The Child Goddess: Background and Other Interesting Notes

Mother Isabel Burke is a member of the Priestly Order of Mary Magdalene, an order of celibate women priests devoted to the search for truth in all things. Mary Magdalene is their patroness because she was a woman maligned by untruths for centuries.

Oa of Virimund has her ancestral roots in the African country of Mali, a region called Sikasso, where French is spoken along with Bambara, a dialect of Mandikan, which is the unofficial language of Mali.

The liturgical calendar used by Isabel is based on the one in use today in the United States. Liturgical calendars change over the years, and according to the region and its ethnicity. Probably in half a millennium, the calendar would change, but except for the addition of the solemnity of Saint Teresa of Calcutta (who is not yet in actuality a saint) the calendar has been used as it currently exists.

For more information on fact, speculation, and research about this mysterious and intriguing woman, here are some resources to seek out:

  • Mary Magdalene
    A website full of pictures, links, quotes.
  • Mary Magdalene, Beyond the Myth, by Esther de Boer.
    An exploration by a Dutch writer of the facts and the fiction surrounding Mary Magdalene.
  • magdalene.org
    Another exhaustive website with information on a host of fascinating topics, including a “Body of Myth” section.
  • Mary, Called Magdalene, Margaret George.
    A highly individualistic fictional interpretation of the Magdalene story, rich with convincing historical detail.
  • The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, translated from the Coptic by Jean-Yves LeLoup.
    The Gospel of Mary was discovered in 1896 in Cairo, fifty years before the Nag Hammadi discovery of the Gnostic Gospels.  This is fascinating reading, with in-depth commentary, and is important in understanding what is actually known and simply surmised—or invented, as in the best-selling Da Vinci Code—about the historical Mary of Magdala.

The Child Goddess: Background and Other Interesting Notes Read More »

The Singers of Nevya: Background and Other Interesting Notes

I’m frequently challenged by my readers over the requirement for celibacy for the Singers of Nevya. It’s an important feature of any system of special power that there be a cost, and of course, in that cost, whether it’s the price of magic or the energy drain of a speeding space ship, lies the potential for conflict and tension. The Nevya books are, in the end, about what it is to be an artist, to live as an artist, to have the discipline and make the sacrifices that are required. Celibacy is only one of these sacrifices.

The Singers of Nevya: Background and Other Interesting Notes Read More »

Mozart’s Blood Excerpt

Quel sangue . . . quella piaga . . .

The blood . . . that wound . . .

Donna Anna, Act One, Scene One, Don Giovanni

The old woman hummed to herself as she crumbled bits of black paste into a little clay pot and added wine and water.  “Good Roman wine,” she said, as she stirred it with a wooden spoon.  “And honey,” she added, smiling, showing blackened teeth.  “To cover the taste.”

She had told Ughetto and the other boys to call her Nonna.  But she was nothing like Ughetto’s nonna.  Ughetto’s nonna was plump and easy, with soft arms and warm fingers.  This crone, this vecchia,  was scrawny and dry and twisted, like a dead olive tree.

Ughetto knew what the black paste was.  He had seen it often in his mother’s tavern in Trapani.  The sailors carried it in their pockets, wrapped in bits of Chinese silk or Indian cotton.  Their eyes gleamed with anticipation as they unwrapped their little bundles, opening them carefully on the wooden tables.  They shaved the paste into clay pipes with small, sharp knives, and when they smoked it, the tavern filled with the pungent scent of poppies.

Ughetto’s mother always drove him out then, him and all six of his sisters.  She shooed them down to the beach to search for mussels, or over to the docks to drum up trade for the tavern.  They went running down the twisting streets, laughing, shouting, a horde of ragged girls with Ughetto, the baby, the only boy, struggling to keep up.

He wished his real nonna were here now, or his mamma.  He wished his sisters were here, or he with them, though they ordered him about like a small slave.  Home had been noisy and warm.  Home had felt safe, most of the time.  He didn’t like being alone, didn’t like this place, this Nonna, or Luigi, her slack-lipped son.

They had taken him in Trapani.  Mamma had sent him to the docks, telling him to wait beside the pile of empty crab pots for a woman with a package.  This Nonna had appeared, with her big-shouldered, big-bellied son.  Nonna asked Ughetto’s name, and when he gave it, Luigi picked him up and carried him onto a waiting boat.

