Welcome to our annual look at what we think is the very best of the books, films, music recordings, and live gigs which have been experienced over the past year by a mix of staff and honoured guests.

But first, a tale of an old man and his ravens...

 

Oh, come on in and join us. Mackenzie and I were admiring the repair job our resident bookseller and binder did on one of the older Green Man journals. Yes, that's an illustration of a raven sitting in the rafters in the Pub. Good one, ain't it? And indeed the gentleman talking to the raven looks all too familiar.

We've had written records 'ere of ravens, hooded rooks, and other corvids around the Green Man offices as long as this ancient pile of stone, wood, and brick has been standing. No doubt in me mind they were here soon after the first highwayman was hanged here so many centuries ago. Yes indeed, from the kind of make-shift gallows all too commonly found in the oaks that are still in our courtyard. That the ravens were feasting on the corpses is quite certain.

Certainly there's no doubt that they were making their raucous sounds when the very first Jack was here: or so he claims, in the Green Man archives as told there by someone who calls himself simply The Old Man. As The Old Man in the journal entries tells it, Jack escaped the sure grasp of Death Herself and Her Ravens. (Never mind the poor bugger whom that same Jack tricked into taking into taking his place on the gallows! I never said the Jacks were nice fellows, did I?)

What's changed since those times is that somehow the ravens came to be inside the building instead of outside. But then, the pickings in the oak trees have dwindled to acorns in these modern times, and a raven's got to eat, don't he? They don't seem to mind the pub lunches here. After all, they're birds of wisdom!

As The Old Man tells it, he himself brought the first pair of ravens with him when he decided this was a more than adequate place to sit out the harsh Winter. Some of the musicians here thought he had stolen them from The Tower and that Albion Itself was now in dire threat. After a few tense days, he convinced them that these ravens were Nordic in origin and Albion was in no danger. At least not from him. Or at least not right now. Or at least it was no one's business while the snow flew and he wanted a quiet drink. Convincing old gent, and the ravens themselves staring from his shoulders didn't hurt the argument none.

Big bloody birds they were too! Have you heard a storyteller tell the story of Odin and His Ravens? How they sit on his shoulders cawing something into his ears? How they know everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen? These birds, according to an entry by our Librarian of the time, could well have been them. It sure as 'ell spooked the bleedin' fiddlers from the Shetland Islands, who knew both the tunes and stories of their Nordic ancestors. I certainly 'ave found them spooky enough late at night as they gaze down at you from the rafters overhead ... it's right unnerving to stare into a raven's eyes. You can't help wondering why they're staring at yours, like.

Though someone who looks like The Old Man has been 'ere off and on down the centuries (and no, I do not know it's the same gentlemen), the ravens are always here. One pair, watching us, and occasionally stealing food and other things as they see fit. Who's to tell them they can't? Not me!

Best of 2006 Picks

Neal Asher is more of a reader than a music listener: 'I don't really listen to very much music and rarely buy any, so my opinion on that is not worth knowing. As far as the books are concerned, excluding my own I'd like to make two recommendations: Scar Night by Alan Campbell is the best fantasy I've read in years, and Blindsight by Peter Watts is the best SF novel I've read in years. Both of these came out this year and I was pleased an astonished to be given an early look at two such excellent reads.

Kage Baker says that 'I blush to confess that I've been so busy this year that I've read exactly one book published in 2006 (Terry Pratchett's Wintersmith) and bought exactly two albums produced in 2006 (the sound track to Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and its related 2-CD album of pirate songs). All other reading has been for research on writing projects, and these days my listening tastes run more and more to historical recordings. Just now I have playing 'A Little of What You Fancy' by Marie Lloyd, recorded in 1915. Couldn't name a single artist in the current Billboard Top Ten if you held a gun to my head. Wilful time travel. But I suspect Wintersmith will make the Best of the Year lists. It was great. Pratchett just gets better all the time.'

Kathleen Bartholomew has a confession: as she says that she's 'appallingly easy - I liked nearly everything I read. But for sheer excellence, two authors stand out as Best -- Cherie Priest (Four and Twenty Blackbirds, Wings to the Kingdom and Naomi Novik (His Majesty's Dragon, Throne of Jade, Black Powder War). I had the pleasure of reading two or three books by each of these ladies: their debuts were impressive and their succeeding work has lived up to their promise.

I would ordinarily state that I thought Kage Baker's Machine's Child was a humdinger - but as she is my sister, I shouldn't. Nonetheless, it really was an excellent book!'

From Kim Bates comes these picks: 'This year found me hungering for new things and far away places. It's one of the reasons I love mass transit here in Toronto -- there are new people from far away places, speaking a variety of languages every time I step into a streetcar or subway platform. It's a nice little reminder that people can often get along, that we share so many things, while at the same time having so many different expressions and aesthetics. Isolation into one's own group just is not possible when you're sitting next to someone, many different someones, each time you step out your door. I didn't realize this same need had been driving my musical listening habits until I began thinking of what to pick for this issue.

My 'Best of' list this year finds many compilations, from a diverse set of backgrounds. I selected it quite simply: by looking at what I've been playing. (Thank you iTunes!). In years past, I might have picked more items in the Celtic genres, particularly Irish music, but this year I found myself yearning for a variety of things. So here's a look at what's been spinning in the virtual CD player this past year.

My hands down favorite from 2006 is Putumayo's North African Grooves. In his review, Richard Condon wrote 'This is contemporary popular music from North Africa and it illustrates remarkably well how totally global our, and everyone else's, village now is, for while being unmistakably North African, the music presented here has distant, and sometimes not so distant, echoes of sounds from a wide variety of other traditions. Is there a popular music anywhere in the contemporary world that remains totally uninfluenced by what's going on elsewhere on the planet?' He's definitely right about the diversity of influences in this music, and I would add that it's infectious dance music that brings joy -- very difficult not to get a lift from these grooves. My favorite cut is by Egyptian Amr Diab, entitled 'Nour El Ain,' followed closely by Khaled's 'Ya Rayi,' Rhany's 'Un Mot de Toi' and especially Amina's 'Dis-Moi Pourquoi.' They're all hot hot hot.

Staying the same vein, and also put together by Putumayo, is Putumayo World Music Presents: Mali. This album could also be considered Malian pop music, for even the elder statesman of Malian music, Boubacur Traoré includes foreign influences in this case the incomparable Régis Gisavo, a Paris-based accordion player from Madagascar. I've seen both men play live, and can only say that, if given the chance, every self-respecting music lover, of whatever genre, should make their gigs. (I should include a thank you to the several western Canadian folk festival's program directors, here!) As Richard notes in his review, there are also many outside influences present in his selection, as well as the absence of several well-known Malian artists, due to copyright restrictions. I can only add that in my opinion this selection stands up on its own feet, with great selections by Moussa Diallo with 'Maninda,' Tinariwen 'Amassakoul 'N' Riénéré' and both of Habib Koité and Bamada's selections, 'Kanawa' and 'Saramaya (Live),' and of course Boubacur Traoré's 'Kanou.' This album is more mellow than North African Grooves, but also lively and infectious.

