What You See by Ann Mullen

Let me begin by saying that writing a novel is a terrific achievement. I know, having written one ~ and only one. My hat is off to anyone who can complete a novel.


That said, here is my honest opinion of What You See by Ann Mullen, a murder-mystery romance that takes place in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

Characters: Jesse Watson, a 31-year-old woman suffering a low-level identity crisis, narrates this quirky tale of finding one’s self by trying to find someone else who has literally gone missing.

Ann does a nice job with her characters. We get all three dimensions — what they say, what they do and what they look like. Here’s Jesse:

Thirty-one… no life… no man… no babies… no career… a liar… a dumpy duplex apartment… a piece-of-junk car… and breasts the size of plums. The worst part was, I couldn’t even get drunk. I take Zoloft, the wonder drug of the year 2000. I don’t want to go there right now. That’s another one of those tales I don’t want to relive just yet.

I have to think positive. Isn’t that what the therapists tell their patients? I wandered into the bedroom and looked into the mirror. “Well, on the bright side,” I said to no one in particular, “I’m not bad looking. Okay, I might have one or two crow’s feet, but who doesn’t at thirty-one? I have good skin, my blue eyes sparkle, and on a good day, I only weigh 115 pounds, which is perfect for my 5’5’’ height. I have long, straight, bottled red hair. I don’t have a big nose or funky teeth. I have a great personality sometimes. What more could a man want?

Ann wastes no time plunging her mildly depressed, though somewhat snarky heroine into a mountain adventure with other well-drawn characters including her new boss, a Native-American private-eye named Billy Blackhawk (who nearly steals the show from protagonist Jesse), and handsome cop love-interest Cole James.

Also helping to frame the story are Jesse’s supportive parents, dysfunctional brother and sister, an adopted German Shepherd, and some unpleasant heavies and crazies.

Plot: Fed up with a do-nothing life in Newport News, Va., Jesse takes her roommate’s abandoned dog and moves in with her parents in the real-life town of Stanardsville (pop. 476 in 2000 when What You See was written), not too far from Charlottesville.

Jesse gets a job as assistant to local Private Detective Billy Blackhawk. In helping Billy get to the bottom of things, with all the associated legal problems and physical dangers, Jesse realizes she may have found her calling — if she can stay alive and out of jail to pursue it.

Setting: Blue Ridge Mountains. Here I must make a conflict of interest disclaimer. In my college years and beyond, I hiked this area extensively on the Appalachian Trail along Skyline Drive to the north and the Blue Ridge Parkway to the south. I hiked it, photographed it and camped it in all seasons and all weathers, with friends and solo.

So unless Ann had written an illustrated travel guide, there’s likely no way she could have rendered this setting close enough to my own perspective to make me shut up about it.

That said, Ann does a decent job rendering individual settings, like here, when Jesse visits policeman Cole’s home for a first date.

Cole’s house was a two-story, A-frame. It had a porch that appeared to go all the way around the house, and come out in the front, with a wide set of steps down the middle. To the right and left of the house were clusters of trees that blended in with the rest of the woods behind it. Mountain peaks lined the horizon. His small parking area in the front was graveled, and the only automobile parked there was his Jeep.

So what did Gar want in terms of description? How about “the great green ranges stretched to the horizon, holding close their mysterious treasures of trail and peak and brook and beast…”

Of course, then it’s a different book, so I’ll get back to the fine book Ann did write. To her credit, she put in some good close-up and personal description of these woods.

It was an arduous journey creeping through the tangled mass of vines, trees, and rocks that seemed to be everywhere I walked. One of the things I’ve learned about the mountains is you never have a shortage of rocks. They were everywhere you looked.

Yup, that’s my Blue Ridge. Though Ann didn’t spend three-quarters of the book endlessly describing the mountains as I would’ve liked, she does render setting more than well enough to put readers in the scenes, with the expertise of someone who knows and loves these mountains.

What I thought could’ve been done better: Just two things, both minor. I’ll start with the minor-est.