Ughetto was the package, it turned out, and though he wailed for his sisters, there was no one to save him.

Now, in this fearsome little casetta, Ughetto wrapped his arms around himself and shivered with fear.  Luigi had already carried two other boys, eyes glazed from the opium, legs flopping limply over his big arms, into the tiled room where the tub was, where the knives waited.  Ughetto crouched in the atrium under Nonna’s watchful eye, listening to the whimpers and moans as the deed was done.  Luigi brought the boys back, swaddled in bloody linen, and carried them through the atrium and on into the tiny house.

Ughetto tried to turn his head away when Nonna held the cup to his lips, but she seized his hair with her brown claw, and twisted his head to face her.  “Cretino,” she hissed.  “Don’t be an idiot.  Drink, or you’ll be screaming.”

He cried, “No!  MammaMamma.”  Hot baby tears burned his eyes.

Nonna showed her jumbled teeth.  “No more mamma, little one.   Musica.”

She pressed the cup against his mouth, forcing his lips open with its metal rim.  The sweet strong wine flooded his tongue, and he had to swallow, or drown.  He closed his eyes, and gulped pungent sweetness.  The room began to dissolve around him.  He spun, stomach and brain and feet all mixed up, like diving too deep from the rocks into the warm Mediterranean waters of Trapani and not knowing which way to swim to the surface.

Nonna tipped up the cup again, and he drank, drank until it was dry.

She spoke.  Ughetto heard her voice, but her words made no sense.  He tried to open his eyes, but the lids would not obey him.

Perhaps he would die.  Boys did, hundreds of them.  Everyone knew that.  They died under the knife, or they died afterward, bleeding and swollen, burning with fever.  Would his mamma know if he died?  Would they tell her?

Would she care?

It was possible she would not.  She had regarded him so strangely, ever since that night when the family–all six girls, Ughetto, his nonna, and Mamma–had gone down to the docks in the darkness to wait for the squid boats to come in.  Far out on the water, the fisherman shone their torches over the water to entice the squid to the jigs.  The lights danced on the waves, shifting as the water tossed the boats to and fro.

When the moon rose over the sea, Ughetto’s sisters exclaimed at its brilliance.  They turned, all of them, and lifted their faces into its silver glow.  It was full and round, and its crystalline light turned the low roofs and rough-cobbled streets of Trapani into a scene of magic, a fantasy village, its dirt and poverty transformed by the moon.

Ughetto was seven years old, already wriggling with energy and pleasure at the novelty of the night.  When a strange sensation came over him, standing there in the moonlight, it seemed part of the strangeness.  He felt as if he were becoming someone else, someone new and powerful instead of small and insignificant.  His skin itched, and his jaw ached.  When he began to scratch at himself, his mamma slapped at his hands.  He tried to hold still, but he felt as if he were burning, as if he had rolled in too-hot sand.  He scrubbed at his belly with both hands, grunting at the fierceness of the sensation.

It was his nonna who seized him up then, lifting him in her arms as if he were still a baby.  She hissed something at his mamma, who drew a sharp, shocked breath.  His nonna carried him away, up through the moonlit streets to the tavern, leaving his mamma and his sisters on the docks.  He remembered kicking at her, whining, but she only held him tighter, and made no answer.  She bundled him into the tavern, and into his bed, folding him into his blankets, ignoring his protests.  She lit no candles, nor did she stoke up the fire, but held him there in the darkness.  In time, the burning of his skin subsided.  By the time his mamma and sisters came home with their buckets of squid, he felt himself again.  But Mamma looked at him as if he were a stranger.

And now she was lost to him.  It was Luigi’s strong arms beneath him, Luigi’s rough hand seizing his head as it lolled backward.  There was movement, the air changing against his face as Luigi carried him.  The smell of the bath filled his nostrils with the essence of vinegar.  Water rose around his legs, warm as blood.  His buttocks settled onto a wooden bench that was wet and hard and splintery.  Hands took hold of his feet and pulled his legs apart.

Someone held his head, murmuring something, laughing.

Someone else wielded the knife.

