David L. Howells,
Vanessa: Family Tree
(Protea, 2001)

I really wanted to like David L. Howells' second novel in the Vanessa series, Vanessa: Family Tree. The first novel intrigued me with believable character interaction and layers of mystery.

The opening book in the series was plot-driven on many levels. One conflict involved the ghostly Vanessa's true identity and whether she could remain earthbound with her love Ryan Fitzgalen if she learned about her past. The Vanessa mystery was woven into the conundrum of the Civil War soldiers who rode across the Edwards' Plantation each day, trying to evade the vengeful Annie. Fitzgalen and his small band of ghost aiders faced the challenge of helping all of the warring entities cross over to the other side.

Vanessa kept me reading with suspense, psychological puzzles and a delightful love story between a man who was destined to live virtually forever and the playful spirit he once married. I finished Vanessa: Family Tree only because the editor gets testy if a reviewer doesn't read the entire book.

Vanessa: Family Tree follows the Fitzgalen contingent through the week following the action-packed climax of events at the Edwards' plantation. A team of investigators -- including a CNN reporter and a paranormal investigator with a clairvoyant dog along with police and military personnel -- are essentially stalking Ryan and his crew for the entire first half of the novel. The investigators gather clues that were revealed in the first book and eventually confront the Fitzgalen team -- though they never present a real threat to the ghosts or live members. Perhaps if I hadn't read Vanessa, I would have been somewhat intrigued by the extensive background check, but it was presented with much more passion, clarity and brevity the first time around.

The cast of characters is also overwhelming. In addition to Ryan and Vanessa, the "family" includes Ryan's great-great-grandson Allen, who brought in his mother Rachel, his girlfriend Melissa, and eventually his stepfather Frank. Also hanging around are the lawyer Gustav, paralegal Marianne and her love interest, former cab driver Ralph, who they acquired at the end of book one. The investigators grow in numbers as well. While it is impressive that Howells manages to juggle this many characters and actually keep them all occupied, I really didn't care about all of their individual concerns. And, as this is a book about ghosts, a dead character doesn't disappear from the page; he just starts speaking in italics.

The second half of the book did improve as the combined team of "family" and investigators encounter a few deceased but not truly departed spirits who need a nudge toward that eastern light into the beyond. These brief action sequences are vivid, leading inevitably to anther climatic battle with an entity of evil.

Vanessa: Family Tree does eventually -- and ploddingly -- further the series slightly, but it doesn't live up to the promise of the original.

- Rambles
written by Julie Bowerman
published 21 December 2002

Buy it from Amazon.com.