Five Things I Learned From 500 Reviews

Five Things I Learned From 500 Reviews

Allison Maruska

When I published my first book twenty-one months ago (two years ago come February, so you don’t have to math), I didn’t know what to expect. I knew I’d sell some copies, probably my friends would read it, and it would get a handful reviews (hopefully good ones).

If you’ve followed the blog for a while, you know how things really went – 20,000 ebooks sold in the first year and thousands more sold since its first birthday.

500-reviewsToday, it got its 500th Amazon review (thankfully, it was a 5-star review), which is an exciting milestone. I tried to find the average number of reviews for published books and didn’t get anywhere, but I know the majority of books see far fewer than 500, my other books included (so far. *knocks on wood*). So being on this side of 500, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned along…

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Haifa Fragments by khulud khamis


This is a book about an activist, written by an activist, but it doesn’t preach and it doesn’t wag its finger at you. Nor does it shake its head and lower its voice and tell you you are nothing but a privileged white girl, largely ignorant of what the world looks like on the other side of your wall. As well it could. It challenges your preconceptions, but it doesn’t put you in a corner. Instead, it sets you free to roam through the narrative and observe, free to think and decide for yourself what you would like to take away from it, and keep. As all good literature should.

It is framed by history and politics, but without lecturing; it draws you, gently, into the complex, exotic but, at the same time, familiar reality of Maisoon, in a land where the conflict isn’t confined to the conflict zones but takes place, daily, within the people trying to make their lives there, in the best way that they can. Loyalty, the significance of tradition and the need to assert your identity in a place where such a thing is both necessary and dangerous come head to head with the deeply personal but universal quest for the truest version of yourself that you are comfortable with, no matter what form it takes.

This is a book about people, and people should read it. It does exactly what good literature should: it helps you, if you let it, to better understand yourself through the lives of others. No matter which side of the wall they live them in.

Buy it on Amazon US or Amazon UK.

If I’m allowed to stay

uk border.jpg

I am not an immigrant tonight. Tonight, I am a resident of the United Kingdom. But tomorrow: what?
I moved from Athens to London in 1996, at age 18. This September, if I’m allowed to stay, I’ll celebrate twenty years in the UK.
If I’m allowed to stay. Can you imagine? Twenty years: that’s more than half my lifetime. That’s my entire experience as an adult; that’s pretty much everything I know about the world, everything I’ve learned about how to conduct myself in it, everything I’ve become. When I come to Greece, I don’t quite know how to make myself fit in. I am awkward, I am strange, I am, somehow, a little displaced. I don’t know how to ask for the things I need; I use English words where the Greek ones elude me. I apologise too much, and hold doors open for people who storm through them, casting me hurried looks of confusion or contempt. I have trouble crossing roads because the cars keep coming at me from the wrong side, and they don’t seem to obey the rules of traffic that I’m used to. I don’t belong here. My passport may be Greek, but I’ve been marked for Britain. I am a Londoner. I’ve never been an immigrant, so far.
To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never stolen anyone’s job. I’ve never accepted lower than average wages, making it impossible for the British jobseekers to compete with my rock-bottom immigrant standards. I came from a country that considered itself prosperous; I came to go to university, not to survive. I didn’t come for better; I came for good. If anything, my standards were unrealistically high.
    In the early days, in the late nineties when barwork was still cool, my colleagues behind the bar were all British, every single one of them, and we all interviewed for our positions. We were all on minimum wage and we all spent most of our earnings on beer and dancing and late-night kebabs.
    And later, when the EU opened its doors to many more nations, the ratio of foreign to native workers in the hospitality world settled at around 50/50, perhaps even tipping to 60/40 in favour of the foreigners, but it wasn’t because the latter were being chosen over their British counterparts. It was because the British weren’t applying. I know, because I was the one going through the CVs. Having gone off and done other jobs and got myself a Masters in Creative Writing, I wandered back into barwork in the mid- to late-noughties. My own generation had long moved on by now, and the kids, it seems, were no longer interested in serving drinks. I don’t know where they went or what they were doing, but they certainly weren’t queuing up for jobs in pubs and being rejected in favour of cheap Polish (and Greek) labour. Perhaps they were signing on: they were, after all, entitled to benefits; we were not. Because – in case you wondered – no: you don’t just stroll pst the borders and sign on, and then sit back and drink cider out of a plastic bottle and have lots of foreign babies to drain the country’s resources. They don’t let you do that. Funnily enough. You have to earn it.
In twenty years, I’ve never signed on. In twenty years, I’ve never applied for or received any benefits. In the twenty years that I’ve been making National Insurance contributions, both through PAYE and voluntarily, through self-employment, I have probably received statutory sick pay twice. In twenty years, I’ve visited NHS hospitals three times, and my GP perhaps ten, mostly to renew my prescription for the contraceptive pill (not a single foreign baby in sight). I’ve had one filling part-subsidised by the NHS. I’ve paid several thousand pounds in taxes. I’ve paid several thousand pounds more in rent to British taxpayers.
I think, on balance, I’ve probably put more into this country, financially, than I’ve taken out. I think, on balance, I haven’t drained this country’s resources all that much. I have earned my benefits, but I have never abused them. And I’ve chosen this country, I’ve adopted it as my own and Britain, in turn, has never treated me like an immigrant. So far. This Great Britain, made up of immigrants and thriving on the multitude of cultures that it’s embraced. Gradually, yes, and with difficulty at first, but bravely and wholeheartedly, for the most part, with the openness that makes this Britain great.
And yet, tomorrow: what? Will I become in immigrant, at last, in this country that made me who I am? Will Britain make me an immigrant, at last, twenty years on?
I think I’d like to celebrate my twenty-year anniversary in the pub. I don’t go to pubs that often anymore, but it seems appropriate. I’ll drink a pint of lager with my friends and later, perhaps, we’ll go dancing. We might even have a kebab on the way home, but a nice one, and we’ll sit down to eat it, with cutlery. Our standards are still quite high.
I think I’d like to do that, if I’m allowed to stay.