It's not often that a concert DVD gets played over and over around here, but the DVD/CD set put out by the members of Irish traditional group Solas, entitled Reunion keeps finding its way into the player. When I reviewed it, I noted that I wanted to be able to hear the concert played through, without the interviews it's possible to get this with the bonus tracks, but some of the best material is indeed in the main concert material. One solution is the CD, although I must confess that I often play the DVD when I'm dork in the vicinity. I also noted that '[f]ans will no doubt love this live album because it really does include most of their best material, and the performances manage to be flawless, while also spirited and good natured. All the players' talents seem to be showcased, and both singers receive their share of the limelight. It's all there. Really. My particular favorites are the aforementioned 'Pastures of Plenty,' 'Shola Na nGamhna,' 'Le Poules Hupp?es' (sic), 'Rain and Snow,' 'Black Annis' and 'Newry Highwayman.' But it's all good.' Not to be missed.

Next up is a Nordic selection, Harv's Polka Raggioso, reviewed for GMR by Scott Gianelli, who noted that through several incarnations, Harv had become 'Sweden's leading proponents of aggressive, percussion-driven fiddle music.' This album of original tunes written within the medium of Swedish traditional fiddling is infectious and bears repeated playing very well. I particularly liked 'Director Deg' and 'Sockertöj/Ja Dä Gör Vi,' along with the title track. This is yet another selection that bends the rules enough to offend purist -- in this case with the strong emphasis on percussion.

My last favorite sounds like another Irish offering, and it is -- in part. Compass Records' Hands Across the Water is a compilation put together by John Cutliffe and Andrea Zonn to benefit the victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in the Indian Ocean. The artists include both Irish traditional musicians like Sharon Shannon, and Nashville recording artists with firm roots in the Appalachians. The opening tune by Darrel Scott, 'This Begar's Heart' is exquisite, as is Sharon Shannon's version of 'A Man of Constant Sorry', Tim O'Brien's 'Fair and Tender Ladies' and Solas' 'Reasonland, along with Jerry Douglas's 'In the Sweet By and By.' Although he was less enthusiastic than I am, our reviewer, Christopher Condor reports '[t]hat it is such a unique and enjoyable project alone is reason enough to buy it. That your money will be helping people who are still desperately in need makes it an essential purchase.' And I must agree.

As I finish off, I notice another theme in my selection -- they all contain an element of mixing of traditions, even if it is just a superb Irish trad band anchored by folks from the New World, or an elder statesman playing with someone from the other side of the continent. I'm not sure why this blending is so attractive to me right now, but as the year comes to an end, with seemingly endless media coverage of how we humans can't, won't or simply refuse to get along, I take a great deal of pleasure and some small comfort that the musicians of the world are out there playing together, sharing traditions and producing some really superb results. Rock on! Errrr, so to speak,,,'

Peter S. Beagle has these picks: 'It's been a rough year, for a lot of reasons, and I really haven't been reading much fiction. But weirdly enough, the novel that's fascinated me more than any other is the one I'm reading right now, Night of the Jaguar , by one Michael Gruber, whom I'd never heard of before. The book just jumped into my hands off a library shelf, the way they do sometimes. It's brilliantly written and conceived (visualize a little South American shaman on a mission in today's Miami), and genuinely scary. Who the hell is this guy? I mostly listen to music in the car: this year, over and over, it's been George Kincheloe and Lisa Atkinson's Simple As That, and Janis Ian's Folk Is The New Black. Oh, and Happy Hour, a two-guitar album (I'm a sucker for guitar duets) by Tommy Emmanuel and Jim Nichols.'

Next up is Holly Black from whom we get these picks: 'I have read a lot of great books this year. I loved Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword, a book that fulfilled a deep longing on my part for more Riverside (and more Alec!) in addition to making me fall in love with the indomitable Katherine. Megan Whalen Turner's King of Attolia continued the series that she started in The Thief and, with it, continued to make me very happy. And Justine Larbalestier's Magic Lessons does the thing that every good sequel does and messes with your head.

Delia Sherman's Changeling is such a great book that I can't say enough about it. Tamora Pierce started a new series with Beka Cooper: Terrier and it's really really great! Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon, Cherie Priest's Wings to the Kingdom. And, of course, Charles de Lint's Widdershins, in which some stuff happened that I'm really, really glad happened (and to avoid spoilers, that's all I'm going to say about it).

On a non-fantastical note, M.T. Anderson's Octavian Nothing, John Green's An Abundance of Katherines, Cecil Castellucci's Queen of Cool are wonderful books--very different from one another--and really great. Go forth and read!'

Paul Brandon had a great year: 'It's been a smashing year for books and music. The danger I have here is rambling on for paragraphs.

Ok, for me, the highlight of the year was a book and a cd (and concert) by Chinese master flutist Guo Yue called, Music, Food & Love. The book is a memoir/cookbook about growing up and being a musician during the Cultural Revolution in China, and the cd of the same name is filled with just the most beautiful music. This man can make a flute sound like snow falling, insects chirping, sorrow, joy and wonder. Just magic. Widdershins by Charles de Lint was easily my favourite fantasy, closely  followed by Gaiman's Anansi Boys and Rosa and the Veil of Gold by Kim Wilkins. I was utterly beguiled by Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind and for a dash of non-fiction, I finally got around to Sting’s Broken Music, which was a brilliantly-written look at his early years as a jazz muso. Nick Hornby’s brilliant A Long Way Down gets a mention too.

Music-wise, I shifted a tad from my usual staple of Celtic and World music over towards more ambient stuff, and as a result, Steve Roach’s New Life Dreaming has to be in here (in fact too many Steve Roach albums to mention –damn you iTunes!), along with Brian Eno & Harold Budd’s The Pearl. But the Irish is never far away, and this year’s best for me has to go to Pauline Scanlon’s second album, Hush. Solas’s Reunion was a nice trip down Memory Avenue, and to finish on something out of the norm, I loved Bear McCreary’s soundtracks to the first and second seasons of Battlestar Galactica and...ready for it...Jeremy Soule’s soundtrack for the video game Oblivion. And on that note, I shall slide back into my geek lair below the stairs for another year. Stay well all.'

Ellen Datlow has a lengthy answer: 'I barely read any novels, but the best single author collections of the year that I've read are: Basic Black: Tales of Appropriate Fear by Terry Dowling (Cemetery Dance) is the fifth collection by this important Australian author of disquieting supernatural and psychological horror stories. Seven of the eighteen stories in the collection were chosen for previous volumes of YBFH (one for the fantasy side) and one of the two originals is reprinted herein.

American Morons by Glen Hirshberg (Earthling Publications) is the author's second collection and has seven stories and novelettes in it, including two previously reprinted in our Year's Best anthologies. Hirshberg made a splash with his first collection, The Two Sams. While this one may not be as dazzling, it certainly shows that Hirshberg knows what he's doing and continues to entertain and disturb with his marvelous short stories. The three originals are excellent.

Red Spikes by Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin) is Australian Margo Lanagan's third collection and it's another winning combination of fantasy and dark fantasy, with ten stories published for the first time. She writes of children and their fears, how Christian missionaries destroyed Aboriginal families and tried to supplant the old gods of Australia.

The Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford (Golden Gryphon) is Ford's second collection, and he continues to dazzle with his mastery of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I originally published or reprinted half of the fourteen stories, so I obviously think he's a fine writer. The one original is a novella called 'Botch Town' -you can't go wrong with this collection.

