Heartstream by Tom Pollock

The Blurb On The Back:

Heartstream: The App That Allows You To Feel Everything

Amy Becker is a star. She’s used Heartstream to broadcast every moment of her mother’s illness. It’s the realest, rawest reality TV imaginable, and it’s everywhere.

On the day of her mother’s funeral, she goes home to find a fan of hers in the kitchen. She’s rigged herself and the house with explosives – and she’s been waiting to talk to Amy for a long time.

Amy is about to discover just how far true obsession can go.

You can order Heartstream by Tom Pollock from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s about 20 years in the future. 17-year-old Amy Becker is a celebrity thanks to Heartstream, a social media App that allows you to share your emotions with your followers. Her followers have been with her every step of the way as she tried to cope with her mum’s terminal illness, offering her support even as she shares her pain and sadness and rage.

Now her mum has died and Amy, her younger brother, Charlie, and her dad have to work out how to move forward with their lives. But when Amy gets home from the funeral, she discovers a strange woman who calls herself Polly waiting for her in her house.

At first she thinks that Polly is just another deranged fan who’s overstepped the boundaries because she wants to get close to her. Then Polly reveals that she is wearing a suicide vest and that the whole house has been rigged with explosives. Polly says that all she wants to do is talk, and there’s an awful lot that she has to say to Amy …

Tom Pollock’s YA tech thriller is a needle sharp study in obsession that cleverly examines the benefits and disadvantages of social media and celebrity and which builds up a great sense of tension. His observations about fandom are spot on and, as always, he’s sensitive in depicting anxiety and mental health and although some of the plot points are a little soapy and the antagonists slightly under baked, it’s a strong read that’s worth a look.

As you’d expect from a Tom Pollock novel, there’s a lot of smart thinking going on here. By setting it in an unspecified point about 20 years in the future, he’s able to take social media one step further into what users might be doing with it (in this case, Heartstream requires users to wear sensors against their scalps so that they can share their emotions) while also keeping enough that’s recognisable in the here and now to keep people rooted in the action (so smart phones, cars and trains all still exist). Also excellent is the way that he plugs into modern day issues and imagines how they might have developed in the future (in this case, terrorism remains a concern after an attack in London during the mid-2020s) and the way he combines this idea with how the authorities may seek to use some of the new technology is absolutely chilling (most notably in an aside about “stress techniques” used on suspected terrorists).

Amy makes for a flawed and believable main character. She uses Heartstream as her way of processing the grief and pain of her mum’s illness and death but she’s also addicted to the attention that it brings her and Pollock does well at showing how this brings her into conflict with Charlie, who wants their mum’s funeral to remain private. The devotion of her followers and the entitlement they have towards her is genuinely chilling and forms a neat symmetry with the devotion showed by fans of the band The Everlasting in Cat’s parallel storyline. Pollock absolutely nails the die-hard obsession of hard-core fans in these chapters, showing just how far they will go in order to defend their ‘ship’ of band mates Ryan and Nick and the casual power wielded by ‘big name fans’ like Evie. I thought there was a genuine ambiguity to the relationship that develops between Cat and Ryan due to its ‘fanfic’ style beginnings that kept making me question what was going on and I liked the way that the tension Cat experiences as she worries about the fandom – and Evie – finding out about them mirrors the tension in the stand off between Amy and Cat.

Polly herself is depicted with surprising sensitivity. Clearly emotionally damaged, her behaviour towards Amy is frightening but also weirdly tender. However I was disappointed by her reactions in the final quarter of the book, which I felt didn’t quite chime with the planning and attention to detail she had shown up to that point. This isn’t helped by some revelations in that final quarter – some of which I had guessed – which had a bit of a Dickensian soap opera tinge to them. My main issue though was that I was in two minds about the main antagonists who never really came alive for me on the page and who at times are a little cartoon-like. To be fair, I think that this is partly intentional – the book isn’t about them so much as the impact of what they had done – but given how cruel some of the actions are, it would have been good to have had more of a sense of who they were.

This gripe aside, I thought this was a genuinely gripping read, which really ratchets up the tension and suspense. As such, it is definitely worth a few hours of your time.

HEARTSTREAM was released in the United Kingdom on 4th July 2019. Thanks to Thanks to Walker Books for the review copy of this book.

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