Monday, October 19, 2015


Chris Mannino

Chris Mannino is a versatile MuseItUp author who writes about Death and many other subjects in multiple genres.  Below is the cover and an excerpt from Sword of Deaths, his most recent novel in the School of Death series.  Also, you will find a riveting interview that I find both fascinating and surprising.

***ATTENTION: School of Deaths is on SALE this week for only 99 cents, and Sword of Deaths is also on sale for only $2.99.

EXCERPT from Sword of Deaths

Frank started to speak when a deafening shriek pierced the woods. They exchanged a silent acknowledgement, and crept to the side of the boulder. 

“We might be able to hide beneath the stone,” Frank told Michi. He used his mind, grazing the power without diving into its depths. 

The shriek screamed through the forest. The Elementals huddled on the rock’s edge, grasping for a crevice. Frank reached into his pocket and clutched the hilt of Rayn’s dagger. Tingles of warm energy coursed through his skin, rippling in waves from the mortamant blade. 

A third scream blasted leaves to the ground. The forest floor trembled and trees quivered in the face of the Dragon’s fury.  

“Something’s changed,” said Michi. “He knows we’re here.” 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Frank. For a moment the forest quieted. 


The canopy overhead tumbled down, trees snapping in half. A smell of sulfur choked Frank. A blast of heat swept through the forest. White-hot flames engulfed the woods, disintegrating trunks and leaves in a conflagration. Fire rushed around them like a tidal wave against a beach. The boulder protected their backs, yet even the stone grew hot. Smoke stung his eyes like acid. 

Frank pulled out the dagger. The Dragon’s scales covered its entire body. He’d never get close enough to draw blood. Yet, one nick of his own blood and he’d be home.  

The Dragon’s blast ceased. So much destruction in a single blast. How did the Deaths ever defeat creatures like this? Acrid smoke billowed around the ashen ruins of trees. A wide swath of forest had been obliterated.  

“Hold my hand,” he said. The boulder radiated heat behind them like coal in a furnace. “I’m going to bring us back to the College.” 

“Wait. I’ve used my power,” said Michi. “It’s two against one, we should fight.” 

“Fight a Dragon? Are you insane?”


     John: Hi, Chris, thank you so much for being my guest. I have to begin by asking about your picture on MuseItUp Publishing’s site. What’s a high school theatre and drama teacher doing with a scythe held over his shoulder? Are you auditioning for the role of the Grim Reaper?

     Chris: One of my students was causing some trouble, just thought I’d reap a quick soul. No, that’s a joke, of course. The picture was actually taken when we filmed the trailer. A group of students (all of whom have since graduated) joined me to film a book trailer. Some were actors, and one kid did the camera work. The scythe was used in the trailer – it is a steel scythe, not fit for soul reaping (real scythes, as my books discuss, are made of mortamant).

     John: Could you tell us more about yourself? Why are you so fascinated with death (at least fictionally). And what motivated you to write about Suzie, the first female Death in a million years?

      Chris: The books were inspired by a trip I took to Cornwall, while finishing a study abroad program in grad school. I spent a semester at Oxford, and decided to journey once a week to a location I’d never visited before. One of those trips led me to Tintagel, the supposed birth-place of King Arthur. I became stranded there, not realizing there was only one bus to/from Exeter a day, so had no car, little money, no change of clothes, and no phone. I spent the night in a pub.

At 4 am, having slept very little, I journeyed out onto Barras Nose, a promontory overlooking the Cornish coast, and Tintagel Castle. I was alone, with no other people in sight, fighting fierce winds from every direction. I crawled on all fours to avoid being blown into the sea, and watched the dawn from a cliff, fifty feet above the crashing waves. I imagined a character completely alone, attacked from all directions. In the earliest draft, the character was actually a boy.

I liked the idea of someone training to be a Reaper, since I was at the time training to be a teacher. As I sought to make the character even more isolated, I developed the idea of Susan being not just the only female reaper, but the first female Death in millennia. I was drafting in Oxford, and the first time I felt homesickness for the USA was Halloween- which is a huge holiday in the States, and felt like nothing in England. That’s probably one reason the characters ended up carrying scythes.

     John: Is spooky YA fantasy your basic genre?
     Chris:  Absolutely not. I’m currently working on edits for Daughter of Deaths, the final book in the trilogy, but have already started my next novel, which is in a completely different genre. The new novel is adult sci-fi thriller, sort of Dan Brown meets Michael Chricton. I have many genres I want to explore, including historical fiction, adult high fantasy, humor, and nonfiction. I keep a detailed “book journal” with novel ideas, and there are currently twenty-two ideas there.
     John: Tell us about your School of Death books, and please mention your adult science fiction novel.

