Category: Short Stories

Ajax Penumbra 1969

Cover image for Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloanby Robin Sloan

ISBN 9780374711849

“Your parents are weirdos in the best possible way. They do not celebrate birthdays; never in your life have you received a present on the tenth of December. Instead, you are given books on the days that their authors were born.”

In this prequel to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan takes us back to San Francisco in 1969, where the Summer of Love is winding down, and Mohammad Al-Asmari is still managing the 24-hour bookstore that will one day belong to his protégé. Silicon Valley is starting to take shape south of the city, and the BART is under construction. Visiting this developing city for the first time is Ajax Penumbra, who comes to San Francisco on assignment to acquire a copy of the Techne Tycheon—a lost book of fortunes—for the Galvanic College library where he is employed. When his search leads him to Mo Al-Asmari’s 24-Hour Bookstore, he unexpectedly finds himself entangled with the Unbroken Spine, and the origins of its San Francisco store.

Even more so than in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, the San Francisco setting is a key element of the story, as is the development of the computer age. This short story gives a great feel for late 60s San Francisco, with occasional references back to the city’s origins as a Gold Rush port. Sloan creates neat parallels between Penumbra’s life, the rise of computers, and San Francisco’s development into a tech giant. Ajax Penumbra and Marcus Corvina are introduced, and brought together by a quest very similar to the one that leads to the final fracture in their relationship forty years later. It is easy to see how the two men develop into the characters we meet in the novel. Familiar secondary characters from the novel make appearances as well, though sadly it seems too early for Clark Moffat, author of The Dragon-Song Chronicles, to play any part.

This short story provides an intriguing glimpse into San Francisco’s past, and introduces the rivalry between  Penumbra and Corvina with a fun, fast-paced mystery, but it is not an essential addition to the original story.

The Wanderer in Unknown Realms

Cover image for The Wanderer in Unknown Realms by John Connollyby John Connolly

ISBN 978-1-4767-5139-9

A book is a carrier, and the ideas contained within its covers are an infection waiting to be spread. They breed in men. They adapt according to the host. Books alter men, and men, in their turn, alter worlds.”

By all accounts, Lionel Maulding led a quiet and retired life in the English countryside, never traveling further afield than strictly necessary. If he was regarded as a little bit eccentric by his neighbours, he was also considered harmless. So when Maulding goes missing, both foul play and leaving of his own volition seem equally unlikely. Recently returned from the Great War, Soter is hired by Maulding’s lawyer, Mr. Quayle, to look into Maulding’s whereabouts. When Soter arrives at Bromdun Hall, he discovers that Maulding’s home is less of a house, and more of a library—every room is overflowing books. Maulding’s library reveals his recent fascination with the supernatural and occult, and leads Soter into the dangerous world of occultist book sellers in London as he searches for answers.

What starts out slowly as a conventional historical mystery takes a chilling turn for the supernatural when Lionel Maulding’s occult studies are revealed. The turn from routine mystery to creepy horror is abrupt, but prior to this point, the story wasn’t really grabbing my interest. Unfortunately, the story comes to a rather abrupt conclusion just when it feels like we are getting into the meat of Connolly’s fascinating world. This may be in part due to false expectation set by the fact that the last 15% of the Kindle file is a preview for one of Connolly’s novels, but it is also due in part to the fact that the ending leaves a lot to the imagination. Having read a few Kindle Singles over the course of the last month, I shouldn’t be surprised; very few of them have struck the right balance and actually feel as if they are “expressed at their natural length.” Connolly’s writing is intriguing and I would consider reading other books by him in the future, but this novella failed to satisfy.


More Kindle Singles:

To Have and Uphold by Adam Liptak

Rules for Virgins by Amy Tan

Drinking My Way Through 14 Dating Websites by Tiffany Peon


Rules for Virgins

Cover image for Rules for Virgins by Amy TanAmy Tan

ISBN 978-1-61452-019-1

You are too young yet to know what nostalgia truly means. It takes time to become sentimental. But for the sake of your success, you must quickly learn. When you touch a man’s nostalgia, he is yours.”

Set in Shanghai in 1912, Rules for Virgins is a short story in the form of a monologue by Magic Gourd, a former courtesan who has retired and become the attendant of Violet, a fifteen-year-old courtesan-in-training who is one week away from her debut, which will lead up to the sale of her virginity. No longer young enough—at the ripe old age of thirty-three—to be a courtesan herself, Magic Gourd turns her calculating mind to a new goal: helping Violet become one of the Top Ten Beauties of Shanghai. Rules for Virgins is her attempt to impart the wisdom and experience she gained from her years as a courtesan to her young charge. Magic Gourd recounts both her glory days and her mistakes, determined to help Violet achieve the same successes she had, without the bumps earned through ignorance.

Magic Gourd addresses Violet as “you” throughout the story, asking the reader to identify with the situation of a young woman who never speaks. This works to a certain extent, because the reader is likely to be as ignorant as Violet of what it takes to be courtesan in post-Imperial China. However, I could not help but feel that there was a fuller story to be told here about the relationship between an attendant and her new courtesan, and I wanted to hear both of their voices. The second person address becomes less awkward once you settle in to the story, but I would not precisely describe it as successful.

Where Tan does succeed is in portraying the perilous balancing act performed by the courtesans as they strive to become women of independent means. Competition between the beauties is intense, and the attention spans of most patrons are fleeting at best. Magic Gourd ruthlessly crushes sentiment, and strives to instill economic principles in her young charge. Pleasures houses are businesses, and Violet must learn their best practices quickly, or she will find herself unable to repay her debt to the Madam of the house. Thus Magic Gourd tells Violet to “forget about love. You will receive that many times, but none of it is lasting. You can’t eat it, even if it leads to marriage.” Instead, she is told to focus on attaining the “four necessities” for success: fine jewelry, modern furniture, a contract with a stipend, and a comfortable retirement fund. Although the title would imply that this short story is about a virgin courtesan, it is Magic Gourd, whose time has already passed, who we come to know as she tries to distill a lifetime of knowledge and experience into a strategy guide for success, seduction, and independence.


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The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories Volume 3

Cover image for The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories 3 by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and wirrowCompiled by Joseph Gordon-Levitt & wirrow

ISBN 978-0-06-212165-3

After a hard day’s make-believe I like to just kick back with my creations.”

They might be (very) short stories, or they might be poetry, or they might be something else entirely. It’s a bit hard to pin down the tiny stories that make up this collaborative anthology, which was compiled by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his partner-in-crime, wirrow. This is the third and final volume they have put together from a selection of contributions to the Tiny Stories project on the website. Eighty-two contributors are credited in this volume, and more than 35 000 have contributed to the online archive. All contributions are available to be remixed by participants, and half of the proceeds from the publication of the Tiny Stories series go to the contributors, with the other half going back into the production company.

After a hard day's make-believe I like to just kick back with my creations.
Click to enlarge

Each page or two page spread features an illustration paired with a short piece of text. Many wouldn’t mean much alone, but together they are powerful. The drawings are mostly black and white, but more colour has crept into them as the series goes on. Volume 1 was entirely black and white, while Volume 2 included thirteen images that incorporated the colour red. Volume 3 includes fifteen colour illustrations, and incorporates a wider variety of colours. It’s a delight to happen upon the coloured pictures in the midst of their black and white counterparts. While Volume 2 didn’t suffer for exploring what can be done with black, white, grey, and red, Volume 3 opens the door on wider possibilities.

I want desperately to press you between the pages of a book and keep you forever.
Click to enlarge.

The stories cover a broad range, from sweet (“Ok let’s snuggle for the whole day and then maybe two more whole days but then we’ll get up and do some work! And we’ll just take snuggle breaks in between to reward ourselves”) to melancholy (“This overwhelming desire to be close to you directly conflicts with my intense fear of people”) to creepy (“I want desperately to press you between the pages of a book and keep you forever”). They are incredibly varied, with their greatest commonality being the amount of room left for interpretation by the reader. There’s what’s on the page, and then there’s what you read into it. Tiny stories leave more than the usual amount of room for the reader’s imagination to run wild within the sketchy bounds of the narrative. The stories are a little bit like zen koans; if you can prevent yourself from greedily gobbling them up in one sitting, you could stop and ponder each one for quite some time. The Tiny Stories have just gotten better with each successive volume, and I am beyond sad that this one is set to be the last in the series. Fortunately, they only get better with re-reading.


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The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories Volume 2

Cover Image for The Tiny Book of  Tiny Stories Volume 2by Joseph Gordon-Levitt & wirrow

ISBN 978-0-06-212163-9

“The universe is not made of atoms; it’s made of tiny stories.”

You likely know Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an actor, be it from Third Rock from the Sun (1996-2001) or his more recent work, such as Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and Looper (2012).  However, he is also the founder of HitRECord, the open collaborative production company which produced The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories Volume 2, a collaborative anthology of artwork and writing that could easily be described as either a (very) short story collection, or poetry, depending on which piece you are looking at. Materials contributed to HitRECord are openly accessible and available to be remixed. Gordon-Levitt and wirrow collaborated to select and edit the pieces in this anthology. For example, illustrations from one writer may be combined with the artwork contributed by another participant. All contributors are credited in the resources section at the back of the book. 62 contributors participated in this book.

It would be difficult to identify a single unifying theme in this volume, but there are a few common threads. The text of the first piece reads “we must hide find ourselves in fiction,” and many of the pieces explore the importance of stories in our lives, and the idea of fiction as more than mere escapism, but rather as a method of making meaning. Many of the pieces also use wordplay and juxtaposition to toy with our expectations or shift our perspective with just a few words or a few pencil lines. For example, the text “one day she looked up and discovered an opening in her planet. She wondered if she wasn’t alone after all,” takes on a new meaning when placed next to a drawing of a fishbowl.

Physically and artistically, this is a beautiful book. It is small, like the stories it contains, with a navy cloth cover and illustrated endpapers. The illustrations are largely black and white, with the occasional splash of red, but the limited palate never seems to limit the expression; you see the full run of what can be done with black, white, grey and red in these pages. Although this book is available in digital form, I highly recommend the paper copy, particularly if your device has an e-ink screen.

Special Review: Click-Clack the Rattlebag

Click-Clack the Rattlebag is a short story written and performed by Neil Gaiman for All Hallow’Cover Image for Click-Clack the Rattlebags Read. You can download the story for free at and for every download Audible will donate a dollar to Donors Choose. This story is only available until Halloween, so download your copy today.  If you’ve missed the download, the story will be available in the Impossible Monsters anthology from Subterranean Press in 2013.


In Click-Clack the Rattlebag, Neil Gaimain turns his normally soft and soothing voice to the work of sending chills down our spines. This is only the beginning of the many ways Gaiman is able to defy the reader’s expectations in this short outing. The story features one of the precocious children Gaiman has rendered so well in past works such as Coraline and The Graveyard Book. Don’t let the name fool you; the original monster of this story is much scarier (and grosser) than the ghosties and ghoulies that often comprise the horror genre.  For a story of only ten minutes duration, to say much more would be spoiling. Don’t forget to turn off the lights before you listen.


Read about All Hallow’s Read here:

Read Neil’s blog post about the story here:

When It Happens to You

Cover image for When It Happens to You by Molly Ringwald

ISBN 978-0061809460

The “it” of Molly Ringwald’s fiction debut is betrayal, and the narrative unfolds around how the characters process it in various forms. Her “novel in stories” centres on the dissolving marriage of Greta and Phillip, and the consequences for their six year old daughter, Charlotte. As a novel, When It Happens to You would be described as unfocused. However, by framing it as a novel in short stories, Ringwald is able to toe the line between the two forms, exploring the space between. This latitude allows her to delve into the stories of secondary characters whose lives serve as important counterpoints to those of her main protagonists. For the reader, the treat is beginning each new chapter with the expectation of discovering the connection to the central story.

While infertility and infidelity are the particular trials of Greta and Phillip’s relationship, the secondary characters reveal the many other ways in which it is possible to fail at love. Especially poignant is the story of Betty, an elderly widow who had an incredibly happy marriage, but was unable to spare any love for her unplanned daughter. This serves as a sharp and telling contrast to the story of Marina, who has rarely had a long term relationship, but loves her own unplanned child fiercely, even as she struggles with how best to deal with Oliver’s gender identity crisis. However, the fascinating lives of the secondary characters threaten to upstage the gut-wrenching normality of the story of a marriage threatened by infidelity. You have probably heard Phillip and Greta’s story before, but Betty, Peter and Marina offer the reader a glimpse of Ringwald’s potential to deliver a unique narrative.