Review: “Code Blue” by Richard Mabry

codeblue_richardmabryFinal Rating: twocupscropped Two cups of bitter, medicinal tea.

Available On: Amazon Goodreads

Code Blue reads a lot like two completely different books went out, got drunk, and when they woke up in the morning discovered that they’d somehow been meshed together. For over half the story, I found Code Blue’s plot quite intriguing, even exciting in places. While it very clearly had some serious problems with emotional punch–something I’ll expound on in a moment–there was at least the intriguing mystery to fall back on.

But then I reached the ending, and what was originally going to be a 3 1/2 star rating vanished. Not only did the previously low-key Christianity aspect of the book suddenly take over everything in a very weird way, (if I never again see the stereotypical white Southern pastor’s wife who cooks amazing biscuits and fried chicken, it’ll be too soon) but the ending felt a lot like one of those black-and-white movies where the villain stands over the train tracks and twirls his mustache before running away with an evil laugh. It had the tension of a wet noodle, and was a literal play-by-play of what the “bad guy” had planned and why they did what they did. Their motive also seemed to essentially be an old high-school grudge which, wow, REALLY? You’re going to almost kill a person because of what happened in high school? That’s one helluva gap for the reader to leap over, and the author fails to make it believable. 

But that’s not all. By far my biggest problem with Code Blue is how the author completely fumbles the emotional aspects of the characters. When the book is focusing on plot development, chapters unfold sturdily, with good pacing and interesting twists and turns that keep you reading. But when it’s time to emotionally develop a character, suddenly the chapters will break up into little pieces, with scenes that are like a firecracker hopping from place to place. Worse yet, what emotions the author does shoehorn into these little piecemeal scenes are so flat, they might as well be can of soda left out on your desk overnight.

For example: The protagonist, Cathy, should be going through enough emotional distress and past trauma to fill someone to the brim with constant anxiety, stress, and frustration. Instead, we get the author treating her emotions like another plotpoint. This is especially prevalent in earlier chapters, where almost every personal scene with Cathy has her rehashing what’s on her mind as if it were some sort of mantra: “Am I being paranoid? Am I losing my mind? Or is someone really out to get me?” We get it. The fact that the author Tells us this constantly, like a drumbeat, gets annoying. Even as she’s working through incredibly difficult stuff with her therapist, the scenes have the emotional impact of sawdust. Same thing happens when she finally has breakthroughs: In a moment that should be triumphant, or at the very least full of emotional bloodletting, there are a few wooden sentences declaring what emotions she’s having before she sits down and cries, or asks someone to pray with her. Then it’s Business as Usual and on to the next chapter/scene.

This formula is what guts the ending, as well. Again, we are confronted with a character who has so much pent-up hatred that they have spent years ruining the lives of others. And yet, the “revelation” of their machinations is dull as dishwater. Once more, the author Tells us everything, and Shows us very little. To call it a disappointment is a severe understatement.

I also had some serious issues with one of the book’s sub-themes, which is Cathy’s inability to trust in men. The way the author describes it, this is the root of all her troubles in life. She can’t trust men who are trying to help her; she can’t trust God; she can’t trust her heart because it wants men to “take over her complicated and messy life”. (Yes this is an actual quote from this book.) Take it from someone who genuinely does have trouble trusting men — this is not how these feelings play out. After years of being emotionally abused and abandoned by men that I thought had my back, I can tell you right now that Cathy is not nearly defensive enough, scared enough, bitter enough, ashamed enough, or angry enough. (Bonus: At no point is she given the opportunity to say “I am fine with being mistrustful,” or “This is something I want to change, and here’s why.” It’s just automatically assumed both by her and everyone else in the book–including her therapist–that this is something about her which MUST change, and if it doesn’t, then she will be miserable.) She is not believable as someone who doesn’t trust men. And her complicated relationship with God is a conflict I was initially excited about, but was let down by immensely by the end. Because of course, thanks to the efforts of some True Christians (TM), she’s shown that she’s been wrong about God all along. All she needs is to let that love into her heart and, poof! Faith restored. And to mirror it, the author makes sure that as she “rights herself” with God, good things start happening to her instead of bad. Seriously. The whole book, Cathy’s entire world takes a giant dump on her. But as soon as she starts praying again? Here, have some money and some success! Oh and look, there go your trust issues as well! ~*It’s a miracle*~

The book also gives Cathy very little agency, and very little intelligence unless it’s a medical matter. Even towards the end of the book, when it is MORE than clear that someone is trying very hard to kill her, we catch her wondering whether or not she’s just being paranoid. Are you kidding me!? Read a damn Nancy Drew book or something! Her IQ seems to get smaller and smaller as the book progresses, and of course at the very end, she doesn’t get to “solve the case” until The Man In Her Life shows up.

The other major thing about this book that needled me (no pun intended) is how shoddily it treats mental illness. While I have certainly seen worse depictions of things like schizophrenia or depression, Cathy treats her mother’s schizophrenia as though it were the actual plague, and never once does she or anyone else empathize with the mother. Mental illness can be difficult and frightening and even crippling at times, but the overwhelming feeling in this book is that being diagnosed with a mental illness is tantamount to a death sentence. That simply isn’t true. There’s also a weird scene with Cathy’s therapist where he gives Cathy some very dry statistics about how many doctors experience depression, which sounds a lot like the author got it off of Wikipedia or a study website. As the cherry on top, the book also regurgitates that tired, agency-erasing chestnut of “Suicide is usually just a cry for help.” I never want to hear this disgusting phrase ever again. As someone who has personally gone through being suicidal, these attitudes offend me deeply, and for a book which places such high value on treating physical injuries, I am disappointed that it does such a disservice to the mental ones.

In closing: There is a lot that this book does right. From a technical standpoint, it is well-polished and enjoyable. (Though there were quite a few typos in the Kindle version.) For instance, I appreciate the balance the author was able to strike with their medical jargon: I felt informed but not info-dumped on, and at no time was I confused or lost by what was described. But for someone like me who needs to be able to emotionally connect with the characters in a book, and also to not have the ending of a mystery being “Mwahahaha, here’s a bullet-point list of why I was evil!”, Code Blue is a desolate wasteland of missed opportunities. And that makes me sad.

I would read more by this author in the future, since a lot of the things which frustrated me so much are things which could be fixed with practice or a better editor. There is some genuinely good stuff in here. Unfortunately as it stands, Code Blue is not an adventure I can recommend.

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