The Line Between by Peter S. Beagle (Tachyon) is a welcome collection of recent stories by this great American fantasist. Included among the eight stories are 'Two Hearts'-- the charming Hugo Award-winning sequel to The Last Unicorn --plus two new stories, one a dark tale about the consequences of fooling with magic before you know what you're doing.'

Denise Dutton offers us her thoughts: 'There have been a lot of things I've gotten my eyes, ears or booty (hey, I dance when I hear music -- don't you?) into this year, but only a handful have truly stepped into permanent residence in my mind. So here goes my top ten, in no particular order:

The Anansi Boys was a particular favorite of mine, and my first reading gave me several things to love; the story itself, and its format. The Playaway Audio Edition introduced me to a little mp3 player stocked with a single book, and in this instance it was well worth putting another media player on my shelf! As always Neil Gaiman's prose is though provoking, entertaining and downright spellbinding.

And to carry on in a Gaiman vein, I loved the new edition of Good Omens. I didn't think the book could get any better, but the FAQ at the end is worth the price of admission itself! Kathleen's review makes me want to pick up the British edition as well. You know, just to feed the completist in me.

Words can't express how much I love George Alec Effinger's work. His Budyayeen Trilogy is a fantastic series, and a reissue of these stories has been long overdue. How wonderful to be able to tuck my careworn copies up on the top shelf, and dig into bright, shiny new copies! If you've never read this series, I strongly urge you to do so. As a hawker in the marketplace may say, get them while they're hot (and still in print!)

Going with what is obviously turning into a reissue-centric list, George R. Stewart's Earth Abides is a post-apocalyptic horror that has at its center a tale of one man just trying to make sense of his world, however changed it may have become. The ending had a vibe very similar to that of I Am Legend; what was once considered normal can become alien with the mere passing of time. A SF classic, with a nice, trade-paperback redo.

Frederick S. Frank's Guide to the Gothic III -- An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, 1994-2003 gave me tons of interesting things to delve into in an easy-to-understand format. The almost addictively easy entries to read through kept me busy for months, and still have me looking up the more esoteric critical entries. I'm slowly re-learning all the information I'd forgotten after undergrad. And I'm liking it.

K.C. & the Sunshine Band was a perfect entry into warmer weather, and has kept me grooving into the holiday season. These CD's are remasters done right; crisp, clean and full of the energy that got people listening when they first came out.

Johnny cash's At San Quentin: is one of my favorite albums of all time. I haven't had the happy chance to paw through the new box set yet (though I've listened to it at my local book and music uberstore), but it's only a matter of time. Listen to the music, then watch Walk The Line -- and see if you don't find yourself glaring jealously at the 'prisoners' (the lucky stiffs!)

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is part horror, part courtroom drama, and a DVD that kept me thinking about the thin line between devotion to religious dogma and madness. When do you cross the line to protect someone from him or herself? And do we have that right, when it could shackle that persons religious freedom? Performances by Laura Linney and Jennifer Carpenter seal the deal.

V for Vendetta was a film that grew on me, even after I wrote my review. I loved the movie, but had serious problems with many points of the film as I left the cineplex. Those worries faded in time, but the powerful story of a government so out of control its citizens must rise up lingered on. I went on to read the graphic novel and was glad to see that the mask V wears works well on the printed page, as I had suspected. A cautionary, and uncomfortably relevant tale.

And for me, The Muppet Show is still Muppetational. Sometimes dated, other times rather . . . well, bad, but as a whole it's a wonderful attempt to revive vaudeville. For younger audiences it's brilliant, and it's a trip back in time for those of us lucky enough to see it when it was brand-spankin' new.

I'm looking forward to The Queen, Dreamgirls and Happy Feet (soon to be reviewed here at GMR), so I may add to my list later . . . if only in my own head.

I don't have any live gigs on this list, mostly because I didn't get out to see enough live music this year (The Neverending Session and my trips to the local pub to hear Scythian and my friend's boyfriend's band notwithstanding), and although there are scads of wonderful reviews, live music is an individual experience, and my experience this year has been all but nonexistent. That said, I encourage you to page through the wonderful live reviews logged in this year to see if there are some performers that you'd like to individually experience for yourself!'

Cat Eldridge had a very difficult time making choices about what he really liked best as he admits there was a lot of wonderful books that he read this year. So how did he decide? Here's how: 'I went up to our personal library which takes up the entire third floor of our Victorian and started looking around to see what I had liked well enough to keep after reading it. Please note that I am not counting material such as Christopher Golden's The Borderkind, Guy Gavriel Kay's Ysabel, or Peter S. Beagle's Summerlong, all of which are still forthcoming but which I read this year, as I am limiting myself to that which actually was released this year.

Most impressive was the first volume of Neil Gaiman's The Absolute Sandman which was the best graphic fiction collection I've ever read from a design viewpoint; Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, and Gavin Grant's joint undertaking of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror -- Nineteenth Annual Collection was, as every YBFH volume is, wonderful though I intensely dislike the cover art; Richard Bowes' From The Files of The Time Rangers is a must for time travel fans; for fantasy fans, Sharyn November's Firebirds Rising anthology is a sheer delight as is Peter S. Beagle's The Line Between collection.

What have I missed noting? Certainly Christopher Fowler's Ten Second Staircase, the latest Bryant and May mystery, was superbly done, Jo Walton's Farthing mystery, and let's not forget the latest in Kage Baker's The Company series, The Machine's Child, which is a mystery of sorts as well. And I should really note how good Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword was -- a sheer delight from beginning to end, and the cover art for the Small Beer edition rocks!

A short but tasty treat is the illustrated tale of The Ice Dragon, a short story by George R. R. Martin set in the early years of his Song of Ice and Fire universe. Rumor has it that an audiobook of this has also been released!

The absolute best artwork book of 2006 was Spectrum 13 from Underwood Publishing. Though I didn't review it, I did spend several pleasant evenings looking at it and making notes about the artwork. Look for our review shortly.

What else was good? McKillip's Solstice Wood, her first contemporary fantasy, and her first collection, Harrowing the The Dragon, surprised me with their brilliance as did Golden's The Myth Hunters, the first novel in The Veil trilogy which is continued in The Borderkind; in Charles de Lint's Widdershins, the Broken Girl storyline involving Jilly Coppercorn comes to a long needed resolution; and Deborah Grabien's Cruel Sister, the fourth in her Haunted Ballads series, continued to develop both the characters and their story rather well.

Honorable mentions should go to Neil Gaiman's latest collection, Fragile Things, for, among other delights, the follow-up tale to American Gods, to Prador Moon, Neal Asher's short (!) Polity 'prequel' novel, and Clan Corporate, the latest novel by Charles Stross in his superb crossworld series.

Let's not forget three works of non-fiction. Beside John Clute's The Darkening Garden -- A Short Lexicon of Horror, I lusted after The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, a Jack Zipes edited four volume look at a subject dear to us here at Green Man. Pricey at $500? You bet, but here's hoping you live near a library that has a copy -- it's that good! And Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull's The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion is simply the new silver standard on reference works on everything about this writer and works. Why not the gold standard? Because their two volume work, The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide just came out. Our review copy's here so expect a review soon!'

