Book Review – The Dressmaker

The Dressmaker
A Review by Catherine H. Armstrong

I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the Titanic.  I’ve often thought about the ship’s passengers.  In my younger years, I gobbled up everything I could find on the vessel’s unfortunate demise and those on board.  I devoured anything I could read about those lost at sea, as well as those who survived.  And I’ve often wondered “what happened the next day?”  A lot of books focus on the days leading up to the ship’s voyage and the tragic events of April 14, 1912, but few focus on the survivors and what happened in the days following their rescue by the Carpathia.

Several weeks ago, I stumbled across The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott.  When I realized it was about the Titanic, I knew it would immediately go in my queue to read.  What I hadn’t realized is that the story would focus less on the events and lives of the passengers leading up to (and ending) with the sinking of that great vessel, and more on the heroism and/or greed of the survivors. For instance:  with all of the lifeboats that were launched in those last few moments, most were filled far from capacity.  Why, then, did only one lifeboat go back to pick up survivors?  Alcott addresses these basic questions in her historically-based work of fiction, The Dressmaker.

As the first pages open, we meet Tess Collins – a young woman of very limited means who has walked away from her job as a servant that very morning.  She has great dreams for her future, and the talent to take her the distance.  When she approaches the Titanic on the morning it disembarks from Cherbourg, England, she talks her way into a position as a maid with the infamous Lady Lucile Duff Gordon, an influential and well-known dress designer who would become one of the most notorious and despised of the rich elite survivors.

The Dressmaker is the story of a young Titanic survivor as she begins her new life in a new world, and her relationship to Lady Duff Gordon who, together with her husband, are accused of bribing White Star officers on board their lifeboat to not go back for survivors.  And, while historical data tells us that this part is true, there seems to be some disagreement regarding whether Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon actually bribed the officers not to return for survivors, or whether he simply gave them a charitable contribution after the fact as a “thanks” for their roles in saving their lives.  The truth is that we’ll never know the truth, but Alcott examines this question closely and draws reasonable conclusions.

In the midst of all of this is Tess Collins.  Though she boarded the ship as a short-term maid to Lady Duff Gordon, her skills as a seamstress don’t escape the famous designer’s notice.  She is quickly taken “under the wing” of the great designer with new and greater opportunities available to her in this new country.  But what is Lady Duff Gordon’s incentive?  What has motivated her to choose Tess as her prodigy?  And, if those motives are less than honorable, how honorable will Tess be when faced with a successful future, fame and riches versus an honorable and humble life without lies and deceit?  Will Tess stay true to herself to achieve her goals, or will she be influenced by the lies and deceit of her mentor in her quest for success?

The Dressmaker is a beautiful story about human character.  It asks the question, “what would you do?”  In times of crisis, would you be an “each man for himself” person, or would you lend a hand to your fellow man if the consequences might mean your own death?

This book is available through the Rochester Public Library in traditional format and audio CD.

Check out this YouTube Trailer for Kate Alcott’s Book, The Dressmaker

Book Review – Pretense

A Review by Kay Aune

Pretense, by Lori Wick, is a Contemporary Romance novel that covers the family dynamics of the Bishop sisters as they move from childhood into early adulthood.  Though their physical appearances are varied, their ties to each other are strong.  As the young women face the trials in the modern world, the strength of their unique talents will shine and show their equally unique natures.

In Pretense, we meet eight year old dark-haired, grey-green eyed Mackenzie (Micki) and her blond, blue-eyed, slightly younger sister, Delancey (D.J.) as the two girls and their parents face work, coupled with spiritual and emotional stresses.

Mackenzie is a strong athlete and a leader like her father.  She is thoughtful in nature, a book lover, and a story writer.  Delancey is emotional and beautiful, a gifted artist and into karate.  As the girls enter their teens and early twenties, we feel for them as they face many of the life situations of fun times, losses, togetherness, and emotionally distance.  Choices are made and some lead to heartache, and some to happiness.

This reader found herself crying, laughing out loud, and feeling very satisfied with this story.  Not religious, but full of basic Christian values.

This book is available in the Rochester Public Library in traditional format and large print.