There was pain, sharp and surprising, and he gasped, breathing water, choking.  He struggled, and someone cursed.  There was a splash, and more swearing, and then someone . . . Ughetto fought his eyelids, trying to see.

Someone was growling.

His eyelids lifted, and his mind cleared all at once, as if a fog had burned away under a quickly rising sun.  He peered around him through slitted eyes.

Faces looked back at him, horrified faces.  Nonna shrieked something, and an open-mouthed stranger, the surgeon, backed away, knife held out before him, dripping blood onto the tiled floor.  Luigi gave a guttural cry and dropped Ughetto’s head into the water.

Ughetto blew water from his mouth as he grasped the edge of the tub with both hands.  He pulled himself to his feet, dripping, hot, and angry.

There was blood on his thighs, warmer than the water.  His head hummed with sounds and smells he had not noticed before, the wheeze of Nonna’s breath in her aging lungs, the fetid odor of Luigi’s sweat, the scent of blood on the surgeon’s knife, on his clothes, his hands.  The surgeon whimpered, and backed away.

Ughetto splashed out of the tub.  Nonna tried to seize him, and he struck at her with his nails, slicing her dark skin, drawing blood.  She dropped him with a cry, and he whirled to slash at Luigi next.  Luigi scrambled out of reach.  The smell of his fear filled the room, and made Ughetto’s mouth fill with saliva.  Ughetto rounded on the surgeon next, but he saw only his heels as the man fled the room.

Ughetto fell to all fours in a movement that felt perfectly natural.  He spun in a circle, and saw that Luigi and Nonna dared not come close to him.  His mouth opened, and his tongue lolled, saliva dripping as he galloped from the room.  He slid on the wet tiles, finding his footing once he reached the dirt floor of the atrium.  The sun warmed his back as he dashed away from the house.  He ran swiftly, strongly, too fast for them to follow.  They had no will to chase him, in any case.  The pungence of their fear assured him of that.

He raced toward the orange grove, eager for the sanctuary of its drooping branches.

Mozart’s Blood Excerpt Read More »

Mozart’s Blood Background and Other Notes of Interest

The magnificent singing actress Renee Fleming provided a model and a list of repertoire for my character.   Ms. Fleming, with whom I once had the great pleasure of working, is a magnificent Donna Anna.    Take a few moments to listen and watch:  \”Non mi dir\” from Don Giovanni, sung by Renee Fleming

This historical novel covers the musical periods of the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Classical, and the Romantic.  The very early scenes take place in Rome, where a brand new art form called “musical drama” was just being introduced.  For quick details on the birth of opera, visit John Howell’s very brief summary of opera history.


This is Mozart as Teresa Saporiti would have known him.  The most passionate Mozart devotees still mourn his untimely death, and long to hear the music he would have written.  The Requiem, which he was working on at the time of his passing, was completed by a student of his, Sussmeyer.  The contrast between the music of Mozart and the music of Sussmeyer is a painful reminder of what the world lost when it lost Mozart.  Listen to a bit of the sublime Requiem.


In addition to touring the Metropolitan Opera House and the historic La Scala Theater in Milan, the following resources were immensely valuable–and a whole lot of fun:

Mozart, a Biography, by Piero Melograni

Marrying Mozart, a delightful novel by Stephanie Cowell

The Inner Voice, by Renee Fleming

The Costume Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

The listserve MozartForum and its helpful scholars

Disaster by the Bay, H. Paul Jeffers

The Great San Francisco Earthquake & Fire, Helen Hillyer Brown

Great Singers on Great Singing, Jerome Hines


An unusual vintage video of San Francisco, 2006

Mozart’s Blood Background and Other Notes of Interest Read More »

Book Club Party Guide

Along with the list of ten suggested discussion questions, here are a few ideas for turning your discussion of Mozart’s Blood into a party:

bookclub1If it’s appropriate, have an open bottle of Riesling in an ice bucket, in honor of Herr Mozart’s Viennese background. Teresa would love it if you offered a bottle of Italian red wine. Her favorite would be a Barolo, of course, but those can be expensive. A nice chianti is just fine, or a rich Brunello. For those who don’t drink wine, bottles of Pellegrino can be open and ready on the table.

