I was fascinated when I first heard about CREMA — a lesbian romance novel where one of the women can see ghosts if she drinks a great deal of coffee, and the other woman’s family owns a haunted coffee farm, is unconventional to say the least. Like a new pot of joe, CREMA has a very robust and inviting premise, with subtle notes of the paranormal and unrequited love…and black currant, because every cup of coffee has notes of black currant. Unfortunately, while the ideas are there, and certainly makes for an intriguing read, CREMA sips more than it could handle, and left me unfulfilled with a scalding tongue.
Written by Johnnie Christmas (Tartarus, Angel Catbird), CREMA tells the story of Esme, a barista working at a Brooklyn, NY coffee shop that was recently bought out by a large franchise. At a party celebrating the deal, she meets Yara, the young, Afro-Brazilian heiress of Cherry Mountain, the company who owned the coffee shop, along with the farm in Brazil, before it was sold. What follows is the start of a sweeping romance between the two, as we see them learn about one another, travel, and save everything that is held dear to them. In the midst of all this, Esme has a very special ability: she can see and interact with ghosts when she drinks too much coffee, including Gerry, a deceased telenovela star who acts as her Jiminy Cricket, reacting to what Esme says and does; and Mad Tomás, a nobleman from the Old World who haunts Esme, Yara, and everyone close to them.
Hands down, the highlight of this book is the art style. Dante Luiz (Shoutout, Gothic Dales of Haunted Love, Wayward Kindred) makes the world of CREMA look timeless and nostalgic at once. The color palette is full of warm and cozy browns and tans, sweeping and wavy lines abound, like steam rising from a coffee cup in the morning. Though still, the artwork and by extension the world of the book has movement and life to it, as if, if you looked long enough, the images on the page will begin to animate smoothly, and have it all play out like a melodramatic movie.
While the book is set in present day, the use of browns and tans make it look like a well-loved, antique photograph, which is clever, given the book deals with people who have been gone for centuries. I will say, though, the speech bubbles are often the same color as the background, so there were times I felt my eyes strain to read the words and follow along with the images; this might just be a Me Problem, but if you are the type to have eye strain, pace yourself.
The body types are diverse as well; Yara is dark skinned, short and curvy, with loose, curly hair, while Esme is taller and lanky, lighter skinned with spindly hair. Along with them are characters that are old and shambling with their whole story written on their face, and young, vivacious (if not obnoxious) ones, who wear their smugness like a badge of honor. Indeed, the art style is sumptuous and rich — I just wish it were tied to a story that was more compelling.
CREMA is certainly ambitious with everything it attempts to achieve in its 122 pages, which is, unfortunately, its biggest downfall. The book clumsily juggles the romance, Esme being able to see ghosts, and the haunting of Mad Tomás, to the point where all the balls fall to the floor. I think what would have greatly helped is if the book took the time to explain things; why could Esme see ghosts? Does she like seeing ghosts or does it feel like a curse to her that she’d rather not have? We neither learn nor know next to anything about Esme; we know she loves coffee and sees ghosts, but that is about it. We never learn her motivations, her likes, dislikes, fears, anything.
Meanwhile (in an exposition dump), we learn many things about Yara, what her family is like, what she does for a living, and so on. Their romance was incredibly rushed and left me wanting more. One moment they have a meet-cute at a party, and then the next they are madly in love with each other, traveling together and everything. Nothing wrong with a whirlwind romance, if we were told that this behavior was either out of the ordinary or completely ordinary for them. But instead, you watch scenes of them hooking up, buying each other flowers, getting into fights, etc., feeling like you are out of the loop of an inside joke between couples, one that, no matter how many times you may ask what the story is between them, all you get in reply is a laugh and a “you had to be there.”
The place where the story falters the most is the overall paranormal aspect. I totally get what Christmas and Luiz were attempting to do, but, as stated above, the book tries too many things at once. The idea of a jaded old man haunting the great-great-great grandchildren in his family is a very compelling and chilling image, especially since the book has hints of colonialistic themes I wish it went more into, but the ghost is only in the story heavily at the very end, in a climax that I’m sure the writing team really wanted me to be enraptured by, but I was not, in which he was bested not with a roar, but with a whisper. I, once again, felt unfulfilled.
All of this being said, though, I will commend CREMA for its coupling. It’s not every day a dark-skinned, Afro-Brazilian woman with natural hair gets to be in a lesbian romance novel, it did make me feel seen, at least a little. Having a lesbian romance be the center couple at all was a welcome sight especially in a book as ambitious as this. I look forward to what the Christmas and Luiz team come up with next, and I hope that it’s as bold and risky as CREMA.