Kamala Nair – From Conception to Paperback, The Personal Story of a First Novel

The following is a repost of an article by Author Kamala Nair, author of “The Girl in the Garden.”  We are reprinting it on this blog with permission from the author.  To see the original post, you can follow this link.

Author Kamala Nair in Italy for the launch of her book, “The Girl in the Garden.”

From Conception to Paperback – The Personal Story of a First Novel
by Kamal Nair

C.S. Lewis once wrote, “I was with book, as a woman is with child.” His words capture the experience of publishing my first novel. For many years before I even began writing The Girl in the Garden, it had been gestating within me. During childhood trips to India the seeds were planted, and nourished over the years as I fell in love with literature, reading and re-reading works like The Secret Garden, Wuthering Heights, and Rebecca.

My immigrant parents regularly took my sister and me to visit our extended family in India, and I recall those long, scorching summers with intense clarity. I used to feel at once both intimately tied to the people and surroundings, and like a fish out of water. The tiny village in Kerala where my father grew up became a place of myth in my imagination: the lush jungles and flowers, the strange birds and animals, and the customs and rituals I longed to understand. I imagined myself as a modern-day Mary Lennox, the heroine of The Secret Garden, but in reverse, an Indian girl leaving her home in the West for the exotic and bewildering land of her roots.

I moved to New York in my early twenties with a few dollars in my bank account, and a few chapters of a novel. Shortly after I arrived, I landed a job as an assistant to the editor-in-chief of a major magazine, a job that ultimately did not live up to my glamorous and naïve expectations. Some days I felt lucky to be in my position, other days I wondered how I ever could have deluded myself into thinking I could find a place here in this ruthless city. Every morning I rose just after dawn and sat at my desk, writing from that enchanted place just between sleep and consciousness, until my bedroom was filled with sunlight. I spent long hours at the office, then went out with my friends to enjoy the city I had made my home. It was a grueling process, sometimes trying, sometimes exhilarating.

The Girl in the Garden was not a business venture or a job, it was a project of pure passion, a quest upon whose outcome my core sense of identity depended. I sometimes felt, on monotonous days spent photocopying and fetching coffee for my boss, or as I stood crammed in a crowded subway car with my cheek crushed against the glass, that if I didn’t have my book, I wouldn’t know who I was. My sentiments may have been extreme, but they were also necessary. That flickering filament of hope in my art and in myself, that confidence in the face of the doubts and disappointments of the world around me, allowed me to continue.

That sense of urgency carried me through the challenges of the process, from breaking the news to my parents that I was turning down admission to law school in order to be a writer, to completing the book, to finding a literary agent, to selling it to a publisher, to stepping out of my comfort zone to promote it.

The Girl in the Garden has taken me on a wondrous adventure, spiriting me away not only from my magazine jobs, but from a life where my most creative and exciting moments happened in secret, stolen moments, in the mornings while the rest of the city slept. For a long time, only my closest friends and family knew that I was writing a book. When it was published, acquaintances and strangers suddenly got in touch to say they had read a review, or seen it on a bookstore shelf. Suddenly people knew me as a writer, an identity I had yearned to inhabit since childhood. Over the last year, I have spoken on panels, signed piles and piles of books, and learned how to suppress the knocking of my knees as I stand at a podium reading my work aloud to an audience. Most recently I sat in a garden in Milan, Italy, speaking to journalists about the Italian translation of my book, which is called Una Casa di Petali Rossi, and has, to my unexpected delight, enjoyed three weeks on the Italian bestseller list.

I am proud of this past year, but I am also afraid of what lies ahead. Afraid of my second book. Afraid of starting over from scratch, and of fully committing myself to this new story and its cast of characters, who will be replacing Rakhee, Amma, Krishna, and all the other figures from my first novel who I have lived with and loved for so long.

The paperback version of The Girl in the Garden is out on June 12th and with its release, I feel the bittersweet emotion that accompanies the closing of one door, and the opening of another. This is the final stage of the publishing process, the equivalent of sending your child off to college. As I say goodbye to my story’s eleven-year-old heroine, Rakhee, and immerse myself entirely in my second book, a historical novel that I have spent the last year researching, I realize I’m really an adult now. This is no longer a secret passion, but my job.