For a lunch or dinner party, a good pasta dish simply made with fresh ingredients will be perfect. Use fresh diced tomatoes, a third of a cup of good green olive oil, lots of chopped basil, a cup of pine nuts and a half cup of shaved parmesan cheese. Boil a pound of pasta and toss with all the other ingredients. It should serve six to eight. bookclub2

With it serve a salad such as Ugo might have recognized. Layer peeled and sectioned grapefruit with avocado slices onto salad plates, and drizzle with garlic-infused olive oil. The grapefruit sections that come in glass jars are fine, but drain them well. Garnish with even more fresh basil leaves (you can never have too much).

A loaf of fresh Italian bread served with olive oil for dipping rounds out your table!

bookclub3Dessert is simplest of all. If your club doesn’t serve a full meal, this will energize them for the discussion! Arrange an assortment of dark chocolate truffles on an elegant plate, and serve with a good Viennese coffee. Side dishes can be nuts and cheese and olives. Shop for Mediterranean-themed cocktail napkins!

Most of the pictures you see here, such as this one of Teresa’s birthplace, are free for download from the internet. Download and print in a good size, and use them to decorate. You can paste them to cardboard or even put them in inexpensive picture frames.

bookclub5And now the best part: the music! Begin with a good recording of Don Giovanni, preferably featuring Renee Fleming. Any of the symphonies would be lovely, particularly the familiar ones such as Symphony #40 in G minor, or the Symphony #25. The score for the movie Amadeus would be perfect, as it offers tidbits of all the familiar passages.

mozarts bloodHalloween is the perfect time to read a book like Mozart’s Blood, and you could have your guests come in costume! It might be hard to achieve Octavia’s beautiful gown here, but you have so many periods to choose from—the 18th century, the late 19th century, the Roaring Twenties, even the clothes of World War II. Costumes are fun to research. Googling the period you want to use is easy.

If you do dress in period costumes, take good pictures! We would love to put them on the website. Salute! E buon gusto!

Download Book Club Party Guide (Word document)

Book Club Party Guide Read More »

Mozart’s Blood Discussion Questions

1. Ugo and Octavia have a deep bond that has lasted for more than a century. What do you think drew them together and has kept them close all those years? What is the greatest difference between them?

2. What is it about Teresa’s character that made her strong enough to withstand the demands of her nature after the bite of Zdenka Milosch? Why was Mozart not able to do the same?

3. Why did Teresa, in the end, decide not to share the tooth with Vincenzo dal Prato, the castrato who befriended her when she was a young girl in Milan?

4. The opera Don Giovanni, which is the framing device for the novel, is both drama and comedy, romance and tragedy. Do you find these elements in Ugo’s and Teresa’s stories? In Mozart’s?

5. Can the attraction between Massimo and Octavia survive what happened between them?

6. Massimo wants a great singing career just as much as Teresa did. Do you think he has the same strength?

7. Who do you think will take over the leadership of La Società after the Countess?

8. Ughetto was sensitive and affectionate as a young boy at the scuola. How is Ugo different now, and why did he change?

9. Vampire stories have been popular since Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897, and they have experienced a resurgence in recent years. Do you think the appeal of vampires is about sex? Power? Long life? Or is it something indefinable?

10. The elders are so ancient that nothing gives them joy any more except music. What is the appeal of music that it can outlast every other pleasure?

Download Discussion Questions for Mozart’s Blood (RTF document)

Mozart’s Blood Discussion Questions Read More »

Excerpt: The Brahms Deception


Her reflection in the ebony wood of the Gewandhaus piano disturbed her.  She wished she were using a score so the pages of music would block the image.  Her eyes were too large.  Her chin was small and pointed, and her mouth an unexceptionable rosebud, but her eyes were those of a fawn, enormous, oddly shaped, gleaming darkly under the flickering gas lights.  She looked terrified, and she was.

The long skirts of her blue silk dress spilled over the piano stool.  She had to kick the hem free of the pedals.  The fitted sleeves puffed above the elbow, making her wrists look like white sticks.  A great, childish bow, blue to match her dress, adorned the back of her hair.  It embarrassed her, but she had no power over the choice of it.