Reluct no more!


I’m all for spiritual development. I’m all for awareness and mindfulness and loving kindness. Looking after yourself, mind, body and spirit. It would be lovely if we all spoke a little softer, if we took a little longer to think before we act. If we were all a little enlightened. The world would be a better place. Like the tote bag I carry on my shoulder proclaims: Yoga will save the world.
But who will be there to remind us, gently, that we’re taking it a bit too far? When our facebook feeds are inundated by inspirational quotes and we’ve lost the ability to say things in our own words. When gluten is the devil and eating cake is tantamount to suicide. When we boast, daily, of our dietary restrictions and post snapshots of ourselves in the course of a practice that was designed to be personal. When every yoga class is an opportunity to open our hearts, to acknowledge the pain, the frustration, the sadness within, to welcome it, to go with it. When we consult spiritual healers and gurus and medicine men and forget to talk to our friends. When we ostensibly strive for balance, and fail to notice the irony of seeking it in extremes.

I cannot be the only one who’s getting a bit tired of this.

If you roll your eyes at things more than an average person would, this book will be perfect for you.

To celebrate International Yoga Day on June 21st, This Reluctant Yogi: everyday adventures in the yoga world is only 99p on Kindle from June 20-22. Click here to go to the Kindle store now.

Decide my fate

city v sifnos

It’s important to know where you stand; it’s important to know where you place your feet. And where I stand today is in between. I stand in two places at once, two heres, two nows. I stand with one foot in London and another foot in Sifnos. Two parts of me, and as I lean towards the one, the other draws me back. I am a pendulum, but this lovely swinging motion is making me a little dizzy.

So I’m leaving it to the universe; I’m leaving it to fate. I’m leaving it to you. I am your puppet on string: you can do with me what you want.

After 18 months of playing the reclusive author in Sifnos (and writing two books), and six months back in London, I find myself in Sifnos once again. But do I stay, or do I go? Where do you want me?

