The Lady Alchemist by Samantha Vitale

Words by Denise Bishop
Images courtesy of Samantha Vitale

Book Review and Author Interview

The Lady Alchemist is an exciting Young Adult/Fantasy debut novel by Hampton Roads author Samantha Vitale. Seventeen-year-old Sepha has grown up in Three Mills, a mill town in the middle of the island nation of Tirenia. After her mother’s death when she was a girl, she was raised by a mentally and physically abusive father who, among other offenses, pulled her from school to work at the mill when she began to suffer from a kind of dyslexia as a child. When Alchemist begins, Sepha is heading to the mill for a demonstration of her self-taught alchemical skills. If the demonstration is successful, it could mean a revitalization of Three Mills. Unfortunately, a slip of the tongue lands Sepha in a sticky situation. Unable to turn straw into gold, she is forced to make a contract with an undead magician: she has a year to make a body for him or he will take the body of her first born child.

Vitale does an excellent job creating the world of Tirenia from its past war with (and subsequent oppression of) neighboring country Detenia to its battle-ravaged plains to its famed Institute of Alchemical Discipline. This is a land where Court Alchemists are revered and Military Alchemists are feared. But as much as alchemy is valued, magic is illegal and magicians must be punished. Sepha must keep her contract with the magician a secret as she travels to the Institute and beyond as she searches for a way to create a body for him through alchemy.

Though Sepha’s story starts out simple enough, recognizable as a modified retelling of the Brothers Grimm Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale, it quickly grows more and more complex and compelling. Haunted by the memory of her controlling father, Sepha journeys to the coast to the Institute of Alchemical Discipline along with Ruhan, a handsome aspiring young alchemist also heading to the Institute for study who has a knack for saving Sepha’s life (and stirring her heart), and Destry, a fierce Military Alchemist who has been assigned by the Magistrate to assist with Sepha’s studies.

As Sepha learns more about alchemy (and, of course, herself along the way), she discovers that things are not always what they seem and she might even have a few allies, if she can bring herself to ignore the doubting voice in her head and learn to trust them.

image of the author: a white woman with brown hair and glasses

I spoke with Samantha Vitale recently about The Lady Alchemist and her experience as a writer:

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Growing up in a Navy family, I moved a lot, but books were a constant. Reading and stories have always been really close to my heart. I always wanted to write, but I didn’t think that I would ever get to be a writer. Then I had kids. After my first son was born, I realized how much time I had. Just because I have a full time job, that doesn’t mean I don’t have time to write.

Who and what are some of your favorite authors and books?

  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – she’s amazing.
  • Brandon Sanderson – his plots are amazing with a really long slow build.
  • Susan Denner
  • Angie Thomas – The Hate U Give and On the Come Up – they are really important and deserve all the praise they’ve received.
  • N.K. Jemison

Where do you draw inspiration?
I read non-fiction books or I watch documentaries. The real world inspires me because the universe is really cool. The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.

In much of recent fiction, magic and magicians are generally portrayed as good. What made you decide to make them evil in Tirenia?
It’s easy to fear the stuff that you don’t understand and can’t understand, especially when something powerful is happening. Both on a personal level and on a political scale (as in people I can’t control or imprison).

When you write for young audiences, do you consciously include lessons, such as Sepha’s learning who to trust? 
I tend not to really enjoy books that try to teach me something, like allegories. With Sepha, I used her to work through some of the things I have struggled with: trusting people and moving past the negative voice in her head. So it was less about telling others a lesson and more about sharing my story. So if a reader had a similar situation, I want them to know they’re not the only one going through it; there is a way out. It’s less about teaching a lesson, and more about extending a hand.

Can you tell me a little about your process writing this book? Did you outline first or write from start to finish?
I don’t have a general process; it depends on the story. This one is a Rumplestiltskin retelling, so the framework was already there. I usually start with the world and build out from there. Once you understand the world and the main character, the rest of the story naturally builds out. I do create an outline (for the illusion of control), but when I’m writing, the characters often do something else. 

Have you done anything locally to promote the book and connect with readers?
The Slover Library had a Local Authors Virtual Fair over the summer. They also have some great writing classes.

What advice do you have for young writers?
Keep reading. Read in a lot of genres. And write. You don’t have to write anything good. You can write fan fiction or original stuff. Be careful who you take writing advice from. You may find yourself paralyzed from conflicting advice. Find advice from an author that you love, filter out the rest, and then go write.