Athena the German Shepherd could’ve been physically described a little better. In fact, from the rendering of her personality, which is excellent, I thought she was a collie-mix.

Yes, I’m a dog nut. As you can see, this book pressed a couple of my buttons.

My other observation has to do with attributives — the “she said,” “he retorted” lines that tell a little about how the dialogue was spoken. “Tell” is the operative word here, as in “show don’t tell.”

Good dialogue, and that’s the only kind in this book, rarely needs attributives other than “said.” The statement itself should give the reader an inkling of how it’s said, without the writer having to slow things down by telling you.

And if the reader thinks that the attributive doesn’t necessarily match up with the statement, then a false note is sounded for that particular reader. Better — and old school — is just to use an occasional said and let what the character says speak for itself.

Here’s an attributive-heavy passage.

“I heard that!” I hissed. “If you were talking about me, you can forget it. I can’t even cook.”

“You two stop it!” Mom fussed, standing at the counter behind us frying up chicken in one of those big, electric deep fryers. “Just boil the eggs for the potato salad, and try to behave yourselves, or get out of my kitchen!”

“See,” Billy leaned over and whispered. “You’ve gone and ruffled her feathers.”

“Just be quiet and help me,” I groaned. “How do you fix boiled eggs? I know you have to do it just right, or they turn out gross.”

He reached down into the cabinet by my legs and pulled out a pot, filled it with water from the sink faucet in front of us, then sat it on the stove.

“Just turn on the gas,” he instructed. “You do know how to do that, don’t you?”

Here it is without the attributives:

“I heard that! If you were talking about me, you can forget it. I can’t even cook.”

“You two stop it!” Mom said, standing at the counter behind us frying up chicken in one of those big, electric deep fryers. “Just boil the eggs for the potato salad, and try to behave yourselves, or get out of my kitchen!”

“See,” Billy leaned over and whispered. “You’ve gone and ruffled her feathers.”

“Just be quiet and help me. How do you fix boiled eggs? I know you have to do it just right, or they turn out gross.”

He reached down into the cabinet by my legs and pulled out a pot, filled it with water from the sink faucet in front of us, then sat it on the stove.

“Just turn on the gas,” he said. “You do know how to do that, don’t you?”

It’s just a minor point, and only one person’s opinion, in a book with a whole lot to like, which brings me to the next section.

What I thought was good: I felt as though Ann really did her homework. She includes the interesting details of the legal issues — hurdles, really — that P.I.s encounter in their investigations. Those details give the book a solid grounding that make the narrative just that much more believable and compelling.

Some might call it cliche, but I liked how Ann respected the P.I. novel tradition of the cops telling the P.I. to “keep your big nose out of police business.”

The difference is that the cop telling Jesse this is also her love-interest. He has to choose between his affection for Jesse and his responsibility as a policeman. Jesse has to choose between her affection for Cole and her loyalty to Billy.

I also liked how Ann keeps the occasional danger and violence real.

Billy was the first to react. “Son, you don’t want to do this. You need to step back, put the gun down, and let’s talk about the situation.”

“You’re trespassing on private property,” he raved. “I could shoot you right now and nobody would say a word about it.” He raised the gun.

In two quick steps, Billy lurched forward and grabbed the shotgun, but not before Jay had a chance to get off a shot. I heard a blast and then fell to the ground. I felt a burning sensation in my shoulder and realized I had been shot. The pain was ungodly.

“You’re a maniac! You shot me!” I screamed. “Billy! Help me!” Blood was running down my arm. I grabbed my shoulder and looked up at the two of them. I don’t know which one was more frightened— Billy, or the kid who had shot me. I was terrified.

It’s not super-heroic. It’s just messy, painful, scarey and all the more real for that.

I’ve already mentioned how much I like the characters. I’ll just add to that by saying I thought Jesse was a true gem — vulnerable, conflicted, insecure, complaining; yet tenacious, resourceful and brave — in short, like many women I know.

I particularly liked the way Ann shows how working to unravel the mystery of a girl’s disappearance helps Jesse solve her personal mystery of just who she is.

