Thou Shalt Not Road Trip by Antony John is one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2012. So when I invited Antony to take part in Just Contemporary and he sent me an ARC, to say I was ecstatic is an understatement.
I am going to warn you in advance that this review is all over the place and it's long. Although my feeling are overall positive, they range from surprised to shocked to disappointed to confused to annoyed to thrilled to amazed to Seriously? to pleased and pretty much everywhere in between. So.
To be perfectly honest, a part of me is devastated that I didn't love this book the way that I absolutely adored Five Flavors of Dumb. This doesn't mean I didn't like it, but this book lacked a certain authenticity in everything except the religion talk. Which makes that a great place to start.
I was surprised when I started reading this book to realize just how much religion plays a part in the story. I don't know how I missed it, because the title includes the words 'thou' and 'shalt' and the main character is on a book tour for the book he wrote called Hallelujah. So, I was instantly wary. Because, for a lot of reasons, that I'm pretty sure I don't need to numerate, books with really strong religious themes are not always my favorite and, in my experience, they aren't always done very well. But for me, this was actually the best part of the book. Rather than being a book about RELIGION it is more a book about a boy who happens to be religious. He believes in God, says his prayers, wants to see other people happy and he also questions his faith and beliefs. As someone who has been religious my whole life, this was incredibly refreshing to me. Here we have a mostly normal teenage boy, who is religious and it isn't this huge thing or problem or issue or whatever. It just was.
And Antony gets the full Ashley stamp of brilliance, because he managed to talk about religion a lot (Luke is on a book tour through Christian book stores) but he never, not once, came across as preachy to me. There were morals to the story, and life lessons learned but none of them were strictly brought about because of a religious lesson. They were normal. And it was amazing. Here is a book with religion in the summary that didn't turn into either an excuse to hate on religion and demonstrate its utter evil OR a 300+page Sunday School lesson. There are a lot of people and a lot of teens who go to church every Sunday. It an important but normal part of their lives. It's nice to have a book that gives us a religious character and handles it well. So, serious awesome points to Antony for that. Seriously.
However, I had a really hard time with just about every character in this story. Luke is supposed to be on tour for his book and his older brother, Matt, is brought along to act as his chauffeur. But Matt decides to bring along his girlfriend, Alex, and her little sister, Fran, who happens to be Luke's ex-best friend and major crush. Awkward. Fran has changed physically a lot in the past year, and Luke interprets this to mean that everything he knows about Fran has changed. And since she is a large part of the reason he's questioning a lot of his decisions (including his faith) and feeling disconnected from his life. So the author of this inspirational best-selling Christian self-help novel finds himself feeling... less than charitable as their road trip advances.
I found myself really frustrated with these characters. Luke's disinterest in his own life, his naivete and his complete and total self-centeredness were incredibly frustrating to read. Not that he didn't grow as a character, because he did and by the end of the book I was absolutely rooting for him. But it was a struggle getting me there. Fran has made some drastic physical changes — outrageous hair, piercings, tattoos, drinking etc. All things that usually signal a cry for help. But all Luke can see is that his best friend is suddenly different and he feels so wounded. When he talks to her, even when he thinks he is being so magnanimous and gracious, he's judgmental and feels as if her problems are all about him. Again, he grows as a character but it's a bit rocky in the beginning.
Matt was probably my least favorite character (although undeveloped Alex isn't far behind.) He is supposed to be in charge of organizing Luke's schedule and getting him places on time. Instead, he regularly took long detours, made decisions about where they would stop without saying anything about it to Luke and there were a few times he outrighted lied to him. While it's very true that Luke needed to lighten up a bit, Matt's behavior drove me nuts. He ignored phone calls from Luke's publicist, used the emergency credit card too often and ignored Luke's distress without even trying to alleviate it. Pretty much every time he did anything, Matt frustrated me. You understand him and his motivations better by the end of the book too, but he still never really grew on me.
Fran was an interesting character and probably my favorite of the bunch. Aside from Luke, she has the most depth and personality and meaning, but even then, I felt her main purpose in the story was to bring balance and understanding to Luke and give him the motivation, reason and environment necessary to invite growth and change. Luke has some depth as a character (for good or bad) without Fran, but Fran had very little without Luke. She was the next best developed character overall, and I felt for her, I really did, but not enough.
The book also include excerpts from Hallelujah, Luke's books, and they are seriously laugh out loud funny. Written as Bible passages, full of 'and he spake' and 'thus sayeth' and 'art thou' they are basically stories of inspiration and hope and insight. Some are funny, some are motivating, and some are a little more tinged with despair, but each were placed perfectly throughout the book to build and move the story forward. These were a fabulous addition, one that added a lot of depth and feeling to the story that would have otherwise been missing.
I do have one other confession about this book, lest you think I was totally disappointed. I have been in a bit of a reading slump lately. And when I'm in this kind of mood, I read very slow, I start and stop books frequently, and I have to kind of force whatever book I'm reading. This has absolutely nothing to do with the book I'm reading, and everything to do with my personal mood. And even though I really and truly did enjoy this book, I am 99% positive that if I had read it when I was more in the mood to read, I would have really loved the book. It's definitely one that I'm going to reread. Maybe I'll even reread it soon, so that if my feelings change drastically, like I think they could, I can rereview the book closer to its April release date. Who knows.
What I do know, is that even not being as enamored of this book as I was of Dumb, it is definitely a book worth reading and it's one that I've already been talking about and recommending. I think this book has a lot to offer and Antony John is going to be firmly stuck on my favorite authors list for a long time. It's a story about life and love and second chances, about friendship, looking beyond the surface and being true to yourself. It's a story that makes you laugh, but one that also makes you think. And while it's not necessarily a story for everyone, it is a story that I believe is important. It's a book that is going to stick with me and even though they weren't my favorite, I have a feeling these characters aren't going to get out of my head for a long time