Last week a box was delivered to my apartment. The striking image of two white peacocks emerged from within the folds of bubble wrap, and as I picked up the pristine book and held it in my hands, my eyes filled with tears.

I clung to the book, letting my fingertips slide across the smooth cover, this tangible thing into which I poured all of myself, my childhood innocence, the confusion of adolescence, and all the tumultuous hopes, missteps, fears, and loves of my early adulthood. I held on tightly for a few minutes, and then, at last, I let go. I slid it into an empty space in my bookshelf, opened up the document called “Novel 2” on my laptop, and threw myself without any further hesitation into the frightening and thrilling unknown of my future.

You can read an excerpt of Girl in the Garden here.

Book Review – On the Island

On the Island
A Review by Catherine H. Armstrong

Last week I was looking for something different to read.  I host an online book club through Facebook, and I and my reading friends were trying to decide what our next book should be.  I had no clue, and nobody was offering suggestions; so I surfed out to the New York Times list of best selling books and stumbled across On the Island by Tracey Garvis-Graves.  At the time, it was ranked #11 on the Bestsellers list, and so I thought I’d check out the reviews on Amazon to see how well readers liked it.  I was a bit shocked to see a solid 4.5/5 star rating with over 1,100 reviews.  Could it really be that good?  Probably not, I thought, but with that high of a rating it was probably a good gamble for an online book club.  So knowing nothing more about the book, I posted to my friends that this would be our next selection.  At the time, it was only $2.99 for a digital version, so what would we really lose if it turned out to be a real snooze?

Within 24 hours, the reviews from our book club members began to trickle in.  Those who had started reading it were loving it.  Some people were staying up half the night to read it; they simply couldn’t put it down.

Still not convinced (I’ve been burned too many times by exceptional reviews, only to be disappointed), I figured I better put down my current read so I could figure out what the hype for this book was all about.  And, oh boy!  I’m so glad I did!  Like my Facebook friends, I simply couldn’t put it down.  I plowed through it in one day; something I never do these days because I simply don’t have time.  I have so many things on my “to do list” that most books take me 2-3 days.  Not this time, though.  This time I refused to put the book down.  This time I locked myself in my bedroom and told my husband and kids that they simply had to leave me alone.  Their lives would be in jeopardy if they disturbed me.  And, as I turned the last page, I closed the book with that feeling of complete peace and contentment.  It was everything it was hyped up to be, and even more.

On the Island tells the story of 30-year old teacher, Anna Emerson, and her almost 17-year old summer student, T. J. Callahan.  Anna has accepted a summer position tutoring T.J. who has spent the last two years battling Hodgkins Lymphoma.  He’s now in remission and his family has decided to take a summer rental in Maldives and employ Anna to tutor T.J. through the summer months in hopes of helping him catch up with his classmates before the next school year.  It was the perfect opportunity for Anna to make some money during the summer, while enjoying a beautiful vacation spot in the sun.

As Anna and T.J. travel together to meet T.J.’s family in Maldives, their pilot experiences a heart attack in mid-flight and they find themselves crash-landing in the ocean and washed ashore on one of the area’s many deserted islands.  The pilot was dead before the plane hit the water, and – as the only two passengers and survivors of the crash – Anna and T.J. are left to survive the elements on their own.  It will be 3 1/2 years before they are rescued.

Living and working together to survive on the island, Anna and T.J. become more than teacher and student; they become best friends and partners in their shared effort at survival.  As the years pass by, that friendship blooms until – shortly before T.J.’s 19th birthday – the two become true partners in all things.  On the island, the years that separate them become irrelevant and the best friends and partners eventually fall in love.  But when they’re finally rescued, how will they manage to rejoin civilization?  Will friends and society in general understand the love they share?  Can that love survive the outside influences and prejudices of the outside world?

Author Tracey Garvis-Graves

On the Island is a beautiful story about love and survival.  It was so much more than I expected.  It was quite frankly an incredible first novel by a promising new author.

Interestingly, On the Island appears to have been originally released as a self-published and free download through Amazon’s Kindle; however, its popularity brought it to the attention of publishers.  Though it is currently only available in digital format, the author has just released information that a paperback version will be released on July 17th by Plume (an imprint of Penguin Publishing).  In the meantime, digital copies are available online through Barnes and Noble for Nook, Amazon for Kindle and Apple for iBooks.