     Chris: The Scythe Wielder’s Secret is a trilogy that begins as lighter YA Fantasy, and ends with a dark and epic feel. The first novel, School of Deaths, tells the story of a thirteen-year-old girl who’s forced to become a Death, and reap souls. She’s the first female Death in a million years, and fights against sexism and bullying, eventually helping to overthrow the headmaster of the school.

In the second novel, Sword of Deaths, we continue to follow Susan and her friends, as they struggle to prevent a war between Dragons, who are the original reapers, and Deaths. The three search for the fabled First Scythe, which they hope will change the balance of power.

In the final novel, Daughter of Deaths, war breaks out, and Susan and her friends are caught at the heart of a terrible secret. For the first time we learn the real reason that Susan was brought to the World of Deaths, and the fate of three worlds rests on her shoulders.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the newest novel I’m working on now, but I’ll say it’s been fun to switch genres. Writing from the point of view of adults is a nice change. It also starts in Washington DC, which is not only a popular spot for thrillers, but is also my home. 

      John: Do you have any ideal writing conditions—rituals, a quiet, set place, that sort of thing?  And how often do you write a day?
     Chris: I write whenever I find time. Most of my drafting honestly happens during the summers. The drama program I lead is very large, we do four shows a year, and it’s not uncommon for me to spend 10 or more hours a day at school. I’m typing this interview from school, in fact. My ideal writing conditions would be to have a large chunk of time. If possible, I’m outside on the patio with my wife, who’s also a writer. I turn the internet off, or only allow myself to go on Pandora, and listen to film scores.
      John: Are you a plotter, a pantser or some combination of both?  Do you do anything to get inspired, like go on 10 K runs or play music?

      Chris:  Definitely both. I begin with a general scenario, or specific book idea/situation. Then I formulate an “image outline” which is generally between three to ten specific images, or still pictures, that I have in mind for the story. I don’t know how they’ll fit in, or necessarily which order they’ll appear. After that, I just sit down and start writing, though there’s some outlining as I go as well.  If I’m not inspired, music or walks do help.

      John: What, if anything, makes you different or unique as a writer and person?

      Chris:  I think the fact that I spend more time with teenagers than adults makes me uniquely suited to capture my audience’s voice.  I am also fortunate to be able to pursue my two greatest passions at the professional level.

      John:  What’s your happiest childhood memory?

      Chris:  For a number of years, we lived in the middle of nowhere in rural Western Massachusetts, in a log house my parents had designed themselves.  I used to spend the summers sitting on my porch, spending hour after hour reading books.  I’m sure that affected my desire to become a writer.

       John:  What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?

      Chris:  Never give up. Persistence and perseverance are two of the most important traits in life.

      John: If you had to marry a fictional character from film, books, history, or legend, who would it be?

      Chris:  First let me say that there’s no one I’d ever rather marry other than my wife. But if I had to marry a fictional character, probably Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle, Beckett from the TV show Castle, or Buttercup from The Princess Bride.

      John: Being a writer is (sometimes) a great job.  What is the worst job you’ve had?

      Chris: Probably being a cashier at a 24-hour grocery store with the “graveyard” shift.

      John: Describe one of your favorite characters and tell us who you patterned him/her after and why.

      Chris: One of my favorite characters in my series is Frank.  He’s a fascinating character, who really developed and grew in directions I hadn’t originally foreseen.  I think he was roughly patterned after myself at first, but as the series progressed, his role became more and more complex.  Without giving too much away, at times he is the sidekick, at other times the main POV character, and at other times his entire experiences mirror and foreshadow Susan’s future actions.  He is central to the entire plot, and I love his storyline.  

      John: Tell us about your upcoming book.  Has it been launched yet, or is it due soon? 

      Chris: Sword of Deaths is available now. I’m hoping the final novel Daughter of Deaths releases next year.

      John:  Thank you so much, Chris, for your fascinating answers. Are there any questions I didn’t ask which you would like to answer?  If so, here’s your opportunity.  Please go ahead!

       Chris: I can’t think of anything else.

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Chris's Links:

Thursday, October 15, 2015



~ A Conversation with the YA Author of If I Could Be Jennifer Taylor and After ~

     John: Hi, Barbara, thank you so much for being my guest.  Could you start by telling us just a little about yourself.  For instance, I see that when you received your Masters degree in Reading and Writing K-12 you began writing seriously. What was there about receiving this degree that made you more serious about writing?

