BLOOD DONORS, a review

Blood Donors is a gripping thriller novel, about troubled families living in a downbeat tower block whilst plagued by bedbugs. It contrasts subtle diversity and drug portrayal issues to grotesque elements of horror superbly, as the main character explores his own inner conflict while attempting to protect the people around him from danger. 

Marshall O’Connor faces judgement often for his social background, his father’s criminal record and his anger management issues; but underneath all that, there is evidence of real wisdom and empathy: Marsh’s charisma seems to leap off the pages and into the heart. Most interestingly, I think, is the format of the book: dialogue is written in italics and areas of intense emotion in bold, and underlined. Additionally, the language is different and unexpected to conventional writing, because it is reflective of Marshall’s personal style of speaking. This made me consider events more from his perspective and allowed me to feel his emotions more intensely than I would’ve anticipated. The prejudice that he faced, particularly for his short temper, affected me strongly. 

So, while the action is fast, furious and graphic, and the threat of the bedbugs chilling (I had difficulty getting to sleep), the author’s incredible sensitivity in exploring Marshall’s development, in his family relationships and mentality, is what I found really commends this book to greatness.

STEVE TASANE, the interview

Hello, my name is Pheebs, and today, I’m interviewing Steve Tasane, author of Blood Donors. After reviewing his book, I decided that I would love to interview him to find out how he wrote such an enthralling read. I had a hard time coming up with a few of the questions, to really dig out some of the deepest, darkest, and, above all, scariest secrets for this book! Hope you enjoy.

1) First of all, I’ve got to know more about Marsh; despite his tendency to be a little antisocial, aggressive and threatening, he was impossible not to like! Looking at it from another angle, I could see him portrayed as a bully, who would be a thorn in the side of any protagonist… but instead you made him into the main hero himself. May I ask your motives on that? Why did you leave a possible flipside to his character?

I believe very much in the flawed hero. I think they are far more interesting than the perfect Jason Bourne type. None of us are perfect, but all of us can be heroes. From a storytelling point of view, I also wanted Marsh to go on an emotional journey, to evolve as a young man through his experience within the story. If somebody’s already fully grown, there is nowhere else for them to go.

2) Staying with his dark side - Marsh seems to like releasing his anger with the gory destruction of the bugs in a recurring motif seen throughout the book. Could you please comment on his pleasure of “stamping” on bugs? I thought that he was probably picturing them as the cause of all his worries, but maybe he just hated insects!

Of course, the bugs serve as a – very loose-knit – metaphor for his shame. The shame at his family’s poverty. He thinks you can stamp out that shame, the same as he thinks you can punch it out, when someone crosses you at school. That said, I love splatter movies! The gorier the better. And at the end of the day, we readers may like our gore with a bit of allegory and morality added, but it’s the gore we devour!

3) Marsh also possesses a wise, philosophical way of thinking that wound its way into my heart, but he also dealt with his surroundings with practicality, so that there is an efficiency to his actions to spread security and contentment among his friends and community. Why is this benevolent side of his so persevering when he does not receive credit in return, even when it is obvious that he is trying to help? It was a point of some frustration on my part for him!

Sometimes, even the most hardened criminal will go out of their way to save a kitten, or lullaby a baby, or help an old lady across the road. I think morality is a complex many-layered beast; and that some of us may have learned bad behaviour, because of poor upbringing, or extreme life circumstances – but a good heart is a good heart. And that will always shine through, in the end.

4) I’ve heard that you have been working with children not in mainstream education. I do not wish to ask for information that might put vulnerable young people at risk, but could you please tell us a little what that is like?

It’s a pleasure. Children out of mainstream education are often our most fragile kids. They are likely to have been excluded from school because of behaviour issues caused by any number of distressing circumstances: death of a family member, cruel treatment, neglect, all forms of bullying. They benefit from special care that they cannot get in larger, mainstream classes. A Pupil Referral Unit for instance is not a place of punishment, but a place of care, and nurturing. The pupils here are often defined by conflict, and have a natural distrust and resistance to grown-ups, especially those in authority. If they do learn to trust you, and to create and celebrate stories and poems with you, it is a very rewarding circumstance.

5) Have any of your experiences with these children influenced your writing? Diversity and ethnicity is featured in the book - how strongly did you originally intend for this to influence the novel?

