I'm not one for year-end lists, but I do like to recommend books I've enjoyed, so here's my low-key, no pressure look at some 2011 favorites.
First off would have to be "The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern. I don't think Harry Potter withdrawal is responsible for how much I enjoyed this book, though you might think that a novel about love-crossed magicians who are secretly locked in a battle to the death would have some Potter-ish echoes. It really doesn't, and the fact that it's Morgenstern's first book means we have a lot more to look forward to.
"The Tiger's Wife" by Tea Obrecht surprised me because a) the author is just a kid and I really expected to hate her, and b) it's set in Croatia, which I know nothing about. But boy, can the kid write! She deftly combines a war-torn road trip with fantastical stories told by the main character's grandfather.
"State of Wonder" is the latest from Ann Patchett, and it's a variation of "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad. Steamy jungles and a woman who is very likely way over her head in a culture she doesn't understand.
"Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson actually came out in 2004, but I finally managed to read it last year. A minister writes a letter to his young son, sharing family history along with Bible lessons and hard-won wisdom. I really felt I knew the mind of this wonderful fictional character.
Finally, I REALLY loved "Mink River" by Brian Doyle. This is another one that surprised me, because I normally steer far clear of this type of mystical/romantic novel. But it feels like an essential Pacific Northwest text, with a poet's love for all things wet and gray, and the combination of Native American wisdom and Gaelic whimsy is pitch-perfect. I was so engrossed with the writing and the characters that when I got to the talking crow, I just went with it. My favorite of the year, and the one that I'll be torturing anyone within earshot by reading out loud!