molly, who is enjoying her time in middle school.  But even Molly is having problems, as she is faced with a hard choice and must consider whether she actually wants to grow up.

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As Molly deliberates over the dilemma presented to her, a barrage of other arrivals impact on the Runaways.  Karolina’s girlfriend, Julie Power of Power Pack fame, is in town, which causes significant drama for Karolina and Nico, while Dr Doom has apparently appeared on their doorstep, determined to find Victor.  Can a team rife with squabbles, drama and internal strife come together to face the problems before them, or will their significant changes be too much to bear?

Runaways is still one of my favourite Marvel series.  After the revamp earlier this year, previously reviewed here, these fantastic characters are still going strong.  In this second volume, Rowell, Atkins and their creative team continue to produce some outstanding and emotional stories that are based more on the relationships between the main characters than the traditional crime-fighting storylines contained within other comics.  While they do go up against a couple of superpowered opponents within this story, none of these antagonists is truly evil, and their motivations and history are a lot more morally ambiguous than some of the previous Runaways stories.  The creative team do a fantastic job of blending highly emotional storylines with a bunch of fun and heart-warming sequences, filled with random and funny elements, such as an errant Doombot.  This all comes together into one fantastic overall story that hits all the right buttons.  This second volume contains issues #7 – #12 of this new run on Runaways.

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One of the main aspects of this second volume of Runaways is the continued focus on the relationships between the series’ main characters.  Most of these characters are still coming to terms with being back together after all of them attempted to live lives outside of their team.  Quite a bit of Volume 2 involves the characters trying to determine what roles they have within this surrogate family, and the fact that they are not as close as they used to be.  What I liked is the way that Chase, usually the most immature member of the team, attempts to become the father of the group, matching up with the traditional female leader of the team, Nico, as the team’s mother.  This new parental role is highlighted in a funny couple of scenes where Chase and Nico use magic to become Molly’s legal guardians, a shortcut way that “seems totally legit and great”.  A lot of this volume is also focused on the romantic relationships between several of the group’s characters, including the relationship between Gert and Victor and the new romantic feelings between Nico and Carolina.  I thought the lead-in to both these relationships worked out very well and sets up some interesting potential in future volumes.  I am also very curious to see how the friendship between Victor and Chase is going to be impacted as a result of this new relationship in future volumes of this series.  I liked the way that the relationships and romantic considerations that featured between Carolina and Julie and Carolina and Nico were handled very well and with great sensitivity, and showed great representations of LGBT+ relationships.

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I also appreciated the way that Rowell and Anika continued to focus on the emotional and mental damage that the team’s exploits have had on these characters over their entire comic book history.  In this second volume, there is a significant focus on Victor, who was mentally and physically damaged during his previous appearances in Vision.  Chase and Doombot’s attempts to rebuild Victor during this volume prove to be a particularly vivid trigger for Victor, and leads to some significant emotional moments.  There is also a look at Victor’s fear of vibranium because of its addictive and mind-altering impact on him, which drove him to commit terrible acts in a previous series.  The creative team also take a look at the life of old team member Klara, the young powered girl the team rescued from abuse back in 1907 during a time-travel adventure.  It was previously revealed that Klara had been taken away from the team by the state and is now in a loving household.  A brief section of this volume is dedicated to the team finding her and attempting to bring her back into the fold, but Klara refuses to come back, as she is happy in her new life.  You have to appreciate Klara’s sound reasoning for not wanting to come back to the team, due to the death and multiple problems experienced in the previous adventures.
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One of the most significant issues that the character’s experiences have had on them is based around their negative opinions of adults.  Most of the truly terrible things in their lives have been the result of the plans of the adults they encounter, and their distrust of most adult characters has been a long-running aspect of the series.  It is interesting to see that this carries through to the new series, even though several of the characters are now actually adults.  This viewpoint is most prevalent in Gert, whose death during one of the previous run of this series means she still shares the beliefs these characters had while they were fugitives.  However, the rest of the team also have a hard time trusting other adults, such as when they assume Klara’s new adopted parents have to be evil, as every adult they have previously dealt with in similar circumstances were also evil or abusive.  This viewpoint has significant plot impacts in this second volume, as Molly, given the opportunity to stay young forever, talks to several of the other Runaways in an attempt to subtly work out their thoughts on growing up.  Most of the characters, including non-team member Julie Powers, talk somewhat negatively about their current lives and regret growing up, which tempts Molly to accept the chance to stay young.  The final message of this storyline strongly implies that growing up isn’t so bad, as even the antagonist, a young girl who has stayed 13 for 50 years, does not always want to be young.  It was also interesting to see Klara try to correct the team when they say that no adults can be trusted; having had a loving family relationship, she no longer believes that.