I didn’t want diversity to stand out as an issue in my story. Some books excellently address issues such as racism (Malorie Blackman’s stunning Noughts & Crosses trilogy, for instance.) In Blood Donors, however, I address racism indirectly, by the very fact that it is not an issue. I wanted an ethnically mixed bunch of kids who are quite simply the characters in the story. It’s set in London, I wanted to reflect that. In fact, the innateness of their cultural mix is rare in YA fiction, and therefore more radical than it should be. Why can’t a character simply be black? Why can’t a character simply be lesbian? In fact, there’s a blink-and- miss-it (spoiler alert!) moment with one of the main characters, relating to their sexuality. But it’s only there in order to make a further point about Marshall losing the plot.

6) Enough about the people side of things, let’s talk about the action! I like to read in an evening, and the last words that I read for one chapter before turning out the light were “I am never going to sleep again”. I don’t think that I got to sleep for a while that night! Without any plot spoilers, where did you get the idea for such a gruesome enemy?

I decided to ramp up a few normal critters, because, like with many of nature’s little creatures, their special powers are quite jaw-dropping when writ large. That said, their metaphorical service was more potent than any other nasty creature I can think of.

7) Like any good thriller novel, the book has plenty of moments of fighting building up to a fantastically explosive climax. The weapons listed include some nasty toys, and it gets pretty graphic! Was it fun to write about such total carnage, or did you have to schedule it around lunch?!

Hah! I’m actually a lifelong vegan, and against any kind of cruelty altogether. Maybe it’s because of that that I have a very strong stomach – nothing can put me off my food, cos my food is all plant-based. I loved the carnage (carne, French for meat!) but it was seeing documentary footage of slaughterhouses that turned me into a vegan. Thrillers are a form of fantasy that let’s us explore our terror safely – like rollercoasters!

8) And where would a character be without some companions, to help him out along the way? Marsh has two friends, Sis and Mustaph. They are supportive and realistic, immediately grabbing the reader’s attention. Please tell me a bit more about how you developed these ancillary characters, and could you also tell me which is your favourite?

I really couldn’t put one above the other, I like them both so much. Somehow, they seemed to arrive fully formed, and so what I really enjoyed about them was how they wrote themselves into the scene – I never knew what they were going to do or say next! It’s one of the great pleasures of writing fiction, to find yourself in the company of your characters. My one determination was that they shouldn’t be clichés. I like my characters to feel real.

9) I am curious about Marsh’s attachment issues and his own concept of “family”. Please tell me more about Marsh’s changing affections.

When I was growing up, society would call Marshall’s family a “broken home”; a horrible phrase that’s now gone out of use. But if we use the phrase allegorically, Marshall is determined to fix his home. Family can be more complex than sharing the same DNA (his brother, for instance, has a different father) and I wanted to get the idea across that Sis and Mustapha were his family as well, even though they’re not blood relatives. In ancient times, when people lived more in tiny villages, the village would be seen as the family. I see inner city estates as contemporary villages, despite the bricks and mortar.

10) The ‘Finger’ is a grimy tower block that, as Marsh says, the “antisocial families” live in. It seems like a depressing and oppressive place to live, but its description is vivid and realistic (the best word for it seems to be ‘grey’). This leads me to ask if you modelled it on a real place, or did it come solely from your imagination?

I modelled it, loosely, on a tower block on a council estate in Brentford, South West London, right where the M3 roars in. It’s always handy for a writer to be able to see their setting in their mind’s eye, even if the details aren’t necessarily relayed to the reader. There was no narrative reason for the story to state that it was set in London, and so – despite it being London in my mind – I left those details unstated.

11) The formatting is very interesting! Dialogue is written in italics without speech marks, and there are a couple of passages where the important ideas or thoughts are underlined. It took me a little time to adjust to it, but, ultimately, I found it a refreshing change from the usual book formatting. Was it your idea, or did the publishing company consult you on it? I have no idea of the process, but I’d really like to learn about it.

Ah, you got me! It was my idea, and given the chance I’d probably change it. Once italics were used for speech, what would normally be in italics had to then be underlined. I think I prefer old-fashioned speech marks. And – self-irritatingly – my second novel Nobody Saw No One has two alternating narrators, one of which is in italics to distinguish it from the other. I just can’t help it!

12) And finally, just a quick fun question: which genre of writing would you, personally, not touch with a bargepole, writing or reading?!

Well, generally ones with privileged naval-gazing characters holidaying among olive groves. I don’t limit myself to any genre of writing (I love Middlemarch, I Capture The Castle, Kes, Carrie, The Moomins all equally) but I’m not a fan of self-indulgence, and I’m not big on the idea of fiction that suggests only a narrow elite seem to matter or exist. A good book – regardless of its characters – has a way of letting every reader in, whoever that reader may be.