     Barbara: I am a retired teacher with almost twenty years of experience. I have my Masters in Reading and Writing K-12 and when I retired I was a Reading Specialist. I live in Stamford, CT with my family and now I tutor in Reading. I have two YA novels published and I also write poetry. My poems are published in three anthologies you can find on Amazon.

I took a writing course and learned about the writing process. I actually wrote a story for that class that I wound up developing into a novel. But the real reason was that I was attending a Creative Writing Week for class credit and took a workshop. My story was selected by the class to be read to everyone at the assembly. When I read it a lot of published authors were in the audience and afterward they came up to me and told me how my story had affected them. Before that time I had never considered writing or even being an author, but the reaction of these authors and the fact that I felt so at home with them made me think about writing seriously.

     John: Why do you write YA?  Is it your basic genre?
     Barbara:  I started writing YA and just continued writing it. I taught kids for a long time and I was involved with my two daughters’ extra curricular activities and interacted a lot with this age group. Plus I guess I always liked reading YA because then I could talk about it with my kids.

            Really I write in the genre that feels right at the time and so far YA has felt right. I have written an adult novel too, but that is still not quite ready for submission yet and if I do I’ll have to go under a pen name since it has a few scenes that are definitely hot. 

     John: Tell us about your books, such as If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor. Why and how was it inspired by Paula Danziger?

     Barbara:  If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor is about a fourteen – year - old girl, Carolyn Samuels, who doesn’t feel comfortable about her body. She both hates and envies Jennifer Taylor, who has what she considers a perfect body, is the most popular girl in school, has a father who could buy half the town and a boyfriend who is a Junior and a quarterback. Carolyn doesn’t want to go to school on the first day, because Jennifer has been bullying her since middle school for an incident that happened there. Carolyn finds herself paired with Jennifer for a math project and while they are together, Carolyn realizes Jennifer might not be so perfect after all. She finds out Jennifer has a terrible secret and has to decide whether to keep it from her friends and family or tell it and lose her chance to be a cheerleader and become popular. Add to this Carolyn has a crush on Jennifer’s boyfriend, Brad.

Again, I was at a Creative Writing Week and I saw that Paula Danziger was offering a workshop for children’s writing and I wanted to get into it. To enter you had to write a three page beginning of a story for children. I decided to write about a girl who had issues with her body and got into the class. Paula actually wrote "Cut,Cut,Cut" on much of my work and she wrote the first couple of paragraphs to show me how to write for children. I still have the pages. [See below for Excerpt and Blurb for the novel.]

My second novel, After, is about what happens to Lauren Walstein, a fifteen – year – old girl, after her father calls while having a heart attack. Before the phone call all she thought about was what was for lunch the next day, softball, and her best friend Joey. She wanted to get a scholarship based on her pitching, and she was a big Mets fan. After the phone call everything changed and she found she might need more than a boy as a friend. When Joey and Lauren are together after a summer apart and also because Joey has a girlfriend, Amber, who keeps him away from her, Lauren starts to feel more than friendship for him. Does he feel the same way or is it only compassion. This is a sweet romance about what can happen when a family member has a health issue and what it is like to have to go about your life when your father is lying in the hospital hooked up to tubes?

The idea for this came to me during NaNoWriMo and I didn’t finish it, because it was actually from my own life. My husband did have a heart attack and needed bypass surgery and some of the dialogue is taken right from that time. I put it away for awhile and then decided to finish it. [See below for Excerpt and Blurb for the novel.]

      John: Do you have any ideal writing conditions—rituals, a quiet, set place, that sort of thing?  And how often do you write a day?
     Barbara: Usually I write at my desk on my laptop. I don’t need quiet to write, though I do turn down the TV. I got used to writing while everything was going on around me when I was writing my first novel. My computer was in the living room and the only time I had to write was before dinner and during the evening. I was teaching and going to school at the same time.
      John: Are you a plotter, a pantser or some combination of both?  Do you do anything to get inspired, like go on 10 K runs or play music?

      Barbara: I am definitely a pantser. I’ll just start writing and wherever it goes that’s what I put down. I usually do have a good idea of the characters and their motivations, but other than that I just write. That is especially true of writing my current WIP, the sequel to If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor, because I know the characters so well they are constantly speaking to me. Usually when I feel I can’t write anymore that is the end to the story.

      John: What, if anything, makes you different or unique as a writer and person?

