★★★★ Madame Zenayda’s Afterlife Adventures by Marie Brack follows a medium with mostly faked talents who unexpectedly finds herself six feet under. Throughout her lifelong career, Zenayda (real name: Cathy) dished out advice to her customers that was based almost entirely on her own opinions and life experiences—not on any actual input from the denizens of the great beyond. But now that she’s dead, she realizes that she has an opportunity to truly help people in a way she couldn’t before. In her unique metaphysical state, Zenayda can bridge the gap between the living and the dead, and help souls find peace on both sides of the divide. Her newfound calling will put her in touch with poltergeists, possessions, and all manner of lost souls. And maybe, just maybe, she’ll find her own everlasting peace, too.
Brack’s book achieves several remarkable feats, the first of which is setting up a world with real stakes and intriguing rules. Soon after dying, Zenayda discovers that the afterlife is an incredibly inefficient place, and part of the reason so many ghosts haven’t yet passed on is because someone hasn’t told them how. Zenayda initially takes on these “afterlife announcements” herself, but it’s a lot for one spirit to handle. With the help of other friendly ghosts, she builds a system that welcomes new ghosts, connects them with still-living loved ones so they can take care of any unfinished business, and ultimately aids them in reaching their eternal rest. The other great thing that Brack accomplishes here is showing how worth living life is, by focusing on those who can no longer experience it. In the afterlife, the nonessential minutiae of our lives falls away—things like bills, bosses, and grocery lists. Brack introduces a whole spread of specters, each with their own lingering regrets and unspoken apologies. Ultimately, all of this attention to the emotional lives of her characters gives Brack a direct channel to her readers, reminding them how important it is to live a compassionate, positive existence—because you never know long it’s going to last.