Christopher Fowler says he's 'Nothing if not eclectic!' and I'm sure you'll agree after reading his choices: 'Yikes, well The Ladies Of Grace Adieu by fabulous fantasy writer Susanna Clarke is way up at the top. Also enjoyable are Cinema Macabre from PS Publishing (which I'm afraid I'm in, but it's still a terrific read), Big Babies by Michael Bywater, a look at the infantilism of British society, and City Of Laughter by Vic Gatrell, about sex and satire in 18th Century London. Musically, I loved So Still by Mozez, Stranger On The Sofa by Barry Adamson, the new soundtrack to Dreamgirls, and 'Grey Gardens - the show''

Christopher Golden has both a favourite book and a favourite recording: 'My favorite book of 2006 thus far--Charles de Lint's Widdershins. For longtime fans and for newcomers alike, it's a thrilling, contemplative story and a joyous event. My favorite CD of 2006 is Common Rotation's latest, Isalie. The music is beautiful, ironic folk-rock, and the band provides free music every day on the Union Maid, part of their website.'

Book Editor April Gutierrez digs herself out from under a pile of manga to offer up her comments on her favourites for this year, primarily books: 'A number of gems found their way to me this year, not the least of which were Neil Gaiman's new short story collection, and an exquisitely repackaged Stephen King collection -- more of which I'll talk about in a moment. But the single volume that lingers most in my thoughts is book one of a nine volume YA series with which Tokyopop launched its new Popfiction imprint: Kino no Tabi . Intelligent, thought-provoking, sentimental without being sappy, Kino is what children's literature should be, not dumbed down and filled with spoon fed ideas that are easily digested by one and all. And Kino herself is a marvelous protagonist: intelligent, capable and curious without being cynical or precocious. Kino no Tabi is an achingly beautiful look at life, even when life itself may not be so beautiful

Gaiman's Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders, his first short story collection in nearly a decade, was pure joy to read. Whether revisiting Shadow from American Gods or introducing us to Smith and Mr. Alice or epicureans hunting the phoenix – or whatever flight of fancy strikes his whim, Gaiman never once strikes a false note. I love short stories, and few authors excel at the form as well as Gaiman.

Jim Butcher's Proven Guilty, the latest entry in the Dresden Files series, demonstrated that he just keeps getting better and better (and poor Harry just keeps getting in deeper and deeper!). And Butcher's homage to horror movies and fan conventions was priceless! I have no doubts that next year I'll be adding the following volume to my Best of 2007 list.

Cemetery Dance's release of Stephen King's The Secretary of Dreams: Volume One was a great chance to re-read some short stories I hadn't read in nearly 30 years, only this time around with amazing illustrations. I'd forgotten, in the passage of time, that King is capable of quite the turn of phrase, when he puts his mind to it.

And related to King, there was The Complete Stephen King Universe: A Guide to the Worlds of Stephen King, written by Christopher Golden, Hank Wagner and Stanley Wiater. An invaluable tool for making connections between the seemingly disparate branches of King's oeuvre.

I picked up 'His Majesty's Dragon' with no small amount of trepidation, all things considered. Dragons, after all. And a whole lot of fannish slavering online. But I couldn't help but be utterly and completely charmed by Laurence and Temeraire. They managed to be adorable without being cloying.

Rob Thurman's urban fantasy Nightlife was a rocking first novel (trolls, boggles and satyrs in New York City, oh my!) and I'm positively thrilled to hear he's working on a sequel.

And now for something completely different – a live show! For those of you who missed seeing Roger Waters' Dark Side of the Moon tour this past summer, shame on you. It was an exquisite tribute to days gone by, when the term 'concept album' meant something and you didn't mind shelling out the cash because every song was good…. So go see him next time he tours!

(I had hoped to wax poetic about 'Breakfast on Pluto' here, but it seems I was remiss and forgot to actually review the movie when I saw it back in January. Shame on me!)

Elizabeth Hand has a long list of really good reading: 'My standout book for 2006 was Julie Phillips' James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, a brilliant deconstruction of that brilliant, disturbed writer's life and work. Cormac McCarthy's The Road was very fine, though overrated, I thought, by readers and critics whose sole reference point was Mad Max.

I tend to buy music at my local used record store, so most of what I hear isn't exactly current and I'm always at least a year or two behind everyone else. But I've been listening to my friend Russell Dunn's darkly beautiful Innerviews, a song cycle in progress that incorporates music with interviews of a number of people (mostly artists of one stripe or another) on the subject of love and loss. Heartbreaking and often desolate, very powerful stuff.

This was the year I discovered Johanna Newsome -- I played The Milk-Eyed Mender pretty much nonstop for the month of October. Ditto Vashti Bunyan's Just Another Diamond Day and Lookaftering. This was also the year I discovered Antony, through 'The Lake' and his performance on the Leonard Cohen concert recorded on the I'm Your Man DVD. Absolutely mind blowing. Last week I saw Lou Reed's 'Berlin' in Brooklyn and Antony's encore of 'Candy Says' was the best thing about the show. His gifts are almost supernatural -- he literally makes my hair stand on end.

The New York Dolls' new album, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, was terrific. David Johansen's 'Plenty of Music' was a bittersweet coda in a year that also saw the end of CBGBs, and 'Dance Like a Monkey' reminded me that there just aren't enough truly great dance songs about creationists. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's Howl (from 2005) has one song for the ages on it, the downbeat, sinister 'Restless Sinner' (paging Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter).

Tom Waits' Orphans is perfect. If I were rich, everyone on Earth would get a copy in their stocking.

Other stuff that was new or newish to me: I went on a Dandy Warhols/Brian Jonestown Massacre spree after seeing Dig! I bought Colin Blunstone's 1971 album One Year, kind of a jazzier Nick Drake. Also tracked down all of Judee Sill's stuff I could find, when I realized how weirdly similar she sounds to early Patti Smith -- the odd intonations, the UFOs, the Christian iconography. Listened to Simon Finn's 'Jerusalem' on Pass The Distance and was really glad I wasn't tripping. Someone burned me Giorgio Moroder's classic epic remix of Donna Summers' 'I Feel Love' so that I could finally listen to that about without being pushed off the dance floor -- I hadn't heard the full-length version in about thirty years. Kind of the Big Bang (or a Big Bang, anyway) for late-century techno/electronica.

I'm sure I'm forgetting all kinds of stuff, but hey, that's what the Best Of 2007 is for!'

Gwyneth Jones gives us her best in nearly everything she encountered starting off with Passionate Minds, The Great Enlightenment Love Affair by David Bodanis (Little, Brown 2006): ' Émilie de Chatelet: the beautiful noblewoman, dazzling mathematician, who translated the proofs of Principia Mathematica, performed some exacting, breakthrough experiments about light, and came up with brilliant conjectures on the relationship between energy and matter, far ahead of her time. You've probably never heard of her, unless you're a Voltaire buff and know he had a classy 'mistress'. But if Passionate Minds was a 'female genius and how it gets stifled' story it might have had a limited appeal. Instead it's about Voltaire at least as much as it's about Émilie, a fascinating account of two vivid, cornery characters, and their eventful, high-rolling career. The story of how Voltaire manipulated the corrupt money market of eighteenth century France to make himself wealthy for life, is an eye-opener. And the gambling! My God. Bodanis's slightly patronising storyteller voice takes over, a little too often. You're left wanting more, much more, of Voltaire and Émilie's own words, their letters, their friend's letters; the diaries of their experiments. But it's a terrific read, illuminating and moving.'