Vitale also wanted to share the story of how this story came to be: 
After I decided to write a book, it took a year and a half. It was barely past a rough draft, but I loved it. I signed up for a pitch conference in New York. On the first day, I attended a pitch workshop, and when I gave my pitch during the workshop the guy running the workshop said my pitch was so bad that he didn’t even have advice for me. After that, we broke for lunch. What do I do? Do I leave? Do I stay? I called my husband and decided to stay. I went home to my grandparents house where I was staying and thought, I can’t save this idea. So that night, I came up with a new idea. Overnight, I came up with a new idea for a new story, and I came up with a new pitch. The next day, I gave the new pitch and the guy running the workshop looked at me like “You came up with this?” and I was like “Yes”. So I pitched The Lady Alchemist, instead of my other book. By the end of the conference, I had interest from a woman to publish The Lady Alchemist. So to aspiring writers, I say, you will probably faceplant. In front of other people. But it is not the end. Be ready to fail and keep going anyway.

Book 2 in this series has been submitted to the publisher but does not yet have a release date due to the pandemic.

The Lady Alchemist on Goodreads, Amazon, B&N, Indiebound.
Samantha Vitale on Goodreads, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Web.

Samantha Vitale has an insatiable hunger for two things: big challenges and amazing  stories. When not working at her highly technical day job, she can be found devouring  books or writing new ones of her own. She lives in Virginia with her husband and their two small humans.

The Big Dome

Words by Penny Neef
Photos by David Sullivan
Featured Image Courtesy of The Norfolk Housing and Redevelopment Authority

Scope Arena is a landmark in downtown Norfolk. It’s hard to miss that big dome of concrete and the 24 midcentury modern flying buttresses that surround it and support it. There have been many impressive arenas built around the world, but Scope remains the world’s largest thin-shell concrete domed building.  The world’s largest, right here in Hampton Roads.

Scope Arena was designed as just one part of Norfolk Cultural and Convention Center, which also includes Chrysler Hall, the plaza that connects the two buildings, a below grade Exhibition Hall and an underground parking garage.

Construction began in 1968 on the north edge of downtown Norfolk.  This massive project was conceived as a post-WW II revitalization of Norfolk. City leaders wanted to “step up” Norfolk’s cultural footprint, and attract sports teams,bigger acts and bigger crowds to Hampton Roads.

Picture of Norfolk's scope arena. A dome with many support legs.

The city leaders, led by Lawrence Cox, Executive Director of Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority (NRHA), were willing to go cutting edge on design and construction.  They wanted to build something “iconic” that would attract attention (and visitors) to Hampton Roads. This led them to Pier Luigi Nervi, an Italian architect know best for his expertise in using reinforced concrete to create curving forms and domed structures. 

Nervi designed Pallazzetto dello Sport for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.  Basketball was played there.  Americans could see the impressive structure from their televisions.

Nervi worked with Norfolk firm Williams and Tazewell & Associates to use the latest design and construction techniques to made a “superblock of reinforced concrete and glass.” Scope Arena is a premier example of mid-twentieth century Neo-Expressionist architecture.  Neo Expressionism is all about the curves.  It is architecture as sculpture – beauty, form and function. 

David Sullivan was 17 years old on November 23, 1971 when he attended the first sporting event at Scope.  It was an American Basketball Association game between the Virginia Squires and the Carolina Cougars.  The Squires lost, but David kept his “Charter Spectator Award” certificate.

Charter Spectator Award certificate given to Daniel Sullivan by the Scope Arena.

Sullivan was a senior at Kempsville High School when he started taking photos with a Kodak 110 film camera.  Quite a few years, and a few cameras later, Sullivan is a self-pronounced “camera geek.” I first met David when he was the Executive Director of the new Slover Library in 2015. I have been following his photography on Instagram ever since at: dsullivan32.

Scope Arena is one of Sullivan’s favorite subjects.  Sullivan loves the history of the building.  He remembers seeing the Scope under construction. Sullivan and his then girlfriend, now wife, Cindy, got to listen to some of the great 70’s bands at Scope, like Chicago, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Rare Earth and Guess Who. He’s always “been in awe of the Scope Arena and it’s interior dome ceiling, the way it opens up to a massive space when you walk in from the concourse.”

View of the sun rising on the side of the Scope through its side pillars.
Norfolk’s Scope Arena Sunrise

 Sullivan is a “fanboy” of architecture and architects. He has been taking “thoughtful” photos of Scope for the past 15 years.  He comes by morning, afternoon and night, in all seasons, to capture the beauty of Scope.  There are the “curves, the geometry, the textures and the details present when you take time to look close the way photographing something commands your focus and attention.”