For more information about this book or the author, visit the author’s blog at

Contest Reminder – Deadline is Friday Night at Midnight!


Don’t Forget!  You have until midnight this Friday night to register to win the FREE gently-used copies of the first two books in Cynthia Hand’s Unearthly series!  This is a fantastic series written for the YA audience, but equally as enjoyable for adults!  Just follow the link below to our book review, enter and then watch to see if you’ve won!  Winners will be announced on Monday morning via this blog.  Please remember that this contest is open only to Rochester-area residents.  You must be available to pick up your winning books from the Friends’  Bookstore adjacent to the Rochester Public Library.  No copies will be mailed.

Follow this link to read the review and enter our contest!  Good luck!

Book Review – The Last Time I Was Me

The Last Time I was Me
A Review by Catherine H. Armstrong

What can you say about a woman with an anger problem? An anger problem brought on by the deaths of her husband and unborn child and, subsequently, by her beloved mother? Follow that anger problem with a cheating live-in boyfriend (upon whom she extracts sweet revenge) and you have a seriously unhinged woman. Take that seriously unhinged woman and put her in an anger-management course (court directed, no less), throw in some quirky characters and an anger-management counselor with her own obvious anger issues, and you have a great story. But why stop there? While you’re at, throw in a dead body, a germ-phobic Bed and Breakfast owner, an opera-singing, pancake-flipping diner owner, and NOW you have a great read!

There was just so much going on in this book that it’s hard to even explain what it was all about. Suffice it to say that Cathy Lamb has taken a tragic character that most authors would leave tragic, and made her into someone you wish you knew. Someone who lacks that filter we all have that warns us that, “Hey – maybe you shouldn’t say that, even if it is true!” A character whose honesty and plain talk make her not just enjoyable, but downright lovable.

To say that I loved this book is a complete understatement.  I laughed and I cried, and sometimes I laughed while I cried.  As I turned the last pages, I was sorry to see the story end; and, in the end, I simply couldn’t stop thinking about the characters.    What happened next?  What will tomorrow bring?  I simply wanted more.  It’s been a while since I’ve read this book, and I still want more.

The Last Time I was Me is available at the Rochester Public Library.  For more information about this book, or other great reads by Cathy Lamb, visit the author’s website at

Book Review – It Worked for Me (In Life and Leadership)

It Worked for Me (In Life and Leadership)
A Review by Helen McIver

Since retiring, Colin Powell has made another career as a professional speaker.  In his most recent book, It worked for Me,  Powell breaks the principles of life and leadership into seven parts, most of which were taken from his leadership presentations over the years. He collects stories (that happened to him or his friends) and uses them to illustrate his principles and ideas, which many people would benefit from reading and learning!

The first chapter concerns his 13 rules, which were previously published in Parade magazine over 20 years ago.  They were actually an “ad-on” column, that came from snippets of paper that he had shoved under the glass of his desktop.  I can remember reading that article and wrote most of them out.  Among those thirteen are:

  • Get mad, then get over it.
  • Share credit.
  • It ain’t as bad as you think (though I now prefer to think of his line “Fast Eddie, let’s play some pool.” )
  • Have a vision.
  • Be Demanding.
  • Remain Calm, Be Kind.

The remaining chapters focus on knowing who you are, taking care of others, the importance of mentoring, and how to be a great manager/leader.  The last chapter is saved for reflections.

It is worth remembering that Powell was the first black army officer to have a four-star troop command.  He served in the Army from age 17 to 56.  In those years, he served under four presidential administrations and has received numerous awards. His Jamaican immigrant parents instilled the value of hard work, and he took advice from Lincoln: “I can replace a brigadier general in five minutes, but it is not easy to replace 100 horses.”

Throughout his career, Powell had some exceptional mentors: Capt. Tom Miller, Maj.  Gen. Charles Gettys, Lt.  Gen. Hark Emerson, Capt. William Lovisell, and Col. Frank Henry. His writing feels more like a chat between friends than name-dropping. I am glad he was a restless soul and went walkabout often (getting to know people, staff, intel on the ground, not necessarily what was on paper.).

