Sheila Roberts: Women’s Literature Done Right

Now I know I’ve made a big deal about my love for fantasy and horror. Truly, these are the genres I’m most comfortable writing and they’re also the ones that sucked my poor heart and soul in from an early age in some form or another. Yet these are far from the only things that I read. I’m always reading nonfiction and creative nonfiction has become a guilty pleasure.I’ve read my share of classics and love The Count of Monte Cristo and Crime and Punishment. Since I was a theatre major back in the day I’ve read five million plays and tend to gravitate to Tennessee Williams, Chekov, David Hare, AR Gurney, and most Shakespeare. I do pick up a romance from time to time and as I wrote earlier I have no qualms about reading children’s lit and YA fiction. I’ve also been in love with graphic novels and comics. I grew up with Batman, I think Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series is one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever read, I adore Shojo manga  of all sorts, and I pick up a few random titles every now and again. A good story is a good story is a good story.

And by the way, yes I totally read chick lit and enjoy it when it’s done right. Like anything else, I want it to be about the story. I get so frustrated with chick lit and romance titles that honestly have a fantastic concept, include some fabulous scenes, and then wrap up the ending way too quickly in picture-perfect bow instead of taking the time to not knife the characters in the throat that the author has taken so much time developing. I love titles that truly explore women’s emotions instead of just plunking a woman into the lead and relying on superficial storylines that may deal with relevant issues to the female heart, but they don’t go nearly as far as they could. I’m not saying don’t have romantic plots, don’t have comedy, don’t have tear-jerker moments, don’t have cuteness, but make them count. There is one author that I absolutely love whose titles can touch my heart and make me bust out laughing without leaving me feeling guilty for reading the books afterwards.

If you love women’s lit, then you must pick up anything by Sheila Roberts. I’ve read most of her titles by now and I have yet to find one that disappoints. Each one involves a cast of characters that have their own issues, heartaches, problems, triumphs and joys. Some like Small Change and Bikini Season have underlying themes or focuses and the main cast of ladies in each deal with that theme in a different way. She’s not only adept at showing different perspectives of the same problem, but she does it without being overly preachy or gimmicky. Things like confidence issues and spirituality are deftly woven in as character traits or subplots – the points are made without overtly slamming the reader over the head with them, keeping the focus on the main theme while still developing the characters.

And of course I can’t talk about Sheila without mentioning her Christmas titles. I will admit I have a soft spot for Christmas stories, probably because December and I are always on shaky terms. I always go after holiday fiction looking for something that can provide the comfort of the holiday that my schedule or past history has left me doubting. I discovered her first title, On Strike for Christmas, a few years ago. I’d checked out the title from my library during December and set it aside. Within days my grandfather was found dead at his apartment from natural causes. We were very close and his death shook me to the core, making me question all sorts of things about myself and the time of year. It probably sounds weird that a book could keep me focused and hopeful during such a bleak time, but truly that title anchored me and gave me something to invest my time in other than my own grief. The story itself details a small town’s population of women going on strike to prove to their husbands that they should be helping more with getting ready for the holidays, but at its core is a story about relationships, how people see each other, and how easy it is to misunderstand your loved ones and take them for granted. There was enough humor, good will, and character realism there to keep me hooked and it is my personal Christmas tradition to read that book every year.

This year it suddenly occurred to me that she’d written more than just that one book, so I began reading all her titles that I could find. I’m particularly in love with Small Changes and Angel Lane which take place in the same universe. The Snow Globe is another Christmas story that deals with a magical snow globe and how it gives hope and changes the lives of three very different women. Since I find holiday magic perfectly acceptable, I was enthralled with this one, too. It’s got the warm feelings of The Christmas Box without being quite so in your face and schmaltzy. By using realistic protagonists with basic issues that most of us  can relate to in some form (one is lonely and looking for a relationship, the second is a workaholic, the third is missing her deceased grandmother who was the only positive family relationship she had) the magical elements are balanced out and work very well.

This year’s release is The Nine Lives of Christmas which intertwines the plot of Ambrose the cat who needs to make up for all the mischief he caused in his past lives so he can have a comfortable ninth life, Zach Stone the playboy fireman who is intent on not opening himself up to love due to the splintering of his family while he was growing up, and Merilee White the shy pet store clerk who had to leave veterinary school and who lives in the shadow of two glamorous sisters. In any other writer’s hands this could be typical, sappy, and boring. Ms. Roberts switches viewpoints enough to keep things interesting, plays the humorous card when it counts, throws in a few plot twists, and makes the baggage Merilee and Zach are carrying believable. Zach comes off like a dude without being a mountain of unobtainable, irritating testosterone, Merilee is insecure without being unlikable. As a reader I was genuinely pulling for both of them and could see why they made the choices they did, even if I didn’t always agree with them (because even I want to see people end up happy, y’know?). The romance is understated compared to a lot of titles, but it works. You don’t need a blow-by-blow description to know that these characters are attracted to each other, care for each other, want each other, and will end up making each other very happy. Because it isn’t in your face let’s get it on, because there are different levels to their attraction and love, it affected me more than if they were to suddenly decide they were meant for each other and take their clothes off.  In a lot of ways this more understated approach works a lot better than some more detailed titles I’ve read.

Ambrose’s asides are often hilarious, as is his take on a lot of human behavior. You can tell Sheila has spent more than a little time wondering what cats think about humans and the random dumb things we do in our daily lives. While it was a little hard to keep track of all his past-life incarnations in his asides, they aren’t drastically important to the plot and once I read through those sections a couple of times everything meshed together very well.  While this third character in a relationship story could have gotten weird, he never becomes comic relief and indeed is necessary to get the two together. He never turns into the small animal that saves Christmas, which is nice to see, too. He does what he does basically for self-serving reasons, even though he obviously wants what’s best for Zach and Merilee. He’s pretty much just like any other cat in that respect and I wouldn’t want him any other way.

I love Merilee. She reminds me of how I felt not even a few years ago, both with her eventual transformation and the insecurities that she carries with her through a lot of the book. I love it when the shy girl archetype is used well and treated with respect, not as a gag or as part of an obvious transformation story arc. Merilee is amazing before her eventual makeover and the makeover itself doesn’t fix everything. It’s a catalyst to her looking at her sisters’ in a different light and finally giving herself permission to go after what she wants. She is a strong character from the beginning, she just needs a little help seeing her potential. But unlike a lot of books, this process takes time.

Like all of her books you can tell Ms. Roberts does a lot of research and has a lot of good people informing her. She makes good use of her facts and works them into the important plot points without the facts taking center stage, themselves. You believe everyone in her books knows what they’re doing but it’s never obvious that those facts have been researched (unless you’re a geek and look at the acknowledgements like me).

You should definitely check these titles out if you like this genre (And hey, a lot of the books have recipes in the back!!). They offer a fun and tender perspective on a lot of different types of personalities and conflicts. Because I have a strong belief in expressing gratitude to those that affect me, including artists, I emailed Sheila this year thanking her for writing such amazing books that have gotten me through difficult times. I can assure you she’s as awesome in her replies as she is in her writing and I hope she continues her awesomeness for many years to come.

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