      Barbara:  I guess it’s that people really seem to like my characters. Also, my reviewers say that my dialogue is authentic. What I believe makes me unique as a writer is I am more than a prose writer. I write poetry. As a person I have always been a little different from other people. I see life differently. I guess I can see another person’s situation and feel empathy for them. I am always trying to make people happy and though I never thought of myself as a leader, a lot of people like what I say and in my life I have held positions of leadership. I seem to gather friends. Maybe it’s because I am honest and believe in helping people when they need it. In return I have some great friends.

      John: Which talent would you most like to have, and which weakness would you most like to lose?

      Barbara:  I would love to be a dancer. I like to dance, but I have never really been a dancer. I would love to have my good knees back.

      John:  What’s your happiest childhood memory?

      Barbara: I wrote about this for that workshop I mentioned. It is picking blueberries in the summer at our summer place when I was seven or eight. I went into the woods with a cousin and we picked blueberries until our fingers were blue. Then my mother and aunts made them into pies. Yummy.
       John:  What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?

      Barbara. Probably, that you have to be yourself or nothing will work. When you are being who you should be, things will fall into place. Sometimes it doesn’t always work out, but you know that you were doing your best and that is what is important. Also, if you are meant to be doing something you will eventually do it. Things happen when you least expect it, but you need to do the work to make them happen.

      John: If you had to marry a fictional character from film, books, history, or legend, who would it be?

      Barbara:  I think it would be Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. He seemed aloof, but he was trying not to get hurt. He was intelligent and sweet and loved Elizabeth. Though he got off to a rough start, what he did to get Elizabeth to see how he felt was so moving and I would love a man to do that for me too.

      John: Being a writer is (sometimes) a great job.  What is the worst job you’ve had?

      Barbara:  I worked for Purchasing magazine one summer and all I did was cut out pages from the magazine and find ads. I had to use a razor to cut them from the magazine and that was all I did.

      John: Describe one of your favorite characters and tell us who you patterned him/her after and why.

      Barbara:  Probably Carolyn is my favorite character and I patterned her after my younger daughter. She was going through a period when she felt awful about her body and also she was at the beginning of an eating disorder. So part of Jennifer is her too. Carolyn has a couple of friends at the beginning of the book and she remains loyal to them even when Jennifer puts her in the popular group. She also tries very hard to keep secrets and is a true friend.

      John: Tell us about your upcoming book.  Has it been launched yet, or is it due soon?

      Barbara:  It is called Who Is Jennifer Taylor and it is not yet finished. I plan to have it finished very soon. It is in Jennifer’s POV and shows Jennifer in her sophomore year. It follows her as she tries once more to get into the Olympics. It all hinges on a meet where the Olympic scouts are coming to see the hopefuls perform. But Jennifer has problems that might affect her performance. Her father is running for mayor and her mother has started drinking. Jennifer has her own problem too, which she is working on keeping in control. And there is a new guy, Danny, who might also be mixing things up a little.

      John:  Thank you so much, Barbara, for your fascinating, in-depth answers.  Are there any questions I didn’t ask which you would like to answer?  If so, here’s your opportunity.  Please go ahead!

       Barbara:  No, these were great questions and I am glad you enjoyed my answers. Thank you so much for inviting me and hosting me on your blog. I am looking forward to hosting you on mine soon too.



Barbara Ehrentreu grew up in Brooklyn and moved to Queens. She has lived and taught in Long Island, Buffalo, NY and Westchester, NY as well as a year in Los Angeles, CA. She has a Masters Degree in Reading and Writing K-12. Currently she is retired from teaching and living in Stamford, CT with her family. If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor won second prize in Preditors & Editors as Best Young Adult Book for 2011. It was inspired by Paula Danziger for her children's writing workshop at Manhattanville College. Her second book, After, considers what can happen to a teen when her father becomes ill with a heart attack. It is based on her own experiences when her husband had a heart attack and the aftermath of what she and her family experienced. She is preparing the sequel to If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor. Barbara also writes poetry and several of her poems are published in the anthologies, Prompted: An International Collection of Poetry, Beyond the Dark Room, Storm Cycle and Backlit Barbell. She has a blog, Barbara's Meanderings, and she hosts a radio show on Blog Talk Radio, Red River Radio Tales from the Pages, once a month. She is a member of PEN Letters and SCBWI.