Pre-pandemic aka life before Covid, the city of Norfolk was talking about a new arena. The 10,000 seat Scope Arena is now considered too small to attract the major sporting events and conventions the city wants.  Feasibility studies show that the almost 50-year-old arena has no room to expand.  Of course, all talk of a new arena is on hold right now, along with many other things.  Sullivan wishes that Norfolk could find a way to “invest in Scope and make it last another 50 years.”  I couldn’t agree more.  Scope is beautiful, unique and historically significant.

Scope, by the way, was not named after a person or the mouthwash.  Scope is short for Kaleidoscope.  The Scope Inaugural Souvenir Magazine of 1971 says the name was chosen to “convey the myriad of activities which will be taking place under the coliseum’s domed cover.” Take another look at Scope.  Clean up that dome and those gorgeous flying buttresses and it’s still a beauty.

View of the sun rising on the side of the Scope through the side pillars.
A street lamp with globe lights beside the Scope arena.
Norfolk’s Scope Arena lamppost

2021 Model NATO Challenge

Words and Images by the Nikki Nieves & Norfolk NATO Festival

Applications for the
2021 Model NATO Challenge Scholarship Program & Press Corps Program Now Available!

The Model NATO Challenge is a unique scholarship opportunity for your students to develop skills in leadership and diplomacy while learning about one of the world’s most successful alliances, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Application Form Deadline: December 18th!

30 Student Diplomats (along with six alternates) are chosen to represent each of the 30 NATO Member Nations during the Model NATO Challenge simulation, modeled after NATO’s highest decision making body, the North Atlantic Council. Student Diplomats are assigned mentors, military officers from each of the 30 countries, who assist in preparing the students for the challenge while teaching them about their culture, national military resources, and political backgrounds. This mentoring relationship is a very unique feature of the Model NATO Challenge, as students have the opportunity to work with mentors who are Officers at NATO-Allied Command Transformation.

To apply for the Model NATO Challenge, students must complete the application and select either the essay format or panel interview format to be considered. Based on their performance in the Challenge simulation on March 17th, the Top Three Finalists are awarded scholarships to use toward the College or University of their choice!


  • Option I: Essay Format – January 8, 2021 (application, teacher recommendation, and essay to be submitted)
  • Option II: Panel Interview Format – December 18, 2020 (application and teacher recommendation to be submitted)

*Panel Interview Date: January 7, 2021 between 5pm-8pm; students must receive their confirmed reserved timeslots in advance from Festival staff, no walk-ups will be accepted.

Pursuant to CDC Guidelines for COVID-19, we are currently planning to proceed with this scholarship program in person and will be taking all necessary safety precautions. If we are unable to safely gather physically for the program’s scheduled dates, we will still proceed in a virtual format.

We hope that you encourage your students to apply for the 2021 Model NATO Challenge Scholarship Program! Please encourage students to visit our website to download the application and schedule of events today.

Applications are available online at Norfolk NATO Festival
If you or your students have questions about the Scholarship and/or Press Corps Programs, please feel free to contact us at 757-282-2801 or We look forward to receiving your students’ applications!

TRD New Academy Director Jaime Simpson – Keeping Creative Energy Present

Words and Images courtesy of Jaime Simpson.

About two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to teach one of our TRDance students a virtual private lesson. She was at home, I was at the TRDance Center, and we were each logging in to Zoom to embark on an hour and a half ballet lesson. I had everything set up and had admitted her from the “waiting room.” Her video and audio came on, we smiled and happily said our greetings. What she said next definitely got my attention… she said, “This is the first time I’ve been able to see your whole face!” 

I had my mask off for this lesson since I was the only person in the studio, and I had the door shut. She had started taking classes at TRD earlier this summer, and until that particular lesson, she had only ever seen me with a mask on. I said, “Wow, that’s true! I didn’t realize that!” We smiled at each other again and started dancing. 

I have thought about that moment several times since. About how much has changed… in the dance world and everywhere. 

At TRDance specifically, many adjustments have been made to keep opportunities to dance and perform going, with health and safety being of utmost importance: we have specific cleaning processes in place; a mask policy for dancers, staff, and guests; limited class sizes; temperature checks; and more. We are offering many of our classes as hybrid options, giving dancers the opportunity to join the class virtually from home. In addition, all classes are set up so that they can shift to be fully virtual if we need to do so temporarily; the instructors are all experienced with teaching virtually and are ready to transition if that becomes necessary. 

In my third month as Academy Director, I have many goals. The most prominent of which, for the foreseeable future, is to keep as many dancers dancing as possible, as safely as possible. The art of dance has such an uplifting and healing effect, infusing joy and vibrancy into the spirit. It is so important to keep that creative energy present and glowing. Our Fall Structured and Open Class Programs are underway, and I am excited to announce that we have just added three new classes to the Open Program. In November, we will be holding weekend Master Classes in various dance styles. 

