The Step Love by Leonie Rhule
Synopsis: Tommy Dawson is on the brink of his teens and struggling to cope with his mother’s death. Everything changes when he and his brother move in with Harriet, their new stepmother, who Tommy just can’t see eye to eye with. Lacking the evidence to prove his suspicions about Harriet, Tommy takes matters into his own hands, running away between frequent hospital visits. Is it simply teenage rebellion, or does he have good reason not to trust his stepmother? Tommy’s hardships are punctuated by heartwarming encounters with new friends in this story of youth, anger and male bravado.
Warning: this book review may contain spoilers! And remember, I’m reviewing this book how I see it, which may not necessarily be how it’s “supposed” to be seen.
My rating: THREE and a half (3.5) stars!
Brief Review: This book took me a total of one hour to read, spread over two days. I enjoyed reading this book and I thought the story was really sweet, however some of the grammar and phrasing was a little awkward and I found some parts of the plot seemed rushed.
Story and Narrative: The Step Love is written in first person and follows the story of Tommy, a 12-year-old boy who has trouble getting a long with his new step-mother, and explores the relationships between him, his family, and his friends.
As I’ve said, I thought the story was sweet. The characters are what kept me reading. I could tell each character apart by personality, and I loved how main character Tommy’s stubborn nature was often softened by his little brother Daniel. Tommy is a strong character who doesn’t shy away from showing his emotions.
Rhule is very good at showing the bond between characters; I knew that Tommy was more vulnerable around his little brother and his friend Sarah, defiant against his step-mother, frustrated with his father (and taking it out on others) without having to be told outright. I thought this was the thing that really kept the story engaging.
The book could have afforded to be longer. It would have been great to have seen some of the plot points explored a little more. Quite a few of the problems that arose in the book were solved a couple of pages later. For example, when a character who has been bullying Tommy beats him up, the whole problem is solved in a couple of pages when Tommy’s dad takes him to the bully’s house and demands an apology. After that, not only does he get his apology but the bully becomes a friend of Tommy almost instantly.
This kind of thing also applies to the main plot point: that Tommy doesn’t like or trust his step-mum, Harriet.
It’s mentioned a lot throughout the story that Tommy feels like Harriet is “treating [him] like a child” and being horrible to him. However, most of this unfair treatment came across to me like she was simply trying to be a parent and Tommy was rejecting it because she’s not his real mum – a classic.
This is especially apparent when Tommy turns thirteen near the beginning of the book, and then expects to be treated like an adult from then on. But whenever Harriet asks him to do anything, he accuses her of picking on him. There is even a scene where she is shown to feel guilty about it and wants to rectify the situation. There are only a small number of occasions where her treatment of Tommy seems unfair to me.
He wants to not be treated like a child, but he is a child, and Rhule has skillfully captured that very real conflict of a young person who is growing up and sees themselves as more mature than adults do (and more mature than they probably are). I feel Tommy’s dramatic reactions to certain events were a great reflection of the emotional turmoil he faces due to his frustrations with his dad’s new relationship after the death of his mother. I see a lot of my 13-year-old sister in Tommy (and I’m actually going to recommend The Step Love to her because I now she’ll relate to him!)
The ending of the book is a weird one for me. To be honest I didn’t really like it. It worked well as a shocking twist, but it came across much too sudden to me and seemed less of a plot twist and more of a quick way of proving Tommy right for not liking his step-mum.
Structure and Grammar: Something I found a little strange about this book was the sheer amount of chapters is has in relation to how short it is. It has 44 chapters in only 131 pages! And I quickly discovered that this was because a lot of these chapters are incredibly short, at only two or three pages long. The shortest chapter is a page and a half in length, and the longest chapter is 33 pages. I feel like a lot of the shorter chapters could have been put together to create longer ones, making them more evenly spaced out.
The other thing I noticed was that there was quite a bit of unnecessary speech and information giving.
For example, when Tommy runs off to sit n the doorstep, we know this is due to him being confronted by his dad about being rude to Harriet, and his dad says that even though he sometimes wishes Tommy’s mother was alive, he still wants Tommy and Harriet to try to get along because they are supposed to be a family. A page later (which is also a new chapter), Tommy’s dad says to him “I know you didn’t like what I said, which made you upset enough to sit out here…” But I feel, as the reader, that we didnt need the explanation of why because it had happened literally a page before
In fact, there are a lot of “A that’s why B” speech patterns, which I feel were unnecessary as the “why” had already been explained to the reader in non-speech narration.
Honourable Mention: Mental health!! I love seeing accurate representation of mental health issues in writing, and Tommy’s behaviours before he is diagnosed are just that. It’s great that mental health issues were brought up in this story because I feel like in situations like Tommy’s father’s new relationship, it’s often easy to forget the effect it might be having on the kids.
In Conclusion: I enjoyed the story of the book, and would love to see the theme of relationships and mental health issues explored more in the sequel. For a debut novel, it’s a good read.
I look forward to seeing your writing grow, Leonie!