Net up is Hilary Mantel's Every Day Is Mother's Day (Harper Perennial, 2006): ' Worth re-visiting. Hilary Mantel writes big novels for which she wins prestigious awards. I recommend highly A Place Of Greater Safety all about the Glimmer Twins of the French Revolution, Danton and Robespierre. This is something else, her first published novel, reprinted this year. It's about a haunted house, the mother and daughter who live there, locked in separate bizarre and dysfunctional worlds; and the equally dysfunctional forces of 'caring society', drowned in their abyss. If you loved Mark Haddon's 'The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nightime', you'd better avoid this book. This is not mental illness lite, not at all cute. Very spooky indeed.'

Her choices in music (Whatever People Say I Am That's What I'm Not from The Arctic Monkeys on Domino Records, Jan 2006. and Fur And Gold by Bats For Lashes on Echo, Sept 2006) were equally interesting: 'No round up of new music 2006 UK can leave out The Arctic Monkeys, a genuinely new sound among all the 'what Radiohead was doing a decade ago' new sounds. What does a rock band need, to stand out from the pack? A really solid rhythm section, that's what. The lyrics are also good. But time will tell. Arctic Monkeys apart, I would have said this was a year for the revivalists, and cited Paul Weller (late of The Jam) and the inimitable Billy Bragg as my favourite tent-shows. However, last week I went to see Bats For Lashes, in an elegant Brighton church (with a giant Christmas tree waiting naked in the wings, and the special guest appearance of a king from the crib). Natasha Khan is a real find, beautiful voice, her daring and convincing music all on its own. Her band (shifting personnel) also good. Elfin pagan goddesses triphopping is the nearest description I can come up with, but it doesn't convey the appeal. I rushed to my keyboard and ordered Fur and Gold. Women and animals, hmmm, yes...'

And she adds her film choices as well starting with 13 (Tzameti), directed by Géla Babluani: 'All right, it came out in 2005, give me a break. Gripping, grainy, b&w thriller, set in France. In which a young man, down on his luck, with a helpless family to support, takes over the mysterious opportunity to be '13' which has just inspired his drug-addicted wastrel employer to take a fatal overdose. Don't do it! Don't do it! you want to yell, but he can't hear you, as he sleepwalks into a truly shocking big money game. Nails you to every frame.' Next up is Casino Royale, Martin Campbell directing , also 2006 release: ' Superb. Ah, but it should have been the French Riviera. And it should have been a carpetbeater, but that's another story. I bet the franchise will now remake all the original Ian Flemings & can't wait. Is Eva Green played by a frock? Naturally. Is this movie the enemy of all I hold dear? Of course it is. Thinks: I must get those Ian Flemings I collected for Gabriel down from the loft, and read them again over Xmas. Decadent fun.' And she finishes off with The Descent, directed by Niall Marshall from 2005: ' I liked 'Dog Soldiers', Niall Marshall's previous Brit Horror outing, but thought it was good, not great. Consequently missed this when it came out (NOTHING to do with my fear of crawlspace tight tunnels deep underground, no, no, no). But maybe I'd have rather not seen The Descent on the big screen anyway. A great leap forward, The Descent has the hook and the plotting 'Dog Soldiers' lacked & neat, grown up direction (whole back story conveyed in a single glance between Paul and Juno, in the prologue). Best horror movie I've seen for a long time. Loved the last frame. Love every day.'

David Kidney doesn't want to single out anything as the very best: 'I hate to say anything was the best, but here follows a list of the releases I listened to the most in 2006. Dion's brilliant (and brief) acoustic blues album Bronx In Blue showed his fire and inspiration (and what a fine guitarist he is); the deluxe box set 100 Years of Jazz Guitar is a treasure trove just waiting for you to dip in and discover some great music you may have missed. And Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions was just a rollicking good time as the Boss trolled through the American Music Fake Book.

Best music we haven't reviewed yet? Vince Gill's stunning These Days. Four discs of new material! And it's good stuff!

Concerts? Well, it was wonderful to see Maria Muldaur play in a little supper club in my hometown, and to have my picture taken with her, but on the other side of the scale... David Gilmour's show at Massey Hall was exciting and musical, as he eschewed 'showiness' for intimacy, with just enough laser-lighting! All in all, a good year.

Biggest disappointment? Paul Simon's Surprise CD (which we didn't review). Muzak for aging rock critics.'

From Larry Kirwan: 'I finished John Lee Anderson's biography of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara this year. It's pretty exhaustive but had little about Che's thoughts about the Missile Crisis, which was a bit disappointing. But quite a book if you want to get beyond Che's handsome ubiquitous image on t-shirts. Colum McCann's Dancer is a great book as is John McGahern's Memoir. I keep on reading John Milton's Paradise Lost, perhaps the ultimate book for any person with a niche following - 'better to rule in hell, than serve in heaven.'

In music, take a listen to The Poet and the Piper, the collaboration between Seamus Heaney and Liam Og O'Flynn. Astor Piazzolla's Nuevo Tango offerings continues to touch me. I mostly listen to music that might fit my Sirius show, Celtic Crush, on Channel 24. Both Damien Dempsey and Damien Rice have strong songs. Iarla O'Lionard is amazing - he's totally solo now but had a great career with Afro-Celt. 

I don't seem to have time to go to movies any more and didn't see anything that stuck out in NY theatre this year. Hope all is well with you and do let me know if there's anything I should be hearing, reading or seeing, particularly for Celtic Crush - and I define 'Celtic' very broadly. Write to me here or come up and say hello after a Black 47 gig. Have a great '07 and let's get the hell out of Iraq as quickly as possible.'

OR Melling: 'Just back from Christmas in Spain -- Felice Navidad! -- and dying of a dose of flu, but must review proofs of my new book in the next three days. I'm pretty useless with this sort of thing because I rarely read books when they first come out. I'm the sort of person who eventually discovers what everyone else was raving about five or five hundred years ago. Off the top of my head, my favourite books which I read this year were Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing, The Yage Letters by William Burroughs & Allen Ginsberg, and Anne Carson's The Beauty of the Husband. The latter is such stunning and original work, poems written as tangos, painfully beautiful.

My favourite CD was Lasairfhíóna's Flame of Wine -- a literal translation of her name -- which is even better than her debut album An Raicín Alainn. She is a silver-voiced colleen from the Irish-speaking Aran Islands and this new album includes a few songs in the English language plus a track of her lilting. Go h-íontach!

Favourite film this year was definitely The Queen. Helen Mirren deserves an Oscar. I haven't seen an actor use her features so well to express emotion since Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day. (The Canadian side of me went to see it. The Irish side stayed at home.) Sadly no decent television shows have appeared to replace Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Dead Like Me. Stargate has gone stale and I'm not interested in the space cowboys of Battlestar Galactica. Caught the last bit of Terry Pratchett's The Hogfather and it looked as fabulous as The 10th Kingdom.

PS My daughter says I disappeared for 3 days to read Widdershins, her birthday gift to me.'