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The second volume of this run of Runaways continues to make use of some fun artwork throughout the various issues.  The character designs continue to be fun, and it is interesting to see some new looks and some constantly changing character designs, especially for the trendy Nico.  The art is often used for comedic affect.  Victor has a fun use throughout the book, and it is pretty humorous to see the head floating around in a number of scenes, even in a middle of a fight scene.  I also loved how throughout the course of the volume, he was given more and more advanced mobility upgrades in each scene that he appeared in, each more comedic than the last.  For example, at the start of the volume he is mostly transported in other character’s hand, his own momentum or in a backpack.  However, as the volume continues he is variously attached to a Roomba, a small tracked rover, several helium balloons (so he can get the feeling on flight back again) and eventually a new drone.  All of these are slightly ridiculous and fun, but they do not take away from the emotional nature of several scenes, and I must point out some of the awesome drawings that hint at the issues Nico is having with her magic.

The second volume of this new series of Runaways, Best Friends Forever, is another strong and emotional addition to this new version of this young adult superhero comic.  I really appreciated the creative teams continued focus on the character relationships and the emotional aspects of the characters’ lives.  Best Friends Forever is another fantastic addition to this powerful new run of Runaways, and I am excited to see what happens to this great group of characters next.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

The Chaos of Now by Erin Lange

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Publisher: Faber & Faber

Publication Date – 2 October 2018

 

From one of the most intriguing authors of modern young adult fiction comes this powerful story about bullying in the modern cyber world and the potential impacts our choices can have on those around us.

One year ago, a student at Haver High, Jordan Bishop, walked into the school cafeteria and committed suicide by setting himself on fire, a reaction to the relentless online bullying he was experiencing.  Since that event, life at Haver High has not been the same.  Not only do the scars of Jordan’s actions remain but radical legislation brought in to combat cyberbullying ensure that students’ online lives are openly monitored by federal cybersnoops.

Eli Bennett is a young hacker who is desperate to graduate and leave town in order escape his father and his father’s new girlfriend, Misty.  Eli is happy enough at school with his only friend, Zach, although he wouldn’t mind getting to know the beautiful Isabel.  But when he is approached by fellow hackers Seth and Mouse, he finds himself drawn into an entirely new challenge.  Seth and Mouse were Jordan’s friends, but have had to keep their relationship with him a secret to avoid backlash from the other students.  Desperate to get some sort of justice for their fallen comrade, they are seeking a way to get back at those students who drove Jordan to kill himself.  Their idea is to create a website where Jordan’s bullies can be publicly shamed, and they need Eli to make it untraceable to the authorities.  Despite being haunted by a previous hacking mistake, Eli agrees to help, interested in the potential of this sort of website.

Calling the website ‘Friends of Bishop’, the site provides the students of Haver High with an anonymous forum to post videos about bad behaviour in the school.  With the help of a few bombshell videos, the site becomes a hit, and Eli and his friends believe they are making some real changes.  With the cybersnoops desperately try to shut down the site, the hidden Friends of Bishop revel in their notoriety and the praise of many of their classmates.  But when their quest for justice takes a nasty turn, Eli finds himself facing the real-world consequences of his actions and must try and work out what the right thing to do is.

The Chaos of Now is the fourth book from the talented and at times controversial young adult author, Erin Lange.  Lange is probably best known for her 2012 debut novel, Butter, which focused on a bullied obese boy’s plan to eat himself to death on a live internet broadcast.  Her next two books, Dead Ends and Rebel, Bully, Geek, Pariah also looked at the lives of socially isolated high school students, as well as the consequences of bullying behaviour.  The Chaos of Now takes a deeper focus on extreme cyberbullying and the potential impacts it can have.  I absolutely enjoyed The Chaos of Now and powered through it in less than a day as I became absorbed in its fantastic narrative, its emotional and moral heart and its very intriguing elements and warnings.

This book contains a poignant and well-thought-out story that takes its protagonist on a captivating adventure as he is faced with a series of moral dilemmas and explores the resultant consequences of his decisions on himself and those around him.  There are some incredible emotional scenes as the main characters examine their anger, grief, guilt and internal moral compasses when they look back at what they did or what they failed to do.  There is also a heartrending plot twist towards the end of the book which paints the entire narrative in a completely new light while also upping the stakes for the protagonist and his friends.