Since this is an indie book, I think it’s also worth noting that it appears professionally edited and proofed.

Overall: What You See is a well-crafted and well-rounded mystery-romance with compelling characters, each with their own set of problems, and their own agendas. Ann’s characters cover the spectrum from loving parents to demented villains.

As Jesse narrates her tale of how she and Billy work to discover the fate of the missing girl, she also shows life, death and love, with all their squalor and glory, pain, triumph, mistakes, hopes and fears.

Good job Ann!

Coming up

Convergent Space by John-Paul Cleary
The Highlander by Zoey Saadia
Super Born: The Seduction of Being by Keith Kornell
Brett Gets Hammered by David D’Aguanno

And for a sexy superheroine paranormal sci fi romantic adventure thriller, check out my own novel American Goddesses on Amazon or Smashwords ~ thanks for visiting Honest Indie!



About honestindiebookreviews

Reader, writer, runner, dog dad
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12 Responses to What You See by Ann Mullen

  1. cleemckenzie says:

    You made an interesting point about how much our own experiences as readers influence our appreciation of a book. Your hiking and photographing the Blue Ridge Mountain trail has made you see it clearly. It would be fun to know if the author has actually been on that trail. Maybe she’ll come back and tell us. I had the opposite experience with a book where a lot of action took place on a creek trail I hike all the time. This writer knew that trail, and I could place myself at exact spots as she described them.

    As to attributes. . . I agree, stick with the old way and figure that will be skipped over by the reader. I’m into a book now that’s driving me crazy because instead of an attribute, the writer constantly has the name of the character in the dialogue. “Well, Jon, I see you’re angry.” “No, Mattie, I’m not.” “Yes, Jon, you are.” *Insert scream from reader here.*

    Chalk up another thorough and honest review!

    • I just loved it that a good writer thought to set a story — and since then a whole series — in one of my favorite places. Of course a writer doesn’t always have to have personal experience to describe places well. That’s what imagination is for. Not sure how much you mucked about in those swamps you described in ALLIGATORS OVERHEAD, but you still had some nice squishy details.

      Sometimes what we think are the coolest things are really turn offs. Kill your darlings, as they say. Thanks as always for reading and commenting, Miss C. ( – :

  2. P. C. Zick says:

    I’m glad you addressed the “said” situation. It’s a problem with many writers who otherwise write great stories. Writers need to trust their dialogue. This book sounds very interesting.

    • Just about everything I point out as “what I thought could be improved” is something I’ve struggled with or am currently struggling with in my own writing. And you’re right on both counts, P.C. We do need to trust our dialogue and it is an interesting — and enjoyable — book.

  3. Thank you so much for such an in-depth review. It really made my day that you took the time to express your opinions in such great detail. How else will we learn?

    When I sat down to write my first book, I had no idea what I was doing. I’m not a seasoned writer like other authors. I didn’t grow up writing stories, hoping to become a published author one day. I retired, moved to the mountains, and was just enjoying life, when one day, my husband suggested I write a short story for a contest John Grisham was judging. He convinced me that with all the wild dreams I have, he was sure I could come up with something. So, I did, but never entered the story in the contest. Instead, the short story turned into WHAT YOU SEE. That’s how it all started.

    “Retorted” What was I thinking? I’ve since learned words like that are like a bump in the road. And I’m so glad you pointed it out. Hopefully, others will learn from this.

    Your honesty in your review was refreshing, and thanks so much for the tips. I’ll keep your words in mind when I write the final Jesse Watson Mystery. And then, I’m on to a new series.

    Ann Mullen

  4. Judy ndridge says:

    I got to read this book in Charlottesville before it went to print. I loved it then and I just reread the book and I still love it as much today. You are a wonderful writer. I moved to A little place called Giles County and I have missed quite a few of your books but I want to get them and I want them signed so I guess I have to get them from you. The last one I bought I got from a bookstore right as I was moving and I did not get a signed copy. How do I get my signed copies now

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