Farah Mendlesohn says 'This year I'm up to my eyes and elbows in science fiction written for children. It's of very mixed quality, but the best of '06 (and a few forthcoming in '07) are Janet McNaughton's The Raintree Rebellion (sequel to The Secret Under My Skin), Philip Reeve's aether romance, Larklight: or, the Revenge of the the White Spiders! Or to Saturn's Rings and Back! A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space. Charles Butler's spooky crossover, The Lurkers; Ken MacLeod's 'easy reader' for Sanstone Vista, The Highwaymen, set in a frozen, oil poor Scotland; David Levithan's Wide Awake (the new American President is Gay and Jewish and some people aren't very happy about it); Michael J. Daley's Shanghaied to the Moon and Susan Price's Odin's Queen which continues her story of the Godspeaker Odinstoy.'

Being a thoughtful academic, she added the full citations for the books:

McNaughton, Janet. The Raintree Rebellion. Toronto: HarperTrophy Canada, 2006.

Reeve, Philip. Larklight, or, the Revenge of the the White Spiders! Or to Saturn's Rings and Back! A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space. As Chronicl'd by Art Mumby with the Aid of Mr. Philip Reeve. Trans. And Decorated Throughout by Mr. David Wyatt. London: Bloomsbury, 2006.

Butler, Charles. The Lurkers. London: Usborne House Publishing Ltd., 2006.

MacLeod, Ken. The Highway Men. Dingwall, Scotland: Sandstone Vista, 2006.

Levithan, David. Wide Awake. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2006.

Daley, Michael J. Shanghaied to the Moon. New York: Putnam & Sons, 2007..

Price, Susan. Odin's Queen. London: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Jack Merry says he 'got around to finally reading Charles de Lint's Moonheart in the 20th Anniversary edition. The story and the particular edition were both very impressive -- well-worth the price being charged for it. Equally impressive was Catherynne Valente's riff off of the The Arabian Nights, The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden which is every bit as good as the fairy tales of Angela Carter, Patricia Mckillip's Something Rich and Strange which is but one of two contemporary fantasies she has done, Gaiman's Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders, his first short story collection in almost a decade, which has a follow-story on American Gods, and Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword which should be read by everyone interested in great fiction!

Though we did not review them, I read a number of excellent graphic novel series including John Orstrander and Timothy Truman's The Legend of Grimjack which collected that series into nifty trade paper editions, Vertigo did the same treatment for Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, and I caught up on Mike Mignola's Hellboy series as well. We did review Fables, a Vertigo comic book series created and written by Bill Willingham'

Jack also noted that he also managed to 'read quite a bit of music related material including Garth Cartwright's Princes Amongst Men-- Journeys with Gypsy Musicians and Brian Hinton & Geoff Wall's Ashley Hutchings: The Guv'nor & the Rise of Folk Rock which has really cool material on Steeleye Span! Outstanding music listenings? Solas released Reunion which is the exemplar of how to do a CD and DVD combo, Scottish group Cantrip's Boneshaker has a brill cover of Richard Thompson's 'Sam Jones', and Loreena McKennitt's superb new recording, An Ancient Muse, should be heard by anyone who loves good Celtic music. Oh, and MacKenzie, our Librarian, reminded me just now to mention MidWinter -- A Celebration of the Folk Music and Traditions of Christmas and the Turning of the Year, an amazing box set which is typical of the great job Free Reed does!'

A final note from him: 'As usual, I read Jane Yolen's The Wild Hunt at midnight on Winter Solstice in the Robert Graves Memorial Reading Room to as many staffers and guests as were 'round to hear that lovely tale. Afterwards we remembered all those who passed on in the year including Jane's beloved husband, David Stemple.'

Phil Odgers notes that he's 'pretty damn sure I'm the last person to add my thoughts I'm kinda hoping that I'll be the first one on the page….or does it work the other way and what I'm typing now in the wee hours in the westest of west London will be relegated to the backest of the back of the listings for 2006? This has been a fantabulous year hasn't it? Surely not just for me and mine but, also, for you and yours?

Movies -- It surprised me, wasn't too fluffy, gave me a few good laughs and made me understand what it's like to be a penguin. All in all 'Happy Feet' was ace. I always loved Elvis, but was never sure about Tom Jones and could take or leave Queen, but this movie puts 'em all into perspective. Where else would you get a melting pot of: Prince, Gia Farrell, Pink, Patti LaBelle, Brand New Heavies, The Beach Boys, Earth, Wind & Fire, K.D. Lang, etc, etc,…Musically stunning, visually breathtaking – all in all a corker. My other favourite movie of 2006 was 'Hostel' I'm also one of the few people that liked 'Land of the Dead'.

Chumbawamba's acoustic album 'A Singsong and a Scrap' and their gig at the Lumiaire in Kilburn topped my pops in 2006.

It was a good year as regards bookss for me. I have a penchant for End of the World stuff and have read everything I can lay my hands on from 'A for Atom' to 'Z for Zachariah'. Really. However, in the past 12 months I've been pulled into the world of 'Zombie Apocalypse' novels and have devoured everything out there from David Wellington (interesting), Max Brooks (son of Mel), Brian Keene (disappointing ending) etc, etc…. But by far the best has been the Autumn series by David Moody. If you’re a George Romero fan these books are for you. Highly recommended for those with a strong stomach. I also turned up as a guest in David Moody's latest book 'Hater' – now that is a strange experience!'

Delia Sherman was a very busy person this year: 'This has been such a crazy year, what with moving and all, that I haven't actually read very much published this year. Except some YA novels I loved. Francis Hardinge's Fly By Night was just prime. I loved the characters (especially the goose) and what Hardinge does with language, which is both audacious and completely readable. It's got interesting and important things to say about reading and telling stories and freedom of thought, too, but it doesn't hit you over the head with them.

I was also very impressed with M. T. Anderson's Octavian Nothing. I haven't a clue why it was published as a YA -- I would have been puzzled and distressed (and possibly bored) by it well into my 20's. But it's one of the best historical novels I've read in some time. The American Revolution, slavery, scientific salons and communities, the nature of freedom, friendship, and family, all come into it. It's beautifully written in a chorus of late 18th century voices that feel authentic even while being completely accessible. Even though it's pretty grim, there is great beauty and tenderness in it, and very little irony whatsoever. Which makes it very old fashioned, I suppose, but very welcome.

Now that I come to think about it, I've also read Elizabeth Bear's Blood and Iron and Susan Cooper's Victory, and enjoyed them very much. And that's it, I think.'

Jennifer Stevenson needed a gentle nudging from our Editor (ok, he bought her several pints in the Pub of her favourite ale), but here's her detailed look at her reading during the year: '2006 was a big reading year for me, as I stepped up my research and market awareness. I also read on the jury for the Carl Brandon Society's Parallax Award, which was a rewarding and fun experience. All you readers--you want to get free books and stay on the cutting edge? Volunteer to read for an award committee! Top picks from this year's Parallax Award nominees:

Walter Mosely, 47 - I was proud to be on the jury that gave this book the Parallax Award; gripping, thrilling, a hair-raiser, but appropriate for young adults, about how a young boy enslaved in the old South meets High John the Conqueror. Jazus, I get horripilation just typing those words.

Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, Zarah the Windseeker - the kind of book I wanted to read when I was a kid, about a kid with magical potential who--oh, I can't describe it. Read it.

Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, Who Fears Death (not out yet) - a very adult, scary book about magicians in a far-future Africa. This is African magic as I have never read about it before. Political realism and culture shock give this book power.