Blurb for If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor:
Carolyn Samuels is obsessed with the idea of being popular. She is convinced that the only thing keeping her from happiness is her too-heavy-for-fashion body and not being a cheerleader. Hyperventilating when she gets nervous doesn’t help. When she is paired for a math project with the girl who tormented her in middle school, Jennifer Taylor, she is sure it is going to be another year of pain. With Carolyn’s crush on Jennifer’s hunky junior quarterback, Brad, her freshman year in high school looks like a rerun of middle school. When Jennifer is the only student who knows why she fell in gym class, Carolyn is blackmailed into doing her math homework in return for Jennifer’s silence. Jennifer takes on Carolyn as a pity project since she can’t be seen with someone who dresses in jeans and sweatshirts. When Jennifer invites Carolyn to spend the night to make her over and teach her to tumble, Carolyn learns Jennifer’s secret and lies to her own friends to cover it up. Will Carolyn become a cheerleader and popular? Does she continue to keep Jennifer’s secret? Or will she be a target of this mean girl again?


I spot him walking toward my locker with a small box in one hand and a plastic fork in the other. My Crush! He hands me the box, and I open it. Inside is a piece of luscious chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. I look up into his blue eyes and give him the box so I can touch his cheek as I smooth his dark hair.
“You always know just what I like.”
He smiles and feeds me a forkful of cake. I don’t have to worry about eating it because I can eat anything I want and not gain weight. He places the cake box in my locker so he can put his arms around me.
The first bell rings in my ears. I ignore it because I’m thin and blonde and floating in the arms of my dark-haired crush. The other cheerleaders run up to us laughing and kidding around, and I’m about to speak. The ringing gets louder. 

The dream evaporates, and I realize it's the darn alarm piercing my sleep. Slamming my fist onto the snooze button, I get this nagging feeling. Then I remember.  I have something to do.  Worse luck, I have to do it, not as the slender blonde beauty in my dream, but as the real Carolyn Samuels with my brown curly hair hanging like shriveled spaghetti, mud brown eyes, and a body too large for fashion.

I see my new book bag is packed and ready by the door with the initials C. S. in blue, my favorite color. Suddenly it hits me, and I get this dizzy let-me-plop-on-the-pillow feeling. Freshman year of high school— first day. My brain is ready, but my body isn't. Jennifer will be there. Math class and Jennifer; gym class with Jennifer. My body curls into a fetal position, and I throw the covers over my head. Don’t faint Carolyn, I tell myself, panting.
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Blurb for After:

“After” is a story about the struggles Lauren Walstein, a fifteen-year-old girl, has to go through when her father suddenly has a heart attack and undergoes bypass surgery. In one phone call her life changes completely. Lauren is a character with whom most teens will relate. Her best friend since kindergarten, Joey, is going out with her enemy and they have grown apart. Before the phone call all she thought about was getting a scholarship for softball, and the Mets. Suddenly she must deal with both her father’s illness and being in school. The demands on her from both ends complicate the story. In the middle of all this, she finds she is developing feelings for her best friend that are more than friendly. Is he feeling the same or is he just comforting her? In addition there is Joey’s mean girl friend Amber, who doesn’t appreciate Lauren being in the picture. Will Lauren’s father recover? How will Lauren cope with her new feelings for Joey?


The phone rang as the ball left the pitcher’s glove and I glanced toward the sound. Mom’s tears made me forget all about the game. My life changed while the TV blurred and turned into a nightmare kaleidoscope. That moment has been indelibly pressed into my thoughts.
My sister, Diane, was upstairs hunched over her computer as usual. She’s not a baseball fan at all. But I lived and breathed for the Mets that fall. They had such a great chance of getting the pennant and maybe even winning the World Series. I obsessed about the Mets, and of course, Joey.
Joey, my best friend from kindergarten, was always there for me. It’s hard to imagine a recess without him by my side. He’s bigger than I am and always looked a little older than he was. Mom liked Joey because he reassured her he would obey her rules. Maybe it was his easy smile or his clear, gray eyes.
Lately, though, Joey and I haven’t been so close. It happened during the summer when he was a counselor at this camp and he hooked up with this girl, Amber, who goes to our school. So now he spends a lot of his time with her and we barely see each other. We used to watch the Mets together all the time, too. So I missed him being there with me, and his comments about the players.  But all that was before the phone call. Pre-phone call my deepest thoughts centered on the Mets and finding the sweet spot for the ball in my new baseball glove. Pre-phone call, my world was worrying about homework getting done and wondering what lunch would be like on Monday. Oh, and of course, thinking about how to beat the next team we were up against in softball. I’m a starting pitcher this year and I want to show my coach she can believe in me. I’m only a sophomore, but I hope someday to play college softball. I need to get a scholarship in order to go. My parents have already told me they can’t swing it without one.
After the phone call my life was a ball of twisted emotions and all I could think about was Dad, and how Mom, Diane, and I would get through this night.

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