I hope more people read this book when they look to vote in the coming election for the Leader of the USA.  I find it hard to believe how many of the book reviews are already political and even racist.  Although the content is not entirely new, Powell’s book is a thoughtful, well-written and an interesting portrayal of an honest man in difficult times. It includes interesting anecdotes, easy humor, and engaging prose coupled with the resilience he has displayed throughout his life.

I have always had a great deal of respect for Colin Powell and valued the face that he provided to American foreign policy, as well as the common sense that he presented throughout his career. I trusted him, even on the WMD question, and often felt that if the intel was that bad, we needed to have much better security forces and intel operations. His job was to present the information that the CIA and President certified to the UN to determine a world response.

Powell is a Republican who endorsed Obama in 2008, but only after careful consideration.  He has noted that many of the changes Obama wanted to make have been stopped by Congress. He is also not endorsing anyone at present, still assessing both candidates.

This book will make an excellent graduation present and a wonderful fathers day gift. Don’t hesitate to buy it. His autobiography An American Journey is also worth reading, as is a biography by Karen de Young  entitled Soldier: Life of Colin Powell.

Great quotes to consider:

“A life is about its events – it is about challenges met and overcome. It’s all about people.”

“I try to be optimistic, but I try not to be stupid.”

“I set high not not impossible standards. Mine are achievable with maximum effort.”

“Always show more kindness than seems necessary, because the person receiving it needs it more than you ever know.”

“The US is the necessary nation. Despite our own problems…the world continues to look at us to solve or help with problems and crises….”

“We have to give every kid in America the access to public education that I received. We need to place public education at the top of our priorities and at the center of our national life.”

“If you take the pay, earn it. Don’t disappoint yourself.”

“Do your best- we’ll accept your best, but nothing less.” (Powell’s parents to him when he was not particularly good in sports or school).

Book Review – Moloka’i

A Review by Catherine H. Armstrong

Leprosy. Today we know it as Hansen’s Disease and we have a cure.  But even today, just that single word brings fear a vivid image of disfigurement, shame and mass contagion.  The disease does not discriminate and finds its home in the both the rich and the poor; and those afflicted have been historically shunned by society, and even close family.  Moloka’i is the story of a young girl and her lifelong struggle with the disease that ripped her from her family and all she knew.

In the late 1800s, Rachel Kalama is arrested on suspicion of having leprosy and is transported to the infamous Island of Moloka’i in Hawaii, a detainment colony for leprosy victims.  Ripped from the arms of her beloved family and all she knows at the tender age of about 6, Rachel will spend the remainder of her 70-odd years in Moloka’i’s leprosy colony.  The family who once loved and supported her will be gone to her forever, and she will learn to make a new life on this island surrounded by varying degrees of illness caused by this most debilitating disease.  The only light at the end of her tunnel is that her favorite uncle has also been removed to this colony.

I hesitate to say that I “enjoyed” this book, because how can one possibly “enjoy” what is effectively the suffering of others? With that said, I will leave it at “I liked it.”  The voice of the main character, Rachel, was heartbreaking and gave a a glimpse into the life of a child – and eventually a grown woman – who was stolen from the bosom of her family for reasons that she’s too young to understand.

What a heartbreaking journey! To see the fear and confusion of a child as she’s ripped from the arms of her family and sent away to a place where sickness surrounds her.  She’s even denied the ability to have any real relationship with her beloved uncle, who has also been sent to Moloka’i.

Moloka’i is the story of a woman’s journey through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood, and the difficulties her disease presents in living out any real semblance of a “normal” life as the rest of the free world understands it.

This books spans the lifetime of Rachel from approximately age 5 through her death at about age 70. It’s a story about ignorance, prejudice, misunderstandings and fear. And yet, it’s also a story about love and the true meaning of ‘Ohana – Family.   Overall, a really great read.

Book Review and Contest Announcement – The Unearthly Series


“I’ve learned that a storm isn’t always just bad weather, and a fire can be the start of something. I’ve found out that there are a lot more shades of gray in this world than I ever knew about. I’ve learned that sometimes, when you´re afraid but you keep on moving forward, that’s the biggest kind of courage there is. And finally, I’ve learned that life isn’t really about failure and success. It’s about being present, in the moment when big things happen, when everything changes, including myself.” ~ Clara

(Excerpt from the Unearthly series by Cynthia Hand)

Being 16 and navigating through high school is hard enough, but can you imagine learning that you’re only “part human” and that you are put on this earth to complete a mission or a “purpose”?  Such is the premise of the Unearthly series of books by Cynthia Hand.

Clara Gardiner thinks she’s a typical teenager until the day her mother reveals to her that she’s part angel, complete with wings that can be summoned on command and the ability to fly.  Furthermore, she’s been put on this earth to fulfill a purpose which will be sent to her in the form of visions or dreams, and her one goal in life – the reason she was born – is to fulfill that purpose.

Shortly after her 16th birthday, Clara’s visions begin.  In a recurring daydream, Clara is transported to a forest fire where she sees in the distance a boy she feels destined to save.  The visions continue until she and her mother are able to conclude that her purpose is connected to this boy and  the forest fire, and the family uproots and leaves everything they’ve known to begin the quest to fulfill Clara’s purpose.

What happens, however, when Clara gets thrown a curve ball and the purpose she feels meant to fulfill seems less important than the direction that her own free-will wants her to go?  Will she follow her purpose, or will she choose a different path?  And what happens if she doesn’t fulfill her purpose?

Cynthia Hand has created wonderful page-turners in her first two books in the Unearthly Series, Unearthly and Hallowed.  In Unearthly, we’re introduced to Clara and her family, and Clara’s friends in her new school.  Strangely, this new town where her family has moved to seems to be a hotspot for “angel-bloods” – those who are part human and part angel.  For the first time, Clara can freely discuss with her close friends her visions and challenges, and she quickly learns that her new friends and their own purposes are deeply intertwined with her own.

Unearthly and Hallowed are an outstanding beginning to a new series of books target toward young adult readers, but the storyline is interesting and mature enough to appeal to even adult readers.  And, they’re this week’s FREE BOOK GIVEAWAY!  This week, we are giving away gently-used copies of BOTH BOOKS to one lucky winner.  Simply complete the entry form below and click “submit” to enter.

This contest begins today and will end on midnight on Friday, June 15th.  The contest winner will be announced on Monday, June 18th.  Please remember that this contest is open only to Rochester-area residents, and you must be able to pick up your winning copies within 10 business days of winning notification.  Please note that no copies will be mailed.

For more information about this series of books, visit the author’s website at


Random Readers – Barbara O.

Random Readers is a recurring segment here on the Friends of the Library Blog.  It’s our opportunity to get to know you, and to maybe get ideas on great reads that we hadn’t considered.  If you’re interested in participating in this segment, follow this link to complete a questionnaire.

Barbara O.

About Barbara: 
I have always enjoyed reading.  In 2007 I broke my back and had to retire on disability though I was not nearly ready for retirement. Books became my savior.  I travel frequently to visit my son in Northern Minnesota and I listen to audio books and I look forward to the drive. For Christmas of 2009 my son gave me a Kindle.  I never leave the house with out it.   I prefer reading to watching TV. I continue to spend time in the hospital due to my accident and I read the entire time.

What are you currently reading?
Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robinson

What was the last book you read?
King of Colored Town by Darryl Wimberley

What is the next book in your queue?
Jesse’s Girl by Gary Morgenstein

What is in the stack next to your bed?

Audio, e-book, hardcover or paperback?
e-books and audio books

Fiction or Non-fiction?

What book have you never read but think you probably should?
Pride and Prejudice

Who is your favorite author?
Nicholas Sparks and Harlan Coben

Which book/author do you always buy as soon as a new title is released?
Nicholas Sparks

Have you ever thrown a book across the room/at the wall because you didn’t like the ending?

Do you listen to music when you read? If so, what?
Sometimes classical/piano

Where is your favorite reading spot?
Comfy chair by the window

Do you have a favorite library?

Do you have any additional comments you’d like to make?
A Facebook friend belongs to the Rochester Public Library reading group, I often choose titles I have seen her recommend to others.