Nalo Hopkinson, New Moon's Arms (not yet out--look for it in 2007) - deep, sweet, smooth, her best work so far, about magic, menopause, and the sea. This one has huge mainstream appeal, a book for all women, not just SF&F fans.

Ashok Banker, Prince of Ayodhiya, volume one of The Ramayana - a perfect meld of a saga with high fantasy, a classic holy book turned into a bitchin' good read--warning--this runs five volumes and it isn't published in the US yet.

Simone Elkeles, How To Ruin A Summer Vacation - reads as fast as Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries and more probable: an American brat goes to Israel for the summer with her estranged father. Look for the sequel, How To Ruin My Teenage Life, next year sometime.

Sandra Schwab, The Lily Brand - holy shit! A fairy-tale regency about two lovers' escape from evil sexual bondage. Will give you something you don't usually get reading regency romance--a shiver. Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha - the sex scenes made it obvious that a man wrote this, but the rest was fascinating.

Lorna Novak, Does It Make Into A Bed? - this one was published in the sixties. It's a classic in the Erma Bombeck genre, but better. By the same author: How Amelia Secured The Tie That Binds With A Very Loose Knot. This stuff is hilarious proof that the suburbs back then were full of funny, ballsy women, even if they didn't say the 'f'(eminist) word. I wish this author would sell the next three volumes, currently languishing in her trunk. Pamela Mordecai, Cipher (not out yet) - Follows three generations of Caribbean women through very different emotional and political landscapes on wildy differing journeys, each beginning with bearing a child out of wedlock. For sheer sensory overload and emotional grab, I've read nothing like it.

Joe Keenan, Putting On The Ritz, and, Blue Heaven - I'm starting to reread these as often as I do my old PG Wodehouse books. In the same vein, only sharper, and very, very gay. I'm told Keenan writes for Hollywood, which is the only reason I'll forgive him for not writing more fiction.

Terry Pratchett, THUD! Worth it for the troll poem in the frontispiece alone. A lovely Sam Vimes adventure. Also lovely is the companion volume, Where's My Cow? This year I reread Wee Free Men and A Hatful of Sky by the same author, which are wonderful books for young girls about what it really means to be a witch.

Funky, goofy, funny, sexy: Harley Jane Kozak's Dating Dead Men and Mindy Klasky's Girl's Guide to Witchcraft, two authors working in genres I can't exactly identify, but I want more of 'em!

During a bad week when I was desperate for pain relief, I glutted myself on a nerdfest from Vicki Lewis Thompson: Talk Nerdy To Me, Gone With The Nerd, and the original and fabulous Nerd In Shining Armor. Also soaked up Thompson's Urban Cowboys again.

And, for more research on my upcoming book (currently titled The Haunted Porn Factory) I read: Wendy McElroy, XXX: A Woman's Right To Pornography, with the best material I found in my home library in the voices of the sex workers themselves.

Laura Kipnis, Bound and Gagged, full of great theory and free speech stuff but not so much direct report. However, the chapter on Larry Flynt blew my mind and made me laugh

David Henry Sterry, Chicken - How a nice boy from the suburbs becomes a male prostitute and how he gets out of the life. Couldn't put it down. Low on titillation, high in fiber and other useful stuff.

A last minute addition to my 'favorites of 2006' is in fact a 2007 book which I read in MS form: Flora Segunda (with the lengthy subtitle: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog), by Ysabeau S. Wilce. This is one of the few books I've read in the past year that I could not put down. Young adult fantasy, very hard-boiled in some ways, with a fabulous first-person 14-year-old heroine. She's an army brat in a fantasy world, living among high level diplomatic and military officials, hedged around by regs and tradition, with a lawless soul and paradoxically high ideals. The language is charming, the universe absorbing and clinker-built. Hardcover from Harcourt.'

Robert M. Tilendis on his choices : 'Looking back over the year at GMR, I was fortunate to have so many excellent works cross my desk, which led to many enjoyable encounters with old friends and some new ones. The downside is, of course, that it's that much harder to come up with a list of the 'best.' OK -- here goes:

Music. Lots of music, and the overwhelming majority was wonderful. First on my list is the superb series on Central Javanese gamelan produced by John Noise Manis, which, because the world does this to you sometimes, I wound up doing in two reviews -- backwards. (They are, in order conforming to the series, here, and here.) Intelligent, illuminating, and the music is beautiful. Well worth the investment in both time and money.

There is also, of course, Sony's reissue of James Levine's 1981 recording of Mozart's The Magic Flute, which I think is one of the best versions available of one of my favorite works. Levine with an amazing cast: it's hard for me to pick favorites, but this one is no contest.

I was also delighted and impressed by a somewhat unusual recording of Indian raga, Together by Dr. N. Ramani and Hariprasad Chaurasia. Raga on flutes -- certainly a change from sitar or sarod, and it was not only interesting, but beautiful.

Turning aside from classical music for a moment (yes, those are all classical, they're just not all European), I had a tie, two recordings from the German medieval pop scene: Qntal's Tristan und Isolde and The Best of Corvus Corax. Both surprising, both substantial, and both went onto my 'replay frequently' stack immediately.

I cannot close out the year without mention of Odetta at the Gate of Horn. There's not much to be said about that one: the recording from one of the great American folk singers.

Books -- I read too much, I think. This year was a mix of writers new to me, and old standbys who brought out something special. I should mention that anyone who still thinks science fiction and fantasy are somehow necessarily substandard in literary quality is sadly out of touch. Most of what I encountered this year can stand up handily to any 'mainstream' fiction published today, and my 'bests' are better than most.

I started off the year with Patricia A. McKillip's Solstice Wood, a strong contender in the latter category. Her first contemporary fantasy, all her gifts in full evidence, and something new as well.

The same goes for Tanya Huff's Smoke series, one that brings together all her strengths and kicks everything up an order of magnitude: smart, romantic, acerbic, dark contemporary fantasy with attitude.

And, of course, there is Glen Cook's Lord of the Silent Kingdom, second volume of The Instrumentalities of the Night, not only excellent in itself, but offering a new focus on the series and on Cook in general.

Another new book by an old favorite is Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword, a sequel that's fully up to its predecessor, Swordspoint, which it has joined on my reread frequently list.

As for new authors, one my standouts has to be Jane S. Fancher's 'NetWalkers trilogy (not a new book, but I finally got hold of the last two volumes, so I think that counts), a cybergeek space opera with some of the most fascinating characters ever and a full measure of creeping darkness. I've been enthusiastic about Groundties, the first volume, for some time, and being able to read the entire trilogy at last was a treat.

I think I'm going to love everything Alexander C. Irvine writes, because both The Narrows and The Life of Riley impressed the hell out of me. It's not that easy.

My first encounter with Elizabeth Bear's fiction, Blood and Iron, was exceptional -- a terrifically rich, engaging fantasy with new twists on old archetypes. The stories in The Chains That You Refuse are also engaging, rich, sometimes puzzling, sometimes appalling, and uniformly excellent.

The same might be said for Kage Baker's collection, Dark Mondays. The one that really stopped me was 'The Maid Upon the Shore,' one of the most amazing stories I've read in a long time -- pirates, the Spanish Main, the jungles of Panama, a stalwart but not naïve hero, and a very strange woman.