I can treat this trip to Sifnos as a holiday, eat some good food and get a bit of a tan, and go back to London in a couple of weeks, and do the things that people do there, and wear a raincoat a lot. This option will please my City Girl persona, who’s been looking very nervous ever since we arrived on the island, and keeps flashing her Oyster card at me at regular intervals.

I can stay here, and take it one day at a time, and write about those days as I did before, and see where that takes me. This will invariably involve frequent philosophical musings, posting lots of photos of beaches, clouds and sunsets, and possibly adopting stray kittens, in defiance of anything that can be described as common sense. It will also mean giving voice to Sifnos Chick, who has absolutely no sense of style, but knows all the best places to pick fresh herbs on the island.

So – should I stay or should I go?

Please vote for City Girl or Sifnos Chick in the comments below. 


On the wings of a Bentley (100 days of solitude: Day 48)



I know a man with a flying Bentley and he’s going to fly it all the way to Sifnos. This is not science fiction: in the world this man lives, a world I travel to sometimes, flying Bentleys are just as possible as any other mode of transport. I have long ceased to be surprised.

We originally thought he should go for the next model up, the all-terrain Bentley, suitable for journeys on land, air and sea. This is not too difficult to achieve: apart from the standard engine (which is anything but standard, obviously, this being a Bentley), the all-terrain model is also equipped with two powerful propellers, suited to both aeronautical and seafaring purposes, and a set of fins that, at the touch of a button, unfold into wings, enabling the vehicle to float on the waves or glide on the clouds, respectively. It really is wonderfully simple. And comes with soft leather seats and a bitching sound system, as standard.


The all-terrain Bentley is a pretty advanced piece of technology, but it’s not the top of the range. That would, of course, be the space model, aimed at the universally minded traveller who doesn’t want to wait until the moon shuttle is ready to take bookings from the general population. It is still in the development stages, and a prototype is available for purchase, for which there is a waiting list. Early adopters are required to sign a disclaimer because the space model is limited in its functions: it is capable of launching into space, like a rocket, and then joining the orbit of one of a number of preselected planets, by killing the engine at the right moment (the car’s sensors pick this up, and a red light flashes on the panel behind the steering wheel to warn the driver), but no provisions have yet been made for further navigation or returning to earth. Very few of these prototypes have been released, but they are out there, circling the planets up above; with a telescope, you can sometimes catch a glimpse of their taillights as they go round.

I’m sure this man could get himself right at the top of the waiting list for the space Bentley if he wanted to; he has a way of getting what he wants, perhaps because he figured out, early on, that it’s essentially just as easy as not, and it’s simply a question of what you put your energy into. He doesn’t need to, however. He lives in a spaceship, and he can take himself up to the stars whenever he feels like it. He does that sometimes. But he comes back, with stories to tell.


We had settled on the all-terrain model, but then we realised we had fallen into the trap of conventional thinking. We were approaching the question in terms of a standard journey from central London to the village of Eleimonas in Sifnos: the drive to the airport, the plane ride to Athens, a cab or train or bus to the port, a journey on the ferry to Sifnos, and then the final stretch of road up to the house. Land, air, sea. But, of course, the beauty of a Bentley is that you can park it right outside your home and take off from there, flying it high above the London skyline and through the clouds, over the seas and mountains and cities and valleys of Europe and all the way down to Sifnos where, guided by the blue dome of the church next door, you can land it directly on my roof. There’s plenty of space up there for a Bentley, and the beams are strong; they can take the weight.

The flying Bentley has been ordered, in black, with tinted windows and heated seats, and a jack for plugging your iPhone directly into the built-in sound system. When it is delivered, he will pack a small bag and throw it into the boot, put some music on, switch the mode from “drive” to “fly”, and he will soar into the sky. He will be spared the traffic on the North Circular, and the discomforts of easyjet, the chaos of Athens, the indignity of the blue plastic seats of the economy lounge on the ferry and the long, cold wait for the off-season bus, and he will arrive in style, uncreased and smiling, in time for dinner.


This is not science fiction, and it isn’t fantasy. It’s just the way it is. There is a world where everything is possible and that’s the world I’d like to live in. Where getting what you want is just as easy as giving up on it. Where a man will fly his Bentley all the way from London to Sifnos and land it on my roof. He will come into the house and unpack the few items he brought in his bag into the space I’ve cleared in the wardrobe, and we will sit together in the warmth, while the engine of the Bentley cools down on the roof above. We might fly it to the beach every now and then, to spend some time looking at the sea, but mostly we will stay at home, together but a few feet apart, in a silence that contains all the words, and I will write stories about the lives we live on earth, while he thinks about his next trip up into the stars.


> This is Day 48 of 100 days of solitude. If you enjoyed reading it, please consider buying the book, in paperback or on Kindle. Thank you.

Author interview: John Darryl Winston

There was no question in my mind about who I wanted for my first interview on this blog: John Darryl Winston, parent, educator and independent author of IA:Initiate and IA: B.O.S.S. – and a genuinely lovely man, whom I greatly admire. Despite teaching, fundraising for a literacy program that aims to instil a love of reading and writing in schoolchildren, and working on his next three books, John still found the time to talk to me. This is what we said.


What drives you to write?

I wish I could say it was just the desire to write, but probably something more superficial, more human: to do something worthwhile that makes a mark and difference somehow in the lives of many people.


You have so far published two books, IA: Initiate and IA: B.O.S.S. (read my review), which are part one and two of the IA Series trilogy. What is the series about, and why did you choose to tell this particular story?

At its core, the IA series is about father and son, brother and sister, boy and girl who believe there’s more to life than what can be seen. I wanted to tell a story about family and friends that were touched by success and failure equally, about the struggles of life and death that are rarely told in today’s literature. I chose to write this story because I wanted to combine what I knew about science that I believed to be true with what I believed about the supernatural world to be possible and create a subtle science fiction, a science fiction that one day soon would be considered truth.

IA series

What is it that drew you to YA fiction rather than another genre? Do you see yourself writing in another genre in the future, once the IA Series is completed?

Oh my goodness, Daphne, I have all these ideas and they’re definitely not limited to YA fiction. I was drawn to YA fiction because I happened to be teaching middle school students reading and wanted to write something I thought would spark their imaginations. So it was a natural progression. After the IA series is complete, I imagine staying with this genre for a while longer, throwing a memoir in there and then all bets are off.


You recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing, but I’m willing to bet you were a writer long before you started that course. What would you say is the most valuable thing that can be gained from a formal education in Creative Writing? Do you think writing can be taught?

You would be right in saying I was a writer long before the MFA. The most valuable thing I gained from my formal education at Wilkes University in particular would have to be the writing community I’ve become a part of there. My mentor, Jeff Talarigo, author of “The Ginseng Hunter” and “The Pearl Diver” has become a good friend. I’ve become a part of a group of talented published writers for life and that feels good. I’ve also become more technically sound as a writer in the way of craft, and I think that’s important. Everybody wants to write a book, and that’s good. I figured I should be at least skilled at the craft. I’m a firm believer in learning most of the rules before I start breaking them.

I do think writing, like music, in a technical sense can be taught and that anybody that studies hard and reads a lot can learn to become a good writer. But I think the great ones in any field have a gift that can’t be taught. I believe when you put talent with study and hard work, plus a little bit of luck, you get greatness.


Identity is becoming increasingly complex these days, and many of us, more than ever before, are juggling several “personas”. You describe yourself as a parent, an educator and an author. Is there one of these “titles” that you identify more strongly with? How do they all feed into one another?

This is an excellent question, Daphne, one I’m wrestling with constantly and at this very moment as my daughter, Marquette, sits 20 feet away from me playing her guitar and asking for help. I definitely identify most with being a parent. It’s easy for me, my default position, and comes natural. I’m more interested in Marquette’s sports activities then watching the Super Bowl (don’t tell anybody that). That being said, the three hats: parent, educator, and author all work well together, because I treat my students like my daughter and my daughter like my students, and I write for them, with all of them in mind, if that makes sense.


I know for a fact that – like most of us independent authors – you are also acting as your own PR and marketing team. How are you finding that process? Were you prepared for it when you began your journey as an author? What would you tell other independent authors who find this side of things intimidating and/or undignified?

I find the promotion and marketing part of being an independent author a wild, confusing ride, and I’m never quite sure I’m doing the right thing or if what I’m doing is having the desired effect. You picked two perfect words that describe what I feel in a nutshell: intimidating and undignified. It’s intimidating because I’m the poster child for introverts and asking someone to buy my book sits right up there with asking a girl out when I was growing up. It just wasn’t gonna happen. So I hide behind social media and that’s where the undignified part comes in. I feel like when I post an ad about my book, I’m bothering people and when I repeatedly post, the feeling multiplies exponentially.

That being said, I’ve decided to do it anyway. I see more outlandish things on social media including ads about countless products that people may or may not be interested in, and when people see them, like me, they probably just scroll on by. The ones who may get irritated by seeing my book on social media probably know me and are haters, so I don’t care about them. They need to unfriend or unfollow me. I’m confident I’ve put a quality, respectable product out there, and I’m going with that indefinitely. I can’t give up. That’s how much I believe in what I’m doing. Was that a rant?


You have quite a strong social media presence. What would you say is the secret to having genuine interactions on what is, by nature, quite a fickle and superficial medium? And do “followers” ever translate into readers?

Thank you, Daphne! I think you hit the nail right on the head when you said “genuine interactions.” I’ve met some the nicest people on social media, most I’ve never met in person or even heard their voices, but I’ve read their books, posts, blogs, and even conversed with some on Skype or some other instant messaging app. I for one don’t believe in automated messaging people and I usually ignore them. A lot of my followers translate into readers. I had a Twitter friend yesterday from nowhere tweet that she had just purchased my book. A few hours later she informed me she was several chapters in and was loving it, which of course made my night, and this is not a rare occurrence. So I try to actually interact with my friends on social media which ain’t easy as there’s only 24 hours in a day.


You are currently running a crowdfunding campaign on kickstarter in support of your Adopt an Author initiative, which aims to encourage a love of reading and writing in schoolchildren. Can you tell us a bit more about the program and your campaign? Why should people support it?

As I said before, I started writing these stories for my reading students. They loved them. A teacher at another school in Detroit who found out what I was doing and wanted me to come to her school and talk to her students about reading and writing. Four weeks before I came, all of her student read my book, and she put them on a wikispace so they could ask me about the book and anything else while they were reading. The questions and comments I got were amazing, and it was a lot of fun. When I went to the school, I read to the students from my new book and they were enthralled. I gave away prices, signed books, and answered questions. The whole thing was surreal. I thought it was something I could do in every classroom, as many as I could, and recruit other authors to do the same, and the Adopt an Author Program was born.

People should support the program because there are not many skills as important for a child to acquire than literacy, and the program’s goal is not just to teach reading and writing but create an atmosphere where kids learn to love reading and writing. I was once an unmotivated reader and am in a unique position to know the path from indifference to appreciation of the written word.

Education is under attack, not just in my hometown of Detroit but around the world. I’ve dedicated the whole of my adult life to teaching kids how to be not just productive adults but adults that excel. Whether it’s been academics, athletics, or the arts I’ve been there and continue to be on the front line. From coaching multiple sports to teaching vocals and musical instruments, I’ve committed myself in a big way. Now armed with an MA (soon to be MFA) in creative writing, 17 years experience as a public school educator, and the distinction: published author, I stand ready to take that commitment and the kids I teach to the next level.


What can we expect from you next?

I’m working on three projects: The first is “IA: Union,” the final book in the IA trilogy which has me frustrated right now. The second is a sci-fi YA called “Ultima Humana,” about the last human a long time from now on a planet not too far away, lol. The third is a sci-fi thriller called “Patriarch” about a scientist who has found a way to endow his son with supernatural powers in a natural way. Sound familiar?


As far as “doing something worthwhile” goes, John has already come a long way, and he’s just getting started. Keep an eye on this man: there are many more great things ahead. I am sure of it. 

Connect with John: websitefacebook / twitter / amazon

Support his kickstarter campaign.