We are also currently building our new Pod-Style Dance Class Program which offers dance classes to children who are already working within a pod group for academics and other activities. These classes take place in the afternoon, prior to our evening Open and Structured Program classes. 

Regarding Academy performances, the Todd Rosenlieb Dance Ensemble and Virginia Ballet Theatre Ensemble came together this summer for a successful Virtual Solo Concert made up of 12 newly choreographed solos. Though the process was unique for the Ensemble groups, the dancers and choreographers were thrilled to be creating, and the results were everything that was hoped for. The Ensembles will soon be moving into rehearsals for another virtual show to be presented in December. 

Though so much has changed, I believe two things will always remain the same – the passion for dance, and the desire to dance. Dancers, instructors, choreographers, and directors here at TRD and everywhere are ready and willing to navigate this new path and adjust as needed to be able to safely move forward with this art form. I am at the TRDance Center every day, and every day I see the sparkle 

of excitement in the dancers’ eyes as they arrive for classes. And though their masks may keep me from seeing their smiles, I know that they are there. 

For general information on TRDance, please visit
For specific information on class programs or Ensembles, please email Jaime Simpson at
If you would like to make a donation to support TRDance, please visit

Jaime Simpson began her ballet training at age 6, with opportunities to study at the Virginia Beach Ballet Academy, Maryland Youth Ballet, North Carolina School for the Arts, and Richmond Ballet. She then received her Bachelor’s Degree in Ballet Performance from Indiana University, training with Patricia McBride, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, and Violette Verdy. Jaime began teaching ballet while at IU, working with college students as well as students in the youth program. Since returning to Hampton Roads in 2005, Jaime has taught all levels of ballet and pointe at several area schools, and has choreographed ballet pieces for VBBA, Arts Enter Cape Charles, TRDance Center, and the VBT Ensemble.

The Virginia Zoo

Words by Penny Neef.
Images courtesy of the Virginia Zoo.

I miss going to the Virginia Zoo with my grandchildren. The Zoo is definitely in my top 100, out of about a million things, I miss during this pandemic. I have virtual visits with my grandkids almost daily and once a week, we drive up to their house and have a curbside visit. It’s just not the same.

I wonder what’s going on at the Zoo without all those animal loving children and their caregivers. Are the animals enjoying the peace? Do they miss us as much as we miss them? Are they healthy and safe? We’ve all heard the stories about the big cats in NYC getting Covid -19.

Hailey, a zoo staff member, works with Boris, who is some kind of large black bird with a blue head. Boris looks kinda confused.
Hailey at work with Boris.

Ashley Mars, Marketing Manager for the Virginia Zoo, reassures me that the big cats, and all the other animals are all doing well.  ”Animal care and vet staff wear personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves, when they need to work within close proximity to each other for animal needs. They also are wearing appropriate PPE when working directly with certain species such as big cats, based on developing information and recommendations from Taxon Advisory Groups within our accrediting organization, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.”

The keepers and the staff at the Zoo continue with regular training sessions, feeding and vet care. “The health and welfare of the animals have remained a top priority for the Zoo!” Whether the animals miss us as much as we miss them is a tough question to answer. Maybe they’re enjoying this break from the public eye. Maybe it depends on the species.

Virtual Voyage is an excellent resource for Zoo activities, an augmented reality tour of the Zoo and one click links to the Zoo’s social media pages. 

Many school field trips to the Zoo were canceled this spring. The Zoo has Zoomed with over 100 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. Norfolk Public Schools has been using the animal videos in the curriculum where applicable. You and your children can take your own virtual field trip to the Zoo here.

A baby giraffe looks at the camera, while a giraffe adult looks at the baby.

There is a new baby giraffe at the Zoo. If you click on the Zoo’s Facebook page, there are details about the baby naming contest. This little guy weighed in at 146 pounds at birth. The top five names submitted will be announced on June 8, so get out that baby naming book.

If you’ve got nothing else to do and want to amuse yourself and/or your kids, be sure to try out the Selfie Station where you can turn yourself into a tiger, lion or orangutan. I know that tigers are all the “thing” right now, but I think my out of control, can’t get to a hairdresser’s hair, looks rather like a mane. This may be my new profile pic.

Penny Neef, except her face is a lion.

Of course, all this is not the same as putting my grandkids in the car with snacks and spending the day at the Virginia Zoo, but then nothing is the same. Here’s hoping “normal” is coming. We can still do our part to support the Zoo, it’s animals and the staff.

The Virginia Zoo has launched an Emergency Operating Fun to help them get through these tough times. If you love the Zoo and want to donate to a place that is special in Hampton Roads, go to click here.