One last book, another older publication but one that I had reason to read again very recently. I was struck once again by what I can only call the campy grace of Neil Bartlett's Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall, an amazing essay in twentieth-century myth building. It's a romance with bite, tough, angry, droll, otherworldly, and sometimes almost too tender to bear. A thoroughly astonishing book.

The reason I reread Bartlett's book was John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus. Not a perfect film, but close enough to make me happy -- I even saw it twice. Call it a romantic comedy with lots of sex and no obscenity, a heavy dose of reality that doesn't take itself too seriously.

That's it for 2006. There are a number of books and recordings that I would have liked to include -- the caliber of the things crossing my desk was very high -- but these are the standouts It was a very good year.'

Gary Whitehouse had a very good year: 'This was the year I finally got to see Richard Thompson's 1,000 Years of Popular Music show, and it was everything I expected, and more. The more chiefly being the exciting presence of Debra Dobkin as drummer. And I got to see the great Guy Clark in concert again, and it's always a treat to see the master Texas singer-songwriter in action. And I traveled clear across the continent to listen to a bunch of traditional Quebecois music in and around Toronto and Gaspesie. And Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young did not disappoint on their anti-war tour. But for my favorite gigs of the year, it's pretty much a toss-up between Neko Case and M. Ward. Case was touring behind her stunning concept album Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, and was in top form. And Ward was supporting his 2006 release, Post-War. Both had superb backing bands, and it was a real treat for me to see, at Case's show, the pedal steel work of Jon Rauhouse up close, and witness the great Kelly Hogan supporting Case with her vocal prowess. But for sheer exuberance and showmanship, it'd be hard to beat Ward's supporting lineup, particularly his two drummers who really brought the rock. You can read my review here.

I really thought I was going to have to choose between Neko Case's Fox Confessor and M. Ward's Post-War as my favorite recording of 2006. But that was before Tom Waits' Orphans was released. This sprawling set of never-before-released works, combined with a double fistful of tracks that had never appeared on a Waits release (from soundtracks, tributes and the like) simply blew me away. He sounds like nobody else, he's backed by excellent musicians, his arrangements are otherworldly, but most of all his writing is never short of excellent.

My runners-up list contains a couple of very nice world music albums. Danes Haugaard and Hoirup turned in another delightful release with Gaestebud, this time welcoming aboard a number of collaborators from the Nordic, Celtic and Quebecois scenes. And Asphalt Tango's Vol. I of its Sounds From A Bygone Age series featuring Romanian violinist Ion Petre Stoican is endlessly entertaining. This undeservedly obscure musician got only one chance to make an album back in the 1970s, and he was able to enlist some of the country's finest to back him on this set mostly of popular dance tunes played at wedding parties. If you enjoy Gypsy jazz and Balkan dance music, I bet you'll love this disc as much as I do. can't find the review anywhere: here's the title: Ion Petre Stoican, Sounds From A Bygone Age, Vol. 1 (Asphalt Tango, 2005)

Music lore books: Bob Spitz's The Beatles was a trip down memory lane, and a revelation as well. I read everything about The Beatles I could get my hands on when I was a schoolboy, but this book gave me an adult's look at their world and their legacy.

Science fiction books : Ian MacDonald's River of Gods is a smashing, intricate tale of the not-too-distant future, when humankind is struggling to cope with the twin challenges of global warming and artificial intelligence, set on the teeming Indian Subcontinent.

Fantasy books: I don't read a lot of fantasy, and Keith Donohue's The Stolen Child isn't straight fantasy. It's a keen psychological portrait of the dilemma of growing up, hidden inside a tale of faeries, kidnapped children, a musician and a writer. It has some holes in it, and it descends into melodrama a time or two, but it's a gripping read nonetheless.

Also on my list is a six-year-old book I just read this year, China Miéville's Perdido Street Station which Jason Erik Lundberg reviewed for GMR a few years ago. As Jason pointed out, the book is uncategorizable, it's dense and complex, and it's a masterpiece of weird fiction.'

Mike Wilson says ' I've been listening to so many other people singing Eric Bogle's songs over the years, that I couldn't pass up on the opportunity to listen to the man himself, and catch up with his latest recording, Other People's Children. I was glad to find Eric still in great voice, and hear that his song-writing is strong as ever. He still has plenty to say, and if people checked in with Eric's conscience every so often, I like to think the world would be a more considerate place to live. I was also fortunate to catch one of Eric's gigs this summer, and found him to be an extremely engaging individual. Peter Massey reviewed Eric's live album At This Stage earlier this year -- an album that I must add to my collection very soon!

It's always great when a new artist breaks onto the scene, and Seth Lakeman has been dazzling the British folk scene for a couple of years now with his assertive fiddle playing and assured vocals. His latest release, Freedom Fields has been quite a revelation, combining his notable skill for interpreting traditional material and also his self-penned material that sits perfectly within the genre. Freedom Fields even managed to muscle in on the mainstream album charts here in the UK, and a much-deserved wider audience now beckons for this talented young fella!

Teddy Thompson has also benefited from an increased prominence in the UK, with his latest release Separate Ways. With a musical heritage like Teddy's -- he is the son of British folk-rock legends, Richard and Linda Thompson -- it was easy to imagine that he would be blessed with immense musical talent. He's lucky in that he has the astonishing, sweet vocals from his mother, and the same lyrical wit and honesty as his father -- probably the best combination! He doesn't really fit the mould of a folk singer at all, but nonetheless he is a remarkable songwriter, and it's great to see him doing so well.

MidWinter was a mighty box-set that I was lucky enough to review towards the end of this year. Subtitled 'A Celebration of the Folk Music and Traditions of Christmas and the Turning of the Year,' it was indeed exactly that! The music was accompanied by an interesting 136-page book, that detailed the changing traditions associated with the midwinter festivities of centuries past and present. The recordings date from the 1920's right up to the present day, and feature such luminaries as Steve Tilston, Sandy Denny, The Albion Band and Martin Carthy, to name but a few. The collection also showcases some up-and-coming names on the UK folk scene, Martha Tilston -- Steve's daughter! -- and Laura Hockenhull. This collection is such an interesting project, beautifully executed by those box-set masters at Free Reed.

Those that know me, will find this next bit so predictable. I have to mention Mary Black. I'm in love with her -- just in case you didn't know! Mary's 2005 release, Full Tide was her first studio recording in six years, and marked a welcome return to form for this popular Irish singer. I caught up with Mary at her Manchester gig this summer, and it was great to see her looking so relaxed and giving some of the finest vocal performances of her career. Even on her older material, she was singing with a rekindled vigour and passion. This is a lady right at the top of her game, doing what she loves, and doing it absolutely beautifully!

So, there you have it -- a few of my musical highlights of 2006. Happy New Year everyone!'

Jane Yolen gets the last word : 'I have been so deep in mourning this year, that my reading has gone way down. However, I have to mention two amazing graphic novels--Linda Medley's Castle Waiting for its audacious humor and wide-ranging fairy tale literateness, and Deogratias by J.P. Stassen, a bizarre, moving, and astonishing GN about the aftermath of the Rwandan massacres. ...I am also obsessed with Lost and its cascading false trails, both literally and figuratively.'

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Now that's what I call an impressive reading list. After the ravens and I take a stroll outside, I need to visit the Library to check out some of these interesting suggestions. It'll certainly make for many a pleasant night of reading this long, cold winter that is coming!