At the centre of this incredible book lies a powerful message about the modern epidemic of cyberbullying and the dangers of our modern computer based world.  Within the context of the story, the protagonist is drawn into a quest for justice after a young man who is bullied online commits suicide.  The architects of this revenge are the victim’s friends, who feel guilty for not standing up for their friend and not coming forward after his death.  As part of their quest, they create an anonymous website where embarrassing and incriminating videos can be posted about the people who drove Jordan to commit suicide, as well as videos about any other bullies or people the protagonists believe need to be taken down a peg.  Lange does an incredible job exploring all the aspect of this cyberbullying, from an examination of the events that led up to Jacob’s suicide to the impacts of the posted videos on the people they are shaming.  Lange does not try to shape this as a black and white issue; instead, everything that occurs has the potential for negative consequences.  For example, throughout the course of the book, the protagonists post several videos, each of which appears to have different levels of embarrassing or incriminating footage.  While the potential impacts of some of these videos appear to be minor, some are later revealed to have major consequences for the people involved.  At the same time, the more explicit videos have huge, life-altering consequences for the people involved.  Through the course of her narrative, Lange shows the full effect of these videos, whether they are extreme or seemingly innocuous, and shows how the people’s lives are affected and how other people treat them because of what is revealed.  Often these outcomes are quite devastating, and the protagonists, having become cyberbullies themselves, are left examining whether their victims actually deserved to have their lives ruined in this way, and if their actions can truly be considered justice.  The final message of this book, that cyberbullying or any form of negative online actions can have severe and often unforeseen consequences, is quite powerful, and I thought that Lange did an incredible job highlighting this throughout her novel.

Another intriguing part of this book is the extreme way the government attempts to deal with the problem of cyberbullying.  In this book, following the extreme suicide of Jordan, the government introduces harsh and controlling rules about internet privacy for students and gives government officers known as cybersnoops the ability to monitor everything young people do on the internet.  This is a thought-provoking reaction, and one that could potentially be used in the real world to address the problem of cyberbullying.  Readers will be interested to see Lange’s thoughts on such a program being introduced and how the youth impacted by it may react.  The resultant story comes across as a cautionary tale.  While more needs to be done to combat the issues of cyberbullying, Lange’s stories suggests that certain approaches could be just as problematic, as many of the protagonist’s actions are as a result of the restrictions imposed upon them.

I really enjoyed the coding aspects of this book, and it was fascinating to see the various computer and coding terms included throughout the story.  Lange’s ensures that these technical aspects are explained to the reader in a clear and concise manner so that even technical luddites like this reviewer are able to have a good understanding of what is going on in the story.  Readers of The Chaos of Now should also take note of the various ways in which the internet or someone’s personal electronic devices can be used against them, and is definitely an informative inclusion.

Lange’s focus on her protagonist’s personal relationships is another great part of this book, and provides an invaluable social heart to this novel.  At the start of the book, Eli only has one friend, Zach, a fellow coder who serves as Eli’s social and hacking conscience.  When Eli makes friends with Seth and Mouse, he is happy to have new friends and works with them on their website.  But, as the book progresses, Eli’s relationship with Zach suffers as he constantly hides his dodgy actions with the Friends of Bishop website.  It is interesting to see how Eli is forced to assume the more moral and cautious role with Seth and Mouse, who are much more obsessed with revenge than Eli is.  Having assumed this role, Eli feels a lot more guilt for the group’s actions, as he knows he should do more to curtail their more reckless actions.  This is further compounded when Eli gets angry and momentarily abandons his moral position, and the resultant actions cause significant harm.  The later part of the relationship with Seth and Mouse is very intense and contains one hell of a climactic scene.  The Chaos of Now also contains the heart-warming story of the growing relationship between Eli and his father’s girlfriend, Misty, who becomes one of the most likable characters in the entire book.  I also enjoyed the relationship between Eli and the bully Malcolm who Eli has several negative encounters with at the start of the book.  While Eli at first wants to destroy him like the other bullies at Haver High, his discovery of Malcolm’s deeper problems and the future awaiting him makes Eli rethink his position.  This focus on the protagonist’s relationships is an extraordinary part of the book, which weaves into the story very well and plays a big part in the protagonist’s decisions and actions.

The Chaos of Now is a great piece of young adult fiction that provides an amazing insight into one of the key issues affecting the youth of today.  With some mature themes, this book is definitely intended for the slightly older teen audience and is probably most appropriate for high school students who are a similar age to the characters of this book.  As this book provides an intriguing and powerful insight into the modern day issue of cyberbullying and presents a look at the extreme consequences that could result from these actions, I would strongly recommend it to these students, as they would be most interested in the message and story that it contains.  While not intended for older readers, the content of this book is instantly relatable for anyone who has ever been to high school and is aware of the current issues surrounding cyberbullying and problems with the internet.

Lange has created a terrific book which I felt covered some of the issues around cyberbullying perfectly.  Featuring a heartfelt and at times crushing story that tries to understand the different sides of this complex problem, this is another superb and memorable release from an incredible young adult fiction author.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars