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brokenwheelNew year, new books. I’m snowed by publishers’ suggestions for winter reading, titles perfect for fireside reading on long, cold nights. But I’m in the South, where winter might last a weekend, so my expectations don’t change with the seasons. I just want well-told tales. Happily, there appear to be plenty of new and forthcoming books that meet my criteria.

I began the year, appropriately, with a book about books, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend (Sourcebooks, digital galley) by Kristina Bivald. In this engaging first novel, unemployed bookstore clerk Sara travels from her Swedish home to visit her pen pal Amy in Iowa for two months. But she arrives in the depressed town of Broken Wheel right after  Amy’s funeral –the older woman hadn’t told Sara she was even sick — and the townspeople encourage her to stay in Amy’s house because that’s what Amy would have wanted. Sara spends one night, and then another, meeting Amy’s quirky friends she has described in her letters. Then she looks at Amy’s massive book collection and decides to open a bookstore in an abandoned storefront next to the hardware store. Before long, the bookstore is the talk of the town — and the envy of its more prosperous neighbors.

Bivald intersperses the narrative with the chatty missives Amy sent Sara, and literary references abound as the readers of Broken Wheel begin to realize books can change lives, whether you’re a recovering drunk missing his long-gone daughter, or a spinster church lady giving into an unlikely love. Then there’s Amy’s hardworking nephew Tom, who doesn’t read books but is good at reading people, except himself.  Finally, Sara has a shelf in the bookstore devoted to books with happy endings when you need them. This book would fit right in.

My virtual bookshelves are filled with digital galleys I’ll be reading this winter.oppositeallthebirdsjanesteelestudyletterwriterdoubters

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Over at the awesome bookriot.com (Always books. Never boring), the results are in. More than 1300 Riot readers recently responded to the challenge Name Your Favorite Novel, and “after many glorious nerdy hours tallying the data,” the Riot chiefs have posted the Top 50.  Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird claimed first place, followed by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby rounds out the top 5.

I remember two of the titles I nominated — TKAM and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is No. 14, but I have several other favs that rotate in and out of my top 5 depending on my mood or category: le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, girlhood classic Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, du Maurier’s Rebecca, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. Oh, I can go on and on, book geek that I am.

Which brings me to a new favorite, Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour-Bookstore (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, purchased digital edition), a light-hearted, high-spirited literary adventure quest combining tree-books, e-books, typefaces, codes, cryptographers, hackers, a secret society of readers, a fictional book about dragon-singers, a subterranean library in New York City, and the quest for immortality in the digital age. It’s funny, smart, charming — all the things you want in a new best friend. I have a feeling it would laugh at my jokes.

Early on, narrator/night clerk Clay describes his obscure place of employment in San Francisco — a tall and skinny out-of-the-way building, with laddered shelves reaching into the heavens, the kind of bookstore that would appeal to a teenage wizard, in fact “makes you want to be a teenage wizard.” Up front is a small selection of used books for sale — Dashiell Hammett, classic SF, the new bio of Steve Jobs — but behind, in the almost-menacing shadows, are stacks of mysterious volumes that Clay refers to as the “Waybacklist.”

The customers for those books are few but devoted, arriving in the middle of the night to return one rare volume in exchange for another. Clay has to log in each purchase and its buyer in detail, but ancient, blue-eyed Mr. Penumbra has warned him not to read the books. Odd. Very odd. And soon to get odder as Clay, a RISD graduate and website designer, enlists a merry band of friends (a pretty Google code genius, a wealthy digital start-up entrepreneur),  to help him uncover the bookstore’s secrets even as he develops a new marketing plan and Mr. Penumbra goes missing. There’s a villain named Corvina, and a hero . . . Not going to tell you.

His brief bio reveals that Robin Sloan grew up in Michigan and now divides his time between San Francisco and the Internet. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is his first novel. I hope he writes many more. Meanwhile, for those of you who belong to GoodReads, the voting is now open for the 2012 choices in 20 categories. Mr. Penumbra is a nominee in fiction. I’ve already voted.

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