Thursday, May 28, 2015

A Portrait of Love and Honor - A Novel Based On a True StoryA Portrait of Love and Honor - A Novel Based On a True Story by Susan G. Weidener
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"The emotional life cannot always be captured, is often forgotten, or left to the memory of those who remain behind."

When I first began reading A Portrait of Love and Honor by Susan Weidener, the only fact I knew was that part of the story was inspired by Weidener’s late husband John Cavalieri, a West Point Academy graduate who was never able to fully achieve his dream of a military career. But as I found myself immersed in the pages, I soon came to realize I was actually hearing the voice of a man who was honorable, intelligent, and disillusioned with the institution he had longed to be a part of for so long. In the author’s note at the end of the novel, Weidener shares the story of how John completed his memoir two years before his death in 1994. She spent many years poring over his words and trying to figure out the best way to share them with the world.

She eventually chose A Portrait of Love and Honor as a way to honor John’s memory and share his voice, which I found reminiscent of one of my favorite novelists, Pat Conroy. The novel is unique in that it blends two different stories, one in third person and the other in first. Readers are introduced to Ava, a divorced novelist, former journalist and freelance editor. She meets the character Jay Scioli when he approaches her at a book signing and asks for her help editing his memoir. The chapters alternate between the story of Jay and Ava, as they work on his memoir, and follows their love affair. In between the narrative are the chapters from Jay’s memoir, which follows his life from his entrance into West Point to the years after.

Because I knew the story of Jay Scioli was rooted in true events that occurred in the late 1960s, set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, I found myself even more invested in book. I felt Jay’s frustration as he dealt with the hazing, the rigorous physical and academic requirements, the constraints of the honor code, and the struggle to fulfill his dream and risk disappointing both himself and his strong-willed mother. When Jay becomes ill in the last year of West Point and sees his dream of military service disintegrating, I wanted to weep along with him.

He writes: "Maybe I learned to live with adversity because of events at West Point. One thing I now know is that adversity taught me true lessons in life."

A Portrait of Love and Honor is clearly a tribute to John Cavalieri, and a beautiful and moving one at that. Weidener has also published two memoirs, Again in a Heartbeat: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Dating Again, and Morning at Wellington Square that I now want to pick up and read. I commend her for sharing her husband’s story in such a beautiful way with A Portrait of Love and Honor.

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About the Author:
A former journalist with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Susan started the Women's Writing Circle, a support and critique group for writers in suburban Philadelphia. Her novel, A Portrait of Love and Honor, takes the reader from the halls of the United States Military Academy at West Point during the Vietnam War to a moving love story between two people destined to meet.

She is the author of two best-selling memoirs: Again in a Heartbeat, about being widowed at a young age, and its sequel, Morning at Wellington Square, a woman’s search for passion and renewal in middle age. Her work also appears in the critically-acclaimed anthology, Slants of Light, Stories and Poems From the Women's Writing Circle.

Susan offers editing services for writers aspiring to publish their manuscripts. She also teaches writing workshops and is available for talks and lectures on writing life stories. Susan lives in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania. Learn more about Susan at

Monday, May 4, 2015

Book Review: Scar of the Downers By Scott Keen

“What you don’t understand is that you have to want freedom. I can offer it to you. I can even hand it to you. But freedom is nothing if you don’t take it with your bare hands. And that is what you need to do tomorrow. Take your freedom back from this city. Remember it is not theirs to hold.” 

First of all, I’d like to start out by saying I typically don’t read a lot of fantasy books, but Scar of the Downers is so unique and imaginative I couldn’t stop reading. The majority of the story follows the characters Crik and Jak, children who are branded slaves in the city of Ungstah. Beaten daily by their master and forced to steal from others and sell their findings in their master’s store, they must forage for their own food in the streets and also face mistreatment from the other residents of the city. When Jak is sold to a man much crueler than their own master, Crik must face his deepest fears in order to save the boy’s life.

However, Scar of the Downers is about more than the slaves in the city. Other intersecting storylines are woven together into one large, fantastical tale focused on finding hope in unexpected places. There’s Talorc, from the village of Arined, who sets out to avenge the death of his son, along with the characters of Gabril and Edem. Readers also meet Durgan, who is the captain of the guard in Ungstah, who harbors uncertainty toward the mysterious and tyrannical king. And why does he seem to have sympathy for the Downers?

There are so many elements of this novel to hold the reader’s attention. One is the world author Scott Keen has worked hard to create as the setting. The city of Ungstah is stark, desolate, and filled with soul-crushing characters such as the Ash Kings, who patrol the streets after dark in search of victims. Beyond the locked gates of Ungstah lies The Northern Reaches, filled with creatures lurking in the woods, such as the flesh-eating Rukmush, the “tree people,” or the Dendron, and the menacing bear-like Hurag, all of which Talorc and his companions face as they embark upon their quest.

One of my favorite things about this tale is the number of strong female characters. There’s Crik’s friend Tinker, also a Downer, Chaser, a young free girl who Crik finds living on her own in the abandoned buildings of Ungstah, and the mysterious Aniel, who plays a major role in the end of the book.

While Scar of the Downers is categorized in the young adult category, it will surely capture the hearts of readers young and old. And best of all—it’s the first book in a trilogy, so much more adventure awaits in the future for fans of the novel.

About Scar of the Downers:

Branded on the slaves in the Northern Reaches beyond Ungstah, the scar marks each one as a Downer. It is who they are. There is no escaping this world. Still, strange things are stirring.

Two foreigners ride through the Northern Reaches on a secret mission. An unknown cloaked figure wanders the streets of the dark city of Ungstah. What they want no one can be sure, but it all centers around a Downer named Crik.

Crik, too scared to seek freedom, spends his days working in his master's store, avoiding the spirit-eating Ash Kings while scavenging food for himself and his best friend, Jak. Until he steals from the wrong person. When Jak is sold to satisfy the debt, Crik burns down his master's house and is sentenced to death.

To survive, Crik and his friends must leave behind their life of slavery to do what no other Downer has ever done before--escape from the city of Ungstah.

About the Author:

Scott Keen grew up in Black River, NY, the youngest of three children. While in law school, he realized he didn't want to be a lawyer. So he did the practical thing--he became a writer. Now, many years later with an MFA in script and screenwriting, he is married with four daughters, two of whom he homeschools. He blogs at