She had no power at all, in fact, not in the matter of the bow or in any of the other details of this performance.  Her father had chosen the dress, had supervised the dressing of her hair, had dictated what she would eat for dinner and when.  He had chosen the music for her programme,

had selected the Gewandhaus for her debut, had collected the ticket money with his own hands.

If she looked up, past the shining lid of the piano, she would see his clear, hard eyes watching her from the proscenium.

She kept her eyes lowered.  She must concentrate.  Her father’s reputation as a teacher, and their future income, rested on her performance.  He had reminded her of this many times.  She had practiced until her fingers burned and her back ached.  She knew the Variations perfectly, and would play them from memory.  Some might call that vanity, but she preferred, even though she was nervous, to play without music.

She was ready.  She just wished her father would go out into the house.

She curled her fingers over the keys, took a deep breath, and began.

The first notes disappointed her, seeming frail and somehow juvenile.  The piano had sounded much stronger, much more full in her practice sessions.  She was startled by the way the bodies of the audience absorbed the resonance.

She took another breath, concerned now only about the music and what she wanted it to say.  She played the next phrases with more vigor, striking the keys with determined purpose.  Goethe was to say, one day in the near future, that she played “with the strength of six boys”.  That would mean nothing to her, but the music did.  The music made everything else tolerable.  The muscles of her arms and hands began to thrum with energy.  She knew how she wanted the notes to sound, how she could make the piano sing.  She played on with unconscious authority, an assurance beyond her years.

It began to happen.  She forgot her reflection, forgot her fatigue, forgot even her father.  Brilliant notes poured from the piano, cascading over the stage, drowning the faint hiss of the footlights as they poured into the hall.  She played from her soul.  She never hesitated, never faltered.  She drove on to the end of the Variations without once looking up from the keyboard.

She reached the cadence, and held it, letting the resonance of the chord die away on its own.  She closed her eyes, relishing the moment of a piece well played, of music created, of the expression of an inner meaning no words could describe.

When she opened her eyes, she saw her father gazing fixedly at her from the wings.  He was smiling, but it was that tight, pointed smile that meant there was something he wanted.  She stiffened.  What was it?

As the music left her, she became aware of another sound, a bigger, rougher sound.  She turned her head, seeking the source, and realized there was a roar coming from the house.

It was for her.  It was a rush of noise, gloved hands beating together, voices calling out. Brava, brava! She had forgotten for a moment where she was, how much this performance meant.  She froze.  What she was supposed to do now?

Curtsy.  That was it.  Bow.  This was her debut, and this applause was for her.

Awkwardly, she swiveled on the stool.  Her long dress caught on the pedals of the piano, and she had bend to untangle it with her hands before she could stand.  She picked up her skirts and stepped away from the piano to the edge of the stage, careful of the heat of the footlights.  She bobbed, twice, her cheeks as hot as the burning lamps at her feet.

Then, though the applause continued, she fled the stage.  She turned away from her father.  He would have to work his way around the back of the stage, dodge dusty stacks of equipment and piles of thick ropes to reach her.  She flung herself into the tiny, dim dressing room, and collapsed into the chair before the tall pier glass.

Clara Wieck stared at her murky reflection, the big blue bow framing her small head, and marveled.  She was nine years old.  She had just become a professional.

Excerpt: The Brahms Deception Read More »

The Brahms Deception: Background and Other Notes of Interest

Clara Schumann is remembered principally as the widow of the great and tragic composer Robert Schumann, who died in an asylum at a young age, leaving Clara with seven children to raise.  Clara was, in fact, one of the most celebrated concert pianists of the nineteenth century, and her career, beginning when she was only nine, spanned sixty-one years.  She was known as a great beauty, and she supported herself and her family solely with her income as a performer for all that time, no easy feat in a century in which women were expected to stay at home and out of the public eye.  She also left behind a lovely, but small, collection of her compositions.

There are some lovely pictures of Clara and samples of her music here, and do listen to Stella Doufexis’s gorgeous recording of her Lied, “Liebst du um Schonheit.”

Here’s a gorgeous instrumental recording of Brahms’s famous lullaby, which wasn’t completed until well after the time period of the novel:  Brahms Lullaby.

The Brahms Deception: Background and Other Notes of Interest Read More »